Truth or myth. Was Guinevere the wife of the legendary King Arthur
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An unfaithful spouse, a girl in trouble or an ancient goddess – all aspects of the literary life of a mysterious lady at court.
King Arthur is a notorious character in the British epic. Many have read about him and his exploits. No less famous is his wife, Guinevere, in some legends she is devoted, and sometimes insidious.
Her image has always changed from work to work. Who she really was, Ancient Origins tried to find out.
Fairy tales, myths and stories – the first stories about Guinevere
In writing, the image of Arthur's wife is quite familiar. She is usually kidnapped in fairy tales by various villains. She is now presented as an early example of a girl in distress. In a certain way, she is not loyal to her lover. In later works, her romance with Arthur's favorite knight, Lancelot, appears.
An ancient mention of Guinevere is contained in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. It laid out the traditional foundations of the Arthurian legend. The text refers to Gwenhuvar, a woman with a name of Welsh origin. The true meaning of the name is unknown. But in Welsh mythology, the name has a bad reputation. It was associated with the idea of infidelity.
In the story, she is a great beauty and the wife of a king. When Arthur leaves Camelot to fight in Europe, she leads the kingdom with her traitorous nephew Morder. He tempts Guinevere to seize the throne. When Arthur returns, she flees the kingdom out of guilt and Arthur fights Mordred. The battle ends with mortal wounds.
The image of Guinevere Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France
These writers worked in the XII – XIII centuries . They were associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie, who contributed to the growth of courtly love genres in literature. Therefore, de Troyes and France focused on the character of Guinevere. Today it is known that it was Marie who gave Chrétien her story about the king's wife.
However, which version of Guinevere – Chrétien or France – appeared first is unknown. None of Marie de France's works can be accurately dated. But scientists are inclined to believe that her works appeared later. This is indicated by the inverted trope of courtly love stories.
The protagonist Lanval, in the novel de Frans of the same name, is one of Arthur's knights. After being humiliated during a quarrel, he runs away from the yard and finds himself in a fantasy world. There he falls in love with a fairy princess. Together with her, he agrees to keep love a secret. If he does, he will be rescued at the right time.
He returns to the royal court, where he receives an offer from Guinevere. But Lanval refuses her and betrays his innermost secret. An enraged Guinevere accuses him of temptation and Lanval is thrown behind bars. But even though he broke his vow, the fairy princess still saves him when called.
Chrétien describes the abduction of Guinevere by Lord Maleagent. She must be rescued by King Arthur's knight. The story revolves around Lancelot. During his aspirations, Guinevere attempts to question his honor and nobility. Therefore, in both works, she is unfaithful to her husband.
Is Guinevere a model of the Celtic goddess?
Some modern scholars believe that the image of Guinevere is based on the Celtic or Welsh gods. In particular, the American expert on medieval and Arthurian literature, Roger Lumis, considered her “Celtic Persephone”. This was due to her resemblance to the Greek goddess of fertility, who was kidnapped by Hades to the underworld. Like her, Guinevere also mysteriously dies, but is then reborn. Also, she cannot be held responsible for infidelity as a mortal. Loomis believed that Guinevere personified the goddess who remained true to her “I”. In his interpretation, the scientist turns her into a kind of early feminist icon.
Another scientist, Caitlin Matthews, takes a slightly different approach. Matthews believes that Guinevere is Britain's answer to Ireland's goddess Eriu. If we go back to the original Welsh tradition, Arthur was portrayed as married to three Guineveres. According to Matthews, these various Guineveres are copies of the three Celtic goddesses Eriu, Banba and Fodla.
How is King Arthur's wife related to the Cathar sect?
Some scholars also associate Guinevere with the Cathar sect. She strongly opposed the Catholic Church. In addition, its representatives believed that it was Satan who wrote the Bible. Believers worshiped the goddess Sophia. Some schools believe that the strong female characters central to the courtly love poetry were depictions of Sophia.
When a female character is kidnapped, her kidnapper represents the Catholic Church, the enemy of the Cathars and Sophia. In this interpretation, Guinevere is the prototype of Sophia, and Mordred is the Catholic Church. Arthur, in turn, protects the church. It is with the help of this theory that the sharp change in the image of Guinevere after the Albigensian Crusade of the Catholic Church in 1209-1229 AD can be explained.
After this, the legends about Arthur began to take on Christian characteristics. Most of the stories focused readers on the hunt for the Holy Grail instead of girls in distress. Although it was a magical artifact, the authors associated it with the Secret Supper and Christ. The most famous reflection of this is the book “The Death of Arthur” by Thomas Malory. In it, Arthur fell in love with Guinevere, but she didn't feel the same way. Merlin warned her that she would fall in love with Lancelot and betray the King.
But Arthur himself didn't listen. Upon meeting Lancelot, Guinevere fell in love with him. Guinevere even tried to kill Arthur, but he forgave her, after which the maiden spent the rest of her life in a monastery. Lancelot's path ended in a similar way.
The literature is filled with conflicting images of Guinevere. But whether she really was the wife of King Arthur is unknown. Historians have spent a century to associate it with the head of Camelot.
Today, Guinevere is a product of time, shaped by human beliefs and ideas. At first, she was associated with Welsh mythology, but gradually became an analogue of Sophia from the Cathar sect.