Interview for the Camelot Project

Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay by Raymond H. Thompson
Mythcon: Vancouver, B.C. 30th July 1989

Interview reproduced by kind permission of Raymond H. Thompson. Mr. Thompson conducted a series of interviews with authors of modern Arthurian Literature. To read the rest of his inteviews, click to The Camelot Project of Rochester University.

Like Katz, Guy Gavriel Kay agreed to give me this interview at the Mythopoeic Conference in Vancouver where he was the Guest of Honor. He gave an enthralling after-dinner speech in which he recalled his year helping Christopher Tolkien to edit The Silmarillion. Thus when the organizers of the annual science fiction convention in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where I teach, sought my advice for a Guest of Honor, I was able to recommend him warmly. I welcomed the opportunity, moreover, to meet again someone with whom I had shared the experience of judging a costume contest at a fantasy convention. The bond this establishes runs deep.

Arthurian figures comprise but a handful among the many champions and supernatural powers woven into Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree (New York: Arbor House, 1984), The Wandering Fire (New York: Arbor House, 1986), and The Darkest Road (New York: Arbor House, 1986). They play an important role, however, for the pattern of expiation for past sins is as crucial to Arthurian legend as it is to the Fionavar Tapestry itself. At the end, Arthur and his companions win release from their continuous struggle, but they must pay a high price, a sobering reminder for those who imagine that fantasy is mere escapism.

RT: What attracted you to the Arthurian legend as a thread in the Fionavar Tapestry?

GGK: The Arthurian materials constituted part of a wider interest in myth and legend as a whole, which in turn was the starting point for an interest in working with fantasy. This was a childhood passion that grew into an adolescent one, then expanded into an adult one. It started at the storytelling level, then ultimately spread into the quasi-academic level. Among the materials of legend a great many worked their way into Fionavar. The Arthurian matter assumed a primacy partly because of the nature of the story. I was working with Celtic myth and tradition fairly extensively, and within that tradition Arthuriana is quite likely to rise towards preeminence. In addition, an important part of my very early attraction to myth and legend was a specific attraction to Arthurian tradition, although I can’t date my first exposure to it. I read various retellings for younger readers, and T. H. White was an early source that I read with great admiration. He took me straight to Malory as a teenager. Malory was a revelation. I can still virtually quote the speech over the dead body of Lancelot, and will, unhesitatingly, push that as one of the most moving passages in our literary tradition. Even today I sometimes read that passage again; I can give myself shivers with the beauty of the writing and with the depth that underlies the sentiment.

RT: When you came to write the Fionavar Tapestry, then, did the Arthurian material take its place as just one more of the mythological elements you made use of?

GGK: Yes, although it may have been more than that. In the days before the book took shape, I kept a series of notebooks in which I would jot down ideas for possible projects: poetry, essays, novels. Whenever I had a notion or a concept which seemed to belong in what became Fionavar, my note to myself would read: idea for “Arthur.” The book was never going to be called “Arthur,” which I knew would be a silly title for what it ended up being. From the very beginning, however, I assumed as a given that the Arthurian myth would ultimately play a central role.Some people reading the trilogy were surprised by the emergence of the Arthurian figures in the second volume, despite what I thought were fairly extensive foreshadowings in the first. I have encountered responses like, why does Arthur suddenly come in? or did you suddenly decide partway through to bring the Arthurian material in? The Arthurian material was, in fact, integral to the first conception of the trilogy. I wanted to find my own avenue into working with the Arthurian material, to see if I could find a way to create a scaffolding or a canvas for a book which would be large enough for that material to be a central part, but not the whole story.Fairly early on, I recognized the power of the story: the love triangle, Arthur’s slaying of the children, the concept of the Once and Future King, Avalon and the return in time of need. The astonishing power of the Arthurian story required that I extend the ambit of the rest of my story as widely as possible, or run the risk of the Arthurian element dwarfing it. So the task I set myself was to fit the Arthurian story in, like a gemstone in a setting; but it is so bright and so large and so resonant for readers that it forced me–I think in a healthy, useful way–to stretch my scope in the other parts so that it wouldn’t be entirely out of proportion to the rest of the story.

RT: How did you go about striking the right balance between the Arthurian element and the other elements within the story?

