Because apparently Mordred and Guinevere’s relationship in the older legends was way more bizarre than I was ever aware of before getting into these stories.
I thought this would be an easy article to write, to be honest, because I’ve been researching these two characters (as much as I can without paying money) for a retelling I’m writing. Five minutes into writing this article and I realize I’ve never bookmarked anything and I’ve forgotten which exact websites I used to find all my old sources (facepalm) Thank God for Wikipedia. I also realized that this was kind of a complicated topic and I probably should have given myself more than a day to write this article. I was actually planning on doing an overview of Mordred himself, but I need to give myself waaay more time before doing a project like that, so it morphed into this. Live and learn.
Guinevere is probably most known for her tragic love affair with Lancelot, but that plotline actually wasn’t a thing in her earliest appearances in the legends. In Geoffrey Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the twelfth century pseudo-history that kicked off the medieval King Arthur craze, Lancelot doesn’t even show up (he might not have even existed at that time). He only really comes on the scene when Chretien de Troyes wrote him later in the twelfth century, and it’s possible he was Chretien’s original character. Who was really overpowered. And French, just like Chretien. Make of that what you will. Perhaps an early example of a self-insert OC?
Instead of Lancelot, Guinevere was in love with Mordred, because these stories weren’t a soap opera enough already. He’s mentioned a few times before Geoffrey of Monmouth, but the first full story about Mordred (and really, most of the characters) comes from him, by which point Mordred shows up as a full-fledged villain, dressed in black and ready to steal your girl! Which he does. Because apparently…Guinevere and Mordred were the first villainous Arthurian couple? Before Chretien introduced Lancelot and Guinevere’s relationship, she was into Mordred, because I guess she’ll always be associated with adultery and kingdom-ending relationship drama. I had no idea about any of this before I started writing a retelling, although I admit my knowledge of anything Arthuriana-related was very limited. Geoffrey of Monmouth only said,
“What is more, this treacherous tyrant was living adulterously and out of wedlock with Queen Guinevere, who had broken the vows of her earlier marriage. About this matter, most noble Duke, Geoffrey of Monmouth prefers to say nothing.”
Yes, Guinevere made her debut onto the scene of Arthurian legend as a villain. God, I need to do an article on her one of these days.
And then there’s the Alliterative Morte Arthur (a fourteenth century poem, not the Le Morte D’Arthur), where Guinevere and Mordred have kids, which is just…WHO WROTE THAT.
Mordred is almost always Arthur’s nephew in these types of stories, rather than his son (I don’t know why that is). In the versions where he is Arthur’s son, it always tends to happen where Mordred falls in love with Guinevere, fakes his dad’s death (YES HE DID THAT), and Guinevere has absolutely none of it. But both versions end with her running away to a convent. In the one where she’s good, she feels really, really guilty about everything that happened with Lancelot. In the one where she’s bad, it’s…a little more unclear, but definitely possible that she thinks Mordred is losing in the war against Arthur?
Enter Chretien de Troyes, a twelfth century writer who wrote lots of stories about Arthurian legend that you should check out because his stories are amazing. He takes one look at Guinevere, goes, “What? King Arthur’s wife trapped in an unhappy marriage? Guys, this is perfect tragic heroine material! Why is she the villain?” And proceeds to write Knight of the Cart, a story where Guinevere gets kidnapped by a knight named Meliagrance, and Lancelot has to save her. And Lancelot and Guinevere have been pretty much an Arthurian staple ever since.
On a total side note, I’m not sure I’d call getting together with your nephew-in-law a thing in Arthuriana, but let’s just say it happened more than once and I have no idea why. Take Cliges and Fenice from Chretien de Troyes’ romance, for instance. Cliges was Fenice’s nephew-in-law. Granted, that was a weird one, and I still have no idea if that was supposed to be a deconstruction of courtly love or just played straight and absolutely bizarre. But Tristram and Iseult were pretty much the romantic Arthurian couple, besides Guinevere and Lancelot, of course, and…yes, Tristram was Iseult’s nephew-in-law. Which is something neither medieval writers nor modern day people tend to lay a lot of emphasis on, I’ve noticed. (Although I’ll admit I haven’t researched Tristram and Iseult as much.) People do tend to lay a lot of emphasis on the strangeness of Mordred and Guinevere’s story. I figure it’s probably because (a) Tristram did not try to take over the kingdom, and (b) when you add incest into Mordred’s backstory, it’s just Mordred repeating a family pattern, which adds an extra layer of weirdness to an already weird story.
Anyway, that was possibly one of the weirdest (and definitely the trashiest) relationships in Arthurian legend! I’ll admit to lowkey liking this. I think it’s because the idea of Guinevere the tragic villainess taking over Camelot will always sort of appeal to me. I love tragic villainesses, and I don’t get enough of them, especially not in modern fiction, and the ones I do get hardly ever exactly satisfy me. So yes, screw it, I do like this. Guinevere staring broodingly out windows and killing people and taking over Camelot. Give me more of this, please.
Did you know about these two having a relationship? Do you like either of these two characters? What’s your trashiest ship, mythological or modern?