Interview with Peter Vansittart

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Interview with Peter Vansittart

from: The Camelot Project  1999

LONDON
23 MAY 1989

   Since finding parking space for a car proved so difficult in London, I decided to return my rental vehicle and to rely upon public transportation for reaching Peter Vansittart at his house in north London. Unfortunately, on the day we were to meet, the normally efficient underground system was hit by a strike, which put paid to my fond hopes of convenient travel. Nothing daunted, however, I set out to try my luck on the local service of British Rail and arrived early enough to take shelter in a local pub from a short rainshower.
   Vansittart has written two historical novels that treat the Arthurian legend. The first, Lancelot (London: Owen, 1978), is an account of the decline of post-Roman Britain narrated by Lancelot; the second, Parsifal (London: Owen, 1988), follows the adventures of the long-lived hero from pre-Roman times, through the courts of the Duke of Burgundy and Holy Roman Emperor in the late Middle Ages, to the last days of the Third Reich. Unlike most authors, Vansittart adopts a powerfully anti-romantic attitude towards the Arthurian material, painting a disturbing picture of a world that fails to live up to our unrealistically high hopes and expectations. Although such an anti-romantic approach is uncommon in Arthurian tradition, it is persistent.


RT: You include figures from Arthurian legend in your novels Lancelot and Parsifal. Have you used them elsewhere?

PV: I wrote two collections of folk stories for children aged twelve to fifteen, and they include retellings of such stories as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Marriage of Sir Gawain. Since I've never been interested in archaism for its own sake, I made use of psychological interpretations so that readers would be better able to see the relevance of these ancient stories to modern times. In a historical novel I like shed some light on our present condition. At the moment I'm writing a novel about third-century Rome, and I have written a novel about Britain in the third and fourth centuries. Both show people grappling with problems like inflation, immigration, old beliefs declining, new ones ascending, and the extent to which it is justifiable to defend yourself in a war. The past was different from the present, but not all that different: there are certain perennial problems. In the folk stories, therefore, I tried to make the people recognizable human beings, not figures out of myth or legend. Magicians appear, but in a rather matter of course way. The appeal of dictators has always had elements of magic--and hocus-pocus.

RT: Were these collections commissioned by a publisher?

PV: Yes. The publisher wanted a colection of British folktales.

RT: Did the publisher suggest which stories to include?

PV: No. The choice was left entirely to me. The books were originally supposed to be written in partnership with Rex Warner who'd already done a collection of Greek myths, but he faded out of the picture, so I went on on my own. Amongst children in England the Celtic stories, which would include the Arthurian, were much less well known than the stories of Greece and Rome, and so it was fun finding Celtic equivalents of Zeus and other figures of Greek mythology.
   I love the English countryside, and the legends attached to a lake here and a forest there. Since I found these links exciting, I tried to bring them in to give personality to the countryside which the readers might well pass through. I hadn't, as far as I remember, written any historical novels at that time. My novels had all been contemporary, and so these stories were, perhaps, a stepping stone towards writing a historical novel.

RT: Do you recall how you came to write Lancelot?

PV: It began as a short novel for children about the fall of Roman Britain. Arthur and Lancelot weren't mentioned except in passing. But Macmillan, the publisher, didn't like the book at all and said it really didn't come off. I laid it aside for several years, then went back to it. I suddenly saw that I could turn it into a novel for adults, keeping exactly what I had already written as the first third: it ended originally at the point where the Roman villa is burned.
   The Arthurian context didn't develop until I rewrote the whole thing. It struck me that what had interested me in the folk stories earlier could be made use of again. I realized that what I was actually doing was something which has always interested me very much: exploring the nature of historical truth. Somewhere in that book Lancelot says to the reader, well I knew Arthur. I worked with him for thirty years, but I really have never understood what the fuss was about. He didn't have much talent and he was an uncouth, boorish fellow. Nevertheless, I don't mind betting that in about a thousand years' time scholars will be writing about him as if he really were something, while the people who did all the work, such as myself, will hardly get a look in.
   I admire John Masefield and Rosemary Sutcliff, but their Arthur is treated in a heavily romanticized way that extends back to Tennyson. I didn't want to do what they had already done, nor do I think that their approach is necessarily the right one. A book which I really would have loved to have written, though I could never quite make up my mind whether or not it's a masterpiece, is The Once and Future King by T. H. White. It's a marvellous invention that I deeply envy; there's something happening on every page to give a new twist. Well I didn't have the talent to do that. Nor, perhaps, did I really want to. What I did learn from it, however, was the perspective that Arthur finds at the end, where he looks back on his life's work and tries to assess it.
   Thus in my novel, Lancelot every so often wonders, where am I going? Is the Roman tradition really worth keeping? What are these newcomers really about? Is Britain very safe in the hands of a freebooter like Arthur, who's actually no better, perhaps no worse, than the people he's fighting against? I've always been interested in breakdown, why towns decay, why empires fall. I'm also interested in the search for the possibility of redemption. The writers who influenced me as a youth--Spengler, Toynbee, and H. G. Wells, particularly in his Outline of History--fascinated me because of their large-scale approach, the spectacle of breakdown and the possibility of return to what is vital. Yes, it fascinated me then and fascinates me now. It's very much a theme of the book I'm writing at the moment about third-century Rome.

