As I’m writing the third book in my feminist Arthurian retelling series (this one is Queen of Mercy, while the others are Queen of None and Queen of Fury), I’ve been having quite a lot of thoughts about the overall themes and symbols of them.
For context: I started the first book in 2009, and now here we are in 2023.
Which is about the same difference in time from the end of the first book to the beginning of the third book. In that time, characters who start out as babies become adults (well, in medievalish terms). People die. Alliances are forged, relationships broken.
It’s very much a whole different world, and it’s continually turning toward deterioration. That’s something that’s always been very appealing to me about Arthuriana: tons of cool stuff happens, but it’s not going to last.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it feels like to be writing this, ultimately, multigenerational epic. Generations are what got me into here in the first place: I was fascinated with the idea of collapsed generations, i.e., in royal families, a young woman (like Anna in the first book) could be married at 12 and have a child at 13. She does.
Her son, Gawain, is one of the main POVs in the second book, a compliment to Hwyfar, a priestess of Avillion and the woman who would have been Arthur’s queen if not for her sister Gweynevere.
Now, Gawain–who is only 13 years younger than his mother–is put into a father/brother position with his youngest brother, Galahad. Their generations are a stark contrast: Gawain was thrust into the front of the war at 15, his huge stature used as an advantage for the realm while no one took a moment to consider the mental ramifications. Galahad, however, eighteen at the start of Queen of Mercy, is arguably the most talented knight (even more talented than his father Lanceloch) but has never seen battle. All his “war” is play. Essentially, Gawain’s generation fought to give Galahad’s a semblance of childhood.
I said this was a feminist retelling and I’m speaking of men a great deal. But that’s something we often forget when speaking of feminism. It isn’t about only having women feature, or rewriting books to supplant men. It’s about giving the same playing field–emotionally, politically, narratively–to all genders. You can write a feminist story in a misogynist world, and certainly this one is. Nowhere is that more apparent than with Gawain’s story.
Gawain’s arc in the second book tackles the insidious nature of toxic masculinity. And he is a character who chooses to be better. He decides to leave the easy path of a king’s favored nephew takes the hard way due, in no small part, to the women in his life (both friends, family, and lovers). Without giving away any spoilers, he has to make an impossible choice but makes it anyway. He gets what he wants, but not without losing parts of himself he will never get back.
In contrast, Galahad has the added bonus of being a kind of orphaned last child. He’s raised by foster parents, barely knows his mother and father, and has the added difficulty of being both in love with someone he cannot have and truly, deeply dedicated to his religion. Writing his scenes have been easier than I anticipated, and at first I thought that was just weird. Then I realized, after some self-reflection, that Galahad stands precisely where I did at that age: battling my queerness with my faith. Galahad’s choices… well, they will be different than his big brother’s, but not unconnected, let’s just say.
By the third book we move away, slightly, from the books as only showing hidden women. Instead, we see the fruit of their work upon the world as a whole. We follow Morgen le Fay as she tries to cobble together what remains of the old faith while questioning her very morally grey involvement in decades of intrigue; we follow Llachlyn, Galahad’s cousin and bastard of Arthur and Morgen, as she tries to build an identity in a world that does not want her; and we have Percival, the poor kid caught between them all. These four bear the brunt of the journey, but they’re supported by characters from the previous books.
Am I tying this up? Is this the last of my books and stories in this world? I should hope not. It doesn’t feel like the end, but feels like an end–a handing of the baton to the younger generation. But that’s the beautiful thing about Arthuriana. There are always more stories to tell.