Taliesin's Successors: Interviews with Authors of Modern Arthurian Literature
Arthurian legend has fascinated us from its earliest inception. Yet it owes so little to its historical roots that many doubt whether there even was such a person as Arthur. He is, rather, a creation of the storytellers who rescued him, whoever he really was, from the obscurity that engulfed so many figures in the Dark Ages. In their hands he and his followers have grown to represent, even amidst disappointment and defeat, amidst darkness and despair, the dream of a brighter world.
This book of interviews with Arthurian authors is dedicated to all who have helped to build that dream, but particularly to Rosemary Sutcliff, the first whom I interviewed, and the first among them to die. She was a fine writer and a good friend who will be sorely missed.
In 1986, in the course of a conversation with Freya Lambides, the publisher of Avalon to Camelot, I mentioned that I was planning to visit Rosemary Sutcliff during a research trip to England. Freya, who shares my admiration for Sutcliff's work, asked me to interview her for the periodical. I was doubtful at first, for I had no experience of conducting interviews for publication as opposed to merely gathering information informally; but Freya was a friend, Sutcliff agreed, and the possibilities intrigued me. The result was "An Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff," Avalon to Camelot, 2.3 (1987): 11-14.
From this beginning sprang the concept for Taliesin's Successors: Interviews with Authors of Contemporary Arthurian Literature. I intended that the interviews should yield insights, not so much into the writings themselves (though many did emerge), as into the reasons why the authors responded to Arthurian tradition as they did. I sought authors of as wide a range of literary forms and genres as possible: poetry, drama, but mainly novels subdivided into the various categories that I had identified in my own book, The Return from Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985).
My choice of whom to include within each category was determined primarily by accessibility. I could not find the addresses of some authors, nor did all those I wrote to reply to my request for an interview. A few lived too far away for me to reach easily. Most I interviewed in the course of four trips: those in northeastern United States during two journeys from my home in Nova Scotia to New York in the summers of 1988 and 1989; those in Great Britain and Ireland in the spring of 1989; those in Canada and the west coast of the United States at a conference of the Mythopoeic Society in Vancouver in the summer of 1989. The remainder were added later as opportunity presented itself.
My purpose was threefold. First of all, I wanted to create an archival record that would provide information about why the authors responded to Arthurian tradition as they did, for as a scholar I always regretted the lack of information about the composers of medieval literature--did Geoffrey of Monmouth base his History of the Kings of Britain upon "a certain very ancient book in the British language" as he claims? why did Chretien de Troyes leave his Lancelot incomplete? was the Gawain-poet a chaplain to a noble family in Cheshire as has been speculated? was Sir Thomas Malory the criminal he is accused of being? Secondly, I wanted to gain insights into the way in which Arthurian tradition evolves--what forces operate upon it? why does it develop in different directions? why does its popularity wax and wane? Finally, I hoped that these insights would increase our understanding, not only of developments in current Arthurian tradition, but also of those in the past--might it be possible to draw inferences about Chretien and the others?
As I had anticipated when I first conceived the project, the task of conducting the interviews proved very enjoyable. The authors were unfailingly kind and hospitable, taking time out from busy schedules to answer my questions with patience and courtesy. They sent me maps and detailed directions for finding their homes; they fed me when I arrived; they offered me a bed for the night when they had room and helped me to find accommodation when they didn't; most important of all, they dredged their memories to answers questions about books they had written, in some cases many years ago indeed. Andre Norton held the record for Huon of the Horn, which was published in 1951, while Naomi Mitchison's novel To the Chapel Perilous was published in 1955; but it is seldom easy to recall information about the writing process of a work once another has been started, and I am grateful to all the authors for their co-operation.
Taping the conversations was simple enough, though something went wrong on one occasion and I had to reconstruct what I could recall of it from memory. Transcribing the conversations onto computer was a much longer process in which I was fortunate to have assistance over three successive summers, from 1990 to 1992, of two very able students. Because of the pressure of other commitments, not least teaching, the task of editing the transcriptions for publication, mailing them out to the interviewees, then incorporating their corrections and clarifications also took considerable time. The resulting delay did enable the inclusion of additional interviews, though that in its turn threatened to protract the project indefinitely! Fortunately, a sabbatical leave has allowed me to bring it to completion, though I still regret that I could not include more authors.
