Meet My Main Character: Guinevere

I’ve been fortunate to be tagged twice in this blog hop, by Malcolm Noble and J.F. Ridgley (go learn about their main characters, I’ll wait.) Since I happen to have two books in flight right now, you’ll see this for two different main characters. Today, meet Guinevere, the main character of my Arthurian legend trilogy, which begins with Guinevere of Northgallis.

(On April 28, hop on over to Spellbound Scribes to meet Annabeth, the main character of my new romantic comedy.)

Jessica Brown Findlay is who I'd pick to play Guinevere.

Jessica Brown Findlay is who I’d pick to play Guinevere.

What is the name of your character? Is she fictional or a historic person?

Guinevere, daughter of Leodgrance, king of the kingdom of Gwynedd. She is a mythical character. Historians can’t prove whether or not King Arthur existed, so they definitely don’t know about her. If Arthur existed, chances are good he had a wife, but that her name was actually Guinevere is doubtful.

When and where is the story set?

The story is set in post-Roman Britain, approximately 490 – 530 AD for the whole trilogy. The first book takes you from spring 491 through autumn 496. Most of the action of the first book is in the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Dyfed, both in modern-day Wales, and also on Avalon, which I locate at Glastonbury Tor in Glastonbury.

What should we know about Guinevere?

Guinevere is not the subservient woman we see in many versions of Arthurian legend. She is a Celt and they had very progressive laws regarding women, who were powerful in their own right. Guinevere’s mother is of the Votadini tribe, which is in modern-day southern Scotland. In her lifetime, it was a buffer area between Britain and the Pictish tribes. The Votadini were a warrior people, so Guinevere was raised to be able wield a sword and govern a kingdom. She also has second sight, which runs in her family.

What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

Guinevere’s first conflict is the appearance of her second sight. She doesn’t know how to control it, so she has the choice to join the priestesses of Avalon to be trained with them. She expected to live the normal life of a noblewoman, but this sets her life on a whole new path. Later, when she leaves Avalon, she finds that the world is rapidly abandoning her pagan faith for Christianity, so she must learn to balance the conflict of faiths in a time of great political upheaval.

What is the personal goal of the character?

Having been raised to know her own worth, she wants to be a strong leader like her mother and marry for love, rather than political gain.

When can we expect Guinevere of Northgallis to be published?

I don’t know. That’s out of my hands at the moment. Hopefully soon!

Who’s next in this blog hop?

This hop started with historical fiction writers, but I’m breaking the mold. Next up is the lovely Cassandra Page, who writes urban fantasy.

Do you have any questions about Guinevere or her story? Ask away in the comments below.

Provoking Thought on the Character of Guinevere

"Queen Guinevere" by  James Archer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Queen Guinevere” by James Archer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some of you may remember a post I did a while back on “Guinevereian fiction,” i.e. Arthurian legend that’s focused on Guinevere. I came across this article from the Medievalists’ site and wanted to share in case any of you were interested. While, as you will see, there’s a lot I don’t agree with in this article, I’m happy anytime someone brings the role of Guinevere to the forefront of discussion in Arthurian legend, which is usually focused on the men.

Guinevere, the Superwoman of Contemporary Arthurian Fiction
By James Noble

(I have not read most of the books discussed, only The Mists of Avalon, Firelord and Beloved Exile. I’m purposely avoiding the others until I’m done with my own story. Noble summarizes each book, so you can make sense if his arguments even if you haven’t read the books.)

I’m all for celebrating a strong Guinevere and I agree with Noble’s assessment of the character in The Mists of Avalon. However, the use of the word “superwoman” in the article made me bristle. My first thought was the author is being pejorative in the use of the term. (Perhaps not, but that’s how it struck me.) Why, if a man raises children and rules his people, is he considered a hero, but when a woman does both (even if it is through the pen of a fiction writer), she has to be called “superwoman?” The term, to me, evokes a feeling that Guinevere is being over-characterized into something impossible, a comic book caricature, which I’m sure is not what Newman, Wooley or Miles intended in their novels.

The focus on motherhood/maternal instincts in this article doesn’t sit well with me, as that was never Guinevere’s sole function in Arthurian legend. The tradition of her being sterile or her children being stillborn is an old one (attributed in part to the need for Mordred, Arthur’s son/nephew to inherit the throne), a fact never mentioned by the author. Even in the medieval tales where Guinevere has little agency, she is more than a brood mare. She is a wife and mistress, an object of affection, if nothing else (not much better, but still). In the modern tales analyzed by Noble, she is also a queen. Why then, restrict the focus of such an essay to the traditional role of mother?

