La Belle Dame Sans Merci

The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

Guinevere is the wife of Arthur in the Arthurian cycle.   In most versions of the legends it is a given that she betrayed Arthur with a close friend or family member during their marriage.   In the most common versions of the legends Guinevere betrayed Arthur by falling in love with Lancelot du Lac, son of the Lady of the Lake and Arthur’s fiercest knight and best friend.   In earlier versions her lovers were Kay (Arthur’s foster brother and confidant) and Mordred (Arthur’s illegitimate son) and Yeder (rare version found in Beroul’s twelfth century Tristan).

Guinevere is usually taken to be the daughter of King Leodegrance.   Her name is of Welsh, Irish, Breton, and Cornish origin meaning “the white enchantress” or “the white fay/ghost.”   This perception of Guinevere as being otherworldly is something that can lead to the perception of Guinevere possibly being Arthur’s faerie bride.   It is a common theme among Celtic literature to have a ceremonial marriage between a sovereign and a member of the fae folk.    Sometimes this marriage is seen as a literal union, like when men are spirited away to the land of Faery and are married to a faerie queen.

Given the origins of her name Guinevere can be seen as a true faerie queen.   As the legends evolved and were christianized Guinevere became the evil adulteress plotting the downfall of her loyal husband with her younger lover!   We see Guinevere as at first the ideal young beautiful queen, and later her betrayal of her husband is something of a shock.   Many of the knights of Camelot have been accused of being the lover of the queen.   Since his inception into the legends by Chretien de Troyes, Lancelot has been the most commonly associated with the title of Guinevere’s lover.

Lancelot is often the one to save Guinevere in the versions of the legend where she is forced into a marriage to Mordred when he storms the castle while Arthur is away on campaign.   There are tellings where Guinevere is actually plotting with Mordred and completely complacent in the marriage to Mordred and forsaking of Arthur.   In the versions where Guinevere is forced Lancelot comes to her rescue.

In the earliest tales of her abduction Arthur spends a year searching for Guinevere when she is abducted and raped by Melwas the king of the “Summer Country.”   In Chretien de Troye’s version of this tale entitled “The Knight and the Cart” it is Lancelot who rescued Guinevere from king Meliagant (likely a French name derived from Melwas).   These abduction stories appear in many versions of the legends, and it is often tales like this that make Guinevere seem helpless.   In reality I think these tales were ways to prove how dangerous life could be in the times when they were written.   Queens really did go through turmoils when their warrior kings were off fighting a war, and a usurper threatened them, or another man kidnapped them.  

One way in which Guinevere is seen as failing in her duty as queen (throughout many tellings) is her inability to have a child.   There are some obscure tellings that do have her as a mother, but most commonly she does not have a child.    This leaves Arthur without an heir to the throne, and is in some cases becomes a driving force in her affairs with others.   

There has been a modern upsurge in re-writing the Guinevere tale in hopes of clearing her name, so to speak.   There are versions where she is tricked into sleeping with Lancelot (and Arthur is her true lover), versions where Arthur supports the affair in hopes that a young knight can beget a child on Guinevere as he cannot, and versions where she loved Lancelot before marrying Arthur (and only married him to do right by her father’s people).

These modern re-tellings are fun to read, and they in some ways take the legends back to the Celtic past, where they originated.   Celtic cultures were matrilineal and were quite equal in terms of gender equality.   In making Guinevere smart and strong, sometimes a magical practitioner trained on the Isle of Avalon (alongside Morgan Le Fay often), and sometimes a warrior in her own right; these writers are showing a more well rounded and realistic version of the character.   She is no longer simply a prize to be won, or a damsel in need of rescuing that can move the story along.   She now is going back to her Celtic and pagan roots of being a Faerie Queen.    They show her as  capable of so much more than the tellings of the later medieval period through the 1950’s (T.H. White’s Once and Future King) would have readers believe.   

In the end most versions of the legends, and even most modern tellings, have Guinevere retiring to a nunnery for her own safety.   In some popular versions she retired to a nunnery after Arthur tried to have her burned at the stake, and she was rescued by Lancelot.   So this is where Guinevere is when Arthur fights his final Battle of Camlann against Mordred.

The title I have chosen for this post comes from the poem of the same title by the Romantic poet John Keats.    This particular poem is telling of the abduction of a knight to Faery by a faerie queen.    I thought the reference fitting for Guinevere, as it refers to her Celtic origins and the meaning of her name as being tied to the fay folk.   The phrase la belle dame sans merci translates from the French as “the beautiful woman without mercy.”

I hope that this post has given you some new insight into the enigmatic queen of Camelot who has been much maligned for many centuries!

Note on Spelling:  I chose to use the most common spelling of Guinevere’s name.    But is should be noted that her name has been spelled many different ways across the centuries.

Note on the Image: The image at the top of the post is Edmund Blair Leighton’s painting The Accolade.   I found the image on Wikimedia Commons.   The original is currently in a private collection.

Further Reading

Below are a list of books both fiction and non-fiction to help you in the discovery of the complex figure of Guinevere.

  • The History of the Kings of England by Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes
  • Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
  • The Once and Future Queen: Guinevere in Arthurian Legend by Nicole Evelina (This is a truly amazing study of the character throughout time!)
  • The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy by Nicole Evelina (the author’s fiction series about Guinevere) 
  • Child of the Northern Spring, Queen of the Summer Stars, and Guinevere the Legend in Autumn by Persia Woolley (this is her Guinevere trilogy)
  • Guinevere a Medieval Romance by Lavinia Collins (this book, which is actually a collection of three short novels into one tale, contains more mature themes than the others)
  • Celtic Mythology: The Nature and Influence of Celtic Myth from Druidism to Arthurian Legend by Ward Rutherford
  • Courtly Love: The Path of Sexual Initiation by Jean Markale (This is a great source for information on the medieval tradition of courtly love that were influential to the legends!)