Interview with Diana Paxson

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Interview with Diana Paxson

from: The Camelot Project  1999

MYTHCON: VANCOUVER, B.C.
29 JULY 1989

   Diana Paxson was another of the authors whom I was fortunate enough to meet at the Mythopoeic Conference in Vancouver. I was even less prepared to interview her than Sharan Newman, I must confess for while I had read some of the latter's work, I had been unable to get hold of The White Raven (New York: Avon, 1988) by the former. She was very understanding, and kindly arranged for a copy of the novel to be sent to me by her publisher. Discussing it, however, was rather like groping in a fog, though after I had read it I did manage to sharpen the focus with some additional questions by mail.
   The White Raven is Paxson's account of the love between Tristan and Iseult. Her sympathies lie, however, with two other important figures in the story, Brangwain and Mark, who strive to fulfil the responsibilities laid upon them by society. The lovers, by contrast, rarely look beyond their own selfish interests. This preference for social responsiblity over self-indulgence is perhaps the major reason why the story of Tristan and Iseult has fallen out of fashion since the 1920s.


RT: What attracted you to Arthurian legend in general, and the story of Tristan and Iseult in particular, as the subject for your novel The White Raven?

DP: I really discovered medieval literature in college where I took, among other things, Old French. This aroused my interest in the period in general, and so I read anything medieval I could get my hands on. Since Arthurian literature represents the flowering of the period's literature, at least in the English language, I was naturally attracted to it, particularly the Tristan and Iseult story and the Grail legend. The story of Arthur himself I find fascinating to read, but I have not had anything new to say about it.

RT: Did you read the texts in their original language?

DP: Yes, indeed. In graduate school I also did a seminar on the Grail legend, where I read Chretien de Troyes' Conte del Graal and its Continuations. Since I majored in English, I studied Tennyson too, and this allowed me to look at the historical development of the legend. Reading Tennyson particularly made me aware how each age goes back to Arthurian legend to find something relevant for its own needs. Tennyson, for example, warns us how religious enthusiasm can endanger society, though that's not usually perceived as a problem in the twentieth century.
   I wrote an essay for a small American magazine on the different views of Arthur from the Middle Ages to the present, and how they reflect the concerns of each new age. The more complex a culture becomes, the more it needs to reinterpret the legends that everybody knows in order to draw new meanings from them and to play with them. For the English-speaking world, the Arthurian legend seems to be the most important. It's the one thing that unifies us, for everybody seems to know something about it. Because it encompasses so many different aspects of life, it is a very fertile area for writers: there's always some corner of it that hasn't been done to death.

RT: Did you read any modern novels that dealt with Arthurian legend?

DP: I was more widely read in medieval literature, but I was deeply influenced by two very different modern novels, Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon. I started reading Sutcliff in college and was tremendously impressed by her. That's the way I prefer to approach the material, treating it very realistically. What, I wondered, would it be like to be a real person living a mythic life? I feel it helps modern people to live their lives if they can look for wider dimensions in their own experience.
   The Mists of Avalon, on the other hand, deals with some of the mystical aspects of the legend in ways that are now becoming interesting to people. Although Bradley's picture of the fifth century may not have been historically accurate, she wrote an insightful story about religious persecution and about the relationships between men and women. I wanted to write a book which would in a sense be a sequel to both books. It would be as historically accurate as Rosemary Sutcliff's work and possess the mystical quality of Marion Zimmer Bradley's.

RT: Did you read historical and archaeological studies on the Dark Ages?

DP: Yes. Along with medieval literature I read a lot of history and archaeology, including John Morris' excellent book, The Age of Arthur, which gave me invaluable information. I've always been interested in historical accuracy, which is probably why I approach the subject by trying to figure out how legendary events could actually have happened. I tromped over the actual countryside with ordinance maps and guides when I was doing research for the book. I'm interested in that anyway. I like maps.

RT: Which versions of the Tristan legend did you find most helpful for writing your novel?

DP: For the Tristan legend I didn't follow Malory's version. Instead, I relied primarily upon Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan because it's more complete than others, and I referred to Thomas' Roman de Tristan when there were gaps or just to double- check it. Those two versions seem to have place names and personal names that actually have some historical resonances with sixth-century Brittany. Thus I came up with this--ingenius, I think is probably the best word for it--genealogy, in which I connect and try to make sense out of John Morris' tidbits about relationships among the noble families of Brittany in the sixth century. I worked out a way to connect that genealogy with traditional Arthurian genealogy in order to make Mark a relative of Arthur.

RT: Did you do this research before you started the book, or while you were writing it?

