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Interview with Jim Hunter

20 MAY 1989

   One does not usually think of hurricanes striking England, but they did a few years back, and nowhere more fiercely than the Southeast. During a walk round the village of Wickhambreux with Jim Hunter, I was astonished at the sight of buildings damaged and trees uprooted, all this over a year and a half later.
   In some ways, I suppose, the contrast between the signs of such devastation and the cosiness of this pretty village in Kent, traditionally renowned as the garden of England, served as a fitting backdrop for a discussion of Hunter's existentialist novel Percival and the Presence of God (London: Faber and Faber, 1978). Driven from a situation of comfortable security by his own inner restlessness and spiritual yearning, Percival wanders through a wasteland of ruins and unexpected danger. It all serves as a comment upon the precariousness of both human nature and the world in which we live.

RT: What attracted you to Arthurian legend as the subject for Percival and the Presence of God?

JH: The book wasn't planned to be definitely Arthurian. As I recall, I was actually interested, or thought I was, in the idea of heroism, and I projected a series of six novellas: three volumes with two in each or two volumes with three in each. Each was to deal with different aspects of heroism, which in 1973 or 1974 was a very unfashionable concept. I thought that one novella would be set far in the past and would have a mythic quality to it, whereas the others would be much more modern and realistic, like all my other fiction. I did some digging into myth and legend, some of which I half knew already, but I did nothing very detailed in the way of research. Partly, I suppose, it may have been laziness, but also, I think, an instinct to keep things fresh. I didn't want to do a scholastic retelling with learned footnotes. I wanted to find ideas that would then become mine.
   I wrote about three quarters of the Percival story, about 15,000 words of a second story, the opening of a third, and then the project became still-born. I wasn't sure enough what I was doing, and I found that I didn't really have enough to say about heroism. I did, however, grow very excited by the idea which had developed into the Percival story.

RT: How had you intended to link these novellas?

JH: They were intended to overlap. Different witnesses and different voices would create a feeling of authentic tradition. When I was in my very early twenties, already writing fiction, I remember thinking every now and then how awful most historical novels were. It's not a taste that I have, and to me they seemed unreal and unconvincing, with little sense of the tactile vividness of life. With a few exceptions, such as William Golding's The Spire, they just didn't seem to inhabit the same universe as the one in which I lived. Mostly they seemed wooden and bland, perhaps intentionally so for commercial reasons. There's a great problem of dialogue in historical novels. I'd always had a dream that at some point I would write something set in the past, but so vivid that it felt as if you were out there in the wind with it. I suppose this is what really got me going.
   I didn't choose the story of Percival because it was part of Arthurian legend, though I certainly was not displeased that was the case. Even those of us who are not very up in these things are still vaguely conscious of the Matter of Britain. I enjoyed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight very much. It's a marvellous poem and, although I'm not a medievalist, it has always appealed to me greatly. I was attracted to the Percival story precisely because it offered an unconventional kind of heroism. It was a heroism that didn't involve fighting and killing people, but rather a kind of passivity, at least in the Grail part of the legend, though obviously in the first part of my book Percival does fight and kill people.
   The real background of the book for me, however, is not medieval Arthurian romance, nor, as one of my friends thought, is it Wagner's Parsifal. My book is not at all like Parsifal, even though I was quite keen on Wagner at the time. I really consider the book in many ways to be a gloss on T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, which was a poem that I was teaching and enjoying a lot. I must say, though, that they now seem to me to be fairly different works. I don't think they have all that much in common, and yet the Percival elements in The Waste Land were an inspiration--the weight of compassion, the need to ask the right questions, both are present. I was also fascinated by the most ingenious way in which Eliot does manage to sew little hints of the romantic beauty of Arthurian legend into that very gloomy poem. I think that was probably what drew me to the story as much as anything.

RT: I found it difficult to decide whether your novel was set in the High Middle Ages or the Dark Ages. Was that sense of timelessness intentional?

