by Nikki Gamble
Kevin Crossley-Holland talks yo Nikki Gamble about the craft of writing and reveals some of the historical and literary sources and influences that lie behind his Arthur trilogy.
Kevin Crossley-Holland was born in 1941 and grew up in Buckinghamshire. He studied at Oxford University where he discovered a lifelong passion for myth and legend, and for Anglo-Saxon and medieval English. He worked in publish-ing for several years and has held a number of academic posts. Kevin has also produced and presented many radio programmes for the BBC and lectures widely. Kevin Crossley-Holland is well-known for his retelling of traditional tales, most notably in British Folk Tales and The Penguin Book of Norse Myths and his published translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Beowulf. He has written seven volumes of poetry and has worked as a librettist, collabo-rating with composers such as Sir Arthur Bliss and Nicola Le Fanu. In the world of children's books he is best known for his retellings, for his novella Storm which won the Carnegie Medal in 1985. The Seeing Stone, the first book in the Arthur trilogy, merging medieval life with Arthurian legend, was published to uni-versal acclaim in 2000, and won The Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2001 and the Welsh Books Council Tir Na-n-Og Award as well as the Smarties Prize Bronze Award. This was followed by At The Crossing Places (2002) and King of the Middle March (2004).
In the preface to The Seeing Stone you explain that the novel had a long gestation period; can you tell us the story of how you came to write about Arthur?
I can see stepping stones through my life that led me towards the Everest of King Arthur. The first stone was hearing stories day in and day out from my father traditional tales of all kinds. He was a musicologist and composer who could play the Welsh harp amongst other instruments. He used to recite stories to us. I think recite is the right word; it's like recitative in opera, which is pitched but not melodic. And now and then he would burst into a bit of song. My sister and I were used to hearing traditional tale, meaning folk tale, legend and myth, from him. Those were our formative years.
I'm not very good at learning languages, much to my frustration, but at Oxford I did finally learn enough Anglo-Saxon to stay the course reading English. And as is so often the case, there's a moment at which something gets into the nervous system, you can't legislate for that, it just happens. A love of Anglo-Saxon and a love of Anglo-Saxon poetry, especially Beowulf, got into my system. I spent four years in my twenties translating Anglo-Saxon poetry. That was another stepping stone.
Later I worked with Gwyn Thomas, retelling parts of the Mabinogion. And that was instructive because I didn't really know very much about the Celtic stories before that. These events coupled with retelling of folktales led almost inevitably into Arthurian territory because that was the great story quarry of the Middle Ages. Those were the steps that brought me to Arthur. On the other hand, I had plenty of reasons to hesitate. There are lots of bad Arthur books about and there are several wonderful ones. My first instinct, as with retelling folktales, was to work around the rim, to see what wasn't being recycled. In 1900 Joseph Jacobs said there were 10,000 British folk tales. That's a huge body of stories and yet most people would be hard pressed to think of more than a dozen tales. It's the same with Arthurian legend.
What did you want to bring to the stories that hadn't been done before?
Everyone has their own take on this enormous body of stories. After all, there are dozens and dozens of Arthurian cycles in sev-enteen different medieval European languages. The further I get into my own trilogy, the more I'm drawing on lesser-known sources. I'm interested in how King Arthur emerged and what he became. The how leads one, I think, to the conclusion that the magic in Arthurian legend is Celtic. It's with the Mabinogion and the other Welsh stories that you get the development of the shining, unpredictable, hazardous, beautiful magic strand within the Arthurian legends.
At The Crossing-Places is, in part, a Celtic reference to the Otherworld aspects of the story isn't it?
In part, yes. It's actually a whole range of crossing places, between child and adult, between England and Wales, between century and century, certainly between the world of actuality and the world of the imagination. In a way the seeing stone is the go-between, the stepping stone between the two worlds. We all need both worlds; without the world of the imagination we're hopelessly impoverished. The Arthurian stories that Arthur de Caldicot sees in the stone stand in for the whole world of the imagination that is available to us as painting sculp-ture, literature and music. They give back to us the whole range of human endeavour and experience. On the one hand there is ambition, hope, self-sacrifice and love. On the other there are all kinds of base behaviour. What Arthur is seeing is a series of models, the whole gamut of human experience. As Caxton said in his preface to Arthur, "do after the good and leave the evil". That surely is the inference of what Arthur is seeing paraded before him - a whole range of choices. It's up to him to make sense of his life and to make a better sense of it through using the riches of story.
