Interview with Fay Sampson

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Interview with Fay Sampson

from: The Camelot Project  2011

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND
28 JUNE 1993

   Since this interview, Fay Sampson has moved from Birmingham back to Devon, the county where she was born and raised; and of course much closer to the places with which Morgan le Fay is most closely associated. Although the earliest references speak admiringly of her skill as a healer, Arthurian tradition has not been kind to Morgan, nor to her sister Morgause, both of whom are perceived by most modern writers and readers alike as enemies of the Arthurian dream. When she embarked upon her Daughter of Tintagel series (since republished as the Morgan le Fay series), Ms. Sampson chose to explore the contradictions in Morgan's reputation by assigning a different narrator to each of the first four books, before allowing her to speak for herself at the end. What emerges is a complex personality, but one that continues to fascinate, as she has done down through the ages.


RT: What first attracted you to the figure of Morgan le Fay, whose story you explore in your sequence The Daughter of Tintagel?

FS: I discovered her quite late, actually. I'd grown up with a background of Tennyson as my source for the Arthurian legend, and Tennyson, of course, doesn't mention her. I had come across some references earlier, but she really came to my attention when I was reading a picture book to my children. It included a story I was not aware of having heard before: one where Morgan steals the scabbard of Excalibur and turns herself and her followers into stone to elude pursuit. It came to me fresh, as something that was quite different from anything I had previously read in the Arthurian stories. I became interested in this character, and a little later on, as the children grew older, we got Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of King Arthur. In the very first chapter two things struck me vividly. I'd already by that time got this picture of Morgan as the conventional wicked witch, the "anti-Arthur" figure. But right in this first chapter there is the story of how Arthur's father kills Morgan's father and deceives her mother in order to lie with her and conceive Arthur. I immediately thought, "No wonder she would feel like that! Any bright, thinking girl would!" And then of course at the end of that chapter the author quotes Malory's wonderful passage in which he describes how she was "put to school in a nunnery, and there she learned so much that she became a great clerk of necromancy." That's such a wonderful juxtaposition of ideas that my interest was immediately aroused.

At that time I was writing largely for children and teenagers, and I had this vision of her as a teenage girl. Some of the wildness and the evil that are conventionally attributed to Morgan reminded me of girls who might be into drugs or delinquency in some form, and it was that kind of "perverted" figure, I suppose, that I was thinking of at that time. So I didn't do what I normally did, which was to tell the story from the point of view of the central character. It seemed too dark for that, and so I hit upon the idea of separate witnesses, all giving their own version of a phase of her story.

RT: Had you used this convention before?

FS: No, I had never written a first-person narrative, but I quite enjoyed it. The more I read about Morgan and the more deeply I became involved with her story, the more I began to see things from her point of view. Thus in this slim 40,000-word book, as it was in those days, she had an epilogue of just a page and a half. She does not really say much beyond the fact that she doesn't care what you think of her, because you wouldn't understand. She has her own viewpoint. I was trying to bring out some of the ambivalence that lies at the heart of Celtic mythology, and indeed of my thinking generally. My own inclination is to avoid dividing people into "goodies" and "baddies": I love ambivalence and ambiguities.

At that point I had written it as a book that could be for either adults or teenagers, I wasn't sure which. I hadn't written an adult novel before, but I thought, "Oh well, I'll just write it and see how it turns out." As I suppose I should have suspected, it fell between two stools and wasn't really satisfactory. Thus I put it away in a drawer, and then many years later, unfortunately after Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, I took it out and revised it.

Then there was the question whether it should be a single book or four separate volumes, one for each telling. Hutchinson suggested there were two books: that seemed all right to me, and I planned to add Morgan's epilogue at the end of the second. Then, however, it went to Headline, who wanted four separate volumes. My agent rang me up with the details of the contract for four books, and I agreed. By that time I had written the first book, but after I had sent in an outline of the others, I realised, "If all these minor characters have a complete book to themselves, it's not right that Morgan should just be tacked on at the end of the last one. She needs a book to herself." But I then I thought, "I don't know what's going to be in this book. I only have this page and a half of epilogue to go on." Nevertheless, I felt she needed to speak for herself, and so I rang back the next day and told this to my agent. She contacted the publisher, and they wrote back saying, "If she says there's a fifth book, there's a fifth book."