RT: Would you say that the coming together of your interests in the Arthurian legend and the breakdown of society led you to take such an anti-heroic, anti-romantic view of the Arthurian world?

PV: Yes. I think few of the redeemers, the political or military or social messiahs, have been much good as people. Indeed, another theme I explore is whether a rather bad man can do good. Does he contaminate it by his badness? May he actually be performing good works in spite of himself? Aldous Huxley and Bertram Russell took the view that, if you resist fascism by war, you become a fascist yourself. I've always felt that was nonsense, but not total nonsense. This problem of contamination is one of the themes explored in Lancelot. Lancelot is always aware that he at times, and certainly Arthur quite often, have to commit evil deeds to produce a greater good. How far can you allow yourself to go before you are damaged by this?
   Once at a dinner party I looked around the table and suddenly realized that I was the only man among about twenty present who hadn't actually killed somebody. In the Korean War and the Second World War they had all dropped bombs on villages or hospitals, bayonetted people in the western deserts, thrown bombs into tanks, and that type of thing. None of them ever talked about these wars, but I wondered sometimes what their dreams were like, how far their behavior was affected, what stories their wives could tell if they wanted to. In the novels I write, Lancelot as much as any, such questions are very important.

RT: Lancelot offers an ironic picture of a world declining into barbarity, in contrast to the grandiose claims in the stories about the characters that are reported by Lancelot. Were you aware of writing within an anti-romantic tradition, or were you following own instinct about the material?

PV: My own instinct. I don't know offhand of any other writer taking the approach that I did. It fits very well into the general pattern of my novels which are always slightly deflationary. Since the war, the heroic tradition in England has declined rather rapidly, and a great number of the heroes of the past no longer seem so heroic. Immediately after the First World War, Lloyd George was hailed as the man had won the war, but later he gave that notorious interview with Adolf Hitler, and his biography depicts him as a corrupt womanizer to the extent of almost madness. This makes him much more interesting but, of course, much less of a heroic figure.

RT: Did you draw on any specifically Arthurian sources, such as Gildas, for your anti-romantic picture of Arthur's world?

PV: Not a great deal. You don't start writing a novel of the Dark Ages unless you've actually read a certain amount about them, in my case in a very unsystematic way and long ago. I don't find that by systematic research one's going to write a good novel. One's much more likely to write quite an interesting thesis or essay or general study, but a novel? No. It would totally lack spontaneity. What I tend to do is to write the novel first and then read a few specialized books to make certain that I haven't made major mistakes.
   I read a lot of history just for fun, and I know Gildas just enough to occasionally quote him, to give some sort of illusion of reality to the writing. I had read popular writers like Geoffrey Ashe, and books like The White Goddess and The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, which have a lot of interesting information--not always very plausible--about the origin of myth. I read a great deal of whatever comes my way, and I make notes on what I read. Occasionally I glance through a notebook in the middle of writing a novel and may find a reference to somebody like Gildas or Chretien de Troyes, which will come in handy.

RT: You had read medieval romances by Chretien, Malory, and others, but only as part of your general reading?

PV: Yes. I have to admit that Malory I find extremely boring. He's a wonderful writer: the descriptions of battles are magnificent, full of onomatopoeic words. But the stories on the whole seem to me extremely monotonous, rather wooden, and lifeless. Arthur, to me, never comes alive at all and he doesn't, in fact, do a great deal. He sends all these chaps out and receives them when they come back, but there he is, sitting away other people's lives.

RT: How about Geoffrey of Monmouth and other chroniclers? Had you read any of them?

PV: I've read Geoffrey, but again without a great deal of interest. He lacks the real allusiveness and suggestiveness of genuine oral myth, and the amount of historical truth is scanty. He was a Plantagenet propagandist of considerable talent and interest.

RT: You obviously had read the Welsh Mabinogion, for your folk tales?

PV: Yes, and for Parsifal. Some of those stories are just marvellous, though others are somewhat tedious.

RT: Since Lancelot emphasizes deeds of barbarity, Arthur emerges as a mistrustful tyrant. This is partly because the narrator's view of him is jaundiced, but nevertheless, for a figure who looms so large as the great hero of Britain, he really is presented in very negative tones, isn't he?

