As the author of a novel which is rooted in a deep and abiding love of medieval literature, I’ve spent much time over the last few years meditating on what great works of literature can teach us about the people who produced them.
Take The Song of Roland, a medieval French epic of Charlemagne’s retreat across the Pyrenees into France. Of this tale of betrayal, tragedy, and justice, which is almost entirely fictional from beginning to end, Dr George Grant says, “Its true lies tell us much about ourselves, our world, and the shaping of Western Civilization that we might not otherwise know.”
Stories tell us something far more important than the facts about the people in them. Stories tell us far deeper and more resonant truths about the people who tell them.
The Song of Roland, for instance, is obviously fiction. In this chanson de geste, a nobleman of Charlemagne’s court betrays his rearguard to the Saracens as Charlemagne’s army withdraws across the mountains. At Roncesvalles, the legendary Roland with various other paladins of France fight desperately until evening and then fall defending the pass. Horrified by his loss, inspired by the sacrifice of his greatest warrior, and obligated by an emergent chivalric code, Charlemagne recrosses the Pyrenees and wins a resounding victory against the Saracens. Finally Ganelon, the traitor who betrayed Roland to the Saracens, is tried and executed, not so much for his betrayal of the kingdom as for his betrayal of the chivalric virtues of Christendom: fidelity to a lord, the bonds of brotherhood between Christian warriors, and the defence of the faith against pagans.
Very little, if any, of this story is historical. But what it gives us is a snapshot of medieval civilisation at the very flowering-point of chivalry. In Dr Grant’s summary, “Roland…was the epitome of the great Christian knight. He was loyal, he was faithful, he was trustworthy to the end, and for Ganelon to betray that virtue with his cunning was to undercut the whole of Christian civilisation.” Like many other stories, The Song of Roland uses its fiction to tell us what lies, most burning, more insistent, most truly in the hearts of its tellers and hearers.
If this is true for a single literary work like The Song of Roland, how much more might it be true for the Matter of Britain—one of the most often-retold tales in Western history?
The body of legends known today as the Arthurian legendarium, or the Matter of Britain, has come down to us in a vast body of iterations and reiterations. Scholars today continue to debate the existence of Arthur, the man at their centre. Did he really exist? Was he Roman, Celtic, or Sarmatian? And what, exactly, did he do? Defeat pagan invaders—win the battle of Mount Badon—preserve civilisation for a time before the Saxon conquest?
About the only thing we do know for certain is that the vast majority of the stories about this man were invented by pseudo-historians, minstrels, and romancers. We see each new storyteller putting his own gloss on each of the tales and sending it on to the next storyteller to gain new details, new characters, new adventures. At the same time they pick up new anachronisms: a courtly love tradition that certainly could not have existed in the sixth century when the real Arthur may have lived; a code of chivalry; the latest knightly weapons and fighting tactics.
Apart from perhaps one small grain of truth, the Arthur legends are fiction. Yet, over the years I worked on Pendragon’s Heir, my own retelling of the Matter of Britain, I came to appreciate just how profoundly truthful these tales could be—a truth powerful enough to captivate storytellers and audiences from England and Wales to France and Germany, from the High Middle Ages right down to the present day.
For at the heart of the Arthurian legendarium in its most refined form there is a painful gash that lies like a wound between medieval ideals and medieval reality. In Thomas Malory’s classic English version of the myths, Le Morte D’Arthur, the knights of Arthur are a savage, sinful lot, far removed from the idealised knights-in-shining-armour of popular imagination. Some of the knights—Galahad, Perceval, Bors, and (nearly) Lancelot—truly are men of honour and integrity, but the majority are violent, unchaste men who not only break their oath of allegiance to the Round Table’s brotherhood but also fail to live the life of holiness and humility necessary for them to achieve the Quest of the Grail, the one thing that might establish their realm forever. CS Lewis calls them “the peak which failed to reach heaven”—the warriors who dreamed of something better, who reached out to grasp beautiful and high ideals, but who ultimately failed through their own sinfulness.
It was my aim in Pendragon’s Heir not so much to use the Arthurian legends to construct something new, or to provide a faithful picture of any particular historical time, as it was to probe this painful gash between ideals and reality, to explore in my generation the same issues which the medieval romancers explored in theirs. And as much as us, the medieval romancers had excellent reason to explore this topic: they lived in a world of fierce, nigh-unbeatable warriors who all too often broke their oaths, betrayed their marriage covenants, rebelled against their lords, and preyed on the very people they were sworn to protect.
But that is only half of the truth that lies at the heart of the Arthurian myth. The other half is an equally compelling image of virtue: against oath-breaking, oath-keeping. Against unlawful passions, a tender and Christlike love. Against rebellion, meekness and courtesy. Against oppression and exploitation, self-sacrifice and charity. And these qualities, too, rose to a high and fierce flame in the Middle Ages: not all men knocked, or sought, or asked, in vain, and if there were many defeats in the quest to incarnate the kingdom of heaven on the earth, there were also glorious and awe-inspiring victories.
My hope in Pendragon’s Heir is to introduce you to the world of Arthur, which is the world of medieval Christendom: not to tell you what the medievals did, but to show you what they thought, what they believed, and above anything else what they hoped to leave as a legacy to future generations. My hope is to sketch out for you a map of the medieval faith: their ideals, their hope, their fears.
It is a story of dreams and visions. But to the men who dreamed them, those dreams and visions were more immediate, more solid, more true than anything else in the world.
I hope that through Pendragon’s Heir, they will inspire you too.
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir is her debut novel.
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It’s been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon’s Heir?