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Lancelot And Guinevere Essay Typer

Three Faces of Queen Guinevere

A Comparison of Attitudes in Medieval and Victorian Texts[1]

Arthurian legend is in a constant state of metamorphosis, with the focus of interpreters and their audiences shifting significantly over generations. Medieval Arthurian works generally focus on members of the knighthood, and King Arthur himself, although their choice of main protagonist certainly varies greatly.[2] Characters like Merlin and Queen Guinevere[3] are often comparatively incidental to the plotlines of medieval stories. Unsurprisingly, the twentieth century has seen a shift of attention onto Arthurian characters who are generally neglected, or portrayed as rather insignificant, by medieval writers.[4] Yet even in the nineteenth century, interpreters' attention shifted from traditionally popular characters onto relatively unexplored ones. A character who was suddenly put under close scrutiny in the Victorian era is Queen Guinevere, who had often played a necessary role in medieval texts, including Le Morte Darthur, but had never received the degree of attention that Victorian writers gave her. The nineteenth-century poems, Guinevere (Alfred Tennyson) and The Defence of Guenevere (William Morris),[5] represent either extreme in portrayals of the Arthurian queen, and each describes a character very different from Malory's Queen Guenivere. The new faces of Guinevere epitomise sinfulness and worthiness respectively, and in each of these categories, the queen far exceeds her old Malorian self.

Le Morte Darthur focuses largely on male characters, particularly knights and the King, but Queen Guenivere is a substantial character. In Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenivere, the queen is a somewhat forceful character, with a temper that puts her "nigh out of her mind for wrath" when she believes Lancelot has betrayed her.[6] While she initially seems cruel and quick to judge, this behaviour is necessary in helping Lancelot pass the test of knighthood. Guenivere's unfair treatment of him—she repeatedly blames him when he is quite blameless—helps to ensure that he is known as "the best knight in the world".[7] While Guenivere's presence is certainly required, she does not possess the destructive (although uncontrolled) power of Tennyson's Guinevere.[8] Nor is she endowed with the impressive voice of Morris' Queen Guenevere. She has been described as "politically shrewd, cheerfully energetic, and self-respecting", as well as "routinely self-protective and resilient under stress". Her personality, while forceful, does not earn her the right to speak in order to divulge her opinion. She does not have a great deal of significance in her own right, although she commands a degree of respect.

The two nineteenth-century poems give Guinevere greater significance merely by being dedicated entirely to her. The manner in which each poet portrays the queen does, however, differ markedly. Tennyson paints a stereotypically weak figure who also possesses the destructive potential passed down, according to tradition, from Eve.[9] Guinevere is not the only female whose sinful character is emphasised in the Idylls. The classic femme fatale is "the wily Vivien", who tricks Merlin into revealing a magic charm, and then traps him with it.[10] The queen is not quite as sinful as Vivien, yet her crime leads to the collapse of the Round Table. Vivien's actions never had such terrible consequences. Only at the end of the poem does Guinevere realise that she should have loved Arthur, that "selfless man and stainless gentleman".[11] By now it is too late, and Arthur rides off to confront Mordred and his own death. Tennyson's need to portray Arthur as ridiculously pure requires that deny Arthur's part in the parentage of Mordred.[12] Beside this man, Guinevere seems especially sinful, although she never intended to bring about the fall of the Round Table. It seems she had little control over her own actions and, succumbing to her feminine weakness, made a regrettable decision.

Morris' The Defence of Guenevere covers a short space of time in which Guenevere is able to articulate at length in her own defence. During her monologue she initially admits her liability in the disaster that has befallen, but moving on to boldly attest her innocence of the charge laid against her by Sir Gauwaine. At first glance, Morris' Guenevere seems incredibly liberated, for she is allowed to speak on her own behalf. Contemporary audiences sympathise greatly with this confident and eloquent queen, who in the face of adversity:

            …Still…stood right up, and never shrunk,

            But spoke on bravely, glorious lady fair![13]

In fact, "compared with other adulterous women in English poetry of the 1850's… Guenevere is…a virtual paragon of beneficent self-determination."[14] Of course, in many ways Malory's Guenivere, whose temper is something to be wary of, seems more powerful than Morris' passionate queen. Guenivere does not possess a voice to rival Guenevere's, but the latter seems to have little to occupy her life beyond her ties to the two main male characters, Arthur and Lancelot.[15] Even so, Guenevere speaks and readers listen; her passion and confidence win the admiration of current readership seeking a liberated heroine. Victorian men may not as a rule have appreciated Morris' portrayal of the Arthurian queen, but it must have come as a refreshing change to many nineteenth-century women.[16]

