The new novel The Void Place tells the real story of King Arthur’s birth—which is a story of the rape and psychological torture of his mother. Can this story be told responsibly in the #metoo era?
The epic fantasy book series The Swithen is committed to remaining faithful to the actual Arthurian legend. The rule is that the actual story cannot be changed, but elements can be added or enhanced. So what do we do with parts of the story that we would consider indefensible today?
The facts about King Arthur’s birth
The actual legend of King Arthur’s birth arises from what today would explicitly be considered a rape. Worse yet, it is arranged by one of our heroes: Merlin. What happens is that King Uther falls hopelessly in love with Igraine, the wife of one of his most loyal followers. Merlin uses his magic so Uther can look like her husband, and she goes to bed with him, conceiving Arthur in the process. Igraine soon hears that her husband is dead, and has no idea who she took to bed and who fathered her child.
Afterward, ostensibly to avoid the “shame” she would bear for having an illegitimate child, the king arranges to marry her. The legend considers this as making “atonement” for what happened to her by averting her dishonor and arranging for her financial future. We, of course, see that she is forced to marry her rapist.
Can this story be told ethically?
Anyone adapting a story that is 800 years old knows that it will contain outdated social and ethical views. Since The Swithen strives to maintain strict fidelity to the actual Middle English sources, author Scott Telek wants to skew the novels in such a way that confronts, interrogates and recontextualizes the stories in a way that allows us to discuss the issues they raise—and highlights their relevance in the present day.
The Void Place is rife with moments that are uncannily resonant in the #metoo era, with a powerful man making unwanted advances on a woman of lower stature, threatening, intimidating, coercing, and finally forcing his way.
So if we are unable to change the events of the story, can a male author retell this story in a way that is respectful and resonant to modern women? Here are ten steps that Telek went through to tell the story in a more ethical way.
1: Reach out to women
The first step was reach out to women to ensure that Telek’s perspective as a male was not blinding him to crucial aspects of the women’s experience, and for input on how the story could be told in a responsible way. He contacted women both familiar and unfamiliar with the Arthurian legend and used their notes to shape both the content and voice of the novel.
2: Research sexual assault
Next he examined women’s stories and #metoo accounts of sexual assault and incorporated the feelings survivors went through to inform the way Igraine reacts to the unwanted attentions and coercion of the king. He also used his own experience as a queer man dealing with men’s advances (recognizing it is not the same as women’s experiences) to inform his telling.
One example of how this affected the novel that has rung true with female readers is how Igraine questions herself about whether she was unknowingly sending signals of attraction to the king, turning inward on herself before coming to the understanding that the king alone is responsible for his actions.
3: Explicitly state that the author does not approve
Telek thought it important to add an author’s note to the beginning of the novel, warning readers that the story contains a sexual assault and grievous psychological torture, reminding readers that this series retains the original legend in its sometimes ugly reality, and stating clearly that the author does not condone the actions of our characters—even if they are considered the “good guys.”
4: Portray the views of women of the time
Throughout the novel, Telek weaves in the realities of life for women in that period, including that they are essentially considered the property of men, that their psychic lives are rarely considered and their accounts are rarely believed. He wants the novels to shine a light on the views of women at the time, and which of those views persist even now—800 years later.
5: Name the crime as a rape
Because Igraine willingly welcomes a man she thinks is her husband into her bed, and their coupling is not violent, some argue that it is not a rape. Certainly the original legend never refers to it as a rape, and it is treated as not much of a big deal. In The Void Place, the crime is explicitly named as a rape and a character who tries to downplay its severity is harshly rebuked.
6: Chastise Merlin
Although King Uther commits the act, it is ultimately Merlin who comes up with the idea. In the novel Merlin is severely chastised by the two people who mean the most to him, who express their distain for him and explicitly tell him that what he did was wrong.
7: Have Uther apologize
By the end of the novel, Uther is able to see the consequences of his actions and formally apologizes to Igraine. Because of his shame, he never tells her that it was in fact he who raped her, but he apologizes for ruining her life and the death of her husband, acknowledging that he knows she could never love him. She hears his words, but cannot forgive.
8: Portray Igraine’s deep psychology and inner strength
Women are largely symbols and ciphers in the original Arthurian romances—when they receive names at all. The Swithen aims to portray them with rich psychologies to place them on par with the male characters. The Void Place portrays Igraine in a depth she rarely receives, as we see an intimate portrait of her marriage with her husband, close relationship to her daughters, her strength and ingenuity as she stands up to the king’s advances.
9: Show the consequences to Igraine and her daughters
Part of not letting the king—or the reader—off the hook easily is to show the devastating effect the rape has on both Igraine and her daughters. We can clearly see that Igraine will never be the same, and her daughters are forced into far different futures than they could expect before the king came into their lives.
10: State that this is one part of a larger story
Another important part of the author’s note is to make sure the reader knows that this novel is just one part of a larger saga (this is part 3 of 25) and that the crime committed here will not be forgotten, and have consequences that will reverberate until the very end of the series.
For just one example, by the end of this novel, Igraine’s daughters Margause and Morgan le Fay have sworn to avenge their mother by striking against her offspring—the future King Arthur—and their plans will play out through the very last novel of the series.
Reflecting issues of Medieval times—recontextualized for today
Yes, The Void Place takes place in Medieval times, and is based on a Middle English source, but is being written and read today, and so it’s important that it reflect a contemporary view on events we would understand very differently than they were taken at the time. It was very important to Telek to tell the story in a way that was progressive and responsible, as described above.
If you have thoughts about how he went about that, please let us know in the comments below.