Brought to you by OBS Staff Member Karolina

Hello , Everyone! Welcome to Clash of the Legends part 4: Guinevere v Gwen! This is probably one of the most … Controversial clashes for me, simply because of my long standing views of King Arthur’s Lady Love, and my views on BBC’s Gwen. I’d love to hear people’s views on this character. So, without further adieu, let’s have a look at these two ladies.

Arthurian Legend Guinevere


picture: William Morris “Queen Guinevere”

The Guinevere of the legend is said to be the daughter of king Leodegrace , and betrothed to Arthur from early in his reign as king. The first time she ever appears in texts is in the welsh story Culwch ac Olwen, where she is mentioned as Arthur’s queen, but little else is said about her. When Guinevere does start to appear as more than just the King’s wife, she becomes for of a damsel in distress figure, someone who is abducted, and needs to be saved. Caradoc of Llancarfan, who wrote his Life of Gildas before 1136, recounts how she was kidnapped by Melwas, king of the “Summer Country” (Aestiva Regio, perhaps meaning Somerset), and held prisoner at his stronghold at Glastonbury. Arthur, in this story, spends a year searching for his abducted love, only to find her and be granted her back. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s histories, Guinevere is abducted by Arthur’s nephew and one of his knights, Sir Mordred – who is also after Arthur’s throne. According to Monmouth, this is the incident that leads to the final show down between Arthur and Mordred and their subsequent deaths.

As mentioned earlier, Lancelot is not mentioned until Chrétien de Troyes’ “Lancelot, knight of the cart” . This story is basically a rehashing of Caradoc of Llancarfan’s story, but instead of Arthur being the one to find and save Guinevere, it is Lancelot – and she is instantly smitten with him. And so begins the downfall of King Arthur.

TH White’s “The Once and Future King: the Ill-made knight” has Lancelot slightly different to the romanticised, Chretien de Troyes version. Lancelot is ugly, and what his attraction is is his loyalty and his heart. He comes to King Arthur, always wanting to be a knight, coveting his court. He fast becomes one of Arthur’s closest friends and confidantes. This, however, causes some tension, as Lancelot intensely dislikes Arthur’s new wife, Guinevere. In order to please her husband, however, Guinevere tries to befriend Lancelot and alas, the two eventually fall in love. And, once again, so begins the downfall of King Arthur.

In the majority of the versions of this tragic love story, Arthur is unaware of the infidelity between his wife and his loyal knight. Until, one day, both of them are absent from a feast. The affair comes to light through Agravaine and Mordred, and suddenly, Lancelot is fleeing for his life. Arthur, much to his discontent, sentences Guinevere to burn at the stake. He , however knows that this news will reach Lancelot, and the noble knight will no doubt attempt to come to his lady’s rescue. Arthur sends many of his knights to defend the pyre, though Gawain (a knight – and yes, I will speak of his AWESOME counterpart later!) refuses to participate. Lancelot arrives and rescues the queen, and in the course of the battle Gawain’s brothers Gaheris and Gareth are killed, sending Gawain into a rage so great that he pressures Arthur into war with Lancelot. Arthur follows Lancelot to France, leaving Guinevere with Mordred – who, yep – seduces her and attempts to take the throne from dear old Uncle/Dad Arthur. In some versions, Guinevere succumbs to Mordred’s seduction – in others she hides in the Tower of London. Hearing of the treachery, Arthur returns to Britain and slays Mordred at Camlann, but his wounds are so severe that he is taken to the isle of Avalon. Guinevere meets Lancelot one last time, then returns to the convent where she spends the remainder of her life.

The name Guinevere can mean ‘the white enchantress’, or “the white ghost’ and that really seems to embody her character in the Legends – a beautiful, aloof, naive, wisp of a woman, who is either tragically in love with two men, and succumbs to a temptation she shouldn’t – or a traitor to the True King of England.

BBC’s Gwen (Played by Angel Coulby)

picture: from BBC Merlin (Season 1 Gwen)

Gwen in BBC’s Merlin is not the daughter of a King, but the daughter of a blacksmith – Tom Thomas. She is also handmaiden to King Uther’s ward, the lady Morgana. She is not designed to be someone who is noticeable straight away – and definitely not to the heir of the throne of Camelot, Prince Arthur. The audience first meets her when Merlin is in the stocks, having fruit thrown at him for challenging Arthur a second time in the courtyard. Gwen introduces herself and imparts on Merlin the knowledge that Prince Arthur is a bully, and that it was brave of Merlin to stand up to him. Gwen shyly bumbles through her compliments to Merlin, and, Merlin, slightly bemused, thanks her, and warns her to move before another barrage of fruit and vegetables is thrown at him. And, so begins their friendship.

