The Grail

Shattered: When Winds Blast, the third novel in my contemporary fantasy series, tells the story of the hiding of the grail and its finding side by side.

Deciding to write a grail story took me by surprise. The grail legends were my least favorite part of the Arthurian saga. But when I considered what the theme of the third book of my Celtic trilogy would be, it seemed obvious that the grail needed to be front and centre.

Fortunately, a cup had figured prominently in the first book, so I could not go with the tradition of the grail as chalice. Before I talk about the choice I did make, let me talk about why I said “fortunately.”

In the stories that became best known, the grail is the cup that was used at Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Additionally, Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Jesus that fell from the final spear wound in his side. It was this that gave the cup power. From the late Middle Ages on, it was pictured as made of precious metal and inlaid with gem stones.

The trouble is that Jesus was a relatively poor man from rural Galilee. He would have had a clay pottery cup at his last meal, a Passover celebration. The cup that is pictured in the stories and art resembled the kind of chalice that would be used in a well-endowed cathedral in the late Middle Ages.

This very churchy, very Christian grail is not the earliest representation. In Cretien de Troyes Perceval, the grail is a serving dish which is nourishing a mysterious person hidden from view in the castle of the injured Fisher King.

So, if the grail was not the cup used at the last supper, what was it?

Another possibility that has never held my imagination (and would have been too close to the second book of the series where a trio of heirs of King Arthur play a role) is based on the argument that San-graal, (meaning holy grail) was a mis-understanding of the sang real (meaning real blood), the living heirs of Jesus. It is argued that at Jesus’ death, a woman, likely Mary Magdalene, was pregnant with his child. Therefore, his blood line lives on in hiding.

With those ruled out, what option is left?

I first came across the idea of the grail as a stone in Arthur: The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland, the first of a trilogy. The grail in this story is a vision stone that offers a Twelfth Century boy glimpses back to a Fifth Century Arthur as the two struggle with the path from childhood to their destiny.

Although other stories of the stone as grail make it like the philosopher’s stone, able to change any material into gold, or a cornucopia, able to produce an abundance of whatever is needed, it is the idea of vision stone that caught my imagination.

In my story the stone once belonged to the ancient Celtic goddess Cailleach, but ended up in Merlin’s hands. Through him, it aided Arthur’s fight against the invaders. From him, it is passed to the harper Taliesin who returns to Brittany with Lancelot to defend that knight’s homeland. Because the goddess wants the stone back–as payment for something that happens in the second book of the series–three young Canadians head for France to find it before Cailleach brings a killing winter in August.

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Drawing Merlin’s character

The first time Merlin appeared in the Netflix series Cursed, I thought I had found a characterization of him that I could hate more than T. H. White’s. Drunk and arrogant and ready to betray others, I would have turned it off if the main female character had not been so intriguing. My dislike of White’s Merlin is quite opposite: he is silly much of the time, and I do not buy the idea of a person living backwards.

Cursed’s Merlin was redeemed for me when he said, “Why can’t I die?” His actions also become gallant, but it is the understanding that eternal life is impossible to live that made him sympathetic in my eyes. White almost redeems his Merlin for me when he sends Arthur into an ant colony to teach him about war.

My favorite Merlin remains Mary Stewart’s. The child Merlin in The Crystal Cave is believable, and the man he grows into makes normal mistakes while seeking a vision for his land. The landscape, culture, and mythology are well drawn. Merlin’s magic and visions make sense in the context Stewart describes.

It is, I think, the question of Merlin’s magic that makes it so hard to do this character well. The trouble is that the world of his story is already given. The writer does not have free rein. When building a magical fantasy world from scratch, authors have freedom to create their magical system and establish its relationship to non-magical society.

The Camelot stories, however, are well established. The kings were Uther and then Arthur. The pattern of the court varies depending on whether the date is in the fifth century or the twelfth, but once the era is chosen for a retelling, we know a lot about the history, mythology, and culture of that time. The author has to work with what is known. And, therefore, Merlin’s magic has to fit the era and the given world.

In the British television show Merlin, the fact that Christian leaders in Britain opposed all practices that the hierarchy thought of as “pagan” becomes crucial. Uther has outlawed magic. As a result, Merlin has to hide his power while using it to protect Arthur.

The conflict between older Celtic and Druidic mythology with rising Christianity also shapes Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. She makes “Merlin” a title rather than a name and calls her druid harper Taliesin. He is a revered old man who fathered several of the significant characters. She also includes, as Stewart did, another dimension of the legends which suggests that Merlin went mad later in his life.

