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?

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2 thoughts on “Provoking Thought on the Character of Guinevere

  1. There is one interesting short story, which a poetess named Marie de France had written in the late 12th century, titled Lanval. Marie had written that she had translated from a Breton song, known as the lai. The story tell of how the hero Lanval was loved by a fairy woman, where he must not reveal of her presence to anyone. When Guinevere, his liege lord’s wife, had unsuccessful tried to seduce him, he boast of the fairy woman’s beauty surpassing the Queen. Guinevere then falsely accused him of making unwanted advances upon her and bragging of loving a woman more beautiful than her. Arthur would have punished him if Lanval could prove his boast, had it not being the timely arrival of the fairy woman saved from execution with her appearance. Lanval and the fairy woman then left the mortal world, to dwell in Avalon.

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