Tag: medieval literature

Word By Word

I’m currently working on line edits for The Wolf and His King, my ‘Bisclavret’ retelling. Line edits, for me, are a multi-faceted process of nitpicking absolutely everything. This includes the grammar and rhythm of sentences, and I’ll read the whole book aloud to check for accidental rhyme, awkward alliteration, and repetition, because the feel of the words in my mouth is at least as important as their literal meanings. It’s also the part of the process when I research a lot of the fine details. Some people prefer to do their research earlier in the process, but for these kinds of details, I find it’s only worth doing them once I know a scene or line is sticking around, and therefore whether it’s worth going down the rabbithole.

Several rabbits on a hill riddled with their tunnels. A white hunting animal, perhaps a dog, enters one of the tunnels. The two rabbit on top of the hill appear to be having a conversation. Marginal illustration from a psalter.
Medieval rabbitholes:
British Library, Additional MS 42130 (The Lutterell Psalter), folio 176v

But rabbitholes, there are many — and my general interest in medieval literature and the world of its characters means I’m not inclined to read only the bare minimum to grasp a concept, but have a tendency to learn a lot more than is strictly necessary. At one point, I wanted to refine a metaphor but I needed a better understanding of how medieval people understood the universe, so I read an entire book about medieval science for the sake of a handful of words about constellations. Currently, I’m reading a whole book on knightly education and the literate culture of medieval courts to make sure everybody in the book knows the correct amount of Latin for their status and role. You get the idea.

Then there are the briefer queries, like whether a plant is native to the area, which usually prompts a Wikipedia dive. Every time I mention an animal, I check medieval bestiaries to understand better how medieval people would have thought about it, and to give myself the option to include some of those weirder ideas in the book itself. (Weasels can raise the dead? Sure, why not.)

A major part of my nitpicking, however, revolves around language and etymology, and I’ve found myself bookmarking the online OED for faster reference. (The advantage of being both an author and a PhD student is that I get full access via my uni login; truly, the university library has enabled so much of my research.)

I had to set out my own rules before I embarked on this. My characters are not speaking modern English — they live in alternate-universe 12th century Brittany*, and so are probably speaking a mixture of medieval Breton, French, and Latin, depending on the context. As such, there’s no point being too fussy about exactly when a word was first attested in English. But my rule for myself is that I need the concept to exist, and etymology is usually the first step to discovering the answer to that, especially if I can find a solid Latin or Anglo-Norman root for a word or idea.

*It has a king. Brittany was a duchy in this period.

An early casualty of this process was the figurative use of “purgatory” (“the endless purgatory of waiting to be discovered”); turns out even the restricted theological use of purgatory is just ever so slightly too late for me, with our very own Marie de France probably being responsible for its use in Anglo-Norman French, c. 1190. This would probably have been fine, if I meant it in the purely theological sense; I’ve deliberately not pinned this novel to a specific year, even if in my brain it’s somewhere in the 1170s, and I figured a 20-year anachronism was no big deal. The figurative use, though, didn’t seem to enter French until the sixteenth century, and four centuries is an entirely different kettle of fish; after a lot of pondering, I swapped it for the simpler torment, with a flag to come back to the overall sentence to see if I could re-work it.

Then, a more recent challenge: focus. This one tested me. Of course medieval authors and audiences would have had a concept of directing your attention to a specific thing, or concentrating on it, but focus would have meant something quite different to them — its earliest use seems to have been a term for a hearth or fireplace. Its more scientific use as a fixed point at which point light or sound converges is a seventeenth century one, and therefore our modern use of the term was pretty significantly at odds with what it would have meant to a medieval audience.

Did that matter, though, given that the concept of “specific thing you are looking at” must have been around for as long as people were looking at specific things? This was difficult to answer, and it was while I was grumbling about this word and how many times I seemed to have used it (or variants) in one of my writing groups that somebody asked the crucial question, the one that helped me pin down why I was doing this in the first place: “Is there a reason this novel needs to be etymologically accurate?”

Slightly facetiously, I answered, “I want the book to be good and historical detail matters to me.” And this is true. I want it to be good, and historical detail does matter to me. I’m a pedant even when I try not to be, and have been repeatedly jarred out of historical fiction or TV shows by anachronisms.

But although those anachronisms sometimes relate to words, it’s not usually just about the attestation date: it’s usually about the social ideas and concepts that are being expressed by those words, and whether those existed. I got annoyed at Netflix’s Bodies for using the term “homosexual” in 1890, two years before it was coined in English, not primarily because the word was anachronistic but because the entire concept of homosexuality represented a massive shift in queer history and how what was previously ‘behaviour’ started to be understood as ‘identity’. As such, it wasn’t just a word that wasn’t around in English yet, but an understanding of the world and a specific theory of human nature. (They probably would’ve got away with it, except that I was re-reading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality the same week that I watched Bodies. Bad timing for them/my enjoyment of that strand of the show.)

And when I’ve grown frustrated with other medieval-set novels, it’s rarely the language that’s the problem, but the mindsets: the modern attitudes towards touch and intimacy; the lack of religion in the background (and foreground) of everyday life; the way ‘good’ characters are ‘progressive’ in ways that align with modern values but rarely make sense for their context; the attitude towards clothing — and by extension often to women’s work of weaving and sewing — that speaks to a modern fast fashion mindset and not a world in which every scrap of fabric represented hours of labour…

So I thought about it a little more, and I realised it wasn’t really historical accuracy in terminology that was important to me. What mattered was that the work of weeding out these linguistic anachronisms also served to weed out lazy cliches in figurative language where I’d fallen back on a set phrase that relied on a modern understanding of the world — an understanding my characters wouldn’t have had. What I actually wanted to do wasn’t to write a linguistically correct pastiche of the twelfth century, but to represent the viewpoint of my characters: their perspective of the world, their understanding of the plot, not a modern understanding of those same events.

