Poor Guenevere has had her share of mistreatment over the long history of Arthurian-legend. Her role as adulteress over shines her role as queen, and her beauty is more often talked about than her ability as a wise ruler. Sometimes she is treated with pity, sometimes with scorn and sometimes with outright vilification, such as in Marie de France’s Lanval. Arthurian-legend has been around for quite some time, and there are so any versions of each story and character, so I’ll note that most of my knowledge comes from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, as does the background information for William Morris’ The Defence of Guenevere. The poem can be taken as either an admission of guilt or the pleas of mercy from an innocent woman. My own reading is the first, and to me, this makes the character all the more interesting.
Guenevere could be fit into the Victorian concept of the “Fallen Woman,” as she’s a woman who engaged in sexual activity with a man other than her husband. Despite this, Morris does not treat her as the fallen woman, and instead does something odd when compared to other Victorian writers: he defends her by having her defend herself. Instead of standing idly by waiting for Lancelot to save her, Morris’ Guenevere tells her story. She never denies that she loves Lancelot but seems to stand proudly by this fact. She claims her sexuality and is bold with the telling of her story, a stark contrast to the ideal Victorian woman, who was gentle and quiet and did her husbands bidding. She also calls refers to the ways in which men are lustful and it is accepted by all. Mellyagraunce had discovered blood on Guenevere’s bed and accused her of having an affair when he had come to rape her. What right do these men have to judge her?
Something that struck me about this poem is that Arthur is barely mentioned. His name appears twice in the entire 295 lines of the poem, and only once is in direct mention of his marriage to Guenevere, as if by not mentioning him she can further assert her innocence. If her husband is removed from the equation, at least in her mind, can she truly be accused of adultery? Or is her only crime that of falling in love?
If you’re interested in Arthurian-legend and especially Guenevere, this is a fun little read in which she is linked to an early Celtic goddess of sovereignty. With this viewpoint, her sleeping with Lancelot is seen as her fulfilling her “divine role.”