We must consider each writer's treatment of the act of adultery in order to evaluate attitudes towards Guinevere in the texts. Unsurprisingly, each writer focuses closely on the adultery, none denying that Guinevere is guilty as charged. Yet their condemnations vary greatly in nature, for the adultery has varying significance in each work. In Malory, the queen and Lancelot are clearly guilty of adultery, but not of initiating the fall of the Round Table. At the end of the book Malory writes, "and here I go unto the morte Arthur, and that caused Sir Agravain",[17] thereby placing the blame entirely on Agravain's (and later Mordred's) shoulders and absolving Lancelot and Guenivere from all culpability. Malory emphasises his respect for the queen at the end of book XVIII, when he writes that "while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end."[18] The inclusion of the story of Tristram and Isode in The Death of Arthur also encourages readers to sympathise with Guenivere and Lancelot. King Mark is depicted as a reprehensible "false traitor". The reference to the Tristram story emphasises not the sin of adultery but the cruel treatment of the sinners by the third member of the love triangle, Mark. The point is not to suggest that Arthur, as the third member of a triangle, might act in a similar fashion to Mark, but to frown excessive maltreatment of the lovers.[19]

Tennyson's Guinevere does not receive anything like the praise that Malory gives Guenivere, although in Merlin and Vivien she is portrayed as very worthy, if only beside Vivien. Tennyson's objective here is evidently to highlight the absolute evil of Vivien by contrasting her with a somewhat worthier woman.[20] A comparison of Tennyson's work with Malory's (the latter mentions Nenive, another name for Vivien, in Guenivere and Lancelot) proves the former the greater misogynist.[21] In Guinevere he freely condemns the queen, for although she never comes close to rivalling Vivien, her crime was despicable. She eventually realises that:

…I cannot kill my sin,

If soul be soul, nor can I kill my shame;

No, nor by living can I live it down.[22]

Her only choice, after bringing about such incredible destruction in sin, is to devote the rest of her life wholeheartedly to God. Accordingly, she asks the nuns to accept her and house her there for the rest of her days.[23] The poem ends with a kindly description of the woman Guinevere becomes after years in the nunnery. She is finally rewarded "for her good deeds and her pure life", "and for the power of ministration in her", by being made abbess. According to Tennyson, women can be good, as long as they are closely confined both physically and sexually—a condition of Guinevere's redemption is obviously that she remain chaste—far from the corrupting influence of the outside world.[24]

Morris treats the matter of adultery very differently in his poem. The title, "The Defence of Guenevere", implies that we will see an absolute refutation of the accusations made against the queen, for the crime of adultery cannot be excused, only proven false, by Victorian puritan writers. Even Malory does not excuse the crime, although he does not take it as seriously as Tennyson does.[25] Most scholars read Morris' poem as an admission of guilt on Guenevere's part, at least where the act of adultery is concerned. Near the beginning she declares:

            I have done ill,

            And pray you all forgiveness heartily!

            Because you must be right, such great lords[26]

Yet it has been recognised that the poem does not offer a decisive answer to the question of whether she committed adultery. Boos claims that this reflects the fact that the question of technical innocence may not have mattered much to Morris, who was in fact an anti-puritan.[27] Having confessed, Guenevere proceeds to tell her side of the story, eventually declaring that her main accuser, Sir Gauwaine, is lying, and that God knows she is being truthful. The three such statements throughout Guenevere's monologue do not, it is suggested, constitute a denial of adultery, but a denial of the right of Gauwaine to judge her where only God may judge.[28]

We see that in all three works, Guinevere's "niceness" is evaluated in terms of the degree to which her honour remains intact. As already said, Malory's book presents a queen who is quick to judge, and whose temper is known amongst the knights. These traits are necessary for the testing of knightly chivalry, and this fact as well as Malory's kind words towards her give us reason to forgive her. In The Death of Arthur Lancelot repeatedly defends the queen against accusations of adultery, and while his calling her "true" to Arthur contradicts parts of Lancelot and Guenivere, it still complements Guenivere's defence.[29] In Morris' poem Guenevere retains her dignity, and the crime she has committed is dismissed as quite irrelevant to the matter at hand: that being whether Gauwaine has the right to accuse her. It is made clear that he does not. Tennyson, while conceding that during her time in the nunnery she did good deeds, unequivocally condemns her for her adultery through the mouth of the little maid:

'Yea', said the maid, 'this is all woman's grief,

That she is woman, whose disloyal life

Hath wrought confusion in the Table Round

Which good King Arthur founded, years ago,

With signs and miracles and wonders, there

At Camelot, ere the coming of the Queen.'[30]

Lancelot too is condemned by the maid, who describes him as "the most disloyal friend in all the world",[31] and yet Guinevere, at the centre of the story, is obviously primarily at fault.