Is the recognition of fallibility an important part of making sense of his life?
It is part of self-knowledge to know that you will fall short of the mark, but it's also part of self-knowledge to know that humans are resilient and will go on aiming for the stars. The minute you take your eyes off that goal, you are lost again. The story of Camelot is the story of human experience, which is that we must dream and we must fail because we are human. Per ardua ad astra (you don't get to the stars without endeavour): I think Arthur learns that, and I think I've learnt that as his author. It's good luck that the trilogy seems to have taken wings but it wasn't an accident; there have been lots of stepping stones through the years.
You say that you don't learn languages very well, but one of the things that delighted me when reading the books was your evident love of language.
The only subject I could do at school with any ease was Latin. I've never regretted that for a minute because together with Anglo-Saxon it was the founda-tion of our language. And because it's the grandfather of so very many European languages, it gives you the illusion of being able to make headway in those languages. I absolutely adore language; I'm in love with it. As a poet I believe that the music of the language is part of its meaning, and that asso-nance, alliteration, consonance, rhyme, what is not said - the silence - is also part of the meaning. I once wrote a poem for my father called Sounds. The last verse is about my father asking me what I think the relationship between language and music is, and reminding me that sound includes silence. I try and take account of all that.
There are 60,000 words or so in the English language; we have this enormously rich palette of synonyms. Experience suggests that our second or third thoughts are often better than our first. Working with children I some-times play very simple language games. Can you name a blue? Light blue, yes. Dark blue, yes. But give me twenty blues and suddenly there's amethyst, robin's egg blue, aqua, ice, lightning, a dazzling array of blues. Children know the words but they don't use them. I show them that it takes a while to get there.
I care passionately about language and so does Arthur de Caldicot, in this respect at least, being the offspring of his author. One reason for the very short chapters which pepper The Seeing Stone and At The Crossing-Places is that they enable me to intensify the prose almost to the level of prose poem. If it was like that for page after page you would die of indigestion, but little short bursts of prose like that are palatable. And I had another model in mind: I write libretti for opera from time to time, and it seems to me that in opera you have the story-carrying recitative, and then you have the punctuation points of arias and duets, trios and quartets, in which the characters do not fuel the nar-rative but recap the situation and run it through their heads or hearts. Basically, those are moments of revelation as against moments of narrative. Myth also has those two constituents. Half the myths are not interested in narrative but reveal the nature of the situation or of a character.
The experience of reading those chapters is that we are being offered glimpses that work on the imagination.
The poet Mallarme said 'suggestion makes the dream'. And I think that's right; you don't need to hammer it all out. You need the skill to set the reader free to imag-ine. I'm really not interested in impaling my reader to the cork like a butterfly. Rather, I would like to build a room made largely of glass through which, a bit like Merlin's glass room on his island after he disappears, the reader is free to move around.
How do you find the voices for your characters?
I think it is speech that reveals the quirks, the badges of identity which define an individual most sharply. You've got to select those details that somehow reveal the person you're talking about, and more often than not that's the way the character speaks. I try to do a little of that, especially where Arthur de Caldicot is coming into contact with people working on the manor who do not have learn-ing of any formal kind. Gatty, the village girl is resilient, she's salt of the earth; she doesn't have two beans to rub together, she goes to bed hungry as often as not, and she gets beaten for her pains. And yet she comes up brave and smiling. One knows that in a less static society she would have been able to change her condition. She speaks in ways that are immediately recognisable, could only be Gatty. I've developed a style for her.
Does the voice come to you from hearing the character speak?
Well now it's from hearing her speak. If she came through the door I know exactly what she would say or rather how she would say it. How do I get to the point of hearing her speak? Well, it's partly imagination, partly models; listen-ing to people around the village and the rhythms of their speech, avoiding any kind of historico-speak at all costs. The characters are living, breathing creatures, who speak idioms of their own time and I'm just trying to listen in.
I'm surrounded by medieval books that are in constant use. I do plenty of research because it seems to me that what Jill Paton Walsh says holds true: you can put in the not known to be true, but you can't put in the known not to be true. We have a respon-sibility to the time and to ourselves and to our readers, to get it right. I can't know how well I've done in that respect and neither can anyone else, actually. One just hopes that by giving it one's full blast of concentration one comes close to the world of someone living in the Middle Ages.
