Turned out longer than I planned, so you get to enjoy it in two parts.
In “The Kingmaking”, Helen Hollick has presented the story of Arthur Pendragon, who although a gifted general and warlord, is completely different from the King Arthur of Camelot.
Many of the key points of Arthur’s life belong in fantasy: The sword from the stone, The Excalibur (two different swords, people), Merlin and quest for Holy Grail. So, my natural first question to Helen Hollick was:
1. How easy or hard is it to keep supernatural details out of the tale, while keeping it recognizable?
Hmm, I’ll have to think about this one…
It was very easy to leave out the supernatural details because I never started researching them as I had no intention of using them. Right from the start I had decided to write my story as a “what might have really happened” novel. (At that point I had no idea I was going to write enough for an entire trilogy).
So let’s leave aside anything to do with the supernatural and magical elements of the stories and deal with the historical aspect first.
I have never enjoyed the ‘traditional’ Arthurian stories, I think because I perceived the King Arthur of the Medieval tales as irresponsible and naive. He fought hard to become King, married a beautiful wife and then disappeared in search of the Holy Grail, thereby abandoning his Kingdom. Surely he should have foreseen the Lancelot/Guinevere situation? I also disliked Lancelot and those do-good knights I’m afraid!
Ouch, that was harsh. But yes, it reads more like a legend/story than a life of an actual king in any century. (Makes for a good fantasy story for kids, though.)
It all seemed so false, so wrong! From where I am now (older and wiser 🙂 ) I realise that it was the distortion of history that irritated me.
Let me show you what I mean: what if someone was to write a novel about King Harold II and William the Conqueror, 1066, the Battle of Hastings – but the historical accuracy in the story was off by 500 years? You would have Harold and William (late Anglo Saxon v Early Norman) wearing English Civil War clothing from the 16th Century, the period of King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Weapons and tactics would be cannon and muskets. Buildings would be post Tudor. Could you imagine reading an historical novel written so incorrectly without commenting on the inaccurate absurdity?
I guess it is pretty common to look at history through glasses tinted with knowledge of present. Plus, the departure of Roman legions did start a long dark period (at least from credible history PoV) in English history.
This is how I felt about the Arthurian tales. Add to that, I have never been a fan of the Normans anyway – bad enough that they conquered England and murdered our rightful King!
The Medieval Tales about Arthur were blatant propaganda – this was the time when the Church was beginning to build its wealth and claim supremacy; the time of the Crusades and the eve of the Spanish Inquisition. There was an immediate need to promote the Glory of God, to chivvy men into taking the Cross and go to the Holy Land. To put it bluntly, Arthur was the ideal advertising campaign. A noble King with his magical sword riding to seek for the Holy Grail –coercing young men to go to an unnecessary and pointless war by making them feel it is a glorious thing, has never changed has it?
The Medieval Knights were not the chivalric saints the tales and romantics made them out to be. The Chivalric Code only applied to their own rank. It was considered wrong to rape a woman of similar nobility, but perfectly alright if the woman was a peasant, a Jew or a foreigner. The hypocrisy also annoyed me. And – I will be honest here – as with many British people, I am not particularly religious. We often keep our personal beliefs to ourselves here in the UK, and many of us do not regard religion with the same credibility or importance as you do in the USA.
Oh, after surviving A Song of Ice and Fire, I am painfully aware of how Knights minus Chivalric Code look. This was one more lesson in that.
I therefore always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the over-zealous devotion to God in the Medieval tales.
So, I was determined not to write the Medieval stories – for that is all they were, fantasy stories with barely no historical fact behind them. I kept away from the supernatural because of the “what might have really happened” element, and because the majority of the fantasy was Medieval invention. There would be no knights in armour, turreted castles or Holy Grails, No myth, no magic. No Lancelot, no Merlin.
Instead, I went back to the much earlier Welsh legends of Arthur and his wife, Gwenhwyfar.
These legends turned out to be far more emotionally exciting than the Medieval stories – even without the supernatural and fantasy scenes. This Arthur, the Welsh (British) Arthur was more plausible.
This Arthur was believable and real!
And yes, it still makes for an epic tale. Plus it puts the Arthur and Gwenhwyfar in the centre, the Queen the King deserves (in many ways, I am afraid).
I still have a few more questions remaining, in Part II.