Books by Jack Whyte:
We're sitting in the bar in a very good hotel. It's mid afternoon and the place is half empty. Half full if you happen to be an optimist. Nearby a piano is playing softly and the few patrons are chatting quietly, sipping overpriced drinks, enjoying the overstuffed chairs and mostly ignoring the wait staff whose steps are never heard on the well carpeted floors. I ask Jack Whyte a couple of questions about his work and little else is required of me. In fact, after a while, I'm not even there anymore. I am transported, by and with him, to the fifth century where legends spring to eternal life and swords in stones are merely sophisticated sleights of hand in an unsophisticated world.
"So imagine 7000 people sitting there," says Jack Whyte in a gentle Scottish burr that has been softened by three decades of living in North America. "You see the table with a purple apron around it -- concealing it. And, in the back is the cross, where they expect to see the cross. This is Good Friday. And church is in the morning. Into this convocation come all the bishops of Britain -- and there was a lot of them -- and they bring forward this young man Arthur who has developed a new mobile force the like of which has never been seen in Camelot."
"Imagine it," says Jack Whyte. And after a while I can. "See it," he says and, before very long and with his help, I eventually do.
It's magic, of course. Jack Whyte's special magic. The same magic that has transported the readers of his seven books to a world where Arthurian legend has sprung to vivid life. Whyte's magic has been not only in recreating a period of history that has been polished to the gloss of legend, but also in explaining it all in a way that demystifies that magic. In short, Whyte's magic isn't very magical, but the passion of both the explainer and what he explains is nothing less than transporting.
Whyte started working on the first book in what has become a bestselling series in 1977. After 12 years and with three finished manuscripts in hand, he finally approached a publisher. He was, he says now, convinced that actually attempting publication would result in spectucular failure and an end to what had become an enjoyable hobby. According to Whyte, "my wife said, 'You better try and get these published.' And I thought, 'Bullshit! What if someone comes and tells me it's crap?'"
This particular fantasy, of course, never became a reality. In truth, three finished manuscripts of the quality, passion and potential saleability that Whyte's Camelot manuscripts showed is a publication treasure. The first book, The Skystone, was published in 1992. Regular publication since that time has brought us to Uther, the story of King Arthur's father. Not a prequel to the books published previously, Whyte maintains, but, "Everything is connected."
In a literary world where books in some way based on Arthurian legend are hardly scarce, Jack Whyte's novels have left a deep and lasting impression. Whyte's readership grows with the publication of each new book and his international reputation grows with his publication credits. At least part of the reason for this must be in Whyte's passion. In our interview, he does not so much steer the conversation away from himself, as simply light up when asked about anything at all connected to life in Britain in the fifth century. Whyte has done his homework and he knows his stuff cold. But more: as much as readers enjoy his novels, the creation of his characters and the world in which they live was never really for us. They were for him and his standards are pretty high.
Linda Richards: Is "Uther" a contraction or some kind of bastardization of the name "Arthur"?
Jack Whyte: No. All we know is Uther is the only source that Arthurian legend gives us for King Arthur's heritage. Uther Pendragon is King Arthur's father. That's all we know. The legend tells us that his father was King Uther, his teacher was Merlin and that's all it tells us. Now, the reason I got into writing these books was that in 1977 I suddenly found myself convinced that I knew how the sword got into the stone and how the kid was able to pull it out without magic.
How did you find yourself knowing that?
I'd always been fascinated by the legend and I'd always been angry that no one had been able to tell me how this happened, without saying: Oh, it's magic, you know. And I had never believed that there was any more magic in the world then than there is today. But I believe in legend. My old great grand uncle in Britain who died when he was 95 would have looked at a DVD disc today and the caliber of movie that came from the TV as magic: he would not have believed it. I believe that magic is the word that we apply to phenomena that we have not yet experienced or come to understand. So I believe that Merlin, the magician, his magic is vested primarily and almost uniquely in the fact that -- in a time when the entire area was going illiterate, he was well educated and had a fund of knowledge and information and the natural kind of elevation and dignity that education gives a man and was in a leadership position where people looked up to him and thought: That must be magic!
