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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Anna Elliott
Book cover picture

*Your novel, TWILIGHT OF AVALON, tells the famous story of Trystan and Isolde. What drew you to this period in history?
In the spring of 2007, I woke up from a very vivid dream in which I was telling my mother about a plan to write a novel about the daughter of Modred (or Mordred), great villain of the cycle of King Arthur tales. I'd been an English major in college with a focus on Medieval literature, and had fallen in love with the Arthurian legends then. So when I woke up, the idea just wouldn't let me go. I started to do some preliminary research, reading several books that explored the historical foundations of the Arthur myths.

The Arthurian legends as we know them today, with their knights in shining armor, jousts, tournaments, and the tragic love story of Lancelot and Gwenevere, are very much products of a later Medieval courtly chivalric world. But Arthur, if he existed at all, would have been a 5th-century British warlord, a far cry from the king of Cammelot as he appears in the tales. The 5th-century was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome's legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged and formed. And it is against this backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led--or at least may have led--a victorious campaign against the invaders, driving them back for perhaps the space of a man's lifetime and so inspiring the roots of a legend that still captures our imaginations today.

I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur, and fascinated by the world in which he might have lived. So I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world a blend of the earliest versions I could find of the legends and what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain.

*How much of TWILIGHT OF AVALON is based on fact, and how much is fiction?
As I mentioned above, while I was doing research for Twilight of Avalon, I read several fascinating books that explore the possibility of a real-life historic Arthur. But it really is only that--a possibility.

Very, very little can be discovered or said with any certainty about who the man himself might have been. And at the same time, although I'd decided to set my story far from the legendary Cammelot at a time a real Arthur might have lived, I felt as though there were certain conventions of the later Arthur legends that I wanted to pay tribute to and honor.

I decided to base my Arthur on one of the earliest tellings of the Arthur story: that recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, written in the mid twelfth-century. In this version, the now famous Gwenevere-Lancelot-Arthur love triangle does not exist; in fact, Lancelot is not yet even present as one of Arthur’s fighting men. Instead, it is Modred, Arthur’s heir, who betrays the king by seizing both Gwenevere and the throne. I used this version of the story as the backdrop for Twilight of Avalon and at the same time tried to place it in a world that was as authentic as possible a representation of what Dark Age Britain might have been.

The historical basis for the characters of Trystan and Marche is even more scant than that for a historical Arthur: the single true piece of evidence for their existence is a memorial stone in Cornwall with the inscription: Drustans hic iacet Cunomori filius, which means, “Drustanus lies here, the son of Cunomorus.” Many scholars have plausibly suggested that the characters referred to are the Tristan and King Mark of later medeival tales, Drustanus being a recognized variant of the name Tristan (or Trystan) and Cunomorus being the Latinized version of the name Cynvawr, who is identified by the ninth-century historian Nennias with King Mark (or March or Marche).

In terms of the other characters, I used the names of the Saxon kings who would likely have been ruling the kingdoms of Kent and Wessex at the time, and my Madoc of Gwynedd is based on the historical sixth-century King Maelgwn Gwynedd, who was indeed a leading king of the age and whom the 6th-century historian Gildas identifies as "Dragon of the Isle." Myrddin (Merlin) may indeed have been a famed Welsh Bard. Apart from these, though, Twilight of Avalon’s Britain is a a blending of legend and truth, an attempt to portray the historical world of sixth-century Cornwall, while still honoring the legends that are, after centuries of telling and re-telling, as real as historical fact

*The story you tell of Tystan and Isolde is very different (and much better, if I may say so!) from the one most people have read. Why is that?
Well, first of all, thank you! As I mentioned above, the Arthurian canon as we know it today is very much grounded in a courtly, chivalric, later Medieval world--and as one of the later additions to the cycle of Arthur stories, this is particularly true of the legend of Trystan and Isolde, with its tragic love triangle that echoes the more famous Arthur-Gwenevere-Lancelot one. And in many ways, also, the story becomes a bit of a Christian morality play. (Which to be honest I think is a disservice to the characters of Trystan and Isolde, whom I loved from my first encounter with them). And yet the Trystan and Isolde story, like the Arthur one, has its roots in earlier legends and traditions. As I was doing research, I started to wonder what those earliest traditions might have been, what the story might have looked like at its first inception during the chaos and violence of Dark Age Britain, the "real" Arthurian age. Twilight of Avalon is my attempt to create a story that both fit my Dark Age setting and might credibly have been told and retold, adapted and changed through the ages to eventually become the Trystan and Isolde story as we know it today.

*Tell us something surprising about women's lives in 6th century England.
Women during the 6th-century actually had greater legal rights than later during the Middle Ages.

The Welsh laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) were written in the 10th-century, but are assumed to be much older, and are far more liberal in their attitude toward women than those the Catholic Church would be instrumental in instituting later on. Under Hywel Dda's laws, for example, if a woman found her husband with another woman, she was entitled to a payment of six score pence the first time and a pound the second time; on the third occasion she was entitled to divorce him.

*What are you working on next?
Twilight of Avalon is the first of a trilogy, so at the time of writing I've completed the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, and am at work on the third, Sunrise of Avalon. I'm about 3/4 of the way finished with it. And with a new baby--our second--due in August, I have a good self-imposed deadline to get it done!

Anna Elliott portraitThank you Anna! And feel free to visit Anna Elliott online for more information about her amazing new novel Twilight of Avalon.