JH: Yes, that's intended. The novel resembles a modern production of a classic play which decides to be a bit vague in its costumes. If you're watching some Shakespeare productions, you really can't say what the period is. That's often intended so that you're not too distracted by the period.
   There is, I might add, no authenticity about the novel. Any well-trained medievalist or historian would probably find it grossly offensive in various ways because it must be full of inconsistencies. I'm fairly unrepentant about it, however. I was not trying to reconstruct any one period. Since it deals with Arthurian legend, it is meant to have hints of all the other Percivals whom people have known. Those readers who happen to have read about them will recognize them, but if they haven't read any Percival story, that's okay. It starts to come through in the book. Nobody actually grumbled at me about the setting, but I always wondered if they would.
   I admit that my approach was partly the result of laziness, but I don't think it's quite as simple as that. I did not want to research slavishly. When I have an old lady wrap up the boy's food in kale leaves, that just seemed to me something that might be quite likely to have happened. I thought it sounded quite convincing.
   Some features had to be the way I described them. It wasn't just an arbitrary choice. The action had to take place in the Celtic western fringe of Britain because of the associations of Percival with Wales. The mountain country is dear to my heart and dear to what I wanted to write about. I envisioned Percival starting in Snowdonia coming down to the lowlands, somewhere in either Somerset or the Black Mountain country between Brecon and Abergavenny in South Wales.
   Slightly further north of that, in mid-Wales, there's a fine medieval castle that I think I may have once visited, and I made use of that in the book. I wanted to keep all these things chasing around in my mind, however, and not pin myself down too much. I certainly did not soak myself in any location like Glastonbury, even though I've visited it. As I mentioned, I find most conventional historical novels pretty boring. My favorite is T. H. White's Sword in the Stone for its anachronisms and sense of fun. I also love Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
   Speaking of anachronism, even in the late stages of writing Percival I still included twentieth-century elements. I had a twentieth-century narrator taking airplane flights and thinking about the issues. These elements were very crude, which is why they were dropped in the end. I was so anxious to encourage readers to feel they were zooming in and out of the centuries that I deliberately used the perspective of a twentieth-century camera in the book: it explores a twentieth-century consciousness as illuminated by the past. It was meant to be a book about our times in a strange way. It's certainly a book about agnosticism and the relationship between belief and non-belief.

RT: When I read Percival it struck me as an existential novel in some ways.

JH: Yes, yes. A book that was running around in my mind at the time was Camus' The Outsider, which is similar in length as well. In both books the reader finds him or herself inside the head of the narrator and is left to make of it what he or she will.

RT: The Wasteland looms large in the consciousness of the hero who is continually wondering, why is this happening to me? Why not to somebody else?

JH: Yes. It's not the Wasteland in the modern depressed sense of a crumbling civilization, rather because of the mood of doubt and uncertainty.

RT: Did you read Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance?

JH: Not since university days when I first studied Eliot. I did virtually no new reading for the novel, other than to check out the Percival legend. I wanted to look at three or four versions so that I could feel free to draw on different elements as I chose.

RT: Which versions did you read?

JH: Chretien de Troyes, which is where I found Blanchefleur, and I may have read a condensed version of the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach. An important influence was Eliot's "Journey of the Magi." That too retells a traditional story in a twentieth-century tone, and the actual tone of parts of the ending of Percival is very similar, though it's not quite as depressed as the ending to Eliot's poem. Another poem that was referred to by one reviewer, and I think rightly, is Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." That was another influential work; I've always liked it a lot. Browning simply recalls a line he's heard, then uses his own imagination. I doubt whether he did much research. I think we approached the material the same way.
   What interests me, as both a teacher of literature and a writer, is that fairly defiant sense of a tradition that is alive. Since you go on making it, you don't, therefore, pay too slavish an attention to one or other version from the past because, after all, there are many versions. Yet tradition remains an enormously enabling thing, or at least it can be. I try to keep fresh and not to grind away too hard before starting to write. I always want any story I write to take me along, to some extent, where it's going to go. You don't know quite what you're going to do until you do it.
   I don't suppose I shall set another novel in the past again, but if I did I would want it to be like a Rembrandt painting where the people are just people. You don't feel, this is boring and historical; these are people, absolutely alive.

RT: Were you acquainted with writings on the Dark Ages by historians or archaeologists?

JH: I knew something about Greek and Mycenaean civilization, which I studied in order to teach Greek tragedy. By the time I wrote this story, I was very keen on the idea of myth though I hadn't done a great deal of research in the field. But I had that sense, which so many nineteenth and twentieth-century artists have had, that the myths are the really true stories because they arise spontaneously from the psyche, as it were.

RT: Did you find that the expansion of Percival from a novella into a novel created problems?

