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Interview with Joy Chant
20 MAY 1989
Finding Joy Chant's house in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, was no easy task. Beguiled by the warm sunny weather and hedgerows of mayflowers in magnificent bloom (recalling for me Merlin's fate), I had dawdled on my way down from Cambridge, stopped to visit the site of the Battle of Maldon, and so got caught up in the evening rush-hour traffic from London that made following directions difficult. Yet my welcome more than made up for any inconvenience, for the author was happy to talk at length with someone who shared her enthusiasm for Arthurian legend. After the taped interview, we continued our conversation over drinks in a pub, then dinner in an Indian restaurant, while her husband gallantly looked after the children.
Despite the problems of finding time to write amidst the conflicting demands of job and family, the love of Arthurian legend that shines through her imaginative recreation of the Arthurian world, The High Kings (New York: Bantam, 1983; rev. ed. London: Unwin, 1987), remains undiminished. The pressure of working as a librarian has postponed Chant's plans for further Arthurian projects, for economic necessity inevitably imposes its restraints upon the creative ambitions of all the authors. I hope the postponement will, however, be brief.
RT: What attracted you to the Arthurian legend as a major ingredient in The High Kings?
JC: I think it's a story that must obsess many writers--anybody whose imagination is an important part of his or her makeup, and who is particularly interested, as I think most fantasy writers are, in legendary material. In that case Arthur is very likely to be a figure who absorbs you, as he certainly did me, from a very early age.
I learned to read extremely young, when I was two and a half years old, so that by the time I started school at five I was an avid reader with an almost adult reading age. I was, however, still emotionally a very young child. The books that were written for children were not much use to me because I read them in ten minutes. The books that were written for adults were no use to me either, however, because I couldn't follow the emotions in them. So when I was a child, for many years ninety percent of my reading was legends, folktales, and the lives of the saints-- material that had all the complexities worn out of it by many retellings. Since the story pattern is very clear and the relationships are very strong, a child can pick them up. For most of my childhood, that's what my head was stuffed with, and so when I started working myself, it's not surprising that's what came out.
RT: You read Norse and classical legends?
JC: Yes. So much so that I think our county library gave up on their copy of the Norse legends. I didn't discover the Celtic material until my late teens, simply because there wasn't very much--and still isn't--for children on the Celtic legends.
I read retellings of Malory earlier. The Arthur story had always fascinated me, much more than did the story of Robin Hood. It has this marvellous tragic dimension to it because from the very beginning the destruction is implicit, the seeds of Camlann are sown. This provides a sense of inevitability. Then there is the wonderful ending. Arthur's farewell in Malory is one of the passages that I read over and over and over: "Comfort yourself and do as well as you may, for in me is no trust for to trust in." I can't think of any other hero who departs on such a note.
Arthur is a Celt, the hero of a people who were beaten in the end, and those who first told the story knew that the happy ending can't last forever, that the brightness and magnificence are only an interlude. This knowledge gives the story a much deeper emotional resonance than most others possess.
When I was about fourteen, I started writing myself, and I became interested in the story of Arthur as source material. The only thing I remember about that attempt was that I was trying very hard to finish the story before any character reached the age of thirty. I couldn't bear that, no. I'd allow Arthur to get to thirty, but nobody else. It was intended to be a long serial, but I didn't get very far into it. I had lots of notes of what was going to happen, but I'm glad to say that nothing has survived.
RT: Was it a retelling, or did you create new adventures?
JC: I created new incidents though I tried to hang them on the traditional stories. The project petered out as my interest turned to other things.
I came back to Arthurian legend later, however, although Malory's was still the only version that I knew. I began to get excited by the fact that the stories were quite different at the beginning and end. It was like a sandwich into which stories from different places had been inserted. I began picking away at them and thinking, that's a different sort to that sort. I do remember coming home to my flatmate in great excitement because I'd suddenly realized that Lancelot had taken the place of Bedivere in the story. I said, Bedivere's there at the beginning and he's there again at the end; but in the middle you never hear of him because Lancelot's there instead. What they did was they put Lancelot in where Bedivere should be! She wasn't a bit impressed. That did, however, encourage me to look at the history of the stories.
It was about then that I first encountered Celtic legend, and I had so much fun with it that I don't think I paid much attention to Arthur for quite a time. I did, however, become very interested in his Celtic heritage. I went to college in Wales and took a paper in Welsh studies. It didn't have a great deal to do with Arthur, but it did put me in touch with the background material for the first time and it did give me more insight into the development of The Mabinogion.
RT: Why did you choose to go to college in Wales?
