A literary mystery, a romance, and an exploration of the origins of Celtic mythology.
The legendary British war leader known as Arthur stands at the dimmest margin of recorded history. The few fragments of chronicle and verse that mention him by name are tantalizing enough, but they cannot tell us for sure that he existed, or that he did not. Writing in the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that the real story of Arthur was told in ‘a certain very ancient book written in the British language’ that his friend Walter had brought to him from Wales. This book, if ever it existed, has since been lost to the world.
The archaeologist Donald Gladstone, recently divorced, has rededicated himself to the apparently impossible task of explaining the true origins of the Arthurian story. Donald’s chance meeting in a Wiltshire pub with the equally unattainable Julia Llewellyn, a gifted linguist working at the Oxford English Dictionary, is followed by a dramatic announcement from an archaeological team working near Stonehenge and another, quieter discovery in the Bodleian Library. Lured by the complex and beguiling Julia and by the elusive verses of an old Welsh poem, Donald finds himself a pilgrim in a many-layered historical landscape evoked by the secret places and half-forgotten mythology of the British countryside. His quest will intersect in unforeseen ways with Julia’s own troubled journey, and will lead them at last to a deeper understanding of the origins of Arthur.
How this book came to be
It was Geoffrey’s tantalizing phrase that started it all. I had for some years been intrigued by the story of the ‘real’ Arthur, the flesh-and-blood warrior who, some scholars claimed, summoned a bold British defence against the Saxon incursions in the period traditionally known as the dark ages. My sceptical instincts inclined me to side with those historians who suggested that Arthur was no more than a hero of the imagination, a purely symbolic figure whose origins lay somewhere in a rich Celtic mythology that had only partly survived into later medieval times. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a churchman of Welsh extraction, drew deeply on this long-standing tradition to make a story of Arthur that would find a wide audience in twelfth-century Britain and continental Europe. In so doing, he claimed that he was merely translating a book that a friend had brought to him from Wales, a ‘certain very ancient book written in the British language’, quendam Britannici sermonis librum uetustissimum, in which the true history of Arthur was told.
Geoffrey’s mysterious ancient source, apparently unknown before his time and never seen since, has been readily dismissed as a fabrication, a publicity stunt designed to discomfit Geoffrey’s historiographical rivals. But what if, I wondered… what if such a book had existed, what if it had contained some important evidence concerning the historical Arthur? Where might such a book have come from, and how might it have survived into modern times? Such questions would surely remain inaccessible to historians, but—it seemed to me—there was a compelling story waiting to be told.
While pursuing this idea, I became a follower of the Arthurnet e-mail list, and soon became intrigued by this vibrant community of Arthurian enthusiasts, scholars of literature and language side by side with amateur antiquarians and readers of new-age fantasy novels. If I could only create something that would in a small way contribute to and perpetuate the vigorous Arthurian literary tradition that began with Geoffrey and continued through John Cowper Powys and T.H. White, Mary Stewart and Marion Zimmer Bradley, I would perhaps find a receptive readership. But the challenge of making my story credible to them, of telling a tale that was real and vibrant and interesting, seemed well beyond me.
Then, on a long drive through the west country of England, pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. By the time I reached my destination that day, characters and plot-lines were swirling relentlessly; the first indefinite outlines of a novel were taking shape. Those early ideas became a rough first draft, then a second. Some years went past. There were numerous distractions: new jobs, children, a house in need of painting. I sent the third or fourth version to a Professor of English Literature at the University of Wales, who happened to be a world authority on Sir Thomas Malory and Le Morte D’Arthur. He responded promptly and kindly, going so far as to say that he admired my sentences, while making it clear that I still had a lot of work to do. I started again at the beginning, editing ruthlessly, or so I thought.
Fast forward a few more years. I convinced myself that the novel was finished: surely I was ready at last. I was sweating over my query letter when pure serendipity landed me the best agent I could have hoped for. She saw something in my writing, but there were many remaining challenges. This was not, she said, a fictional exercise so much as a process of discovery, an unearthing of secrets. Gradually, with the aid of her well placed insights and patient encouragements, my ambitious but ill-formed project came into a new and better focus.
I fell into a routine: the 6:32 AM Hoboken train, thirty stolen minutes on the laptop, thirty minutes on the way home. Sunday mornings, a few peaceful hours with something downbeat playing in the headphones. There were trips to the UK, solitary and sometimes reckless dashes to the key locations in the novel. I found that the magic of Tintagel and Solsbury Hill and the Cambrian Mountains was undiminished; they did not let me down.
By the time I was finished, helped by some terrific, insightful feedback from my editor at Norton, sixteen years had elapsed since that west-country drive. Reluctant though I was to lose the steady companionship of Donald Gladstone and Julia Llewellyn and their unfinished story, I forced myself to let go of a project that had occupied me for more than half my adult life.