JH: I would still call it a novella. It's about 40-45,000 words long. To me that's a novella. If I were sold it as a novel, I would say, ooh, that's a bit short. I don't think I made changes, even when it became clear the rest of the project wasn't going to go ahead. What happened was, unusually for me, it lay in a drawer for eighteen months after I had written about three quarters of the book. I suppose I didn't quite know how I was going to end it, and the rest of the project didn't seem to be progressing. Since I was extremely busy with my teaching and didn't have great confidence in the book, I let it die. Then one day I showed it to a friend, a former pupil who was by then in his mid-twenties, and I asked, do you think this worth doing anything with? He was very keen that I finish it, and so I did. Once I set my mind to it, the ending did come, and indeed in many ways the last part of the book is the part I like most. Nobody yet has been able to see where the join is, so that's not too bad.

RT: Percival was published in 1978?

JH: Yes. It was written from 1974 to 1976.

RT: Did your concept of Percival change when you resumed writing?

JH: There was one significant change, but I don't think it affected the central figure too much. I'd never written in the first person, and this didn't start that way either--it started in the third person. I must have been half way through it when I did a public reading of some of it as work in progress. Somebody said, since it's all restricted to Percival's consciousness, have you considered making it first person? I thought about it and decided that, although on the whole I was opposed to the use of first-person narrative as being limiting, in this case it might actually be liberating and more logical. Part of what I wanted to do was keep the reader guessing, whereas when you've got an omniscient narrator or a third-person narration the readers have slightly less freedom to make their own judgements. The book seemed to change into the first person very easily.
   I don't recall my conception of Percival himself changing, though I think there's always the risk that you don't create for the reader a very clear character when you use a first-person narrator. I'm wrestling with this problem again actually, in my current book. I've gone back and forth between the first and third person. There's a danger that you don't see a first-person narrator, and probably you don't see Percival, really.

RT: Did you not feel tempted to draw more material about Percival from tradition to expand the novella to conventional novel length?

JH: No. I believe that there's a real difference between a novella and a novel, but it's perfectly possible to sell a novella and I'm happy enough with the dimensions. Although he liked it, my publisher assured me that the book wasn't going to sell a lot anyway. It was an extremely uncommercial novel. People who read it seem to like it and find it satisfying, however.
   One reviewer suggested that the book was based on just two episodes in the Percival story, though I don't know which two he had in mind. I know which two episodes I had in mind, of course. I wasn't trying to do a Percival story complete. We never get near Arthur, for example; we never even find out whether there is an Arthur, and that's part of the point.

RT: When you put the manuscript aside, did you start another book?

JH: No. My job kept me busy. My writing was just about drying up, not exactly from lack of inspiration, but because I was moving into more senior posts in teaching, growing busier and busier, and enjoying that work. After Percival I wrote nothing fictional for ten years.

RT: Do you find that it's difficult to write and teach, both?

JH: I found it increasingly so, but it was, above all, because of the extra human involvement rather than the activity of teaching itself. I eventually became headmaster at two schools, and that took up my time fully seven days a week. I kept saying to myself, I'm going to make time to write. I took one summer off--I think 1984--and I said, I'm going to do nothing this summer but write. But I just couldn't--I was too tired, too frenzied. Creativity suffered as well.
   I wrote quite a few nonfictional books: school textbooks and anthologies, critical books. Everything I've done in my life, I think, including teaching, has been easier than writing, and none of them has seemed to me as important as writing fiction. It's so much easier to teach reasonably well. Now, however, I'm absolutely determined to spend the rest of my life doing creative writing. It may not turn out to be as good as the teaching I did, but it seems to me a harder and, in many ways, nobler enterprise to be engaged in.

RT: Did Percival need extensive revision?

JH: Some passages would write themselves almost, whereas others I would have to revise a great deal; but I don't recall cutting much. Other books that have been written with a different kind of gusto have been pruned more. Of course I did make some changes in language and tone: it would be very unlikely that the first draft would look quite like the final version.
   All my previous novels, some six in all, for some strange reason had not been written in the ordinary chronological sequence. Rather like making a film, I often wrote a fairly late scene early on. Now that actually was a way of finding out what was going to happen later. I had a rough scenario for the novel, but I might write page two hundred and fifty to see what it looked like, then work towards it. When I describe that to people, they always look incredulous and say, it's an extraordinary way to work. Some of them then say, that explains some things about your novels.
   Percival wasn't done that way, however; it was written from beginning to end, with a break. But it was very built up. I wrote the first page first, as though I wanted to get into that unpleasantness of the historical parts as soon as possible.

RT: You do range backwards and forwards in time in the novel, as events evoke recollections by the narrator, don't you?

