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Interview with Robert Holdstock

21 MAY 1989

   Every time I visit London, the weather seems to decide it is time for a heat wave, and the day I chose to visit Robert Holdstock proved no exception. Nor did I have any luck in my attempt to avoid heavy traffic by driving into the city on a Sunday morning. Thus by the time I reached Holdstock's house, I was very grateful for his invitation to go round to the local pub for a pint before lunch. It was the welcome prelude to a long and animated conversation about his writing.
   Only a few Arthurian figures make occasional appearances, and they are reduced to their basic archetypes, in Mythago Wood (New York: Arbor House, 1984), a novel for which he won the World Fantasy Award, and which he has developed into an ongoing series: Lavondyss (London: Gollancz, 1988) and The Fetch (London: Macdonald, 1991). Arthurian legend is more central in The Bull Chief (London: Sphere, 1977), however, which Holdstock wrote under the pseudonym of Chris Carlsen. Since this is a sword-and-sorcery novel of more than usual violence, I was curious to learn why he wrote it and how he felt about it. His answers shed an illuminating light on a literary sub-genre that has remained popular despite criticism from the more serious minded.

RT: You make extensive use of Arthurian legend in The Bull Chief, which you wrote under the pseudonym of Chris Carlsen. Had you used the legend before that?

RH: I don't think that I had. The Bull Chief is, however, second in the Berserker trilogy and I can't remember whether I introduced Arthurian elements into The Shadow of the Wolf, the first novel. Certainly the first time that I use Arthur as a living character is in The Bull Chief.

RT: What attracted you to Arthurian legend for the second book in this series?

RH: First of all, I had been wanting to write a book in which Arthur appears as a character. I proposed to a publisher in perhaps 1975 an idea for a trilogy of books in which Arthur discovers his power as a leader because he suddenly realizes that, in a time of burgeoning Christianity, people are losing touch with the old ways. He appeals to the Celtic, nature-worshipping instinct in the Britons. This was going to power the idea of the trilogy. In 1975, however, the publisher wasn't interested in Arthur; there were too many Arthur books. One of the terrible things that haunts me is that I always seem to have my most potent ideas at the wrong time. If I had come up with that idea in 1985, or indeed an idea for any trilogy about Arthur, I would certainly have sold it and the books would probably still be in print. In 1975, however, this was not on.
   In the second place, I was fascinated by the stories of Arthur. I had been reading Geoffrey Ashe's account of the excavations at Cadbury Castle in Somerset. The whole notion of the knight, the woodland, the wild quest, and the hunting of great beasts fascinated me. Linked with that, I was discovering the Irish tradition of Cuchulainn and the Cattle Raid of Cualnge, a great sequence of tales which I read twice and adored. These stories led me to reflect upon the Bronze Age people who had become the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians in the early legends. They were, perhaps, a reflection of dark-haired races, possibly from Spain or somewhere like that, possibly the builders of stone circles and burial mounds, and they had been in Ireland before the arrival of the Celts. I was intrigued at how each of those cultures entered into the mythology of the culture that followed.
   Arthur fitted into this pattern of changing cultures. The whole concept of the Berserker trilogy is that a mixed bag of mythological types would be inhabiting the land. If you call up Cernunnos, the horned god of the Celts, he would be able to come, but you might have to make use of a much older magic tradition in order to summon him.
   For me, Arthur was a romantic figure. I remember my sense of emotional excitement at the thought of a man who led his warriors from Cornwall right up to Hadrian's Wall, guarding a frontier. I was fascinated by him, and in a way this is comic book fascination. My mind works in film--I'm a great admirer of Sergio Leone, the great Italian director of spaghetti westerns. When I was thinking of Arthur, I thought wholly in film terms. I saw him riding through the landscape, resting in old ruined places, pursuing great boars. Arthur was, in the fifth century, someone who in my mind was already part of a more ancient tradition that could be reflected in ruins or in the summoning of the past. This fascinated me. I can still feel the emotion as I talk to you now. To use him as a character in The Bull Chief was very exciting, but we have to discuss the sort of book that The Bull Chief is.

RT: The hero of the Berserker series is reborn in different eras, isn't he?

