Interview with Meriol Trevor


Interview with Meriol Trevor

from: The Camelot Project  1999

11 MAY 1989

   Meriol Trevor lives on Great Pulteney Street in Bath, a street famed in Regency days for its architectural symmetry. It even figures in the novels of Jane Austen, one of my favorite authors. The city's popularity dates back to much earlier times than that, however, for the curative value of its waters were appreciated by the Romans and it is their civilization and its collapse that interest Trevor.
   She has set many novels in this period, two of which make use of Arthurian tradition. Merlin's Ring (London: Collins, 1957) is a fantasy for juveniles about a boy transported briefly, through the power of Merlin's ring, back to the months preceding Arthur's victory at Badon, which Trevor locates near Bath. The Last of Britain (London: Macmillan, 1956) is an historical novel about events leading up to the British defeat at Dyrham in 577. Trevor also makes use of the Grail legend in The Sparrow Child (London: Collins, 1958), another novel for juveniles, this time about a quest for the Holy Grail in modern-day Cornwall.
   Although she is still writing historical novels about the last days of the Roman Empire, Trevor has found it increasingly difficult to get published, a reflection of a change in fashions and economics in the publishing industry as much as in readers' tastes. This is unfortunate, for her books portray the struggle of decent people against an irresistable tide of barbarism, a message that is as relevant today as it was after the war.

RT: Your Arthurian novels are among your earliest work, are they not?

MT: Yes, The Last of Britain was the first novel that I wrote for adults. Merlin's Ring, which followed, was written for children. My first three children's novels were set in an imaginary world which a friend and I made up when we were children, but the events that took place were pretty realistic, so it wasn't a fantasy really. It did, however, get me interested in imaginative worlds which I use in all my children's books. In Merlin's Ring, for example, the boy goes back to the time of Arthur in a dream.

RT: Why did you choose to move from a fantasy world to a world set in the historical past?

MT: I'd always been fascinated, not so much by the Arthurian legend, as by the breakdown of Roman civilization and the rise of Christianity. By the time that Roman Britain fell the Church had, in fact, grown rather decadent, but the Celtic monks and missionaries like St. Patrick were appearing on the scene.
   It was not long after the war, and I felt that our civilization was breaking down. Many people have forgotten that experience now, because they're busy building it all up again, but I still think we are living in a declining civilization. That's why I remain interested in the period when the Roman Empire was breaking up and in the reaction to this situation of people who had been living in a civilized world. The people who had all the energy and were doing the building in the sixth century were the pagan barbarians, whereas the Britons were a rather effete lot, though I have a lot of sympathy with them. Since I didn't want to write about Arthur, in The Last of Britain I wrote instead about the time after his death: the fall of Bath, Cirencester, and Gloucester after the Battle of Dyrham in 577.

RT: Why did you not want to write about Arthur?

MT: Well, it was too big for me. Also Arthur won, and I wanted to write about people who were defeated. That's why I began at the end, when everything was breaking down. Arthur is a memory of greatness, like Churchill in the last war. The defeat of the Britons at Dyrham is mentioned in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle where the three princes are called kings.

RT: Merlin's Ring preserves this sense of impending doom, doesn't it?

MT: Yes, it does. That was always my particular interest in the story. Since I had read classics at Oxford and studied ancient history, I was always tremendously interested in the Roman Empire and everything to do with it; but when I went back to that Roman world in Merlin's Ring I still wanted to focus upon its breakdown.

RT: Why did you feel, after the Second World War, that civilization was breaking down? The war had, after all, been won, and rebuilding was going on.

MT: Yes, but it was a very slow business. When I first came to this area, about seven years after the war, nothing had been rebuilt in Bristol except Marks and Spencers and Woolworths. There were ruins everywhere--Bristol was full of ruined churches--and we were all still on rations. In fact the rationing seemed worse after the war. It was definitely a rather grey period. People were exhausted after all the effort of the war, and there was a feeling that nothing was going to be the same again, which was true.
   As a relief worker in Italy after the war, I witnessed the devastation at first hand, heard stories of atrocities, met refugees on the roads. Afterwards came the division of Europe into west and east, the emergence of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between America and Russia. The funny thing was that the countries that had been defeated in Europe got going much quicker than we did. They started building like mad, whereas we seemed to be suffering from a kind of exhaustion. We had bankrupted ourselves as a nation fighting the Nazis, yet we could not have survived without American aid. We gave up India, we gave up everything. People felt in some mysterious way that Britain had ceased to be great. I had grown up in the thirties, and although I thought that Empire Day was rather nonsense there was still a great feeling that Britain was a very important part of civilization. Somehow or other that went after the war. There was a mood of despondency about the future.
   It was at this time that the great interest in Arthur as a fifth-century leader battling against the forces of barbarism developed here in Britain. It was a mythical-historical story of renewal in the midst of ruin that gave the imagination a chance to come to terms with our own ruins and refugees and an aggressive barbarism rising once again from the ashes in the shape of Stalinism. Perhaps it is because that era, the 1950s before Stalin's death, is so long past that the Arthurian legend has lost some of its potency here in Britain.