DP: Both. I'd been playing with the story off and on for years. When I seriously decided to write the book, I had to determine exactly when I was going to set it. For a time I considered making Iseult a Norse-Irish princess in the ninth century, but then I gained access to all of the Breton material with the various names. I decided, well, of course!

RT: You didn't worry that stopping writing in order to do additional research would hinder your creative flow?

DP: No. I write in a very structured way, and I always have a pretty complete outline before I even start. Of course, in this case the story is a given. I wrote the first four chapters on the basis of material I already had. Then I went to Britain and tromped around, scouting locations, because for me much of the creative process is the interaction of the real and the imagined. Thus I would look around for bits of folklore or interesting- looking places, and these would give me ideas about specific incidents or places to set things that had to happen in the story. For instance, I had decided that the place where the lovers would hide would be Broceliande, but I'd never been there. Once I had, I knew what it looked like and what parts of Broceliande and the local bits of folklore about it I would work into that sequence. Writing is a very interactive, back-and-forth process for me. As I wrote, I would stop continually to look up yet another thing or refresh my memory on some detail.

RT: Would you describe The White Raven as a historical novel or a fantasy?

DP: It's a legendary fantasy. It's very historical in terms of the setting, but it's fantasy in that the supernatural is treated in as realistic and as convincing a fashion as is the setting. I tried to treat the mystical experiences exactly the same way I treated everything else. In modern publishing, anything that accepts the spiritual world as really existing is classed as fantasy, which is an interesting comment on something.

RT: Well the world of business is not noted for its subtle understanding of such matters, is it?

DP: Right. In addition to the political history of the sixth century, trade routes, and things like that, I also did a lot of work on folklore. One of my greatest problems was the dragon- slaying episode. If I treated it realistically, there was no way I was going to get a fire-breathing, scaly dragon into the middle of Ireland in the sixth century. This really had me stumped for a while, and so I started researching British dragon myths. Finally I worked out a ritual of a mock dragon slaying, like a mummer's play, in which the ritual channels the ley forces of the underground water system. Since Celtic dragons are water dragons, I worked out this whole theory from putting a number of little pieces together, and I set it at Newgrange on a mid-winter morning. I had no idea if anybody ever did this sort of thing at Newgrange, but it would be very interesting if they did. At least the form of what they were doing was based very closely on models of archaic folk play and pagan ritual.

RT: With such a strong background in medieval and legendary material, you must have been very conscious of working within tradition when you were dealing with the Tristan story. How free did you feel to adapt this traditional material? Did you feel, even, you were working under constraints that in some ways liberated you?

DP: Yes. I like having a certain number of constraints because it's by pushing against the constraints that the creativity comes. For me there has to be structure to support the creativity. Yet despite all the detailed historical support I can provide for much of my story, in many ways what I've done with the Tristan legend is extremely divergent from the medieval tradition. For one thing, Mark is not a villain in my book; nor is he a contemporary of Arthur, rather a member of the generation that followed in the sixth century, I include an episode in which Mark is asked whether he knew Arthur. He replies, when I was a kid, I used to play under the table while he discussed politics with my Grandfather Cador. That is part of a discussion of how much responsibility a king has for the sins of his people.
   In fact my story focuses on Brangwain rather than on Tristan and Iseult. I don't exactly disapprove of the love story, but I do try to point out how destructive these great passions can be for the people affected by them. Even in the traditional story, if you examine it, the only reason the lovers can continue their relationship is because Brangwain is scurrying around, covering for them and making arrangements all the time. I began to wonder what sort of a person would be able to do this, and what would be the relationship between her and Iseult after they'd been accomplices in this affair for so long.

RT: Were you concerned that your audience or publisher might object to the departures from tradition?

DP: I only wish one could assume that the general audience and the publishers knew enough about the stories to be able to tell. Nobody had objected to what Bradley did in The Mists of Avalon, and I diverged from tradition less than she did.

RT: You mentioned the need for structure to support creativity. Could you say more about the structure of your novel?

DP: I pay a lot of attention to structure. I usually know how many chapters I'm going to have before I start, and that tells me something about how the pacing should go. The White Raven falls into three main movements: the sequence in Ireland, the sequence in Cornwall, and the sequence that's mostly in Brittany. Within that structure there's another overlapping structure of two halves.
   Towards the end of the first half, Drustan (Tristan) and Esseilte (Iseult) become lovers, but in the middle of the book comes the pivotal point, when Branwen (Brangwain) takes Esseilte's place on the wedding night. What happens--and this is probably the major change that I made from my sources--is that Marc'h (Mark) takes her out to a circle of stones to perform the Great Rite in the pagan fashion. They thereby are joined in a mystical marriage, which in terms of the old religion makes Branwen the true queen. Thus you end up with two couples with authority, because external authority and spiritual authority are separated between the two women. The external, legitimate queen is not the one who has spiritual authority, and vice-versa. Since Marc'h is trying to rebuild a Celtic empire and push back the Saxon hordes, he seeks to draw upon the aid of the religious-spiritual elements. Of course it doesn't work, and he cannot understand why, because he did everything right during the ritual.