While Bradley conflates the characters of Taliesin and Merlin, I keep them separate in my Cup, Sword, and Stone trilogy. In my version of this tale, Merlin is a Druid who came to possess the grail, a vision stone that had belonged to the ancient goddess Cailleach. This he passes to Taliesin when the harper accompanies Lancelot home to France to defend his land from invaders. My novel Shattered: When Winds Blast tells of the aid that the grail gave to Taliesin and Lancelot and the need to eventually hide the stone. Interwoven with that tale is the story of three Canadian youth given the task of finding the grail and returning it before Cailleach unleashes her wrath and brings winter in August.

Someday I may return to Merlin’s story and Camelot and try my hand at constructing a character and landscape that make sense. But given how hard it is, I may not risk more than his cameo appearance in Riven: When Storms Collide and Shattered: When Winds Blast.

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Lancelot and Guinevere

Lancelot’s role in the love triangle makes him a difficult character for some writers to coverhandle. How can he be honoured when, for romantic love, he betrays the king who saved Britain, to whom he has pledged allegiance?

It is worth noting that Lancelot’s love of the queen fits the medieval French courtly love tradition. The woman of the court–queen or duchess or baroness–should be the object of adoration. As long as the love is not acted upon, Lancelot’s adoration of Guinevere is praiseworthy according to this tradition.

This love from a distance offered a certain place for women. Given the stiff structures of the late middle ages, this tradition offered a certain kind of honour to women, though likely it was more a set of songs than a way of life. We may dream that this freedom was alive in the more diverse and peaceful context of southern France, as Guy Gavriel Kay did in A Song for Arbonne.

Modern readers and writers have trouble with this love triangle. One reason is that the twentieth century pushed the romantic idea that there is one true soul-mate for each person. If Arthur and Guinevere belong together, Lancelot’s love for the queen and hers for him is a betrayal. Or her marriage to Arthur is a tortuous betrayal if Lancelot is her true soul-mate.

I keep coming back to what Guy Gavriel Kay does with the Camelot story in his Fionavar series: he pictures each of the three having a perfect love for one another. Guinevere loves both men and both love her. Arthur and Lancelot have a deep loving friendship, the love of companions who completely trust each other. Kay follows the tradition that this makes their love a tragedy rather than a gift: Lancelot and Guinevere are brought back each time Arthur is to accentuate his pain. Kay pictures a tragedy and finds a surprising resolution in the end.

As much as I love Kay’s telling, I still wonder: does the love of the three for each other need to be tragic? Can there not be a recognition that we love in many ways? If the love is tied to longing, it is painful, can be tragic. But love can be about presence and understanding and nurture and self-giving. Why do so many assume that love is about taking, even if that taking is mutual? But I wander from the stories.

In my sense of the story, there is pain for Guinevere when Lancelot leaves Camelot. But part of that pain is the tension between him and the king as the king seeks a more autocratic and centralized kingdom. I do not (yet) see a romantic love for Lancelot when he returns to Brittany. Likely, after the pattern of protection for his land is set up and the Grail hidden, he will produce an heir–whether in love or necessity I do not know. My interest in this story, at least right now, is his skill as a knight. That will be my focus next week.

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Too many of the characterizations of Guinevere are shaped by the medieval versions of the King Arthur story. Stories shaped by the male dominated church of that era portrayed all women as Eve, the temptress who ruins paradise. Malory among others has Guinevere falling in love with the hero who is not her husband and contributing to the destruction of the dream of Camelot. When I came to draw on this story, I wanted to make sure I did not fall into that trap.Riven cover

In any story that set Arthur’s life and death in the later middle ages, the portrayal of Guinevere tends to match Mallory’s. She is not content with her position as queen, and when Lancelot arrives, she is infatuated. Occasionally, there is a hint that the marriage to Arthur was her father’s choice not hers, making her love of the great knight a way of fighting the fate that makes women a pawn.

Mary Stewart, who sets Arthur’s work in the early middle ages just after the Roman legions left, makes an interesting adjustment to this story by giving us two Guineveres. The first is a maid of Ygraine, Uther’s wife and Arthur’s mother. Arthur is interested in the girl, comes to love her deeply, and she shyly returns his love. This marriage is arranged by a woman with the woman’s consent.  Guinevere conceives early in the relationship, but dies as a result of the pregnancy. Arthur is urged to marry again but hesitates until a poet comes, singing the praise of a wonderful woman, and, at the end of his poem, reveals that her name is Guinevere. This marriage is arranged by the men. The second Guinevere is not able to conceive. Her barrenness and the need for an heir for the kingdom become the complicating factors that bring the Camelot dream to an end.

