Lavinia Collins is the author of The Warrior Queen, part one of a new Arthurian trilogy. This post, an interview with Collins, is the second of two exploring this new work.
As a medievalist, Lavinia, you must have a keen awareness of not only the medieval stories of Arthur, but also of the countless modern adaptations in literature, art and film. So what motivated you to write your own take on these timeless tales? What does your trilogy do differently to everything that has come before, and which writers/tales would you say have inspired your version the most?
Hmmm, what a good question! There are several aspects to what motivated me to write. I really loved all the medieval versions, and I wanted to be able to share them, and a least a small part of some of the stories they contain, with a wider audience, but especially in a way that would make it immediate, and recuperate a point of view that I felt had been largely missed; that of Guinevere. A large part of it was also just to please myself. I really enjoyed getting lost in the Arthurian world as I understood it, and I really wanted to share that with other people.
I felt, also, that the way that we come into contact with it now is quite sanitised. Especially, actually, the relationships between the characters. I think we like to believe that people in legend didn’t get caught up with silly, worldly things like sexual desire, and I felt like there was room for something more raw, more immediate, and more personal from the point of view of Guinevere, something that didn’t try to excuse her of any responsibility by making her passive, or gloss over any of the problematic elements of her character which have resulted in so many versions polarising her into either a lusty shrew or a doe-eyed moron.
One of my great inspirations in terms of modern adaptations was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, which I love, but which I always felt was slightly wanting in its depiction of Guinevere. Bradley did great work in the recuperation of Morgan le Fay, but this was almost at the expense of Guinevere (which I will talk a bit more about later on), and that left me wondering if there wasn’t another story to be told there, that had been lost a little; in feminism’s desire to redeem the witch, we had forgotten the woman at the centre, who has been variously condemned and marginalised in different ways.
I felt like there were a lot of adaptations for children, and then Marion Zimmer Bradley (who I will talk quite a lot about, and my conflicted feelings about her adaptation, which I love, but which I feel didn’t do an awful lot of good for our idea of Guinevere) who did an incredible job of recuperating Morgan le Fay’s point of view, and quite a lot of film and TV which focussed heavily on the men and marginalised the women or stereotyped them. Mainly, it was that the fascinating, powerful Guinevere that I read in the medieval version didn’t seem to me to be represented in any satisfying way in any of the adaptations I had come across, and it was high time someone got on to it!
Guinevere, in all her capricious complexity, has always been one of my favourite characters of the Arthurian world. What made you choose her as your protagonist, and why did you depict her in this particular way?
A large part of it had to do with what a raw deal I thought Guinevere was getting in all the modern adaptations of Arthurian legend. It just seemed that this immense, powerful personality that is so clear in Malory’s book, and to an extent in Chrétien de Troyes was constantly being reduced to something more “tasteful” and therefore less individual, less interesting and ultimately less good. I suppose it’s partly to do with squeamish Victorian moralising (thank you for that, Tennyson) and the mistaken belief of film and tv executives that we can only like a woman that we think is “good”. I found the whole way she was dealt with in every adaptation rather disappointing compared to what I imagined when I read Malory. Even the Mists of Avalon (which I absolutely love) somehow cannot manage to present both Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar in a positive light, which is very frustrating, and ends with her making Gwenwhyfar into a hysterical, agoraphobic religious fundamentalist without charm or interest or power. I thought that this was such a shame.
I am sure so much of the paring down of Guinevere’s character in modern treatments comes from a kind of prudish, judgemental need to “justify” the affair with Lancelot. The most annoying manifestation of this is versions that suggest that she was already in love with Lancelot when she married Arthur. I’m not saying this isn’t valid, I suppose what I am saying is that it isn’t interesting. It’s just apologism. People feel the need to say “she did what she did because of x,y,z,” or they, like Bradley, make her passive and weak in the face of something or other.
But in Chrétien de Troyes and Malory she certainly doesn’t seem weak or passive — and besides, this isn’t interesting. It’s symptomatic of a need to put women into this box, or that box. A tragic heroine, an unfaithful wife. I was sick of reading and seeing her depicted as a victim, as passive. Certainly, as a woman that’s not very interesting to watch or read. I hated the idea that we can only like Guinevere if we feel sorry for her, and I felt like what I read and saw in modern adaptations never matched up to what I read in the medieval versions. I strongly felt that her story was one that had not be properly told, at least not in a way that I thought did any justice to the powerful character I read in Malory’s and Chretien’s texts.
In your take on the Arthurian legends, Guinevere is shown to have a close and deeply personal relationship with the Round Table, and both she and the physical object (as well as some of the other characters in the novel) possess a sort of Otherworldly, Celtic-inspired magic. Can you talk a little about your decision here?
