Pete Craft
11/28/2000

Lancelot and Guinevere in Mists of Avalon

 

Origins of Lancelot and Guinevere

Lancelot and Guinevere’s names are almost always linked in modern Arthuriana; originally, however, the two characters developed independently of one another. Before the 12th-century, Guinevere was associated with abduction and rescue plots in Celtic folklore. Yet as the 1100s commenced, the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen led the way for Guinevere’s evolution by incorporating her into the Arthurian tradition as Arthur’s queen (Walters xv). Geoffrey of Monmouth then built on this foundation by involving Guinevere in an adulterous affair with Mordred that would, with a few exceptions, set the pattern in later literature of stamping her with the scarlet letter (Walters xv). Shortly after Monmouth’s work, Marie de Champagne asked her French patron Chretien de Troyes to write a courtly (i.e., adulterous) romance. Chretien attempted this task by combining Arthurian names with the extant Mark-Iseult-Tristan love triangle as a model; Arthur was the kingly Mark figure and Guinevere resembled the indiscreet Isolde. The Tristan-like character, however, was largely Chretien’s own invention. In Eric and Enide, one of his earlier works, Chretien mentioned the name Lancelot in a list of Arthur’s knights. He then applied this name to a previously anonymous man (a plot device derived from the Fair Unknown motif in Welsh folklore) and produced a story about the knight of the cart (Walters xiii).

Lancelot and Guinevere in The Knight of the Cart

Although Chretien agreed to write this adulterous tale at his patroness’s insistence, his other works, like Erec and Enide and Yvain, suggest that he truly advocates marital fidelity; consequently, his work satirizes the courtly tradition (through unflattering depictions of Lancelot and Guinevere) that he supposedly commends. For instance, Lancelot becomes so absorbed in his thoughts of Guinevere that he seems oblivious to his surroundings. After repeated warnings, the guardian of the river "struck our knight [Lancelot] from his steed flat into the ford" (217). Later in the story, Lancelot sees "that person whom he desired to see more than anyone in the whole world [Guinevere]. From the moment he beheld her, he began to defend himself from behind his back so he would not have to turn or divert his face or eyes from her" (252). These mocking portrayals of Lancelot make him less-than-ideal as a hero.

Similarly, Guinevere gets portrayed in an unfavorable light. Not only is she an unfaithful wife, but she also exhibits a cruel streak. After Lancelot risks his life on countless occasions to rescue her, she says, "in truth he has wasted his efforts. I shall always deny that I feel any gratitude towards him" (256). This passage displays Guinevere and Lancelot’s relationship as almost master/slave in nature.

Thus, in some sense, Chretien displays the unnaturalness of courtly love by inverting traditional gender roles. Lancelot, like Enide, is loyal and submissive; Guinevere, like Erec, is usually in control. Furthermore, we as readers tend to see Erec and Guinevere in a detached way since the story gives less insight into their emotions. Lancelot and Enide, however, are always telling us how they feel. By attributing exaggerated emotions and other effeminate characteristics to the male hero of the story, Chretien subtly undermines the adulterous relationship that he seems to praise.

Malory and Bradley: Unlikely Bedfellows

In Mists of Avalon, Lancelot’s homosexuality becomes clear despite his attempts to conceal it. Probably the first hint that the reader receives occurs when Morgaine says that in Lancelot’s childhood he possessed an "intense disdain of anything female" (141). She then goes on to say that "There is nothing of the softness of a woman’s training in him, to make him pliable to any woman. He has denied the touch of the Goddess in himself" (147). However, Bradley makes these early references somewhat ambiguous because Lancelot kisses Morgaine and says he wants to sleep with her (but conveniently cannot because of her devotion to the Goddess). In fact, Lancelot’s pseudo-heterosexual performances temporarily convince Igraine, among others, that he genuinely loves Guinevere; Igraine "saw how they were looking at each other" and thinks, "Dear God! Uther looked so at me when I was Gorlois’s wife—as if he were starving and I were the food high out of his reach" (271). Yet when Lancelot finally gets Guinevere alone, he contents himself with a few caresses. The same scenario happens with Morgaine; she describes his lovemaking as a "pretense" (324). These subtle foreshadowing phrases become explicit later on when Viviane thinks, "If he professed great devotion to the Queen, no doubt, it was only that his comrades should not mock him as a lover of boys" (347). These passages show that Lancelot expresses sexual interest in both Morgaine and Guinevere—the ultimate unattainable woman—to divert questions about his refusal to marry.

