"Why have I never been like other girls?" wonders Guenevere, the heroine of Rosalind Miles' most recent rehashing of the Arthurian legend. Perhaps Guenevere is different because she lives in a world that is pure fantasy to us, a world where women are the rulers. GUENEVERE, QUEEN OF THE SUMMER COUNTRY, offers up the same tale that we have read repeatedly in GAWAIN, THE GREEN KNIGHT. Unlike most accounts of this age-old tale, however, Miles makes this completely Guenevere's story, describing life with Arthur and Lancelot from her point of view. It falls just short of a convincingly pointed feminist portrayal of one of the legend's most notable female figures.
The book opens with Arthur, son of the evil Uther Pendragon, traveling with his army to take back the Middle Kingdom. Led by Merlin, the shapeshifting sorcerer who knows Arthur's destiny and strives to make it a reality, the army finds its way to the Summer Country, the land where Guenevere has just been made Queen after the tragic loss of her mother. The young queen is trying to defend the land she loves, although she feels inadequately prepared for the job. During the elegant burial of her mother's body, she receives word that Arthur's forces are on their way. So starts the magical romance that brings Arthur and Guenevere together to join their states in the Kingdom of Camelot. But, as Merlin had warned Arthur, this union would not result in anything but sadness and tragedy. Arthur and Guenevere plunge ahead into their love, regardless of the advice. And, as we all know, things don't work out very well.
The story is as complex and compelling as a good old American soap opera, although the time period and the fantastical elements make it more TWIN PEAKS than DYNASTY. Merlin, Arthur and our heroine, Guenevere, are completely fleshed out --- certainly, their scheming and scamming keeps us on the edge of our seats as we await the inevitable outcome. That's another bright spot in this account: I frequently found myself hoping for an ending I realized would never come true. When you momentarily forget such a well-known plot, you know you're getting a different perspective.
The one element that detracts from the story is Miles' overly flowery language. While this is a story set in medieval England, it does not mean that we need long passages about the vomitous lustfulness and violent abandon with which the cohorts of the King and Queen go about their duties? Must everyone speak in this extended, annoying, ancient mode to express themselves? Since the point of the story is that Guenevere suffers from the same insecurities and desires that the book's contemporary readers do, shouldn't there be an attempt to tell this story in simple, elegant English that doesn't require rereading from paragraph to paragraph? I would have been more engrossed in this tale if only the characters had spoken in a simpler manner. I've read Chaucer, but this isn't Chaucer, nor does it need to reflect that language in order to give us an in-depth feeling for the times in which this story takes place.
Trying to defend the sexually and intellectually liberal land in which she was raised, Guenevere faces many fearful situations. The idea of a Motherland where women had the upper hand is still one for the storybooks. So, the impact of this long-standing myth is much more intense when examined from a feminist perspective. The fact that Guenevere gives up her work for a great and passionate love which ultimately undoes all she and Arthur have built together makes this seem like a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, where a woman's emotional desires are the most important ones to be fulfilled. Certainly, contemporary readers, men as well as women, can recognize many parallels between their struggles and the morality and mores of their medieval counterparts. In this sense, the legend is worth telling over and over again.
Ultimately, I'll always wish that Guenevere could maintain sovereignty and win love simultaneously. Unfortunately, the idea of having it all is as much a fantasy here as it is in our real lives.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 22, 2011