As the time to write this last book grew nearer, however, I began to worry. I really didn't know what was going to be in the book beyond continuing on from the Battle of Camlann to the departure of Arthur, and this, in terms of narrative, is very short. I suspected that she would want to go back and tell some of the things that had happened in previous books from her point of view, or describe events that you hadn't seen before, which might shed new light on the story. Then, while doing the research for the book, which was much more detailed than I'd done for any of the others, I was struck with the way the myth itself evolved. I decided to share this insight, adding Morgan's own rather ironic comments on how others had used her for their own purposes.

RT: Apart from Green and Tennyson, did any other Arthurian works arouse your interest in the legend before you started the book?

FS: I had read Malory, and I had come across a lot of films and television shows in which Morgan figured as a conventional villain, indeed often a mere caricature. I was also aware of Welsh sources like the Mabinogion, and of the lives of the saints, where references to Arthur are much more hostile than those in the medieval romances. I was beginning to see that there was an alternative way of looking at the legend.

RT: How about history and archaeology?

FS: I am interested in archaeology, yes, and history of the Dark Age period on some levels. When I was living in Devonshire as a child, I was taken to Tintagel in Cornwall where I saw those wonderful romantic ruins, not of the Arthurian period, of course. Later I went back to Tintagel on an archaeology trip, and beside the medieval castle we were shown what Ralegh Radford, who was the excavator, said was a Celtic monastery. Recent archaeology has cast doubts on that identification: it might have been a monastery, but there is no clear proof; it was just Radford's rather romantic guess. But I remember saying to him then as he showed us around, "Could they have been nuns?" He looked rather startled and said, "Yes, I suppose they could." Thus I was already thinking of this place as the setting of an Arthurian novel, and when I learned that these particular ruins were not a castle but a monastery, this suddenly turned things round in my mind in an interesting way. It linked up with the idea of Morgan being sent to a nunnery. So I thought, "OK, there is another Dark Age stronghold nearby at Boscastle. What if that were her birthplace, and the nunnery is here at Tintagel?"

RT: How about historical studies?

FS: I have also done a series of fantasy novels for children, and they are set in the Dark Ages, using Celtic monks and Celtic churches, which are a particular interest of mine. Since I had already done a lot of background reading for them, I was able to draw upon it.

RT: What additional research did you do for these books about Morgan?

FS: I have a friend who is a librarian at the University of Exeter, and back in the mid-eighties when I started to work on these books, he told me how to enter a subject into the computer and get a complete printout of all the books and journals pertaining to your subject. Because he was in charge of training student librarians and needed to assign computer searches to them, he set this as a topic. It was wonderful, because they produced a list of not just books, but also theses, articles in journals, and so on. I just trolled through and got hold of as many as I could. I was able to tap into a tremendous number of sources, although, as I acknowledged in the fifth book, Lucy Paton's Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance was by far the most useful.

RT: Did you read any of the primary sources?

FS: Yes, as far as possible, but mainly in translation.

RT: One of the problems for a writer dealing with the Arthurian legend is that so much of the primary material is set in the High Middle Ages, whereas the historical background is set in the Dark Ages. How did you deal with this problem?

FS: Yes, and Morgan is not a Dark Age character. She appears later, unless you take some of the Irish and Welsh references as being to her, which would be suitable. I decided it didn't really matter that much. Since Morgan is a character of fantasy anyway, not of history, historical accuracy is less important. The Dark Ages is the period I like, and the Dark Ages is certainly the period of the historical Arthur. My editor, moreover, insisted that I put her in that period. This did mean that I had to re-interpret the stories from medieval romance to fit them into a warrior aristocracy with an overlay of Celtic mythology.

RT: Did you continue to do additional research after you had started writing the novels?

FS: Oh yes indeed, and sometimes I still do research after the book is published! Quite often it's not until you are in the middle of writing that you realise the questions you need to ask. Although I have quite a large collection of reference books, I did make use of the university library, which was very good. I found most of the things I wanted on the shelves.

RT: How conscious were you that you were working within a tradition that limited your freedom to invent whatever you wished?

