The Evolution of Guinevere

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?

22 thoughts on “The Evolution of Guinevere

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  1. I think it’s because back in those days people didn’t marry for love but more for security and alliances especially royalty. So Hollywood explains it away with that. I don’t agree with the fact that her character has affairs in many movies.

    I think it’s wrong. Anyway, sometimes I do think it’s amusing that modern day ideals and norms are transferred to medieval times. I also think it’s a bit weird to start off a relationship as a result of an affair. The relationship started off on the wrong foot. What does that say about the two people involved? How do they know the other one will not cheat with someone else in the future, if they cheated with them? You know it’s just so ugh.

    1. I agree. I never understand relationships that begin as an affair, because why would you choose a partner that you know has the capacity and willing to cheat on a person, because they’re already doing it! Yes I know love is blind. And daft also apparently. I like the account of it in ‘The Sword at Sunset’ (I’m just plugging this now!) because it tackles the messy aftermath of the affair rather than romanticising it. Although Artos (Arthur) sends his two closest companions away rather than have them killed, Bedwyr (Lancelot) comes back to help him later and admits that although he and Guenhumara (Guinevere) loved each other they were never really happy together because Artos was “always between us”. I should certainly hope he was!

      1. I couldn’t agree more. Maybe people who want to start affairs should watch “Fatal Attraction” a bit on the extreme side but it explains the consequences of affairs.

    2. As an INTJ (and therefore a logical, non-romantic)… I don’t see any problem in marrying for financial stability, as many women were asked to do in the middle ages. Unless he’s a complete brute, you can grow to love anyone by acting like you love them.

      It makes me roll my eyes when someone gets a spouse through cheating, then complains if that person cheats on them. What did you expect, that they would be faithful to you but not to him/her? HAH.

  2. I should try to re-watch “First Knight” — I’ve seen it once, maybe twice…and I was really bored, to be honest. I should give it another go, because I do recall recognizing, as you so rightly point out, that this film does an excellent job showing the painful repercussions of adultery.

  3. In my opinion, “First Knight” is the only movie that demonstrates, “Gwen” does truly love Arthur. She had a great respect and affection for him… then she met Lancelot who stirred those emotions. As you say, there was a lot of physical attraction driving it. The musical, “Camelot” is one of the WORST adaptations ever – I do not care for it at all. It is boring and awful, butchering this story.

    Sadly, though I love this story, and “Merlin” for its quirky likability (Gwen does love Arthur in this version also but again, is “confused” by Lancelot), I have yet to find a “definitive” version. A month ago, I bought “King Arthur” for $5.00 so I’ll have to watch it again.

    1. I couldn’t make it through Camelot either — it just wasn’t my thing. I’ve also seen Guinevere in several made-for-television movies and miniseries, but these are the best-known examples of her as a character — and two of them that I quite like. I hear that in Merlin, her attraction to Lancelot may not be her choice, but a diabolical plot of Morgana, which to me is a total cop-out.

      1. Initially in “Merlin” Gwen is attracted to Lancelot (and it comes into play well before there is any true commitment between her & Arthur)…the Morgana connection comes into play in the last season when his character was being written out of the series (due to the actor getting cast in other work).

  4. I haven’t seen that movie in years. I really need to rewatch it. I don’t remember much about it other than that I loved it.

  5. Yes! I never could quite understand why Guinivere fell for Lancelot when she already had King Arthur. I\’m also reminded of the story/movie, \”Tristan and Isolde\” – which also portrays adultery for what it is (as in First Knight.). Adultery always has miserable, irrevocable consequences, and not just on the couple, but on those around them as well. Everyone around them is hurt by their sin.

    Anyway, great article!

    1. I think the distinction, at least in First Knight, is between respectful love and lustful love — the love she has for Arthur is full of trust and respect, and the love (lust?) she has for Lancelot is all emotion and passion. The irony is that Guinevere states in the film the absolute truth — that one love (that which she has for Arthur) is the longer-lasting. It’s funny you would bring up Tristan & Isolde — watching this film last night, I was reminded of it and how it contains much the same situation, only in that instance, I have even LESS of a liking for their “romance” — because it could have been avoided if both of them had simply been HONEST with Lord Marke. He was a good, kind man… he would have let Tristan marry Isolde!

      1. Marke would have let Tristan marry Isolde but, at least in that telling, would have invited war with the Irish by handing their princess off to a lieutenant, endangering the lives of his people. (That was the Irish king’s intention anyway). I agree though, they should have been honest with him from the start. I love that film, partly for the honesty of it because although the couple are in love the movie shows that their failure to do the right thing in spite of this just causes more trouble and suffering for everybody involved, even the lovers.

        I like your analysis of the Guineveres. I’m currently reading Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Sword at Sunset’ which sets Arthur’s life in real history, just after the Romans abandon Britain and the Saxons begin attacking from Europe to the east. She has a Guievere most like ‘First Knight’s – a strong-willed tribal woman who is a lady among her own people but makes a brief mistake following a horrible tragedy that drives a wedge between her and Arthur. She’s admirable but imperfect, which always helps to ground a character for me.

        I never really understood Keira Knightly’s Guinevere (more the character than the actress). I mean, I was fine with her being rescued and being a native Briton and being a good fighter, but I never understood the relationship between her and Arthur. They married at the end but didn’t seem to be in love or even particularly close friends. I could accept it as a political marriage but then why did Guinevere seduce him? They made sense as individuals but I found them difficult to understand as a couple.

        1. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this movie, so I don’t remember a lot of it — but doesn’t Marke regard Tristan as something of a son? Couldn’t he appease the Irish by giving Tristan a more important role at court? There were better solutions than deceiving Marke and then cheating on him — that was unforgivable, and placed Isolde in particular in a terrible position.

          The book sounds interesting — a lot like King Arthur in fact, with the post-Roman occupation setting. I think with regards to the film, they wanted more action and less romance, so they did an insufficient job of depicting Guinevere’s attraction to Arthur. It may have simply been her choice to marry/seduce a man of significance, whom she trusted to provide for and protect her people.

          1. I think he’d already given Tristan command in the army and made him his official representative after Marke lost a hand in a battle. If anything he’d over-medalled him, to the point where Marke’s nephew and next-of-kin was getting really jealous. I agree with you, they should have told him. In an effort to not hurt Marke in the short term (when he probably wouldn’t have minded) they ended up devastating him in the long term, losing two out of the three of them, and nearly losing the kingdom anyway. Bad bad move, Tristan and Isolde.

          2. I watched the movie yesterday. Tristan won Isolde for the kingdom. Considering Marke was going to have him be his second hand anyway, it wouldn’t have insulted Isolde’s father for her to be the “future wife of the English king,” which means I think they are all the more stupid. =P

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