Interview with Gillian Bradshaw

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Interview with Gillian Bradshaw

from: The Camelot Project  2011

BOTTISHAM, CAMBRIDGE
2 JULY 1993

   Whereas Susan Cooper moved from England to the United States, Gillian Bradshaw journeyed in the other direction. It was a warm summer day when I drove down to meet her, and after a refreshing lunch at a picturesque pub beside the River Cam, with swans and student-filled punts drifting slowly by, I made my way to Bottisham, the small village near Cambridge where she was living back then.
   Bradshaw has written a trilogy of Arthurian novels, starting with Hawk of May (1980), and followed by Kingdom of Summer (1981) and In Winter's Shadow (1982). The first follows the early career of Arthur's nephew Gwalchmai, and he remains a central figure in the next two, though others increasingly claim our attention as her story moves towards its tragic conclusion. Like her, I too was first drawn to Arthurian legend by the figure of Gawain (as he is called in English tradition) in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and we have both retained our fondness for this complex figure despite the calumnies of Malory and Tennyson. Thus we found much to talk about that warm afternoon.
   Bradshaw has turned from the realm of fantasy she created in her first novel, to the realism of the historical novel, a change that in some ways mirrors her own growth from youthful enthusiasm to responsible adulthood. That both visions retain their power to move us is a tribute to her talent.


RT: What attracted you to Arthurian legend in general, and the figure of Gwalchmai in particular, as the subject for your three novels, Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer, and In Winter's Shadow?

GB: In my teens I went through a period when I was dead keen on Celtic mythology and read everything about it that I could get my hands on. Then I went on to the Arthurian stories in medieval romance, approaching them from the Celtic angle.

As for Gwalchmai, I was first attracted by the figure of Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He was such a delightful character that I read up on him. There were certain aspects that I liked, and one was the family background: Morgan, Morgause, and King Lot were enemies of Arthur in most of the legends, yet despite this very hostile background, Gawain is one of Arthur's top knights. This sort of conflict creates an interesting character, and so I decided, in a rush of great teenage enthusiasm, that I was going to write a novel about Gawain, except I was going to create a really Celtic world.

RT: Was this was your first novel?

GB: I did write one based upon Irish mythology when I was very young indeed. It was absolutely awful and I destroyed it, but it did give me practice. Hawk of May was, however, my first published novel. Although I revised it very substantially when I was twenty, I wrote the first draft when I was seventeen. I think you can tell, actually, as it is filled with all this wild idealism.

RT: Why did you choose to mix the Arthurian and older Celtic material, rather than write another Celtic story?

GB: I had been reading a lot of material and found a character I liked—an Arthurian character. If you've got a story, you go with what you've got. I do not plan things out very carefully, even now. I rely on lightning hitting!

RT: Could you say more about your early background reading?

GB: I read Irish heroic tales about Cuchulainn and Finn Mac Cool, as well as collections of Celtic mythology and poetry in the Lansing public library. It really depended upon whatever I could get my hands on, for there was not much there. I was very uncritical and pretty naive, but there was something about the stories that I really liked. Later I read the Mabinogion and the Welsh Triads. I was aware of the chronicles, but I had not actually read them. I was, however, also reading science fiction and fantasy, including Tolkien, and a certain amount of historical fiction as well—voraciously! I was fourteen or fifteen at the time.

RT: What about the medieval romances? You mentioned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but did you read any others?

GB: Yes, I read Marie de France, Chrétien de Troyes, and some of Malory. I also read about the Holy Grail.

RT: What about post-medieval material?

GB: I had read a bit of Tennyson, and I started Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court but didn't enjoy it. I grew up on T.H. White, however. My mother used to read to me before I was able to read myself. When she read The Sword in the Stone, she did King Pellinore with the voice of some cousin of hers, and I still think of him speaking like that. I also liked Rosemary Sutcliff very much. I read Sword at Sunset, as well as her retellings of Celtic legends, like The Hound of Ulster and The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool. I think that they were what first aroused my interest in Celtic legend when I was living in Lansing. After that I went back and read the sources.

RT: Once you decided to write your novel, what additional research did you do?

GB: That was when I read archaeology and history, including Arthur's Britain by Leslie Alcock. I read The Age of Arthur by John Morris when I wrote the third book in the series some years later.

RT: Did you find any evidence for Irish settlement in Orkney or did you invent that?

GB: They were in the area, but I don't think there was much Irish settlement in Orkney.

RT: Did you reread any of the primary material?