I doubt I’ll ever fully succeed in this aim, both because I’m a long way removed from the twelfth century and because I hail from suburban London, which means I’ve spent much of my life somewhat distant from nature and the rhythm of the seasons and the land. Nor do I think a wholly medieval mindset would suit the story I’m trying to tell, which is, after all, intended for a modern audience, and is using medieval literature to think about concepts that trouble me as somebody living in the modern world. If it were purely a medieval text, there would be no point me writing it, because that text already exists, and Marie de France wrote it. The whole point of a retelling is that it’s doing something new with a story, and striking different resonances, some of which its original audience might not have heard.

But every time I find a word that relies too heavily on a modern concept, challenge it, and reword every sentence that it’s in, I think I’m untangling some of the assumptions that my characters will see the world the same way that I do, the same way that my readers do, and express it in ways that are familiar to us. I’m forcing myself to consider how my own mindset as a writer is shaped by modern science, as well as by the specific branch of Christianity that I grew up with — although I didn’t have a secular upbringing, it was a very twenty-first century low-church Protestant environment that would be completely alien to a twelfth century Christian, and as such, I keep accidentally being heretical.

(This will be the next stage of the historical nitpicking: the Heresy Read, in which I will consult my friend who works on medieval hagiography and generally knows more about medieval Christianity than I do, to check that any heresy in this book is there on purpose. Heresy, you see, can be present for valid plot or emotional reasons, but only when it’s done secure in the knowledge that it is heretical, and not just because I have to be periodically reminded that saints are a thing.)

And so every time I spot a word that looks a little too scientific, or relies on a modern understanding of emotions or relationships, or which otherwise rings the little bell in my head labelled “possible anachronism?”, I get out the OED, and I look it up, and I start my research journey: Meanings and uses. Etymology. Anglo-Norman and Latin roots. Alternative words that might be older. New ways in which I might get across this concept that are completely detached from this phrasing.

Just as I occasionally stop myself, think, “Is it feasible that people would go to a specific location to drink and socialise when brewing was, as far as I’m aware, more or less a home industry and ‘taverns’ as a concept aren’t really around yet?”, and then make a note to research history of brewing and social drinking for the sake of ensuring one scene takes place in a historically plausible location. Because I know that’s the exact kind of detail that would bug me if somebody else got it wrong, and therefore, in the interests of not being a hypocrite when I bitch to my friends about something I’m reading, I owe it to myself to do as much research as I can.

I will never catch everything. I am relying on my background as a medievalist to have correctly labelled those possible anachronism? bells, and it’s entirely possible some will not sound when they should. But every word I look up brings me a little closer to understanding how my characters might have experienced and expressed things, and that matters — just as every rabbithole I go down on the larger issues, like education, flags new things to include which I hadn’t even thought to look up. (My marginal notes now include several injunctions to ADD MORE MUSICIANS!)

It’s a slow process, but bit by bit, word by word, concept by concept, I am making something of this book that is more medieval, and by doing that, making it more creative, more challenging, and less reliant on cliches and borrowed turns of phrase. It is forcing me to be deliberate about the language I use, and it’s making me a better writer by doing so.

Or at least, I think it is. Eventually, I suppose, we’ll find out if you agree.

The Wolf and His King will be published by Gollancz in 2025, and is available to pre-order now.

Pronouns and the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance

Below is the text of a thread I tweeted on 17th May 2023. I’ve copied it here for a few reasons: firstly, because I know that Twitter threads are not the most accessible format but I would rather people don’t use third-party Thread Reader apps which will monetise my content with their ads; secondly, because thanks to the Elongated Muskrat’s shenanigans, I don’t trust Twitter not to disappear and take all my work with it; and thirdly, so that those not on Twitter get to enjoy it too.

The thread is unedited, but for a slight re-ordering to unite pictures with the relevant text, and the addition of a few links here and there. It isn’t as detailed or nuanced as a Blog Post Original, by virtue of its original format, but I hope it’s enjoyable anyway.

Note from 07/06/23: This post has been edited to remove/shorten discussion of the incident at CrimeFest which prompted the whole thing. This is not a response to external pressure, nor because I am retracting anything I said; it’s really not that deep. I’m just tired of talking about it, uncomfortable with the way that my words have been used and misused by others, and would rather be talking about werewolves without the weight of that hanging over me. I have kept a version of the original post for my own records, but I will not be saying anything further on the topic.

Back to the post:

The context of my extensive tweeting about medieval werewolf literature was that somebody had made a comment in my hearing about “grammatically correct” pronouns, with the implication that singular they/them and similar pronouns would be grammatically incorrect. My response to this statement (among others) gained rather more attention than I expected it to, and following the attention I’d gained from that, I tweeted a brief follow-up introducing myself and my books, and noted that anybody who objected to my pronouns would be treated to a lecture about medieval werewolf tales — meaning that I would explain the history of the singular ‘they’, which is first attested in a 14th-century werewolf story.

However, several people asked me whether they could have the werewolf lecture minus the pronoun argument, so I said yes, they could slide into my DMs at any times and ask me about the twelfth-century werewolf renaissance.

A Twitter message: "Hey, tell me about the twelfth century werewolf renaissance." Below, it reads, "You accepted the request", indicating that it was the first message exchanged in the chat.

