Interview by Sharon Kay Penman (cont)

(cont) You became a journalist in 1970 and had two non-fiction books published by 1980.  What was it that drew you to historical fiction at that point and why Guinevere?  Were the Arthurian stories favorites from childhood?

No, not at all. I was an only child born to a brilliant booklover who wasn’t much interested in motherhood.  She tried hard to teach me to read from the age of four on, but I refused to comply, preferring to tell myself stories that I made up on my own.  Later, when Mom became a librarian, she’d push different works at me, and I always pushed them back.  As a result, I didn’t have a child’s take on the Arthurian stories at all, and was in my 20’s when the musical Camelot brought them to my attention.

After that I read the standards–White’s Once and Future King, Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset and Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy.  In the mid ’70’s my husband and I went to Britain for a month and on a whim decided to look up various Arthurian sites. I have always believed a novelist should have something new to say, either in content or viewpoint or structure. But while I thought it would be fun to do something with the Camelot story, I couldn’t see how to catch hold of it.  And I was still in ‘non-fiction mode,’ so to speak.

Then after the divorce, it was clearly time to try my hand on a novel–and that’s when it dawned on me that no one (at that time) had told the tales from Guinevere’s point of view.  Once ‘the penny dropped’ I lived, ate, slept and  dreamt The Matter of Britain, taking a half-time job so as to have mornings and evenings free for research and writing.  I even stopped the newspaper, didn’t watch TV, said no to all coffee dates and socializing, and managed to save enough money to get myself to Britain twice on research trips. I was 45 at the time and I think it was equal parts of desperation and determination that drove me on, plus a growing love for the characters.

You have said you are proud to be a euhemerist. Can you explain that for us?

A euhemerist believes that legends, no matter how fanciful, are actually rooted in reality–that real people, living in real time, did things that were real and reasonable for their circumstances which have been embroidered over the centuries into fanciful myths. Among novelists Mary Renault was the first one that I ran across, and I still admire her Theseus books, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea.  The blend of disciplined historical accuracy and the story-teller’s imagination appeals strongly to me, and was the approach I decided to use.

The first step was to determine when and where the legend started.  Scholars agree that the prototype of Arthur would have lived sometime between 450 A.D. when memory of the Roman Empire was fading away and 550 A.D. when the Saxon invaders succeeded in driving the surviving Romano-Celts into the mountains of what we now call Wales.  This fits with the tradition that the Saxons were Arthur’s great enemy and that he represented the last flicker of civilization–a golden moment of good governance–trying to fend off the onslaught of the barbarians and ensuing Dark Ages.

It also meant no knights in gleaming armor or settings in fancy castles.  Gwen’s people would have been living in Roman ruins and Celtic roundhouses, mud huts and stone brocks; Mediterranean villas and floating crannogs.  And since I vastly prefer the triumph of the human spirit to the veils of fantasy that so often attach themselves to this story, I was going to have to find the humor, gallantry, courage, sorrow and perseverance within the characters to bring this  shining story to life in such a potentially dreary setting.

What kind of research was involved?

Lots! All told the research and writing of the three books involved a total of eleven years and four research trips to Britain.  Remember, this was before the Net, so my main sources were books, articles, a few documentaries and various meetings with Arthurian scholars.  When in Britain I stayed in hostels and carried everything on my back except for the hundreds of books and pamphlets I bought and immediately sent home.  I crawled all over Celtic and  Roman ruins and prowled through numerous small, local museums exploring all the sites I used in the books.  Some were traditional, such as Tintagel and Winchester, while others were locales that I found on my own which fit within the needs of my story.

You certainly broke with tradition when you made Guinevere a homely  northern pagan girl.  Why was that?

Approaching the story as real history means bringing your own common sense to it.  In the legend she is said to be a convent-raised daughter of the south.  But the newly crowned King was having trouble with his northern barons, most of whom had not been as Romanized as their southern counterparts.  So the first thing young Arthur has to do is put down a civil war and tame those northerners–and any historian will point out that you marry a bride from your most recently vanquished enemy to solidify your power.

I made her think of herself as homely so that she wouldn’t be spoiled by the arrogance most great beauties have.  And I killed off her mother at an early age so Gwen would have years of unsupervised  freedom in which to develop her horsemanship, bravery and political understanding from her father.

Also, I wanted her to be an outsider. As such she encounters  Arthur’s world with fresh eyes–everything from new foods to two wheeled carriages, strange architecture and the potential use of stirrups catch her attention, broadening her horizons and helping to create a whole world for the reader.

Plus making her a northerner brings in early encounters with Gawain and family, as well as the remnants of the druids.  And what more logical place for the Lady of the Lake’s stronghold to be in than the Lake District, both for it’s name connection and the fact that historically it was easily defended and often used as a place to hide from the world’s scrutiny.  By placing the Academy there, both  Vivian and Morgan would have been known to Gwen long before she’d even heard of Arthur.

How much trouble did you have weaving historical facts into the mythic story?