PV: Yes. I think by choosing to see events through the eyes of Lancelot, and by choosing to make Lancelot representative of the Roman patrician order, I do reduce Arthur to little more than a local resistance leader. The future, of course, didn't lie with either of them. Rome left very little in this country: some town sites and roads and a vague tradition, but that's all. Arthur, for all his efforts, whatever they were, was a failure, whether you take him as a mythical tragic hero who dies that man may live, or as an historical figure. The future of England lay with the very people he was fighting against. Thus it would have been very difficult for me to create a hopeful picture. The people he was fighting were by no means an unremarkable people. They had the gist of orderly government and construction within them, much more, perhaps, than did the Celts. Celts, as far as I know, could never combine, and that's what let the Romans in in the first place. The Celts loathed each other much more than they loathed outsiders like the Romans. I daresay it's still true today.
   Even if I'd wanted to, therefore, I would have found it difficult not to write a rather pessimistic book. I hope that some compensation might be found in the imagery and language. Language to me has always been much more important than narrative, which explains why my books sell in such small numbers. I'd almost go so far as to say that poetic language can balance a pretty squalid story. If I can go from the ridiculous to the sublime, Shakespeare takes a thug like Macbeth and turns him into a poet, though the historical Macbeth seems to have been a useful and largely successful ruler.

RT: Don't misunderstand me. I'm not making this comment as a criticism. The general view of Arthur is heroic, whereas you have not only shown him as a human being, warts and all, but have shown primarily warts and not much of the heroic side. It's quite acceptable for you to do this, but I'm interested in what moved you to take that approach, which is so much against the general tradition.

PV: I think my Arthur is, in fact, more likely to be the true Arthur. Moreover, I have a contrary streak in my character, which makes me feel both suspicious of the general view and challenged to present, not necessarily a better view, but a wider view that will allow readers to form their own judgement. To quote Walter Scott, as John Buchan did, the spirit of the age might be a lying spirit. Furthermore, it would be very boring to produce one more heroic Arthur. We've had Malory, we've had Tennyson, we've had White, we've had Masefield, we have Sutcliff. I wanted to be a voice of my own.
   Furthermore it fits in with my general view of history, which is that on the whole things get worse rather than better, and that all the great revolutions were disasters. No one could possibly claim that Russia was better after the Russian Revolution. The French Revolution might not have been an unmitigated disaster, but it poisoned French politics at least until the collapse in 1940. I have, I suppose, a rather deeply ingrained pessimism, leavened, I hope, with a certain amount of humor and a certain amount of feeling for the sheer juiciness of life: the ship is going down, but in the meantime there's a song to be sung.
   Humor is, however, a problem in a historical novel. I suspect that Dark Age humor, if it existed, would be intolerably tedious and very crude. It's always much easier to make people cry or hold up their hands in horror, than to make them laugh. Lancelot is, I admit, certainly short on humor, because I just don't have the imagination to imagine it there, as opposed to Parsifal which I, probably wrongly, think of as very funny.

RT: Let me ask you about one episode in Lancelot. Lancelot, Gawain, and Mordred are captured by a wandering band of Germanic warriors. Is it not ironic that three of Arthur's greatest champions should not only be captured with distressing ease, but allowed to escape with almost equal carelessness? Is this not an excessively antiheroic picture of Arthur and his followers?

PV: I believe very strongly with E. M. Forster that history does not on the whole consist of the conflict of polar opposites, of efficiency against inefficiency, of heroism against antiheroism, but more often of muddle. One remembers episodes in fiction like Fabrizzio in The Charthouse of Parma in the middle of the Battle of Waterloo wondering where the battle is. It's interesting that you mention that episode, because at the time of writing I needed to get away from the main action, to assemble these people together, simply for the purposes of storytelling--no other reason. I wanted some action and suspense, as opposed to description. From the readers' point of view that episode may not seem convincing, but in terms of the doctrine of muddle, it's all too convincing.
   I also wanted to create a suspicion in Lancelot's mind that Mordred is in collusion with the enemy. Mordred's motives are always mysterious. I may be slow on the uptake, but I do find people are endlessly mysterious. I thoroughly believe in Talleyrand's remark that mankind is given speech in order to conceal his thoughts. To try and make complete sense of somebody like Mordred would spoil the whole thing. Or maybe not.
   Don't forget too that publishers edit books. Because I have poor sales, I'm only allowed by my publisher to write 70,000 words: not more, not less. Critics sometimes talk about my telescoped style and abruptness, unaware that this is often imposed upon me. There's not a line in my books which I haven't actually written myself, but there's a great deal which is blue pencilled. It may be that some of the explanatory details of that episode were edited out. I should add that I myself don't always disagree with this editing, for the people who have edited my novels have, I think, always been marvellous editors, but it does affect what is finally published.
   I seem to remember being rather pleased on the whole with that episode. Not so much with what happens in the forest. I'm not good at describing things as they actually happen, in the sense of how people whose hands are tied together get loose. I find describing action, describing a battle, describing an escape from ropes and that sort of thing difficult to do. While I was writing that particular episode, I was looking forward to when they actually do escape and reach a half-abandoned city. What I did achieve, however, was to place Mordred in the spotlight, rather than Lancelot or Arthur.

