Monday, 30 September 2013

Interview with Author Simon Stirling

Stephanie: Simon Stirling hails from Birmingham, England.  He went to Glasgow University, but left early to take part in a new play on the London fringe (written by John A. Bird, who went on to found The Big Issue).  Simon then spent three years training as an actor at LAMDA, during which time he got his first literary agent.  For the next decade or so he wrote scripts for theatre and various television drama series, picking up a Writer's Guild Award for his work on "Between the Lines" and writing what is probably the rudest episode ever of "Casualty"!  In more recent years he has worked as a script consultant and scriptwriting tutor, and for two years he was Youth and Community Director at the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury.  Many years of research went into his first two historical nonfiction books, The King Arthur Conspiracy (2012) and Who Killed William Shakespeare? (2013) - both published by The History Press - and his current project, "The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion" for Moon Books.  He now lives in Worcestershire, in the heart of Shakespeare country, with his wife Kim, who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. They were married on the Isle of Iona in 2002.

Simon keeps a blog with regular updates on his research and adventures in publishing:

Hello Simon! Thank you for chatting with me today! I have read your book, The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero and enjoyed it so much! Please tell your audience about your story.

Simon: The story of Arthur (there never was a "King Arthur") has been endlessly elaborated.  But I was always most interested in the origins of the legends.  I spent many years wondering who the original Arthur might have been.  Then my wife and I were married on the Isle of Iona in Scotland in 2002, and a year later we went back to celebrate our first anniversary.  It occurred to me that I had gathered together quite a library about Iona over the years (it's a fascinating little island), and that no detailed guidebook to the isle was available.  I started putting one together, and it was while I was researching a Scottish king - Áedán mac Gabráin, who was "ordained" by St Columba on Iona in AD 574 - that I came across a reference to a son of Áedán named Arthur and a daughter of Áedán named Muirgein.  It so happens that the mentions of Artúr mac Áedáin are the earliest literary references to anyone by the name of "Arthur", and it seemed fairly obvious to me that his sister, Muirgein, became the "Morgan le Fay" of the legends.  Arthur died in a battle in Angus, Scotland, in 594, and immediately afterwards the "English" Angles of Northumbria invaded most of North Britain.  I decided that I needed to know more about this historical prince and his times, and that led to me writing The King Arthur Conspiracy.

Stephanie: How fascinating you discovered Arthur and his sister through research of a Scottish King. How does your research differ from let’s say a historian who believes he is English or where he was actually from? Why was the legend formed that way, do you think? And how was this legend born really and how did it become so popular? From reading your book, I have formed an opinion that the original story of Arthur is more interesting…but at the same time I’m intrigued how the story evolved into such a mystical and adventurous story.

Simon:  The Arthur legend seems to have lain dormant for a long while; the Anglo-Saxons had little interest in him, and the Church seems to have found the whole subject rather embarrassing.  Then came the Norman Conquest.  The Normans had heard some of the Arthurian tales in northern France (refugees from Lothian had fled to Brittany – the ‘Lesser Britain’ – where they remembered their ‘lost’ homeland as Leonais, hence the ‘Lyonesse’ of the romances).  Having conquered the Saxons of England, the Normans seem to have become fascinated with Arthur, who had also fought against the Saxons.  The Norman fascination was partly inspired because churches in England and Wales were instructed to explain which monarch had granted them their lands; some monasteries invented far-fetched stories involving "King Arthur", casting Arthur as a brutish thug, easily beaten by some passing saint, who was tricked or forced into granting the church its landed wealth.

The legends really took off under the Normans.  But he who writes the story down determines what that story is, and for political reasons the Norman storytellers dragged the legends south, turning Arthur into a Christian in the process.  All sorts of contemporary obsessions –such as the cults of chivalry and courtly love – were superimposed on the romances.  And so you could say that there are two Arthurs: one, the mythical “King Arthur”, supposedly a Christian king of England; the other, the historical Arthur, a pagan Scottish prince.  The problem comes when people fall in love with the medieval fantasy and then refuse to acknowledge the historical background.  And nationalistic prejudices also play their part – some enthusiasts are so determined to make Arthur a Christian Englishman (regardless of the complete lack of evidence for such a figure) that they will deliberately and pointedly ignore the northern origins of the legends, the real Arthur and the heroes of North Britain who stood with him.

Stephanie: Leave it to those pesky Normans to re-write things. ;)  Did you self-publish or go through a publishing house?

Simon:  I was going to self-publish, because I'd spent several years, working with two major agents, trying to get publishers interested in the story, and I'd got nowhere.  So I wrote the book the way I wanted to, and I was just days away from self-publishing it when I had to take a week off to do jury service.  I got back from court one evening to be greeted by my wife with the news that she had bumped into a book editor on Twitter.  On my wife's recommendation, the editor had a quick look at my blog and then announced that she wanted to see the book.  Two weeks later, I had a publishing contract with The History Press.

Stephanie: That is incredible luck! Will your next book be published with The History Press?

Simon:  The History Press have now published my first two books – The King Arthur Conspiracy (2012) and Who Killed William Shakespeare? (2013). I got a special dispensation to work with Moon Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, on my latest project.  What happens next, though, I’ve no idea!

