Le Morte D'Arthur
by Sir Thomas Malory
When King Arthur marries Gwenyvere, daughter of King Lodegrean, he receives a huge round table with seats for 150 knights, as well as 100 knights to fill most of those seats as her dowry. Gwenyvere's introduction to the story, then, brings with it the fellowship of the Round Table, so without her, we wouldn't have much of a story, now would we? Yet Gwenyvere also brings with her the seeds of its very destruction, because her affair with Launcelot will shake Camelot to its core.
As Launcelot's lover, Gwenyvere is something of a harsh task-mistress, and wildly unpredictable. She's understandably angry when Launcelot sleeps with Elayne, causing him to go nuts and jump out the window. But her banishment of Launcelot from court just because he defends other ladies – and this only to dispel the rumors and gossip about his relationship with Gwenyvere – seems totally illogical and un-called for. Our girl is a bit moody, to say the least.
And soon after this episode, Gwenyvere insists that Launcelot participate in a tournament despite still being in recovery from his duel with Sir Mador (which, by the way, he undertook to clear Gwenyvere's name). Her motive? To avoid suspicion and gossip that might be provoked by Launcelot remaining behind with Gwenyvere. Right…
Only a few pages later however, Gwenyvere insists that Launcelot wear her favor in all subsequent tournaments, exposing them both to the suspicion she was recently so darn eager to avoid. Fickle, much? Finally, she rebukes Launcelot for the death of Elayne of Ascolat, caused by Launcelot's rejection of her in favor of Gwenyvere, saying that Launcelot "myght have shewed hir som bownté and jantilnes whych myght have preserved hir lyff" (617.25-26). Poor Launcelot. He just can't win when it comes to his dear Gwen.
Our point with all of this is that Gwenyvere is an inconsistent and capricious mistress, at one moment demanding Launcelot be by her side, and at another, banishing him. She makes him to ignore other ladies in her favor, then chides him for not providing other women with proper attention. If we're being honest, at times it's difficult to figure out what Launcelot sees in her. We'll just come right out and say it: this girl is high maintenance.
It seems that Gwenyvere's main role in Le Morte D'Arthur is simply to make Launcelot look good. His unfailing loyalty to her, especially given her difficult nature, is totally super-human. And Gwenyvere gets into many scrapes – the poisoning charge, the kidnapping, the treason accusation – from which Launcelot must rescue her, which he always does, true to form. All his mishaps, sticky situations, and jealousies help Launcelot to shine.
Another Side to Gwen
If it seems like we're being a bit hard on Gwenyvere, we admit it. But it's not Gwenyvere's fault that she's just a prop for Launcelot's heroics. Still, is there any way to see her as something more? We think the answer is a resounding yes.
She's not all about Launcelot, it turns out. Like Arthur, Gwenyvere might also represent a principle of justice, this one specific to ladies. After all, it's Gwenyvere who presides over the tribunal that judges Gawain for his murder of a lady. And that tribunal sentences him to a lifelong devotion to all ladies from henceforth.
So our girl is definitely down for defending female honor, at least according to the chivalry of the times. In fact, we might even view Gwenyvere's indignation on behalf of Elayne of Ascolat as another example of her fulfilling this role. She may be inconsistent, moody, and unpredictable. But, hey, at least she's got her girls' backs.Timeline