So I knew how this was done. I believed -- and still believe -- it was the first and greatest PR stunt in the history of Britain. I'd been trying to figure it out for years and thought: OK, if it was done this way -- if this was a public relations gimmick -- how, where and by whom? I knew that whoever did it had to do it in a public venue that was big enough to accommodate a large crowd of people and that what he did was so spectacular -- whatever it was -- that he appeared to produce a sword out of a stone. And he did it in front of so many people that they all turned to each other and said: Did you see that? Did you see what that guy did? And they were so amazed by it and talked about it so much that we still talk about it today.
So how could that have been done? Where? Then one day, in 1977, I was talking to a buddy of mine who had the same tastes in reading and literature. We had both just read Mallory again. We were kicking it around and I said: You know, things aren't always what they appear to be. I remember when I was a kid in grade one, something happened.
I told him about this thing that had happened to me when I was a little boy. I went to a Catholic school. At the end of the War, towards the end of grade one, we had two visiting priests come around to our village. They were doing what was called a mission to sort of just get people stimulated intellectually and spiritually about their religion. They played good cop/bad cop. And their names -- though I was six years old -- their names were Father Teasdale and Father Lumsley-Holmes. They were both Englishmen, which made them very alien in Scotland in those days. Father Teasdale was the good guy and Father Lumsley-Holmes with the double-barreled name was very much the hellfire and damnation.
One morning Father Teasdale walked into our classroom with a wee attaché case and he said: I'll bet none of you can guess what's in this case? And we all said: No sir! But he said: Come on, try and guess. He let us all pick it up by the handle and lift it up to the table. He said: You don't know, do you? And we said: nope. So he said: Well, I'll show you. And he opened up the case. And inside the case was a block of stone; tall and gray and carved. And he lifted it out of the case by two silk loops. He put it on top of the desk and he said: this is an altar stone. Since the earliest days of the Christian church, before people built permanent churches, wandering bishops would carry their own stone with them. And recessed into it in a little recess here, are buried the bones or the relics of some very holy person. A saint. And at the back of it, there's this little hole into which is clicked the crucifix. And the altar stone is sanctified. So a missionary priest could be in Africa in the Congo -- mind you, we're talking 1946 -- can walk into a hut in any village, put this stone on any table in the hut. The stone is sanctified. The table becomes an altar. The hut becomes a church. Then he just takes the cross and he puts it in the hole in the stone.
I'm telling my buddy about this. And all of a sudden I thought: Holy shit, that's how they did it! And I saw this image of a table in the great theater, which is a big Roman theater, St. Albans in England which we know in the fifth century it could hold 7000 people seated. And it was used as a church.
So imagine 7000 people sitting there in Lent or at Advent when all the altars and everything are draped in purple and you see the stone. You see the table with a purple apron around it -- concealing it. In the back is the cross, where they expect to see the cross. This is Good Friday. Church is in the morning. And into this convocation come all the bishops of Britain -- and there was a lot of them -- and they bring forward this young man Arthur who has developed a new mobile force the like of which has never been seen in Camelot before; with saddles and stirrups. And the church is being wiped out because the invasions are just escalating every day and Christian priests were easy pickings. The bishops conjoined to crown this young man as their king and, in return, he swears to dedicate his military might to the preservation of the Faith. Right up to the days of Queen Elizabeth, the monarchs of Britain have been called "Defenders of the Faith."
So, he swears an oath and the bishops call for a sign that he's blessed. He's got his hands on the crucifix on the altar and he swears the oath. They ask for a sign from heaven and he reverses his grip. And out of the altar stone he pulls this sword: because the blade of the sword has been hidden behind the apron of the altar. All they've done is increased the size of the hole in the altar stone and punched it right down through the table top, slipped the sword into it, covered it with a cloth and people look at it and see an altar with a cross on it: which is what they expect to see. So he grabs it and pulls it out. The purple cloth that he's holding over the hilt falls back down over his wrist, the blade stretches up into the air and everybody in the place says: Holy Christ! There's the sword in the stone.
Now, that was 1977. And I knew. I knew it was right. I knew at least that it was a feasible physical explanation of how it could have happened without magic. But as the people were watching it, it would have been magic. Because this sword is a prototype weapon. They've never seen one like it before because up to that point in history, the sword that conquered the world was a Roman short sword. But as soon as you take a soldier and put him up on a big horse, your short sword is useless. You have to get a long sword. And you can't just double the length of the short sword, because it bends and it breaks. So somebody had to go to the trouble of studying this to find a new way to make a long sword with a tempered blade. That sword, I believe, was Excalibur.
