Version 2 (Christina Bauer):
Character Analysis of Guinevere
Readers of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur often consider Guinevere the ultimate traitor to King Arthur. They think of her as someone who spoils “’the purpose’ of Arthur’s life” (Guinevere). Her love affair with Lancelot, which carries the potential to produce an heir to the throne who is not Arthur’s child, is often mentioned by readers as playing the biggest role in destroying the Round Table (Hodges 63). However, in some stories Guinevere is shown to be an honorable lover and a good politician. Even in Malory’s text, Guinevere is loyal to Lancelot and often makes decisions with her country’s best interests at heart. Often, Guinevere quells problems within Arthur’s kingdom through diplomacy and sometimes has a better handle on the political climate than either Lancelot or Arthur. There are many instances in the Morte Darthur, Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle” in which Guinevere tries to preserve the Round Table, sometimes while pursuing Lancelot. Guinevere is a flawed heroine, who fulfills her duties as Arthur’s queen better than she often gets credit for.
In various texts, Guinevere invokes her queenly role as an intercessor to preserve the Round Table and solve problems that threaten Arthur’s kingdom. Kenneth Hodges writes that medieval queens:
had no official role in government, but worked instead by influence, counsel, and affinity. One way they could exercise power was to work through their husbands by counsel and intercession. This often meant that there could be a royal show in which kings represented stern justice and the queens spoke for mercy; or if errors were looming, queens’ counsel could provide excuses for kings to change their minds. (55)
Medieval queens had no official authority in the state, but could advise their husbands and advocate mercy. Guinevere uses these political powers multiple times. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Guinevere intervenes when Arthur sentences one of his knights to death in order to give the knight a chance to redeem himself. Guinevere asks Arthur for “grace” on the knight’s behalf and Arthur lets Guinevere decide whether the knight should live or die (Chaucer 901-4). Guinevere then says that the knight can live if he can figure out what women want within one year and a day (Chaucer 911-15). Hence, Guinevere uses her power of intercession and her ability to argue for mercy in order to protect Arthur’s Round Table. In a situation that could lead to infighting between this knight’s affinity, his group of allied knights, and the knights that support the death sentence, Guinevere provides a way to avoid conflict (Hodges 56). The knight’s task provides a decision as to whether he should live or die; no one has to actually sentence him to death, which could lessen the probability of retaliation.
We also see Guinevere behaving dutifully with regards to Arthur’s knights in “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.” In this story, King Arthur needs to find out what women want or else Sir Gromer Somer Joure will kill him. Gawain helps Arthur find the answer by asking a hag, Ragnelle, who in return for her help expects Gawain to marry her. Guinevere, aware of Gawain’s loyalty in helping Arthur find out what women want, attempts to make Gawain’s wedding to Ragnelle as non-embarrassing as possible. Guinevere cries when she finds out the loyal knight has to marry Ragnelle and asks Ragnelle to hold the wedding ceremony “as privaly” as possible (544, 571). Guinevere is showing sympathy for Gawain and solidarity with him as well. Guinevere does not want Gawain, the knight who has saved her husband, to be humiliated. In this story, it is clear that Guinevere is loyal to the Round Table and cares about Arthur. Maybe this is a representation of a kind, dutiful Guinevere that Malory draws upon in creating his portrayal of Guinevere as respectful in the Morte Darthur.
Guinevere attempts to preserve the Round Table at other times as well. Hodges points out that Guinevere also attempts diplomacy in “The Poisoned Apple.” In the beginning of this story, Gawain’s affinity suspects that Guinevere favors Lancelot’s kinship group. Guinevere throws a dinner party for the entire Round Table in order to promote peace among the knights. Guinevere gives the party partially because she resents Lancelot, who has taken up with another woman (Hodges 62). Guinevere invites Gawain’s affinity, which has felt alienated from her, to the party as well as Lancelot’s affinity. Her “guest list” supports the argument that she is trying to build bridges between divided groups of knights in order to promote the Round Table’s unity when she has this party (Hodges 62-64). Guinevere promotes unity in Arthur’s roundtable in this story; she does not scheme to destroy his fellowship of knights. Though the party ends in someone’s death, Guinevere attempts to do her queenly duty to promote her husband’s interests by giving the party.
