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Interview with Bernard Cornwell

9 JUNE 2007
When I learned that Bernard Cornwell was to be among the Guests of Honor at the conference being held by the North American Branch of the Historical Novel Society in Albany, New York, in 2007, I leapt at the chance to add an interview with the author of such popular historical fiction series as the Sharpe Books (India, the Peninsular War), the Warrior Chronicles (King Alfred and the Danes), and, of course, the Warlord Trilogy (Arthur) and the Grail Quest (One Hundred Years War). He had a busy schedule (high-profile conference guests face many demands), but he kindly found the time to answer my questions; and again to read the edited version of the interview and correct a couple of errors when I sent it to him after so long a delay. 
            As the years pass and new projects occupy the mind, it is not easy to remember details of the creation process of an earlier work, but it has been my good fortune to encounter almost invariable kindness and patience from the authors I have interviewed over the years, even the busiest. It has been an enriching, as well as insightful, experience.
RT: What first attracted you to the Arthurian legend for your Warlord Chronicles and subsequently the Grail Quest series?
BC: Well I suppose it was growing up in England: the Arthur stories sit somewhere in the taproot of British history, and of course they are transmuted into complete myth. But they had always fascinated me. I guess the real question is why did they last? What was the fascination about the Arthur stories that gave them such long legs? I think that was where it started.
RT: As a child did you read Arthurian stories for younger readers?
BC: I probably did. I had a rather strange childhood. I was brought up by a sect called the Peculiar People, and they were. They disapproved rather strongly of reading anything not actually connected to the Bible. I must have read the Arthur stories in school, because I was aware of them and have a half memory of a picture book with the little boy-scout Arthur pulling the sword from a stone. I’m sure I was about eight or nine and probably in prep school.
RT: Had you read modern Arthurian fiction or earlier romances and tales before you decided to write about Arthur?
BC: No, the only thing I had read was T.H. White. Partly it was because, very early on when I became a historical novelist, I knew that one day I wanted to tackle Arthur; and I thought, I’m not going to muddy the pool by reading other people, because it’s a disaster: you pick up ideas and you probably trot them out again. So I avoided it.
RT: Did you read additional Arthurian sources in preparation for your writing?
BC: Oh yes. I read everything I could. A huge amount of archaeology: whatever I could find on post-Roman Britain that was academically respectable. You then plunge into the extremely murky pool of Arthurian dictionaries of Celtic Britain, the mystical stuff. What was really interesting, though, was to read the lives of Saint Padarn, Saint Carannog, and others; and I then went on to things like the Laws of Hywel Dda. I read a lot of Old Welsh material, because although this is much later than the Arthurian period, I have a belief that these things hang on. When Hywel Dda wrote his Laws [in the tenth century], he was codifying laws that were very much older than he was, obviously. And that was fascinating. Even when you read something like Y Gododdin, you pick up all sorts of things about that society. It’s long after Arthur, but there is still stuff in there which is a cultural hangover.
RT: Did you read any of the chronicles and romances?
BC: The Red Book of Hergest and The Black Book of Carmarthen, yes. I immersed myself, really, in early Welsh material, because that is what he was: Arthur was obviously Welsh.
RT: What about later romances?
BC: I read the romances, but it seems to me that whenever you read romances, like those of Chrétien de Troyes, you are simply reading what somebody else has made of the raw material. Of course Chrétien was incredibly lucky: he had much more raw material than I did, and so did Malory. But you are still actually reading somebody else’s redaction. What I was trying to do was to go back to the very earliest sources I could find, and then to make something new out of that material. I had this sort of rush of blood to the head when I was doing the research, and thought, I won’t use any character who is later than the eleventh century. Unfortunately, this leaves out Merlin and Lancelot, and it took about two minutes on page one to realize it was a really stupid idea, so it got dropped.
RT: If you try to get too early, the legend loses a lot of the things that give it power.
BC: Helen Hollick did that, which I think was incredibly brave; but I decided I wouldn’t be brave, so I wasn’t.
RT: My favourite historical novelist is Rosemary Sutcliff. Have you read Sword at Sunset?
BC: Yes, a long time ago, before I ever knew about this earlier material.
