Award-winning author of the Arthur Trilogy, discusses the influences, meaning and legacy of the Arthurian legends, as his remarkable 'Arthur: The Always King' is published, illustrated by Chris Riddell.
My review of 'Arthur: The Always King' is here.
1. As your Arthur: The Always King (illustrated by Chris Riddell) is published this month, what do you think is the enduring appeal of the King Arthur mythos, both for children and adults?
As popular today as they were throughout Europe eight centuries ago, the Arthurian romances describe how the young Arthur claimed the throne and assembled the finest knights to sit at the Round Table where the names of their companions were Kindness, Friendship, Courtesy, Humanity and Chivalry. The king's dream was for a Golden Age such as had never been known before. Our need today for an ideal, a dream is no less pressing, for all that we may fall laughably short of it. That's why, as the prefix to my introduction to The Always King, I quoted a few words from The Seeing Stone: 'Each of us must have a dream to light our way through this dark world.'
2. For this retelling, which sources did you turn to and why?
I'm no linguist but, with the help of translations and friends, I coursed through Arthurian romances in many medieval European languages. My cornerstone was Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d’Arthur, and among my other main sources were Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, Chrétien de Troyes' Erec et Enide, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and the saucy, magical Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an anonymous author living in the Wirral at much the same time as Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales. I'm not going to inflict on you a list longer than this, but what I learned was how much medieval Arthurian writers borrowed from each other, especially French authors from Celtic stories. Now you're getting me started all over again. The wondrous sources for Merlin … Gottfried von Strassburg's commitment to irresistible love 'outside the pale' … the mystique of heraldry… What I deliberately did not do is read other modern versions. I tried to decide whom my own Arthur was, and is, and write him into being.
3. How has it been to collaborate with Chris Riddell and did that affect your writing process in any way?
Chris and I have learned a good deal from one another, I think. Speaking for myself, how to tease out more humour from the interstices of serious matter. And how implausible but entirely convincing it can be to juxtapose the implacably ancient and utterly modern: tussling, murderous knights for example, fighting hand to hand, and girls who wouldn't be in the least out of place on Love Island! It has been exciting to be involved at all stages in the making of the book, not sidelined after writing it. Chris and I reviewed his huge sheaf of roughs one by one… It's been as enjoyable as instructive, and before long we'll be collaborating on another book for Walker together. But first, we're working in tandem to promote Arthur.
4. From your 'Arthur' trilogy to T.H White's The Once and Future King to Phillip Reeve's Here Lies Arthur, is reinvention or reinterpretation fundamental to the longevity of legends?
Yes. But of course the way in which some myths and legends are so constantly revisited and reinterpreted, while others are not, is indicative of their innate power.
5. As a writer and teacher myself, what makes reinventions of myths and legends worthwhile and stimulating for young readers, who may find their attention grabbed by the likes of Marvel instead?
Above and beyond reinvention/reinterpretation, but of course still an integral part of them, it is surely language and characterisation and psychological depth that are the writer's strongest suit, irrespective of whether she/he is writing for children or adults. We can be set alight by blazing language or heartfelt language, and can identify with individuals and situations at a far deeper level than we can with Marvel characters.
6. Can young readers, particularly boys, still learn something from King Arthur (who in lots of ways was flawed) or from wise old Merlin, in a time when the notion of a white, male saviour may seem problematic?
The very fact that Arthur was flawed is part of his strength, isn't it. If he were peerless, let alone godlike, his appeal would be lessened . These romances are about human beings, strong and weak as we are, and curious and passionate and nervous and impatient (add your own adjectives!) as we are, not about gods and goddesses. Precisely the same is true of Merlin. For all his magical powers, what happens? He destroys himself.
7. Who was King Arthur's greatest enemy and why?
Above and beyond the all-too-true truism that each of us is his/her own worst enemy … maybe Morgan le Fay, because jealousy is the most destructive of sins; maybe Mordred, because he is young and flagrant. To him, the blood-knot means nothing. To this author, a very great deal.
8. I have always been fascinated by Arthur as a boy. What is your favourite aspect or story about Arthur and his knights?
His little known childhood. It has always made my heart race and put my imagination to work quite as much as the legends do…
11th November 2021
I am truly grateful for Kevin Crossley-Holland's fascinating insights.