Actually, not much at all. I think my journalism background helped in that I love ferreting out facts and side-issues and I tend to remember tons of trivia.  Setting the story in 500 A.D. gave me a chance to explore the different cultures involved; the archaeology, history and religion of the Celts, the Romano-Britons and the Saxons, and see how they interacted. And since Gwen would have been co-ruler, she’d have been involved in the question of laws and military developments as well being friend and mother-confessor to the Companions of the Round Table itself.  So I kept all of those things in mind during my research.  I also promised myself I wouldn’t fudge on my accuracy; if my investigation proved some idea I had wouldn’t have been possible, I’d find a new idea.

For instance, Arthur and his men are always portrayed as mounted warriors, but stirrups hadn’t been brought to the West yet, so I had to figure out how I could logically introduce them in a manner that wouldn’t contradict the archaeological record–metal stirrups have never been found that early in Britain.

There is, however, a town named Ribchester which grew up not far from Hadrian’s Wall where retired Legionnaires went to live–most already had wives and families in such settlements, and it meant they stayed in touch with friends and comrades from their military service.  Those early vets in Ribchester had mostly come from Sarmatia, a Roman Province which is depicted as having been conquered by Trajan in the early second century.  And among the carvings on Trajan’s Column are a contingent of Sarmatian soldiers riding horses and carrying long lances. So it is plausible that the descendants of those Sarmatian Legionnaires would have kept up their practice of horsemanship, with or without stirrups. (It is not totally clear on the Column if any of them are using stirrups, but lances would be awfully hard to control without having stirrups in which to brace your feet.)

Ribchester was on Gwen’s way south to be married, so I knew we’d be stopping over and she’d see up-close what horsemanship could become with the use of stirrups.  I made them of leather and rope, both because they would be easier to construct than iron stirrups would be, and because they would have disintegrated by the time modern archaeologists would be looking for them.

Then I encountered an archaeological report of a Greek optometrist who had died in the north of England, and it was quite possible that he had brought with him a young Arab boy as a slave.  Here was a chance to introduce Palomides who is always portrayed in the legend as a foreigner–in the Middle Ages he is specifically a Muslim, no doubt included as an example of how ecumenical Arthur’s court was.  So all I needed for my story was to get him to Ribchester, where the kids were already accomplished horsemen at an early age.

Those particular things came together gradually–I didn’t begin writing Child until I was 3 1/2 years into my research.  And some touches didn’t drop into place until I was actually typing out the story and they appeared on the screen.  (I sometimes feel like a reporter chronicling what my characters are doing as I know where they are at the beginning of a scene and where they need to be at the end, but how they get there is up to them…I just keep watching and listening, and writing it down.)

What touched you most in the Guinevere story and what are your dreams for the Trilogy, now that it’s being re-issued?

I was so tired of seeing Arthur’s queen presented as a two-dimensional caricature–the beautiful but faithless wife, the spoiled twit who ruins the Round Table because she can’t make up her mind between two men–when in the structure of the legends she is clearly Arthur’s co-equal, respected and even loved by the people and most of the courtiers.  In the fourteenth century she was known as Guinevere the Gay, when ‘gay’ denoted joyousness, full of good cheer and the bounty of springtime.

But with the French introduction of Lancelot and the Christianizing of the legend the church fathers had to find appropriate punishments for powerful women, so they turned Morgan into a witch and Guinevere into a sniveling sinner who repents heavily at the end. All of which  made her an easy mark for the Victorians who found in her a handy scapegoat on whom to blame the demise of Camelot.

Yet when you look at what she experiences–married into one of the most conflicted families in literature, kidnapped, raped, unable to have children, becoming  step-mother to Arthur’s son and understanding both man and child, yet being unable to bridge the gulf between them–these are things that many modern women deal with today, in varying degrees.  Add to that loving (and being loved by) two heroic men and you’ve got the portrait of a most remarkable woman.  Obviously I felt there was much to be said for her, and was more than happy to give her a voice.

As to the future, the very fact that Child is now available as an e-book broadens the audience.  And I’m in the process of compiling an annotated edition as I would like to see The Guinevere Trilogy  included in the recommended reading for Arthurian literature studies in colleges.  The fact that I stayed true to the cannon at the same time presenting reasonable psychological portraits of these archetypical figures is something I’m very proud of, and hope it gets recognized in the future.

Do you foresee writing more books in the Arthurian mode?

No, much as I love it, I’ve turned my attention to the other great iconic tale that shaped our culture, the Trojan War.  I’m about six years into my research on that, though I took out a couple of years to write “Ophelia’s Tale” which is presently looking for an agent.  As with Guinevere, I did a great deal of research and stayed absolutely within the frame of Shakespeare’s play, but you’ll never look at Hamlet the same way again.

In retrospect I’ve achieved what I wanted to with Guinevere; found a  career which satisfies my reporter’s love of research and honed my skill as a story teller, at the same time I’ve helped to restore the much vilified queen to the stature she used to have and I think fully deserves.  All told, that feels pretty good.

One response to “Interview by Sharon Kay Penman (cont)

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