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Interview with Nikolai Tolstoy

14 MAY 1989

   I was in Ireland, on my way to interview John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy, when a friend sent me Nikolai Tolstoy's address. When he agreed to see me, I quickly made adjustments to my itinerary, with the fortuitous result that I arrived at his home in Southmoor, not far from Oxford, after a weekend exploring Carmarthen and the southwest of Wales--an area rich in its associations with Merlin.
   This was a most appropriate preparation for the interview, since Tolstoy's novel about Merlin, The Coming of the King (London and New York: Bantam, 1988), was prominently displayed that summer in all the bookshops. This fascinating recreation of the early Celtic world is based upon not only deep enthusiasm, but also many years of reading and historical study. His work had earlier yielded a speculative study on the origins of Merlin, The Quest for Merlin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), but Tolstoy turned to fiction in an attempt to recreate the mind and imagination out of which the early stories of Merlin, or Myrddin as he calls him, emerged. More novels are planned, but they must wait until he concludes his dispute with the military establishment over a much more recent historical episode. Let us hope that the delay is not too long.

RT: You have written about the figure of Merlin from both an historical perspective, in The Quest for Merlin (1985), and from a fictional perspective, in The Coming of the King (1987). What attracted you to the Arthurian legend in general and the figure of Merlin in particular?

NT: My interest sprang from an early childhood reading of popular children's versions of the Malory stories and of Lady Charlotte Guest's stories from The Mabinogion. Then when I was about twelve I read Scott's Waverly novels on my headmaster's recommendation, and became completely overwhelmed by the Scottish highlanders and the Jacobite myth. The two share a Celtic background which interested me as well. Then when I was about eighteen or nineteen these interests became more serious. I attempted to discover who was the historical Arthur, and what one could salvage of this legend. I even wrote a book on the subject, along the lines of what John Morris and others have done. It would have been called something like The Historical Arthur. When I was still at university I sent it to a publisher. They were very keen but wanted me to make alterations. Either because I was too lazy or too set in my ways, I never made them. The book just lapsed, fortunately for me, and it has disappeared now.

RT: Why fortunately?

NT: Because it would have been terrible. I went to Trinity College, Dublin, where there was almost no interest in Celtic studies at that time. When I went to David Green, the Professor of Irish, for lessons in Welsh and Irish, there were only two of us there, and the other person was English, strangely enough. There were some very good scholars around and the Irish language was studied in the schools, but it was not obligatory at Trinity.
   I had two enormous boons there. One was that the program at Trinity was so long and leisurely. It lasted four years, and virtually everyone, including me, went into the fifth year, though I was one of the very few who did it for a legitimate reason. I had a back injury and had to have an operation. As a result I had all this time in Ireland which I loved. Every summer we would go camping in the west of Ireland, which in those days was completely empty and just as I imagined it. This aroused my romantic enthusiasm.
   The second boon was that I had the run of the bookshops which enabled me to build up the nucleus of my Celtic library. I found books which I know I never could buy now, and they were sold for almost nothing. I was very lucky; for instance, Whitley Stokes' library was sold when I was there, and I got everything I wanted out of it. More recently, I got the pick of I. L. Foster's library when that was sold too. Over the years I was able to build up a marvellous library.
   My ambition, really, was to write some massive tome, or multi- tome book, and I started out on Arthur. There is a limit, however, to what you can piece together from the historical evidence that survives, and many people have broken their teeth on it. I now see it as an enjoyable, but slightly fruitless, exercise, although I did write a couple of papers on Arthur.
   Of course the project swelled, as it must if one's going to look at it seriously, to include the whole of the Dark Ages, from about 350 to 600. I still have somewhere, hidden away, six gigantic box files of the notes for this great work. Gradually, however, my interest moved from the figure of Arthur to the figure of Merlin, and from a primary interest in the history of the period to an interest in mythology in general, though my interest in other mythologies is largely for the light it throws on Celtic mythology.
   The light came quite suddenly on the road to Damascus, when I read Ann Ross' Pagan Celtic Britain, about 1967, I believe. It had a strong effect on me because I read it at just the right moment. I thought her book might throw light on aspects of Dark Age history, but I found it was the other way round: my reading of history made many things in the literature make sense. The specific detail that probably triggered my response was the Celtic cult of the head. I began to realize that much of the Merlin legend made sense in terms of Celtic mythology, and I moved on to an interest in Merlin. I actually started writing a book, but I allowed it to lapse and got drawn into doing what has comprised the major part of my working life over the last fifteen or so years--writing books on Russian history.
   It's only relatively recently that I've been able to turn my full attention to the Celtic world again, although I did keep up the interest: I read everything I could as it came out, and I haunted second-hand bookshops, buying whatever I could find that was missing from my collection. I didn't actually think that much would come out of it, although I suppose I must have harbored some vague ambition.
   Then about 1982, after I had completed a book on my family for the publisher Hamish Hamilton, my nice editoress took me out to lunch and asked me what I was going to write next. This started me thinking. I had told my agent that I wanted to write my book about Merlin, since I had done so much work on it and it was time I wrote it. He was polite, but very dismissive. He said, maybe it will become a sort of cult book--by which he meant a very small cult. Then he recommended some subjects which he thought were much worthier.
   I mentioned the worthy subjects to my editoress who nodded and looked polite and said yes, they sound interesting. Then she said, what would you write if you weren't writing for a living? I said, oh that's easy; I'd write my book about Merlin. And she said, tell me more. So I told her. Since I had done so much research, I was able to present a strong argument that Merlin was an historical figure, that elements of the legend as it was written down quite clearly preserve themes from earlier Celtic paganism which weren't understood by the poet, and so on and so forth. She said, that sounds much better; let's do that. So I wrote my book, The Quest for Merlin.
   While it didn't quite cover the whole Dark Age period, it did sum up my ambitions from about the age of eighteen or so, when I first thought about the subject. Afterwards, however, I felt a sense of anticlimax, a lingering feeling of disappointment. I thought, well, that's it. I don't want to keep writing the same book over and over again, and I doubt if I can write another book in this field which would be of sufficient commercial interest as well as of scholarly significance to myself. I also thought, on a more practical level, what justification is there for spending these vast sums every year on Celtic books to increase my library? That's the end of it--I'm not going to do son of Merlin.

