Interview with Welwyn Wilton Katz

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Interview with Welwyn Wilton Katz

from: The Camelot Project  1999

MYTHCON: VANCOUVER, B.C.
29 JULY 1989

   I had planned to visit Welwyn Wilton Katz at her home in London, Ontario, but when I learned that she, like myself, was going to be a guest at the Mythopoeic Conference in Vancouver, we agreed to conduct the interview there instead. We met again three years later in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when she came down to give a reading from her most recent book to the librarians' association, and so we have had a chance to talk on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Canada. Doubtless we shall meet in Ontario some day too.
   The Canadian heroine of her fantasy novel The Third Magic (Vancouver and Toronto: Groundwood/Douglas and McIntyre, 1988), travels even further than we did, however, from Tintagel to the world of Nwm where she finds herself destined to become Morgan le Fay. It was intriguing to learn that Katz had no intention of writing an Arthurian novel when she started; she only discovered that this was what it was really about in the second half of the story. This necessitated substantial rewriting, but the results were impressive enough to win the Governor-General's Award for the best juvenile novel that year in Canada.


RT: Why did you decide to incorporate the Arthurian legend into your novel The Third Magic ?

WWK: To be honest with you, I never intended to write an Arthurian book. When I began, it was in response, in a sense, to a translation of a poem called The Spoils of Annwfyn that I had read in Robert Graves' book The White Goddess. I think of myself as a mythologist-topographer. I try to translate myths when I read, and I always find good ideas in them.
   Despite its complexities, I found The Spoils of Annwfyn to be a fascinating poem. I knew it was an Arthurian poem because it is about Arthur going to the underworld, but I wasn't interested in that aspect of it; I was more interested in the boy Gweir. I found it fascinating that this boy would be in blue iron chains. I wondered how he got there, and why he was held there, and whether he really would have to remain until the day of doom as the poem states.
   I got the idea that I would like to write a book set in my own version of Annwfyn, and I started reading the ancient books of Wales to get an idea of what the early Welsh thought about Annfwyn. I also wanted to find out if anybody else had told Gweir's story, but I couldn't find any reference to him except in that poem. So I decided I would try to write a story about Gweir, putting him into iron chains and getting him out again. If I did that and called him Gweir, however, I knew that some wonderful scholar somewhere would find that, in fact, Gweir had got in and out a different way, or that he had stayed forever, and I didn't want to have that happen. So I thought I would change his name. While reading the ancient books of Wales, I had been keeping a very laborious track of Welsh personal and place names, as well as any kind of plant or animal that occurred in the Welsh nature poetry, simply because I knew that the early Welsh thought of Annwfyn as like their own world, with the addition of magic. Therefore if I wanted to create my Annwfyn, I would have to populate it the same way. Since I had so many names, I picked one to replace Gweir. And the name I picked was Arddu. Why? I don't know. That has got to be the subconscious working.
   I knew that Arddu's name was an ancient precursor of that of Arthur. Now I had always loved the Arthurian legend, but I determined that I would never write an Arthur story. Everybody and his uncle have written an Arthur story and there's just no way I felt I could bring anything new to it. I like to do new things with legends.
   I started working with Gweir, now called Arddu, but I found that I needed an anchor, an earth anchor, for dealing with this new world. Thus I invented Morgan. Now why was she called Morgan? I think then I knew something, but I didn't know what I knew. I have lost all my notes associated with the development of this book, but I recall that initially all I had in mind was that her name was going to be Morgan Lefevre and that she would be associated the Morrigan in Celtic myth. I didn't have any intention of her becoming Morgan le Fay.

RT: Did you conceive of her as a Canadian?