RH: Yes. He insults a group of Norse berserkers who are in the power of Odin, who are possessed by the Bear, and they punish him by making him an unwilling berserker. The Bear becomes a part of his soul which is uncontrollable, despite his desperate efforts. Whenever he dies, he is reborn in an earlier age. I think I'm the first writer who has written a seqence of rebirth stories in which, instead of being reborn in later ages, the hero is reborn backwards through time. It is very confusing to write about, and probably very confusing to read. The third novel is set in Roman Britain at the time of Boudicca's uprising. They are, I confess, hack books.

RT: Why did you write the series?

RH: It follows directly from the failure to sell a serious idea about Arthur and Romano-Celtic Britain in the fifth century. This was going to be an historical fantasy whose historical aspects would be well researched, particularly the religious beliefs.

RT: Why was the publisher not interested?

RH: They wanted sword and sorcery or, as they called it in those days, occult fantasy. At that time I was beginning my career. My main field was science fiction: I had written three novels dealing with aliens, the notion of alienation, and human beings alienated from their own culture but living among aliens. Because I was trained as a biologist, those three science fiction books were biologically and anthropologically orientated. But they weren't paying very much. Because I was at that time a very garrulous and outgoing young man, I got to know all of the editors in London, and I met one who is still a good friend of mine, Angus Wells. At that time he was working at Sphere. Angus was about to leave Sphere to take up his own freelance career, but when I mentioned my Arthur idea, he said, what you really want to do is some fast writing. Why don't you let me commission you to do three commercial sword and sorcery books?
   I modified all my ideas because I didn't want to waste them. The Shadow of the Wolf, which was the first book, was plucked out of the air. Then what always happens happened. In the second book, I was so enjoying handling the landscapes and characters, that I used, glancingly, slightly, almost fragmentarily, but nevertheless used, my central ideas from the more serious proposal.
   The Bull Chief has at its core a novella if you dissect it from the violence and the appalling misogyny. I feel very ashamed about those features, but at the beginning of my career I was not as much in control of my material as I thought I was. There is, however, a substantial novella within a rather unpleasant longer novel, and it's a novella that I intend to save.

RT: So, at some point you may actually write the story that you wanted to write initially?

RH: I almost certainly will. I could not undertake it in the years immediately following The Bull Chief because the passion had gone. Having touched the idea, I found that it had lost some of its vigor. By the early 1980s the burgeoning quantity of modern Arthurian fiction that was coming out seemed so repetitive. Some of the more interesting characters from The Mabinogion had been used, such as Pryderi and Peredur. I was interested in exploring some of what I call the shadow Arthurs, the previous manifestations of Arthur as I believe him to be, but I lost my enthusiasm for that because of the amount of hack work on the market. I criticize the kind of work that I myself was engaged in writing.

RT: Would you say that treating the material as sword and sorcery created a certain cynicism on your part? Or having once touched upon it, did you need to come at it fresh again?

RH: That is a tough one. Cynicism, I think, was the problem, though it didn't last. Mythago Wood develops very much out of a return to the original passion for mythological fantasy that I felt in the early stages of my career, but I suppose it is true that The Bull Chief and the other books in the Berserker series killed my creative flow for that sort of material. For a period of time, what I had to adopt was the simple, awful, formulaic approach to writing. I wrote each book, I hasten to add, in a month, so we're talking three months of my life to get some money together. Having touched upon an idea that was very powerful, I felt that somehow I'd drained a little of the energy from it. When I returned to the Arthurian theme, you notice that it was in a very different way. I no longer follow linear time and explore the past. Instead, modern time reflects back; historical and legendary events are now haunting presences in the modern day.

RT: Before we move on to talk about Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, I have some more questions I want to ask you about The Bull Chief, because it is an interesting example of a popular subcategory within the field of science fiction and fantasy.

RH: Can I just add that it is also heavily influenced by commercial requirements, which accounts for many of the less tasteful ingredients within it.

RT: Did you feel that you had to heighten the scenes of violence, including rape, because of the requirements of the form?

RH: There's only one scene of rape, and were I to write it now, I might keep it. I wouldn't, however, have my male characters exercise so much complacency when it is occurring. The violence was very hard for me to write, the rape violence especially, but I was very energetic, full of enthusiasm, full of language, full of ideas. I found it easy to write six pages of a scene which I could have compressed to one page. Thus I had no problem extending and drawing out the down-market aspects of the novels, which I would find hard to do now, simply because I don't have the energy to do it.
   But yes, I was responding very much to instructions as I understood them from the commercial market. I think those instructions were a mistake for the commercial market. They were certainly a mistake for me to have obeyed, but I was young and innocent.