RT: Your novel reveals how events can be variously interpreted: sometimes misunderstood, or wildly distorted, or completely invented. For example, Lancelot is blamed for the death of Anir and for the poisoning of Guinevere. You write, "history is a compendium of rumour, misunderstanding, inaccurate translation, error and fraud" (165). Does this view arise from your reading of the Arthurian legend specifically, or has it a more general basis?

PV: Oh, it's something that I've always believed in very strongly. The translation of historical truths into legend and myth has always fascinated me. The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have remarked that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. In fact, there were no playing fields at Eton in the Duke's time. What he actually said in 1815 was, gentlemen, I think I owe my grasp of strategy to the tricks I used to get up to in the garden. Now, that was translated into French, then translated back into English fifty years later in the version that we now know.
   The picture of the French Revolution which one gets from a book like The Scarlet Pimpernel and the stories of a figure like Lenin which one hears from a committed member of the Communist Party are all wildly inaccurate, I think, in terms of historical truth. Since I was brought up on very old-fashioned history books, I had much to unlearn. If something was in print, I believed it to be true, even though it says black is white in the first paragraph, and black is not white in the second paragraph. In about 1840, King Louis Philippe brought back Napoleon's body to Paris. When an old horse escaped and joined the procession, rumor went round that this was Napoleon's own horse, Marengo, who would have been almost forty years old by then. It couldn't possibly be true, and people knew it; at the same time, they believed it might. There's a Russian proverb, he lies like an eyewitness. It's always seemed to me very true. I have always been interested in the nature of historical truth.

RT: So this is a general interest in the nature of historical truth which you are pursuing in Lancelot?

PV: Exactly. It is a basic concern in all my novels, but all legends lend themselves to this line of enquiry. The original Arthur might well have been a constellation in the sky, a chariot god, an effigy carried around before battles to increase morale, a bear or wind god, a Celtic Hercules, or even an actual post- Roman British leader killed in Brittany as Geoffrey Ashe has suggested.

RT: Would you say that you tended to make Arthur into a less attractive figure partly because you were interested in exploring the ironic gap between his glorious reputation and harsh reality?

PV: Yes, I think this is very true. Irony is a key word here. Voltaire, I think, once said that the most important qualities of life were irony and pity. I do have a fairly strong sense of irony, an awareness that things are not quite what they seem.

RT: Your process of demythologizing ironically allows the introduction of much legendary material. For example, your narrator refers to Gawain's solar powers and his repulsive wife Ragnell. Ordinarily such features find no place in a historical novel that tries to create some kind of verisimilitude. Yet, because you are dealing with the process through which such stories evolve, you are able to include legendary material. Was this an initial purpose, or did it just develop as you wrote?

PV: I don't really remember, but I suspect that having got a lot of these stories into my head, I didn't want them all to be wasted. They're good stories. I also felt that a certain sort of reader would expect something of this. I would include them by having Lancelot say, well, of course, everybody thought that Gawain could move the sun, or make the sun stand still; of course he couldn't, but people believed it and no doubt still do. I didn't want to dissociate my book too much from the ancient stories. I think I suggest that Arthur was not even the leader's real name, but rather one that he adopted simply for propaganda purposes because of its connections with much older Celtic tales.

RT: The character of Lancelot is very useful as a narrator and commentator: he's sensitive, perceptive, reflective, detached. Did you find any of these features in the Lancelot of tradition, or did you invent them because you wanted that kind of narrator?

PV: I wanted that kind of narrator. There are many Lancelots in traditional sources. Sometimes he's a mythological figure, reared by the Lady of the Lake; sometimes he's heavily romantic; sometimes much more enigmatic. Nor is his relationship with Arthur and even Guinevere always clear cut. Each generation interprets this trio according to the fashions of its own time. I was aware of all this, but like any self-respecting novelist I wanted to create my own Arthur, my own Lancelot, and inevitably, of course, to center the book upon my narrator. There's a good deal of myself in him, a lot of my own beliefs and convictions. He was to some extent the mouthpiece for my own commentary on Dark Age Europe.
   I may have borrowed elements of his character from a variety of places, a bit here, a bit there. What is a complete departure from tradition is his childhood in a Roman villa, very much believing in Rome. Just as there was an earlier Arthur and an earlier Guinevere, there would have been an earlier Lancelot, but I did not want to overload the book by hinting at that.