Another who draws on this idea of more that one Guinevere is Mercedes Lackey in her story Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit. The girls in this family are all named with some variation of Gwen, and two are identical in looks but not in spirit. One loves horses and is an excellent rider. The other loves her fancy clothes and girly pursuits. The first is the one the reader loves, but Arthur adores the second. The king doesn’t really come off looking good in this story, but the spirited Gwenhwyfar is a powerful, interesting woman character.

I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s Guinevere. She is true to Arthur but also deeply loves Lancelot, and the king and the knight are also deeply bonded. It is a sad triangle that comes to an unexpected, satisfying conclusion.

When I wondered what to do with Guinevere, I thought about one of the places where women had access to power: the abbey. Yes, it is a secluded life, but it is a space where coverwomen have freedom to be themselves, power to direct the holdings of the abbey, scope to influence political and social affairs. Years ago, I started a story in which Guinevere, the head of the abbey, tells the story of Arthur to a novice. That story isn’t finished, may never be, but I imagine that Guinevere would have retreated from court to a sanctuary. And as a circle of women who follow Ceridwen plays an important part in my story, it is to this isolated, women-centred place that welcomed Guinevere after the last battle, away from the power of government to a place grounded in a different kind of power.

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Drawing on Arthurian Legends

In the afterward to the twentieth anniversary edition of his Fionavar trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay wrote, “I also set myself the task, quixotic or otherwise, of trying to shape a narrative large enough that the figures of the Arthurian triangle could come in without overwhelming it: that they might be a component of the story but not the story.” He goes on to say that his telling of the Arthur story was influenced by his dissatisfaction with most treatments of Guinevere and an idea that turned the once and future king part of the legend from promise to burden.

Like Kay, I pondered what made Arthur the once and future king. When, as a child, I first encountered the story of King Arthur, I hoped that he was carried from the last battle to the island in the lake to be healed. I dreamed that he was not done yet. Later, I came across stories about the heirs of Arthur in the present day–others carried his dream into the future. This inspired me. When I turned to the Arthur story for the second book of my contemporary fantasy, I imagined that Arthur commissioned a Triad to take up the task of guarding the land.

For Guinevere, I long ago imagined that she became an abbess, sequestered but a leader. Throughout the middle ages, women in these places managed large tracks of land and communities, influenced the movement of the society. In my story, the queen retreated to a community of goddess followers. This circle holds one angle of the Triad of guardians Arthur appointed. Morgan was the first leader of the Circle and welcomed the former queen into her refuge.

More obvious from the existing stories, Gawain took over the Table, the knights who had been the companions, the fighters, the ones who made the dream of protection real.

Who makes up the third angle of the Triad? In a panel at CanCon, the speculative fiction convention in Ottawa, my co-panelist mentioned a story that portrayed Mordred as a freedom fighter. Sparks ignited for me. In some stories, one of Arthur’s flaws is the desire for centralized power. This would have disturbed cheiftains, nobles, other kings such as Lot, Mordred’s foster father. With this influence, Mordred might well have chafed against hegemony. In my story, the third angle is led by Mordred who holds together a loose Fellowship, based in the islands of northern Scotland, a group whose attention is centred on these isolated communities who are often ignored by the cities of the south.


I cannot claim that my trilogy has the vast scope of Kay’s, but the heirs of Arthur hold important strands of the story Riven: When Storms Collide and Shattered: When Winds Blast. The gods and goddesses are quixotic, seeking revenge and power, while the heirs of Arthur, and the young Canadians who seek them out, still work for the dream Camelot embodied.


Riven cover

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The cost of revenge

My novel, Riven: When Storms Collide, begins with the elf Tinachore returning to rivenCeridwen the cup that had been stolen from her. In the years it was lost, her anger festered. Now it will erupt. This is how the prologue ends and the trouble begins:
Tinachore looked down, away from a fury so fire-bright it frightened him.
“What can I give you to show my gratitude?” Ceridwen asked.
Tinachore swallowed. He had not dared to dream for more than freedom. “It is enough that the wrong has been righted.”A sound like the snarl of a wild cat escaped the goddess. “No. Not enough. The wrong is not yet righted. Those two must pay. You have my blessing. They will receive my revenge.” 
In the novel, we quickly see the shape her anger takes.  You can pick it up from the usual online locations, but it is also available as an audio book on Audible.
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The ancient urban rural divide

“The Goddess frowned at the way houses had sprouted like mushrooms around the base of the hill, taking up land that should be farmed. The king seemed to forget that his wealth came from the produce of the land.”

