Queenslander MK (Marilyn) Hume worked as an English teacher for 40 years. She has studied art, English and ancient history and, armed with a doctorate, she has put this background to good use: the eight-book Arthuriad series, of which five have been released so far. The latest is Death of an Empire (Hachette). All up, she’s written 11 books, has another trilogy in negotiation and has a new series set in ancient Egypt underway. She is online at mkhume.com.au .
What do you think keeps readers, and writers, coming back to the Arthurian story?
The Arthuriad is a universal tale that encompasses every human emotion, trial and strength. The characters have flaws which allow us to find points of comparison and similarity with the feelings and ethics of the reader. The plots are exciting, but they are also life-changing and transcendent. The heroic ideal of Arthur, although weakened in some literary versions of the Arthuriad, still extol honour, bravery, courage, duty, sacrifice and love, characteristics which strike a chord in the human imagination.
Was it hard separating history from fantasy/myth when writing the Arthur and now Merlin series?
It was actually fun. After having studied the history carefully, and knowing that legend grows out of something that will last throughout the ages (although disguised in the mythic elements of the plot), I enjoyed finding the beginning of such elements of the tale as the Round Table.
Ironically, I conceived that the Round Table of the legends was not a table, per se, but was probably an old Roman building that had been roofed and walled and then adapted for use by Arthur as a meeting place for the leaders of the various tribes of Celtic Britain. It seemed reasonable to me that to travel to Cadbury all the time would put a huge strain on the northern tribes such as the Brigante and the Otadini. I considered it likely that a central location was likely and searched my charts for a suitable meeting place. My choice inserted in the Merlin novel was Chester.
Twelve months after inserting my educated guess in the novel, I was quite amazed to receive an e-mail from an historian friend in Glastonbury advising me of an article in the British press (Mail Online, July 11, 2010) stating that Arthur’s round table had been found during the excavation of a building site in Chester. The small arena was an ancient Roman Amphitheatre used for gladiatorial contests in the 4th and 5th centuries. The find occurred almost one year to the day after the manuscript of the novel was completed.
Guessing, using all available information, what created an element of the legend was a fascinating process. The Sword in the Stone, the Lady of the Lake, the oak tree that traps Merlin and the Rape of Ygerne were all aspects of the Arthuriad that provided me with the opportunity to think laterally and find a plausible explanation to tie the Arthurian strands together.
I found it easy to remove magic from the equation. Morgan is largely powerless in my stories, and so psychologically damaged that she is more to be pitied than feared. I really didn’t want to weaken the huge endeavour that Arthur/Arturius attempted (culture clash of huge destructive proportions) by placing any reliance on magic by my major characters. After all, if Merlin had the power to wave his hands and make the enemies of Arthur disappear, why didn’t he do so? Merlin’s contribution to the legend is for less heroic if he has magic at his disposal.
Second Sight, or prophecy, is another matter entirely. Many people experience such forms of paranormal intervention. My own mother, a Christian and an intelligent woman not prone to hysterical imaginings, always knew when a member of the family was under threat, a talent that she hated. Like her, I have experienced things that my rational mind can’t explain, so the Sight enters into my Arthuriad in much the same way as it is used in many novels and non-fiction works. But the Sight in my stories doesn’t give unnatural advantages to its bearers. It is very much the curse that my mother considered it to be.
You did a PhD on Charles Williams, who wrote ‘esoteric Arthurian literature’. Did that influence your fiction in any way?
Charles Williams, the flawed genius who wrote the Arthurian poems ‘The Region of the Summer Stars’ and ‘Taliessin Through Logres’, was a seriously troubled man. Like him, I included Constantinople into my story but so much of his content is unpleasant and he seemed to me to be as idiosyncratic as any other Arthurian writer. I enjoyed The Once and Future King by TH White, but I couldn’t bear the overly sensitive, weak and fragile Arthur. I did enjoy his sympathetic, almost comic view of some of the other characters. I found The Idylls of the King, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, to be sheer brilliance. Of course, something must have rubbed off among the melange of Arthurian sources, but I genuinely don’t recognise those influences. I had to read everything written in the Arthurian tradition while studying for my Masters’ degree and that exposure was of major significance in that I could place the legends against the historically accurate period of the Dark Ages and make something that is mine and quite valid, from my point of view.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
The Miss Fisher series is good fun and I really liked Tomorrow When the War Began <by John Marsden> and introduced it and its fellow titles into schools where I was the head of department for English. I am often frustrated by Australian literature which seems to have a point to make, for some reason known only to the perpetrators of these bullies. My favourite poet is the rebellious AD Hope with his attacks on the status quo. I can’t stand bush stories, although I grew up on them in my grandfather’s house and am still stirred by Banjo Paterson’s ballads. There are so many heroic possibilities in the Australian nature that I’m surprised that there aren’t many novels written in this genre (Except for Bryce Courtenay). I absolutely lovedColleen McCullough’s crime novels set in the 1960s in a forensic laboratory, but I loved herCaesar series as well, especially The Grass Crown.
Basically, I don’t see why Australian writers have to write about Australia!
What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
I can see more creativity battering down the walls of the literati. ‘Why not!’ is now a recognisable and valid answer to the unspoken accusation of not following the Australian model. Speculative fiction especially sets out to stir the imagination, prompt discussion and push the boundaries, so I feel very hopeful that young Australian writers won’t be crippled by the disasters of the past, such as the lionising of Darville/Demidenko because she followed this spurious model. I think those days are dead and speculative fiction can now thrive in a more creative landscape.