Guinevere’s love of Lancelot is also never presented as an evil thing that in itself must absolutely destroy the Round Table in Malory. Malory even treats Guinevere and Lancelot’s love for one another as a dead ideal in the Morte Darthur. In “The Knight of the Cart,” Malory explains that love in the fifteenth century when he is writing is fleeting compared to Guinevere and Lancelot’s love hundreds of years earlier. Malory writes:
Nowadays men cannot love sevennight but they must have all their desires. That love may not endure by reason, for where they beeth soon accorded and hasty, heat soon cooleth. And right so fareth the love nowadays, soon hot soon cold…But the old love was not so…no licorous lusts was betwixt them,[lovers] and then was love, truth, and faithfulness (Malory 78)
What Malory means is that love in the fifteenth century is overly sexual in nature and that once it is consummated, it disappears. Fifteenth century love is therefore “soon hot” then “soon cold.” However, Guinevere and Lancelot feel romantic love for one another according to Malory. Their love is not based on sex, so it is enduring and faithful. When the couple is caught in Guinevere’s chamber, Malory does not assume they were having sex. His explanation for not making that assumption is that “love in those days was not as love is nowadays” (Malory 442). Guinevere’s love for Lancelot is a product of a time in which lovers felt respect and admiration for one another and not merely lust according to Malory. D.S. Brewer explains that “Ladies… of high rank, may be honorable and unchaste,” in medieval legend, “witness…Iseult” (29). Iseult is treated as a respectable married woman in Tristan and Iseult. Brewer explains that Iseult’s husband, King Mark, is even willing to take her back after her adultery (29). Guinevere is also respectable with regards to her love for Lancelot. In fact, Guinevere loves Lancelot so intensely that when their adultery is proven, she says that if he dies she “will not live long” afterwards (Malory 443). Guinevere’s love for Lancelot is strong and loyal.
Mordred, Agravain, have flaws that help destroy the Round Table, emphasizing that Guinevere’s affair does not entirely cause the destruction. Mordred and Agravain brew the conflict between Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot out of “hate” for the couple (Malory 439). It is Mordred and Agravain who decide that the lovers’ private adultery is a state problem of treason that needs to be handled immediately with force (Malory 439). The irony in their actions is that because of the principles of courtly love, which we are told all medieval knights observe, we can assume that both Mordred and Agravain have had adulterous feelings or at least envy of Lancelot and Guinevere. In courtly love, knights fight for and lust after women who are usually married to other men (Simpson). Lancelot and Guinevere only act upon feelings that Mordred and Agravain have probably had, which is why the latter are so enraged. Mordred and Agravain’s resentment and hypocrisy are important catalysts to the fall of the Round Table.
Arthur plays a part in his own Round Table’s destruction as well. Arthur is consumed by his concerns with his kingdom and is less interested in his personal affairs with his wife. After the battle over Guinevere’s adultery, Arthur says, “I am sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enough” (Malory 446). To Arthur, the fraternity between the knights and Arthur is sacred, politically important, and a chief priority. Queens exist for procreation, are replaceable and expendable, and therefore are less important. Brewer explains that Arthur is so wrapped up with his concern for “public virtues and necessities, that he neglects private virtues and necessities” (28). Arthur’s treatment of Guinevere may be the reason for Guinevere’s adultery, which means that Arthur has played a part in bringing about the destruction of the Round Table. Also, Arthur behaves naively in allowing himself to be manipulated by his scheming, vengeful knights. Arthur allows the fairly private matter of the adultery to become a war. On his own, Arthur is unwilling to jeopardize his knights to confirm Guinevere’s affair. He has “a deeming” that she is having a relationship with Lancelot, but is unwilling to pursue the idea further until Mordred and Agravain, two much younger men, make him (Malory 441). Mordred is Arthur’s son, a child compared with Arthur, but Arthur nonetheless allows Mordred to convince him to set Lancelot up with what becomes an ambush of twelve knights. It is not entirely Guinevere’s fault that the Round Table falls. Much of the blame should be placed on Arthur, Mordred, and Agravain. Guinevere’s love for Lancelot could be fairly harmless on its own.