RT: One consequence of choosing this kind of narrator is a focus upon the state of society and its decline, rather than upon action which is so prevalent in medieval romance. Did you plan this focus from the outset, or did it develop because you chose this kind of narrator?

PV: Whatever may be my intentions when I start a novel, if it has any vitality at all, they often go by the board. At least twice in my life, I've set out to write a novel about a central character; by the time the novel is finished, the central character either has ceased to exist or is a very minor character indeed. In other words, the unconscious takes over, as indeed it must. I found as I wrote that I was much more interested in the Arthurian business than I had actually realized. For instance, Arthur had this great reputation as a cavalry leader, whereas the Anglo-Saxon invaders had no horses of their own. Thus I could see Arthur, amongst other things, as a symbol of his people, winning all the battles against the non-horse riding invaders, but losing all the campaigns because of the Celtic temperament. They simply couldn't unite.

RT: Arthur is preoccupied with power in Lancelot, and he removes potential rivals at various points. Did you draw upon any sources for this view of him, or did you consider this to be the inevitable historical reality for someone in his position?

PV: Very much the latter, yes. Granted the breakdown of a whole European order, every little community would have been out for itself, struggling for survival. A Stalinist approach, although not inevitable, was certainly one way of achieving and maintaining power. I think Lancelot admits that he himself could have done no better, even though he's slightly more high-minded than Arthur. In this context, Goering and Robespierre are both obliquely mentioned. Merlin has a vision of a resplendent fat man with a sort of sceptre in his hand, and Lancelot reflects upon a dictator in the remote future, who has his whole country under his hand, destroyed overnight by a shower of rain.
   I had, at the back of my mind while I was writing some of those last chapters, a memory of England in 1940 when some of the most intelligent members of the British cabinet apparently favored compromise with Germany. R. A. Butler seems to have contacted the Swedes to discover Hitler's terms. The decision to fight on was only carried by three votes to two in the war cabinet. It was the old ruffian nobody ever thought of as an intellectual to whom it simply didn't occur to surrender. Winston Churchill would have been not only outraged but genuinely perplexed if he had known that Halifax and Butler were in touch with the Swedes. In the same way my Arthur, with all his faults, didn't like being second best. If people were moving into his territory, he was going to throw them out.

RT: Why do you have him suddenly disappear at a crucial stage in events, leaving Lancelot and others to organize the resistance?

PV: Right, and it's not clear what he'd been doing. Again, history seems vague about many important crises: when Hitler invaded did Stalin lose his nerve and dither? Or remain in Moscow in control? How far was Napoleon responsible for the victory at Marengo? Could he have been saved by an intelligent understudy? And of course leaders may briefly disengage to recover their wind, and to effect a triumphant and spectacular return. Arthur's temporary disappearance in the novel not only allows room for the other characters to play their part, but confirms the ambiguity of his nature and role.

RT: So you are pondering how leaders may sometimes be given undeserved credit for action?

PV: Yes. Moreover, whatever the truth behind the preparation for the Battle of Mount Badon, Arthur alone could have led the charge, and it's the charge that people see and remember, not the scuffwork in the background. Also, to do him justice, there is something, I won't say very moral, but at least heroic about the charge and winning. There's a good deal of ambiguity about that passage, and this conforms to my own view of life.

RT: Did you base your portrayal of Guinevere as a whore upon tradition, or was that an independent choice?

PV: There are several things to say about that. One was that, although I'm not particularly good at it today, I'm better at describing women than I was then. So she had to be a rather minor character.

RT: It did strike me that there aren't many women in the novel.

PV: Well, this was simply capitalizing on my own inexperience, so to speak. Moreover, what I had to say didn't very much involve relations with women. As for the portrayal of Guinevere, I fell back on just writing down what I thought was the truth. The sources do suggest that something was not quite right about her, but then Celtic marriage traditions were much more free and easy than ours. You could be married for a year and a day, and then either partner could break it off. That might seem reprehensible to later societies like the Victorians. I think if I'd been allowed more space, I might have developed this a bit.

RT: The figure of Gawain in your novel is curious. Since Arthur is an unattractive figure, it's not always easy to decide why Gawain is so devoted to him, even though this feature is traditional.

PV: Yes, I think that I was just taking a familiar tradition and accepting it more or less on trust. On the other hand, Gawain is a follower, not a leader, and I think that a Celt of that period, like an Anglo-Saxon, would follow his lord once he'd given his word. Since Arthur was the leader, Gawain followed him. He need not have had great personal affection for Arthur. Indeed he probably had more affection for Lancelot. Although I don't know whether it's in the book, I have a slight suspicion in my own mind that an unexpressed homosexual attraction existed between the two. Possibly Mordred too, all three of them.

