The Shalott Trilogy - turning history and legend into fiction for teenagers

The idea for the Shalott novels came to me from Tennyson's poem. It raised so many questions: who was the Lady of Shalott? Why was there a curse on her? Why, when she saw Sir Lancelot and left the tower, did she have to die? I've always been fascinated by the imaginative possibilities of the unknown, particularly timeslips, reincarnation, and past actions that have consequences for the future. A lot of my writing reflects this fascination, including my explanation of the enigmatic Lady of Shalott.

Through a virtual reality programme devised by Callie, five teenagers go back in time to the court of King Arthur with the intention of changing the legend in order to save Camelot. Callie has researched the legend for a school assignment, taking as her starting point the story of Elaine of Astolat, the lady who died of love for Sir Lancelot, and who inspired Tennyson's poem. Taking on Elaine's persona, Callie believes that if she can make Lancelot fall in love with her instead of with Arthur's queen, Guinevere will stay faithful to Arthur and so the Lady's life might be saved. So, too, might Camelot as the knights will then remain united behind their king, thus defeating Mordred when he challenges Arthur for the throne at the Battle of Camlann. Callie's actions raise the question: by going into the legend to replay the role of The Lady of Shalott, is Callie actually creating the character?

Before I could write Shalott, I first had to work out what setting I should use. Recent research indicates that Arthur might well have been a real figure from history. After the Romans retreated, Britain fell into chaos until there arose a dux bellorum, a 5th century leader of battles, who succeeded in uniting the tribes to drive back the marauding Saxons, so bringing peace to Britain for several decades. Recent novelists, including Mary Stewart and Marion Zimmer Bradley, portray Arthur as this iron-age warrior. Yet the core of the story, the love between Guinevere and Lancelot and their betrayal of Arthur, is a medieval invention, as are the quest for the Holy Grail, and the portrayal of Mordred as Arthur's bastard son, born of an incestuous alliance with his half-sister Morgause (or Morgan le Fay in some versions.)

After much thought, I decided to give the novels a medieval setting, as it is only at the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) and Chretien de Troyes (c1182) that the legend begins to take the shape that we know today. My primary sources of reference were Tennyson's poem and Le Morte d'Arthur (c1470) in which Sir Thomas Malory combined both French and English versions of the legend. In the Shalott trilogy, my characters intersect with some of the incidents and adventures described by Malory, helping to interpret and explain questions and contradictions inherent in the story. (There are author's notes and a copy of Tennyson's poem at the end of the books for those readers wanting to know more about the legend and about medieval history.)

The novels were a long time in the writing as, when I began, I knew very little about Arthurian legend or medieval time - or virtual reality, for that matter! My research took me along the Arthurian trail in the UK to visit such famous sites as Tintagel (Arthur's birth), Glastonbury (Arthur's burial place) and South Cadbury, an iron age hillfort and favoured location for 'Camelot'. I also visited Merlin's 'tomb' in France (where notes, prayers and offerings are still left for the magician.) At the opposite end of the time scale, I went to a games arcade to experience, at first hand, the 'reality' of virtual reality.

When I started Shalott, I thought it was a stand-alone novel. Callie's use of virtual reality to create the world of Camelot, and the strength she learns from the dangers she encounters there, enable her to stand up to her father and insist on being allowed to follow her own chosen path. This theme became true for all the characters as I began to learn more about their quest and about their time in Camelot. As the teenagers face treachery and betrayal, danger and death, they come to a true understanding of themselves and their destiny. In comparing and contrasting life in the middle ages with contemporary society, so the teenagers are able to put their own problems into perspective and resolve them somehow. Meg recognises her love of music, a talent shared by the orphan, Magrit, who finds a position at Arthur's court with the help of Lev. Lev decides that his future lies in the past. El, Stephen and Hal come to a realisation about the nature of love, courage and honour. So, eventually, does Callie. The novels thus raise another question: by going back in time to rewrite a legend, are the teenagers actually rewriting their future?

Return to Shalott and Shalott: The Final Journey grew out of my continuing fascination with Arthurian and Celtic legend and its characters, and my sense that there was a more important reason for Callie to go back in time to Camelot. Callie's real quest came from my exploration of the characters of Morgan le Fay and Guinevere. As I came to an understanding of the 'wicked witch' and the 'faithless bitch' of legend, so I was able to explore questions of belief and spirituality, an important theme of the novels. Guinevere's beliefs, combined with her need to have a child, explain much of her actions. Morgan's magic, and her realisation of the fatal consquences of her ambition, lead her to help Callie fulfil her true quest: to save the child who will ensure the future of the world, and Callie's happiness.

I wish I'd had my characters accessing Camelot through the back of a wardrobe rather than having to come to grips with virtual reality! Being a Luddite didn't help. Finally, I realised I needed magic on my side as well as technology. If it is impossible to access and change a legendary world, then Camelot has to be a parallel reality. The shape-shifting, treacherous, but repentant Morgan le Fay became invaluable as Callie's guide to the real world, the medieval world of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was the first 'historian' to write a coherent account of Arthur's birth, life and death. As Callie brings Guinevere's child to safety, so the story of Arthur comes into our own world. It's a story that had its genesis in the 5th century but which speaks to us still of the eternal struggle between high ideals and human frailty. The story is as relevant today as it has ever been. Through their journey to Camelot, the teenagers address questions of identity, morality and faith. They compare life in medieval time with our world and all it has to offer. Most important of all, they realise the need to reach their full potential so that they may create a better future - for themselves as individuals, and for the world as we know it.

© Felicity Pulman.