Back to top

Interview with Kathleen Herbert

20 MAY 1991

   When I discovered that Kathleen Herbert was among those scheduled to attend the Congress of the International Arthurian Society at Durham, I was pleased at the prospect of a fortuitous meeting with an author I had hoped to interview. Unfortunately, she was unable to come to the Congress after all, and so the interview had to wait until the following year when I was in London for a few days. She very kindly travelled in from the suburbs to meet me at the place where I was staying, and we were able to find a quiet room to talk about her writing.
   She spoke of her love of the North of England where she sets her historical trilogy, Bride of the Spear (London: Bodley Head, 1988) first published as The Lady of the Fountain, Frome, Somerset: Bran's Head, 1982),Queen of the Lightning (London: Bodley Head, 1983), and Ghost in the Sunlight (London: Bodley Head, 1986). Her custom of writing as far as possible at the actual site of the events she describes helps her to visualize them more clearly. Although these events postdate the Arthurian period, they continue to be influenced by it. More important, however, are the stories and motifs that are borrowed, especially the legend of the Lady of the Fountain.

RT: While your historical novels are set after the death of Arthur, they are influenced by Arthurian legend. This is particularly the case in Bride of the Spear and its earlier versions which draw upon the story of the Lady of the Fountain. What was it that attracted you to Arthurian legend in general and to this story in particular?

