Think this is what Camelot looked like? Think again.
When I say the word “Camelot” what do you think of?
Probably a grandiose medieval castle made of stone with turrets and spires, something out of a fairy tale. And that is how it has been portrayed in drawings, movies and TV shows.
(Full disclosure, my Camelot does have some of these elements, but I’ve also given you a logical explanation of why it could be possible. In that, I’m invoking the fantasy side of the genre of historical fantasy. But all of the other castles in my books are true to the time period.)
But the reality of Celtic castles, if we assume King Arthur lived somewhere in the late fifth to early sixth century, is very different. In fact, the word “castle” really doesn’t even accurately describe them. They were more like fortifications than homes. For the most part, rulers didn’t have permanent residence there. The castles were protection for the surrounding populous and their livestock in case of attack.
Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which some believe to be the real location of Camelot. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Most Celtic castles were likely hillforts, which kind of resemble what would later become the motte and bailey style of castle. They were based on large earthenwork hills. The castle itself was at the top in the center, surrounded by one or more wooden palisades, and usually at least one earthen wall or ditch. There are many where the hill is terraced and each terrace has wooden walls and earthen ditches or ramparts to make it even more difficult for the enemy to succeed in siege.
The castle itself was likely to be wooden because timber was readily available. The exception is that stone was plentiful in Highland Scotland, and some British rulers, especially on the western coast, were thought to have fortified their wooden castles using stone. But they didn’t build them the way we picture until the 10th century. In fact, castles as we think of them didn’t come into prominence until the reign of Edward I, who is credited with building the great castles of Northern Wales.
These hillforts would have been defended with arrows, swords, axes and spears, along with sling shots. In order to conquer one, the enemy (depending on what technology they had available) may have used ballista bolts in addition to pure manpower.
Examples of hillforts in Arthurian legend include Traprain Law (King Lot’s capital in Lothian), Badon (if one takes Solsbury Hill outside of Bath to be the location of the battle of mount Badon), Maiden Castle (which is linked to several Arthurian stories), and Cadbury (which Geoffrey Ashe and many other scholars believe is the true location of Camelot).
Tintagel, long thought to be Arthur’s birthplace. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
But what about Tintagel, you might ask? It’s the most famous surviving castle linked to Arthurian legend (Arthur’s birthplace) and it’s made of stone. We know the site was occupied during what I’ll call the Arthurian period, but the castle itself dates to the 13th century. I’ll be visiting Tintagel in less than a month, so I can tell you more when I get back.
PS – Scholars can’t agree on if Camelot existed, much less where. Someday I’ll do a post on some of the possible locations. What I’ve described here is typical of the time period, but we may never know for sure what Camelot really looked like.
Sources British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam Strongholds of the Picts by Angus Konstam Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World by Matthew Bennett and Jim Bradbury, et al
There are probably more because I wrote most of this post from memory. Please check my research page for more possible sources.
How do you picture Camelot? What have you seen portrayed in movies, books or TV? Are there any other Arthurian castles you’re curious about?
The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Marwage. Marwage is whaught bwings us togethor, today. Marwage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam within a dweam.”
(If you don’t know where that quote is from, get thee to Netflix!)
Celtic marriage was very different from what we think of today. It was very rarely done out of love, usually out of political gain for the families/tribes involved. It also was not a religious event, but a contractual agreement. (Celtic law is very complex, so what I’m going into here merely skims the surface. It’s based in Brehon Law, which is the only extant law we have for the Celtic people. It is known as the law of Ireland, but likely similar laws existed in Britain as well.) The laws governing marriage were set up to ensure children were protected (illegitimacy did not exist – more on that in a future post), make clear the rights of the husband and wife, and protect the property rights of both parties.
You may have heard of the practice of handfasting, trial marriages that lasted a year and a day. These did happen, most commonly on Lughnasa when the tribes were together, but when this occurred, it was more like an engagement. The realities of contractual marriage were much more complex. (If you want details that will make your head spin, read Thompson’s book, p. 129-175)
Under Brehon Law, there were 10 forms of marriage, each diminishing in importance, legal rights and desirability (thanks to Epona Perry for this simplified list):
A first degree union takes place between partners of equal rank and property.
A second degree union in which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.
A third degree union in which a man has less property than the woman and has to agree to management of the woman’s cattle and fields.
A fourth degree union is the marriage of the loved one in which no property rights changed hands, though children’s rights are safeguarded.
A fifth degree union is the mutual consent of the man and woman to share their bodies, but live under separate roofs. (And ideal situation for some, I’m sure!)
A sixth degree union in which a defeated enemy’s wife is abducted. This marriage is valid only as long as the man can keep the woman with him. (We see this a lot in Arthurian legend and traditional Welsh tales.)
A seventh degree union is called a soldier’s marriage and is a temporary and primarily sexual union (a one night stand).
An eighth degree union occurs when a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication (equivalent to the modern definition of “date rape”).
