The literary world is crammed full of books surrounding Arthurian lore — so many, in fact, that it could very well be a genre of its own. The problem, however, is that because the main events, characters and storylines are already set out in the mythology, authors cannot tamper with them… at least not too much. This poses the challenge of presenting the familiar story in an original way, and the latest trend seems to be taking a character and telling the story through their point of view. In Guenevere: Queen of the Summer Country, Rosalind Miles has done this with the titular character.
In her version, the city of Camelot already exists in Guenevere’s home country, the Summer Country. The Summer Country is a matriarchal society that worships “the Goddess” and where the Queens choose their own husbands, but then take a champion/lover every seven years. Guenevere: Queen of the Summer Country chronicles Guenevere’s life through her marriage to Arthur, the birth and death of their son, his adulterous affair with his half-sister Morgan (here chronologically placed after their marriage rather than before), Guenevere’s meeting with Lancelot, her kidnap by her kinsman Malgaunt, and the beginning of her affair with Lancelot.
In reading Guenevere: Queen of the Summer Country I couldn’t help but feel that Miles had read Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s more popular novel The Mists of Avalon and decided to take Bradley’s version of a pious, simpering Guenevere and make her a “strong woman.” The result is not a success. Miles’s Guenevere is a thoroughly unlikeable heroine: bad-tempered, narrow-minded, bitter, resentful and given over to long-winded trains of thought that usually concern how much she loves Arthur/Lancelot or how much the Christians suck. She gets worked up when Arthur makes even the tiniest decision without consulting her first, and yet gets annoyed when he appears too dependent on the advice of others (namely Merlin).
The supporting cast fares no better: Arthur starts out strong, but soon becomes a depressed and spiritless king; Merlin is a lecherous man; and Lancelot is a nitwit who is forced to say, “the glory of the spring shines in you alone and the splendor of the stars live in your eyes.” Ugh. Furthermore, Miles unfortunately makes their relationship begin with love at first sight, rendering it completely implausible.
The story and language are riddled with inconsistencies. For example, Arthur is declared the father of Morgan le Fay’s unborn child — completely ignoring the fact that Miles also had Morgan sleeping with Sir Lucan at the same time. No one suggests that Mordred might be his son. Language-wise, the thoughts and situations of the characters are all over the place: when Guenevere first meets Lancelot we are told, “She loved him and there was no turning back.” Yet in the very next paragraph we are told, “She could not, she did not, and that was the end.” Huh? Did we miss something?
Another similarity with The Mists of Avalon is Miles’s treatment of the Christian faith. Now I’m not saying that Christianity was a completely faultless religion, but to portray it in such a black light is at first offensive, and then just plain silly considering the hypocrisy that comes into play. Miles contrasts it to the “better” religion — the worship of the Goddess, which is described as loving and tolerant. Yet the Goddess worshipers display little of either of these traits (unless you count all the sex they have).
Guenevere in particular holds extreme intolerance against the Christians, responding to their mere presence with aggression and scorn. Even Bradley’s novels were more lenient than this; she described the two religions as simply two alternative ways of worshiping the same thing. Miles presents them as two utterly incompatible, opposing factions. We are supposed to believe that there are actually two deities at work in the world — the Christian God and the Mother Goddess, for at one stage she declares: “The Father God — the enemy of the Mother, foe of foes.” Even the most self-righteous neo-pagan will be uncomfortable with this representation of both their own and Christian religion.
With this comes the inevitable male vs. female conflict, with all women (except the Christian Abbess of course) as the victims, whilst the men are the ugly, evil oppressors. Women are allowed extreme sexual freedom (Guenevere actually looks upon those that don’t have this as “wretched virgins”) and one man is seen as the ultimate bad guy by trying to restrain his wife from taking a lover. But you should see the rumpus made when a man is unfaithful to a woman…
Miles also has a rather weird obsession with woman’s nipples — every time she describes a woman you can be sure the shape, size and colour of her nipples will be discussed.
Ultimately, I have yet to find “my” Guenevere on the page as I see her in my mind — beautiful, noble and tragic. She certainly wasn’t in this book.
Rosalind Miles, like Marion Zimmer Bradley, casts the Arthurian mythos as a conflict between paganism and Christianity, and between matriarchy and patriarchy. Miles’ portrayal of the two female leads is the mirror image of Bradley’s; this time Guenevere is the feminist Goddess-worshiper and Morgan was reared in a Christian convent. This, unfortunately, doesn’t constitute much of an innovation over Bradley’s version, and Miles’ portrayals are less nuanced than Bradley’s. The book is melodramatic, too, and what sticks out most in memory is that Guenevere constantly exclaimed “Goddess, Mother,” both in dialogue and internal monologue, ad nauseam.
Guenevere — (1999-2000) Publisher: Last in a line of proud queens elected to rule the fertile lands of the West, true owner of the legendary Round Table, guardian of the Great Goddess herself…a woman whose story has never been told — until now. Raised in the tranquil beauty of the Summer Country, Princess Guenevere has led a charmed and contented life — until the sudden, violent death of her mother, Queen Maire, leaves the Summer Country teetering on the brink of anarchy. Only the miraculous arrival of Arthur, heir to the Pendragon dynasty, allows Guenevere to claim her mother’s throne. Smitten by the bold, sensuous princess, Arthur offers to marry her and unite their territories, allowing her to continue to reign in her own right. Their love match creates the largest and most powerful kingdom in the Isles. Yet even the glories of Camelot are not safe from the shadows of evil and revenge. Arthur is reunited with his long-lost half-sisters, Morgause and Morgan, princesses torn from their mother and their ancestral right by Arthur’s father, the brutal and unscrupulous King Uther. Both daughters will avenge their suffering, but it is Morgan who strikes the deadliest blows, using her enchantments to destroy all Guenevere holds dear and to force Arthur to betray his Queen. In the chaos that follows, Arthur dispatches a new knight to Guenevere, the young French prince Lancelot, never knowing that Lancelot’s passion for the Queen, and hers for him, may be the love that spells ruin for Camelot.