Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Euhemerist -- Mixing the Lure of Legend with the Power of the Novel

by Persia Woolley

If someone had told Mom that her daughter would grow up to be a euhemerist, she would have run to the dictionary with some trepidation--it didn't sound like a fitting career for a young woman in the '50's when women were expected to become nurses, teachers or wives.

What Mom would have found was that a euhemerist is one who believes that legends are based on the real actions of real people doing real things in their own time which we have endowed with magic and surrealism over centuries of retelling.
So when an author decides to write a novel based on a favorite legend but strips away the trappings of fantasy in favor of reaching the human heart of the myth, he or she qualifies for that title no one has ever heard of and I can't always spell right.

If you're tempted to make that choice as a writer, Rejoice! You've two advantages going for you right from the start--you're dealing with an already proven story and whether you're deeply familiar with it or not, you know the content is going to touch some universal chord or it wouldn't have reached legendary status. Second, it's a wonderful chance to exercise all your skill as a story-teller breathing life and emotions into a cast of iconic characters.

When I first realized I wanted to do for Guinevere what Mary Stewart had done with her Merlin trilogy, I though it would take maybe a year--six months of research and six months of writing. I'd been a journalist for a decade and had two non-fiction books published, so it seemed to me a year would be enough.

Ha, was I wrong! Writers of historical fiction often admit that they love the research as much as the writing, and don't know when to stop exploring the one to concentrate on the other. A lot depends on how accurate you want to be--feeling a need to create as real a world as possible, I dove into it full tilt. My Guinevere Trilogy took up 11 years of my life and completely changed my career direction, but overall it was great fun and I'm still involved with the books and fans.

So how do you start? Getting to know the landscape and culture of the time when the legend began is essential. Since Arthur's traditional foes were the Saxons and there were no Legions to draw on, Camelot's niche was somewhere between 410 (when Rome told the Britons there would no help in fending off marauding barbarians), and 550 A.D. when the Saxons finally conquered Britain and drove the Romano-Celts into the mountains of Wales.

Over the next centuries they sat around their campfires telling tales of their last great leader, Arthur, who taught those Saxons a thing or two for twenty years while he struggled to keep the flame of civilization, orderly governance and political unity alive in the face of onrushing Dark Age chaos.

Great! There went any notion of fancy castles, shiny armor or flowing medieval garments--my Gwen would have to live in Roman ruins or Celtic mud huts, with now and then a stay in a wooden lodge or a Highlander's stonework fortress.

Clothing and armor would be a hodgepodge of what was left over from the days of the Roman empire augmented by common home-spun from the family loom and those local smiths who made spears and swords. (Don't knock provincial the metal worker--this was the origin of the most famous sword Excalibur. It's very name means 'cut's iron' which a metallurgist told me probably indicates that the smith had accidentally created a sort of alloy, thereby giving it it's great strength and renown.)

Foods would be a similar blending of old and new customs and religion was completely up for grabs; a recently excavated Celtic temple was found to have been built after the Roman influence died out, but before Christianity became the dominant moral code.

(The notion that Arthur held a Christian court rose with the power of the Medieval church which also decided that powerful, independent women had to be put in their place, and the stories were changed to make Gwen a repentant sinner and Morgan le Fey an outright witch.)

Once you've begun to feel comfortable with your setting it's time to start exploring the legend for internal clues as to the hidden dynamics of the story and the psychology of the individual characters. In other words, given their circumstances, what would explain why the people did the things the legend says they did? And are there inconsistencies that you can exploit or ignore?

Archaeology shows it was a time of great confusion, jumbled allegiances and odd incongruities--the finest pottery from the Byzantine area was showing up in the courts of warlords in the west of Briton when everyone else was lucky to have a wooden trencher.

Fortunately the mix of cultures--old Celtic in the north, fading Roman memories in the south, and roughshod Saxons along the coastal settlements--provides a potent palette for conflict and courageous endeavor so whatever was lost in the way of medieval glamour was made up for in historically honest color.

It also threw the whole landscape of the story wide open. The medieval tradition of Guinevere as a vain and imperious beauty, convent raised in the south could now rightly be called into question. And in some versions it's clear that a large part of the population loved her and would have taken her side in a war with Arthur following her escape from being burned at the stake. So it seemed unlikely to me that she would have been the shallow, bitchy creature she's made out to be by those who need a scapegoat for the fall of Camelot. Besides, if both such sterling characters as Arthur and Lancelot loved her, common sense says she must have been more than a pretty face.

By the same token, every anthologist will tell you that when a king conquers a new tribe, he'll cement his power by marrying a daughter of his new subjects. So it made perfect sense to place Gwen in the north, where she would have been raised with the power and freedom of a potential Celtic queen. And since one of the first things young Arthur had to do was put down a rebellion of the northern kings, what was more logical than that she was chosen as the political pawn to secure his new position? Her resistance to that provided an internal line of conflict in the first book, which covers her childhood and marriage to the new king. Who needs dragons and unicorns when human nature is running rampant?

While I was at it, I made her homely (at least in her own eyes) and killed off her mother when she was ten so that she could grow up an adventurous tomboy; bold, brave and intelligent--a worthy partner in the effort to form a cohesive unit out of the frequently squabbling Celtic factions under Arthur's rule.

