CJ Stone: Why I (re)wrote The Trials Of Arthur
I wrote the original version of The Trials of Arthur between 2000 and 2003.
It was a book I’d wanted to write for a long time.
I’d originally come across Arthur Pendragon in the mid-nineties, through my good friend Steve Andrews, while I was working on my first book, Fierce Dancing.
There was something about the story which caught my imagination.
Just to give you a brief outline: Arthur Pendragon is this ex-soldier, ex-builder, ex-biker who had some sort of a brain storm back in 1986 and decided he was King Arthur. When I heard about him he was already moderately famous, not only as a media figure – he had been on the Clive Anderson show and had had a number of radio and TV documentaries made about him – but he was also central to the campaign for open access to Stonehenge and heavily involved in the road protest scene of the time. By the time I met him, late in 1996, he was living on-site at the Newbury bypass, then the most prominent and fiercely contested of the road building schemes.
Fierce Dancing had featured a road protest and I had already acquired the status of a sort of spokesman for the movement through my columns in the Guardian and the Big Issue.
It was more than just a protest scene. There was something profound and archaic at its heart. It seemed to evoke feelings and ideas that came from a very deep place. It was tribal. It was animistic. It was archetypal. Arthur’s story seemed to fit in well with the general ethos. I spent the better part of 1996 chasing all over the UK looking for him.
I finally met him in August of that year, at Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, where we both got very drunk, after which, still drunk, I drove him and another bunch of drunken people over to Bath, where we got even drunker.
That was something Arthur and I did a lot of in our early days.
At the time my writing style was very tongue-in-cheek, and Arthur seemed a very tongue-in-cheek kind of hero. He often referred to himself as “the nutter who thinks he’s King Arthur”, which tells you a lot about Arthur’s approach to his identity. Had I written the book then it would almost certainly have been a comedy. I would have played it for laughs. It still is a comedy to a large extent, meaning that there are a lot of funny bits in the book. But it also has a serious point, something I’m not sure I would have been so clear about back in 1996.
So, then, the book didn’t get written in 1996. Other things got in the way. And by 2000, when I finally got round to starting work on it, my life had taken an uncomfortable turn. I was no longer a Guardian writer, and I was no longer writing for Faber & Faber either. The book was commissioned by Thorsons/Element, a New Age imprint of Harper Collins. I felt I was going down in the world. And it wasn’t me who got the commission, it was Arthur. So I was going to have to accept joint authorship, and I no longer had complete control over the end product. This was difficult. I was writing to please Arthur, not writing to please myself, which had a detrimental effect upon my style. I was never anywhere near as confident writing this book as I had been with the others.
Arthur’s view of himself is conditioned by his own self-mythologizing, of course. This is something we all do, but it is greatly compounded when you are not only self-mythologizing in the normal way but also identifying yourself with a mythological hero who is attempting to bring the mythology up to date. This is like mythologizing cubed. Mythology times mythology times mythology.
Arthur thinks he’s Arthur because he always has been Arthur. But clearly there had been a life before this which I insisted on exploring. As I said at the time, it will make the book all the more believable if we know where Arthur comes from. This tends to give the book a kind of hagiographical quality at first as in Arthur’s mind he was always destined to be Arthur. This is one of the prime weaknesses of the original book. Arthur emerges as a hero because of some sort of inherent quality he was born with, rather than as someone who stepped up to the mark and took on the role, which I now think is much nearer the truth. It’s not that Arthur is Arthur because he always was Arthur. It’s that he’s Arthur because he’s made himself Arthur. He’s worked at the role and made it come true. He’s evoked the name and taken the consequences. He adopted the name without necessarily knowing what it would involve. But then the name turned round and bit him and he’s never really been the same since.
So I was never very happy with the first part of the book. It was too much “Arthur did this” and “Arthur did that” and “good old Arthur”, without looking into the context or paying very much attention to anyone else.
Later I started writing about the protest movement, and this is when the original book starts to get really good. In that version of the book, it takes off around the half-way mark, and in the rewrite I’ve virtually done nothing to change the second half. It was always very good and it still is very good.
The book came out in 2003 and then quietly died a death. By 2009 it was out of print, and Arthur had managed to get the rights back. That’s when he approached me and asked if I could get the book back into print.
Thus it was that in early 2010 I started rewriting the book.
The first thing I did was to get rid of the introduction, which I had never liked. It was slow and clumsy and introduced you to characters that later were to play very little part in the book. It rambles all over the place while never locating you anywhere in particular. Later in the book I had made a decision that whenever a place is evoked we would really enter that place. We would step across its threshold and visualise it. If anyone reading this is ever planning to write a book, I would suggest this as good advice. Be there. Make it live. Make the pages come to life. This is very much what I failed to do in the original introduction.
So the new first chapter takes you right into the heart of an adventure: on the Prescelly Mountains in Pembrokeshire, at Halloween in 1994. We are introduced to people as archetypes. It’s not only Arthur as an archetype, but everyone else as an archetype too. This is a much more satisfying way of entering the book. Arthur is seen as one of many, not one on his own, and his story seems all the more profound for that. It is the story of a whole culture.
We also bring in another innovation: the story of the pagan calendar which runs like a thread throughout the book. Each of the pagan festivals is invoked, starting with Samhain, and ending with the Autumn equinox. This is absolutely precise, as Samhain represents the pagan New Year.
The book still has Arthur at its heart, of course, but it is also much more about the people around him too. It’s about people remaking themselves, just as Arthur remade himself. It is about the making of a culture as much as the making of a man.
The new book has 24 chapters whereas the old book had 17. This makes a difference of seven chapters. But two of the old chapters have been jettisoned, so in fact there are nine brand new chapters in this book. Two of them were written by Arthur, and the rest by myself. You’ll be able to tell the difference. Arthur’s chapters are very much more tongue-in-cheek than mine, meaning that he’s continued the book I might have written in 1996 and proved to me that he still is a tongue-in-cheek hero.
As for its relevance: it is not about contemporary events, but about things which happened back in the 90s. However, it is about protest, and there are even more things to protest about now than there ever were. The book is virtually a handbook for successful protest. We could subtitle it: How To Protest And Stay Sane!
It is also about challenging the mores of the dominant culture. It is about forging a new identity, about seeking something authentic in a world of dross, about finding something real in a world conditioned by advertising slogans. In other words, it is more deeply relevant now than it ever was.
At our first meeting with the publishers back in 2000 I had asked Arthur what he wanted the message of the book to be.
“If I can do it, anyone can!” he said.
Which doesn’t mean you have to wear a dress and a crown to emulate him. It just means you have to be authentically yourself.