That's what I talk about in my books. My books are about how all the various elements that have come to us 1600 years later as the Arthurian Legend, were all put in place. So that stories are about the man who made the sword Excalibur, the guy who built the fortress that we have come to call Camelot and the guy who built the mobile cavalry force that we call the Knights of the Round table. All of that stuff.
If anyone would have told me in 1977 that in the year 2000 -- 23 years later -- I would still be telling the same story and would have already written five novels and have another one out and two more in the pot, first of all I wouldn't have believed them. And, second of all, I would have run away: I would have never started. [Laughs]
The legend says that everyone else tried to take the sword out of the stone and Arthur was finally able to do it. What do you think the trick was so that Arthur could get it out and no one else could?
Well, have you heard the old story about the First World War and there's a Scottish regiment that's about to launch a night attack? Because the colonel has decided that the regiment will attack and he suddenly realizes he doesn't have enough men. He turns to his aid-de-camp and says: I want a message back to the line behind us. We need reinforcements. Send back a message to send reinforcements. We're going to advance. By the time the message got to where it was going, by being carried from word of mouth to word of mouth, the message was: Send three n' four pence, we're going to a dance.
Everything changes in word of mouth communications. I believe the correct word is allegorical. Arthur did it. Pulled the sword from the stone. The legend tells us that all the strongest knights and chiefs in the kingdom had tried to do it and failed. The answer is a little bit more abstruse than that. What he did in pulling the sword from the stone was to establish clearly in the eyes of everyone who saw that he was, by right of birth and heritage, entitled to lead the country as their unified leader. All the warlords and the chiefs and the sub-chiefs fighting among themselves for the 50 years prior to that since the Romans left, had failed to do it. Failed to draw enough support for themselves to make themselves the high king or queen. Arthur did it. So he succeeded where everyone else had failed. And over the intervening 1500 years, that has come to us as saying that every rival leader in the country tried to pull the sword from the stone.
So you don't feel it would have just been a matter of him pulling a sword from a stone. He would have had to, one way or another, win the people over.
Yeah, because when the Romans left Britain they'd been there for 460 years. Now that's an astounding length of time. That's longer than English-speaking peoples have been in North America. So Britain was Rome. And Rome was everywhere in Britain. The fabric of Britain was pretty well Roman. Except that there was this amazing dichotomy, which we still find today, in being able to go to anywhere in the world, listen to a Glasgow man open his mouth and identify exactly what it is: He's from Glasgow. That's how insular the Scots are today. And when I say Scots, I mean Celts, because the Welsh are the same. The Irish are the same. And the people of Cornwall -- the west country people -- are the same. Very clannish. Very egocentric. And very intolerant of outside views and outside opinions and -- God knows -- outside people.
Are you saying it's a genetic thing?
It's a genetic thing, of course. It's typical of the Celts. Part of the Celtic mentality, which is probably the most screwed up mentality in human society. Because these are a very dour, bleak and essentially humorless people to outsiders. But among themselves they're anything but. They have an incredible sense of humor and amazing feelings of hospitality. But, to the outsiders, they present a unified front which is invariably beetle-browed, disapproving and: War doar meddle wi me. [Laughs] And that's the sort of public Celtic visage that is presented.
Yet, side by side with that, in those days there coexisted a completely separate but symbiotic society within Britain that was called the Roman society. Romano-British. Now, the Roman armies that came to Britain were polyglot. They were mongrels. They were made up of soldiers from all over the Empire. But they came to Britain and they founded military camps. The reason they founded camps was to defend both ends and the middle of the Roman roads. The one great advantage that the Romans had over every other society in the Western world is that they were road builders. And they built roads for one reason: to get their armies from point A to point B as quickly as possible, straight overland. So they built these roads. And that's how they kept the discipline of the soldiers. They had hundreds and thousands of young men of military age who were forbidden by law -- well, they couldn't even get in among the native women, because the native women were all hostile: they'd get killed. So the commanders of the Roman army had to find some way of keeping the troops busy and out of mischief. Guess what? They built the roads. And they built Hadrian's Wall. And their duty consisted of, every day they'd punch out another couple of hundred yards. Maybe sometimes only 20 yards. But they built these roads and once the roads were built they had a straight line from point A to point B.
