A few years ago, I accepted a NaNoWriMo dare to write an Arthurian tale with a steampunk twist.
I rather quickly regretted that.
The first question I asked myself was: Where do Arthurian and steampunk connect well enough to make a story?
The answer was that they don’t. I was faced with the mental blankness we all feel when a story refuses to reveal itself.
For me, a bit of mind-wandering always loosens things up, so I sat on my back porch. I picked a knight at random, Galahad, and pondered the problem. What kind of a person might Galahad have been, had he truly existed?
Those characters were supposed to be men of the 5th or 6th century, ordinary men. But the tales featuring them were written centuries later. Their 11th-century chroniclers presented them in contemporary armor as worn by Crusaders, and so did all subsequent authors.
Despite the heroic legends written about them, they would have been flesh and blood and would have been subject to the same emotions and physical needs as any other person.
What if Galahad and Gawain were lovers? That thought led to these questions:
What really happened after the Grail was found? What if somehow Galahad got separated from Gawain through a door in time when the magic in the world vanished with the Grail? How would Galahad get back to Gawain?
What if Galahad was marooned in Edwardian England, with Merlin. That was how the steampunk aspect of the story came into being.
That story became Galahad Hawke.
The main character is Galahad Du Lac, son of Lancelot Du Lac, illegitimate, some chroniclers have said. If he is, we have to accept that the fifth century was a lot less concerned about the proprieties than Victorian Romantics gave them credit for.
Galahad is a knight-errant, a classic character in medieval chivalric romance literature. The adjective errant in this context means wandering. These characters roam the land in search of adventures to prove their chivalric worth.
They engaged in knightly duels or went in pursuit of courtly love. The medieval romance of highly ritualized courtly love was a rigid structure. It defined the behaviors of noble ladies and their lovers. It was tightly intertwined with the principles of the Code of Chivalry.
The Chivalric Code was a system of values combining a warrior culture, knightly piety, and courtly manners. Adherence to the Code of Chivalry ensured a knight epitomized bravery, honor, and nobility.
Thus, since the established canon dictates that Galahad isn’t attracted to women, he goes on quests to find strange and magical objects such as the Holy Grail.
The story is told from Galahad’s point of view and opens just after the Grail is found. As I said above, history and fantasy merge in the Middle Ages, so I took the high fantasy route.
Galahad Hawke was published in a short collection called Tales from the Dreamtime.
I read some medieval literature in college and found his story both varied and fascinating. So, different versions of Galahad appear regularly in my work.
Nowadays, Galahad is considered a minor knight. However, what we regard as canon about him is taken from Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 work, Le Morte d’Arthur, in which he has a prominent role.
Mallory’s collection was a reworking of traditional tales that were hundreds of years old, even in his day. Also, he wrote it while in prison for a multitude of crimes, so we can be sure it’s not historically accurate.
Traditionally, Galahad is an illegitimate son of Lancelot du Lac. He goes on the quest to find the Holy Grail and immediately goes to heaven, raptured as a virgin.
But was he raptured? If he was not raptured, what could have happened to make medieval chroniclers think he was?
And he never married, but humans tend to be human, so why would bachelorhood make Arthurian chroniclers assume he was a virgin?
You might wonder why the notion of a virgin knight and being taken to heaven before death was so important to the medieval chroniclers. Why would they write it as though it were factual recorded history?
People always rewrite history to suit the times in which they live.
Medieval chroniclers were writing some 300 to 400 years after the supposed event, during the final decades of the Crusades. We have excellent records of 15th and 16th-century political struggles, and yet we make things up about the Tudors and Elizabethans as we go along, because they were interesting people and we love to imagine what they must have been like.
Religion and belief in the Christian truths espoused by the Church were in the very air the people of the time breathed. All the physical and material things of this world were entwined and explained by the religious beliefs 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.
Death was the common enemy, the one thing kings feared as much as beggars did. Those saints who were raptured did not experience death. Instead, they were raised to heaven, where they live in God’s presence for all eternity.
Thus, Galahad’s state of virginity and grace was written to be an example of what all good noblemen should aspire to.
The High Middle Ages, the period of European history that commenced around 1000 and lasted until 1300 (or so), saw a flowering of historical-fantasy writing in England. The craft of researching history was not an academic subject taught in school.
Reading history and writing their own accounts was a hobby for educated men who had the time, social position, and the talents to pursue it. Also, it was the purview of well-educated members of the clergy. The scientific method did not yet exist, so their “histories” were colored by daydreams, fantasies, and religious beliefs.
This means the assertions these authors claimed were history weren’t authenticated by the kind of intense research that we apply to academic subjects today.
I like to 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.
Sure, the histories from this period are highly questionable. However, they’re entertaining fantasy reads, leaving us free to riff on them and create our own mythologies.
So that is what I’m doing—working on my Alt-Arthurian novel, and also an unfinished spec-fic novel I pulled out the archives, looking for something cheerful to write.
What are you writing? I hope you are enjoying good writing time during this period of uncertainty and voluntary house-arrest!