GGK: That’s a difficult question to answer because it goes to the heart of the creative process–how one goes about writing a novel, as it were. I think there were two or three different factors at work. One was that, whenever I was writing sections of the book that incorporated Arthurian figures, I was immensely conscious of the fact. These sections were almost invariably among the most difficult of the book, the most carefully thought out prior to writing, and the most carefully reworked afterwards. I was continuously aware, while I was working with the Arthurian material, that I was laying hands on a received body of literature of immense power. I was concerned about appearing presumptuous. Some authors may say, well, since everyone’s had a shot at it, why shouldn’t I? That wasn’t my attitude. I was immensely aware that this is a body of material of great power for a great many people, and that I was changing it. I was quite conscious of changing it, particularly in the inversion. To the best of my knowledge, no one else has ever inverted 180 degrees the idea of the Once and Future King, as I ultimately do with the notion that Arthur is not resting among the blessed, our savior and champion in time of need, because of his greatness and glory. Rather I see him as cursed to return in our time of need at the cost of his own pain and grief. This came about in part because of a chance, almost wry, reflection on what it must feel like to be always on call. Dial 911 in time of need and your champion must answer! The only time you’re around is when there’s a dismal, violent, destructive, dangerous crisis! Furthermore, as part of the received material of the legend, Arthur does not see the end of such conflicts. I found myself thinking, that’s not much of a state of grace; that is a burden and a duty and a responsibility.Somewhere along the line, in my early, nebulous musings over the use of the legend, that idea fused with the often glossed-over episode of Arthur’s exposure of the children in an attempt to kill Mordred. Merlin prophesies to him that the incestuous child of his union will one day unravel–to use my language–and destroy the kingdom or the dream that he is attempting to construct. The young king–I see him as an extremely young king at that stage–undertakes a precipitous, unwise, tyrannical action. It’s an action that fits within the tradition of Biblical stories, like Pharoah in the story of Moses ordering the male children of the Jews to be exposed, and Herod ordering the young children slain in accounts of the birth of Christ. It’s an intriguing part of the myth, the darker layer to it, that Arthur, the benevolent, all-wise king, should play there the role of the dangerous tyrant, while Mordred plays the role of the hero, saved in the traditional pattern of heroes of ambiguous birth–and an incestuous conception is as ambiguous as you can have! These heroes were discussed by Otto Rank and Joseph Campbell: their birth is attended upon by prophecy, and very early in life they are saved, by miraculous or providential intercession, from death at the hands of the tyrant.It was while musing over the stories of the Once and Future King and Arthur’s response to Mordred’s birth that I came up with the notion of inverting the usual concept of Arthur’s return into a burden and a curse. Once I had that in place, the next step was to see the love triangle as a manifestation of that burden and curse. The way in which Arthur was condemned was to continually be forced to relive his betrayal at the hands of the two people he loved. The Fionavar Tapestry was a deliberate attempt to work within the traditions of high fantasy, which incorporates the idea, in Tolkien’s word, of the eucatastrophe, the reverse of the catastrophe. The resolution of the Arthurian love triangle, the unbinding of that curse, would be central to the eucatastrophe at the end of the book. Throughout the writing, I tried to be careful in my use of Arthurian motifs, even peripheral ones like the Wild Hunt. That is not exclusively Arthurian and I don’t use Arthur in his capacity as leader of the hunt. Instead I follow the Germanic tradition of Owain as leader of the Hunt, which may be earlier. Arthur inherited the role, or it accrued to him as so many other things did. Whenever I was dealing with the central Arthurian motifs, however, I was deeply conscious that they were not mine. I was making use of them.

RT: Did this restrain your freedom to use the Arthurian characters in untraditional roles?

GGK: Restraint is one way to describe it, but it’s the same kind of restraint that a sonnet imposes upon a writer: you’ve got to use fourteen lines and an iambic pentameter and a given rhyme scheme if you’re doing a proper Petrarchan sonnet. I had a sense that I could not willy-nilly appropriate these characters. The only one I gave myself some freedom with was Taliesin who is, in any event, remarkably chameleon-like in the Arthurian material. I also gave myself the freedom to work with both Celtic and later French versions of the story. We know the Arthurian tradition today from the French by way of Malory. Research into the Celtic traditions is immensely instructive and deeply fascinating, but in terms of the survival of the Arthurian material in popular awareness, I don’t think there’s any question that the French have won.

RT: Could you say more about the Arthurian works that first aroused your interest in the legend? You’ve mentioned that T. H. White led you back to Malory. Did you read other medieval works as well?

GGK: Yes. I became very interested in medieval literature, though I’m by no means a medieval scholar; I would back away in horror from such designation. I read The Mabinogion, Tain bo Cualnge, The Song of Roland, The Neibelungenlied, Parsival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orpheo.

RT: How about the chronicles?

GGK: In my later teens I read Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gildas, and Giraldus Cambrensis and came back to them again. There was a period of time when I thought I might study either medieval or Rennaissance history, or comparative religion and anthropology– the ground being covered by people like Joseph Campbell. The reading helped me to become very deeply suffused with the material of myth–and not just the Arthurian legend.

RT: How about post-medieval works? You mentioned White; presumably you’ve read Tennyson and T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land?