RT: When you say instructions, did you receive actual suggestions from the publishers, or were you just aware of what was selling?

RH: I talked to many editors, both male and female by the way, and none of them contradicted this view. The message that I received was: put in scenes of violence, heighten the violence, and make it as graphic as possible. The unfortunate clash with my interest was that I wanted to point up the power of women in Celtic society.
   I wanted to explore the notion of warrior women in Celtic society, and since warrior women presumably died at the same rate as male warriors, there seems to be a lot of violence towards women. I quickly read through the book this morning before this interview and was very disturbed by the amount of violence in it. Most of it, I think, is probably authentic for the times. I've grown out of that, and I think I've learned a lesson. As I said, what I perceive in retrospect is how I have allowed the male characters to display complacency towards violence. Not just violence towards women, but violence in general. They laugh, they have a good time, they make jokes which are double entendres. These are simply not acceptable to me now. I can't even remember writing them, but I obviously did.

RT: Where did you find the figure of the female warrior in Celtic society? Do you recall your sources?

RH: I think it surfaces from skim reading a lot of material while I lived in Ireland, about how important women were in Celtic society, how much more honor they received than they did in later societies. Also, there is the folk song tradition of the young woman who dresses up in man's clothing to search for her lost lover. There's enormous nobility and courage in that action, and I can't believe it was confined to the wars against the French when most of the folk songs are set.
   I could see no reason why women couldn't be as good as men with a sword, if not better. If their population was small and they were continually harrassed by cattle raiders, some communities might have trained women to fight. I may be wrong because I've never come across any direct evidence. These books are romances in the broadest sense of the word, however, and I wanted to include female characters.

RT: Were you familiar with Scathach, the female warrior who teaches Cuchulainn how to handle weapons?

RH: It is interesting that you should mention a female character called Scathach. I don't recall her in the Celtic material, but I have a male character called Scathach in my latest book, Lavondyss. Obviously this name must have some deep, archetypal, resonant meaning, though I believe I made it up.

RT: Did you? Might you not have come across it in your rapid background reading?

RH: Since I did read the Tain bo Cualnge twice, I must have done, but I've forgotten it now. It was a long time ago.

RT: It is inevitable that writers will absorb material from their reading, and sometimes not realize where it came from, isn't it?

RH: I think this is absolutely right. I regard our unconscious minds as a sort of sump which has various access gates through to consciousness. In a way, this is very Arthurian because Arthur, I believe, often visited the underworld. These reflect journeys that we all take into our unconscious minds through dreams or even through our behavior at times.

RT: In The Bull Chief Arthur treacherously slays the central hero. Why did you give so admired a monarch so unflattering a role?

RH: Power, the pursuit of power. I wanted to demonstrate that my hero is powerless to control the force of violence and power within himself, which is the spirit of Odin, the spirit of the Bear. This takes him over and controls his limbs. My implication is that all powerful men have an uncontrollable aspect to their souls.

RT: So it was more than a convenient means to end the novel and bring about the hero's rebirth in the third novel of the series?

RH: My original notion for dealing with Arthur was that he was a man who had a great depth of understanding and a great feel for the land. He was also, however, a powerful man who was not always in control of his power. In both The Bull Chief and The Horned Warrior it is the unexpected emergence of the true, energizing life force in powerful people that moves the action. This uncontrolled force is a great danger, and it's something that in society today we can see in many powerful people, though perhaps it's more controlled because there is a conscious attempt not to expose too much of the true self. The character of Arthur in The Bull Chief is larger than life. I made him a big man because at Glastonbury in the 1100s, when they dug up the body they claimed was that of Arthur, they found it was so huge.
   I also thought of him as a very kindly man. He's got an enormous feeling for young people and he is genuinely moved by his brother's death. This is part of his true persona. The persona which he cannot control is the animal instinct in him that makes him so strong. He is struggling to survive against invaders, and at the end he knows that he needs the extra power of the Bear that infests Niall. Arthur kills Niall, not so much because he is troublesome, but because he wants that extra power. At the end of the book he cries out, "I felt . . . possessed, yes, possessed!" The Bear has gone into him, a little in-joke about Arthur's name. "I shall live forever," he says, which in a way, he's going to do. His deed reveals that he has an opportunistic streak and that he knows power when he sees it.

