Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Helen Hollick and how 'The Kingmaking' was written.

If you remember, a couple of days ago I posted a review of a wonderful historical novel, The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick. Today, I am giving you the guest post in which Helen answers a few questions as to how The Kingmaking was created. I hope you'll enjoy it.

1. Why King Arthur and not any other legendary character?

Until I became interested in Arthur I was a science fiction/fantasy fan – this was just before the time of Star Wars first time around! J

I hated history at school. I went to an ordinary all-girl’s school, and was not considered very bright or showing much potential. My school reports all read “Could do better if Helen was to show more interest.” Well, being honest, if the teachers had made their lessons more interesting then maybe the spark would have been lit for me much earlier on! The only lesson I looked forward to was English. Mrs Llewellyn brought passion into the subject, gave us really exciting books to read, and encouraged my writing. She spent an hour one afternoon after school showing me how I could have made one of my essays so much better. Unfortunately the History Mistress was the opposite. Her idea of teaching was to drone from a very boring history book.

I went to work as an assistant in a local library (I live in a North London UK suburb). There, I re-discovered Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful novels set in Roman Britain – Eagle of the Ninth, Frontier Wolf, Mark of the Horse Lord etc, and then Mary Stewart’s Hollow Hills Trilogy. And thus I discovered Arthur.

Until then I had disliked the Arthurian stories. I could never accept that the King Arthur of the Medieval tales was such a useless fool! He went to all that trouble to become King, found himself a lovely wife and then cleared off for years to search for the Holy Grail, abandoning everything else. And the dumbest guy could have foreseen the Lancelot/Guinevere scenario! I also detested Lancelot and all those goody-goody knights.

Years later, when I came to write my novel Harold the King (the story of the Battle of Hastings from the English point of view) I discovered the reason why I was so against these stories: they were Norman, based on the Norman way of life, and echoing the Norman call to arms for the Crusades. I am very pro-English and very anti-Norman. I am certain my ancestors were there at Hastings, fighting with Harold II against Duke William of Normandy.

Mary Stewart’s novels had an author’s note in which she said she felt Arthur, if he ever existed, would more than likely have been a post-Roman war lord. I liked that idea and started reading as much about the ‘real’ Arthur as I could.

I was hooked.

2. Did you use any of the Old English classics as an inspiration to write The Kingmaking?

I used the old Welsh classics! In particular the Mabinogian. I also used the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the early Saxon legends of Hengest, Horsa and Cerdic. I mostly read non-fiction work by the then eminent historian Geoffrey Ashe, who put forward some very convincing ideas about Arthur as a post-Roman.

3. You took upon yourself the task of writing about Britain's Dark Ages. Was it difficult to do research, considering that this particular time in history is shrouded in mystery, more legend than fact?
No, in fact it was easier because I had scope to write what I wanted and not be restricted by ‘facts’ getting in the way of my imaginative creativity.

I wanted to break away from the familiar Norman Medieval tales of Arthur – the Knights of the Round Table, the Quest for the Holy Grail, Lancelot, etc., and get back to the early British/Welsh stories about him. I soon discovered that this Arthur of the 4th / 5th Century was a very different man. A man who fought hard to gain power and fought even harder to keep it. This Arthur was not the all-round Christian King putting God before all else; in fact he was probably pagan, or at least teetering on the edge of Christianity. He was very much a war lord, a man of ambition who fought 12 battles in various places around Britain from Cornwall to Scotland. He was respected and loved; there was nothing of him being cuckolded by one of his men, and the early stories tell of him having three sons. None of these tales imply he was betrayed by any of his sons. The reference is “the battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell”. Medraut is Mordred – and they could just as easily have been fighting on the same side! Some of the much loved heroes are there in the early tales – Bedwyr (Bedevere), Cei (Kay) etc. But no Merlin – he was a Norman invention – and no Lady of the Lake. Morgause/Morgaine is there though, and Gwenhwyfar – Guinevere.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking the early legends and weaving them into a coherent and plausibly believable story. It was a challenge that resulted in my first three adult novels and the character of Arthur becoming a very real person to me.

4. While creating Gwenhwyfar, did you think of Boudica as another very strong, passionate and independent woman?
Oh yes, Boudica is one of my heroines! Legend says she died not far from where I live – very possible as I live North East of London on the Essex border, which is very close to her Iceni territory.
I have often been asked if I would write about Boudica, but I think there are several authors far more talented than myself, who have written her story so beautifully that I would not have the courage to try and do better. One version I adore is Rosemary Sutcliff’s Song for a Dark Queen. It was written for teenagers, but how could I possibly improve upon such wonderful writing?
There are many forgotten women in early British history, most of them ignored because history was written down by the monks – men! Æthelflæd, eldest daughter of King Alfred, for instance. She became the Lady of Mercia, built fortresses, led her army against the Vikings – and would have been remembered were it not for her jealous brother, Edward, who stole her kingdom after her death. And Queen Emma, who was wife to two Kings – Æthelred (the Unready) and Cnut (Canute) and mother to two Kings, the second of which was Edward the Confessor. Emma was a remarkable woman who chose to keep her crown and position as Queen when her first husband died during the Danish raids of the early 11th century. She ruled as regent for Cnut, and was possibly the first woman outside of any religious house to have her biography written. I wrote her story in my novel, A Hollow Crown.
As for Gwenhwyfar (the Welsh spelling for Guinevere) – when I began writing my first tentative ideas for a novel about Arthur I attempted Gwenhwyfar’s story. This came about because I had read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel, The Mists of Avalon. Although an intriguing novel I took instant dislike to her Guinevere. At one point I threw the book across the room, shouting, “Oh pull yourself together woman – you are Arthur’s Queen!” That was it for me. No other novel could satisfy what I felt the story of Gwenhwyfar and Arthur should be - so I decided to get on with it and write my own. I saw them as two very passionate people – in thought, deed and romance. Arthur was a war lord, a bit of a rogue (and occasionally a right ba*tard)—a man who knew what he wanted and set out to get it. A real king. The woman he adored he had loved since childhood – Gwenhwyfar, the daughter of a Welsh Prince, Cunedda of Gwynedd. As with any people who have their own ambitions and possess a volatile temper however, their life together was to vary from intense love to deep hatred. My Arthur was not going to be a mild-mannered Christian King cuckolded by some chap in a tin-suit. My Arthur was fierce and dangerous – and very much the hero. My Gwenhwyfar was feisty, she knew her own mind, had a sword and knew how to use it.
I soon discovered, however, that Arthur was too strong a character to take a back seat. My first attempts at writing all went in the bin. It was only later when I altered course and decided to have Arthur as my lead character that the novel began to work. I also made the decision to have no myth, magic or fantasy whatsoever in my story. There is no Merlin, no questing beasts or holy grails. No Lancelot, stone-built, turreted castles or knights in armour going on various magical quests.
Instead, you get battles, conflict, love and passion. You also witness the end of Roman Britain and the coming of the Saxons, along with the confusion that resulted from that intense shift in power. I also had a great time learning about and incorporating the early Welsh legends into the narrative – of Arthur stealing cattle from a monastery, of Gwenhwyfar throwing her comb at him after a bitter quarrel. The Kingmaking is the first of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy – it is the story of King Arthur as it might have really happened.