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Guinevere, the Superwoman of Contemporary Arthurian Fiction

By James Noble

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 superwoman, a successful executive and administrator whose role is not merely to attend state functions as a graceful consort, but to rule.” As Brewer goes on to suggest, however, for this Guinevere “it is not enough to be efficient as an administrator and stateswoman. The Arthurian superwoman must also have experienced pregnancy and childbirth.” Hence it is, Brewer argues, that Parke Godwin (Firelord, 1980) sees to it that his Guinevere “has a stillborn baby daughter early in the course of the novel, so that she has been a mother, at least technically.”

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