Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Arthurian Review, Issue 2

As I am preparing my essay about the supposedly sexist portrayal of Irene Adler in the BBC series Sherlock, I suddenly remembered my review of a novel that claims to offer a feminist view on Arthurian legend. I never published this review on my blog because I felt bad about calling the book one of the most irritating and worst-written novels I have ever read. After all, nobody forced me to read it, and why was I spending time saying snarky things about a silly novel by a best-selling author? But the whole discussion about Adler made me reconsider. I mean, I think it is right that men should be taken to task for writing lousy female characters. But since I am all for gender equality, I think that women guilty of the same sin should be chastised for it too. So I have decided to publish my review after all. Here goes.
Guenevere. The Queen of the Summer Country (1999)
Rosalind Miles

I confess: I am an ardent feminist. I am not the least bit ashamed about it either. I have a keen interest in gender roles, which has not only determined the direction of my academic work, but also tends to inform my fictional writing. That is why, against my better judgement, I sometimes pick up books like Guenevere. The Queen of the Summer Country. It is one of those novels that promises a feminist retelling of a favourite legend. The author, Rosalind Miles, kindly informs us on her website that she has a PhD in English literature, adores Shakespeare, and has written widely on gender-related subjects. Unfortunately, this only goes to show that love of Shakespeare, a fascination with gender issues and a literary doctorate do not a good novel make.

Miles’ heroine Guenevere is born the heir to the throne of the Summer Country. The Summer Country is a bit of an anomaly in Britain – being the only remaining kingdom that is still a matriarchy. Guenevere’s mother (whose name we don’t find out until Arthur suggests that Gwen could name her first-born daughter after her) is a mighty ruler who, like all the women of the Summer Country, can extend her “thigh-friendship” (I kid you not) to any man, and any number of men, she likes. She has a favourite consort/King who is her champion in battle (because the queens of the Summer Country are warriors, but they seem to leave the fighting to men these days). The Queen has a Round Table, at which all her knights/lovers have a seat. So that’s that. Lucky Gwen: she is going to inherit all this, and her mother’s lovers are already giving her Bambi eyes.

HOWEVER. One day, at a tournament, the powerful Queen of the Summer Country is happily flitting about and flirting, when she is kicked to death by a horse possessed by the evil Merlin. Merlin, you see, hates women. Why, I have no idea. He is a Druid and supposedly in favour of the Old Religon. In any case, the Queen Without a Name is dead and so the throne passes on to young Guenevere. It is at that moment that we discover that the Great Queen has never bothered to teach her daughter anything except how to dress well. This is particularly unfortunate as all the men of the court (besides the queen, no other woman holds any function of importance whatsoever), apart from one bard and one particularly good-looking knight, immediately start conspiring to rid the kingdom of its matriarchal system. Guenevere’s father, Leogrance [sic], wishes her to marry her Evil Uncle Malgaunt (what's in a name?), who declares he will teach her a woman’s proper place.

HOWEVER. This dastardly scheme is interrupted by a Knight in Shining Armour who whisks the swaying princess away and marries her. It is Arthur, the young, square-jawed, golden-haired, immaculately-dressed High King of Britain. And all is well.

But is it really? Well, no, because Golden Boy Arthur is under the sway of Merlin, who hates women, especially “viragos” like Guenevere; and Britain is also swarming with Christians – a slimy, greedy, hypocritical, sadistic group of religious fanatics who claim that thigh-friendship is improper and who offend Guenevere’s sense of aesthetics. And we must not forget the band of insane witches, members of a coven that Arthur’s perverse sister Morgan Le Fay has established in a convent.

Poor Gwen. Is it any surprise she calls upon her “Goddess! Mother!” all the time and sheds copious amounts of tears?

Maybe not. But what does surprise this reader is that the author keeps telling me how strong and independent this woman is. All I see her do is whimper and sigh and pout and dream of a Golden Husband. (Okay, she pulls a sword out once, but since she’s never learnt how to use one, she was unlikely to hurt anyone with it except herself. And the sword is never seen again.) If Merlin calls this childish, suffering lily a virago, you wonder what word he’d invent for a woman who dares to draw a line and knows how to formulate an opinion.

