Reading and Writing Arthurian Women: A Guest Post by Lavinia Collins

91HVAiboMKL._SL1500_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.

cover of Mists of Avalon

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.

Tasmin Edgerton

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.

 Morgan shocks a nun

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

Book Review: The Guinevere Trilogy, by Lavinia Collins

cover of Day of DestinyI have a love/hate relationship with Lavinia Collins’ Guinevere series.   I loved that I couldn’t put it down and I loved the fact that Guinevere is a whole, complicated, pretty messed up person.  I also hated it the fact that Guinevere is a pretty messed up person, because I was so frustrated with her, although I enjoyed seeing Kay call her out on it.  I like that she is able to love more than one man fully and the critique of forced monogamy.  If any problem could be solved easily, it would be Guinevere’s, given that she would thrive in an openly polyandrous marriage.  I also hated it that Guinevere is so so selfish and frankly so, so dumb on so many occasions.  She is so drunk with love and fueled by frustration at her limited role that she careens around wreaking havoc while everyone says to her, “Hey Guinevere, you want to tone it down a bit?”

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  This series has covers that initially I regarded as simply dreadful and now regard as thought-provoking (except Book 2, which simply dull).  The first book, The Warrior Queen, features a naked Guinevere (I assume) leaning on, or possibly emerging from, a tree.  On the Amazon page, her bosom is artfully covered by strategically placed type.  Other versions don’t include the type, which can be a bit startling.  Behold:

cover of Warrior Queen

Why?  Why is she hanging out in the woods semi-nude?  Is she actually emerging from the tree, like a woodland faerie, or is she just tired?  It’s not that I object to hanging out in the woods semi-nude (although I have to say – BUG SPRAY, people!)  it’s just that it doesn’t connect in any way to the story.  Guinevere has lots and lots of sex in this trilogy but I don’t recall her hanging out in the woods shirtless.  I don’t think the cover matches the content, but I did think that this post by author Lavinia Collins, about the double-standards regarding nudity, is thoughtful and interesting.  She points out that Amazon insisted on the “modesty panel” for the shirtless female, but had no problems with this shirtless male on the cover of the second book, A Champion’s Duty.  I have the same problem here on WordPress – I have to show the Amazon version cover to remain PG-13 as a blog but I can show off Lancelot’s naked torso with impunity.  Here it is:

cover of A Champion's duty

This is your basic, bland, erotic cover of a guy who looks sort of angry and sort of stoned and very wet.  While the first cover is weird and gratuitous, at least it’s creative, interesting art.  I prefer it to the bland quality of A Champion’s Duty.

I actually love the cover of the third book, The Day of Destiny, but again I don’t think it relates much to the book.  Here you go:

cover of Day of Destiny

Those of us in science fiction, fantasy, and romance know all too well that the cover of a book does not necessarily reflect the quality of the book, and this trilogy is far better than the covers suggest.  It has enough explicit sex to qualify as erotica but it also has plenty of plot.  Guinevere is forced to marry Arthur when he conquers her father’s lands as part of his early days of kingship.  Arthur is a loving husband and Guinevere returns that love.  Initially Arthur welcomes her into his war councils and as a soldier in battle.  When she is wounded in battle, Arthur concludes that he can’t bear to have to worry about her and against her protests he sends her home.  This marks a rift between them and sparks a deep frustration and resentment on her part that never heals despite their reconciliation after the battles end.

While Guinevere’s love for Arthur is warm (they have very comforting sex), her love for Lancelot is blindingly passionate.  It’s fueled by lust and also by Guinevere’s need to rebel, to take some kind of control over her own life.  She is told by an unreliable source that Arthur sleeps with other women while away at war and she believes it because no one expects a king to be monogamous.  Being banned from war, she refuses to be banned from sex with whoever the heck she wants to sleep with.

This aspect of Guinevere was the one I related too.  She’s bored and she’s trapped and she’s lonely and she’s all, “Fuck it, I’ll sleep with this hot guy because it’s my life, yo”.  She wants to be a warrior queen, and for a while she’s allowed to be just that, and then she’s banished to being a piece of furniture.  No wonder she wants some autonomy.

What bugged me is that she’s so freaking self-centered.  She can’t seem to grasp that there is an entire kingdom which will be totally ruined if she can’t control her libido.  She pressures Lancelot when he says no (I did enjoy the gender reversal, in which she is the initiator of a sexual relationship).  She’s callous towards others, including her lovers.  She can’t see or doesn’t care that all these acts of personal rebellion don’t get her any further towards self-determination but they do hurt a ton of people.

I’m confused about why this series is marked as a romance series.  A romance novel carries with it the promise of a happy ending – and not just a happy ending but one in which the primary couple will end up together.  If you know your King Arthur lore, and most of us do, it’s not a spoiler to say that Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot do not end up practicing open love in Avalon while dining on cake.  It’s a tragic romance series, it’s an erotic series, and it’s a love story, but it’s not a “romance” series and it drives me crazy that it’s marketed as such.

Overall, I enjoyed this series – certainly I read it avidly, although that was partly because I was trying to figure out how the author would pull a happy ending out of this particular hat.  I was frustrated by Guinevere but I also enjoyed having a main female character who is neither passive nor perfect, and I loved that the author was sufficiently aware of Guinevere’s flaws to have Sir Kay point them out frequently (I adored Sir Kay).  I’d grade this series as a B- with a strong mileage may vary component.