WWK: Oh yes, she was always Canadian; I always thought of her that way. Originally she wasn't going to look like Arddu, but the only logical reason I could think of for her to be summoned to Annwfyn, or Nwm as I call it, was some kind of a parallel in genes. That's why I made her look like Arddu. That, of course, led to her being a descendant of Morgan le Fay, but originally I didn't intend that to be the case. Nor did I intend initially to include Merlin. I just wanted to tell the story of Gweir, change his name, and find an earth accomplice to be an anchor for the reader.
   And yet I started that book at Tintagel; I really did. The first part I wrote was what became chapter two, and it was written at a time when I had no book at all in mind. Yet it was never rewritten. That chapter always fit, even though the book changed direction at least twice in the process of writing. The heroine was always called Morgan Lefevre, and she was always visiting Tintagel. I don't understand why, although I've been to Tintagel a couple times and I love it. Places are important to me.
   It wasn't until Morgan and Arddu came across the Sword that I knew what the book was. Then I had to rewrite everything, because the Sword just was so wrong. Why would a Sister be carrying a sword? For a start, it's linear; and then it's metal--it just wasn't right. Yet it happened. There she was, appearing with this Sword--I didn't even know what the Sword was. Then I started thinking about swords and the problem created by the existence of two legends associated with the Sword of King Arthur. That's when I knew what the book was, and that's when I really started to find my true direction.
   Since I had already determined the book wasn't going to be about King Arthur, I was as surprised as anybody when this happened. I didn't feel that I was going back on my pledge, however, because I didn't think of it as an Arthur story. It's a prequel rather than a retelling.

RT: You mentioned that you had always loved the Arthurian legend. What books had you read that aroused this love?

WWK: Early stuff. I am not a scholar, and I never was an English major. I was a Math major and took only one English course in university. I read novels: Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Stewart, T. H. White. I started on Mark Twain, but I found it too hard going.

RT: Did you read any poetry, by T. S. Eliot or Tennyson, for example?

WWK: Yes I did, and who doesn't love it? You know, I'm sure it enters your blood in some way. Yet for me the places were more evocative than the reading: being in Cornwall and seeing places like Arthur's Seat and Arthur's Stone.

RT: Did you go to Britain specifically to research this book?

WWK: No, I'm very interested in prehistory and in legends, and so when I travel, to England especially, I go to places like that.

RT: Did you read archaeological writings?

WWK: Oh, tons. Absolutely tons and tons of archaeological stuff.

RT: And history?

WWK: Prehistory. I also read Geoffrey Ashe because I was interested in his attempts to locate Avalon. I wasn't convinced by his arguments though.

RT: How about romances and chronicles by Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth?

WWK: Yes, but only as research once I had actually started the book.

RT: Before you started research, had you read much early Welsh material, such as the tales from The Mabinogion?

WWK: Yes, I had. I read legends and myths--I didn't find them at all interesting when I was a child, but I really enjoy them now. I read them for pleasure and I do get ideas for books from reading them.

RT: At what stage did you actually begin research for the book?

WWK: In the formative stage of writing. The book changed direction several times before I finally knew what it was about, and each time I had to rewrite it. Thus it's hard for me to remember what exactly I did at what stage. Once I had decided that Gweir was going to be the boy and that the story was going to take place in Annwfyn, then I am sure the real research began, and I did read everything I could find on the subject.
   One work that I found very interesting was Lucy Paton's Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance. What I liked about it was that it dealt with the women. I found it in the library at the University of Western Ontario. I don't remember now if it was her theory or someone else's that most, if not all, the "great fairy queens" who so confusingly fill the Celtic and Arthurian myths go back to the same character: the Irish Morrigan, who was a battle goddess. According to the theory, Arthur had only one sister, Anna, who was linked to another Irish battle goddess named Ana. That's where all the confusion over names began.
   Given all that, I felt justified in removing Morgause from my book altogether and replacing her as the mother of Mordred with my Morrigan/Morgan. My story required that my heroine, the twentieth-century Morgan Lefevre, contain both First and Second Magic within her. This she must inherit through her ancestor Mordred, who therefore must be the child of my First Magic Morrigan and my Second Magic Merlin-equivalent.

RT: Did you read Jessie Weston?

WWK: No, though I read about her research. What I understand she says about Arthur and the Grail myth seems utterly believable. It has echoes in Robert Graves' wonderful book The White Goddess, which I have read over and over and use a great deal when I work with myth in my novels. I do believe that Arthurian myth goes a long, long way back and had many different incarnations before ever a Celtic chieftain named Arthur won a battle. That made it easier, in some ways, to write The Third Magic. It gave me the freedom to use ancient mythological symbols when I felt they were right for my story, whether they were part of the more commonly recognized Welsh myth or not. I try to remain in the Welsh world as much as possible, however. I did read the translation of the four ancient books of Wales, and at least three books of Welsh poetry, mainly to get the feel of that world.