The three Guineveres have very real personalities that we can either warm to or turn away from. In other texts, such as the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the queen is rather faceless, and all we know of her is that for Gawain, sitting by her at dinner is an honour. We also know that she is at the apex of Morgan le Fay's evil plans. In Thomas Malory's Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenivere, Guenivere is admirably strong of character, despite grating on readers' nerves at times. She is both sinful and sympathetic.[32] Morris' Guenevere is certainly treated most kindly, but she is constructed as so wonderful that it she is almost too good to be true.[33] In Morris' favour, he does not attempt to make Guenevere as pure a creature as Tennyson's King Arthur. This portrayal of Arthur serves the purpose of converting the matter into black and white: the sinful Guinevere balances the pure and stainless King. Thankfully, the queen is not as sinful as Vivien, and we are left with a sense that there is hope of salvation for her. Beside Le Morte Darthur, the markedly different works of Tennyson and Morris demonstrate that Guinevere was never as sinful or as sympathetic in medieval times as she was in the Victorian nineteenth-century.



Merlin (video recording). Dir. Robert Halm Sr (© 1998).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ed., trans. James Winny) (Broadview Press: Peterborough, 1992).

The Lais of Marie de France (tr. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby) (London: Penguin Books, 1986, 1999).

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon (London: Penguin Books, 1982).

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Morris, William. "The Defence of Guenevere" (1858)

Kramer, Heinrich, and Jacob Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum, (c.1486), trans. Montague Summers (London, 1928, repr. New York, 1971).

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. The Idylls of the King (Signet, 1961), and at


Boos, Florence. "Justice and Vindication in 'The Defence of Guenevere'", in King Arthur Through the Ages (Volume 2) (eds. Valerie M. Lagorio, Mildred Leake Day) (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990).

Benson, Larry D. "The Book of Sir Lancelot and Guenevere", in Malory's More Darthur (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976).

Goodman, Jennifer R. The Legend of Arthur in British and American Literature (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988).

[1] (English 394 KING ARTHUR) By Trisha Farnan; Tutor: Andrew Lynch; Tutorial Time: Wednesday, 12 noon. Written 2001.

[2] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ed., trans. James Winny) (Broadview Press: Peterborough, 1992). Sir Gawain focuses on Gawain, as the title suggests, while no mention is made of other famous knights such as Lancelot and Tristram. Gawain is also presented as a rather different character to the familiarly lecherous knight; Lanval, in The Lais of Marie de France (tr. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby) (London: Penguin Books, 1986, 1999), p.21. Marie's Lanval tells the tale of one Arthurian knight, and aside from "the worthy and courtly" King Arthur, mentioned in the second line, no well-known knights are featured.

[3] The queen's name can be spelt many different ways: Guinevere; Guenevere; Guenivere; Gwenhwyfar. Unless in reference to the versions in the three works, the first form will be used throughout the essay.

[4] Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Mists of Avalon (London: Penguin Books, 1982). Zimmer Bradley makes Morgaine (best known in other literature as Morgan le Fay) the main character in The Mists; Merlin (video recording). Dir. Robert Halm Sr (© 1998). The director of the miniseries Merlin focuses on the programme's namesake at the expense of other familiar protagonists like King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.

[5] William Morris. "The Defence of Guenevere" (1858) . htm; Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Guinevere" (1859), in The Idylls of the King (Signet, 1961), and at

[6] Sir Thomas Malory. Le Morte Darthur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.425.

[7] Ibid., pp.404, 425; Larry D. Benson. "The Book of Sir Lancelot and Guenevere", in Malory's Morte Darthur (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p.233.

[8] Uncontrolled in comparison to that of Vivien, for example, who chooses to take female evil to new levels.

[9] Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum, (c.1486), trans. Montague Summers (London, 1928, repr. New York, 1971), p.47. A description of woman, Eve's descendant, is found here: "And I have found a woman more bitter than death…He that pleaseth God shall escape from her; but he that is a sinner shall be caught by her. More bitter than death, that is, than the devil." This perilous women is more akin to Tennyson's Vivien—though Vivien comes across as a somewhat more attractive character—than she is to Malory's Guenivere, even though the Malleus was composed sixteen years after Le Morte Darthur, and nearly four centuries before the Idylls.

