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Posts Tagged ‘King Arthur’s birth’

Today, I’m pleased to interview Scott Telek, author of The Swithen, an ambitious new fiction series that plans to depict in detail the psychology of the characters in the Arthurian legend while retelling that legend.

So far, Telek has published the first three books in the series: Our Man on Earth, The Sons of Constance, and The Void Place. Today he’ll tell us a bit about the series and his overarching plans for it.

Tyler: Welcome, Scott. It’s a pleasure to have you here today. I must say I think you are the most ambitious Arthurian novelist I have met so far. You plan to retell the entire Arthurian legend and so far have produced three books and Arthur isn’t even born until the end of the third one. How many books do you intend to write and what is your overall plan for the series?

Scott Telek, author of The Swithen series

Scott: Thanks Tyler, I’m happy to be here as well! I know the series is very ambitious, but…you’ve got to dream! I was just struck by the need to slow down while reading these stories—especially in Malory, where world-shattering events go by in a flash—and think about what these people might be feeling and thinking, and it occurred to me that you could write a really interesting series that puts the meat on the bones in a way that makes the people seem real, not just symbols and figures.

Right now I have planned out twenty-five novels to tell the entire story, and really, even that is not enough. There are ones where I’m thinking “How am I possibly going to get all of this into one book while giving the story the proper weight?” And please note that I am leaving out Tristram entirely.

The ultimate goal is to produce a really deluxe telling of the Arthurian legend, which illuminates all of its scope, weirdness, and majesty. We will also have birth-to-death life stories of all the major characters—because I plan to write childhoods for Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Mordred—and then they will all twist together into this incredible tapestry. I also want to provide a long, intimate arc to Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage and the affair with Lancelot. And then the interlocking stories of all of the minor characters and how the events ripple across generations. And then you have the inherent monumentality and shattering scope of the work, so—I can’t lose! I have the entire story laid out, so it gives me the opportunity to focus and tighten it in a way that makes its greatness clear to people who would never look into the sources.

Tyler: Can you explain why you chose the title The Swithen to describe the series. What does it have to do with the Arthurian legend?

Scott: The word itself has nothing at all to do with the Arthurian legend, but a lot of the good titles were already taken! One of the major goals of this series is to further unify the story into one cohesive narrative, and the one event that looms over everything is the Grail Quest. And I was struck—shocked, actually—that what is often portrayed as the ultimate, awesome achievement of the knights is actually them getting their asses kicked, and the ruin of the Round Table. They basically discover that their entire way of life, which was great to bring the country out of chaos and into civilization, is now no longer needed and they should just piss off. There is that devastating line when one of the holy figures they encounter says that they should “go back to their waste countries and kill each other.” Which they ultimately do!

So it struck me that this is like the burning of a field to make it fertile for the next generation, and then I found this old Norse word “Swithen,” which means exactly that. It’s about this devastating realization that everything you’ve done is great, now get out of the way and make room for the next generation. So to me it amplifies one of the major themes that is already there. Uther got the Swithen speech in The Void Place, and reacted poorly, as you saw, and poor Arthur is going to get it for sure, and have to deal with its implications. I find I like to force my characters to face the harshest possible existential realities, and poor Arthur…he’s really in for it. But he can also stand up to it, which is why he’s Arthur.

Tyler: I mostly want to discuss the newest book, The Void Place, but before we do that, will you give us a little background about the first two books?

The Void Place, book 3 in the Swithen series, delves into how King Arthur was conceived by magical means.

Scott: I decided that the story of Merlin’s conception sounded like a great book. A woman’s family is killed off one by one by a demon, then her talking baby saves her at the trial for her life—sounds like a hit! I was also fascinated by starting a retelling of the Arthurian legend from this point, which positions the entire thing as the result of a failed attempt by the devil to deceive mankind, and thought that was a fascinating way to look at it.

The second book takes Merlin from his mother’s side, through kings Vortiger and Pendragon, and right up until Uther is about to lose it over Igraine. It is a bit of a “middle” book, as it meanders and doesn’t have one solid story, but I love it and it has some great Merlin moments, like when Pendragon has let a man test him by asking when he will die, and Merlin says to Pendragon, “Do you think I don’t know how this fool will die? I see his death very well—and yours, too!”

