Interview with Naomi Mitchison


Interview with Naomi Mitchison

from: The Camelot Project  1999

15 APRIL 1989

   The drive to Carradale, through Kintyre in Western Scotland, took me along a beautiful coastline across from the Isle of Arran as it rises steeply out of the sea. Lady Naomi Mitchison, to give her her full title, lives in Carradale House, a large old house with extensive grounds, amongst which nestles a splendid wild garden. It was a wonderful setting in which to talk about her novel To the Chapel Perilous (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955).
   This is an ironic fantasy that introduces the press into the world of Arthurian romance, then sends reporters with modern professional standards and concerns to investigate conflicting claims that the Holy Grail has been found. It draws upon Mitchison's own experience as a newspaper correspondent, dating back to 1934 when she was in Vienna, and her recollections of those difficult days are fascinating. As one might expect, it was a struggle for her to recall details about the writing of a book published back in 1955, especially since she has written and done so much since, and I am deeply grateful for her patience with my questions and her willingness to help.

RT: Your book, To the Chapel Perilous, is one of the earlier treatments of the Arthurian legend as a fantasy. When you were writing the novel, did you consciously choose the fantasy form?

NM: No, I was just writing what came to me. I was very fortunate because I'd written a couple of chapters, and then I went on a voyage across to America to visit my younger son who had received a fellowship to study over there. I remember that we were only allowed to take some very small amount of money with us, because of currency restrictions after the war. The voyage took rather a long time, and there was nothing to do but work on my little portable, which I loved very much as a typewriter. I typed the whole manuscript, single spaced. It was as though there was a film going on inside my head, and I was watching it as it went by. I was completely immersed in this. I didn't know what was coming, but it just came. I've never had quite the same feeling about anything else I wrote. It was very odd. I'd read quite a lot of material beforehand, but much of what I was doing was to change now into then, or then into now. The characters in the novel are based very much upon the people working for The Guardian newspaper at that time, which was the 1950s.
   While I was over in America, I went on writing. Between times, I'd go out and scavenge for food. I'd pick up shellfish and apples. There was just one store, and they worked out very quickly that I was asking for the cheapest of everything--for yesterday's bread rather than today's--and they were so nice to me. The fishermen just started giving me fish. After a little they asked me if I would come to the town meeting, and talk to them about what was going to happen in the future, and what would happen to them, and somehow all this connected in some way with what I was writing. I was writing probably up to about five thousand words a day which is quite a lot.

RT: Had you done all the research into the Arthurian background before you set out on your trip?

NM: Yes. I knew all the people, of course, but I didn't know what was going to happen. I had no idea how the book would end. What happened was quite a surprise to me. It was all coming out from somewhere, and I just had the job of writing it down. I was, however, determined that the central characters would have a happy ending, but it was quite difficult sometimes to get them out of trouble.

RT: Have you always been interested in the Arthurian legend?

NM: In a sense it's a part of my childhood, but then that was Tennyson's version. You know, slowly down to Camelot in the barge, and so forth, in this rather awful sort of Tennyson way. My mother read me a lot of Tennyson as a goodnight story. She was very keen on reading poetry, and sometimes I got rather bored. Some of the stories were quite good, however.

RT: Did you read other versions later?

NM: Well, yes, but I don't read much. Since I read lots and lots of fairy tales as a child, I was fully aware of witches and things. I read a lot of The Mabinogion and Malory, though not the latter until I was grown up. It used to be somewhere in that bookcase, and I now can't find it. Books have a terrible way of walking here. The episode in my book where Guinevere and Lancelot are caught together comes straight out of Malory. I just took several sentences. You can do that, but you've got to work up to it. You've got to get your reader feeling that this is the right thing to say.

RT: Had you read any modern Arthurian works before you wrote your book?

NM: Yes. I read Charles Williams and I thought that The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White was very good. After you've written about something once, though, it's very dangerous to try and do it again. The original story was very good indeed, but the more he wrote the less good it became.

RT: I infer from your book that you'd read not only a number of medieval versions of the Grail legend, but also some scholarly works, hadn't you?

NM: Yes. I don't remember them much now, because this was almost forty years ago. There was one very intelligent woman, Jessie Weston it was. I was affected by her book, From Ritual to Romance.

