An Interview with Sara Douglass by Sophie Masson

The Betrayal of Arthur is a departure for you. Has it always been a project you wanted to do?

No. I've never been a particular 'Arthur fan'. The book came about through a series of fairly bland circumstances. Some three or so years ago I'd been approached to write a CD-ROM game on the Arthurian legend. I put lots of time and research into it, my agency put lots of time and work into it, but the deal fell through. I was left with some research and an outline on my hands. I handed the outline to my agent, Lyn Tranter, and said with some disinterest (after a year or so of negotiations on the game I was sick of the topic!) that she could do with it what she wanted: she auctioned the proposal, and Pan Macmillan put in the winning bid. So that's how the book came about. Personally, I had been aggravated for many years by the hype surrounding the Arthur legend and the mysticism and 'deep meaning' that people kept trying to attach to it-I was aware through teaching some aspects of the legend at university that people simply didn't know what the legend meant, and why it had been constructed as it had . . . and I relished the opportunity to at least strip away all the hype and sugary gloss and New Age ridiculousness. I met some truly bizarre people while doing the 'out and about' part of the research . . . there are at least five down-and-out middle-aged men I've met in central Victoria alone who are convinced that they are the modern incarnation of Merlin and they are personally going to Save The World. They fell in love with all the hype, it made them feel important, and they have no idea that Merlin was an absolute failure as wizard, prophet and general washer-upper.

How important has the Arthurian legend been in your own fiction writing?

As far as I am aware it has been no influence at all. As I said, I am not a fan of the legend. Medieval history rather than popular myth has been my inspiration.

You delineate very well, in your book, the different ways in which the legend has been used and interpreted through the ages. What is its most modern manifestation? And what does it represent, for modern readers?

That's an almost impossible question to answer. The most modern manifestation? I think there are two-the semi-scholarly push to prove that Arthur (in whatever form) did exist, and the New Age Arthur-a kind of a secular Christ for the disenfranchised and lost. What does the legend mean for modern readers? As you know, every book and every tale means something different to each reader. Broadly, however, perhaps the legend represents hope . . . I find this incredibly sad, because so many people are now feeling so disassociated from modern society and values that they cling to a myth that holds no hope and no factual truth. Possibly the legend represents a means to access our past . . . today most people of European descent are incredibly disassociated from the past (as most Europeans have been throughout history) and they need to find a vehicle to take them back to discover a cultural historical identity (to put it more simply, something they think they might be able to be proud of in their ancestry, because they find little to be proud of in contemporary society). Of course, what happens is that people simply take the bare bones of the Arthurian legend (Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot and a bit of sleeping around) and graft whatever they want on to it. So . . . like so much of history, the Arthurian legend becomes whatever it is needed to become for people to justify their own fantasies and need to be important.

Why do you think the legend has had such a long and hardy life?

I think I have answered that with the last sentence above! The Arthurian legend has had such a long and hardy life because a) it is a rollicking good tale of adventure and sinful sex and b) it can most beautifully be used by all and sundry to justify their own agenda-the kings of England, as I explain in the book, have used it that way for almost a thousand years, and today people continue to use it . . . the lost claim to be a reincarnation of Merlin/Arthur/Geunevere in order to make themselves feel important and to justify building up their own personal little doomsday cults (I know I'm sounding cynical . . . but the number of absolutely crazy-and dangerously crazy-people I met researching this book has left me deeply depressed about the manipulative and dangerous aspects of human nature); how strange it is that Mordred never seems to be reincarnated! Whatever, the legend has had such a long and hardy life because it lends itself to being used; it can be reinvented by every age in order to justify whatever agenda happens to be on the go at the time.

I've often thought that the psychological explorations in the Arthurian legend are written in the guise of adventures because they were a product of an age when life was very hard and physically demanding. In our time, when psychological forays are practically THE only adventure left to Western people, who live such soft lives, do we need even more the physical adventures of Arthur and his knights?

