The Burton Review welcomes Anna Elliott, author of the newly released "Twilight of Avalon". See my review beneath this post with some helpful links to Arthurian sites. Anna will also be by later to check on comments and questions, so please feel free to correspond through here! And a big thank you to Anna for allowing me to host this on my blog, I truly appreciate it.
A Magical Balance
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 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 Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome's legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from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. Like the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love. So in those cases I took a more symbolic approach, which I've always felt is a way--though certainly not the only way--of reading the fantastical elements of the Arthurian tales. Dragons, for example, can be literal scaly monsters. But they can also be seen as a metaphor for the evil that exists outside the bounds of organised society. And 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.
I did take a fair number of liberties with the legend--liberties that are, I hope, justified. After all, after so many centuries of re-tellings, adding yet another version of the story seemed silly unless I could add something new to the age-old tale. From first to last of the trilogy, Trystan and Isolde's story has been an absolute joy to work on. And my hope, now that the first book is out and I'm close to the completion of book three, is that readers of the books will experience at least a small echo of the unique blend of fantasy and historic truth that first drew me to the original tales.
*** Wasn't that just awesome?! Comments and questions, for Anna?