Gainor, Gainovere, Ganora, Gaynor, Gaynore, Genever, Genievre, Genoyre, Ginevra, Ginover, Gonnore, Guanhumara, Guendoloena, Gueneour, Gueneuora, Guenevera, Guenevere, Guenhumara, Guenievre, Guenivere, Guenloie, Guenore, Guinevere, Guenoivre, Guineure, Guinievre, Gunnore, Gveneoure, Gvenour, Gwendoloena, Gwenhumare, Gwenhwfar, Gwenhwyfar, Gwenhwyvar, Gwennor, Gwenore, Gwinore, Gyennevre, Jennifer, Jenover, Ntzenebra, Vanora, Vanour, Velivera, Wander, Wanore, Waynor, Wenneveria, Zenevra, Zenibra, Zinevra
King Arthur’s wife, Queen of Britain.
Background of Guenevere/Guienevere | Guenevere’s Children | Becoming a Queen | The Invading Kings | The Flower Bride | Lancelot and Guenevere | The Poisoned Apple | The False Guenevere | Abduction Stories | Guenevere’s Sentence | The Abbess Queen | The Character | Guenevere’s Family and Relations
Guenevere’s heritage varies according to different legends. According to Malory, Guinevere (in Welsh, Gwenhwyvar which means ‘White Phantom’) was the daughter of Leodegrance, King of Cameliard (in Welsh tradition, her father is called Gogrvan or Ocvran, while in Diu Crône he is called King Garlin of Galore). Geoffrey of Monmouth says she was a noble Roman descent and the ward of Duke Cador. Wife of King Arthur. Her adultery with Sir Lancelot causes the downfall of the Fellowship of the Round Table. Two major themes follow Guinevere throughout the development of the Arthurian legend: her infidelity, and her abductions. In many texts, these themes are intertwined, with her rescuer becoming her lover. Chrétien de Troyes, in his Lancelot (C. 1180), is the first to mention her affair with Lancelot, which may have been invented by Marie de Champagne, Chrétien’s patroness. The acceptance of Andreas the Chaplain’s De Amour – which glorified adultery – in Marie’s court may explain Chrétien’s ability to portray Guinevere as both a noble queen and an unfaithful wife. On the other hand, Celtic queens were free to take lovers at their pleasure, and the affair may therefore have a Celtic origin, with the element of tragedy inserted by authors of different sensibilities.
Though her most famous affair is with Lancelot, Guinevere’s earliest lover, as we’ve seen, seems to have been Mordred, with whom she is a willing consipirator in the chronicles. In Marie de France’s Lanval (c. 1170) as well, she is said to have a number of lovers, and she propositions Sir Lanval. In several romances, she fails a variety of chastity tests, suggesting affairs with any number of other knights. In the romance of Yder (c. 1225–50), her infatuation with Yder and his subsequent marriage to a woman named Guenloie (a variation of Guinevere) may indicate an earlier tradition in which Guinevere and Yder were lovers. There is allusion to this tradition in the Folie Tristan of Berne (c. 1190). According to the Vulgate Merlin (c. 1230), she apparently had a dalliance with a knight named Gosengos before her marriage to Arthur.
She was condemned to death by Arthur but rescued by Lancelot and ended her days in nunnery.
In Thelwall’s play The Fairy of the Lake (1801), it is suggested she is the daughter of Vortigern. In some stories, she had a sister named Gwenhwyvach, and a French legend tells of an identical half-sister called Guenevere the False (Genievre), who took her place for a while. In yet another tale, she had a brother called Gotegrin. Wace makes her Mordred’s sister.
In Geoffrey she is of Roman stock, and while Arthur was fighting the Roman war, Mordred abducted her and made himself king. In the later version of the Arthurian story she was the lover of Lancelot. Their intrigue discovered, Lancelot fled and Guenevere was duly sentenced to burning. Lancelot rescued her and war followed between him and Arthur. While Arthur was away, Mordred rebelled. Arthur returned to do battle with him and received his final wound. Guenevere took the veil. However, there are different tales of her end. B. Saklatvala has suggested she was really a Saxon named Winifred, and J. Markale has an opinion that Kay and Gawaine were originally amongst her lovers. Welsh tradition stated that Arthur was married, not to one, but to three Guineveres.
