So I finished reading Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country by Rosalind Miles. This will be tough to review because I'm incredibly biased. I loved Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon and no other interpretation quite matches that spellbinding work. Is this a case of what came first, the chicken or the egg? Will readers of Rosalind Miles who haven't read the great Marion Zimmer Bradley find this to be the quintessential Arthurian novel? Or should I say, Gueneverian novel?
Of course I can't reasonably answer such a question. For one the legend lends itself to wide interpretation. I congratulate Rosalind Miles for her fresh version. (Now there's a good question: how many versions cast Guinevere as the defender of the Goddess? Is this a first? I honestly don't know. I rarely indulge in Arthurian novels because MZB's satisfied me. Please tell me about versions with a strong, likable Guinevere.**
**When talking about Guinevere in general, I use a common spelling. When talking about this novel, I use Rosalind Miles' spelling)
With my bias firmly in place, my devotion settled irrevocably on The Mists of Avalon, I turn an honest eye to Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country. Let's dismiss prior knowledge of the Arthur legend. This Guenevere is not a whiny simpleton, corrupting Arthur and enforcing the domination of women. (Okay, that might be a bit harsh but Guinevere of TMOA drives me nuts.)
Guinevere is an icon and unless you love TMOA, you may want to root for her. Casting her as a powerful pagan Queen is a wonderful contrast to TMOA (sorry, I can't seem to forget my prior knowledge), but to make this work, Rosalind Miles was required to recast several characters. Hardest for me was Morgan Le Fey spending twenty years in a convent. This is the dilemma of retelling a beloved story. For whatever reason, I am far more open to wild interpretations of Robin Hood and Maid Marion. Is it because they are not tragic? Is it because no matter how you write about Camelot, all must be lost?
Regardless of my bias, I found myself curious to see this powerful Guenevere through to the end. I was not disappointed. See, one of the things I adore about TMOA is that Morgaine is not evil. That was an amazing interpretation by MZB. In Rosalind Miles' novel, Morgan is evil BUT, and I think this is an important but, it is because she was denied her Queen right and forced into a convent. Her otherworldly nature found comfort in black magic. She had a powerful reason to resent, even hate Arthur. I prefer that Morgan uses black magic, a distorted, corrupted version of pagan rites, than to be the representative of the Goddess and be evil.
I believe Rosalind Miles succeeds creating both a strong Guenevere and a Morgan I willingly hated. To reverse my prejudice against these two characters is a powerful example of how well Rosalind Miles writes her story, develops her characters, and unravels a well known plot.
If you enjoy the Arthurian legend, I highly suggest you set aside your bias for this beautiful book.