RT: She said there are some things you can’t drop from the story.
BC: You can’t, so in other words you enter into the conspiracy and simply keep the myth going. Which is fine.
RT: How conscious were you that you were working within a tradition that limited your freedom to invent whatever you wished?
BC: It didn’t in a way, but let’s go back and examine that. Yes, you’re working within a tradition and you have a certain amount of freedom, but one of the things that occurred to me as I was writing is that the Matter of Britain is endlessly malleable. You take out of it what you want to take out of it. Whether it’s a feminist view or whatever, you are going to find it there. The very malleability gives immense freedom to do all sorts of things. Yes, you are working within a tradition, and there are certain things you can’t do. It would have been interesting, for instance, to have made Arthur into a villain as the early Church documents say he was—making him Jack Nicholson instead of Sean Connery—but that probably is a step too far. You are going to need someone much cleverer than me to do that.
The other nice thing about working within a tradition is that your reader is going to do a lot of your work for you. You only have to introduce a character called Galahad or Lancelot or Guinevere, and immediately a whole set of assumptions rush into the reader’s mind. And since you know they are there, you can deliberately use those assumptions, which saves you a lot of work as well. It also enables you to do things with your fiction by knowing those assumptions are being brought to the book. That was fun, and it made life quite easy, in some ways.
RT: This did give you the opportunity to make use of irony when you deal with figures like Lancelot, didn’t it?
BC: Yes, true.
RT: I really liked the idea of the troupe of minstrels serving as his PR people.
BC: Well, I think this is actually true. I’m writing about King Alfred’s Britain at the moment. They’ve all got their scops, and what else are these guys except, in fact, your spin doctors? I am sure that happened.
RT: When you are actually writing your books, do you assume on the part of your readership a degree of familiarity with the legend itself, or do you not think about readers at all?
BC: You are writing for yourself in a sense, but yes of course you must think about the readers. The reader is going to bring a set of assumptions. I hope this isn’t being patronizing, but I would assume that the assumptions are fairly primitive: it’s on the level of the musical Camelot. Now of course some are much more sophisticated and do bring so much more. That’s fine, but you don’t worry about them. That’s a smaller group. For most of the readers Arthur is the great wonderful king, Guinevere is beautiful and betrays him, Lancelot is the tortured hero, etc. Those are the assumptions you use. You say, OK, you bring this to the story and I’m bringing this to the story; and then I start to play with your assumptions.
It’s not really a conscious thing when you are writing. The way I wrote it is that I was quite ambitious for that trilogy. I wanted it to be good. So I had given myself six months to research it. I think I had done three months research and as usual was getting incredibly bored with making notes, which I never look at again. I remember September 17th, and I didn’t know whether to write it in the first person or the third person. I had written everything before that in the third person except for a couple of books, but I had an instinct that this story needed to be told in the first person. And I thought, I’ll give myself a treat today, September 17th, and I will start writing just to check if it works in the first person. And I looked up again on December 23rd and the book was finished. I started it on that day and it just went whoosh: suddenly you couldn’t stop. So the research did get sort of finished in the end, but not at the level I wanted. Of course the book wasn’t really finished: it took another three months to rewrite. But the writing itself was such a joy, because suddenly this thing was on hyper drive and the story just poured out. You make changes to the traditional story, obviously, and later on people will challenge you and say that in the legend Morgan is like this and you’ve got her like that; and you say, well hang on a second, I don’t care. This is how it worked, and anyway Morgan is all sorts of things in the legend. I know because I’ve just read Carolyne Larrington’s King Arthur’s Enchantresses.
The other two books, when I came to write them a year and two years later, flowed the same way. It was just a joy to write; it was just there. They were not written with a careful eye on the research, or a careful eye on even the received wisdom. They were written in an amazingly emotional rush of pure joy.
We are not historians; we are story tellers. There are proper historians out there. If you want to know about the Peninsular War, you read Charles Esdaile’s marvellous book. The only difference is that Charles Esdaile—and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying this—won’t keep you awake at night, whereas Richard Sharpe might.