Gwen seems a little smitten with Merlin at first, giving him flowers, and sitting by his bedside during season 1’s Episode, ‘The Poisoned Chalice’ and bestowing a relieved kiss on Merlin when he finally wakes from being poisoned. Lancelot, in the season 1 Episode of the same name, hesitantly asks if there is something between Gwen and Merlin, to which Merlin laughs and states they are just friends. Later, Merlin jokingly teases Gwen into choosing between Arthur and Lancelot, stating that she wouldn’t know who she liked if she was standing next to them – as Gwen stares at him. In the episode ‘Excalibur’ , when Merlin goes to retrieve the sword form Tom, Gwen ,flustered, tells Merlin he can have anything he wants from her, and quickly tries to retract the statement while oblivious Merlin asks for the sword. By season two, though, Gwen and Merlin are definitely in the ‘just friends’ category – although still loyal to each other. Merlin definitely cares a great deal for Gwen, healing Tom in “The Mark of Nimueh’ and confessing to using magic when Gwen is accused of being a witch (which Arthur quickly denies in front of Uther). He is also the one who knows of Arthur and Gwen’s love, and tries to push them together, not understanding why, if his two friends love each other, they cannot be. Whenever Gwen is in trouble, it is always Merlin and Arthur who jump to her rescue.

BBC’s Gwen is smitten with Lancelot from the get go – she begs him not to leave Camelot at the end of the episode “Lancelot” , and is thrilled to see him in season 2’s “Lancelot and Guinevere” . They confess their undying love for each other in this episode as well, even though Gwen’s feelings for Arthur have been growing since season 1, and Lancelot keeps disappearing (which he does at the end of “Lancelot and Guinevere” as well, when he finds out from Merlin – unwittingly- that Arthur has feelings for Gwen as well). By the time Lancelot comes back (Season 3, “The coming of Arthur”) , Gwen does not pay too much attention to him , as her relationship with Arthur has become more substantial.

Arthur and Gwen do not have much to do with each other in season 1 of Merlin – although it is clear that, while Gwen considers him a bully, she does respect him, far more than she does Uther. This is particularly evident in the season 1 episodes;
“The Moment of Truth”, where Gwen stands up to Arthur about the women of Ealdor being able to fight for their town, and then apologises to Arthur for speaking out of turn
“To Kill the King” Where Tom is sentenced to death for conspiring with a magic user (the bad guy of the episode came into Tom’s workshop) , and , while Arthur states there is nothing he can do, Gwen does not hold a grudge, and
“Le Morte d’Arthur”, where Gwen watches over an unconscious Arthur, and tells him that he will one day be a great king.

Season 2 is where Arthur and Gwen’s courtship really starts, although it is admittedly sporadic throughout the show. By episode 2 of season 2 (“The once and Future Queen”) Arthur and Gwen have shared their first kiss, but deem their love “not meant to be.” In “Lancelot and Guinevere”, Arthur offloads his feelings for Gwen onto Merlin, after she has been mistaken for Morgana (sort of) and is captured by a bandit. Their love comes in fits and starts – but Morgana has a vision of Gwen as Queen of Camelot ( s3, “The Queen of Hearts”) by the end of season 3 (the coming of Arthur, part 2) ,Arthur and Gwen are kissing in the middle of the courtyard for everyone to see (including Lancelot). This Gwen is not afraid to tell Arthur what she thinks of him and his decisions, either (much like Merlin).

This Gwen has been captured a few times – once in place of Morgana (where both Lancelot and Arthur ride to her rescue, and Arthur finds out about her feelings for Lancelot), and also by Cendred in season 3, where we find out that Gwen has a brother, Elyan. However, Gwen is capable of looking after herself, and protecting those she loves.

The final mention of Gwen’s relationships should be Morgana. They start off as inseparable, best friends, and not much like Lady/ servant at all. Morgana is fiercely loyal to Gwen and vice versa. However, during Morgana’s downfall, and especially during season 3, their friendship sours to something irreversible, and Gwen starts to suspect, on her own , that there is something sinister in Morgana’s actions. When the fact that Morgana is now evil comes to light -Gwen tries to play her, claiming loyalty to her and only her – while planning an escape with Sir Leon to get to Arthur (s3 “The coming of Arthur”)

So, BBC’s Gwen has aspects in her character that are not all that similar to that of her Legends counterpart, but it seems like she is heading down the same path, in some ways.

I have to admit – I have a much larger soft spot for Gwen (the BBC version) than I do for Guinevere of the Legends. I always found Guinevere to be a weak, snivelling, conniving little character. Obsessed with herself and vain in every way. It really wasn’t until BBC’s Gwen that I started to enjoy the character much more. I love the idea that, while Merlin was the first to really challenge Arthur and push his boundaries on what can be said to a King-in-waiting- Gwen is the other character who does that. And, it looks like that it is because of Merlin and Gwen’s influence, BBC’s Arthur will become the King he is meant to be. Even if BBC does go down the tragic love story path with this character, as they seem to want to do, their Gwen will always feel like a much more well rounded character than Guinevere.

What do you think?

Here’s the links to Merlin, Arthur and Camelot Clashes, and next time, it’s Morgraine versus Morgana!

Also, join us in the forum here