Camelot Rising by Kiersten White: A New, Feminist Spin on King Arthur and Queen Guinevere
Spoiler warning for the entire Camelot Rising trilogy: The Guinevere Deception; The Camelot Betrayal; and The Excalibur Curse
Trigger warnings: rape, incest, and abuse in fiction
The Camelot Rising trilogy by Kiersten White is a rare Arthurian retelling that truly reckons with how evil Merlin is, constantly violating people’s consent, especially if they’re women.
I’ve always loved the story of King Arthur and Camelot and will give almost any version of this myth a chance. I’ve seen the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot live onstage twice. My Vavo (grandmother in Portuguese) owned a vinyl copy of the 1960 Original Broadway Cast Recording, starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton.
The musical Camelot was based on T. H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, which I also love. As a teen, I laughed at Monty Python’s King Arthur parodies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail and its musical adaptation, Spamalot. When I was an English major in college, we studied the origins of the King Arthur myth, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s so-called “histories” and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and watched the movie Excalibur. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature says: “For Geoffrey’s History is, on the last analysis, a prose romance, and, in its Arthurian portions in particular, a palpable excursion in fiction.” Merlin’s living backwards and seeing all of time simultaneously always seemed to anticipate quantum physics theories, or at least modern SFF, to me.
Despite my obvious nostalgia for King Arthur legends, there are many disturbing aspects right below the surface of this fairy tale. The more I read the traditional stories, the more I discovered. Arthur can be utilitarian. Merlin uses people, especially women, as pawns in a selfish, long game only he understands. Merlin engineers Arthur’s birth by using magic to enable Uther Pendragon to rape Igraine. Nimue, The Lady of the Lake, traps Merlin for years in her underwater cave. Although he foresees this, he does not consent to it and cannot stop it. Mordred is born as a result of incest between Arthur and Morgan Le Fay.
The Camelot myth is also an idealized origin story for England and often glorifies imperialism and Christianization. As a child, I was disturbed when I realized that “knights on a quest” was often a euphemism for the Crusades. In September, I mentioned that modern Western fantasy, especially when it’s inspired by medieval Europe, often draws on Crusader narratives, sometimes unknowingly. Camelot Rising touches on most of these ideas and themes and explores some in depth.
The Guinevere Deception
So, when The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White, the first book of her Camelot Rising trilogy, was recently an ebook deal, I had to buy it. The writing and characterization are beautiful and immersive. The changes the author has made are inventive and show her knowledge of the mythology. In the medieval versions of the story, going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory, Arthur is conceived through rape. Merlin glamours Uther Pendragon to look like Gorlois, Igraine’s husband. Then, Uther has sex with Igraine, who thinks he is Gorlois — rape by trickery or deception. Uther is a rapist, and Merlin is an accomplice to rape, facilitating it with magic. Also, traditionally, Arthur and Morgan Le Fay are half-siblings: both Igraine’s children, with different fathers. Morgan deceives Arthur to conceive Mordred. Through this incest, Mordred is both Arthur and Morgan’s son and nephew.
I found it interesting how White changes some of these details and retains others. Her Mordred is Arthur’s nephew, but older than Arthur — and no incest involved. Readers never learn “Guinevere’s” true identity in this book. We do think by the end of the first book, though, that she’s Merlin’s daughter — and not the real Guinevere, who is dead.
One Amazon reviewer seemed confused about this plot change and concerned that Arthur and Guinevere were siblings! Thankfully, they’re actually NOT related at all. That would have made Guinevere’s secret identity Morgan Le Fay! When Arthur says to Guinevere, “Merlin did that,” this refers to Merlin helping Uther rape Igraine. It doesn’t mean that Merlin physically raped Igraine, but enabling it is evil enough.
I loved Guinevere. She’s a witch, well-versed in healing and protection charms. She’s terrified of water, and we later learn that her mother was apparently the Lady of the Lake. She thinks Merlin implanted this phobia into her mind, along with many other false and confusing memories. As usual, Merlin foresees the Lady entrapping him, but cannot prevent it.
I also loved this version of Lancelot, a woman who initially competes in a disguise that hides her face. In the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Isolde’s maid is often named Brangien. In Camelot Rising, Brangien is Guinevere’s maid but previously worked for Isolde. In this series, Isolde is in love with Brangien, not Tristan. It makes sense that not all of these characters would be alloromantic, cisgender, and straight, so I appreciate the LGBTQ representation.
The Camelot Betrayal and The Excalibur Curse
In books two and three, we learn that Mordred is the Green Knight’s son, not Arthur’s, in this series. “Anna” is Morgana (Morgan Le Fay). Guinevach (Guinevere’s sister) was in some of the myths too. The Camelot Betrayal spends a lot of time on fake-outs, misdirecting readers to view Guinevach as a threat, as Guinevere does. I thought it was obvious that Guinevach (who preferred to be called Lily) was a kind girl trying to navigate her place in the world and her changed relationship with her sister.
The first book leads us to believe Guinevere’s father is Merlin, and her mother is Nimue, The Lady of the Lake. Guinevere also believes this. The third book reveals a much more complicated but cohesive truth. Guinevere sees a creepy image of herself dead at the bottom of a lake. When she enters a lake to try to reach the Lady, she remembers that she IS the “real” Guinevere, just as Morgana had claimed. Guinevere was originally a princess with beautiful brown eyes and no magic. Merlin and Nimue showed her a vision of herself with blue eyes, matching the color of the lake. She’d also be extremely powerful and married to handsome King Arthur. Guinevere was an impressionable teen who wanted to escape her misogynistic father, so this appealed to her.