Although she is generally described as childless, a number of authors give her a son named Loholt, whose murder in Perlesvaus leads to her own death. It is also said Loholt was to be the son of Arthur and Lionors (Lyzianor). In Wolfram’s Parzival, she and Arthur have a son named Ilinot who also dies a premature death, and in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, she is the mother of Mordred’s two sons.
The English ballad King Arthur and King Cornwall says that she had a daughter by the king of Cornwall. In the Livre d’Arts, she raises the illegitimate daughter of Sagramore and Senehaut. In Tennyson, she tries to raise an infant girl called Nestling that Arthur and Lancelot found in an eagle’s nest, but the child dies.
Becoming a Queen
She appears first in the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen (c. 1080). The Welsh version of her name, Gwenhwyfar, means ‘white ghost’. A Welsh Triad says that Arthur had three wives of this name – the daughters of Cywyrd, Gwythyr, and Gogfran – which may have inspired the French tradition of the True and False Guineveres (Genievre). (The cross discovered at ‘Arthur’s Grave’ in Glastonbury identifes Guinevere as his second wife.) Another Triad calls her one of the ‘faithless wives’ of the Isle of Britain. A third Triad talks of an episode in which Mordred visited Arthur’s court and beat Gwenhwyfar, and a fourth says that the battle of Camlann (Arthur’s last battle) somehow began over a feud between Gwenhwyfar and her sister, Gwenhwyach.
Geoffrey of Monmouth (1138) latinized her name as ‘Guinevere’. He tells little about her, except to say that she was raised in the house of Cador of Cornwall and was ravishingly beautiful. Guinevere and Arthur were married after the Saxon wars. When Mordred revolted against Arthur while Arthur was fighting the Roman War, he took Guinevere as his wife, and Guinevere seemed to be a willing collaborator. Arthur returned, and as the battles between Mordred and Arthur raged, Guinevere fled to Caerleon and took the veil.
The version told by the French prose cycles (c. 1215-1240) and subsequently by Malory (1470) builds on Geoffrey’s account and forms the basis for most modern tales of Guinevere:
Guinevere is the daughter of King Leodegan of Carmelide (Leodegrance). She has an identical half-sister, also named Guinevere, who is the daughter of Leodegan and his seneschal’s wife. The two Guineveres are distinguished only by a crown-shaped birthmark on the legitimate Guinevere’s back.
Merlin has predicted her marriage to Arthur. Arthur first saw Guenevere when he went, with his allies Kings Ban and Bors, to rescue her father King Leodegrance of Cameliard from King Ryons. She presents him with a sword. He falls into trances of rapture whenever he gazes upon her. At first she is amused by his adoration.
When Arthur’s barons insisted he take a wife, he told Merlin:
I love Guenever the king's daughter Leodegrance of the land of Cameliard, the which holdeth in his house the Table Round that ye told he had of my father Uther. And this damosel is the most valiant and fairest lady that I know living.
Merlin agreed that she was above all women in beauty and fairness, but warned Arthur that she would fall in love with Lancelot, and that this love would ultimately bring about the King’s downfall. Arthur’s heart was set and once he was firmly established on the throne, and despite Merlin’s warnings, Arthur chose Guenevere, to become his wife. Finally Merlin went to King Leodegrance to tell him that Arthur wanted his daughter for his wife.
Naturally, King Leodegrance was overjoyed and immediately gave his consent, adding that he would send a gift to Arthur that would be far more pleasing than any land, for Arthur already had land enough. Instead he sent the Round Table, given to him by Uther, which was capable of seating 150 knights, along with a company of 100 of the most noble knights in his realm. Arthur was already delighted with this gift and, while he made preparations for the coming wedding, he dispatched Merlin to find another fifty knights to complete the company, that would become known as the Knights of the Round Table. When Merlin returned from his mission, there was but one remaining place to be filled, the Siege Perilous.