And then people actually did, so I figured I should do a thread. This had the bonus side effect of meaning my notifications were no longer dominated by stressful and overwhelming responses to the original discussion, but instead with people reacting to werewolf content (much more fun), and it also gives a much more accurate impression of what my Twitter feed is normally like — weird and medieval, generally. I hope the Big Name Authors who followed me as a result of all this enjoyed it.

So that’s the context And now the thread, archived for your convenience:

@FinnLongman, 17/05/2023:

[see the original thread here. please note, as of 07/06/23 my Twitter account is still “protected”, i.e. limited to followers only, so you will not be able to see this if you don’t follow me. Apologies; this was necessary to protect myself from some transphobic harassment I’ve been facing recently]

Right. The twelfth-century werewolf renaissance. I said it was coming and here it is: a thread.

Disclaimer before we start: my actual specialism is medieval Irish literature, and most of this is based on my undergrad studies in medieval French and Middle English, plus comparative work I’ve done more recently. If I’ve misremembered anything, I apologise.

Anyway, my housemate JUST found out that “the twelfth-century werewolf renaissance” is an actual phrase that scholars use and not something we internet denizens have been using because it’s funny, so let’s start with that!

The phrase was coined by Caroline Walker Bynum, who observed that, although we have werewolf stories from many time periods and places, there was a particular boom of them in the late twelfth century. There are Classical werewolf stories, but then there’s a pause, and suddenly:

  • Bisclavret (Marie de France)
  • Wolves of Ossory (Gerald of Wales)
  • Melion (anon., Breton lay)
  • Guillaume de Palerme (c. 1200, French) which becomes William and the Werewolf (c. 1350, Middle English)*

* The Middle English version of this text contains the earliest known attestation of singular ‘they’.

NOW you see what medieval werewolf tales have to do with grammatically correct pronouns, right? If they’ve been in our language since William and the Werewolf was composed in English c. 1350, there’s a pretty solid precedent for using them, just saying.

Also, fun fact, not relevant, but Guillaume de Palerme was so popular, there’s even an early modern Irish version of it, called Eachtra Uilliam. You don’t get that many stories going from French to English to Irish like that, so it’s fun to have this one.

All of these stories are fairly close in date of composition, showing that there is a Werewolf Zeitgeist occurring, and it goes beyond these stories (they’re just the ones I know anything about). And let’s not even start on the other animal transformations people write about.

(Although if you ever want to talk about the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi with me, I am always down to talk about that. Especially about queerness and gender and trauma because whew boy that text has got so much going on.)

So why are people talking about werewolves? As David Shyovitz put it, people found werewolves “good to think with”. I love this phrase because this is also exactly how I use fiction and literature to explore ideas that concern me IRL.

Sidenote: I’m talking about the medieval Christian perspective here because that’s what I’ve studied, but Shyovitz’s article about Jewish use of werewolves to explore theological concepts, “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance“, might be of interest. I’m gonna read this next (I haven’t read it at the time of posting.)

Werewolves are a useful lens through which to think about souls, bodies, and transformations. What does it really mean to be human, and made in imago Dei (in the image of God)? How much can the body change before the soul is altered too?

The story of the Wolves of Ossory is an interesting one here, because of the nature of the transformation. Very brief and limited summary, but: a wolf begs a priest to give communion to his dying wife, claiming she’s a transformed human.

This is a problem! You can’t give communion to animals, but if she’s really human, she needs the ritual. So, to prove that his wife is definitely human, the first wolf peels back her skin to reveal the person inside: her inner nature is human.

Gerald tells us this transformation was a curse from an angry saint, and that it afflicted one man and one woman for seven years at a time; if they survive, they’re turned back into people at the end, and others become the wolves.

There are other werewolf stories from this region, but this is the most famous, and the one that most clearly demonstrates some of the theological questions at work here: what is the line between human and animal? What is the nature of the soul, and can it be altered?

In Bisclavret, we see a similar question of “inner nature” vs “outer form”, though it’s more subtle: Bisclavret, even in wolf form, has “the mind of a man”. His transformation back into a human, meanwhile, is triggered by being given back his clothes.

Here, clothes are the dividing line between animal and human: knowledge of nakedness (see Adam & Eve) and shame about it is what distinguishes the wolf from the man, as Bisclavret won’t transform in public.

Back when I was a tiny undergrad studying medieval French literature, this was when I encountered Derrida for the first time, especially “L’animal que donc je suis”. Or, as I called it at the time, “Derrida and his pervert cat”.

A handwritten comment reading "It's either gay or it's feudalism = a medieval French story" in purple ink in the margins of a printed page.

(Derrida discusses how his cat watches him dress but his cat is naked but his cat doesn’t KNOW that it’s naked, because it’s a cat, etc. This is a terrible summary, but in fairness, Derrida.)

Guillaume de Palerme or William and the Werewolf, meanwhile, sort of combines both of these vibes. The werewolf, Alphonse, is definitely a transformed human. Fully wolf. But at one point, William and his beloved dress in the skins of deer to go incognito.

They are perceived by others as deer in this moment, but their human clothes (clothes, not skin!) are visible through gaps in the skin. The transformation is incomplete. Clothing-as-nature proves to be a pretty complicated question in this story.

(I was gonna go into more detail about this, but then I realised that it’s been about 6 years since I last read this story and I’m genuinely not sure I can remember enough details to get it right, so I’ll stop before I say something wildly inaccurate.)

Btw, if you want to read more on transformation and clothing, I’m pretty sure a lot of my ideas on it were shaped by Transforming Tales: Rewriting Metamorphosis in Medieval French Literature by Miranda Griffin, though it’s been ~6 years since I read it.

