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Interview with Jane Yolen
Interview with Jane Yolen
29 AUGUST 1988
I had some difficulty finding Jane Yolen's home in Hatfield, Massachussets. I was tired from a long day's drive and it was hard to read street signs and house numbers in the dark, especially in the midst of a heavy thunderstorm. It proved to be an augury of later problems--not with the author, who was friendly and helpful despite my disorganization--but with getting back her comments on the edited interview. The first copy I sent must have been lost in the post for it never reached her, as I discovered in a follow-up query. The second copy arrived safely, but since by then Yolen was setting off to spend a year in Scotland, it was packed away and mislaid during her travels. The third copy did reach her and find its way safely back to me, I am happy to report, even though by that time I myself had moved to Leeds, England, on a teaching exchange. It was gratifying to find our perseverance rewarded.
Yolen has written numerous poems and short stories on Arthurian legend, particularly the figure of Merlin. Most are collected in Merlin's Booke (New York: Ace, 1986); but she has also written "Amesbury Song," Mythlore, 50 (Summer 1987), 63, a poem about Guinevere; and another short story about Merlin called "Meditation in a Whitethorn Tree," appeared in Invitation to Camelot, ed. Parke Godwin (New York: Ace, 1988), pp. 223-42. There are also strong Arthurian parallels in The Acorn Quest (New York: Crowell, 1981), a children's book about woodland animals. Indeed, as the interview reveals, Arthurian motifs recur throughout her work, as is only to be expected from someone who sees herself as a traditional storyteller.
RT: In the conversation leading up to this interview, you told me that you didn't like to think that the endings of stories had already been written. How, then, do you deal with the Arthurian legend where the outlines are already firmly established?
JY: I have always been interested in the other byways, the other roads not travelled. They may lead to the same ending, but that same ending then should surprise us anew--that we got there. We know that the sword is pulled from the stone by Arthur, but wouldn't it be interesting if it happened in a slightly different way than we had been told? So I tried playing with that in one of my short stories. One version of what happened to Merlin is that he is casked up in a tree. I am curious about not just the story of how it happened, but how he feels while he's in there all those centuries. For me, always, the modern tellings of the Arthurian story that have the most power are those that offer something absolutely interesting and new. We know the traditional story, and so a modern reteller needs to explore something that's never been explored before in the story. The women in Arthurian legend haven't been explored thoroughly in the past, which is why so many women writers today have been writing about them.
RT: Children too.
JY: Children too.
RT: You write both poetry and prose on the Arthurian legend.
JY: One with the left hand, one with the right hand.
RT: Prose allows you to explore new aspects of traditional characters. What advantages do you find in writing poetry?
JY: Poetry, it seems to me, is finding that still point, or that turning point, of emotion. Many, many moments in the whole Arthurian canon have those wonderful points of emotion where you can start a poem. You can focus upon that particular moment, and not try to write a long, 400-page poem. Taking a point where landscape and character touch together is always fascinating to do. When I write I don't really make a distinction between my poems and my prose. I began as a poet, and so when I'm writing prose, my prose is normally extended poetry. I have to fight sometimes very hard to go back and say, wait a minute, this is prose. I need to do character, I need to do plot, I need to do all those things that you're supposed to do in prose.
RT: Do you find that your approach to the legend when you write poetry differs from your approach when you write prose?
JY: I have a blurring between the two. For example, I've been working on another Arthurian story, this time about the Loathly Lady. This particular story began when I was listening to a tape of Robin Williamson reciting some of the Taliesin ballads. I found them so moving. I'd never heard them before. I'd read them, but I'd never heard them. Some lines started repeating themselves in my mind. Since I had this on the car tape deck, I spun it back and played those lines over and over and over again, because they absolutely thrilled me. Some kind of core emotion had been caught up in a few lines, and I couldn't let it loose until this whole story started tumbling out. Very often for me a single line is the starting point for a story.
RT: In Merlin's Booke you combine poetry and prose. Did you do this deliberately in order to include both genres, or were you assembling a number of works that you had already written?