GGK: Absolutely, and Eliot sent me back to Jessie Weston. In a very fundamental way, James Fraser is a formative influence for me. I usually cite Joseph Campbell as a more contemporary, accessible, lucidly expressed synthesis of mythical materials, but no one who is interested in myth is going to be able to address it without having read The Golden Bough. I’ve also read some contemporary treatments of Arthurian legend, though many of them subsequent to writing my own. I just finished reading Anthony Powell’s The Fisher King, which I found very interesting.

RT: When you were reading contemporary novels, did you have a special preference for historical novels or fantasy?

GGK: Historical novels certainly appealed to me. I think Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset is a superb book. I remember at the age of eleven or twelve reading Marvin Borowsky’s The Queen’s Knight in my grandmother’s library. I also read Babs Deal’s novel The Grail, which is a marriage of my interest in football and Arthur. I found it an intriguing attempt, although I agree with your ultimate assessment, in The Return from Avalon, that there’s a level at which certain transpositions of the story run a grave risk of trivializing it. Interesting though I found the book, there’s a responsibility on those of us working with the material to be aware that it’s a received body of wisdom. That, by the way, is why I am less keen on Arthur Rex than you are, even though I admire Thomas Berger and I’ve enjoyed a number of his other books. It may be that I run the risk of having an overly grave approach to the Arthurian material, though I loved the early sections of White’s Once and Future King, Disney’s Sword in the Stone which is anything but serious in its treatment, and the film Camelot. It dawdles along, but Vanessa Redgrave is a very vivid image for me as Guinevere.I wanted to create a better Guinevere than I had tended to find elsewhere, even in White. I think she’s the great bane in a book that I deeply admire. White for me is the author I list with Tolkien as the finest fantasist of this century. The Once and Future King is a book that I’m passionately fond of. At the same time, perhaps intriguingly, I think White shares with Tolkien a problem in dealing with female characters: a shared limitation arising from quite different sources. Just about the peak of White’s ability to empathize with Guinevere is contained in the sentence when Lancelot suddenly has a revelation that Guinevere wasn’t merely Arthur’s queen; she was also “pretty Jenny who could think and feel.” That’s a very sad limitation, both on the author’s ability to work with his characters and on the gift to the reader of a figure from myth and legend.

RT: Have you read Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee?

GGK: Yes, but it hasn’t resonated for me except for one thing: I was irritated with him for making Merlin the villain. I found that there was a smugness in his treatment of the legend.

RT: You’re delineating, in a sense, your reaction to the Arthurian legend, in that you respond less enthusiastically to ironic treatments than you do to those that show greater respect. This, of course, comes through in the treatment of the legend in your own trilogy. Had you read any books about the history and archaeology of the Arthurian period, or were you only interested in works of fiction?

GGK: I did read Leslie Alcock and Geoffrey Ashe’s account of the excavations at Cadbury. I even tramped through Cadbury as part of the background to doing The Summer Tree, but it didn’t have much impact on me, unlike Stonehenge. That had an enormous impact. I discovered, and it was a late discovery for me, the version of the story in which Uther Pendragon is buried at Stonehenge. That was, as it were, a luminous piece of material.

RT: Did you do all your research before you started the trilogy, or did you come back to it once you had started?

GGK: Mostly before. I had a lifetime interest in the Arthurian material, but I reread it during the year or two when I was starting to block out the trilogy. I actually wrote The Wandering Fire, which is where the Arthurian figures are introduced rather than hinted at in foreshadowings, in New Zealand, a long way from any of my reference materials. So in fact I wasn’t reading as I wrote; I was writing from a fairly deep immersion in the materials. Another thing that I wanted to do with the story of Arthur was to fit it into my own idea of Fionavar as the prime world that others mirror and reflect imperfectly. That’s what gave me a few of the throw-away notions, for example, the idea of the king’s spear in the mountain instead of the sword in the stone. The notion I was working with was that one of the most effective ways to convey this idea of a prime world that ours isn’t quite getting right was to slightly skew the myths, to take them and make slight changes: the sword becomes a spear, the sword in the stone becomes a spear in the mountain. My notion is that in the process of transmission across worlds things grow slightly wrong. As for the spear, there’s a throw-away reference early in The Summer Tree when Sharra, the daughter of the Lord of Cathal, speaks of her older brother who died in an accident. She mentions playing games with him, and recalls the game of the warrior pulling the king’s spear from the mountain. That is one of a number of hints in the first novel that are meant to prepare the reader at a latent level so that when Arthur does appear it’s not totally unexpected. What I like to do with readers is to try to create a situation–it’s such a wonderful effect as a reader when an author does it to you–in which you read a twist in the plot and you say, what the hell? Then ten seconds later you say, of course! I love that double effect when you catch the reader completely for a moment, and then the reader says, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. To a degree any novel is an unfolding of a mystery, because the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen and the author does, or is discovering it just ahead of the reader.

