Wednesday 17 November 2021

The Shallot Series by Felicity Pulman


Q: The first book in the Shalott trilogy came out in 2001. Why have you decided to republish the series? A:  I originally wrote the Shalotts as one-offs, not knowing what Callie’s true quest was until I came to Book 3.  Rewriting the series has given me the opportunity to update the stories and ensure continuity. And with the knowledge of Callie’s true quest in mind, I was able to make the story a whole lot more magical while also tying up some loose threads.

Q: What inspired you to write the trilogy? A: My beloved dog, Bonnie, died. I was heartbroken. As we buried her in our garden, the Tennyson poem, The Lady of Shalott, sung by Loreena McKennitt was running through my mind: ‘And Lancelot mused a little space, He said she has a lovely face, God in His mercy lend her grace, the Lady of Shalott.’ I played that CD over and over as I mourned Bonnie – and I became intrigued by the questions it raised: Why was there a curse on the Lady of Shalott? Why was she trapped in the tower? Why, after seeing Lancelot, did she have to die? Finally I began to ask myself: what if ...? These are the questions that I’ve answered in the trilogy.

Q:  What’s the attraction of the legend of King Arthur?                                                                                A: No matter how much society and customs may change, human nature does not. This is a timeless story of Utopian ideals brought undone by the illicit love affair between Guinevere, King Arthur’s queen, and his best-loved knight, Sir Lancelot, and by the machinations of Arthur’s son, Mordred, born of an incestuous alliance between Arthur and one of his half-sisters. The first mention of Arthur is as a Romano-British warrior; it dates back over 1,500 years to when the Romans left Britain. Since then the story has been reimagined and retold to reflect the customs and mores of the times, right up until the present day. The legend has also inspired poets, musicians, artists and film-makers through the ages because it has all the ingredients of a popular soapie: love, lust, honour, courage, treachery and betrayal, along with a large dollop of magic and mystery.

Q: In what way is the legend relevant to today’s teenagers?                                                                         A: Adobe Master Teacher, writer and innovative advocate Juliette Bentley says of the Shalott trilogy: ‘You managed to capture so many themes. The place of sibling rivalry, challenging gender stereotypes, self-determination  We love your work.’ She also calls the trilogy ‘provocative’ – and I take that as the highest compliment. In the legend there is a clash between a belief in Christianity (the search for the Holy Grail) and an older magic as the knights encounter supernatural events and mythical beasts during their quest. In the trilogy, and at great risk to himself, Stephen stands up for scientific proof as opposed to the various belief systems playing out in Camelot. In our rapidly changing world, with all its varying beliefs, scientific proof is crucial to our understanding. Throughout the novels the teenagers continually examine the world of Camelot, and compare it with what they know or are told about our own world. At the same time they question their own lives, their hopes, their ideals, their beliefs, their purpose. With social media trolls and cancel culture now in play, it takes courage to make a stand against popular opinion and yet, in these troubled times, it’s more important than ever to stay true to yourself. My hope is that teen readers will also ask questions, and think for themselves, as they go forward into their future. 

Q: Why did you decide to set the novels in medieval time as opposed to today’s more popular new age approach to the legend?                                                                                                                             A: The first coherent account of King Arthur was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 1130s: A History of the Kings of Britain, in which he portrayed Arthur as a warrior king. Chretien de Troyes, writing in the latter half of the 12th century, introduced an early version of the Grail Quest along with elements of romance and intrigue: Lancelot and his illicit love affair with Guinevere, and Mordred as Arthur’s bastard son rather than his nephew. Callie’s meeting with Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1134 is a vital element of #3 of the trilogy, as is her meeting with the Empress Matilda, Henry I’s only legitimate heir but destined never to rule. Researching and writing these novels sparked a deep and abiding fascination with the middle ages, which then led me on to write the Janna Chronicles.

Q:  Did you have to do a lot of research before writing the trilogy?                                                            A:  Yes!  I read many different versions of the legends, watched the movies and so on. But I also needed to come to grips with what life was like in medieval time, the real history even though I portray Camelot as a quasi-medieval Otherworld. Luckily the trilogy was originally written pre-Covid so I was able to visit the UK several times to follow the ‘Arthurian trail’. I visited many magical places along the way, including Tintagel in Cornwall, where Arthur was supposedly born, and also the Forest of Broceliande in France, site of many of the knights’ great and magical adventures. ‘Merlin’s tomb’ is there. Glastonbury is a great favourite of mine, visiting the Chalice Well and climbing the Tor,  thought to be the fabled Isle of Avalon. King Arthur’s tomb was discovered by monks at Glastonbury Abbey in 1190; his remains were reinterred and buried in front of the high altar in 1278 during a state visit by Edward I. (The remains were subsequently lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries decreed by Henry VIII.) There are ‘Arthurian sites’ all around the UK, and millions of tourists visit every year to follow in the footsteps of the ever-popular ‘once and future king.’

© Felicity Pulman 2021


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