Too many of the characterizations of Guinevere are shaped by the medieval versions of the King Arthur story. Stories shaped by the male dominated church of that era portrayed all women as Eve, the temptress who ruins paradise. Malory among others has Guinevere falling in love with the hero who is not her husband and contributing to the destruction of the dream of Camelot. When I came to draw on this story, I wanted to make sure I did not fall into that trap.
In any story that set Arthur’s life and death in the later middle ages, the portrayal of Guinevere tends to match Mallory’s. She is not content with her position as queen, and when Lancelot arrives, she is infatuated. Occasionally, there is a hint that the marriage to Arthur was her father’s choice not hers, making her love of the great knight a way of fighting the fate that makes women a pawn.
Mary Stewart, who sets Arthur’s work in the early middle ages just after the Roman legions left, makes an interesting adjustment to this story by giving us two Guineveres. The first is a maid of Ygraine, Uther’s wife and Arthur’s mother. Arthur is interested in the girl, comes to love her deeply, and she shyly returns his love. This marriage is arranged by a woman with the woman’s consent. Guinevere conceives early in the relationship, but dies as a result of the pregnancy. Arthur is urged to marry again but hesitates until a poet comes, singing the praise of a wonderful woman, and, at the end of his poem, reveals that her name is Guinevere. This marriage is arranged by the men. The second Guinevere is not able to conceive. Her barrenness and the need for an heir for the kingdom become the complicating factors that bring the Camelot dream to an end.
Another who draws on this idea of more that one Guinevere is Mercedes Lackey in her story Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit. The girls in this family are all named with some variation of Gwen, and two are identical in looks but not in spirit. One loves horses and is an excellent rider. The other loves her fancy clothes and girly pursuits. The first is the one the reader loves, but Arthur adores the second. The king doesn’t really come off looking good in this story, but the spirited Gwenhwyfar is a powerful, interesting woman character.
I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s Guinevere. She is true to Arthur but also deeply loves Lancelot, and the king and the knight are also deeply bonded. It is a sad triangle that comes to an unexpected, satisfying conclusion.
When I wondered what to do with Guinevere, I thought about one of the places where women had access to power: the abbey. Yes, it is a secluded life, but it is a space where women have freedom to be themselves, power to direct the holdings of the abbey, scope to influence political and social affairs. Years ago, I started a story in which Guinevere, the head of the abbey, tells the story of Arthur to a novice. That story isn’t finished, may never be, but I imagine that Guinevere would have retreated from court to a sanctuary. And as a circle of women who follow Ceridwen plays an important part in my story, it is to this isolated, women-centred place that welcomed Guinevere after the last battle, away from the power of government to a place grounded in a different kind of power.