Depending on how long that road was, they'd have a military camp at one end, a military camp at the far end, they would have work camps all along and they'd have a holding camp in the middle. Those camps were all walled. Each of them developed into the major cities of Britain. Every name of every British city that ends in caster or cester or kester comes from the old Latin word for a marching camp, which was castra. So Manchester, Doncaster, Lancaster. They were all camps.
Now, discipline was very, very secure. The original camps were dug and they had ditches and palisades and the palisades were originally carried by the soldiers on their backs: big long poles, each of them carried two or sometimes four and they would put them together and put dirt up behind them to present a front. Once they had a camp built and it became a permanent or semi-permanent camp, they would replace those palisades with tree trunks until you get the kind of forts we're used to seeing in the American West: tall tree trunks pointed on top. Eventually, over a period of years, some of those camps would become even more permanent and they would build stone walls. To whatever extent it went, these camps were all square and they all had stone walls around them. The inner city of London today -- the financial district -- is the original mile square Roman military fortress.
The outsiders were never allowed in to the military fort. But, over a period of time, the local residents -- who were the Celtic clans -- would start to supply goods and services to the Romans. Originally they would set up stalls outside of the walls. That area outside the walls was called the vicus and that area has given us our modern word for vicinity.
So, the Celtic clans came in and they set up their stalls in the vicinity of the camp -- all around the walls -- and eventually, these stalls gave way to shops and a town grew up around the walls. And those are the towns of Britain, connected by the roads of Britain and they're still in use today.
Some of the canals in Britain were built at that time as well, I think.
Sure. Because the Romans were the greatest engineers in history at handling large bodies of water.
Is Uther your fifth book?
No. It's actually the sixth book, but the seventh volume. Because the last book -- the fifth book -- that came out was called The Sorcerer. And it ended up being 1150 pages in length and it was published as a trade paperback. It was just too big: it would have cracked the spine. And, by serendipity -- because it wasn't planned -- it happened to break naturally into two halves.
So you wrote two in one? [Laughs]
Yeah, except it didn't work that way because what they did was literally split the book down the middle, so when you got to the end of the first half, unless you knew -- and they didn't do a good job of explaining it -- unless you knew that the next page was the first page of the next volume, you would think: Ah, geez, that's not much of a bloody book. I didn't like the way that ended. Well, it didn't end. You just got to halfway through the book!
Ouch. You sound sad about that.
I'm angry. However, I've learned my lesson and it'll never happen to me again.
When did they come out?
A couple of years ago. And it sold very, very well but the second volume didn't sell nearly as well as the first volume. Which tells you that a lot of people did not know that they'd only read half of the book.
They didn't sell them as a set?
No. They brought them out three months apart. And I had to fight to get them three months apart. They were going to bring them out a year apart. And I said: No, this is one book. You've got to give it chance.
Is Uther a prequel, in a sense?
No. It's not a prequel. The first, The Skystone, was published in 1992 and it's the story of a sky stone: a meteorite. The story of young Roman who hears the tale of a stone falling out of the sky that seemed to contain a strange metal. Now the Romans were intensely pragmatic. They were an engineering race. They didn't believe something could fall out of the sky unless somebody threw it up there first.
So here is a young man faced with the prospect of going looking for another stone that might have fallen out of the sky containing a metal which his grandfather had told him had not yet been discovered by men on Earth. His grandfather believed there was another metal in this stone that fell out of the sky that had already been forged in the heat of the heavens that was harder than iron, but he didn't know what it was. And, my theory is that it was molybdenum and what they had was molybdenum steel, which was workable.
