I could go on a whole long rant about how important women in fiction and history are often sidelined in favor of their male counterparts, but there ain’t enough time in the day. So, instead, I’d like to present the following email interview with writer Natania Barron, whose new fantasy novel, Queen Of None (paperback, Kindle) is the legend of King Arthur as told through the eyes of his sister Anna.
To start, what is Queen Of None about, and how does its story relate to the legend of King Arthur?
Queen Of None is the story of Anna Pendragon, Arthur’s sister, who’s married off very young and returns to Carelon (Camelot) as a widow, and the mother of three grown boys. She decides, after once again falling into the political machinations of Merlin and Arthur, to fight back. Hers is a story of revenge served from the shadows, hatched behind the walls of the castle she’s confined to, using tools given to her by her mother’s line and the courage she has in herself. It is an “Arthur behind-the-scene” story where everyone’s favorites — Gawain, Lancelot, Nimue — all appear, but in unexpected ways.
So did you set out to put a different spin on the tale of King Arthur or did you start writing this story and then realized, at some point, that it would work really well as a different spin on King Arthur?
I discovered Anna Pendragon when I was in college, reading Geoffrey of Monmouth for the first time. I thought it strange that a woman with such a simple name — Anna — could appear as Arthur’s full-blooded sister, and then vanish from the canon altogether. That idea stuck with me for a long time, even as I went on to graduate school to study Arthuriana, as well. I am a huge fan of Arthurian stories, and I didn’t want to step on the well-trod ground. As far as I’m concerned, Mary Stewart, T.H. White, and Bernard Cornwell have it locked down. But I did see an unusual way in with Anna, and it helped me also get a grip on another facet of Arthuriana that I wanted to explore: the Pre-Raphaelites. The Victorians re-envisioned Camelot through painters and writers like Morris and Burne-Jones, but I hadn’t seen that version of Arthur — full of statuesque women, gauzy backgrounds, and passion — in the literature. So I decided I would write this book as a reflection of the history, but not actually historical. It’s almost secondary world in that sense.
And in a related note, why did you want to put this kind of spin on the King Arthur story?
Women in Arthuriana are full of contradictions. There are so many Elaines that it’s an inside joke among medievalists. There are women who show up randomly in the woods, women who go mad, women who proffer swords to kings in the middle of lakes…but I was interested in the real women, in the woman’s experience. When I began to write Queen Of None, I had a toddler — that toddler now towers over me. My experience as a mother shaped much of Anna’s tale. She is not always a good mother, but motherhood changed her in very essential ways. Her sons, Gawain, Gareth, and Gaheris, are central to the Arthurian canon, yet she fades away. Widowed, middle-aged women are rarely heroines — and Anna certainly has her moments of villainy, as well — but her perspective on Arthur, his knights, and the court, hopefully gives people a new window into this story. I had a lot of fun twisting some of the tropes and adding little Easter eggs and homages to the older stories, too. I just couldn’t help myself.
Queen Of None sounds like it’s a romantic fantasy story. Is that how you’d describe it?
There certainly are elements of romance, but it’s not central to the story. It’s important that Anna experiences love, physical and emotional, but her progression as a character has a lot more to do with her as a mother, a sister, and a daughter, in some ways. She’s finding out her own inheritance, her own magic, along the way. But, of course, it’s relationships that help us understand characters best. Her connection to Bedevere and Lanceloch are essential — and sometimes distracting — to her own quest forward. When I came to some of the steamier sections, I basically thought to myself, “Well, if I was Anna and I’d been with some of the most famous knights of the realm, I’d want to boast a little, too.”
Aside from the legend of King Arthur, are there any other stories, or maybe writers, who had a big influence on Queen Of None?
I wrote the first draft of this years before I’d read anything like it, but when I read Circe by Madeline Miller, I immediately felt a kindred spirit. She did with Circe what I had wanted to do with Anna, which is unearth an alternate narrative in a very well-worn space. Through Circe’s life, you see the events of The Odyssey in a new light. This sort of “behind the scenes” of mythology has always been very appealing to me. As a woman writer, I felt like so much writing by women existed in this same way. It’s not that we weren’t there, it’s that it wasn’t recorded. It reminded me a bit of when I learned about the poet Charlotte Smith, who was a tremendous influence on William Wordsworth, but is rarely taught alongside him. Even he recognized her in his day. There is so much in history, and myth, that’s just waiting.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those have a big influence on Queen Of None?
I do love historical series like The Last Kingdom, but I would have to defer to The Sword In The Stone, really. It was my first exposure to the Arthurian legends, and it was in itself a story very much about the humans in the myth, rather than the myth itself. It was humor and sadness together.
Now, as you know, some fantasy novels are stand-alone tales, while others are part of larger sagas. What is Queen Of None?
Anna’s story is complete, but I do plan to write more stories in this same world. I want each volume to stand alone, however, so it’s not necessary to have read them all individually. The concept will be similar, taking characters we don’t usually hear from and writing them into the Arthurian story.
Earlier I asked if Queen Of None had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But has there been any interest in adapting Queen Of None into a movie, show, or game?
I wish! I think it would make a great limited-run series.
If that happened, who would you want them to cast as Anna and Arthur and the other main characters?
I think I’d want Anna to be played by a relatively unknown actress, as that would certainly help with the whole mystique of who she is, this face conjured from lost time. For Arthur, I think Johnny Flynn [Emma] would be perfect. [Lucifer‘s] Tom Ellis would make a great Bedevere, should we get him a beard, because he has a gentleness that comes across with his attractiveness that I think would really work well for him. Lance would need to be next-level attractive, and so you’d need someone like Henry Cavill [Justice League], and he needs quite a range for the part; he’s so conflicted and so good. For the Orkney boys, Anna’s sons, I think unknowns would work, as well. You’d need boys in their teens and early twenties that are massive, though. For Morgan, perhaps Gemma Arterton [The Girl With All The Gifts] or Michelle Dockery [Downton Abbey]. She needs a lot of sharpness and grit, but she’s got the poise of her mother’s line.
Finally, if someone enjoys Queen Of None, what fantasy novel that puts a spin on a familiar story would you recommend they check out next and why that one?
I know I said it before, but Circe is wonderful. Also, Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin is an amazing Classics retelling. Also, Hild by Nicola Griffiths is one of my favorite books of all time, and it’s the untold story of Hildegard of Bingen.