RT: Is this an aspect of the theme of appearance and reality, and is this something that you found in the legend itself?

DP: I'm not so sure that it's appearance and reality so much as the problem of separation between spiritual and temporal. The sixth century saw the first identifiable conflicts between church and state in a way that later became all too familiar. Both in Ireland and in King Marc'h's Cornwall, the kings had problems with abbots who wanted to extend the church's authority into the realm of the state.
   The conclusion that I come to eventually is that political authority should reflect the tripartite divisions of the individual into mind, body, and spirit. Just having king and priest is not enough; it creates imbalance. You need king, priest, and queen. One of the things the book is trying to explore is, what is the function of the feminine? What is the function of humanity's relationship to the earth which has been lost sight of? It's not so much a question of whether the priest is Christian or pagan, as whether there is this tripartite balance to provide a firm support to society. Thus one of the questions Branwen is trying to figure out is, what does the queen do? Esseilte fails as a queen because she's not even interested in the question.
   A lot of people with a lot of different agendas are trying to figure out how to make things work right in a time of change. The sixth century was a time of great change, with peoples migrating, religions changing, even languages being transformed and replaced.

RT: This concern with change, is it something that you find in the historical background, or do you see evidence of it within the legend itself?

DP: Primarily the historical background, but of course it's something that is also relevant to the twentieth century. When I look at a myth as the subject for a book, I want it not only to be faithful to what was actually going on at the time, but also to ring bells with what people are going through today.
   I don't know if that awareness of change is in medieval versions of Arthurian legend so much, but it certainly is in Tennyson where the dying Arthur tells Bedivere that the old order is changing. You can't hold onto an old way of doing things; it has to change. Even a perfect order will inevitably be threatened by outside forces that cause it to fall apart. I present a Celtic world which is being pressured from every side, and the people wonder, how can these newcomers ever belong to the land as we do? The book I'm working on now, however, is set in 500 B.C., and at that point it's the Celts who are the intruders. The cycle rolls on and on.

RT: This concern with change is central in most of Rosemary Sutcliff's novels. Have you read any of them apart from Sword at Sunset?

DP: Just about everything I could find. Yes, she is concerned with change. I may have picked some of that up from her. At the least it struck a responsive nerve. I actually talked to her on the phone when I was in England last fall. It was a real thrill. Maybe I'll get to meet her one of these days.

RT: Did you find that any of your characters took over and developed in directions you had not anticipated?

DP: Sometimes. I'm always finding out new things about them throughout the entire story. Despite the fact that I have planned the number of chapters, where certain scenes are going to be set, and where the climax is, what is exciting is I don't know how events are going to happen and I don't know what they are going to mean. I do have a general idea of what the story means when I start, but what it really means emerges as the characters start interacting and as they actually start having mystical experiences.

RT: Did you worry that your characters might start to behave in ways that were at variance with tradition?

DP: I would worry if they were doing something that would be historically inappropriate. Tradition, however, consists of each generation of writers interpreting what these characters do in view of their own needs, as Tennyson demonstrates.

RT: Do you plan to write further on the subject, or do you feel that you've said all you want to say about Arthurian legend in this book?

DP: Well, I certainly said everything that I had to say about Drustan and Esseilte. They're both dead at the end of the book, and there's nothing anybody can do about that. I could follow Branwen, but that would be even less connected to the Arthurian material. What I do want to say more about is the Grail. Maybe when I'm fifty I'll be wise enough to deal with that story. I probably won't be, but I'm going to do it anyway. I want to deal with the Grail in a contemporary setting, however, because when I was in graduate school I used to read the conflicting theories of different scholars. They would say, well, the Grail is really a Cistercian symbol, or it's really a Freudian vagina, or it's really a Celtic cauldron--the one true Grail!
   I believe that everybody who wrote about the Grail was trying to find a way of expressing an experience, a relationship with the divine, that is not dependent on any set of historical circumstances or physical objects. What I want to do, thus, is create a story frame in which somebody sends a bunch of people to look for the Grail--this would provide several interlinked stories. And they all find it! Of course, for each of them it appears in a different form. They all have the same essential experience, but it's mediated to them in different ways.

RT: As you wrote The White Raven, did your concept of what you wanted to do change?

