Arthur and Guinevere

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ARTHUR AND GUINEVERE
Redemption through suffering

 

The tale of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, and of her love for the king's best friend, Lancelot, is one of the best-known of all myths about the pain of betrayal. It is also virtually unique in that none of the participants in this triangle attempt to destroy each other, but instead find reconciliation and inner peace through integrity, loyalty to friendship and a recognition of the essentially sacred nature of deep and heartfelt love.

After many years of wars and battles, having achieved victory over the invading Saxon hordes, King Arthur said to his wise advisor Merlin, 'The time has come for me to take a wife.' Merlin inquired whether the king had already made a choice; and it seemed he had, for he had been told of a wondrously beautiful princess called Guinevere, the daughter of King Leodegrance of Cameliard, and was inflamed with love even before he had met the lady.

But Merlin was a prophet and he could foresee that this choice would end in tragedy. 'If I should advise you that Guinevere is an unfortunate choice, would that change you?' asked Merlin.

'No,' replied Arthur.

'Well, then, if I should tell you that Guinevere will be unfaithful to you with your dearest and most trusted friend...' said Merlin.

'I would not believe you,' said Arthur.

'Of course not,' said Merlin sadly. 'Every man who has ever lived holds tight to the belief that, for him alone, the laws of probability are cancelled out by love. Even I, who know beyond doubt that my death will be caused by a silly girl, will not hesitate when that girl passes by. Therefore you will marry Guinevere. You do not want advice only agreement.'

And so Arthur sent Lancelot, the chief of his knights and his most trusted friend, to bring her from her father's house to the king's court. On the journey, Merlin's prophecy came to pass, and Lancelot and Guinevere fell in love with each other. But neither would consent to break their promise to the king.

Soon after the wedding, King Arthur had to attend to business elsewhere in the kingdom. In his absence, King Meleagant laid a trap for the queen, and seized her and carried her off into his kingdom. No one knew what had become of her. The only way into the moated prison in which Meleagant had incarcerated her was by a perilous bridge which had never been crossed by anyone, as it was made of sharp swords laid end to end. No one dared go after Guinevere but Lancelot, who made his way through unknown country until he discovered where Guinevere was hidden. He crossed the sword bridge and sustained grievous wounds, but he rescued the queen and fought and killed Meleagant. And when they returned to the court, she took pity on Lancelot and nursed his wounds herself. As he lay healing, the two at last consummated their secret love.

When Arthur returned, Merlin told him that he had seen the queen and Lancelot in a vision and that Guinevere had betrayed her husband. And other members of the court also told Arthur that the queen and Lancelot were known to secretly love each other. But Arthur refrained from violence or accusation, and held his own counsel, because he knew that both his friend and the queen suffered greatly because of their love, and that both struggled against it as best they could. Because he loved them both, he was loathe to destroy either of them through public exposure of the betrayal. So he waited, and all three were made wretched because of the love which each bore the other two.

But the knights of the court were angry at the shame the queen and Lancelot had brought to the king, and also they saw a chance for grasping power and ousting the king's best friend from his side. So they plotted to catch Lancelot and Guinevere together, in order to bring the king proof of the betrayal and make public the queen's misdeeds. Among these knights was Mordred, who was the king's illegitimate son and who secretly sought the throne for himself.

That night these self-seeking men lay in wait for the lovers and burst into the chamber where they lay. But Lancelot escaped, and the knights took the queen prisoner and brought her before the king with proof of her betrayal. So Arthur was forced against his will to accuse her publicly and made her stand trial. Guinevere was judged guilty and sentenced to the fire. But as she was dragged to the stake, Lancelot, who had received news of her fate while he lay in hiding, rode forth to rescue her. There was a great battle, and many knights were slain before Lancelot carried the queen off to his castle called Joyous Gard.

Guinevere

Now Arthur could no longer be forgiving, for Lancelot had killed many of his best knights. So the king set off with his army to besiege the castle of Joyous Gard. But Lancelot refused to ride forth from the castle, for he would not do battle with Arthur. And then Arthur and Lancelot spoke to each other, and each remembered the love and loyalty they held for each other. Lancelot repented and swore he would give up the queen's love, so Arthur and Lancelot were reconciled.

