Interview with Juliet E. McKenna (THE CLEAVING)
Hi Juliet and welcome back to the Fantasy Hive! You’re here today to tell us all about your upcoming novel with Angry Robot – The Cleaving. Congratulations on the acquisition – you can read more about the acquisition HERE
What can readers expect?
Well, it’s been a while since I was last writing epic fantasy, so I’m enjoying that and hopefully readers will too. I’m drawing on that whole side of the Arthurian myth cycle, which can be a bit overlooked. We’ve had interesting explorations of the possible historical basis of these stories in books, film and TV, but there’s a whole lot of magic in the tradition as well. There are far more enchanted swords than just Excalibur, as well as mysterious curses, castles, quests and prophecies, uncanny figures with eerie powers. If we’re looking for the origins of these things in the epic fantasy we read today, we should go back to these stories.
Can you tell us a bit more about your leading characters, Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere? They’re such iconic characters, how did you approach recreating them?
Are they so iconic? Everyone knows Morgana and Guinevere’s names, but I can think of half a dozen very different portrayals of them both. This isn’t a problem though. That variety gives me tremendous freedom to come up with my own take. Nimue? The sources can’t even agree on how to spell her name, or exactly what she does, so I’ve got even more leeway. Ygraine’s barely mentioned in so many versions that I pretty much had a blank page there.
My approach to writing all these women has been to make them fully rounded, believable people. Far too often they’re two-dimensional figures who come and go to serve the plot by doing something or having something done to them. I took a longer view. I thought about the ways their experiences would shape their personalities, and how the people they become will influence the choices they make.
I also looked at the influence they would have on each other. In so many Arthurian retellings women are defined by their relationships to the men at the centre of the story. Their actions only matter when what they do matters to a man. In reality, women have crucial relationships with each other, as mothers, daughters and most of all as friends and allies. There’s no way these women caught up in these events wouldn’t look to each other for support. That opens up these myths in a whole new way.
Which of these characters have you most enjoyed writing about? Are there any which have proven a touch more difficult to develop?
I definitely enjoyed writing Ygraine’s story. She’s been so badly served that I set out to put that particular record straight. As one of the supernatural characters, finding my way into Nimue’s world view was an interesting creative challenge. I did think Morgana might be a bit difficult. Canonically, she does things that can’t be excused, but I wanted to find ways to explain that. As it happened, once I took that longer view, the pieces fell into place.
Guinevere was initially the difficult one. Back when I was a bookseller, nearly 30 years ago, I read a handful of historical(ish) romances with her as the main character, out of curiosity. I got more and more irritated with those soppy nitwits. Thankfully, by the time her thread joined this story, I was looking at the burden of other people’s expectations on these women. There are so many demands made of a queen and a romantic heroine that I found the insight I needed. How does a dutiful wife raised in a patriarchy live up to an impossible ideal?
Which other familiar faces might we expect to see in The Cleaving?
There are the usual suspects; Arthur, Merlin and Lancelot, as well as Uther, Sir Ector and Sir Kay. You won’t find the usual round table roll call though. I’m not telling tales of great deeds by great men. The narrative threads I’ve pulled from the source material draw in knights like Balyn, Lamorak, Agravaine and Gaheris. Some people will recognise them, but other readers won’t know them at all.
It’s high time someone brought us a feminist telling of these foundational stories. What inspired you to write an Arthurian feminist retelling? Was there a particular story as your springboard?
I’ve loved epic fantasy since I can remember, and it’s been fascinating to see and enjoy the genre’s evolution over the decades. There are so many stories now offering a whole range of heroes; male, female, non-binary, gay, straight and all the rest. Authors draw on world-wide historical and mythical traditions to create fantastic new settings, and we see events unfold from every point of view from beggars to emperors. It’s a great time to be a reader, as these books explore the world we live in.
But some themes and ideas that have persisted right through from the days of the high, heroic tradition still crop up, even though they’re increasingly out-dated, often problematic. Every so often we see a push-back, saying ‘real’ epic fantasy needs to be white knights on noble steeds rescuing damsels in distress. Some people would like to see the real world turn back the clock to such ‘traditional values’.That needs challenging. So let’s go right back to the source, and let’s not gloss over the mistreatment of women in what are supposedly heroic stories upholding noble ideals. How benevolent does the patriarchy look now?
Ygraine was my starting point. Essentially, her only role in the narrative is to be abused by Uther and Merlin, and to give birth to Arthur. But that’s okay apparently, because she marries her rapist… Excuse me?! Why would any woman ever do that? Well, let’s look at what other options she might have, and the potential consequences of her choices. Do that, and Ygraine’s story starts to look very different.