I had intended to conduct a supplementary interview with Rosemary Sutcliff. Sadly she died before I could do so. She was both a fine writer and a valued friend whom we shall all miss. It is to her, from whose interview the idea first developed, that this book is dedicated.
THE ARCHIVAL RECORD
As an archival record the interviews have yielded fascinating information about the authors and their works: why they were drawn to Arthurian legend in the first place, their background reading and research, their writing technique, their dealings with editors, and how they coped with a whole range of problems, from choosing among often conflicting sources, to continuing a book as a series. Thus had she not already had Merlin prophesy in an earlier novel that Mordred would kill his father, Mary Stewart confided, she would not have chosen that ending to The Wicked Day. Only when one of her characters in Over Sea, Under Stone identifies another, Merriman, as Merlin did Susan Cooper herself realize who he really was. Welwyn Wilton Katz did not want to write an Arthurian book, she confessed, but the story moved inexorably in that direction despite her intentions.
The Arthurian novels of Nancy Bond, Peter Dickinson, Alan Garner, and Kathleen Herbert were their first books and written with "less awareness" than their later ones. Garner and Margaret Atwood look back on their Arthurian writings as products of an early stage in their literary career from which they have moved on, and they have no intention of returning to the legend. By contrast, Joy Chant and Christopher Fry were considering further Arthurian works; Richard Monaco and Nikolai Tolstoy were planning to continue their stories of Parsival and Merlin respectively; and Patricia Kennealy, Susan Shwartz, and Jane Yolen were actually working on another Arthurian novel or short story at the time they were interviewed. These have since been published, necessitating some updating of the interviews.
Some authors worried that their use of the legend was less respectful than they felt it deserved: Fry apologized for borrowing the figure of Merlin so casually, Michael Coney feared his comic treatment was too irreverent, Robert Holdstock was embarrassed at having exploited the legend for commercial purposes. For Cooper, on the other hand, it was part of the land that she was missing so much after she had moved to the United States, while for Garner it came to represent the cultural background that he had lost because of his education.
Such developments are usually unplanned. Norton speaks for many of the authors when she says, "I know where I want to go, but my characters take over and do things that I hadn't planned." At times the writing process can even seem outside the author's control: Sutcliff recalls of Sword at Sunset that it was "almost like having the story fed through to me, at times," Mitchison that To the Chapel Perilous flowed out as though "there was a film going on inside my head."
For some authors memories of the genesis of their work have dimmed with the passing years and new interests; for others, fresh from the writing, perhaps even engaged in continuing an Arthurian series, they are still vivid.
EVOLUTION OF THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND
Insights into the process through which Arthurian legend evolves proved equally intriguing. For a start, attitudes to the material vary widely. All respect it--indeed they would not have turned to it in the first place had they not--but some feel more strongly the concern to preserve the integrity of the original story, whereas others feel free to adapt it to their own needs. To this latter end they are helped by two features, the wide variety of approaches found in the medieval sources and the gap between romance tradition and historical reality.
Over the centuries, stretching now to one and a half millennia, Arthurian legend has been treated in so many different ways that there is probably a precedent for almost any approach authors wish to take. More importantly, however, this variety makes it clear that freedom of invention is as crucial to its growth and survival as is continuity of tradition. Authors thus feel that they are but following in the footsteps of their predecessors when they reinterpret the legend for their own purposes.
Indeed it is this very practice in the past that has led to the divergence between putative history and Arthurian legend as found in medieval romance, with its adventures of knight-errantry, its jousts and tournaments, its courtly lovers and feudal aristocracy, its enchantments and ogres, its castles and abbeys. Such inventions of the High Middle Ages have no place in the real world of Dark Age Britain in which it is believed Arthur led the Romano-British resistance against the Germanic invaders they called the Saxons. Consequently, those who seek to recover that earlier world feel not only justified in ignoring much of the traditional Arthurian story, but obliged to do so in the interests of historical verisimilitude. Thus Sharan Newman struggles to find a plausible reason for sentencing Guinevere to be burnt at the stake in an era when this was unknown as a punishment for adultery; Sutcliff and Stewart both decide to exclude Lancelot, judging him to be an invention of the High Middle Ages.
