A Review of The Child Queen and The High Queen, by Nancy McKenzie
Del Ray, 1994
By REBECCA, July 27, 2012
Guinevere lives with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Elaine in Wales; she’s adventurous and really only wants to ride her horses. Her cousin, Elaine, however, wants nothing more than to be chosen as the bride of the newly-widowed high king—Arthur of Camelot. When a chance encounter places Guinevere in Arthur’s sights, neither girl gets what she wants: Elaine is bitter and bereft, and Guinevere terrified of losing first her freedom and, later, her love for another horse-lover. You guessed it: Lancelot.
why am i re-reading these?
I first read these around the time the came out, so I was around 12, and I read them about a million times for the next few years, when I was going through a bit of an Arthur-Guinevere phase. I loved the intricacy of the history/mythology of Arthurian stories and how differently each author would characterize the familiar figures, all of which stemmed from reading these books by Nancy McKenzie, collectively called The Tale Of Guinevere and King Arthur (apparently she doesn’t get an honorific) and re-released in one volume called Queen of Camelot (in which she does). In high school, I was a really big historical fiction fan, among other things, and I think that McKenzie’s books were something of a gateway drug for me: it was the richness of this other world that captivated me, much in the same way that world-building in fantasy or science fiction can transport me. As a result of reading these, I went on to be totally obsessed with all of Sharon Kay Penman‘s books, which I highly recommend for any historical fiction fans out there.
I wanted to re-read this duology because I’m not so much into historical fiction anymore, and in nearly all realms I absolutely couldn’t care less about royalty. So, I wanted to see if this world still worked its magic on me, or whether I was distracted by the . . . romanticization of the mythos of it all.
do the books hold up?
They do, actually. The things that I most appreciated about the books remain untouched by a broader view of the world and literature! Those are:
Gustave Doré’s gorgeous illustration of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King
1. Arthur is an amazing character. Now, I am not swoony about princes/kings in the slightest—in fact, I can think of few things less appealing than being partnered with someone who is not only used to being deferred to all the time but also is licensed to go to war at any moment should others fail to defer. And, granted, Arthur is used to being deferred to, and he does go to war. But, he is a wonderfully complex character driven by a simple trait: pragmatism. I know that may sound kind of boring, but I think the majority of pragmatic characters are portrayed as being in some way lacking in compassion, complexity, desire, or subtlety—as if the only way to maintain a pragmatic worldview is to be devoid of emotion, which I think is totally inaccurate.
Rather, Arthur is the finest version of the character: he had greatness thrust upon him young, and with it came an immense sense of responsibility, the sense (rightly so) that he has the opportunity to change the world. He is even-keeled, passionate, and honest, about both his desires and his expectations. And in this way, McKenzie cuts through the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triad that has always seemed like something of a Gordian knot to me in other renditions: simply put, both Guinevere and Lancelot love and revere Arthur more than they do each other. And, in this telling, that reverence is rightly placed.
2. Extremely deftly-constructed characters with psychologically-complex motivations. My favorite thing about The Child Queen and The High Queen is that McKenzie’s characters are motivated by their own psychologies and, thus, they read into the motivations and actions of other characters in ways that are accurate for their own characters. So, Elaine is childish and selfish, which means that she assumes childishness and selfishness of others; Guinevere knows Elaine is childish and selfish, but she, herself, is mature and stoic, so despite her knowledge of what Elaine is, Guinevere misjudges her in a critical moment. Further, a lot of the discussions between Arthur and his knights and Guinevere involve Guinevere explaining the behavior of Arthur’s perceived foes in ways that he and his knights don’t see, etc. (Of course, there are moments of this that read as your typical “men are warmongers; women show them another way” trope, but it’s realistically done, given the time period and military traditions).
I like to imagine that Merlin and Gandalf are best friends who discourse on the peskiness of humans while playing magical chess across the ages.