RT: Did your reluctance to make changes in the traditional figures from Arthurian legend cause occasional problems when you were integrating them into the fabric of the trilogy?

GGK: Not too often. Ironically, almost the opposite thing happened to me in the early going. I simply assumed that educated people today–and one always likes to hope one’s readers are educated–would know the broad outlines of the Arthurian story. I didn’t expect they would remember Arthur’s role as child slayer, and so I gave a fairly clear description of what happened at that point in the myth. I did, however, assume that the broadest outlines of the love triangle and its resolution were part of the common repository of cultural knowledge for most people. I found out that I was wrong. The earliest drafts of the trilogy were read by some of my acquaintances: educated professional men and women. Two or three of these people came back to me after reading The Wandering Fire, where the Arthurian elements of the story begin to take shape, and said, somewhat shamefacedly something on the order of, well I know all this story of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, of course, but it’s been a long time, and–what exactly happened again? I found myself having to give a potted history of the relationship between the three of them, and how Camelot was unravelled in the war that Arthur made upon Lancelot after Guinevere was rescued. This forced me, somewhat carefully because you don’t want to patronize the reader who does know, to introduce a few small glosses to flesh out the story of the love triangle for the reader who might not be familiar with it. Thus, rather than worrying about readers who knew so much about the legend that it might constrain me from what I wanted to do with it, I found myself running into readers who didn’t know it. I wanted to use the resonances of the triangle, but I found that I had to pluck a few chords of the original resonance to jog memories in readers. I didn’t expect that and I was surprised that I had to do it.

RT: Ah, well, you obviously haven’t been a teacher!

GGK: Precisely. To return to your question, I never found the plot taking me away from what I wanted to do with the characters. What I did find our century superimposing on the figures of legend was character development. In the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, the figures were archetypal in the extreme. The notion of depth of personality and character was alien to what these writers were working for. In the Introduction to his Acts of King Arthur John Steinbeck talks about consciously wanting to humanize Malory’s figures, to search for and explore motivations for the behavior of those caught up in the love triangle. I share that impulse with him, and so do a great many of the authors working today. It’s almost a given in post- Tennyson treatments of the Arthurian legend.My own conception of the characters didn’t cause me a problem in my plot because it was integral to how the plot was evolving. An example is the equilateral nature of the love triangle. It’s not simply two men competing for the same woman, but two friends linked by a bond that is deep and profound. That for me was not only a given, but at the heart of the truly tragic nature of the love triangle. Now it could quite rightly be pointed out that this is a modern treatment of the personalities. For me, however, it was the essence of what I wanted to do with the Arthurian story, the essence of why I found it so tragic.

RT: You appear to be drawn to the darker, more tragic notes in the legend. You have mentioned Tolkien’s concept of the eucatastrophe, but I have always believed that what Tolkien means by eucatastrophe is misleading in that it implies simply a happy ending. That, however, can only be achieved after much suffering!

GGK: The escape from catastrophe, that is how I conceptualize it. It’s the breath of relief, the mopping of the brow, and the glorious sensation that comes from the meteor that almost hit or the shadow that almost descended.

RT: In the process the note of loss can reverberate more strongly than that of gain. This is my own response to the conclusion of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

GGK: I’d agree with you, and the same is true of Malory and White. They move to darkness.

RT: Do you?

GGK: Do I? Yes. For me, the Arthurian material at its base strikes a note of sorrow and loss more powerfully than it strikes a note of gain and triumph. I think I take that, as much as anything else, from Malory. I mentioned to you at the outset that the eulogy over the body of Lancelot may be the passage in all of Malory that reverberates for me most powerfully. My concept of Lancelot is quite different from that of White, who had this brilliant notion of him being so gentle because he sensed within himself so much violence, so much capacity, in modern terminology, virtually for sadism. In his control of himself the gentleness emerged. That’s White; that’s not what I was doing. I do agree with you that the unfolding of the story is, to my mind, tragic in the largest possible sense. The enduring power of the Arthurian material may derive in part from its mirroring of the human condition, which is the aspiration towards excellence and greatness, towards the shaping of a vivid, powerful, wonderful dream, brought down finally by mortal fallibility. It is a tragic story of love undone by the complexities of love. I take as a given in my treatment of it– although I could easily see other people having differing views– that Guinevere loved both men. To my mind, the love triangle becomes almost pedestrian if she doesn’t. The power of the story comes from the equilateral nature of the triangle.

RT: Despite your concern with the love triangle, you don’t explore the conflict between love and duty. This tends to get pushed into the background. Instead, you develop the sense of inevitability, of a pattern that has to be tragically re-enacted.

GGK: The feudal question of Lancelot’s duty to Arthur and his violation of that duty is obviously central to what medieval writers would have been exploring, but I found it more interesting and compelling to explore the transgression of bonding and friendship than of feudal duty.

RT: Inherent in the Arthurian story is the sense of the inevitability of fate. Arthur is
going to be trapped into the incestuous union that will eventually spell his own doom, and Lancelot is going to fall in love with Guinevere. How did you feel about that?

GGK: I always felt so awful when I read those passages. There was such a sense of grief and frustration when Arthur is warned against the marriage by Merlin but proceeds nonetheless. As a young man, I had the same response to the Orpheus myth. Among the poems I wrote when I was younger, many of them during the year I edited The Silmarillion, two that for me remain the most powerful are a long poem about Guinevere and a long poem about Orpheus. In each there are elements that speak to a sense of grief and frustration at exactly what you’re talking about–the notion of fate. Despite knowing it’s forbidden, Orpheus still turns to look back at his wife; Arthur knows that certain actions will engender the destruction of his kingdom, and he proceeds nonetheless. On an almost glib level, one might say that what I’m doing in the Fionavar Tapestry is trying to provide a treatment that allows the Arthurian characters to escape from that foretold fate. That is, in fact, my eucatastrophe. It’s entirely possible that this deep sense of frustration–even of resentment–against the notion of a foretold doom, against the notion of prophecies that are fulfilled even though people have been warned about them, has led to my interest in free will. Free will is a fundamental theme in all of my writing. It’s deeply important to me to believe in it. One of the ways that free will is expressed in my treatment of the Arthurian material is to set up a situation where it appears to be absent, then establish that it is indeed present. There is an escape from the apparent inevitability of cycles of doom.In The Darkest Road, Arthur asks the name of the battlefield on which they’re standing in the Plain of Andarien, and someone replies that it’s named Camlann. That was one instance when I knew I was losing all but those readers who know the Arthurian material well, but for those who don’t it’s explained to a certain degree, and it would reverberate for those who do. When Arthur hears the name of the battlefield he shoulders his doom, accepting that this is the end for him. Diarmuid, however, chooses to assume the burden instead of Arthur or Lancelot, and this was my assertion of the possibility of human free will in the person of an anarchic spirit. Diarmuid has already been set up as an independent, apparently irresponsible, figure. He serves to introduce the spirit of anarchy and human independence and to shoot it into the Arthurian story, thereby breaking the pattern and allowing the eucatastrophe. At the same time, of course, his death counterbalances the release of the Arthurian figures. I hate fiction where the victory appears too easy. It’s another theme–the price of power, the price of victory. If we want something, we have to pay for it. There is no point in setting up a cataclysmic battle of good and evil if you allow good to triumph painlessly, for then the battle was never cataclysmic. In the same way, if you set up these powerful figures from Arthurian myth–Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Cavall, and Taliesin–and then change the ending of their story, then something must be done to justify that change, to give a balancing weight to it. And that was the death of the figure in the book whom most readers appear to find the most charismatic and sympathetic and glamorous. My hope is that I can be allowed the release of the Arthurian figures because I have paid a price as a writer: a character in my book has paid a price to win that freedom.

RT: This is true, but while another character in the book has paid the price, have Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot paid the price? The price that they have paid has been the re-enactment of events that have taken place outside the frame of your novel. You could say that Jennifer/Guinevere has paid the price, but her suffering took place before she discovered her Guinevere identity. It’s not as Guinevere that she’s paid the price.

GGK: That’s a very good question. There are two considerations here. One is that, although the price being paid by the continued re-enactment of their grief is outside the framework of the trilogy, the nature of this cyclical returning is spelled out quite clearly. When Arthur wakes Lancelot in Caer Sedat, Paul tells him, you do not have to do this. Arthur simply replies, he will be needed. He will not value himself above the overriding need. Arthur thus voluntarily accepts that the grief will return because he chooses to wake Lancelot.The second consideration, aside from the notion of ultimate expiation over cycles of years and years, is that one of the themes of the Fionavar Tapestry is the displacement of price. The notion of a source was a fundamental explanation of the magic that operated in the world of Fionavar. If one person’s power is made possible by someone else draining his or her own strength, then I am prepared to allow the theme of displaced price. The price is displaced onto Paul in The Summer Tree; Kim’s exercise of the power of the Baelrath, the “Warstone,” also works in a displaced way.

RT: Although you describe the grief of all the characters over the fate of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, they don’t actually re- enact the love triangle. Did you not worry that this omission might weaken the story?

GGK: I tried to reveal the difficulties of the relationship when Lancelot comes ashore, carrying the unconscious body of Arthur, and meets Guinevere again on the strand. There is no abatement of the deep feeling that Lancelot and Guinevere share. I see them as mirroring each other’s souls, whereas Guinevere’s love for Arthur is an aspiration towards his grandeur. Their transgression is in loving, and the intensity of that moment–this is perhaps my own view of the traditional story–lies in her sending him away despite the attraction that exists between them. I was dealing, not with physical adultery, but with the emotion of love. Physical desire is less of a violation of the bonds of marriage than deep emotional and psychological love for a third party, and in some ways it trivializes the human failure that destroyed Camelot. When you are unfolding events on a very large scale, which is what I’m trying to do, there is a sense in which it diminishes the figures. I was seeing them as mythic figures brought into a mythic landscape where I tried to integrate them with vivid, real characters from our world. Another concern was not to overdo the experience of suffering. I’ve already been assailed by letters from tear-stricken readers who have dealt with paroxysms of grief and pain because their response to the trilogy has been so emotional. Had I loaded it up even more, who knows what that would have done? It might have tipped some balance that any novel needs.

RT: Your main characters certainly do experience suffering. By contrast though, the suffering of your Arthurian figures lacks immediacy. It takes place at a greater distance.

GGK: I would maintain that Guinevere’s response on the beach is not distanced; but it is not, I’ll concede, cataclysmic, on the level, say, of Kimberley’s response to what she does to the Paraiko, or what she refuses to do to the dwarves, which are central, plot-driving threads. Part of this is a release of the love triangle by a displacement of some of the burdens onto other figures. I suppose it can be said that if one gives the Arthurian love triangle a happy ending, has one not diminished it? Is its greatness not in the tragic ending? It’s possible. Since I personally believe that the greatness of the story is a function of its tragic ending, why am I transforming that ending? It’s possible that by removing the sorrow at the heart of the story, one in effect obviates the need for the story to go on. My answer would be that I have changed the message of the story to one in which even the most apparently inexorable fate, the most preordained doom, is not and need not be forever fated and doomed. There are outlets and escapes where joy can infuse itself into tragedy. Although people have commented upon the dark vision of the Fionavar Tapestry, there is in essence a happy ending to it. There’s a specifically happy ending to the Arthurian love triangle. There is a fusing of the skylore and the earth goddess magic that takes place symbolically in Paul and Jaelle; there is the union of Dave and Kim; and Tabor of the Dalrei becomes an apprentice mage so that tradition is perpetuated. There is, ultimately, and for me very importantly, the mythical happy ending, the bountiful harvest which is a fundamental theme of myth. With the darkness averted, never before have the crops been so good, which, of course, is what vegetation myths are all about. When you conquer the depredations of the dark forces, light and fertility flow freely.

RT: Of the Arthurian characters, the one who departs significantly from tradition, which otherwise you have honored, is Guinevere. As Jennifer, of course, she has an alter ego. Was her abduction and rape by Maugrim an echo of the abduction of Guinevere by Meleagant or Melwas, as he is sometimes called?

GGK: Yes, very much so. Of the five characters we meet at the outset, Jennifer is the least fully realized in this world, and this is very deliberate. As I was sorting out the implications of creating an avatar of a mythic figure, who passes through an apotheosis to become Guinevere, and who must ultimately ascend to another world, it occurred to me that one way to make her more acceptable for the reader would be to ground her least effectively in our world. So we don’t know anything about Jennifer, other than that her father’s name is James, that she’s Catholic, that she had a relationship with Kevin Laine, and that she lives with Kim. We don’t know what she’s doing as the novel opens. Kim’s an intern, Kevin is articling in a law firm, Dave’s in law school, Paul is on sabbatical leave from the history department. We don’t know what Jennifer’s doing, and that is very deliberate. If I’m going to turn her into something else, it makes sense to me to make it easier for the reader to accept that something else by making her less concrete here. In my earliest, nebulous playings with the story, I toyed with the idea of representing Lancelot also by another character. There are remnants of that in two or three false hints I give. When Arthur arrives, Guinevere says, “There is no third. He is not here.” There are suggestions that perhaps Kevin, perhaps Diarmuid, even perhaps Aileron, might be the Lancelot figure. I abandoned that notion fairly early, since I decided that it would be too much for the reader to run with. There’s a dilution of effect when you do something twice, and I was hoping for a sledgehammer effect when the reader discovers, with Kim, Arthur, and all the others, who Jennifer is.

RT: You bring Lancelot into your trilogy by having Arthur discover him at Cader Sedat. Was that planned from the outset, or was it a case of opportunism?