The Seeing Stone is full of a large number of set pieces and if you're going to write about killing a pig, or a harvest festival, or a medieval law court you've got to understand how it happens. In some cases things remain almost the same for centuries. If I had been brought up on a farm 100 years ago, I dare say killing a pig was much the same as the year 1200. But I wasn't, so I had to learn. There are other things like the medieval law court that are children of their own time and place. At the age of twelve in the Middle Ages you were, as of right, and as of as of duty, a juror. I think there are about sixty people living in Caldicot of whom forty are able to walk around and aren't bed ridden, so they all have to be jurors willy-nilly (in Anglo-Saxon, wylle i nylle i - want I not want I). So Arthur de Caldicot finds himself in a situation in which he has to vote to decide whether a man is guilty of steal-ing a leg of lamb. If he is guilty, his hand is going to be lopped off. With some moral courage, Arthur ignores the tide to rush and con-demn him and asks Lord Stephen de Holt, who is presiding over the affair, what do I do if I don't know? He answers that a man is innocent unless proven guilty. Arthur chooses, and good comes of it, because Lord Stephen thinks, well here's a young man who knows his mind and he sub-sequently chooses him as squire. Perhaps that is what the books are really about: the consequences of behaviour.
So I do lots and lots of research. But then, following the dictum of my old friend Richard Barber, the medievalist, I just 'close the book' and begin to imagine. Because unless you do that, the novel is very well researched but what the hell - it's got to have the pace on the page, it's got to have the tension of a well-devised and well-told story.
Does research come early on in the process or does the writing create the need for research?
It all happens hand in hand, so that on any typical day I'm writing, revising the previous day's work and planning the next day or two. But before I begin any book I've done a substantial amount of reading. With the third book I've been reading an account of an Arab-Syrian gentleman, reading about love and marriage in the Middle Ages, the medieval war horse, and something on the medieval siege. I went to Croatia with Richard Barber to have a look at the sort of places the Fourth Crusade visited, to under-stand how you lay siege to a city. And I've been looking at a very significant book for me, about chivalry and violence in medieval Europe, which shows that chivalry, for all its great strengths, was also legalised violence. It has great energy and colour and conviction. I realised that this is where my young Arthur de Caldicot is beginning to differ from your average crusader - he does not like violence. He's not a pacifist. I think to have been a pacifist in the year 1200 would have been really way out, but he understands the need for compas-sion and tolerance. In The Seeing Stone, he has been warned that the Muslims have horns and that hell's mouth is waiting for them. But when he meets a dying Muslim in At the Crossing-Places he finds a very reasonable, toler-ant, rather sweet man. Christian-Muslim was the nature of the cru-sades. But really the books are arguing against fundamentalism of all kinds, whether it comes from Christians or Muslims.
Of course, you started writing the novels before September the 11th 2001 but those events can't help but enter the consciousness when reading or writing.
Of course, but in the book I'm writing about the Fourth Crusade, the crusaders assisted by the Venetians never fought any Muslims but ended up attacking and killing hundreds and thou-sands of Christians and sacking Byzantium. You are led to expect that Christian-Muslim conflict is the natural conclusion of the three books and that the perception of the two different worlds will come head to head. But I don't see it that way. I see Jerusalem as a mirage, an unattainable dream that stirs us as the Grail does.
Can you tell us why you used the narrative device of having the Arthurian story told through thirteenth century eyes?
I remember once picking up an Anglo-Saxon poem called The Ruin. It's a 9th century poem in which the Anglo-Saxon poet is looking at the ruins of the Roman city of Bath. I thought, how fasci-nating to have me in the twentieth century looking at an Anglo-Saxon, looking at the Romans. I like the idea that I am looking at Arthur de Caldicot who is looking back momentarily at the shadowy, historical figure around whom the stories gather, who becomes the King Arthur of medieval legend.
Around the year 1200, Arthur replaced Charlemagne and Alexander the Great as the pan-European hero, and Arthurian legend became common currency. So 1200 was the last conceivable date that I could have a boy who hadn't heard all the Arthurian stories. And not to have set it in that time would have been such a waste because it gave me the opportunity to have a 12th century take on a whole set of issues like the crusades, which on one hand lead into the Arthurian legends, and on the other lead to our modern awareness of cultural and religious conflict. In this period there was a growing sense of Europe, a slowly growing nation-alism, and weak and strong lead-ership. I could see large areas of co- incidence, in the proper sense of the word, between then and now.