RT: One can see, then, why this period interested you, particularly since you studied the classics at Oxford.

MT: I was also very interested in the Grail legends, and that ties up with the interest in the emergence of Christianity. Indeed, much of my interest in the late Roman Empire arose because it was Christian by then.

RT: Yet you don't put the Grail in your novels?

MT: Well, the idea of the Grail is there in a way, because Glastonbury is there with all its mysterious associations. While I didn't include the actual Grail in my Arthurian books, however, I did put it into a modern one, called The Sparrow Child. It contains the Grail Castle and the wounded Fisher King.

RT: You don't, I notice, always portray your Christian churchmen in positive terms, do you?

MT: No, that is true. In The Last of Britain there are court clerics who are not good characters at all, although they are balanced by their brothers at Glastonbury who are working with the poor. You find the same balance in Merlin's Ring as well. I think that throughout the history of the Church both kinds of clergy have flourished, good and bad.

RT: I notice that you have more admiration for the clergy working with the poor at a practical level, offering them comfort and aid, than you have for those in the higher ranks of the Church.

MT: Yes. I think one tends to feel like that. Some important churchmen are admirable: in the late fourth century one finds, for example, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Martin, St. Jerome-- all fascinating characters whom I manage to bring into my books. St. Jerome was an old so and so, you know, but it takes all sorts to make a church. One feels, however, little sympathy for those who are always involved in politics.

RT: You seem not to like politicians very much?

MT: No, I don't think I do, really, certainly not those who put local or party interests first. The only politicians I care for are the old-fashioned, practical kind who do whatever necessity requires to be done. There aren't many about, unfortunately.

RT: You deal with politicians at some length in your Arthurian novels, since they both focus upon the maneuverings and countermaneuverings that are responsible for the downfall of Britain. Does this focus reflect a concern that you have with contemporary society?

MT: Well, not only modern society, but every human society, it seems to me. People are always maneouvering for power, and unfortunately the better people usually get pushed out. I don't use the past to fight out modern battles, however. That doesn't interest me. I don't think of Arthurian Britain as an image of what's happening now. I do, however, think that what happens is very similar in all periods, and that arouses one's sympathy for the characters' problems.
   Part of the interest in dealing with an earlier period is that things were on a smaller scale. You can have all the influential people struggling against each other in a small group, and this allows you to explore the situation. In the modern world the influences are too widely dispersed. I couldn't write about the modern world.

RT: So you are attracted to the past partly because events occur on a more manageable scale?

MT: Yes, I am. Also, because this past is a creation of the imagination, you can concentrate upon what you're interested in, without having to bother about what's going on in Russia or America. I certainly couldn't cope with anything on a bigger scale.

RT: Right. Now, to turn to the question of the sources for your Arthurian books, do you recall what works were most influential?

MT: Well, one of the reasons why I chose to write about the sixth century in The Last of Britain was that there's practically no information available, so that I could make up a good deal of it myself, including all the characters.
   The one person essential for that period in Britain is Gildas, of course, who was writing about 540. I read his work in a translation which I borrowed from the London Library. Gildas is maddening: he gives a very garbled account of Roman history in Britain which he really didn't know very much about. He was, however, living in 540, and he seems to have been born on the day of the Battle of Badon, which I think was fought near here, at Solsbury Hill. It is a round hill surrounded by a hedge, just outside Bath. Anyway, Gildas grew up in the time after Arthur's last victory, when the Britons, presumably, were temporarily on top. The Saxons were confined to the coast and to East Anglia, basically. Gildas was a monk who is supposed to have come from the north to study at Glastonbury.
   What he was really writing was a furious diatribe against the princes who ruled Britain in the middle of the sixth century. He names five, who are usually taken to be princes of western Britain, and condemns them for committing terrible crimes, like bumping off relations or marrying their wives' sisters. He also criticizes churchmen for taking bribes and behaving badly. Of course he was a monk, you see, and not a regular priest. In the course of his diatribes, he does build up a partial picture of what it was like in Britain then. Romanized civilization remained, but in a very decayed state, with these princes taking over in their areas in a much more tribal way.
   I also read a good deal of Gregory of Tours, who wrote about the Franks a little later. The Franks were converted rather early on but went on behaving in a completely barbarian way for long afterwards. Gregory chronicles the breakup of Gaul, which was less complete than that of Britain because the Franks were converted early enough to carry on certain traditions. Gregory reveals how Christian bishops viewed events, although I adopt the perspective of the lay rulers in my books. Not but that the bishops were not right to be angry at the Frankish princes at times: I can't see that there is much to be said in favor of burning down huts crammed with all their relations, and that sort of thing.

