An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 20, 2015

Galavant. Dan Fogelman, creator.

The ABC Television Mini-series Galavant: Dan Fogelman, creator; Dan Fogelman, Alan Menken, Glenn Slater and Chris Koch, executive producers; Chris Koch, John Fortenberry and James Griffiths, directors; Dan Fogelman, Kirker Butler, John Hoberg, Casey Johnson, Kat Likkel, Kristin Newman, Scott Winger and David Windsor, writers—with music by Alan Menken and Christopher Lennertz and lyrics by Glenn Slater. Filmed in Bristol (UK) by Abbey C Studios for ABC Television.  Aired January 4, 11, 18, and 25, 2015. 8/7c.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

To extend an allusion to Piers Plowman more than a bit, small-screen medievalism has long been a fair field ripe for cultivation but one hardly full of folk to do the cultivating.  The only full-length study of this form of medievalism that comes to mind is Bert Olton’s excellent Arthurian Legends on Film and Television, but, as comprehensive and invaluable as Olton’s catalogue raisonné may be, it was published fifteen years ago. Other than the occasional essay devoted to some individual television show or series, the fertile field of small-screen medievalism sadly lies largely ignored and uncultivated, despite the rich harvest it promises. 

Such lack of critical and scholarly attention is all that more curious given the long history of small-screen medievalism.  Pride of place as probably the earliest example of small-screen medievalism belongs to the BBC six-episode Robin Hood broadcast live in March and April 1953, but, alas, no longer available for viewing except in some very brief excerpts incorporated into other television programs.  British television would, however, continue to embrace medievalism throughout the so-called Golden Age of Television in the United Kingdom and in the United States, the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when Britain’s independent channel, ITV, produced in rapid succession, and then broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, and The Adventures of William Tell—in many cases from scripts penned, we now know, by blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters.

Small-screen medievalism has come in waves.  Each decade since the 1960s has brought more series, or more individual episodes of non-medieval series.  Small-screen medievalism has tended more often than not to be Arthurian or Hoodian, repeatedly taking us to some version of Camelot or of the Greenwood, but, no matter where it is set, small-screen medievalism comes in a variety of genres: broad comedy (When Things Were Rotten and Maid Marian and Her Merry Men), equally broad social commentary (Robin of Sherwood and The Mists of Avalon), sci-fi (episodes of Dr. Who and of Star Trek), pseudo-history (several iterations of Ivanhoe and series such as Covington Cross, Roar, and The Pillars of the Earth), cartoons (Prince Valiant, Clone High, and King Arthur’s Disasters), westerns (episodes of Gunsmoke and of Bonanza), crime and mystery dramas (episodes of Criminal Minds—one a two-part especially gruesome bridge between seasons—of The Avengers, and of Perception, as well as the several season mini-series Cadfael), fantasy and horror series (episodes of Charmed and of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a continuing major plot line in True Blood involving vampires who were originally Viking warriors), and, in the case of the latest example of small-screen medievalism, ABC television’s mini-series Galavant, musical romantic comedy, albeit very silly musical romantic comedy.

Musical comedy has embraced medievalism before on the stage (Spamalot, Pippin, Good Time Charley, and Twang!), but Galavant may be a first for small-screen medievalism.  Billed by ABC as a four-week comedy extravaganza, Galavant is actually eight half-hour episodes that were presented in four double installments as fillers while the popular series Once Upon a Time, a show that itself dabbles at times in medievalism, was on hiatus.  Galavant’s ratings were respectable enough, and the mini-series certainly ended with enough cliffhangers, but there has been no word yet as to whether the show will return for a second season any time in the future.

The handsome eponymous hero (Joshua Sasse) is more slacker than he is Fair Unknown as he sets out to mend his broken heart.  Unlike his counterparts in Spamalot, he is not trying to find his Grail or his male, but his gal!  She is the lovely Madalena (Mallory [such a wonderfully-appropriate medieval first name!] Jansen) who is kidnapped as the series opens by the not-quite-too-dastardly King Richard (Timothy Omundson).  Richard at one point bills himself as a “modern thirteenth-century man” when it comes to treating woman (and to hiding the fact that he is still a virgin).  Madalena is hardly a typical damsel in distress though, since she quickly decides life as Richard’s queen may have its advantages—not the least of which is an extremely nimble and uninhibited court jester (Ben Presley) who can more than satisfy the unmet sexual needs she continues to have thanks to Richard’s closely-guarded virginity.  