KH: First of all, I have always been interested in border lands in time and in space, where one historical period, or one aspect of the human psyche, moves into another. The Arthurian period is fascinating because it has so many border lands: the confrontation between the Roman and the new barbarian cultures, and between the Germanic and Celtic peoples. It is a period of heroic legend and of migration of peoples for both Germans and Celts. The legends of the latter concentrated upon this figure we call King Arthur, although they contain elements much older than the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.
   In the second place, from childhood I have always liked the stories of Arthur, as most English-speaking people do. You meet them young and are caught by them. You later start to ask yourself why certain stories hold you, and I agree with Jung that the stories which catch you permanently do represent certain movements of one's own psychic development. They yield powerful themes and figures, such as the quest, the last stand, the various faces of woman, the exploration of heroism. These motifs arise again and again in every great story.
   As well as my interest in border lands and the great stories attached to Arthurian legend, I have very strong geographical interests, particularly in the North of England. In a second-hand book shop I bought a copy of Taliesin by John Morris Jones under the impression that it was a modern version of the old mythological story of Taliesin, the Mysterious Child. Instead, I found it was a study of certain Old Welsh poems. I learned that some characters who were part of Arthurian legend, like Urien and Owain, were very likely historical, and that the man who had written the poems had probably met them. I started to learn Welsh in order to check the translations of the poems, and I noticed, in Ivor Williams' splendid editions, the place names. I have always had a special interest in the North. I like it physically. I thought, the next time I go up there I will look for some of these place names. I found, in fact, that they made perfect sense when you related them to Roman roads and Roman forts.
   Then I began to read the various versions of the story of Owain, not only by Chretien de Troyes and in the Welsh, but also Nennius' "historical" account. There is also an ecclesiastical legend of the birth of Saint Kentigern, whose reputed father is Owain, and a common theme runs through both the ecclesiastical and the romance stories. Since there is, moreover, an Herbertian Life of Saint Kentigern, I had a rather proprietory feeling for it. The novel really started as a piece of historical reconstruction. I wondered, when does a man begin to turn into a legend? After all, I was attracted to the story of Urien and Owain in the first place because they had been drawn into Arthurian legend. They probably are historical figures whose battles can be plotted on a map and make sense, and yet there was something about them that turned them into figures of legend.
   Now, if you can drag all those various strands together, you see me in the Lake District and along Hadrian's Wall, with Sir Ivor Williams' edition of the Taliesin poems and Kenneth Jackson's Early Lives of Saint Kentigern, asking myself questions like, where was the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain? Can I make sense of it with these place names? I also wondered, irreverently I suppose, how can a totally virtuous girl lose her virginity without knowing she has lost it, which is what happens in the legend of the birth of Saint Kentigern? Why and how was Urien assassinated, and what happened afterwards? And is it possible to create a story which is true in terms of all I know about the archaeology and history of the period, yet also true to the legend?
   The result was an enormous novel. I put in everything I knew or suspected about the Dark Ages since I was only writing for myself at this stage. I saw myself as the ultimate historian of Dark Age Cumbria. Having worked as an English teacher for most of my life, however, I have spent my time criticizing other people's compositions ruthlessly. As a result I was curious to see what I myself had achieved. Since I had no idea how to publish a novel, I got the Writers and Artists Yearbook and, working from the top, chose Peters, the most prestigious literary agent. I sent them the first chapter and a synopsis, and quite honestly expected either a polite one-line brush off, or to be slaughtered. To my surprise they wrote back, asking to see the rest of the manuscript. Unfortunately, that was in 1981, a time of financial recession, and hardly a week would go by without some traditional publisher going out of business. The agency sent the manuscript back, saying, thank you very much, but you are totally unknown, this is an enormous book, and we just cannot risk it at this time. I thought, fine.
   My god-daughter, however, is Caitlin Matthews. She and her husband John are a very charming and interesting couple who are attracted to Arthurian legend, though from a more occult perspective. John, at this time, was bringing out a magazine called Labrys with a friend of his who had a small publishing business in the West of England. He wanted to extend his list, which at that time comprised largely Labrys and very esoteric poems. He thought that my book would fit within his image, but he said frankly he couldn't afford all that amount of paper, so could I cut it? I found this technically a fascinating exercise. I have spent much of my life criticizing other people's precis. This was the precis of all time because the manuscript was enormous. I cut it down to what he could afford, and it came out as The Lady of the Fountain, all 800 copies of it. It sold quite well in the North of England because they will buy anything there that mentions North of England places.
   I had enjoyed the book as something to do. It brought in all my interests. It was an excuse to loaf around the North of England from pub to pub, and yet not be wasting my time in the eyes of my nearest and dearest. It took me to fascinating places, and up fascinating byways. I began to wonder, however, what had happened to the Cumbrian dynasty after the time of Owain. Where did it go? Interestingly, it allied itself with the royal house of Northumbria, because the last descendant in a direct line of this dynasty married Oswy. That isn't just something Nennius dreamed up because her name is in the Durham Liber Vitae, just where it should be in the list of queens and abbesses, with an heroic English attempt to spell Riemmelth. What would that sort of marriage have been like? I saw it, of course, as a union between two cultures: Beowulf meets Rhiannon! What on earth would have happened? And so I wrote Queen of the Lighting and enjoyed it. I submitted it for the historical novel prize awarded by Bodley Head, and to my amazement won it in 1982. It was published the following year.
   By this time, I had grown more interested in English than Celtic tradition because, though I love early Welsh poetry, it does seem, like Irish poetry, to say the same thing over and over again; whereas Old English literature--the little we have of it-- seems to be ready to branch out in all directions, and also to be much more interested in borderland characters: people who are torn between two loyalties.
   So I decided to pursue another mystery: the final conflict between Oswy and Penda, tied up with this amazing double marriage between Oswy's son and daughter and Penda's, just at the moment when they were obviously taking up stations to wipe each other out. I asked myself, what happened to Alchflaed? Where was the battle of Winwidfeld? Why did Oswy win it against all the odds? Why did a great warrior like Penda try to conduct not just a quick raid over the border but a full-scale campaign in an English November? Was he mad, or was he just blazing angry?
   This is how my novels started, as explorations of a border land, of a frontier of experience, that is revealed in the period's own poetry. I wrote Bride of the Spear soaked in the Taliesin and Gododdin poetry. I wrote Queen of the Lightning after reading both early Welsh and Old English poetry. In Ghost in the Sunlight there is a faint Arthurian theme of the wounded Fisher King in the figure of the magician who tries to control events, but the theme poem there is the Old English "Wife's Lament," about the woman whose marriage is wrecked by the determined hostility of alien in-laws.

RT: Besides the Taliesin poems, what other Welsh Arthurian material did you read?

KH: The Mabinogi, of course, and the Gododdin cycle about the fate of the Votadini and Edinburgh. I also read "The Spoils of Annwfn" and other poems, but many were not Arthurian. My picture of Riemmelth was very much influenced by the poems of Dafyd ap Gwillam--"The Greenwood Mass" for example. Many of the Old Welsh Arthurian texts are so obscure, however, that their meaning is speculative. When you compare the interpretations of modern Welsh scholars with even those of really great scholars of the late nineteenth century, you seem to have two different poems. In the case of really obscure texts, I would let them create an atmosphere in my mind, rather than struggle for precise meaning.

RT: You mentioned Nennius. Did you read Geoffrey of Monmouth and other chroniclers?