RT: Did you read any Arthurian romances as well?

MT: When I was thinking about the Grail, I read much of the Grail literature, including Chretien de Troyes, in translation. I never could really get on with Malory, though, I'm sorry to say. He seemed so terribly medieval to me: I couldn't translate it back into what I think it was like. I had friends who were reading English at Oxford, and they persuaded me to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and a few other English romances. They struck me, however, as a funny mixture of fairy and chivalry, which seemed miles away from what the reality must have been.

RT: How about studies by modern historians?

MT: Well, when I was writing The Last of Britain, there really weren't many. I read Collingwood and people like that on Roman Britain, but the most fascinating studies came out afterwards. The problem with most histories, I find, is that they are too general. They cover a whole century when what you need is detail about a much shorter period in the middle somebody's lifetime. There's an awful lot that you can't get from them. That's why I find it so useful to read people like Gildas and Gregory of Tours. They were alive then, and so in spite of being rabidly religious, they at least provide the necessary background.

RT: You mentioned that since you wrote those two books you've read a number of historians on the period. Has this led you to revise your view of the historical situation at the time?

MT: No. As a matter of fact, I've felt rather pleased that I seem to have got the main lines right. As far as one could tell from reading books at the time I was writing, Roman Britain was completely wiped out by the Saxons. Since then, however, they've been discovering evidence that some kind of Romano-British society went on, right into the sixth century, though perhaps not quite so civilized as I made it in The Last of Britain.
   People forget that Britain had been Roman for a very long time, and produced figures like Pelagius, a Roman Briton who became involved in controversy with St. Augustine. I read the early lives of saints, like the life of St. Germanus who came to Britain twice, in 429 and 448, I think, and won the Hallelujah Victory. I deal with that in my unpublished book, The Ring of Constantine. Those early saints' lives--I got a book of them after the war--are fascinating. I made use of them for The Golden Palaces, though by the time I wrote that a great deal more were available.
   The life of St. Martin contains quite a lot about the emperor. This turned out to be Magnus Maximus, about whom there is very little documented history. The works of those late Roman historians are so often fragmentary. It's absolutely maddening to be reading one, only to discover that a chapter's missing just at the point when you want to know what they are up to.

RT: Did you draw on any of the Welsh material, The Mabinogion, for example?

MT: Not really. I read some of it, but in spite of being Welsh by descent, I don't know Welsh and I'm not very well up in early Welsh history.

RT: How about Geoffrey of Monmouth?

MT: Oh, yes. I think he's the first historical novelist. In my unpublished novel, The Ring of Constantine, I have used some material from Geoffrey, for instance making Ambrosius Aurelianus the brother of Uther Pendragon, as he calls him. I have only taken details like that, though, and I haven't used Merlin in that book at all, because I'm not at all sure how he fits in it.

RT: What was your source for the figure of Merlin in Merlin's Ring?

MT: It was partly Geoffrey. Also as a child I had read stories of King Arthur. Merlin comes out of one's imagination, really, fed by all these things.

RT: Had you read any later treatments of Merlin, like Tennyson's Idylls of the King and T. H. White's Once and Future King?

MT: I read Tennyson at school. A friend of mine was reading White, and I looked at it, but I didn't like it much.

RT: You don't like the romance world very much, do you?

MT: No, I don't, particularly when it is presented in a jokey way. I loved C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, though, and I still reread it. I think he does Merlin terribly well, with those marvellous powers but completely at sea. I read some of Charles Williams' poetry, but it didn't appeal to me.

RT: Did any of these later works influence your own writing?

