- by Laura Resnick
I’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.
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.
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!