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I haven’t had time to write a blog for a while but thought I’d post one of my favorite poems, William Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere” published in 1858. November seems to me a very Arthurian month perhaps because the words from the musical Camelot – “on a day dark and drear came to trial Guinevere” sound like one of these dark November days. The poem is considered a dramatic monologue, and for fiction writers like myself, writing dramatic monologues, whether in prose or poetry, can be very helpful for getting into the minds of one’s characters, so this posting is especially for my fellow novelists creating their own versions of Guinevere. Enjoy.

THE DEFENCE OF GUENEVERE

by

WILLIAM MORRIS

But, knowing now that they would have her speak,

She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,

Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,

 

As though she had had there a shameful blow,

And feeling it shameful to feel ought but shame

All through her heart, yet felt her cheek burned so,

 

William Morris’ painting La belle Iseault is sometimes mistakenly titled Queen Guinevere.

She must a little touch it; like one lame

She walked away from Gauwaine, with her head

Still lifted up; and on her cheek of flame

 

The tears dried quick; she stopped at last and said:

“O knights and lords, it seems but little skill

To talk of well-known things past now and dead.

 

“God wot I ought to say, I have done ill,

And pray you all forgiveness heartily!

Because you must be right, such great lords; still

 

“Listen, suppose your time were come to die,

And you were quite alone and very weak;

Yea, laid a dying while very mightily

 

“The wind was ruffling up the narrow streak

Of river through your broad lands running well:

Suppose a hush should come, then some one speak:

 

“‘One of these cloths is heaven, and one is hell,

Now choose one cloth for ever; which they be,

I will not tell you, you must somehow tell

 

“‘Of your own strength and mightiness; here, see!’

Yea, yea, my lord, and you to ope your eyes,

At foot of your familiar bed to see

 

“A great God’s angel standing, with such dyes,

Not known on earth, on his great wings, and hands,

Held out two ways, light from the inner skies

 

“Showing him well, and making his commands

Seem to be God’s commands, moreover, too,

Holding within his hands the cloths on wands;

 

“And one of these strange choosing cloths was blue,

Wavy and long, and one cut short and red;

No man could tell the better of the two.

 

“After a shivering half-hour you said:

‘God help! heaven’s colour, the blue;’ and he said, ‘hell.’

Perhaps you then would roll upon your bed,

 

“And cry to all good men that loved you well,

‘Ah Christ! if only I had known, known, known;’

Launcelot went away, then I could tell,

 

“Like wisest man how all things would be, moan,

And roll and hurt myself, and long to die,

And yet fear much to die for what was sown.

 

“Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,

Whatever may have happened through these years,

God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.”

 

Her voice was low at first, being full of tears,

But as it cleared, it grew full loud and shrill,

Growing a windy shriek in all men’s ears,

 

A ringing in their startled brains, until

She said that Gauwaine lied, then her voice sunk,

And her great eyes began again to fill,

 

Though still she stood right up, and never shrunk,

But spoke on bravely, glorious lady fair!

Whatever tears her full lips may have drunk,

 

She stood, and seemed to think, and wrung her hair,

Spoke out at last with no more trace of shame,

With passionate twisting of her body there:

 

“It chanced upon a day that Launcelot came

To dwell at Arthur’s court: at Christmas-time

This happened; when the heralds sung his name,

 

“Son of King Ban of Benwick, seemed to chime

Along with all the bells that rang that day,

O’er the white roofs, with little change of rhyme.

 

“Christmas and whitened winter passed away,

And over me the April sunshine came,

Made very awful with black hail-clouds, yea

 

“And in the Summer I grew white with flame,

And bowed my head down: Autumn, and the sick

Sure knowledge things would never be the same,

 

“However often Spring might be most thick

Of blossoms and buds, smote on me, and I grew

Careless of most things, let the clock tick, tick,

 

“To my unhappy pulse, that beat right through

My eager body; while I laughed out loud,

And let my lips curl up at false or true,

 

“Seemed cold and shallow without any cloud.

Behold my judges, then the cloths were brought;

While I was dizzied thus, old thoughts would crowd,

 

“Belonging to the time ere I was bought

By Arthur’s great name and his little love;

Must I give up for ever then, I thought,

 

“That which I deemed would ever round me move

Glorifying all things; for a little word,

Scarce ever meant at all, must I now prove

 

“Stone-cold for ever?  Pray you, does the Lord

Will that all folks should be quite happy and good?

I love God now a little, if this cord

 

“Were broken, once for all what striving could

Make me love anything in earth or heaven?