At moments when Guinevere can be misunderstood as being unreasonable or “exasperating,” she is sometimes making a decision that is reasonable in the relevant circumstances (Malory 19). One of these instances happens when Agravain and Mordred’s men try to force their way into Guinevere’s chamber to attack her and Lancelot. Guinevere and Lancelot argue to decide who should stay and be attacked and who should try to escape. Out of honorable love, both are willing to sacrifice their own life. After Lancelot kills one of the other knights, Guinevere finally says, “ye have done so much harm, it will be best that ye hold you still with this. And…then may ye rescue me as ye think best” (Malory 444). Guinevere means that Lancelot should leave because he has already killed many knights and it will be worse for him if the knights catch him now. She then requests that he rescue her later, which can be seen as too much to ask for. However, in this world in which knights, especially Lancelot, are like superheroes and frequently make daring rescues, Guinevere’s request is fairly reasonable. Gawain describes Lancelot’s talent in battle and proven ability to rescue people from dangerous situations. When Mordred and Agravain try to rally Gawain against Lancelot, Gawain says:
Ye must remember how often times Sir Lancelot hath rescued the King and Queen…Sir Lancelot…rescued me from King Carados…and slew him and saved my life. Also, brother…Sir Lancelot rescued you both and three score and two from Sir Tarquin. (Malory 440).
Lancelot has rescued many people from many dangers and he does not seem to bat an eye when Guinevere asks him to rescue her. Lancelot’s response to her request is “I will well…for have ye no doubt while I am a man living I shall rescue you” (Malory 444). Guinevere finds a way out of the ambush that will enable both her and Lancelot to survive. If Lancelot, seen as a murderer now, went out to the surviving members of Arthur’s court, he would probably be killed. Guinevere will certainly be sentenced to death, but Lancelot will be available to save her, a deed he is shown as having no difficulty doing in this fictitious world. Guinevere has made a reasonable decision in giving herself over, letting Lancelot go free, and expecting Lancelot to rescue her.
Guinevere’s supposedly harsh requests of Lancelot are sometimes also politically savvy. Unlike Arthur, Guinevere “balances her personal concerns with political responsibilities” (Hodges 57). For example, after Arthur’s death and the fall of the Round Table, when Lancelot expects that he and Guinevere can get married, Guinevere’s answer is sensitive to the political climate and influenced by the loss of Arthur and his court. Guinevere says she will not marry Lancelot or even see him partially out of guilt. She says no also because saying yes, pretending as if she did not help destroy the Round Table, and attempting to live a normal, married life with Lancelot would be distasteful in the public’s eyes and perhaps dangerous for Lancelot and Guinevere. Guinevere tells Lancelot, “I am set in such a plight to get my soul healed…through ye and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed” (Malory 152). Guinevere wants to repent for their adultery and is very careful of what she does because she has just damaged a monarchy. As a Roman Catholic, Guinevere believes she must repent her sins to save her soul. Guinevere’s becoming a nun inspires Lancelot to become a monk and repent as well. Lancelot says, “the self destiny that ye have taken you to, I will take me to” (Malory 152). Guinevere’s decision to reject Lancelot benefits them both politically and spiritually. Guinevere balances her political concerns with her concern for her soul and the soul of her lover.
Guinevere is a flawed heroine, who is a good lover and an intelligent queen. When Guinevere appears to make rash, selfish, or unreasonable decisions, she often has her love for Lancelot and others’ political ambitions in mind. Geraldine Heng says of the Arthurian legends that “at the limit of the masculine narrative – in repeating moments where masculine command slips and misses – appear the sedimentations of female desire” (501). At moments in which Lancelot’s heroism or the knights’ affinities are unable to do their job of maintaining unity, Guinevere is often the driving force that maintains order or allows survival. Her love for Lancelot is not necessarily inherently dangerous to Arthur. For many years, Guinevere has her affair and remains largely a dutiful queen.