Arthur would have taken back his queen, but the other knights would not countenance such a spirit of forgiveness. They demanded vengeance, so Lancelot had to come forth to do battle with these knights, lest he be thought a coward. And a great battle followed. During this battle Arthur and Lancelot met, and there were tears in both men's eyes. But they could not undo what had been done, and the battle went on around them, although these two had made peace with each other.

At length, both sides were exhausted. A parley ensued, and there was a truce. Arthur returned to court with Guinevere and offered Lancelot his old place at the Round Table. But Mordred, who saw power slipping from his grasp, plotted the downfall of all three. He led a great host against the king and, in this battle, the king was mortally wounded. Although Lancelot fought on the side of Arthur and killed Mordred, when all was over he could not bear his guilt, and told the widowed queen that he must depart forever. So he rode off and entered a monastery, and spent his days repenting his misdeeds. And the queen, too, could bear neither her guilt nor the loss of both the men she loved, and she took herself to a nunnery.

Many years passed, and one night Lancelot had a vision in which he was told to go to see the queen. When he had found the nunnery in which she had spent her days, he was told that she had died half an hour before, and he was faced with her corpse. And then Lancelot took neither meat nor drink, and sickened more and more. Eventually, he pined away and died.

Both Lancelot and Guinevere were placed on the same bier and brought to Lancelot's castle of Joyous Gard, and all the surviving knights who had sought their destruction in life came to honour them in death, for they had expiated their sins and now all knew of their great love for each other and for the king. So all three were forgiven in death, who were not forgiven in life.

 

COMMENTARY: The tragic triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is a shining vision of the nobility of the human heart. It portrays a potential of which all of us are capable but which, sadly, is rarely met in real life. This triangle is not based, as so many are, on self-indulgence, mere sexual attraction, boredom or an attempt to escape commitment. It is rooted in deep love on all sides, and it teaches us that love is not always exclusive; we may love different people deeply in different ways. This is a hard thing for the modern person to swallow, for we are brought up to believe that if we love our partners, we cannot possibly love anyone else; we take marriage vows which demand exclusivity; and, in our attempts to understand why we get involved in triangles, we persist in believing that those who betray must be shallow and unfeeling. In many triangles, shallower reasons, conscious or unconscious, may indeed motivate the betrayal. But the myth of Arthur and Guinevere tells us that this is not always so, and that sometimes life is simply unfair; and so, too, may be the human heart.

Arthur's refusal to retaliate, despite his hurt, reflects a generosity of spirit and a capacity for self-control which we may well envy. Unfortunately, these qualities are not shared by his knights, who, like so many, are loud and obvious in their condemnation of something they cannot understand, because they have never loved deeply themselves. And these knights also have their own secret agendas which blind them to the profound rightness of what Arthur tries to do. In popular opinion, a modern-day Arthur, faced with such a situation, may well be thought a 'wimp', a weak man who tolerates a shameful situation because he is not manly enough to do anything about it. Yet Arthur is the opposite his loyalty to both his friendship with Lancelot and his love for his wife causes him deep suffering, yet he refuses to betray his own heart and, thus, he proves himself more manly than any of the knights who bay for revenge.

La Mort d'Arthur, by James Archer (1829-1904)

None of the characters in this story finds romantic happiness in the ordinary sense. But perhaps more important than living happily ever after is the absolute loyalty all three show towards the deepest demands of their souls, even though it costs them nothing less than everything. If the love between Guinevere and Lancelot were anything less than a love of the soul, neither would have given way to temptation. If Arthur's love for both his friend and his queen were anything less than a love of the soul, he would have indulged himself in revenge, with the complete approval of everyone around him. There may be times when such a love enters our lives; and if it does, we may understand why the ancients thought it the visitation of a god, against which human will is powerless. Often simple lust, or the secret desire to punish a partner, is disguised by declarations of grand passion. But the real nature of such desire is revealed when we are faced with the kind of choices that are forced on these three mythic figures. Perhaps we may consider ourselves fortunate if such cauterizing fires do not enter our lives. If they do, great suffering inevitably ensues for all three people. Yet, if life does impose such a challenge on us, we might do well to remember the story of Arthur and Guinevere, which tells us that betrayal may be the deepest and most profound means by which we come to know ourselves and what we truly believe in.

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