RT: Why did you choose to replace Guinevere as Arthur's queen by Grania, the Irish warrior woman?

RH: I didn't think of her as Guinevere. When I think of Guinevere, to be very honest, I think of the medieval romance tradition of a woman who stays in the castle and only goes out on occasional hunting trips or to slip into the woods with Lancelot. I was interested in the historical figure of Arthur as I perceived him: a man with a strong link to his pre-Christian, Celtic, religious and mythological beliefs. I was not interested in the embroidery of later ages.
   Grania comes to Wales from Ireland, fleeing from Fergus who is going to kill her. It's an example of the revenge motif that is so prominent in the book. She and Niall certainly go under the rugs, but then in 1976 they'd have to. In my writing these days they'd probably sit down and play chess. I certainly didn't intend her to be perceived as a Guinevere figure.

RT: What sources did you draw upon for The Bull Chief?

RH: The Mabinogion and the Tain bo Cualnge were most important.

RT: Had you read Geoffrey of Monmouth or any of the chronicles?

RH: I read Geoffrey of Monmouth quite fast and was quite bored with it, to be very honest. I also read that section of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that relates to the period, but there's not a great deal there. There is a reference to a young British prince killed at Cerdicesora, which I think must be in the area of Poole. I had him come in. There were brief references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to ferocious battles and I wanted to link them in if I could.

RT: Had you read any French romances?

RH: I've read the lais of Marie de France and skimmed through Chretien de Troyes for ideas. They are part of a much later tradition than the one I was interested in, though. My interest was much more in what editors in those days called the grubby Celts. I was so convinced that the Celts were not grubby that I had them use soap. Wrong or not, my Celts had found Roman soap!

RT: How about English romances, like Malory's Le Morte Darthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

RH: Oh, yes, both of them. I love Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I also enjoy the folk tradition of Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer, which seem to me to echo the myths and folklore of the middle part of the first millenium, or earlier. Folklore and folk songs are one way in which the stories have been passed on.

RT: What about more recent books?

RH: I read Tennyson in school and, many years ago, both T. H. White and Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset. Then there were many bad books in which Arthur turns up as a character, but they have gone from my mind now.

RT: Did you read any works by historians and archaeologists?

RH: I have certain books which are inspiration-givers. I simply open them, read a page, then close them, and I am inspired. They give me a feel for the time and the place; they engage me romantically with the past. Leslie Alcock's By South Cadbury is that Camelot is one of them, and Prehistoric Avebury is a second. Many of the speculations about Avebury come into my later writings, because I see them as primitive forms of the Arthurian tradition. There are other books too.
   The way I read for writing is to read very fast, almost skimming. The ideas start to pool in the mind, then they drain down and are filtered out, until they can inform my own creative process. After I write onto the page, it's quite astonishing how much I can forget, so that I can go back to Prehistoric Avebury, for example, and still be inspired by reading material that I've read before. It doesn't lodge consciously. I always think I've got a bad memory, but the exciting thing about it is that I've always got these wonderful books to go back to and read again. So I don't worry that I can't recount the entire events of the Tain bo Cualnge, because I've always got it there to reread, with great excitement.

RT: When you wrote The Bull Chief, did you go back and check any details afterwards, or did you just allow the ideas to well up out of your creative subconscious?

RH: Very much the latter, but I did keep by me a little pile of books to do with the early Irish kings. Since all the clans and tribes mentioned in the book are historical, I wanted to check on the spellings. I would look them up before I would start to write, so that I had the names in front of me for reference. I am able to retain an enormous amount of "trivial information" while writing, though it soon goes away. I could remember all those strange Irish names like ui Neill, ui Fiachrach, and Connachta.

RT: Do you speak any Celtic languages?

RH: I tried to learn Celtic but found it defeated me. It seemed to me to be back to front, which I thought was a wonderful reflection on Celtic tradition.

RT: Did you have in mind a particular audience when you were writing The Bull Chief, or did you respond to what you perceived were the expectations of the publishers to produce this kind of formula writing?

