By Gillian Polack
Arthurian horror is a thing. Why did I start this post with that sentence? Because it looks silly. We see the word ‘Arthurian’ and we have perfectly conceived ideas of what a novel should contain.
And yet… if you talk to your best friend, they may have a favourite book that has very few traits in common with your own favourite piece of Arthuriana. Arthuriana is complex and some stories fit into one genre and some fit into another. Arthurian horror is totally a thing.
More than that, Arthurian horror is a current thing. I’m reading work by Irish and Northern Irish writers for part of my research and the writer Celine Kiernan reminded me to read the work of Michael Scott. Many of his novels are fantasy and they do draw on history. He’s also written his own versions of Irish myths, legends and folklore. It should not have surprised me, therefore, that The Thirteen Hallows draws directly on the medieval. It surprised me because the novel is so dark. He and Colette Freedman have created a work that follows the same genre line as Phil Rickman, where traditions and stories about the past are used to create a black present. Many deaths, much danger and no sense that there may be a safe ending.
The Arthurian choices are interesting because they carry with them all the dark culture some people associate with the Middle Ages. Witches and demons and oracles and objects that protect the land and are therefore constantly threatened. Lineage and the fear of change. The Thirteen Hallows contains all of these things and pushes them back into the more Welsh of the Arthurian stories to give them that depth and to underpin the fear the novel presents.
What’s most interesting is what the authors do with one strongly medieval element in the story. A common path for horror stories to follow is for this step to be taken and that step to be taken and then the other and when the final step is taken all is lost. In traditional fantasy novels containing quests, this is has been called (in some circles) obtaining ‘plot coupons.’ The steps taken in The Thirteen Hallows consist of several things. The one that’s of particular interest is that the evildoer has to collect thirteen items and undo them, destroy them, defile them or all three. The items are holy, hence the novel’s title. To a certain extent, each treasure is a plot coupon, but only in a limited way, as quite a few of them are collected quite quickly. The group of thirteen items creates a critical mass. The fact that the authors use them as a critical mass is fascinating.
These thirteen treasures are not modern inventions. In fact, they come from a medieval list. I’ve seen three versions of the list – I have never checked the relationship between the three or if there are any more or, indeed, the precise manuscripts they come from, firstly, because they are Welsh and that isn’t my region of specialisation, but mostly because they appear in very late (mostly post-medieval) manuscripts as far as I know. One (the chessboard) has its own place in a version of an Arthurian legend, which is how the list entered my life thirty years ago. Despite the manuscripts, the list is medieval.
What’s most interesting about the original list is that it’s not a list of treasures that create critical mass. It looks (from my inexpert i.e. not-at-all-Welsh) background and knowledge base, as if it was set up as a base for remembering the stories of critical aspects of culture. This might mean that they operate similarly to the Triads. The Welsh Triads codify culture through small lists: They’re amazing devices that identify, explain, classify and work as mnemonics, and they explain an enormous amount using very few words. Rachel Bromwich is the scholar whose work I know on them.
For me, that cultural codification is terribly important. It says “Here are thirteen objects, similar in nature and importance, but not necessarily similar in kind.” The stories that belong with them explain this and expand on it. Let me illustrate this using a couple of the artefacts described in the novel, but with their older Welsh descriptions. There is, for example, Dyrnwyn, the sword of Rhydderch Hael. It burst into flames if the right person used it and most people didn’t want to borrow it because of this. The basket of Gwyddno Garanir was the ultimate picnic accessory: put food for one person in and take out food for a hundred – it matches tablecloths and tables that had similar capabilities in many folk stories. The chessboard of Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio where the pieces played by themselves is the one I encountered in a thirteenth century prose Arthurian story, and is the one I sneakily put into a novel of my own.
As my last comment suggests, many writers have used this list. It’s inspirational in a number of ways, for it contains the germ of story. That is one of the reasons it exists as a list, to my mind. This may or may not be the reason it was written down in the fifteenth century. For that you should consult experts in the field.
What the authors of The Thirteen Hallows have done is strip the list of its story affiliations and added an overarching new one, that borrows from stories from the region and marries the to popular Christian lore.
It’s not an innovation to strip objects of some of their original culture. In fact, novelists do it all the time. What’s important here is that Scott and Freedman stripped the medieval. They have given that sense of the Middle Ages, with all its emotional links for many readers, but by taking away the specifics or by restricting the specifics to very brief descriptions, they have forced the reader to look at the bigger picture, and it is this bigger picture, a composite of Christian and folk history, that governs the novel.
The thirteen treasures are critical to the novel as plot coupons. Some are critical, too, as other plot devices. One aspect of them is there for atmosphere only and is not critical at all, and that is the Middle Ages. The time and place that gave us the items on the list gives emotions and theoretical background, but is otherwise not important.
The trick is in the name. Changing the list to one of thirteen hallows indicates the religious nature of the wider worldbuild. The ‘treasures’ belong to a different place and time and their stories are fundamentally changed. It’s this religious aspect that makes the horror possible. It’s not really Arthurian horror. It draws on the medieval and the Arthurian to create a story full of violence and horror.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack