Join the Party - with King Arthur

On January 30th there was an impressive roster of historical fiction authors and bloggers attending a Facebook party in honour of historical fiction and the 2,023rd anniversary of the Ara Pacis, and the release of Stephanie Dray's newest book, Daughters of the Nile: A novel of Cleopatra's Daughter.

I took part, talking about my Arthurian Trilogy, and although the event has now finished  here is part of my article that I wrote for the occasion :

UK covers designed

These are some of the questions I am most frequently asked about my ideas of King Arthur

Q1. What sources did you use to inspire you to start writing your own retelling of the legend of Arthur?

Answer: I read Mary Stewart’s books The Hollow Hills and The Crystal Cave. These are, essentially, Merlin’s story, written with a believable element of his supernatural abilities. Stewart’s Merlin came over as a sympathetic, interesting character and the books were most enjoyable. What intrigued me, however, was her author’s note where she stated that if Arthur had actually existed he was more likely to have been around in the late 5th  and early 6th centuries, not the later Medieval period.. This highly interested me, as I was also a fan of Roman British History.

Q2. Guinevere has become more of a dominate figure in your series as opposed to various other retellings. What inspired/ drove you to make her a more influential part of your story?

Answer: Gwenhwyfar (the original Welsh spelling of her name) interested me. As with Arthur, I couldn’t see her behaving as the Medieval stories portrayed her. I then read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel Mists of Avalon. While it was well written, I found it lacking in historical accuracy, and the portrayal of Gwenhwyfar was of a useless girl idiot! At one point I was so frustrated by this character I threw book across the room in exasperation. That was not how I saw the woman. The solution…. Write my own version.

US Covers 

Q3. Arthur has an almost 'real' feel to his character, he isn't perfect nor is he hideously flawed, was your original intention to build a king who knew exactly what to do and would do what is necessary, regardless of popular opinion?

Answer : The more I researched this period, 450 – 550 AD, between the going of Roman administration and the coming of the English (the Anglo Saxons) I realised just how much upheaval there must have been. The Romans had governed Britain for over 400 years – that’s almost the same as from the reign of the Tudor’s to modern day. An incredible length of time. The people who lived in Britain then knew of no other way of life, the power vacuum that was left after Rome pulled out must have been enormous (the equivalent, of course, is presently happening in the Middle Eastern Arab countries, though on a faster scale)
To fill the ensuing chaos a leader would have had to been a capable and able warlord. I had no intention of making my Arthur the sort of man who was not certain of what he was doing. The Arthur of the Medieval stories, quite frankly, is a weak, inefficient and insubstantial king. One who turns a blind eye to his wife and best friend becoming lovers, who abandons his kingdom and his people to go off on a religious quest. Which is the Medieval equivalent of the Crusades of course. MY Arthur was a strong, able fighter who stood no nonsense from anyone. To lead during that time he would have to be!
At the same time he had his flaws and weaknesses – as we all do.

Q4. Shadow of the King as a title has various meanings that can be argued as the last book of the trilogy. The big thing I noticed was how Arthur became even more life-like, he had fears that penetrated his character and affected everything he did. In your opinion, how has this made him a better king?

Answer: I found it difficult to write Shadow. For one thing I knew Arthur had to die at the end. I had spent more than ten years on researching and writing the first two books. I felt like I was having to break off a long, intimate relationship, or plan an assassination. In the end, I wrote the last chapter first and went back to the start – sort of resurrecting Arthur.
I wanted to do something different to the more usual stories of Arthur – and to try and understand how the Medieval stories came about (of Arthur going off, leaving his Kingdom, why Gwenhwyfar began a relationship with another man etc). While researching I discovered a suggestion that Arthur could have been “Riothamus” a leader known to have existed and who fought in Brittany and upper France during the latter years of the 5th Century. Riothamus is a title (King Most) not a name. There is also a place called Avalon in France.
Why would Arthur/Riothamus leave Britain to go and fight in Brittany? The answer is simple – at that time, as with the later Norman/ Angevin Kings – Britain and Brittany were all one country. Arthur was as much “king” of Brittany as he was of Britain. It would be natural for him to attempt to defend his lands against invasion.
That he never came back also made sense.