KH: I have read Geoffrey with great pleasure and interest, but for the work I am doing he is not specifically relevant. In fact I think he can create a false light. He is doing exactly what I am doing. That sounds like megalomania, but unless you use well- known comparisons nobody knows what you are talking about. The Old English name for a poet, "scop," means a shaper, and I believe that everybody has the right, in fact you might say the duty, to use these archetypal stories and reshape them if they choose. Geoffrey did it for his own period with eyes on the social and political life of his day. He is not writing about the Dark Ages of the fifth and sixth centuries.

RT: Have read any of the medieval romances?

KH: Oh yes, I love them: Chretien, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Awntyrs off Arthure. I was particularly interested in poetry that seems to be centered upon, or inspired by, the Northwest of England. "Merry Carlisle" is very much the Arthurian capital as far as I am concerned.
   When I am writing about a particular period, however, I try not to read anything of a later date, apart from archaeological reports and historical studies by people like John Morris which help to understand, and provide a context for, the very early chronicles. If I am writing something like Ghost in the Sunlight, I read Old English poetry, full stop. As much as anybody can in a different period, I try to capture the mood and the world picture of people living then.

RT: So, while you might in the past have read Tennyson and T. S. Eliot, you would not reread them as part of your specific research for the book itself?

KH: Very much so--even though I love Tennyson!

RT: What about historical novels?

KH: I admire Rosemary Sutcliff very much. In my opinion Sword at Sunset is the best novel of the twentieth century on Arthur himself. Because I am an historian as much as I am a lover of English literature and poetry, however, I do find ignorant anachronisms annoying, although I accept them perfectly happily in Shakespeare's history plays. Therefore, I would much rather read Chretien than I would read any historical novels apart from Sutcliff's.

RT: I suppose that means you are not really too interested in fantasy fiction as opposed to historical fiction?

KH: The trouble is I was one of Tolkien's students, although I must admit that as far as I was concerned at that time, he was the man who lectured on Beowulf and The Fight at Finsburgh. Reading The Lord of the Rings, however, is like reading The Illiad. Just as every other epic poem seems a little bit pale by comparison, so every other fantasy novel seems to be watered-down Tolkien. He was a tremendous influence on me--linguistically, I would say, more than artistically--because of his utter integrity, his refusal to pass any word without a full consideration of its meaning and its history. Though I loved The Lord of the Rings, to me he is the editor of Finn and Hengest. That is the supreme experience for me, reading his work on that text. It opened a window into a whole period in the life of the English.

RT: What other historians besides John Morris have you found most helpful?

KH: If you count Kenneth Jackson as a historian, he is almost the voice of God as far as early Celtic is concerned.

RT: Did you read many archaeological works?

KH: Yes, indeed. In fact, I find them more illuminating than historical studies. My works really are a combination of archaeology and the contemporary poetry of the period. I read the historians to find out where the texts are and to get an overview of where they all fit in. The publications of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeolgical and Antiquarian Society are a great treasure house, particularly the articles written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They have become rather austerely archaeological now, but back then they dared to speculate. They would look at the stone circles and they wouldn't mind mentioning local traditions. So they are more readable and also more stimulating from my point of view.

RT: Did you do additional research once you had decided to write your book?

KH: Yes, but it was mainly physical as opposed to book research, most of which by now I have done apart from keeping abreast with the latest publications in current archaeology. The exploration of actual sites opens up fascinating vistas. When a story interests me, it always has to be tied to a particular part of the country, to a particular landscape. For The Lady of the Fountain, as I said earlier, I found a number of place names in the Taliesin poems. I already had the general historical outline so far as it can be made, including a few dates of battles from the early Cumbrian annals. Then I put them all in order: Urien was killed about there and he won his victory about there; since his son was fighting then, he must have been born about then. I construct a skeleton of dates and places. Then I visit the sites and, reading the poetry, walk over every inch of them to see what they are physically like. At the same time, I follow up any trail that particularly interests me in the local historical archives.    Let me give you an example. The Owain place names are very strongly concentrated around Penrith. In fact in Penrith there is an amazing assemblage of Dark Age funeral monuments called the Giant's Grave, where Owain is supposed to lie. The Lyvennet Valley, which seems to have been his private estate, is just a little to the south, and just above the Lyvennet Valley is this amazing Dark Age homestead, Crosby Ravensworth, with its huge central hut, eighty foot in diameter. All around is, of course, the Forest of Inglewood, which is the setting for so many of the medieval Arthurian stories from the North of England.
   I was casting around like a Jack Russell terrier, looking for Tarn Wadling which I found at the back of a very nice pub. Or at least where it had been, for it is now a very undistinguished, though pretty, landscape. Just beyond it, however, stands a very gentle hill, on which was a place called Castle Hewin. So I hunted up Castle Hewin in J. F. Curwin's Castles and Fortified Towers of Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire North of the Sands (1913), and I found some very odd things about it. Remains of a huge circular tower and earthworks were visible on the surface until the beginning of the nineteenth century, but there was no record in the Middle Ages of who owned it and paid its feudal dues. There was a rent called Castle Hewin Rent that was always paid under a hawthorn tree. In fact you can still, if you know where look, see where the hawthorn tree was before the A6 ran through it. Now, that is very unusual for a castle, because the medieval kings kept a hawk's eye on who had castles and paid rent.
   Just about this time Tom Clare, the county archaeologist, got permission to excavate, which you can only do for two weeks in the year because it is under crops. He found that it wasn't a medieval castle, but a Roman signal station, obviously one of the line that runs south from Carlisle. He found some very slight signs of Dark Age occupation. It would undoubtedly have been a good place for a Dark Age chieftain to have a fortress. Hewin, of course, is Ewen, as Owain would have been pronounced in the North. So, this is Ewen's or Owain's castle.
   In medieval tradition this then was the place where the knight, later known as Sir Gromer Somer Joure, captured and bespelled King Arthur and set that riddle, asking what women most desire. The whole story of the Loathly Lady is set there, and you suddenly find that it is not just a vague fairy story. It has interesting connections.