DP: It deepened and new ideas were added. Originally, I was interested in the relationship between Branwen and Esseilte as a story of character. I've always been interested in the Celtic idea of sovereignty as a feminine principle, however, and so I thought I would start working from that basis. That led me into the relationship between the king and the queen and the land, and that whole early set of mystical concepts. Many of the religious and political ideas developed in the course of writing the book, including the tripartite balance of power.

RT: That concern recalls T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Had you read that poem?

DP: Yes. Eliot was one of the writers I studied for my master's degree. I am really fascinated by poems like The Waste Land.

RT: Did you read Jessie Weston?

DP: I find her very evocative, more on the emotional and poetic level than on the historical level shall we say. There's psychological truth and there's historical truth; ideally you have both.

RT: If you were to rewrite the book, what changes would you make?

DP: Well, I would like, perhaps, to have put in a little more of the economic background. Dorothy Dunnett does that so well, and every time I read one of her books I think, I haven't said enough about coinage . . . . It does give more sense of the nitty-gritty, I think.

RT: What particular aspect of the legend did you feel was most important to include in your story?

DP: The effect of a great love affair on the people surrounding it. Since medieval writers were exploring courtly love as an ennobling process for the people concerned, they never considered its impact upon others. Mind you, sometimes I wonder how convinced Gottfried von Strassburg really was.
   Questions of responsibility concern me a great deal in everything I write. It was the irresponsibility of putting a personal relationship before everything else that caused problems for Tristan and Iseult. First it affected other people who were innocently involved; then it grew to affect the whole kingdom, the whole political situation. This problem has been explored in the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle as well. Just how far is it legitimate to put your own personal needs and feelings ahead of the needs of the people--especially if you're royal and have a particular political and sacred relationship to the people and the land?

RT: Yes, it is a crucial issue, isn't it?

DP: At the same time, I was trying not to be totally unsympathetic to Drustan and Esseilte. I was trying to work out why two people would be driven into this particular relationship. Actually, I did pick up on Wagner's interpretation of Isolde's inner conflicts: the love potion is the only way my character can justify giving in to what she really wants to do. I gave her a childhood of illness so that she felt she had to live her whole life immediately. I think that this might drive you to be a little cavalier with other people's feelings. You feel you don't have the time to be careful.
   Drustan, as he's traditionally presented, is the original homeless child. He's chivvied around during his childhood, never really knowing who he is. He's supposed to be a prince, but he's totally uninterested in becoming King of Lyonesse. Marc'h wants to make him his heir, but Drustan has no interest because he's not been brought up to relate to the land in a responsible way. He's loyal to Marc'h and he loves him, but he lacks a clear direction.
   Then Esseilte steps in, in the traditional Irish fashion, for in all those Irish stories it's the woman who says, I'm going to make you run off with me. Maybe this is part of Irish character? Deirdre does it; Grainne does it. They always say, I'm going to put a geis on you if you don't carry me off. The man sits there with his friends and asks, can you get me out of this? And they all say, no, no. You're for it; you've got to take her away. So Esseilte says, we are going to have the love affair of the century. Drustan replies, but what about our loyalties? And then she starts to take her clothes off. They've just taken this aphrodisiac, which she thought was poison, but she shifts gears quite rapidly. And that's that. Suddenly, somebody else has given Drustan a purpose in life that he lacked until then.

RT: Might I conclude by asking if you have any final comments?

DP: I'd like to expand upon my earlier answer to your question about reality and appearance. I was concerned in this book not so much with reality and appearance as with real life and myth. Because the Celtic culture is so rich in legend, Esseilte and Branwen grew up in the court at Tara knowing all the traditional stories, as do Irish people to this day. What must it have been like to live in the shadow of this incredibly rich mythic culture, and be so aware of all of its mythic patterns? In a period when the options for women were becoming increasingly limited, Esseilte's choices were few. Perhaps she decided to take Grainne as her model and consciously tried to play out the pattern of her love story?
   Living in a country where every stone you pass has some history attached to it, is fascinating, especially for North Americans who are so conscious of not really being rooted in this continent. My characters are constantly referring to the legends and telling each other stories, and this allowed me to introduce a fair selection of Celtic literature as a backdrop. They are thus living their legendary story against the backdrop of everybody else's legendary story. It's not happening for the first time; it's part of a continuing rich tapestry.

RT: That's the traditional perception of Celtic, and indeed any preliterate, society in which one's fame and one's standing depends so much upon the reports that you leave behind, isn't it?

DP: Exactly. Well, that's Esseilte's primary motivation. She wants to live a story that the poets will talk about.

RT: Thank you.