RT: Why, then, did you decide to write a work of fiction?

NT: My prime interest is historical in the broadest sense, but I suppose that, like many historians, I've also toyed with the idea of historical fiction. I loved historical novels when I was a teenager. It was historical novels--one in particular, which I read when I was about eight--which made me a lifelong lover of history.

RT: What novel was that?

NT: It's a schoolboy's novel--my son's got it now--all about the English Civil War. It was called Cavaliers and Rogues, so you can see which side the author was on and which side I adopted! I just loved it, and I read other historical novels by authors like Rafael Sabatini and John Buchan, not minding whether they were good or bad. I very soon read the author who to my mind is still the best, Sir Walter Scott. I read these books at a very early age, and adored them.

RT: Did you read any modern novels about Arthur and Merlin?

NT: Only T. H. White, as far as I can recall. I loved it, better than I do now, in fact. I have read Rosemary Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers since then, but not at the time when I was full of enthusiasm. Now I don't like historical novels at all, again probably like most historians, though I occasionally dip into one. Apart from Sir Walter Scott and one or two others, they seem to provide such poor history and such little feeling for the period, that really one just cannot see the point of their setting the novel in the past. They may be good novelists or bad novelists, but they ought to stick to writing about what they do know. So should everybody. I loved The Misfortunes of Elphin by Thomas Peacock, however.

RT: Did you read medieval romances, by Chretien de Troyes and others?

NT: Not until quite recently, but my interest is in their Celtic sources. I was rather a skeptic, which I am no longer, about the value of the medieval French and German romances for throwing a sort of backlight on Celtic sources. But now I'm a convert, and perhaps the more convinced in that I came to it after being a skeptic for a long time. The romances quite clearly draw on lost Celtic material, and so I read them after I decided to write an historical novel.

RT: How about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

NT: I have read it, yes. Originally, I would have thought those romances were of no value, because they didn't throw any light, really, on sixth-century history. Now that I'm writing historical fiction, however, I can legitimately look at other sources as well, but in doing so I can see that I'd underrated them.

RT: Do you read modern literary scholarship?