JY: I had written a couple of them earlier: "The Gwynhfar" and "In the Whitethorn Wood." When I got the idea that I wanted to put a collection of stories together, however, some started coming out in poetry form. After I had written the first poem, I told the editor that I wanted to include some poems.
Some of the stories emerged really easily, but then I went back and started rereading the Vita Merlini and all the early material that I could get my hands on at the Smith College library. I discovered the related story of the wild man, whom I decided to make a child because I had been doing a lot of reading about feral children and wild children. That was when things began to come together. The last two stories that I actually wrote were "Epitaph," the last story in the book about the press conference where they've dicovered Merlin's tomb, and "Dream Reader." I felt that I had to write a story about Merlin as the child who prophesies about the red and the white dragons. That story was more constructed than any of the other stories, however, because I felt that it needed to be there, that I couldn't write a book about Merlin and not touch on that particular part of the legend.
RT: I was interested to notice the contradictions between your tales. The world created in one tale or poem doesn't doesn't always match with that of the next one.
JY: They take place in different times, and they deal with quite different Merlins. The voice of the storyteller is very different each time, and that's because I wasn't writing a novel. I was writing separate short stories, and so each short story had to be whole. I was, moreover, writing some of those stories at very different times in my life, and a story always reflects the teller's life, no matter how she tries to make it just be itself. That's why I wrote that introduction where I said, quite specifically, this is not all one Merlin. Merlin is so many different Merlins, depending upon which country the story came from, and upon who was telling the story.
RT: Did you worry that this inconsistency might trouble the reader?
JY: Yes, and that's why I wrote my epilogue at the beginning, explaining that I was not writing a novel. To be frank, however, I don't consider the audience or the reader when I write. I'm writing the stories that I want to see. I'm the first reader. I may be the only reader. I'm the one who has to be interested at the beginning. I'm the one who has to enjoy what it says, and if I don't, then I won't write it. I suppose some authors can talk about how they are writing in order to challenge their audience, but frankly I don't give a damn about the audience WHEN I'M WRITING. Oh, I love giving story readings, and I love to see people gasp, or cry, or laugh. I'm always pleased when people have read something of mine, and delighted if they enjoyed or were moved by it, or found some meaning in it that I never even suspected was there. But I don't write for other people; I really write for me.
Obviously at some point I have to say, if I want to sell this, what do I have to do to make it accessible, not to the audience, but actually to the editor who is my secondary audience? My primary audience is myself; my secondary audience is whoever is going to buy the book from me; and their problem is packaging it, so that it can appear to be something that everybody with two and a half, or three and a half, or ten and a half, or forty and a half dollars in their pocket is going to want to buy. But that's after the story has been written. In Merlin's Booke the only tip of the hat to the readership is the introduction. That was written after I'd put the whole thing together, and I said, these stories and these poems interested me, but maybe I'd better explain to others how these stories and these poems might interest them.
RT: Is this interest in the Arthurian legend a recent development for you?
JY: One of the first stories that I ever remember reading was the Arthurian story. I read it in The Book of Wonder, an encyclopedia belonging to my parents. It was not organized alphabetically; it was organized in stories. When I was about seven or eight years old, I started from the first volume, and I read all the way through. The Arthurian story just absolutely transfixed me, and I believed that it was the greatest and most wonderful story that was ever told. Then over the years I read all the Arthurian things that children read: Howard Pyle, T. H. White, and all the others.
Because it had "been written," it didn't occur to me, until my writing career was well advanced, to attempt what I felt was already the greatest story that had ever been told. Because of my growing ability with the short story, I started, oddly I suppose, with "The Gwynhfar." Then my confidence grew, and when I decided to do an entire book of these stories, I almost felt that what I was doing was a tour de force. A novel would have been easier.
RT: In some ways you're right. Maybe you still will write an Arthurian novel?
JY: I want to take "Evian Steel" and turn it into a whole novel for adults. I have already turned the story "The Dragon's Boy" into a short, young adult novel for Harper and Row, but "Evian Steel" is the one that I thought would be interesting to do for adults. Again, it is because what interests me is coming at it sideways, not straight on, but oddly.
