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Today, I’ve asked author Nicole Evelina to be my guest and let me interview her about the novel for which she is currently seeking a publisher, titled Guinevere of Northgallis.

Author Nicole Evelina

Nicole Evelina is a writer from the Midwest. Guinevere of Northgallis is her first novel and is part of an anticipated trilogy. Nicole has spent the last 12 years researching Arthurian legend, Celtic Britain and the various peoples, cultures and religious practices that shaped the country after the withdrawal of Rome. She is a proud member of the Historical Novel Society.

Nicole holds a B.A. in English and M.A. in media communications, as well as accreditation from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), a distinction that tests writing and communications skill, and is held by only 8,000 people worldwide.

Tyler: Welcome, Nicole. As a writer of Arthurian novels myself (I plan to publish King Arthur’s Legacy in the fall of 2013), I’m excited for the opportunity to talk to you today. First, will you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in the Arthurian legend and what made you decide to write novels about it?

Nicole: I’ve been a fan of Arthurian legend since I was a little girl. While most other kids had Disney princesses as idols, I had the queens, kings, and knights of Arthurian legend. I was so enamored with Guinevere that I wanted to take her name as my confirmation name, but the nuns wouldn’t let me because there’s no St. Guinevere.

How I came to write about it is kind of a funny story. I’d been avoiding reading The Mists of Avalon because everyone told me “don’t read that book if you like Guinevere.” Well, my freshman year of college, a friend gave it to me as a Christmas gift. As predicted, I hated Marion Zimmer Bradley’s portrayal of Guinevere, but loved the book overall, especially Avalon. Shortly thereafter, I read Parke Godwin’s Beloved Exile, which tells what happened to Guinevere after Arthur dies. His premise didn’t really resonate with me, but it got me wondering what did happen to her. You don’t hear much about that. Inspired by the two books, I started thinking about what Guinevere’s real story was, and then one autumn morning—I can still tell you the date—she walked into my head and told me she wanted to tell her side of things. That’s how Guinevere of Northgallis was born.

Tyler: Was Guinevere of Northgallis the first novel you wrote or did you write or attempt to write other novels about it?

Nicole: It is my first novel. I’ve been writing and re-writing it on and off (more off than on) for 13 years now, so it’s gone through several iterations and really has been several different books in that time. Prior to writing it, I wrote some short stories, but they were mostly fantasy and never really went anywhere.

Tyler: The Arthurian legend is rich with characters, and of course, after Arthur, Guinevere might arguably be the most important one, but many authors such as Persia Woolley, Nancy McKenzie, and Rosalind Miles have already devoted several books to Guinevere. What made you think you had something new or original to say?

Nicole: You’re right that several other authors have covered this territory. But my Guinevere is very different, mainly because of where I’ve placed her in history. She’s not a meek Christian wallflower like in previous legend. She’s a pagan Celt who was taught to fight by her mother, a noblewoman from the land of the Picts. Although living in Britain, Guinevere was raised in her mother’s matriarchal ways, so she’s a strong, smart woman who will stand up for what she believes in and fight for it, with her tongue or with her sword, as appropriate. But despite all of that feministic rhetoric, women were pawns during that time period and the strong ones were rare, so you’ll see the consequences of her unique outlook as well.

Also, while my story has elements of fantasy, it’s also very historically grounded. Guinevere lives in a time period (approximately 480-530 A.D.) that was in the throes of transition, both politically and religiously, so my books also deal with that upheaval. The transition from paganism to Christianity is central to the story, as is the shifting political landscape, as the Britons struggle to organize themselves after the withdrawal of Rome and fight against the encroaching influences of the Saxons and Picts.

Tyler: You must have had a lot to say since you plan to write an entire trilogy. Can you tell us a little about why you decided to write a trilogy rather than just one book, and give us a little overview of what the books will cover—is it Guinevere’s entire life story?

Nicole: Originally, I thought it was going to be just one huge book. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft of the first book that I realized it needed to be a trilogy, just for page count, if nothing else. The story begins when Guinevere is 11 and will encompass her entire life, before she meets Arthur, her time with him and her life after the fall of Camelot. That’s roughly how the books are divided.

Tyler: What do you find the most fun about rewriting the Arthurian legend?

Nicole: The fun part is how the characters come alive for me. They talk in my head and sometimes when I’m writing, they do things I didn’t expect or plan for. I love seeing the legend take on its own life through them. The most rewarding part is knowing this is a legend written in a way that will speak to people of our time—a way of preserving it as a living story that continues, rather than being a dusty, moldering tale from another time.