NT: One can't study the sources without studying the modern scholarship, because many of the sources really are unintelligible--especially the Welsh poetry--except in the light of modern scholarship.

RT: You told me that you eventually lost interest in historical novels because they seemed such poor history. Why, in that case, did you yourself turn from writing history to writing an historical novel?

NT: From the start I had often toyed with the idea of writing a novel, and at Trinity I even started writing a novel set in the Dark Ages. Yet I think that half-consciously I knew it to be second best, a watering down of history. Nor was it what I got out of the sources. I had to abandon most of what was interesting to me to write it. I even suspect that behind the idea of writing a novel lay, to some extent, a disreputable desire to make money. I've kept most of these rather pathetic ventures, each of which simply petered out quite naturally. I didn't suddenly think, as one tends to nowadays somehow, that this is too ghastly; I can't carry on. I just got distracted and the novel evaporated--only because, I'm sure, it was unsatisfactory.
   With each false start, I can see in hindsight, I was getting a bit nearer to what I finally ended up doing. I gradually realized that there was only one way for me to write a novel, and that was to try to enter into the sixth century, which is the only purpose of writing historical novels at all. If you don't intend to enter into another world, then best to stick to the world you know about and live in. When you try to enter another world, no one can say whether you have done so successfully, any more than one can say an historian has successfully entered another world; but that effort should be as successful as the imagination can conceive.
   A friend of mine who'd read The Quest for Merlin told me that he thought there was a novel seeping out of every pore. Now if I had a major ambition in my twenties, and even early thirties, it was to write two mighty books. One was the history of Dark Age Britain, and the other was a huge, sprawling, historical novel set in early nineteenth-century Britain, in Jane Austen's period. That time seemed remote enough to be another age with another way of thinking, but near enough not to be difficult for us to enter into--rather like Scott writing about the '45 Uprising. In a more remote period the thought process would be so different that I felt it would be beyond a normal person's power to enter into it.

RT: Why did you choose to write a fantasy rather than an historical novel?

NT: To understand the mentality of primitive people--in this case, sixth-century British people--you cannot restrict yourself to purely factual material events, ignoring the whole mythic world in which they lived and set the framework of their being. Really, for them the second is more important than the first.

RT: So you use the supernatural as a means of recapturing the attitudes and beliefs of people at that time?

NT: Well, whether these things are intrinsically real--whether the shaman really has an otherworld experience or whether he's hallucinating--I don't have to judge. That is another reason why a novel, it seems to me, is a perfect vehicle for my purposes. I've detached myself by writing it at several removes from the events. First of all, it's an autobiography of Merlin; secondly it's supposed to have been discovered in a medieval manuscript transcribed by Christian priests from an oral recitation two generations after Merlin's own time. This authorial distance from the original events was not done for the purpose which actually I now see as a great advantage. I was simply using the format in which so many of these sagas appear, particularly the Irish Tain bo Cualnge which is also preserved in manuscripts written by Christian scribes, with the usual disclaimers at the beginning and end. I wanted simply to copy that format for authenticity's sake. I found, however, that it has a great advantage, because I can make supernatural events happen, or appear to happen, without myself saying whether I believe or not. Well, it really doesn't matter whether I believe or not--I'm not altogether sure what I believe. What's important is what they believed, and this is the world that they moved in, and that I can make happen, I hope, as naturally as possible.

RT: So you really see the novel as a recreation of a medieval or Dark Age epic, rather than a modern fantasy?

NT: Yes. I want it to be. Clearly as I am writing in the twentieth century there would be features which, if translated into Old Welsh and read by Merlin's contemporaries in Heaven, would appear incongruous. But as nearly as I can do it, I want to move into their world. So in that sense it's fantasy, because after all fantasy is moving into another and quite different world, where things happen which don't happen in our world.
   I always feel myself restricted--even at the cost of ease in managing my plot and characters--by the source material and the treatment there. I try as far as I can to use the phraseology and the imagery of the time. I try to recover the thought processes of the period, and therefore mythical time must exist as it existed for them, not the very modern, post-Renaissance view of time moving on inexorably. I also try to recover the religious way of thinking: detachment of religion from ordinary historical processes is something inconceivable in Dark Age terms. I couldn't have written the novel earlier, because not only do you need facts at your disposal, but you've also got to have had a long enough time with the facts to have absorbed yourself into them, or them into you.