JC: I love Wales. My father had been stationed there during the war, and he talked about it a great deal. I'd never been there as a child, but from what he said I built up a picture of a haven just over the hill. Moreover, I should imagine a good eighty percent of my teachers throughout primary school were Welsh: it's one of the great national trades. So many of the most interesting and exciting people I knew seemed to be Welsh. Later I went to Wales on riding holidays.
RT: This experience fed your interest in things Celtic, I imagine?
RT: What led you to write The High Kings?
JC: That arose from talking to my American publishers, Ian and Betty Ballantine. Nobody had tried, as far as I knew then, to write a popularization of Geoffrey of Monmouth. I'd read him a long time before and I'd just recently reread him. Mixed up with what is now stodginess are some very good stories. Nobody who's not really keen is going to plow through all the rest of it to find them, however, and I thought that was a shame. That was how The High Kings began, as a retelling of some of the stories from Geoffrey of Monmouth. As I worked on it, I decided against just straight retellings. It seemed more interesting to try and reconstruct the stories. I eventually came across the theory--I was quite pleased about it--that Geoffrey actually did have an old Welsh book as a source for The History of the Kings of Britain. It was, however, oral tradition that had survived in his time, and he called it a book to give it greater authority.
One of the bees I have in my bonnet is that oral tradition is a great deal more to be trusted than most people think. Because we are now a literate people and not very good at remembering, we tend to think that nobody else was ever better at it. And because a lot of oral tradition either doesn't get right, or doesn't bother with, details we think important, we tend to overlook the fact that people remember what they see as relevant. If you want a description of some people who drove off in a fast car, you could probably trust most of the young men between twelve and twenty to tell you exactly what make the car was, whereas a woman my age would probably be better able to tell you that there were two children who were about eight and ten, that the woman was wearing a Marks and Spencer's coat, and so on. Just because people like the Celts might not be reliable witnesses to some things, such as location, we think that they must have got everything wrong. Yet the things that mattered to them they probably got right and kept on getting right.
Over the years I grew very interested in oral literature and the bard's place in society. These interests all began to come together in this book. I ended up by hoping that I might actually be resurrecting some of these stories in an earlier form. Originally, I was not going include Arthur, but I recognized that he couldn't be left out of a book about Celtic heroes.
Like many writers I have this problem with Arthur--he is so powerful that he doesn't submit to handling all that tamely. Because it's the story I love best, I very, very rarely read anybody else's retelling with any satisfaction. Indeed, one of the things that put me off doing my own version is that I think people who care to read it will be just like me: they'll have such a powerful idea of what the story should be like that they'll reject with loathing anything that doesn't match up to it. So I tend not to enjoy other people's versions of the Arthur story, partly because we live in the age of the novel now. It's extremely hard, I think, to handle that material as a novel and not do something quite drastic to the feel of it. I therefore was guarding Arthur with some caution, but Ian and Betty were very keen on not just having stories about him, but background material as well.
RT: Was it their idea to introduce background information on Celtic customs?
JC: Yes. Everybody's favorite was the "temporary marriage."
RT: It seems a very modern concept, doesn't it?
JC: Yes. What made the Celts a very enjoyable subject to work on was that they really seemed to have got so close to splitting things down the middle for the sexes. They didn't seem to be concerned whether the women or the men were in charge. They seemed to be very even-handed: sometimes one, sometimes the other.
There were ten different kinds of legal marriage, three of which were permanent. The three permanent marriages were interesting in themselves: if the man brought more property, he was master of the house and the servants went to him for orders; if the woman brought more property, she was the mistress of the house; and if they brought exactly equal amounts, they were exactly equal, and it was set down precisely who would have what and what each party got in the event of a divorce. He had the cooking pots, she had the plates, and so on.
I was concerned about how to integrate all this material, especially since the publishers also wanted information on the historical Arthur so that the reader would find out what happened at the end. Thus I came up with the idea of the stories being told to the historical Arthur. By developing parallel stories, moreover, the ones that were told to Arthur and the historical account of his life, I found that I was keeping a double focus on him, which was very enjoyable. Given that information on the historical Arthur is so conjectural, I also decided that I would be closer to expressing how I imagined he might have lived in snapshot glimpses, rather than trying to make a continuous, coherent narrative. In the latter you have to make a great many decisions about the person you're writing about, whereas you don't if you're doing it the way I was doing it. I could suggest something about one aspect of Arthur's life and then leave it without committing myself too far. It saved me from having to make up my mind about things I didn't want to.
When I started working on the story of Arthur himself, I found that I had a great deal more material than I had space for and it turned into the longest in the book. I thought, there, he's done it again! Let him get a toe in and he takes over the room!
RT: Did you do all the research before you started writing, or did you check for additional information as you wrote?