RT: Now, you are different from most writers I have interviewed in that you did not start out to write an Arthurian book. In fact, you were trying not to write one. You said earlier that you were concerned lest scholars find fault with your treatment of the figure of Gweir. Is that the main reason you were so anxious to avoid writing an Arthurian book, or did you feel that too many had already been written?

WWK: I don't know all the ins and outs of the legend. If somebody were to ask who finally found the Grail, I would have to pause and wonder whether it was Galahad or Perceval. These are things that I've read about but not firmly retained in my mind. I really would be intimidated were I to try to write a scholarly work. What I like to do is something very different. So many people have approached the Arthurian story from so many different angles that it seemed to me an impossible challenge to try and do it differently. Also I try to make myth impinge on modern life when I write, and I guess I just couldn't see how I could do it.

RT: Before the interview started, you mentioned that you did not think in terms of writing a fantasy as such: you were just writing your book. And yet you did choose to make use of the supernatural. Is that because the figure of Gweir required treatment in these terms?

WWK: Yes. For me, the magic always comes first. Part of the reason that I write fantasy is because of the magic. I choose magic because I think it's something that fascinates people, but in any case it fascinates me. I like to use magic to enhance reality. Magic is the thing that's around the corner: we can't see it, but it's there. I'm not sure that I actually believe in magic, but I think that you can use it as a writer. I have always used supernatural elements in my writing, except in my latest book.

RT: What particular advantages or problems do you encounter by using the supernatural in your writing?

WWK: It's always a challenge to write about things that people don't experience, and then try to make them think that they have experienced these things because they've just read about them. The hardest part for me is that, because magic is in all my books, it would be very easy simply to describe things in the same way each time there's an encounter with magic. Also I think there's a tendency for writers who write about magic to overdo the negative aspects. Horror is easier to write about than joy: most people don't experience ecstasy, but they do experience fear. I find that a book without magic for me is a book without magic in the wider sense. It's important that there be something that's out of the ordinary.

RT: What influence have editors had upon your work?

WWK: I never thought of The Third Magic as a children's book, but my publishers, who had published me before, are children's publishers and they have established a network for marketing books for children. If they're going to publish a book, they want it to be a children's book. They're good, but they're leary. There were a lot of problems because of that. In so far as the magic is concerned, I've never had an editor tell me that I should take magic out.

RT: Did your editors comment on your treatment of Arthurian tradition? Did they suggest that you reduce or increase it?

WWK: Oh yes. That was very interesting. I remember the very first time Margaret McElderry read The Third Magic, which was then in a very different form than it is now. She was upset about the relationship between the Morrigan, Merlin, and Arthur, and she wrote to me saying, wasn't Morgan le Fay supposed to be Arthur's sister? I had placed her in an equivalent relationship with him, but with differences. She asked, wasn't there supposed to be this and this and this? Then she would list off all features from the tradition found in Malory. I wrote back, Margaret, it's all invented anyway! If Arthur existed, he did so in the fifth century and he was a Celtic chief. He didn't have a Round Table, and he didn't have a wife named Guinevere, and there was no Lancelot. It's all invented. And if others are going to invent, why can't I? She backed off after that. I never got that reaction from my Canadian publisher; the Canadian publisher was very open.

RT: Although you avoid most elements of the traditional story, you do include some, such as the Sword in the Stone and the Grail. Did the introduction and integration of these elements create problems in your novel, or did they arise naturally, leading you in a direction that you yourself admit you were reluctant to go?

WWK: Once I knew that the Sword was Excalibur, everything fell into place. I had to change a few things from the Fisher King part of the legend. I decided to replace the Spear with the Sword, for example. My main challenge was to rationalize the two legends: the one in which Arthur pulls the Sword from the Stone, and the other in which the Sword is given to him by the hand rising out of the lake. I did want to include both versions. I'm not a scholar, but I've noticed in my reading of legend that one thing becomes two quite often, or even three or four. One original idea leads to many. The Stone from which Arthur had to draw the Sword became the Ring of Stone rather than a block of Stone in a courtyard. I liked the image of the Line penetrating the Circle.

