Saturday, July 21, 2012

Queen of Hearts

Legends love problematic queens. Semiramis, Helen of Troy, the endless range of evil stepmothers - their ranks are some of the largest out there. You can see why: the dramatic potential of a woman who stands for an entire country and doesn't do her job by it is fantastic. On one hand, the queen is a powerful symbol; on the other, she's also an imperfect person. And for my money, no problematic queen is more interesting than Guinevere.

The Accolade, Edmund Blair Leighton
For one thing, she embodies that dramatic potential better than anyone else. The other problematic queens really aren't very good at the queen thing. Helen may look great on Menelaus' arm at public festivals, but she also openly and drastically shucks her duty. Semiramis drags Babylon into a war because a hot king turned her down. The jealous stepmother of "The Six Swans" robs her country of every single one of its heirs, just because they're not her kids. Not only are these women troubling, they can't even do their actual job properly.

Not Guinevere. Regardless of what she does behind Arthur's back, she is acknowledged in every version as a paragon among queens for her performance of her duties. She does the arm candy thing at every tournament and Pentecost feast Arthur throws. She hosts Maying parties and leads court excursions. She even (in an ironically Anglo-Saxon move, given who the historical Arthur's enemies were) offers the cup to his knights when they gather. (We'll ignore that one time the cup was poisoned and she was accused of murder. That's not the point.) Guinevere knows what none of the other queens do: her title is a role. She has lines to memorize and marks to hit, and she nails them all, every single time. Even the writers who don't like her (ahem, Tennyson) freely concede that publicly she is everything and more that a queen should be.

Sir Launcelot and the Queen Talked Sadly Together,
Arthur Dixon
Her failures, unlike her fellows', are private and behind the scenes. And also incredibly, heartbreakingly human. It's hard to forgive her for her betrayal of Arthur, but it's also hard to hate her just because she fell in love. And it's not as if (like Helen, say) she jumped headlong into Lancelot's arms. There are versions I've read where their love remains unconsummated, and even unspoken, up through the Grail Quest. Again: this is a woman who knows her duty. She bottles up her passion, confides in no one, and goes the hell on with her life, her job, and her marriage, as best she can and as long as she can. There's no outside divine influence, no heedless snap decision, not even any base motives. She just loves a man she must not love, and she fights it as hard as she can.

But not hard enough. Guinevere is a problematic queen for a reason.

When at last she begins her affair with Lancelot, writer after writer leaps on those problems. The perfect queen who betrays her duty, her husband, and her kingdom presents a stunning piece of hypocrisy. It doesn't help that Guinevere is actually a crucial piece of the lasting legend of Camelot. Arthur the lawgiver creates a kingdom, but it's Guinevere who brings civilization. Arthur only gets the Round Table because it's part of his wife's dowry. Without Guinevere, Camelot would lack its most potent symbol, as well as much of its courtly appeal and chivalric code. So for one of the true backbones of the realm to break faith with its highest aspirations is an act that undermines not only Guinevere personally, but the entire kingdom she represents.

Lancelot and Guinevere, Michael Manomivibul
And Guinevere's character becomes the mirror for that hypocrisy. From the wise and gracious hostess handing out elegant atonement to young Gawain at her wedding feast, she becomes a shrew of the first order, constantly doubting and questioning Lancelot's love. She can never just talk things out like a normal person; instead she picks fights, deliberately choosing her words to wound. Only honest people make clean breasts of their problems; Guinevere's deception bars her emotionally from taking the straightforward and more honorable road. Worse, she sometimes engages in petty jealousy, in a way highly uncharacteristic of the charmer and politician she would have to be in order to foster harmony and civilization.

In one sense, of course she can't be sensible and thoughtful; she is too symbolic a figure not to be identified first and foremost with her position, and her betrayal is too great not to exploit symbolically in literature. But the transformation of Guinevere from angel to harridan is also much too simple. If she's so obnoxious, why did Arthur fall for her? Why does her court mostly like her? There's got to be something else going on, something not symbolic but human.

La Belle Iseult (also called
Queen Guinevere), William Morris
Enter perhaps the oddest knight in shining armor ever: William Morris.*

A would-be painter and a revolutionary craftsman, Morris wrote the first work to present Guinevere not as a symbol of a decaying realm built on a dream and a lie, but as a human woman caught between passion and duty. The Defence of Guenevere imagines her at her trial before Arthur's knights, speaking on her own behalf with eloquence, dignity, and full awareness of herself. Brilliantly, her "defence" rests on that very thing nearly all earlier Arthurian chronicles deny her: total emotional honesty. Having at last found love, she demands to know if she "must...give up forever...that which I deemed would ever round me move, glorifying all things; for a little word, scarce ever meant at all, must I now prove stone-cold for ever?" She describes her agony of conscience, the anguish of love, the delight at its fulfillment and the shame she feels at that delight. She is, at last, open and honest and entirely sympathetic.

Guinevere, Meredith Dillman
But even at her best, she can't win. Because despite her eloquence, and despite the real torment of her soul, she is still a woman both wronged and wronging. Guinevere's archetypal appeal and human fascination are both tied directly to her dual nature: perfection and destruction, love and betrayal, honor and shame. No matter how sympathetic and understandable her motives are, what draws us to her are the contradictions that break Camelot. She is the greatest problematic queen in all of legend: problematic because we understand her and cannot absolve her.

*(Morris, of course, had personal experience with a problematic woman torn between love and duty: his own wife, Jane, one of the great muses of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It's not hard to see where Morris could have drawn from life; but it is moving that he, the cuckolded husband, can summon such vast sympathy for the adulterous wife.)

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