JH: Yes, that's right. Percival has an hallucination in which he sees the Grail lord long before the event occurs. It's meant to seem very unrealistic and magical. I actually used a piece of cut-up prose there, taking a passage I earlier used and repeating it. It was still written in sequence, however; I knew that I was writing something I was going to return to later on.
   The part about the Grail lord in the hall I'm quite pleased with, but the most important moment in the book for me, is Percival standing on the battlements of the castle when he suddenly finds it deserted in the morning. It was just the sort of moment that I wanted to get in. Percival anticipates it and then it happens. It creates a sense of deja vue. It comes, of course, from one of the medieval versions of the story where he awakens to find everyone gone. That feature fascinated me.

RT: Did you yourself ever go to a castle when it was empty and stand, gazing around, and think about such an experience?

JH: Oh, I must have done. I've made the usual visits to castles, and I'm very keen on mountains and heights and views. I didn't make a special trip while I was writing the novel, however. I don't work that way.

RT: So it might have been something that your subconscious dredged out of a past experience?

JH: Yes, that's how I write. I virtually never say, I'm going to write about this, and so I'll go and look at it. I do it from memory. After I had read the medieval accounts, I knew which elements I was going to use: the meeting with Whiteflower/ Blanchefleur, the failure to ask the vital question, the Grail ceremony. I was quite clear about the elements that would fit my book, which was to deal with a very strange kind of heroism. Also I've always been interested in the hero who is chosen without particularly willing it.
   That marvellous Thom Gunn poem, "I Am My Own, and Not My Own," is lurking behind the novella as well. That is, more or less, what Percival says towards the end of the book. Although I have not been deeply involved in research into Arthurian tradition, in a paradoxical way the reason this book interested me and pleased me and worked for me is in itself a testimony to the influence of that tradition. I am, after all, little interested in slavishly following the past, or in digging through traditional scholarly views. Nor am I a medievalist, nor an archaeologist. I am a modern realistic writer. That I should nevertheless feel very strongly, as I did before and still do now, the value and importance of tradition as an enabling and creative force is evidence of its power.

RT: Was your characterization of Whiteflower influenced at all by the feminist movement?

JH: No. The original idea of the book was heroic, but I think I chose this particular story because of what I considered the very strong erotic elements in it. There's a phallic consciousness in such symbols as the spear, and I'm unashamedly writing, in what I hope is a valuable way, a very adolescent male kind of book.
   Whiteflower is more or less an idealized figure, though I hope she's got enough vividness. As her name suggests, she's the lady, the beloved whose castle has been taken. In that sense, she is a mythic figure, and Percival has to move on, though I think his feelings about her throughout the book are meant to be very different from what he might experience after a one-night stand. There are two women in his life: his mother and Whiteflower. Yet while the book contains quite strong erotic elements, I don't think its women are very substantial. Indeed I should think that it's the sort of book that might quite easily be attacked by some modern feminists. Certainly Whiteflower doesn't do much. I picture her on her horse riding, and making love in the ruins of the chapel. She remains a figure out of myth more than are some other things in the book.

RT: Did you envision her as a kind of fairy creature from whom it is necessary to depart, if you want to avoid remaining trapped in the Other World?

JH: No. It was necessary for Percival to leave, not because he must separate from Whiteflower, but because he must seek his destiny, which he believes to be to find Arthur. He wants to hasten back to her afterwards.

RT: Why did you choose Percival rather than Galahad as your hero?

JH: I was attracted by the element of compassion, the aim not to go and capture something, but to witness it and salute it. My background and upbringing are Quaker and pacifist. Now whether that's got something to do with it, I don't know, but I wouldn't want to be dissociated from that background. It may explain why I see the Percival legend as dealing with pain: asking questions, understanding, comprehending, and perhaps taking that pain upon oneself. That is very different from the saga slayings that predominate elsewhere in Arthurian legend.

RT: What part of the traditional Percival story did you feel was most important to include in your novel?

JH: The Grail ceremony that is not understood or recognized, and is bewildering; then the need to go back and find it again, and possibly never succeed. That to me was the core. It provides the whole sense of the hero's destiny. He is trapped by his destiny in a way that I imagine people like Lancelot and Galahad aren't. He's a bit like a Flying Dutchman or an Ancient Mariner. He's got to go on searching and looking, and he may or may not find the lord of the Grail. When he finds what he thinks is Arthur's castle, he is almost destroyed by it. That was quite a nice twist, it seems to me.