My choice of making her from the north also meant that as an outsider she brought fresh eyes to every new circumstance, a great advantage for an author. How better to give the reader a picture of the remarkable world she would have discovered as the High Queen of Dark Age Britain? It's a great way to involve the reader, whether by recording Gwen's delight at staying in a Roman villa owned by one of the historical characters I wove into the books or her amazement at the cleverness of the warlord who built his fort atop the great rock in Dumbarton which was completely surrounded by swamp and marsh; with a large population of water birds always on guard, he'd have plenty of warning if some military foe tried to sneak up on him!

All such touches came from solid research which in some cases actually supported elements of the story often assumed to be most fantastic. Take the order for Bedivere to throw Excalibur into the lake at the end of the legend. Although I didn't have a hand reach up and grab it, it seems the Celts sometimes made sacrifices of splendid armor to the water goddess--several such finds have been located in the River Thames near Oxford, for example.

Couple that with the fact that if you saw 'the great horse Silver' being ridden by someone new, you'd immediately wonder what had happened to the Lone Ranger. So any important leader who had such a distinctive sword would have expected his followers to hide it when he might not make much sense to us in the 21st century, but that's how things slip from history to legend.

Lastly, what about the fear of turning such archetypical characters into everyday frumps if the 'magic' is taken away? (Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of superstition in my Gwen's world, but no one gets in or out of trouble by supernatural means.) And there are a number of fine fantasy works based in some part on the Arthurian stories. But for me the allure of the Arthurian stories lies in the very human nature of the people involved; people who rose to difficult challenges, struggled with their complexities and lifted us all toward their dream in tales that endure to this day...which is why I love being a euhemerist.


Persia Woolley spent 11 years researching and writing on her Guinevere Trilogy, (Child of the Northern Spring, Queen of the Summer Stars, Guinevere-the Legend in Autumn), during which time she made five trips to Britain. All three volumes were Book of the Month Club Alternates and have been translated into seven languages. Recently they have been reissued by Sourcebook.


  1. What an interesting, informative post. Thank you!

  2. No-one believes that old stuff about masses of Anglo Saxons driving 'Celts' to the West anymore, surely? See for example....(and much more elsewhere...)

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  4. I've go to to agree with Anne; modern archaeology and dna testing doesn't quite support the 'old view' of Saxons vs Celts, and for that matter no one in ancient Britain refered to themselves as a Celt either!
    However, that aside, I do wholly approve of the idea of being a Euhemerist, stripping fantasy away from possible fact; deconstructing a myth, so to speak. I tried to do this in my own novels of Arthur, which are very different from any others that I know of, as they take the legends back to potential roots in prehistory, using Geoffrey of Monmouth's anachronistic tales of the construction of Stonehenge as a basis, as well as the highly mythological cast of characters in the Welsh Arthurian tales.
    I also think that maybe there can be a reverse form of 'Euhemerism'...what would you call someone who 'mythologises' a tale? (Other than a 'fantasy writer' of course!!) I think, for instance, whereas Arthur might sometimes benefit from having the fantasy stripped away from his tale, someone like Robin Hood or Hereward might benefit from a little added!

  5. Actually, Robin Hood has had fantasy added if you count TV. Robin Of Sherwood worked very well in that respect. It had everything from the Horned God to a golem, evil sorcerers, demons, you name it! :) oh, and a group called the Sons of Fenris. Hi, Persia?i read Child Of The Northern Spring many years ago. Now, am I right to remember that it had Palomides introducing stirrups to Britain?

  6. Persia, so delighted to have such a distinguished author as yourself here on EHFA! It seems a wonderful serendipity that I have just finished reading "Celtic Myth and Legend, Poetry and Romance" by Charles Squire (originally published 1905) in which he often uses the term euhemerist - it was obviously in currency back then. (He has an excellent section about how Arthur and his court were actually descended form the early Gods.) The freshness and creativity you have always shown in retelling these tales is greatly appreciated; you have certainly moved Historical Fiction forward through your work in a most positive way, and we all thank you.
    As my novels concern 9th century Angle-land, as the Saxon kingdoms fell one by one to the Danes, the concerns of my characters have been similar to those of Gwen and her circle. Indeed, the history of Britain has been an history of invasion.
    Thank you for dedicating your talents to being such a great euhemerist. Many thanks, Octavia (by the by, my husband is Lorna Shaw's nephew...)

  7. Wonderful, imformative, witty post!

  8. Christianity may have been more prevalent in 5th century Britain that is often made out. 'The Confession of St Patrick' for instance seems to show there was already a established church hierarchy, and if the work was written by Patrick himself (whose family had Been Christian for at least 3 generations) shows he was not only literate, but knew scripture too.
    Gildas early in the following century seemingly lambasted his own British countryman for being bad Christians, but not pagans. Even Bede admits the Britons were Christians before the Saxons and Augustine....

  9. Not sure if there would be much historical basis for a 5th century Guinivere being burned at the stake. As far as I know burning at the stake was the punishment for a woman who committed high treason, for which adultery on the part of a Queen could be counted as such, in the Later Middle ages, so long after this period.


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