JC: I started by just writing loads of notes, first on Geoffrey of Monmouth, then on the Welsh Triads and other sources. I used to spend weeks and weeks following cross-references and digging up new things. It was wonderful! Figures I couldn't find out much about had to be dropped. After Arthur, Cassivelaunos was my favorite: fragments that were so incoherent in Geoffrey, when put next to fragments from somewhere else, began to match each other beautifully. I usually had to go through the references half a dozen times before patterns began to emerge. I would notice that certain features were turning up regularly in some form or other, and I would begin to feel that these were important.
RT: Having formed a sense of what you wanted to do, then would you start to write?
JC: Yes. For that book, I had tight length restrictions. Because it was impossible to handle so much material within such limited space in the expansive, novelistic form, and because I didn't want to handle the legend that way anyway, I tried for the style of a storyteller instead. I found that the quicker I wrote it down, the more I could do it as if I were saying it, and the better it came out. I tended to tell the story to myself, rehearse it through about half a dozen times, and then just write it straight through in a rush, rather than work carefully on each paragraph which is my usual way of writing. Invariably it took more words than I could afford, and so I would have to go back and cut things out.
The story of Arthur presented special problems because the material kept expanding in all directions. I kept coming up with wonderful things I hadn't anticipated, like information on Idaug who appears in The Dream of Rhonabwy as the Embroiler of Britain. He is also one of the seven men left alive after the Battle of Camlann. Then in another source, I found that Arthur had a foster son named Kibedoc who turns out to be the son of the same father as Idaug had. Then somewhere else again, I found that Modrat also had the same father. Since one of the brothers was Arthur's foster son, it was quite likely that the others were also. It was recorded elsewhere that Arthur had killed Kibedoc. It didn't say that he'd killed Modrat, but we do know that the latter must have been a person of immense importance because he's the only one named in the Easter record that mentions when Arthur died. We don't even know if they were on the same or opposite side, really. So I had three brothers, one of whom is a foster son killed by Arthur with his own hand, and another of whom stirred up the final battle. I began to see that there was a very plausible set of motives that I could weave into the story. Things like that happened time and time again.
RT: You found hints among your references, from which you derived a pattern?
JC: Yes, and when you are familiar with the tradition, you can see what sort of pattern a Celtic story teller might have used those people in. There were so many of these little hints about Arthur that a personality with a very distinct flavor emerged. Intriguingly, the Celtic sources do not entirely approve of him. He is the great hero, one of the Three Pillars of Britain. I found it interesting that he was called quite simply Arthur the Soldier in early references: Dunvallo the Lawgiver, Bran the Blessed, Arthur the Soldier. Each represents one of the three aspects of the Celtic ideal of kingship: judgement, generosity, leadership in war. You have to bear in mind that there has probably already been a process of selection in order to make them fit this pattern.
Yet though Arthur is named as the great hero, and there's no question about that, there is an implied criticism of him in a many stories. In one that I didn't use, Arthur is named as one of the Three Vile Bards of Britain. He makes up a ruthless satire on Cai, his foster brother, because, as in the story of Saul and David, Cai had been praised too loudly for killing a giant. Arthur reached the point of lunatic jealousy and was so horrible to his foster brother that there was almost war between them. Cai stormed off and didn't speak to him for seven years.
RT: Why did you leave this story out?
JC: Because of the restrictions upon length, I couldn't fit everything in. Furthermore that incident headed off at an angle, and I didn't see a clear way back to the main narrative. It was a disappointment because I did like the idea of Arthur as the vile bard. I couldn't reconcile their enmity with Arthur's later anger over Cai's death, however.
RT: It was a matter of choices, then?
JC: Yes. Everything was moving in one direction, and if I'd made other choices, they would have run in a different direction. The basic concept that I had of Arthur guided my selection and organization of the material. If I had been guided by a different concept of Arthur, then different details might have assumed prominence and others would have moved into the background; the emphasis and the coloring would have been different.
I began to suspect that the first story tellers perceived Arthur's great flaw as his unwillingness to tolerate a rival, and I saw how well that would fit with the story of the unfaithful wife which is there from the beginning of the legend. I could imagine a man able to mount this tremendous effort of national resistance and national unification, yet willing to wreck his whole life's work to satisfy injured pride.
RT: That's one of the flaws of the heroic code, the flaw of Achilles, isn't it?
JC: Yes. In the Christian era, such behavior is subjected to a different moral judgement, but these people had no existence other than what people thought and said of them. They didn't have an interior personal self that they could take refuge in and say, it doesn't matter to me what he says; I know what I am. That wasn't true for them. You were what other people said you were, no matter how you denied it.
RT: Hence the power of the bards to raise blisters with their satire, I suppose?