Of course there is no real history to go on with the Arthurian period. There is archaeological detail, and we’ve got certain records which seem to be extremely unreliable. So there isn’t actually a history, except for the Battle of Mount Badon. In the end I had to make up my mind as to what was the real Arthur. That was something entirely different. In the end maybe this is why the story is so malleable. It isn’t history; it’s a story.
RT: It gives freedom, but that can be dangerous.
BC: The people who take the most liberties, it seems to me, are in Hollywood. The last one made him into a Sarmatian. Oh God, hopeless.
RT: The most successful adaptations adopt your approach. Take what you need and just write your own book. Putting in too much creates problems.
BC: I don’t think that Chrétien de Troyes and Malory were that careful with their sources, but there again they were writing a romance, in the original sense of that word. If I was going to write an Arthurian novel which was absolutely true to the mainstream legend, it would be actually rather dull. You would just be doing what everyone else has done. What I wanted to do was at least to put it into a realistic early sixth-century setting: there’s no plate armour and no Windsor Castle littering the landscape. I think in that on the whole I was successful. I also wanted to keep the magic explicable, which worked for a book and a half and then it took over.
RT: With so many fantastic elements, it’s not always easy to preserve historical verisimilitude, is it?
BC: Well Merlin is, of course, the great problem, because Merlin is really a superhero. I adored my Merlin, I’ll say quite shamelessly. He made me laugh. And he does perform magic, but the magic, at least in the first two books, is rather carefully explained. There’s a piece I rather like, which I got from Pliny, about eating piddocks [shellfish]. Pliny had noted that at night, when people ate piddocks, their lips glowed. And so I simply had Merlin smear this all over a naked girl, which is sort of fun when you think about it, and so you have in the darkness this girl with glowing skin. Now of course this seems to be magic, since there she is, shimmering and scintillating; but actually it’s not magic. It’s something which we know they knew about, or at least Pliny knew about, and piddocks are found in Britain. I would invite my readers to try this at home.
I must say that by Excalibur, the third book, the magic has really moved into the realm of magic. And it’s partly again because that’s the way the story took me. I was aware of it while it was happening, and I thought OK, I’m going to let it do it, since this is where it wants to go: the storm and the fog on Anglesey. But it’s also totally explicable, because it does happen. I don’t know Anglesey well enough, but certainly where I live I can guarantee you that fog would come in on cue; but maybe not on Anglesey.
RT: Did your editors or agents help or hinder you in these two projects?
BC: No, I’m very fortunate. I’ve had the same editor and the same agent for twenty odd years. It’s a friendship. I take the view that writing is not my agent’s job, and he doesn’t try to interfere. My editor is such a friend: she probably has said something like ‘make Guinevere a lesbian’ and I have said ‘no’, but I can’t remember. We never have fights.
RT: It’s unlikely to be an issue with an author as successful as you.
BC: Actually, one of the things I like about my editor is that she still treats me as though I’m writing my first book, which is good, really good. She doesn’t let me off the hook. But the friendship has lasted, so I assume it’s all right.
RT: Were there any themes that you particularly wanted to develop in your books, or did they just emerge?
BC: I think they emerged. I suppose what drew me to the story was why Arthur has lasted so long. What is the fascination with this man? Eventually I did come up with an answer. It seems to me that the story of Arthur is essentially the story of a Golden Age, and you can actually root this in history by saying that if Arthur was the British commander at the Battle of Mount Badon, then Gildas is right. For a generation the British actually got overlordship over the Saxons. So for one generation part of what is now England is still under British control. Then, of course, they begin to lose again, but they look back to that period, that generation as Gildas called it, as their Golden Age. I think that’s what happened with Arthur: he becomes the Golden Age. What was probably a very thuggish warlord is eventually turned into this hyper-muscular Christian whom Tennyson wrote about: an all-round nice guy, which I’m positively sure he was not, but you have to go along with that, you really do. But to me that is what gives the Matter of Britain its legs: it’s that it is maybe the story of the Golden Age: Camelot.
RT: The destructive role of fanaticism, whether pagan or Christian, looms large in the series. Had you thought about this a lot, or did it just emerge from the material as you wrote?