RT: Where did the images of the Circle, the Line, and the Spiral come from?

WWK: Now those I didn't make up, except for the Line. The Circle is linked to early religions: the worship of the Moon Goddess and Earth Mother, which I have read a lot about. The spiral actually was a symbol of her too, although I've always wondered why. The Circle and First Magic really come directly from the mythology passed down to us from pre-Celtic times. It was a female-based, magical society.
   I invented the Line because it was so opposed to the Circle. Male Second Magic is linked to the sun, and it derives from the beliefs of the Celts, which supplanted the female-dominated Earth religions. I wanted to find a symbol that would represent Second Magic, as the Circle represented First Magic. I chose to use a Line. I don't believe lines figure prominently in mythology, although there are ley lines, and the linear alignments of the stars and of the sun viewed at Stonehenge and a number of other prehistoric monuments. The spiral, of course, is the combination of the two. I wanted that to be the symbol for the Third Magic because in my proselytizing way I happen to believe that there shouldn't be a division between the sexes.

RT: Your hero and heroine are destined to end up as Arthur and Morgan le Fay, whether they want to or not. In The Third Magic characters are often forced to do things they don't really want to do.

WWK: That's right.

RT: Is this pattern of the inevitable working of fate something that you found and responded to in your reading of Arthurian legend?

WWK: Yes. I think that Arthur, as I imagined him to be in my prewriting days, was a man I felt terribly sorry for. He is the ultimate example of all that is good, but at the same time he's having a personal tragedy in his marriage and his friendship. He's doomed by a single act of incest that was not premeditated and was not meant to be evil; but he's doomed right from the beginning. There's no way he can escape, except that the myths allow him Avalon.
   That was something that I was very interested in. Many people think I'm extremely immoral and a pervert for writing about things like the occult, or early religions before Christianity and so forth. I've been banned in Rainy River and a number of other places for writing about such things. Nevertheless, I am very interested in moral development. The ultimate test takes place when people have to face the moral dilemma of what to do when doing what you want and what is good for you as a person comes into conflict with what is good for other people. I consider The Third Magic to be just one more book in my exploration of such moral problems. I chose to use the conflict between freedom and lack of freedom, personal choice and lack of choice for that reason.

RT: This appears in Arthurian legend most often as the conflict between love and duty.

WWK: That's right, and Lancelot's a good example. I believe that he really, really tried.

RT: Might not the conclusion of The Third Magic strike editors of children's books as being a bit pessimistic?

WWK: You should have seen it before! Originally there was no epilog. I just left Morgan in the past, forced to nurture Mordred even though she knows he will grow up to kill her only true friend, Arthur. Despite the successful example of children's books like Jill Paton Walsh's Chance Child, where the hero is never brought back to his own time, my editors couldn't accept this. They thought of my leaving Morgan in the past as cruel and cold; they called it, abandoning her. I saw it as wonderfully right.
   Morgan is not an ordinary fifteen-year-old girl from twentieth- century Earth. Even at the beginning of my story she was never just an ordinary girl. Her past is buried deep inside her. She is the union of First and Second Magic. She doesn't know it until she goes through her own hell on Nwm; she doesn't accept it until the Grail shows her the truth; and she doesn't accept responsibility for it until she chooses to nurture Mordred. I thought it was wonderfully affirmimg that she accept this responsibility. Nor did I see my ending as forcing Morgan to stay in the past forever, because I knew that after fifteen centuries she would be born again in the twentieth century as Morgan Lefevre. But my editors thought children would have trouble with this, and so I wrote the epilog where I made it all clearer.
   Anyway, even for children I don't believe in stories that end, and they lived happily ever after. What use is it to tell children such lies? Fiction should be true; I know that sounds contradictory, but I believe it absolutely. Children don't really believe in happy endings either, especially not the children I write for. They are intelligent, thoughtful, young adults who know a great deal about the world. I try to write as truthfully about life as I can, even when I am writing about King Arthur, and the Grail, and Excalibur, and other things that may never have existed. I think it is the only reason to write.

RT: By removing all possibility of Arddu and Morgan getting together again, you deprive them of the Avalon to which they retire after the strife is done, don't you?