Galavant’s immediate response to what turns out to be Madalena’s more-than-willing abduction is to take to the bottle, but soon enough he is off on a quest—as any good knight should be—to aid Princess Isabella of Valencia (Karen David), whose kingdom Richard has conquered and is in the processing of starving to death.  On his quest, Galavant is joined by his wise-cracking black squire, Sid (Luke Youngblood), who, we learn later in the series, has suggested to his proud—Jewish, of course—parents that he is the knight and Galavant is the squire.  The (mis)adventures on Galavant’s quest to free Valencia from Richard’s tyranny are mainly an excuse to introduce a number of guest stars: Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville and Sophie McShera, John Stamos, Weird Al Jankovic, Ricky Gervais, Anthony Head, and Rutger Hauer—and to showcase a number of musical numbers in a variety of musical styles, with repeated nods to several Broadway musicals.  In what may be the most inspired of these nods, Richard’s cook (Darren Evans) sings a duet with his scullery maid girlfriend (McShera) in which they plot to poison everyone at Richard’s court. That duet practically genuflects in the direction of the duet about Mrs. Lovett’s pies from Sweeney Todd.

Galavant clearly wears its medievalism on its sleeve—its claim to being an example of small-screen medievalism rests on the fact that its episodes repeatedly incorporate tropes, narremes, and motifs that a 21st century audience will easily identify as medieval.  Galavant is, of course, the knight errant on performing deeds of derring-do with his squire in tow—they are not quite Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but they seem clearly in that tradition.  Galavant jousts with the French knight Jean Hamm (Stamos), in a nod to Mad Men. There are two, not just one, damsels in distress (Madalena and Isabella)—though no dragons or ogres. Richard does have a thuggish right-hand man and all-around henchman, Gareth (Vinnie Jones).  There is a cruel king—actually two—since Richard only came to the throne when his older brother Kingsley (Hauer) renounced it, though Kingsley returns later in the series to attempt to reclaim what is rightfully his. Valencia also boasts a mostly hapless King and Queen (Stanley Townsend and Genevieve Anthony). There are several turreted and moated castles.  There is a Merlin-like wizard, Xanax (Gervase), and a monastery, which is home to monks who are suitably tonsured and robed, as we might well expect.  The monks of Valencia Monastery do not, however, take a vow to remain silent.  Instead, they take a vow to sing in an unceasing do wop rather than chant. There are peasants, but none the equal of the Python’s politically-minded Dennis.  There is a dungeon and instruments of torture—think Inquisition light. There are faux Saracens who attend the boy Prince Harry to whom Isabella is, in a further plot complication, betrothed.  Further complicating this plot complication is the fact that Harry is also Isabella’s cousin who imprisons her in a toy princess castle soon after Galavant has freed her from Richard’s.  And, oh, there are pirates, whose ship has run aground, rather inconveniently atop a mountain, and a Pirate King, Peter the Pillager (Bonneville), though he is more a cross between Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver in demeanor and costume than anything medieval.  And guest stars Hauer and Head have each appeared in separate small-screen retellings of the story of Merlin, Hauer as Vortigern in the 1990s mini-series and Head as Uther in the more recent multi-season cable channel series.

While Galavant attests to the continuing fascination that the small screen has with medievalism, it is hardly the best example of comic small-screen medievalism. That distinction belongs either to The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood or to When Things Were Rotten (or to both) in the United States and to Maid Marian and Her Merry Men in the United Kingdom.  The partly comic Kaamelott, which ran on France’s M6 channel from 2005-2009, is in a class all by itself.  Galavant is harmless enough, silly, at times genuinely amusing—and American television has in the past certainly renewed worse shows, so we could do with a second season of the mini-series if only to resolve all those cliffhangers.

Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University

February 2, 2015

Tolkien and Tolkien (ed): Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

J.R.R. Tolkien (trans) and Christopher Tolkien (ed). Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell. London: HarperCollins, 2014. 448pp.

Reviewed by Mark Atherton (

Beowulf is "the major piece of Old English verse that has survived the wrecks of time – still profitable … to read in its own right, quite apart from its acquired value as a window into the past"; so the author puts it in this ‘new’ publication from the literary estate of J.R.R. Tolkien (Tolkien, Beowulf, 275). Many present-day medievalists would agree with Tolkien’s view that the poem’s artistic merit matches its historical import. As a "major piece of verse," Beowulf tells an epic tale focusing on two moments in the trajectory of its protagonist: the "young proud" ambitious hero who defeats the monster Grendel in the first part of the poem, the old king in the second, filled, as Tolkien puts it in the commentary to this translation, with "the bitter wisdom of experience" (312). As a historical "window," Beowulf provides an Anglo-Saxon view on the legendary past of northern Europe that would be otherwise unknown, and as a poem it deals with the big themes of the “Northern” epic: loyalty and treachery, redress for wrong, providence, fate and fortitude. Tolkien’s version, now edited by his son Christopher, comes at a time when the reputation of the poem is growing, not to mention the fascination to be had from reading another work by the author of The Lord of the Rings.