Nevertheless, Newman does retain the motif of Guinevere's rescue from being burnt at the stake, just as Sutcliff and Stewart do retain the story of the leader's betrayal by his wife and best friend, assigning Lancelot's role to Bedwyr. For although the authors feel free to adapt traditional material to the needs of their own narrative, they recognize that there must remain an irreducible core if it is to remain Arthurian. As Shwartz observes, "Story is spell, it's incantation, and you've got to get it all right or else it won't have the proper effect. . . . the Arthurian story is in its present form because it satisfies something in both readers and writers on the psychological, and perhaps even psychic, level. This is the way the story has to be."
The essential Arthurian story draws power from its mythic patterns, and most authors see it as part of the body of universal myth shared by all humanity. As such it provides to their writing an additional dimension, or resonance as Dickinson calls it. To abandon this in favor of unrestrained creativity is to lose one of its greatest strengths.
Most authors first encountered the legend in stories of King Arthur for children, though Coney and Robertson Davies also had a parent who shared his or her enthusiasm for the legend. It was, however, but one of many childhood influences, and it seemed at the time no more potent than others. As adults, the authors' interest in Arthurian legend was rekindled by encounters with both historical studies and works of fiction, amongst which T. H. White's Once and Future King and Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset are prominent. For many this reading was part of formal studies at university. Places with Arthurian associations are another important influence for many authors--Alderley Edge for Garner, the north of England for Herbert, Richmond Castle for William Mayne, Cornwall for Coney, Katz, and John Heath-Stubbs.
For some authors, like Monaco, Newman, and Stewart, the task of recreating the Arthurian story becomes so involving that one book expands into several, encouraged by their publishers. For others, the legend serves rather as a useful frame for outside material. Thus Maria Jacobs uses the story of Tristan and Iseult as a "clothes horse" when she explores the emotions of those caught in the eternal love triangle, while Jim Hunter uses Percival's quest for the Grail to examine the relationship between belief and non-belief. The mythic basis of Arthurian legend leads not only to probing into its psychological roots by Holdstock, but also to its integration with other legends by Davies, Heath-Stubbs, Tolstoy, and Guy Gavriel Kay, and to the discovery of its echoes in contemporary experience: the Second World War for David Gurr, Britain's post-war decline for Meriol Trevor and Peter Vansittart, post-imperial politics for John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy, the contemporary academic conference circuit for David Lodge, modern fanaticism for Monaco. In some instances borrowings from Arthurian legend are little more than a convenient device. To Dickinson and Fry, Merlin is a useful figure because of his traditional associations with an earlier world, while Taliesin fulfils the same function for Bond. Thus Dickinson admits that he "used Merlin rather than explored him."
As a figure of power Merlin is given closer attention by Stewart and Tolstoy, and the divergence between the approaches taken by different authors to the same figure is a striking feature of modern writing on the legend: Merlin is seen by Trevor and Stewart as a learned and wise seer rather than an enchanter, to Dickinson and Tolstoy he is a shaman, to Vansittart a Rasputin figure; Perceval's innocence causes more harm than good in the eyes of Gurr and Vansittart, whereas it is commended as a sign of his spiritual yearning amidst a fallen world by Hunter and Monaco; the love of Tristan and Iseult is measured by Jacobs for its emotional impact upon Mark and the lovers, by Diana Paxson for its disruption of the social fabric; Newman writes about Guinevere because she believes the queen has been unfairly dealt with by other writers; she and Monaco portray Gawain sympathetically, whereas Stewart lays most of the blame for the fall of the Round Table upon him and his clan. Yolen carries the process a step further when she adopts conflicting interpretations of characters like Merlin within a single collection of short stories and poems. Such divergences reflect both the different sources drawn upon and the dramatic needs of each individual work.
Yet regardless of approach, most authors of prose fiction and drama, as opposed to poetry, share the problem of creating human characters out of heroic figures. The task is felt most keenly perhaps by Kennealy, who recalls Arthur and his followers as inspirational memories of a heroic past in one book, then presents them as living characters with weaknesses as well as strengths in another. Kennealy, Paxson, and others find in Celtic tradition a source for the strong, energetic women in their books, for these strike a more responsive chord among a generation whose attitudes have been influenced by the feminist movement than do the passive ladies of medieval romance.
