Guinevere over the Centuries

John Collier, “Queen Guinevere’s Maying”


I am currently supervising a two-semester senior project with Sara Hirshon (we call them St. Mary’s Projects or SMPs) and am using today’s post to get my head around it. In addition to assisting both me and my student, it could well interest you.

Sara Hirshon is an English-Political Science double major who is using feminist political theory to chart evolving depictions of Guinevere. She is focusing on three literary moments—Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart in 12th century France, the first appearance of Guinevere as we have come to know her; Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in Victorian England; and two contemporary works, Mercedes Lackey’s Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit and Alice Borchadt’s Tales of Guinevere.

Sara is also drawing on three political theories: Simone de Beauvoir’s process of “othering”; Carole Pateman’s “sexual contract”; and Judith Butler, Wendy Brown and Linda Zerilli’s “social constructions of women.” It’s an ambitious project but Sara has convinced me and her political science mentor (Diana Boros) that she can hold it altogether.

De Beauvoir pointed out that women have traditionally been defined, not as beings in and of themselves, but as whatever men are not. Therefore, even when they are doing the same jobs as men—Chrétien’s patron Marie de France presided over the court and would go on to twice serve as regent—they are seen as Other. Women have been Other-ed throughout Western history.

Othering has taken different forms at different times, however. In the court of Marie de France, the “sexual contract” took the form of courtly love, with femininity constructed as a lady who issues commands to her knight. In bourgeois England, romantic marriage became the ideal, with the woman constructed as “the angel on the hearth.” For third wave feminists in 21st century America, the sexual contract is partnership, with the ideal being the super woman who can balance a successful career with a romantic relationship and a nurturing household.

Sara notes that Guinevere shifted from public figure in the 12th century to private in the 19th and back to public in the 21st.

I look forward to what Sara will discover about how these different literary works use Guinevere to negotiate issues of female power and female autonomy. Already she notes that, at least in the 12th and 19th centuries, the works simultaneously granted and circumscribed female power. In Marie de France’s court, courtly ladies were seen as commanding their knights but within carefully defined constraints. In Victorian times, Guinevere was both an ideal lady and a seductive temptress whose sexuality could bring down Camelot.

I hope Sara addresses what is achieved by resorting to the Guinevere story. Why are modern women still drawn to it, even though they must drastically alter the story or dip into her Celtic matriarchal roots to make her acceptable to modern readers. The modern versions are ingenious but why hold on to Guinevere at all?

I’ll provide Sara’s answers in April.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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