This is an essay I wrote for my English class in the spring of 2001 after we did a long study of Arthurian literature. We were instructed to pick a character and compare that character's portrayal by different authors in various stories--Le Morte D'Arthur, Idylls of the King, "Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail", etc. I chose Guinevere, a character whose depth has always fascinated me. I hope you find the essay interesting.
The coach rumbles and bumps over the rough dirt road as Guinevere rides south from her home in Lionesse. She is wearing a blue silk dress, lovely, but, she realizes, quite unpractical for travel. Her two ladies-in-waiting, sitting across from her, are silent, as the noise of the wheels and constant shaking of the coachbox make conversation difficult, leaving Guinevere alone with her thoughts. The choice she has made is a hard one, and even now she wonders if she has chosen rightly, wishing things could be different. She has always wanted to marry, of course, and she would do anything to protect the kingdom that has been her responsibility since her father's death--yet it breaks her heart to leave the land she has known all her life for a man who, though he has every quality she could wish for in a husband, she knows she will still have to learn to love.*
Queen Guinevere is best known for being the wife of legendary King Arthur of Britain in the early dark ages. In most stories she falls in love with and comes to have an affair with Sir Lancelot, King Arthur's right-hand-man and knight of the Round Table, who also plays the role of her protector and with whom she bears a child, Sir Galahad. (Although in some instances the Lady Elaine replaces Guinevere in this aspect of the story). The love of Guinevere and Lancelot is generally agreed to lead to the downfall of King Arthur and the Round Table.
"Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1135-1139), where she is described as a noble Roman. Seized by Mordred...she is later reunited with Arthur and retires to a convent on his death" (Grolier, 9:403). While Guinevere's romance with Lancelot did not exist in the early stages of the legend, the seeds of many later aspects of the story were already there. This is not really surprising, of course, as for many later accounts Monmouth's History "was...a main source to be accessed for all ensuing Arthurian romances when she is portrayed as unfaithful, causing the disintegration of the Round Table" ("Guinever"). Tennyson, for instance, draws upon the early account of Guinevere's retirement to a convent on Arthur's death, though Tennyson her guilt for having caused Arthur's downfall as a reason for this. Many stories also describe her kidnapping by Mordred, but the element of her being rescued by Sir Lancelot, which lends to the romance, is added later.
Mordred's obsession with Guinevere also comes from early stories, which "...indicate her to have been Mordred's wife, whilst others dispute this indicating that he wanted her to be his wife but never won the Queen. This is thought to have been suggested to lend weight to the argument that he was determined to take the throne away from Arthur" ("Guinever"). Lancelot's role as Guinevere's protector also appears at this early stage, a role he was to keep throughout the continuing evolution of the legends, which leads to the romance between them.
The first account of Guinevere's romance with Lancelot appears in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. "Malory is known to have introduced the idea of Mordred revealing to Arthur that his wife was conducting a secret adulterous relationship with Lancelot, and that of Guinevere being burned at the stake for her adultery" ("Guinever"). Lancelot, however, rescues Guinevere and the two flee the country. Mordred's discovery of their relationship gives him the leverage he needs to overthrow the king. "Tennyson refers to Guinevere as having 'spoilt the purpose'" ("Guinever").
Guinevere's name "has been suggested to be a corruption of the word 'guanhumara' which is a development of the Welsh word 'gwenhwyfar,' meaning 'more faithless'...it is also believed by some to be of Irish origin" ("Guinever"). It is spelled several different ways, but many of the spellings were created by the authors to lend to the feel of the story.
