When writing I, Morgana I had a big decision to make: use the Dark Ages setting Marion Zimmer Bradley chose for her popular Mists of Avalon series or, instead, opt for the more traditional medieval portrayal of the legend. This dilemma first cropped up when I embarked on the Shalott trilogy for teenagers. I wanted to set the story within the context of the fatal triangle between Guenevere, Launcelot and Arthur – but I discovered this was a medieval construct.
The earliest references to Arthur are found in ancient bardic verses, annals and saints’ lives, and it would appear that these tantalising scraps relating to this Romano-British dux bellorum may well have inspired the later tales of ‘King Arthur’. But there was no Camelot in those days; no references to Morgana, no Grail, and no titillating relationship between Launcelot and Guenevere either! The first coherent story of ‘King Arthur’ was apparently inspired by a ‘secret document’ belonging to Walter Map, archdeacon of Oxford. It was told by a Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain, with the idea of promoting a ‘real’ British hero to rival Charlemagne and, at the same time, ingratiate himself with the nobility. The first copy of this work was dedicated to a bastard son of Henry I, the Earl of Gloucester, circa 1136 AD. This account focuses on Arthur the warrior king and his battles against the Saxons, culminating in the Battle of Badon, followed by battles through Europe including Rome. In this version, Mordred is Arthur’s nephew, who seizes the throne and also Arthur’s queen, Guenevere, while Arthur is marching on Rome. French writers, including Chretien de Troyes, subsequently wrote their own versions of the legend, introducing Launcelot du Lac from Brittany, the best and fairest knight of them all; spelling out Guenevere’s betrayal of Arthur with Launcelot, and suggesting that Mordred was Arthur’s son from an incestuous relationship with one of his half-sisters, either Morgana or Morgause. The quest for the Grail was also introduced, and became a major focus of the legend. So, too, was the concept of Arthur’s Round Table at Camelot.
I certainly didn’t want my novel to be about a series of battles by a Dark Age warrior – I wanted to use the saucy bits! And so I created a quasi-medieval setting in an Otherworld similar to ours – but not ours, although the two worlds do touch from time to time, with implications for our own future.
Sir Thomas Malory combined the various versions of the legend into his magnum opus, Le Morte d’Arthur, completed in 1470, and I’ve used this as a base to work from. The character of Morgan le Fay fascinated me right from the beginning. It seemed on the one hand that she did her best to finish Arthur off in a variety of magical and nasty ways – and yet, after the battle at Camlann, she was there to take him to the mystical Isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds. Why?
This was my jumping-off point: trying to understand the contradictions in her character, and why she acted as she did. But the start of I, Morgana was hearing her voice in my mind. ‘Look at me, Merlin,’ she cried. ‘Look at me!’ This was the handle I needed to find my way into the heart of a young girl who was promised a kingdom, and then betrayed by everyone she had ever loved and trusted.