Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kingmaking and author Q&A

In modern genre terms, the Arthur stories straddle two categories. With the magic, the Grail Quest and the Lady in the Lake, there are clearly elements of fantasy. With the semi-historical roots, there is also a basis in historical fiction. In her soon to be re-released Kingmaking, Helen Hollick shifts the story squarely into the realm of historical fiction. Not only has she dispensed with magic, she has also moved the story out of the chivalric age and into the original basis in the Dark Ages following the decline of Rome and the rise of the Anglo-Saxons.

The book is the first of a trilogy and tells the story of Arthur's rise to power. His Britain is beset by numerous conflicts including the encroachment of Teutonic invaders on British lands and the conversion, resisted by Arthur and many others, of Britain to Christianity. Early in the story, Arthur is forced by circumstance to offer his allegiance to his enemy, the King of Britain. The King is willing to accept his help on the doctrine that it best to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. As such the story is driven by political intrigue as Arthur and the King seek to undermine one another. As part of the political game, Arthur weds the Kings's daughter Winifred which of course causes problems for his relationship with the one he loves Gwenhwyfar.

The realistic treatment of the subject matter is what sets this book apart. For fantasy fans, Arthur is less Jordan's Rand al Thor than he is a lost cousin from GRRM's Lannister family. He is capable, ambitious, brave in battle and given to casual cruelty. He is what you would expect a Dark Ages aristocrat to be. The settings are also realistic, the battles are brutal and sad and Hollick's depiction of the sack of London by Saxons is appalling. Fans of historical fiction will certainly want to add this to their reading list.

Ms. Hollick was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book, which you will find below.

1) The Arthur you have created is quite different from that of popular culture. How would you describe him?

Rough, tough, hard. The sort of man you either love or loathe. But he is also honourable, loyal to his men and intent on his purpose. Inwardly though, he is insecure and often doubts himself. He adores his first and only love, Gwenhwyfar, but as both of them are highly passionate people with volatile tempers, the sparks often fly. He is not always faithful to her, but he would die for Gwenhwyfar, not for any one else.

2) The Britain you describe is in cultural flux with the British fighting the Teutonic invaders and the Christian church seeking to supplant the old religions. Arthur is on the defense in both cases. Does that add to his appeal or create any challenges for you as a writer?

To me it is his appeal. This is Britain in the Dark Ages – the Roman Empire has just collapsed and the administration of government has been withdrawn – Britain was under Roman rule for over four hundred years, that left a huge power vacuum to be filled. The Anglo Saxons were settling along the eastern coast of what is now England, settlers from Ireland were pushing into Scotland; the Christian Church was young and not very dominant, certainly it was not powerful in the 5th – 6th centuries. Maybe among the elite, the nobility, but not among the ordinary farmers and workers who were close to the land who remained pagan – and not for many soldiers who still worshipped their war gods.

This is still a time when pagan was blending with Christian – when the Christian Church began using the pagan festivals; Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice was incorporated into Christmas; Eostre, the Spring festival was turned into Easter etc. How many of us realise that holly and ivy at Christmas are from the pagan beliefs – as are Easter eggs and the celebration of the renewal of life? The two beliefs blended so well and so easily.

I was determined to make Arthur non-Christian as I wanted to move entirely away from the idea of him as a Christian Chivalric King. I also wanted to create conflict with some of the other characters who were Christian (with his Uncle, Ambrosius Aurelianus for instance.)

I quite enjoyed the challenge of combining the two in a believable manner – for instance, there is a scene in Pendragon’s Banner where a priest gives Arthur a brooch to wear to protect him in battle. It is of a woman dressed in blue. The Priest believes it to be the Mother Mary – Arthur accepts it, pins it on his cloak, and does not disillusion the priest by telling him that actually the portrait is of the pagan Mother Goddess. He sees quite clearly that to a pagan she is one thing, to a Christian she is another. Which is the whole point of the change between pagan and Christian in the Dark Ages, the one subtly blended into and gradually became the other.

3) In the book, you are not afraid to depict a moral universe quite different from our own. Did you make any changes or adjustments for the modern reader?

I suppose you could argue that maybe I have depicted Gwenhwyfar as a modern, feisty woman who had a mind of her own and was determined to get her own way – a feminist. BUT Celtic women were independent. They were not mere cooks there to fetch water and bear children. In Celtic times it was the women who taught the children to fight, they had a right to chose their own husband – could divorce if they wished. Saxon women, too, had a certain amount of freedom. Sadly it was the 11th - 12th Church that repressed women, when the Church was becoming more powerful and I have to say, greedy for supremacy, domination and wealth.

4) In addition to his bravery, Arthur's leadership is marked by his innovative use of cavalry. What led you to choose that particular innovation for him?

Two reasons; one I am a horse person, I started riding when I was 4 (I am now 56) and my daughter has horses. So horses are a subject I know a lot about. The other reason is that I became interested in Arthur because most of the legends say he used cavalry. My two interests naturally merged together. I also believe that if Arthur did indeed move around the country, fighting battles in different areas, he would have had to have used cavalry.

5) What is your favorite of the traditional Arthurian stories?

I don’t actually like any of them. I have never enjoyed the traditional Medieval tales. For one thing they are not real history – there were no knights in armour, towered castles, round tables or quests for the Holy Grail in Dark Age Britain. (Would anyone tolerate stories of Henry VIII living in a tower block, wearing jeans and driving around in a sports car? The Medieval stories are the same equivalent!) I dislike Lancelot, Gawain and the other knights because they are all so “goody goody” (give me a rough, tough, rogue any day – much more fun!)

Add to that these Medieval tales are Norman, and I’m afraid I am very much pro-Saxon, hence my novel Harold the King, the Battle of Hastings (1066) from the English point of view. The Normans had no right to England, William the Conqueror was a usurping tyrant…

The one story I do like is the “loathly lady” where one of the knights is pressured into marrying an old hag. It turns out she is actually a beautiful young woman, but she is under a spell and can only be beautiful by day or night, not both. The knight has to choose – would he have her beautiful to himself at night and ugly to others - hence shaming her in public. Or beautiful to others and ugly by night – not wanting her beautiful for himself. Frustrated he shouts that he does not know what to choose, and impatiently says she is to have her own choice. And the spell is broken for he answered the riddle – “what is it a woman most desires?” The answer, her own way!

This is actually a very old pagan-based story, and I decided to use it with my own twist for the characters. (You will come across it later in the trilogy).

Thank you for inviting me onto your blog


Anonymous said...

I liked Hollick’s depiction of Arthur: much more real-to-life than the traditional legend. I felt the author did a good job of blending history with myth, and creating an accurate picture of post-Roman Britain.

Arthur definitely had moments where you disliked him, among his other good qualities. Gwenhwyfar was the same way. There were times where I questioned her, but overall, she was more like-able than Arthur.

What did you think of the antagonist characters? Did you think they were well-rounded and complex? What did you think of Winifred? Did she have any redeeming qualities in your mind?

Also, now that I think about it, I would have liked to see Morgause as a more regularly character throughout the novel. What do you think? I thought she was an interesting, conflicting character.

Tripp said...


Agreed on Arthur, he could be quite boorish and unpleasant by our standards.

I didn't think the antagonists were as strong. They were more likely to be all bad. Winifred served more I think as a foil for Arthur, either as an enemy or a means to show his bad side.

I would have liked to have seen more of Vortigern than we did. He seemed like he could have been an interesting fellow showing the problems of maintaining, as opposed to trying to seize it.

The few scenes of Morgause were a bit odd. She is a major figure in the mythos and would have seemed to have played a larger role. Maybe in later books?