The role of Tolkien’s fiction in promoting interest in the medieval world has been immense, but it is also certainly true to claim the reverse: without Beowulf, the Edda, the Kalevala, and a number of other ancient literary works that Tolkien wrote about as an academic, his fiction would never have been written.[1] Today, his expertise on Old English remains impressive and influential, his major publication on Beowulf being a lecture given at the British Academy in London in 1934, "The Monsters and the Critics." The lecture shifted scholarly focus from the text’s legendary background and back to the artistic unity of the poem, and it ushered in a new era in Beowulf studies on its publication in 1936.[2] When The Hobbit appeared a year later in 1937, Tolkien was compared to Lewis Carroll – author of Alice in Wonderland (1865) – another famous Oxford academic who had authored a “children’s book.” Tolkien clearly drew on Beowulf for details of plot and character in The Hobbit, and the borrowings continued as he turned to writing its famous sequel, The Lord of the Rings, which proved to be a long project, intended for a wider audience.[3] In the meantime, as another celebrated lecture "On Fairy Stories" (1939) reveals, he considerably altered his views on how modern fiction should be used as a medium for presenting ancient literature to the modern world.[4] By the time The Lord of the Rings had appeared in 1954-5, Tolkien had considerably refined his own literary method and developed a more sophisticated and consistent prose style.

For all of his career, Tolkien taught and studied Beowulf. But his translation is a relatively early work, completed in 1926, shortly after he had taken up the Rawlinson and Bosworth professorship of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford. It is evident, from the commentary itself and from editorial information added by his son Christopher Tolkien, that he used this translation as the basis for his undergraduate lectures on the poem throughout the 1930s and after. What this new publication provides then is the prose translation of 1926, together with an introduction and a few related texts by Tolkien, such as his Beowulfian folk-tale Sellic Spell; together with an edited selection of the 1930s lectures which forms a substantial commentary taking up about half of the book, on language, style and cultural background, and with short interpretive "essays" on the poem. Of the two main sections it is arguably the commentary that will prove the more enduring; I will return to that point later, but let us first take look at his approach to rendering Old English alliterative verse into modern English.

The translation is done in a kind of rhythmical literary prose, not unlike the style of his slightly earlier Book of Lost Tales, but more constrained since it follows where possible the arrangement of ideas of the Old English poem, which, like Latin verse, is quite free in its word order. Features employed are mock-Germanic syntax-inversion, archaisms such as "spake," with some attempts to reproduce the sounds of the original; it has an Anglo-Saxon "flavor."[5] For example, one might compare lines 320-321a of the poem with Tolkien’s version.[6] To get something of their "flavor" it is illuminating to manipulate the sentence and arrange it as verse on the page:

                              The street was paved      in stone patterns;
                              The path guided         those men together.

Though it breaks the classic rules for alliterating elements, there is clearly a texture of sound and rhythm and a metrical quality that Tolkien adds to his version. As such, his rhythmical style differs from the plain prose of Clark Hall, the classic student translation of Beowulf, which Tolkien clearly knew and admired: he even borrows short phrases from Clark Hall in his own rendering of the text. [7] The Clark Hall "crib," as it is sometimes called, was republished by the philologist C.L. Wrenn in 1940, together with an essay by his Oxford colleague Tolkien, "Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of “Beowulf”.’

In this preface, Tolkien expounds his principles not only for translating accurately but also for capturing the register and equivalent diction of the original. There is a tension here, for Tolkien feels that the characteristic OE pictorial compounds known as "kennings" are alien to modern English usage. A minor example occurs in the passage above, where the compound adjective stan-fah is rendered "paved with stone" by Clark Hall, but is "resolved" by Tolkien, i.e. expanded, in order to capture the connotation of the poetic adjective fah. A more vivid example is the metaphorical kenning ofer hron-rade (Beowulf, line 10a), literally "over whale-road" i.e. "across the sea." Where Clark Hall has "across the whale’s road," Tolkien resolves this to "over the sea where the whale rides" and adds a long and lively discussion of this kenning in the commentary (141-3). But the net result of all this "resolution" is that Tolkien’s published translation loses the characteristic Anglo-Saxon compactness and becomes a much longer text. And an unintended difficulty is that undergraduate students (in my experience as a university teacher) find the text hard to use in conjunction with their editions of Beowulf, because the resulting line numbers do not match.