MT: Oh, no. Not at all. I was just very interested in Merlin, and I have always read books about him: Mary Stewart's books and Nikolai Tolstoy's. I'm still fascinated by Merlin although I don't know how to fit him into my kind of writing. I'm still writing books, but I can't get anyone to publish them now. My last published book, The Golden Palaces, is followed by The Ring of Constantine which is still unpublished. That is about Ambrosius Aurelianus and Vortigern. I am currently writing another novel, which deals with the generation just before The Last of Britain: Gildas's generation, in fact, the princes he so disapproved of.

RT: I would like to focus now upon Merlin's Ring and ask you first about the use of time travel in the novel. Did you, by any chance, borrow the idea from Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court?

MT: I don't believe so. I haven't read the book, though I did see a a black and white film of it years and years ago. The idea of time travel may have come from some of the children's books that I read as a child, but I can't recall any specific titles now. It was a way of writing about the past while relating it to a modern child. If a modern child goes back to Arthur's time, he can notice things which a child of that time wouldn't because they would be part of his familiar background. For example Felix, the protagonist of Merlin's Ring, notices the mosaic floors, the lamps, hanging from their three chains, and things like that. Time travel is really a device for dealing with the past more than anything.

RT: Why did you choose not to provide a more extended frame, developing the events in the modern setting more fully?

MT: Well, the next children's book that I wrote after Merlin's Ring is called Sun Slower, Sun Faster. It is about some children staying in an old house who go back into the past in a series of jumps, first to the nineteenth century, then on, right through Middle Ages, to Roman Britain. There is a story going on in their modern lives at the same time. In fact, a friend of mine who read it told me that he was always wanting to get back to the modern story.
   I had a verse play that was being put on in Bristol Cathedral, and so I came down here and got a job housekeeping for some people who lived between Bristol and Bath. I went to rehearsals for the play in Bristol, and sometimes on my afternoon off I came to Bath. I got the idea for both Merlin's Ring and Sun Slower, Sun Faster while I was in this area, long before I came to live here.

RT: Although you make use of Merlin's magic in Merlin's Ring to send Felix back from the present to Arthur's day, you do not have him perform any magic in the past, do you?

MT: I don't think of Merlin as a magician, really. I think of him as a seer, somebody with second sight and paranormal powers.

RT: How does Felix enter the body of his namesake in the past, if not through Merlin's power?

MT: Well that's just a trick of the time travel device. You have to make him fit into the past, otherwise the situation would be impossible. Everyone would say, what are you doing here? Merlin doesn't put the modern Felix into his British namesake, however. It's just an imaginative thing, really. You imagine yourself into the past, and there is someone who is you, so to speak, acting in the situation that's there.
   The difficulty about it is to make sure that when the child comes back everything's all right at home. In Merlin's Ring Felix's cousin turns up, who is obviously the little girl he met in the past. If you've made a great friend in the past and then come back, you lose that friend, which is rather a sad end for a children's story, I think.

RT: You are not interested, then, in the supernatural device itself that allows Felix to travel through time?

MT: No. It is just a device, an imaginative thing. In a sense, any story about the past involves a transference in time, doesn't it? You are transported into that past time and imagining what it was like to be alive then. In a children's book the advantage of taking a child from now back to then is that his or her reactions are known to you, because you know what he or she would feel. Thus the children who are reading it would feel in tune with the character. They would think as Felix would about the things that happen. I keep events in the past realistic, so that the character's reaction seems plausible, but the journey back to the past is part of the initial imaginative leap that the readers make when they enter into that fictional world.
   The critical reader might wonder whether people really talked like that in those days. Of course, since the people spoke Latin, perhaps rather demotic Latin, you can write it in fairly modern demotic English. There are pitfalls, however, because I feel that I rather overmodernized the people in The Last of Britain. For example, some friends of Lucius, the main character, were skeptics, and although there undoubtedly were skeptics at the time, I don't think they would have been skeptical in such a modern way as I've made them. Lucius' reactions to Christianity were too modern.

RT: The theme of appearance and reality is important in your novels. Some people pretend to be pleasant, but turn out to be selfish, egotistic, and power hungry. Others appear surly, but turn out to have sterling qualities that have been unappreciated by people who put greater store in affability. Is this something that you feel is particularly important in your sixth-century setting, or in Arthurian legend, or just in human nature in general?

MT: Oh, I think just in human nature.

RT: In Merlin's Ring Arthur emerges as a noble figure, but he trusts people too readily and this leads eventually to his downfall.