RT: When you encounter something like that, do you try to weave it into your novels, or does it just fuel your enthusiasm for the story?

KH: Well, it helps to place your people, if you have decided they are not just legends, but chiefs or princes who lived in the later sixth century. They have to live somewhere and travel to various places. Since Taliesin speaks of Owain as Lord of Llwyfenydd, in Bride of the Spear I made Penrith and the Lyvennet Valley his particular princedom within greater Rheged.
   Another geographical detail I use is the fact that the Roman road across Stanemoor comes down at Caterick (Catraeth). Urien is mentioned as lord of Catraeth which was outside of his traditional territory. In Bride of the Spear I explain why, and use that as an explanation for his assassination by infuriated chiefs on the eastern side of the Pennines. They would sooner forgive an Anglian interloper for taking one of their strong points than they would an allied Celtic chief. It is all too true, unfortunately, as medievel Welsh history shows again and again. Yes, I do put in such information where it is relevant.

RT: Do you check the topography before you start writing, or afterwards?

KH: Very often it is simultaneous. I write conversations and episodes when I am actually there. Very often the place tells me what has happened. It certainly tells me what could not possibly have happened. I compose the story in my head as I move around.

RT: Then would you go back and write it down that evening?

KH: Yes, then find a week later it was hideously overwritten and cut it down.

RT: You edit and revise later, but you actually write on site?

KH: As much as I can. It is amazingly evocative.

RT: If the same setting is used more than once in your novel, would you write both scenes at that time, out of sequence, or would you return for that purpose?

KH: I am lucky in that I don't write for my living and so can play about as I like. Usually, I have a storyline, although in a novel like Ghost in the Sunlight it is enforced to an extent by history. Every episode of my stories is attached to a particular place which has its own particular atmosphere: the Carlisle of Urien, the beach between Bamborough and Lindisfarne, Arthur's Seat at Edinburgh. It is not just that events happen there, but particular events happen in particular places. Each scene has its own mood: forboding, happiness, hatred, or whatever.
   Having chosen the places and the order in which events take place, I then block out the rest of the story. This particular week it is going to be Riemmelth's unwilling journey after her marriage, from Carlisle up to Gefrin. So I go up there, and I journey from Carlisle to Gefrin, stopping on the way, taking in the atmosphere, feeling as she feels.

RT: Writing as you go?

KH: Yes. Now I might then jump ahead in my narrative, to the time when she and Oswy are at York. From the storyline I know what they are going to do there. The fact that I go to York out of sequence in the story does not matter, because I have this ability to block out what I don't want to notice. You have got to block out the whole of modern Carlisle or modern York anyway. Though I write novels, I think as though I were creating a drama in a series of big scenes in different locations, complete with dialogue, all linked by short connecting passages.
   After I have written an episode, I leave it and then come back, not as me, but as the most bloody-minded reviewer that I can think of, in a foul mood. I look for faults, for ridiculous phrases, for passages that are too sickly, too sentimental, too overwrought, or that simply do not make sense, because as an outsider you cannot understand why the characters are there, doing what they are doing. I get to work with the hatchet and the scalpel.

RT: The point of view in your novels is primarily that of your British characters, isn't it?