A related issue that Tolkien addresses is diction, or choice of word. The Old English literary language possessed a vast "word-hoard," (to use a kenning), i.e. a whole thesaurus or repertoire of words and phrases that appear only in its verse and not in its prose. Such a phenomenon is hard to conceive in present-day English; for since the 1920s and 1930s, which is also of course the time of T.S. Eliot (and Modernism more generally), writers have eschewed a special literary vocabulary and opened up poetry to all sort of registers which it did not formerly employ. On this question Tolkien seems to be working against the grain of his own times, for his solution is to urge us to avoid colloquialisms in the target text in favor of weighty and traditional diction (Preface to Clark Hall, xix):

avoid … exquisite and artistic and prefer the 'cunning craft' and 'skill' of ancient smiths; [avoid] visitors (suggesting umbrellas, afternoon tea, and all too familiar faces) and prefer 'guests' with a truer note of real hospitality, long and arduous travel, and strange voices bearing unfamiliar news.

The latter example sounds to me like just the right register for Beowulf, whereas "umbrellas and tea" suggests the world of the Shire, with its dialect-speaking farmers and respectable citizens who like to express themselves plainly. One of the serious but playful elements of style in The Hobbit or The Fellowship of the Ring is Tolkien’s ear for different registers and clashes of registers: respectable hobbits and kings of ancient lineage do not speak the same language.

However, I wonder whether that ear for the right register was not yet fully developed in 1926, for some of his weighty and traditional terms seem here archaic or even obsolete. It is a matter of taste, but some twenty-first century reviewers and readers find the many archaisms in Tolkien’s Beowulf uncongenial, and others are perplexed by a whole set of terms taken straight out of the Camelot of King Arthur and the world of medieval feudalism and chivalry: squire, esquire, knight, liege, vassal. Tolkien’s justification, it seems, is that present-day English lacks the right terms to apprehend the cultural world of Beowulf, which he believes was courtly and courteous. The only solution is to employ the already existing diction of the Arthurian world and apply that register to Beowulf. He has a point. The default position on the Anglo-Saxons among ordinary readers (or even movie makers) is that they were uncouth, brutal and boorish. Nothing could be further than the truth, says Tolkien, at least in the poem Beowulf, and his argument is a valuable corrective then to popular misconceptions  of the period and its literature. In his commentary, Tolkien develops these ideas at greater length.

Just as Thomas Malory with his Morte Darthur in the fifteenth century came at the end of a long tradition of poems and stories about Arthur and Camelot, giving his own individual take on the themes of the narrative, Tolkien sees the Beowulf poet as in a similar position: he is the Malory of the Heorot legends, which stretch way back into the dim and distant past beyond his own era, the eighth century.[8] This poet brings his own conceptions of virtue and courtesy to the story and adds a distinct "dramatic element" to the presentation of the characters of Beowulf, the young Geatish hero, and Hrothgar the king of Denmark whose court of Heorot he cleanses of its monstrous assailants. The courtliness is not complete; there are a few chinks where the old primitive folktale peeps through, where Beowulf is the uncouth bearlike champion with the strength of thirty men in his grasp. This is the reason for Tolkien’s creative reconstruction of the original fairy tale behind the narrative in his Sellic Spell.

Tolkien lingers particularly over the arrival of Beowulf in Denmark, the historical background and chronology which the poet adds to the plot, the careful assessment of claim and counter-claim in the various speeches that are made at the court by the guest and his hosts. Courtliness is seen in the measured speeches, the ritual drinks and presentations. In the dramatic moments, which Tolkien analyses at length, the young Beowulf reveals himself as passionate, easily angered but loyal and steadfast; Hrothgar as wise in old age, a shrewd judge of character and motive, with a tendency to go for policies of appeasement (204-262). It is interesting to note Tolkien’s method of analysis in the commentary, his modernization of the characters’ speeches in long, sometimes colloquial, paraphrases – despite his love of high diction in the text of the translation itself.

