GUINEVERE: The (not so) Silent Queen

This is the first article in a five-part series – MATRIARCHS – in which Arts Editor Connor Gotto explores some of the forgotten women from across the arts; pioneers of their craft, but so often lost in the shadow of their male peers.

As I turned the final page of Parke Godwin’s retelling of the legend of King Arthur – Firelord – I was surprised to see a page to order the novel’s sequel. Sequel? I thought, what more is there to tell? – Arthur is dead. Then I read the synopsis “…one of the most dramatic portraits of the great queen Guinevere ever created.” Immediately I ordered a copy (though I opted for Amazon, as opposed to the order sheet printed in my American edition from 1985).

While the most widely referenced source of the legend, Le Morte D’Arthur, culminates with the King’s fatal wounding at the Battle of Camlann when fighting his enemy Mordred, we often fail to consider what could have happened afterwards – how did Camelot go on? Did Camelot go on? Godwin’s first novel in his saga of Camelot ends at the same point, and as I waited for the delivery I could not help but fear being faced with a whining, distressed Queen, collapsing in on herself as the men around her carried on her husband’s legacy. Or worse, a 400 page, Barbara Cartland-style romance between Guinevere and Lancelot…

The truth, though, could not have been further removed.

Godwin’s exploration of the widowed queen is an instantly gripping portrayal. Spoken retrospectively, the novel opens with the news of her husband’s passing, and grief that is preceded by a reassurance of her following the suit of her husband:

“Without him there’s nothing…”

“There’s me.”

So began the story of the Queen who fought with all her might to carry on the kingdom of Camelot, and who overcame all of the doubts surrounding her ascent to the throne

But, more so, the novel seemed to me an exploration of the struggles that women have faced down through the years; from being regarded as inferior in the company of male peers, and fighting to be seen as an equal and not second-class citizens. It took a while to adjust to the style of the novel – it seemed unreal to have someone so recently widowed to deal with stately affairs before displaying any sign of grief. It was out of place for a Queen not to break down hysterically – perhaps therein lies the reason for Godwin’s writing of the novel. We never consider Guinevere’s potential outside of being Arthur’s dutiful wife, or the further implications of her role – as to Lancelot’s observation, “You a slave: that was sin”, her reply held the answer, “No, dear, that was education.”

This seemed to be the crux of the matter: too often we view women in relation to their male peers. Artist Joni Mitchell has spoken openly about her disfavour of being referred to as the ‘female Bob Dylan’ – “you wouldn’t call him the male Joni Mitchell, would you?” And, sadly, in the male-dominated industries of this world, women are often regarded in similar lights.

Most fitting, I thought, is the penultimate chapter of the book – ‘the last supper’, as it were. Gathered with her closest allies, in the knowledge of her impending demise, they reflect upon the Queen’s life and her journey to becoming the great ruler she was. And this allusion to Jesus is really what prompted me to write this series of articles – about the women, the unsung heroes of their craft who are so often forgotten in the place of their male counterparts. And who, so often, were the reason for the great successes of their peers.

Without Guinevere to keep his affairs in order, Arthur’s Camelot would have crumbled. “Most Kings have a wife, I have a Queen,” is the turn of phrase he chose. They say, “It’s a man’s world” – but, maybe, it’s the opposite illusion…

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