People know the “Round Table” as one thing, and on a popular level most people only know that it was the table that Arthur’s knights sat around, and have no idea that it originally belonged to Guinevere. I wanted to reimagine this object which itself has come to be metonymic of a certain type of male comradeship from a different perspective, to imagine it meaning something personal to the woman to whom it originally belonged, and to suggest that both our idea and Arthur’s idea of the significance of the table isn’t its whole story. I also wanted to include some medieval-romance-style magical objects that weren’t just the typical ones dwelt on by other versions (Excalibur has some “Otherworldly” elements, but it’s certainly not given the same narrative weight in my version as in the movie Excalibur, for example). The table kind of became a symbol, a focal point that illustrated for me the idea that in the past we have perhaps approached these events from a kind of Christianised, male-centric position, and I wanted to show how how something as central to the Arthurian knights as the Round Table could have meant something so different to Guinevere.
In terms of my decision to emphasise the Celtic “Otherworldly” elements, really it’s just that these personally attracted me to the legends. I have never enjoyed versions which strip away the magic and try to get too historical, and I felt as though the Celtic versions have their own particular character and flavour. It’s simpler than magic too; it’s a connection to the land, to others like oneself, to the places of home. It also helped me to create the sense that I wanted of various conflicting worlds that can never quite match up with one another; the Breton culture that Guinevere grows up with, and British culture in Logrys; the desire to conquer and the longing for peace; safety and being trapped; loyalty and desire. It just became an integral part of that, the conflict between different ways of seeing and understanding the world.
Gender roles, and cultural differences between masculine- and feminine-appropriate dress and behaviour, serve to create an interesting tension within the book. Logrys (Britain) is shown to have a much more rigidly masculine/feminine divide, whereas the line between genders is more blurred in the Breton world of Carhais. Guinevere must negotiate the differences between these two worlds and their norms. Guinevere’s challenges in adapting to her new surroundings as a foreign princess (in other texts she’s variously depicted as being of Roman or Welsh descent) are rarely depicted, let alone in terms of gender differences. What were your reasons behind both the differences in cultural gender norms, and in showing Guinevere’s struggle to assimilate into her new culture?
There were several reasons for this. Firstly, I have to confess that my imagining of Breton culture is largely extrapolated from my study of early medieval Irish Celtic culture and the evidence that survives of a society in which women were able to (even if they did not usually) take on warrior-roles. This is part of the reason that I chose to link Guinevere with Medb (who I spelled in a more non-medievalist friendly way in the novel!) from the Tan Bo Cualinge, because I wanted to create a sense that Guinevere belonged to an culture that both had ancient roots and that was on its way our as Arthur’s new world was beginning to conquer the lands around it. I felt like the relationship between Arthur and Guinevere has typically been portrayed in very simple terms as a kind of political marriage that neither were very emotionally invested in. I didn’t think that this was very interesting, and I felt that the story of love across conflicting cultures, and a more complex relationship between them would be much more interesting, for me at least!
But aside from this is also part of a deeply personal interest in this element of the story. We know how common it was for queen to be married outside of their home countries into foreign courts where the language and customs were strange, and yet this is something which, as you say, is rarely discussed in Guinevere’s case at all. I thought to gloss over the experience of finding oneself almost alone in a foreign place and expect to marry a stranger was a part of the medieval female experience that I wanted to deal with.
Gender was also something that I wanted to deal with more generally in the book. I was tired of film and TV versions where Arthur is wet and weak. My decision to have Arthur as this incredible alpha male and Lancelot as more shy, more sensitive, less typically masculine is partly based on my own reading of Malory, but partly based in my own interest in the limits that this expectation of extreme masculinity places on the men of medieval society. I wanted to create something that asked interesting questions about the gender roles at play, and that also acknowledged that this was a question that people were asking themselves in the Middle Ages –there’s a general idea that they all just accepted the status quo, but if that were true, there would be no Wife of Bath’s Tale, would there?
As a fellow medievalist I’m interested in the world you’ve created in your retelling, which takes so much from the medieval corpus, but also nods to post-medieval Arthuriana in its depiction of a bow-wielding princess. Like all the best retellings (in my opinion!) of the Arthurian legends, the temporal setting is not a faithful rendering of any specific historical moment. Can you talk a little about the world of the Warrior Queen?
I certainly wanted to create something that wasn’t slavish to any particular time. I always feel let down by versions that as desperate to locate it in a particular time. That was why I found that King Arthur film so boring, and actually that was one of those things that annoyed me about my favourite modern version The Mists of Avalon; both laboured a historical moment, and if anything the stretch for historical credibility makes it less believable. It’s as though the more you try to explain, the more the gaps show.
What I wanted to create was something not that was like a historical time, but that was like a medieval text. Obviously, it’s in modern English, and there’s quite a lot of racy material that wouldn’t have made it past a monastic scriptorium, but I did want to create the sense of a mythical medieval past. There are some elements, like magic, which I took inspiration from the medieval romance tradition. (I’m afraid that there are also some nerdy medievalist jokes hidden in there, for anyone who can spot them…) That said, there are some elements that just don’t translate across time, and I really wanted to create a world, and a Guinevere with whom a modern audience could engage, and I hope that I have done so.
