GUENEVERE (Lat. Guanhumara; Welsh, Gwenhwyfar; O. Eng. Gaynore), in Arthurian romance the wife of King Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who calls her Guanhumara, makes her a Roman lady, but the general tradition is that she was of Cornish birth and daughter to King Leodegrance. Wace, who, while translating Geoffrey, evidently knew, and used, popular tradition, combines these two, asserting that she was of Roman parentage on the mother’s side, but cousin to Cador of Cornwall by whom she was brought up. The tradition relating to Guenevere is decidedly confused and demands further study. The Welsh triads know no fewer than three Gwenhwyfars; Giraldus Cambrensis, relating the discovery of the royal tombs at Glastonbury, speaks of the body found as that of Arthur’s second wife; the prose Merlin gives Guenevere a bastard half-sister of the same name, who strongly resembles her; and the Lancelot relates how this lady, trading on the likeness, persuaded Arthur that she was the true daughter of Leodegrance, and the queen the bastard interloper. This episode of the false Guenevere is very perplexing.
To the majority of English readers Guenevere is best known in connexion with her liaison with Lancelot, a story which, in the hands of Malory and Tennyson, has assumed a form widely different from the original conception, and at once more picturesque and more convincing. In the French romances Lancelot is a late addition to the Arthurian cycle, his birth is not recorded till long after the marriage of Arthur and Guenevere, and he is at least twenty years the junior of the queen. The relations between them are of the most conventional and courtly character, and are entirely lacking in the genuine dramatic passion which marks the love story of Tristan and Iseult. The Lancelot-Guenevere romance took form and shape in the artificial atmosphere encouraged by such patronesses of literature as Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie, Comtesse de Champagne (for whom Chrétien de Troyes wrote his Chevalier de la Charrette), and reflects the low social morality of a time when love between husband and wife was declared impossible. But though Guenevere has changed her lover, the tradition of her infidelity is of much earlier date and formed a part of the primitive Arthurian legend. Who the original lover was is doubtful; the Vita Gildae relates how she was carried off by Melwas, king of Aestiva Regis, to Glastonbury, whither Arthur, at the head of an army, pursued the ravisher. A fragment of a Welsh poem seems to confirm this tradition, which certainly lies at the root of her later abduction by Meleagaunt. In the Lanzelet of Ulrich von Zatzikhoven the abductor is Falerîn. The story in these forms represents an other-world abduction. A curious fragment of Welsh dialogues, printed by Professor Rhys in his Studies on the Arthurian Legend, appears to represent Kay as the abductor. In the pseudo-Chronicles and the romances based upon them the abductor is Mordred, and in the chronicles there is no doubt that the lady was no unwilling victim. On the final defeat of Mordred she retires to a nunnery, takes the veil, and is no more heard of. Wace says emphatically—
Ne fu oie ne véue,
Layamon, who in his translation of Wace treats his original much as Wace treated Geoffrey, says that there was a tradition that she had drowned herself, and that her memory and that of Mordred were hateful in every land, so that none would offer prayer for their souls. On the other hand certain romances, e.g. the Perceval, give her an excellent character. The truth is probably that the tradition of his wife’s adultery and treachery was a genuine part of the Arthurian story, which, neglected for a time, was brought again into prominence by the social conditions of the courts for which the later romances were composed; and it is in this later and conventionalized form that the tale has become familiar to us (see also Lancelot).
See Studies on the Arthurian Legend by Professor Rhys; The Legend of Sir Lancelot, Grimm Library, xii., Jessie L. Weston; Der Karrenritter, ed. Professor Foerster. (J. L. W.)