Queen Guinevere is portrayed in a unique way in each book, not only in appearance and personality, but also in character. In Le Morte D'Arthur she is portrayed as being very beautiful and having "captured [Arthur's] heart…although many more as beautiful, and more happily destined, could be found" (57). Even at the beginning of the story, she is "destined to love Sir Launcelot" (57). At first she does love King Arthur, shown when he is "joyfully received by Queen Gwynevere and the nobles of his court" (81) after he returns from a long journey. She is both a wise and noble ruler, demanding justice at every count yet giving mercy to those who ask. This is shown no better than in the tale of Sir Gawain, who accidentally causes the death of a maiden by not granting her lover mercy. "Queen Gwynevere rebuked him sternly, commanding that henceforth he should always spare those who begged for mercy, and always put the service of ladies foremost" (63). Guinevere is especially insistent on this last point with many knights of the Round Table, to the extent that it was included in their oath. This leads to the impression that Guinevere was also quick to stand up for those who had no one to speak for them and expected women should be treated well and held in high esteem--some might even call her 'a feminist before her time.'
Queen Guinevere's reputation is tarnished, however, by her love for Sir Lancelot, who was "…supreme, both in prowess at arms and in nobility of bearing…also the favorite of Queen Gwynevere, to whom he had sworn oaths of fidelity" (118). As another noblewoman who was rescued by Sir Lancelot said, "It is whispered, of course, that Queen Gwynevere has cast a spell over you so that you shall love no other" (127). Morgana le Fay, along with her son Mordred, is quick to use this against Arthur and his followers.
Along with the loss of reputation, this affair also shows itself to lead to the downfall of her character. Where Guinevere was noble and just at the beginning of the book, near the end she becomes petty and selfish, overprotective of Lancelot and yet quick to become angry with him. "Sir Launcelot, have you not betrayed me? For I shall surely die if you leave me thus" (366), she tells him before he leaves on his quest for the Holy Grail, and she also says "Sir Launcelot shall incur my displeasure if he is away any longer" (359) when he is about to leave on a quest that will only take him away for a day or so. But her change in character is no better demonstrated than by her treatment of Lancelot himself when he begins championing the causes of other ladies to cover up the rumors of their romance. "My lord, I understand that you are depraved and lecherous; that you disdain my love and, in preference to me, champion the cause of any young noblewoman who appeals to you for aid. So be it! I discharge you from my service and from this court; and do not dare to enter my presence again" (433). Obviously, Guinevere's love turns to lust, so that she is suspicious, quick to see disloyalty where there is none and quick to become angry with someone she should care deeply about. It is hard to see the Guinevere at the beginning of the story doing this, though "Queen Gwynevere has many times before been vexed with [Lancelot] and afterward repented it" (433), and she later repeals her command. This also lends to the idea that Guinevere is in some ways upset with herself for the person she knows she is becoming, and wishes it was not so. This does nothing, however, to keep her from repeating her mistake. And in the end, Mordred is able to use her affair to defeat and kill Arthur. It is only at this point that Guinevere truly sees the results of her actions and feels real remorse.
In Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Guinevere is portrayed somewhat differently. She is not only beautiful, but "…the fairest of all flesh on earth…" (3). It is obvious, however, that Guinevere never really loved King Arthur, though the king "…felt the light of her eyes into his life…" (3-4) and fell deeply in love with her from the moment he saw her. It is suggested that his love for her is so deep it blinds him, which leads to his downfall as much as her unfaithfulness. Even at their wedding, Guinevere seems to give her vows somewhat reluctantly--that is, "with drooping eyes" (15), though this could be a matter of interpretation.
Queen Guinevere seems to have a somewhat conflicting personality in this book. On the one hand, she is somewhat proud, but on the other hand, we see her laughing lightheartedly with Lancelot. This can be reconciled with the conclusion that Guinevere was a person of deep emotions, who was hurt when she was forced to marry a man she did not love and only found an outlet for her feelings and felt truly happy with Lancelot, her lover. Her character is perhaps best summed up in a relatively minor incident, where Arthur found a baby in the woods, "...which Arthur pitying took, then gave it to his Queen to rear. The Queen but coldly acquiescing, in her white arms received, and after loved it tenderly, and so forgot herself a moment, and her cares..." (221). All this also gives the impression that Arthur, though he loved her, was not as considerate of his queen as he could have been, which only made it harder for her to love him.