So day by day it grew, as if one should

 

“Slip slowly down some path worn smooth and even,

Down to a cool sea on a summer day;

Yet still in slipping there was some small leaven

 

“Of stretched hands catching small stones by the way,

Until one surely reached the sea at last,

And felt strange new joy as the worn head lay

 

“Back, with the hair like sea-weed; yea all past

Sweat of the forehead, dryness of the lips,

Washed utterly out by the dear waves o’ercast,

 

“In the lone sea, far off from any ships!

Do I not know now of a day in Spring?

No minute of the wild day ever slips

 

“From out my memory; I hear thrushes sing,

And wheresoever I may be, straightway

Thoughts of it all come up with most fresh sting:

 

“I was half mad with beauty on that day,

And went without my ladies all alone,

In a quiet garden walled round every way;

 

“I was right joyful of that wall of stone,

That shut the flowers and trees up with the sky,

And trebled all the beauty: to the bone,

 

“Yea right through to my heart, grown very shy

With weary thoughts, it pierced, and made me glad;

Exceedingly glad, and I knew verily,

 

“A little thing just then had made me mad;

I dared not think, as I was wont to do,

Sometimes, upon my beauty; if I had

 

“Held out my long hand up against the blue,

And, looking on the tenderly darken’d fingers,

Thought that by rights one ought to see quite through,

 

“There, see you, where the soft still light yet lingers,

Round by the edges; what should I have done,

If this had joined with yellow spotted singers,

 

“And startling green drawn upward by the sun?

But shouting, loosed out, see now! all my hair,

And trancedly stood watching the west wind run

 

“With faintest half-heard breathing sound: why there

I lose my head e’en now in doing this;

But shortly listen: In that garden fair

 

“Came Launcelot walking; this is true, the kiss

Wherewith we kissed in meeting that spring day,

I scarce dare talk of the remember’d bliss,

 

“When both our mouths went wandering in one way,

And aching sorely, met among the leaves;

Our hands being left behind strained far away.

 

“Never within a yard of my bright sleeves

Had Launcelot come before: and now so nigh!

After that day why is it Guenevere grieves?

 

“Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,

Whatever happened on through all those years,

God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.

 

“Being such a lady could I weep these tears

If this were true?  A great queen such as I

Having sinn’d this way, straight her conscience sears;

 

“And afterwards she liveth hatefully,

Slaying and poisoning, certes never weeps:

Gauwaine be friends now, speak me lovingly.

 

“Do I not see how God’s dear pity creeps

All through your frame, and trembles in your mouth?

Remember in what grave your mother sleeps,

 

“Buried in some place far down in the south,

Men are forgetting as I speak to you;

By her head sever’d in that awful drouth

 

“Of pity that drew Agravaine’s fell blow,

I pray you pity! let me not scream out

For ever after, when the shrill winds blow

 

“Through half your castle-locks! let me not shout

For ever after in the winter night

When you ride out alone! in battle-rout

 

“Let not my rusting tears make your sword light!

Ah! God of mercy, how he turns away!

So, ever must I dress me to the fight,

 

“So: let God’s justice work!  Gauwaine, I say,

See me hew down your proofs: yea all men know

Even as you said how Mellyagraunce one day,

 

“One bitter day in la Fausse Garde, for so

All good knights held it after, saw:

Yea, sirs, by cursed unknightly outrage; though

 

“You, Gauwaine, held his word without a flaw,

This Mellyagraunce saw blood upon my bed:

Whose blood then pray you? is there any law

 

“To make a queen say why some spots of red

Lie on her coverlet? or will you say:

‘Your hands are white, lady, as when you wed,

 

“‘Where did you bleed?’ and must I stammer out, ‘Nay,

I blush indeed, fair lord, only to rend

My sleeve up to my shoulder, where there lay

 

“‘A knife-point last night’: so must I defend

The honour of the Lady Guenevere?

Not so, fair lords, even if the world should end

 

“This very day, and you were judges here

Instead of God.  Did you see Mellyagraunce

When Launcelot stood by him? what white fear

 

“Curdled his blood, and how his teeth did dance,

His side sink in? as my knight cried and said:

‘Slayer of unarm’d men, here is a chance!

 

“‘Setter of traps, I pray you guard your head,

By God I am so glad to fight with you,

Stripper of ladies, that my hand feels lead

 

“‘For driving weight; hurrah now! draw and do,

For all my wounds are moving in my breast,

And I am getting mad with waiting so.’