RT: As an historian, how do you feel about your novel?

NT: I hope it's better than The Quest for Merlin as history, because I've done more work and I can do things in it which I could not in the other. After all, at the end of The Quest for Merlin what have I established? If I've established anything--if any historian establishes anything--there's always somebody who'll come along later, as no doubt I shall myself, and find things that are incorrect. Moreover you are establishing, especially in the Dark Age period, rather small points really. There's very little more you can establish.
   The whole novel takes place around the year 556, when a battle is mentioned in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "In this year Cynric and Ceawlin fought against the Britons at Beranburh." It doesn't even say who won. That's a mere footnote, and there's nothing you can add to it in a historical way. Yet it doesn't matter whether the succession of events I have described happened exactly in the way they did. Clearly they didn't because some of them I have invented. The inventions, the bricks, are all from the sixth century as I see it, however. Whether the edifice is sixth century is for the reader to judge but, as with all history, that's not altogether relevant, I think.
   On a more prosaic level, I would say that the novel is better history, because I actually have to find out things which the historian doesn't need to find out. I didn't realize that until I was writing the novel. To carry conviction, I must first believe, and because I enjoy it, I do more research for the novel than I would for a straightforward historical work. If I come up against something which I simply cannot understand, the whole novel grinds to a halt, as does my income, whilst I wrestle with the problem.

RT: Can you give me an example?

NT: Well, yes, I can give you one example which I find fascinating. My current novel is the middle part of the Merlin Trilogy. This deals with the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, which are mentioned in the Triads, and with the Grail, for as I see it a major strain of the Grail tradition derives from Celtic mythology. I bring into the novel a story from "Lludd and Llefelys" in The Mabinogion, of the three plagues which befell in the Island of Britain: the Coranieid who can hear everything that is said, no matter how far away or how quietly; the two fighting dragons, one of which gives a hideous scream that's heard every May-eve and strikes terror into folks' hearts; and the magician who carries off the food from the king's courts. Llefelys explains to his brother, LLudd, how to rid Britain of these three plagues, and the process is very peculiar. In order to overcome the spying of the Coranieid, for example, the brothers speak through a bronze horn, but the horn is obstructed so that only garbled speech comes through. Thus they pour wine through the horn to drive out the demon that causes the problem. Then Llefelys advises his brother to take certain insects and crush them with water. When sprinkled over them, this mixture destroyed the Coranieid without hurting the Britons.
   I was intrigued, for it seemed to me that this very strange little story preserves a myth whose meaning is totally lost. I could not understand, for instance, what were the insects that were put into the water, and why did the sprinkling of the water distinguish the Coranieid from the human population of Britain, and what were the Coranieid. Now, as an historian I would look that problem in the face, like the Scottish minister when he met the devil, and pass on. I was determined, however, to get to the bottom of it and I think I did, though the riddle of the insects took me ages to solve. In the past I would always have wanted everybody to see how I'd arrived at this solution, providing footnotes and arguments. That information is buried in my computer now, and my resolution, though I don't know if I'll stick to it, is to wipe out all my notes at the end so that no one will know where it all came from.

RT: Do you remember the necessary details when you're writing, or do you go back and check them against the traditional account?

NT: It's mostly memory in the first draft, which is why I couldn't have written such a book earlier. I had an inkling of how such a book should be written, and I remember feeling depressed because I couldn't do it. As I read The Mabinogion I thought, now if only one could just let this phraseology flow; that's how one ought to do it. As I write now the phrase or the image or the example just floats into my mind.
   I do an enormous amount of preparation, compiling notes chapter by chapter, though I know roughly what's going to happen over the whole book. The notes don't really represent my thought process, however, because they're endlessly updated and they're simply references to books. I think there's little written which didn't come from some source.

RT: As part of your research, do you check topography?

NT: Yes, very closely. I have visited each real place that is mentioned in the book, and it is exactly as described. Moreover, the topography frequently influences the story as it proceeds. Sometimes I've visited the place before I've written the episode, and sometimes afterwards. Sometimes I may have visited it a long time before, and almost forgotten the details. Then I would go back again.

RT: Would you make changes if you discovered that your recollection had been incomplete?