A ninth degree union is a union by forcible rape (this also occurs in Arthurian legend and Celtic folk stories).
A tenth degree union occurs between feeble-minded or insane people.
Under the law, women had the right choose their husbands and could not be forced to marry. Although, given the nature of some of the types of marriage listed above, and the likely influence (read: threats) of family members, one has to wonder how much choice some women really had. Dowries were very important, as brides were purchased from their fathers by their husbands for what became known as a bride-price. Some of this was kept in reserve for the woman, should her marriage end at the fault of her husband, so she would not be left destitute. (More on divorce in a future post.) There was also a virgin-price that guaranteed the wife’s purity. It’s also interesting to note that if two people of unequal rank wanted to marry, the person of lower rank was responsible for the financial burden. We can assume this was meant to keep Celtic nobility from “marrying down.”
The Celts were believers in polygamy, so second wives and concubines were common, especially before the Roman invasion of their native lands. Multiple husbands were less common, but not unheard of. There were even laws that stated a first wife could legally murder the second wife within the first three days of marriage! She would still have to pay a fine, but other than that she was within her rights. (Brehon Law used the payment of fines to solve just about every problem, from divorce to murder.) Some say this is where the tradition of a honeymoon, or a husband and second wife going away for the first few days of their marriage, originated. (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) A chief wife had rights to her husband’s estate, while other wives were govered by informal contracts that often didn’t require the first wife to provide for them at all, or for the husband to leave them anything in the event of his death.
It’s hard to tell how Roman law, and then Christianity, affected these practices, but I believe it’s safe to assume polygamy and some of the more scandalous forms of marriage fell out of favor once Christianity became a major factor in Celtic life. We know that by the time these laws were written down by Irish monks, they were already amending pagan-era rules to suit their Christian audiences.
In my books, I use these laws as the basis for my characters’ actions, but I don’t stick strictly to them since we know so little about where and when they were really applied. Besides, the threat of death is much more dramatic than just paying a fine, and I find it hard to believe that the war-like Celts didn’t exact bloody revenge when they were wronged.
Sources Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage by Epona Perry Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell
What about you? What have you read/heard about Celtic marriages? How have you seen them portrayed in books and in Hollywood? What do you think about these laws?
Today I’m honored to feature an interview with Kim Headlee, a fellow Arthurian author whom I’ve admired for years. She and I were on the same Arthurian list-serve back in 1999 when I was first conceiving my own Guinevere books and I’m so thrilled to have connected with her once again!
1. Please tell us a little about Dawnflight.
Dawnflight is the first installment of The Dragon’s Dove Chronicles, a series that I hope will span at least eight volumes, including two which precede Dawnflight in terms of the characters’ chronology. Dawnflight features the romance of Gyanhumara (“Gyan”) and Arthur beginning in the aftermath of the first of Arthur’s twelve battles, in which he defeated her people and established the treaty clause that she must marry a nobleman from his side of the border.
Of course, treaties, like all other rules, are indeed meant to be broken. The trick lies in how to break them without creating calamity for all involved. Throw in an enemy invasion for good measure (battles two and three on Arthur’s list of twelve), and our heroes have quite the conundrum, indeed.
2. What inspired you to write it?
A combination of factors contributed.
When I was 7 (I’m dating myself, but I stopped caring about such things decades ago), my parents took me to see the movie Camelot in the theatre. The two images I liked best from that first viewing were Guinevere in her white fur wrap and the knights fighting on top of the Round Table and breaking it. Both foreshadowed the direction of my Arthurian fiction.
At age 9, I read a modern-English rendering of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur cover to cover and became hooked. I began devouring every Arthurian title I could lay my hands on. In those days, that meant editions such as The Boy’s King Arthur, a version of Malory illustrated by Howard Pyle, an umpteenth reprinting of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and an almost-umpteenth reprinting of The Once and Future King.
In high school, my parents gave me a first-edition copy of The Hollow Hills, which made me thirst after historical adaptations. The highest compliment any reviewer has paid my work to date is to give it a favorable comparison to Mary Stewart’s novels; she was my primary literary hero in those days. She still is, come to think of it.
High school was when I first started writing my own version of the Arthur-Guinevere relationship. I still have a couple of drafts of that—and read them recently, in fact. What a hoot! 100% teenage girl, no question about it.
Then Marion Zimmer Bradley came out with her iconic entry into the Legends (Mists of Avalon and, yes, I have a first edition of that, too), which concentrated on “rehabilitating” the reputation of Morgan le Fay.
Through all of this—and I include the works by Nancy McKenzie, Persia Woolley, Sharan Newman, and Helen Hollick—I couldn’t find a rendering of Guinevere that I well and truly liked. So, as the adage goes, “If you want something done right…” 😀
3. You are a woman after my own heart! What’s different about this new version from the award-winning one released in 1999?
Glad you asked!