Nimue had wanted to possess Guinevere’s body to become Arthur’s queen. Her plan failed, however. Guinevere had lost, false, or stolen memories from Merlin, plus Nimue’s magic. But Guinevere’s sweet, loyal, brave, stubborn personality remained. This explains the gaps in Guinevere’s memory earlier in the series — even her being unsure of her own age. Guinevere is not only able to do magic; she is magic. She has magic inside her — but the reason why is a horrific violation.
I love White’s Guinevere and was shocked by the way Merlin and The Lady of the Lake tricked the “real” Guinevere to create her. She was literally made for Arthur, and the series draws a parallel between what happened to her and Arthur’s conception via rape. Neither Arthur nor Guinevere is culpable for evil things Merlin did to create them, of course. Guinevere stabs and kills Merlin with Excalibur and consequently loses her magic. But she loses none of her consciousness, memory, or relationships.
However, there are still a few chronology discrepancies with Arthur. Arthur was 18 in the first book, but he and Elaine had had a child who died at birth, “all those years ago?” As in many other recent YA series I like overall, the teen characters seem to have way too many experiences packed into their teen years. I understand the tendency to make characters near target readers’ ages, but forcing this can create plot holes or at least confusion.
This Arthurian retelling reckons with how evil Merlin is, constantly violating people’s consent, especially if they’re women. Merlin treated Guinevere as his creation and possession to give to Arthur — terrifying. Guinevere even thinks this in The Excalibur Curse: “Guinevere seemed to be a possession to all of them. Her heart fell at that thought, but she did not have time to indulge her sadness” (White 89). Guinevere also feels guilty whenever her magic violates another living being’s consent.
In the first book, we learn Guinevere is terrified of water and experiences pain and dissonance whenever she’s near Excalibur, Arthur’s sword from the lake. Once she recovers her memories of Merlin and Nimue betraying her, drowning her, and overtaking her body, both fears make perfect sense.
Guinevere becomes more assertive and is finding her strengths by the end of the series. I also enjoyed her new friend Fina joking that Guinevere was “half water,” back when they still thought Merlin and Nimue were her parents. Of course, all humans are way over 50% water. There were a lot of clever, ironic moments like that about feminism, history, and science.
As always, Camelot is a story of colonialism, the spread of Christianity, and the suppression of magic and pagan beliefs. With this comes the conquest and erasure of local cultures. Colonization and Christianity are homogenizing forces in this series and cause the repression and erasure of entire cultures. Unlike some more idealized versions, the series doesn’t shy away from depicting imperialism and forced assimilation as destructive and evil.
Another of Arthur’s impulses is subjugating nature. His main adversary in the series is The Dark Queen, a spirit of the forest. The false dichotomy of “nature” as separate from people is often found in Western European literature, but is not universal at all.
Arthur is greedy for more territory, wanting to expand Camelot to cover “the entire island” (that will become England). This is part of what makes him utilitarian. Arthur believes that Christianity and Camelot are superior to the diverse and disparate civilizations around them. Thus, he thinks conquering them and imposing his beliefs and culture on them is justified. Empire often views itself as a benign or “civilizing,” progressive force.
It’s also hypocritical that only Arthur is allowed to use magic, while he bans it. Guinevere calls him out on this, and he loves and respects her perspective but doesn’t follow it. Arthur also says that Excalibur is “not magic” but “the opposite of magic” (TEC 247). In other words, it’s like kryptonite to magic and will undo it, imposing order over the “chaos” of magic. Again, Arthur believes the ends justify the means because he uses force to achieve his utopian dream of Camelot.
Some reviewers dislike that King Arthur and Merlin are such distant, paradoxical figures, but I think it’s inevitable. Arthur should always be a paradoxical character: charismatic and idealistic but infuriating and dangerous. Arthur shows callousness and/or cognitive dissonance towards Merlin’s actions. Arthur tells Guinevere with horror what Merlin did to his mother, but he also compartmentalizes Merlin, his mentor, from Merlin, the manipulative sorcerer and abuser of women. Arthur repeats several times that Merlin never harmed him — an irrelevant line that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever interacted with abuse apologists. We can’t reconcile the two contradictory sides of Merlin; nor should we.
The series remains vague on Lancelot’s gender identity and sexual and romantic orientation, but she does refuse to conform to the gender roles and strictures of her society. Lancelot is also a very private person, so I think it works for her character. In Arthurian myths, Guinevere alternately stays faithful to Arthur or has affairs with Lancelot or Mordred. The series teases all of these pairings, but if you love reading romance, especially love triangles, this series may be disappointing.
After the central question of Guinevere’s identity, some readers may also be disappointed that she was always the “real” Guinevere — albeit altered by magical violence. I get why some readers might find the series anticlimactic, but I like it. I thought the revelations in the last book tied the whole story together in a fascinating way.
I rarely reread entire series, but I already hope to reread this one someday. In retrospect, some scenes I initially found cliché or confusing would seem illuminating a second time. The final line of the trilogy echoes its very first line. The message is that some people (and the patriarchy as a whole) find Guinevere terrifying just because she’s a girl.
In Kiersten White’s afterword, she writes that many Arthurian myths treat women terribly, so the women characters are hers now, and “you can’t have them back” (TEC 347). I understand that sentiment and am glad that so many writers today give us their own re-imaginings of Camelot.