 

“He struck his hands together o’er the beast,

Who fell down flat, and grovell’d at his feet,

And groan’d at being slain so young: ‘At least,’

 

“My knight said, ‘rise you, sir, who are so fleet

At catching ladies, half-arm’d will I fight,

My left side all uncovered!’ then I weet,

 

“Up sprang Sir Mellyagraunce with great delight

Upon his knave’s face; not until just then

Did I quite hate him, as I saw my knight

 

“Along the lists look to my stake and pen

With such a joyous smile, it made me sigh

From agony beneath my waist-chain, when

 

“The fight began, and to me they drew nigh;

Ever Sir Launcelot kept him on the right,

And traversed warily, and ever high

 

“And fast leapt caitiff’s sword, until my knight

Sudden threw up his sword to his left hand,

Caught it, and swung it; that was all the fight,

 

“Except a spout of blood on the hot land;

For it was hottest summer; and I know

I wonder’d how the fire, while I should stand,

 

“And burn, against the heat, would quiver so,

Yards above my head; thus these matters went;

Which things were only warnings of the woe

 

“That fell on me.  Yet Mellyagraunce was shent,

For Mellyagraunce had fought against the Lord;

Therefore, my lords, take heed lest you be blent

 

“With all this wickedness; say no rash word

Against me, being so beautiful; my eyes,

Wept all away to grey, may bring some sword

 

“To drown you in your blood; see my breast rise,

Like waves of purple sea, as here I stand;

And how my arms are moved in wonderful wise,

 

“Yea also at my full heart’s strong command,

See through my long throat how the words go up

In ripples to my mouth; how in my hand

 

“The shadow lies like wine within a cup

Of marvellously colour’d gold; yea now

This little wind is rising, look you up,

 

“And wonder how the light is falling so

Within my moving tresses: will you dare,

When you have looked a little on my brow,

 

“To say this thing is vile? or will you care

For any plausible lies of cunning woof,

When you can see my face with no lie there

 

“For ever? am I not a gracious proof:

‘But in your chamber Launcelot was found’:

Is there a good knight then would stand aloof,

 

“When a queen says with gentle queenly sound:

‘O true as steel come now and talk with me,

I love to see your step upon the ground

 

“‘Unwavering, also well I love to see

That gracious smile light up your face, and hear

Your wonderful words, that all mean verily

 

“‘The thing they seem to mean: good friend, so dear

To me in everything, come here to-night,

Or else the hours will pass most dull and drear;

 

“‘If you come not, I fear this time I might

Get thinking over much of times gone by,

When I was young, and green hope was in sight:

 

“‘For no man cares now to know why I sigh;

And no man comes to sing me pleasant songs,

Nor any brings me the sweet flowers that lie

 

“‘So thick in the gardens; therefore one so longs

To see you, Launcelot; that we may be

Like children once again, free from all wrongs

 

“‘Just for one night.’  Did he not come to me?

What thing could keep true Launcelot away

If I said, ‘Come’? there was one less than three

 

“In my quiet room that night, and we were gay;

Till sudden I rose up, weak, pale, and sick,

Because a bawling broke our dream up, yea

 

“I looked at Launcelot’s face and could not speak,

For he looked helpless too, for a little while;

Then I remember how I tried to shriek,

 

“And could not, but fell down; from tile to tile

The stones they threw up rattled o’er my head

And made me dizzier; till within a while

 

“My maids were all about me, and my head

On Launcelot’s breast was being soothed away

From its white chattering, until Launcelot said:

 

“By God! I will not tell you more to-day,

Judge any way you will: what matters it?

You know quite well the story of that fray,

 

“How Launcelot still’d their bawling, the mad fit

That caught up Gauwaine: all, all, verily,

But just that which would save me; these things flit.

 

“Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,

Whatever may have happen’d these long years,

God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie!

 

“All I have said is truth, by Christ’s dear tears.”

She would not speak another word, but stood

Turn’d sideways; listening, like a man who hears

 

His brother’s trumpet sounding through the wood

Of his foes’ lances.  She lean’d eagerly,

And gave a slight spring sometimes, as she could

 

At last hear something really; joyfully

Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed

Of the roan charger drew all men to see,

The knight who came was Launcelot at good need.

 

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Arthurian literature fell out of favor in the eighteenth century and it would not be until Victorian poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite artists would again make the legend popular, but one work from this time when Arthur was rarely featured in literature was Sir Walter Scott’s “The Bridal of Triermain.” The poem was first published in 1813 and its use of the names of Triermain and Sir Roland De Vaux bear resemblance to Coleridge’s equally famous poem “Christabel” which was written in 1797-1800 but not published until 1816, yet it seems that Scott, who was friends with Coleridge, may have seen the manuscript and been influenced by it. Nevertheless, the two works bear little resemble in plot or character.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

For Arthurian scholars and enthusiasts, “The Bridal of Triermain” holds interest because it creates an illegitimate daughter for King Arthur. Unlike other works where Arthur has illegitimate children before his marriage to Guinevere, Arthur is married to Guinevere already at the time of this poem, and she is already involved with Sir Lancelot.

