November 23, 2009 by

Writing Historical Fantasy: A Magical Balance

Categories: Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Today, Anna Elliott, the author of the wonderful Twilight of Avalon (Touchstone:  May 2009) is here to talk about blending history and fantasy when writing historical fiction.  Welcome, Anna!

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Ever since I wrote Twilight of Avalon, based on the Trystan and Isolde legend in the larger cycle of Arthurian tales, I’ve often been asked for thoughts on the enduring appeal of the King Arthur story. Why should that legend, perhaps more than any other in Western culture, have captured our imaginations for more than a millennium, have engendered countless retellings and reworkings of the old tale?

The answers are legion, of course. But for me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past. Many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historic Arthur–who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid fifth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.

And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic, as well. It’s a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and Otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need.

That combination of historical truth with the wonderful potential for magic was what most of all drew me to the Arthur stories when I first studied them in college.  And it was what delighted me about living in my own version of the Arthurian world while writing Twilight of Avalon and the next two books in the trilogy.

The fifth century, when scholars agree a historic Arthur might have lived, was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome’s legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged. And it is against this backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led–or at least may have led–a victorious campaign against the invaders, driving them back for perhaps the space of a man’s lifetime and so inspiring the roots of a legend that still captures our imaginations today.

I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur, and fascinated by the world in which he might have lived. So I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. And yet I wanted, too, to honor the original stories and their magical, legendary world–a world that after centuries of telling and re-telling, is as real in its own way as historical fact.

It was a bit of a balancing act, I discovered.

My Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories; a healer and enchantress of great renown). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld. All of which fitted in with what I’d read of both the legends and historical accounts of Celtic spirituality, pre-Christian Celtic belief, with its emphasis on the powers of herbs, on trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils.

And yet, too, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. There were those cases where I could take a more symbolic approach to the legends—as with the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love.

I decided that a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of passionate romantic love. So in the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde do journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth-century Britain. And they don’t need a literal draft of a magical potion to fall in love–only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond.

But then there were other cases when honoring the legends seemed to me to demand a factor that simply did not exist in 6th century Britain. For example, the fortress at Tintagel, where Twilight of Avalon is largely set. The Tintagel of my novel is pretty much purely anachronistic. Recent archaeology suggests that there was some sort of important fortification there during the 5th century–one belonging to a powerful Dark Age chieftan, to judge from the remnants of expensive imported wine jugs that have been found. But that the site ever had the remotest connection to Arthur is unlikely in the extreme. And certainly that Dark Age chieftan’s fortress would not have resembled anything in the nature a castle as we think of such places today.  But one of the elements of the Arthurian stories I found I simply couldn’t do without was a brooding, majestic castle perched on the crumbling edge of Cornwall where the land meets the sea–and where Arthur, son of Uther the Pendragon, was conceived and born. An authentic Dark Age wattle and daub and thatch dwelling just didn’t feel the same to me, and so I allowed the anachronism to creep in.

Again, it’s a balance. I try to be honest about the historical liberties I take in my author’s notes at the backs of the books and on the FAQ’s on my webpage. And I try to do my utmost to limit those historical liberties to cases like the above when it’s a matter of being true to the legendary basis of my story. I hope it’s a blend that works, one that echoes, a bit, the mixture of history and fantasy that first made me fall in love with the legends and the Arthurian world.

4 Responses to Writing Historical Fantasy: A Magical Balance

  1. Kelly

    Reading your post reminds me of an author I know, Angelica Harris. Her most recent book, Excalibur Reclaims Her King, is the story of a modern day mother sent back to 6th Century to heal Merlin and raise King Arthur from the dead. Much of her own life’s healing came from writing about her heroine, Arianna. Check out her website http://www.angelicaharris.com, perhaps you can work together!

    • Sarah Post author

      That sounds like a fun book. I love time travel fantasy and anything Arthurian! I’ll pass the information on to Anna.

  2. The Saxon Chronicles

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!