I’ve always had a bone to pick with the fabled Queen Guinevere. Girl had it good – she was married to King Arthur of Camelot, and then she decides to cheat with Sir Lancelot? I-D-I-O-T. Okay, so Arthur isn’t much of a catch in some of the legends, but still. Talk about having a good thing in your hands and chucking it aside in the name of “love” – or what I like to call “lust,” since true love never transpires alongside the suffering of others.
Anyhow, last night I got out my copy of First Knight, popped it in my player, and spent two hours wondering why I don’t watch this film more often, because yeah, it really is that good. The critics don’t agree with me, but I don’t give a rip what the critics think. Why is this a good retelling of the legend? Because it’s not actually much of a retelling, and for the first time, it gets the entire premise of why adultery really sucks absolutely right – because it leaves everyone devastated and miserable, even if the “adultery” in this version is all down to a simple case of momentary face-eating… err, I mean passionate kissing.
Watching it, a lot of thoughts ran through my head.
Thoughts like, “who would abandon Sean Connery’s lovely, sweet, kind King Arthur for Lancelot?”
Thoughts like, “you’re falling for this guy and you’ve spent what, four hours tops with him?”
Thoughts like, “Man, I could write a lot of posts about this film.”
What kinds of posts? How about the subtle religious elements and symbolism of offering Humanity (Guinevere) all that her heart desires, only to have her toss it aside in a moment of utter human weakness? (The rejection of divine love and a spiritual kingdom, replaced by condemnation and being forced to atone, only then to survive on after a higher power has forgiven you and taken your place in death.) How about the distinction between true love, which only wants what is best for the other person, and mindless lust, which is what Lancelot has for Guinevere? (If you argue it was love, I’m going to laugh in your face – he wanted her, and not in a “oh, let’s have lunch” sense.)
A few, “Oh, my gosh, I want to kill her for being such an idiot… but I can’t, because believe it or not, I really like her” thoughts transpired as well, along with some general screeching at the filmmakers for the ending. But what I finally landed on is my sudden comprehension of how the character of Guinevere is altered to suit each generation’s vision of feminism. In most older adaptations of the legend, Guinevere is something of a damsel in distress who knows that her attraction for the dashing Lancelot is wrong, but inevitably succumbs to him. Yet the three most recent big-screen Guinevere incarnations reveal the subtle but profound evolution of the character due to modern perspectives.
First Knight has the most practical approach from both a feminist and literary perspective, as well as reflects the idyllic heroine from the 1990’s – strong but feminine, beautiful inside and out, with a degree of character threatened to be undone through her own mistakes. (This “sensible feminism” is also at play in the heroine of Cora in The Last of the Mohicans from the same decade; their degrees of feminism are very similar and may explain why I love both of them so much — it is a case of feminism done right within the time period, something many other adaptations fail at.) One of her best scenes is when she tells Arthur that her affection for Lancelot will fade, as it is built up of emotion rather than will, and the latter is what holds her on a steady course through life.
This Guinevere is a lady who has inherited her father’s estates and now faces their loss to the enemy of Camelot, who continues to press her borders. Both because she likes him and to save her people from being killed by invaders, she accepts the proposal of King Arthur. When he informs her that he intends to protect her country whether or not she marries him, she insists that she wants to marry him – not his kingdom, or his crown, just him. Her sense of integrity and determination to stand up for herself are what make her strong and sympathetic, in essence, a very “likely” feminist heroine in the sense that she still needs Lancelot to save her on two separate occasions. Her innocence is obvious yet debatable, because her betrayal of Arthur for one passionate moment has devastating consequences for all of them.
No doubt the religious aspect was not intended by the filmmakers – but nevertheless, this Guinevere is a moral figure caught between absolute good (Arthur) and the temptations of betrayal (Lancelot). Furthermore, she is a victim, since she never instigates her relationship with Lancelot. Instead, she does all she can to refute it, while he pursues her with dogged, unflinching determination, like the utter cad he is. Lancelot, without meaning to, succeeds in bringing Camelot to its knees. Thus we wind up with a Guinevere that both sexes can like – men for her purity and vulnerability, women for her quiet strength and courage. (You can argue with me her “damsel in distress” status, but I see it as completely faithful to the time period.)
Next, Hollywood gave us the Guinevere from King Arthur, a gritty retelling of the story that, like First Knight, is not about magic so much as warfare. The shy, demure damsel in distress no longer suits the next generation, so Guinevere has changed significantly – she is now a commoner and a warrior who spends the last twenty minutes of the film on the battlefield in an uncomfortable outfit spilling blood. She is initially rescued by Arthur and his knights but after that does quite well in looking after herself – and never so much as glances at Lancelot, who surprisingly, bites the dust before the end. Instead, her romance is with Arthur… if it is much of a romance; this is much more about “female empowerment” than a love story. Even their love scene together is not of Arthur taking the upper hand, but of Guinevere seducing him, which embraces the modern desire for women to embrace their sexuality. Where First Knight bought into the 90’s budding feminism but heavy romantic sensibilities with an overlaying hint of sexual politics, King Arthur realizes that the young “modern” woman wants a heroine who doesn’t really need a hero; she just needs a new battlefield. Forget being a damsel in distress – hand me that knife!
Finally, we have the most recent popular incarnation of Guinevere in BBC’s children’s series, Merlin. This “Gwen” is not a lover or a fighter; she is a servant in the king’s household, the daughter of a blacksmith, and of African descent, a choice that serves to remind us of the focus of more modern sensibilities – tolerance, inclusion of all ethic groups, and the ability to think outside the box and remake old legends into new ones. Having now conquered all notions of sexism and romanticism, as well as explored the ideas of women warriors and ambitious female sexuality, the focus has shifted to a poor girl who will one day climb above her station to become significant in Camelot. Her situation in many ways reflects that of Merlin… both of them will be important someday, but aren’t now. It buys into the next generation’s dreams of future importance, no matter our humble beginnings, and embraces the idea that any woman can be a queen in her own right.
Over the years, Guinevere has changed as society has evolved. One has to wonder, in ten years, what will Guinevere be like?