Tyler: I think we can break Arthurian novels down into two categories—fantasy and historical, and then there are books like my own that try to include a little of both—I would consider my novels historical fantasy. What genre would best define yours?

Nicole: Historical fantasy is probably best. I’ve tried to be very true to the time period, but I can’t imagine Arthurian legend without a little magic, so there’s an element of fantasy to it as well. But it’s not high fantasy by any means. The magic is more subtle, and is, I think, in keeping with the beliefs of the Celtic people.

Tyler: I know you’ve done extensive research in writing your novels. Will you tell us a little about your process and how you decided what to include?

Nicole: At the beginning, my process was to read anything I could get my hands on about Arthurian legend and the Celts—to really get the lay of the land, so to speak. Once the story started forming into an actual plot in my head, I was able to get more specific and research the elements that I knew would directly affect my characters. I must confess that my research still isn’t done; it probably won’t be until the last book hits the shelves because I’m always finding some new detail to verify. I do additional research as I come to the main plot elements of each book. For example, I’m getting ready to research the Holy Grail in-depth because that’s the part of the second book I’m on now. I’ll do more research into the tribes of the Gododdin and the Picts when I get ready to start book 3 because that’s where most of that book takes place. So much research, so little time!

Tyler: I know you’ve also visited England. How did that visit influence your research and your vision for the novels?

Nicole: England is such an amazing country. I was fortunate to visit about six months after I started writing the first book, so knowing the land has been extremely helpful. It’s completely different being there and feeling the energy of the places than just reading about them. I actually picked my location of Camelot based on an area I came to know very well. Oddly enough, I haven’t been to most of the places in the first book, but I’m planning to take a tour of south-western England next June that will remedy that!

Tyler: With so many Arthurian novels already published, what pitfalls do you see for writers of Arthurian literature? Did you fear being influenced too much by other writers who had already published their stories?

Nicole: There’s always the fear that you’ll be influenced by someone else. But in way, it’s a good thing because it forces you to really look at what you’re writing from a new perspective and really make things your own. One way I’ve tried to shield myself is that I haven’t read any other Arthurian fiction that deals with Guinevere since I decided I was going to write my own story. By that time I had seen enough of what was out there to know what’s unique and what is not, but there’s been enough time distance that I don’t have to worry about replicating someone else’s work.

One pitfall of writing in Arthurian tradition is that there isn’t a lot of source material out there for the Celts. If other writers have done their research (which they clearly have), you’re going to have some overlap in ideas. For example, Marion Zimmer Bradley did really great research into the beliefs and rituals of the Druids and the possibilities for Avalon. You can’t change something like that drastically without it becoming inauthentic, but you can look at it from another angle and try to add to what’s already been done.

Tyler: Thank you again, Nicole for joining me. I wish you much success with finding a publisher for Guinevere of Northgallis and its sequels. Before we go, tell us a little about how to find more information about you online. What is your blog or website, and what more can readers learn there about you, your books, and the Arthurian legend?

Nicole: My web site is http://nicoleevelina.com. From there you can read my blog, which is updated weekly, learn about my books and connect with me on social media sites like Twitter and Pinterest. My site also has an extensive research list and a playlist section where you can see what music has influenced Guinevere’s story. I blog mostly about Celtic history, Arthurian legend and writing, but as I get farther into the publishing process, I’ll keep all my readers updated on that as well.

Thank you for having me, Tyler, and for your well wishes. It has been a pleasure.

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What happened to the Roman Ninth Legion has inspired three films in recent years:

Of these three films, I’m afraid The Centurion is the one I find the least interesting. Like the other films, The Centurion is about what happened to the Ninth Legion that seemingly disappeared – although historians now think they were transferred and later destroyed on the continent. How they were destroyed remains lost to history, but authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, whose novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which the film The Eagle is based upon, have been writing books about it for many years, surmising what may have occurred. Usually the stories suggest the legion went north of the area where Hadrian’s Wall separated the “uncivilized” Britons from the territory the Romans had conquered.