As the knights assembled in Camelot for the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table had their duties set out for them by Arthur. He charged them never to commit murder or treason, never to be cruel, never to enter into battle for a wrongful reason whatever the reward, but ever to grant mercy when it was asked for, and ever to help ladies, whether gentlewomen or damsels, whenver help was needed. Every knight was sworn to this oath, and every year at Pentecost they returned to Camelot to reaffirm it.
On their wedding knight, enemies of Leodegan attempt to kidnap Guinevere and substitute Guinevere’s half-sister in Arthur’s bed, but Arthur’s knights foil the plan.
Guinevere forms her own body of knights called the Queen’s Knights, whose ranks include Gawain, Yvain, and other young warriors. After Lancelot ends Arthur’s war with Galehaut, Galehaut brings about a meeting between Lancelot and Guinevere, and Lancelot confesses his love. Guinevere rewards him with a kiss.
Saxons invade Britain and Arthur opposes them at Saxon Rock. Guinevere goes with him. Lancelot also arrives. One night, while Arthur is sleeping with Gamille (Camille), a Saxon enchantress, Lancelot visits Guinevere’s chambers and their affair begins.
The Invading Kings
When Arthur prepared to go and meet the five invading kings of Denmark, Ireland, the Vale, Soleise, and the Isle of Longtains, he took Guenevere along on the campaign, saying that she would cause him “to be more hardy” and promising to keep her safe. While they were camped beside the Humber, the invading kings attacked by night. Arthur, Kay, Gawaine, and Griflet tried to get the Queen over the Humber River to safety, but
the water was so rough that they were afraid to pass over. Now may ye choose, said King Arthur, whether ye will abide and take the adventure on this side, for an ye be taken they will slay you. It were me liefer, said the queen, to die in the water than fall in your enemies' hands and there be slain.
At Kay’s urging and example, the four men slew the five invading kings who were bearing down on them, for which Guenevere praised Kay greatly and promised to bear his fame among the ladies.
Malory records that Guenevere “made great sorrow … and swooned” at the departure of her husband and his men for their continental war with the Emperor Lucius, and that she came to meet him at Sandwich on his return.
The Flower Bride
In Gawaine and the Green Knight, it is stated the reason Morgan le Fay sent the Green Knight to Camelot was to frighten Guenevere. One reason given was because of an old rivalry, dating back to the beginning of Arthur’s reign when Guenevere had banished one of Morgan’s lovers from court.
Another reason is the representation of Guenevere and Morgan as two goddesses of very different aspect. Morgan, as her origin in the figure of Morrighan indicates, is a dark goddess and represents the powerful qualities of winter and warfare. On the other hand, Guenevere is called the Flower Bride, representing spring and the unfolding of life. As such, these two women are constantly in opposition. Lancelot, Guenevere’s champion, becomes the bitter foe of Gawaine, who is Knight of the Goddess – Morgan’s champion.
As the Flower Bride, myth calls for Guenevere to be stolen away by one of her suitors and then to be rescued by another representing shifting polarities with the change of seasons. An example of this role is told in the Life of Gildas, by Caradoc of Llancarfan. In this text, Melwas of the Summer Country carried off Guenevere and she was then rescued by Arthur. The abduction scene reappears in several stories where the kidnapper is Meliagraunce (Meleagaunce), a knight desirous of Guenevere. In this tale, the rescuer is Lancelot rather than Arthur.
Lancelot and Guenevere
Early versions of the Arthurian legends makes no mention of the famous love affair between her and Lancelot, and instead give the reason for Arthur’s absence, leaving Mordred the chance to seize the throne and Guinevere, as Arthur’s campaign against the Roman Empire. It is the later version of the legends that most are familiar with, and in these she is the mistress of Lancelot.