But WHY were people in the 12th century so interested in stories about souls and bodies and metamorphosis and metempsychosis and all of that? Well, I highly recommend reading Caroline Walker Bynum on that, but I’ll try to summarise some ideas:

  • Major theological concern with change: whether species could change or were fixed since creation, the extent to which one thing could become another thing
  • Enthusiasm for Ovid (notably the Metamorphosis) — this was a big one. Here’s a hint of some of the Ovidian aspects from Caroline Walker Bynum’s article “Metamorphosis, or Gerald and the Werewolf“:
Here the most important point to be made is one noticed by many scholars, above all by Simone Viarre: the part of Ovid's poem that was influential in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries is books 1 and 15. The twelfth-century Ovid is a scientific, cosmological, philosophical Ovid, the Ovid who sings "of bodies changed into new forms" as the cosmos emerges (Metam. 1.1-2), who promises in the mouth of Pythagoras that "all things are changing; nothing dies"; "what we call birth is but a beginning to be other than what one was before" (Metam. 15.164 and 256).
  • Curiosity about the nature of miracles (especially those that seem to change one thing into another thing), and the relative power of demons to make one thing appear as another thing, and whether anything except God had the power to fully transform something. (And indeed, some thinkers thought even God still kept his miracles within the workings of the world he created in the first place — this is something Augustine talks about, I think, and is still being read and explored in this period.)

These weren’t purely theological ideas, in that they weren’t considered solely relevant to religion. This is the stuff of natural philosophy and science: what is the world made of, and how much can those things change?

But also, questions of transformation and bodies are essential to Christianity, especially medieval Christianity. Transubstantiation relies on one thing becoming another thing. Resurrection is a change. Almost all Biblical miracles are one thing becoming another thing.

Essentially, we have big questions of religion and theology, concerns about heresy (can a change occur that isn’t triggered by God? How does spontaneous generation fit into this? WHERE DO WORMS COME FROM), and fascination with understanding change.

And from this comes major anxiety about the human body and which aspects of its nature are inherent, essential, able to persist through transformation. What is the ‘self’? What is ‘human’? A werewolf is a great lens through which to think about that.

Werewolf stories allowed medieval thinkers to explore major questions of souls, bodies, identity, shame, social status and position, nobility, fealty, and more. Useful things, werewolves. What do modern writers use werewolves to think about?

A lot of the same things, I think. In my own retelling of Bisclavret, I use werewolves to think about bodies and identity, but also about control; I use them as a metaphor for chronic pain, and a body that is unreliable, uncontrollable, and sometimes feels like an enemy.

But I also use them to think about love, and acceptance, and what it means to be truly known by somebody who cares about you even when you aren’t yourself. (And what does it mean not to be yourself? Identity and selfhood, again.)

I’m fascinated by stories about transformation and the way that such transformations push the transformed bodies to the margins, deny them a stable category of existence, make something Other of them — but also, sometimes, free them.

And that is one of the reasons I like medieval werewolf stories, and other animal transformations.

This is not my main area of research, but I do write about bodies, boundary-crossing, and otherness sometimes, particularly with reference to Cú Chulainn. You can find out more about my research on the ‘Research’ page of this site :)

In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the twelfth century werewolf renaissance (however incompletely), and next time somebody makes a fuss about singular ‘they’, remember that William and The Werewolf used it in 1350. Thanks!

Oh I should probably also plug my books here. I can’t ask you to buy my werewolf book (… yet), but although it’s a wildly different genre, The Butterfly Assassin is also a book about identity, change, and not feeling in control of your body or your life.

And I will leave you with the essence of Bisclavret, boiled down to one comment: “It’s either gay or it’s feudalism”. Thanks, baby undergrad me.

It's either gay or it's feudalism = a medieval French story.

So, that’s the backstory and the thread, conveniently kept together for future reference. I will be glad to return to Twitter obscurity, but I hope my new followers will stick around for more weird medieval content.

As I said yesterday:

It’s important to use your online platform responsibly.

Which is why I’m now using mine to teach people about medieval werewolf literature, because somebody’s gotta do it.

Finn Longman (@FinnLongman), May 17, 2023

Storytelling and Scholarship

Today, I wanted to talk in more detail about something I tweeted last week:

Recently, I finished the first draft of new book. Provisionally titled The Animals We Became, it’s a literary fantasy retelling of Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi — perhaps more familiar to most people as the story of Blodeuwedd.

My first exposure to this story was, not unusually, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which I read when I was probably eight or nine. I had a fever at the time and became utterly convinced that Blodeuwedd was inside my (flowery) curtains, since when the light shone through them — as it did during the day, something only somebody ill and home from school would have noticed — some of the flowers clustered to look like a person. This obviously had an irreversible effect on my psyche and I’ve had a particular affection for this story ever since.

Most of my engagement with the Fourth Branch has been creative rather than academic. In 2012, I was trying to write a steampunk retelling of it. In 2014, I had an owl carved into my harp and named the instrument Blodeuwedd. In 2019, I started exploring queer interpretations of certain elements and wrote a poem called “Gwydion” that first expressed some of the ideas I was working on this novel. I knew I wanted to write it as a novel (I still have all the messages I sent my friends yelling about it, and rereading them having written it was fascinating, because I absolutely did what 2019!me wanted me to do), but it wasn’t until recently that external factors prompted me to take the concepts I’d been playing with and get on with making a book out of them.

