Please welcome Sarah Woodbury on her first visit to Lizzyland! Sarah was kind enough to write a guest post about the historical background of King Arthur’s existence, research she also used while writing her historical fantasy, Cold My Heart. Here’s Sarah!
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 . . .
Writing historical fantasy set in the dark ages requires research that goes beyond the world building of epic fantasy, but carries with it similar characteristics, since we know so little about that era in Britain. For my Arthurian novel, Cold My Heart, I start with the knowledge that the Saxons (in actual fact, a combination of several Germanic groups) invaded 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The paucity of historical documents from that time period is to blame. 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”.
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 doesn’t 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.”
From these seeds grew the myth of Arthur, which the Normans (and then the French) co-opted, adding the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle, the sword in the stone, Merlin, and Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his sister Morgan along the way.
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 though 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 possible 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.
By the autumn of 537 AD, all who are loyal to King Arthur have retreated to a small parcel of land in north Wales. They are surrounded on all sides, heavily outnumbered, and facing near certain defeat.
But Myrddin and Nell, two of the King’s companions, have a secret that neither has ever been able to face: each hasseen that on a cold and snowy day in December, Saxon soldiers sent by Modred will ambush and kill King Arthur.
And together, they must decide what they are willing to do, and to sacrifice, to avert that fate.
With two historian parents, Sarah couldn’t help but develop an interest in the past. She went on to get more than enough education herself (in anthropology) and began writing fiction when the stories in her head overflowed and demanded she let them out. Her interest in Wales stems from her own ancestry and the year she lived in England when she fell in love with the country, language, and people. She even convinced her husband to give all four of their children Welsh names.
She makes her home in Oregon.