3. Freaking Merlin, y’all. Do I believe in fate? No. Do I love the shit out of some wizards, prophesies, curses, and destinies? Hell yes, I do. I’ve always found the relationships between wizards and their chosen mortals really compelling. And kind of hot. They’re such a power struggle, you know? Merlin can see the future, so he thinks he knows what he’s talking about; Arthur knows people and has might, so he thinks he knows what he’s doing. Merlin has ultimate knowledge, but he chooses (?) to use it to keep this really hot, honorable guy safe and make his name live throughout the ages? Arthur is a super strong, charismatic king who can do anything he wants, and he goes practically catatonic with despair when Merlin is harmed or he thinks he dies? It’s hot. Anyhoo, Merlin. Creepy, for sure. And awesome.
4. Mordred! I hope I’m not spoiling the story for anyone, but it turns out that Arthur was tricked into getting a bastard son on his half-sister (it happens, okay?). In many renderings of the story, Mordred is framed as a traitor who ruins Camelot and Arthur’s dream of a united kingdom. In The High Queen, though, Mordred is a super interesting character who is actually kind of a bastion of proto-radicalism in terms of envisioning an actually united kingdom—as in, a kingdom that includes the tribes that other kings have previously thought of as “barbaric.” Mordred wants trade and mutual learning with these tribes rather than war or assimilation, and Guinevere shares his vision. It is this political difference—or perhaps more accurately put, a difference in what Mordred and Arthur believe people are capable of—that finally drives a wedge between father and son. And it’s so well-handled. McKenzie spends a really long time building up their relationship and showing why they have this difference of opinion.
Accolade, by E.B. Leighton
The most significant difference in my re-reading of The Child Queen and The High Queen was my memory of Guinevere. When I first read the books, like I said, I was 12 and in the books Guinevere is 15 when she marries Arthur, so I felt like we were pretty akin. At the time, I really liked her—I mean, sure, she speaks in an oddly formal way, but, I mean, it’s the 5th century; and, sure, she’s said to be the most beautiful person who ever lived, but she’s not vain or anything. So, when I re-read the books, I imagined to still identify with the compassionate, generous, smart Guinevere I remembered. It was kind of strange, then, to find, at least in The Child Queen, where she’s between 8 and 20, that Guinevere reminded me less of a really together, precocious girl, and more like Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game: kind of preternaturally strategic and able to bury her feelings. I don’t mean this as a bad thing; she simply felt different to me as a 30 year old than she did as a teenager. And, of course, now that I’m an adult, I wanted to sit Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot down and say, “hey, friends, you don’t all have to be miserable, guilt-ridden, and horny all the time; you can just all three be in a relationship together and everybody wins!”
All in all, this was a delight to reread and I’d definitely recommend The Child Queen and The High Queen for anyone who is interested in historical fiction, epic fantasy, or anything to do with Arthuriana.
what are my other favorite re-tellings of the Arthurian legend? i’m so glad you asked
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1984). Such a totally different vision of the mytho and the characters than McKenzie’s, The Mists of Avalon is told from the perspective of the women who are rarely mentioned in stories that foreground Arthur and the knights of the round table.Okay, I know, I know, it’s obvious, but it really bears reflecting on: this book is so good and magical that a dear friend of mine has read it like 20 times but has still never read the last chapter so that she can believe that it doesn’t end. Done.
The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell (1997). Book 1 in the Warlord Chronicles series, The Winter King is all about the military and political aspects of King Arthur’s campaigns. I really like military history and am interested in this era’s military-political history in particular. This is definitely more about Arthur, Lancelot, Mordred, and the other dudes, but what it lacks in characterization it definitely makes up for in plot and action—super exciting.
Excalibur, directed by John Boorman (1981). This star-studded cast is only barely outshined by the intense weirdness of this adaptation, which literalizes the magical elements of the myth, such as humans disguising themselves as animals. Pretty freaking delightful.
procured from: my home library
And you, gentle reader? Were you a closet Arthur geek? An out and proud Arthuriana lover? Never quite saw the appeal? What are your favorite versions of the story? Tell us in the comments!