I doubt very, very much that many people understand the legend in terms of psychological forays. It has been my experience that people firmly close their eyes to anything but the golden facade of chivalric adventure. It is simply a tragic, romantic tale combined with a bit of magic-and that kind of thing has always been popular.

Do uncertain times represent more fertile ground for the 'return' of King Arthur in the popular consciousness?

Yes, as every other myth, cult, legend etc. Uncertain times call for 'strong men', someone who can save the day. I still dissolve into laughter whenever I think of people associating the concept of 'strong man' with Arthur-the man couldn't boil an egg without causing a global catastrophe!

You seemed to cast a distinctly cool eye on many of the characters and motifs in the Arthurian story. What's your feeling about the whole legend now, having lived with it for so long?

As I've mentioned, I've never been a particular fan of the Arthurian legend, and, quite frankly, I'd be happy if I never saw, heard, read or smelt anything about Arthur again so long as I live.

What of the Celtic element of the story-popular in the twelfth century, popular again now. How was it seen then? And now? What do you think 'Celtic' means to people?

The Celtic element of the story was popular in the twelfth century? The twelfth century didn't know what 'Celtic' was! I'm not too sure what you mean by that . . . the twelfth century had no understanding or knowledge of their past . . . the only thing 'celtic' they knew were the bastard Welsh across the border who should be put to death as soon as possible. What does Celtic mean to people today? Something vaguely to do with lots of pretty, knotted intertwined borders and perhaps a bit of hope from a past society to save them from this one. People who are dissatisfied and disassociated from their contemporary society always seem to go back in search of a Golden Age: today many people feel that the Celtic era was a Golden Age whose 'deep truths' can be resurrected to put some meaning back into their own lives. It's romanticised beyond belief and fact, but at least it keeps the New Age book market healthy.

Going to fantasy-do you think fantasy fulfils a religious role in a post-Christian society such as Australia's? What do you think of fantasy in general-is it in a healthy state-or are there too many 'carbon copy' fantasies?

I don't think fantasy fulfills a 'religious' role as such, it simply gives people a means to access a world of mysticism, magic and hope: the basic fantasy trope of Good versus Evil has been a best-seller ever since humankind first attained conscious thought, and yet our materialistic, rationalistic and scientific society doesn't leave much room for the Good vs. Evil explanations for whatever goes bump in the night. As for what do I think of fantasy in general-I can't answer that. I'm one of the many fantasy authors who never read in their own genre. The last fantasy novel I read right through was perhaps some seven years ago and that was only because I was stuck in the bed with the flu and the only book within reach was one of Robin Hobb's that a friend had left on the nightstand. I don't even actually classify myself as a 'fantasy' writer. I write, and editors and publishers and readers classify me as fantasy. I was mildly surprised when HarperCollins, when they first picked me up, thrust me firmly into fantasy. Recently I've been offered a deal by Tor in the USA, and one of the things that I love about the offer is that they want to promote me in the general book market as much as in fantasy.

Why is the medieval so often the template of fantasy? As a medievalist yourself, are you impressed or annoyed by the representation of an imagined Middle Ages in fantasy?

Again, I can only answer the first half of this question, and only as it relates to myself. I use the medieval world because I am a medieval historian and I know my way around the medieval world and mind very well. I think, generally (and, yes, I know Terry Pratchett will disagree vehemently with this!), the reason why the medieval world is used as a template is because the magical is not allowed to exist within a scientific society . . . and science began to extend its grip on western society from the 1600s onwards. Our 'collective western mind' has been taught over and over (since the days of the fairy stories we were told as children) that the magical can exist only in a pre-modern world.

What's next for Sara Douglass?

Too much. Currently I am doing a major rebuild of my web site (and in fact going to a new web site: no less!), building a company, and trying to find enough time to write my next trilogy set in fourteenth century Europe. (Called The Crucible, the first book The Nameless Day will be available in May 2000 . . . there, I've done my self-promotion bit!)

Eidolon: SF Online
Copyright © 2000 Sophie Masson. All rights reserved.
Published online: 9 March 2000.