Among the wide variety of themes that attract authors to Arthurian legend, destiny looms large, imposed sometimes by the expectations of others, as in the novels of Coney and Gurr. For Hunter and Chant it is bound up with the recognition that all glory must pass, while Trevor and Vansittart perceive it more pessimistically as the inevitability of decay and decline. Katz, Kay, and Herbert shows a keen awareness of the high price that must be paid for happiness. Yet despite the cost, the lure of the quest remains irresistible in the works of Kennealy and Monaco, and the sense of duty that binds Arthur and his followers to persevere with their unequal struggle wins the admiration of Newman, Norton, and Shwartz.
It is clear too that literary form exercises a significant influence upon approaches to the legend. Poets do not share the concern of dramatists and novelists to create verisimilitude and so consider additional research unhelpful. Those who choose to write in the ironic and comic modes are inevitably drawn to explore the gap between the aspirations of chivalry and the reality of human achievement. Authors of science fiction revel in the challenge of providing a technological explanation for supernatural elements in the legend, just as historical novelists enjoy the process of historical reconstruction, discerning "how legendary events could actually have happened," as Paxson puts it.
THE MIDDLE AGES
While the interviews make it clear that Arthurian tradition is alive and well, what can we infer from them about practices in the past? This is clearly a speculative undertaking, for medieval authors cannot speak on this question for themselves. The only record they have left is found in the works they composed, a few of which contain passages that offer tantalizing glimpses of the process of composition. Thus Chretien de Troyes opens his Lancelot by telling us that the subject matter and treatment were both provided by his patron, Marie de Champagne; and Sir Thomas Malory closes one of the books of Le Morte Darthur with the information that he was "a knight prisoner." Such passages are, however, very rare indeed, leaving us with few clues as to why authors chose to treat Arthurian material as they did, or even why they were attracted to it in the first place.
Much has changed over the centuries. The Arthurian stories are now published in multiple copies produced on printing presses, not copied by hand or recited from memory. Yet the process of literary creation is not, perhaps, so different now from then. Stewart, Sutcliff, and Yolen all see themselves as traditional storytellers with strong links to their predecessors. Certainly it is worth considering what light can be shed upon the past by the information given in these interviews, and to this end I wish to focus upon three areas: local legends attached to specific sites, authorial independence, and reference to sources.
Modern authors make frequent use of local legends in their writing. While some of these may have their roots in early Arthurian literature, like the story of Arthur's birth at Tintagel, others, like the Cave Legend used by both Garner and Mayne, almost certainly predate the Arthurian era. Arthur and his knights may well be but the latest in a long line of kings and warriors, sleeping until they are needed.
At first sight topography, whether linked with local legends or not, hardly appears to be a concern in medieval romance. Knights wander in aimless search of adventure, not through any localized terrain, but through vast forests, broken by clearings and meadows, fords and crossroads, hermitages and castles, perhaps an occasional town. This is a world that seems to exist outside of both time and place, one in which are found wandering damsels, surly dwarves, holy hermits, subtle enchantresses, fierce ogres, wild beasts, and, most important of all, other knights with whom information can be exchanged, combats fought, and valor proved.
Romance is not the only genre of medieval Arthurian literature, however, and some of the others show more interest in specific settings and the beliefs attached to them. Thus in the addenda to his chronicle, History of the Britons, Nennius describes the burial mound of Arthur's son Amr, near the spring of Gamber Head in Herefordshire. This is a marvel, he tells us, for it varies in length between six and fifteen feet. Geoffrey of Monmouth becomes equally specific in History of the Kings of Britain when Arthur describes the islands of Loch Lomond to his nephew Hoel. Both passages reveal that medieval authors were influenced by folklore attached to topography, just as are their modern successors. Moreover, that this is more than an antiquarian interest confined to those who purport to compile historical records is confirmed by the Welsh tale of "Culhwch and Olwen," which includes traces of folklore attached to a number of places mentioned in the account of the hunt for the boar Twrch Trwyth and his numerous progeny.
