Interview with J.R. Campbell and Shannon Allen

The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are embedded into our thoughts, even if you’ve never picked up a book about them. These stories are so much a part of Western literature, they often get woven into other more modern tales. However, seldom do we get a chance to explore the myths and legends with wholly new stories. Editors J.R. Campbell and Shannon Allen have brought together a new collection of Arthurian tales in By the Light of Camelot.

The anthology is recently released. We took a moment to get the thoughts of what went into making the anthology with the editors J.R. Campbell and Shannon Allen.

Before starting this project, what was your favorite ‘version’ of the Arthurian tales, and why?

JR CampbellJ.R. Campbell: That’s kind of a tricky question as it implies the tales remain the same with a different veneer and, with any literature that’s been around for as long as King Arthur, that’s not really true. There are keystones to the stories, familiar to everyone, such as the sword in the stone, Camelot and the Grail Quest and the same names appear but within this framework the stories are endlessly different. I think that’s part of of their charm. When T.H. White was writing the books that would become ‘The Once and Future King’ he took the tales which had been used to recruit soldiers for the First World War and, changing none of the keystones, produced a strong anti-war work on the eve of, and during, the Second World War. I confess I’m amazed by that. Likewise when ‘The Mists of Avalon’ was released it shed a different light on the familiar that was groundbreaking.

For some reason though, I always find the unexpected arrival of Arthur and his band in a modern fantasy particularly delightful. Like running into old friends at a at stranger’s party. I wasn’t expecting so many Arthurian allusions in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series but I certainly enjoyed them. Likewise when Arthur steps onto the page in Guy Gavriel Kay’s ‘The Wandering Fire’, book two of the Fionavar Tapestry, I was enchanted.

I have to admit working on this project deepened my appreciation of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights’ as well.

Shannon Allen:  Oh my! That is a hard one. I have a few as they reflect the time on my life or the depth I devoured the subject. I guess I would have to say The Once and Future King by T.H. White. This was my introduction to all things Arthur and a very young age, about 8. It was gritty,  filled with promise and defeat on so many levels. It was by no means the sanitized versions that were so prevalent when I was younger. Good gracious that children should read about war, or human frailty.  Going back and reading it over the years I find new ways to interrupt the story, that my life experiences and other Arthurian readings have made this a much more enduring tale. Also I think you always carry a soft spot for the book that opens a whole new world for you.

J.R., you’ve edited a number of anthologies. What were some of the more interesting challenges you faced with “By the Light of Camelot” which you’ve not encountered before? What are some of the unexpected joys you discovered along the way?

J.R.:  ‘By the Light of Camelot’ is the first anthology I’ve edited with Shannon Allen and it always seems like someone new is going to be a challenge but working with Shannon has been an unexpected joy. When the work is done and the book’s out it’s easy to wave off the obstacles encountered along the way and claim everything worth it but, really, Shannon has been amazing to work with from our first step together. It’s oddly comforting to meet someone who is fierce in a shared obsession.

It’s consistently surprising to discover the how gracious and creatively generous writers can be. Even those who are unable to contribute, for perfectly understandable reasons, are almost unfailing kind in their regrets. What writer doesn’t want to spend time on the fields of Camelot, engaged in their craft for the once and future King?

Shannon Allen, “By the Light of Camelot” is your first foray into editing. What are some of the unexpected joys you discovered doing this project?

Shannon AllenShannon:  I loved it!  The whole process was a big learning curve, my own quest. I had no idea to what went into the whole process, which I found to be fascinating. I was lucky here, and got to work with Jeff who brought experience,  enthusiasm and patience to my never ending questions.  From the beginning we held the same vision for what we wanted for this project which gave us the scope to bring to the table our best selves and do justice to the genre.  It is nice to work with people on any given project but once in a while you find a person, as I did with Jeff, with the same drive and love of a subject. It is a gift.

J.R. Note: No joy, only work for Shannon.

J.R. Campbell, is Lancelot a heroic or tragic character, and why?

J.R.: Even when he’s at his most heroic, Lancelot is a tragic character. Unlike, for example, Guinevere who has always been part of the Arthurian stories, Lancelot is a relatively late arrival to King Arthur’s court (not showing up until, like 1181, still well before Malory but after the oral tradition was firmly established). I tend to see Lancelot as a response to the prior best knight of the round table: Gawain. Where Gawain is a knight who sinned, quite grievously, in his first quest, Lancelot is famously a knight without sin (save one). Where Gawain’s knight errantry is a penance for his misdeeds, Lancelot quests because he’s intent on bringing glory to his patron. Despite it being a penance, Gawain is quite cheerful riding about the countryside seeking adventure, Lancelot always yearns to return to Camelot. Gawain is the champion of women, all women, noble or common, while Lancelot is always the Queen’s champion. Gawain is, shall we say, free with his affections, Lancelot is the poster boy of the ‘It’s Complicated’ relationship status. I have an image of Chretien de Troyes, author of Lancelot, listening to the tales of Gawain and shaking his head and reaching for his pen.