GGK: It was planned once I realized that I shouldn’t make him an alter ego figure of another character, that he was going to have to turn up in his own incarnation. So then I started to incorporate the notion of the cauldron of rebirth and Caer Sidi, which I call Cader Sedat, and the idea of Caer Sidi as the spiral castle, which is the corona borealis in the sky. This is the prison or the tomb of all true kings that ever reigned. I don’t remember where I got that, but I think it may be in Robert Graves. The association of Caer Sidi as a prison, as a tomb, led to my own notion of Cader Sedat as a resting place for the heroic dead of all the worlds.

RT: Had you already planned to use Cader Sedat as the source of the winter that was afflicting Fionavar?

GGK: Yes. Thus the finding of Lancelot fit right in, just as Arthur’s voyage to Cader Sedat recalls the old Welsh poem, supposedly recited by Taliesin, “The Spoils of Annwfn.”

RT: Although you arouse our expectations that Arthur will play a crucial role in that episode, he doesn’t, does he?

GGK: His crucial role is as navigator. He’s the one who knows how to get there. The expectations are a deliberate red herring. Since the reader expects Arthur to die before the ending, and since the adventure takes place near the end of a volume, it is possible for an author to take advantage of this situation. The reader assumes that the mage Metran will lower his shield to kill Arthur, and that thereby victory will be gained at the price of Arthur’s life. I can only set that assumption up powerfully if I make use of the sense of predestiny and doom that’s lying in wait for him.

RT: Were you tempted to include any other Arthurian figures, such as Morgan le Fay, Mordred, or Gawain?

GGK: No. I’ve got Merlin-type figures in my own mages and didn’t need more magic users. Indeed between Cavall, Taliesin, and the love triangle, it seemed to me that I was already in serious danger of overbalancing my narrative with mythic, iconographic figures. To start bringing in the Round Table in truckloads would be–

RT: A bit overwhelming.

GGK: It’s obviously possible. For example, in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien has Aragorn walk the Paths of the Dead, bringing them back to join the battle. It’s done in other books too, where ghosts come to fight on behalf of good. It would not have been difficult, but on the other hand not especially original, to find some way to have the various warriors of Camelot come tumbling out of a cliffside or something for the last battle. And Gawain, as the sun rises, is majestic–you know, it wouldn’t have been hard. There’s a mention of Gawain, in fact, on the ship, when they refer to the trick he used to try to beat Lancelot once.

RT: Was the Fionavar Tapestry originally planned as a trilogy, or did you intend to write a single long book?

GGK: It was intended to be a big book and a trilogy, both. One of the things I hate is the proliferation of big multi-volume books in the fantasy genre. At one significant level I wrote the Fionavar Tapestry with the metaphor in mind of throwing down a gauntlet to all of the people who are perceived as having diminished and degraded the genre of high fantasy in the post- Tolkien period by writing derivative, mercenary, lazy fantasies. I saw myself to some degree as trying to say: I’m going to use as many of the central motifs and themes of high fantasy as I can, and I shall try to give the lie to those who have debased it, by showing that there’s still a great deal of life in the genre, that it’s infinitely larger than twenty years’ of hack work. We’re not capable of debasing it, ultimately. One of the cliches of the genre has been the trilogy since the accident of The Lord of the Rings being published that way; and it was an accident, for it wasn’t planned as a trilogy. In the light of that, I gave some careful thought to the breaks in the books. The Tapestry was written to be published in three volumes. The Summer Tree takes place over a span of about ten days, after which there’s a seven-month gap before The Wandering Fire begins. This provides a natural break between the volumes. The Wandering Fire, which ends with Lancelot’s entry into the story, also ends with a complete resolution of one major thread of the plot: the duel of the wizards.

RT: Is this an echo of the struggle between Gandalf and Saruman in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?

GGK: Not deliberately, although I suppose in terms of the larger plot you could say that there’s an echo in the structure, and that there’s a defeating of the lesser villain before moving on to deal with the larger villain. It was, however, more a working out of my mythic vegetation thread, the Adonis story as incarnated in Kevin, and the moving away from magic. One very good paper on the trilogy discusses the progression away from magical power towards moral and mythic power. Loren loses his magic, and Kim renounces hers. As the story progresses, people increasingly lay down the implements of magical power in favor of mythic status or moral free choice.

RT: Did your conception of the Tapestry change as the trilogy progressed, particularly with reference to the Arthurian elements?

