Lavinia Collins. The Warrior Queen (Part One of the Guinevere Trilogy). Not So Noble Books, 2014. £2.99.
Lavinia Collins’ The Warrior Queen is the latest in a millennium-long line of Arthurian retellings. This post is part one of a two-part special – part two is an interview with the author.
Lavinia Collins’s background in medieval literature is evident in The Warrior Queen. The author holds a Masters and is currently studying for a PhD in this subject, and this comes through in the frequent nods to the medieval inheritance of her characters and their stories: the Round Table accompanies Guinevere upon her marriage to Arthur; Merlin ends up trapped in the earth by Nimue; Morgan emphasises that the scabbard is more precious by far than Arthur’s sword, to name just a few examples. Collins’ book is also an implicit homage to the later feminist reworkings of these stories from the 1980s to the present in its prioritisation of the female characters and their experiences. However, Collins’ novel, whilst paying due respect to the heritage of her material, moves beyond the scope of previous works to present us with the next step in this chain of Arthurian evolution.
The most obvious development comes in the form of Collins’ protagonist, Guinevere. Unlike Morgan le Fay, a female character of the Arthurian world who has found new life in the works of a swathe of modern feminist writers admiring her strong-willed magical independence, Guinevere hasn’t found quite the same burst of new life in recent literature. This capricious, demanding, strong-willed lady has always been my favourite Arthurian character – to me she comes across in the medieval literature as one of the most multi-faceted, complex and realistic – but sadly she just hasn’t had the treatment in modern adaptations that she deserves (except perhaps in William Morris’ beautifully sympathetic poem The Defense of Guenevere, which captures, for me, the essence of this powerful, sensual queen).
Not so in Collins’ world. Guinevere – the Warrior Queen herself – is a strong, flame-haired, leather-clad, bow-wielding princess of a Celtic Breton peoples who have been conquered by Arthur’s armies. The entire novel is narrated via this character’s perspective, and Arthur himself, in keeping with most Arthurian literature – medieval or modern – is not a character that the reader ever really gets close to. The king drifts in and out of Guinevere’s experience, and therefore her narration, as wars, his close relationships with his male companions, hunting and drinking remove him from her presence.
The novel traces Guinevere’s experiences from fighting alongside her fellow Bretons against the might of Camelot before being defeated and shipped off from her home in Carhais as a peace bride to Arthur, the famous war king, by her father, and her gradual adaptation to her queenly role, the courtly environment, and her new country’s people and expectations. The beauty of Collins’ adaptation of this material is that, like all the best Arthurian reworkings, she offers fresh new perspectives on characters and their potential motivations, whilst keeping within the framework of the basic plot as found in Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Morte D’Arthur. Guinevere is a warrior princess whose connection to the Round Table is more than that of a mere marital dowry. Kay’s usual sullenness is given a mischievous, fay-like twist. Merlin’s actions in ensuring Arthur’s destiny have bitter consequences for Guinevere. Expect all the standard characters of medieval Arthuriana in this novel – Guinevere, Arthur, Lancelot, Morgan, Merlin, Nimue, Kay, Gawain – but characterised in thoughtful new ways.
Gender is a major theme throughout the novel in terms of norms, roles, and expectations. Guinevere’s native Carhais is a realm where behaviour is not restricted to the male/warrior female/damsel-in-distress gender binary of some Arthurian retellings, and Collins draws attention to Guinevere’s plight to adapt to the more stifling and rigid gender norms she encounters in her new home. Personally I felt that this development constitutes a really interesting new dimension, not only to the character of Guinevere, but to our understanding and perception of the other characters and adaptations of the Arthurian corpus that have come before, and I look forward to seeing where the author takes this in the next book.
So: what about the sex? The cover image hints at the possibility of risqué content, but how steamy is the novel? When Lavinia first told me she had written an Arthurian book, she said, with a degree of characteristic British embarrassment, that it was ‘a bit naughty’. (She’s actually written a very funny and thoughtful post on her own blog about telling her parents she’d written a ‘bonkbuster’.) Yes, there is sex in the book. No, it does not drive the plot – rather, it is interwoven with key moments in the narrative, and is an indicator of the development in relations between Guinevere and her husband. Anyone who knows anything at all about Arthurian literature on even the most basic level will know about THAT love triangle – and true to her source material, this novel sees the relationships between Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot develop gradually towards the latter half of this first book.
But I don’t want to give too much away – and at only £2.99 you really might as well read it yourself… Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments below!
The Warrior Queen is the first of three books in this series, so keep your eyes peeled for part two, as well as my interview with Lavinia Collins coming up in the next instalment of this two-part blog post miniseries.
The Warrior Queen (Part I of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/THE-WARRIOR-QUEEN-Guinevere-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00IPRC0TE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393635696&sr=8-1&keywords=lavinia+collins
A Champion’s Duty (Part II of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/CHAMPIONS-DUTY-The-Guinevere-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00JD35Z3W/ref=pd_sim_sbs_kinc_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1FSNYAXHG8E0B6RNQY64