[10] Tennyson. Merlin and Vivien (1859), l.5, 963-9.

[11] Ibid., l.790; Guinevere, l.660. Guinevere realises that "'we needs must love the highest when we see it, not Lancelot, nor another.'"

[12] Ibid. Guinevere, l.572-5. Arthur says, "'…I must strike against the man they call/My sister's son—no kin of mine, who leagues/With Lords of the White Horse, heathen, and knights,/Traitors…'"

[13] Morris, p.2.

[14] Florence Boos. "Justice and Vindication in 'The Defence of Guenevere'", in King Arthur Through the Ages (Volume 2) (eds. Valerie M. Lagorio, Mildred Leake Day) (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990), p.101.

[15] Boos, p.101.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Malory, p.467.

[18] Ibid., p.444.

[19] Ibid., p.477. In fact, as Sir Bors makes clear, "King Arthur and King Mark were never like of conditions, for there was never yet man that ever could prove King Arthur untrue of his promise."

[20] Tennyson. Merlin and Vivien, l.13: Tennyson refers to Guinevere as "the great Queen"; l.86-7: "…the Queen stood/All glittering like May sunshine on May leaves."

[21] Malory, p.414. Malory does not display particularly misogynistic tendencies, although he does stereotype occasionally.

When he mentions the visit by Nenive, the Lady of the Lake, Malory shows great respect for her since she "did great goodness unto King Arthur and to all his knights through her sorcery and enchantments."; Tennyson, l.136-47; Jennifer R. Goodman. The Legend of Arthur in British and American Literature (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988), p.273. Vivien (otherwise known as Morgan le Fay, Nimuë, and Nynyve or Nenive) is the epitome of the femme fatale, spreading poison through Arthur's court in order to encourage dissension.

[22] Tennyson. Guinevere, l.620-3.

[23] Ibid., l.673-87.

[24] Ibid., l.691-2.

[25] Malory, pp.453-5, 458. In fact, he purposefully makes light of it, with Lancelot repeatedly defending Guenivere against the charge that she slept with one of her ten wounded knights. He fails to mention that she did sleep with him.

[26] Morris, p.1.

[27] Boos, p.89.

[28] Morris, pp.1, 5, 10; John Hollow quoted in Boos, p.87.

[29] The Death of Arthur, p.485. "'And therefore, my good and gracious lord,' said Sir Lancelot, 'take your queen unto your good grace, for she is both true and good.'" Also pp.491, 495; Lancelot and Guenivere, p.453. "So, to pass upon this tale, Sir Lancelot went to bed with the Queen and took no force of his hurt hand, but took his pleasance and his liking until it was the dawning of the day".

[30] Tennyson, l.218-23.

[31] Ibid., l.336.

[32] Malory, p.444.

[33] Boos, p.91.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table Essay

1992 Words8 Pages

The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is a story mixed with historical truths and exaggerated fiction. The legend of King Arthur, known as the Arthurian Legend, comes from the Middle Ages and is both fact and fiction. There really was a King Arthur who was king of the Britons. He was a type of military leader who fought Germanic invaders. Many of the Tudor monarchs claimed lineage to King Arthur to justify and prove their right to the throne. Most of the knowledge of Arthur is legend. There is no doubt, though, that stories about him have influenced literature, society, music, and art from the Middle Ages. (King Arthur 1) Arthur was the illegitimate son of King Uther Pendragon and Lady Igraine,…show more content…

Two months later, on Easter, they tried again and still no one could remove the sword. Finally, after another effort they admitted that it must be God's will and so they crowned Arthur King of Camelot until his death. (Macleod, 5-8) Merlin, who influenced Arthur greatly, was said to be a real person. Merlin was the illegitimate son of a nun. Fictionally, many believed he came from an evil father and Merlin was supposed to be the opposite of Jesus Christ, but because he was baptized at an early age, he was not an evil man. Merlin helped Arthur's father gain control of the throne. Merlin is also said to have made Stonehenge as a memorial to four hundred sixty Britons who were murdered at a peace conference. He also used his powers to create the sword in the stone so that Arthur could later become King and prove his ancestry. Merlin created the Lady of the Lake who made Arthur a magical sword called Excalibur. The Lady of the Lake eventually gained so much power that she had more than Merlin and she created herself a son, Lancelot of the Lake (also known as Sir Lancelot). She caused Merlin to fall in love with her because she was scared of being enslaved by him. She imprisoned him in a glass tower. His imprisonment, Merlin believed, was the cause of Arthur's death because Merlin could not be present at a battle in which Arthur was hurt. Merlin felt a lot of grief for what had happened

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