Author Scott Telek discusses the second novel in his The Swithen series, The Sons of Constance, which finds Merlin leaving his mother’s side and moving into his familiar role as adviser to kings. The novel also moves into more of what we expect when we think “King Arthur,” with battles, knights, dragons and all that good stuff.
This interview will reveal SPOILERS about the plot of The Sons of Constance,so it is recommended that it be read after reading the novel.
Tell us about this second book.
I really love this book. The story is quite meandering—it’s been interesting to see reviews try to sum it up, and I can see, now that I’ve finished the third one, that this is a bit of a “middle chapter,” but I love the world it creates and it has some great highlights. Plus it lays the foundation for some things to come that we will be seeing again, the most obvious being the Round Table.
This is where you begin to see that I am just chopping out a section of a huge long story—my image is of a sushi roll or one of those 8-foot-long sub sandwiches—and then having to shape it into a novel that works on its own. Our Man on Earth is a neat, self-contained story, and the next one, The Void Place,is also a self-contained story, so this one was a little challenging. Especially because the climax really is Pendragon’s death, but then it goes on for some time after that. But I had to get the creation of Stonehenge and the Round Table in here, so… it’ll be up to readers to decide how that worked or not. I like it because it’s weird and I just love the tone and world of magic it takes place in.
Most people don’t know that the Round Table originated in Uther’s time.
Yes, I was surprised that even some people very knowledgeable on the Arthurian legend didn’t know that. One of the things I love about the Arthurian legend, and one of the things that is most moving about it, is the way elements, and people, move through generations… which is one of the ways the work is about life itself. We will see that with Ulfius, who plays a very big role in the next book and then continues on to train Arthur and fight with him in his first wars. And then obviously the Round Table. I’ll tell readers, and I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler—I think it’s cool—that King Leodegrance takes the Round Table and keeps it, and then later gives it to Arthur when he marries his daughter—Guinevere.
The dragon fight is obviously a highlight.
Yes! That is a big part of the real legend and the red dragon is actually still the symbol of Wales… the dragon on their flag is from this legend (although the red dragon wins in the Welsh legend). The story of how the dragons got there is actually present in the collection of folklore called The Mabinogion,so it’s really cool that it continues into this legend. There are actually very few real dragons on King Arthur (save for in dreams), so I wanted to make the most of this and portray their fight as very impressive and visceral.
The Vortiger section is almost like its own novella.
That’s one of those story elements that I had to find a way to bring together into this novel, the Vortiger story is very important to the overall myth, and obviously gets Merlin from his mother’s side to the side of Pendragon and Uther, but yes, it doesn’t all just fall into one continuous story. For that reason, I decided to just render it as I did; as sort of a little novella at the beginning of the book. That was also part of the decision to name the sections ‘the first, second, and third kings,’ because it emphasizes how Merlin moves through these three kings, although Uther’s story will really be in the third book.
As far as the legend goes, Vortiger’s story ends after Merlin tells him he’s going to die—a scene that I love—and then he dies, and that’s it. So I had to think of a way to give that first section a shape, and what I decided to do was try to humanize Vortiger throughout; like, what does a tyrant think and feel? Then, when we hear that he’s going to die… I guess the normal thing would be for him to try to escape his death, so I wanted to try to take a different direction, and what I came to is that maybe he embraces it, and it actually frees him up to enjoy his final days and feel some of the joy in life that his tyrannical nature had cut him off from. Readers are really responding to the Vortiger section here, and that’s really gratifying.
Both Pendragon and Uther have to deal with the coming of Arthur.
Which is something I am entirely bringing to the telling—there’s none of that in the legend. I had Merlin drop a few hints, and then I got fascinated with this idea of both Uther and Pendragon knowing that this future king is coming that is going to be better and more powerful than both of them. And then I could use that to contrast the way they deal with it, and how they think about the concept of service and a king’s responsibilities. Is it for their own glory, or for the glory and service of their people? And in this novel, you see that Pendragon consistently decides that his duty is to serve the people, and his last gesture is one of generosity toward the king of the future. He wants the country to thrive, not just his own place in it. And the next novel, The Void Place,will be largely about how Uther responds to that same issue, having no idea that he himself will be Arthur’s father.
Your Merlin isn’t the nice guy we expect.
No. [laughs]. There are a few scenes in the legend where he does seem to have a macabre relish for the suffering of others, like the two little stories as he is traveling from his mother to Vortiger—like the one with the man who bought shoes but dies before he uses them—and then when he tells Vortiger he’s going to die, and when he gets angry with the brothers after Brantius deceives him… and I just kind of went with that tone, that he’s nice to people he likes, but has a very angry and nasty streak toward people he dislikes or who are dishonorable.
Then there’s his scene with Uther at Stonehenge, and that is really where most people are shocked by how nasty he is. None of that is in the legend, at all, and as I was writing it, I was asking myself; do I really want to go there?Because that scene really skews the perception of Merlin as someone who might not be very nice at all. But I’m thinking of things that will happen further along in the series, and on giving Merlin an arc and a place to develop into—so he’s not just blandly perfect in every way, like we’re used to—and also keeping more present, in my series, that half of his nature is from the devil… and so I decided to just go there. It is also building and transitioning into the third novel at that point, in which the focus shifts to Uther, and gives a hint of the kind of relationship Merlin and Uther will have in that novel.
How does this novel relate to what is coming in Arthur’s story?
I’m right now in the middle of writing Book 4, which is Arthur’s childhood, and as I do, the importance of these earlier books comes into focus, even for me. For one, that issue that both Pendragon and Uther struggle with, that is; who is in charge, them or Merlin, is very much something that Arthur is going to struggle with, and will be part of his very complex relationship with Merlin. This also will, in time, show the world as it was before Arthur came, and knowing his older relatives and the things they struggled with will give much greater resonance to the whole thing. And then there’s of course the Round Table and Stonehenge, both of which will appear again. It just all helps to explain the world that Arthur came into, and in time, we will be able to see from that exactly how, and how much, Arthur changed it.
The Sons of Constance is available in paperback and eBook.