Yet you also have Arthur de Caldicot looking over his shoulder at this much earlier figure-head. The bigger discovery for me was that I could actually relate legends to elements in Arthur's life. I think in the end the trilogy's longer life expectancy will be determined by how clever I have been, or not, in matching what is happening inside the legends to elements in Arthur's life.
I never visualised it like this. First, I wrote an Arthurian novel for adults based on the life of Sir Thomas Malory but was unable to complete it. Then one day I was about to go and have supper with a publisher friend, Judith Elliott, and explain why I still hadn't started doing the retellings of the Arthurian legend for her. And the reason was that I had realised that the last thing I wanted to do was another set of retellings. I was sitting at my desk looking dismally at a large hunk of obsidian and I caught sight of my reflection, and I thought that's it - it's the seeing stone - it's between worlds - it's the crossing place! And at once I knew I had solved the problem in a simple way.
One of the things that interest me is seeing the changing role of kingship. At the time of King Arthur in the stone the whole concept of kingship is emerging but by 1200 it has become firmly established with all the attendant trappings - lords, knights, squires. Reading this in the twenty-first century we are confronted with questions about the relevance of monarchy today.
Between 1189 and 1199 the king was the popular, charismatic Coeur de Leon who nevertheless hated England and only visited its shores twice during his reign. He was succeeded by his weak and unpleasant brother, John. I don't think, however, that any of the romance writers were interest-ed in kingship per se. No matter whom the historical 6th century Arthur was, the images of him in medieval romance are fascinatingly varied. He is an indecisive and doddering fool in some stories, very quarrelsome in others and marvellously brave and grand in others.
Merlin is the one character who moves from one world to the other. He is at the centre of At The Crossing-Places. Is that how you see it?
Merlin is the impresario, the master of the dance, the hooded man who walks between the two worlds. Although we know he went into the rock when he was imprisoned by Nimue, it is difficult to believe he won't have some part to play in the third book. Merlin is a little like my father in his curious detachment and his ability to give back your question as a question, and is generous in that he doesn't impose on others a way of seeing. You must find your own way. And there will always be people who will help you, if you want to find your own way.
Merlin is such a fascinating character - has always been strongly represented, at least in the ver-sions of the legends that I've come across. For instance, in T.H. White he becomes the educator of the Wart. I'm just about to do an introduction for The Once and Future King, so I've been doing some thinking about his. One has to make up one's mind where Merlin stands in the scheme of things. That is an early question that I tried to address. He leads the reader into the world of story, the world of imagination; he's also looking for the deeper plane of meaning. Essentially he's a pre-Christian figure in a Christian
cycle; he seems to have access to an earlier understanding. One is always struck by the way Christians were so good at baptising what they couldn't suppress, and so within Christianity there are all kinds of signs that belong to pre-Christian belief - like the name for Easter coming from the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess, Eostre. Merlin calls himself Christian because it would have been haz-ardous not to have done so living in the year 1200, but, he under-stands that there are more complex and profound ways of seeing things than strict fundamentalism. He embodies the meeting of Christianity with the earlier belief, which Christianity had to some extent absorbed. There are points in the book where there is a convergence of the Christian and the pagan. I'm sure that's how it was.
Merlin comes into conflict with Oliver, the straight missionary priest. I hope there are some instructive but funny sparring scenes. Merlin loves nothing more than arguing with schoolmen at Oxford about obtuse points; he loves the intellectual danger. He's endlessly on the edge and he encourages others to be so too because that's when you are most alive. Being At The Crossing-Places is where you are intensely alive.
Can you tell us something about the view of childhood that is presented in the trilogy?