I could not “kill him off” in France, though, and I had several loose ends to tie up – the woman Morgaine, his illegitimate son, Medraut (Mordred) and  his other son Cerdic. I knew my character very well by this time, and I began to realise that if he had thought he had failed he would not wish to return. Coupled with historical facts of the period (The coming of the English; Cerdic settling in what is now Wessex etc) and the assumed historical facts – the Battle of Badon, so the plot for Shadow became clear.
I also wanted to explore how Gwenhwyfar reacted to assuming Arthur was dead, and then discovering he was not.
Arthur coming back from abroad, and almost from the dead, also tied in well with the legend of him. And once back, once aware that he had not failed, my Arthur fought twice as hard for the peace and security of his kingdom.

Q5. Your novels give a detailed account of Gwenhwyfar’s trials and tribulations; did you intentionally make her a very strong character, and the driving force of Arthur? And because of that, Gwen seems more fleshed out, making her relationship with Arthur more important. Did you intentionally change this from Malory who had little use of Gwen until the very end?

Answer: Yes. Originally, I intended to write her story. I started writing in first person as Gwenhwyfar, but this didn’t work, so I switched to third person…. Which also didn’t work. I realised the predominant story-line was Arthur’s. Then much of the story wrote itself.
I deliberately set out to make Gwenhwyfar a feisty, capable and able woman in her own right. I was determined not to have her as the “woman sewing back home”. Celtic women were warriors (look at Boudicca/Boadica!) who knew how to fight and use weapons. Nor were they downtrodden second rate citizens of later years. I wanted my Gwen to be as much in the forefront as Arthur.
I also wanted to bring in that she did have sons – there are references to three of her sons, Llacheu, Gwydre and Amr, all of whom died before they reached maturity. The Gwenhwyfar of the early legends (pre Medieval) is not the sort of woman who would betray her husband and king – but who would fight alongside him!

Q6. Looking at Arthur as a hero, one of the things that stands out is that Arthur becomes almost larger than life, essentially a Christ-figure with his return to the known world. Was this ever your intention to make Arthur a Christ-figure?

Answer: My goodness no – far from it! My entire intention was to portray Arthur as a non-Christian king, a pagan in fact (he worships, in his own way, the soldiers’ god, Mithras)
The Christian element of the Arthur stories is very firmly attached to the Medieval tales. Britain in the 4th/5th Century was still an embryonic Christian land, with more people pagan than Christian (which is why many of the “old ways” have survived even to today)
My Arthur is very much a non-Christian. In the early Welsh legends we hear of him taking cattle from a monastery and ignoring the Church. He is a rough, sharp-edged warrior, not a monk-like character.
One legend mentions him wearing the image of the Virgin Mary either on his shield, or on his shoulder (a broach). It instantly struck me that it was more likely that he had the image of the Mother Goddess, who became adapted into the Virgin as Christianity took hold.
But something clung to the early story of Arthur. Something that resurrects him for almost every generation. It is not even certain that “Arthur” actually existed, although there must have been a person who became the basis of the early stories – possibly a local, successful warlord. Or is it the underlying character of Arthur that makes him so alive and real?
If nothing else, the wide scope of literary fiction will resurrect him over and over, in every different type of genre.

I hope you have enjoyed my contribution to tonight’s on-line event. My books are available in most US bookstores, or on line – but I must mention that I personally think the UK editions are somewhat better than the US ones. I prefer the UK covers for one thing, and I am aware that there are several printing errors in the US editions, which are publisher’s errors, not mine. Unfortunately there is nothing I can do about this.

I am giving away the first of my Trilogy as a prize for this event – The Kingmaking, or if you have read it any one of my books as a substitute. (open worldwide)

& Twitter @HelenHollick


  1. Helen,

    I have read and enjoyed your Arthurian novels - it's a pity he did not have a daughter so that you could write a novel about her. Just a thought!

    1. Thanks Rosemary - actually, it is possible he did have a daughter - there is a very early - and obscure - reference to two sons of the lioness, daughter of the bear (sorry I can't remember the exact wording & I'm a bit pushed for time to look it up) She was married to the Lord of Tintagel - and could (possibly!) have been Arthur's daughter. In my trilogy she is anyway! She's Archfedd - and yes, one day I might write about her!


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