During an interview with Parke Godwin, Marion Zimmer Bradley claimed that her homosexual portrayal of Lancelot was "perfectly consistent with Malory" (7). If one examines this assertion closely, however, one clearly sees its absurdity. When Elaine tricks Lancelot into her bed, he speaks so loudly of his love for Guinevere in his ensuing slumber that she hears him and finds him in an embarrassing situation. Guinevere then tells Lancelot she never wants to see him again so he, "leapt out at a bay window into a garden, and there with thorns he was all to-cratched in his visage and his body; and so he ran forth he wist not wither, and was wild wood as ever was man; and so he ran two year, and never man might have grace to know him" (203). This situation pokes several holes in Bradley’s conception of Lancelot as a homosexual; he longs for Guinevere in his sleep, a time when artifice deserts people; he becomes so upset by her rejection that he loses his sanity; and he deserts the company of his so-called male "pets" for two years (an unlikely action if they are truly his main interest). From these examples the reader sees that Lancelot truly loves Guinevere and, despite Bradley’s claim to the contrary, acts from genuine emotion rather than contrived deceit.

According to Bradley, Lancelot not only hides his homosexuality behind feigned passions, but he also uses the chastity requirements of Christianity. Without an additional alibi, Lancelot would have a hard time explaining why he is not a "wencher" like Gawain (especially since Lancelot can have virtually any woman he wants). An example of Lancelot using Christianity to escape meddlesome questions occurs when, having refused to go any farther than about second base with Morgaine, he says, "You speak so, of the Goddess and such heathen things. . . . Almost you frighten me, kinswoman, when I would keep myself from sin, and yet I have looked on you with lust and wickedness, knowing it was wrong" (326). The context of this situation and the reader’s later knowledge makes Lancelot’s sudden fear of breaking a commandment unlikely. In fact, Lancelot’s actual views on religion possess a distinctly atheistic flavor; in a conversation with Morgaine, Lancelot says, "I wish I could believe it [Christianity] . . . I think all this talk of Gods and Goddess are fables to comfort children" (321). This passage occurs just five pages before Lancelot’s diatribe about the perils of lechery. His rapid change from unbeliever to Bible-spouting zealot makes his devotion to Christianity appear dubious at best.

In Le Morte D’Arthur, however, one gets a strong impression that Lancelot truly believes in a Christian God. After his knightly gear disappears, Lancelot says, "my sin and wickedness have brought me unto great dishonor" (270). At this point in the story, Lancelot is completely alone. His words cannot therefore be misconstrued as outward forms of conformity that he does not really believe. By using the word "sin," Lancelot evokes a distinctly Christian morality code. One must therefore view his guilt over committing a sin as a genuine desire to adhere to Christian principles. Immediately following this episode, Lancelot kneels down and cries on "Our Lord mercy for his wicked works" (271). The capitalized words "Our Lord" generally refer to a Christian God (as opposed to pagan gods). These examples clearly show Lancelot’s sincere desire to be a good Christian.

Mists of Avalon: An Alternative Depiction of Guinevere

Unlike both Chretien and Malory, who focus almost exclusively on Lancelot, Bradley gives the reader considerable insight into Guinevere’s personality. She moves from an agoraphobic recluse to a hypocritical emblem of Christianity to an enlightened, 20th-century-ish woman. The first time one meets Guinevere, she stumbles into Avalon, cries, stops in panic, and says, "I was standing here in the water and the reeds were all around me and I was afraid" (157). This early view of the Guinevere as a perpetually fearful woman persists up until the time she reaches Arthur’s court. She then gives Caius an order and the narrator says, "Distantly she was surprised—she thought to herself that she sounded quite like a queen" (274). However, with her increasing outspokenness comes an irritating hypocrisy about her Christian beliefs. On the one hand, Guinevere opens herself to the possibilities of pagan "sorcery." She says, "If only Morgaine were here, I would indeed beseech her for that charm which could make me fruitful" (329). As this passage shows, Guinevere will resort to un-Christian practices to get what she wants. Yet when Arthur speaks of wielding Excalibur in battle Guinevere suddenly remembers her piety and delivers a self-righteous sermon; she says, "You would put magic and sorceries above God’s will?" (331). This openly preachy phase of Guinevere’s character culminates in the scene where she persuades Arthur to abandon the pagan banner. After this victory, her own rigid morals and devotion to Christianity begin to loosen up; she fools around with Lancelot until they get interrupted and then has him join with Arthur and herself in a little drunken ménage a trois.