According to Tolkien, we learn another side of Beowulf’s character in the later scene where the hero returns to the hall of Hygelac, his own lord and king back in Geatland. Beowulf tells Hygelac of the Danish King Hrothgar’s plans, now that the monsters have been defeated, of healing the feud between the Danes and the nation of the Heathobards. Hrothgar will give his daughter Freawaru in marriage to the famous Ingeld, son of Froda, the Heathobard king who had been killed in the earlier feud. Beowulf displays here what Tolkien terms his political acuity as he explains why this marriage alliance is doomed to failure. Again in his commentary Tolkien admires the dramatic element in the Beowulf poet’s artistry as he explores the moment of confrontation when the feud will be renewed (338-43).

Tolkien also detects a rare love-interest in this narrative of Freawaru and Ingeld, to which at pages 324-43 a lengthy section of the commentary is devoted (he perhaps has in mind here his own story of the lovers Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion). What is clear is that Tolkien sees the story as historical, with a consistent chronology. The war or feud is concerned with control of Heorot, which is associated in Danish historical traditions with Lejre in Zealand, the old royal seat and centre of religious cult. As John D. Niles and others haves demonstrated, there is a good deal of recent archaeological data to support these reflections.[9] In this section Tolkien offers further intriguing remarks on the mythical background to this marriage: the lovers both have names with a Frey-element (Frea and Ing) that recall stories of the ancestral King Fróda and the peace-loving nature of the Heathobards, ‘whose traditions are of Frey and the Vanir rather than Odin the Goth’ (338). Tolkien evidently finds the mythological associations of the Vanir – corn and fruitfulness – more congenial than those of the Aesir – Odin and the ravens and "bloodshed for its own sake" (330). These are interesting insights into the background of the poem, which would merit further exploration.

In brief, courtliness and character seem to be the new and interesting leitmotifs of this translation and commentary, and they are valuable insights for new readers to bring to their encounter with Beowulf. It remains for this reviewer to suggest strategies for approaching this volume for any newcomer to the field. As the editor Christopher Tolkien makes clear, the commentary ranges from linguistic and historical notes to glosses on difficult cruces and passages, to short "essays" on the interpretation of the poem or on the understanding of Old English culture. It is with these "essays" that it is best to begin. Here are some recommendations: the summary of the structure of the poem (312-313); the definition of a kenning (141-3); a note on the originality of the poet (254); a comparison of the aristocratic "code" in Beowulf and the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (271-2); the habit of understatement (187-91). The dragon is neglected in this book, probably because the lecture series did not cover that part of the poem; nevertheless there is one fine Tolkienian set-piece on that subject which is well worth reading (350-3). And finally, if only one of the "essays" in the commentary should be read then it is this: Tolkien’s spirited, even moving and provocative, "take" on the ethos of whole poem (272-5).

Mark Atherton 
Regent’s Park College
University of Oxford

[1] For an essential guide to Tolkien and his world, see Stuart Lee (ed.), A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien (Oxford, 2014).
[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London, 1983).
[3] Tolkien’s indebtedness to Beowulf is explored by Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova, The Keys of Middle-earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien (Basingstoke, 2005). The classic study is Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (London, 1982).
[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, expanded edition, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London, 2008).
[5] For these criteria see the discussion of translation from Old English in Susan Bassnett, Translation Studies, 3rd edn (London, 2002), pp. 93-101.
[6] Tolkien used F. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg 3rd edn (Lexington MA, 1950; 1st edn 1922); a recent excellent text and guide is George Jack (ed.), Beowulf. A Student Edition (Oxford, 1994).
[7] John R. Clark Hall, Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment. A Translation into Modern English Prose, revised edition, ed. C.L. Wrenn (London, 1940; revised again 1950; 1st edn 1911).
[8] Tolkien himself takes on the mantle of the Arthurian poet in his The Fall of Arthur, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, 2013); the tone is courtly and the metre is a fine alliterative verse style which is clearly modeled on the Old English metre of Beowulf.
[9] John D. Niles, Beowulf and Lejre (Tempe, AZ, 2007).

January 26, 2015

"My fiction is the natural outgrowth of my fascination with the times:" an Interview with Candace Robb

Emma CampionCandace Robb is author of the Owen Archer detective novels, set in late-fourteenth-century York, and the Margaret Kerr detective fiction series, set in Scotland at the time of Edward I's invasion. Writing as Emma Campion, she is the author of the novels The King's Mistress and A Triple Knot, both set during the reign of Edward III. Candace spoke to Michael Evans, an assistant editor of Medievally Speaking, about novels, history, and 'the ethics of historical fiction.' 