Like most poets I revisit my child-hood from time to time. In my Selected Poems there are quite a handful to do with childhood. We grew up in the Chiltern Hills at the foot of a wonderful chalk cross cut into a hill near Princes Risborough. The hill is 700 - 800 feet high and we had a little cot-tage nestling in the beech woods at the bottom of it. My sister and I used to go up and down, up and down the hill. As I started to write The Seeing Stone, I think really without calculation I began, ‘Tumber Hill! It's my clamber-and-tumble-and-beech-and-bramble hill!' I wrote, and then I thought, it's only me going up and down Whiteleaf Cross. From that moment I drew the whole time on the smells, sights, sounds of child-hood. I've been writing notes intermittently for a memoir of my first ten/twelve years because I do think they are the most interesting years of our lives, being so sharply defined, so singular, so passionately lived. And I guess like anyone who writes for chil-dren or has children of their own, I'm interested in the psychology of childhood. I hope that some of that comes through in the way I step into Arthur de Caldicot's head and heart. Listening to the way he describes life to himself has been a voyage of self-discovery perhaps more than would be the case for every novelist aged 61. The reason for this, I think, is that I've simply never written a novel and have never had a vehicle for using the quarry of childhood. So that if the books have some energy and freshness, it’s partly because I'm reliving childhood for the first time through them.
Didn't you revisit childhood in your retellings of The Green Children?
I heard The Green Children from my father when I was a boy. When I first retold it, I was 24. If people ask me what is your favourite thing you've written, looking over my shoulder, it's The Green Children - a story of a girl who, after her brother dies, yearns to belong, is rejected and then accepted. The composer, Nicola LeFanu, and I were commissioned to write an opera for the Kings Lynn festival. - I loved doing it. After that I retold the story of The Green Children for a second time through the mind of the young girl.
How have the novels been received in other countries?
The Seeing Stone has been translated into Korean, Hebrew, Hungarian, Castilian as well as Catalan. Different publishers have a differ-ent take on it so that the Dutch publisher has kept it as a most delightful children's book and is the first publisher to have done it as an e-book. The Italians began by calling it the La Pietra di Ossidiana and then they decided at the last minute that no Italian children would know what that was and called La Pietra Delle Visione. The Germans have given it a slightly New Age look. The French have turned a book of 340 pages into one of 570 by printing it in a vast font. Meanwhile in America, Scholastic has manufac-tured hundreds of little black bags containing little stones. The warmth of the features and reviews in other countries has surprised and delighted me.
Do you have any advice to offer young writers?
Very often a kid will say to me at the end of a school session, how do you get your stories published? Really, he or she is saying, how can I win a wider readership for what I'm saying? At least I think that's what I am being asked. And it's jolly difficult. You've just got to be patient and find the outlets where you can place stories, the school magazine, a local newspa-per, those one or two magazines that do occasionally print stories by kids such as Cricket in the USA or Young Writer in the UK. You can't run before you can walk - so being able to hang in there is one thing. When I was sixteen, I had the sense to fall in love with a girl whose dad was a writer. I sent him the first bunch of poems I had ever sent to anyone. And he said, "You’ve got bags of enthusi-asm - you're beginning, who's to tell whether you'll be a writer, I don't know". He said, “I challenge you to write a poem which rhymes absolutely, a poem that half rhymes, a sonnet to see the way in which because of its short length it intensifies the meaning. Why not become a good vehicle so that when you have things to say, when you are a year or two older, you will know how to say them".
I do know that writing is a skill. There are rather good books around for adults and children about how to write. Your teacher should help. You may know peo-ple who are interested in writing and write a bit themselves. I often play games with language at the beginning of the day. Maybe I will write two or three lines without an 'a' or an 'e 'or 'u'; if you are writing a sad poem you might go for 'a' and 'o'. The music is part of the meaning - learn that.
When you write you have to find the method that's right for what you are doing. Writing a story does not necessarily mean rushing into it. Hang in there and plan a bit, get to know your characters, get to know something of the story line. Even if the plan changes as you go along, you will have a sense of where it's going, how it's changing. For me writing takes only 30% of the time, planning and reading is 30% and revising, trying to improve on what I've done, takes 40%. You have to learn about the tough ground of drafting.
Above all, I would say keep covering a bit of ground. Write some-thing or other every day, a diary entry, a book review, a couple of lines of verse. Keep it ticking, enjoy messing around with words. AND READ - see how others do it.
King of the Middle March is a work of great integrity in which your commitment to history is evident. But I also admire the way in which you deal with ideological issues that resonate with contemporary conflicts. The most painful scene for me to read was the cruel treatment of the young boy during the conflict in Zara. It's written with restraint and economy - just a few paragraphs-but it's a powerful, epiphanal moment for Arthur. It must have been a particularly harrowing scene to write.