FS: I suppose I realized that, by writing from Morgan's point of view, I would be diverging from the conventional approach, but I wasn't particularly bothered. Nor was I interested in the kind of feminist writing that just reverses roles, seeing Morgan as good and Arthur as bad. I knew that many readers do like the characters to be portrayed in terms of black and white, clearly identified as good or bad, but I don't want to write like that. I was much more interested in the ambivalence of my characters.

I knew that Bradley's Mists of Avalon was highly sympathetic to Morgan, but I hadn't read it at the time. Indeed, my editor actually forbade me to read it until I'd finished. I did, however, read it when I was putting the finishing touches to Herself. I wanted Morgan, in the penultimate chapter, to comment on her treatment by modern authors like Bradley.

RT: How much familiarity with the legends did you assume that your readers had?

FS: Although I'm not sure that I judged this entirely right, I assumed that most people would have a basic knowledge of what the Arthurian stories were about, even though they might not know all the details. Since I was focusing upon the relationship between Arthur and Morgan, however, I omitted much that was happening to Arthur because it was not relevant. This perhaps left big gaps for people who didn't know the Arthurian story. My sister thought I had assumed too much, whereas I thought I was explaining everything that needed to be explained; but I realise I probably was assuming a greater familiarity with the legend than was the case for some readers.

RT: Did you make a conscious choice to write fantasy, or did you feel that the story just lent itself to this kind of approach? Or was this not a consideration at all?

FS: When I began, I consciously wanted to write on the borderline between history and fantasy, so that you could read it either as a story about magic, or as a historical novel about people who believe in magic, and I do think the earlier ones were along those lines. When I came to Morgan's own account of events in the last novel, however, I did tip it over into an unashamed fantasy, partly because the story at that point deals with Arthur's voyage to Avalon, and partly because Morgan is a figure of fantasy, not history.

RT: Did your editors or agent encourage you to emphasize either the fantasy or historical element for marketing reasons?

FS: No. My agent's only comment on my first book was that she thought I should increase the sex and violence a bit, and I groaned at that. I did, in fact, slightly increase the sexual element in that first one, because the narrator was a very earthy peasant woman and I thought perhaps it was a wee bit prissy in places. I didn't change the amount of violence, but I did considerably expand the element of religion and magic, which has the same "kick" to it, and she seemed happy with that. The editors made no suggestions at all about the general direction of the novel.

RT: Were there any themes that you particularly wanted to develop in the sequence, or did these just emerge as you wrote?

FS: When I recognize themes in my own work, it's usually after I've done at least a first draft. Then I say, "Oh, is that what I'm saying? I hadn't actually realized that." I may actually re-write the novel to bring out the theme more fully once I've identified it, but I tend not to start with a theme in mind. I did become very interested in the way that Morgan's legend evolved. She's not the only goddess- type figure that degenerates over the centuries, from an originally benign, or at least ambivalent, figure to a wicked witch.

RT: Yes, that is a common pattern, isn't it? Speaking of such patterns, were you drawn to the sense of inevitable destiny that permeates parts of Arthurian legend?

FS: Not really, but having said that, I do have a certain fondness for tragedy, which works in such ways. Mind you, the ending can be seen as ambivalent.

RT: While some of the characters, like Morgan, are well established in tradition, others are not. There is very little in surviving literature about Elaine, the oldest sister, for example. Was your decision to develop her influenced by the three-fold pattern that marks a number of goddesses in the ancient world?

FS: To some extent I was influenced by Robert Graves' idea of the triple goddess—maiden, mother, and crone—although there is a certain ambiguity about who is filling which role at which time. The other Elaines in Arthurian romance, the Fair Maid of Astolat and the mother of Galahad, are young and virginal, but this Elaine is in some ways the crone among the three sisters. In fact, in Celtic religion most of the iconography does not greatly differentiate the three goddesses. Possibly two were older and one was young and virginal: that comes across in some of the statues.

RT: How did you perceive the third sister, Morgause? In modern fiction since T.H. White, she is often portrayed negatively.

FS: I have read White, but I didn't feel negatively towards her; rather I viewed her as a red-blooded, sexual character. Morgan herself at times feels very hostile towards her, but that's partly jealousy. All the characters acquired a life of their own, and you just follow through the logic of that to determine how they respond towards each other in various situations. It's never clear in a way, even to me, just what is motivating Elaine, but I was content to leave her like that.