NT: Yes, I do make changes if I discover an error, not only in the description of the places but also in the historical episodes. I think the moment when I feel most strongly that I've achieved what I set out to do, which is to evoke another age, happens when I've described something which I thought was fictional and it's actually borne out, either by the sources or, to a lesser extent, by the landscape. In the sources, for instance, there were one or two cases--well, there have been many--but some were so striking that they gave me a rather creepy feeling.
   For example, when Gwyn mab Nudd visits Gwyddno with the Wild Hunt, I didn't know what they would actually say to each other, nor what would happen at the encounter in the hall, though I knew more or less what the eventual outcome would be. This kind of impasse frequently happened while I was writing the novel, and in such cases I don't rack my poor stores of imagination. Either I do more research, or I leave a blank and come back to the episode when it seems to make sense. In this case I checked the sources in my library--I could not remotely have tried to write this book unless I possessed this library which has almost everything ever written on the subject.
   Eventually in The Black Book of Carmarthen I found a poem that I'd utterly forgotten, if I ever knew it, called "The Conversation between Gwyn mab Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir." The poems in the Black Book are extremely obscurely worded and difficult, and the only translation that exists is virtually worthless. So I wrote to the Librarian of the University of Wales, who had edited the poem but not translated it into English, and I asked him if he'd translate it for me. I was absolutely agog with curiosity, because I had already incorporated the meeting into my story and passed on to other episodes. He very kindly agreed, which is more than most scholars will do usually, but as he was moving jobs he said he couldn't do it at once. It was, in fact, about a year before he sent it to me. The translation absolutely fitted the context of what I had, even though I had long left that chapter behind, firmly established as part of my story. I didn't need to alter anything, because it exactly fitted the story.
   Again, on a more trivial level, I remember that I went to the place where I put the court of Gwyddno, which was the Roman fortress at Burgh by Sands, up by the Solway Firth. I went out to see the mouth of the Esk, where Myrddin drifts up against the weir, and I walked with my cousin across the long mud flats. Eventually we came to where the river flowed out, and there was a decayed salmon weir at exactly the point where I wanted it.

RT: Would say then that you re-order traditional material rather than invent new details?

NT: Yes, completely. I always draw on sources, but they may be quite wide, covering analogous material. My prime source is the Merlin poetry in The Black Book of Carmarthen and elsewhere; then the whole of early Welsh tradition; then the much more extensive Irish tradition which is very easily translated, and I think quite legitimately, into a Welsh context; and finally the whole field of mythic thinking. For example, the shamanistic techniques which Merlin uses are not described in any Celtic source that I know of, although there are hints that they were used. I draw on accounts of shamanism where it's much better recorded, but I always put it into a Celtic context. If there is a hint in a Celtic source of a part of the shamanistic technique, or that such technique was used, then, of course, I jump at that.
   The first part of The Coming of the King retells the childhood of Merlin, taken partly from Robert de Boron, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and others. I've also taken the childhood of Taliesin from the Hanes Taliesin, but only because in the story itself Taliesin says at one point, I am Taliesin who was formerly called Myrddin. The rest of the book, of course, is about the gathering of the kings for the Battle of Dineirth and the slaughter there. The historical characters and the battle are all authentic, but the actual campaign and the intricacies of treachery are invented.

RT: Would you use elements drawn from traditional accounts of other battles?

NT: Oh, yes. For instance, the battle itself has both practical and magical elements. Modern critics could complain that the battle wasn't clearly enough explained. But while Dark Age warriors did employ tactics--in the Gododdin, as Professor Jackson points out, it's quite clear that tactics were used--it's not what they primarily thought about, nor what they thought won and lost battles.

RT: You would appear to be working in the tradition of the medieval oral poet who, according to the theories of Parry and Lord, learns the various structural units and builds up a poem from them. Would you say that you're doing something rather similar?

