Sarah Woodbury – Writing Historical Fantasy

Writing historical fantasy set in dark age Wales combines the need for research that goes beyond the world building of epic fantasy, but carries with it similar characteristics since what we know about that era in Wales is very slight. As an author, there’s just some things you have to invent.

In Cold my Heart, I start with the knowledge that the Saxons (in actual fact, a combination of several Germanic groups) did invade Britain after the Romans abandoned the island in 410 AD. King Arthur, if he existed, would have been born around 480 AD, but whether the real Arthur—the living, breathing war leader who defeated the Saxons for a generation—ever existed has never been proven.

The reason for this is the paucity of historical documents from that time period. What we have are three sources:

1) Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin, with it’s passing mention of Arthur. The author refers to the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600 and describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.
Y Goddodin

2) Gildas, a 6th century British cleric who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) . He never mentions Arthur, although he states that his own birth was in the year of the siege of Mount Badon. The fact that he does not mention Arthur, and yet is our only historian of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians suspect that King Arthur never existed.

3) Taliesin, a 6th century Welsh poet, who wrote several poems about Arthur. Including the lines: “ . . . before the door of the gate of hell the lamp was burning. And when we went with Arthur, a splendid labour, Except seven, none returned from Caer Vedwyd.”
The Raid on the Otherworld

From these seeds, the myth of Arthur was created, some believe out of whole cloth, and co-opted by the Normans and the French as a ‘British’ hero. Some say it was to justify the Norman conquest of Britain, some because it was a good story, though not quite medieval enough in its original form. From the Norman/French tales come the addition of the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle, the sword in the stone, Merlin, Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his sister Morgan, and Modred, his son and ultimate downfall.

By 1191, the monks of Glastonbury were claiming knowledge of his grave, and soon after, the link between Arthur and the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly brought there. By 1225, monks in France had written The Vulgate Cycle, telling of the holy grail from the death of Jesus Christ to the death of Arthur. This story became the standard version used throughout Europe.

Whether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query. He either was or he wasn’t. Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against. Because of the paucity of written records (most notably, Gildas fails to mention him), much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘wasn’t’—or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possibly wasn’t even a king.

For the purposes of my book Cold My Heart, I choose to believe that Arthur was real, that he was backed into a corner by his duplicitous nephew, Modred, and did not die at Camlann as the Norman/French/Anglo version says, but lived to see his country securely in the hands of a worthy heir. At the same time, the world of Cold My Heart rests in the balance between the historical Wales of 537 AD, and the quasi-medieval Arthurian world that readers have grown to love throughout the ages.

Cold my Heart: A Novel of King Arthur is available at Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Set in sixth century Wales, Cold My Heart tells the story of Myrddin and Nell, a journeyman knight and a former nun, who share a vision of a terrible future—one which encompasses the death of their King and the loss of their country.

© 2019 – 2020, Steven R. Drennon. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.