GB: Yes, I would keep two or three books of Welsh and Irish poetry with me. I got to the point where I could read some words and phrases in the original languages, but I never studied them formally. When I went up to university I decided that I wanted to study Celtic and Norse, but they said, "We don't teach Welsh, and we only offer Irish about every third year; you can go talk to the man who teaches it." I found him on the top floor of a library where he was working on a Medieval English dictionary. I said, "I hear you sometimes do Irish. I would very much like to learn Irish." He said, "Well, I just did it last year and we are not going to do it for a couple more years. If you want to do Irish, however, you really ought to do Classics for a bit." Since I had already started Greek and Latin, it was no hardship to do more courses. But then he said as I was leaving, "The trouble with doing Classics is how to get out of them again." That turned out to be the case. I never did find the time to study Irish after I took up Classics.

RT: How conscious were you when you were writing that you were working within a tradition, which meant that your readers would have certain expectations: both of the figures and the story?

GB: Well I certainly was aware that I was working within a tradition, but on the other hand it is a very rich tradition and you can pretty much get a character to do whatever you would like. There is always somebody who has done it before. Of course you can't have everybody alive at the end, but you don't really want to anyway. If I was aware of people having expectations, it was mainly that I thought they would associate Arthur with the High Middle Ages, and I had to get away from that. I knew, however, that I wasn't breaking new ground by setting the story in the late Roman / early medieval period.

RT: Did your attitude change when you came to revise the first novel three years after the first draft?

GB: I still felt that I had lots of choice. Many of the things that I changed were because I was a bit older and I didn't want to make things so obvious. By then I had a better Classical and historical background, and so I made changes as a result. A lot of Medea went into the figure of Morgawse, particularly the way she works the magic of binding and unbinding.

RT: Why did you choose to write Hawk of May as a fantasy?

GB: I enjoyed fantasy at that time, and I still enjoy much of the imagery and the richness of imagination that you find in it. I was hoping it would be published one day, but getting a lot of money out of it seemed so remote as to be unreal. Really I was writing the sort of book I liked to read at that time.

Moreover, I was writing out of myself very much. By the time I had finished the third novel—I think I received the first copies of it about the same time I had my first baby—I had changed from a young person just going up to university, to a woman who has come out of university and has married and settled down. The preoccupations and the values are quite different, I think: In Winter's Shadow is for older people because I was older myself.

RT: Sharon Newman says the same thing. Have you read Sharon Newman's Guinevere trilogy?

GB: I don't think I have. Writing my own trilogy put me off Arthurian trilogies for years. I'm just getting to the point now where I enjoy reading them again. I just couldn't bear them for some years after I finished!

RT: Your novels, like many others, are concerned with the theme of appearance and reality. Medraut is particularly skilled at presenting an amiable exterior behind which lies something very different. Was this a theme that concerned you, or did it emerge out of the material itself?

GB: The theme that I was most aware of as I was writing was the values and sacrifices required by civilization. Civilization requires the individual to be willing to make certain sacrifices of personal desires and fulfilments in order for it to exist. And this I believed to be a worthy cause. Certainly I was aware of pushing this theme, for I felt that the society in which I was living did not value it fully.

As for appearance and reality, I was attracted to the idea that I found in Celtic mythology, the idea that reality can be something other than what you think it is. In the Celtic voyage poems, you find someone sailing in a boat across the sea where he meets somebody else driving a chariot, as in the Voyage of Bran. Is it the sea or is it a wood? What is it really? Then there is the Glass Castle in the Welsh legends. It turns so that you can walk into it one way, but you can't walk out again; or if you do, you find that you are somewhere else. The idea that, behind the reality which is apparent to us there is a different reality, is deeply entrenched in Celtic mythology, and it is one that I was certainly attracted to and wanted to use. The idea of deception by the characters came out of the plot.

RT: Yes, one is very much aware of the sacrifices required. I was struck when re-reading Kingdom of Summer by the opening passage. Gwalchmai appears all gleaming in the sunlight so that the narrator wonders whether he is seeing a vision from the Otherworld, so splendid is it. Yet when he looks more closely, he notices how battered and weary the hero is—we witness both the reality and the illusion there. As the trilogy progresses, however, there is an increasing awareness of the cost of it all. In fact by the time we get to the latter part of the third book, there is a sense that the glory is lost, and now one is going to have to pay the price for all those wonderful earlier moments.

GB: I think that's a fair observation.

RT: Does this progression arise solely out of the material itself?

