Interview: Richard Bowes on “The Queen and the Cambion”
– Tell us a bit about “The Queen and the Cambion.”
TQATC is about two British legends, Queen Victoria who reigned for most of the 19th century and Merlin, said to be the son of a demon and a nun, whose story emerged in the murky centuries after the fall of Roman Britain. One was a creature of history, the other a product of Welsh folklore later embellished by medieval minstrelsy and compiled by Mallory.
In the story Merlin is obliged to come to the aid of whichever monarch in whatever year invokes the spell that binds him. The spell’s my invention and we get to see the four occasions on which Victoria summons him.
– What was the inspiration for “The Queen and the Cambion,” or what prompted you to write it?
– Why did you choose Queen Victoria as your protagonist as opposed to any other British monarch?
I’m going to answer these questions together:
I was invited to write a story for a themed anthology about magic and Queen Victoria. At least that’s what I understood it to be about. It seemed like an interesting change of pace from drugs, dark doings and gay Manhattan which I’d been writing about for the last few years.
My first problem was that Victoria was about as devoid of magic as any monarch who ever lived. But the magic didn’t have to be hers. Apparently, I’d had the Arthurian legend on my mind because out of nowhere I’d written a very short story, “Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” about a rather disgraceful member of the Round Table. F&SF was nice enough to buy and publish the story last year.
Sometimes with themed anthologies I can take a story that was kicking around in my back brain and twist it to the anthology theme. Sometimes the theme comes easily to hand – it’s something I would have written anyway. Other times it’s a story that never would have been written except for the invitation.
This was one of those last. But I liked the idea of mixing Merlin and Victoria. The editors seemed to approve. However when I submitted the story the editors wanted something different – darker or lighter or dark in a lighter way. Or something. And editors, of course, are always right.
So I was left with this unsold story. Fortunately F&SF, Help of Writers, took it. This is my twentieth appearance in the magazine over the last twenty years – nineteen stories and one “Curiosities” column.
– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
As a young kid I was given a book (I think it was titled “King Arthur and his Knights” – not a well known version of the tales – lines of Tennyson verse were interwoven with the prose and it had lots of vagueness about Lancelot and Guinevere, Morgan La Fey and Arthur and Mordred’s relationship – a book for kids) I’ve never been able to find a copy. The art was not by one of the canonical illustrators. But I remember it well. Especially the last color plate of the last moment of Arthur’s last Battle – Camlann .Against a setting sun, with piles of dead knights all around, Mordred rushes to stick his lance through Arthur who is about to bring Excalibur down on Mordred’s – great stuff – lots of Merlin’s doings.
The Matter of Britain interested me from then on.
Alfred Duggan was a British historical novelist of the mid-20th century. His “The Conscience of the King,” which I read in my teens is the story of an unscrupulous princeling, Cedric in post-Roman 6th Century Britain. This is the world in which the Arthur legend begins. Arturus, a fictional Roman cavalry mercenary, and a plausible guess as to the basis for the Arthur legends puts in an appearance.
I read The Once and Future King a year or two after it came out in 1958. My parents thought it would fascinate me and it did. In it along with much else including a clearer idea of the sexual underpinnings of the legends was a Merlin living backwards in time. When the musical Camelot tried out in Boston in late 1960, I skipped school, went to a matinee and got caught doing so.
Those are the ways I found Merlin. Queen Victoria came to me as a figure in history. And history to me is a long twisting tale out of which you make it a story reflecting your own ideas and interests. In truth people around Victoria like her uncle King William and her first Prime Minister Melbourne, fantastical 18th century men surviving into the 19th century interested me more than she did.
Writing the story I spent a few afternoons in NYU’s Bobst Library reading about her life and especially her youth. I found a human side of what had seemed a symbol, a statue. That gave me the story.
Would you say that “The Queen and the Cambion” is a kind of love story, and if so, at what point in the writing did you realize it?
I would. I think it’s the first love story I’ve ever written.
I was looking for a connection between a 19th century girl and woman and a half human cambion from a very dark age. The trick of the tale is that Victoria goes from youth to middle age and old age – the normal track of human life. The Merlin she encounters along the way is at various stages of his life – moments when he is available and she summons him. She’s young, he’s first mature and powerful, then dynamic but still older than she. She falls in love with him. As a middle aged woman she summons and rescues a very young Merlin. He grows fond of her. Only at the end are their ages and experiences compatible. Love connects them.
– What might you want a reader to take away from your story?
Terry Weyna reviewing the story in Fantasy Literature says, “The story is nothing more than a bon bon, but it is a delicious one.”
I kind of like that but I think there’s more here – mythic wonder and historical characters and human need.
– What are you working on now?
The story of a 15 year old lesbian telepath in a dystopian New York: it does have some love.
– Anything else you’d like to add?
The two writing groups to which I belong, Altered Fluid and Tabula Rasa were a great help. Especially AF. It was the first thing I showed that group.
“The Queen and the Cambion” appears in the March/April 2012 issue.
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