GGK: Very much. One example that occurs towards the end of the trilogy did not come to me until about two days before I wrote it. Diarmuid’s death releases Arthur and Lancelot to continue to play a role in the final battle; this allows Arthur to save Tabor, the young boy of the Dalrei, when he is thrown free from the mortal combat between the winged unicorn and Maugrim’s dragon. I knew that he would survive, but not how until I actually wrote the episode. I remember smiling as I was writing, and knowing that something had worked, that I’d done something right. Because, of course, that is the symbolic expiation of the child slayer; he becomes the child saver at that moment. Now I don’t want to make a big deal of it. I have an aversion to authors inserting footnotes that say, note the significance of this particular thing! I was, nonetheless, immensely happy that the evolution of the plot allowed me to do that. I hadn’t planned it and it wasn’t integral to anything.

RT: In the course of so long a work, changes to your original plan must inevitably have taken place. Did any of these changes cause problems of consistency in your characters?

GGK: I think the question mark there would be Flidais, the Taliesin figure. That character shifted and expanded on me from the original conception as the forest warden. He didn’t, in my mind, have the role of Taliesin when I introduced him in the first book, with Dave in Pendaran Wood. At first the only connection I planned he would have with Arthur was that he would be the one who didn’t know the summoning name, and that there would be a plot development in that regard. He knows all the riddles in the world, save one–it’s not even really a riddle, although the old-fashioned riddles were often not really riddles. That was his connection to my Arthurian material, originally. Then I began blocking out and thinking about The Wandering Fire, where the Arthurian figures incarnate themselves and Caer Sidi comes into it. This brings the Taliesin figure in more directly, and as I read the Taliesin material, the character Flidais, who is in fact the son of a god in the Fionavar Tapestry, accrued to himself a shape-shifting identity that incorporated Taliesin. That led me to give him a role in the eucatastrophe that concludes the trilogy. It is probably fair to say that this Taliesin role is inconsistent with his first introduction, because I have him sailing a boat at the end, whereas he first appears as a forest figure. Now, I can step back and say, well, this figure had many identities, many roles. In his Taliesin identity he was, in fact, one of the band who went to Caer Sidi, and so this shift is not inconsistent given his multi-faceted nature. Nonetheless, if you were to ask me if there is a part of the trilogy where I’m conscious there is a weak spot, where I may have reached for too much and blurred someone’s identity, that would be the figure. Flidais was not Taliesin when I first conceived him. He acquired that role.

RT: Did you consider revising the earlier section to prepare for this development in Flidais?

GGK: No, because when I looked at it, I saw that I had already at least tangentially connected him to the Arthurian figures by virtue of the summoning name. So it wasn’t totally gratuitous.

RT: Did you at any time write yourself into situations you later regretted, such as killing off a character prematurely?

GGK: No. I was worried about such a possibility, but I was lucky. The Summer Tree came out before I had written The Darkest Road, though the latter was done before The Wandering Fire had to be finally proofed. I was able to go back into The Wandering Fire and make certain small adjustments. In terms of the broadest structures of the story, however, I didn’t get trapped in the way that Tolkien found himself trapped by The Lord of the Rings being in print when he wanted to do certain things in The Silmarillion with, for example, the Galadriel figure. Her role in The Lord of the Rings grew so much larger than his Elf Queen Galadriel in The Silmarillion papers which preceded the novel. Then he felt the need to go back into The Silmarillion papers and expand her stature in the First Age of Middle Earth to account for her stature in the Third Age. Perhaps because the Fionavar Tapestry was written over two years rather than thirty, I didn’t run into problems with any of the major threads.

RT: If you could wave a magic wand that would rewrite the book, what would you change?

GGK: I think it could be a somewhat destructive process to become too preoccupied with rewriting. My own sense, however, is that I became more assured in my writing as the trilogy progressed, so that were I to go back, I think I would pay some attention to the first few chapters before the characters from our world cross to Fionavar. I might polish the prose itself, perhaps adding some gloss notes on character and toning down others. I have some sense that the book doesn’t begin as strongly as I would like it to; that there is some impediment for the reader in the first few chapters; that the trilogy takes off when they’re in Fionavar rather than when they’re in Toronto.

RT: What particular aspect of the Arthurian legend did you feel was most important to include in the story?

GGK: That’s a difficult one. I suppose what was key for me in my use of the material–which isn’t the same as saying I think it’s the most important thing in the Arthurian legend–but what was vital for me was to use the notion of Arthur as child slayer. That gave me access to a way of working with the Arthurian material. That was my innovation: the notion of being condemned to be the Once and Future King, the Warrior, by virtue of a crime in youth. The crime was not the incest, because I’m not coming out of a religious tradition where unknowing incest is a great crime. It’s the sentient ordering of the death of the children. That’s the element of the story that gave me my curse on Arthur; that gave me access to the return of Guinevere and Lancelot as part of that curse; and that gave me, ultimately, the eucatastrophe when the curse is lifted by the intercession of someone else shouldering a burden.

RT: Thank you.

© Raymond Thompson

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