In this scene from Moon of the Goddess, my first published novel, we get a hint of the conflict that drives the story and connects the modern reader to it. The issue is urbanization and the disconnect between city and farm that was real in Ancient Greece and is present in our day.cropped-hpim0263-copy-2.jpg

When we think of Greece, we are drawn to the classical age, to the people who built the stunning monuments we visit. But, beside and beneath the temples to Olympians, are the pottery with snaking spirals, the images of fertile women, and the shrines to the older goddesses who gave life to people and the land.

In my story, I call this earth-goddess “Eurynome,” and she is in a fight to keep the allegiance of the valley she has nourished from the domination of Poseidon. She seeks to keep the people of the growing city connected to the land, while the Olympian is recruiting new worshipers to strengthen his position.

The king is caught. He needs the produce of barley and olives from the land, but Poseidon’s earthquakes endanger the city. It feels to him as if the gods of Olympus are stronger than the old goddess who is tied to the river and the valley. The goddess has to prove that her power and gifts are essential to life.

I won’t spoil the progress of the conflict or tell you who wins out in my book. In Greek history, the cities dominated. They needed fertile land and rivers, but the stories got the shape we know from poets who lived in the cities and reinforced the values that structured urban life.

The hints of a primarily agricultural and rural culture are still there if we look.  Many of the stories are set in rural contexts. Herakles is fighting beasts on the hills. Orpheus is playing his harp and singing under the trees by a meadow. Logically, as a huntress, Artemis is pictured in the woods, but Aphrodite is often in the countryside, such as the time she was drawn to a Trojan shepherd on Mount Ida.

The classical stories are focused on the fortunes of the various cities, but in the background is the reminder that the countryside matters. And this was a conversation I had often this past summer as drought hit the land hard and urban folks relished days off without rain.

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Review of A Wild and Unremarkable Thing

The last while I have taken advantage of the opportunity to review the work of other YA fantasy writers offered through YA Bound. This gives me a chance to keep up with the genre I write novels in, and I always learn when I attend to the writing in other people’s work. This is the latest review I did.


Dragon-fire destroys a town sending its people into poverty and shifting a young girl’s destiny. Hoping for a chance to change their family fortunes, the girl’s father chops off her hair, dresses her as a boy, and renames her ‘Cody.’ Then, he trains her to fight and begins a regimen to strengthen her body. His plan: she will kill a dragon and earn the reward.

In A Wild and Unremarkable thing, Jen Castleberry builds a world where everyday life is punctuated by the appearance of dragons once in fifteen years. Called “firescales” in her world, she gives them a careful, intricate life. Crafting a culture around these creatures, Castleberry sets a path for Cody both dangerous and potentially life-changing. The girl in a boy’s role takes on the quest with hope and with courage. Cody shifts her destiny and the fortune of her family, though in the end things do not go quite as planned.

After a slow and rambling prologue, Castleberry’s plot runs fast, carrying the reader. The characters are well crafted, and we root for Cody. The texture of the towns and the road is complex and intriguing, with mysteries around the corner in many places.

A few of the twists in the plot do not quite follow, and some of Castleberry’s metaphors distract from the story. But Cody’s determination carries the story, even though her destiny is not quite what she, or I as a reader, hoped for. I give the story four stars. YA Bound Tour Button


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As we drove to Ottawa last week, crossing that finger of the Canadian Shield that reaches down toward Kingston, we passed through deep rock cuts. Those who carved the route for the highway opened the rock so we can see the layers of granite. In places, the surface of the bedrock is bare, smooth and round. In others, a thin layer of soil supports grass and small shrubs. Where the bedrock retreats and the soil is deeper, forests of pine and spruce, birch and aspen thrive.

On still pools, a layer of yellow leaves covered the water. On larger lakes where the water is always in motion, those leaves had already been pulled beneath the surface, adding rock in water 3to the layer of muck at the base of the lake. Beneath those leaves, amphibians will soon dig themselves shelter from the cold of winter.


In downtown Ottawa, we found a mix of high rises and old two and four-story buildings. Passing the office towers, the street is glass and metal. The surface is a mirror that in daylight reflects nearby buildings, giving no clue what is happening inside. After dark, the lights inside open up the view, as if the mirror is pulled away and a window put in its place.


The older buildings are brick or stone with the ornamentation popular at the time they were built. Some have the name of the business carved in a lintel above the door. To build the high-rises, many of these had to be torn down, but in places, the older buildings are incorporated into the new structure. The street level tells the older story while the modern building rises above it.


