‘A ballad about fairyland, which is not as sweet and innocent as most children’s books would have you believe’
The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Arthurian fantasy novelist Katherine Roberts @ReclusiveMuse
Soundtrack by Clannad, Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior,
I sometimes wonder if I write fantasy because I listen to folk music with its roots in legend and myth, or if it is the other way around. Whatever came first – the music or the fantasy – I do believe that one feeds the other, and music certainly plays an important part in my books. Well, with a debut novel called Song Quest, what did you expect me to say?
Songs for the dreaming stage
Moving on ten years, and that blend of folk and Celtic music is still very much playing in the background to my work. Even though I don’t actually write to music (I need silence for the words to come out), songs definitely inspire me at the dreaming stage. I love the haunting music of Clannad, which is often used as a soundtrack in the kind of films I enjoy, and I especially love traditional ballads about fairyland, which is not as sweet or innocent a place as most children’s books would have you believe. It was one such ballad – The Elf Knight performed by Steeleye Span from their album Time – that provided the undercover soundtrack to my new Pendragon quartet about King Arthur’s daughter.
Rather like Tam Lin, kidnapped by the fairy queen to pay a seven-yearly tithe to Hell, this ballad is a fairy kidnap story, but with a handsome elf-knight charming away a mortal princess. Unknown to the princess who answers the call of his horn, the elf-knight of the ballad has already slain seven kings’ daughters, and has chosen her as his eighth victim. But the resourceful girl tricks him, waiting until he falls asleep after their lovemaking and then tying him up and stealing his own dagger to take her bloody revenge:
Seven kings’ daughters have you slain here, but the eighth of them has slain you!
Some enchanted isle
In Sword of Light my heroine Rhianna Pendragon has grown up on the enchanted isle of Avalon and is more than capable of turning the tables on any knight, fairy or mortal. But since she is a bit younger than the princess in the ballad, her elf-knight – Lord Avallach’s son, Prince Elphin –is her childhood friend and plays his enchanted harp to help Rhianna defeat her evil cousin Mordred, who has just killed King Arthur in battle at Camlann.
Inspired by the music, I even went so far as to write my own humble ballad for the book, with the verses running through the chapter headings. This is the verse from chapter 1, introducing Rhianna:
A maiden lives in Avalon’s hall,
Her spirit the purest of them all.
Brave of heart and hair aflame,
Mortal damsel with secret name…
Since there are 14 chapters and verses in total, this turned into an editor’s nightmare as Emma Goldhawk at Templar rightly pointed out that younger readers of these books might not enjoy my lazy half-rhymes in the first draft, and made me rewrite them all so they rhymed properly… well, almost. (Sorry Emma – only three more books to go!)
Of course, with Prince Mordred’s greedy eyes on the throne of Camelot, the book also has plenty of battle scenes. For these, I turned to Maddy Prior’s album Lionhearts, which is set rather later than King Arthur in the time of Richard Lionheart and the Crusades, but has an atmospheric track War Games with a background of hoofbeats and the first line, which evoked for me a wonderful image of King Arthur’s knights riding out from Camelot into battle.
So we come to a perfect example of writing feeding back into the music. I discovered Maddy had also produced an album called Arthur the King about a Dark Ages King Arthur, which perfectly fits with the setting for my books. I immediately ordered it, and am looking forward to listening to this new undercover soundtrack as I write the remaining three books in my Pendragon series: Lance of Truth, Crown of Dreams and Grail of Stars.
Clannad have already helped inspire the plot of Book 2 with their album Magical Ring, and I have a feeling I’ll be listening to quite a lot of spiritual music for the final book, so if anyone can recommend a soundtrack to help Rhianna on the final stage of her quest for the Grail, I’d love to hear from you!
Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award for her first children’s novel Song Quest (reissued in paperback by Catnip Books). She is the author of the Seven Fabulous Wonders series, translated into 11 languages worldwide and now available as ebooks for Kindle and the Alexander the Great novel I am the Great Horse. Her new children’s fantasy series about King Arthur’s daughter Rhianna Pendragon is published by Templar with the first book Sword of Light now available in hardcover. Katherine’s website is at www.katherineroberts.co.uk and you can follow Rhianna Pendragon on Twitter at @PendragonGirl. And Katherine herself as @ReclusiveMuse