RT: When you wrote To the Chapel Perilous, were you familiar with different versions of the Cauldron of Plenty story?

NM: A few. I knew the Irish and the Indian stories fairly well, and some of the French. All over the world there are magic pots, and I wonder how the people would adjust to watching so long for it to boil, and wondering whether the insides had bubbled.

RT: Do you recall what French versions you read?

NM: No. I read French very easily. Sometimes I would go to the library at the British Museum in London, where I would dabble around, but I didn't read seriously.

RT: Do you recall what it was that led you to approach the story by including all these different versions of the Grail? It's such a wonderful idea.

NM: I don't know. It all just happened. I hadn't planned it. I knew the people, and I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun with the journalists. Then I thought carefully about places. I'd been up north, where I spent quite a lot of time walking around and trying to think how one lived in the past. I read a lot of archaeology and early history in a general way, not thinking particularly of this book, and this provided me with the background. It showed me how, possibly, the people lived back then. I'd also served as a member of the Highland Panel, which helped one get close to things, to tales of ghosts of one kind or another. I was living a kind of life which perhaps encouraged one to think in a fairly romantic way.

RT: You include in your book not only Arthurian tradition, but also other legendary material. For example, you associate Morgause with the sea-born figure of Aphrodite.

NM: Yes. I knew my classics pretty well. Most of my early books were set in the Ancient Greek world and the Mediterranean. I'd never gone to the far north.

RT: Do you recall any difficulty in fitting this non-Arthurian material in?

NM: No. As I said before, the book just came out, and all the pieces seemed to slide into place. It was much less difficult to write than anything else that I've done.

RT: I was certainly impressed with the way you managed to integrate so much traditional material into your book. The idea of using journalists reporting different stories, different rumors, and different versions enabled you to integrate all this material very effectively.

NM: I was, you see, very familiar with the newspaper world. The book is dedicated to my youngest daughter and the man whom she was going to marry later. She was on the staff of The Daily Mirror, and he was on The Guardian. Quite often they'd be on the same story, and I would talk to them about it. I was doing quite a bit of journalism myself, of course, and Merlin was very much modeled on one of the people in The Guardian.

RT: Since both you and your family knew so much about journalism, I take it that you were able to draw upon your own experience?

NM: Yes. I was picking out of features from the world of journalism that would fit into the earlier world.

RT: The reporters sometimes find themselves doing things they don't really like to do, but are required to as part of their job, don't they?

NM: Well, that's part of the job, and if you've ever done any journalism, you'll know that very often you don't know what to do in some situations. You worry whether you're going to get somebody into trouble by saying something. Or you've got to get a message through, and you may have to do it in a rather roundabout way. In Austria during the counterrevolution, we were getting messages through in Welsh, because the Austrian police didn't understand it.

RT: When was this?

NM: This was in 1934. Dollfuss, the Chancellor of Austria, shot up the socialist quarter of Vienna where they were resisting his abolition of political opposition. Some of us went there to help, and we did a good lot of police dodging. We also got the news back. A correspondent may find himself or herself involved in the action. Geddy, who was the correspondent of The Telegraph, a conservative paper, joined us in getting people across the frontier. We drove people across disguised as tourists, and we did a bit of passport work. One finds oneself involved in things.

RT: One newspaper term that I was unfamiliar with was subs. You talk about the subs who've let something through.

NM: Oh, yes, the subs who chew things away. Nowadays, it's all very different, but journalism was much more interesting in those days. You would send in a story, and the subeditors would take bites out of it.

RT: Ah, the subeditors, that's what they are!

NM: Yes. They were called the subs, and the journalists themselves were very often quarelling with them.

RT: What about the Chads?

NM: Ah, yes. At that time, it was a big joke to draw a picture of somebody looking over the wall with a big nose hanging down. It was a fad that lasted a year or two, and they were, I believe, called Chads. Underneath were written comments like, somebody was here, or what, no drink, as I put in To the Chapel Perilous. They were popular during the 1950s, by which time things had lifted a little from the difficulties of the late 1940s. Of course, language has changed since then, and the slang is now quite different.

RT: When you made the hero, Dalyn, the reporter for the Northern Pict, did you envisage some kind of hostility between the Scots and the English?

NM: Just a normal amount. The Northern Pict is based much more on one of the English nasty papers, whereas most of the Scots papers are very respectable. The Scottish connection came about partly because I wanted to use the name Lord Horny for the owner, and Horny is what the Scots call the Devil. He always impales people with his horns.

RT: Was Mr. Rann also a northern figure?

NM: Yes. They all were. His, I think, is a Shetland name.

RT: What is the source for the Spiral Castle that appears in your book?

NM: There is a theory about these round towers that are scattered along the Scottish coast, and it claims that they were spirals inside. There's a slight amount of evidence. In some of them it does appear as though there were steps going up. There was a lot of quite interesting archaeology on the subject, and a lot of argument as to what they were really like. I think the towers probably had a number of small rooms inside the walls, and the part in the middle might have had some sort of temporary roof, made of thatch or something. They were probably very largely for cattle. Of course people could also crowd in. They didn't ask for a large room, or even for a room with windows. That is where the idea of Spiral Castle started.

RT: Your heroine is very sympathetic to Lancelot and Guinevere. Does this reflect your own feelings?

NM: Well, one felt that Arthur was not much of a catch as a husband, and I think that inevitably one sympathizes.

RT: In fact, you're very sympathetic to most of the characters, and show profound understanding of their problems.

NM: Well, yes. You can't simply follow the attitude of the Church when you deal with the Grail. I was speaking from the heart, as a civilized person.

RT: On the other hand, you were perhaps less kind to Peredur. Does this attitude arise out of an antipathy to the Welsh, or just this one figure?

NM: No. I rather liked the Welsh when I've come across them, but it seemed important to have the kind of thing happening in the book that I describe in the chapter on Peredur. It's difficult to analyze, because the story just told itself. While I was writing, I felt that I wasn't guiding it at all.

RT: I see. Sometimes characters just take on a life of their own, and that could well have happened here.

NM: Oh, indeed, indeed. They're not at all how one thought of them at first.

RT: The Arthurian legend doesn't really give women much of an active role, and yet your heroine, Lienors, is very actively involved in events.

NM: Well, reporters do find themselves doing quite dangerous things. After all, we'd just had a war involving everybody. Also she was a part of me, for when I'm writing a book the people are there inside me, and I've always done what I wanted, in a way.

RT: One of the groups that you are critical of in your book is the Church, are you not?

NM: I've always been critical of the Church. Moreover, in the story the Church becomes quite serious, and I think you've got to take the Church seriously, whatever you're doing to it. You may feel that it's tyrannical, and that you've got to attack its tyranny. But the Church is important, and this is where I think Rushdie rather went wrong.

RT: Yet stories of the Holy Grail do exalt the Church?

NM: Well, the Church wanted to get rid of the earlier Grails. There were plenty of Grails about before the Church introduced the Holy Grail. In the end Guinevere turns back to the Church, but the two protagonists go to the Chapel Perilous, which is something else.

RT: Yes. You make the Church quite sinister; in fact, it tends to be the villain of the piece, is it not?

NM: Yes. The early writings show the Church as a big bully. Before To the Chapel Perilous the main book I'd written had been about Scotland. It had also dealt with witchcraft and people believing in things to their peril. I was very much interested in all this because the Church was a major influence in our family background. My great-grandfather and his brother sold the family estate to go off to preach in the Highlands, where they set up little churches here and there. I think they enjoyed it very much. My father's generation rarely escaped the domination of the Church, but I always feel that formal religion is something very dangerous, especially the three main religions that we have to cope with here: the thorough religions. I think you've got to be very careful not to let them grab you. I'm sure there's quite a bit of that in this book, though I hadn't thought of it as such at the time. That's just how it worked out in the book.
   You see, I didn't plan this; it just happened. It was like a film going on in slow motion, slow enough for me to write it as it went on. It is very curious how I was completely inside it, and though I made friends during the voyage--I talked to people, and I helped to look after the children and parents who were seasick and so on--all the time this experience was going on in my mind. I never had it for any other book.
   You can't, however, get away from your ancestry, or the things that have been building up in your culture. Rushdie can't get away from his culture. You may feel very angry about it, but you're in it.

RT: When you were dealing with the Grail legend, did you believe that certain elements were crucial to the story and had to be preserved?

NM: No, I don't think so, but I knew I'd never find out what the end of the story was. I knew I had to have an end that wasn't an end.

