Lancelot and Guinevere by Herbert James Draper, 1890’s
Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lancelot_and_Guinevere_-_Herbert_James_Draper.jpg
Guinevere has existed in literature for nearly a millennium. The queen of Camelot has intrigued people from the Middle Ages into the present day. She has over time, metamorphosed from Arthur’s gentle queen to Lancelot’s jealous lover, from a stately queen to a vindictive adulteress. Her story is told in ever different ways and writers are always ready to re-examine her role in the story of the Fall of Arthur’s kingdom. She is Britain’s Helen of Troy, beautiful, beloved and blamed for the destruction of the ideal kingdom.
Initially, the role of Guinevere in Arthurian literature is small. Her earliest stories are found in the Mabinogion and in the Welsh Triads. She is further mentioned in the Latin chronicles of Giraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century.Guinevere is a strong, appealing woman in Chrétien de Troyes’s romances. In Marie de France’s Le Lai de Lanval (“The Lay of Lanval”), she is portrayed as a haughty and unsympathetic queen, who though unnamed is usually interpreted as being Guinevere.
Each author added something new to the stories and inescapably changed how the future would view Guinevere. Chrétien de Troyes added Lancelot and his affair with Guinevere; Thomas Malory sewed the disparate stories together to create a more complete telling in the 15th century. He emphasized chivalry and knighthood. Malory made Arthur into the tragic king of Camelot while creating an emotionally complex Guinevere. In the 19th century, Alfred, Lord Tennyson glorified Arthur, turning him into an almost Christ-like figure, and ultimately condemned Guinevere as the reason for the failure of Camelot. Each writer had very different visions of who Guinevere was and of what she ought to be. Each modified what had come before, adding or subtracting narrative elements, altering personalities, and developing characters as he saw fit. Every change brought not only the legend but also the character of Guinevere, closer to what modern culture recognizes as the real story. In the end, it is Tennyson’s story that we recognize most, but each prior telling had brought Guinevere and the tale of Camelot closer to this iteration.
Post-Malory, between the fifteenth and the nineteenth century, interest in the Arthurian legends fell away. The Victorians, however, rediscovered the stories again in the mid-1800s. Disturbed as many were with the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the huge social and cultural changes at the time, there was an upsurge in nostalgia, a desire for simpler times, when things were right with the world, where social order and positions were stable. (Walters xxxix). The themes of the Arthurian stories, including those of illicit love, appealed to Victorian readers. (Walters xxxix). Tennyson’s Idylls of the King was a compilation of twelve poems, all centered on Arthur and his court and probably the most famous of the Victorian works in Arthuriana.
Tennyson makes Arthur the hero of the legends. It may seem surprising to say this… after all, we are dealing with the stories of Arthur’s court… but Tennyson was really the first writer to put Arthur’s character central to his plot. In most versions, Arthur is present only as the context for the stories, most of which are about his knights and other characters. But with Tennyson, Arthur is the centerpiece. Everyone else is there to help achieve his goals and his dreams. Guinevere, in particular, is also seen in this way. When she fails, she is berated for being unable to live up to her husband’s impossible expectations and blamed for the destruction of Camelot and Arthur’s dreams.
Thou hast not made my life so sweet to me,
That I the King should greatly care to live;
For thou hast spoilt the purpose of my life. (265. 448-450)
Tennyson gives us a new Arthur, blameless and noble in his actions, sanitized and cleansed from his previous portrayals. He erases many of the blemishes on Arthur’s record. Modred is not born of an incestuous relationship between Arthur and his sister, as he is in Malory, but is instead, just his nephew. Hence, Arthur does not need to kill off all male children under the age of two, born on Mayday, in an attempt to kill his own son Modred and stop his own eventual destruction. Arthur starts his reign with a clean slate. In the Idylls, it is Arthur, who is the light, not Camelot. Arthur is the one who makes Camelot what it is.
Turning Arthur into a blameless man affects not just his story but also the stories of those around him, and Guinevere’s in particular. At the beginning of the Idylls, Guinevere is described only as Arthur desires her to be. There is a certain poignancy in the text as Arthur imagines Guinevere as his other half, his completeness, the one who will make him whole. Of course, it is a projection as, at this stage, he has not met her but we can imagine truth in what he says, an inner desire for this to be so.
Shall I not lift her from this land of beasts
Up to my throne, and side by side with me?
What happiness to reign a lonely king,
Vext – O ye stars that shudder over me,
O earth that soundest hollow under me,
Vext with waste dreams? for saving I be join’d
To her that is the fairest under heaven,
I seem as nothing in the mighty world,
And cannot will my will, nor work my work
Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm
Victor and lord. But were I join’d with her,
Then might we live together as one life,
And reigning with one will in everything
Have power on this dark land to lighten it,
And power on this dead world to make it live. (7. 79-93).