I started looking at these women’s actions through the same lens, exploring possible motivations based on their personal priorities, and what is or isn’t possible in a society governed by men to benefit men. Incidentally, that soon shows up the ways patriarchal expectations harm men as well. Feminism is about establishing equality that benefits us all.
And what was your favourite Arthurian story?
That’s a tricky question as the whole myth cycle is notoriously short on anything approaching a happy ending. One of the most interesting as far as I am concerned is ‘Lanval’ which was written by Marie de France in the late 1100s. It’s a story that gives women real agency – the knight’s the one who gets rescued by his lover – as well as commenting on political and societal problems of her day. It’s well worth a read.
In terms of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the tales versus the later Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, do you feel there was a shift in how each presented the female characters?
The women in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British History are invariably defined by their relationships with men, but across the work as a whole, some of them do get to make their own decisions, and they do get their own names. He includes the story of King Lear and his daughters for example. When it comes to Arthur though, there are barely any women mentioned, because they’re simply not relevant to the story Geoffrey’s telling. In Sir Thomas Malory’s version, there are a lot more women, but most of them are just ‘a damsel’ and those that aren’t mostly seem to be called Elaine. As far as Malory is concerned, women are interchangeable plot tokens to be won or lost by battling knights, to languish miserably or to die for love. The few women that do have some degree of agency are only ever doing something to help or to hinder Arthur and his various knights.
So there was definitely a shift, and with all literature, that’s going to stem from the author’s aims as well as their cultural and societal context. Since unpacking all that would take a Ph.D thesis or two, I’ll just say I find Geoffrey’s writing less offensive than Malory’s, but it’s high time we moved beyond both.
There have been many Arthurian retellings and adaptations, do you have a particular favourite retelling? Are there any authors or historians you’d recommend?
I have a fondness for Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. That was published in 1953, and it is certainly an old-fashioned read these days. But it was the first extended version of the stories I encountered as a child, and it is still a lyrical introduction to the whole myth cycle, as opposed to the central Arthur narrative that’s so often the sole focus.
I really enjoyed the BBC’s series ‘Merlin’, or as it was called in our house, ‘Camelot – The High School Years’. The writers gave us character driven stories, drawing on the bits of the myths that suited the ideas they wanted to explore, and they didn’t get hung up on historical detail. Most of all, they didn’t tie themselves in knots, desperate to find consistency in the whole tangle of confusing and contradictory traditions. When writers do that, I recall what Roger Lancelyn Green said about people over-analysing The Lord of The Rings. He called it cutting open a tennis ball to try and find the bounce.
Most recently, I loved Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve. ‘Imagine Camelot but in Gotham: a city where Arthurian knights are the celebrities of the day, riding motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money’. That sounds mad, doesn’t it? Believe me, it really works!
As far as historians go, there are so many to choose from, depending on your particular focus. Ronald Hutton is well worth reading, if like me, you’re interested in the stories that endure at the intersection of mythology and history, ancient and modern.
These stories are a rich part of British cultural history, tell us more about your belief in their ongoing relevance for today’s society.
The way these myths are reinterpreted for each generation gives an interesting spin on Arthur as the ‘once and future king’. Just at the moment, we need to reclaim the multicultural and pan-European elements of these myths. King Arthur is a cultural icon that can be used to promote unpleasant English exceptionalism and isolationism. We can blame that on Victorian portrayals that were full of the imperial mindset, and that version needs to go in the same bin. Go back to the original stories, and they are full of ties to Europe, sharing common ideals and beliefs. Sir Lancelot is French, for goodness sake, and so are a lot of the other knights. Let’s see what we can take from that side of this tradition for a change.
Lastly, what do you hope readers take away from The Cleaving?
A thoroughly enjoyable epic fantasy read using lesser known elements of this mythic tradition to spring surprises as well as offering a new perspective on more familiar aspects.
The Cleaving is expected on 9th May 2023 from Angry Robot Books
Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels, from The Thief’s Gamble which began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, to Defiant Peaks concluding The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy.
She’s currently writing modern fantasy rooted in the ancient myths and folklore of the British Isles. The series so far consists of The Green Man’s Heir (2018), The Green Man’s Foe (2019) and The Green Man’s Silence (2020)
Juliet has re-issued her backlist as ebooks in association with Wizard’s Tower Press as well as bringing out original fiction. Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom offers readers a wholly new and different fantasy world to explore.
She reviews for the web and print magazines notably Interzone, and promotes SF&Fantasy by blogging on book trade issues. She also teaches creative writing from time to time, and writes diverse shorter fiction, from epic fantasy to forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. Recent stories include contributions to the themed anthologies Alternate Peace, Soot and Steel, and The Scent of Tears (Tales of the Apt).