I take great offense to this statement made by Noble toward the end of the essay, “Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if it is not the mythology of the triple goddess that ultimately also gives shape to the trilogies by Newman,Woolley, and Miles, each of whom makes a point of affording her heroine a ‘maidenhood,’ a profound experience of motherhood, and what Malory would have been certain to describe as ‘a good ende’ as a wise woman.” Hello?! Putting aside the New Age triple-goddess reference, those are generally the three phases of life of any woman. Just as a man starts out as a boy, grows into a man and becomes (we hope) a wise old man, women’s lives follow the same pattern of girl, mother/adult woman (if she doesn’t have children), and wise woman. How else are you supposed to tell a life story? This is the same pattern followed in every biography (fiction or non-fiction) out there.

Perhaps he is reacting to the “happy ending” given to Guinevere in these books as a wise woman/healer. Why is it so wrong that the authors chose not to have her die young or end her life useless? That is their right. Personally, I don’t find that surprising coming from female authors who are writing for a modern audience. Part of writing stories like Guinevere’s is keeping your audience in mind, a group who I don’t think would take kindly to reading three books about a character only to have her wither away helplessly in the end.

If you can’t tell, it is attitudes like this that moved me to create my Guinevere, a 5th century Celtic woman, who like her ancestors, is a warrior, a priestess, mother, wife and many other roles. Though our historical evidence for warrior queens in the 4th and 5th century is lacking (as is almost all knowledge of that time), Celtic myth and what we know about Celtic culture gives us a solid basis on which to build the idea of a realistically strong Guinevere. This is not a “superwoman” who is in some way superhuman, but a woman of her time who used the opportunities life gave her to her advantage and prospered (or not) because of them. Guinevere is not above and beyond all womanhood; she is actually intimately accessible because she represents so much of the female experience.

So, what do you think of the article? Have you read any of the books analyzed? Do you agree or disagree with the author? Do you think I’m misinterpreting the article? (It’s always possible.) In your opinion, is it right for modern writers to try to make Guinevere into a strong woman or do you find that anachronistic? How do you think she should be portrayed?

F is for Fearsome Heroines

Recently, CBS Sunday Morning did a piece on how today’s heroines aren’t afraid to kick a little ass. Well, that’s not how they phrased it, but you get the point. Gone are the days of damsels in distress and princesses who sit on their perfect rear ends waiting to be rescued.

Maybe it started with She-ra. I’d like to think so. Buffy definitely helped. But if you look at the shelves of your local bookstore or turn on the television, its clear women are coming into their own as heroines. From the katana wielding main character of Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland vampire series to Snow on Once Upon a Time, wallflowers need not apply. (Sorry Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen proved you’re irrelevant.)

In talking about the new big screen versions of Snow White, CBS Sunday Morning notes, “Like every storybook heroine these days, she FIGHTS.” And they mean that literally – swords and all. Today’s heroines rescue themselves. Now that doesn’t mean they don’t need love or want someone to share the fight with, but like most modern women, they’re not waiting around for a man to complete them. They grab life with both hands and make of it what they desire.

That’s fine by me. That just means my heroine’s time has come. For reasons I can’t reveal until you read the book, my Guinevere can fight as well as any man, and she does. That’s one of the things that makes her different from the traditional portrayal of the character. She is not only physically strong, but smart and not afraid to express herself. (Although one could argue that was typical for a Celtic woman.) My Guinevere is in every way Arthur’s equal, a woman trained to sit beside her King on the throne or stand beside him as they lead their troops into battle. In many time periods – even a hundred years later – that would be anachronistic, but we’re fortunate that the Celts raised fearsome women. (Boudicca, Cartimandua, Maeve and Scathach are just a few examples from history and legend.)

Actress Aly Michalka at a Renfaire. She is the inspiration for a Saxon (sans bow and arrow) you’ll meet in book 2.

It’s time for strong female characters to serve as role models for young (and not so young) women. Even my female characters who don’t wield a sword know how to fight with their brains and their tongues. Morgan will best you in any verbal war and Isolde will out-strategize you before you know what hit you. That’s not to say my books are fueled on feminism. There are several female characters who fill more traditional roles (Elaine, Camille), but they are certainly more balanced with ones who will stand up for themselves than tradition usually dictates.

I know I’m not the first to infuse a little girl power into my books, and I hope I won’t be the last. I’m just proud to contribute to the growing trend of weapon-weilding heroines. IWA girls, this is for you!

What do you think of the new wave of strong heroines? Ladies, who do you most identify with in fiction today? What traditionally passive female roles would you like to see rewritten? And what other “F” topics do you suggest for future posts? (Clean ones, mind you.)

Guinevereian Fiction

I’ve always loved this image from the cover of Norma Lorre Goodrich’s book “Guinvere”

I was telling a stranger the other day about my books and he called them “Guinevereian fiction.” I was immediately struck my how apt that phrase is. Yes, what I write is part of Arthurian legend and Arthur is a major character, but the books aren’t about him. They are all about Guinevere.

I’ll admit I’m far from the first author to tackle the subject of Guinevere. Long before me, Persia Woolley, Sharan Newman, Nancy McKenzie, Rosalind Miles, and others decided to tell her story. I’ll admit to attempting two of these author’s works, but by the time I read them, I had such a clear vision of my own story, all I could do was argue with their books because in my mind they were wrong. Needless to say, I didn’t get far in either book, and haven’t picked up any since then.