BC: It probably arose at a visceral level. I have lived in Northern Ireland, and you only have to look around today to see the dangers of intolerance everywhere. One thing that seemed plain from the research, at least if those early Celtic saints’ lives are right, is that there was religious conflict, and that the conflict obviously was between paganism and Christianity. Whenever Christianity seems to get slightly on top, it turns vicious. It is always frightfully meek when it is being persecuted, but the moment it actually gets the whip hand, my God they can show you how to do it. I was having fun with people like Bishop Samson, who is an unmitigated shit. It’s also true of the series I’m writing now, about the Anglo-Saxons and Alfred the Great: the Church’s viciousness against the pagans, my way or no way. I’m sure that’s true, and it always has been true, hasn’t it? And it’s still true today. Having been brought up by the Peculiar People and having escaped them, I’ve always had a slightly twisted and biased view of all religions.
RT: I was also struck by the concept of the unworthy ruler in your trilogy. Arthur, although aware that Mordred is unworthy, nevertheless keeps his word to serve him.
BC: It’s a curiosity, isn’t it? I am unashamedly a royalist, but I do think we should keep our monarchs well under control, as the British now do. It’s plain that by accident, and purely by accident, Alfred the Great really was a guy who should have been in charge. My theory about Alfred the Great is that he was the only sober man in Wessex. He was obsessive about work, and also a decent man, a good man. Alfred in many ways really is your Arthurian figure. I’m not sure he was a great warrior because he was so sick, but he is nevertheless a prototype of a very, very good monarch. Anybody would be lucky to have Alfred as their king, but of course what you’re dealing with here is genetic chance. Once in a thousand years it shows up in Alfred or maybe Elizabeth the First; but it also shows up in George IV and John and Richard II and all the morons.
All societies back then were oath-based. Once you’ve made your oath, do you keep it? And do you really believe that your king is, as the Bible tells you, divinely appointed? If you were a Bronze Age thug and you actually did manage to get hold of the throne, then the very first thing you are going to do, of course, is get the priest to say that God actually arranged it; and if you try to topple me off the throne, then God is going to send you plagues and boils and kill your children and all the things that God does so well. That slowly transmutes into the disastrous concept of Divine Right, doesn’t it? But then the story wouldn’t have worked if Arthur had done the sensible thing.
RT: It’s not without significance that so much Heroic Age literature exalts the quality of loyalty and devotion and keeping one’s oath, because it was composed in courts and sponsored by rulers. They would want to emphasize these values, probably because they weren’t very good at practising them themselves.
BC: That’s my suspicion too. In the book I’ve just finished called Sword Song, which will be out in October, there’s quite a lot about this. Uhtred, my hero, is aware he’s given an oath that he doesn’t want to keep. What troubles him is that he also believes firmly that fate is inexorable, and he’s saying, hang on, if I break this oath, Fate—the Norns at the foot of Yggdrasil—has already decided I’m going to do this, so do I have free will? Unhappily, he doesn’t come up with an answer, because I’m not a theologian.
RT: Fate is a strong element in the Arthurian legend, partly because we know what’s going to happen at the end anyway.
BC: It all ends in tears; but it also ends happily in the sense that Arthur goes off to Avalon. I thought, OK, I’m going to keep that: I’ll have the crucifixion, but I’ll put in the resurrection as well. Which I think you have to. That’s part of the story.
The interesting thing is that I’m now writing about the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries. The Arthurian matter is probably the preserve of British women, who tell the stories to their children. Since the British and Saxon ruling classes have intermarried, the stories have been turned into the English language. Because Arthur was such an enemy of the English, the first thing that happens with these stories is that the anchor to Celtic Britain goes and he becomes a sort of generic hero of all Britain, including England. I find that interesting, the whole way in which the legend floats off from reality, losing its moorings. Because it’s such a powerful story of the Golden Age, it can’t end in tears. It has to end with him waiting with his knights in Avalon to return. So now it’s not only left its moorings, but moved right into the supernatural. But that is a comfort, isn’t it? The Welsh clung onto that. Henry II producing the body of Arthur was a superb piece of psychological warfare. You’ve got to admire the bugger.
RT: Since some of your characters are already well-established in tradition, did you feel restricted in how you developed them?
