When life gets stressful (hello wedding and holiday madness) I am a master of the art of escapism. I hole up in the dark hours between "when all good people go to sleep" and "when all good people wake to face the day" and read myself out of my stress. Which is fine. Unless I have an early morning.
I just finished Rosalind Miles' Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country, the first of her trilogy of novels exploring Arthurian lore. I say "exploring" rather than "based on" because some of the viewpoints are so totally different than any I had ever taken into account from the story before.
Be forewarned, the book is NOT what I consider appropriate for children or even some teens, and my review may reflect that a little too accurately for some readers (although I promise I was as scholarly and subtle as I could be). Also, there is discussion of religion involved. I do not have any problems with Christians (I was raised one) or pagans and neither does the author (as noted in a section at the back of the novel). Religion, you will learn, is an important factor in the times and places of the novel and is included as accurately as possible. That's my disclaimer on that.
In the novel, you meet the same beloved (or hated) characters; Guenevere, Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Morgan, Mordred... but what I plan to discuss about this novel are the new-to-me themes that I never considered when listening to/watching/reading Arthurian lore in the past.
Miles explores the depths of the characters in a way that I had never come across in the vein of Arthurian lore before. Each character's back story is established and embellished based on their family situation, religious beliefs, and gender roles with a great amount of heart and soul. While the characters drive the plot, and the plot is hardly a complete mystery, Miles also focuses on the role of religion and gender in the story many know so well.
Guenevere was born Princess of the Summer Country, a region where the Goddess is still worshiped freely and the Mother-Rule is recognized. Here, the Queen seems to hold central power, and is encouraged to choose a new champion (read: lover) every seven years, a right known as "thigh-friendship" (yes, I giggled like the adult I am). She is answerable to no man, and is revered above all.
Meanwhile, Arthur's story of being born through the rape of Lady Igraine by Uther Pendragon remains the same, or so similar there is really no need to delve into the tale here. Merlin's price for giving Igraine to Uther through use of magic and deception is the boy who resulted from that union... Arthur. Arthur is thereby raised by a trusted lord as a foster son, heavily influenced by Merlin, and his religious affiliations acknowledge both the Goddess and the more recent influence in Briton of the Christians. Merlin intended Arthur to marry a Christian girl, for the sole purpose that Christianity is a religion that teaches that women are subordinate to their husbands and all men. Merlin had hoped that Arthur would be easily manipulated with a wife who lacked spirit, but of course Arthur picks Guenevere, a Queen of her own lands who was raised to remain unanswerable to men.
Merlin is tricky in and of himself. As in other Arthurian novels, it is difficult to decipher if Merlin is a man of "white" or "black" magic. He is at once good and evil; the reader's perception of him alters as he is scrutinized in the eyes of the various characters. In Guenevere's eyes, he has been related to her as an evil man her entire life. She sees him as a cackling, lustful, vile creature bent on using Arthur as a puppet to gain rule of the British Isles. Merlin was also born of the Pendragon line, another bastard like Arthur, and she believes Merlin to be using Arthur to make his revenge on fate. Arthur, meanwhile, has grown up revering Merlin as a wise man and a sort of father figure, and feels Merlin can do no wrong. He also prides himself on being Merlin's pet, and believes wholeheartedly in the fate Merlin has foreseen for him; becoming High King.
Morgan again is seen in more depth. Not the ugly child she is sometimes portrayed to be, Morgan was in fact a beautiful youth, but too young to marry when Uther discarded Igraine's children from her previous union. Morgan was sent to live in a Christian convent for twenty years. Here again is an example of the conflict of the two prominent religions and their views on women's rights. Morgan, originally a daughter of the land of the Goddess, was handed off to Christians, who taught her that her being a woman came with original sin. The Abbess beat her and scourged her soul of the Goddess, taught her needlepoint and servitude and guilt. Morgan was born Otherworldly, with a power that clung to her. Even in the convent she knew this, and in her own way, fostered the ideals of the Goddess and the Old Ways, even in this world of Christ. Her character is especially multifaceted, as it always is, because she expressed to the outside world a solemn, reverent and mousy woman of God. Inside, she honed her power like a spear and fed the revenge she desired for the mistreating of her parents, sister and self. As is generally known in the legend, her revenge is realized through seduction and incest with Arthur, bearing Mordred, the boy who would eventually end Arthur's reign.
Lancelot is unmarried in this novel, and seeks Guenevere out to be his Queen... as in, to become the head of her knights. Their mutual forbidden love story is like a flame, burning furiously but short lived. His character, however, is not as simple and hollow as "knight in shining armor". Lancelot battles his devotions to his duty, King, Queen, and heart in a human fashion, making his character less of a lecher or cookie-cutter knight and more realistic.
Nemue is also a character in the novel, albeit a smaller role than I had originally anticipated. She is a mistress of the Lady of the Lake and the Goddess herself on Avalon, catching Merlin's eye much to her chagrin. She plays an important role for Guenevere and Merlin, and I fully expect more to develop on her in the coming novels.
This novel is only the first in a series of three. While many of the high points of the legend are including in it's text (Arthur and Guenevere's meeting, wedding, first born... Morgan begetting Mordred... Arthur becoming King... Guenevere and Lancelot's love affair...) there are other milestones yet to appear. I anticipate that they will appear in the later two novels.
My only qualm is that most of the novel is written from the point of view of Guenevere, as is evident in the title, and I feel her character has the potential to be so much stronger than she is (and she gets a bit whiny and "woe is me", which irritated me to no end). I understand, of course, that all good characters have their flaws and that is what makes them multifaceted and human. It is merely that the character I would most like to get into the head of is Morgan. Then again, I have always felt this way.
Miles has put a lot of research into her Guenevere series, trying to create characters that are not only similar to those we know from the classic tale, but resembling who the people may have been who the characters are based on. In understanding the religious, political, territorial and gender placement issues of the times, her world is easily accepted and imagined. The novel is heavily detailed, without becoming over saturated in erroneous detail (as much as I love The Lord of the Rings movies, Tolkien's habit of detailing every little thing drove me mad). The characters are all realistically flawed and driven by their own ambitions and fears, overlooking the magic of course. Occasionally, I was confused when the voice of a chapter switched from one character to another, but overall I was enthralled throughout.
I highly recommend this novel to a mature adult audience. The book is not child friendly, and some may argue that it is not appropriate for some young adult readers as well. Within the first twenty pages I came across the first fairly graphic sexual scene. That being said, I strongly feel that the sex and violence included are not added merely as lascivious tangents to captivate the audience, but are a reminder of the presumed times, and often are situations that reflect a character's motives for their later or former actions. Basically, the book demands a responsible audience to appreciate it for what it is. If you feel inclined to read it, and are capable of handling the subject matter, I think you will find it an enjoyable (and fairly addictive) read!