RT: Right. You make that more explicit in Parsifal?

PV: Yes.

RT: Was there anything in Arthurian tradition that led you to think in these terms of these heroes?

PV: Only reading between the lines. In most primitive peoples, and indeed most peoples in general, bisexuality was the norm. The Celts didn't draw a hard and fast distinction between the sexes any more than somebody like Socrates and Alcibiades did in ancient Greece. Or a man like Nero, or even Seneca, in ancient Rome. The feeling of outrage or even abnormality about bisexuality is recent. Introducing homosexuality in my novels every so often is only really an injection of what I would consider historical realism. This is how people were, I think.

RT: Speaking of Mordred, he emerges as a very ambivalent figure, deliberately so, as you've made clear. That is traditional enough, but his attractive and witty personality is a departure from other treatments, is it not?

PV: Yes, and that to me would be a good reason for presenting him that way, starting a tradition of my own, so to speak. That particular sort of character has always fascinated me, and in all my novels, whether they're set in the 1980s or two thousand years ago, it will intrude whether I like it or not. Its origins go back to the Scandinavian catalyst/mischief god, Loki, to Dandy figures from my childhood reading: Beau Brummell, P. G. Wodehouse's Psmith, and Baroness Orczy's Percy Blakeney. They have a knack of escaping from tricky situations, nobody quite knows how. My Mordred on the whole probably does more harm than good, but when you expect him to behave badly, he behaves rather well. I was, I might add, influenced by some of the views expressed in The Age of Arthur by John Morris, who gives an alternative version of Mordred's relationship with Arthur. My Mordred adds a further dimension to the trio--and the book.

RT: Turning Kei into the leader of the secret police, or owls as you call them, is surely a feature influenced by modern history rather than Arthurian tradition?

PV: It's certainly not part of Arthurian tradition, because heroic tradition leaves out the nuts and bolts of how things actually work. The Romans, however, had their secret police, and I doubt whether any ruler at any period was without his spies and informers. He wouldn't last ten seconds if he didn't.

RT: Why did you choose Kei for this role?

PV: When I was a boy, I read, in a fascinating anthology called The Staircase of Stories, an account of Gareth's arrival at Arthur's court where he is ridiculed by Kay. This left in my head a picture of Kay as an unpleasant character. I wanted to have that sort of character, and I didn't particularly want to invent yet another name.

RT: Merlin emerges as a quite repulsive figure, exploiting general ignorance, doesn't he?

PV: Yes. He was based a little on Rasputin. Like Mordred, this sort of character recurs in my novels: he is a fairly stock character in my repertory company, so to speak. Also the courts of many rulers, including Louis XIV, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Nehru, Peron, Reagan, contained astrological influences.

RT: I should like to turn to Parsifal now. One of the intriguing aspects of your writing on the Arthurian legend is it that covers so many different historical periods. Lancelot is set in the Dark Ages; Parsifal opens in what I take to be pre-Roman Britain, then moves to the courts of the Duke of Burgundy and the Holy Roman Emperor in the late Middle Ages, and ends amidst the collapse of Nazi Germany.

PV: At Heinrich Himmler's headquarters in Westphalia, yes. Actually it does not start in Britain. Although I don't specify where the action takes place, it is, in fact, on the mainland, probably in Gaul about the time Rome is being founded. There is mention of a city in the south. It ends as it does because Himmler had a round table in a castle where he would feast twelve leading SS generals once a year. He believed himself the reincarnation of Henry the Fowler, the king of Germany in the tenth century. It all fits in, but from various angles, because the figure of Parsifal is not bound particularly by time and space. He's the holy fool, who in my book probably does slightly more harm than good, unlike Wagner's. I didn't see Wagner's opera until the book was almost finished. It was a splendid musical experience, but it didn't influence the book.

RT: Did you read any medieval versions of the legend?

PV: I read, for the first time, both Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach. I took almost nothing from Chretien; from Wolfram I took lists of possible names. Both seemed very literary, without much to say about the mythological aspects that interested me more.

RT: How about the Welsh Peredur?

PV: Yes, I read that in The Mabinogion, but I found a lot of it rather tedious. I took what I wanted: one or two incidents, perhaps, and some of the flavor.

RT: Where did you find the chessboard scene, do you recall?

PV: That may have stuck in my head from a story I read long ago, but had forgotten. For some reason it excited my imagination, and I wanted to bring it in. Like a lot of novelists, I suspect, I sometimes forget where things come from. It does so happen that one thinks one's inventing something like that; and then some scholar comes along and says, oh, I see you've cribbed this from this, and oh, I see you've been reading this, that, and the other; and rather to one's irritation, one has to admit this is true. One is not necessarily conscious of actually lifting it from somebody else.

