Several months ago I reviewed the Guinevere Trilogy by Lavinia Collins. Her new book, The Witches of Avalon, was released in April 2015 and tells the story of Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan. I asked Lavinia to share her perspective on the women of Arthurian legend and how she humanizes them in her books.
Reading and Writing Arthurian Women
I’ve always been obsessed with the women of Arthurian legend. Ever since I was a little girl and we went to Tintagel castle. I wondered what they would have been thinking, what they would have wanted, living in a world where they were not really able to do anything. This obsession only grew stronger after, at ten years old, I had a rather alarming sexual awakening after finding and reading my mother’s copy of The Mists of Avalon (she claimed not to remember any of the sex bits when many years later I asked her why she had let me). So, then, when I returned to Arthurian Legend as part of my masters research, and found that so many of the answers I had wanted when I was younger were there in the medieval texts, I knew I had something to write. I knew I had something to share.
I started with Guinevere because I really felt that there was nothing in modern popular culture (or really in adaptations after the medieval period) that did her justice. Even The Mists of Avalon which did such incredible work locating the Arthurian world in a newly converted ancient Britain and rehabilitating the image of Morgan Le Fay failed to provide a Guinevere who was anything like the powerful character of Malory’s Morte Darthur or Chretien de Troyes Lancelot. Instead, we have a simpering repressed Christian who exists mainly to provide a counterpoint to a powerful, sexually affirmative Morgaine. Between that, Victoriana condemning legend’s most famous adulterous queen, and that terrible Starz series where a completely vacant Guinevere played by Tamsin Egerton failed to close her mouth for the entire short run of the series.
Most adaptations I came across seemed to be operating under the assumption that we could only “like” Guinevere if we felt sorry for her, if she were fundamentally passive and vulnerable. That, if we are to portray her sympathetically, she must be “nice” and “helpless”. I was disappointed because this was not at all what I had read in Malory. In a text where all of the men are essentially chivalry-bots on different settings, Guinevere is the only figure that emerges as anything like a real character. Even Lancelot only achieves anything like personal conflict because he’s too perfect, trying to fit every model of chivalry. Among all of that, Malory’s Guinevere appears as forceful and mercurial; she changes her mind, she’s full of contradictions, she’s unkind. And that was where it all began for me; I was reading someone like a kind of medieval Betty Draper, struggling against the bounds she found herself in while simultaneously needing to be perfect within them. So that’s where it all began for me, feeling like this incredible character had been lost in translation (and Victorian moralising).
I’m very aware when I come to Morgan (Morgaine) that anything that deals with her will necessarily (and fairly) fall under the shadow of The Mists of Avalon, but it’s been more than thirty years now, and I do think there’s something else to be said. Zimmer Bradley wanted to remove Morgan from any kind of Christian context, and to identify witchcraft with a matriarchal religion. I’m interested more in the performance of power, and how women gain access to it. Especially queens. So much of Morgan’s representation in Malory negotiates what space an outsider, and in particular a woman alone, can take within male chivalric society. And particularly what a woman who has no place in society (as witch, adulteress and eventually widow) gets up to when she just happens to be cleverer than all of the men. Because Malory’s Morgan is conspicuously clever and bookish, and her witchcraft so particularly associated with learning – even learning in the “safe” Christian space in the abbey – that it seems to suggest that any woman educated past a certain point is a de facto “witch”. And in some ways I feel the shadow of that idea in my day-to-day life; an educated woman who speaks her mind is – in some situations – still a de facto outsider. And negotiating that space – wanting to be part of society, but not wanting to give up any part of yourself – was something that I felt hadn’t been done with Morgan, and something I wanted to explore.
I was also interested in the relationship between Morgan and her sister Morgawse, and the way the networks of women in these Arthurian tales were largely ignored in adaptations in favour of focussing on the networks of men. This has brought me to think about Morgawse, Arthur’s other half-sister (and the mother of his child); Morgawse, who (why why why? such an error) almost always gets left out of adaptations, merged with Morgan to suggest that the occult antagonist of the Arthurian world must have plotted a child-by-incest and remove the blame from Britain’s favourite legendary King. So that’s where I’m heading next, up across the wall (as it were) to an ancient Scotland, and another queen, but this time one who appears only briefly and obliquely in the Arthurian world. She’s so often left out or shuffled around when there’s a whole other northern perspective there, one that perhaps in an Anglo-centric understanding of the legend gets missed out.
But, ultimately, what is it that has attracted me to the women of Arthurian legend so strongly? I think it’s power. In a completely masculine world, and even in medieval texts, they appear as enticingly influential, as changeful and threatening. As everything that female characters in so many modern films, tv and popular culture are not.
Lavinia Collins’ Latest Book The Witches of Avalon is available on Amazon now: http://www.amazon.com/THE-WITCHES-AVALON-thrilling-Arthurian-ebook/dp/B00WN9F2K4/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8
Lavinia blogs regularly on her own site vivimedieval.wordpress.com
and can be found on Twitter @Lavinia_Collins