Tyler: Merlin is at the center of the first three books. What would you say was your greatest challenge in depicting him, and what did you have the most fun with?

Scott: I know you’ve been enthusiastic about this incarnation of Merlin, which I very much appreciate. I actually didn’t intend him to be so ruthless when I started. I think I pretty much conceived of him as the standard supportive but cantankerous wizard, and basically perfect and always right, as we usually see him. But then in the first book, I had that idea that because he sees across time, he doesn’t really care about individual people. That was supposed to be just a characteristic, but as the series went on, that developed into this ruthlessness to get Arthur born no matter what the cost, which leads to him being somewhat the villain of The Void Place. But also…it opens up an arc for Merlin, and areas where he still needs to develop, and we will see in the future that he has learned from what happened with Uther, and tries a different approach with Arthur.

One thing you might find interesting that you would not necessarily get from the books is that I see this contemporary resonance between Merlin and the young tech moguls, like Mark Zuckerberg or early Steve Jobs. They created these world-changing technologies when they were young, but they didn’t have the maturity to think through the vast implications of how they might affect people and society. They also see the world only through data, just as Merlin only sees events, and there’s the question of whether there is something in people that can’t be summed up in data, just as Merlin is starting to discover that there may be more to people than simply knowing what they do, and is finding that the world, and people, are far more complicated than it seemed when he was a child—just as Mark Zuckerberg is finding, right now.

Tyler: I don’t want to overlook Meylinde, Merlin’s mother. You didn’t have much to work with from the legend as a framework with her, so why did you feel it so important to make her an integral part of the series?

Scott: Again, not planned. The first story is really a parable about faith, and the first book is about how her baby develops into the Merlin we know, so I thought that it would be cool if there was a human component—his mother—behind who Merlin becomes and his sense of morality and humanity. In the legend, she never receives a name, and is dropped entirely once Merlin leaves her. But then I couldn’t stand to just drop her, and once I found a way that she can stay in the series but still be true to the legend—which is that Merlin goes to her when he has to be away from people—I started to develop this idea that she would be Merlin’s moral advisor, and the only one that he shows true vulnerability with. And I will say that I have something planned for her in which she will leave a very influential mark on the entire series.

Another aspect I didn’t intend, but I am quite happy with, is that the simple act of giving names and complex psychologies to women who are little but symbols and passive figures in the legends is a bit of a feminist act, and makes this series much more contemporary. Now the women, and their thoughts and feelings, are given equal importance to the men, which places the genders on much more equal footing, and completely re-orients the legend, which is very man-focused. Arthur’s adoptive mother, Lady Ector, is also never given a name, and barely mentioned in the legend, but in my series, she too will be a tremendously influential character.

Tyler: In The Void Place, the novel opens with Uther as king. Merlin has already set up the Round Table. I was a bit surprised by this since I tend to think it doesn’t happen until Arthur’s reign. Did you draw on sources for it happening during Uther’s reign?

Scott: The Vulgate Cycle has Merlin create the Round Table in the first part of Uther’s reign, just as you see at the end of The Sons of Constance. Then when Uther dies it goes to King Leodegrance, and then Arthur receives it when he marries Guinevere. The other thing is that Uther creates the first generation Knights of the Round Table, and then some of them go on to serve Arthur when he takes over.

One of the things that I love about the Arthurian legend, and I think is one of its major themes, is the passing on from generation to generation. Objects are passed on, but so are conflicts and alliances, and values and ideals, and Arthur has to deal with some conflicts that began in his father’s time. So I really wanted to capture that here, with the passing on of the Round Table and the first generation of knights, and this connection between Uther’s generation and Arthur’s. And you’ll see as we go forward that Uther’s knights, like Ulfius, come from a time that is more mercenary and brutal, and we will see Arthur develop an ideal of knighthood that is more refined, honorable, and chivalrous.