KH: Yes. That is because I am English. I wanted to express the idea of the English being the aliens, the loathed strangers, the "other." The Germanic and the Celtic sides of the British tradition are warily finding out about each other. Loving one's own culture includes stepping outside it to see how it might look--how horrible it might look--to other people. Were I a Celt, I should write from the English point of view.

RT: When you were writing about Urien and Owain, were you conscious that you were working within a tradition that reaches back a long way?

KH: Yes. Though it may sound presumptuous, I did hope that readers acquainted with Arthurian literature might appreciate a more primitive variation of a motif found in Chretien and other medieval accounts.

RT: How free do you feel to adapt this traditional material?

KH: It varies. Obviously if you are taking these stories as historical in the sense that there was a person who in 585 fought a battle on the shores of Lindisfarne, you can't change it. You cannot make Urien win that battle and come back victorious, any more then you can bring Nelson back from Trafalgar to leap into Lady Hamilton's arms. Everyone knows that's not what happened.
   Also, and more importantly, you have to be true to the spirit of the story. You can't turn a story of revenge into one of sentimental love, for example. Both the romance and the ecclesiastical versions of the story of Owain say boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finally meets girl again. That is the archetype. Provided you are true to its spirit and do not put in twentieth-century preconceptions, I think you can do what you like.

RT: Did you encounter difficulties in blending the romance and ecclesiastical versions of the story of Owain?

KH: The opening of the Herbertian Life of Saint Kentigern takes you up to the time Loth discovers his daughter is pregnant and tries to kill her. Further ecclesiastical legends reveal that Kentigern survived; that his mother also survived and later collaborated with him in his religious work in Glasgow; that he later met Owain who learned the truth about his false suspicions. By contrast, Chretien and the Welsh tale view events from Owain's perspective. Both stories indicate very clearly, however, that there was a happy ending. Owain, Taniu, and Kentigern came together and their lives were eventually marked with success, though the Taliesin poem makes quite clear that Owain did not live to old age.
   Whatever the Herbertian Life is as a saint's life, it is a superb piece of writing, what is left of it, and it forms a framework for the rest of the story. I had my beginning and I had my end, however I chose to make my happy ending. I had various historical facts, like the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, the Battle of Gwen Ystrad, and the death of Urien. The invention was largely what happens in between. What were the characters doing when they were not together?
   I think in terms of movement creating form, of acceleration to a crisis, a quiet moment, then building up to speed, another crisis, another quiet moment. I always know the last line of the story before I start, and everything I write is heading toward that moment to make it a pleasurable experience for the listener or reader. I tend to think in terms of the medieval storyteller or scop. I have story to tell: the audience must not go to sleep, nor be so battered by events it becomes punchdrunk.

RT: Although all three novels reach a happy ending, most of the emphasis in each is upon the suffering and privation that the characters experience. Now, one can approach the Arthurian legend by stressing either the heroic achievements or the tragic loss. You focus more upon the painful price that must be paid before happiness is finally achieved. Nor are we given more than a glimpse of that happiness; it is left to our imagination, isn't it?

KH: I come to the Arthurian legend as it were from Beowulf and from Tolkien. I don't believe that happiness of any value can be experienced without being earned and paid for, which is what most Old English literature is saying over and over again. If there is any happiness, it comes after a full look at the worst.
   Also many of these old legends and traditions are being used at present to whip up discord amongst the various races that inhabit these islands. One of the things that I do take seriously in all these books is the dangers of the old heroic code: that you have to avenge wrongs; that the enemy exists purely to be hit; that because they are the enemy they must be totally evil. Learning otherwise is a very, very painful process, and I don't think you can get around that; at least I certainly can't.
   I should also point out that crises tend to be more dramatic by their very essence. There are happy moments in my books. I try to give a feeling that people are drinking in taverns, telling each other stories, enjoying meals, having a laugh together. I think, however, probably only Jane Austen in Emma wrote about people fairly happily going through their everyday lives, and still managed to keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.
   Finally, I do like a quick curtain to end a book. I find the ending of the great Victorian novels, particularly Trollope, rather tedious as they go grimly through what everybody did. I'd rather they end sooner.

RT: One traditional figure that recurs in all three novels is the cruel stepmother. The most sinister is the Pictish queen in Bride of the Spear. Is that a figure that you found in Arthurian tradition?