Avalon will be an island upon which women have formed their own community and are, in fact, making swords of power. That is not how the traditional Arthurian story is told. There is a sword in the hand of the Lady of the Lake; there are the women who carry Arthur off in the boat at the end of the story; there are the four queens. These hints don't come at the same parts of the story, however, and they don't come from the same sources. I'm going to put them all together in a very odd sort of way, and tell the story a little differently. With a story like that you have two concerns. First, you have to tell a complete story that's going to hold together on its own terms--whether or not the reader has ever read anything Arthurian.
But you also have the other, much smaller, group of readers who really know the Arthurian legend, and who are going to say, well, but, but, but, but . . . how can you put her there? She wasn't there at that time! Those two weren't contemporaneous! This is part of the story that comes five hundred years later! And I say, enjoy the story that I'm telling; you have an added little bit of knowledge that should help you enjoy it even more.
Sometimes knowledge can be an obstacle. One of the reasons scholars don't enjoy the modern retellings is that they're so busy finding points that are wrong, that are misspoke, or that represent a school of thought with which they don't happen to agree, that they don't enjoy the story anymore. They enjoy something that's a thousand years old only because it's already been canonized.
RT: This is the kind of thing you did in the first story of Merlin's Booke, where Geoffrey of Monmouth and Blaise meet. We lost half a millenium somewhere along here.
JY: Ha ha. But--hey--how good are our records? Maybe we did lose half a millenium. My story makes as much sense as some arguments I've read. One of the stories I've been writing--totally non-Arthurian--is about Emily Dickinson. She wrote those wonderful poems about looking out over Amherst, at lights and explosions of incredible beauty. So I thought, maybe one day she was up in the little cupola of her house over in Amherst. Then the cupola opened, and this ship full of Martians came down and took her out and showed her the starry, starry skies over Amherst. After that nothing was as interesting, and so she didn't bother going out. Of course it's absolutely absurd, but it makes as much sense as some of the absurd academic theories that have been offered.
It is the same with Arthur. We don't really know what happened. We make educated guesses, and we're off by half a millenium anyway. Why not enjoy it? It is, after all, a story. We're not talking about real history, because we don't know the real history. I've sat in on lectures where people argue over whether Arthur had horses, and how many horses were involved, and could he have traversed from here to there in the proper time period without horses? It's a story. It's a great story. It's like the tales of the fairy folk. We don't know if there were really a smaller race of people. Are we talking about the Picts or about burial mounds? That doesn't change the fairy legends which are still wonderful stories.
RT: Do you believe that what's important in the Arthurian legend is the legend itself, and that the history is separate?
JY: I think it is interesting to try to find out where legend and history match up and where they don't. But even if we ever do find out exactly who Arthur was--perhaps we can time-travel back--do you think that's going to change those wonderful stories? Those stories are still going to sing to us in our heart of hearts. There are times when I wish that the people who are terribly scholarly would lie back and enjoy the stories all over again. Five or six years ago I was at a fairy tale conference in Princeton, where we were talking about the psychological and historical approaches, and about the subsummation of the female tale-teller. It went on and on and on for four days, and at no time during that entire conference did anyone say, once upon a time, there were a king and queen . . . No one told a story the entire time. They were so busy being scholarly that they had forgotten to enjoy the stories. I think that you can do both.
RT: Speaking of these wonderful stories, there are, as you are well aware from your reading in the Arthurian legend, a variety of traditions, some of which are contradictory. At one time, Guinevere is having an affair with Mordred; at another time, this is unthinkable. On the one hand this allows you the freedom to choose from among a variety of sources, but on the other it can create problems. With so much freedom, how do you choose?
JY: Well, I found that sometimes I would start writing a story, get stuck, go back to something that I hadn't read before, and discover in that tradition exactly the little thing that becomes the lynchpin for my story. Writers have an incredible amount of freedom because there are so many stories within stories.
RT: When you say go back, do you mean that you've thought of a solution, and then find it already in tradition?
