In between the various Wicked Years books, I’m going to randomly pick something that looks interesting. If I read the entire series in one go, I think my brain will lose some of the points that I’m trying to pick up, so I space other books in between.
This time, I wandered through the library, looking for anything that might look interesting. Which is how I came across Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit, which is a take on King Arthur’s queen. I read Mists of Avalon years ago and it still give me a headache. I have read it all the way through and I enjoy the various roles that the women all play. However, Gwenhwyfar’s fanatical following of the Christian religion never sat well with me; her attitude and the way she clung to her beliefs made her a very unsympathetic character, possibly more than Morgause, who actively conspires against Arthur.
Lackey presents the idea of multiple Gwenhwyfars; Arthur’s first Queen died and was replaced with two more women with the same name, but these three women are different from each other. The book is told from the perspective of the third Gwenhwyfar, as she sees events unfold from her father’s stronghold. The obvious events of Mordred birth and the actions taken to kill him are seen, as are the manipulations of Morgana and Anna Morgause (it’s the one thing I didn’t like about the book: Morgana is working against Arthur. I like Morgaine from Mists of Avalon, watching over her baby brother). And I still see the manipulations of Merlin and the Ladies of the Lake, the new religion of Christianity and the Old Ways of the Druids and the marriage of the land being linked to the king. These are familiar aspects of the legend that carry over from each retelling.
What I love about this Gwenhwyfar is that she is a warrior-woman. She is trained to ride and fight and scout; she is a valuable member of her father’s household and rises to the position of warrior chief. Her opinions are heard by the local men and respected; this Gwen is not a simpering Christian, hiding behind her beliefs (that’s the second Gwen).
I love to see the different roles of women. In Mists of Avalon, the roles are spread out among the various women. Here, they are seen in sisters and mothers and in three women with the same name. Gwen’s two older sisters are a Lady of the Lake and a “maid for a man” who can run her father’s household. Their mother was a strong woman who listened to the advice of others and counseled her husband; she also had Power and participated in the Rituals as the Great Mother (forgive me if I have the wrong title there). There is also a younger sister, Gwenhwyfach, “Little Gwen,” who is spoiled and selfish and seeks to better herself instead of others. All these aspects in one family.
The three Gwenhwyfars are also different. Arthur may have married the first Gwen for love and he saw her when she was shooting arrows in defense of her father’s stronghold. Eventually, she bore him twin sons that were killed. But this sounds like a strong woman who wasn’t someone to let men do all the work. The second Gwen was the pious Gwen, who rejected the Old Way and was a devout Christian. She is also the Gwen that ran away with another man, and Lackey says that she wasn’t an unwilling captive. After Arthur sets her aside and takes the third Gwen (the main character), he is an older man, old enough to be a grandfather and Gwen is only twenty-seven. And she resents having to put aside her warrior training and be a Queen. But she isn’t expected to be the type of Queen that her mother was. Arthur expects her to breed and nothing else. And it frustrates her.
This Gwen was a Gwen that I could like and relate to, a woman who fought to earn her place and the respect of the men under her command and all that is shoved aside at the will of higher authorities, not just High King Arthur, but what the Ladies of the Lake want as well. But this is no Gwen who will go quietly; she is also kidnapped, but by Mordred, who as lusted after her for many years. This is also the Gwen who falls in love with Lancelot, but is eventually put aside because his love and loyalty to Arthur is greater.
If given a chance, this is a Gwen who could have made a change and married the Old Ways and the new Christianity and I loved reading about how she thought and lived and succeeded in her own way and eventually became her own master, not subject to the will of her father, her commander or her king.