The most obvious difference at first glance is the inclusion of my digital line-art renderings of images engraved on Pictish standing stones found throughout Scotland, plus some of my original artwork inspired by said stones. These drawings function throughout the text as clues to the reader of an imminent viewpoint shift: the doves represent Gyan, the dragons Arthur, and so forth. With more than ten viewpoint characters, I decided my readers could use a bit of help!
Linguistically—aside from tighter wording and hotter sex—I have expanded my characters’ vocabularies to include additional epithets, endearments, insults, and mythology in order to more richly define their world. I never would have dared to do this had I not decided to include a glossary. Since my work has truly epic scope, I also include an index of characters who appear or who are referenced in the book. This index defines each character’s function in the story and gives other pertinent details.
4. I’ve heard you say that yours is a Guinevere “people will actually like.” What do you mean by that? What makes her different?
She’s smart (and sometimes a smartass!), she’s strong willed, she has a fairly firm idea of who she is and what she wants from life—and from her life-partner—and yet all that strength forms a shell around a compassionate, vulnerable core. She wants to do the best thing for her people but sometimes doesn’t have the first clue how to accomplish it and seeks approval along the way. Consequently, she is mercilessly hard on herself when she perceives that she has failed to meet others’ expectations. In short, she is very much a woman that female readers can relate to despite the fact that most of us don’t rule clans or collect heads. I once described the book to a coworker as, “a female assertiveness training manual.” It’s not far from the truth. Male readers can simply sit back and enjoy the view, along with the battles and political intrigue and whatnot.
5. What made you choose Scotland as the location for your novel when England is the traditional setting?
Several research works I read in the 1980s—before Dawnflight first took shape upon the page—suggested to me that the Border Country was an ideal location for Arthur’s military operations. Plus, I was attracted to the cross-cultural aspect of having Arthur be a Romanized Celt and Gyan a Pict (or “ban-Caledonach,” as she would call herself in my newly invented Pictish terminology). In fact, the more I delve into Scottish Gaelic to create Pictish terms for place-names, the more I am convinced that southern Scotland/northern England was Arthur’s home turf, in spite of what others may insist. The wording, in comparison to traditional Arthurian place-names and battle sites that nobody can identify with anything approaching certainty, fits far too nicely to be mere coincidence.
And, yes, I firmly believe Arthur, his wife, and their associates existed. To do anything less would be a gross disservice to my writing and to my readers.
6. I’ve read that you purposefully stripped your tale of the magic usually associated with Arthurian legend to focus more on the history. Why?
Oh, the magic is there, trust me! But it is the magic of visions and prophecies, the magic of prayer, the magic of curses and blessings, the magic of herbal lore…and most of all, the magic that happens when two charismatic individuals unite to forge a better world for themselves, each other and their people.
7. The summary for your book puts forth an interesting premise: Gyan (Guinevere) marries someone other than Arthur. What made you choose such a bold departure from previous legend?
Good question! I think it may have been inspired by some obscure, ancient tale…after having studied the Arthurian Legends for more than four decades, it’s safe to say that I’ve forgotten far more than most people know about the subject.
Actually, to be fair—and this isn’t really a spoiler alert—Gyan is betrothed to Urien. After she and Arthur meet and become attracted to each other, they spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how she can extricate herself from the betrothal without making Urien start a civil war.
8. Dawnflight has a sequel, correct? What can you tell us about this book and when it will be available?
Morning’s Journey picks up the morning after Dawnflight leaves off and follows Gyan & Arthur through more battles and family changes and triumphs and tragedies. And it delves a little farther into the relationship of Gyan and Angusel (Lancelot). Morning’s Journey will be available as soon as I can get a cover commissioned & delivered, since my copyeditor has given me her input.
9. What else might readers like to know about Dawnflight?
If you choose to buy the print edition, email me (kimheadlee at earthlink dot net) or message me on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/kim.headlee) for instructions on how to obtain an autographed bookplate. If you buy the e-book edition, I can mail you a magnet… but I wouldn’t advise putting it anywhere near your device!
Apple, Sony and other distribution channels will be available as soon as possible.
11. How can people find out more about you?
Friend me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kim.headlee. I like to share stuff about cats and Star Wars and writerly things and inspirational sentiments and, oh yeah, the occasional original thought. 😀
Thank you , Kim, for joining us here. I hope you find great success with Dawnflight, and best of luck on your future works!
If you have a comment for Kim, please leave it here. She will be monitoring this site periodically.
We’ve looked at the Celtic and Medieval evolutions of the Grail story, so now here are some odds and ends, including one theory involving my favorite saint.
The Grail story became associated with the Knights Templar in Wolfram’s Parzival. Here it is mentioned as a stone that fell from Heaven and was used as a sanctuary of the neutral angels during the battle between the armies of St. Michael and Lucifer. This becomes associated with the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy, a miraculous substance said to be able to turn metal into gold and grant immortality to the one who discovers it. This same story also gives us a detailed picture of the Grail temple, a large castle in which the Grail is housed, usually surrounded by forest or sea, accessible only by a narrow bridge.
