Why I love Arthurian Stories

In the Spring of 2007, I woke up from a very vivid dream of telling my mother that I was going to write a book about the daughter of Modred, son of Arthur and the great villain of the Arthurian cycle of tales.  I’d been writing historical fiction and sending books around to agents and editors, always coming close to being published but never actually getting a book sold.  I was four months pregnant with my first baby at the time, and had been starting to think that as much as I loved writing, maybe a professional career wasn’t going to happen for me–or at least not for some time.

            Something about this dream, though, just wouldn’t let me go.  I had been an English major in college with a focus on Medieval literature and history, and had fallen in love with the Arthurian world and the Arthur legends then.  I started to do some preliminary research, reading books that explored the possibility of a real, historical Arthur–who if he existed at all would, scholars agreed, have been a 5th century British warlord, possibly one who made a victorious stand against the Saxon tribes invading Britain at the time–a far cry from the king of Camelot who’s come down to us in the tales. 

            At the same time, though, I was reminded of why I’d fallen in love with the Arthur stories in the first place.  The world of the legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past–and yet it’s also a world that has the wonderful potential for magic and enchantment.  So as I was reading, I started to build my own version of that world in my head–one that was a blending of legend and late 5th century British history, truth and tale.

            In my dream, I’d known only that the main character of my book was going to be Modred’s daughter.  It was only when I was looking over name lists trying to decide on one for my heroine that the name “Isolde” leaped off the page at me and made me turn back to the story of Trystan and Isolde.  The Trystan and Isolde legend is a later addition to the Arthurian cycle, very much grounded in a courtly, chivalric, 13th century world.  And yet it, too, has its roots in earlier legends and traditions that still echo faintly in the story as it has come down to us today.  I started to wonder what those earliest traditions might have been, what the story might have looked like at its first inception during the chaos and violence of Dark Age Britain, the “real” Arthurian age.

            That was how the story started to frame itself in my mind as a trilogy: Twilight of Avalon, Dark Moon of Avalon, and Sunrise of Avalon.  Three books that would weave together the scraps we knew of 5th century British history with the earliest versions of both the Arthurian and the Trystan and Isolde tales.

            From the first, I’d known that my story was going to be a kind of sequel to the Arthur tales, a chance to explore what might have happened after the battle of Camlann, after Arthur was wounded and carried away to be healed on the mist shrouded Isle of Avalon.  And that idea, too, held tremendous appeal for me, in that it gave me a chance to see a different side of the Arthurian story. 

            I think one of the most captivating, the most moving aspects of the Arthur stories is their ability to show us the highest potentials for human nobility, human honor and courage.  And yet the story always ends in tragedy, with the battle of Camlann where Arthur falls, betrayed by all those he loved best. 

            His legend though, still lives, still gives us an ideal to strive for.  That was the feeling that stayed with me in reading the original Arthur stories–and the feeling I wanted the characters in my trilogy to have, as well.  The title of my book is Twilight of Avalon, because in many ways it’s set at a turning point, the end of the age defined by Arthur the king.  But I wanted my Trystan and Isolde to be able to hold onto the ideals of the Arthurian world, even if that world was forever gone.  Because even in the wake of tragedy, life goes on–and there’s always the possibility that someday those ideals will end in victory instead of defeat.  For me, that was one of the joys of writing Twilight of Avalon: to know that this time, in my small corner of the great Arthurian tapestry, the story didn’t have to end at Camlann.