JC: Yes. The same thing happens to Fergus Mac Roich in the Deirdre story. When Conchobar kills the sons of Usnach, who are under his protection, it's such a ferocious insult to him that it's as if he has been denied his existence as an Ulsterman. As a result, the only action possible for him is to find a new existence as a Connaughtman and come back as an enemy. It's hard for us to swallow that, because we think love and loyalty endure whatever people do to you, but right and wrong are differently perceived in a culture like that.
Arthur is very firmly rooted in the Heroic Age, and the ambivalence of his heroic stature is more interesting for the imagination to work on than an unambiguous heroism. I tried bring out this ambiguity in The High Kings. His flaw is revealed most powerfully when he digs up the head of Bran. If he'd not done that, if he'd only left the head in the White Mountain, then Britain would have been preserved from invasion. But he couldn't leave it; he had to say, me or no one.
I did try to imply, however, that if Arthur had possessed the qualities of which Bran was the emblem, absolute generosity, a willingness to go to extra lengths and turn the other cheek--Bran is the epitome of a Christian hero even though he is a Pagan--if Arthur had been like that, as well as what he already was, then nothing could have stopped him. But then, could anybody have the whole spectrum of virtues?
RT: Pride is his tragic flaw, then?
JC: Yes. I remember the priest at the baptism of one of our sons talking about hamartia, a word that appears in New Testament Greek. Paul uses it as a synonym for sin, but what it literally means is an arrow falling short of its aim. I got quite excited by that idea of not quite having the strength to make it, of falling short a little bit. Really, it just means being human. I don't know the original significance of these bans and restraints upon the hero's actions, but I suspect that their value to a story teller is to provide a flaw in the hero's power. Despite all his superhuman heritage and magical guardings, there was a chink you could get through. There was going to be some way he could be defeated, and it usually hinged on these bans.
RT: Did you plan from the outset to include this tragic flaw in Arthur, or did it emerge as you wrote?
JC: I don't work in a linear way. It's more that the whole thing is boiling, and sometimes things bubble to the top. You think, ah; but then they sink down again before you've caught them. Then you just have to hang over the pot and hope they rise to the surface again. Maybe these ideas are like layers of sediment, all building up at the same time, emerging only when you're getting close to actually putting the words down. You begin to see where the main path goes, and to recognize what you can't use because it will lead you from that path.
The life of the Celtic hero traditionally passes through seven stages: his miraculous conception, usually a double conception in both worlds; attempts to prevent his birth; his childhood exploits; his wooing; his deeds; his trip to the underworld; his death. I found that I had examples of each stage. I thought, gosh, there really was a Celtic saga of Arthur and these are bits of it! I began to get very excited and extremely vain. I thought, I'm going to rediscover this saga after fifteen hundred years. I'll bring it back to life! The Arthur story, which had been intended just as the last of twelve in the book, threatened to become immense, and so I decided against using a great deal of it. I felt I really couldn't just sit down and work on the Arthur material, bringing it all together into a resurrected saga of Arthur. I had to be selective.
RT: Do you feel tempted to bring out a second book that would relate the excluded tales of Arthur?
JC: Well, yes, I've often felt I'd like to, but the trouble is you can't quite bring out a book as unanchored as that. Publishers don't want to handle a book that is so free-floating. They wonder whether it might not really be a work of scholarship, and which list to place it on. This is very annoying from my side of the desk, although I can see that if it weren't for publishers producing books in the right context at the right time, they would sink like a stone and nobody would ever find them.
RT: Would you set the stories within a narrative frame similar to the one you used in The High Kings?
JC: I might extend my research further to include the princes of the post-Arthurian resistance, because that was a subject I enjoyed. One figure I sneaked into my book was Owain ap Urien, the great northwestern hero of the later resistance. He appears in the legend as Arthur's nephew, which proves that somebody thought he was important enough to be made a member of the royal family. He turns up a lot in the early poetry. One of my favorite poems tells of a victory he won:
The host of England sleeps
With the light in their eyes,
And those that have not fled
Were braver than were wise.
Those lines rolled round my tongue for ages. In the later stories, Owain is accompanied by his ravens which start ripping things up and eating the food. I thought, why couldn't they be his warband? Why shouldn't these warbands have given themselves names? I'm perfectly sure they would, since any group that's ninety percent composed of young men between the ages of eighteen and thirty, as they must have been, is going to have all sorts of secret passwords, wear three bracelets on the left arm and none on the right, and so on. I bet they all had names, and I bet Owain's ravens were his warband.
RT: So if the opportunity arose, you might write about Owain?
JC: Yes. I thought it might be fun to have tales of Arthur told to later princes like Owain and Maelgwyn Gwynned.