This castle leads to one of the most bizarre associations I’ve ever seen. (I’m sure there are plenty of others.) In her book, The Holy Grail, Norma Lorre Goodrich claims that the Grail is tied to St. Teresa of Avila, and her mystical masterpiece, The Interior Castle. (For those who don’t know, I’m a bit of a superfan when it comes to St. Teresa of Avila. She’s the patron saint of writers and was an admitted hypochondriac who suffered throughout her life from anxiety, so of course I love her.) I first read The Interior Castle when I was 14 and have read it many times since, along with St. Teresa’s other works and many biographies of her life. The Interior Castle isone of the great works of Catholic mystical literature, one that I know very well.
After spending a while on the etymology of the city of Castile (where St. Teresa was born) Goodrich immediately associates the titular interior castle with the Grail castle: “Her castle of the heart and soul resembles the Grail Castle, which of course, she never would have mentioned because it was neither rejected nor accepted by the Catholic Church” (119). Actually no, she wouldn’t have mentioned it because she probably hadn’t heard of it and even if she had, it has nothing to do with her subject. The Interior Castle uses the symbolism of a castle with many levels/rooms to describe the soul’s mystical ascent to perfection and union with God.
Goodrich goes on to give a rambling, if not entirely accurate, summary of the book, marveling at how someone in the 1500s could have had such a grasp of symbolism. (Religious women of the time were highly educated. Assuming St. Teresa had some natural writing talent, I fail to understand why this is so surprising.) Then there is a strange reference to Guinevere. Speaking of another of the saint’s symbols, Goodrich writes, “To Saint Theresa, as to Queen Guinevere along the Marches into Ireland, the sacred spring dilates the soul as if bubbling from the earth it had no way to drain away, so that explains the saint, the faster the pure water bubbled, the larger the pool expanded (120-121).” I’m not sure what Goodrich is talking about here, but to St. Teresa, water is a symbol of purification and grace. The spring that runs through the castle is part of its lower (less advanced) mansions, where it serves to refresh and prepare the soul toiling toward perfection.
Stretching even further into Arthurian Grail myth, Goodrich says “The Arthurian hero Perceval comes instantly to mind in the saint’s use of the second, more commonly understood symbol, the dove” (122). Um, I LOVE Arthurian legend, but I have never once thought of any of the characters when reading about the soul being compared to a dove. As Goodrich later notes, St. Teresa’s use of the dove is meant to signify the flight of a pure soul from one mansion to another. It is a tender, innocent creature, not a reference to a character added to the legend some 400 years before, even if Perceval is the king of the Grail castle. If anyone was going to be king of Teresa’s castle, it would be Jesus, to whom the soul is “spiritually married” in the innermost mansion.
By the end of her argument, Goodrich seems to back off her direct associations a bit, implying that her only reason for mentioning Teresa is that she is one of the spiritual descendants of the Grail, just like the priestesses who once performed sacred rituals at the Grail castle (126), concluding, “Saint Theresa has written what nobody before her wrote, about such a castle as might have suited the Castle of the Holy Grail, a work so profound and so beautiful that the Grail Questers could not have failed to agree” (128). As far as I know, the only person to ever associate the Grail with Saint Teresa is Goodrich. If she is putting forth a personal Grail theory, that is her right, but it shouldn’t be written in such a way that it sounds like St. Teresa was purposefully alluding to it in her work.
As I step down off my soapbox, I hope you all have enjoyed this brief foray into the world of the Holy Grail.
What are your thoughts on Goodrich’s theory? What other Grail stories have you heard?
Agate bowl at the Hofburg Museum in Vienna, thought to be the origin of the Holy Grail stories. Image is public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Last week, we looked at the possible Celtic origins of the Grail stories. This week, we’ll see how it came to be the story we know today.
By the time Chretien de Troyes came on the scene in the 1100s, the world was a much different place than in Celtic myth. For one, Christianity had taken over as the main religion of Britain. For another, the ideas of chivalry and courtly love were beginning to become popular. In Chretien’s tale, Perceval finds the grail (which is written with a small “g” and isn’t given miraculous powers). There is little description, only that it was brought into the room by a beautiful maiden. “When she entered holding the grail, so brilliant a light appeared that the candles lost their brightness like the stars or the moon when the sun rises” (quoted in Matthews 84). The story features a wounded king like the later Fisher King, a procession and questions that must be asked of the grail, but the whole story appears to be unfinished. Many speculate that Chretien died before completing it (a fear of every single writer who ever lived).
Many people believe Chretien’s grail to be more of a dish or plate than a cup or chalice. (Side note, when I was 11, I was lucky enough to visit Austrian relatives in Vienna. We visited the Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the Habsburgs. In the museum, there is an agate dish said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper. It’s also said to have been one of the inspirations for the Holy Grail.)
