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Guinevere, the Superwoman of Contemporary Arthurian Fiction

Guinevere, the Superwoman of Contemporary Arthurian Fiction

Noble, James

Florilegium, Volume 23, Number 2 (2006)

Abstract

This essay explores efforts by Sharan Newman, Persia Woolley, and Rosalind Miles, authors of three Guinevere trilogies published between 1981 and 2001, to transform Guinevere from a peripheral into a central figure in the Arthurian legend by depicting her as a psychologically complex figure who is sufficiently accomplished in all areas of her life to qualify, in Elisabeth Brewer’s terms, as a “superwoman.” The emphasis devoted in these revisionist texts to Guinevere’s role as mother not only of either biological or adopted children but also of the land over which she and Arthur jointly rule marks a significant departure from patriarchal versions of the Arthurian legend and invites comparison with what Marion Zimmer Bradley may have been attempting to accomplish in her enigmatic characterization of Gwenhwyfar in the fourth and final section of The Mists of Avalon.

Introduction: In a perceptive article published in 1987, Elisabeth Brewer explores attempts by early twentieth-century dramatists and more recent novelists to transform Guinevere from a peripheral into a central figure in the Arthurian story. Although she does not see any of these efforts as improving upon the better known, though decidedly more misogynist, depictions of Guinevere by Malory and Tennyson, what Brewer has to say in her article has some interesting implications for revisionist treatments of the Arthurian legend published since the early 1980s, the point at which her study ends.

Foremost among the trends identified by Brewer is the attempt by writers like T. H. White in The Once and Future King (1958) and Godfrey Turton in The Emperor Arthur (1967) “to depict Guenevere with the psychological realism of the modern novel.” Brewer credits these novelists with creating a Guinevere who is psychologically complex, albeit neither as physically nor as emotionally appealing as the Guinevere who is to be found in the more recent novels of Victor Canning (The Crimson Chalice, 1976), Catherine Christian (The Pendragon, 1979), and Mary Stewart (The Last Enchantment, 1979, and The Wicked Day, 1983). Though also aiming for psychological realism, Canning, Christian, and Stewart represent a fictive trend that, according to Brewer, seeks to “update the figure of Guenevere in terms of the images created by the modern media,” particularly “The image of the athletic, healthy young woman, so familiar in the cinema and on the television screen” and the image of the mature and self-possessed woman, a character Brewer dryly terms “the Vogue Guenevere, one might almost say the Laura Ashley Guenevere.” Attesting to a still further and more significant evolution in the characterization of Guinevere in the early 1980s, however, is the figure typified by the heroine of Gillian Bradshaw’s In Winter’s Shadow (1982) and described by Brewer as “a super-woman, a successful executive and administrator whose role is not merely to attend state functions as a graceful consort, but to rule.”

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