NT: Yes, I would, very much so. Only after I had written my novel did I start properly to read Parry, Lord, and later scholars in that field. Then I realized that I was writing the way they described. I did not read them first and try to write that way. In a sense the book is a gigantic work of plagiarism, just as one might say the same about the works of Homer, on a much higher level. The Odyssey to me is satisfactorily explained as originally a shamanistic tale of the hero setting out from familiar places to the realm of the fantastic to gain certain things which are needed for the welfare of his people, and then returning. To this basic story are added a mixture of folk tales and a possible historical echo of the siege of Troy.
   I'm really doing the same thing as Homer, and that's why I think it would be very hard to find anything in the novel that was wholly invented. For instance, there's a lot of repetition of particular phrases, and after a bit I find myself comfortably slipping into that pattern in my writing. When I'm doing that, I feel I'm probably on the right track. It is impossible for the historian or novelist to truly enter into the past since we all rejudge the past from our own contemporary position, but we can do our best. At the end I never know how successful I've been, but I feel I get as near as one can. The myth that underlies the novel remains as something handed down to me, and so another person might derive from it something different than I do.
   I follow tradition even if it's a disadvantage. For instance, one reviewer said that if there's a weakness in the book it's the lack of character: the kings are either noble or cowardly, and so forth. Now, that's a fair criticism in a sense, but I couldn't have written any other way. In the early literature, and I think in early society, the characters were not differentiated in the same way that they are now. Since the Renaissance we live in an age of individuals, but earlier people's way of thinking was different. Were I to attempt to individuate their characters more markedly than I've done, then the book would no longer appear as if it were a product of the Dark Age, to my mind. I'm restricted in that way, although not entirely. For instance, I deliberately introduce the Roman tribune as a contrast with another world.

RT: By retelling your story in this traditional way, you run certain risks, because your novel moves closer in form to the Welsh heroic tale than to the modern historical novel. Modern readers, like the reviewer who complained about the characterization, may not understand what you're doing, and even if they do they may not be able to relate to so alien a world.

NT: I know, and when I started out that was really the big gamble. It was, incidentally, a gamble materially as well, because I was commissioned and paid to write a completely different book. Having got this idea in my head that I might be able to write this kind of novel, I took a whole year off before my publishers began to get wise to what was going on. Originally I thought the whole novel would be 120,000 words, and would tell the story of Merlin from beginning to end. Well, by the end of the year I had done about 100,000 words and I was only a third of a way through the first part of what I now realized was a trilogy.
   I also realized that nobody might want to read it, because I had decided that it was no good having half notions: I've got to go whole hog or nothing. The moment I made that decision I found that the task became enormously satisfying, which it never had been before. I didn't worry any more about the fact I wasn't writing history; but there remained the risk that people wouldn't want to know about these people with unpronounceable names, or to pause where a triad is mentioned, or to follow the digressions and the sudden shifts from the material world to what appears to be the realm of fantasy. But I thought, no, I'll just do it. If people want to move into that world, they can, and if they don't, so much the worse for me. What I did hope was that while they might at first experience some reluctance, once they got into the book they'd become involved in it. They would find themselves moving into another world, moving through that mysterious door in the nursery and out the other side.
   My original publisher was very annoyed, but another one was brave enough to think that this kind of reader involvement might well happen, on both sides of the Atlantic, as it has, I'm glad to say, touch wood. Indeed, both readers and reviewers, where they haven't either simply been very pleased or displeased, have frequently commented on this. The first few pages are rather off- putting; the names are completely barbaric and alien, and there's an awful lot of them; but then most of them say the same thing-- and judging by the number of copies sold, it's a fairly successful recipe--that once you're drawn into it, then you're there.

RT: In fact you're not retelling a traditional Welsh tale for a modern audience, but rather recreating a story that might have been told at that time by people of that time. This is similar, in some respects, to what Tolkien does in his Middle Earth.

NT: Yes, except that he made up his own world. But in a way it is the same thing.

RT: You both take traditions from various sources to create your own world. Yours is, of course, distinctively Celtic, whereas his has a more Nordic tinge.

NT: Yes. And I must say now that you mention him that I was wrong when I said that I hadn't been influenced by any modern novelist. I am sure I was influenced by Tolkien, both consciously and unconsciously. I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings when I was at university, and thought it a marvellous book. I do actually remember thinking, rather naively, that when I come to write my novel on Arthur I must reread Tolkien to get the feel of how he writes.

RT: For most people, Merlin is Arthur's mentor. His main role is to protect and guide Arthur until he can draw the sword from the stone, become King of Britain, and initiate a glorious rule. You seem to have cut yourself off from that particular role, or do you have plans to include it later?

