As most of you know, I am always on the lookout for more books to add to my (admittedly already extensive) collection. I grew up reliving tales of King Arthur and his knights—whenever I wasn’t playing make-believe with Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest, that is—so I was quite excited to hear about a new Arthurian retelling from Suzannah Rowntree. And I’m even more excited to have her visiting the blog today to talk about the works that inspired her novel. Ladies and gents, welcome Suzannah!
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It’s been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake.
As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon’s Heir?
Meet the Author
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record.
She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir is her debut novel.
The Books That Built Pendragon’s Heir
I sometimes think that there is no such thing as a born writer; only enthusiastic readers who see a shortage of the kind of books they like best. This was certainly true for me. My own novel, Pendragon’s Heir, grew out of a rich reading experience over many years. It bears the impress of many different books in many different ways, and today I’d like to discuss just four of those influences.
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green
I don’t recall exactly when I first fell in love with the Arthurian legends. I know I must have been very young, because the memory has a dreamlike quality to it. I also know that when it happened I had my Dad’s old copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table in my hands. I was reading this passage:
Then she said: ‘Sir, follow this path and it will bring you to the Chapel Perilous; and I shall remain here until you return … And if you do not return, then will there be no knight living who can achieve this adventure.’ Down the path went Launcelot, and came before long to a strange lonely chapel in a little clearing. Then he tied his horse to a tree and went into the churchyard on foot. And on the end of the chapel he saw hanging many fair shields turned upside down: and suddenly thirty great knights dressed in black armour stood beneath the shields, taller by a foot and more than any mortal man: and they gnashed their teeth and glared horribly at Sir Launcelot.
Something of that spooky, yet courtly medieval scene has remained with me ever since. So has that battered old paperback; it is lying on my desk as I write this. And though I have gone on to read many more retellings of the Arthur myth, from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King to Rosemary Sutcliff’s Road to Camlann and Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, though I have read and enjoyed a host of medieval documents from the pseudohistory of Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Welsh Mabinogion and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling was and remains for me the definitive Arthurian story. If you want to know more about the legends behind Pendragon’s Heir, or if you would like to introduce the best of those legends to young readers—or if you are simply in search of a beautifully-written classic retelling of the Matter of Britain, you cannot do better than this book.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
If Roger Lancelyn Green prepared me with a love for Arthurian legends, the spark for the story idea which at last became Pendragon’s Heir came from quite a different quarter: Scottish mystery novelist Josephine Tey. In her very unconventional novel The Daughter of Time, Alan Grant, her star detective, suffers an injury in the course of duty and spends his recovery time detecting the solution to the coldest possible case in English history: the disappearance of the young princes from the Tower of London during the reign of Richard III.
Up until that point in my life (long before Richard III’s corpse was discovered under an English parking-lot), I only knew about this English king through Shakespeare’s play, having watched with horrified fascination as Laurence Olivier schemed his way across the screen and into Lady Anne’s heart. Tey’s novel, with its impassioned defense of Richard and what seemed to me an airtight rehabilitation of his character, fired me with enthusiasm. I, too, might try to resurrect some much-maligned figure! But who? At the time, I settled on Guinevere from the Arthurian legends, someone who I felt very passionately should have been properly in love with Arthur all along. Pendragon’s Heir started its long, long life as a way for me to figure out if Guinevere was worth redeeming. But was she? You’ll have to read Pendragon’s Heir to find out!
That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis
In Lewis’s book, as in his friend and fellow-Inkling Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the legends, the Arthurian kingdom of Logres is used as a symbol of the kingdom of heaven in Britain:
“…Something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. …There has been a secret Logres in the very heart of Britain all these years…In every age [the Pendragons] and the little Logres which gathered round them have been the fingers which gave the tiny shove or the almost imperceptible pull, to prod England out of the drunken sleep or to draw her back from the final outrage.”
When I was wrestling through the deeper meaning of the Arthurian legends in an attempt to flesh out the themes in Pendragon’s Heir, it was CS Lewis’s interpretation of Logres which I kept coming back to: Logres a desperate attempt, a forlorn hope, a lost cause which might, in the end, be won after all… And this, I believe, is what distinguishes Pendragon’s Heir from just about every other popular contemporary retelling of the Arthur legend. I’m not about the adventure and romance (although that’s in there, too). I’m not about the fantastic world or the court intrigue. Pendragon’s Heir is about what, as far as I can tell, the Arthurian legends always have been about: the glory and pain, the close walk with judgement and destruction, that comes with any attempt to draw down Deep Heaven upon the earth.
Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory
Finally, I couldn’t possibly write a novel based on Arthurian legend without reading the classic English romance, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Curiously enough, I almost hated Malory the first two times I attempted to read the book. I only made it to the end on my third attempt, three years ago, and all the way I had to struggle mightily with all the things in the book that made no sense to me. If Arthur’s knights were meant to be Christians, pure and meek and defenders of those weaker than themselves, why all the murder, seduction, and injustice? Making sense of Malory forced me to come to terms not just with the Arthurian legends but also with significant aspects of medieval life. Eventually, I came to realise that in Malory’s book, Arthur’s grand hope is eventually destroyed not by a freak of fate (as we might expect) but by sin and compromise at the very heart of Logres.
With that as my key, the whole epic fell into place—and so did significant elements of the Pendragon’s Heir plot. Today, I admire Malory for his wonderful, graceful writing style and the epic scope of his remarkable tale. But the part of his book I love the best is his account of the Grail Quest, which provided a great deal of the raw material for my plot. In his essay on Le Morte D’Arthur in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, CS Lewis describes the Round Table in its failure to properly achieve the Grail as “the peak which failed to reach heaven.”
Like Green, Lewis, and Malory before me, I remain fascinated by that vision of a doomed yet glorious attempt to reach heaven. However fictional they may be, the legends of Arthur will always capture our imagination. And the reason is not that they give us a glimpse of something different—but that they give us a fresh look at something very old, something that is basic to humanity, both our curse and our calling.
Gillian here: Thanks, Suzannah, for a fascinating look behind the scenes!
How about you, folks? Do you have a favorite retelling of Arthurian legend? Share in the comments!