Our Man on Earth, the first book in the Swithen series, tells the story of Merlin’s birth and childhood.

Tyler: There are a few characters in The Void Place I don’t remember from the Arthurian legend, such as Ulfius and Riger. Are they your own invention, and why did you feel the need to include them?

Scott: The story of the knight who tests the Siege Perilous is in the Post-Vulgate Cycle, as is the idea that Merlin was said to be dead. I didn’t think this knight had a name, but upon a little research I found that he is called Riger le Brun in another version, and Riger is a fine name, so I went with that. Everything about his character was made up by me, as a foil to Uther and someone who would play on his uncertain feelings about Merlin. I also added the loose idea that Uther’s failure with the seat in some way causes, or leaves Uther in a state to fall into obsession over Igraine.

Ulfius is in Malory, very slightly, but is a medium-sized presence in the Post-Vulgate Cycle, where he is named Ulfin. He does act as go-between with Igraine and he does arrange the marriage, as you see in The Void Place. I just…for some reason, I just adore Ulfius. There is a line in Malory that while Arthur has to keep pulling the sword again and again, he goes to live with the knights, including Ulfius, and that one line will become the entire basis of Book 5, because I am so taken with the idea of the teenage Arthur hanging with these adult knights and learning the ideals of knighthood and what knights need from their king, so that’s going to be really fun.

The other thing that Ulfius touches on is what I mentioned about aspects continuing through generations…. So Ulfius is Uther’s best friend, and he’s going to be a good friend and mentor to Arthur and he will go on to fight alongside Arthur in his wars against King Lot and the others. So he’ll be offstage for Book 4, but very present for Books 5 and 6, and…there’s one more thing about Ulfius that makes him very special, but I can’t tell you without ruining a surprise.

Tyler: Do you feel Uther is justified in his feelings toward Merlin? They seem to have a love-hate relationship?

Scott: I’m curious to see how people react to my version of Uther, since he’s usually considered fearsome and admirable, and here he’s very insecure and self-centered. And also his relationship with Merlin is quite strained. My main source, the Vulgate Cycle, tries to have it both ways, saying on the one hand that they had great love for each other, while on the other Merlin will not speak to Uther by the end. That’s all from the legend, as well as that they must do penance and that Uther’s hands and feet swell and he physically withers away.

As far as their poor relationship, this all grew out of my conception that the kings would feel that Merlin has taken away any agency they have, because they are just enacting his plans, not having ideas of their own. There is also the issue of them knowing that there is this greater king to come, which is, of course, Arthur. Between Books 2 and 3, you see that Pendragon wrestles with this, but ultimately accepts Merlin’s advice and his final act is one of generosity toward Arthur. Uther is self-centered, and resents the coming of Arthur. It’s meant to contrast their approaches toward a king’s service to the country—is it about serving others, or is it about their own glory? And both of these approaches is leading up to how Arthur will handle it, and how Arthur will feel about Merlin.

You notice by the end of this novel people are asking Merlin “What if Arthur hates you?” And Merlin’s relationship with Uther is meant to highlight the ways in which Merlin will have to adjust his approach, learn humility and learn to be more gentle with humans and their emotions if he is going to keep Arthur from turning away and rejecting him.

Tyler: We meet Viviane for just a brief moment in The Void Place. I assume she is to enchant Merlin later. I’m curious why you chose Viviane over Niniane or Nimue as the enchantress. I believe Viviane was a name Tennyson invented. In The Void Place, it seems like she already has supernatural powers from the brief encounter she has with Merlin, so can we expect some differences in the story with her since usually Merlin teaches her magic.

Scott: I also have her appear in a dream to Meylinde in Our Man on Earth. Viviane was the first Lady of the Lake, and is killed by Balin, then Nimue is brought to the court later. I believe Viviane is named in the Vulgate Cycle. My choice to include her so soon has to do with larger things I’m cooking up to go across the entire series, and one of those has to do with the coming of Christianity and the driving out of Paganism and magic.

