27 November 2018

Tuesday Talk: King Arthur... Man or Myth?

...Does the truth really matter?
by Helen Hollick
On Amazon
The truth? Where fiction is concerned - historical fiction in particular, but you can apply the accuracy of 'facts' to any genre - are the details and the facts essential? Necessary even? The plain answer is yes, because getting a known fact wrong can undermine the believability of  a story. Henry VIII had seven wives. Immediately the reader is suspicious ... hang on, he had six: 'Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived." Or for science fiction: "The starship pulled out of warp drive and hovered, her crew admiring the green sky of Earth.' OK you might get away with that one as a method of drawing a reader in... 'Hang on, Earth's sky is blue - what's the twist here?"

The facts when writing anything about King Arthur, though, are about as easy to pin down as a West Country morning mist! The simple truth is... there aren't any facts about him. 

The legend of King Arthur
Knights and Camelot

There is no proof that he ever existed - although stoic Arthurianites will counter argue that there is no proof to show that he didn't!

Hollywood and Broadway perceive him, and his wife, Guinevere, as the Medieval Tales wrote about him: an elderly, devout King ruling over his castle and kingdom from a round table, surrounded by various saintly-type chivalric knights: Bedevere, Percival, Gawain, and that Lancelot bloke who was far from saintly or perfect because he had a torrid affair with the Queen, our Gwen. 

Julie Andrews and Richard Burton
as Guinevere and Arthur
in the Broadway stage production of Camelot
(I think most of my readers who have enjoyed my trilogy about Arthur, know by now that I don't particularly like Lancelot. Or the knights, or the Holy Grail or, well, all those Medieval very unfactual tales.)

MY Arthur sits very firmly in the mid-fifth century, between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. Which is where, IF he, or someone like him did exist would very firmly belong.  There are arguments that the monk, Gildas, obliquely referred to Arthur in his rants against the collapse of Christianity in Britain, it's also possible that the early Welsh poems and tales are genuine,with the references to Arthur not added in at a much later date (as is often argued). To be honest here, anything about Arthur has that additional tag of 'perhaps', 'maybe', possibly'...

The sword from the stone - or the sword from the saex?
In Old English, the words are quite similar
maybe Excalibur was a trophy of war
taken by Arthur from a Saxon warrior not a stone?
I saw Arthur as a British warlord, who tried his best to keep the rapidly crumbling chaos of post-Roman rule at bay. I called him 'King' because that is how I felt most comfortable with him, and because it is a more familiar title than the (possible) Roman one of Dux Bellorum. No, he would not have been a king ruling over a kingdom because 'King' is an English, Saxon word, not a British one. And let's add one more important 'fact' here ... before circa 550 AD England was Britain, the English were British or Britons, 'England' only came into being after the Anglo-Saxons  had settled in large enough numbers to dominate and begin to call it 'Angle-land' (something like 'Englalond'). 

Don't ask me why it didn't become 'Saxalond' ... I don't know!

Either way the idea of 'England for the English' is annoying - the English were immigrants who came in their thousands from Germany and the Lowlands of what is now the Netherlands and thereabouts. They over-swept the Romano-British. (And yes, I agree, the Romans over-swept the Native Britons, who very probably over-swept the Native whoever-they-were who settled here as the great ice-flows melted - the Stone Age peoples.)

I researched, as best I could, given that this was in the days before the InterWeb and computers, looking into the historical side of mid-fifth to early sixth century Britain, taking the last vestiges of the Roman world as my foundation. Arthur has always been associated with knights and horses, so I made him a cavalry officer with a vision of forming a vast cavalry force - the Artoriani. I had his predecessor as Vortigern, which might have been a title, not a personal name, but all the same it seems very likely that there was a Vortigern. I also had Ambrosius Aurelianus - another very probably real chap - although many stories place him before Arthur. I made him a character who lived alongside our legendary king. I used the early Welsh stories, the ones that do not depict Arthur as a saintly Christian King - the opposite in fact. We see him stealing cattle from a monastery, hitting a woman, killing his own son ... well I couldn't have that sort of cad as my lead character... or could I? These scurrilous reports about him were written down by monks who were somewhat biased. Let's assume these tales were factual but their meaning had become twisted: he didn't steal the cattle he took them as tribute (taxes) in return for keeping the monasteries safe. He hit a woman - well just maybe she was trying her utmost to kill him, or one of his sons.

Ah, did I see your brows raising at the word 'sons'? These early legends also mention that Arthur and his wife, Gwenhwyfar, had three sons: Llacheu, Gwydre and Amr. One died in a battle. One was killed by a boar, and one was killed by Arthur... Accidents happen! (I'll not mention how I interpreted these events, that would be giving away spoilers.)

So how do we, as authors, make very unfactually corroborated tales and legends sound like believable facts? The simple answer is to use what facts are known! The style of building, the food that was eaten, the clothes that were worn. The horses they rode, the way battles were fought. Weave it what IS known with the made-up bits!

For much of my research I followed the ideas and speculations of historian Geoffrey Ashe - because what he said made sense.

One of the things he mentioned was the tricky subject of Arthur leaving his kingdom and going off to fight abroad. (In the Medieval tales, going off in search of the Holy Grail, being gone for several years, during which his kingdom disintegrated into chaos due to the machinations of his illegitimate son, Mordred, and the fact that Lancelot couldn't keep his 'manly bits' inside his codpiece whenever Guinevere was around.) 