But although I have a non-academic love of this story, I’m always coming at it from the point of view of a medievalist and a Celticist who did study medieval Welsh at university and has written essays about the Four Branches. That background informs my writing — and my writing informs my academic approaches, and helps me better understand the source material.

I am not a medieval Welsh expert and would never claim to be. I have long joked that I write creatively about this story because I don’t feel qualified to express those same ideas in academic articles, and this is a different way of presenting my interpretations. But I have learned so much more about the Fourth Branch from writing Animals than I could have expected, and the conversations it has prompted with one of my closest friends (who is a medieval Welsh expert) have been incredibly rewarding.

This is not the first medieval retelling that I’ve written. Most similar to this one is my 2019 novel, The Wolf and His King, which has recently been languishing on submission: a queer literary fantasy retelling of Bisclavret, one of the lais of Marie de France. Before that, I drafted To Run With The Hound, a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad from their training together until their final encounter. (This one has been waiting over four years for me to figure out how to edit it into something I like, and I think I’ve finally figured out a way of doing that, but lack the time to do so at present.)

These are all fairly ‘close’ retellings of their source material. They aren’t transplanting the story to a modern setting, but take place in a semi-fantastical pseudohistorical version of the real world (Ireland, Wales, Brittany), like the original tales. Generally speaking, I haven’t changed the plot. I have filled in gaps, expanded on details omitted or referenced only in passing, and dug deep into character emotions and motivations to change the emphasis placed on plot points, but I have kept the story itself almost the same as the original.*

I have written more creative retellings before — Bard, one of my YA projects that has been shelved and unshelved and re-shelved again multiple times,** is a sci-fi Arthurian retelling set in a former prison colony in space, and merges details from half a dozen different medieval stories rather than retelling any particular tale directly. I had fun planting Arthurian Easter eggs throughout it, some of which are reasonably obscure, but the plot is largely my own, albeit taking inspiration from broader Arthurian themes.

I really enjoy the creativity involved in transplanting those details in a ‘loose’ retelling like that. There’s something extremely rewarding about exploring how I can reference them within the setting and context so that they make sense but are identifiable for those who know the source material. But I don’t find it informs my academic interpretations in the same way, so I’m going to focus on the ‘close’ retellings today, and specifically, Animals and TRWTH.

(I think it’s funny how all of these retellings are very concerned with bodies and beasts, and their working titles give it away. It’s all just Creatures over here.)

I drafted TRWTH in late 2018, which meant it was only a few months after handing in my undergrad dissertation, which was on Táin Bó Cúailnge. As a result, I went into it fairly confident that I knew my source material about as well as I was ever going to know it, and certainly well enough to write the book.

But of course the book immediately starting asking me questions that I’d never had to worry about in my academic work. My academic focus wasn’t on dindshenchas (the lore of placenames), so I’d never had to worry too much about the geography; now I had to know where events took place, and how characters got from one to the other. I hadn’t been particularly concerned with the timeline of events, because I was looking at themes instead; now I needed to know how long everything lasted, and when it happened. I’d been looking at individuals; now I needed to know roughly how many people were in the armies, and that meant doing maths.

Practical questions, questions I’d never asked myself, but questions that taught me something about the scale of the story I was working with.

Then there were the character questions. I wanted Láeg to narrate most of the second half of the book, because he was the only viable candidate other than Cú Chulainn himself, and I wanted the slight distance from him. But I didn’t know anything about Láeg. I didn’t know where he was from. I didn’t know how he’d ended up being Cú Chulainn’s charioteer. I didn’t know how old he was, or whether he had any Otherworldly traits of his own, or what his relative status was…

As soon as I started writing Láeg, I needed to know those things about him. And once I started looking for answers, I realised they were a lot more complicated than I would have anticipated, and also that Láeg was a lot more fascinating than anybody seemed to have realised, given how little had been written about him. Which is how I ended up doing an MA about Láeg mac Riangabra, because, well, somebody had to do it.

A photo of Finn (a white person with a shaved head and orange tinted glasses) holding up their thesis in front of an ivy-covered wall.
That moment when you research a novel so hard, you end up with another degree.

With TRWTH, then, it was mostly a case of my needs as a writer requiring academic research to back them up. Yes, my writing certainly informed my academic work — I began to notice doubles and parallels I might not have paid attention to if I hadn’t been wondering how to make certain scenes less repetitive, and I had a much better sense of the text as a story rather than as disconnected parts to be used for analysis — but on the whole, the two threads remained reasonably separate.

The Animals We Became has been slightly different, but I’ve learned at least as much from it.

I knew a lot less about the Fourth Branch going in than I knew about Táin Bó Cúailnge (although there is also less to know, it being a much, much shorter text). I wanted to keep it that way to start with. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to edit TRWTH is because my academic feelings about the text have been interfering with my creative processes — I knew the pacing was wrong, but didn’t know how to fix it without deviating further from the source material than I wanted to; I knew certain interpretations were academically dubious, but I was resting a plot point on them and didn’t know how to change it, etc. So I decided to do things differently with Animals, and put my creative intentions first.

This meant that during all my planning, all the notes I was writing to myself about the themes I wanted to explore and the characters’ motivations and emotional arcs, I didn’t reread the story. And I didn’t read anything that any academics had said about it. I let my intentions guide me, and only when I knew what I wanted to achieve on a narrative level did I go back to the text itself, and start looking at the details.

But once I started looking at the details…

I mentioned above that I have a close friend who specialises in medieval Welsh. She’s also one of my beta readers, and generally gets live updates whenever I’m writing, well, anything, and this has meant I have been constantly in her DMs this past month Learning Things About The Fourth Branch. Fortunately for everybody involved, she has also been reading up on them recently for teaching purposes, and as such, we Learned Things simultaneously — and that turned out to be the best possible way of learning them.