Lancelot was a latecomer to the Knights of the Round Table, and, almost immediately after his arrival, it became clear that he was attracted to Guenevere, and she likewise. In clandestine meetings they affirmed their love, but, even though other members of the court knew of the affair, Arthur would hear nothing against his queen unless proof could be given to him.
As Arthur had his Knights of the Round Table, Guenevere had her own company, the Queen’s Knights, who carried white shields; at first, the Queen’s Knights were apparently made up of youthful aspirants to the Table, but eventually there seems to have been considerable overlapping in the membership of the two companies. Malory is unclear on when and how Guenevere and Lancelot slew Turquine and Peris de Forest Savage, gossip was already hot enough that the damsel who guided the great knight to Peris could mention it to his face, while by the time Tristram and La Beale Isoud gave in to their passion, the relationship was sufficiently established and known that Isoud could send Palomides to Arthur’s court charging him
there recommended me unto Queen Guenever, and tell her that I send her word that there be within this land but four lovers, that is, Sir Launcelot du Lake and Queen Guenever, and Sir Tristram de Liones and Queen Isoud.
Perhaps Guenevere shows to her worst advantage in this long, stormy love affair. Lancelot called forth her jealosy in a way that Arthur seems never to have done (although, ironically, Arthur probably deserved her jealosy more, Lancelot being drawn into side affairs and appearances of affairs through trickery and misfortune).
She accepted Lancelot’s explanation of the engendering of Galahad and forgave him, but later, when Elaine of Carbonek tricked Lancelot into her bed at Arthur’s court itself, within earshot of Guenevere’s own room, the Queen’s rather understandable fury drove Lancelot mad. While he wandered out of his wits she spared no expense to find him, financing the knights who went out searching, so that when Percivale and Ector de Maris finally found him at Joyous Isle, Percivale could say that “I was sent by the queen for to seek you”.
The affair seems to have become even more tempestuous after the Grail Quest. Lancelot quickly forgot the vow he had made during the holy adventures to break it off with Guenevere – Malory’s wording seems to put the responsibility for the resumption of the affair more on Lancelot than on the Queen – but he also became more careless about secrecy. When he realized the scandal they were causing and began championing as many ladies and damsels as possible to throw the gossips off the scent, Guenevere waxed angry and jealous again, speaking to him so hotly that he followed his cousin Bors’ advice and left court again, hiding with the hermit Sir Brasias at Windsor until the Queen should repent her words and want him back.
The Poisoned Apple
It was at this time that Guenevere held a “privy dinner” for twenty-four other knights of the Round Table, to show that she took joy in all of them. The knight named Avarlan tries to arrange for Gawain to eat some poisoned fruit, but Guenevere innocently gives the fruit to Gaheris of Carahew (or Sir Patrise of Ireland) instead, and he dies. Gaheris’ brother, Mador of the Gate, accuses Guenevere of murder.
Guenevere was accused of the crime, reproached by Arthur himself for being unable to keep Lancelot at hand when she needed him, and driven to beg Sir Bors to champion her in Lancelot’s place. Meanwhile, the body of the maiden of Escalot arrives at Camelot in a boat, and Guinevere learns that Lancelot did not love her. Lancelot were secretly informed of the situation by Bors, and he laid low and let Guenevere stew, not showing up until the very last minute, in time to defend Guinevere against the charge. He exonerates her, and the lovers are reconciled.
Shortly after this incident, Lancelot tried to stay in London with the Queen while the rest of the court went to Winchester for a great tournament. This time Guenevere told Lancelot to leave her and attend the tournament, lest their enemies use the occasion for further scandal. Lancelot said:
Madam, I allow your wit, it is of late come since ye were wise.
Somewhat illogically, after accepting Guenevere’s reasoning, he went to Winchester in disguise, and his wearing of the favor of Elaine of Astolat in the lists led to another jealous rift, which was not quite healed until Elaine’s death bore testimony to Lancelot’s avoidance of sexual entanglement with her.
In justice, Guenevere seems genuinely to have pitied the dead Elaine. She also prudently insisted that from now on Lancelot wear her favour in tournament, to avoid such injury as he sustained at Winchester when his kinsmen, not knowing him, ganged up on him.
