Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit By Mercedes Lackey

Gwenhwyfar is one of the four daughters of a Celtic king named Ogrfan Gawr. For the most part, Gwenhwyfar's childhood is happy, with loving parents and two older sisters who may be a little distant, but her younger sister, a near-twin named Gwenhwyfach who is unbearably jealous, and is the one blotch on a childhood that is otherwise wonderful.

As much as Gwen idolizes her father, her true hero is a female charioteer named Braith, the vassal of one of her father's fellow lords. Gwen loves watching Braith race, and one day, Braith notices her and allows her to walk her chariot-team's horses after winning a race.

Gwen does so well with the horses that Braith tells her father that it is time for him to give her a real horse and let her learn to ride... and to fight as well. Gwen is delighted, and not even the fact that her little sister immediately demands the same training and privileges can dim her joy. Especially not when her sister immediately demands to be put on a stallion.

The head groom indulges her, and she immediately attempts to gallop and falls from the horse. Neither her father nor the groom comfort her, and she reacts with a massive tantrum, but gets no sympathy from either of them. Immediately, Gwen knows her sister will be in a foul temper, but Gwenhwyfach runs off, and Gwen is too busy getting on her own horse to follow.

She works the rest of the day at riding, and when she joins her mother and father for dinner, she learns that her little sister has been busy ruining and destroying the things that her sisters love best, Gwen included. Her sister gives her eldest sister's best dancing shoes to the dogs, grinds her second sister's best embroidered belt into the dirt, and completely destroys Gwen's doll.

But this time she has gone much too far, and her parents punish her severely, until she can learn better manners. But Gwen fears that even when her sister finally repents and is welcomed back into their family by her parents, that Gwenhwyfach hasn't really changed.

While Gwen's father is a King, there is a greater King over him, Arthur, the High King, son of Uther. Arthur is marrying a woman named Gwehwyfar, one he reportedly loves as much as Gwen's father loves his mother, and before he does so, his advisor, Merlin, goes on a tour of the Kingdom, sounding out the Lords to see how they truly feel about Arthur. While there, he observes Gwen and her sisters, and speaks with Gwen and Gwenhwyfach. With Gwenhwyfach, he leaves a sealed box to keep for him. He also discusses their Power with their parents. Gwen has power from the Goddess, while her sister has something more akin to Glamour.

But Gwen doesn't want to be a lady of Magical Power. She wants to be a warrior and Charioteer like Braith. In addition, her mother is pregnant again, this time with a son. But something happens, and she and Gwen's brother die in the birth. Her father is devastated, as are Gwen and her elder sister. But her youngest sister doesn't seem to care.

Her eldest sister by this time has left for training as a Lady, a wielder of magic, and her second eldest must take over as Lady of the House, while Gwen becomes a scout and her father's military advisor. Gwenhwyfach goes with Morgause and her sister, Morgan, to be fostered in their house. A problem for Gwen is Morgause's son, Medraut, who wants her in a highly disturbing way.

But as Arthur takes a second wife after the death of the first, also named Gwenhwyfar, Gwen gets closer to him when she is part of the army who helps rescue Gwenhwyfar the White Christian from her captor and lover. But when she dies and Arthur is once more looking for a wife, he turns to Gwen, who reluctantly does her duty. She has no feelings for Arthur, but for his Companion, Lancelin.

As Queen, Gwen feels stifled. But can she convince her husband to let her out of the hothouse that is the Queen's court and give her a role in defending his kingdom in time to prevent Medraut, now married to her sister Gwenhwyfach, from carrying out his sinister plot and seizing all- not only Arthur's throne and Kingdom, but Gwen as well?

This was such an unusual novel about Arthur, with him having three wives with the same name, and used them to explain all the varied legends about Gwenhwyfar, from the number of children she had (or didn't have), who abducted her and why, if she was guilty of betraying her marriage vows or not, and with who.

This Gwenhwyfar is a scrappy fighter, beloved of the Goddess Epona, and gifted with visions, from the death of Britha to visions of the fair folk, who she later treats with and gives a home to in the form of a bog on her father's lands. And yet, she remains an outsider to the main story of Arthur pretty much all of that time- never a part of his court or his group of companions. This Gwenhwyfar is someone who spends much of her life denying parts of herself- the woman when she is fighting with her father's men, and the valiant fighter when she becomes Arthur's Queen. It's only in the brief time she spends with Lancelin after she escapes Medraut that she is able to be both- and that time is very brief indeed.

It's rather a saddening story. She survives to the end and gets her freedom, but she's spent all her life fighting for other people. Once she really has her freedom, she is almost paralyzed and unable to act or choose a path on her own. It made me sad that even when she chose to fight for someone at the end, it came off to me as a retreat from the freedom she had briefly enjoyed. She could have done anything, but she chose to retreat into a role that she was comfortable and safe in.

I enjoyed the book, but the ending did make me more than a bit sad. I didn't feel that she had used her freedom well, and the fact that she's been on the edges of the story rather than in the middle was also somewhat disappointing. Still, it's a good story, and I would recommend it.

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