I have a persistent interest in stories that persist. I’m a fan of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I’ve written about before, and also of the legend of King Arthur. Apart from each of these being good stories, one of the things I love is their endurance. The perennial nature of Gilgamesh is less obvious if you’re not a scholar of the ancient near-east, but if you doubt the power of the legend of King Arthur, just try Googling it and see how many books, movies and TV adaptations the story has generated.
I’ve been on a spate of consuming several incarnations of the Arthur story, and it’s been an instructive thing to do, both as a social critic, and as a historical fiction writer. My most recent foray is The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. I’m not that far in yet, but, ok, I’ll just admit it, every time I try to read Cornwell, I’m defeated by the sheer, relentless brutality of it all, and this is where I get most challenged as an HF writer. Cornwell takes a story I know well, and writes about it in his bleak, pitiless way, and I wonder how such a brutish and savage race ever evolved to Oxfam, Save The Children, The Red Cross, and frilly iced lattes with friends on a summer afternoon. In Cornwell’s version of the story of Arthur, women are breeding cattle on which men play out their violent urges, children are valueless and vulnerable, slavery is commonplace, life is cheap, Morgan Le Fay is a shrill, disfigured crone, Merlin is a fickle tyrant, early Christians are joyless, credulous bumpkins, and everyone’s life is governed at all times by superstitious rules and customs that even the most PC reader must find absolutely absurd. None of this is meant as criticism; just the opposite. My worst fear is that Cornwell’s got it completely correct. While it makes for uncomfortable reading, his depiction of the past is probably far more accurate than my own.
When I was writing my HF novel, I thought a lot about readability verses accuracy. People in 16th century Europe just didn’t have the hygiene and sanitation standards that I and my potential readers share. When I described a characters long fair hair as beautiful, I thought about how infrequently it was washed and how greasy it must have been, possibly serving as home to a village of lice. When I described a bedroom, I thought about how it couldn’t help but smell of the chamber pot. When my characters engaged in oral sex, I struggled with whether to slide in a sexy bit of bathing beforehand just because…, well…. Thing is, to someone living there, the woman’s hair probably didn’t seem especially greasy, the smell of the chamber pot was probably so taken for granted that they noticed it the way I notice car exhaust, and the oral sex…, well, I still don’t know what to think about that.
My second most recent venture into Arthurian interpretations was The Road to Avalon by Joan Wolf, which takes a radically different path from Cornwell’s. With only one exception, all the characters are sympathetic for the reader, thoughtful, complex, reasonable people whom it’s easy to like. Women are respected, children are valued, Merlin and Morgan are pleasant and well-educated, religion plays a relatively minor part in daily life, and slavery isn’t mentioned at all. This is also true of the TV series Merlin, a show so watchable you almost expect the younger characters to whip out cell phones and start texting each other. I imagine Cornwell getting 50 pages into Wolf’s The Road to Avalon, and throwing it aside in disgust at its lack of realism, and yet, I’ll admit it, I stopped reading Cornwell’s version because I simply couldn’t bear the discomfort of it all. Wolf’s version, on the other hand, I read with great enjoyment. I’m a simple woman, I admit it. I like sugar coated candy, and I like sugar coated stories. This doesn’t mean I read exclusively fluff, or that I don’t care about the truth, but I guess it does mean that I’m limited in which authors I’ll willingly read.
All of this leaves me wondering if it’s possible or even worth while to try and write about people from the past. One of my current stalled writing projects is a story set in the Neolithic period. Naturally, I’m creating 100% of the culture out of my scattered knowledge of near-east archeology, and mostly out of my imagination. How can I, a cosseted 21st century woman in the developed world, write with any realism about the infant mortality rate, the effects of disease, the fragility of life with very little social safety net, the likelihood of women dying in childbirth, the short life spans, the general overall harshness of it all, and not want to just curl up in a ball? My only answer is to write the kind of book I myself would like to read. Toni Morrison said something like that: “if the book you want to read hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I’m not a historian, but I hope I’m a writer. I guess the best I can do is to try and throw a few ideas around, and to tell my version of a good story.