I think as a historical novelist you have to be extremely careful not to wish into a medieval situation all sorts of circumstances. One must try to look at for what it is, be unblinking, and tell it as truth-fully as one can, having worked very hard, to tune into the medieval imagination and the medieval world. Nevertheless it is true that in writing King of the Middle March at the time when the drums of war were being sounded for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, points of similarity and correspondence kept suggesting themselves. Not only of the situa-tion in Iraq but the terrible ferment in the Holy Land. I suppose that just as you found that chapter harrowing, many of us have found images on television of Israeli tanks bearing down on kids playing around the rubble heaps and walls of Ramallah harrowing. Anyone who reads that chapter is likely to think of contemporary situations in which the innocent are caught up in conflict. Nevertheless, one’s got to be forbearing, simply take the middle ground and let people make these connections for themselves.
You are unerringly right in saying that this scene was the flashpoint for me in writing about the conflict in Zara. I’d spent weeks, months planning it and thinking it about how to cope with writing about the conflict. I went to Zara to have a look at it with my old friend the medievalist Richard Barber to try and see how you would lay siege to a medieval city. But I think it might be rather like a parent or a child dying; you may imagine such things but you’re not really prepared for reality of the moment; you have to respond to the actual circumstances. I wrote half of that tiny little chapter, which is just two and a half pages long, and burst into tears. I thought how ridiculous. Then I thought, I don’t see why because this is the moment when all of the tension, all of the preparing and imagining suddenly becomes a point of actuality. In writing scenes like this you have to try to find the words that are truthful and restrained, because the curious thing about being a writer is that you have to feel these things passionately; you have to imagine them accurately; but then you’ve got to set aside your fierce involvement and become disinterested to a point where you can exercise your writing skills.
When writing about war for children, how do you balance honesty with optimism so that children can grow with hope for the future rather than taking on board Bertie's pessimistic outlook?
I think in Bertie’s case it’s a matter of temperament rather than circumstance. The fact that he’s three times been told that he will die before he’s a man has coloured the pulse and rhythm of his life. I modelled Bertie on one of my very best friends when I was eighteen or nineteen who was three times told this and then committed suicide when he was thirty. He was a surgeon at St Thomas’s hospital, brave and rather beautiful.
I think Arthur de Caldicot’s glory is that, although he’s in a situation where violence is legitimised and the innocent are caught up in it, he emerges with his ideals and hope tempered but not compromised. I think that within every good children’s writer there’s a well concealed pedagogue. It’s not that one must turn a blind eye to the dark seam in the human experience; on the contrary, I think it’s incumbent that some of us, given the context of our novels, grasp it, but it needs that contextualising in hope. However, the nature of this novel is that there are not many scenes when children come out to play. That tenderness and fun come in the last chapters of the book where Sian, Arthur de Caldecott’s young ‘ex foster sister’; cousin as things turn out is as usual unmitigatingly joyous about Arthur’s homecoming. There’s a chapter that I felt pleased with in which Arthur looks in on what seems to be a Garden of Eden where the girl to whom he’s betrothed, Winnie, is busy down at the beehives with Arthur’s half brother Tom. Arthur sees how innocent and joyous they are. He says to himself, they haven’t seen what I’ve seen they can still be innocent and blind. They are blind to the world’s suf-fering which is part of Arthur’s journey.
In King of the Middle March you transport your reader to medieval Venice, and to Zara in Croatia. Did you visit these places in preparation for writing the last book in the trilogy?
Yes, I visited Venice and Zara. I’ve only been to Venice in the winter months when it’s damp and suggestive. I daresay I’ve become quite good at having the eyes to see what I want to see and somehow ignoring the racket, the non-essential elements. But Venice hasn’t earned its reputation for nothing. While I was there I messed around in the archive for a while looking for early letters from Popes. And Linda and I followed a track to a fish restaurant recommended by the New York Times ‘for purists only’. It sold nothing but fish, not even vegetables - except some tiny little globs of dried pepper. The experience led directly to Chapter Four in which Arthur is caught up in a sea feast and is appalled by the sea creatures the like of which he has never heard of or imagined, crayfish with claws and whiskers.
