Once Upon a Time Tackles Arthurian Legend & Guinevere

Queen_GuinevereThe minute I heard Guinevere and King Arthur were going to be a major story line on Once Upon a Time this season, I knew I had to watch it. I wasn’t so much curious about the way they’d handle the whole legend (I already didn’t like their Lancelot who was in season 2 when I was still watching – he was just, meh), as I was how they would handle Guinevere, for obvious reasons.

There was a really great quote about Guinevere being the true power behind Camelot – with which I wholly agree.

But beyond that? Historically accurate and true to the legend it is not. Inconsistent it is.  (Spoiler alert – stop reading if you don’t want to know details.)

Guinevere is a mixed bag as a character. She doesn’t do anything at all until episode 4, and even then the way she is portrayed varies within the episode. At first she seems docile, and then all of a sudden, Arthur has disappointed her with his alienating obsession one too many times and she’s in full on I’m-not-going-to-take-this-crap, I-can-solve-this-problem-myself mode. THIS is the kind of woman I want to see! She takes the initiative to find the object Arthur is obsessing over (don’t ask – it’s a McGuffin made up for the show), her determination so strong all poor Lancelot can do is trail behind and vow  to protect her. *snort* This woman doesn’t need a guardian, as she proves when she rescues him from a dark evil swarm of…something…bats?…magic? Whatever.

Guinevere is in sight of said McGuffin, but her access is blocked by Rumplestiltskin, who offers her magical sand from Avalon instead. This is where Guinevere becomes an imbecile, much like her legendary counterparts. Instead of being a clever woman and bargaining with him or at least TRYING to out-think or fight him, she ends up taking the sand, which is said to be able to “fix” anything. Later, when Arthur reveals he knows about her and Lancelot kissing and she threatens to leave him for Lancelot (she gets points for that), she falls for the old “magic sand in the face” trick. Suddenly, she’s docile, my-husband-is-wonderful Stepford Guinevere…and their marriage is “fixed.”

I get that this is magic and there may be some subtext in that the only way Arthur could control his wife is through magic, but it really made me want to bang my head against a wall. This show is famous for taking strong fairy tale women with agency (Snow, for example) and allowing magic to turn them into useless beings (Mary Margaret may be nice, but she’s not so bright). The only one who seems to have escaped that “curse” (pun intended) is the Evil Queen/Regina. I would have liked to have seen a consistently strong Guinevere from a show that at least, at times, has been the only thing in popular culture to showcase women with brains, beauty AND power.

As Rebecca Jane Stokes writes at Den of Geek, “While it’s refreshing and cool to be presented with a powerful incarnation of Guinevere (instead of a wet noodle in the center of a love triangle), they immediately zap her of any power courtesy of Gold’s red dust. The show is so scared of anything that might be perceived as being outre – LET Guinevere cheat on Lancelot! It’s a complicated story! One we’d watch!”

I find it telling that the other fairy tale woman in this episode is Merida from Brave. They did an AMAZING job with her. She was everything I wanted Guinevere to be: strong, courageous, kick-ass, not-going-to-back-down from her beliefs. I wonder why they felt like they should keep her agency, but not Guinevere’s? Maybe Brave is too recent a story for them to feel like they could cheat with it? I’m just happy someone was allowed to stay strong. Pray she remains that way.

(The actress that plays Merida looks so much like the character, it’s frightening. OUAT’s casting directors get props for that and for keeping diversity in mind with the Arthurian cast, although for me, it’s distracting because it doesn’t fit the legend. But at least this Guinevere isn’t a blonde!)

A Few Other Thoughts: King Arthur and Arthurian Legend
Most of the Arthurian story line is very medieval, even down to Camelot castle being modeled after

Were they even trying? Neuschwanstein castle on the left, OUTA's Camelot on the right.

Were they even trying? Neuschwanstein castle on the left, OUTA’s Camelot on the right.

Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, itself the model for the Disney castle (hello, Hollywood, there are beautiful castles in Spain, France and all over the British Isles you can use, too). And it doesn’t play well with traditional legend, but that show is known for twisting up the tales.

But the interesting thing to me is the writers seem to have taken a cue from older Arthurian legend for the character of Arthur. At first he seems to be the benevolent king that we’re used to, but then he reveals a dark side: he’s so obsessed with finding the McGuffin that he is nearly insane. This is a dark side rarely seen by those who don’t know the early legends. I’ve seen quite a few people online talk about how “stupid” or “unbelievable” a dark or possibly evil Arthur is, which proves they only know the whitewashed medieval version.

I haven’t watched episode 5 yet, but from the recaps I’ve read, it doesn’t seem to further this story line much. I only hope that once the magic Avalon dust wears off (sorry folks, there’s none of that in my books), we’ll have a strong Guinevere who can learn from Merida and take her rightful place in history and on our TV screens.

Do you watch Once Upon a Time? What are your thoughts? Do you think we’ll EVER see a strong Guinevere on screen?

7 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time Tackles Arthurian Legend & Guinevere

  1. I gave up on Once Upon a Time the second season, though if I’d known about the Arthurian theme I might have watched.

    I do think the Lifetime TV film Guinevere from 1994 had a strong Guinevere in it, though it was nothing like Persia Woolley’s novels. I don’t remember who starred in it other than Noah Wylie playing Lancelot. You might want to look for it if you haven’t seen it.

    • Yep, second season is when I gave up, too. I’m watching this season on Amazon Prime only for this storyline.

      I looked up the movie on IMDB. I’d never heard of it. Going to see if Amazon has it tonight. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Doubt we’ll ever see a strong, tough, sword-wielding Guinevere as long as we’re stuck in the “supposed” Age of Chivalry. Even then, folks should know that the “upper crust” women were tough.. after all, who gave the orders to defend the castle when their menfolk were off fighting wars? and know doubtt they also got some self-defense training with knives.  I’d like to see a treatment of how it would be back on 500 AD. You couldn’t put that on screen, it would be rated so violent…wow! Best Gordon Levine

  3. I’ve been sporadically following OUAT and only came back for episodes featuring Anna and Elsa from “Frozen.” 😀 I have to say their casting directors were on the mark finding actors resembling the cartoons and I’ve seen Merida I think (from Brave) too. It was uncanny. Idk if you’ve seen BBC “Merlin” where they have a different Guinevere (from Morgana’s handmaiden to becoming Queen) but still different from Merida (Brave) though.

    • I’ve seen pictures of the Merlin Guinevere, but I didn’t have any interest in the series. (And the guy who plays Merlin bugs me.) But I may have to investigate it. I’m curious to see how they pulled off a storyline that changes Guinevere’s station so much.

      • The show can have its moments. 😀 I especially liked the Lancelot arc. I even wished Lancelot stayed on for a bit more in the earlier seasons because he was the first one to know about Merlin’s ability (excluding Gauis). It would have been great to explore the camaraderie but oh well, I guess with a number of those episodes, him returning, only made the close of his character tearful. 🙂

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