Three people attempted to finish what Chretien started. Gautier de Danans has both Perceval and Gawain encounter the Grail, which is now clearly associated with Jesus, and also with the spear that pierced Jesus’ side (the Spear of Destiny, which can trace its mythological origins back to the spear of the Celtic god Lugh, but that’s another story). Matthews makes the point that the Christianization of the Grail shouldn’t be surprising because many of the men who expanded on the Celtic legends were Christian monks and priests (88).
The next person to add to the story was named Menasier. He identifies the spear with the centurion Longinus (Roar, anyone?) and drawing on an earlier story called Joseph of Arimathea, associates the Grail with Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to have used it to catch the blood of Jesus while preparing his body to be placed in the tomb. Around the same time, Gerbert de Monteille changed the ending to the story, having Perceval sire a line of Grail knights, a story that would later inspire Wager’s opera Parsifal.
The Vulgate Cycle
The Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian legend is five interconnected stories that tell the entire story of King Arthur. This story is attributed to Cistercian monks in the twelfth and thirteenth century. The introduction says the author had a vision of Christ in which He gave the author a book detailing the history of the Holy Grail, beginning with the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In these stories, new elements include the Grail Castle of Corbenic, the line of Grail kings, the Maimed King and the Wasteland. The third story in the series introduces the relationship between Lancelot and Elaine, which results in the birth of Galahad, who will go on to be the new hero of the Grail Quest. By the fourth story, Galahad has his Grail procession vision and the quest as we know it begins. Lancelot, Gawain and Galahad all have adventures on the quest, and the Round Table is for the first time associated with “three great fellowships and tables” (Matthews 106), the other two being the those of the Last Supper and the Holy Grail. After many adventures, Christ appears with the Grail and gives the three knights a chance to drink from it. The last work in the cycle is primarily concerned with the story of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. These five stories would go on to influence Malory, who would rework them into Morte D’Arthur, the story that is perhaps most recognizable to us today.
Next week, other associations with the Grail and a very strange theory involving a saint and a famous mystical work.
Title: “Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail” by Franz Stassen. WikiParker at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
You could easily dedicate an entire blog to the subject of the Holy Grail (and I’m sure someone has). According to Celtic/Arthurian scholar John Matthews, “there are more than 100 extant texts which deal with the subjects of Arthur and the Grail (7).
But the Grail wasn’t always part of Arthurian legend. We have 12th century French poet Chertien de Troyes to thank for adding the Grail Quest to the legends. I’m not an expert in this area, but I did do some research into the nature of the Grail for book 2, so I thought I’d share an overview of what I learned over the next few weeks.
The Grail has taken on many forms over the years. “Proposals as varied and curious in their origin in the lost continent of Atlantis to their being a memory of the krater or mixing bowl of the gods in Greek myth, have been set forward. Others have declared the Grail to be a bloodline descending from Christ and the Magdalene, the hidden treasure of the Knights Templar and the secret teaching of the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect of the twelfth century” (Matthews 40). But putting those aside, let’s look at the possible Celtic origins of the Grail and how it evolved to the chalice we think of today.
The Grail in Celtic Myth
The earliest stories don’t include the Grail at all. Many times there was a quest, oftentimes for one or more of the 13 treasures of Britain or some strange request of the gods, but those were more like warrior’s tales than the pilgrimage-like quest we think of.
Even though it is inextricably linked with Christ, the Grail may, in fact, have its origins in pre-Christian myths. In these stories, it’s not a cup or chalice, but a cauldron – the main cooking implement of the pre-Roman Celts, and therefore associated with nourishment and life-giving powers. Celtic myth has cauldrons a-plenty, the most famous of which is probably the cauldron of the goddess Ceridwen. To make a long story short, in the “Story of Taliesin,” Ceridwen cooks up a potion to make her ugly son so smart no one would notice his looks. But he never got to drink it. The boy brewing the potion was burned by the liquid and without thinking, licked his sore finger, thus ingesting all the knowledge of the world. He became Taliesin, a bard well-known for his wisdom, and thought by some to be the inspiration for or precursor to Merlin.
In the Preiddeu Annwn (Spoils of the In-World), Arthur is first mentioned questing for what could be the earliest direct reference to the Grail, the Cauldron of Annwn (inspiration). It was guarded by nine maidens, possibly priestesses, and it was quite a battle to get to it. Only seven of Arthur’s men returned, and we aren’t told if they ever found the cauldron, or what exactly it was.
Then there is the Cauldron of Rebirth, also commonly associated with the goddess Ceridwen. In the tale of The Mabinogion, there is a story called “The Story of Branwen.” It is here we see the cauldron as giving life back to dead warriors. They return from the Otherworld almost in a zombie-like state, for they are unable to tell anyone of their experience in the Otherworld. In this story, the hero, Bran, leads a group of warriors to find the cauldron, but it is destroyed in a fight. As in the Preiddeu Annwn, only seven men survive (seven being a highly symbolic number).