What interests me is the really potent places, the thrillingly interesting places where cultures cross and sometimes clash. And that brings us back again and again to the Mediterranean, where you have Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures existing in differ-ent relationships to one another. That’s something that I want to explore when I write about Gatty and send her on her great journey to Jerusalem. Arthur has learned through meeting people from dif-ferent backgrounds, different cul-tures and different locations, where the geography has helped to shape who they are, like, for example, the old steersman who tells him about the many different types of winds.
Venice has also been a crossing place because it was very active and eager to extend its empire in the early Middle Ages. Venetians then and now are extremely astute business men. The Kingdom of Venice through the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries set up trading deals extending throughout the Mediterranean and protection deals so for them to have the Muslim’s and Saracens in Venice was just part of the course. There were all kinds of set-ups so that traders could have protection. I’m thinking of the Venetian boat builder and the Saracen traders who are almost old friends and anyhow they regard trade as something different from war and it carries on regardless. Well, we know this to be the case; we may be attacking Iraq on the one hand but there are all kinds of business deals going on the other.
It is a simpler experience to go somewhere like Zadar and to imagine oneself back in the place 800 years ago.
The fourth crusade was more politically motivated than the earlier campaigns, wasn't it?
It’s fascinating. The Fourth Crusade was more hydra-headed. There were many more people with interests that conflicted with one another and getting it off the launching pad was more complex. The Pope wanted the crusade to be one thing and the Doge wanted it to be another. The crusaders were just pawns getting pushed around the board. I’ve never become as immersed in politics as in this book.
It seems to me that your interest in King of the Middle March is more historical than in the first two books that the legendary aspects of King Arthur are still there but operate in counterpoint to the historical elements. Is that true?
The books are historical but they are also legendary in that I’m still invoking the resonant motifs within Arthurian legend such as The Round Table, and talking about them not in a historical but in a legendary way: for example, with the idea of Arthur going in under the hill, or the three times of throwing the sword into the water. I wanted it to have the actuality of a newspaper report yet somehow not to lose its grandeur. At one level it is so grand and at another so intensely human. Really it’s the humanity that I respond to and, on Arthur’s behalf, want to understand.
I’ve just been sent an article by Belinda Clopson, who has some very interesting things to say about Cynthia Hartnett, Geoffrey Trease, Barbara Willard and above all Rosemary Sutcliff. She then mourns the lack of good his-torical fiction for children between the ages of 10 and 14 but to my complete astonishment on the last page there were a couple of paragraphs about the Arthur trilogy. When I read this, I felt a glow of real comfort that this is where I want to belong, to be thought of as a first-class historical novelist. It seems to me to be nearer to the truth than to be thought of as a fantasy writer. In writing Gatty’s tale for the next two years the legendry constituent will be set aside. It’s out and out historical fiction. I’ve sometimes felt uneasy on foreign tours when I’ve been promoted as a fantasy writer or sometimes even a writer of science fiction. I realise that historical fiction is where belong.
There's a shift in the relationship between Arthur de Caldicot and Arthur in the stone as well, in the way the two narrative strands exist in relation to each other.
Yes, in the first book Arthur de Caldicot is witnessing in The Seeing Stone someone who grows rapidly through early childhood to be, by the end of the book, someone who is the same age as he is. Thus there is an act of complete identification to begin with, which I believe that many children experience when they are reading the book. Arthur too is almost breathless with that act of identification. Well that’s a gift that you can’t have again because King Arthur rapidly grows through adolescence to adulthood and goes on right through his life, while we’re just accompanying Arthur de Caldicot through another three years of his life. In that sense there’s a perfect shape to The Seeing Stone which one can’t do anything about in the following two books, since I’ve decided to have these two live in antiphon. Therefore the episodes with King Arthur will seem more a story from another time –there will be less of that startling imme-diacy of two children growing up: one in the year 1199 and the other in the stone. In the second and third books, Arthur de Caldecott has to begin to react to the attitudes expressed by King Arthur and the Knights and ladies inside the stone. Now he has to accept that for many of the knights in the stone chivalry was no more than legitimised violence, as was the case with the crusades. Then he hears Sir Lancelot there are different ways to be a valuable knight and that it’s not simply a matter of physical strength. So Arthur is using the legends to sort out his own value system. In a sense this is a much more sophisticated and complex operation than The Seeing Stone and therefore, I suppose, for an older audience.
