I recently read Queen of Camelot by Nancy McKenzie, an epic about Guinevere, Arthur’s wife and queen. It spans from practically her birth to just after the death of Arthur and the fall of Camelot. This novel was originally published as two separate books, The Child Queen and The High Queen, and so is 623 pages, but is completely worth it. Here is the synopsis:
On the night of Guinevere’s birth, a wise woman declares a prophecy of doom for the child: She will be gwenhwyfar, the white shadow, destined to betray her king, and be herself betrayed. Years pass, and Guinevere becomes a great beauty, riding free across Northern Wales on her beloved horse. She is entranced by the tales of the valorous Arthur, a courageous warrior who seems to Guinevere no mere man, but a legend. Then she finds herself betrothed to that same famous king, a hero who commands her willing devotion. Just as his knights and all his subjects, she falls under Arthur’s spell.
At the side of King Arthur, Guinevere reigns strong and true. Yet she soon learns how the dark prophecy will reveal itself. She is unable to conceive. Arthur’s only true heir is Mordred, offspring of a cursed encounter with the witch Morgause. Now Guinevere must make a fateful choice: She decides to raise Mordred, teaching him to be a ruler and to honor Camelot. She will love him like a mother. Mordred will be her greatest joy–and the key to her ultimate downfall.
This novel was masterfully written, as the author sets the story against a historical background, somewhere in the late 5th century. These circumstances could have happened, had Arthur been a real historical figure. At the beginning, Britain is divided and having to fight against the Saxons. Arthur rises to power with his ability to lead the army and strategically defeat them in battle, before his true lineage as heir to Uther Pendragon is revealed. The Saxons are finally beaten back at the Battle of Badon Hill. Throughout the book there are tensions between the rather new, but rapidly spreading Christianity, and the old pagan beliefs and the Druids. Towards the end of the book, Arthur travels to mainland Europe to aid Brittany in fending off Romans. They call him Riothamus because of his power, just decision-making, and ability to inspire love and devotion in his subjects. Even the ancient historian Gildas is mentioned. All of these situations and more are drawn from the records of what and who Arthur may have been, had he existed.
However, McKenzie also uses both main and minor events from the legends and weaves them into the story in a more believable way. Merlin exists, as well as Nimue, Niniane, and Vivien, but the magic is kept to a minimum and does not interfere with the historical believability of the story. Arthur does conceive Mordred with his half sister Morgause, but this occurs before he knows of his true identity and he feels extreme guilt for it the rest of his life. Guinevere is kidnapped by Melwas and is saved by Lancelot, but the circumstances and purpose for it make much more sense than they traditionally do in the legend. Elaine does seduce Lancelot, but only to spite Guinevere and not because she actually loves Lancelot. Guinevere is saved from burning at the stake by Lancelot, but she is not sentenced to this fate by Arthur; she has been kidnapped by Druids who attempt to sacrifice her in retaliation to avenge the massacre of some of their priests. Mordred does become king in Arthur’s absence, but because they all believe him to be dead and not because he is trying to be traitorous. Arthur asks Guinevere to move to a nunnery towards the end of her life because he wants her to be kept safe, not because she was unfaithful to him. There are many more instances like this throughout the novel, including those involving Morgan, Excalibur, the Orkney brothers, and Lancelot’s exile. Overall, the author takes many well-known events from the legends and retells them as more plausible occurrences.
The one aspect I didn’t like as much was the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere. I did like that though they loved each other, they were never truly lovers, as their love for the King surpassed their temptations to be unfaithful to him. However, the romance between them developed far too quickly and never made much sense to me. I especially found it hard to believe that after Guinevere marries and falls in love with Arthur, she still had any feelings of that sort left for Lancelot. But I suppose this part of the plot was too ingrained in the legend to be ignored completely, and I am grateful that Guinevere ultimately remained faithful to her husband.
Guinevere herself has always fascinated me as a character. I really enjoyed her development in this novel, though there were a few things about her that annoyed me at times. I actually enjoyed her more in the first half of the book, which begins when she is a child and ends not long after her marriage to Arthur. I thought her good qualities appeared much more in this section; her generosity, humility, honesty, innocence, inner strength, and courage. Her ability to be a queen and companion to Arthur was definitely developed in this stage. However, in the second part of the novel I didn’t detect these qualities as much in her actions and thoughts. This might have been because she seemed completely dependent on both Arthur and Lancelot. However, there was much about her that was still admirable, especially her desire to be the best companion possible to Arthur and share in his sorrows and joys, just as he shared in hers, and her courage to speak her mind in a world when men dominated society and politics.
I did like the development of her relationship with Mordred. He was almost as noble a character as Arthur, which is certainly unexpected. Her desperation and despair at not being able to conceive a child was well developed, and so her bittersweet, motherly love for Mordred fit in perfectly into her need for a child. The tragic fate that befell him worked out better than I expected it to, aided by a large misunderstanding.
Despite the fact that this was the story of Guinevere, I thought in some cases it was definitely Arthur’s story as well. A king who was able to unite Britain after centuries of conflict, and whose legend has been passed down through hundreds of generations, certainly must have been an extraordinary person. McKenzie portrays him as someone who could inspire the love and devotion of all his subjects, despite their prejudices and conflicts. His humble upbringings allow him to rule without abusing his power. His inner strength and calm diffuses into those around him. He truly was a character worthy of the legends and stories about him, and found his perfect match in Guinevere.
I was very impressed by this novel. McKenzie took a character who has been widely and often unfavorably interpreted through legend, and crafted her into a brave, beautiful, sensitive woman who was capable of ruling alongside such a great figure as King Arthur and ultimately affecting Camelot and all of Britain.