JY: Sometimes. Or I find a character that I need. I didn't read the Vita Merlini until after I had written a couple of the stories for Merlin's Booke. In fact, I didn't even know it existed, but I discovered all kinds of wonderful things there. I had more material than I could certainly ever use, which is when I started thinking that really what I wanted to write was three separate volumes of stories: one would be Merlin's Booke, one would be Guinevere's Booke, and one would be Arthur's Booke. It was just a convenient way of wanting to stay in this wonderful, cozy, all-encompassing world forever. I may not ever write all those stories, but it was a way of helping to organize the material.
RT: Have you started on Guinevere's Booke yet?
JY: I've left the publisher who did Merlin's Booke, and so they are not interested in Guinevere's Booke any longer. I have written two stories and two poems for it, all of which are already published. About four stories are started, and when they're done I shall see about a publisher. Several small presses are interested, but I'm not going to push hard. It will have the same format as Merlin's Booke. Guinevere won't be at the center of each one. For example, in the story about the Loathly Lady that I am working on, Guinevere is off stage. The Loathly Lady speaks, years later, about how the Queen had been her only friend.
RT: You said you had started about four stories for the volume?
JY: I start stories. Who knows how they're going to end? One is called "Dog King." It starts, I don't care what you call her, but I call her a bitch, as much as the brachet hound that ate her own litter. Guinevere is talking about Morgan, of whom she's very jealous because Morgan has children and she does not. The story is really about a barren woman at a time when being barren was the worst thing she could be.
RT: Does the fact that you're writing collections of stories and poems, which can shift in their perspectives and their attitudes, give you more freedom than you might have when you're writing a novel?
JY: It's both restricting and non-restricting. It's restricting in that when you're writing a short story or poem, you are going for a moment. That moment may be several years long, but it is an emotional moment that you're going for. In a novel, you go through many different emotional moments to get from the beginning of your story to the end. The short story is restricting in that sense, but it is totally non-restricting in that when I'm done I can leap centuries. I can change characters; I can change landscapes; I can change focus; I can change narrator. You can't do this in a novel. Or at least not easily.
RT: Do you feel bound by tradition, or do you feel free to make changes? For example, would you allow Lancelot to have an affair with somebody else other than Guinevere, or would this violate something which you feel is essential in the legend?
JY: I'm not sure that you could have Lancelot have an affair with someone else, if he didn't also have the affair with Guinevere. There are certain things that are constant. We know that Arthur married Guinevere, certainly one Guinevere, if not maybe even two according to some of the stories. There are many things that you can do, but you have to have something that makes it still an Arthurian story.
I have Guinevere pulling the sword from the stone, and then putting it back. That's one of the things that was fun to look at. It says, whosoever pulls this sword shall be King of England. Well, she couldn't be king because she is a woman. Someone else had to pull the sword. So that's playing with it in one sense.
In "The Quiet Monk" I have Lancelot alive centuries later, which is not traditional. But what I'm doing is taking the story of his affair with Guinevere, and having him try to expiate the sin centuries later. Some part of the story has to remain constant as a reference point, but apart from that you're free, I think, to explore it in different ways. You might have Mordred be a hero, Guinevere a real villain, Merlin a fool.
RT: Would you be willing to change that fixed point from story to story? Might you allow Lancelot to live a long time in one story, which you've done in "The Quiet Monk," and then in another story have him die when he traditionally died?
JY: But that's why short stories are such fun, because I don't have to be consistent from story to story. In a novel there has to be a certain inner consistency. If you could set it up that you have many, many different parallel universes, then you could have many, many different Lancelots, or Mordreds, or Merlins within the novel. You have to set that situation up, however, whereas when I'm finished with a short story, I can turn around and do something entirely new, which is what I did in Merlin's Booke.
It might be interesting, for example, to do a whole series of stories on Lancelot. In one Lancelot dies when he is wounded and is being nursed by Elaine. In another maybe he dies in the middle of making love to Guinevere. Now there would be an interesting story. What does she do? Does she turn to Arthur and say, look I've got this problem, I've got this naked man in my room who's died? Does she turn to Merlin? Does she turn to Mordred? Does she turn to Morgan? Does she just drag him out? If so where does she put him? You could do that. Or he could die when he comes to rescue Guinevere.