BC: Galahad has become a sort of soppy Fotherington-Thomas figure. I was having fun with Galahad. With figures like Derfel, the narrator, however, there’s very little about them, and that is exactly why I used him. I introduced some characters like Derfel and Ceinwyn, who left the traditional story early, and I tried to bring them back: that gave me huge freedom. With someone like Galahad or Lancelot, I tried to change them, just enough.
RT: How about Culhwch? You change him quite a bit.
BC: That was never a worry. Remember I said to you the readers bring assumptions? Well they bring assumptions about Galahad and Lancelot and Guinevere especially, and Morgan maybe to a lesser extent, and Merlin hugely. The larger the assumptions brought, the less freedom I have, although I can do certain things. With characters like Culhwch, Derfel, and Ceinwyn, who is my favourite heroine ever, however, the reader brings no assumptions. They are mine and I can do what I like with them.
RT: Is there a conscious mix on your part?
BC: Yes, absolutely. You are stuck with certain characters, however, because it’s not going to work without Merlin and Arthur and Guinevere. I like my Guinevere. You can see her stalking in five-inch heels and leaving chaos in her wake. Ceinwyn is the sweet one; Guinevere would light up the room.
RT: Did any of your characters develop in directions you hadn’t anticipated?
BC: I’m sure they did, but I can’t remember now, to be honest, for it was so long ago. The books were written in a huge hurry, and therefore very little of it is actual conscious thought. Yet what is really weird is that at the end of the trilogy, all the plot threads come together so beautifully, and I didn’t see it coming! I didn’t know how it was going to happen, and suddenly it just did. From my point of view, the hard work is plotting. I just knew it was all working like a dream.
Some of the characters just leapt off the page, mainly Merlin. It was always fun writing Merlin. I had no idea what he was going to say, and then he would say it. My favourite scene is when he is talking about cheese while he’s surrounded by enemies. Merlin worked wonderfully well.
RT: Nimue is an interesting character: you tend to have these wild women turning up in your novels, don’t you?
BC: She is based entirely on somebody I knew in Northern Ireland.
RT: You chose first-person narrative point of view for the Warlord Trilogy, and the third-person for the Grail Quest, and I gather from what you said earlier that the latter is more common in your work?
BC: Much more, though I’m doing first person again for the Alfred series.
RT: I enjoy first person, I must admit.
BC: I do too. It’s nice to write. It brings all sorts of complications: you’re littering the book with ‘I later learned that’. But on the other hand, it’s much easier to find a voice. I’ve done about forty-six novels: probably, at a guess, one-third first person and two-thirds third. I find it easier to write in the first person. Plot and voice are the two things you have to take care of. The next book I write I know is going to be third person, although it would probably be much easier in the first person. But it’s not going to work from the plotting point of view unless I do it in the third person.
RT: There is a lot of irony in your novels. Is this something you found in the Arthurian material, or just something you enjoy doing, or did it just happen?
BC: I think it just happens. I think the business that I am in, story-telling, is essentially instinctive. A curious thing goes on here, because I don’t plot the books out. I don’t know how the book is going to end. Obviously if you are dealing with someone like Arthur, you know it is going to end at the Battle of Camlann and he’s going to disappear. And yet you don’t know the journey there. It was E.L Doctorow, wasn’t it, who said that writing a novel is like driving a country road at night, and you can only see as far ahead as the headlights will show? It’s also like climbing a mountain: you get a third of the way up and you look back, and you see a much better route. So you go back and you start again, and that much better route gives you the impetus to get halfway up and you turn and look back again. I tend to write them that way: I write a third and then go back and start again, then half, and so on.
The characters sometimes do things you don’t expect. I usually just let them do it, because you’ve got to trust that instinct. You just have to trust what they want to do.
RT: You can always rewrite it.
BC: You can always rewrite it, but I find, touch wood, as I get older I don’t have to do that quite so often, though I used to. Maybe I know what works and what doesn’t after twenty odd years and forty odd books.
RT: When you write a series as opposed to a single novel, you may make decisions in the earlier books that create problems in the later books. Did you find this?