KH: They may be cruel, but you notice they are always wounded. Drostecca, by her lights, is a good mother. She is fighting, as she sees it, for her own child's safety, because by the Pictish way of inheritance a king's daughter is a deadly rival and she knows she is dying. In Queen of the Lightning Elfwyn had been captured during that dreadful genocidal raid of Cadwallon and had suffered hideously, hence her desire for revenge. In Ghost in the Sunlight Wulfrun is hopelessly in love with Peada, who sees her only as a nice elder sister. Married as a child of twelve to an elderly nobleman, she takes a bitter pride in being the good wife. They are all wounded people. People only behave like that because they have been hurt somehow.

RT: Another character who recurs in your novels is the rather callous father figure, like Loth in Bride of the Spear and Alchfrid, the heroine's brother, in Ghost in the Sunlight. Is he a figure you found in tradition?

KH: Not really. He comes rather out of the mores of society in those days. In order to preserve society and keep the women and children safe, he has to take up this protective attitude.

RT: I suppose you could say that had Taniu followed her father's advice she might have been happier, even though she doesn't approve of his motives?

KH: That comes over so clearly in the Herbertian Life, where Taniu almost theatrically adopts the role of the Virgin Mary of North Britain. Owain sees himself as a sophisticated seducer with no intention of rape. In the original Latin, his intention seems to be to show her what she is missing. Then things seem to have got out of control. They never mean evil at all.

RT: Another recurring figure is the rather pretty young woman envied by the others who punish her when given the chance. She functions as an alter ego or scapegoat for the heroine. Where did this figure come from?

KH: The double is very widespread in romances, largely because of social convention. The lady, after all, could not make crude advances, nor plot and maneuver, and so you find the Laudine/Lunete pairing in Chretien, for example. A lady needs a clever alter ego who can break the laws that she is not allowed to. There is a certain amount of complicity between the two.

RT: The consequences for this figure are much direr in your story, however, than they are in Arthurian legend, are they not?

KH: Well, look what was going to happen to Lunete if Owain hadn't come along. She was going to be burned at the stake. The serious consequences are latent in the romance, and I pulled them out because, remember, this takes place five hundred years earlier, when things were not quite so subtle. When there are no restraints of religion or morals, savagery does get out of hand. It often gets out of hand in the twentieth century and ghastly things are done to women and children as a result.

RT: So this figure represents the hazards for unprotected women in a violent society?

KH: And unprotected lower classes. Yes it does. Some of this is basic human nature, I am sorry to say. You see somebody weaker and, unless you are either restrained, or have inner restraints of character or religion, you knock them down, metaphorically if not figuratively. I was listening to a program about office bullying the other day. It is very subtle, but it is just as painful. It is always the weak and the vulnerable in some way that bullies home in on.

RT: Did you find that any of your characters developed in directions that you hadn't planned?

KH: Yes, quite a lot. In my ecclesiastical sources, the Taniu/Lady of the Fountain figure emerges as very much a victim, while in the romances she is very passive, apart from her annoyance when Owain doesn't return as agreed. Accordingly, in Bride of the Spear she started out as a virtuous victim of all these hideous barbarian chiefs, but as the story advanced she developed a temper and mind of her own: I will do this and I will do that. I hadn't thought she would be quite so strong as she turned out to be.

RT: Did you find the same happened in the later novels?

KH: Yes, but by then I was more aware of what was happening. In Arthurian legend there are so many female figures who don't do very much, except possibly Morgan le Fay and she is on the sidelines most the time. Yet as personalities they tease your imagination. I think probably it is because all the earlier texts were, as far as we know, written by men and depicted from their point of view. I want to redress the balance.
   I find that inspiration much more in Old English, where people like Hildeburh, the unknown personae in "The Wife's Lament" and "Wulf and Eadwacer," Judith, of course, and even Eve in the English version, have minds of their own and make brave decisions. I am more on their wavelength than on that of passive ladies sitting in their towers, doing their embroidery as they wait for the knight to come.

RT: Did you find that, once Taniu had developed a strong mind of her own, this created tensions with the traditional representation of the figure?

