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6 November 2018

Tuesday Talk - Arthur and Me, that's King Arthur!

by Helen Hollick

Arthur, yes that one, the one we affectionately know as 'King' Arthur - the bloke who might have lived some time in the fifth, or sixth, century ... or might not. The only thing we know for certain about King Arthur is that he was not a knight in armour from around somewhere between the twelfth - fifteenth centuries. Sorry to disappoint, but there was no Holy Grail, no Lancelot, no round table, no turreted castle of Camelot...  and there might not have been an Arthur either. Although I find that a little hard to swallow.

Surely there was someone, a warlord or similar, who at least gave cause for the start of such an everlasting legend!

the original cover
painted by Chris Collingwood
published by William Heinemann
I set out to write my trilogy (The Kingmaking, Pendragon's Banner and Shadow of the King) something like forty (yes 4... 0...) years ago. I came across the suggestion that IF he had been a real person then he would have lived soon after the Romans had given up on the wet weather of Britain and cleared off back to sunnier climes... this was around 420 AD.

They left behind utter chaos as there was no longer any organised administration (a bit like the possibility of Brexit?) Rome, after all, had been organising the finances, the books, the laws, organising trade, keeping order and (sort of) the peace for about 400 years - that's a long time.

Suddenly all that admin was gone. Not all 'Romans' went scurrying off to Dover to catch the ferry to Calais though, only the troops and the chaps in charge, the ones who lived here, had their houses and farms, their families, they stayed for they were now Romano British ... and I must remind you here, we are talking Britain not England... Englalond was not 'invented' until a good 150 - 200ish or so years later when the Anglo Saxons had managed to dominate most of what is now known as England.  For those who still insist 'England for the English'  ... well, the English swept in from Germany and the Low Countries as immigrants and totally took over everywhere except Cornwall and Wales. To be fair, so did the Romans in the 1st century; they dominated the tribes of the British Celts, who  in turn had probably swept aside some other earlier stone-age peoples, but we don't know anything about who they might have been.

Anyway, Arthur...

It was Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills that converted me. I enjoyed the stories, but her author's note was that 'lightbulb moment'. She it was who suggested that Arthur more probably belonged to the mid-to-late 400s. 

Oh wow! That swept aside all the knights clanking around in armour stories - which I  confess, I have never liked. They always felt false. I detest Lancelot, and could never  understand what on earth Guinevere ever saw in him. Nor could I figure out why a king was thought of to be so wonderful even though he b*ggered off for years and left his kingdom entirely defenceless and at the mercy of no-gooders. Although, of course, now I realise that the King Arthur ideal was basically a propaganda marketing ploy to boost the popularity of Noble Kings such as Richard I, and to get poor innocents to take the Cross and go off to kill a few thousand Saracens. (In case you're wondering, no, I don't like any of the early Plantagenets, which include Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, King John and Edward I!) 

So, putting this Arthur bloke into a more fitting context made sense. I devoured as many post-Roman Britain books as I could, delved into the Matter of Arthur, decided Gwenhwyfar (as I call her) had had a rough deal at the hands (pens? quills?) of writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Mallory, and decided to write what I considered to be a more realistic version of (possible/plausible) events.

No magic, no Merlin,no Lancelot, no grail - just a boy who became a man, who became a king, who became a legend. My Arthur has his flaws, he is no Christian goody-two-shoes old-man king. He has his flaws and weaknesses, he has to fight hard to gain his kingdom,and fight even harder to keep it. Alongside him is Gwenhwyfar - they love each other with a deep but turbulent passion. They quarrel often, but beneath their spats they have an unbreakable devotion to each other.

I based much of my trilogy on the earlier Welsh stories and legends: Arthur and Gwenhwyfar had three sons, Arthur was no Christian doing saintly deeds (the opposite in fact!) I used the stories of Bedwyr and Cei. The pagan sisters at what is now Glastonbury. The encroachment of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, the upheaval of the Picts and the Scotti ... the change from Roman rule to the disintegration of chaos and potential anarchy, and the desperation of one man who tried his best to stop it. Arthur.

