Friday, October 30, 2009

Helen Hollick on Why I Love Arthur and Gwenhwyfar

We are very pleased to welcome Helen Hollick today as part of the blog tour to promote her book, Pendragon's Banner, the second book in the Pendragon's Banner trilogy.

Four reasons why I love the two main characters of my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy –
Arthur and Gwenhwyfar by Helen Hollick

1. Arthur, my King Arthur, hero of my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, is not a Medieval knight in armour. He is not a chivalric king who puts his religious whims before duty to his Kingdom and people. Nor is he the sort of man who would say and do nothing if he caught his wife in bed with another man. I’m sorry to say, the familiar tales of that King Arthur do not interest me. Those stories may be romantic, conjuring idylls of courtly life and love and a duty to God above duty to duty… But that sort of tale, and that sort of man is not for me!

My Arthur is rough, tough and capable of being an utter b*****d! To be a warlord in the Dark Ages of British history, to fight hard to gain a kingdom and fight even harder to keep it, he would have to be. He puts the men of his elite cavalry above all else – why? Because without their loyalty he would be nothing. A good general always puts his men first.
Next in line is the love of his life, Gwenhwyfar.

2. I started writing what eventually became The Kingmaking after getting cross with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s portrayal of Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere). She was such a useless, whining bore! At one stage I threw the book across the room, shouting; “Oh pull yourself together woman!” The real Gwenhwyfar would never have been like that – at least I could not picture her as a timid, useless little mouse, squeaking because a boat was rocking about a bit. I saw her as brave, courageous and capable. She would carry a sword – and would know how to use it!
I saw her as feisty, as having a mind of her own – of knowing what she wanted and stopping at nothing until she got it.

Ms Bradley’s novel did me a favour though. I was so irritated I finally made up my mind to stop scribbling the reams of rubbish that were getting me nowhere as a writer, and started writing my novel.

And this time, I was going to finish it!

3. I deliberately set out to write something entirely different from the usual Arthurian tales. The Medieval stories are entirely made up, indeed it is not even certain that Arthur himself actually existed. Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, the round table, Holy Grail – Camelot, and yes, even Merlin, are all made up characters invented to fit snugly in with the chivalric life of the 12th-13th Century Norman/Plantagenet Medieval Court. The quest for the Grail reflects the call to arms for the Crusades – early media manipulation.

The early stories of Arthur are nothing like this. There are a few familiar characters – Cei (Sir Kay) Bedwyr (Sir Bedevere) Morgause/Morgaine, Ectha (Sir Ector) and Uthr – Uther Pendragon, and Gwenhwyfar of course. There is also Ambrosius Aurelianus, Vortigern, Hengest, Horsa and an epic cast of other such characters from the distant pages of Post Roman British history.

The early Welsh stories of the 6th/7th century consist of battle lists, of battles fought and won against encroaching enemies - the Saxons. This Arthur is not chivalrous, in fact he was probably not even Christian. We hear of the Arthur who kicked a woman in the belly, who stole cattle from a monastery. Of his children, the sons of “Arthur the Soldier”; Llacheu, Gwydre and Amr. And Medraut who fell with Arthur at the last Battle of Camlann. Medraut is Mordred, but there is nothing in the early legends to suggest he was a traitor. All we know is that he died in the same battle as Arthur, so he could easily have been fighting on the same side.

My novels were to reflect the early legends. The tales that were told around hearth-fires on a long winters’ night, when old soldiers sat and remembered when they had fought alongside a man they had respected and loved.

It is the tales they told that I wanted to tell.

4. The relationship I portrayed between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar had to be very different from the Medieval stories. I could not – and would not - portray my Gwen as an adulteress who preferred the vain and arrogant man that is Lancelot (sorry, that is how I have always seen him.) over the man who was her hero, Lord and King - over Arthur.

I needed their relationship to be solid, one that would never, ever, be broken – yet one that lurched between the storms and hurricanes of arguments and fights. I had no intention of writing a romance, although their relationship was to be filled with romantic episodes; of a deep, unyielding love between the two of them. Their relationship was to be passionate. And deeply passionate people have huge swings of emotion. They love fiercely and fight as fierce.
Arthur is not physically loyal to Gwenhwyfar, he is a man who faces death nearly every day, who rides to battle knowing he may never come back. Sex is a need, a cathartic way of releasing the tension of bitter survival. To Arthur, sexual encounters mean nothing. It is Gwenhwyfar, and only Gwenhwyfar, he will ever love.

I have created my characters, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, as real people. Things go wrong for them, there is soaring happiness and desperate tragedy in their lives. They misunderstand each other, sometimes intentionally, sometimes without realising it. But they would fight to the death for each other if necessary.

Arthur is driven by his need to rule a kingdom, Gwenhwyfar is driven by the need to be at her husband’s – her lover’s – side. The force that drives them, however – Life - is not always a kind mistress.

This is what a new reader recently sent me:

“Helen, you have written a book that has life in every page and so much texture that it takes you on a journey with each chapter. It is as if you are right there in the same room, tent, forest or dirt road as the characters. If you close your eyes for a second you can even smell the same smoke-filled air that they breath as they pass from one courtyard to another. The only way I can describe this to anyone who needs to know what to expect when they open this book is this:
‘the book is simply breathing in your hands.’”

To me, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar are not merely fictitious characters in a historical novel. They are real. They laugh and cry, they sing and shout. They bleed, they hurt, they are alive – they breathe life into my humble interpretation of the Arthurian legend.

And that is why I love them so much.

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You may like to check out other stops on the Pendragon's Banner tour:

Virginie Says (10/25)
Readaholic (10/25)
Rundpinne (10/26)
Bloody Bad (10/28)
Steven Till (10/31)
Café of Dreams (10/31)


  1. What a fascinating interview! I look forward to reading this author's work.

  2. I hadn't been to interested in this book until reading this post. In all honesty I hadn't even looked at it long enough to see what it was. But the description of the characters is fantastic and very much sounds like my kind of read. *Bad Me for not giving the book a chance*

  3. I've visited a few stops on the Pendragon's Banner tour and every time I find myself liking Helen more and more. :) Great post!

  4. Great interview! The stormy, emotional relationship between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar is the aspect I like best about the trilogy.

  5. Having just finished reading the first two books in the trilogy, I have to say to Helen, that I totally loved these aspects of the main characters! Very enjoyable reads, and now I can't wait to read the third book!

  6. Hello everyone - thank you for your kind comments, this particular interview was one of the best to take part in as it was great fun doing something different to the usual question & answer format.

    Thank you to those who have read my novels, and I hope new readers enjoy them as much. Do let me know!