The mission of The Swithen is to honor and elevate the original legends of King Arthur in retellings that make the emotions and events make sense to modern readers.
My path to The Swithen
One thing I discovered, and I have heard from nearly everyone who has started to delve into them, is that Arthurian Legends Are Obsessive. They’re amusing, they’re intriguing, they’re haunting, they’re truly weird and inexplicable… You read a little, then a little more… and before you know it, you’re obsessed. That’s what happened to me.
Upon realizing that there is no definitive version of the Arthurian legends, you realize that pretty much anything you make up has just as much claim to “accuracy” as any other piece of Arthurian fiction. Because there is no such thing as “accuracy” when we’re talking about legends, although you can be historically accurate, and you can do your best to reflect the codes and mores of the period—but… which period? The 12-15th century, when they were written? Or the 5th century, in which they take place?
Another thing you notice is that while certain parts of the various texts are extremely protracted (i.e. the battles), certain other parts are very, very sparse. For example, the entire story of Merlin’s conception and birth take up only 20 pages of the Lancelot-Grail of 1215 AD, and only 442 lines of the Prose Merlin of approximately 1450 AD. Meanwhile, it tells a huge, great story! And you—or I, in this case—start to think “Someone could make an entire novel out of just this story!”
And then I thought, when Malory compiled all of the existing romances into Le Morte d’Arthur, he took a pass (which some consider to be not that great a pass) at uniting all of these separate tales into one, continuous story. One of the primary aims of The Swithen is to further unify the story, considering it as a whole, emphasizing the interconnections, bringing in selected outside tales (such as the justly famous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), and making it all work as one, incredible story that—believe me—will blow your mind, no matter how hardy and cynical, all into tiny, shattered, quivering smithereens.
Focused on the original legends
Most works of Arthurian fiction create new adventures that can exist inside, or alongside, the established legends. My interest is in keeping the legends as they are, but filling out the characters and adding in scenes and dialogue that can help us more fully understand what is there. This way, rather than just throw out elements of the original tales that don’t make sense, the challenge is to find a way for them to make sense, and to have the characters deal with the reality of facing forces vastly beyond their control or comprehension.
To find out the rules we are going by, as to what about the original legends is up for grabs and what is set in stone, see Ground Rules of The Swithen.
As for historical accuracy, it is not at all the biggest concern. Since these tales are already only tangentially related to real history, and are filled with anachronisms—they take place in the 400’s, but the life and customs described are those of the 12-1500s—historical accuracy is not my first priority. I want them to have a base accuracy so that nothing is distracting to the reader, but the primary interest of this series is in character development and psychology. In understanding what might be going on in these characters’ heads as they face incredible circumstances and forces beyond their imagination, and to provide enough understanding of their lives that the overall sweep of the story will make sense of contemporary readers.
So why stick to the legends at all?
Because what’s there is great—greater than anything I could ever make up. And it all has a unity that would be screwed up by messing with the content of the legends. The tales of King Arthur seem like they don’t make any sense—although they do make a weird kind of sense. There are events that seem random and unrelated—except in a weird way they are inextricably related. The overall sweep of the story can seem like a bunch of scattered, disparate tales—although in a weird way, they are all very unified and thematically-cohesive. So with The Swithen, I recognize the integrity of the original tales, and seek to illuminate what is there in the original sources, to bring out the greatness of the old tales, rather than to create something new, and probably lame.
Toward an ideal of unity
One of the biggest goals of The Swithen is to further unify the numerous legends into one, cohesive overall story that begins with the conception of Merlin and ends, decades later, with the death of Arthur. This, more than anything else, will require some bending of the original tales, as they were composed at different times and for different purposes. Many of them can be considered tales of moral instruction, while other tales have been written, or retold, expressly for the purpose of promoting a Christian worldview. So, in order to retell these disparate stories as one, continuous narrative, certain elements are going to have to be promoted, and others de-emphasized. But hopefully the result will be one, huge, monumental—and emotionally-moving—retelling of one of the greatest stories humankind has ever produced.