A Discord message reading "hello I have a welsh question". It is the first message to be sent on 23 February 2023, showing that it's out of the blue.
It’s really useful to have nerdy friends who will explain grammatical mutations in Welsh on demand, I’ve gotta say.

For me, coming to the story from the point of view of somebody trying to write a book about it, my focus has been fairly broad, but often practical: how does this story work? Which aspects of its fundamental themes support the fundamental themes that I am exploring? How do I want to interpret [ambiguous element] in order for it to work, narratively, within this new context? The result is that I find myself paying attention to things that aren’t necessarily academically significant, and which I might not have noticed before, but which are going to be important to my retelling.

Some of these were on a macro level, looking at the structure of the story itself. My plans for this book developed in part out of an observation about the circularity of the story (Gwydion, a man who was punished by being turned into animals, is the one to punish Blodeuwedd with transformation into an owl) and from there I only noticed more circularity, more parallels, more events doubling back on themselves and repeating over and over again. It is a story where everything in it gives birth to everything else in it: consequences and doubles, all the way through.

Other observations were on a micro level, tiny details. The hair colour of a character, and what that implied about kinship. The fact that the only sentence in the entire story where we see what Lleu is thinking is when he is a small child, and we learn that he loves Gwydion, because he has nobody else. The importance of pigs. (Okay, honestly, this is a macro level thing, considering how pigs are one of the running themes in the Four Branches and they show up so much. I did not really notice the pigs before this. I now comprehend that the pigs are very important.)

Discord messages between two users whose usernames have been blacked out with coloured squares. Green user says: "i'm thinking about little baby lleu at court who loves gwydion more than anyone else because gwydion is the only person who acknowledges him and like. actually looks after him". Blue user says: "NOOOOOOO" with a sobbing emoji. Green user responds with the same sobbing emoji.
We might both be unduly emotional about this one.

And some were simply practical questions: what was the difference between two spellings of a character’s name? Where was a certain place? (This is where having a friend who knows the recent scholarship well is helpful — they can quickly tell you why some use Arianrhod and some Aranrhod, and what interpretations each of those spellings support, and then all I have to do is decide which one better suits my purposes.)

Breaking down a story into moving parts so that you can reconstruct it as a novel is a great way to notice what those moving parts are — details you might otherwise have dismissed, or ideas you hadn’t realised showed up more than once, or even new ways of interpreting plot points.

And when you know that your friend is building something academic out of those parts… well, many times this month I’ve brought a piece to my friend and said, “Hey, what would you do with this?” or “Would this support your argument that X is Y?” or “How does Z fit into everything?” and the resulting discussion has not only helped me decide how to write the book, but helped her with an article she’s planning, which has been awesome.

Screenshot of Discord messages reading "FUCK. FINN CAN I BORROW THAT. I WILL CITE YOU IN MY ARTICLE I PROMISE."
I very much look forward to this article’s existence.

Because that’s the joy of working creatively with a text that you also know academically. The creative work prompts you to break it down in ways you wouldn’t when analysing it, and put emphasis on things you would otherwise overlook, and in doing so, offers a brand new way of looking at it — one that isn’t counter to academic readings, but which helps inform them.

And that’s also the joy of collaboration: creative questions prompting academic answers, academic questions prompting creative answers, different perspectives on the same story resulting in breakthroughs in both directions.

Academically, I suppose what I do with texts is ask questions of them, and look for the answers within the text. Creatively, what I do is create the answers, and I’m not necessarily asking the same questions. But it’s part of the same process: it’s about trying to understand the story on a deeper level.

After drafting this book, I understand the Fourth Branch and its themes in a way that I would never have done without writing this book. I even have opinions about academic discussions of it that I wouldn’t have had if I were purely engaging with it as an academic. And I’ve been able, because I’ve been thinking about it creatively and almost coming at it sideways as a result, to offer new insights to friends focusing on it academically, connections they might not have drawn.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I know enough about medieval Welsh to write or collaborate on an article about it to present some of those insights academically, but I certainly feel like I understand it on the level of story in a way that I didn’t before. And the academic insights offered by friends have given depth to the book, too, allowing me to tease out connections and themes that would’ve been easily missed.

And that’s one of the reasons I love writing retellings: because it allows me to bring together my creative and academic identities, my medievalist interests and my writing experience, to enhance both. I don’t have to choose between them, because they are aspects of the same thing. They are both ways of understanding stories, of getting inside stories to figure out what makes them tick, of figuring out what makes them what they are. If there’s a difference, it’s that academic analysis goes from the outside in, and a retelling is more like working from the inside out.

Academic, creative, and transformative approaches: all of them are about breaking down a text into its moving parts, and then figuring out how to put them back together again.

And, yes, sometimes my creative work leaves me with deep-rooted though minimally supported textual interpretations that I will not budge on (for example: Gwydion is ginger). But frankly, I’ve read enough 19th century scholarship to know that people have made far wilder claims for far worse reasons, so I don’t intend to stop doing this any time soon, either.

I don’t know what the future holds for The Animals We Became — nor, indeed, for To Run With The Hound or The Wolf and His King — but I hope, one day, to share these stories with you, and in doing so, offer a new way of looking at these texts, this time from the inside out.