WWK: Well, I think that life's like that, isn't it? I do allow them their Avalon, but I also give them a time limit, that's all. They go back to Nwm after Arthur dies at Camlann and Morgan shoves the Sword into the Stone. It isn't exactly paradise, but the gift that I allow them to gain once they return there is freedom. Except maybe not Arddu: I'm not sure about him. I think he might actually end up being another head, like the one in the Castle of Glass, but I wasn't sure. That's why I think there may be another book there, but I'm not positive about that.

RT: Your book also deals extensively with appearance and reality--the characters are not who they seem, and they turn out to be more than they seem.

WWK: And more than they know they are.

RT: And more than they know they are. This theme is prominent in Arthurian legend. When I look at the book that you've written, I can see why it was drawn into the Arthurian orbit almost despite itself. Much of what you are concerned with looms large in literary treatments of the Arthurian legend.

WWK: Yes, I think that's true. As I say, I really didn't consciously intend to write an Arthurian novel, but I think that subconsciously I must have intended it. After all, The Spoils of Annwfyn is about Arthur. Why else Arddu? Why else Morgan Lefevre? Why else Tintagel and all of those things? As for appearance and reality, look at the fact that Morgan and the Morrigan look so much alike yet are so very, very different. The Morrigan changes her appearance during her life on Earth. She's old and ruined at the end. I felt sorry for her, actually.

RT: Yes, you give her a rough time.

WWK: She didn't have much fun, did she? But then she wasn't good.

RT: You don't portray the women of the Circle very favorably, any more than you do the men of the Line.

WWK: I didn't mean to, and it's always amazed me that reviewers, even editors, say that the Circle should be good and the Line bad. I think that's far too simplistic. I think of them as two evils. They have become polarized and separate from one another to such an extent that each has lost something important.

RT: Did you find your sympathies unexpectedly engaged by any particular character, who then took on a larger role in the novel than you had initially expected?

WWK: Morgan, I think. Morgan was invented to serve a purpose--basically to be that anchor for the Earth reader. But she has a much harder job than Arddu. Arddu can be what he wants to be, really, which is kingly and in charge. He has some freedom, even though he's on the path. I felt sorry for the baby Mordred too at the end. I thought, he's stuck too. We're all stuck. But Morgan--I care for Morgan. I think she has a pretty tough job.

RT: How do you reconcile this vision of her with the traditional Morgan le Fay, or did you feel that the original Morgan might have had some of these qualities you assign her?

WWK: I think the original Morgan was a very odd person from what I read. As I say, I'm not a scholar and I may have read the wrong things, or I may have read bits and pieces of things that gave me misleading ideas. My own feeling, however, was that here we have this woman who is supposed to be Arthur's half sister, who seduces him, who brings up a child to hate him and eventually kill him--and yet she saves his life at the end. She comes for Arthur and she takes him to Avalon. It seems that either we have a schizophrenic woman, or we have two people in one body. In fact, the Morgan le Fay that I started with was the Morrigan from Nwm, whereas the Morgan le Fay I ended with is the one who loves Arthur and saves him. I didn't see there was a real problem, because I always thought that she was a very contradictory person anyway. But then, you see, that may just reveal my ignorance of the myth.

RT: No, you're right about her. Writers have treated her so variously that there are paradoxes in her reaction to her half brother.

WWK: Yes, it's all invented. We have to keep this in mind.

RT: You obviously are keenly attuned to irony, and it figures extensively in your novel. You've mentioned the irony of Morgan le Fay. Were there other ironic features of the Arthurian legend that you felt drawn to and wanted to include in your novel?

WWK: The Grail and its source in the Cauldron of Ceridwen. I always thought it was neat that something supposed to be so powerful and so good as the Cauldron was, at the same time, able to return the dead to life and horror. Also the Grail kills--is this good? I don't know. I was interested in the Grail, although I didn't deal with it as fully as I would have liked. I think you have to limit yourself. If I were rewriting the book, which God forbid I would ever do because I've done it enough times as it is, then I might try to give the Grail more ironic impact than it has, because I think it has this in the legends.