The problem I have with The Centurion is not the suggestions of what may have happened to the Ninth (an interesting historical mystery) but the film’s lack of character development as well as my difficulty with identifying with the main characters. In this film, the Roman legion is led north with the aid of a Brigantes woman who is apparently going to lead them to where they can attack the Picts. Instead, she tricks the Romans and leads them into an ambush (big surprise). The sad thing is that while I just watched this film a few days ago, I can’t even remember any of the characters’ names and I can barely remember the actors’ faces. I know there was a main character Roman, the deceitful native Briton woman, and a bad guy who caused treachery, and a couple of other survivors. Eventually, the Romans who survive the attack and enslavement manage to escape from the Picts who have captured them, and the rest of the film shows their attempts not to be recaptured or killed and to get back to the Roman outposts. The villainy by a fellow Roman is almost a subplot and the overall plot is loose and not in any way complicated. Perhaps the best part of the film (SPOILER ALERT) is the end when the surviving Roman returns, only to have his fellow Romans try to cover up what happened to the legion so its defeat will not make Rome look bad.

What makes this film additionally difficult for me is that because none of the characters were strong enough for me to identify with one of them, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. When the film started, although I knew the Romans would be “the good guys,” I wanted the Picts to win. Why? Because I know I am descended from the Picts through Scottish royalty, while I do not know of any Roman ancestors in my family tree, though I do not doubt I have them, and also because the Picts and other Britons were conquered people whom Rome just felt it was their job and right to conquer and civilize or eliminate. While I did not agree with this philosophy in either The Eagle or The Centurion, at least in The Eagle, the main character played by Tatum Channing is well portrayed as a very loyal Roman who believes in his Roman traditions and duties. I may not agree with what makes him tick, but I understood his motives. The Eagle also raised interesting questions of right and wrong and Channing’s character has a slave who makes it clear that Rome is not in the right, leaving a world of questions for viewers to consider, even while Channing’s character is left staying staunch to what he believes in, too brainwashed into the Roman way to consider what he may have done wrong as a Roman, although I think the film’s viewers realize the film questions who he really is. The Eagle is still somewhat weak in this respect, but far superior to The Centurion.

By comparison, the native Britons are given almost no sympathy in The Centurion. The Brigantes woman who deceives the Romans is insulted by them as being a “she-wolf.” She seems merciless in her desire to destroy the Romans, but her behavior is completely understandable to me despite the Romans thinking ill of her. We are told that she watched the Romans destroy her family, then rape her and cut out her tongue. Despite this information, she is impossible to identify with because she is unable to speak her pain, and similarly, except for one of the Picts telling the Romans what the other Romans did to her, equally the film is unable to speak about who is right and who wrong in this film. In short, it is unfocused and uncertain if it has any agenda or message to share. I know life isn’t always possible to tie into a neat message but the woman becomes so focused on her mission and so unable to display any emotion or human characteristics we can identify with, that while she is the character I felt most sympathy for in the film, she is unable to make a real connection with the viewer, she is unable to speak her pain, and therefore, unable to make the viewer form a bond with her or anyone in the film. And I think the film itself, or its creators, were unsure themselves what if any point the film was supposed to make.

I don’t want to say this film is a mess, but it is a disappointment. It kept my attention due to some of the action as the Picts chased after the Romans, but I had a hard time knowing what to think at the end. Ultimately, I have to say that if the Roman Ninth was slaughtered by the people it was trying to conquer, well, who can blame the Britons for protecting their homeland? I don’t condone killing, but the Romans started the killing in Briton and they got what they deserved.

The film also raises questions for me about King Arthur himself, often depicted as heir to the Romans and of Roman descent, yet considering himself a Briton–and fighting against the Saxons who would conquer him. If he’s of Roman descent, is Arthur a good guy? If he is of Briton descent, then Arthur must see the Saxons as equal to the earlier Roman invaders. More likely, Arthur’s bloodline would have been a mix of Briton and Roman. In the end, did the two races not blend? Were they not allied at the least in their fight against the incoming Saxon invaders?

Eventually in all cultures, the conquerors and the conquered’s great-grandchildren intermingle and hatreds are put aside and forgotten as time marches on. Too bad the great-grandparents couldn’t learn to do that themselves to save a great deal of bloodshed.

I encourage lovers of Arthurian literature interested in the prehistory of the Arthurian legend to watch both The Eagle and The Centurion to understand what Briton would have been like in the Romans’ early years in Britain and how those events shaped the world a historical King Arthur would have been born into. And I’d welcome comments from other viewers.

