Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dianne: When Research Turns Up Nothing – And It’s a Good Thing

Caerleon, Wales -- a Roman amphitheater
It’s tough when you travel to another continent for research and don’t get what you want.

That’s what I thought when my trip to the U.K. this summer didn’t give me the results I expected. My husband had hired a private tour guide to drive me around southern Wales, visiting places related to King Arthur so I could gather information for my MG fantasy series, THE EIGHTH DAY.

The tour guide contacted me by email beforehand, asking specifically what Arthurian sites I wanted to see, but I had none in mind. So I replied that I was looking for inspiration. This research would be applied to a future book in the series, and I was open to ideas.

Ogmore-by-the-Sea, Wales -- a 12th century castle
I thought he was going to take me to 5th century ruins. Instead, he took me to sites that were obviously dated long before or after Arthur’s time – an excavated 1st century Roman fort and amphitheater and the ruins of a 12th century Norman castle. When I asked the guide what connections these had with Arthur, his answers were vague. Legend said that Arthur moved into the fort after the Romans were gone. Legend said that Arthur fought a battle on this plain before Normans built the castle.

But when the guide saw that I was serious enough to hear the truth, he leveled with me. “There are hundreds of places from Scotland to southern England and even into Normandy, France that claim an association with Arthur. Not a single one can be proven. There’s more negative proof than anything else.” He referred me to a book he’d recently read, The Camelot Inquisition by John F. Wake, which I promptly downloaded on my Kindle.

Sadly, I came to the same conclusion as my guide. There’s no credible evidence for a historical King Arthur. In fact there’s a lot of evidence that weighs against him. Most notably: no historians from his time period mention him at all.

Disappointment was followed rather quickly by a feeling of freedom. If Arthur wasn’t real, then I was free to use Arthurian legends however I wanted. I had already been questioned by a copy-editor about the historical accuracy of using the name Arthur Pendragon when Pendragon was associated only with his father Uther until sometime in the 17th century. That caused me some worry … but if there was no historical Arthur, then the historical accuracy of his name isn’t really in question, is it?

If the tour guide had told me in advance he was taking me to the ruins of a Roman amphitheater with only the shakiest connection to Arthurian legend, I might have nixed the trip and gone elsewhere. And that would have been a shame. Because what I thought was nothing was actually full of the potential of everything – including the placement of Arthur’s court in a centuries-old Roman fortress with an amphitheater for his Knights to practice in – if that’s how I choose to write the story.

I told my guide I wanted inspiration, and he delivered what I asked for – just not in the way I expected.

12 comments:

  1. I one did a research paper on Merlin and found the same evidence, or lack thereof. BUT. The only people who were writing back then were monks and priests and why on earth would they give credence to a heathen king? My conclusion was that Arthur and Merlin may well have existed but we'll never know because the people writing history at the time were unlikely to attribute much to a pagan king.

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    1. Well, you and I have discussed this before. Other kings of that time period are mentioned, and most of Britain was converted to Christianity by that time anyway.

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  2. Wow, what a cool take away! And hey, you got to see some amazing sites. Glad it all worked out in the end.

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    1. Wales was gorgeous and the perfect setting for anything Arthur-related!

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  3. I love that you learned so much from, at first glance, a failed research trip. Such a great way of looking at *anything* in general!

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    1. I guess the lesson learned is to be open to what's there to learn, not just to what you expected to find!

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  4. Awesome how you were able to to turn the trip into something positive. I love the freedom too of making things up rather than sticking to history. So excited to read your book!

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    1. Natalie, one of my favorite comments from my editor was that she couldn't tell what I was making up and what I took from the legends!

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  5. I had no idea so much legend surrounded Arthur. Glad your research wound up still providing inspiration and some freedom.

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    1. Theresa, what's really interesting is that the places who make a tourist-attraction-thing out of it (Think: The Camelot Car Park) are the ones with the most far-fetched connection to Arthur. Weirdly, the places with the most plausible connection kind of keep it hush-hush. Which lends a little credibility to Marcy's comment above -- were they trying to squelch his memory on purpose?

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  6. This really surprised me! Are all of Geoffrey Ashe's books about the historical Arthur and the archeological evidence untrue? They seemed very convincing to me -- but maybe I am just gullible.

    Have you read Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Sword at Sunset? I thought she was pretty convincing about why the church wouldn't have wanted to write about him, why his own people would have wanted to keep his death and burial place secret, and that he really lived.

    And what about that skeleton they found in the treetrunk at Glastonbury sometime in the Middle Ages?

    As you can see, I absolutely believe in a historical Arthur (mine is a Celtic-Roman war leader fighting the Saxons) -- but I agree about your trip. And in writing your book, what YOU believe and find inspiring is what counts.

    Good luck!

    Libby

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    1. Libby, as near as I can tell Geoffrey Ashe relies on accounts written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose accounts are suspect because he wrote about Arthur 600 years later. Ashe also backs Riothamus as the real Arthur, which, in the book I read, is given as a distinct *possibility* -- but not provable. Of course, this is one author's opinion, but he made some good logical arguments. (I was really disappointed. I wanted him to be real!)

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