I never intended my series of novels to be kind of a feminist project, but that’s a little bit how it’s shaking out—which is excellent.
I am not trying to position myself as any kind of great feminist, I’ll just explain what happened in writing my novels.
The deal with my series of novels, The Swithen, is that I’m not allowed to change anything about the original legends of King Arthur, I can only add or enhance characters and their thoughts in a way that fits seamlessly into the old story without changing it.
A lot of women in the Arthurian sources are never given names, they’re just “the maiden” or “the lady” or something like that. My first book is about the birth of Merlin, and is largely the story of his mother. But she’s one of these women who never get a name, and is barely a developed character. In my book, I invent a name for her, and develop a big, major character for her, so now, she’s no longer just a symbol, she’s a real person who plays a very important role.
Also, in the legend, she vanishes once Merlin leaves her and we never see her again, but… I just couldn’t do that. So in my version she stays around and is going to play a very influential role in the whole series.
Another character who is not given a name but is going to be tremendously influential is Arthur’s adoptive mother. She raises him, but in the legend she’s barely even mentioned and again, never even receives a name. In my series, she gets a name and is going to have a very rich and supportive relationship with him growing up, and is going to stay around for a while.
The old legends are basically a man show, but in my series the women will be developed in equal complexity so that they, and their stories and concerns, can stand alongside the men’s and affect the story equally.
Since I am not allowed to alter anything about the stories, there are things I don’t agree with that I cannot change, and… all I can do is render them in such a way that allows us, now, to re-examine the mores and view of women of the time in order to reassess them today.
The biggest example is in Book 3, The Void Place, in which the king takes on the appearance of a women’s husband and has sex with her… and this is where Arthur comes from. Well, to me, this is obviously a rape. And I had a lot of anxiety about how to handle telling this story in a responsible way. So I reached out to women beforehand to discuss how they would approach the story and just make sure my maleness wasn’t obscuring any aspect that I couldn’t see. I also researched takes of sexual assault and metoo accounts, and I worked it into the story where they specifically name the crime as a rape. Since it was nonviolent, many people say that it is not a rape—and it’s been a little surreal to get into arguments with some women who insist that it is not rape, but to me, she had sex with someone she hated, and never would have consented to otherwise, and that, to me, is rape, and I had to write in it a way that I felt was responsible.
Another aspect that, again, I didn’t plan, but I can see now that will be a major feature of the series, is the education of boys to be thoughtful, respectful and to think before resorting to violence. Book 4, which I’m writing right now, depicts Arthur’s childhood, and I can see already that it’s going to be about how he stands apart from most of the boys around him in that he is thoughtful, and respectful of women, and questions cruelty and violence. So much of the Arthurian legend centers around violence, but my version is going to have people react to it, and think about it, in ways we don’t often see in Arthurian, or any kind of epic fantasy fiction.
We tend to think of King Arthur as hopelessly outdated, but it’s not. The old stories, as they are, are saturated with examinations of violence, gender, sex roles and power relationships. One whole huge thread is the creation of Chivalry, a code of romantic behavior that plays on gender roles and expectations. King Arthur is where that whole concept of Chivalry comes from. I intend to amplify all that material in an interesting way that both questions and interrogates its intentions and their results, so that even though these stories are a thousand years old, they ask questions that are very relevant to the issues that we’re discussing today.