You do particularly interesting things with Kay. Worlds apart from the mean ginger clod of Disney’s Sword and the Stone, your Kay is a dark-haired, fay-like knight who, in keeping with his role as seneschal seems to see all. You dedicate your novel to your own Kay –what made you choose to present Kay in this way? Is there a real-life inspiration for your portrayal of this often awkward and maligned character?
Poor Kay! I am always upset by the treatment my all time favourite Athurian knight gets. Even in serious academic Arthurian criticism, I have come across unfounded Kay-bashing. One even suggested that, in the episode where Lancelot steals Kay’s armour after what can only be described as at the very least a homoerotic sleepover and rides about dressed as him being excellent at fighting, that this was done because Kay was ‘the weakest link’ in the chain of Arthurian knights and needed a reputation boost! Hardly fair on the knight who single-handedly kills two of the kings in the war with the five kings…!
Kay –and especially Malory’s Kay –seems to me like the only knight who knows how to have fun, and he is always unfairly sidelined in modern adaptations. It is almost as though adapters think that Arthur can only have one friend, and will get confused if he has any more buddies than Lancelot. Every single film and TV version I’ve seen make Kay a sort of meanie older brother who Arthur immediately forgets, when this is far from the case in the medieval versions. Arthur explicitly says that his desire to kill the Emperor Lucius is the result of Kay’s wounding in battle, and the moment that Arthur pulls the sword from the stone in Malory is followed by his intensely poignant question to Ector, “So you are not my father, and Kay is not my brother?” and yet Kay is erased from almost every adaptation, except in the episode at the beginning when he forgets his sword. I thought it presented an interesting relationship to explore, that of the foster brothers.
As a court-bound seneschal, it seemed to me that he was a fitting friend for Guinevere, who, as a woman, is also bound to stay within the castle while the other knights go journeying about. The decision to incorporate a kind of “Otherworldly” nature to Kay was based on the Welsh versions of Arthurian legend, where in ‘The Lady of the Fountain’, I think, that Kay has some supernatural skills, and I thought this combined well with how I wanted to use the Otherworldly elements.
But more than anything, the fact that Kay has been chronically ignored in adaptations gave me a lot of room to do what I liked with him, to explore elements that hadn’t been explored, which included the domestic life of Camelot, the relationship between the foster-brothers and the conflict of the old ways of the Otherworld and pagans with the new Christian world ruled from Camelot at its centre. I’ve been surprised, too, (and pleased, of course) to the widespread positive reaction to my depiction of Kay; it seems that people were as interested in Camelot’s untold stories as I am.
As for my own Kay, well that would really be telling, wouldn’t it? My own Kay is someone without whom I could never have written The Guinevere Trilogy, and who is a huge part of my life. Apart from that, I’m afraid I’m going to keep the rest to myself. A girl’s got to maintain a little mystery, eh?
Finally: why does the world still need Arthur, after an existence in nearly a thousand years of myth and legend? What purpose do you think these characters and their stories serve in our modern world?
Ah, that’s the million-pound question for all medievalists, isn’t it? I think Arthurian legend is part of the fabric of British identity, and we will always need it. Obviously, I wouldn’t be interested in medieval literature if I didn’t think this, but I do strongly believe that we can learn so much from the stories that we tell about ourselves (so perhaps you can learn a lot about me from what I have decided to tell!) and that it will always be important both to read what is old, and to remake it so that it fits within our own modern understanding.
I love all the medieval versions of Arthurian legend, and I could never hope to replicate some of the great works of the Middle Ages, but equally since they are in Middle English, or Old French or Latin, these are lost to the vast majority of people looking for a good read. But they are a good read, and I felt that it was really important to create a version that was entertaining, but that also communicated what I wanted to convey from my own understanding of these medieval texts in a way that would be immediate, accessible and engaging for a modern audience. It would be such a shame if these stories were lost, or if they only survived on a popular level in forms that really didn’t capture the powerful complexity of the wonderful characters. I hope that at least I have been able to add a small amount to that great task of passing on this wonderful literature and legend.
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You can find out more about Lavinia Collins and her work here…
The Warrior Queen (Part I of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available athttp://www.amazon.co.uk/THE-WARRIOR-QUEEN-Guinevere-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00IPRC0TE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393635696&sr=8-1&keywords=lavinia+collins
A Champion’s Duty (Part II of the Guinevere Trilogy) is available at:http://www.amazon.co.uk/CHAMPIONS-DUTY-The-Guinevere-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00JD35Z3W/ref=pd_sim_sbs_kinc_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1FSNYAXHG8E0B6RNQY64