The problem is that Miles wants to have her cake and eat it. Of course it is pretty eyeroll-inducing that people still call a man who sleeps around “a ladies’ man” and a woman who sleeps around “a slut”. If Miles wants to prove a point by giving her queens a harem, fine with me. If she wants to dig up the old matriarchy fantasy, why not. But her “great queen” is an airhead who doesn’t seem to use her power for anything else than attracting new boyfriends. It made me think that the lady never taught her daughter anything about states(wo)manship because she thought Gwen would manage just fine with “thigh-friendship” alone. Although – even though the women of the Summer Country are quite alone in retaining this precious right of “thigh-friendship”, the queen advises her daughter to stick to one man only, because that thing with the round table full of lovers is going “out of fashion”. Tsk, Gwen – if you had listened to your mum, the whole Lancelot scandal wouldn’t have happened. Because I suspect that this is why the thigh-thingy gets introduced in the first place: to give Guenevere every right to take a lover. No moral dilemmas for our Golden Gwen. What’s Arthur balking at? She doesn’t owe him anything. Especially because he molests her when he has been listening to Merlin. He’s a man, after all. He may have a great sense of dress, but that cannot hide the fact that he is a spineless jelly – and another case of a ruler holding a kingdom together despite being a complete nitwit.

It’s sad, but I really can’t find anything positive to say about this book, except that it hasn’t been able to destroy my love for its source material. The stupid, it hurts. It’s in details, such as names: one of Gwen’s mum’s lovers is called Sir Niamh. Last time I looked, Niamh was an Irish woman’s name. It’s in what Miles’ own site calls the “rich historical detail”: there are jousts and knights in full harness and people speaking French, but at the same time the Romans seem to have just disappeared over the horizon, the Church is young, and there is pseudo-Celtic stuff going on, including people fighting from chariots. “Gaul” lies just north of the Kingdom of France. It’s in the characters and the plot: how stupid does Gwen’s father have to be to want to marry her to Wicked Uncle Malgaunt to gain power, when all he has to do is to keep his silly, clueless daughter happy and rule, himself, through her? The same goes for the knights: instead of opposing Gwen, they should be wooing her and try to become her consort. At least that would make sense. Also: making Arthur a weepy, slave-y, pawn-y, wife-raping imbecile? Greatness, UR DOIN IT WRONG. If Arthur the Weakling served a purpose, I wouldn’t mind so much, but if there is a point I didn’t discover what it was. His character has certainly not been diminished to let Guenevere take charge, because she does no such thing.

This book just drove me crazy. It is full of inner monologues in italics, black-and-white characterisations, boring goodies and predictable baddies, your typical badmouthing of Christians while managing to make pagans look bad too, and the whole thing doesn’t contain a single likeable character. I don’t easily not finish a novel, but I gave up at page 316 (of 600) because I really couldn’t take any more. And I slapped myself for having spent €10 on this second-hand paperback and its no doubt equally insipid sequel. Thank goodness I didn’t get the third volume as well.


Now  for the Gawain-o-meter.

Which Gawain?

Sir Gawain

Big, rough and beefy. Forms a nice contrast with Elegant Arthur. When Gawain has fought a battle, he drips with blood and sweat. Arthur, on the other hand, manages to remain fresh and pristine. Gawain wonders how he does that. So do I.

Mid-level. When Arthur calls, some people have to show up, and Gawain is usually one of them. Sometimes we get to look through his eyes and see how dashing Arthur is.

Writing this, I am beginning to think that maybe I should have seen some slashy potential there, which might have made my reading a little more enjoyable.

Gawain is a good and a reliable bloke, a staunch ally, though clearly an inveterate barbarian. He is the perfect onlooker in the Guenevere & Arthur Show, marvelling at their beauty and superiority and perfectly at peace with the knowledge that he will never attain their level of splendour. He is also a good soldier and likes to kill, because “to a son of the Orkneys, it wasn’t a fight without a good show of blood, well-hacked bodies piled around the walls, and a few heads to kick around the courtyard as footballs when all was done”. That kind of thing.
I don’t know where he goes from there, as I have never finished the book. All I can say is that I have seen this kind of characterisation of Gawain (and other story elements, including details like Arthur's "Pendragon tattoos" - sorry, Ms Miles, these are not in Malory, only in Bradley) before in Mists of Avalon. And though I managed not to finish Mists of Avalon twice (!), I still think it's a better book than this one.

One of these days, I will review an excellent Guinevere novel. Because it actually can be done right.

Other issues of the Arthurian Review:


Rosslyn said...

"The stupid, it hurts."
Oh wow. It's like Arthurian Twilight. I shall make notes to avoid this book.

adarhysenthe said...

I've actually read the whole thing. You don't want to finish. I wish I hadn't. It leaves an ending with room for a sequel and I hoped one never came.

ampersand said...

LOL! Thank you for the warning, adarhysenthe. Seriously, even three volumes of that drivel aren't enough, or what? ;-)

Rosslyn, I have avoided Twilight, so now I'm wondering which is worse :p. I'm not willing to try Twilight to find out, though...

Morgan Lefay said...

Oh, what a funny rewiew! I´ve read the whole trilogy (no, I´m not a masochist), and I agree with you in every point. This Guinevere is the worst Gwen I´ve ever read... and merging Irish myth with Welsh and new-age goddesses didn´t help. And when it cames to Morgan it´s much worse, making her a weak and insane necrophyle.