So he goes looking for this stone not knowing where to start and not knowing how to tell a stone that fell out of the sky from the other stones just lying around: it was a huge undertaking. He goes looking for that stone. And he finds it. And he smelts it. And from it he gets metal that he turns into a statue, because he doesn't just want to leave it as an ingot. He knows it's different than any other metal he's worked with, but he doesn't have a use for it. So he makes it into a statue of a formless Celtic goddess: the goddess of standing bodies of water. The Celts believe that every lake, every loch, every well had a goddess responsible for it. And that goddess' name was Coventina. And the Celts used to make sacrifice to her all the time. That's why people today still make sacrifice to Coventina, because every time you see somebody throw a penny into a lake or a fountain, that's what they're doing. They're paying sacrifice to the lady of the lake: Coventina.
So he makes this statue of Coventina and he calls it the Lady of the Lake. When the time comes, he knows what he has to do and he melts down the statue of the Lady of the Lake to use the metal from which the statue is made to make the sword Excalibur.
Aha! So they're all connected.
Everything is connected.
Did you have that in mind when you started?
Seven books since 1992. And they're all big, fat books. That's a lot of writing.
Yes but, I started writing them in 1977. I didn't even try to find a publisher until 1989.
Really? And how many did you have then?
I had three complete manuscripts by that time. But everybody said: Who the hell do you think you are? You can't come out of the basement carrying three big bundles of books and expect to get... you know, it's amazing how many people said that. I figured I was going to get 100,000 rejections. I'd spent 12 years writing three books and my wife said: You better try and get these published. And I thought: Bullshit! What if someone comes and tells me it's crap? [Laughs]
But what had brought you to tell the stories in the first place?
When I started I was a school teacher, so I was sitting up on a platform in a big teacher's desk at the corner of the room trying to educate and hopefully entertain a whole bunch of people who didn't want to be there. All I could hope to do was entertain them, catch their attention and hopefully send them home having learned something. That's what a school teacher does.
Then I became a musician and entertainer, because I wanted to something different. So I found myself sitting up on a wee platform in the corner of the room talking to a bunch of people who really didn't give a shit about being there, except that they were drinking. And all I could hope to do was entertain them, catch their attention and hopefully send them home having learned something. Nothing changed. And my brain started to rot in its pan. So I wrote a one man show on the life of Robert Burns. I ended up going away to a place owned by a friend of mine out on the borders of Alberta and Saskatchewan. I took 47 books on Robert Burns. Every volume I could find in every library around. I went for six weeks and at the end of that six weeks I had come up with a portrait of Burns -- the man and the poet -- that I could relate to and I'd written a one-man show for delivery to Canadian non-Scots audiences. And I toured Canada with it for 10 years.
Is it still performed at all?
No, because I reached a stage where I thought: When Burns was my age he'd been dead for 20 years. He died when he was 37. So I retired it honorably and gracefully.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes. This series is called The Dream of Eagles. In America it's known as The Camulod Chronicles. So I'm now in the research stage of a book that will take Arthur out from the coronation into his first battle against the invading Anglo-Saxons. The new series will probably be two books narrated by Sir Lancelot.
Lancelot always gets the shitty end of the stick. Everybody thinks he's the villain because he was the perfect gentle knight who seduced his best friend's wife and generally destroyed the round table. I've never adhered to that but I was never interested in writing what happens when the sword comes out of the stone. That's the end of that book and that's the end of my story. That's Dream of Eagles.
However, in the course of writing it, people kept saying: You can not create a cast of characters of this complexity and take it to that point and then say: That's all folks. You can't do that. And I found over the years that as I came closer and closer to the resolution [of Dream of Eagles] I was building a case [for the next series].
Your books are based on legend, but I hear you relating it and relating to it like it's historical fiction.
It is historical fiction.
So you think that the legend is based in history?
Oh yeah. I was asked a couple of years ago to do the keynote speech at the joint annual general meetings of the Royal Ontario Historical Society and the Classical Historical Antiquities of the Empire State of New York. They brought together four or five hundred of them. All academics, all teachers and I was terrified going in there because I thought: These guys are going to crucify me, because I tell lies. And I got a standing ovation as I walked in the door. All of them had read my books and all agreed that what I can extrapolate from known fact, they cannot. They'd get laughed out of town. So they've read what I've done, and most of them -- thank God -- admire the intuitive process by which I've said: If this, this, this and this are true and if I can demonstrate and associate between that, that and this thing over here, then it's likely that this must have happened. So I can say: It's likely. And they say: Bravo. Because they're not allowed to say anything like that. | November 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.