#amwriting: King Arthur: where history and fantasy merge

473px-Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p214 Public Domain via WikimediaA few years ago I was challenged to write an Arthurian tale with a steampunk twist. I accepted the task, but immediately wished I hadn’t.

The first question I asked myself was: Where do Arthurian and steampunk connect well enough to make a story? The answer was–they don’t. I felt that block we all feel when the story will not reveal itself.

But, sitting on my back porch and letting my mind wander, I found myself wondering what Galahad and Gawain would have really been like. The people those characters were based on were men of the 5th or 6th century, ordinary men, and despite the heroic legends, they were made of flesh and blood.

And what if somehow Galahad got separated from Gawain through a door in time? How would Galahad get back to Gawain?  What if he was marooned in Edwardian England, with Merlin – can you say steampunk?

The title of that tale is Galahad HawkeThe original working title was I, Galahad. For every story, the title is a moot point for me, because any title I give it at the beginning will likely be changed when I rewrite it anyway.

The main character is Galahad Du Lac, son of Lancelot Du Lac, illegitimate, some have said, but is he really? If he is, it implies the fifth century was a lot less concerned about the proprieties than we give them credit for. His line of work–nobleman and hero. Thus, he goes on quests to find strange and magical objects such as Holy Grail.

The story was told from Galahad’s point of view. I opened the story just after the Grail was found.

What is the original story of Galahad that is bandied about most often?

Nowadays Galahad is a minor knight, but he figures prominently in Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 work, Le Morte d’Arthura reworking of traditional tales that were hundreds of years old in his day.

480px-Schmalz_galahadTraditionally, Galahad finds the grail and immediately goes to heaven, raptured as a virgin – but was he? I mean raptured OR a virgin?  If he was not raptured, what could have happened to make medieval chroniclers think he was?

And why was this notion of a virgin knight and being taken to heaven before death so important to the medieval chroniclers that they would write it as though it was true history?

Well, they were writing some 300 to 400 years after the supposed event, during the final decades of the Crusades. Religion and belief in the Christian truths espoused by the Church was in the very air the people of the time breathed. All things of this world were bound up and explained in ways relating to the Christian traditions of the day.

Literature in those days was filled with religious allegories, the most popular of which were the virginity and holiness of the Saints–especially those Saints deemed holy enough to be raptured. These people did not have to experience death, but instead were raised while still alive to heaven where they spent eternity in Gods presence.

Death was to be feared–a constant companion, and if possible, one to be avoided.

The concept of a knight pure enough in God’s sight to be raised to heaven was a popular centerpiece of medieval tales.

According to the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia: “Medieval literature is a broad subject…the literature of this time was composed of religious writings as well as secular works. Just as in modern literature, it is a complex and rich field of study, from the utterly sacred to the exuberantly profane, touching all points in-between.”

SO, lets talk about Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was a Welsh cleric whose work was the foundation for the development of British historiography and the popularity of tales of King Arthur. He is best known for his chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”), which was wildly popular in its day and was uncritically accepted as true history well into the 16th century. It has been translated into various other languages from its original Latin, but is now considered historically unreliable.

220px-Sir_Galahad_(Watts)The High Middle Ages were a golden period for historical writing in England, but the craft of history was not an academic subject taught in school. It was something enjoyed by well-educated men of learning who were all men of the Church, but  was not subjected to the process of verification and research that we attempt to apply to academic subjects today. The gathering of historical tales was a hobby for educated men who had the time, social position, and the talents to pursue it.

As a result, the histories from this period are highly questionable–but are quite entertaining and are great fantasy reads. I always think that if J.R.R. Tolkien had been writing history in a monastery during the 7th and 8th century, The Lord of the Rings would have the same place in our historical narrative that the Arthurian Cycle has now, and Aragorn would have been the king who united all of Britain.

Galahad_grail_detailKnowing that history and fantasy merges in the Middle Ages, I approached my story by asking these questions:

  1. What does Galahad have to say about his story?
  2. How does he end up separated from Gawain
  3. How does he end up in Merlin’s company
  4. Why are they unable to get back to Gawain? What is the reason the magic no longer works?
  5. What do they do to resolve the situation?
  6. How does the tale end – does Galahad get Gawain back or is he permanently adrift in time? I wrote it two ways and picked the one that moved me the most.

This short-story appears in the novella, Tales From the Dreamtime.  However–for the last few days, the idea of what happened next has been percolating in my mind. I think Galahad may have another tale in his future.


Filed under Fantasy, Literature, Publishing, writing

6 responses to “#amwriting: King Arthur: where history and fantasy merge

  1. Love how you have laid this all out. It’s one thing to write a story, but another to dig down deep to what you know about about the personalities in a legend and steampunk it.


  2. We need a contemporary redux: A college grad/IT techie named Art meets an actress-wannabe named Gwen, but Gwen falls in love with Art’s MMA-wannabe roommate, Lance, and the trio…well, you decide….


  3. You really know your era. I read in a review of a new history just out that scholars are extending the Middle Ages much closer to the 19th Century. See Must We Divide History Into Periods by Jacques Le Goff


    • @Scott-That’s an intriguing notion. I can see some reason for for that. Traditionally, I’ve always thought the Reformation in the 16th century and the flowering of the renaissance ended them. I’m curious now, and definitely have to look into Le Goff’s work.