Next week, we’ll take a look at the medieval stories of the Grail, and then delve into a truly strange theory involving St. Teresa of Avila.
What do you think of the Grail? Do you think it could date back to pre-Christian Celtic myth or is it purely a Christian relic? What have you read about the Grail, either in fiction or non-fiction?
J.P. Reedman, author of “Stone Lord: The Legend of King Arthur, The Era of Stonehenge”
Today we have a very special guest, author J.P. Reedman, whose historical fiction novel, Stone Lord: The Legend of King Arthur, The Era of Stonehenge, was recently published.
Q: Thank you so much for joining me and my readers. By way of introduction, please tell us a little about yourself.
Janet: Stone Lord is my first published novel. I began writing fantasy when I was 11, back on the west coast of Canada, where I grew up. I had lots of stories and poems published in the small presses in the ’80s, and had a long foray into ‘fan fiction’ but slacked off when I moved to the UK in 1992—I was too busy traveling around and having fun! A serious illness ten years ago kick-started my writing again; I knew then that it was time to sit down and really make an effort, and not to think you had all the time in the world.
Q: Stone Lord is a very unique take on Arthurian legend, as most books about King Arthur are set the Middle Ages or Celtic times. What inspired you to set yours in the Bronze Age?
Janet: I have read all the different Arthurian versions, plus non-fiction and the legends in the Mabinogion. There were so many versions of the Arthurian legends I began to think that, like Robin Hood, there may have been more than one source of inspiration for the character. I believe there probably WAS a dark age Arthur who stemmed the Saxon tides for a while…but certain mythic qualities in the legends speak of an older time, long before the Dark Ages. In the Welsh Mabinogion Arthur fights monsters and witches, not Saxons, and his company have the thinly disguised names of gods. Then there were Geoffrey of Monmouth’s anachronistic mentions of the building of Stonehenge, a monument many thousands of years older than the historical Arthur. Add to that, stories of weaponry coming from and being deposited in lakes (a custom that began in the Bronze Age), swords in standing stones, and you start to see what may be the root of some aspects of the legend.
Q: In reading the excerpts from your book available online, I noticed the main characters have names that are derivations of the names we normally associate with Arthurian legend. How did you determine what you would call them?
Janet: With great difficulty! I knew that it wouldn’t sound right to call them by their traditional established names, which are a mix of Celtic, French, and even a bit of Germanic. So I looked for older or more ‘primal’ sounding versions of the names, and found them most often in Irish myth—for instance Arthur’s sword Excalibur seems to have the Irish hero’s sword Caladbolg as its direct ancestor, so I used a version of this. I decided I wanted ‘Celtic sounding’ names, but with alternate spellings so as not to sound TOO familiar or confuse people about the timeline. And if anyone is wondering, it is now thought that Celtic languages were in Britain at least from 2500 BC.
Q: What types of traditional research did you do for this book? What are some sources you’d recommend if others want to learn more about the Bronze Age or its people?
Janet: Visit the monuments if you can! There’s nothing like being in the field. There are several brilliant books on the subject of Stonehenge and the British Bronze Age. Stonehenge by Mike Parker Pearson contains much of the recent findings in the Stonehenge landscape, and Aubrey Burl’s Rites of the Gods covers the ritual side of things.
Q: You’ve also done some archeological research. That’s something few people can claim. Please tell us a little about this research, how it came about and how it influenced your book.
Janet: I work part-time at Stonehenge itself and have been lucky enough to talk with many of the top archaeologists in the field. I also have worked myself on a marvelous site just 2 miles from the stones where there is an ancient sacred pool full of deposits that spans the ages from the Mesolithic to medieval times. A rare type of Bronze Age dagger was found in the spring, and this really started to make me think about the Excalibur tradition. The site is on private land and covered in trees; an iron age hill fort stands next to it, and the Avon river curls around it like a serpent…it’s a truly magical place and may well become a site of worldwide importance.
Q. You have some very nice nods to traditional Arthurian legend in your work, such as Ardhu (Arthur) moving a stone and taking a sacred dagger from underneath it. What made you choose to portray the Sword in the Stone in this manner?
Janet: I saw a video about someone who could move large stones. He did it using a pivot point and I thought, ‘Yes, that could work!’ I began to think again, about Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of Merlin dismantling Stonehenge when it was still in Ireland. It wasn’t magic that moved the stones but his ‘ingenious machines.’ I didn’t want to use magic in Stone Lord, so I had to come up with something that could be done and would look visually impressive to onlookers.
Q: One of the most fascinating aspects of your story, at least to me personally, is the mythology of the people and how it affects their daily lives. Can you please tell us a little about how you came to learn about it and the role it plays in your story?