Stephanie: It is quite clear that you did extensive research. What were some of the challenges and how long did you research?

Simon:  I came across the reference to Arthur, son of Áedán early in 2004, and I wrote The King Arthur Conspiracy in 2011, so most of the time in-between was spent on research.  I happen to think that there are two kinds of research: there's reading what everybody else has written on the subject, and then there's doing your own research, which means going beyond the mainstream consensus.  I found the same thing with my research into Shakespeare - you get a lot of books which simply rehash all the received wisdom but tell you nothing about who Arthur or William Shakespeare really were.  You have to wade through masses of these things, looking for any stray fact, any small nugget of information that the others left out, and you still end up none the wiser - the reason being that too many historians are frightened of saying anything which differs from the mainstream view.  And that mainstream view is in itself a sort of political fudge (in the case of Arthur, for example, it's based on a sort of perverse determination to make Arthur as "English" as possible).  Those mainstream sources provide you with a bit of background, but what they're best at doing is showing you what really needs to be researched and reminding you that a lot of scholars have invested a lot of energy in perpetuating a myth rather than investigating history.

The real fun is to be had in leaving the chorus of consensus behind and pursuing your own researches, because that's when you can unearth some real gems, and little by little a whole new - and entirely more realistic - view of your subject emerges.  It's hard work, but like any detective work you find yourself driven by the overwhelming desire to get to the truth, and every lead, every reference, every tiny piece of evidence has to be followed up, questioned, and scrutinized.  If you're not prepared to do that, you might as well just write one of those safe "traditional" histories which don't really tell you anything about the subject.

Stephanie: Your wonderful research really shows! Paganism and Christianity played such a big part in this legend. And it seems they intertwined a little….with the mystical aspects of it. I’m sure many people of that time had a serious problem with that and still do. Tell me, how did the Christian priests and nuns at the time deal with it? Was it a serious problem?

Simon:  The status of Christianity in Arthur’s day is a matter of dispute.  There are some who insist that the whole of Britain became Christian under the Roman occupation and nobody went back to paganism after that.  I see that as an incredibly unrealistic theory, based more on wishful thinking than historical fact.  The evidence suggests that Christianity declined in Britain in the 5th century, after the Roman withdrawal, and was re-established, more or less successfully, in the 6th and 7th centuries.

There was a Christian influence around Arthur: his Irish forefathers had been Christian, and I’m sure there were Christians in his circle.  But they were almost certainly the tolerant sort who recognized how close certain kinds of paganism were to Christianity.  Mithras, for example, was a Persian god or solar hero whose cult became popular throughout the Roman Empire, and he was almost the perfect prototype for Christ.  I’ve found traces of Mithraism in the early sources for Arthur.  But a more fundamentalist kind of Christian began to appear.  That sort refused to tolerate anything that wasn’t their brand of Christianity.  A bitter power struggle developed, which undermined the unity of the Britons.  Those who were fighting to preserve their lands and freedoms were plotted against and betrayed by fanatics who were determined to impose their own uncompromising interpretation of Christianity.  Arthur was a victim of that fanaticism, and when he fell, Britain fell too.

Stephanie: Please tell me a little about the Holy Grail and how it connects to this story.

Simon:  There never was a “Holy Grail”, as such.  There certainly wasn’t a Christian chalice which inspired Arthur’s heroes – but there was a drinking horn, which served the “liquor of science and inspiration” from a marvelous cauldron.  We first hear of the cauldron when Taliesin, the Primary Chief Bard of Britain in Arthur’s day, was initiated into the mysteries at Llyn Tegid (“Bala Lake”) in North Wales.  The initiatory ordeal which Taliesin underwent there bestowed on him the gifts of poetry and prophecy, and the priestess who helped to initiate him was, I believe, the British princess who later gave birth to a boy she named Arthur.  She was a “Lady of the Lake”, in that she played the role of the goddess of the cauldron at the cult center of Llyn Tegid, where Arthur himself was later educated.

The mother of Arthur was known by various names – Creirwy (“Heron”), Creiddylad (“Water-Creator”) and, my favourite, Arianrhod, which means “Silver Wheel”, but I think it was a Welshified version of a Gaelic term meaning “The Sea-Foam Princess”.  She was a sort of Venus or Aphrodite figure, and like other leading priestesses and princesses of the time (Arthur’s sister, Muirgein, being one of them) part of her role was to officiate at ceremonies which revolved around the cauldron.  In addition to initiating poets, the cauldron also tested warriors, allowing them to graduate from the lowly infantry to the elite cavalry.  The “poison” they drank from the cauldron killed them (literally – just like Christ on the Cross, who drank a mixture of soured wine and hemlock and “gave up the ghost”), although they had a clever method for bringing them back to life.  By surviving death, the initiates became Druid-like masters.  The process was terrifying but compelling, appealing and appalling, and so it was known as sant grathail (pronounced ‘saunt gra-hal’), which meant “terrible desire”.  The term was grossly misinterpreted by medieval writers, who thought it meant Sant Graal – “Holy Grail”.