MT: Yes. That's what I thought at the time. It's very difficult to decide what one does think about Arthur, really, because there are so many Arthurs in people's minds.
   You see, all my stories have come out of this long-running game that I played with a friend. We made up generations of people in this imaginary world, and they had adventures, and married, and then we went on to the next generation, and so on. All my stories have come out of that kind of milieu of groups of people interacting with each other. We each wrote about our own people, and then we had a great talking session to work out what they were doing. This started when we were about twelve, and we did write some funny books together. When I was making up all those people in Bath, for Merlin's Ring, it was really like making up people in that imaginary world. They certainly all behaved in the same way.

RT: Your female characters play a much more active role than they do in romance. Does this come from a historical awareness that some of the women of ancient Rome were very influential?

MT: Well, yes, they certainly were, of course. The place of women has become such a stamping ground nowadays, hasn't it? The issue didn't occur to me, really. There were some things you knew girls wouldn't do in that period, or any period before ours.

RT: Your books deal with the same world, though at different historical times. Did you ever find you had written something in an earlier novel that later limited your freedom of invention?

MT: Yes. Not in those two books, which were early, but it has happened since. I had to do a considerable amount of rewriting in the book I'm working on now to make it fit with The Last of Britain. I have written my later books, The Golden Palaces and The Ring of Constantine, from the point of view of men involved in the story, because it seemed to me the only way to give an impression of being alive in that time. The book that I am doing now is written from the point of view of a woman, and so I'm able to say a few things about what women could and couldn't do.

RT: When you're writing, do you have more than one book on the go at one time?

MT: No. I have to do one at a time. When you're writing a book, you're partly living in it. I find it quite difficult to switch from one world to another other, especially if it is in a different era.

RT: Do you compose your books on the typewriter?

MT: I do now, though my earlier books were written out first in longhand, then typed afterwards. One finger typing. When I wrote a biography of Cardinal Newman, however, there were so many quotations to copy out that it became a bore to write them all. So I typed it, and since then I've composed my books on the typewriter.

RT: Do you write more than one draft?

MT: Oh, yes. One is continually rewriting chapters of non-fiction books. The novels need a bit of monkeying about too, especially if they have been written over a long period. When you get to the end, you sometimes find you've gone out of kilter with some of the things you said at the beginning, and you have to go through to straighten it out. Then when I type the third copy, I quite often make a few stylistic changes. After having written some thirty books, however, I find that I don't have to correct as much as I used to.

RT: When you write for children, do you have in mind a particular age group?

MT: I wrote my children's books aiming at children aged about twelve, but reading skills vary. I have received letters from little boys of eight saying, this is my favorite book. I was very pleased, but rather surprised that little boys of eight were able to take it in. However now I gather that children's reading age has advanced, and that twelve-year-olds are considered part of the teenage market.

RT: I have two final questions. First of all, what part of the Arthurian legend did you feel was most important to include in your stories? In The Last of Britain the legend figures only as a recollection of better days in the past, would it be fair to say?

MT: Yes. Yes.

RT: But what about Merlin's Ring?

MT: Well, I think it was that although Arthur was a great war leader, he was not the sort of person who could see through the nasty people, so to speak. You could see what was going to happen: that Mordred was going to start a civil war; and that Arthur would be destroyed eventually. One of the reasons why the Saxons won was that the Britons were divided. Had they stuck together, they might have confined the Saxons over in the east.

RT: Arthur was incapable of healing those divisions?

MT: Yes, but he held the tide back. Perhaps, indeed, nobody could have succeeded. I felt that he was the sort of person who was very good at leading men into battle, but not very good at politics. This is the kind of character I rather like, but it doesn't save Britain from disaster, I'm afraid.

RT: Could I conclude by asking you if there is anything you'd like to say that I haven't asked you about?

MT: I think what interests me most is how Christianity works through disasters and defeats. It actually does much better in adversity than it does when people are comfortable and settled. It is, in fact, a religion to cope with defeat. Christ, the one innocent man, was judicially murdered. Yet He rose again, and His followers are able to cope with disaster and defeat--or should be able to. This seems to me to be the lesson of history, and it's the reason why I'm much more interested in the late Roman Empire, which was officially Christian, than I am in its earlier days.
   Despite the recovery of material well-being, I do feel that, morally and artistically, we are living in a period of decline. The performers of plays, music, and so on, have improved, but the music, the painting, the content of books, have all declined in my lifetime. It's like living not merely in the classical silver age, but the age of lead! I expect you think I am pessimistic, and perhaps I am. But as a Christian (I converted to Catholicism in 1950) I can afford to be and still not lose hope. Christians have been through it all several times in the last two thousand years, and one of those times was the one we call the Dark Ages. Yet that was also the age of the great pioneer saints.

RT: Thank you.