But what is really neat about Guinevere is that so little is known that each story is different. I really wish I could tell you exactly how mine differs, but we’ll all have to be patient for that. Suffice it to say her lineage, upbringing and relationships with other traditional Arthurian legend characters are all different in my books than in the stories you’ve probably heard. I also think she has a unique personality and outlook on life.

I can hear some of you asking “So what’s the traditional story?” or “What have others done?” Guinevere is quite the busy lady, so here’s a rundown. (If you want a shorter version, check out my post Arthurian Legend 101.) In many traditions, there are two Guineveres (the true and the false), who are sometimes twins, sisters, or lady/serving maid. In Welsh tradition, there are three. But for purposes of this overview, we’ll just assume there’s only one.

Early life – Traditionally, Guinevere is the daughter of Lord/King Leodgrance or Leogden. Nothing is ever said about her mother, siblings or early life. Was she close with them or perhaps abandoned or abused by them? We don’t know. Some fiction writers have had her grow up on Avalon, others make her childhood friends with Elaine, Morgan, Lancelot or even Arthur. Some have given her lovers or even husbands before Arthur. Because tradition tells us almost nothing, authors are free to use her early years to influence the decisions she makes later in life. I’ve done the same thing in my books because all of us are who we are as the result of our experiences.

Queenship – Ah, yes, the be all and end of Guinevere’s life is that she marries Arthur. Most of the time she’s barren, but a few authors give her a child or two, usually sons, who die in childhood, making way for Mordred to lay sole claim to the throne. No wonder so many modern fiction writers, myself included, try to breathe life into other parts of her existence. No woman is defined solely based on who her husband is or whether or not she has children – not anymore.

To me, this picture shows Guinevere at her most powerful, in her role as Sovereignty

It’s interesting to note that in nearly every version of the tale, traditional or modern, Guinevere becomes High Queen, not just Arthur’s royal wife. Whether portrayed as Christian or pagan, in this role she is Sovereignty Herself, the Goddess who bestows (and can take back) all power. So in this reality, it is Arthur who is dependant on Guinevere for his identity as High King.

No wonder she gets kidnapped so much! In almost every story, Guinevere is kidnapped by one or more lords seeking to use her to usurp the throne. The most common culprit is a rebellious Lord named Malegant or Melwas, whose heavily guarded castle is sometimes set on Glastonbury Tor. In some fiction he uses Guinevere only as a bargaining chip, while in others he is outrageously brutal, raping her in attempt to sire a child. Usually, its Lancelot or Arthur who rescues her.

Poor Guinevere. I don’t think I’ve seen any version of the story (at least one where she’s a main character) where she is faithful to Arthur. Lancelot is, of course, her most famous and most popular lover, but other characters including Mordred, Kay, Bedivere or any number of the Knights of Round have been named. Was she simply a randy little lass? Maybe. But this storyline could have come from the Celtic practice of polygamy (which I’ll write more about in the future) or in the idea that as a representative of the Goddess, she could choose her lovers at will. Or it could simply be a morality tale added in the Middle Ages by monks seeking to show wives what evil could befall them if they were unfaithful to their husbands. As I’ve said above, I didn’t get this far in any modern fiction, but my guess is her reasons for infidelity likely were influenced by her relationship with Arthur and other life circumstances, because most people don’t just up and choose to have an affair; usually they will tell you they were driven to it by circumstance.

As if once isn’t enough, some versions have Mordred kidnapping Guinevere after Lancelot rescues her from the stake. Sometimes Mordred marries, rapes or takes her as a lover in a quest to secure his claim on the throne (back to that Sovereignty idea again). Some writers have even made Guinevere a willing party in shacking up with Mordred. Directly or indirectly, this situation usually leads to the battle of Camlann, where both Arthur and Modred die.

Some say Guinevere eneded her life as a nun. I doubt it.

Life after Arthur – Guinevere is traditionally said to either have died of grief after Arthur’s death or lived out her days in a convent. I always thought the convent thing was a sign of penance, but in King Arthur’s Children (to be reviewed here in a few weeks) Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., posits that a convent could have been a safe haven where Guinevere could wait out the battle of Camlann and be either rescued by or safe from the victor. I’ve only ever read one book that explores Guinevere’s life after Arthur, Beloved Exile by Parke Godwin. In it, Guinevere ends up a Saxon slave (I won’t ruin it by telling you how). It doesn’t appear that her owners know who she is or her great value, which to me, would have made the story a whole lot more realistic. I have my ending planned (nope, no slavery here) and I have no doubt it’s different from anything you’ve ever read.

So, what Guinevereian fiction have you read? What parts of the plot did you like? Which parts didn’t work for you? If you were to speculate about her life, what would you say happened to Guinevere throughout the years?