One of the more tragic intertwinings in the story is that Arthur never withdraws this projection. This is how he sees Guinevere. She is meant to be his muse, meant to lift him up, inspire him, and push him toward attaining his goals. His part in the failure of Camelot comes not because of his innocence but because he never loosens this projection. In a Jungian sense, he doesn’t integrate his anima. Guinevere is left to carry it for him and he never takes the time to get to know who his queen is in herself. Arthur never leaves the castle of his ideals, never engages in the reality of his primary relationship, and fails to actualize Camelot in real life. He looks for a goddess and finds only a mortal woman. Guinevere, of course, feels this weight on her and knows that this is not who she is, that she could never have lived up to this ideal.
I thought I could not breathe in that fine air
That pure severity of perfect light –
I yearn’d for warmth and colour which I found
In Lancelot … (270. 640-645)
Yet, for Guinevere too there is a blindness. Just as Arthur is unable to see her outside of his projections, neither does she recognize Arthur inside his humility. When she first looks for him, as he is passing by her father’s castle, on the way to battle Urien, she is unable to distinguish him from the others. Perhaps Tennyson intends to show Arthur’s modesty, a noble virtue. Arthur does not stand out from his men, unadorned as he is.
Stood by the castle walls to watch him pass;
But since he neither wore on helm or shield
The golden symbol of his kinglihood,
But rode a simple knight among his knights,
And many of these in richer arms than he,
She saw him not, or marked not, if she saw,
One among many, though his face was bare. (6. 48-56)
The round table is already in Arthur’s heart, his dream of equality. But for Guinevere, he is invisible. What she wants is “warmth and color” (Staines 49). She cannot see Arthur in the passing troop of knights and the question must be raised as to where her blindness was. It is not until the end, that she sees that perhaps love was possible.
…now I see thee what thou art,
Thou art the highest and most human too,
Not Lancelot, nor another. Is there none
Will tell the King I love him though so late? (270. 645-648)
If for a moment we imagine the kingdom as a whole entity onto itself, we know that to succeed, there must be a resolution between its masculine and feminine elements. We see that neither Guinevere nor Arthur can approach that place in the other. Neither can nurture the balance. Guinevere, as the feminine element, is and should be concerned with sensuality and sexuality. Arthur, as masculine, is and should be concerned with the realm of ideals and spirit, and together, they should work towards a whole. The right elements are there, in each of them but unavailable to the other. Arthur needs Guinevere’s sensuality and Guinevere needs Arthur’s higher vision. In Tennyson’s portrayal, they are polarized and unable to integrate what the other offers, during their marriage. Guinevere sees Arthur and his gifts as “Cold / High, self-contain’d, and passionless” (279, 402-403). Arthur cannot even see the earthiness of Guinevere until the affair with Lancelot comes to light. Then, he is horrified by the betrayal: His wife and friend have answered the call of the sensuousness that he had avoided all his life.
Ironically, Tennyson makes May Day the marriage day. Ironic, as traditionally, May Day was not a day for weddings, for monogamous commitment. And it was certainly not the day for the hieros gamos that Arthur so badly needed. Originally one of the quarter days of the Celtic year, May Day – Bealtaine – carried a sense of otherworld openness and lack of boundaries. It was the beginning of summer and a time of ensuring fertility. In Tennyson’s own time, it was still celebrated as a festival where the winter king and the summer king fought each other over the flower maiden (Matthews 77). In Celtic myth, May Day was a time for great changes -invasions, battles, abductions, and other life-altering events (Ford 131). It was an ambiguous time where up to recently, luck needed to be guarded (Lysaght 212) and when the sidhe queen may steal you away to the Otherworld. It was a time of both dark and light, a time of disorder, a fire festival at the boundary end of winter, and hence, not a time for the commitment of marriage. As the old saying acknowledged: “Marry in May and rue the day.” From the Celtic view, this marriage was already at risk.
In the Arthur stories, May Day also has a history that echoes the mythic ambiguity of the festival. It is the day Modred was born and the day, already mentioned, that Malory’s Arthur sends the infant boys to sea to die. It is the day that Meleagant/Melwas kidnaps Guinevere. And in Tennyson, it is the wedding day. Guinevere, then, is the May Queen, who comes to Arthur on the day of fertility – in the time she should invite the green man and robin of the woods to be her partner. Guinevere is being tamed without ever knowing her wildness. But, she also comes as the one who can bring fertility to the land, who can awaken the green man in the king. Arthur sees just the flower maiden, the chaste bride, and does not feel her deeper call.
