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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The Guinevere of the Vulgate and partly of Malory


In what we may call the earliest representations of her, she has hardly any colour at all. She is a noble Roman lady, and very beautiful. For a time she is apparently very happy with her husband, and he with her; and if she seems to make not the slightest scruple about "taking up with" her nephew, co-regent and fellow rebel, why, noble Roman ladies thought nothing of divorce and not much of adultery. The only old Welsh story (the famous Melvas one so often referred to) that we have about her in much detail merely establishes the fact, pleasantly formulated by M. Paulin Paris, that she was "tres sujette a etre enlevee," but in itself (unless we admit the Peacockian triad of the "Three Fatal Slaps of the Isle of Britain" as evidence) again says nothing about her character. If, as seems probable if not certain, the _Launfal_ legend, with its libel on her, is of Breton origin, it makes her an ordinary Celtic princess, a spiritual sister of Iseult when she tried to kill Brengwain, and a cross between Potiphar's wife and Catherine of Russia, without any of the good nature and "gentlemanliness" of the last named. The real Guinevere, the Guinevere of the Vulgate and partly of Malory, is freed from the colourlessness and the discreditable end of Geoffrey's queen, transforms the promiscuous and rather _louche_ Melvas incident into an important episode of her epic or romantic existence, and gives the lie, even in her least creditable or least charming moments, to the _Launfal_ libel. As before in Lancelot's case, details of her presentation had in some cases best be either translated in full or omitted, but I cannot refuse myself the pleasure of attempting, with however clumsy a hand, a portrait of our, as I believe, English Helen, who gave in French language to French, and not only French literature, the pattern of a heroine.

There is not, I think, any ancient authority for the rather commonplace suggestion, unwisely adopted by Tennyson, that Guinevere fell in love with Lancelot when he was sent as an ambassador to fetch her; thus merely repeating Iseult and Tristram, and anticipating Suffolk and Margaret. In fact, according to the best evidence, Lancelot could not have been old enough, if he was even born. On the contrary, nothing could be better than the presentation of her introduction to Arthur and the course of the wooing in the Vulgate--the other "blessed original." She first sees Arthur as a foe from the walls of besieged Carmelide, and admires his valour; she has further occasion to admire it when, as a friend, he rescues her father, showing himself, as what he really was in his youth, his own best knight. The pair are genuinely in love with each other, and the betrothal and parting for fresh fight are the most gracious passages of the _Merlin_ book, except the better version (_v. sup._) of the love of Merlin himself and the afterwards libelled Viviane. Anyhow, she was married because she fell in love with him, and there is no evidence to show that she and Arthur lived otherwise than happily together. But, if all tales were true, she had no reason to regard him as a very faithful husband or a blameless man. She may not have known (for nobody but Merlin apparently


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