Stephanie: You have mentioned the Lady of the Lake. If you will, tell me a little about her without giving too much away.

Simon: The tradition, of course, is that Arthur was given his sword (Caledfwlch or "Hard Lightning" in the original Welsh, later romanticized as "Excalibur") by the Lady of the Lake.  Now, there's an ancient Welsh legend - which I believe is based on Arthur - in which the young hero cannot have a name, weapons or a wife until he has been given them by his mother.  I wondered whether this reflected an ancient British tradition.  Pictish society was matrilineal, and so it is possible that much of Britain retained some form of this practice - the son gets his name, his authority and his partner from his mother.  In which case, the Lady of the Lake would have been Arthur's actual mother.

I believe that much of what we now prize as Arthurian legend is based on later misreadings or misinterpretations of Arthur's society.  To put it simply, they thought differently from us, and when later writers imposed medieval ideas onto the stories, things got confused.  I doubt very much that a woman living underwater held up Arthur's sword for him.  But his mother was a priestess of the cauldron cult based at Llyn Tegid - the largest lake in Wales - and so she was "of the lake" (in the same way that the original Lancelot was "of the lake", because he was associated with Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Scotland).  As a priestess of the cult, she was seen as the personification of the waters of the lake, and I believe that Arthur was both educated, to some extent, and initiated by his mother at Llyn Tegid.

I noticed during my research that Arthur's name (which comes from the Welsh word "arth", meaning "bear") compared with a name from Greek mythology, and that the circumstances of Arthur's conception were rather similar to those of Arkas in the Greek myth.  The mother of Arkas was Kallisto - "Most Beautiful" - and she became the constellation of Ursa Major (Great Bear), her son becoming Arrktouros, the "Bear-Guardian".  I believe that Arthur's mother gave him his name to reflect the circumstances in which he was conceived, and she probably gave him a new name after his initiation into the cult of the cauldron.  With that initiation, Arthur became a warrior - and so his mother effectively gave him his sword as well.

She was a princess of North Britain, her father being the king of the Edinburgh/Lothian region, and so Arthur was a product of the leading dynasties of the North - the Irish Scots and the Britons of Strathclyde.

Stephanie: Who designed your book cover?

Simon: The book cover was designed by an in-house designer at The History Press.  My only input came when my editor sent me a stock photo of a warrior in silhouette and asked me if the image was Arthurian enough.  I explained that Arthur would have worn a Druidic tonsure (forehead shaved, hair long at the back), and so they adjusted the image accordingly.

Stephanie: What are some of the responses you have gotten about your book from people? Or people who have not read it yet and know a little about it--or has someone read it and had a different opinion?

Simon: Responses have varied, from those who have welcomed the fresh approach and found much evidence to indicate who Arthur was, what he did, how he died, where he was buried and what his legacy was - to those who are basically very set in their ways, and keep clinging to a mythical Arthur who never existed.  In all fairness, the former response has tended to come from people who have read the book, the latter from people who haven't.  The middle ground seems in general to have been, "Very well written, but I'm not convinced."  But if you're determined to hold onto the version of Arthur that was cobbled together by Christian propagandists in the Middle Ages, you probably won't like being told who Arthur really was.

Stephanie: What book project are you working on now? Is it non-fiction?

Simon:  I've spent most of this year going a little further with my Arthur research and writing up the results in monthly chapters, published by Moon Books on their blog (  The project is called "The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion", and all being well it'll be published in book form next year.  There's a lifetime's worth of research into Arthur still to be done (because everybody's been looking for him in the wrong places, the amount of undiscovered evidence is potentially enormous), and I'm sure I'll keep coming back to him, over and over again, finding more and more evidence (for example, there are Pictish symbol stones in central Scotland which have much to tell us about his last battle).  Otherwise, I'm hoping to get started on a history of the Jacobite rebellions next year.  And I daresay I'll go back to Shakespeare again, before too long.  Who Killed William Shakespeare? was published this August - by The History Press, again - and there's plenty more material there, too.  So I hope I'll be busy for a while yet!  I don't see myself moving into writing fiction anytime soon.

Stephanie: Where can readers buy your book?

Simon: I know Amazon and Barnes & Noble stock it, and it's currently available in hardback and Kindle editions.  Or you could go straight to The History Press to purchase the e-book:

Thank you, Simon!

About Stephanie M. Hopkins

Stephanie is a respected book reviewer at Layered Pages. She conducts author interviews and helps promote the B.R.A.G Medallion. She has reviewed books for the Historical Novel Society, is an avid reader of historical fiction, non-fiction and history. She currently has several writing projects under way. When she is not pursuing her love of books, chatting with authors and fellow readers (which is pretty much 24/7). Stephanie enjoys working in her art studio, creating mix media art on canvas. She is into health and fitness, loves the outdoors and hiking. These days she has no idea what rest is!

1 comment:

  1. Stephanie: This is a fab interview with great questions that draw out fascinating answers. Simon: I was already intrigued by this book and what you have said here has really drawn me in all the way: I must read this book! The pair of you work really well together, well done!!!