By Nicole Evelina
If you’ve ever watched soap operas chances are good you’re familiar with the trope of the evil twin. But did you know it extends even into Arthurian legend? The idea of there being two Guineveres who are sisters, sometimes called twins, comes to from Triad 53 of the Welsh Triads, a collection of preserved Welsh/Celtic folklore, myth and oral history. The Triads were first written down around the year 800 CE, but are likely much older.
Triad 53 states:
“Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain:
The first of them Mathloch of the Irishmen struck
upon Branwen daughter of Llyr;
The second Gwennhwyfach struck upon Gwenwhyfar:
and for that cause there took place afterwards the
action of the Battle of Camlan;
And the third Golydan the poet struck upon
Cadwaladr the Blessed.”
Unfortunately, no one really knows the meaning of this Triad, but many have speculated. Celtic and Arthurian scholars John and Caitlin Matthews theorize in their book The Complete King Arthur that this reference could possibly stem from Arthur divorcing one wife to marry her sister. Divorce was common in the Celtic world and well within the rights of both husband and wife, so that is a possibility.
Others, such as Barbara Gordon-Wise and Rachel Bromwich hint that the blow is symbolic of women’s role in war. They believe the triad might be part of an ancient tradition that Battle of Camlann came about due a dispute among women. Because some versions of the Triad have Gwenwhyfar (The True Guinevere) striking the first blow, instead of Gwennhwyfach (The False Guinevere), Gordon-Wise believes it may symbolize not simply an evil act, but that the women of the Celts were powerful warriors whose actions determined the fate of a nation. That is a wonderful theory, especially to feminist researchers, but history and archeology do not back it up – at least not at present.
By the thirteenth century, this story morphed into there being Guinevere the False and Guinevere the True. Gwenhwy-fawr means “Gwenhwy the Great” and Gwenhwy-fach means “Gwenhwy the less,” so it’s easy to see how that could have evolved over the years into the true and the false. Oddly enough, these sobriquets are a product of tradition, not the authors of either text. The narrator’s initial description of the pretender to the throne [is] ‘Genievre, las fille le roi Leodagan de Tarmelide” [Guinevere, the daughter of King Leodagan of Tarmelide], while King Arthur’s wife is ‘la roine’ [the queen]. But yet the True and the False are how the two women have been known for centuries.
The sisters’ story is told in the Vulgate Cycle in the book Merlin. In short, it is this: Guinevere the False is the identical half-sister of the real Guinevere, fathered by Leodegan (or Leodegrance) and the wife of Cleodalis, his seneschal. Both Guineveres are conceived the same night to different mothers, are born the same day and look exactly alike, except the true Guinevere has a birthmark of a crown on her back.
Leodegan’s enemies scheme to replace the true Guinevere with the false Guinevere on Arthur’s wedding night, but Merlin learns of the plan and commissions two knights to stop it. Years later, Guinevere the False forms an alliance with Bertholai, an old knight who had been banished from Leodegan’s court for murder. They send a message to Arthur proclaiming that Guinevere the False is the true queen, and that Arthur has been living with an impostor since his wedding night.
Bertholai and his knights capture Arthur and give him a love potion which makes him fall in love with Guinevere the False and reject Guinevere the True. He accuses the True of being the False and demands she be stripped of the skin on her head, cheeks, and palms before she is exiled (those are the traditional locations where a queen is anointed). Lancelot acts as champion to Guinevere the True against three of Bertholai’s knights to prove her innocence.
This is where the story diverges into two possible endings. According to the Vulgate Lancelot, Lancelot and the true Guinevere flee Arthur’s court for Sorelois, where they live for several years before Guinevere the False perishes of an illness, confessing on to the plot on her deathbed. But in the non-cyclical, Post-Vulgate Lancelot du Lac, Bertholai and the False Guinevere immediately admit their guilt and are burned.
Like the version in the Triads, this strange insertion into Arthurian legend has many interpretations. It is thought by some to be representative of the Madonna/whore polarities that women’s behaviors have been divided into for centuries. It is also seen as a morality lesson in which Guinevere is punished for acting too independently, even though Arthur sinned with Guinevere the False just has she did with Lancelot. Guinevere not only forgets her place as a wife, but also as a woman. By having an affair with Lancelot, Guinevere steps out of her societally-approved role to take on the power of a man in her sexual independence – defying cultural and legal norms. Adultery was acceptable for men in the Middle Ages, but not women. That Guinevere pursues her affair with such determination makes her not only immoral but inappropriately masculine.
So in this case, the two Guineveres are more than simply good/bad, true/false; they are seen to be symbolic of proper behavior for women in the Middle Ages. Today, we see the idea of the good twin/evil twin as an over-the-top cliché because we’re so used to it, but in earlier ages it was a powerful literary tool to depict polarities. Guinevere, being a type of Everywoman who changes with society’s views of the female sex in any given time period, was the perfect character to convey a moral message to a medieval audience already extremely familiar with her story.
Nicole Evelina is the author of The Once and Future Queen: Guinevere in Arthurian Legend. Evelina has spent more than 15 years studying Arthurian legend. She is also a feminist known for her fictional portrayals of strong historical and legendary women, including Guinevere. Now, she combines these two passions to examine the effect of changing times and attitudes on the character of Guinevere in a must-read book for Arthurian enthusiasts of every knowledge level. To learn more, please visit Nicole’s website at https://nicoleevelina.com or follow her on Twitter @NicoleEvelina
Top Image: Lancelot and Guinevere by Herbert James Draper (c.1890)