Guinevere is also seen to fall in love with Lancelot somewhat reluctantly, showing a fierce loyalty to Arthur for righteousness' sake if not for love. She obviously feels guilty for the relationship even as she plays it out, knowing that what she does is wrong. When her relationship with Lancelot is discovered, Guinevere feels the deepest shame and remorse. "That night came Arthur home, and while he climb'd, all in a death-dumb autumn-dripping gloom, the stairway to the hall, and look'd and saw the great Queen's bower was dark-about his feet a voice hung sobbing till he questioned it, 'What art thou?' and the voice…sent up an answer, sobbing, 'I am thy fool, and I shall never make thee smile again'" (240-241). She causes the downfall of Arthur as much by destroying the holiness of the realm as for political reasons--the land that was once established and protected by God is renounced by Him because of her immorality.
In a modern-day novel, Queen of the Summer Stars, told from Guinevere's point of view, she is a very different sort of person, reflecting a great deal of modern ideals. She is somewhat tomboyish, for instance, as the opening scene of the book shows her dashing "...around the corner of the chicken coop, arms flying" (17). Not very pretty, Guinevere is nevertheless a strong leader, both kind and gentle, yet fiercely loyal to Arthur and determined to build a great kingdom with him. Her marriage was, of course, arranged, "But Arthur turned out to be far less Roman than I had feared, and easy to love as well, and...I've taken my place as his partner with very little trouble" (42). She almost realizes her dream, until Lancelot arrives to disrupt her life. Even here, he plays the role of her protector, rescuing her when she is kidnapped by her evil cousin.
Guinevere has a similar personality in the motion picture "First Knight," where Guinevere first meets Lancelot, then traveling as a mercenary, when he rescues her from an attack. Guinevere in this story marries Arthur of her own free will, and even says that she wants to love him for who he is, but it is obvious that her love for him does not come easily, and her infatuation with Lancelot grows after he rescues her from repeated kidnappings. Her love indirectly leads to Arthur's death, much to her grief. Nevertheless she marries Lancelot, who then becomes ruler of Britain. The impression is given that she loved both men equally and truly, and she was torn by her commitment to love Arthur and the love for Lancelot, which came so much easier. Arthur's death only served to eliminate the conflict, giving a sense of relief even in her sadness.
Guinevere, in the early and more traditional tales, relates to the values of the legend in many ways. In Tennyson's Idylls her love for Lancelot is greatly idealized while at the same time said to be unholy. The relationship is also considered unholy in Le Morte D'Arthur, but here it is not romanticized in the least; indeed, one gets the impression that Guinevere becomes a rather despicable character. "[Malory] depicts Lancelot's affair with Guinevere as a failure to live up to a true and possible chivalric ideal, a failure that dooms the Table" (Ashe, 17). By the time the legend reaches its modern-day depiction, however, it is only part of the emotional conflict of the character.
This shows the changing values of the cultures each story is written in; in the day of Malory, such a relationship was simply wrong and unworthy of any heroic character, this being due to the heavy Christian influence at that time. By Tennyson's time the idea was still considered immoral but more due to tradition than actual ideals; one could almost say it was considered a 'forbidden fruit.' Such relationships are apparently much more common and much less shocking in modern-day media, however; Guinevere's relationship is only taken in stride in the movie "First Knight."
Even with all the changes in character and personality throughout the evolution of the legend, Queen Guinevere nevertheless remains unique. In no story does she lack depth; the very nature of her person makes this impossible. The wealth of information and speculation on her story only testifies to the compelling nature of her character, and there will doubtless be many more stories written about her.
*Based on an incident in the movie "First Knight."
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Idylls of the King. New York: Bantam Books, Inc. 1965.
Ashe, Alcock, etc. The Quest for Arthur's Britain. New York: Frederick A. Phraeger, Inc. 1968.
"First Knight." Starring Sean Connery. Director, company, and year unknown.
"Guinever." Arthurian A2Z. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.mystical-www.co.uk/arthuriana2z/.
"Guinevere." Grolier International Encyclopedia. Grolier Incorporated. 1993. 9:403
Malory. Le Morte D'Arthur. New York: Nal Penguin, Inc. 1962.
Woolley, Persia. Queen of the Summer Stars. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc. 1990.