RH: To be honest, I almost forgot about the publishing requirements once I started because I had such fun writing the books. If you can't have fun writing, don't write. I've written some very difficult books, but the enjoyment was either grumbling about how hard they were to write or, later, enjoying in retrospect thinking about the process of the writing. In the case of The Bull Chief I enjoyed the writing of it. Naive though I was, I was sufficiently professional to have taken on board the commercial requirement. I was no longer writing for the publisher. I would never write for a publisher; I would always do my own thing. Irrespective of that, this was a commercial book for which I had agreed to certain commercial restraints. Once that was in my head, I wrote my own book, and the audience I was writing for was an audience of people who love mythological fantasy. I would imagine them sitting around reading the book, getting enormous thrills from the action, responding to the images, and writing long letters to me to say how wonderful the book was. I got one, I think, on The Bull Chief.

RT: Where did your knowledge of sword and sorcery come from? Had you read many such books before?

RH: When I was about eight or nine, I started reading science fiction by authors like H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Then I discovered American science fiction magazines in the mid-sixties. This was disastrous because they threw me completely into a field where ideas were combined with illiteracy. I love ideas, and I see a short story as being a perfect way to express an idea. I read voraciously, encountering writers like Michael Moorcock who almost singlehandedly developed the tradition of sword and sorcery, at least in this country. I didn't really like these stories, but I was very impressed. They appealed to me because of the landscape and because of the simple alienness of them. Although they were set on a future earth or somewhere, they inspired me simply because they were what I wanted to read: they were reflections of an enormous unknown region, remote from me in time, when the universe had changed and the stars were bigger; or set in the remote past when there were still prehistoric creatures about. This was of enormous appeal to the adolescent writer that I was.
   I was certainly aware of formulaic sword and sorcery, but I don't think The Bull Chief conforms fully to that formula. It makes formulaic use of tight plotting, centering upon acts of violence, both personal and group, such as battles. But the writing, I think, is slightly superior if I may be forgiven for saying so. I also think the research is a great deal more studied and thorough than in simple sword and sorcery. I think that Michael Moorcock rises above the formula also. I think he's a master of his craft, which is heroic fantasy, something rather different.

RT: In the Berserker series, did you find that the character of the reborn hero was influenced by what had happened in the preceding book?

RH: Okay. There are two answers, really. You're addressing the question of whether or not the first book in a series then begins to restrict the creative freedom of the second, then the third, and then the fourth book. That certainly has happened to me with a series I wrote called the Night Hunter, but not in the Berserker series because the books were set in historically different times. The main character, who is the only thing in common between the books, is born with the spirit of Odin inside him. The single restraint on each book was that I had to build in uses for the uncontrollable spirit of the Bear that, when it was in possession of my character, makes him a beserker. That is no restraint since each book deals with warriors.
   There was an historical restraint, however, in that the first book is set in eighth-century Norway because I wasn't sure whether there had been berserk warriors in more primitive times. If there were, I didn't find out, and so for safety's sake I had my hero become a berserker in the eighth century. Because I wanted to explore Arthur's Britain, I then had to take him back in time, and this is the explanation for the strange business of him being reincarnated backwards in time. I would have much preferred to start him off in 1000 B.C. as a berserk warrior.
   I would have loved to do a fourth book, where the hero goes back to the transition period between the end of the Stone Age and beginning of the Bronze Age. I was planning for him to have enormous fun with the White Goddess. Unfortunately, knowing the commercial restraints today, the fun may have been unreadable.

RT: You mentioned that there was more misogyny in The Bull Chief than you are happy with now. Has the feminist movement aroused your awareness of this element of the novel?

RH: No, I don't think so. Even when I was writing that book, I don't think that I had anything but the greatest sensitivity towards women. The problem was that I just couldn't control my material sufficiently at the beginning of my career when I was unused to writing full-length books. The misogynous aspects are really to do with mishandling the idea of the bold and callous male warrior. When I wrote the sequences I meant them to be horrifying, but also to make the point that these were horrifying times and that people did brutal and unpleasant things to each other.
   What disturbed me when I skim-read the book this morning, was that there seemed to be a jokiness among the male characters about acts of violence, and that comes because they are responding, not as I would want them to respond, but as I had unconsciously perceived characters would respond in sword and sorcery fiction. It creates an impression that I'm laughing at violence. I didn't intend that. The characters are behaving how I thought then men behaved in those days, and it's only in retrospect that I can see how the use of what I thought was accurate material gives an inaccurate sense of the times. It also gives an inaccurate sense of my insensitivity to women, because I am not insensitive to women and never have been. It's bad writing; it's the formula taking over.
   If you create a vivid picture of a beer-swilling, sword-swinging, joking-about-death male hero, he can be great fun to follow in an adventure. But if he is joking about a woman's death, or a child's death, say, it creates a subtext. It might be an accurate portrayal of the awful man and an accurate description of the death, but the simple fact of the joke is implying, not just a joke, but a casual attitude on the part of the writer. That casual attitude may, in fact, simply be inexperience as in my case, rather than insensitivity. It doesn't necessarily mean that the writer is misogynous, but he's described a misogynous act.
   I sound defensive about my book now. Since I do, however, want to reissue it, but without certain scenes, this discussion is useful for me.