RT: I'm always happy to hear of new Arthurian stories being contemplated. If I could backtrack just a little, did you read other chronicles besides that of Geoffrey of Monmouth?
JC: Yes, I read most of them, but I found that my interest focused upon strands that went back from Geoffrey to Nennius and the early Welsh poets. I tended to move back from medieval to Celtic sources, reading as much as I could find. I'm grossly handicapped, I'm afraid, by not having any Celtic languages, although I know a little Welsh and learned to recognize many of the words that were relevant to me. I found some tales, like Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, that were published in the original Welsh with a parallel translation. I actually found myself reading them in Welsh, and just referring to the translation to make sure that I had it right. Unfortunately, however, much of the varied source material is closed to me.
RT: You mentioned that you read retellings of the story of King Arthur when you were younger. Did you read Malory in the original later?
JC: Oh, yes.
RT: Did you reread Malory and the other romances as part of the research for the book?
JC: Malory I felt I knew well. I did read a few romances, but I was fairly sure by then that I wasn't going to be writing about the kind of medieval knight who appears in them. I was intrigued by the tale of Balin and Balan, however. It's a rather odd story and it seems to carry a tremendous emotional weight that isn't quite justified by what actually happens on the page. I wondered whether it might be a last echo of the story of Belinos and Brennius in Celtic legend.
RT: Had you read any of the romances by Chretien de Troyes,?
JC: I'd read some of Chretien before, but I did not reread him.
RT: What about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
JC: Oh, yes, I know Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which struck me as another tale with Celtic roots. It's interesting to see how two different cultures make the beheading story equally gripping and equally important, but draw different morals from it. The Celtic stories are concerned with the problem of deciding who is entitled to be champion. He is the one who will keep his word and face the unfaceable, even if it means his death. After the story is Christianized, it takes on a different significance. Gawain doesn't have the triumph that Cuchulainn has at the end because he fails. He doesn't quite make it. The story is flawless in both versions. It translates successfully from one culture to another.
RT: Did you read Tennyson's Idylls of the King?
JC: Yes. I read them when I was quite young, and I'm beginning to enjoy them again, now. For a long time I did not enjoy poetry very much, particularly romantic poetry,
RT: How about modern novels? You said that you have on the whole been disappointed with contemporary versions of the story of King Arthur. Did you read many?
JC: I've tended not to. I read T. H. White's Once and Future King, of course, and I think that it is a marvellous book in its own right. The trouble is that Arthur is a heroic figure, whereas we live in the age of the novel, with its commitment to formal realism, interior motivation, and the subtleties of personality. A figure like Arthur is diminished if he's treated that way. Once you start to account for him, to explain his unhappy childhood and this kind of thing, all the brightness starts fading. Instead of a hero, you're left with someone who may be a remarkable man, but he's become just a contemporary, someone you can find fault with.
RT: The High Kings, then, is primarily a retelling of heroic tales?
JC: Yes. I could get very interested in a psychologically consistent Arthur, but I feel that it's quite dangerous. Arthur carries with him this tremendous power, this charge of centuries of emotion that have become attached to him. That is really what people care about, and you're running the risk of disappointing all that in a novelistic treatment. I've not yet read a novel about Arthur that compensates me for that loss.
Rosemary Sutcliff, for example, is a writer I very much admire. I enjoyed Arthur in The Lantern Bearers because he was seen a bit out of focus, a bit off to the side. Since you didn't know too much, your imagination could still swing itself round him. I didn't like him in Sword at Sunset, however, because I saw him too close up. Sutcliff's heroes are very often "handicapped" in some way. Sometimes, like the boy in Warrior Scarlet, they're literally physically handicapped; sometimes they're slaves; sometimes they've had this tremendous emotional bruising like Aquila in The Lantern Bearers, and she gave that to Arthur as well. At the end of Sword at Sunset I felt that I would have liked Arthur very much, and I would have admired him. I wouldn't, however, have gone round making up songs about him and sung them for the next fifteen hundred years. People might say that he was a good man who did his best but failed. That would have been the end of it. This luminous quality that makes people keep coming back to Arthur, and referring to him as the standard and model, wasn't there.
RT: Did you have a particular age group in mind when you wrote The High Kings?
JC: I really didn't think about an audience for that book. Had I been asked, I would have probably said I was excluding most children under the age of about twelve. For younger children you have to approach the material differently. Sex is the obvious example. I think that, as a motive, it is best left out of books for young children, because they don't comprehend it and lose interest. You can deal with sex in a book for young children, but you're going to have to look at it in a way that will make it comprehensible.
RT: When you're writing, do you have more than one project on the go at a time? Or do you write one book, finish it, and then start another one?
