The Trouble With Heroes

- by Laura Resnick

TroubleHeroesI’ve got a short story, “The Quin Quart,” in a new fantasy anthology that’s just been released, The Trouble With Heroes, which collection has—as you can perhaps tell by looking at the cover—a bit of a gender-bending theme.

The editor of this anthology, the talented and experienced Denise Little, asked the contributing writers to show her a fresh take on traditional heroes, with a particular view to the role of women in these legends. In most conventional heroic legends, after all, women are traditionally portrayed merely as prizes, victims, cheerleaders, or fatal flaws.

So, for The Trouble With Heroes, I chose to write about one of the most frustratingly passive and uninteresting legendary women I’d ever come across: Queen Guinevere.

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Arthur and Guinevere in Tennyson's IDYLLS OF THE KING

In the various versions of the Arthurian tales that I came across while growing up, Arthur is a complex, enlightened, and flawed leader; Lancelot is a talented, courageous, and tormented warrior; Mordred is an ambitious, shrewd, and angry antagonist; Merlin is a prophet, a scholar, and a wizard; and Guinevere is… a barren adulteress.

That’s it: just a barren adulteress. In the midst of these complex, dynamic characters… the primary female character of the legend is about as interesting as overcooked broccoli. Her fatal flaws are identical to her primary characteristics, and they’re entirely about her role as breeding stock: She can’t give the king a son, and she sleeps with another man.

This extremely narrow perspective was, of course, the conventional way of viewing women for centuries (nay, eons). So I started thinking about how unacceptable Guinevere would have been as a heroine to generations of people if she’d been more like our long-established images of Arthur and Lancelot (intelligent, educated, strong-willed, self-reliant) rather than like the vapid, boring image we’ve long had of her. This is turn got me to thinking about what the reaction would be, in the traditional setting of the tale, to a queen who possessed and exercised the qualities of a legendary hero.

Well, even in our era, ever since moving into the White House, Michelle Obama has been paraded constantly in the media as a babe, a fashion plate, and a devoted mom; but very rarely as an accomplished, educated, and intelligent professional. The media has scrutinized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s fashion sense in a way that has never been applied to any of her predecessors—who were all men. And Angelina Jolie’s physical appearance and her role as a mother and mate make headlines far, far more often than her humanitarian work does.

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A more dynamic portrayal of Guinevere; Keira Knightley in KING ARTHUR

So I realized that if Guinevere became the interesting character I envisioned—someone more prone to rescuing Lancelot than to being rescued by him, more prone to giving Arthur sophisticated political advice than to moping about not giving him an heir—she would certainly need a makeover so that she could at least appear to the general public to be what most people demand of a woman in her position: a well-dressed airhead obsessed with her conventional gender role.

Enter the Quintessential Quartet, known casually as the “The Quin Quart”– which is the title of the story. They’re the Fabulous Four, the savvy and colorful team of fashionable, cultivated young men whom King Arthur hires in the story to give his lamentably intelligent, skilled, educated wife a make-over that will make her acceptable in the popular culture of his day—and, alas, the popular culture of our day, too. (And, yes, the Quin Quart was indeed inspired by a popular reality TV show of which I was a fan!)

So, to see my interpretation of how Queen Guinevere got to be the frustratingly dull female protagonist of an otherwise-thrilling legend… go read the story. Which comes in a book filled with about twenty other wonderful tales, too—The Trouble With Heroes!

4 comments

  1. However, whatever later eras made of Guinevere, and whatever the customs of Roman Britain were, the Anglo_Saxons respected strong and complex women who gave good advice and could lead armies. The literature of the period is full of things like a poet’s prolonged riff on the story of Judith and Holofernes (The poet KNOWS she did the right thing and has made a heroic epic out of it.), of maxims like “A queen must be able to advise her husband well”, of Aethelflaed, lady of the Mercians (historical figure, daughter of Alfred the Great, apparently highly respected) – not to mention Abbess Hilda of Whitby, who was running the biggest religious dispute-settlement since the Council of Nicaea.

    There are similar stories out of Ireland in a slightly earlietr period.

    So I’m going to suggest that Guinevere was heavily watered down over the millennia, that a real Early Medieval queen would have been a whole lot more than “a barren adulteress!”

    I am SO looking forward to your story about her.

  2. Now that you’ve got me interested in Aethelflaed and Hilda, can you recommend any books–fiction or nonfiction?

  3. The basics about Hilda can be found in a rather sketchy form in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” Don’t let the title “Venerable” put you off – Bede is a clear and lively writer.

    One of the other students in my class had a YA novel about Aethelflaed she was reading. I forget the title and was going to google for it. I got the bare facts on her out of my medieval history books, which included translations of The Anglo_Saxon Chronicle. Which has its own moments, including the time the chronicler, starting to write a dry-as-dust logbook account of a notable battle found himself breaking into poetry and ended up going all-out!

    Odd, that I haven’t really sought out novelizations the way I usually do when interested in a period. Perhaps because we’re going into it in such depth?

    Oh – one of their heroines, after whom a number of women were named in period, is the OT (in some versions) character of Judith. The lady who cut off the head of Holofernes. There was a heroic poem written in period about the incident and the poet clearly totally approves of the lady. Cutting off the head of the invading general! Way to go, m’lady! So if you read fantasy, check out Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Last Light of the Sun”, in which a very evident alternative-Aethelflaed is named Judith – and the author/narrator is very clearly intimidated by her!

    And if I ever get it properly traqnslated, I’ll send you the Maxim that begins with true Medieval practicality “The King is obliged to acquire a Queen with property”, but then goes on about their respective duties. He may have been Head of State, but she was a combination of Prime Minister, Secretary of State, and often, Vice President/Regent for when he was away or dead.

  4. Thanks for those suggestions!

    Laura