RT: When you were writing The Bull Chief, what part of the Arthurian legend did you feel was most important to include in the story?

RH: That's a tough one. What I've dealt with is Arthur as a man who is capable of uniting the Britons against the Saxons. I've explored very briefly how I think his character allowed him to do so. I'm intrigued by his power as an image for the gathering of ideas and as a focal point for defensive and offensive action against an invading culture. Whoever Arthur was, if he existed he was exceptionally powerful. I believe that he was exceptionally powerful because he went back to Celtic roots. He suddenly became aware of how much was being lost from the culture of his people, not only because they had been Romanized, but because of the advance of Christianity and the Saxons. I believe there's power in the land, and the older the land and the older the tradition in the land, the more power there is to it.
   In the Middle Ages Arthur has become a very Christian king, but that's not the Arthur who interests me. The Arthur who interests me is the Arthur of Celtic belief; the Arthur of nature worship and the worship of wells and streams and hills and woods; the Arthur who would have made a votive offering to Briget, to Cernunnos, the lord of animals, and to the god of war; the Arthur who would have read the auguries that involved the sacrifice of an animal and the reading of its entrails. But he would also be the Arthur who would have discovered that many others also had an inbuilt belief in those systems of worship, even though they may have been slowly changing and worshipping in a different way.
   The Green Chapel of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is just such a lovely linking of a Christian image and a neolithic image of the tumulus, combined with beliefs about fairyland. Fairyland was perhaps a particular otherworld belief of a culture which has passed away, or merged with a later culture. Old beliefs become remembered in different ways, in mythological ways.

RT: It is interesting that you have dealt with Arthur in two very different ways: as mighty warrior and war leader in The Bull Chief, a work of sword and sorcery, and as a figure from the collective unconscious, if I can use Jung's term, in Mythago Wood and Lavondyss. I want now to talk about your use of Arthur as one among the many legendary figures in these two books.

RH: The use of Arthur as a Mythago, yes. He doesn't actually appear in the books; he's referred to. One of the things I found I couldn't do, after writing The Bull Chief, was to use Arthur in a contemporary setting. I'd lost energy. I'd lost the passion for that particular sort of fantasy. Nevertheless, my childhood and adolescent excitement about Arthurian tradition, about the wild Arthur and the Wild Hunt, about mythological beliefs and a land so much older than ours, and so much more open, and so much more forested, was still working in me. It becomes a question, then, of finding the right vehicle to reexplore Arthur.
   One of the things about the figure of Arthur is that he seems to me to embody many different forms of legend, and many legends are about Arthur by another name. Robin Hood, in his way, is an Arthurian reflection--perhaps a historical person, but one who became important during a clash between cultures, the Norman and the Saxon. Out of this clash heroic ideals developed, and they might be pinned upon a character, either from the past, or from stories that are passed along the community grapevine about an outlaw who killed a Norman knight. The stories get blown out of all proportion, but imposed upon them are archetypal beliefs that the man is acting for the communal good, that he is strong and powerful and wise, that he is a hunter and has a band of men. He believes in a god of some sort, whether it be the Virgin Mary or the Lord of the Forest. He has his weaknesses too.

RT: You believe that Arthur is similar to Robin Hood?

