Welcome to the first ever Femme Fatale Friday here at White Rose of Avalon! For this first post in this themed Friday series I have chosen to discuss a figure I have talked about often on this site, Arthur’s wife Guinevere. Today I want to specifically look at Guinevere’s role as an adulteress in Arthurian legend.
Being an adulteress who betrayed Arthur is one of the things Guinevere is most known for. Even people who are not interested in Arthuriana know that the Queen of Camelot had an affair with Lancelot (her husband’s bravest knight). That is the basic version of the tale of Guinevere as an adulteress.
However, the tale of Guinevere cheating on Arthur is much older and more complex than that. First of all Lancelot only entered the Arthurian canon with Chretien de Troyes in his French romances. Before this Guinevere was paired with other Arthurian figures as an adulteress. Most commonly she was paired with Mordred. Mordred was either Arthur’s nephew, or his illegitimate son, depending on the telling.
In the version where Mordred is the lover of the queen begins when Arthur was on a quest, or at war. Mordred came in and took over rule of Camelot, essentially usurping the throne. As part of this theft of his father’s (or uncle’s) crown he either forced Guinevere to marry him, or she married him by choice! The idea of marrying Mordred by choice is often rooted in the idea of Guinevere being Arthur’s much younger wife. This is something that changed very much depending on the version of the legends, as Guinevere can be depicted as of a similar age to Arthur or as much younger.
Some of the darker versions of Guinevere feature her as a villainess who plotted to steal the crown from her husband to place it on Mordred’s head. It is in this light that Guinevere can become a true femme fatale! She was literally plotting the destruction of her husband in order to empower her lover. This is a classic trope of the film noir genre (that birthed the term femme fatale)! It should be noted that in the versions of the legends where Guinevere and Lancelot were lovers, that it is often Mordred to expose them. He is most often used as a villain to push the situation in Camelot to its breaking point. Either he tried to steal Guinevere from Arthur, or he exposed the ultimate betrayal of Guinevere and Lancelot!
Another possible lover of Guinevere would be Melwas (who captured her) and she was usually be rescued by Arthur in early versions, or later Lancelot. The question of Guinevere and any of her lovers was whether or not she chose to betray Arthur, or was forced. She would be forced in large part due to her role as a sovereignty figure. I have written in the past on the fact that Guinevere can be seen as an embodiment of sovereignty. Sovereignty goddesses literally make kings by marrying them. Therefore, if she was married to someone else, he would be king! This is also why Lancelot and Guinevere can never marry, as he was not destined to be king, and did not desire to claim it.
This image of the adulteress queen was famously brought about by writers during the middle ages. This falls into line with other medieval poetry, such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In The Divine Comedy Dante placed Cleopatra into the second circle of hell, for lust. That time it was a real queen who was known as an adulteress, and who would be persecuted for lust (tellingly Marc Antony and Julius Caesar were in the first circle of hell, Limbo, for being unbaptized). This is the climate in which the most famous versions of the Arthurian legends were created. Therefore, we can see Guinevere’s adultery as linked to the era when she was written, and visions of what her adultery means have changed through the times!
I hope you have enjoyed my first Femme Fatale Friday post! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a painting of Guinevere and Lancelot. I found the image on donatoart.com via pinterest.com.
- Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain by Caitlin Matthews
- The Once and Future Queen by Nicole Evelina
- King of the Celts by Jean Markale
- Courtly Love by Jean Markale