The poem is told in the present day (early 1800s) by a narrator named Arthur who is trying to court a female named Lucy. Arthur tells Lucy the tale of Roland De Vaux, who sought to wed King Arthur’s daughter Gyneth. Within this story is Lyulph’s Tale, in which Roland’s bard Lyulph tells Roland the story of Gyneth, who has been asleep for five hundred years, and whom Roland wishes to win as his bride.

Gyneth became King Arthur’s daughter after he met and fell in love with a maiden named Guendolen. Scott describes this woman who seduces Arthur as follows:

But Guendolen’s might far outshine
Each maid of merely mortal line.
Her mother was of human birth,
Her sire a Genie of the earth,
In days of old deem’d to preside
O’er lovers’ wiles and beauty’s pride,
By youths and virgins worshipp’d long
With festive dance and choral song,
Till, when the cross to Britain came,
On heathen alters died the flame.
Now, deep in Wastdale solitude,
The downfall of his rights he rued,
And, born of his resentment heir,
He train’d to guile that lady fair,
To sink in slothful sin and shame
The champions of the Christian name.

In other words, Guendolen is the weapon of her father, the genie, against good Christian knights. She seduces Arthur, and while it is unclear whether she loves Arthur or not, she clearly wants him to stay with her and wastes his time in making love to her so he forgets his kingly duties for three months. Finally, Arthur comes to his senses and decides to leave her. When she begs him not to go, he tells her if she’s worried he has gotten her pregnant, he will do right by their child:

I swear by sceptre and by sword,
As belted knight and Britain’s lord,
That if a boy shall claim my care,
That boy is born a kingdom’s heir;
But if a maiden Fate allows,
To choose that maid a fitting spouse,
A summer-day in lists shall strive
My knights, the bravest knights alive,
And he, the best and bravest tried,
Shall Arthur’s daughter claim for bride.

Nevertheless, Guendolen does not want Arthur to leave, and in her anger, she tries to poison him by giving him a cup to drink from, but Arthur spills a drop on his horse and it burns the horse so Arthur flings the cup from him and rides away.

Years later, Arthur’s daughter Gyneth shows up at court on Pentecost, saying her mother has died and asking her father to keep his promise. Guinevere is notably not upset to learn of Arthur’s human weakness that led to an illegitimate child, bur rather, she just smiles on Lancelot, acknowledging her own weakness.

Arthur keeps his promise by holding a tournament for all the knights to compete for Gyneth’s hand, but before long, he realizes what a bad idea it was because all his knights are being slain. He tries to talk Gyneth out of the tournament, telling her he’ll pick the best knight for her, but she refuses and the tournament continues. The narrator then comments:

‘Seem’d in this dismal hour, that Fate
Would Camlan’s ruin antedate,
And spare dark Mordred’s crime;
Already gasping on the ground
Lie twenty of the Table Round,
Of chivalry the prime.

However, when Merlin’s own son Vanoc dies, Merlin suddenly appears, ending the tournament and punishing Gyneth to sleep for centuries:

Sleep, until a knight shall awake thee,
For feats of arms as far renown’d
As warrior of the Table Round.

Lyulph now completes his tale of how Gyneth sleeps by stating:

‘Still she bears her weird alone,
In the Valley of Saint John;
And her semblance oft will seem,
Mingling in a champion’s dream,
Of her weary lot to ’plain,
And crave his aid to burst her chain.

 

Few have braved the yawning door,
And those few return’d no more.

Despite the unlikeliness of solving the quest and winning Arthur’s daughter for his bride, Sir Roland de Vaux, who is lord of Triermain, is determined to succeed. He rides in quest of the sleeping princess and eventually comes to a castle in the Valley of St. John where he must pass through the Hall of Fear and overcome its snares to succeed:

‘It is his, the first who e’er
Dared the dimal Hall of Fear;
His, who hath the snares defied
Spread by pleasure, wealth and pride.

Of course, he succeeds and manages to kiss and wake Gyneth. And the two live happily ever after, having many descendants for King Arthur:

Our lovers, briefly be it said,
Wedded as lovers wont to wed,
When tale or play is o’er;
Lived long and blest, loved fond and true,
And saw a numerous race renew
The honours that they bore.

I admit that while I admire the music of Scott’s meter and rhyme, I’m not overly impressed with the poem. I don’t understand why Roland would want to wed Gyneth when she’s a type of female Mordred who was intent on destroying Camelot, but I guess the quest itself and that she is King Arthur’s daughter makes her attractive enough to him.

Scott’s poem was well known throughout the nineteenth century, so doubtless many writers of Arthurian poems and novels in the Victorian period were influenced by his work. It should be noted that the narrator named Arthur equally is successful in winning the love of his Lucy.

______________________________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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