RT: Yes, at times the sisters' motives aren't clear, certainly not to the various narrators. Even when Morgan speaks for herself at the end, she sometimes maintains that she's not quite sure whether or not she did something. In the incident of the poison cloak, for example, she wonders whether she or Elaine planned it all.

FS: That particular instance is influenced by the concept of the female triad. Morgan is really not sure whether they are three separate individuals with separate agendas or one tripartite being from which she cannot escape to be herself.

RT: I see. So in some sense she is responsible for the actions of her sisters, in that she is part of them?

FS: Or they are responsible for her actions, possibly. Yes, it's a question of this three-in-one and one-in-three, and I suppose I have avoided making explicit just how close this union is and whether the three characters really are separate. Mind you, it is always exceedingly difficult to be honest about why we do things, and this usually affects a first-person narrative. How reliable is Morgan's account of her deeds? How much is she trying to justify herself? That the reader must judge.

RT: Did any of your characters develop in directions you hadn't anticipated when you started?

FS: Morgan herself became a much more sympathetic character than I had anticipated.

RT: You adopt a different narrative point of view in each of your novels. Did you find this created problems that you had to overcome?

FS: It did mean, of course, that chunks of the Arthurian story were left out, because they belonged to Arthur's story, not Morgan's, but I was quite content to just go with it most of the time. The first book presented a woman's view of war, rather than the idealized vision of "knights in shining armour," which has no particular appeal to me. The hardest one, I think, was The Blacksmith's Telling: partly because I had least in common with that character and so I really had to try hard to write within his experience; and partly because he was shut away from the action for quite a long time.

RT: There is a lot of irony in your books as events take a direction that the characters didn't anticipate, and even, at times, sought desperately to avoid. Was this something that you felt to be inherent in the Arthurian material itself, or something that you yourself are fond of in your writing?

FS: Before this I had mostly written children's books, and yes, I suppose I have consciously used humour in children's books more than irony. I suppose that the irony came because from childhood we are sold the idea of Arthur being so noble, whereas in fact there is another, very different viewpoint.

RT: When you write a series as opposed to a single novel, you may make decisions in the early books that create problems for you in the later books. Did you find this?

FS: The biggest problem I found was in writing Herself. I had set out in the four previous books to tell Morgan's story from the viewpoint of these four different characters: two male, two female; two sympathetic to her, two antagonistic. Yet because they all had their own perspective on events, they inevitably, and very humanly, ended up telling their own story as much as hers. In that sense, they are independent novels in which the Arthurian element is subordinate. When I came to write Herself, I found it difficult to avoid reference to these previous invented stories. In a way, I would have preferred not to do this because there was so much other material from Arthurian tradition to cover. Perhaps, had I had more time to think about it, I might have edited more heavily and tried not to make too much reference to my own fiction.

RT: Now, there aren't an awful lot of terribly sympathetic characters in your novels. Arthurian legend is, by and large, filled with heroic figures who are greatly admired in their society, whereas you make the reader very conscious of the limitations of your characters: Taliesin is a somewhat self-satisfied young man, the wise woman's perspectives are often narrow, the blacksmith is unlikeable in many respects. Is this intended to balance the romanticism in most of the Arthurian story?

FS: I actually liked Taliesin enormously, and I greatly enjoyed writing his book. Yes, I did see him in some ways as weak and limited, and he kept being moved off course by stronger characters, but I liked him as a person. I also liked the nurse, Gwen, although I tried to show the view of life that I thought a person in her situation would hold. She is, moreover, steeped in magic, and this is quite dark. I saw the nun as a character quite like myself, which is, I suppose, why I've been fairly severe with her, but I did feel quite sympathetic to her, especially in the early chapters. The blacksmith, yes, there I think I was probably setting up the antithesis of what Morgan stands for. He is someone who has to be taught a lesson, so that he can see life in a different way.

RT: You do not provide, however, many heroic figures?

FS: No, I think that side of it has been so well done, if not overdone, that I felt we'd had enough of those stories. Not that there isn't a place for them, but that's not where the gap is.

RT: Did your conception of the series changed as it progressed?

