A Tense of Disappointment

Behind The May Hawk’s Daughter

The lesson this carries for me, and which is something I’m currently mulling over, is how to best present my own fiction when my natural inclination spans genres. Sure, there are crossovers in what I write, and I might hope that readers who enjoy one type will find enough substance in the other to provide a satisfying read, but I’m not entirely convinced. As mentioned, my stories veer from out-and-out horror, through supernatural and ghost, to fairy story, fantasy and fable. There are also a fair smattering of pretty weird or otherwise uncategorisable stories. Horror is a great market. Readers know what they like, and are broad minded enough to take in a wide variety of sub types. There are lots of indie presses around, and lots of great writers to rub shoulders with. Creating a subtly frightening atmosphere, something that will send chills up the reader’s spine, is pretty challenging in itself, and comes with a great feeling of accomplishment when someone says a story is genuinely frightening. But I’m also drawn to fantasy, albeit fantasy rooted firmly in the folklore and fable of our own histories. The magic and fear that Karen Maitland writes about, but pushed even further back in history, to a partially imaginary time that blends elements of history, geography, folklore, myth and legend into the seamless whole that the ‘Matter of Britain’ manages so expertly.

Bearing this in mind, much as I enjoy writing supernatural stories, by far and away my most successful story to date is one I wrote for an Arthurian anthology. The story is called ‘The May Hawk’s Daughter’, and is a coming of age tale set in a not-quite-real 7th century. Even though the brief was to be ‘historically accurate’, one of the things I enjoy about mediaeval Arthurian prose and poetry is just how unhistorical it can be. Authors of the time had little idea of the timeline of historical events, of proper chronology, the dully linear plod of events, inventions and warfare. Instead, they freely mixed characters, events, geography, natural and supernatural, into a tapestry of story that wove the mythical and magical into something that would impact and entertain their audience. Thus Arthur invades the Roman Empire, overthrowing the Emperor in an indistinct recollection of the actions of Magnus Maximus, who denuded Britannia of its legions while attempting to usurp the imperial throne. Arthur fights (sixth century) saxons and (twelfth century) saracens while he and his men carouse in High Mediaeval castles, quest from Camelot into enchanted forests that lie in Brittany, and ancient Welsh figures like Cai and Bedwyr ride alongside the twelfth century French figure of Lancelot du lac. And even older, more pagan figures break into the mediaeval Christian narrative as far to the north, the sun god Gawain fights the green god of vegetation and the waning year.

All of these I remembered from my childhood and teenage years, from Mallory, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, from Chretien de Troyes, from Tolkien’s retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight, and from Andrew Lang’s marvellous Book of Romance, which gathered and retold the stories for (just about) twentieth century children (published 1902). I wanted to evoke this sense of mystery and history, of magic and chivalry, of something departed but still slumbering. However, another strong influence on me (and one which I shall return to in a later blog) are the Mythago series of books by Robert Holdstock, a marvellous novelist and mythographer par excellence. I wanted to try and capture the same sense of travelling through the wild wood, of a forest that holds ancient, magical secrets drawn from the depths of human consciousness. A slumbering, ancient presence that neither knows of, nor cares for, human interlopers.

To that end, when I saw a submission call for an anthology that would feature stories set after the fall of Arthur’s kingdom, my immediate inclination was to wonder what had become of Broceliande, the almost limitless, magical forest of the stories, through which knights errant ride in quest of deserted chapels, otherworldly maidens and cunning serpents. And, of course, location of Morgana le fey’s Valley of No Return, where she imprisoned faithless lovers, and where, at the Fontaine de Barenton, Yvain pours water onto a magical stone to summon the guardian knight. By the mid-Thirteenth century Brocéliande had become an integral part of the Arthurian canon, appearing in works right up to the present day. Since it also features as the location of Holdstock’s Merlin’s Wood (being the supposed site of the imprisoning of Merlin by the enchantress Nimue, the Lady of the Lake), it seemed an ideal setting to merge all these influences and tell the story of a lonely, grief stricken boy.

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