There's a great deal of understand-ing and forgiveness in human relationships in this book, for example, in Arthur's willingness to accept Winne and Tom's relationship.
This is Arthur led. He has what in modern terminology might be termed feminine characteristics: he is tender, sensitive and caring and I hope he’s being true to that. I like the way in which Lady Judith and Lady Alice appreciate his consideration in telling them about the death of Sir William and the wounding of Lord Stephen. With regard to his rela-tionship with Winne, he’d already doubted whether it was watertight and this makes it easier for him to accept her bond with Tom.
But there are others who are not forgiving and understanding. I’ve done my best not to present Sir William as a brute but to show that there were other sides to him but his treatment of women is abominable. Serle emerges a little from being the slightly cardboard character that he was in The Seeing Stone to be rather more subtly drawn. He has a caring, if awkward side to his character. I wrote little scenes where he is seen just momentarily playing with his son, holding him up so that he can see the arrival of the leader of the crusades or dancing through the waves.
On the surface the trilogy is partly about Arthur's search for his mother but it seems to me that this is idealised. On the other hand Arthur's search for a father is, I think, more complex: there are a number of father figures who represent different aspects of fatherhood.
There’s a personal element in Arthur’s search for elements of fatherhood in different people. My father died while I was writing King of the Middle March. From him I learnt about Celtic folk tales, built up my little shed museum. When I started to write he told me you never use two words when one will do and from him I developed an abiding love of mythology and music. So in a way I owe to him more than to anyone. And yet in many respects he was absent, as a family player, as a practical force. It may be that certain people in my life have played the roles associated with the role of being a father. But it may also be to do with his dying.
In spite of the serious subject matter, King of the Middle March is also a playful book. For example there are running motifs and language play to delight the reader. Do you enjoy playing these games?
There are themes and motifs run-ning throughout the book. I had fun with using the references to violet, which I overworked and then had to cut back. I had violet bouncing of every page: the violet eyes, violet ribbon which Arthur gives to Gatty, Violet de Sorcieres, the periwinkle, which has terrify-ing connotations in folklore. Arthur comes to suspect that by giving it innocently to Simona he caused the sinking of the huge boat that sank outside the Lagoon and was indeed called the Violetta. It sank with more than 1,000 people on board. I think my violets began with the idea that the boat was called the Violetta and I decided that she was the wife of the chief shipwright.
Another game is the concealment of the names of Arthurian scholars and writers. If you begin to look at it with my sort of mind, you’ll find them. Arthur rides down the island of Saint Nicholas and comes across a priest who is hold-ing a relic, which he holds up. It’s a horrid withered finger which he claims is the finger of San Runcimalo. He asks Arthur to kiss it. But there certainly was no saint called San Runcimalo. This is Stephen Runciman, the author of the standard History of the Crusades. In At the Crossing Places the young King Arthur fights against a knight called Sir Thewite. Thew being a thigh, a splendid name for a knight but it also happens to be an anagram of a very well Arthurian novelist, whose initials were T.H.!
I do this to amuse myself. It’s rather fun playing these games as long as you don’t overdo it
There are snippets of many different languages in this book. For instance, the characters names indicate their Norwegian, Welsh, Germanic and Latin origins. Were you consciously drawing out the multi-cultural import of the Arthurian tales?
The English in the Middle Ages did not draw a distinction about being English in the way that we do now. They were part of a com-munion of Europe. King Arthur was a pan-European hero, the subject of European romances written in sixteen or seventeen European languages including Provencal, Old Austrian, Italian and Spanish. There’s a hoard of Arthurian stories that we don’t even know. I wanted absolutely to suggest that.
King of the Middle March is a great literary achievement. As a reader I delight in the musicality of the language, the pace; the perfect balance of description and image, narration and dialogue. In places it reads like poetry but not at the expense of moving the story forward.
I suppose that the poet in me is always present when I write for children; I cut back and cut back. This time I was a pain in the neck to myself and everyone around me because I have never revised so ferociously. I was also very fierce on myself – not to let a syllable get past that I wasn’t ready to put my name to. Maybe as one gets older one gets more pernickety; I know that when I write poems there are endless marks in the margins and the words on the page actually become more difficult to win. I found it like that with King of the Middle March, it was by far the most difficult of the three books to write and it took much longer