Does chivalry still exist? King Arthur and Guinevere like you've never seen them before. Referencing Lord Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur" and William Morris' "The Defence of Guenevere," we explore the history of Arthurian legend and the epic romance (or lack thereof) between Arthur and Guinevere.
Find the full Of Love & Legend fictional story here.
The story of King Arthur and Guinevere is part of a body of literature called the Matter of Britain. This collection of medieval literature is legendary and associated with Great Britain sometimes referred to as Brittany and the kings associated with it. King Arthur, among all of the great kings, is the most repeated story in medieval literature.
King Arthur was believed to have led the defense of Britain against the Saxons in the fifth and early six centuries. But because of Arthur's legendary, folkloric style stories, it is disputed as to whether King Arthur actually ever did exist.
He was mainly made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.
Though tales of Arthur and those around him widely vary, there are certain elements that are consistent. In many versions you will see Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, the infamous magician Merlin, and his lovely wife, Guinevere. There are also tales of Lancelot and the knights of the roundtable, and of course, we’re all familiar with the very tranquil and picturesque kingdom of Camelot.
But in this episode, our main focus is Guinevere and her relationship with the heroic King Arthur. Guinevere has been portrayed in various ways. Sometimes, she’s almost a villain, other times she's an opportunist, sometimes she has a wandering eye like when she has a love affair with Lancelot. But it's not uncommon to see Guinevere as a virtuous and kind lady.
Of course, before she was a great queen, she was a young lady. And that is where our story will begin.
I hope you enjoy this tale of love and legend.
There are a couple of wonderful reference in Victorian literature that really caught my eye while I studied the history before writing the story. One of them is Lord Tennyson’s “The epic Mort’d Arthur,” which means the death of Arthur. Tennyson explores the death of a more ideal time, a society turning from a time of strong principal and moral standing. As society pushes forward, Camelot and its noble leader become a distant memory and ultimately a legend that seems far more fictitious than real. But did Arthur’s death mean the death of all that was good? Because Arthur is painted as a Christ-like figure, Tennyson related the death of Arthur to Victorian’s slow death of Christianity. He says:
“Where, three times slipping from the outer edge,
Tennyson also refers to Arthur’s looks—blond curly hair and blue eyes. And the mention of how Arthur received Excalibur—Both are takeaways I used within my story.
The other poem that really caught my eye was William Morris’ “The Defense of Guenevere” in which Guinevere defends herself and her adulterous actions with Lancelot. In the poem, she is portrayed as a bold woman. She defends herself in a way that helps audiences understand why she would have betrayed the wonderful/perfect (at least in everyone else’s eyes) Arthur. Morris paints a clear picture of his Guinevere in this:
“ Though still she stood right up, and never shrunk,
She uses her sex appeal a little here by wringing her hair and twisting her body as she speaks, but she also reveals her actions in a way that appears vulnerable. She had been fighting her feelings for months. Throughout her defense, she tells of her feelings growing stronger and stronger, which leaves the audience wondering, how could she refuse this tempting Lancelot? In this excerpt, she describes her passionate feelings for Lancelot during their first kiss:
“’Came Lancelot walking, this is true, the kiss
If you were to read or listen to the entire Of Love & Legend story which is available on the website, I also touched on Guinevere’s worries that Arthur will care more about his duty then he will about her. That frightens her because she knows how much she needs the romance and attention.
“Belonging to the time ere I was bought
"The Defense of Guenevere" is fascinating not only because of the time it was written—when changes were being made in women's rights and the understanding of their dynamic roles in society outside of their domestic ones, but it also gave a voice to the fallen woman — recognizing her as a full person rather than simply an adulterous insignificant. Through her words, we start to understand Guinevere feelings and how her marriage with Arthur may not have been as perfect as the world thought. Although Arthur has been idealized, his greatest strength becomes his greatest flaw. He may have been an amazing leader and king, but he was leaving his wife lacking something. This is a concept that even modern audiences can relate with. When one or either her spouse spends too much time with their careers, often their marital relationships suffer. So in essence, Arthur and Guinevere’s story is a tale of warning to all these generations later.
Through all the details of Guinevere and her relationship with Lancelot, one thread of remains the same -- their infidelity causes a chain reaction of broken ideals and ultimately a broken Camelot. And sadly, the death of their great king.
Tennyson and Morris portray these characters differently, but readers still sense the same truth Arthurian legend thread between them. Lord Tennyson's version of events declares Arthur as a saintly man. While Morris focuses on Guinevere as an individual—completely subject to her human desires. It’s clear that Arthur’s purpose far outreached his role as a husband.
Wanting to delve a little deeper into the human psychology of Guinevere, I decided to introduce a theory of my own to the legend. In my version, Guinevere had been abused as a child. According to an article in the US National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health it is said that "childhood sexual abuse has been proposed to influence both women and men’s adult sexual risk behaviors and the quality of their intimate relationships.” In most versions of the stories, Guinevere is childless. With Arthur’s distance—both emotionally and physically as he would often go on missions throughout the land—Guinevere became lonely and possibly bored. Of Love and Legend stands as its own defense or understanding of why Guinevere would become a queen who betrayed the most perfect king in history.
Another really interesting part of the legend is the Lady of the Lake. She’s the one who gives Arthur his sword Excalibur the lady of the lake is said to have had magical properties and even enchanted Merlin. It is believed that when Arthur and Merlin met the Lady of the Lake, and she held the sword—Excalibur--out of the water as if she was offering it to Arthur. By taking the sword, he agreed to follow her instruction.
The addition of the Lady and Merlin—the magical side of Arthurian legend, further causes the dispute to if there’s any validity to the existence of our beloved characters. My thoughts are that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and when people don’t understand how a person could be so noble, how a man could be such a fierce warrior while having a heart for his people—how a place as peaceful and good as Camelot could have once existed—they tend to attribute these things to the otherworldly. Magic is often the placeholder for truth when that truth is misunderstood of unknown completely.
Speaking of truth… after all we’ve discussed about Arthur and his Guinevere… what do you think? Did chivalry die with Arthur and Camelot? Or are there still knights and dames amongst us?
Want to know what I believe? I think there are.