RT: Is there a possibility that you might write again about Arddu and his experience, either on Earth or when he returns to Nwm? Might you even bring back Morgan?

WWK: In the rhyme that I invented, "A sword with a sheathe of stone: the way / for journeying far, then back to pay," the last word originally read "stay." Then I changed it to "pay." That's my sense that a terrible doom awaits them on Nwm. Wouldn't it be neat, don't you think, to develop this idea of the Cauldron of Ceridwen? How did that head get to talk? Maybe it's been through the Cauldron? There are all kinds of possibilites there, but right now I'm not ready for it. The Third Magic was the most draining book I ever wrote.

RT: Obviously you don't want to rewrite the book, but if you could wave a magic wand what would you change in it?

WWK: I think that the beginning is belaboured. It was written at the request of editors and it never satisfied anybody, really, although they said they liked it. I would have preferred to begin with chapter two and just throw Morgan into the world of Nwm, instead of having to build it up so carefully and explain it all ahead of time, as the editors insisted. I think it's easier for readers to relate to anguish and fear if they haven't already been given a hint beforehand of the situation the characters find themselves in. I wanted to begin closer to the boy in the blue iron chains, as opposed to starting on the island and explaining his relationship with the Morrigan and everything else. I find that if I read aloud from from the beginning, I cross vast passages out. So there are things that I would change.
   If I had a magic wand, I would also like to expand on the role of Ismere, who I think is "la belle dame sans merci." She's the one in the "vals sans retour," isn't she, even down to the detail of the chessboard? I would really like to have been able to do more with that.

RT: There's certainly room for you to revisit this world should you ever feel the inclination. What particular aspect of the legend did you feel was most important to include in your story, once you decided that the Arthurian legends had intruded into it?

WWK: Despite my hardest efforts! Well, oddly enough, I think it was the Grail. It's perhaps the smallest part in the actual writing, but for Morgan it is the turning point. It is the only thing that enables her to see what she has to see. It is the only thing that enables her to see what the Third Magic really is. The Sword and the Stone together work to do things that are magical, but the Grail is Third Magic and power. I had her ask the question that Perceval should have asked: "Whom does it serve?" I remember finding it ironic that a fool should be the one who finds the Grail originally. I would like to have done more with the Grail, but the book could only be so long.

RT: Have you any final comments to offer, or questions that you would like to answer that I haven't asked you?

WWK: In a book of this sort I feel it's important that the writer have the freedom to write, to create, to make use of raw materials. There are some aspects of the legend that are suitable ingredients, and other aspects concerning which you say, well, they'd go nicely in another cake, but not this one. I personally feel that I have no obligation to write a story that satisfies everybody's personal view of the Arthurian legends. I make use of them the way I want to, just as did Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes.

RT: Did you feel pressure to conform to people's expectations?

WWK: I didn't feel pressure when I was writing the book, because I've always felt that it was fiction. Some people haven't been happy with some of the things I did, however. I made Arthur basically insignificant and I killed him. I replaced him, but I killed him. People haven't been happy with some of the things I've done that are not traditional. They forget that the story is imagined by everyone.

RT: You emphasize freedom of choice, freedom to make mistakes, and yet when you come to your resolution, what you do is you put everything right by use of magic so that the characters can get a second chance. Morgan lifts up the ring and says, "Make things right."

WWK: Yes, but she has to pay, doesn't she?

RT: Yes she does.

WWK: Everybody has to pay. That's how I feel. Magic has a cost. Everything has a cost. Even if you choose the right thing, you'll have to pay. But if you choose the right thing, you pay now: later there's a gift, maybe. The epigram at the beginning of the Epilog says, "And to us then there shall be a relief after our ills." That's my gift, and that, I guess, is what I believe. Everything you do has consequences, and even if you make the right choice, it's the wrong choice for other things. Morgan had no choice, really. The paradox was that she couldn't exist unless she did these things. So really, what I say is that in the final analysis there is no such thing as choice. She gets to start over again, but she has to pay. She has to lose Arddu. You always have to pay. That's what I think. I think that happens in the Arthur story: Guinevere has to go into a convent; Lancelot has to go crazy; Arthur and Mordred have to die; Merlin has to get locked up in a tree. Everybody pays. We all pay.

RT: Thank you.