Guinevere can be seen as representing a sovereignty goddess. She married a king and cemented his reign. In this vision of Guinevere as sovereignty incarnate we find an explanation for her romance with Lancelot. She could never be more than lover of Lancelot because if she took him as a husband she would make him king instead of Arthur. This also explained that Mordred taking Guinevere as his bride (often by force) in many versions of the legends makes him king in place of Arthur, and leads to the final battle of Camlann!
The story of Guinevere as a faerie bride, and as a goddess of sovereignty is one deeply rooted in Celtic culture. Celtic culture was matrilineal, meaning that the right of rule was passed in the female line. That means kings literally had to marry princesses and take on their lands. There was also a common occurrence of the symbolic marriage between a king and the land. In Celtic cultures, even within an arranged marriage, woman always had the right to consent. If they did not want the marriage, they need not enter into it. This is an important point that scholars have made about the story of Blodeuwedd, she never consented to her marriage. Since consent had not happened she could easily remarry and pass kingship onto her lover!
The love of Lancelot and Guinevere also mirrored another aspect of Celtic culture. Women in Celtic cultures were allowed to and, even expected to, take lovers, especially if they were in arranged marriages. This is one of the ways in which men and women were often seen as equals or near equals in Celtic culture. The principle of lovers being acceptable could also explain why Guinevere and Lancelot tend to be less than subtle in many tellings of the legends. In some modern re-tellings of Arthurian legends Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair is accepted by Arthur himself. This is a way modern writers are attempting to take the legends from the Christianized versions back to their Celtic pagan origins!
Guinevere as a faerie queen and sovereignty goddess can be seen as actually having greater power than Arthur himself. She is the one that chooses who becomes king, and has to marry Arthur to fulfill prophecy, and cannot leave the relationship or he will no longer be the once and future king! If Guinevere wanted to she could change the course of the legends by rejecting Arthur and leaving him, and in some early tellings she does this by marrying Mordred by choice. That is what led to the final battle at Camlann, and ended Camelot! Remembering the true power of faerie women in Arthurian tales will help give much needed perspective to those studying the legends.
I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about Guinevere’s role as sovereignty incarnate. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Lancelot and Guinevere by Florence Harry. I found the image on pinterest.com via eBay.com.
- The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies
- The Vulgate Cycle by various anonymous medieval writers
- The Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes
- Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain by Caitlin Matthews
- Courtly Love: The Path of Sexual Initiation by Jean Markale
- The Once and Future Queen by Nicole Evelina