RH: I saw Arthur very much as coming from the clash between three cultures: Christian, Saxon, and Briton. Then I started thinking about legendary figures we have now lost from the time of the early Roman incursions into Kent, and from the later, more substantial, Roman occupation that became settlement in the second and third centuries. They were forgotten because the oral tradition did not sustain them, and the written tradition among the Romanized aristocracy couldn't be bothered with them. These shadowy precursors to Arthur were always there in my mind. I called one of my characters Guiwenneth: she was a Celtic princess during the Roman invasion, and she is more of a Guinevere figure than Grania from The Bull Chief.
   Mind you, I don't have great belief in invasions; I envision waves of settlement during which the people coexist, then interbreed. Culture merges simply by the process of sharing tools, knowledge, and technology. At all times, however, there must have been communities that felt threatened by the new settlers, and they may have decided that the best thing to do was to seize the grain. So, on a very small level, you may have a clash of cultures which could give rise to the hope figure, the savior figure, like Arthur or Robin Hood.
   Mythago Wood is all about how these hope figures are derived from basic, Jungian, archetypal patterns, expressed through the culture of the day, because that's what an archetypal figure is. An archetype is a pattern; the expression of the archetype is always through a cultural figure or image. Of course, that cultural image also is affected by cultural personae--those masks that every one of us carries. These now coat the figure in different ways, in armor from one person, in love from another person--each individually informs the perception of the legendary figure, who may or may not have existed as an historical figure. He may have been a real warrior, fighting on your behalf, but it is highly likely that you've never seen him from anything other than a distance as he goes about his raiding.
   I became interested in the idea of a stand of primal woodland. This has a magic feeling for me. It is itself archetypal, a central mythological motif, presumably because it is the first life after the wasteland of the tundra. The wood itself is a very defensive and defendable organic entity. It is complete within itself, even though it is full of individuals. It is wild and needs to be tamed, but it is always growing back. It is continually regenerative; it has a lot of mythological power. If that wood could interact with human beings, drawing out of their minds legendary figures like Arthur, and bringing them to life, you have a fun book to write and you have Mythago Wood.
   The relevance of Arthur is that all aspects of the legend are embodied in him, and he embodies all aspects of legend. So, I felt that the whole book was about Arthurian tradition--glimpsed. Glimpsed.

RT: Did you do any more research into Arthurian and other traditions prior to writing Mythago Wood?

RH: I wanted all the reflections of legend to be no more than glimpses by the naive narrator. They would be how he would have perceived Arthur because, of course, he's also creating the Arthur of his own unconscious mind, and he's creating the Robin Hood of his own unconscious mind, and he's creating the Guiwenneth, this Celtic princess, of his own unconscious mind. At one point in the book the young princess is more aggressive in one manifestation than in another, because I've a gentle-minded narrator on one occasion and an aggressive-minded narrator on another.
   These are aspects that I explore further in Lavondyss. The Arthur figure in Mythago Wood is now turned on his head. He's Christian, the elder brother. He has his band of followers and his Holy Grail is to find the place to which the seasons fly. He wants to get to Lavondyss itself, the centre of this strange realm in which he has become lost; but he's also obsessed with Guiwenneth. He has captured his Guinevere, abducting her from her true creator, who is my narrator.

RT: Yet there is more than one creator, isn't there?

RH: Everybody's creating and this is a metaphor for the oral tradition, in that different people in different communities always tell the story slightly differently. The evolution is affected by who told it, where and when, and to what sort of an audience. We all have our own way of expressing a character; we all have different definitions of heroism; we all have different ideas of how much stamina a person can have. Thus the Mythagos that are created are always unpredictable because one can never know which of the modern living human beings, whose minds have been sucked vampirically by the wood, has created what are you going to see. Robin Hood may come out of the forest and be very gentle; or he may shoot you in the foot. You just don't know. This is the mistake that the father made, and he's killed.
   I wanted to move away from the heroic images of legend towards the much more gritty, realistic, and beastly approach that any band trying to survive a nomadic life in the wood would have probably adopted.

RT: Judging from your approach to your material in The Bull Chief, Mythago Wood, and Lavondyss, you have a fascination with violent human behavior, even if it is not something you wish to encourage, wouldn't you say?