KH: I was able to reconcile this development in Taniu once I'd sorted out the problem of Owain. The murder of Urien imposed on his son the duty not only to keep Rheged safe, but to kill whomever had murdered him. Nor did vengeance end with those who struck the blow; it included their immediate family, their kin, their tribe. I had to find a moment when Owain renounced the duty of revenge, when he decided to go to help the Gododdin people. He doesn't know it, but of course he takes the step that brings him exactly where he would find Taniu again. If he hadn't gone up there, she would have been killed when the Picts took the citadel, and he would have never known what had happened to her.
   My treatment of him was inspired by the account in Chretien and the Welsh "Lady of the Fountain," in which Owain goes out of his mind with grief when Laudine takes back her ring and tells him she will have nothing more to do with him. Particularly in Chretien's poem, he spends a period engaged in acts of expiation: he always goes to the help of the oppressed, particularly women. This makes acceptable his lady's forgiveness.
   I had to find an equivalent for this in Dark Age terms. After the Coeling royal house participated in the siege of the English in Bamborough, the next hard fact you learn about them is that they made a marriage alliance with their former foes. Thus not only the tone of the Taliesin poems, but the Coelings' conspicuous absence among the British warriors in the Gododdin, indicate that Cumbria's politics had become, my enemy's enemy is my friend. In fact, historically speaking, every single member of the coalition responsible for Urien's death--except for Strathclyde, and tradition does say that Riderec was fairly innocent--Elmet, Eidyn, and Gododdin, got theirs, largely by Northumbian means. You have the feeling that there was politicking going on. You can find what you need for your story in the early sources or in the history if you look for it and bring the threads together.

RT: So even though characters like Taniu may have developed in a direction that you hadn't completely anticipated, the flexibility in your sources means that you don't feel you are violating any firmly entrenched tradition. Why do you shift point of view from the heroine in your first novel, but not in your second?

KH: It comes out of the story that you are telling. In Bride of the Spear, a story told entirely from Taniu's point of view would make Owain either an idiot or a slob, probably both. I had to show that he was not just the sort of idiot who seduces a girl and then leaves her because, for heaven's sake, he finds that she is not a virgin. There has to be some reason for his conduct. He has to be a particular sort of man, with a particular scale of values and way of thinking. In Queen of the Lightning I wanted to make the theme very much how you come to terms with people so alien at first that they might as well have arrived from another planet. Therefore, I had to present the English characters more at arm's length for quite long stretches of the novel.

RT: You mentioned the irony of Owain objecting to Taniu's loss of virginity despite the laxity of his own sexual conduct. Were you attracted by the irony inherent in Arthurian tradition?

KH: I think there's intense irony in a lot of Dark Age literature, though it is more pronounced in Old English than Celtic. It is part of my feeling for border lands, where things turn into their opposites almost while you are trying to define them.
   The ultimate irony that I take from the Arthurian story comes into many of my books, and that is the irony that you yearn for a good king who will create order and peace necessary to lead a good life. Yet what do you do when you get him? You destroy him. Arthur wasn't defeated in the end by the Anglo-Saxons, but from within his own society, his own family, his own blood. Societies and people seem to have this inbuilt tendency to destroy themselves, and yet of course if they don't they stagnate. Everybody at Camelot is bored, waiting for something to happen. Knights leap up joyfully to go on quests because they need something to do. When you have established your good society, you can't just sit down and enjoy it.

RT: Why, after the first book, did you decide to write two more set in Dark Age Britain?

KH: I had a whole sequence of events in my mind, which was the fate of this Coeling dynasty within the general history of the period when the province of Britannia was transformed into several kingdoms of different racial origins. They were a British dynasty if you believe their family tree. It is a plausible enough claim since the Romans often did take members of the ruling dynasty of a tribe and turn them into Roman officials. The Coeling dynasty did exercise an influence on literature right through to the Middle Ages. The story of the Lady of the Fountain harks back to Coeling history, and Saint Kentigern is a very important saint in the North of England. The Coelings do play a part in the question, where does England end and Scotland begin? Who are the English? Who are the Scots?
   In the Celtic poems about the Coeling dynasty, everything comes to an end with the death of Urien and the lament for Owain. In the Llywarch Hen poems both have become romantic figures: the great lost kings of the great lost kingdom. They leave the impression that Rheged was laid waste, presumably by the English. That is why the hearth of Llwyfenydd is now grown over with brambles and pigs root there. History obviously says otherwise. The kingdom was united to Northumbria to form the first great English post-Roman civilization--Northumbria with its great carved crosses, the world of Bede, and so on--which manages so beautifully to fuse Celtic, Classical Roman, Ancient Roman, and basic English, all together.

RT: When you wrote Bride of the Spear, did you anticipate that Penarwan, the first wife of Owain, would play a role in your next novel, Queen of the Lighting?

KH: I'd foreseen in Bride of the Spear that Penarwan was going to become a very successful managing abbess of this early English and Celtic sort. Her motives are typically mixed in the second book. She enjoys the idea of a relation of Owain's having her nose, as it were, rubbed in the dirt, but she recognizes that Riemmelth's marriage to a Northumbrian prince is a sound political move, given that Cumbria has lost its only male heir and wants a powerful ally. I was very fond of Penarwan. Her point of view is more closely aligned with mine than is that of either the hero or the heroine.