RT: So you could come up with a short story collection called The Death of Lancelot?
JY: The Death of Lancelot. I love it, I love it. It's a whole new idea. I think we've just discovered an interesting new anthology that I will propose: The Death of Lancelot.
RT: I hope you write it.
JY: Well, you could have a bunch of different people write it.
RT: Yes, that's another way around it. Be the editor, write a frame for it, and put the stories in.
JY: I love it. I'll write it down right now.
RT: What you have just done, trying out various plot situations, is this a crucial part of the creative process?
JY: If you're someone who has stories rushing around in their heads all the time, as I do, asking the "what if" and answering it is the most exciting, even spiritual, exercise that you can have. It's quite spectacular. And when a story comes together, wherever that story began, be it Arthurian romance, Christian epic, Celtic tale, Northern saga, African, Oriental--I don't care where it starts--but when it starts happening, when it starts moving together, it really is an incredible, sort of orgiastic experience. It's wonderful.
I'm a story teller, a professional storyteller. Not only on the page; I do storytelling in schools and libraries. I take traditional material, and I tell the stories to children and to adults. And the thing that you discover, of course, which all storytellers know, is that no matter how well you know your story, when faced with your audience the story happens all over again. Sometimes it changes, and grows, and gets better; sometimes it gets smaller. It depends on how that audience is responding. You cannot refer to traditional material as if it were a fixed, still point. When it finally gets set down, we have one fixed, still point, but not the fixed, still point. Up until the time it was set down, it had many mouths shaping it, and many ears taking it in. That material was fluid and changing until it was fixed in a written state. And even then we see many fixed, written states of the Arthurian legend. So why can't it still be played with? It's as if we say, now that it's been written down for centuries we can't play with it anymore. What the writers of today are saying is no, we still want to play with it. Who knows whether, four or five hundred years from now, some - certainly not all, but some - of the books by maybe T.H. White, maybe Rosemary Sutcliff, maybe Thomas Berger, maybe Jane Yolen, will be among those fixed points about which new writers will cluster and say, oh, are we allowed to violate that part of the canon?
I suspect that there were people who read Geoffrey of Monmouth or Malory for the first time, and said, no, that's not how my mother told this story! You've violated it. That's not how it's done.
RT: How do you strike a balance between change and preserving essential elements of the story?
JY: What you have to do is pick, from among the many Arthurian story lines, one fixed point that you're comfortable with and that will certainly be recognized by a good many people. I think probably most people would recognize the Sword in the Stone, probably the story of Uther and Igraine, the marriage to Guinevere, the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. Each would serve as a take-off place for another story.
I read the manuscript of a wonderful story by Esther Friesner, in which four women are sitting playing bridge, and there's a man fast asleep in the next room. The sleeping man is Arthur, and the four women are Morgan, Guinevere, Igraine, and the Lady of the Lake. Then things start happening, the world starts falling apart, the man wakes up, and off he goes. It's hilariously funny, but what you have is the four queens, and each has recognizable traits from the story that we know. The figure of the sleeping Arthur who will return again is a fixed point along one of the legendary lines. Using that, the author has made her story. The rest is unrecognizable in that it takes place in modern times.
RT: Do you feel that having a frame for your stories is an advantage?
JY: That's a marketing device. It's hard for an editor to say, here's a wonderful collection of stories that have absolutely nothing to do with one another except that they're all by the same person, unless that person is very well known like Stephen King. People don't often pick up short story collections. So for a collection of short stories, certainly, a frame device of some kind--whether it is a narrative or thematic frame--makes it easier to sell. That's all.
RT: Do you see any particular advantage to the frame?
JY: Oh, it's nice to be read.
RT: You mentioned earlier that you'd read the Vita Merlini after you'd started on some of the stories. What else did you read for Merlin's Booke?