JC: I try to write only one at a time, but I've usually got several in mind. The ideal thing is to have one cooking while one is producing. By the time the reviews come out and people want to talk about your new book, it's already your old book, and you're well into another. Sometimes you are a little surprised when they ask you questions about a book you finished several years ago, and you have to think; you can't actually remember it all.
RT: Do you reread your books?
JC: Not straight through. I do sometimes pick them up and go over bits, but I don't sit down to read them through. I know how they end, you see.
RT: There are differences between the Bantam and Unwin editions of The High Kings. Did you have second thoughts?
JC: Not quite that. The Bantam edition contains something of a synthesis of my preferences and those of my editor. I preferred to keep a more formal style, while she wanted some more relaxed moments. I enjoy the latter too, but I felt it was inappropriate suddenly to introduce a novelistic style for the personal exchanges. This style couldn't just be switched on for those passages, then switched off for the rest of narrative. Moreover, the publishers had specified that the average length of each story be 6000 words, and to stay within that limit the narrative could only be treated in a formal way.
We differed a little over some aspects of the Arthur story too. My preference was for the older elements, the bits that dealt with Arthur as hero rather than Arthur as man. I was, of course, excited at having unearthed so much lesser known material. If something had to be cut to meet the requirements of length, I would prefer that something well known went and something less known stayed. My editor's taste, however, was for a more domestic tragedy. My feeling on that was that Malory had already done it and done it too well for me to want to trespass there. I'd rather do something new.
Eventually I wrote three versions of the Arthur story and sent them off, together with my arguments in favor of the one I wanted and against the others. I said, there you are; let me know what you think. I sent the text of the other stories as I had written them. The end result was something of a compromise, and in places my preferred version did not win. For example, after Arthur kills the boar Troit: the Bantam edition contains my editor's choice, the Unwin mine.
I originally wrote that Arthur joins Cai and Bedwyr on the river bank where they lean on their spears, look at each other, and laugh; and Arthur says, we grow old. The way I meant it was not that Arthur is feeling his age, but rather, phew, that was hard work! Also his hound is killed in the fight with the boar. As I wrote it, Arthur simply takes the dog and buries it under a cairn which you can still see.
In the hardback text, the three lean on their spears and look at each other, spent and weary instead of laughing. Thus when Arthur says, we grow old, it gives a different impression altogether from the one I intended, especially when he proceeds to kneel by the body of the slain hound and cradle its head in his lap. Here he is truly feeling his age, not making a joke. So in the Unwin paperback edition I took the opportunity to restore my first thoughts. There was some more touching up, but very little and that more often in the Notes. I didn't want to leave the impression that I thought the Celts incapable of massacres--I have heard of Boadicea, honest!
RT: The changes do affect the picture of Arthur. In your text he is certainly not given to lamentation and regret.
JC: He's a hard man. I was interested how that ruthless streak comes through even in Malory's Arthur at times. In one of the tournaments Tristram, despite his wounds, continues to make hay with the Round Table. Arthur says to Lancelot, this has gone past a joke; go down there and get rid of him. Lancelot says, I can't do that; he's wounded. I don't care if he's wounded, replies Arthur. Kill him; get him out of there.
In the Welsh material, although he is a good king, he has a colossal drive beside which everything else in his life will, if put to the test, become irrelevant. If I were writing a novel about Arthur, I think that is how I would portray him. His friends will be irrelevant; his children will be irrelevant. His wife already is irrelevant and has been from the beginning. Nothing matters in the end but his mission to save Britain. I think I'd also make him a man in whom the personal side of his emotion was all used up at once in the episode with Morgause or Morgan, whomever you use.
RT: Did you invent any of the incidents that you include in The High Kings, or are they reshaped out of material found in your sources?
JC: There weren't many pieces of pure invention although I did in some places choose the order of events, following what I perceived to be the logic of the story. The events might have been placed in a different order, but that would have implied a different story. For example, when Gueneva is abducted by Maelguas, King of the Summer Country, Arthur is absent from court to put down a rebellion in the north by Cuil son of Caw. This rebellion is recorded in the sources, but it was my invention to link it to the abduction.
I also borrowed small incidents from other sources. You often find in Celtic tradition pairs of birds or deer which are linked two and two by chains of gold about their necks. These are usually people with magic powers who are temporarily in a different form. During Gueneva's abduction the enchanters come in the form of birds, perch upon the walls of Camalod, and sing a song that sends everyone to sleep. The song that sends them to sleep is part of the original story, but I added the motif of the birds linked by golden chains. What I do is put together in one story elements drawn from different sources.
Sometimes too I make very minor adjustments to a motif. There is, in the original abduction story, a man who is unaffected by the sleeping spell, but I chose to explain this as deafness from working all his life in a smithy. In the source he happened to be up to his ears in mud at the time, and quite missed the song.