And if you are interested in reading more about Roman Britain in novel form, I highly recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel series, including The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset (the first novel to create a historical King Arthur), and especially, I recommend for great reading pleasure Jack Whyte’s novel series The Camulod Chronicles, about Arthur’s Roman ancestors and how they established Camelot as a way to maintain peace in the years when Rome was pulling out of Britain.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The recent film The Eagle raises many interesting questions about how we are to interpret it, and perhaps best of all, it provides a glimpse into Roman Britain and the outlying territories above Hadrian’s Wall that I haven’t seen depicted previously in film. While the film depicts Britain in the mid-second century, about three centuries before the time of King Arthur, it provides a fascinating look into the Britain the Romans would have experienced.

The movie is based upon the book The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) by Rosemary Sutcliff, best known to Arthurian enthusiasts as the author of Sword at Sunset (1963), the first Arthurian novel to have treated King Arthur from a historically accurate perspective. Sword at Sunset is also part of the Eagle of the Ninth book series, all connected by the Aquila Family dolphin ring, although Sword at Sunset is only very loosely connected.

The film and book’s main character, Marcus, is a Roman soldier stationed in Britain who wants to know what became of his father, who led the Ninth Legion beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The legion was never heard from again, but Marcus hears rumors that the Eagle standard of the legion has been seen north of the wall and is being used in pagan ceremonies.

Of course, Marcus wants to know what became of his father and to reclaim the Eagle. I won’t give away any more of the plot. What interests me is how Marcus is the commander of a fort that is attacked by the local Britons, who yell about how the Romans have raped their daughters and stolen their land. Marcus never for a second considers that Rome is at fault. He simply does his duty as a Roman soldier. Later, on his quest to regain the Eagle, Marcus is accompanied by Esca, a slave and the son to the late King of the Brigantes. Marcus’ uncle warns him that Esca is a Briton so he will betray him on the journey, but Marcus has Esca accompany him anyway and Esca appears loyal, at least at first. Later, the two will encounter the Seal people, a term Sutcliff uses in her novel.

What is fascinating about the film is the depiction of the local Britons. The Seal people are fictional largely because so little is known about the local people of Britain in Roman times, who were mostly Celts and Picts. Wikipedia does a good job of discussing the film and the issues with depicting the native people at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eagle_(2011_film) The confusion and difficulties of pinning down the Celtic peoples of Great Britain is understandable, considering how many different tribes there were as evidenced in the list at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Celtic_tribes#Great_Britain

I admit I haven’t read the novel, which was actually written for children, but the film definitely made me want to read the entire series and reread Sword at Sunset. I was surprised by the film’s lack of a politically correct or multicultural message—I don’t expect a book written in 1954 would have a politically correct tone, however, so perhaps the filmmakers decided to be true to the book. In any case, Marcus never thinks that he or Rome is in the wrong for how they have treated the native peoples of Britain. Although Marcus and Esca become friends of a sort, and Marcus does save Esca’s life early in the film, otherwise he does not show any great tendency to be sympathetic toward those who were conquered, and he is not in any way a dynamic character who has a new understanding about the situation in Britain.

Equally fascinating is the depiction of the native peoples. It is difficult to imagine such a “primitive” way of life as they experience compared to Rome, which we can perhaps more closely relate to. And I know “primitive” is a judgmental term, but their life is so vastly remote from ours today. In truth, my sympathies lay more with the native Britons who have been conquered and even betrayed by their own people. Of course, you don’t want Marcus or Esca to be killed, but I found it difficult to have my sympathies with them.

In the end, I wasn’t sure how to feel. It was more an interesting look into the mind of a Roman than one where I could identify with any character, and in that way, because I had no emotional reaction to the film, I felt like it somewhat failed to do its job.

It would be interesting to read all of Sutcliff’s series and how the stories link to Arthur, who is more Roman than Briton in most versions of the legend. In a film adaptation, one would expect a more politically correct and sympathetic view of the native Britons, but at the same time, perhaps I appreciate the film more for not taking that route which would be a modern twist and not one Marcus or the Romans themselves probably would have considered taking.

The Eagle may not be a perfect film, but the actors do an excellent job; both actors playing Marcus and Esca are completely believable in their roles; whatever faults the film has are due to the screenplay, or perhaps the original novel. The story opens up many questions about right and wrong while creating an imaginative, yet as historical as possible, depiction of what second century Britain may have been like. Altogether I give this film 4 out of 5 stars and remain with mixed feelings about it.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, I’d love to hear your comments.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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