GB: Not entirely. As I was writing, I was continuing to study Classics. The three books I wrote after this trilogy were all set in the late Roman period, and I grew very interested in that period and the fall of civilization. Civilization is more fragile than you might think. It offers, to some of its members at least, the opportunity to live in the past and in the future to specialize. But this is all balanced rather precariously upon the sub-structure, and if something goes wrong, the superstructure collapses, which was what happened. The Roman Empire is very interesting to study.

The last novel, In Winter's Shadow, is the most Roman of the trilogy, but this is partly because of the shifting point of view. Gwalchmai, who narrates the first novel, is a Celt; he speaks Latin, but his Roman culture is only skin deep. His attitude is entirely Celtic. Rhys ap Sion, the narrator in Kingdom of Summer, is a peasant. The third novel is narrated by Gwynhwyfar, however, and she is an educated, Romano-British noblewoman with the most Romanized viewpoint.

RT: The vision of the Otherworld becomes more removed as the trilogy progresses. In Hawk of May, we accompany Gwalchmai when he goes to the Otherworld; in Kingdom of Summer, supernatural events are reported by the Christian narrator who recognizes that they occur, but only with reluctance. By the time we reach In Winter's Shadow, supernatural powers are just rumour. The vision of the Otherworld has faded.

GB: Yes, again this is partly due to the shift in narrator. I was getting older, however, and I was doing something different with the books. I was no longer quite as keen on fantasy as I had been: I was more interested in history. So yes, the vision of the Otherworld does fade, but I think also that the idea of fall and decay feeds into that process. The Otherworld is very fresh and beautiful and new, but by the time you get to the last book, this empire that Arthur and his followers have built with so much effort is collapsing. The fresh, beautiful, new Otherworld would disrupt that sombre tone.

RT: Was there some particular lesson that was important for your characters to learn in your novels?

GB: The first one is that being important doesn't in the least excuse you from behaving responsibly. At the end of the first novel, Gwalchmai eventually succeeds, not because he is the great warrior he always wanted to be, but because he takes time to look after some woman's husband. He behaves in a moral and responsible fashion even when he doesn't think anybody is ever going to find out. There is no glory to be gained from his action, and this is what finally convinces Arthur that he can be trusted.

RT: Although Gwalchmai wins Arthur's trust in this novel, the rewards are not so bountiful in the next two books, are they?

GB: No, but the characters still struggle hard to behave responsibly. Although Gwynhwyfar weakens, she does try to be a responsible person, to work out what is the best course of action. She can't always follow her instincts because she is a queen, however, since you have to do some things that are slightly unsavoury if you're involved in politics. Whether a saintly person makes a good king is a question that is starting to rear its ugly head.

There are strong moral values in all the books. I had a clear idea that evil was not an abstract thing, but a certain way that people were living. In Kingdom of Summer I deliberately set it up so that Camlann is a "good" fortress where people are basically happy, whereas in Maelgwn's fortress people are very unhappy: they blame each other all the time, they steal things from each other, and they get drunk—although admittedly everybody gets drunk in the Dark Ages! There is thus a deliberate contrast between the two courts, though I tried to avoid being too heavy handed.

RT: Did you find that any of the characters took over to some extent?

GB: Oh yes, definitely. I don't like to plan things out in advance. The way I write a book is to set up characters in the initial situation and let them take it from there. This is especially easy to do if you are using first-person narration as I did in all three books. You set the characters up, you let them run, and occasionally they do things that surprise you.

In Kingdom of Summer, for example, Rhys is kidnapped, and he outfaces Morgawse: I didn't think he had it in him! I knew he was going to fight back, but he really did a good job. And again, the whole scene where he outbargains the townsman, early on in the book—that just came. I didn't know he was going to do that, but again it was logical for his character.

Similarly, Medraut—although I planned him to be not all bad, to be a character who could have gone either way—in the scene at the end where he dies and in his last moments hears that his brother is dead, he is devastated. I didn't actually plan that; it just came out that way.

RT: Why did you decide make Morgawse, rather than Morgan le Fay, such an evil figure?

GB: The idea may have come from T.H. White. My mother read me The Sword in the Stone, and I was still very young when I read the rest of The Once and Future King. Morgawse is quite horrid in T.H. White, and I think after that she could never be a nice person for me, particularly since I read it when I was so young. You don't read the second book to a child; it's too nasty. The episode with the cat would have given me nightmares when I was little. Morgan le Fay I've always had sympathy for: she's magical, and she's impressive, and she's a strong female character, but she's not actually malicious in most of the stories. Whereas after T.H. White, for me Morgawse is malicious, and I wanted a strong, magical villainess.