I also added the bitter little exchange between Arthur and Gueneva after he has rescued her. When she laments the death of Maelguas, her husband wonders at her nerve in praising her abductor in his hearing. She replies, have I not often heard your mistresses praised? From that time on they never sleep together. This gave me the chance to suggest what the situation might have been like in Arthur's court, though Gueneva is deliberately ambiguous about whether or not she slept with Maelguas.
RT: It offers a comment on male double standards, doesn't it?
JC: Yes, and it reminds us that a Celtic woman didn't have to put up with them. The marital infidelity of the queen has a different resonance in Celtic stories, partly because of the idea of the king being married to his nation. Since his wife is identified with his kingship, her seducer is attacking not just his domestic happiness, nor even his personal pride, but his actual right to be king.
In many Celtic stories, a wife's infidelity is not the personal injury we consider it. For example, in the Ferghus Mac Roich story from the Cuchulainn cycle, Queen Maeve's husband actually sees his wife sleeping with Ferghus. He tells his friends, do not get upset; he's an important ally, and she has to keep him sweet. Who she sleeps with is, to a certain extent, her own affair, provided that it does not affect the essential relationship between husband and wife.
RT: Speaking of women, your portrayal of Morgen is interesting. Why did you decide that Arthur would encounter her under these circumstances?
JC: Again the elements are drawn from tradition, but I chose how to combine them. Morgen's earliest appearance is as chief among nine sisters on the Isle of Avalon, where heroes go in hope of healing. Very soon afterwards, she is identified as Arthur's sister. I took Morgen to be the other half of the double conception: to create a hero, a child has to be conceived in this world and the Other World. In a sense, she's not Arthur's sister at all, being the daughter of the lake fairy and Gorlas, not Igerna and the fairy king. Yet they are linked: they are two halves in another way.
To that basic story, I added the tradition whereby a king gains his right to rule by being offered a cup, which it appears is a symbolic marriage for he often is invited to sleep with a young woman. Either she or what she gives him represents sovereignty. I decided to use Morgen as the woman who offers Arthur sovereignty.
I merged this with another widespread Celtic motif, of the hero who is importuned by a goddess and turns her down. Even though he is often unaware that she's a goddess, she is mortally offended. A phrase I use there because I love it is her offer of the friendship of her thighs.
I mixed all these motifs together. I thought, I can use the idea of Arthur being offered sovereignty, but only receiving it partially because he won't humble himself and go back the second time.
RT: You make his refusal to return the second time the result of a compunction over sleeping with his sister, do you not?
JC: Yes, but Morgen doesn't see this as a reasonable argument at all, rather as a great discourtesy. Nor, indeed, was it a very sensible thing to do--I don't think that even Greek goddesses relish being turned down, and Celtic goddesses were a lot snappier on the whole.
RT: What you're doing, then, is adapting various motifs, some drawn from Arthurian legend, some from Celtic tradition, and some from the broad range of folklore, would you say?
JC: Yes. Some things are almost universal.
RT: Where you find an episode, or even just suggestions for an episode, might it evoke associations with other motifs that you use to flesh it out, as it were?
JC: Yes. Some pieces seem to fit together, but they somehow never become parts of the whole. They don't take hands and dance together, whereas some do. Once they work together then everything moves.
Another reason for my treatment of the Morgen episode was my interest in the ambivalent judgement of Arthur that I felt underlay much of the early material. I felt that if the Morgen episode were constructed in this way, it would serve as a useful device to prepare for the final tragedy. It should warn us from the beginning that he is incomplete. He wants to do everything on his own. Her curse on his future relations with women also offers an explanation for Arthur's general failure as husband and lover.
RT: Why did you make Morgen, rather than Morgause, the sister with whom Arthur commits incest?
JC: Mainly to preserve the unity of the story. Morgause would have come from nowhere and led nowhere, whereas Morgen was already a part of the cast--a powerful figure in the legend, not an extra who pops in for one purpose and then vanishes. The conflicting emotions of love and hate between Morgen and Arthur are too strong, both as tradition and material, to reject. She was probably originally a goddess, cast as his sister and the mother of Owain ap Urien who seems to me to have been "elected" as Arthur's heir in the mythic tradition.
RT: Why did you choose to make Amros the son whom Morgen bore to Arthur, rather than Modrat?
JC: Amros is an interesting figure whom I wanted to include. There are hints that he possesses incredible knowledge and wisdom: out of his grave grows a hazel tree, the nuts of which impart knowledge if eaten. He doesn't seem human, rather the son of a goddess. Moreover, I found a better role for Modrat, as one of the three sons of Cordav, and Arthur's foster son. I needed him to replace Lancelot in the love triangle.