Janet: When reading many books about prehistoric people, I was nearly always disappointed by the usage (or lack) of personal mythology/ritual. People laugh when archaeologists dig a mysterious mound and say it’s ‘for ritual’ but it WAS a very different world to ours, one when you really didn’t know if the Sun would return every Midwinter, where a simple virus or a bad tooth could kill you, where you would have to placate the powers for your continued survival.. I studied anthropology briefly in the ’80s and tried to make a fairly realistic portrayal of what I think Bronze Age Britons might have believed in—a world where the spirits of the dead co-existed with the living, where trees, stones, rivers all held tutelary deities. It wasn’t the ‘fluffy’ time some authors like to make it either; there is plenty of evidence that strange and not-so-nice rites did take place on occasion.
Q: Your pre-historic version of Guinevere, whom you call Fynavir, is Irish. Why did you choose this background for her? How did you choose how to place the other characters since they are very much out of their traditional element in your book?
Janet: The name Guinevere has the same origin and meaning as Fynavir—White Phantom. Findabhair was daughter of the Irish Queen Maeve in the famous saga The Cattle Raid of Cooley. I liked the idea of a marriage alliance being made, especially as much British gold work of the Bronze Age came from Wicklow. It is now also thought that the Irish hero sagas have roots in earlier prehistory rather than just in the Iron Age. As for the others, I did try to keep some of Arthur’s familial ties in tact. I used Cornwall for his mother’s Y’gerna’s home as not only was Tintagel in the original, it was a very important place in prehistory—the source of Britain’s tin. Lancelot (An’kelet) is a prince from Brittany in France…not a million miles from the ‘canon’ Lancelot who was also from that area; Brittany has had strong tied to Britain since the Stone Age and also has a great megalithic culture.
Q: Some reviews have likened your book to Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. Obviously they are both set in pre-historic times, but beyond that do you find it an apt comparison? How would you describe your book to those trying to decide whether or not to read it?
Janet: Auel’s book is set at a very much earlier period than mine, but I can see some resemblance. She may have been writing an adventure epic but she knew her stuff about the people and their lifestyle.
Q: What is one misconception you’ve heard voiced about your work and what would you say to clarify?
Janet: I’ve had a few people who don’t seem to recognize that it is fiction! I am not expounding a theory on King Arthur in any way. You could almost call what I write a form of alternative history, I suppose.
Q: Do you believe there was a historical King Arthur? Why or why not? Or do you think it really matters?
Janet: I do think there was, but whoever he was, he has assimilated both mythic characters and a whole handful of different historical figure into his mythos. That’s why there are legends in various parts of Britain concerning him, from Cornwall to Wales, to Scotland.
Q: Is Stone Lord a stand-alone book or part of a series? What are you working on next?
Janet: There will be a second part which carries through to the end of Ardhu’s life. It introduced several new main characters, including Ardhu’s illegitimate son, Mordraed.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Janet: I hope that this book might also give people a better idea of the Bronze Age era in Britain. Too many people still have this image of ‘cavemen’ in shaggy skins grunting as they haul stones around a landscape. These people are our direct ancestors and no less intelligent than us—they wove cloth, wore gold jewellery, forged bronze weapons, used razors and had buttons on their clothes!
Q. Where can readers find the book, online or in print? Where can people connect with you online?
Janet: Stone Lord is available in print and kindle on Amazon. Other e-book variations are available on SMASHWORDS, and print copies from Barnes and Noble and Waterstones.com. There is a blog at stone-lord.blogspot.com, and also a Stone Lord Facebook page. Both have lots of archaeological items as well as information on the book.
Thank you again for spending time with me today. I wish you the greatest success with your work, both now and in the future.
Do you have questions or comments for Janet? Add them here and she’ll respond.
It’s one of the most recognizable symbols of Arthurian legend, but it wasn’t part of the original tale. The Round Table as we know it came into Arthurian legend in the late 12th century once French writers and translators got involved in the story. Wace and Layamon were the first to mention a round table at which Arthur and all of his knights sat equally. It was Malory who connected Guinevere and Merlin to the Round Table, Guinevere in bringing it to Arthur as part of her dowry and Merlin in crafting it at Uther’s request. It was also Malory who gave us the idea of each knight’s name being written in gold at his place. Depending on whose story you read, the table could seat anywhere between 13 and 1,600 knights.
The famous Round Table in Winchester Castle in Wessex, which still hangs there today, was long ago proven a fraud. Tests show that the solid oak table, which is 18 feet in diameter and weighs one and a quarter tons, was made during the reign of Edward I, sometime in the late 13th century. Edward was a great Arthurian enthusiast, who also claimed to have acquired the crown of King Arthur from the Welsh. What we see today is the result of repainting in 1516 and restoration after 1645.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, engraving from the Middle Ages. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Many people believe that although the Round Table was a relatively late addition to the stories that demonstrates the ideals of Medieval chivalry, it harkens back, at least symbolically, to an earlier tradition. According to David Day, the idea of all the knights being equal is part of an oral tradition that predates the writing of the tales. He gives as one example the Fiana of the second century, a mounted group of warriors similar to the Knights of the Round. He also mentions that in late Roman Britain, the Dux Bellorum gathered independent Roman chieftains around him. Although they looked to him as their leader in war, in all other ways, they were addressed as equals.
