The Queen, the Knight, and Arthur

If you’ve followed either of my blogs, listened to my podcast, of likely talked to me for all of ten minutes, you’ve probably gathered that I have a thing for Arthuriana. My love of the genre is deep-seeded, having taken root somewhere in between watching The Sword in the Stone and receiving a book from my great aunt on the subject (I can’t seem to locate the book, but it had fabulous illustrations, including a brilliant one of Morgause holding up Mordred as a newborn amidst the rocky sea and churning waves).

But it wasn’t until college that something really clicked with me, something started reverberating in my brain, in regards to Arthuriana. I took a seminar my freshman year at UMass with Dr. Charlotte Spivack, who was a remarkable teacher with a rigorous syllabus (she’s got some impressive titles to her name, I’ve learned, too). It was in Dr. Spivack’s class that I first encountered a full treatment of the Arthurian myth, from the earliest scraps of poetry and Celtic beginnings to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. It’s also the first time I learned about Sir Gawain. (More on that to follow)

When I transferred to Loyola College, I was lucky enough to yet again find myself amidst impressive medievalists (and started to realize that such a title was what I wanted to be, should I be able to attain it). Dr. Kelly DeVries, a historian, taught a senior history seminar on the legends of the Middle Ages, and of course we encountered Arthur again, though from a less fictionalized slant.

By graduate school, I decided to go full on Arthuriana. I worked with Middle English manuscripts, familiar and obscure (my favorite moment being when I discovered a work that had hardly ever been written about called Outel and Rolande–which was Carolingian, but still, chivalric) and wallowed (rather miserably) in literary criticism. Most of my research pertained to Malory, however, who hated Gawain a great deal but had many fascinating things to say about Sir Palomides. I even did a few conferences. Then I had a baby, and wrote a hasty thesis about Marie de France and William Morris’s treatments of Guenevere before finally graduating and realizing, quite clearly, that I wanted to write fiction.

Two years after, with the dawn of 2009, I found myself beginning the first lines of Queen of None, where Anna Pendragon (the oldest mentioned and most often forgotten sister of Arthur) reflects on her birth, her family, and her curse. It is very much her story, told in the first person, but there are a few things that I knew I wanted to do differently right away.

First and foremost, my Carelon (rather than Camelot) is fantasy literature. It is a re-imagining without the Christianity and, more importantly, without much of the history of our world at all. Now, this might seem entirely peculiar. But for me, what’s important about Arthuriana are the stories, the characters, and the setting and attempt to shove it into a Christian nutshell always made me lose my suspension of disbelief. I loved Mists of Avalon, but the ending always irked me; and as much as I adore The One And Future King, it borders on farce too often to take seriously.

And oddly enough, removing religion and history don’t do much to change the stories at all. Yes, I have a Britain (Braetan), and an Arthur and a Merlin, Morgaine, Gawain, etc. But I’m playing a great deal with some of the older texts; for instance, Arthur marries three separate women during the course of the books (one of the oldest poems mentions three inconstant wives of Arthur, all named Gweynevere).

Now, I’m moving on to Sir Gawain’s story. Gawain is Anna’s son, and features a bit in Queen of None; but as Anna is rather self-absorbed, he only makes appearances when they aren’t arguing, which is rare. In tradition, Gawain’s character is turned about and upended constantly. He starts out as a hero, one of the earliest mentioned knights along with Cai and Bedevere. By the time Malory has his hands on him, and the whole of the Orkney clan (including Gaheris and Gareth), he basically demonizes him and turns him into a bloodthirsty murderer.

But I am drawn to that dichotomy, to that tension. And my Gawain is complicated. On the one hand, he is a formidable warrior, known for his prowess far and wide. But it comes with cost. In the current book (tentative title Knight of the Blood to indicate his connection to Arthur, etc… not sold on it, but gotta call it something) Gawain takes the story from where Anna left it, filling in the blanks regarding the knights’ campaign in the north, what he encountered there, and how he’s trying to reconcile his violent nature with his learning. Because Gawain would have been reared at court, he’s had a top-notch education at the hand of the Avillionian monks. While not religious, he claims that his power is still something given to him by some divine force simply because he cannot accept that the ability to kill so many, so quickly, so well, can be from him only.

The story concerns Gawain and some primary knights (Bors, Lionel, Gaheris, Palomides, and occasionally Lanceloch)  and King Pellinore, as well as the Questing Beast, and the Queen’s sister Hwyfar. It’s a bit more lighthearted than Queen of None, but with more philosophy in a way. Anna is a woman of action, when pushed to it; her book dealt entirely with her own revenge. Gawain’s book really is a quest, a search for his own identity among the knights, his family, and his realm. But most importantly it’s him trying to balance his blood-thirsty nature with the mind of a thinker.

Eventually, the plan is to write a series of books–which could each stand alone, if necessary–that take place over three generations, starting with Anna then moving to Gawain and his brothers, then ending after the fall of Carelon with Gaheris’s daughter (I think) returning to Orkney.

However it ends up, I’m having a blast doing research. Collecting bits and pieces of the mythology and then fashioning them together into something new; it’s thrilling. I haven’t been this excited about a project in a while, and it’s rather nice to have a mythology to lean on, rather than make mine up entirely (as with The Aldersgate and Peter of Windbourne).

A bit of an excerpt, and that’ll end the babbling. The scene takes place after the last battle of Hropnar’s War, where Gawain single-handedly saved his retinue before falling to one of the northmen’s axes. Just as he’s about to take the death blow, Palomides intercedes and Gawain is only wounded. However, in a blood fury, Gawain turns on Palomides and has to be subdued. He wakes in his tent, with Bors attending to him:

Bors was growing frustrated, I knew, his frown deepening into his beard. “Come, lad, you’ve uttered naught but five words to me. You won’t die now, but if you keep this up it’ll come swiftly to you. If that’s what you were seeking on the field, then so be it; but leave me out of it, you hear? I’ll have no such guilt on my conscience. I’ll not be the one to bear it.”

“Bors. You lout,” I said. “That was a bigger speech than you’ve ever given…” I coughed, the labor of speaking sending daggers of pain down my side and across my back. “How many cups have you had?”

A smile, like a child discovering their naming day giftm spread across his face. Bors took my slightly less mangled hand in his and kissed it. “There’s my lad.”

“Water?”

He brought it to me obediently, a perpetual grin on his face. That I know, Bors never married nor had children, and though he was not quite old enough to have been my father, still he looked to me as a son.

Bors helped me sip a bit, each drop burning as the last, and wincing I rested back down on the pillows. I knew no other knights had such luxuries; the pillows, the clean water, the fresh linens. I was the King’s nephew. And a hero. Even if I had refused it, I doubt I’d have been able to avoid it, and so I did not let it trouble me.

I expected to meet Bors’s grin again, but when I looked to him—my lips still afire from the water—he was somber.

“I find it best, Gawain, not to question the gifts of the gods,” he said, taking my hand again. “It’s a right pain when they choose, and their reasoning’s quite beyond me. But before this life is over, you must make your peace with it… one way or another.”

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