JY: Well, obviously Malory, but first of all I went back and I took a course in Arthurian literature at Smith, just to make sure that I knew where all the sources were that I should be looking at. I had all the books that were required reading for the course, and I went from there. Some things I didn't read. When I was working on the book, I did not read Marion Zimmer Bradley. I didn't read modern novels because I didn't want to be influenced by them in my own writing. That's too close to plagiarism, whereas if you're looking at old sources that's called research.
I also collected a number of books that tried to identify the original Camelot, and others that described what castles looked like and what the landscape looked like. If I'm going to send someone out on the peat bogs, what do the peat bogs look like?
RT: Did you read any of the nineteenth-century versions?
JY: Oh, I read Tennyson. I still have a wonderful illustrated version of his poetry: "The curse has come upon me, cried the Lady of Shalott." I always thought she had gotten her period. I read that when I was nine or ten, and I thought that's what it meant. I'm not, however, a big fan of nineteenth-century literature.
RT: How about the modern versions?
JY: I had read Rosemary Sutcliff, T. H. White, Mary Stewart, and Thomas Berger before, but when I was actually working on the stories, I didn't want to read modern novels. I didn't want to be too close to anybody else's version. After I finished, I read The Mists of Avalon, Parke Godwin's Firelord, and several others.
RT: Have you talked to other writers about Arthurian legend?
JY: Well, to some of them. I've spoken a little to Andre Norton and a LOT to Susan Shwartz, who did her doctoral thesis on Merlin. She pointed me to some things that no one else had, which was very helpful. And I talked to Parke Godwin.
The thing that happens, though, with some people when they work on the Arthur stories is that they begin to think it's their story and no one else can write it. It's an occupational hazard, I suppose, feeling very proprietary about the little part of the Arthurian legend that you've taken over. Right now I feel Merlin is mine, just as Guinevere is Bradley's. Only, I much prefer Godwin's Guinevere. If somebody says something nice about Guinevere, Marion is very critical. Her version has become the vision of Guinevere, and that's the way she sees her now. These things tend to happen, but Merlin is no more mine than he is Stewart's or White's. We've done different Merlins. Because I have done so many different versions of Merlin in short stories, however, I don't have one consistent way of looking at him.
There are elements of universal myth in his story, for example. He is the child who is brought, ready to be slaughtered, and at the last minute he speaks up and describes what's going on. Ritual child slaying--the blood of an innocent child or a virgin used to bind a building--is very old. Years ago I wrote Ring Out, a book of bells, which included an Oriental legend about a bell that kept breaking apart when brought out of its casting. The bell makers decided that they had to have the blood of a virgin to keep it together. The bellmaster's daughter threw herself into the casting, and her blood made the bell perfect and whole. That story of Merlin and Vortigern's tower comes from the same place, the use of an innocent child's blood to make a building stand.
RT: Will you eventually integrate all the different versions of Merlin in your stories into one single, coherent character?
JY: Each story to me is a whole. Some themes keep coming back again and again in my stories, and one of these is the telling of stories. There are a number of my stories in which people say, in one way or another, it's the story that's important. What's important is not what happens here, but the story that they will tell afterwards. Certainly it's very explicitly stated in "The Gwynhfar," but it's also implicit in the opening and final stories of Merlin's Booke. If there are any shared underlying themes in those stories that may be one of the most important.
When Merlin goes to read the dreams in "Dream Reader," it's not the dream that's important, but the reading of it. It's the telling of the story that he makes of what has happened that is important. In "The Wild Child," until he has his name and has the words for what has happened to him, the things that happened are like water over stone. In a sense they haven't happened. Once he can name them, he has brought into existence all that has happened to him. In "The Dragon's Boy" Old Linn tells Merlin stories, and this creates in him both the hunger for more and an understanding of structure and pattern. Studies have shown that children who are told stories very early on understand the structure and pattern to life. If you do this and this, the next thing will happen. They understand grammatical structure, which has, again, a pattern in which one thing follows another. I've always been very concerned about story, about the telling of it and the importance of it, and so I guess that is a recurring theme, though it's not in all my stories.
RT: That's not your task. You're telling the stories, and if others want to find patterns, then let them. The telling of the story is essential for the continuity of a legend, however, and it is, perhaps, no accident that a figure like the bard Taliesin has captured the modern imagination to some extent.