NT: This was perhaps the biggest instance where facts simply didn't allow me to do otherwise, as I saw it. It's very clear in the earliest tradition that Merlin is a contemporary of the late sixth-century kings, and that Arthur presumably lived at the beginning of the century. So I had to separate them. I think Arthur will come into the next novel more. In The Coming of the King he's a historical king who lived some two generations earlier, and whom some people remember as an old man. To others, who come from more remote parts of the kingdom, he's already become the mythical king under the mountain. In my next book, Merlin will visit him and speak with him again, and the figure of Arthur will loom larger, I think, because the theme will be the monarchy of Britain. His rule is a paradigm of excellence and of world order, but at the same time its disintegration serves as a warning that human institutions are fallible and are destroyed by time and other forces.

RT: When Merlin goes back to speak to Arthur, will this be in a shamanistic journey, rather than actual physical travel?

NT: Exactly. In some ways Merlin's role recalls that of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, presiding over the destinies of the island. Increasingly, however, he becomes a sort of Antichrist figure towards the end of the book. The last novel will follow very much the pattern and format of King Lear, because I think that Shakespeare has astonishing insight into the Celtic past. Of course, Lear does derive from Geoffrey of Monmouth and ultimately, if very thinly, from genuine Celtic tradition. In Macbeth too there are things which it's hard to see that Shakespeare could have known unless he had some knowledge of the Celtic background--possibly just by talking to Scotsmen and Irishmen.

RT: So it looks as if you're not going to bring in Merlin in his traditional role of Arthur's mentor?

NT: Definitely not. The underlying thrust in the novels will be historical. It will move on through the sixth century to the Battle of Arderydd. The last volume will move out of history, in a sense. Merlin will be living in limbo, much as he is in the old poetry.

RT: You don't feel any concern at discarding this well-established tradition?

NT: No more than I do discarding anything else which I don't see in the sources and don't think actually happened. I want everything to happen as nearly as it could.

RT: You prefer to stay close to the historical facts, as far as you're able to reconstruct them?

NT: Oh, yes. This is much clearer in the middle volume. In the first book there are only two historical events: the rise of Maelgwn Gwynedd, which you can infer from what Gildas says about him, and the Battle of Beranburh. There's no historical evidence that Maelgwn fought there, but it is contemporary with his time. The next book will be based more closely on what appeared in the historical record of events in the north.

RT: How do sources like the medieval romances fit into this?

NT: In the first volume I hardly draw on them at all, but in this next book I may use them for features such as the Grail and for details of the plot where they fill a gap in the Celtic sources. Provided that they seem to derive from Celtic sources, like, for instance, the childhood of Perceval, I might use them.

RT: You incorporate the traditional material within an historical frame, you might say?

NT: Yes, exactly. If an historian were to consider how much of my book is historical, he would say virtually nothing. He would agree that Maelgwn Gwynedd was a real king and that the Battle of Beranburh was probably an historical battle. He might also accept as more or less accurate the general picture of the Saxon invasions and of kingship as it was practised in early Britain.

RT: Perhaps too the picture of Celtic society at that period?

NT: I hope so. The novel grew out of an enormous enthusiasm and extensive reading which was largely formless. It was only after I had completed The Quest for Merlin, which seemed a satisfying end and which I thought was the end, that I realized I was not satisfied and it wasn't the end of what it was all about. With hindsight, I can now see that I love not just the sources but the scholarship which has been written since. When I was reading I had the most vivid image in my mind of a real sixth-century Britain. Real, I mean, to me. When I walked or traveled in the countryside and when I was at university in Ireland, all this world was very alive to me. What I was actually trying to do was get this butterfly and pin it down and put it in a glass case. I now realize, with this book, that's the wrong thing. What you must actually do is try and film the butterfly for other people to see, and leave it where it was.

RT: At some future time might you deal separately with the story of Arthur?

NT: When I finish this gigantic task, which is going to take another two or three years at least, I really haven't the faintest idea what I'll do next. I doubt whether I'll do Arthur because I think that would be too similar to what I've already done. If I don't move to something quite different, I might try a similar book on the Tristan story in its Celtic context. I would put it in Cornwall, I think, because I don't agree with Rachel Bromwich about him being of Pictish origin. I love Cornwall, and it's a nice story, which is helpful. I like to have the bones of the story already there.