RT: I imagine that the information has sunk into the subconscious.

PV: Yes, one absorbs these things, and out they come again.

RT: Why did you select the figure of Parsifal for your subject?

PV: This is the third book of a trilogy: Lancelot was the first, The Death of Robin Hood the second. The Death of Robin Hood, which begins in the European forests about 3000 B. C. and ends in an English private school in the 1930s, looks at a timeless archetypal figure from very different angles, and yet the figure remains much the same. I wanted a third figure to complete the trilogy.
   I don't quite know why I found myself writing on Parsifal. I hadn't steeped myself in the legend of Parsifal at all, apart from once having read Wagner's libretto which didn't help me much one way or the other. I just found myself for no very obvious reason writing about Parsifal, and what came out, came out. Were it not for Wagner, the whole story might well have been forgotten, and one reason I wrote the book was to try and find out, perhaps for myself, why it hadn't caught on. My answer was, as I've tried to show, that Parsifal was an extremely unsatisfactory character who achieved virtually nothing--and what he did achieve was by accident.
   In the book there's an episode about a village suffering from drought. Parsifal releases the river, but it drowns the village, He, meanwhile, has wandered off, forgetting to turn it off. That type of thing amuses me somewhat, but something serious lies behind it. I don't actually admire that sort of figure. I've met a number of holy fools in life, and I've always felt that a certain sort of sainthood is very useful for getting your own way the entire time: the best way yet known!

RT: Why did you choose to move Parsifal so far through time, from the pre-Roman period, to the late Middle Ages, and finally to the twentieth century?

PV: If you take an archetype, which Parsifal is, just as Robin Hood is and Arthur is, they're totally independent of actual time and history. They just go on, in collective dreams, in the individual mind, as universal symbols. Just as one likes to see a character in straightforward fiction in different circumstances--peace time and war, marriage and divorce--so with this. These figures seem big enough for one to want to see how they would affect different ages. Sometimes they do so powerfully, sometimes rather meanly, sometimes without any importance whatsoever.
   Moreover, at the very end of the book Parsifal is remembered for the things that he wasn't. Heinrich Himmler claims that Parsifal was a great believer in the peasants. He wasn't. He was bored stiff by peasants. He claims that Parsifal represents the great Aryan warrior farmer. Well, of course, he really didn't. History is built up out of total misunderstanding, not only in one or other period, but all periods. In every part of the book, Parsifal is admired for what he actually isn't, and doesn't want to be.

RT: Although Parsifal is an innocent throughout most of the book, at the very beginning he has many doubts. Is this because of your fondness for using the skeptical narrator?

PV: Yes. The second section is designed to be a straightforward retelling of the stock story, or at least as straightforward as I can get, for it includes bits and pieces of my own and my own particular seasoning. It relies upon traditional sources. The rest of the book is entirely invention. Having done as much with this character as I can in traditional terms, I now let him free- wheel into my own world, and see what's going to happen. I retain many of his traditional characteristics, but of course they are seen through the eyes of a rather skeptical modern who doesn't even much like him.

RT: Why use Parsifal himself as the skeptical narrator at the beginning, however?

PV: Ah. Well, the narrator isn't precisely Parsifal, or he isn't meant to be. Events are partly viewed through my eyes rather than Parsifal's; and through the eyes of the traditional teller of stories, who possesses a measure of omniscience and will tell you what his character is thinking.
   The narrator of the rest of the book often wonders whether Parsifal is as innocent as he appears, whether he might not know more than he pretends. He suspects that Parsifal has some doubts behind his apparent insoucience, as he drifts through life like a dandelion seed. Yet he is not sure. I'm not particularly happy with my Parsifal. I don't think he entirely rings true. I don't think he's at all likeable, except right at the end of the episode at the court of Rudolph II. Cundre has totally lost her looks, but in her distress he goes to her. This is meant to be a redeeming act, a slight hint that the narrator has misunderstood him all along, that he did have a genuine love of this woman and a general spirit of unselfishness in accordance with the traditional view of his character.

RT: In some ways Cundre is like Mordred, isn't she? She likes to live dangerously?

PV: I hadn't thought of that, but it's actually very true, That's an acute observation, yes. That sort of character--witty in a rather sharp way, not expecting very much, getting the best out of life, but without any great self-admiration, and often genuinely suffering a great deal, though it only comes out every so often--that sort of character I can identify with quite easily.

RT: Why do you allow not only Parsival and Cundre, but also Gawain, to live so long?

