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Guinevere is the legendary wife of King Arthur, who appears in almost all tales in the Arthurian canon, and whose character is interpreted in numerous ways depending upon each author. Due to the vast number of interpretations regarding Queen Guinevere, it’s hard to construct a single, simple story about her. She is usually depicted as the childless queen who commits adultery with Lancelot. Whether she is more sinned against than sinning for this act really depends upon how fully her character is drawn in each account.
In some accounts, Guinevere is daughter of King Leodegrance and in others she comes of Roman parentage. Many of the tales concerning her deal with an abduction story that occurs in most of the Arthurian legends. Again, it’s difficult to know exactly who abducts Guinevere, since this varies. Accounts of who saves her also change, where sometimes Lancelot or Arthur rescue her, and other times, peace is brokered between Arthur and the abductor. The abduction story does bear resemblance to the Persephone/Demeter Greek myth in which Hades kidnaps Persephone.
Another of the tales associated with Guinevere is the exposure of her adultery with Lancelot. Due to proof of her deception, Arthur sentences the queen to death. In almost all accounts, Lancelot then saves her, but kills the young knight Gareth in the act, causing his brothers Gawain and Agravaine to swear revenge on Lancelot. Alternately, the story doesn’t take place, but later, Guinevere becomes the mistress of Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son (or nephew depending upon the account).
The latter story sets up part of the tragedy of the King Arthur legends. When Mordred is Guinevere’s captor or forces her to become his mistress, Arthur attempts to rescue her, and is killed. This tragedy is doubly felt when Mordred is depicted as Arthur’s son, because in the end, Arthur destroys his child, himself and the wondrous days of Camelot in the process. In part or in whole, Guinevere’s actions contribute to the downfall of King Arthur’s just kingdom and destroy the dream of righteous and courtly behavior.
Modern accounts of Guinevere do much more to establish her character. In The Once and Future King by T.H. White, for instance, White depicts the queen as very human, with good impulses and bad. She is much younger than Arthur and helplessly caught in an affair with Lancelot that both characters try to avoid. Moreover, it’s very clear from White’s perspective that Arthur is fully aware of the affair, and because of his love for both the queen and Lancelot, begs the two to not do anything that will make the affair obvious to Arthur’s enemies (primarily Mordred).
White’s perspective is certainly a modern take, showing compassion for the foibles of humanity in general, and adding a much more balanced approach to how Arthur’s kingdom is ultimately destroyed. Guinevere’s actions are only part of it in this case. Arthur’s neglect and mistreatment of his illegitimate son and nephew Mordred are also cause for Mordred and Arthur’s eventual clash against each other.
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