Study Guide

The Defence of Guenevere Memory and the Past

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Memory and the Past

Most of "The Defence of Guenevere" consists of the title character going over her memories in front of a court full of "knights and lords," all of whom are determined to find her guilty of adultery.  Her central defense is the vividness of her memories and the intensity of her beauty.  Memory is a powerful thing in this poem – it can seem more immediate than the dreamlike present. But are her memories accurate?  The past also haunts Guenevere: her history with Launcelot is what got her into this mess in the first place, and she doesn't seem certain that she made the right choices along the way. 

Questions About Memory and the Past

  1. Who controls access to memory and the past in the poem?  Why is this important?
  2. Why does Guenevere recall only images and sensations?  Why does she not offer hard facts and evidence in her own defense?
  3. Is one version of the past more valid or accurate in this poem than another?  Why or why not?  Use specific lines from the poem to support your answer.
  4. In what ways does the past haunt Guenevere?  How does the past haunt Gauwaine?  How can you tell?

Chew on This

Gauwaine's memory of his own mother's alleged adultery and execution at the hands of his brother still haunts him: his repressed emotions surrounding his mother's shameful death motivate his attack on Guenevere.

All the characters in "The Defence of Guenevere" live almost entirely in their memories; no one is able to escape the past.

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