There are women that drive the passions of man, that speak to those emotions most central to their being. Whether we try to relegate Guinevere to her early position as an example of the earth goddess or to the later scheming adultress, she, like Helen of Troy, stands in splendor at the center of the Arthurian realm. In modern stories, her rehabilitation reflects our changing attitudes toward marriage but she can never fully overcome the stigma of her betrayal of Arthur as portrayed in Chretien and Malory. In the Welsh Triads, she is three, all Gwenhwyfars and Queen of Arthur (see below Triad 56). Even the burial stone of Glastonbury mentions that Gwenhwyfar was Arthur's second wife.
   In her earliest form, she is the earth goddess who must annually wed with the king in order to insure prosperity of the land. She is the object of kings. By possessing her, they possess the right to kingship. This Celtic role I believe reflects the reality that she was the daughter of a major Romano-Celtic leader with sufficient wealth to mount a cavalry troop and pay for their maintenance, whose lands were situated in the 'Summer Country'. When Duke Leo marries his daughter to the warlord Arthur, Melwas must later recapture her to legitimize his rights as successor. The abduction plot is recounted in The Life of St. Gildas (c. 1130) by Caradoc of Llancarfan and in the Welsh "Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar." It is the subject of the earliest known Arthurian sculpture on the archivolt of the Porta della Pescheria on the Modena Cathedral.
   The story of the abduction is the central action in Chrétien de Troyes' "The Knight of the Cart" ("Chevalier de la Charrette") and appears also in Malory. Lancelot rescues Guinevere and their ensuing romance becomes the standard for chivalric love in Arthur's court. He swears to be true only to her, passing up an amorous adventure with a very insistent maiden, submitting to the indignity of riding in the death cart, and even following Guinevere's every fickle wish. She, in return, wed to Arthur and queen of the realm, admits that she wants nothing more than to lie "quite naked next to him, in order to enjoy him fully".
   In Malory, the affair moves to the center of stage and portends the failure of the king. Even in this stage, the early earth goddess motif is still transparent; for the king must be husband to the Mother Goddess or the land shall suffer. Guinevere and Lancelot love the king and the king loves them and fails in his role. We can forgive him but never her, for his failure was for love and hers for lust. Her redemption comes only at the last, looking back as a nun on their glorious dream.
   Tennyson presents Guinevere as a sinner who has "spoilt the purpose" of Arthur's life. Nevertheless, Tennyson does bring Guinevere and other female characters to the fore, as does one of his contemporaries, William Morris. In the last hundred years, the role of Guinevere and the other women of Arthur's court has expanded and we are given insights into their reasons and choices. We are made to pity and admire her even when her choices are wrong.
Triad 56
Arthur's Three Great Queens:
Gwenhwyfar daughter of (Cywryd) Gwent,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of (Gwythyr) son of Greidiawl,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of (G)ogfran the Giant.
Guenever in Malory's le Morte

The Song of Guinevere: A Defense of Arthur's Wife by Alicia Snow, Audio CD - Mar 1999 Paperback