RT: Did you ever write yourself into a situation you later regretted?

KH: No. For a start the first draft is usually about three times as long as the final published novel. Any regretted situations get ironed out. Secondly, because the novels are so closely linked, the earlier ones to tradition and the later ones to history, the situations are more or less given. I might bitterly regret, as I know a lot of English people today do, that Penda lost the Battle of Winwidfeld, but I can't make him win it.

RT: Your Arthurian novel based on the story of the Lady of the Fountain has, in fact, been rewritten more than once: the original, long version that was submitted to an agent; the second, cut version that was published as The Lady of the Fountain; and the revised version, published as Bride of the Spear. Did you welcome the opportunity to revise the story, or did you find it a tiresome burden?

KH: I enjoyed it very much in the same way that I enjoy making clothes: I like making things and seeing how they fit together. As I told you, the original is an enormous, shapeless, prose epic of the Dark Ages, probably slightly longer than The Lord of the Rings. I cut it for brutally economic reasons: my publisher hadn't got all that much paper. I found, however, that the revision very much improved the book. When Bodley Head said that they would take it, to make a group with the other two, I was able to put back one or two parts I had taken out for reasons of space, but decided I needed for the development of Owain's character. I wanted to show that he was interested in more things than merely laying a woman. So I showed how he ran the lordship of Llwyfenydd and fought the Battle of Gwen Ystrad. I had worked out with great joy, while reading the Taliesin poem, where it was likely to be on the Solway Firth, and how they happened to be fighting Picts there. There are two Arthurian sites on the north shore of the Solway: Mote of Mark and Trusty's Hill. Trusty's Hill has got Pictish inscriptions all over it, so there certainly were Picts on the north shore of the Solway.

RT: Did you add anything to the final version apart from these details about Owain?

KH: Yes. The confrontation between Taniu and the women who are trying to take that poor little collaborator apart was made stronger in this one, because I had more space to do it.

RT: Do you have plans for a future Arthurian book?

KH: Yes. It started out to be a novel about Thomas of Kendal, that mysterious poet that Robert Mannyng of Brunne refers to as writing English poetry so complicated that nobody could remember it by heart to recite.
   While reading the history of that period, I became interested in the career of Andrew Harcla, the first Earl of Carlisle, which is almost a classic example of the wheel of fortune which you find in the alliterative Morte Arthure. He is the only man after Bannockburn who ever got the better of Robert the Bruce. There was nothing too much for him in 1322 when he won the Battle of Boroughbridge against Thomas of Lancaster and the rebels against Edward II. He was raised from the rank of simple knight to Earl of Carlisle. Yet a year later he was hung, drawn, and quartered as a traitor for negotiating a sane, reasonable, peace treaty with Robert the Bruce. Then five years later the English had to accept virtually the same peace treaty.
   Harcla was a hero who wanted good order, who defended his country, and who was destroyed by his own people. If you are looking for an Arthur figure, then there he is. If you are looking for a waste land, there is the state of southern Scotland when Bruce removed everything edible from the route of Edward's army, and of the North of England from these pounding Scottish raids that broke down law and order. It must have been desperate. If you want a dolorous blow, it is the blow that Bruce struck in Greyfriars when he killed the Red Comyn, the blow that Thomas of Lancaster struck when he had Gaveston judicially murdered, which Edward never forgave. All these Arthurian motifs keep coming up.
   In addition, I found a number of figures and places in this period with unexpected Arthurian associations. How, I wondered, could I take all these bits and pieces and turn them into an intelligible story about the history of the borders and the fall of Andrew Harcla? I found the connecting thread in the fact of Arthurian role-playing, both for social and political purposes. Edward I played the Arthurian card for all he was worth, to assert his claim to rule England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and France. When he conquered Llywelyn he seized the crown and sword of Arthur among his trophies. He also used the legend, or his propagandists did, to reinforce his claim to be high king of the British Isles. The Scots, therefore, started their own rival Arthurian legend, in which Mordred is the rightful heir.

RT: What particular part of Arthurian legend did you feel was most important to include in your story of the Lady of the Fountain?

KH: I wanted to develop the motif of the Magic Fountain and this moment of beauty that you discover through very great peril. The fountain persists in ecclesiastical, as well as romance, versions of the story, even though the narrative does not require it. It seems to be one of those places, like the well at the world's end, where worlds meet. This meeting of worlds takes place in history also, as the the foundation legends of England, Scotland, and Wales are being made.

RT: Thank you.