*One exception to this is that I chose to keep Gronw alive at the end of The Animals We Became, because it better served the themes of the story I was telling. This is the only actual plot change I made, although I made other additions, expanding on gaps in the narrative. [back]

**I haven’t decided if I’ll go back to this book. In some regards, it would make a good follow-up to TBA: it has its dark moments, but it’s a more hopeful book, and might provide a good bridge to lighter-hearted YA. But I don’t know if it’s where my passions lie these days, and it would require a LOT of editing. Only time will tell, on this front. [back]

You can find out more about my research on the ‘Research‘ page of my website, which includes links to any of my published articles that are available online. But if it’s my creative work you’re here for, you want the ‘Books‘ page. Neither The Butterfly Assassin nor The Hummingbird Killer have anything to do with medieval literature, but I still wrote them, so you might enjoy them.

A Medievalist Reads ‘Blackheart Knights’ by Laure Eve

I’ve drifted away from reviewing books over the last couple of years, and I’ve also developed … not an aversion, but a certain wariness towards retellings where I’m too familiar with the source material, as I inevitably end up getting annoyed at them. But when the publicist for Jo Fletcher Books reached out to me about Blackheart Knights, I realised I was going to have to break both of those habits:

From the acclaimed YA author of The Graces comes the first adult novel – a unique retelling of the Arthurian legend, set in a London where the knights are celebrities, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money – think Chamelot meets Gotham! Full of magic and secrets, Blackheart Knights is a wonderfully immersive read. It’s dark, it’s sexy and Laure’s expert world-building will have you gripped.

Was it possible, I thought, that somebody had finally written the weird, queer, knight-focused Arthurian retelling I was craving? One that recognised that the individual knights and their quests were the main draw in many of the medieval stories, not Arthur himself, who is usually more of a background figure? One that did something creative enough, strange enough, new enough to get past my inherent suspicion of Arthurian retellings?

I needed to find out. And when I saw the cover, I needed it even more.

So, I signed up to participate in the social media blast, Jo Fletcher Books generously sent me a proof copy, and here we are. Let’s talk about Blackheart Knights.

A photograph of 'Blackheart Knights' by Laura Eve. The cover features a knight riding a motorbike amidst bright swirls of electricity and/or magic. The book has been positioned so that it appears to be standing on Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Malory's "Morte D'arthur", and Simon Armitage's "The Death of King Arthur".
My elderly copy of Malory wasn’t photogenic enough to make it into this picture.

First of all, this is an intensely difficult book to review, because I don’t want to spoil anything. While as a chronic re-reader, I’m wary of anything that can be undermined by spoilers — shock reveals can only be a shock once — there are definitely parts of this book where you benefit from going in blind. I want you to have the same experience I did, of dropping the book on the bed after a reveal, swearing loudly to yourself, and feeling like a complete fool for not putting two and two together sooner.

It’s pretty rare that I get completely bamboozled by books, and I have a weird talent for guessing plot twists based on nothing at all; I once guessed at random that a character was another character’s future self travelling back in time, thinking there was no way that could possibly be right, and… turned out to be right. I was mad at myself for spoiling that one, I can tell you.

So when a book does manage to mislead and misdirect me to the point where I don’t figure things out, I’m always as much impressed as I am annoyed at myself — especially if it’s something that, as a medievalist, I really should know. In this regard, Blackheart Knights reminded me of the experience of reading American Gods for the first time, and how angry I was that I hadn’t figured out sooner who Wednesday was, considering I was preparing to study Old Norse at uni…

But is this book the knight-centric book I was expecting or hoping for? Not exactly. Arthur — Artorius Dracones — is still a significant character, and the overall plot/vibes owe more to Malory etc than to Chrétien de Troyes, as often seems to be the case. (Having said that, there were a few deliciously unusual details, such as a reference to Lailoken, which made me very happy.) The stories of the knights are tangled together with the larger narrative, in the way that suits modern storytelling, rather than reflecting the episodic, individualised ways their stories are often presented by medieval authors. Of your classic Round Table knights, only a few appeared, and weren’t always easy to identify because of how Eve played with the naming.

It is, however, the most I’ve enjoyed an Arthurian retelling in a long time.

There are a few reasons for that, but one of the most important is that for a long time, I couldn’t tell what stories it was retelling. There was enough creativity and invention to disguise the source material enough that it never started feeling predictable. In fact, for a while I wondered if it was even retelling any specific story at all, or whether it was more the concept of an Arthurian court that Eve was borrowing, so it caught me out whenever the story circled back to an ‘expected’ element. I never felt like I knew exactly where we were going, which meant I stayed hooked.

It also wasn’t trying to be historically accurate in any way, which should be obvious from the blurb: motorbikes and magic and the media abound. I am, for the most part, very tired of Arthurian retellings which try to be ‘historical’, which generally means setting them in some nebulous early medieval world, stripping out all the weirdness of the original stories and making all the most obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. They’re also rarely actually accurate, particularly in regards to their insistence on removing all the Christian elements of the Arthurian stories. While Blackheart Knights has its own religious system, Christianity also exists, which I found to be an interesting choice; the fact that faith seemed to play a role at all was refreshing, considering how prominent it is in the medieval sources.

And to my delight, Eve also doesn’t make obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. The book is set in a queernorm world — e.g. our heteronormativity and gender roles don’t seem to exist, at least within the present setting. There’s a brief reference to women not always having been permitted to train as knights, but this is long gone, as evidenced by the fact that our main character is Red, a girl training to be a knight. She’s also bisexual, or something similar — there’s no discussion of terminology, but that speaks to a world where labels aren’t needed because sexuality isn’t categorised particularly.