Excerpt: from Chapter I Pendragon's Banner - book two of the trilogy

With slow-expelled breath the Pendragon lowered his sword and unbuckled the straps of his helmet, let them dangle free, his face stinging from the release of the tight, chaffing leather. He was tired. By the Bull of Mithras, was he tired! Arthur stabbed his sword-blade into the churned grass and sank to his knees. His fingers clasped the sword’s pommel as he rested his forehead  on his hands, conscious suddenly of the great weariness in his arms and legs and across his neck and shoulders. It had been a long day, a long season. He was bone tired of fighting and this stink of death. He had a wife, two sons born, another child on the way; he needed to be with them, establishing a secure stronghold fit for a king and his queen; making laws and passing judgements – raising his sons to follow after him. 
     Movement. Arthur opened his eyes but did not raise his head. Two booted feet appeared in his lowered line of vision, the leather scratched and spotted with the staining of blood. He would recognise those fine-made boots anywhere; the intricate patterning around the heel, the paler inlet of doe-hide. He looked up with a spreading grin of triumph into the face of his cousin and second-in-command. Cei, wiping sweat and the spatter of other men’s blood from his cheeks grinned back, his teeth gleaming white behind the darkness of his stubble-bearded face. For a while and a while the two men stood, grinning at each other like inane moon-calves.
     “That is it then,” Arthur said, climbing slowly to his feet and pulling his sword from the ground. It felt heavy to his hand now the fighting was done. “Happen we can think about going home to our women and families.”
     Cei shrugged a non-committal answer. If God was willing they could go home soon. When the dead were buried and the wounded tended, the submissions concluded, hostages taken and the King’s supremacy over these Saex scum endorsed. When the grumbling and muttering from the British, discontent with Arthur’s objectives were silenced. Aye, happen then, they could.
     Arthur bent to wipe his blade against the tunic of a dead Anglian lying face down in the blood-puddled, muddied grass. He gazed at the man’s back a moment then with his foot turned over the body. A boy, not a man, with only the faint shadow of hair on chin and upper lip. A boy who had listened to the harper’s tales of battle and had felt his heart quicken for the excitement and honour. Who knew nothing of the reality of this goddamned mess! Sons were needed to fight with their fathers. And to die alongside them. The harpers ought to sing of that! Sing of the cruelty of losing a beloved son; the pain of wounds that were beyond healing. Arthur sighed. So many sons and fathers dead. So much spilt blood.
     He pulled the spear that had killed the boy from the body. Said with regret, “We ought to live together in peace, Cei. Angli, Jute and Saxon in peace aside us British. Surely there is enough land for us all to build our dwelling places, enough grass to graze our cattle?”
     He bent to close the boy’s staring, frightened eyes. “Why must strength be shown by the blade of a sword? Why not through discussion and wise talk?”
     A voice answered from behind, the accent guttural, the words formed in hesitant Latin.  “Because you and I were born to different ideas and beliefs, my Lord King. Differences breed mistrust and suspicions, which spread like weeds in a neglected cornfield. Fear – and greed – grows unchecked until eventually it rots into swollen lies and black untruths. Overspills onto a battlefield.”
     Arthur wiped his hand across his face, fingers firm against his nose, across cheeks, down to the stubble on his chin; wiped away this seeping mood of bleak depression and jerked upright. Turning to clap his hand to the newcomer’s shoulder, he announced with a smile as broad as a sow’s belly, “But you and I, Winta of the Humbrenses, you and I think different!”
     The answering smile was as friendly, as it was astute. “If we did not, my Lord, then would I fight beneath your Dragon against my English kinsmen?”
     Sliding his arm full around the man’s shoulders, Arthur began to steer the tall, fair-haired man towards the northern end of the battlefield, to where, beyond a clump of wind-moulded trees, the British had set their camp. To where the Saxon prisoners would soon be herded and forced to kneel before a British king.
     “Some of us,” Arthur said, walking with long strides, keeping Winta close by the grip of his hand on the man’s arm, “have found enough sight and wisdom to see beyond the differences, to learn of them with interest and intelligence. Some of us,” he repeated, patting the man’s shoulder for good measure, “are shrewd enough to go into the fields and hoe the weeds. We, my friend, prefer to see the gold of ripening corn.”
     Arthur halted, beckoned his cousin to walk at his other side. “Some weeds though, can be cultivated, used for good purpose. Can they not, Cei?”
     Cei was scowling slightly, saying nothing. To his mind all weeds ought to be pulled up and burnt. He shrugged non-committed. He disliked – no – mistrusted Winta, a petty lord over a scattering of Saex settlements along the southern shore of the Abus river. Weeds were weeds, whatever their brilliance of flower or healing use. Angli? Jute? Ally, enemy?

     “Saex are Saex, whatever their given title and declared promises,” he muttered beneath his breath.

Buy now

Amazon UK
The Kingmaking (book One)
Amazon US
The Kingmaking (book One) 
In German

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  1. Without doubt, the best 'take' I have read on the subject - even Bernard Cornwell resorts to Merlin and Lancelot (though his treatment of the latter is marvellous!!). This is Arthur, down and dirty, human and fallible. Just how fiction should be.

    1. Thanks Richard. I remember talking to Bernard soon after Kingmaking had been published, he said he couldn't get the story to work without Merlin... I smiled at him at said, 'But I could.'
      I wonder... is mine the only trilogy to not have a Merlin figure? I can't remember is he in Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword At Sunset? What other novels can 'do without him'?

    2. i can't recall any other books or series in which he doesn't appear in one form or other (he is even in my unpublished novel!!) and I haven't read the book mentioned above. It IS very difficult to leave him (and others) out, which makes your achievement all the more remarkable!

  2. This is one of the best takes I have ever read about Arthur - humanity and all! I remember hearing about your unique version of events from Sharon Kay Penman.....oh, I hate to say how many years ago LOL! As you said, no magic, no Merlin, no Grail quest....and above all, no Lancelot! (I always despised that character ­čśé). To me, your Arthur is the “real” man behind the myth and legend - thank you for introducing us to him - warts and all!

    1. *laugh* no I'm not going to work out how many years ago either! Thanks Kelly!


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