The False Guenevere
In one tale, the False Guenevere takes Gueneveres place while she takes refuge with Lancelot in Sorelois. The False Guenevere and her champion Bertholai finally admit their deception and after the False Guenevere’s death, the true Guenevere is restored to Arthur. By this time, Guenevere and Lancelot are irrevocably in love and Lancelot’s struggle with his conscience keeps him away from Camelot pursuing quests.
Just when Guenevere and Lancelot came to the decision to end their affair for the good of the kingdom, Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, in the company of twelve other knights, captured them in the queen’s chamber, but Lancelot, even though unarmed, managed to fight his way to freedom, killing all but one of the knights who sought to capture him.
Reluctantly Arthur tried his Queen and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake. Lancelot rescued her from the pyre and championed her cause in combat, thus earning her pardon. In this action he killed Gareth and Gaheris, Gawaine’s brothers. Lancelot then exiled himself. Arthur was full prepared to travel to France to make his peace with Lancelot, but he took the advice of Mordred and instead went to war against his old friend.
While Arthur was away fighting Lancelot, Mordred declared his father dead and proclaimed himself king and announced Guenevere will become his wife. She consented to the forthcoming marriage, and, with Mordred’s approval, travelled to London to buy all manner of things for the wedding. When there, she laid in supplies for the long siege and locked herself away within the Tower of London.
Even the earliest Arthurian bards seem to have attached an abduction story to Guinevere. Such a tale is represented on an cathedral archivolt in Modena, Italy (c. 1135): Guinevere is abducted by Carados of the Dolorous Tower, who gives her to Mardoc, his master. Arthur gathers his knights and mounts a rescue, and it appears to be Gawain who successfully retrieves the queen, though Yder is also present. Another depiction appears in Caradoc of Llancarfan’s The Life of St. Gildas (c. 1130), where Guinevere’s kidnapper is King Melwas of the Summer Region (probably the origin of Meleagant (Meleagaunce). Although Arthur (presented in the tale as a tyrant) rouses warriors from Devon and Cornwall to pursue, it is the Abbott of Glastonbury and St. Gildas who shrewdly win her freedom.
In Ulrich’s Lanzelet (c. 1200), Guinevere’s abductor is King Valerin of the Tangled Wood. Valerin had lost, in combat against Lancelot, a claim that Guinevere should be his because of a promise of marriage made when Guinevere was a girl. Unsatisfied with his loss, Valerin kidnapped Guinevere and hauled her back to his fortress of the Tangled Wood. Arthur besieged the magic fortress – an effort that proved futile until he enlisted the aid of the wizard Malduc, who destroyed the palace’s defenses and allowed Arthur and his knights to seize the castle. Guinevere’s son Loüt (Loholt) played an important role in the rescue.
Heinrich von dem Türlin (c. 1230) presents an interesting abduction tale: Gasozein of Dragoz arrives at Arthur’s court claming that Guinevere is actually his wife. Guinevere refutes his claim, but her brother Gotegrin believes her wrong and kidnaps her, intending to kill her for her wickedness. Gasozein rescues her, but then kidnaps her himself and tries to rape her. She is finally saved by Gawain, who forces Gasozein to confess the falseness of his claim.
In Durmart le Gallois, she is kidnapped by Brun of Morrois and rescued by Durmart. Finally, in the Livre d’Artus (c. 1240), she is kidnapped and briefly held by King Urien during the war between Arthur and the rebellious kings.
Guenevere shows to better advantage in the adventure of Sir Meliagrant. Meliagrant and his men ambushed Guenevere and her party while they were out a-Maying, she kept her head; seeing her ten unarmored knights outnumbered, defeated, and wounded, she surrendered rather than let them be slain, even calling on the four who were still on their feet to leave off fighting, since it was hopeless. She managed, however, to slip her ring to a child of her chamber and send him back to Lancelot. Meliagrant took the Queen to his castle in Gorre, where Bagdemagus, Meleagant’s father, prevents Guinevere from being mistreated.