RT: Did you draw upon the tradition of the Holy Fool in your portrayal of Percival? In other words, while Percival may seem very innocent and naive from a worldly point of view, in terms of spiritual development he is quite advanced. He has his eyes fixed upon God and that, ultimately, is far more important.

JH: Well, I didn't draw specifically upon that tradition, but I would certainly agree that it describes my view of Percival closely. The Percival who appears in Wagner and elsewhere is really a bit of an idiot. He is an innocent who is almost a simpleton, but very good-natured. Now this is not my Percival. But the Percival you describe, who is fundamentally religious and who is constantly thinking about first and last things rather than more immediate concerns, certainly reflects my view of him. Innocence is not disabling, whereas in the perfect, as opposed to holy, fool it may seem to be.

RT: Yes, traditionally Percival makes a lot of mistakes that are sometimes used to generate humor. The Holy Fool displays a different kind of innocence.

JH: This might have been a richer and fuller book if I had decided to go for the humor as well. One thing it does try to preserve, however, is the overlapping of Pagan and Christian elements. In tradition it seems to me that the Grail is not so far from being a fertility symbol, and that side of myth interests me very much. The girl who comes to him when he's trapped by the beam and fallen timbers, the figure of Whiteflower, the parody scene in the hall when Percival is mocked by an old woman--they are the triple manifestations of the Mother Goddess as maiden, mother, and crone.

RT: Does his entrapment in the ruins recall the Perilous Chapel episode of tradition?

JH: Yes, that's right, though for me that term included a perilous castle as well as chapel, even though it is in the chapel that the accident happens and Percival is trapped by a beam there.

RT: In Arthurian tradition the Perilous Chapel transforms itself. It is indeed perilous, but if your response is the right one, if you ask the right question, then it is transformed.

JH: This one just stays perilous. It also, of course, reflects my concern with realism. If you actually do go charging around a burnt-out ruin, then you may have a nasty accident. I suspect that films like Kuresawa's Throne of Blood and The Seven Samurai influenced my awareness of the harsh reality of life in the past. They portray a world that's extremely vivid and unpleasant. I knew nothing in English like that, and yet I reckon that's probably how it was. People probably smelt strongly in the Middle Ages. The opening pages of Percival, when they pillage the bodies, recalls The Seven Samurai in some ways, though it's pretty mild by comparison with what might have happened. Percival is actually idealized in some ways, however. One critic, I remember, said the love scene was all blazing pillows and so on. The book is meant to have some of the romantic attraction of medieval romance in places.

RT: It would have to, wouldn't it? Events are viewed through Percival's eyes, and he is something of a romantic, isn't he?

JH: He mustn't be cynical; he may tolerate absurdity, but he musn't ever be cynical. I suppose it's an anti-cynicist book, in many ways.

RT: You wrote, "I think I do now accept that either things are truly arbitrary, an utter haphazardness of God, or their direction is likely to be too difficult for us to understand, so that they appear arbitrary though they are not so. . . . To some this is cynicism, and to others it is faith" (138).

JH: Yes, I like that. For me and a number of readers, the book deals with our relationship with Christianity, and Christians tend to find the book particularly moving. One reviewer wrote, "it is a faith in God and in narrative that comes through most impressively." That is interesting, but not quite accurate. One may query whether God is present, as the title suggests. It is very much a challenge to the reader.

RT: Is there any question that you think I may have overlooked?

JH: Well, I think that had we not touched on that last point, we should not have left it out. The relationship with Christianity is important. The novel is like the works of, say, Camus or Beckett, or someone like that, written in a Christian context. We've all grown up with a Christian consciousness, whatever our religion may be. I very much value that Christian culture, and I consider that the Christian elements in Arthurian legend are intriguing.

RT: Is it that aspect of the legend that attracts you most?

JH: I suppose it is. Yes, I think it has to be.

RT: A Christianity that incorporates mythic resonances, perhaps?

JH: Yes, but it's not a simple matter. It's like an author being commissioned to write a play, or an artist being commissioned to create a tapestry or a triptych. You think, I could do that, or there'd be a good possibility here, a good scene there. You can imagine Shakespeare selecting his characters as they walk about. It's not all a matter of intellectual and philosophical motivation. Sometimes you think, that would go well, or that would be nice to write about.

RT: Might you write another Arthurian novel?

JH: I don't think I shall. I've got nothing new to say about the legend that I haven't already said in Percival.

RT: Thank you.