Nor does romance ignore localized setting completely. While French romances are vague, apart from naming the occasional town, English romances make more attempt to locate the events they describe and to take account of local beliefs. Thus The Awntyrs off Arthure takes place at Tarn Wadling, The Avowing of King Arthur, Sir Gawain, Sir Kay, and Baldwin of Britain in Inglewood Forest, and Syre Gawene and the Carle of Carlyle in Carlisle, all sites in Cumbria to which, one assumes, local legends were attached.
Even Malory incorporates local beliefs into his work, for he departs from his French source when he has Gawain buried at Dover, rather than at Camelot. In his Preface Caxton mentions that Gawain's skull is preserved at Dover Castle, and popular belief in this relic probably accounts for the change in burial site.
Another example of local belief occurs in his tale of Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat, where Malory identifies Camelot with Winchester, possibly because of the Round Table that is still on view in the great hall of the castle. Although it dates from the late thirteenth century, it was believed by many, including Caxton, to be the original. This does, however, create topographical problems for Malory.
In his French source, the Vulgate Mort Artu, the tournament to which the knights ride from Camelot is also held at Winchester. Rather than change the location of the tournament, Malory locates the court at Westminster. One consequence of this, one suspects, is the further identification of Astolat with Guildford, which is roughly a day's ride from Westminster on the road travelled by Arthur and his knights to the tournament at Camelot/ Winchester. Yet if it is a likely place for their overnight stop, Guildford is connected with neither Camelot/ Winchester nor Westminster by river, and in Malory's sources Elaine's body floats down from Astolat to Camelot in an unsteered boat. Malory solves this problem by having the body sent by chariot from Astolat/Guildford to the closest point on the River Thames and placed in a boat which is then steered down to Westminster where he has located the court, a credible journey from the point of view of those familiar with the topography of the area.
The greater concern for topography in English, as opposed to continental, works presumably arises from the fact that most of the events in Arthurian legend take place in Britain, and the audience there was more likely to be familiar with the places referred to. Indeed, references to specific sites in the northern romances suggest an attempt to appeal to a local audience--as Herbert points out, even today people in northern England are deeply interested in books set in their own part of the world. Under the circumstances, topographical errors that might weaken the credibility of the tale would be avoided as far as possible. Malory's audience would be well informed about the countryside between London and Winchester, so that once he identifies the latter as Camelot, then he is committed to choosing somewhere like Guildford as the site of Astolat and to making sure that Elaine's body reaches Arthur's court by a plausible route.
Aware that readers will challenge inaccuracies, modern authors for their part also take care to ensure the topographical accuracy of their settings. While writing The Wicked Day, Stewart discovered that the original site on the Island of Orkney that she had chosen for the house in which the young Mordred was reared was on a cliff, not a shore, and so she moved it to another location; Herbert actually composes her books on the site of the events she describes; even authors of fantasy and science fiction strive to ensure topographical accuracy in settings placed in our own world. From this one can infer that medieval authors might also have been concerned to ensure at least some accuracy in their topography, once it has been identified for the purpose of including local beliefs. Since these beliefs, and indeed the Arthurian legend itself, were more widely accepted in those days, there would be even greater pressure to conform with them and make changes from earlier sources.
A second area that is of special interest in the light of the information given in the interviews is authorial independence, and here it is instructive to return to a puzzle mentioned at the outset: why did Chretien de Troyes abandon his Lancelot, leaving the last one thousand lines to be completed by Godefroy de Leigny (albeit according to a plan, we are told, provided by the former)? This curious development has given rise to considerable scholarly speculation. Do the writing habits of modern authors offer any possible explanations?
Of course there are always such mundane possibilities as the poet's ill-health, and writer's block, to which both Dickinson and Hunter refer. There might, however, be another scenario. One feature that emerges strikingly from the interviews is that authors find their characters have a mind of their own! The extent of this phenomenon varies from author to author, but almost all are surprised at least occasionally by what their characters do, especially if they have a flair for scenes of dramatic interaction. Minor characters may take on a more prominent role, for example, or villains may win sympathy by defending their actions. The characters may even push the action in unintended directions. When she started writing The Third Magic, Katz did not want to write an Arthurian novel because she felt constrained by the weight of the tradition. Half-way through, however, she realized "what the book was" when her protagonists find a sword that turns out to be Excalibur.