RT: You only gave her three sons. Is that why you gave Gareth's traditional role in events to Gwyn?

GB: Yes. When I was writing the first novel, I had not thought as far ahead as the third book. I can't remember if I had the idea when I was writing the second book, but I certainly knew before I started the third that I was going to use him in that role.

RT: Did you find, as a result of allowing your characters so much free rein, that they sometimes moved in directions that had to be changed later? Did you find that you had to do much re-writing?

GB: I certainly had to throw bits out, for example, the first hundred pages of In Winter's Shadow.

RT: Did your choice of the first-person narrator create any problems?

GB: Yes, particularly in deciding how much to explain. The first-person narrator in a different time period is going to be familiar with much that you can't rely on the modern reader knowing, and I found it really tricky trying to provide the information that the modern reader needs without making it sound false that anybody in this position would need to explain it. I think I lean sometimes a bit one way, and sometimes the other, but that was certainly a problem. Also I thought up some beautiful scenes, but I couldn't write them because there was nobody there to witness them. Sometimes I have them reported by someone else, but sometimes I just left them out altogether.

RT: Were you particularly drawn to any of the ironic aspects of the legend?

GB: Certainly the love triangle has a fair amount of irony implicit in it. So too does the idea that the very people who built the tower are the ones who knock it down. This has such a good shape to it that it recalls Greek tragedy.

RT: Did you plan to write a series of novels from the outset, or did you just discover that by the time you finished the first book there was more to write?

GB: I did plan it as a series, but not as I eventually wrote it. It was originally intended to be told from Gwalchmai's point of view throughout, but when I finished the first novel, the ending seemed so suitable that I didn't want to disturb it. Thus when I turned to the next novel, I wanted to write another that had a good beginning, middle, and end. Then I realized that I was going to do it from someone else's point of view. Once I had done that, I decided I was going to do the third one from somebody else's point of view again, and I consciously looked for a character to tell the story. In the second novel the choice of a new narrator just happened. Nor did I initially plan to write three books specifically, but three does seem to be the number that most people turn out.

RT: Did these changes create problems of organization or of consistency in characterization?

GB: No. There were shifts in roles, but I was well aware of them and I considered them quite consistent. One of the things I like to do is to set characters up in one way and then to use them in quite a different way. The servant girl in Kingdom of Summer appears to be on the side of the enemy, but she turns into a romantic heroine.

RT: Was this planned from the outset?

GB: Yes, at least to a certain extent. Rhys is a plain, down-to-earth practical man, but he turns into a hero. Agravain the bully boy, on the other hand, goes completely to pieces. I knew he was going to do that even in the first book, and maybe it showed.

RT: You didn't like Agravain very much, did you?

GB: Well no, he's the bully and the older brother.

RT: Did you find that some characters who played a minor role in an earlier book caught your attention so that you returned to them again later?

GB: Yes, Bedwyr, the Lancelot figure. I took the idea of using him in this role straight from Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset, though his character is rather different.

RT: Do you have plans to write any more Arthurian books?

GB: No, though I have written another book based on medieval romance, this one by Marie de France. I think it is a good story, but the publishers consider that it does not have enough fantasy in it. They've decided it has got to have lots of fantasy if it is going to sell. I don't know if this is because the Arthurian novels did quite well, whereas the Roman ones did not.

The publishers would love me to do more books like the Arthurian trilogy, but I can't. They require an enthusiasm and idealism that you just cannot keep up. Once it's gone, maybe you can have a different sort of idealism, but it's got to be much more subtle and cynical. I feel, in a way, that I was very innocent, particularly when I wrote the first novel. I was very young, very enthusiastic, and very uncritical, even in the way that I approached the sources. Everything I read was fun. It didn't really matter whether it came from the sixth century, or the twelfth, or the nineteenth, or the twentieth: it was all just feeding in and it was all going "bang." I was very, very enthusiastic. Now I would think, "Oh no, you can't use this poem here because it is a fourteenth-century poem and these events are set in the sixth century."

The publishers wanted me to write about Tristan and Isolde, but I turned them down. I never liked Tristan: he was such an idiot and Isolde too.

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

GB: I think it was the idea of civilization being destroyed by its creators, of the tower being pulled down by its own builders. That mattered. Also I just liked Celtic mythology and that was the other thing I really wanted in the stories, particularly when I started off. I wrote those books a long time ago, and now I'm focused on other things. I don't know if they are any better, but they are different.

RT: Thank you very much.