FS: Not really, because I had written this shorter version about ten years previously, then put it in a drawer. That set the pattern of the story and its development. The series did, however, prove to be more sympathetic to Morgan than in the earlier version. I had read more of the background by then, and I saw that the legends themselves were not nearly as black and white as I originally thought they were.

RT: Were you to decide to re-write the book, is there anything that you would like to change?

FS: I would have done more work on Herself, I think. I was writing to a deadline and it coincided with my move to Birmingham. Moreover, the book involved a vast amount of research compared with the general background that I had done for the others. I think I would have polished it considerably. Possibly I should have asked for more time on it. I would have cut down on the reference to my own fiction and smoothed it out considerably to make it read more easily. It's a bit episodic at the moment.

RT: Do you consider your treatment to be feminist?

FS: The choice to tell it from Morgan's point of view is in itself quite a feminist approach, but there are so many schools within feminism that I would rather leave it to other people to label it as they wish than try to choose a label myself. I certainly hope it would be of interest to feminists, but whether they would agree with my treatment, I'm not sure. What I hope comes over in the books is the denial that life is a question of either/or: it is both. I am very concerned that one should try to build a relationship between equals, and this is what Morgan, at her best, has been trying to achieve, even if she does not usually succeed. Arthur, on the other hand, insists that one person must have the victory.

RT: Would you say, then, that one of the major concerns in your books is to achieve some kind of a balance and reconciliation between the sexes, and Arthur's failure to do that contributes significantly to the downfall of his kingdom?

FS: I have tried to show that Arthur is genuinely protecting the kingdom, and the sisters agree that they ought not to do anything which would damage his achievement, even though they may in fact do so at times. But yes, I suppose this is why I have used the symbols of sword and scabbard. Morgan casts away the scabbard, but Arthur cannot cast away the sword. I suppose I have doctored the evidence a bit at that point, but it seems to ring true to character. He cannot see that the scabbard is more valuable than the sword.

RT: What particular elements of the legend did you feel were most important to include in your story when you were writing it?

FS: That's a difficult one. I suppose I wanted to preserve the element of healing, for which Morgan is famed when she first appears by name in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. She is the one on the island to which he journeys for healing. I was least interested in the Grail story, which has a doubtful connection with the Arthurian story as a whole and is a whole other area. In the end I did include a little of it and some of the symbolic speculation about it, but I could have left that out quite easily, I think.

RT: Do you plan to write any more Arthurian novels?

FS: No, although the period is one that I will keep coming back to, and so I may write something else that relates to the Arthurian story. I wouldn't, for example, mind doing one on Culhwch and Olwen. It would be in a Dark Age setting, but obviously an outrageously fantastical one.

RT: Would you feel bound to present Arthur with the same kind of character as in the earlier books?

FS: I think he would be more of a swashbuckling brigand on this great wild hunt, not too moral a character, but a likeable one and, in terms of his own warrior society, a heroic one. He is, in fact, somewhat like that in my books, though I did not concentrate on his character there. He is more a war leader than a king, and although I allow him to become a king, this is historically doubtful.

I am, however, more interested in the Morgan type of figure. I've since written a book based on the Sumerian myth of Inanna, another figure whose legend changes over the centuries. I may possibly do one in the future on Rhiannon.

RT: Thank you very much.


MORGAN LE FAY – POSTSCRIPT (9 March 2011)

In the years which have passed since the publication of the Daughter of Tintagel novels they have proved to be the ones, of all my adult fiction, which have attracted most interest from my readers. They have particularly warmed to the feminist element.

The Headline editions eventually went out of print, but the series was picked up by Wildside Press, a print-on-demand firm. They have re-published them as the Morgan Le Fay series: Wise Woman's Telling, Nun's Telling, Blacksmith's Telling, Taliesin's Telling and Herself. I was given the chance to revise the texts. I did just a little to soften the rather stark outlook of Nun's Telling. But I felt I had let the source material rather run away with me in Herself. I made considerable cuts in the length of the additional legends about her.

They are handsome editions. The one thing I regret is the cover image of Herself. I had told the editor I hated it, but it still slipped through. It shows a vengeful, witch-like figure which is very different from the woman in the book.

I did start a novel about Rhiannon, who still interests me. Unusually for me, I stopped writing before I had got very far. It's still one of those bottom-drawer manuscripts, which maybe I should take out and work on again.