The chances are that your attitude toward kingship affects how you perceive the Arthurian legends. Are kings romantic figures to you? Does the idea of benevolent power attract you? Do you see the past as romantic?
What do the Arthurian legends mean to a feminist? Can we rewrite the tales to make the women stronger or more positive? Traditionally, Guinevere was a passive character who was rescued by others. And Arthur's sisters (sometimes aunts) Morgan and Morgause have usually been portrayed as villains. Women were threats to the male code of chivalry (an invention of an age long after the presumed King Arthur lived). Does recreating the women as main characters change the message? Or is writing about kings, queens, and warriors a hopelessly Eurocentric, classist mode of writing? Perhaps, but some of us are drawn to it nevertheless. If we include characters who are not royalty or knights, we can perhaps broaden the tale.
I have lived in Camelot, and not just King Arthur's. For me, the women's liberation movement was my own Camelot, my own company of equals. Yes, my friends from that era mostly remain, but many of our institutions have vanished. It was when I saw that happening that I began to read about and dream about Camelot. Not exclusively, of course. I keep up with contemporary feminism. But I remember the days when it was new and we felt we could do anything. And so I have written my own Arthurian novel, to be mentioned later in this article.
I don't think you have to be nostalgic for unlikely pasts to enjoy the Arthurian legends. You could use them to dissect the past and dissent from it. Or to create a model of a past that you know is fantasy as a way of examining the present or providing ideas about the future.
Arthurian literature has a long history. The earliest mention of Arthur is in the Annales Cambriae (a compilation of Welsh sources) entry for 537 C.E., which mentions “the strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.” Despite the mention of the 5th century date in the text, the earliest version of the Annales has been dated as produced in the 10th century or later.
Geoffrey of Monmoth, who lived in the 12th century, was perhaps the earliest writer who created a story about a possibly mythical King Arthur. But Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of England) and Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) outline the story with some of the characters later ages have learned. Medraut (Mordred) becomes the villain who slew Arthur. Characters from Geoffrey's tale include Merlin, the hero Gawain(e) (generally Arthur's nephew), and Morgan, a sorceress. And Arthur was given a wife, her name some version of Guinevere (at first Gwenhwyfar).
The English legends were so popular that Chretien de Troyes moved into the territory and inserted a French character, Lancelot, who became extremely popular and appears in most subsequent versions of the legend. Chretien also created the character Perceval.
The Cistercian monastic order made the tale more religious by inventing the character Galahad, the perfect knight, and the concept of the Holy Grail.
Sir Thomas Malory, a 15th century knight, wrote while he was in prison what became the most famous version, Le Morte d'Artur (The Death of Arthur), with all the familiar characters. He portrayed Arthur as cursed because he was seduced by one of his sisters, whom he did not know was his sister. Women become prominent as villains, as does Mordred, who becomes the son of the incestuous pairing.
In the nineteenth century, Alfred, Lord Tennyson created his poetic version, The Idylls of the King. The Arthurian Age became even more popular and the Pre-Raphaelites used its themes in painting. Weary of their enthusiasm, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in Aurora Leigh:
I do distrust the poet who discerns
No character or glory in his times,
And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,
To sing-oh, not of lizard or of toad
Alive I' the ditch there, — 'twere excusable,
But of some black chief, half-knight, half sheep-lifter,
Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen.
The poet’s pithy criticism is well taken, especially if we think she is calling Guinevere “half chattel and half queen,” but many of us have continued to write and read fiction and poetry loosely based on earlier myths.
Concern about the fate of his country in the mid-20th century led the English writer T.H. White to write The Once and Future King (written in segments that were later put together). This became the most popular rendition of Arthurian tales in that century. Arthur grows from a little boy who learns how to become a good king by being transformed by Merlin into different animals. But actual kingship breaks his heart and leads to war, which Merlin had warned against. This book was the inspiration for the musical “Camelot,” which was only loosely based on it. (In White's book, Lancelot is ugly and ashamed of his looks, not much like Robert Goulet.)
Many other contemporary writers have devised their own versions of the story. By far the most famous is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which makes Arthur's sister Morgaine the heroine. In most tellings she is Morgan Le Fay, a villain who seeks to destroy Arthur. But Bradley made her a devout pagan and used her books to reclaim paganism as perhaps better than Christianity.
Numerous other writers have tried, like Bradley, to place the tales in an early period, around 500 C.E., rather than in the late medieval period that Malory and White chose. Castles and knights-- Norman concepts--are anachronisms in Arthurian literature.
Rosemary Sutcliff wrote Sword at Sunset, a book set in the early period that feels authentic, though it has too many battles for my taste. Its Arthur and Guinevere are real and sad.
Other writers have centered on women, usually Guinevere. One of my favorites is Gyan, in Kim Headlee's Dawnflight, who is a Pict and a fighter in her own right.
I also particularly like Gillian Bradshaw's tales. Hawk of May is from the point of view of Gwalchai, an early name for Gawaine, who is seeking to escape from the evil magical world of his mother. Kingdom of Summer is from the point of view of his servant. In Winter's Shadow is a believable book from Guinevere's point of view.
One ambitious version, which sadly is out of print, is Fay Sampson's five volume series, Daughter of Tintagel, which tells the story from five different points of view, including Morgan's (before Bradley) and a blacksmith's. The first volume is Wise Woman's Telling. Warning: The series is very hard to find.
I also am fond of Sharan Newman's three-volume tale based on Guinevere, which is as gentle and warm as any Arthurian book can be.
There are other books from Morgan's point of view, and some from Mordred's. One unusual and charming book is The Idylls of the Queen, Phyllis Ann Karr's book in which Guinevere is accused of murder and Cai the seneschal, Arthur's foster brother who is usually portrayed as so sarcastic as to be unlovable, tries to find out who really committed the murder and to save Guinevere.
These are only the versions that I particularly like. There are many others, of course, including numerous male-centered ones.
And here is mine: Lancelot: Her Story
As you might have guessed, in my own version, Lancelot is a woman. Lancelot: Her Story, the first of two volumes, will soon be published. My story poses the questions:
How does the concept of Lancelot as a woman in disguise change the Arthurian dynamic? Will Camelot be a dream come true for her, or a nightmare? Or both? What will Guinevere mean to her? What will war mean to her? How will Lancelot and Guinevere manage to survive in a patriarchal world? I hope you will want to read my books and find out. The first volume follows Lancelot from the time she is a 10-year-old girl named Anna.
You can subscribe to my RSS feed to get an email when Lancelot: Her Story goes on sale, both in print and as an e-book. There will be various book launch events, both virtual (on this blog as well as other blogs and websites) and actual (in the DC area and in Florida).