ME: Tell us a little about your background in medieval studies, and how you came to write historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. 

CR: I did my graduate work in English literature with a strong concentration in medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature and history. I received my MA and completed the coursework for a PhD in English lit and then… There’s a saw about climbing up to the top rung of a ladder only to discover it’s propped against the wrong tree; but, for me, I’d say I’d climbed the ladder and suddenly saw the forest and wanted to take off and fly from tree to tree, to experience it all, not limit myself to the one I’d climbed. My engagement in the literature had inspired a burning curiosity about how it was to live in those times; the people seemed so like me and, at the same time, so different. But my university was not set up for an interdisciplinary doctorate in medieval studies. So I left. I became an editor of research publications in a university laboratory where I had easy access to a fine research library. I continued my studies in all things medieval and haven’t stopped. Had I been able to assemble an interdisciplinary committee for my dissertation, there might never have been an Owen Archer, Lucie Wilton, Magda Digby, Margaret Kerr, Emma Campion…. My fiction is the natural outgrowth of my fascination with the times. And it didn’t hurt that Ursula LeGuin encouraged me in that direction in a writing workshop years ago. 

ME: How do you see the intersection between ‘academic’ history, and the role of the historical fiction author? Can academic history inform the historical fiction writer, and vice versa?

CR: Academic history is essential to me, which is why I make the pilgrimage to the Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan U almost every May, and often attend the Leeds congress as well. I also stay in touch with a number of academics working in history and literature, and I read read read. I base my fiction on educated guesses based on others’ research; my motivation remains the same—to explore with my imagination how it was to live in the late middle ages. What I add to the mix is the emotion, the heart. I start with facts about the times, and then spin out a speculative yarn, one that entertains. My sleuth Owen Archer was inspired by an article about the longbow. Thinking about the strength and skill it required. How King Edward valued the Welsh longbowmen. How one of them might rise in the ranks. How important, to a right-handed archer his left eye would be… All this came from reading someone’s research on the longbow. 

As to whether historical fiction can inform academic history, I’d say a novelist might perform the same function as students who ask question after question in class or write imaginative papers. Fresh questions are a wellspring, after all, triggering new ideas, speculation. It’s fun to imagine a historian looked up from one of my books with an 'aha'! Maybe something I said about King Edward’s determination that William Wykeham should be the Bishop of Winchester suggested a closer look (The King’s Bishop); or my toying with John Gisburn’s reputation as a merchant and mayor of York in several of the Owen Archers; or Joan of Kent’s burning question for Archbishop Thoresby in A Vigil of Spies

ME: It seems to me that historical fiction authors take their research very seriously – for example, your author’s note at the end of A Triple Knot contains footnotes referring to scholarly sources. How much of a duty does the author have to ‘get it right’? How much authorial license does he or she have to alter events, or at least to fill in the gaps in the historical record? 

CR: A caveat: I answer this in light of my own work, my own goal in writing historical fiction. I see altering events and filling in the gaps as two quite different activities.  

A Triple Knot book coverWhen writing about Joan of Kent or Alice Perrers I could not write a coherent narrative without filling in the gaps—the historical record for Joan and Alice is too sparse. So I see filling in the gaps as connecting the dots with plausible motives, incidents, catalysts, emotions that lead from one known point to the next. The gaps can involve largely unimportant but intriguing facts, such as how and why Alice Perrers acquired such a quantity of pearls (The King’s Mistress), or more significant issues, such as the decisions I made about just what sort of “garter” is immortalized in the Order of the Garter, and the origin of the Countess of Salisbury garter incident (A Triple Knot). 

Altering events that are in the historical record doesn’t interest me. In writing the biographical novels, The King’s Mistress and A Triple Knot; and in the Margaret Kerr series, I stuck to the facts as closely as possible, though filtered through a point-of-view character whose interpretation is necessarily personal. In the Owen Archer mysteries I steer clear of the famous, well-documented incidents so that I can enjoy more freedom in plotting. Well, except for allowing John Thoresby to extend his time as Lord Chancellor for some years. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to play with that. 

A while ago I was invited to give a talk about writing historical fiction at Cornell University, after which members of the philosophy department joined me in a round table. Our topic was the ethics of historical fiction, and we agreed that my unspoken but implied contract with my readers is that I do my best to present a plausible, carefully researched historical background.

The Author’s Note is the spot in which most historical novelists state where we’ve taken authorial license. Just to keep the record straight. 