RT: Why did you choose to retain the incest motif, since it is a thirteenth-century addition to the legend, whereas you elsewhere confine yourself to earlier sources?
JC: Perhaps it's just so ineradicably linked in my imagination with the Arthur story now, that I wanted to retain it. Also incest offered a motive for Arthur's killing Amros, because none was offered in the sources.
RT: Why did you replace Lancelot with Modrat as Gueneva's lover?
JC: I don't feel that Lancelot comes out of the same pot. He's not a mythic figure. He's a figure of romance even though he retains some of Celtic touches: he is fostered by a lake goddess and learns fighting skills from a woman warrior.
RT: What about the historical frame? What historical studies, or archaeological findings did you read for that?
JC: I read what was in print then. Lacking expertise myself, I made my choice among the experts, picking those who sounded most convincing to me. Then I stuck with them, rather than pick what I wanted from different people. Of the authors I read, John Morris in The Age of Arthur seemed to me to construct the most coherent case because he looked at it from so many directions. It seemed to make a lot of sense, the way he organized it.
RT: Morris seems to receive a warmer reception among literary people than he does among historians, who view him with a certain amount of skepticism.
JC: He probably speculates a bit too much for them. He does actually make choices, doesn't he? He says, this is what I think happened. That is, perhaps, a terribly risky thing for a historian to do.
I wanted to use, but had to drop from the book because of the constraints of space, the non-Arthurian story of Carausius, the British emperor. Since he was a foreigner, he was going to be my link to Theodoric the Goth who was on Arthur's staff. I would have loved to be able to get into the book that Arthur actually had a senior officer who was a Goth.
RT: Could I ask you to say more about the role of women in The High Kings? Would you say that part of your attraction to the Celtic world was the independence that it gave women? And that your appreciation of this independence has been increased by the feminist movement? Gueneva is allowed more initiative and self- assertiveness in your account than she might have in some of the medieval romances.
JC: Yes. There she's little more than queen of the tournament. I think that it's true my response to Celtic women and goddesses would have been quite different in my teens, before my consciousness was raised. At that time I would not have seen them so positively, and certainly I would have been more interested in a more passive and ladylike Gueneva than I could be now.
The Celtic goddesses are particularly interesting because there aren't all that many models in romance and legend of very active, and rather dominating, women. Their sexual freedom is particularly striking. You find dominant queens in a later age, but they're condemned if they are not chaste. To encounter Celtic women who see no reason why they shouldn't have a number of lovers and change their husbands now and then is quite startling. And refreshing.
I was very interested in what I discovered from the sources about Gueneva. She has a triple identity, which is not uncommon in Celtic tradition. In such figures two of the three seem little more than shadows of the first, giving her extra life and vitality; they don't really possess independent existence. And the fact that Gueneva was a giant's daughter was a lovely discovery. In other words Arthur, like so many other heroes, wins the giant's daughter. That I found in Rachel Bromwich's notes to the Triads. There is also a certain coldness in Gueneva's character. Finally, she is unfaithful. It is her function, or perhaps a bitterly remembered truth. A faithful Gueneva is as inconceivable as an unheroic Arthur, however differently the character may be interpreted. Indeed, in fairly early tradition she is not merely unfaithful, but actually plots against Arthur. Like Morgen in the prose romances, she steals Arthur's sword to give to his enemy.
I also wanted to mirror this picture of her in the historical frame of my book. I tried to imply that Veneva, as I call her there, might not have been particularly happy in her marriage, and that this is what lies behind the legend. At the end of the Branwen story, Arthur is interested in Bran, the great king; Veneva grieves for Branwen, who was childless and had lost the people she loved; Bedvir broods over the fate of Manadan who survived them. I hoped they would remind people a bit of the situation of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot/Bedivere at the end of the Malory's version of the Arthur story. Arthur takes on Bran's role as the lost king. Veneva/Gueneva takes on Branwen's role of having a kingdom, two kingdoms, laid waste because of her, and she has no children. Bedvir is left alone, surviving them and mourning them.
RT: What part of the legend did you feel it was most important for you to include in the story when you were writing?
JC: With all these legendary characters you can reinterpret to a certain extent, but you've got to leave the core untouched. In Arthur's case, I felt that it is his role as the heroic king. You can't turn him into a lout and scoundrel and still call him Arthur. If you do, he's just going to occupy a completely different place in mythology and everyone's imagination. What took such a strong hold on my imagination was the image of a heroic king, but one with a flaw: he could be everything except generous. Remember that in a Celtic context generosity was a very important virtue. It's praised almost before anything else.
RT: Well, thank you very much.