BC: Not with that series. I said earlier, everything came together in Excalibur. On that September 17th I gave Derfel one hand. I had no idea how he lost that hand. When the explanation comes at the end of Excalibur, it’s extraordinarily powerful and ties all sorts of things together. I had just assumed he lost it in battle. That ending wouldn’t have worked unless on page one of the first book I had made that decision; though at the time I had no idea why. That sort of thing just works.
RT: I have read some of your Sharpe novels, and I have noticed that you have a habit of getting rid of women when you don’t need them any more.
BC: What happened with Sharpe is that there have been twenty-one novels so far. I wrote ten or eleven, and I thought the series was over when I got him to Waterloo. Then Sean Bean and the television came along, and it was pretty obvious that we needed more Sharpe books. So I went back to the very beginning of his career, and I’m now writing a second series, which is supposedly dove-tailed. In fact, it’s hammered together rather crudely, and that creates problems. Sharpe’s Trafalgar has my second favourite heroine, Lady Grace. But there is absolutely no way she can live, because she is not in the next book, which was written fifteen years before. That’s the problem with Sharpe, and it’s rather horrible, because actually I adored Lady Grace. If I’d have thought of her in the first series, she’d have stayed, I think, until the end. She just had to die, in childbirth or something, which is tough. That’s not me being really nasty; that’s actually me being forced to do it by having been so stupid as to write two series, one after the other, that overlap.
RT: This was not an issue then with either the Warlord Chronicles or Grail Quest series?
BC: No. I think sometimes you have to kill off somebody whom the reader is fond of, or you clutter the thing up with too many people.
RT: It was sad when you killed off Isolde, the Irish woman that Uhtred had a relationship with.
BC: She was all right, wasn’t she? I knew she wasn’t going to go anywhere, though. You can somehow sense that a character will do for one book, but ‘she ain’t got legs’. And she hadn’t. Whereas Gisella, who appears in the next book, does. Because I know whom Uhtred is going to end up with, I really don’t need Gisella; but I like her much too much and he likes her much too much.
RT: You laid the groundwork for that, didn’t you?
BC: Yes, laying down hostages to fortune. With Sharpe, for instance, I introduced a character in one of the last books in the original series. She was meant to be a fairly minor character, but Sharpe fell in love with her. She’s French and they end up living in France, but I never saw that coming. I tried desperately to stop it, as I had an idea what his post-Bernard Cornwell life was like and it was nothing like this. But that’s all right; he ends up happy.
RT: Did your conception of the Arthurian and Grail Quest series change as they progressed?
BC: I think it shifted more with Arthur. What shifted there, as I said, was that the Matter of Britain began to take over a bit: the magic gets more magical. It has a down side: I was in a book shop the other day, and they’d got them in the fantasy shelves, and I thought, oh f***! Because they’re not fantasy. But I was aware of that problem. A tale I’d wanted to root firmly in a real sixth-century background is itself losing its moorings. But that’s the Matter of Britain, and I thought, OK, you’re going to have to go with this and let it happen.
People complain that Excalibur is too short, but it’s actually one of the longest books I’ve written. It goes so fast that people think it’s short, but it’s longer than the other two. I was accused of writing it in a hurry and doing a short version. I thought, you’ve no idea.
RT: Were you to decide to rewrite the books, is there anything you would like to change?
BC: Yes, I’d make the first third of Winter King much faster. I spend too much time establishing a world and not enough time getting the plot going. It’s slow getting started.
RT: Do the Arthurian books sell better than the others?
BC: They sell brilliantly all over the world, and still do years later.
RT: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon has been similarly successful: the legend rewards its loyal minstrels. Do you have plans for writing anything more on the Arthurian legend?
BC: God, no! I’m asked on the website, probably once a day, please, more, more, more: NO. I did it. I’ve done it. Maybe I’d rewrite The Winter King to tighten up the first third, and do a director’s cut version—actually, that’s not a bad idea—I might even think of doing it.
RT: It would probably sell pretty well and it would give scholars a lot of joy as they pore over the differences between the two versions. You could even write it as a kind of scholarly joke, a recently discovered manuscript of a different redaction. [Laughter]
Thank you very much. You’ve been very patient.