Jonatha KottlerJonatha Kottler is from Albuquerque, NM where she was a lecturer in the Honors College at The University of New Mexico. She moved with her husband, son, and three very well-traveled cats from the USA to Amsterdam before falling head over heels in love with Edinburgh. She is a happy member of Edinburgh’s Write Like A Grrrl community and runs a reading and writing group for the local charity ECAS. She read a piece at Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2016. Her previous writing includes the comic book series The Wonderverse. She is completing her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @jonatha_kottler.

Guinevere, tied to a stake, how did it come to this?[1]

When I was a little girl I used to have a vinyl record[2] that told of the daring deeds of King Arthur and His Knights and there was a part about Lancelot and Guinevere and their tragic love. I used to listen to it over and over, holding the record sleeve in my hands and looking at the pictures of the knights on their horses and the Queen in her pink pointy hat–all those bright, bold colors from when the 1970s were just getting rolling but the 60s hadn’t quite let go.

Guinevere, I put you in a safe place in the back of my mind and I grew up, motherless like you, in love with Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman and Kate Jackson as the smart brunette of Charlie’s Angels–even at seven years old I knew she wasn’t the sexy one, but she usually figured things out.

It wasn’t until university that I spotted you again, Gwen, a wafer-thin character, the cause of all that went wrong. Eve, but with a crown, or a pink pointy hat, you sat, as bad as Helen of Troy, or maybe worse, because you and your sexiness spoiled that great fellowship of men, brought darkness and disaster and worse. And while Helen gave the men sport and glory, you just brought shame and civil war. Did it all while never even speaking, barely being mentioned in the text, having no real characteristics at all–except feminine sin.

And yet. I couldn’t let go of you. Couldn’t accept why you got so much more of a share of the blame: after all, you were picked for you father’s strong alliances and martial support–and dad threw in a fancy round table to seal the bargain. You weren’t even present at the auction. But Lancelot chose Arthur–left his own kingdom, swore on his sword and pledged his loyalty. His betrayal seems worse to me.

It all has to do with public opinion–what kind of king can’t control his own wife? Personally, I like to think that Arthur was fine with it, knew all along and gave his quiet blessing. Perhaps, of the bargain, he found the table more to his liking and was content to let someone have love. Perhaps he was happy for his friend.

And yet. There are always those people who are only content when others conform. Guinevere, tied to a stake, waiting for rescue, how did it come to this?

Helen of Troy had one on you. Oh sure, she may have started that war, launched those ships with her face (a confusing idea when I was a child) but at least she had the decency to give birth a couple of times. Guinevere, you failed (and the text lays the blame squarely in your lap, as it were, because Arthur fathered a son outside of the marriage. Oh, sure, with his sister–that’s a whole different tale, though. Certainly a dangerous woman there, but nowhere to be found on my childhood record). No heir, no kingdom. You failed, Gwen, at The Thing You Were For. Henry VIII would have just gotten rid of you, chop-chop and onto the next. Does that mean Arthur loved you? You breaker of hearts–you failure of a woman? We never read that he reproached you–he kept you after many years, past the point of no return, when all women are too old to have babies, when he had to choose someone else’s son to be his heir (not his sister-bastard, no one wants to bring that up).

Guinevere, tied to a stake, a good 85% sure to be rescued by Lancelot[3], how did it come to this? From your pretty pink dress and yellow hair to the fire licking at your dainty toes? Were you dangerous because you dared to love someone or because you lied, because you couldn’t bear a child?[4] Were the cards stacked against you as a Wicked Woman? I mean, when some old Victorian guy[5] steps in to settle the misogyny you know it’s gotta be bad. I mean, you’re even the villain in the woman-centric version.[6]

I’ll leave you, my Guinevere, hanging, a queenly fermata, in Steinbeck’s[7] King Arthur tales. Steinbeck, like the rest of America, caught Arthur fever when the Kennedys were compared to Camelot and Julie Andrews managed to play you warbling toward disaster and never seem the slightest bit tarnished. Before everything crumbled like ash, was soured like milk, was ruined and despoiled and dark. Left instead on a precipice, enjoying the view. On an album cover, dancing. Never knowing that no matter how many noble deeds a knight may do, a woman is dangerous just for showing up in the story at all.

[1] In Le Morte D’Arthur and many other versions of the story, when the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is made public, she is sentenced to death by burning.
[2] This was before iPad apps but after wanting someone else to read to your kid so you could have a few minutes to yourself.
[3] Spoilers, he saves her.
[4] But neither, either, did you slip your lover’s son into a crown…
[5] William Morris, “The Defense of Guenevere” (1858) in which he calls you, “glorious lady fair” and tries to show you weren’t as bad as all that.
[6] The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley in which the author creates a Gwenhwyfar who is a bitter, near-sighted, Christian; skittish as a kitten, who likes the occasional three-way but prefers to spoil everyone’s fun.
[7] John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, unfinished at the author’s death and therefore not everything had gone completely to hell.