So if the Round Table isn’t a literal table, what could it be? Theories abound. Here are some of the most popular:
A Roman Amphitheatre
Leslie Alcock argues that the supposed Round Table at Caerleon was really a Roman amphitheatre.
There is another amphitheatre in Chester that is thought by some to be the origins of the Round Table.
A Henge of Stones
Alcock also states that the neolithic henge near Penrith associated with the table was an ancient ritual site.
Some people have suggested that the Round Table is actually Stonehenge, or that since Merlin is credited with being involved with both, that the two stories at least have a common origin.
A Parcel of Land
Norma Lorre Goodrich names the Round Table as an area of land in Stirlingshire that was a key political site because whoever had control of it had access to the eastern Highlands. She says that Guinevere was a Pict and brought the Round Table lands to Arthur in her dowry.
A Chapel or Building to House the Holy Grail
Goodrich also refers to a building on this land in Stirling. She describes the Round Table building as “a tabled rotunda constructed on a stone table or foundation” (Guinevere, 49; King Arthur 284-292).
A Tradition Begun by Christ
Britainna.com makes an uncited reference to the Round Table coming from a story recorded by St. Luke that Christ and his apostles sat at a round table for the Last Supper. This is a theory I’ve never heard before, but it does raise interesting possible ties to the Holy Grail.
A constellation made from the rotation of the Plough around the Pole star is another theory. This makes sense in an odd sort of way, considering the Druids were known for their skills in astronomy.
In the end, we don’t know, and may never know, the true identity of the Round Table. But as on of the most recognizable and enduring symbols of King Arthur’s court, it likely will continue to inspire those who seek equality for generations to come.
What about you? What theories have you heard about the Round Table? Which ones do you believe?
Pre-1066 illustration of Anglo-Saxon warriors on horseback. By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When last we left the Saxons, they were defending the British against the Picts and Scots under a peace treaty that paid them in money, food and land for their services. All was well for a time, but then the Saxons began to think bigger.
It is clear that by the mid-fifth century, the Saxons were growing restless with their narrow strip of land and seeking greater inroads into the country. They brought more and more of their Germanic fellows to Britain and demanded increasing amounts of payment. Eventually, they broke their treaty and began sacking British towns. According to Gildas, the leaders of the Saxons were called Hengest and Hosa and they ruled Kent. Nennius tells us that Vortigern married Hengest’s daughter in an effort to secure peace and Bede gives us the story of the hidden daggers in the Saxons’ boots at the council where they betrayed Vortigern. But that is the stuff of mythology and folk legend, not verifiable history.
On and on the two sides fought, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, neither really gaining ground. According to Phillips and Keatman, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which Snyder discredits as unreliable during this time period) “lists no battles between 465 and 473. This must have been a period of consolidation on both sides when defenses were prepared and personnel organized” (73). In 473 (again, according to the Chronicle), the Saxons won a great victory, but then shortly thereafter, the Britons held them at bay.
This is the time period of Arthur’s 12 great battles (as given to us by Nennius), if you believe that Arthur existed. If not, the closest historical leader scholars can point to is Ambrosius Aurelianus. Synder credits him with challenging the Saxons in multiple locations until the battle of Mount Badon (somewhere between 485-510). After that defeat there was a period of peace. As Phillips and Keatman write, “In the half century that followed Badon, until the time of Gildas’ writing, Britain enjoyed a period free from external attack. Indeed, there is archeological evidence of a reverse Anglo-Saxon migration; considerable numbers returned to the continent of Europe, uncertain, no doubt, of their precarious foothold in Britain” (77). Especially since Phillips and Keatman’s archeological evidence is weak (pottery shards in Germany that supposedly show they were settlers direct from Britain – but they don’t talk about how or why the shards lead us to this conclusion), I doubt the validity of the reverse migration. I have a feeling that while some may have returned home, the Saxons were, in general, still in Britain licking their wounds and biding their time to rebuild the forces they lost at Badon.
But their mindset of defeat seems to have ended in the late sixth century. By 550, the Saxons had defeated the British at Salisbury, and by 577, they had cut off the British in the southwest by taking the towns of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester. By 614, they controlled Devon and by 682, had the whole of the southwest peninsula under their control, save Cornwall. To the north and west, the Angles rose to power, and by the eighth century, they had overtaken most of the rest of the country. By 927, the Saxon king Athelstan, successor to Alfred the Great, united the country into a single kingdom first called Angelcynn, then Englaland and today, England (Phillips and Keatman 78). The remainder of the Britons settled in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, eventually to carry on only in Wales – the beginning of the divide between England and Wales that exists still today.
The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell (ed.) King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman
What about you? What have you heard about the Anglo-Saxon invasions? Does it agree with or contradict what’s written here? (It’s a complex topic.) What sources do you recommend?