October 15, 2011

Interview with Alex Epstein


An Interview with Alex Epstein
Author of The Circle Cast

While The Circle Cast stands out from many Arthurian retellings in its thoroughly historical Irish setting, it also reminded me of two of my favorite Arthurian novels: Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, with its focus on the women of Arthurian myth, and Douglas Clegg’s Mordred, Bastard Son, with its focus on the hero’s childhood far away from Arthur’s Britain. Do you read a lot of Arthurian retellings? Did any of them inspire aspects of The Circle Cast?

The versions I love are T. H. White’s Once and Future King, The Sword In the Stone and The Book of Merlyn and John Boorman’s movie Excalibur. John Steinbeck, of all people, wrote a pretty good Arthur book, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. And, of course, there’s Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which is the original medieval romance.
I didn’t get into The Mists of Avalon. I think it bothered me that Morgan seemed like such a reasonable, nice person in that book; and of course I see her as not a reasonable person at all. For me, the story of Morgan was always about a young woman whose anger gives her strength, but also destroys what she loves – a great tragic hero.

The source documents for Arthurian legend say practically nothing about the early life of any character but Arthur. With such a wide blank canvas, how did you begin shaping Morgan’s life experiences for The Circle Cast? What inspired you to choose Ireland as the setting?

In legend, Morgan is from Tintagel, on the West Coast of Cornwall. Morgan’s mother had to get her daughter to safety in a hurry. She had to send her to some place she’d be safe from the High King of Britain. Uter could find her anywhere in Britain, and probably anywhere in the Roman world, too. But Ireland is just across the Irish Sea, and Morgan could completely disappear there. So it makes sense.

But also, I was reading a lot of Irish legends. When I started writing the book, my then wife was writing her Ph. D. dissertation on the Irish war goddess, the Morrígan. So I was reading a lot about the pagan Irish and how they lived and how they fought. (Which was “as often as they could.”) I was reading a lot of stories about their heroes, particularly Cú Chulainn. And I wanted to use all that great material.

How did you decide on the historical period (approx. 400 CE)? Did you do a lot of research before beginning the novel, or did you gather details as you wrote?

I did a lot of research. I couldn’t tell you whether I did it before or during my first draft. But I read a ton of material on post-Roman Britain. And my first wife and I spent our honeymoon roaming around Ireland, Wales and the English West Country, seeing everything from Tintagel to the Hill of Tara. I climbed the mountain called Arthur’s Seat (Caer Idris), and we went to a bunch of stone circles. The best was Butser Ancient Farm. It’s a working recreation of an Iron Age Celtic farm, complete with a charcoal iron smelter and four-horned Manx sheep.

I chose 470 CE based on Geoffrey Ashe’s Discovery of King Arthur. It made a very convincing argument that the original Arthur was a post-Roman war leader known as Riothamus (which means “High King”). He flourished about the same time that the Saxon Chronicle stops having any victories over the British to mention, and about the same time that the hillfort at Cadbury Castle was renovated in the Roman style. It seems plausible that a dedicated band of Roman-style cavalry could have pushed back the Saxons for a while. The British problem wasn’t lack of valor, it was disorganization.

It’s a really fascinating time. Everything was up for grabs. A new religion was coming in. An empire was dying out. These illiterate pagan barbarians, the Saxons, were wiping British civilization off the map while Arthur was trying to revive the corpse of Roman Britain. I like to think that Morgan grew up among the old pagan values, where pride was a virtue and forgiveness a sin, while Arthur tried to make Christianity work for him and Camelot. But his faith and his heart were going in opposite directions.

Some of my favorite passages in The Circle Cast are the ones about Morgan’s magic and her deep connection with the land. How did you develop Morgan’s magic system?

Morgan’s religion comes from my readings about the Morrígan, but her magic comes from contemporary Wicca. I was doing a lot of spiritual searching when I was writing the book, and I wound up being initiated into a Wiccan circle. I’ve seen someone draw down the Moon, and it was a pretty awesome experience.

The thing about writing about magic is it’s sort of impossible. Magic wouldn’t be about the words, any more than painting or dancing is about words. The words help the witch focus her will, but the places from which she draws her power are nameless. So I tried to write words that invoke what’s going on in Morgan when she draws on those powers.

Conflict between Christianity and the ancient religions of Britain appears frequently in modern Arthurian retellings. The Circle Cast presents a broad picture of both beliefs, with both heroic and villainous characters belonging to each religion. Morgan herself seems to feel that both religions can be valid ways of life; it is the individual believer’s goals and values that make one path a better choice than another. Is this the message you see emerging in the scenes at the Christians’ village? What do you think about Arthurian legend’s relationship to the conflict between Christianity and paganism?

Morgan’s a pagan, and from a pagan point of view, there are multiple ways to invoke God. Christianity is what Béfind and Luan need; and Salvatus is a true saint who can raise more power than the druids can. It’s right for them. It’s not what she needs.

I wanted Morgan to be offered grace, just as she’s offered love. She has three paths out of the jam she’s in: grace, love and vengeance. They all had to be true paths or it wouldn’t be a good story.

I think we use the Arthur legend to look at a lot of things: honor, and love, and grace. It’s natural we use it now to look at paganism and Christianity. If Arthur really lived around 470 CE, that would have been a time when Christianity was a New Thing and people were unsure of it. Some people were pagan, some were Christian, and some were Christian on Sunday morning and pagan on Saturday night. (Hmmm, some of us still are.) I think the reason the Arthur legend is so powerful is that it’s a palimpsest in which every generation can read its own themes.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current and upcoming projects? Can readers expect another novel about Morgan le Fay, or any other Arthurian characters?

I know what the sequels would be. The Spell Woven would be about Morgan’s fraught romance with Arthur, and Mordred’s birth. The Circle Broken would be about Morgan’s fraught romance with Merlin, and the battle of Camlann.
And then I’m also working on some TV projects, one of which updates Morgan into the world of the superrich today; and a sort of Xena-esque fantasy series where Morgan roams around the British Isles using her powers…

All of those sound very intriguing! Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!

Read a review of The Circle Cast in our current issue.