RT: Yes. It's another beginning isn't it? You come back full circle to where you started. As part of your research, did you visit any of the places that you set scenes in?

NM: No. I'd been around quite a bit, and I know many parts of England and Wales. I'd enjoyed some happy times in south England. Of course, I'd done some farming. When I talk about the harvest at Castle Bran de Gore, I was mostly thinking of our harvest here in Carradale. During the war farming mattered. At harvest we were bringing in food, and we felt that it was something important. I would always end up with the last sheaf which I'd keep. It's called the harvest Maiden in my book.

RT: The traditions you describe in the book were still practiced among the farming people in Scotland?

NM: Yes.

RT: So basically you were drawing upon your earlier experience rather than researching customs specifically for the book?

NM: Yes. I never did do much special research. I have such a lot of basic experience to draw on. One acquired it much more easily in those days because one was nearer to it. I was milking cows when I was ten years old, and not particularly liking it--but they were my mother's. Then of course I didn't do that again until thirty years later, when I was milking during the war. I've always had an attachment to the basic things in life, like growing food.

RT: Is your use of the high road and the low road traditional or personal?

NM: That goes back a long way:  
"And see not ye yon braid, braid road,
   That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
   Though some call it the road to heaven.

"And see not ye yon bonny road,
   That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
   Where thou and I this night maun gae."
The roads are very important. That's from the ballad of "True Thomas" or "Thomas the Rhymer." It's something that I had at the back of my mind. Parts of it comes into some of my other stories too. It's something that has always affected me since I was ten years old.

RT: What about the figure of the White Lady?

NM: Oh, yes, now there, again, I picked up something that's been about in the folklore. I knew Robert Graves slightly, and we quite often corresponded. We quarreled with one another at times, because I would say to him, no, I think this particular idea is nonsense. I remember that among his sacred Celtic trees he'd put some tree that had never turned up. He'd made a bad mistake there. It wouldn't have been anything to do with the White Lady. Here we still don't cut down rowan trees. I've got far too many because they've seeded themselves, but I wouldn't cut them.

RT: That's the mountain ash, isn't it?

NM: Yes. Very odd things happen here. There's a bit of forest that was planted, but not, apparently, by any of the foresters, because nobody claimed it. At that time, people were being paid for the acreage they planted. This was a bit slow to be claimed. That part of the forest had been planted by somebody who, I think, believed in fairies, or whatever you call them.

RT: Where does the vision of the dead rising on All Hallow's Eve come from?

NM: This is what Halloween is all about, and up until quite lately we took it half seriously. When we went about guising, we were the dead. All this part about wearing masks, and so on, wasn't just for fun.

RT: Why bring it into the Arthurian story? It is not something one encounters elsewhere, and indeed it might seem incongruous when dealing with the Grail?

NM: I think that Halloween has been pretty important for a very long time, and I really feel rather cross with the way it's been turned into just a kids' thing.

RT: I jotted down one of the passages you wrote because it appealed to me so much: "keep it light so you can say a lot more, especially if it's something you care about."

NM: Oh, yes. That's very important in the basic industries. You take great care not to say that you're going to have a good crop or a good catch. You are always waiting for the furies to come and take it away. Here we have Mrs. Thatcher, the Prime Minister, who does a lot of boasting, really, and this is very dangerous. I just hope that the arrow will come, for I'm sure she deserves it.

RT: When you're writing your books, do you ever work on more than one at a time?

NM: Yes. For example, I've just finished one book that I've been writing on and off. It's a book about a minor painter who was related to my family. I continued to find out little bits about him and about the doings of my own family at the same time. I began to write the story of this chap about twenty years ago, and then I dropped it. Now I've rewritten it. You see, I've got a mass of really interesting family material.

RT: Do you ever read a book after you've written it?

NM: Yes, sometimes. One or two of my old stories I've read again, and when things are being republished, I very often look over them again.

RT: Have you read To the Chapel Perilous since you wrote it?

NM: No. I've just looked at bits of it, partly because you were coming.

RT: Did you need to do much rewriting for the publishers?

NM: No. I don't ever let publishers do that. All that I've ever changed in my books is a word here and there.

RT: Did you ever feel inclined to go back and write another Arthurian story?

NM: No.

RT: Thank you.