For all his faults, Lancelot (like Gawain and so many other Arthurian characters) remains a very human character. He wants what he can’t have. He’s skilled in certain, complex things, like jousting, but completely useless at simple things, like returning a pretty girl’s smile. In the end, he sees the grail but cannot achieve it (unless the film’s cast is reduced for budgetary reasons). He’s almost perfect but his story is exists completely in the ‘almost’, hence, his tragic, yet undeniably heroic, character.

Shannon Allen, there are not many women in the saga, although certainly Guinevere plays a prominent role. What are some of the takeaways female readers will get with this anthology?

Shannon:  This is one of the sad notes to Arthuriana. It is here that I am prone to rant so I will keep it to a limited answer. There are women in there, many of them! We all hear about Guinevere, the good and the bad, because of Lancelot and of doomed love. Many forget that there is Morgan Le Fae, Vivian, Igraine, Mogwase, Elaine and Niniane just to start the list. And least we forget two that have been cut from most of the modern texts, the daughter of Igraine and Uther, Anna, Arthur’s full blood sister or Merlin’s sister Ganieda. The stories are what they have been made to be for the times and social views in which they were published. Be it the saving  of a damsel, to the justification of blood lines women have been put on the side lines in later re-tellings, it tended to complicate things when strong women graced the pages . It is only when you go back to the most early texts you find these women along with others taking their place in the narrative.  For our anthology, I hope that readers, regardless of gender, take away that there is strength in  following who you are. To use it to define the world you exist in, to be more, to dream and not let fear box you in.

J.R. Note: There are a lot more women in the saga than you might expect. Certainly a lot more women than the successive generations of scissor-wielding editors were comfortable with

Please introduce the authors and their stories/poems.

JR CampbellJ.R.: Our first contributor, Jane Yolen, is a difficult writer to introduce as she’s written 365 books and won so many awards. For those reading with an Arthurian slant, I’d recommend her latest collection ‘The Emerald Circus’ and ‘The Young Merlin’ trilogy. Needless to say, Shannon and I were delighted to receive our opening poem, ‘A Short History of the Round Table’, from Jane.

Fiona Patton is the author of the four book in The Branion Realm and the Warriors of Estavia trilogy. We encountered her Arthurian work in her short fiction. Her story, ‘Brannon and the Raven’, features our youngest protagonist.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Wendy N Wagner before in my ‘Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places’ anthology and her story there suggested she’d be an excellent fit for Camelot. Her latest novel, ‘An Oath of Dogs’, is a science fiction adventure. Wendy’s story, Loyalty of a Thousand Years’, features the anthology’s oldest protagonist.

Despite the plea in the title, Shannon Allen’s ‘Before all Else’ is the third story in the collection. Sometimes editors are jerks.

Simon Kurt Unsworth ‘The Terrible Knitter’ comes next. I’ve worked with Simon previously and always found him to be a remarkable writer. His novels, ‘The Devil’s Detective’ and ‘The Devil’s Evidence’ combine fantasy and mystery to create something greater than its parts.

Overwater’s ‘House of the Knight’s Nail’ is the writer’s first foray into Arthurian fiction. As such, he is the Galahad of our company.

Colleen Anderson is an artist, writer and an Aurora award nominated anthologist whose latest project is the anthology ‘Alice Unbound’. Her story here, ‘Sir Tor and the River Maiden’, is the only story to feature a dwarf.

‘Ghost Child’ by J.R. Campbell is also included but, being an knight and an editor, is bound by modesty.

Lawrence Watt-Evans has written ‘a bunch of stuff’, mostly science fiction and fantasy, including over one hundred short stories. We encountered his Arthurian work through his short fiction and were delighted to be able to publish ‘The Prisoner of Shalott’.

Until I mentioned this project to William Meikle, I had no idea we shared a passion for Arthurian legends. The Venn diagram of our interests overlap an unnerving amount. I’ve had the pleasure of working with this author often and his story, ‘The Root of All Things’, managed scratch an Arthurian itch no one else could reach. Look for William Meikle’s Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger works as well.

M.K. Hume cats a long shadow over the Arthurian landscape. There’s ‘The Tintagel Cycle’ trilogy, the three novels of her ‘Merlin’ books, her ‘King Arthur’ trilogy and her ‘Twilight of the Celts’ series. We are excited to include her story, ‘The Hive of Fair Women’, in this collection.

We encountered Renee Bennett’s previous Arthurian short fiction in David Hartwell’s ‘Year Best Fantasy’ and are quite pleased to include her latest, ‘The Song of the Star’, here.

Our last story, ‘Shadow of the Wolf’, comes from the prolific fantasy writer Dianna L. Paxson, whose work includes, among other novels and writings, ‘Priestess of Avalon’ (with Marion Zimmer Bradley), ‘Ancestors of Avalon’, ‘Ravens of Avalon’ and ‘Sword of Avalon’.

Our closing poem, ‘Echoes’, is from co-editor Shannon Allen. Turns out when you’re looking for the perfect note to end on, you can make it yourself.