A second interesting feature is that although authors accept commissions for work, they may deviate from the agreed terms. Dickinson was supposed to write a very different book from Merlin Dreams. When he finally delivered the manuscript, the publisher rejected it, and so he found another publisher. Now Chretien tells us that his patron, Marie de Champagne, supplied him with both the subject matter and treatment ("sens et matiere") of Lancelot. He merely writes at her behest, a situation very similar to a modern commission.
These two factors, authors deviating from the terms of their commission and the independence of their characters who behave unexpectedly, suggest that Chretien may have abandoned his poem because of a disagreement with Marie. He immures Lancelot in an isolated tower with little prospect of escape, possibly a fate he had not originally intended but one to which the knight is inevitably led by his rejection of social responsibility in favor of a love affair with the wife of his feudal lord. This, however, was not in accordance with what Marie had in mind!
We should bear in mind too that well-established authors are less likely to bow to pressure from publishers than are relative newcomers. Chant and Katz both describe how they had to defend their approach to their material against well-meaning editors with their own view of how the legend should be treated. Best-selling authors just switch publishers. When Norton's regular editor was away on holiday, her replacement asked for changes in a manuscript she had submitted. Rejecting the changes as unacceptable, Norton threatened to move to another publisher. Meanwhile her regular editor returned and not only apologized for what had happened but insisted that her replacement write a letter of apology as well.
One suspects that Chretien was no more prepared to back down from an argument that involved artistic integrity than are modern authors. As the foremost poet of his day, he can be as sure of a welcome elsewhere as were Dickinson and Norton. Rather than change what he had written, or add an ending that he did not care for, he moved to the court of Philip of Flanders, to whom he dedicates his last romance, Perceval. The approval which Godefroy claims he was given by Chretien may have been little more than the master's irate "do what you will," a renunciation of further involvement in the dispute over the ending with his patron. It is interesting that in Perceval too we may detect signs of characters developing in unexpected directions, for in the second part of this incomplete poem the figure of Gawain takes over, pushing Perceval into the background. It is believed that Chretien died before he had time to revise his work, and we can only conjecture what would have been the result, but both Perceval and Lancelot offer, I would suggest, fascinating clues about the degree of independence available to authors in the Middle Ages. Though patrons have been replaced by editors, their relationship with authors has changed less over the centuries than we might at first have imagined.
This brings us to the issue of sources, the final area of early Arthurian tradition that I wish to examine from the perspective of modern practices. For various reasons scholars have been unwilling to accept Geoffrey of Monmouth's claim that his chronicle is translated from an ancient book in the British language, preferring instead the view that he drew upon a variety of sources as well as his own at times lively imagination.
Modern authors do not normally claim sources where none exist. Such claims may, however, appear as a convention in novels where the narrator tells his story to a scribe. Sutcliff uses this literary convention in Sword at Sunset. Science fiction set in the distant future may also invent earlier records. Thus in Fang, the Gnome and King of the Scepter'd Isle Coney fabricates records to impart a sense of historicity to his story. Yet another example occurs in The Lyre of Orpheus by Davies. Here a group of people complete and mount a performance of a recently discovered, incomplete opera by E. T. A. Hoffmann, with libretto by Planche. This has led at least one scholar to wonder whether this incomplete opera actually exists. In the interview Davies makes it clear that it does not--as far as he knows anyway.
Nevertheless, authors do occasionally anticipate developments. In The Crystal Cave Stewart anticipated the presence of a spring and little stone basin that she found when she subsequently examined the site she had chosen for Merlin's cave; on a visit to the mouth of the River Esk on the Solway Firth, Tolstoy found a salmon weir exactly where he placed it in The Coming of the King; in The Ring Master Gurr makes some shrewd guesses, later confirmed, about various political manoeuvrings by the Nazis and Russians.
Maybe the Hoffmann opera with libretto by Planche does exist after all, and a researcher will discover them someday (the composer did leave many papers behind)!
Maybe Geoffrey's ancient British book does exist and will be found eventually!
Schliemann, after all, did find Troy.
Maybe art does create reality!