One thing—one amazing thing—that is in the Vulgate Cycle but not in Malory, is the fact that Nimue lives in an illusory lake, where she rules a matriarchal society, and that is where she raises Lancelot after she kidnaps him. This whole history of Lancelot—and his connection with one of Arthur’s biggest life mistakes—is heavily explored in the Vulgate and you had better believe it’s going to be delved into here, because I like it as nasty and complicated as possible! One entire book of this series is planned to be Lancelot’s youth, with Lionel and Bors, in Nimue’s magical lake, so there’s a lot to come in terms of the Ladies of the Lake. Viviane’s appearances are just the tip of the iceberg, and placed there to build toward something major that is coming.

Tyler: Scott, what have you most enjoyed about writing this series so far, and what would you say has been your biggest challenge?

Scott: The biggest challenge is definitely working the chronology out to the degree that I know enough of what is coming that I can insert it into the story at the appropriate point. Sometimes when reading this stuff, it’ll say “this happened two years earlier,” and I have to figure out when it happened in relation to other things, and what else was happening then. For example, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—which I am going to work into this narrative—the Green Knight appears a year before Gawain goes off to visit him, so…is his first appearance in one book, and the resolution in another? Or do I just say “a year ago, this happened”? And what else was going on at that time? So it’s a huge challenge.

The three books so far have been largely before the main story begins, so I have had some time to lay out what’s coming. I have a huge Excel spreadsheet with a page each for each of the books, as well as character notes and suchlike, and have things like “Viviane dies here” and “Gawain comes to court,” as well as what the beginning and ending will be, the theme of each book, and I list each character and say what their age and mental state is at that time in the story so I can give them compelling arcs over the whole series. I am writing individual novels, but also one huge novel where each book is just a chapter.

Which leads us into what I have enjoyed the most, and will enjoy, which is the prospect of creating this huge, very intertwined tapestry of characters and this massive, truly epic story. I really look forward to creating a very rich life story for Arthur from his birth to his death. And ultimately we’ll have about sixty years in the lives of a great number of connected and intertwining characters, which will be an incredible thing. Books 2 and 3 were the first where a set of characters went from one book directly into another, and I really enjoyed the resonances and added meanings that the additional space can bring. By the time we get ten books in, I think that’ll be amazing, and by the time we’re twenty books in, I think—I hope!—that the accumulated weight of the story and the characters’ histories will be incredible and overwhelming.

Tyler: Spoken like a true novelist, Scott. I love how detailed and intertwined all your plans are. For me, personally, that is the great fun of writing fiction and especially a series, building all these layers and interconnections between characters and book after book. So that said, of course, I’m anxious to know when we can expect the fourth book. Will you give us a preview of what to expect in it?

Book II of the Switchen Series, The Sons of Constance tells the tale of Merlin’s dealings with Vortiger, Pendragon, and Uther.

Scott: I’ve already started writing it, and I’m really into it. The tone will be much more lovely and gentle, and it will be kind of a Young Adult novel, about Arthur’s childhood and the formation of his character. None of the sources give any information about Arthur’s childhood, and the big challenge to create something different than T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone or other versions of his boyhood.

I’ll tell you that Sir and Lady Ector will be fleshed out in depth, as will Kay and Arthur’s relationship with him. This is what I was saying is the best part of writing this series, because I am writing their boyhood relationship knowing they will be together their entire lives, and there is so much to come. Arthur will be struggling with feeling that he doesn’t belong with this family, as well as having to swallow that he will be Kay’s squire, not a knight himself. So like Our Man on Earth was with Merlin, in this we will see the formation of Arthur’s character. Books 4 through 6 will be formative experiences and adolescence for Arthur, and he will not be a mature adult king until Book 7. And there are some other things I have planned that I hope will be a very surprising, unusual way of coming at the familiar story we all know.

Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Scott. Can you tell us where we can go to get more information about your books or to purchase them?

Scott: I sure can! The books are available in ebook and paperback at Amazon and other retailers, and the easiest hub to get to them all would be to visit the website for the series.

Tyler: Thanks again, Scott. Best wishes for the continuation of your truly breathtaking series.

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