Far shone the fields of May through open door,
The sacred altar blossomed white with May,
The Sun of May descended on their King,
They gazed on all earth’s beauty in their Queen… (17. 459-462)
The darkness of the day remains hidden for Arthur and the guests. We know in retrospect that Guinevere already has met her Lancelot and the seeds of Camelot’s destruction are already sown. The May Day wedding awakens otherworld, chthonic forces by which Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere are overtaken. Yet all there, on that May Day, are unaware, unconscious of the change, in contrast to the flowers and brightness they can see.
The undercutting of feminine wisdom plays a major part in Camelot’s downfall. Throughout the Idylls, the lack of presence of older women is notable. Guinevere and Elaine are motherless while Vivien is an orphan. Inexperienced and young, the women struggle on alone. In the end, Vivian seeks out wisdom for herself and is condemned for it. Guinevere finds renewal in her love of Lancelot and is blamed for the disintegration it brings. Elaine, more tragically, has no mother or grandmother to whisper that perhaps Lancelot just isn’t worth dying for.
Guinevere does not have a link back to the older feminine wisdom, which would help her deepen her role as queen. For all she is queen, she is still the maiden, still the young woman. Confined, as Tennyson has her, by the social roles of pseudo-medieval and Victorian times, she is unable to reveal conscious female power. Guinevere, alone in the world of men, has no woman of power to guide her, to suggest other paths or help her negotiate her role with Arthur.
And, just as there are no mothers or grandmothers available to the women, there are no children. Birth and children form the other end of the feminine spectrum, the other mystery of women. Guinevere does not provide an heir for Arthur. Her only experience with maternity is caring for the foundling, Nestling. The image that predominates the passage is of coldness.
Then gave it to his Queen to rear: the Queen
But coldly acquiescing, in her white arms
Received, and after loved it tenderly,
And named it Nestling; so forgot herself
A moment, and her cares; till that young life
Being smitten in mid heaven with mortal cold
Past from her; (332. 22-28)
Is the cold in Guinevere created from lack of attention? Or is she cold from the living in Camelot, in the cold clear light of Arthur’s spirituality? The child echoes this: the feminine element, in the high-flying eagle’s home, eventually dies of cold. This is the gift Lancelot has given Guinevere, the warmth to ward off the spiritual cold and the reason she needed him so.
Camelot is out of balance. There is too great a bias towards male spiritual energy, to pureness, chastity, honor. The focus is upwards, heavenward rather than down, and earthward.
To reverence the King, as if he were
Their conscience, and their conscience as their King,
To break the heathen and uphold the Christ,
To ride abroad redressing human wrongs,
To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it,
To honour his own word as if his God’s,
To lead sweet lives in purest chastity,
To love one maiden only, cleave to her,
And worship her by years of noble deeds,
Until they won her; (265. 465-473)
The Grail especially draws masculine-focused energy. And Lancelot, perhaps the only one to truly taste the feminine mysteries, fails in his quest because of his love of Guinevere. He has touched the earth. The Grail, the highest aspiration, has no touch of earth about it. Only the purest, virginal, male can reach it. This is the ideal of Camelot but it is an ideal that is one-sided, ungrounded. And it is a sin of lust, an earthy sin, if you like, that causes its downfall.
It is the task of the queen, the goddess in her dark mode, to restore balance. When balance is disturbed, then it must be rebalanced. When it is time to die, it is time to die. Ironically, Guinevere as queen of Camelot does serve that role, but unconsciously. It is through her affair with Lancelot that the darker power of the true queen emerges. Through her actions, Camelot falls.
Tennyson, of course, sees the end of Camelot as a disaster. Yet, how else could the story have ended? The one-sided nature of what was valued in Camelot had to tip it over. The overvaluing of the spiritual and the undervaluing of matter, the raising of the masculine at the expense of the feminine, pulled it to the ground. What goes up, must come down. A castle built on air, even if it is spiritualized air, does not survive. Guinevere, the Queen, not consciously, but nonetheless powerfully, simply facilitated the balancing energy of the dark feminine.
Ford, Patrick K., ed. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Trans. Patrick K. Ford. Berkeley: California UP, 1977. Print.
Lysaght, Patricia. “Women Milk and Magic at the Boundary Festival of May.” Milk and Milk Products from Medieval to Modern Times. Ed. Patricia Lysaght.Edinburgh: Canongate Academic, 1994. 208–229. Print.
Matthews, John. King Arthur: Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero. New York: Rosen, 2008. Print.
Staines, David. Tennyson’s Camelot: the Idylls of the King and its medieval sources.
Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1982. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred. The Idylls of the King. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Walters, Lori J. Lancelot and Guinevere: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.