I was in the city for a writing convention, and in one of the panels about building history into our stories, we talked about the layers of story the land holds. We were talking about speculative fiction and invented worlds, but still insisted that for a story to have texture and depth, the writer had to develop a history for the place. Not everyone ne


eds to provide the kind of back-story Tolkien did, but some pieces of history need to peek through. Otherwise the people seem to exist in a vacuum.


When we forget that we are not the first people to walk this land, we create a vacuum.


fence row

We know descendants of the people who settled our farm, and we hear stories from neighbours about the first settlers. And the land remembers their work. They cleared stones off the fields each time they planted, building up thick rows of rock between the fields. They carefully managed the forest. They built the barn in stages. They built the house in two parts, log first and stone later. The decades they spent farming this place left a story.


But before they came, people had hunted here. Where we live is the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway. Metis crossed through this area, and before them the Huron and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples.


The map of roads settlers created mask their routes. New towns and cities hide the older settlements. Plowed and planted fields cover over hunting grounds. But under the layer of our farms is another story.


And before the human story of this place was a history of forest with trees and plants, birds and deer and small mammals. Fox and wolf hunted here before humans. A few old trees remain where bedrock is near the surface or deep in the woodlots, reminders of a time when these clear spaces were all forest.


We know there was a time before, an age when ice covered this land. We know that granite was pushed from the shield and the shape of the land shifted. The shape of escarpment feels solid, natural, enduring, but there was a different structure here before.


Sometimes, we pick up a stone and find the fossil of an old creature, the remains of a being who lived before that rock was shaped. We can touch the image of a creature who swam or crawled or walked here long ago.


When we look at our face in the mirror, we can trace our story in the lines, the scars, the wrinkles. When we walk the surface of the land, layers of story are there beneath our feet.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.

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Review of Day Moon by Brett Armstrong

In a day when all books are being entered into a centralized database and then destroyed, Elliot’s grandfather leaves him a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works. When he shares it with the girl he has a crush on, tension enters the story.

Day Moon (Tomorrow's Edge Book 1) by [Armstrong, Brett]

“I guess he knew a good romance when he saw one.” [Elliot’s]  gray eyes leapt to meet hers as he finished speaking, his voice never wavering, surprisingly. A little color flooded Lara’s cheeks and she looked down and said, “Yeah, or an awful tragedy.”

Elliott leaned back chuckling. “True, I never did like how that went down. Romeo should never have jumped to conclusions and killed himself like that. But I guess if the mail service had been more reliable back-”

“Woah, woah, what are you talking about?” Lara asked. “You’ve read the play right? Juliet and Romeo kill each other out of family loyalty.”

Looking on her in confusion, Elliott wanted to question her, to contradict what she was saying. He had to fight to keep his hands from reaching for the book. His eyes could not help but flick to it and Lara noticed. Sighing a little, she flipped to the close of the play and gestured to it, beginning to read silently for the point she searched for.

After a moment her brows raised in surprise and she said, “Huh, you’re right.”

And while Elliot relaxes in relief that the tension between them dissipates, Lara can’t forget. She compares several plays in the book with the database and finds significant differences. When she shares this with Elliot, the mystery and the problems spread. They find themselves in direct conflict with the security forces who support the data entry project as they dig into the clues that Elliot’s grandfather left in this book and in a poem called Day Moon.


Setting his story in a not too distant future, Brett Armstrong updates the theme of social control explored in an early era by classics such a Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. In a world where cars drive themselves, Armstrong sees the potential–for good and for trouble–in the universal access to technology.

With believable and interesting characters, the reader is drawn into a fast-paced jaunt across the modern city and then out into the wilds of the Appalachians. As Elliot tries to figure out who can be trusted, he faces betrayal several times but also learns that some relationships can be recovered. He also learns where he can find strength to confront an increasingly terrifying situation.

While the events of the early part of the story follow the logic Armstrong sets up and carry the reader quickly along, a few incidents do not fit tightly in the story. Later, there are a few too many twists, slowing down the pace considerably. The reader may be tempted to skim through toward the conclusion. However, no reader will want to miss the details of the last two chapters as this part of the story comes to a climax and the steps for book two are set up.

Some of the description is repetitive and a few moments feel like they are included only to illustrate a theme that has surfaced, the premise and the story are good. I give the book 3 and 3/4 stars.

This review is offered for YA Bound Book Tours. YA Bound Tour Button




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