I’ve already talked about the ethos of each of the books and some of the reading I’ve done to ensure I understand what I’m corrupting. This is something a little more in depth, without rewriting my entire degree.
The Medieval period (according to my understanding so don’t argue), begins with the fall of the Roman Empire during the mid fifth century. Some call this the Dark Ages as the northern tribes sweep over Europe to consume Rome. The Empire is then reborn during the ninth century under the leadership skills of Charlemagne (a personal favourite), who became the first Holy Roman Empire on the New Years day 800 AD. As you can see, there is a few hundred years difference between one event and the other, this is the time most people would have the historical version of Arthur existing. I will not argue with this, but I personally prefer the version created by later generations.
This is when we step into the slightly post modernist concept of Medievalisms. I won’t bore you with the meaning of postmodernism, but it is basically the theory which allows us all to have our own opinions, reflecting our own subjective ideas and thoughts on a subject so long as we acknowledge our sources and the reasons we have created our argument, using comprehensive methods of study and reporting. It took me a whole year to learn to distil that nonsense.
The basis of this theory means we can then look at different sources of material, everything from literature, art, clothing, social economics, weather reports, pots and buildings to build our understand of the era we are studying. It also means we can take a sneaky look into the heads of those people we are examining and try to understand their motivations by looking at their world through their eyes. This is of course impossible. We have no real understanding of 1348, or 1381 or the War of the Roses, or even 1066 and 1086 but we can have a stab at it because people wrote stories to reflect the thoughts of their contemporaries. In acknowledging this supposed conflict of the subjective and objective, we can justify our exploration and understanding of the Medieval paradigm (see I’m educated, even if I can’t use commas correctly).
Geoffrey of Monmouth is the perfect example. He wrote his History of Britain during a time of war. King Stephen stole the throne of England from Empress Matilda during the twelfth century and they fought over it for decades. Empress Matilda needed a strong man to lead her armies and she chose Robert of Gloucester (I’d have loved to have met him in the flesh). Robert believed in Matilda’s right to the English throne and Geoffrey wanted to impress is new patron. If you understand the context of the wider history of England, Wales and the Holy Roman Empire, you can see why Geoffrey takes a man who could have been a tribal leader in Wales or western England and creates a king. This king becomes the Arthur we recognise today. He wanted Robert to see himself in Arthur, or perhaps Geoffrey wanted to extol the virtues of a good king into the young Prince Henry. Geoffrey is legitimising the Anglo-Norman claim to the throne of Britain, not just England and so it goes on if we continue to examine Geoffrey’s book.
Looking behind the words on the page is vital if we want to understand the nature of the characters created. Why is Lancelot brought into the myths during the French Romances, for instance? Personally, I suspect Marie of France was not a happily married woman and her storyteller wanted to create a dashing knight for her to love on cold nights. Also, we have to understand that during this period noble men and woman moved in vastly different circles. Men fought bloody battles, often starving and dying of disease before reaching their goal (think of the Crusades). While the noble women were kept locked in their ivory towers, often detached from the worlds around them and victim to the whims of their fathers and husbands. Courtly love stopped the women from carrying bastards which would threaten the family line and kept the married ones faithful while their lords went off to play war. It’s a bit more complex than that, but you have the general idea. Lancelot is a balm. He is a the noble knight, the passionate but reluctant lover, the ruthless killer and the poet. He is what us romantics want in a man.
In the space of the two hundred years between Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes we’ve seen a vast sea change in the way the myths are presented. Each reflects the needs of the time and the thoughts of those who have conjured these characters from basically nowhere. In French Romances, Arthur hardly exists, he is an old man who married a young woman and loses her to Lancelot. In Monmouth’s version Arthur is a warrior king and a great leader.
When it came time to write my own version of these stories, I wanted to reflect the 21st century into the mythical landscape Arthur occupies. I wanted to create heroes and villains, while using Medieval tropes we all know and love through so many books and films. Those of us who are born in Europe are surrounded by built history, Medieval cathedrals, castles and houses are everywhere. I spent a weekend in Rome and left feeling like I’d never want to see any more old stuff there is so much it! We are educated in this landscape and its heritage without even thinking about it. So, I used it to create a world you would instantly recognise but one which never existed, just like Geoffrey did, or Chretien and especially Mallory. I also wanted the freedom to explore the nature of love, which is where Lancelot comes from after all, I wanted to understand how hard it is for a man who is the epitome of knighthood to acknowledge a lifestyle so different to the one thrust upon him. Gay issues are important to me personally and always have been, though for many years I didn’t understand why. Bi-sexuality and homosexuality didn’t exist in Somerset during the eighties, if they had done I’d have made some very different life choices I can tell you.
By finding this thread in the myths of Camelot and being brave enough to tackle it, I unlocked something I clearly wanted to explore, human nature and the nature of love. I don’t force Lancelot to love Arthur or Tancred, it happens on its own but I can promise you, it would have been a very dull book if we hadn’t wanted to explore this together. I combine the thoughts and feelings of a 21st century writer with characters handed down from Monmouth to Tennyson, using them as I think fits a new retelling. These characters are archetypes we can manipulate to suit each generation and for that I owe them and all the others that come before and after The Knights of Camelot a debt. I try to be accurate with such things as fighting styles, armour, castle design, horse psychology and food (no tomatoes or potatoes I promise), but it is a mythical creation and one of which I am justifiably proud. If there are occasions that modern phrases slip in or you don’t like conjunctions then the original stories are out there to enjoy in a more formal language and setting – good luck.
If you are seeking a story which moves fast, leaves your version of Medieval Britain in tacked and gives you just a hint of 21st century social rights, then welcome to the world of The Knights of Camelot. Sex, violence, lots of Anglo-Saxon swearing and tons of adventure, that’s us – Lancelot du Lac and me.