JY: In "The Ballad of the Mage's Birth," which is the opening poem in Merlin's Booke, each stanza repeats the refrain, "Touch magic, pass it on." I wrote a book called Touch Magic, and very often, when I'm signing books, I will write, "Touch magic, pass it on," which is again the same thing as telling stories. You've touched this magic, pass it on: pass the book on; pass the story on; pass the tale on; pass these truths on.
RT: The perception of yourself as a teller of folk tales reveals your interest in tradition, because you see yourself as an inheritor and continuator of a tradition that is very ancient. It's no accident that Parke Godwin started Invitation to Camelot, his anthology of Arthurian short stories, with your poem "The Storyteller."
JY: We sometimes forget that most of us come upon the Arthurian legend when we're children, and it's quite clear that this is a story that works whatever age you are. When you're young, you respond to the story of the fellowship and the great deeds. If you think at all about Guinevere, it's only as part of the great deeds that happen. As you get older and are affected by your hormones, you begin thinking about the romance, and the tragedy, and the beauty. So much was wanted, and so much was lost. Thus as you get older, you find different things in the legend, and I think that one of reasons it has lasted so long is that it is something we can come to again and again. As with all good stories, of course, you bring whoever you are to the story, and take from it what you need. And this story has so much. I think it's really important to remember how almost all of us who come to this story came to it first as children, and grew up with it.
RT: It's a legend you can grow with. This is very true. You raise an interesting point, however. Is there a difference between the Arthurian stories that you write for adults and those for younger readers?
JY: Some Arthurian stories that I've written can be enjoyed at any age. When a story's emotional content is something that a child is not interested in, however, whether it be sexual love or political ambition, it's probably going to be out of the range of most seven, eight, nine, and ten-year-olds. Moreover, many modern Arthurian novels spend considerable time on those topics, whether it's politics and religion in Bradley's Mists of Avalon, or politics and war in Godwin's Firelord.
But then there is White's Sword in the Stone, with fascinating characters like Wart and Merlin who lives backwards in time. This novel captivates readers, young and old alike. Two novels can tell the exact same story, but for people of different ages. The subtext of Bradley's Mists of Avalon really is very ardent feminism, and that may be too much for an eight or a nine- year-old who just wants to know what the hell happened. Also stories that are full of irony are usually not accessible to a reader under about age thirteen. Irony is something that you learn rather late. I think it's the one part of humor that is, if not a learned response, certainly something that you come upon maybe with your change in hormones. A sense of irony is something that young children simply don't have.
RT: You may be right.
JY: They learn sarcasm earlier than they learn irony. Irony is the next step up, if you will, from sarcasm. In fact, some teenagers adopt an ironic stance before they really understand irony. They think that they understand it and that they're enjoying it. Then suddenly, at the end of the first love affair when somebody has broken up with them, irony takes on real meaning for the first time, and they realize, so that's the way the world is!
RT: So certain features of the Arthurian tradition, certain ways and modes of telling it, are clearly less suitable for younger readers than others?
JY: Yes. The younger the reader, the more straightforward the story needs to be, with an emphasis on action. Then characterization as they get a little older. As they get older still, you get into literary things, like irony, like flashback, like shifts in narrative mode, and that sort of thing; but that comes very late on. The child's interest is really in the story. What happened? What happened next? If there is no next, then why sit and listen to the story, or why sit and read the story? So I think that, in some ways, the earlier versions of the Arthurian legend would be of more interest to younger readers, if they could get through the words and way of telling which may be odd to them.
RT: Do you worry that sometimes, in attempting to simplify the telling for children, elements essential to the legend are removed as unsuitable? I am thinking of retellings of Malory that omit the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. If you take that out, the fall of the Round Table becomes almost incomprehensible.
JY: I always worry about oversimplification. The Walt Disney / classic comic book tradition is with us very much, telling these stories in words of one syllable. I think that there are sections of the Arthurian story that are very accessible to the young child, when told the way they should be told. How Arthur became king is a wonderful and exciting story. You don't have to go any further than to conclude, he pulled the Sword from the Stone, and they all proclaimed him king, and he was the greatest king that the world had ever known. It's perfectly all right to tell that one part of the story and tell it wonderfully well.
RT: You would retell Arthurian legend to young people as a series of stories, then?
JY: Since it was a series of stories to begin with, we're not doing something that hasn't been done before. When they were all sitting around listening to the stories being told to them, they didn't sit for twenty-four hours listening to the entire story from beginning to end. They would say, tell us the story of Arthur pulling the Sword from the Stone, or tell us the story of Tristan and Iseult.
RT: And of course when compilers came to draw the tales together, they started to run into problems of consistency.
JY: Originally, one troubadour would come along and sing this song, and then a meister singer would go along and sing that one, and somebody else would tell another story. And they may or may not have meant them to be about the same person, but they all got attached to this one name. Now that's fine as long as this is happening here, and then here, and then here. It's when Mr. Geoffrey, or Mr. Blaise, or Mr. Wolfram, or whoever, comes along and says, well now let's put them all down, when they weren't all meant to be down together, that's when you have the problem.
RT: So your stories of Merlin are, in part, a recognition . . .
JY: Of where it came from. Or maybe it's just that I don't think I'm good enough to tell a novel. There's always that.
RT: There's always another possibility.
JY: It's all true; it's not true: the more I tell you, the more I shall lie. I mean, that's really the story teller. Actually, I adapted the story of Merlin the way I did because I am a storyteller, and because I really feel that I'm in the tradition of the old storyteller. Only since mine is a written tradition, I wrote them down.
RT: Some of them you're going to follow up further?
JY: Sometimes after I've finished a story and I've thought about it, I begin to understand what it was I was exploring there. It seemed to me that in "The Dragon's Boy," for example, I was talking about ways of fathering, and so I explored that a little more in the novel. I'm a very intuitive writer, not the kind who says this is what I'm going to sit down and do now. It never works out that way; it always works out differently.
RT: When you're writing within the Arthurian tradition, of course, you know that certain things are going to happen.
RT: Arthur is going to die?
RT: Might you try to write a story in which he doesn't?
JY: Well, let me put it this way: in the second book of two linked novels, Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna, I wrestle with that sort of thing. They are not Arthurian, but they speak to this particular point. The books look like Amazonian sword and sorcery, but they are really about the nexxus point of legend, history, balladry, myth. What I do is start with "The Story," then suddenly move to "The Legend," which has something to do with what we've been listening to, but does not fit exactly. There are some odd points, as if someone four hundred years later had made up a tale about what had been passed along for those four hundred years. And then I have a section called "The Ballad," which again is like both the legend and the story, and yet it doesn't quite fit exactly either. And then I have a section called "The History," in which a historian two thousand years later tries to recreate the Amazonian society from various fragments of information: a dig, or a book, or a poem that's been left, or pieces of a poem. Of course, he is one hundred and eighty degrees wrong.
In the two books women--when they reach puberty--learn how to call up their shadow side, so that the shadow, the dark sister, can live side by side with them when the moon is shining, or when there's a strong light source. And at the end of the second book our hero knows that she can take one person back into the goddess grove, where she will live young forever until she's needed in the world again. And she has to make the choice whether to take her dark sister or her husband, the king. She reaches a decision, and the last line is something like, "She opened her arms."
Now, you don't know which she's done: whether she's taken her husband into the grove to live forever with him until need is greatest again, or whether she's gone off with the dark sister. According to legend two stories are told. One is the story the men tell: and the men say that years later, when they discovered the cave that led into the grove, they found the long bones of a man tied to a sled; and they say that still, on moonlit nights, you can see two women, running naked through the woods, come and leap over the long bones and go off. The women tell the story that Jenna and her king are waiting in the grove until they are needed again. So it's the story of Arthur, and it's telling it both ways. I'm saying, yes, he died; no, he didn't. So in a sense that story I wrote would have been written very differently if I hadn't known Arthurian legend. Because the ending is purely Avalon and the Sleepers.
RT: Thank you.