When Lancelot arrived and cowed Meliagrant, Guenevere seems to have promoted the cause of peace and truce, though she prudently insisted that, as long as they remained in Meliagrant’s castle, her wounded knights should be put in her own chamber so that she could be sure they received the best treatment. Lancelot came to her at the garden window that night, injured his hands in pulling out the window bars to get in, and so left blood in her bed, giving Meliagrant the chance to accuse her of lying with Kay, who is wounded and sleeping in the queen’s outer room. Again Lancelot had to fight her trial by combat to save her from burning, and this time she
wagged her head ... as though she would say: Slay [Meliagrant],
which may have been more prudence than bloodthirstiness and was certainly understandable, all things considered.
Lancelot enters the tournament at Pomeglai (Pomelegloi), and Guinevere is present. To test his love, she tells him to act like a coward, and he does. At Arthur’s court, Lancelot kills Meleagant. In a later adventure, it appears that Lancelot is dead, and Guinevere is heartbroken. She rejoices when she learns he is alive.
When cornered at last together in the Castle of Carlisle by Mordred, Agravain, and their dozen knights, Lancelot offered, after slaying thirteen of the attackers and driving Mordred away wounded, to take Guenevere with him at once to safety. She, however, refused to go, probably hoping that the good of the court might yet be salvaged, telling him only that if he saw they would burn her, then he might rescue her as he thought best.
Most modern versions depict Arthur as being forced with a heavy heart to bow to the righteousness of the law in sentencing Guenevere, but a close reading of Malory and Vulgate version gives the impression of what might be called a kangaroo court, save that the King himself was presiding, with Arthur seeming to rejoice in the law (though it is just possible his rage was less for Guenevere’s inconstancy than for the deaths of his thirteen knights) and hotly refusing Gawain’s plea to allow Lancelot to fight a trial by combat yet again and prove their innocence – which would, of course, have averted the final catastrophe.
Indeed, Arthur apparently forbade any trial by combat at all and, far from hoping that Lancelot would come to the rescue, as in T.H. White’s version, seems to have tried to burn her at once, before Lancelot got his chance. Guenevere probably never knew that even Lancelot had seemed to falter a little in his resolve to save her: talking the matter over with his kinsmen, he said
and this night because my lady the queen sent for me ... I suppose it was made by treason, howbeit I dare largely excuse her person, notwithstanding I was there by a forecast near slain.
The Abbess Queen
Despite Arthur’s attempt to burn her, she returned to him and showed herself a loyal wife and prudent queen while he was overseas besieging Lancelot. She was not taken in by Mordred’s forged letters purporting that Arthur was dead, but she pretended to agree to marry Mordred, thus getting him to let her go to London, supposedly to buy what she wanted for the wedding, actually to barricade herself well in the Tower of London with men and provisions.
When Mordred laid siege to the Tower she answered him
that she had liefer slay herself than to be married with him.
News of Mordred’s treachery reached Arthur and he returned home, landing at Richborough, where he defeated Mordred. Giving chase, he fought and again defeated Mordred at Winchester, before the forces gathered at Camlann for the fatal last encounter. Mordred was killed, and Arthur received a mortal wound.
Learning at last of Arthur’s actual death (or “passing”), Guenevere “stole away” with five of her ladies to Almesbury, where she became a “nun in white clothes and black”, and lived in great penance, “fasting, prayers, and alms-deeds”, “and never creature could make her merry”, which last must have been especially severe, as Malory elsewhere shows her possessed of a keen sense of humor and fun. She became Abbess.
Lancelot landed within the month at Dover and, though too late to save Arthur, he was determined to see Guenevere once more. For seven days he was on the road and on the eigth he came to a nunnery. As he entered the cloisters, a nun dressed in black and white saw him and swooned, for it was Guenevere. When she had recovered, they talked for a while, and once Lancelot saw that she had taken to a life of penance, he said, remembering his broken resolutions of the Grail Adventures:
And therefore, lady, sithen ye have taken you to perfection, I must needs take me to perfection, of right.