There are also two nonbinary characters who use they/them pronouns. Again, there’s never any discussion of terminology or a forced explanation: they’re just there on the page, using neutral pronouns. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen two they/them characters in a book that wasn’t explicitly about trans stuff, and the fact it was so normalised and never questioned was refreshing. It’s weird how books never feel the need to specify, “Art was a boy”, but often when there’s a nonbinary character, authors feel the need to point this out. But Eve just introduced Garad and Dario with they/them pronouns and never felt the need to shoe-horn in a reason. Most excitingly, Garad is a knight — let the version of me who loves to wave a sword around rejoice!

Throughout the book, the past and present are interwoven: Art becoming King, and the early years of his rule, and Red’s training as a knight. Because I never figured out where the story was going until it got there, I was kept hooked by this dual timeline, trying to work out what we were building up to, and Eve did a masterful job of misleading me and then pulling the rug from under my feet with a reveal that made me question my understanding up until that point. I normally don’t love dual timelines (I’m good at ignoring chapter headings, so I tend to get confused), but these two threads felt distinct enough to minimise any confusion, and it kept the whole thing very compelling. I ended up staying up until 1:15am to finish it, because I had to know where we were going.

The worldbuilding was, as promised, immersive, although that did make the opening of the book a little challenging as I tried to get my head around the world and the unfamiliar terminology. I felt we didn’t necessarily see as much of this world as I’d have liked; I’m not sure if there’s to be a sequel (though based on the ending, there’s a space for one), but if there is, I’d like to see more about how the world works. We have seven kingdoms, one of which is London; another is Kernow, but what are the others? Do they map to their current real-world locations? I could also have used a map of this version of London, but maybe there’s one in the finished version of the book.

That the book is set in London seemed a slightly strange choice. The creative worldbuilding and use of language means it didn’t feel much like our London, and could realistically have been anywhere, so I wondered why Eve hadn’t chosen a place with more obvious Arthurian resonances. Some of the Brittonic-sounding placenames (Cair Lleon) seemed odd transplanted into such a seemingly ‘English’ location. However, the geography was different enough for it not to annoy me the way some Anglicisations of Arthur do, so this was more of a question mark on my part than a flaw.

Relatedly, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on linguistically. Not being set in our world, there’s no reason that the names and terminology should follow a logical pattern based on our history, but it was still a little puzzling. There were plenty of Brittonic names and a fair few Gaelic ones too, but the names for types of magic users seemed to be Old English, and Latin, or a version of it, also seems to exist.

This wasn’t a flaw — I actually enjoyed how many different influences there seemed to be, because Arthuriana has never been limited to one country or language; from its Welsh origins it very quickly found a foothold in France, England, and beyond. But it did make it a little more challenging for me to figure out some of the worldbuilding, because I was probably overthinking it and looking for logic where there wasn’t necessarily any. I couldn’t figure out whether this terminology was associated with specific places or people-groups (e.g. was Old English used for ‘godchildren’, those with magical powers, because they’re underground and hidden, compared to the Latin-sounding name of the ruling family?), or if the world of Blackheart Knights was very much a melting pot of cultures, but I’d have liked to have more of an explanation for that, as well as for whether people spoke different languages or whether they’re only reflected in the proper nouns. This is probably just me being a nerd, though.

The blurb above doesn’t quite explain the setup with the knights and their televised fights — it’s for more than fame and money that they fight. They’re basically extremely violent lawyers, fighting to settle disputes (although the knights themselves aren’t supposed to know what the fight’s about, in case they end up throwing the fight or otherwise influencing the outcome). This actually felt pretty medieval to me — there are a lot of stories where a knight fights on behalf of a maiden in travails, and of course wins, because he’s in the right and because he’s the coolest. Having them belong to a ‘stable’ and be hired out to particular claimants was less medieval, since the procedure in medieval texts seems to be ‘find knight in the middle of nowhere, possibly in need of rescuing himself, and ask him to help you, calling in a favour if you have to’, but that suited the setting and gave it a modern, commercialised twist.

Having said that, this setup really only provided the background to the main characters’ machinations; I felt perhaps it could have been more central. I was kind of hoping that two knights who cared about each other would end up fighting, like Yvain and Gawain at the end of The Knight of the Lion, but I think I have a type when it comes to making friends fight each other. But it was only after I finished the book that I felt the lack of more development of that concept, not while reading it, and I think it’s a symptom of the fact that the worldbuilding here felt a lot bigger than one book alone, so I’ll be intrigued to know if there’s a sequel, and if so, where the plot might go next…

I’ll tell you nothing more about the story itself, because I really do think this is a book that rewards reading without foreknowledge. This means I can’t show off my Arthurian expertise or explain any of the references, but since some of them took me until the final chapters to get, I feel like I’ve surrendered my authority in that regard! So I’ll just tell you that for the most part, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which kept me up far too late at night. Finally, an Arthurian retelling that didn’t annoy me — can it be true? (There have been others, but not recently, and several major disappointments in between…)

I still await my Chrétien-esque knights-centric Arthurian novel, ideally featuring Yvain and his lion, but I had a lot of fun being bamboozled and misled by Laure Eve in the meantime. And while I’m not sure anything will quite compare to the experience of reading it for the first time, I look forward to rereading one day and spotting all the clues I missed this time around.

So this medievalist’s judgment? Fun! With some intriguing references that’ll make you feel clever when you spot them, but enough creative divergences from the source material to stop it becoming predictable.

I’d love to give you my medievalist’s opinion on other retellings, Arthurian or otherwise, so please drop suggestions in the comments. And if Blackheart Knights sounds up your street, you can find it on Amazon UK (affiliate link) or on Bookshop.org (normal link) — or of course at your local bookshop!

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