Ashe suggested that the Arthur of the early sixth century went to Brittany and northern France to give assistance against the encroaching post-Roman hordes (Vandals, Visigoths et al). That made sense. Brittany, after all, at that time, was still regarded as part of Britain, (there's very little difference between the Breton and Cornish language.) Add to that, and something which I found highly interesting, but many people seem to completely ignore, there is a place called Avallon about 50km south-southeast of Auxerre, 

I seized on it, wrote my story around it - although this is Part Three of the Trilogy, Shadow of the King, so you'll have to read the other two, The Kingmaking and Pendragon's Banner first.

To add what 'believability' I could, I went to France and Brittany to see for myself. I visited Avallon and Vézelay ... I have wonderful memories of sitting on the wall that is in this image below, admiring the walnut trees that were baking beneath a hot sun and seeing a lizard scurry along the stones... The memories are especially treasured as I was with my best friend, Hazel, who passed away not long after that wonderful holiday.

Vézelay Abbey

Then there is Glastonbury. Sorry, I don't buy the chestnut of King Arthur's grave being discovered there - at a time when the monks were about to go bankrupt? How convenient. They found a grave, yes, but they were very good at marketing... Glastonbury itself, however, is a very mystical place because of the Tor, which along with Stonehenge and the like, is a genuinely spiritual place.

The Tor - the Isle of Avalon
To stand at the top of the Tor and hear the wind as it whispers past ... magical indeed!

So does the truth matter? Yes for writing the background details for historical (or other) novels, but for Arthur... well, if the many authors who have written the many, many stories about him throughout the centuries, if we stuck to the facts there would be very, very few stories wouldn't there?

King Arthur.
Does it matter whether he
was a man or is just a myth?
Excerpt: Shadow of the King (written after a visit to Vézelay)

Leaving Britain and her young daughter, Archfedd, behind, Gwenhwyfar and a few loyal men have travelled to northern France (Gaul) to find Arthur.. to discover whether he is truly dead or still alive...

The stone wall to the east of the convent was low, the hillside, dropping as it did, almost vertically downward on the other side, creating seclusion and protection. The storm had grumbled through most of the night before taking itself off northward, but had done little to dispel the uncomfortable heat. Two days later the air still hung as heavy as lead, a persistent haze muffling the expanse of sky. Gwenhwyfar sat on the wall, watching a lizard scurry from one hiding-place to another, pausing, hesitant, between its chosen places of safety. Archfedd would have delighted in the creature, its yellow-green skin, darting swiftness and reptilian beauty. A stab of longing for home and her daughter shot through Gwenhwyfar. Perhaps it was the height, the permeating contentment of the convent that reminded her so of Caer Cadan, the looking down the hillside and out across the valley and up the winding track that straddled the steep, rising ground. Archfedd was safe with Geraint and Enid, happy running as one of the pack with the children of Durnovaria’s stronghold. She had no worries for the child, although occasionally, when thoughts wandered homeward as on this day, she missed her dreadfully.
   Reaching forward, Gwenhwyfar picked a cluster of leaves and fruit that would, before long, ripen and reveal the hardened shell of a walnut. The slope was dense with the trees, the nuts self-seeding over the years, creating a massed forest that tumbled downward, forming an impenetrable natural barrier. Absently, she pulled the leaves off one by one, tossed the fruit away, watched as it rolled down the hillside, became lost among the tangle of grass, fallen dead leaves and young saplings. She stood, wandered along the path, her fingers idling across the cracks and splits on the wall, brushing the softness of mosses and the intricate patterns of lichens. Beyond the wall, the unmanaged trees became clearer as the slope gave way to less hostile ground. Vines were planted here, southward-facing to catch the full benefit of the sun. Below, way below, the valley floor was cultivated with scattered fields and pasture for grazing, the meandering river an oasis of fresh green against sun-baked brown. Further away, as the land began again to rise, the cultivation gave way again to trees, those dense forests that dominated so much of Gaul. The track, winding upward cutting like a white scar through the dark foliage. That was the track she would need to follow, tomorrow or another tomorrow. To ride up, between the sentinel trees, upward to the crest of those hills, to find on the other side…
   Gwenhwyfar closed her eyes. All this way, these weeks and miles of journeying. One last track to follow. A few more miles, a morning’s ride. She wanted to go home, to turn around and ride away. Courage had failed, the need to know dispelled by the desperate desire to not find out.
Horsemen, riding along the valley, crossing the river, turned to take the track that led up to this high place. She recognised the four riders as her men by their red cloaks and white tunics, distinguishing Gweir’s dun stallion at the forefront. They led a pack-pony, a deer straddling his withers. They had been hunting then, successfully, it seemed.
   She rubbed her hands. The wind was chill up here at this great height. She would soon have to find the strength to discover what lay on the other side of those wood-covered hills. If not for herself, for the men who had faithfully followed her here. And for all those who awaited their return.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you squashed the notion of "Well, I'll just write a romance and say it's set in ..." In fact (indeed), even if the main characters are a figment of the author's imagination, the era of their lives must be researched thoroughly. That's what draws the reader into good Historical Fiction. And you did this so beautifully with The Pendragon's Banner Trilogy.


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