Taking his leave of Guenevere, he rode to Glastonbury and there took the monk’s habit. Many years later a vision charged Lancelot to ride as fast as he could to Amesbury. This he did, but he was too late, for Guenevere had died not half an hour earlier. Without Guenevere, Lancelot could not eat nor drink. Within six weeks he too was dead. Guenevere’s body was taken from the nunnery and laid to rest beside that of Arthur. Another version says he and eight companions went on foot from Glastonbury to Almesbury to bring back her body for burial.
A different tale according to Perlesvaus says she died in Arthur’s lifetime, while Boece says she died as a prisoner of the Picts. At her death, she was laid to rest beside Arthur.
In 1191, during restoration work at Glastonbury, the monks of the abbey reported that they had uncovered the grave of Arthur and Guenevere. Their bodies were subsequently reinterred in front of the high altar within the abbey. This find, politically astute for the time, led to the association of Glastonbury with Avalon, but whether or not the bones uncovered were actually those of Arthur and his Queen remains in doubt.
There are obviously many variations on this story. Guenevere’s death is just one point of contention. In Perlesvaus she was said to have died during Arthur’s lifetime, while Boece stated that she ended her days as a prisoner of the Picts. She was said to have had a son by Arthur, Loholt, though that same character was also said to have been the son of Arthur and Lionors (Lyzianor), and the Alliterative Morte Arthure averred that she and Mordred were the parents of two sons. Gawain and Kay were also said to have numbered among her lovers, and Welsh tradition states that she is not just one character but rather three, all having the same name and all, at one stage or another, married to Arthur.
Guenevere is very definitely Celtic in origin, but the main problem lies in determining from whome she originated. She may simply have been a local Welsh maiden who married a local king, their story becoming expanded and enlarged over the years into the Arthurian legends known and loved today.
Malory does not show, except perhaps between the lines, as in the number of cases of conquered knights being sent to her and in her presiding at Duke Galeholt’s tournament in Surluse (Sorelois) when Arthur himself was unable to attend, how good a queen Guenevere was, that part of her character being overshadowed by her affair with Lancelot.
The Vulgate, which calls her, after Elaine of Carbonek, the wisest woman who ever lived, throws more light on this and other points. That she was an excellent day-to-day administratress is evidenced by how greatly the affairs of the kingdom slipped while Arthur banished her for two and a half years to live in infatuation with her look-alike, Genievre, giving knights, court, and common people much cause to yearn for their wise and generous true Queen.
Guenevere was understandably reluctant to return to Arthur after Genievre’s death, for, as she said, he had in effect dissolved her marriage by condemning her to death in this case, and she was well content in Surluse with a man who would make her a much better husband. Except for Elaine of Carbonek (whom she made some attempt to accept) and Elaine of Astolat, whom she did not meet alive and grieved for dead, she seems to have befriended all women, even accepting Amable as Lancelot’s platonic lady love.
She seems to have inspired more than common devotion in Gawaine, who lent Lancelot Excalibur when he fought to save her from Arthur’s sentence in the Genievre episode, and in Kay, who openly envied Lancelot his position as her champion.
In Malory Book VI, chapter 10, an unnamed damsel remarks to Lancelot:
It is noised that ye love Queen Guenevere, and that she hath ordained by enchantment that ye shall love none other but her.
This is the only hint I remember reading that Guenevere may have dabbled in magic; I think this evidence either comes under the heading of gossip and metaphor, or that it reflects some confusion with Lancelot’s mentor Viviane, the French Damsel of the Lake, who according to the Vulgate largely engineered the affair (with a bit of intriguing assistanse from Duke Galeholt and the Lady of Malahaut).