PV: Partly, I'm using them as eternal archetypes, as in the Robin Hood book. In a fairy story centuries can pass and nobody notices. Partly too this is a convention which I have adopted. I once had a very unhappy love affair, and there were only two things to do about it: one was to commit suicide at once; the other was more expensive and more tedious, and that was to write a novel about it, giving myself, of course, all the best lines. It so happened that the woman, who was married, and her husband were both rather well-known people, and so I had to disguise them. Thus I invented a man who was born in 1362 and is sixty-two years old in 1962. I was able to conduct our love affair in Bismarck's Berlin, in Talleyrand's Paris, and in Sweden during both the Thirty Years' War and the twentieth century, without fear of litigation. Breaking down conventional time showed me what I could do, and it whetted my appetite to try and do it better, first with Robin Hood and then with Parsifal.

RT: You found nothing in Arthurian tradition to suggest that these characters might have survived?

PV: Oh, no. That had nothing to do with it. It's more that myth is a dream world in which time means nothing at all.

RT: One of the interesting effects that arise from this longevity is that events that involved Parsifal are referred to later as stories that attached to him. Did you enjoy this?

PV: Yes. I certainly enjoy it, but it's also true to life as I've known it. Certain incidents change their significance with the the passage of time. I've changed my view about Robespierre at least seven times, and will probably do so again because, as one gets older, experience piles up. A chance remark will throw light on an event of fifty years before. Only two days ago a chap I was at school with came to see me, and just one or two remarks he made totally changed my view of certain masters whom I thought I'd known rather well. I realize now that there were sides of them I knew absolutely nothing about, and it came as a total surprise. Ultimately there's a great deal of autobiography in most novels, and certainly in mine.

RT: Do you think of Parsifal as an historical novel, or as a fantasy, or as a romance, or what?

PV: I'd probably never categorize it. I certainly don't think of it as a romance. No, I think of it actually as a novel. Having decided to write about Parsifal, it wouldn't have occurred to me to do it any other way. I had isolated signposts in my head. I knew of Adolf Hitler's admiration for Wagner's Parsifal and Heinrich Himmler's belief in the literal existence of good and evil spirits. Between those contemporary figures and the traditional Parsifal, I had to find some connecting links. I didn't want to write entirely about pre-Christian, pre-Roman times. Nor did I want, because I've already done it, to write a novel about twentieth-century Germany. None of this, I might add, was clear cut in my mind. I was at that time interested in Rudolph II, however, and I wanted to clear my head about that.

RT: You don't treat people who seek power very kindly in your novels, do you?

PV: Well, I've got mixed feelings about this. One side of my mind recognizes that institutions and authorities are dykes to keep out the barbarians and to maintain the whole fabric of civilization. Another part of my mind, the lesser part, I think, says that authority molders and crystallizes both into something often rather vicious--people just hanging onto power for their own good, not for the good of the community. I think this is a very negative attitude, however, and on the whole I believe in the monarchy, I believe in the law, I believe in the House of Commons and House of Lords. Not because they're perfect, but simply to prevent something worse. As I said earlier, Lancelot, rather unfairly perhaps, criticizes Arthur for doing all the dirty work by dirty means. He himself prefers to do things like look at his maps, without actually dirtying his hands.

RT: The common crowd respond to Parsifal with credulity and superstition, and you present some powerful images of a mindless crowd reacting unpredictably, don't you?

PV: Yes, I've always got a sense at the back of my mind of the public seething with extraordinary misapprehensions. A Gallup poll in Scotland not long ago found that sixty-two percent of those asked didn't know where their heart was. Four million people in England today can't read or write. Yet they vote. The crowd is always looking for some myth, some superstition, some leader. It's their response that has created the legends about Arthur and Parsifal and Lancelot.
   They are also extremely fickle. I've always been haunted by the newsreel of Mussolini hanging upside down in the marketplace at Milan, forty-eight hours after the same crowd had been cheering him to the echo; and by reading about figures of the French Revolution like Danton, cheered one second and guillotined the next, and Mirabeau, who was immensely popular at the time of his death, but three years later his body was dragged out of the Pantheon and flung into a ditch to make room for someone else.
   The effect can be positive, like that of Winston Churchill's speeches during the war, which were extremely moving. But human beings being what they are, the acclaim of the crowd leads to an endless sense of betrayal.

RT: Would you say, then, that your interest in the Arthurian legend is part of a broader concern with the harsh realities that underlie our human history?

PV: Yes, I am interested in the realities behind myth and legend, in the struggle of people trying to live up to their own responsibilities, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. In the case of Arthur it's slightly ambiguous. There's a half failure; there's a half success. That to me is much more interesting than total success or total failure, which can be boring.

RT: Is there anything you would like to add in conclusion?

PV: I don't think so. You've asked some pertinent questions. Once you've gone, no doubt, I shall think of magnificent answers.

RT: Thank you.