RT: Since you rejected the idea of Merlin as Arthur's mentor, what part of his legend did you feel was most important to include in your novel or trilogy?

NT: The part which I am most concerned with, which I wrote about in The Quest for Merlin, and which is all we know from the sources, really, will come only in my last volume, and that is the story of Merlin's exile to the Caledonian forest. There he delivers his prophecies, there he suffers, and there he finally dies the threefold death. I suppose in a sense that Merlin's role as guide and mentor of Maelgwn Gwynedd is comparable to his relationship with Arthur, but otherwise the Merlin of Malory is entirely absent. He is replaced by Merlin the shaman who mediates between this world and the otherworld.
   I'm fascinated by the impinging of the otherworld into the material world in early stories. That to me not only has romantic and imaginative appeal, but also makes sense. After all, there is an otherworld which we do forget about. I wouldn't allow this message to override the sources, because then it would reflect the perspective of the twentieth century, not the sixth. But I suppose the underlying theme of the trilogy is the relationship between the otherworld and this one, and how much more imaginatively and naturally our Celtic predecessors lived in both worlds. We think ourselves much more learned than they and so we are, but all we've really done is focus the same brainpower on different problems.
   We direct our minds to the purely materialistic advance of human scientific knowledge in the broadest sense, but all we're saying is that the other problems are insoluble. Therefore we won't look at them; we'll look at what is soluble. I call that cheating. It's like the drunkard looking for his keys under a street lamp. When the policeman asks him where he lost them, he replies, farther down the street. The policeman says, well why don't you look down there? He replies, it's no good looking anywhere else because this is the only bit I can see. It is through myth, I think, that these insights are revealed.

RT: Would you describe your book, in some ways, as a mystical work?

NT: Yes, it is, I suppose. We live now in a materialistic world where it's very difficult, if not impossible, for a person to have a fully mystical view of life. I'm rather a materialistic person myself. My wife says I'm too cynical. Well, I am in a way, but I can feel what we've lost. We can't believe the story of Zeus in the way that the Greeks did; but I think, maybe if we set out in a way that is approachable, we could enter those doors and move in that world for a while. We could see that such a world could exist, and therefore that maybe it does exist.

RT: When do you expect to complete the next book in the trilogy?

NT: It's a very slow book and the interruptions are considerable. Currently I'm preparating for a trial for war crimes committed in 1945: the British action at the end of the last war in handing over Cossacks and other Soviet citizens. As a result, I'm hardly able to work on my Celtic books at all.
   There is, however, a relationship between the two in a way. My interest in contemporary, or near contemporary, events teaches me that the sixth century is not simply a remote and exotic period which is exciting to imagine oneself in. It contains real and dramatic events that affected human interests and concerns, individual or national. Meeting and discussing with people who actually made the decisions and were involved in tragedies brings such events to life for me. It teaches me not to be as pessimistic as some historians, who say that you cannot recapture the past. As well as consult documents, I can speak to the people who were there. I've had in front of me a retired general, and I've shown him a report. I've said, this is your report, isn't it, General? And he's said, yes. And I've said, what you've written in it is not true, is it? And he's said, no, I'm afraid it isn't. You can't do that with the sixth century; you have a source and you've got to take it or leave it. You can't challenge the author; you can't bring Gildas back to life.

RT: I suppose you can reinterpret his accusations.

NT: Yes, of course you can, and there are techniques. But my contemporary experience helps to test the techniques.

RT: Can you give me an example of how your experience with your research into 1945 has helped you to reinterpret the materials you have for the Dark Ages?

NT: Well, sometimes in a rather obvious and direct way. For example, there's a character who plays a major part in the story--a Roman tribune, stranded in Britain for the winter. I know I couldn't have written about him if I hadn't spent so much time with senior military officers, discussing in great detail aspects of their careers and the decisions they had to make.
   More generally, I suppose it gave me a feel for the actuality and complexity of very dramatic events--of coverups, of treachery, maybe much worse treachery than anyone suspected. Thus I could write about such matters in a more lively way, I think, than if I were simply a novelist sitting in a drawing room who conjured everything from imagination.

RT: Thank you.