Super Heroes are often considered the modern day heroic saga. What comparisons are there between the Arthurian legends and modern Super Heroes?

J.R.: From what I know about super heros, I’d say that it’s critical for each of the knights/heros to have their own distinct humanity apparent in their character. Just as Lancelot or Gawain approach problems differently, I would think different super heroes develop their own ways of doing things. It’s their flaws that drive the story, more than their strengths. The hero’s humanity was critical to the success of the Arthurian tales, people were more interested in what makes people tick than in perfect beings, I expect it’s the same thing with superheroes. I’d note that the Arthurian tales are much more focused on endings than comic books are. For anyone looking for Arthurian flavour in a super hero comic, I’d recommend Hellboy: The Wild Hunt. Here’s hoping the film adaption is worthy of the source material.

Shannon: I think most of the superhero culture derives its founding principals from Arthur and mythos. In order for there to be extreme evil, we must have a champion of good. Never is the path  as easy as one would like. There must be suffering on the path to winning over evil. There needs to be one willing to go the extra mile or face death for principal. There has to be the unknown origin wrought by forces bigger that themselves. Starting to sound familiar? These are aspects of the Arthurian saga that play well into the modern superhero universe. Arthur was the superhero of his time, he was granted his “power” by the grace of a magical object and strove to bring good to all.

What criteria did you use to order the stories in the anthology? What journey do you want for your readers?

J.R.: Story order is a challenging aspect for any anthology. As an anthologist, you can’t really plan out a journey in advance. For best results, I’ve always found it best to let the writer tell the tale they want to tell rather than intrude on the work with your editorial objectives. We use word count, story theme and setting, to determine story order. Sometimes character with similar names need to be separated, sometimes the story you feel best opens with a note that precludes it from being your opening story, or an final note you are happy to include but which don’t fancy as the last note of the collection. Unlike a novel, you can’t really plan what you’ve got with an anthology until you have the pieces in hand. Readers always seem to feel guilty for having favorite stories in an anthology but, due to the nature of the beast, that’s inevitable. By its nature a novel approaches its subject from a single perspective, an anthology attacks from all sides. There’s artistic merit in both approaches. And if, like me, you tend to read anthologies in random order, know that these editors are not judging you.

Shannon:  We really didn’t set a criteria for the order. We had the final choices and laid them all out, taking in the weight and context of each story. There always seems to be one story that pulls at you for one reason or another and that  became our starting point. We asked ourselves where in the book would this story be best served. How did it play before or after the next one we grabbed. It was this one by one process that the stories knit themselves into an order that seemed to showcase each story and build a narrative that encompassed what we had hoped this anthology would be. There are stories here that speak to the questions of our time, to the adventure tales we fell in love with as children. I hope that be reading this anthology people see that in our differences, our challenges, our triumphs we are all the same.

Prior to this anthology, what is your favorite Arthurian tale or character?

J.R.: I’d have to say my favorite knight is Gawain, but the character with the most resonance for me is Arthur. Where the knights put faith in their strength, Arthur manages to trust not only his own strength but the strength of others. Drove me nuts when the Disney folks bent him into a villain for their television show, a character who put protecting Camelot above what was right. That’s a decision made out of fear and, at least for me, the very opposite of what Arthur represents. Merlin is always a source of fascination, as soon as you think you’ve a handle on Merlin he slips in an unexpected direction, much like Morgan in that regard. It’s a pretty rich collection of character which is why we wanted to add to the mix.

Shannon: Prior to this anthology I had a trinity of favorites who for me represent the past in Merlin, the Present in Arthur and the keeping of the future in Morgan. I can’t see any of these characters without the influence or companionship of the others. Between them I see the agents for all aspects of the tale themselves. Each is a driving force at some point within the cannon. It is maybe their continuity within the stories that gives the foundation for all the others to play a part.

What book(s)/author(s) do you like to read that are not Arthur related.

J.R.: Obviously, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has always been a favorite. I’m very much, thought not exclusively, a genre reader. There’s a Holmes quote from ‘A Study in Scarlet’ that works well for detectives but poorly for creative writers: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” I must confess, I am full of useless facts and therefore, in Holmes’ opinion, a fool yet I cling to the belief that the more diverse your reading, the better your writing.

Shannon:  You do ask good questions! I must admit, I have the guilty pleasure of reading textbooks. I do love them and tend to haunt the university book stores. I find there is such a wide array of what you can delve into that feeds the academic side of me. Outside of that I tend to read science fiction, of which Roger Zelazny is a favorite or historical fiction by Bernard Cromwell.

By the Light of Camelot

By the Light of Camelot is edited by J. R. Campbell & Shannon Allen
Published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing


J. R. Campbell is a Calgary based writer and the editor of the anthologies Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes, Gaslight Grotesque: Nightmare Tales of Sherlock Holmes, Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places. His short fiction can be found in Fantastical Visions IV, Rigor Amortis and Tesseracts Twenty-One.

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