ME: In our post-modern age, the pursuit of ‘historical truth’ might be seen as impossible, yet I see readers of historical fiction – and history-lovers in general – on social media or online forums getting very upset if an author or film-maker takes liberties with history. Does ‘historical accuracy’ matter? 

CR: Does historical accuracy matter? It depends on what the artist is after. In my case, it’s pretty much the point, isn’t it?  I write out of my enthusiasm for what has been discovered about the late medieval period. 

I’m not entirely clear about what you’re saying about the post-modern age and “historical truth.” Are you referring to how quickly new evidence is uncovered and disseminated? How can I possibly keep up? If so, yes, that’s an issue. I know it’s very likely that what I thought of as quite accurate might very well be disproved down the road. That’s why I keep returning to my motive as an artist—I’m feeding my curiosity and having fun fashioning it into entertainment. I was already quite far into the first draft of The King’s Mistress when Mark Ormrod turned up evidence that “Perrers” was not Alice’s maiden name, but the name of her first husband. I made the choice at the time, finding the new information irresistible, to start over. But my editor had the edited manuscript in hand when Mark told me that he’d changed his mind about some dates; at that point I chose to stay with what I had. Or maybe it was my editor—I do recall her reminding me that I’d written a novel, not a dissertation. 

ME: I was thinking of the argument that it’s impossible to arrive at ‘historical truth’; instead, we only have a number of competing discourses about the past, all of which carry the biases of the people who created them. How does this affect the historical fiction author? 

CR: The more I ponder this question, the more I doubt there is any such thing as “historical truth”. The truth of the human condition is something art can suggest, but I don’t think anyone, including an archivist strictly reporting the facts, can ever deliver the Truth of a specific historic event. No one can, not even one who was present—each participant had a unique experience. 

So, how do I answer this? Of course I tend to trust historians who share my bias; yet I question even their theories. There is nothing like putting it into motion in a plot for exposing the holes in a theory. But I don’t see this as a change, something unique about the post-modern age. “Truth” is slippery. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never tried my hand at non-fiction! Even now, in this conversation, we’re role-playing, aren’t we?  I’ve gone off point again, I know—perhaps we’re simply more aware of the futility in the post-modern age. 

ME: You are best known for your Owen Archer series. Do you see a connection between the role of a detective such as Owen, and that of the author or historian in their search for elusive historical evidence?

CR: Oh yes, absolutely! I’ve honed my skill as an interrogator by spending so much time in the mind of a sleuth. I question everything, even the conclusions of scholars I respect (see above)! And that’s the delight of writing for me—I’m always reaching for that elusive idea just at the edge of the story. I write in layers of 'ahas'! I discover the story and the secrets of my characters as I go. Something seemingly insignificant that I add to the story today will wake me up tonight with a startling connection to something else. The seed event for the Countess of Salisbury story regarding the garter that I wove into A Triple Knot took shape in my mind as I wrote—I hadn’t planned it. I read the scholarly opinions and wound up with my own, but based on everything I’d read. The best sleuths are independent thinkers, aren’t they? Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes—they’re always irritating people with seemingly irrelevant questions.  

ME: Can an author – or an academic historian, for that matter – ever truly get inside the head of a figure from the medieval past? Or are our ways of thought too different from theirs?

CR: Can anyone ever truly get inside another’s head? Even our contemporaries? I enjoy trying to see the world through the eyes of someone who knows nothing of technology, who perhaps can’t read or write, who may never have traveled more than a few miles from their homes. But am I accurate? Perhaps a little, perhaps more than that. I enjoy the attempt. Perhaps the reason I found this work so engaging and accessible is that I’d been steeped in the literature of the period—songs, poems, epics, sermons. At the end of the day, as the author of trade fiction my primary job is to entertain my contemporaries, so my characters need to make sense to them. 
ME: Historical fiction is written off as genre fiction by some critics. Do you see this changing, especially following the critical success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels?

CRAll good writing deserves respect. 

ME: I agree – I think there can be a false dichotomy between ‘literary’ and ‘historical’ fiction. After all, Dickens, Flaubert, Dumas etc. wrote ‘historical’ novels. 

Which novelists have influenced your work?

CR: I don’t consciously follow anyone’s style, though I sometimes hear cadences of Anne Sexton’s poetry or Tom Stoppard’s dialogue and wonder whether I’ve read Transformations or seen (and read) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead too often. I believe that it was Marchette Chute’s children’s book The Innocent Wayfaring that brought to the foreground the medieval setting of so many fairy tales and stirred my curiosity about Chaucer. But if you mean whose writing I love, whose books inspired my own attempts at writing, oh, so many! I have eclectic taste. Early influences—E. Nesbit, Margaret Sutton (the Judy Bolton detective series), Madeleine L’Engle (I wrote to invite her to my Brownie Scouts meeting when I was presenting a book report on A Wrinkle in Time—she cordially declined). Soon I shifted to Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Mary Stewart, Mary Renault, Anya Seton. Later, Ursula LeGuin, P. D. James, C. J. Cherryh (for making the strange feel familiar), Martha Grimes (the humor and the community of  characters), Colin Dexter (for Morse’s irritating questions), John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (for playing with stereotypes about the past), Raymond Chandler, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Thomas Hardy, J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ll stop there. I think I’ve gone far past the point of your question. 

ME: Surveys such as Mary Tod’s suggest that the majority of historical fiction authors and readers are women. Why do you think this might be? 

CR: Hm… respondents were 83% female, 17% male, but does that have more to do with who’s more likely to answer such a survey, and be reached online, or who reads historical fiction? And it can’t help but vary according to the author, or even among an author’s books. I have a large Italian readership that isn’t even specifically represented here. I warn you, I performed horribly on multiple choice and true/false questions in school—my mind immediately begins spinning through possible exceptions. 

That said, if the statistics are true, perhaps this has as much to do with who editors perceive as the audience, and hence what they buy, as it does with what the market might support. And consider the covers, the headless woman in period dress (not necessarily the period of the novel) or the woman with her back to the observer. I’ve sensed editors increasingly playing to the female reader. Despite the popularity of the Owen Archer series, whenever I’ve suggested a new series my agents have recommended I choose a female sleuth. My fan “mail,” whether electronic or paper (increasingly rare), has a slightly higher male to female ratio for the Owen Archers, and reversed for the Margaret Kerrs, The King’s Mistress and A Triple Knot

But I’ve noticed a number of self-published authors writing male-dominated books with heavily martial themes and little evidence, at least in the marketing copy or the covers, of romance. I wonder whether they simply could not get the attention of traditional publishers?

See? I always search for the exceptions to the apparent rule. It’s a fascinating survey, but my mind can’t rest there. 

ME: I’ve noticed the ‘headless woman’ trend recently. Do you have any thoughts about why this trend has come about? I worry that female identity is being erased by these covers that don’t show the woman as an individual – I am over-thinking this, or is this a real concern? 

CR: It’s ghastly, isn’t it? I asked my editor at Crown about it a few years ago. Her explanation was that readers don’t like to have the appearance of the heroine thrust upon them, so the publishers have chosen to either not show the heroine’s head at all, or just from the back (as with my two most recent trade paperbacks in the US). 

Yours is an interesting take. 

ME: Was there any feminist (however we wish to interpret that word) intent behind your desire to write about Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent, given that both of them (Alice especially) have arguably been misrepresented by history?

CR: Yes, of course there was some feminist intent, but that motivation would not have gotten me far if I’d not found Alice and Joan strong, complicated women with stories that defied categorization. I once made the mistake of making light of Alice Perrers, in several of the Owen Archer novels; but even in those books I found her too slippery to stay in the cliché. She kept spinning away, changing the story. Joan of Kent has intrigued me ever since I read Karl P. Wentersdorf’s article “The Clandestine Marriages of the Fair Maid of Kent” (Medieval History 5, 1979, 203-131). And then, after exploring her in middle age in A Vigil of Spies (Owen Archer #10), and working with her as a fairly important character in The King’s Mistress, I could not resist the challenge of unraveling the story of her marriages. 

ME: Why do you think there is such an ongoing fascination among the reading public with the Middle Ages? 

CR: Pre-industrial, pre-technology, close enough in time and culture to be familiar and yet far enough in the past to be exotic? Dungeons and Dragons? Tolkien? George R. R. Martin? Armor? Knights? Owen Archer? Hah! (Shrug.) Fairy tales often feel as if they take place in a medieval setting, and, of course, Arthurian tales were read to us at bedtime. Perhaps it simply feels familiar. 

ME: Will we be seeing you at Kalamazoo [International Congress on Medieval Studies] this May?

CR: Yes, you will. Catch me in the roundtable sponsored by the Tales After Tolkien Society, 'From Frodo to Fidelma: Medievalisms in Popular Genres,' 1:30 Saturday. My topic is “Crimes and Conspiracies in Town and Court: Embodying Late Medieval Life”. See you there!

Michael Evans
Central Michigan University