RH: The violence of survival, the simple brutality of being up against nature, and the mindless brutality of nature itself--all intrigue me. If you go out into the forest at night, naked, you are going to have a violent experience. Two thousand years ago with wolves and bears, almost certainly so. We continually aspire to the control of our own environment. When we try to control people in tower blocks or in closed communities, to restrict movement, to restrict thought, to restrict entertainment, to cut people off from the real earth, then a form of violence emerges which we call social violence. Two thousand years ago, life was extremely hard. I'm not interested in violence; I am, I suppose, trying to imagine accurately the tough aspects of life fifteen hundred, two thousand, and more, years ago.
   I do, however, try to maintain a balance in my writing. I am also interested in what sort of fun people had. I always feel that it is right for my characters to have a good sense of humor. Now I lost control of that in The Bull Chief, because the humor is misplaced in certain incidents. Mythago Wood and Lavondyss have plenty of humor in places, especially in the character of Harry Keaton at the beginning of the former. I'm always aware that a number of things won't have changed since paleolithic times, and a sense of humor is one of them. I'm sure a sense of humor is one of the first things that comes, before language even. It is just funny to see someone fall from a tree branch. Now you could say that to describe someone falling from a tree branch shows an interest in violence. But it doesn't. It simply shows a hazardous life being responded to. If the arm is broken, then there's a great deal of concern, but if the person falls and is bruised, then it's funny in a way. In a way--I emphasize in a way.
   Unquestionably, however, tougher times are dramatic to write about. Not the exercise of personal violence by one person against another, but the survival of a community against the overwhelming forces of natural entropy.

RT: In Mythago Wood and Lavondyss you deal with figures and patterns out of the unconscious, and by their very nature, they are uncontrolled. Did you find this to be a problem in writing the novel, since it is fine to allow the uncontrolled flow of images and ideas up out of the unconscious, but they do need to be ordered to conform to your artistic perception?

RH: Well, I'll come to that. First I want to say that I think the main problem in much of the down-market fantasy that I have attempted to read is that, because there is such enormous freedom, you can have people skilled in magic, or weapon play, or bardic talents at the drop of a decision. The uncontrolled emergence of ideas, something we can all experience, if uncontrolled on the page, makes for an uncontrolled and empty novel.
   Now, the images in Mythago Wood and in Lavondyss surfaced from my unconscious. I deliberately allowed them to surface, and I relaxed sufficiently to let weird ideas come up. I wanted to know what was in my unconscious mind, especially in the second book. Both books are journeys into the writer's unconscious mind, and, yes, the images surface uncontrollably. I am, however, quite a skilled craftsman after thirteen years of writing, and so as ideas come up I look at their relevance. I assess how I would fit the images into the plot, and never add them until I've seen how the characters might react to them.
   Of course, both books are set up to allow the most bizarre things to emerge. You can literally turn a path in the wood and find something very strange, and part of the journey of exploration is to find such things. On the superficial level the story is about how people react to what they are finding. Because the books are really complex in their plotting, one of the things that has to be borne in mind is that ideas surfacing from more primitive aspects of my creative power mingle with consciously contrived character, setting, landscape, theme, motif. I'm a great believer in having confidence in one's own creative process, allowing the stranger images that are surfacing to interact in their own way with the structure of the book one is holding in one's head. And when that happens, as I think it happened in Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, then the books almost write themselves through the medium of my hand and my conscious mind.
   I'll give you an example from the end of Mythago Wood. The father of my hero is at that point reflected as a gigantic boar, which seems to have been very aggressive and vengeful. Yet this view is turned on its head, and I didn't know it was going to be until the five minutes that it took me to write the last pages of the book. I was expecting my narrator to confront his father and have to battle to save that which he loves, which is the woman--the ideal woman. Thus it was a great astonishment to me to write exactly the opposite. I just didn't know it was coming. Yet it seems to me to be the perfect ending. Suddenly, the entire book is thrown into a different perspective. What has seemed to be a threatening image has only been threatening because the character thought it was; it has, in fact, been a protective image. With this in mind you can read the book again, and you read a slightly different book. I didn't know that would happen, but I had confidence enough to know that when the ending came, it would be there. Now that idea must have been in my head for weeks before I wrote it. I just didn't know it was there.

RT: Did you need to revise the book afterwards in order to prepare for that development?

RH: No. Although I revised spelling and tightened up scenes, I did not have to revise anything to set up that ending. I knew it. I just didn't know that I knew it. This to me is the real art of writing; this is shamanism at its best; this is the expression of the shadow of the unconscious through creative technique. When the writer himself is surprised and delighted by his work, I think there's got to be something powerful in that.

RT: Thank you.