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The Hall of Heroines
Guinevere, Queen of Britain

 

      Guinevere.

      Utter her name and two other names inevitably echo back: Arthur. . .  Lancelot.

      She does not exist outside of this trinity of passion and tragedy.         

      But within it. . . .  She has been expressed in so many ways, had ascribed to her so many different personalities, motivations, virtues and faults that it is impossible to identify a single version who represents the essential Guinevere.

      Guinevere is not one woman, she is many. Her name evokes passion, romance, tragedy but the image of the real woman behind it, if such a woman ever existed, has been obscured by time and myth.

     Traditional versions of Guinevere are not heroic. She is often shown as helpless before the power of her own passion, driven by lust and guilt. She is often the victim of kidnapping attempts, and must rely on a champion for rescue. Her crown is not an emblem of power, it is an ornament, a symbol of her marriage to Arthur and a reminder that her adultery is also treason.

     My favorite portrayals of Guinevere, and those which I consider most heroic, are those in which she is portrayed as a queen as well as a lover. She is concerned with the welfare of her people and her land, not just the satisfaction - or denial - of her passions. As a queen, she takes action, she doesn't just wait for the men around her to act. And whatever decisions she makes about Lancelot, she doesn't whimper about them.

     My very favorite portrayal is in Parke Godwin's novels "Firelord" and "Beloved Exile." "Firelord" is told in Arthur's voice, and "Beloved Exile" is told by Guenevere after Arthur's death. This Guenevere is a royal woman whose family counts the goddess Epona among their ancestors, and who learned to rule while Arthur was still a tribune in the Roman army. She is proud, intelligent, fierce, passionate, and courageous. She has some terrible flaws, but eventually becomes a wiser and more compassionate human being. Unfortunately, these novels are both out of print, but for a glimpse of Godwin's Guenevere, you can click here.

The Accolade by Leighton

 
Click here for

Heroic Guineveres

The made-for-television movie Guinevere is based on novels by Persia Wooley. Guinevere and Lancelot are raised, with other children, by Morgana, the Lady of the Lake. This Guinevere is keenly conscious of her royal responsibility, and although she sympathizes with Morgana's grievances against patriarchal religion, she condemns her treachery and her willingness to use violence to achieve her goals. In a twist on the usual motif, Guinevere must rescue Arthur when he is captured by an enemy.

Julia Ormond plays a lovely and serious-minded Guinevere in the romantic movie First Knight. Her Guinevere is thrown off-balance by her attraction to Lancelot (who begins the story more as a rogue than a knight), but she remains committed to her marriage vows - and sincere love - for Arthur. Despite several liberties taken with the story, this version portrays the ideal of courtly love: love for a noble Guinevere inspires this Lancelot to become a better man.

Guy Gavriel Kay portrays Guinevere reincarnated as a Canadian college student in his fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road). Jennifer enters the world of Fionavar with her friends and discovers that she was once Guinevere. Arthur and Lancelot are also brought into the world, and Kay focuses on the love that binds the three together rather than the betrayal that tears them apart. When Jennifer is kidnapped and raped by an evil deity, the choices she makes in the aftermath are crucial to the final triumph of good over evil.