A Middle English romance, The Adventures at Tarn Wadling, currently available in Louis Hall’s Knightly Tales of Sir Gawaine, describes an interesting meeting of Guenevere with her moster’s ghost. The ghost describes her penitential suffering, the sins – especially pride – that led to it and the virtues that would have helped her avoid it, asks Masses for her salvation, and warns against Arthur’s greed as the cause of his future downfall. The description of the ghost’s appearance would stir professional jealousy in the heart of any monster-movie makeup artist; nevertheless, Guenevere has Gawaine at her side and, after her initial fright, questions the spirit bravely and compassionately, afterward ordering a million Masses for her.
Guenevere had gray eyes and more than one commentator has remarked that the root of her name means “white”, suggesting a pale complexion and very fair blond hair. According to the Vulgate, she was also the best chess player of Arthur’s court.
Chrétien de Troyes, while emphasizing Arthur’s generosity as a shining and royal virtue, did not neglect to show Arthur’s queen as possessed with a goodly share of the same virtue, along with graciousness and wisdom. Consider, for example, the rich garments she gives Enide for the asking and the wise counsel she offers Alexander and Soredamors after divining their unvoiced lovesickness for each other. In ‘Perceval‘, Gawaine devotes his golden tounge to about twenty-six lines in eloquent praise of Guenevere. [He does not yet know that the venerable queen inquiring about Arthur’s wife is Arthur’s mother.]
It has been argued Guenevere is a mythical figure representing the sovereignty of Britain over which contenders fight. In this respect she is a figure similar to Eriu, the goddess of the sovereignty of Ireland. C. Matthews contends that this interpretation is supported by the legend of three Gueneveres married to Arthur, saying these are not three separate persons but a single triune goddess. J. Matthews contends that Guenevere and Morgan are like two sides of a coin, the beneficent and maleficent aspects of sovereignty. Efforts to connect Guenevere with Findabair, daughter of the Irish goddess Maeve, have not proven successful. As well as the Flower Bride, Guenevere represents the Sorrowful Queen or the Wounded Lady who suffers the burden of evil acts carried out in ignorance of love in Arthur’s kingdom.
Guenevere was very susceptible to being abducted and it has been suggested that her story is a parallel of the Irish story of Midir and Etain. In t his, Etain was once an otherwordly bride of Midir but she retains no memory of this fact and is now married to an Irish king. Midir turns up to lure her back to the Otherword. Similarly, it is said, Guenevere’s abductor, be he Meleagaunce or Lancelot, Gasozein or Valerin, is merely taking her back to the Otherworld whence she came.
Queen Guenevere’s Family and Relations
See above under Guenevere’s Children
Agravain | The Legend of King Arthur
Arthur’s Grave | The Legend of King Arthur
Avalon | The Legend of King Arthur
Dolorous Tower | The Legend of King Arthur
Guenloie | The Legend of King Arthur
Lancelot | The Legend of King Arthur
Meleagaunce | The Legend of King Arthur
Melwas | The Legend of King Arthur
Mordred | The Legend of King Arthur
Queen’s Knights | The Legend of King Arthur
Wadling Lake | The Legend of King Arthur
Culhwch and Olwen | Late 11th century
Vita Gildae | Caradoc of Llancarfan, c. 1130
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Erec | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Lancelot, or Le Chevalier de la Charrete | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Lanzelet | Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, c. 1200
Perlesvaus | Early 13th century
La Folie Tristan de Berne | Late 12th century
Parzival | Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1200–1210
Brut | Layamon, late 12th century to mid-13th century
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1215-1230
Vulgate Mort Artu | 1215-1230
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Le Livre d’Artus | Early 13th century
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Mort Artu | 1230-1240
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
De Ortu Waluuanii Nepotis Arturi | Late 13th century
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Ly Myreur des Histors | Jean D’Outremeuse, c. 1350
The Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur | 14th century
Sir Launfal | Thomas Chestre, late 14th century
The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn | Late 14th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
”King Arthur and King Cornwall” | 16th century&C
Scotorum Historiae | Hector Boece, 1527
The Misfortunes of Arthur | Thomas Hughes, 1587
The Fairy of the Lake | John Thelwall, 1801
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886