The Mother-Hero in Arthurian Fantasy

Fairy tales are not kind to mothers. We find them often dead just as the story begins. Or, if they’re step-mothers, perpetuators of evil. They generally serve an important purpose: giving birth to the hero. Then, because their work is done, fading into the background while the narrative goes on.

When I set out to write Queen of None ten years ago, I was a fairly new mother. I was also just out of graduate school, where I’d spent the majority of the last three years reading any Arthurian romance I could get my hands on. But between my final classes and my thesis project, I had a son. And I became someone new.

Birth is a bloody, terrifying business. Even pregnancy, for me, was nightmarish. My own brain felt unfamiliar. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t play music. I couldn’t eat food or drink coffee. Even a whiff of meat made me so sick I’d be in bed all day. I’ve spoken to other mothers in the speculative fiction world, and some agree with me: horror entered my repertoire after my first child was born. I came so close to death that first time, and so did my child. I lived, for a few hours, in a liminal space between life and death, birth and destruction.

Yet when my son was born, all eyes were on him. This is a natural, regular experience many women find themselves in. All the trappings of motherhood lull you away from what’s fundamentally changed inside of you. For me, it was my mind, my body, and my soul. After battling postpartum depression for months, I started to emerge and re-examine myself. And I knew one very important thing: I was going to finish writing these damned books I kept starting and stopping and I was going to make my life as a writer.

Anna Begins

Attributed to the Master of St Benoit's workshop, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Morgan gives Arthur Excalibur – 14th Century – Attributed to the Master of St Benoit’s workshop, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I first encountered Anna Pendragon in undergraduate school, reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. It’s a casual mention: she is also the daughter of Igraine and Uther, like famed King Arthur. But eventually, as the Arthurian legends develop, she’s blended into all the other sisters (like Morgan, Morgause, and Elaine), or else vanishes altogether.

How strange, I thought. A thousand years ago, when writing was so sparse, Geoffrey specifically named her. And yet she vanished. She would have had the same heritage as Arthur, her sons would have claim to the throne. But where did she go? She is cited as the wife to King Lot, which meant she was mother to the famed knights Gawain, Gareth, and Gaheris. She would have been in the middle of everything. So where did she go?

The Disposable Woman

Arthuriana, like the Celtic and Christian stories that influenced it, is full of mothers. Suffering mothers, broken mothers, cursed mothers. Oh, there are plenty of women, as well, but most of them also fall into the virgin/whore dichotomy, and if not those, then madness. And there’s rape. And abuse. And blame. Let’s not get started with poor Guinevere. Or any of the Elaines. Each of these women are used as plot points to further along the adventures of such celebrated knights as Lancelot, Tristan, Percival, and Gawain. They are disposable and sometimes (again, like with the Elaines) just about interchangeable. Once they have served their purpose, they’re gone.

I knew, from history and experience, that if Anna were in the story she’d have one primary purpose as Arthurs full-blooded sister: to marry. She would need to be kept close, politically, and before she came into any claim, so marriage would be very early Her children would have come soon after. And I got to thinking about collapsed generations. If you had a child at thirteen, by the time you were in your early 30s, they’d be in their 20s. And you could still be capable of having more children, who would be younger than your children’s own if they started their own families.

So, the questions kept coming. If Anna had disappeared, why? What if she was forgotten? What if she, like Arthur, had a prophecy, but hers was the very opposite: to be forgotten in the hearts of men throughout time.

That meant she could hide in plain sight. And it was likely she would see very little of the world. She would be confined to whatever house paid for her. In her youth, she lives in Orkney with her first husband; as a widow, she lives in Carelon. Gilded cages, but still full of secrets for those willing to listen.

Beyond a Mother

I wanted, desperately, to have a story where the hero isn’t young and in the flush of youth, but still has power. Anna’s superpower is patience. That might not sound like a lot, but when you’ve got a thirst for revenge, the long game is everything. While Carelon is filled with knights vying for attention, political machinations, and court intrigue, Anna exists almost out of time with it. She’s lived long enough to see the castle change from a fort to a sprawling city. She remembers Bedevere, Cai, and Arthur as children–she knows their minds and their weaknesses. But she also sees the promise in her son’s futures, if she can break down the seemingly impenetrable hold Merlin has on the court.

But on top of that — like many mothers in the world — while she is working at her own aims, the world itself presses against her. Time and again she must concede to Arthur’s wishes and Merlin’s prophetic interpretation. She is only human, though, and, as I have had to learn about myself, a limited resource. So she must move and bend and adapt in order to succeed in her aims.

Yes, Arthur is the Once and Future King. But Anna persists. Her story is not a happy ending, not really. But she never expects it to be, either. She is not blessed, she is not foreseen, she is given nothing but her title. Her strength lies in her unwavering vision and focus and drive, as well as her connection to the women who came before her. Like her brother, she is flawed in many ways. As a mother, she is far from ideal. But she is not without power. Not easy power, in spite of her birth, but power inherited, earned, and fought for, every step of the way.

As writers, we ought to challenge ourselves when it comes to portrayals of women, and mothers especially. Too long they have lingered in the dark, on the periphery of the story, when they, in fact, have many tales to tell. Mothers can, and absolutely should be, heroes. But their skills, their strengths, and their triumphs, look very different than what were accus

Excerpt from Queen of None. Anna and Lanceloch are off to visit Vyvian, the Lady of the Lake. It is the only time Anna leaves Carelon in the book. In a rare moment, Lance sees her as she is.

I finally stood up straight, arching my back, and found Lanceloch was smiling up at the sky through the trees, hands on his hips. The way the shadows fell from the black branches up above us and streaked across his skin was remarkable, tracing the gentle lines of his face and brow. He looked like a thing of the wood, then, as happy as a sapling grown in the same loamy soil, a living dryad.

When he helped me back on my mare, he kissed my cheek softly. “Your cheeks are flushed,” he said, placing his thumb on my chin.

I put a hand to my face, and my fingers felt hot. He was toying with me. Something about the fresh air clearly addled his brains.

“We should move on,” I said, turning away to not to marvel so long on the color of his eyes, shot through with green from the reflection of the leaves. “Before we lose light.”

“You are correct,” he said, patting my knee. “It is only…I do enjoy this time alone with you. More than I thought I would, if I may say. That doesn’t sound cruel, does it?”

“Perhaps I am not as much a bore as you worried,” I said, smiling in spite of myself.

“There is more of you in Arthur than anyone understands. A forwardness, a clarity—like you’re drawn in bolder strokes than the rest of us. Except when you are not; except when you are air and darkness,” he said, his gaze wandering over my face. “I like that it is my secret to keep.”

My traitorous heart thrummed at his words. And just like that, we were on the move once more.

Queen of None is out December 1, 2020 from Vernacular Books.

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