That may be the oddest blog title I’ve ever written.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the society and culture around us impacts the work we produce as writers. What got me on this train of thought? Well, I’m working on a non-fiction book on the evolution of the character of Guinevere in literature from the Welsh triads through my own novels. My thesis is that each version of Guinevere reflects the society in which and for which she was written.
And this is true of my own version. I started writing her in 1999. The 1990s, especially the late 90s, were a time when women were coming into their own in pop culture. It’s the time that started what we now call “Third Wave Feminism.” (Buffy has even been cited at as Third Wave Feminist Icon by The Atlantic.) Here’s the brief timeline:
- The original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film (still my favorite) debuted in August 1992.
- A novelization by Joss Whedon came a few months later (I read it like five times and still own it. I have the soundtrack on cassette, too. Obsessed much?)
- The TV show ran from 1997-2003.
- The show was continued on in graphic novels for two more seasons, but that’s really beyond the scope of this post.
Anyway, Buffy was really the first kick-ass female character in pop culture that I can remember. We had female superheros before (She-ra for example), but Buffy was the first woman to be both physically awesome without traditional superpowers (thought you could argue that The Slayer’s super-strength and quick self-healing abilities are superpowers) and by the end of the movie, have some depth and agency. No, Buffy would never be considered a genius – that’s what Willow and Giles are for – but especially by the time the TV show started, she had a bit of a brain and was realizing she could make her own choices, even though her overall fate as The Slayer wasn’t up to her. And the fact that she got more intelligent and strategy savvy as the series went on is even better.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but seeing (and personally embracing) this female icon left a lasting impression on my psyche. Maybe it helped that Buffy also coincided with my time at an all-girls high school (where we were taught be strong women), but regardless, I came to writing my Guinevere knowing I wanted her to be able to kick some ass like Buffy, something I hadn’t seen reflected in the Arthurian legend I’d read to that point. Plus, it is historically accurate for Celtic women, although possibly not as late as post-Roman Britain where/when my story is set.
In many ways, I think the physical toughness is related to a desire to no longer be repressed by or dependent on men. My Guinevere – the Guinevere of a new generation, if you will – was not going to be raised to sit around and await her husband to usher her into a new era of life. As a “self-rescuing princess,” she forged her own life away from and outside of her parents. Even later on, when she was subject to father’s legal control over her, Guinevere did what she could to live the life she, not her father, chose for her. Like Buffy, she eventually had to face the role destiny had in store for her, and like Buffy, she accepted what she couldn’t control and made the best of it with strength and determination. And if she kicked a little ass along the way (more so in the second and third books than the first), so much the better.
There is also an interesting tie between Buffy and the 1990s fascination with all things Wicca. During that decade, the movie The Craft (or, as many Wiccans call it, The Crap, for the lack of realism in its portrayal of their religion) was an introduction to the neo-pagan religion and/or goddess movement for many young people. Entire sections of Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores were dedicated to books on witchcraft, and you couldn’t swing a cat (pun intended) without hitting a New Age Store in most major towns. (I am sad that this is no longer the case. Ahem.) Buffy has obvious ties to the supernatural (not to mention more than one Wiccan character) and it’s popularity was due in part to the culture of openness regarding all things mystical and occult.
What does this have to do with Guinevere? Well, in that same period of occult fascination, I chose to break the mold and give Guinevere a role that has been heretofore reserved for Morgan: that of priestess. This is important because traditionally in literature one of the few powerful female characters was the witch (also known as the priestess). By whatever name you call her, the priestess/witch, wields power on her own – no male intermediaries here – and uses her magic to get what she wants out of life. She also often has pre-cognitive abilities or other powers that threaten those in charge of society. In addition, witches have their covens or groves, in which they join together to become more powerful and use this community to train the young and protect the weak. For these reasons (among others) she is often viewed as a force that must be stopped. In Guinevere’s case, she has the sight, learns to manipulate the elements, and lives for a time in Avalon (which functions like a coven). For a long time she has no negative repercussions, but we all know one of the iconic images of Arthurian legend is Guinevere’s rescue from the stake…
(A powerful woman who says what she wants, does what she wants, and stands up for other women – and is persecuted for it – why does that sound familiar? Oh wait, that’s me reflecting on the culture of 2016-2017.)
In the end, Buffy saved the world (a lot), but not without sacrifice. While I can’t promise Guinevere will do the same, she was molded by the same cultural forces, so no matter how her story turns out (and only I know for certain), you can bet she won’t end her days moldering away in a convent, subject to the whims of men. Not while this Buffy fan still breathes.