Hello, folks! Welcome to the first post discussing the process, references and details behind writing The Retreat to Avalon. One of the benefits of this series of articles is that it might help clarify some of the events and people described in the story, which could be helpful as the second book moves into the convoluted maze of Dark Age Britain.
This series is really geared towards people who have read the book because, well, spoilers will happen. This first article will not have any spoilers, so I’ll post it on the regular blog page in it’s entirety. Future posts, however, will give a brief overview of the article, then provide a link so that only people who have read the book or really want the spoilers can read the full article.
So let’s jump into it with a discussion of the first thing you see when you pick up the book, and that is the cover illustration. As I’ve discussed previously, the cover artwork was done by Dmitry Yakhovsky, and he did a fantastic job. My suggestion for the cover was very different, and I am so grateful that Dmitry ignored my idea.
One of the few changes I requested on the picture was to change the image on the shield on Gawain’s back. The original artwork had the shield as white with a broad red stripe through the middle. I asked if it could match the description I had given in the book: a green background with a white boar above the boss and a white horn below it. Additionally the boss has a Chi-Rho painted on it, as Arthur instructed all his warriors to add to their shields in chapter 8. (ok, a few slight spoilers here…)
It’s time to let you in on a little secret. What became The Retreat to Avalon started out differently in my head. I had not envisioned using Gawain as a main character. It was going to be about seeing the war from the perspective of a low level warrior, and when I originally considered characters, I had engaged in a bit of silly fantasy based on my own family legends.
My last name, Poage, is Irish, or Scots-Irish, and from my research years ago, I learnt that the name originated in Scotland, in the Glasgow area. It was closely tied to the Pollock family, but being a different name, I wondered if the Poages were a different branch, or another family that was also in the region.
One thing that intrigued me since I was a child was the story behind my last name, and how it was linked to our family coat of arms. Poage comes from the Gaelic word for “kiss”. The story passed down in our family was that our ancestor was a warrior of the king’s household. When the king was out hunting one day, he was attacked by a boar and our ancestor slew the boar with a well placed arrow. You can see this portrayed on our coat of arms. There is another version, which states that it wasn’t a literal boar, but that the boar represented an assassin. Our ancestor is said to have slain the assassin with a blow from his fist.
Slight spoiler here:
I allude to this part of the story a couple of times. Once, where Gawain is joking with Piran about slaying the boar by smashing it’s head with his fist. The other time is where his father, Gwyar, describes how he saved the king from an assassin. I like to subtly add little Easter eggs throughout my writing.
In both versions, the king is grateful and rewards his loyal warrior with a kiss and honors. Our ancestor became “someone” of the Kiss, and since Scotland went from a Brittonic to Gaelic speaking area before eventually being primarily English speaking, the name Poage comes from this.
Incidentally, there’s another funny story behind my last name and what it became within the military. If anyone’s interested, ask me in the comments and I will explain.
When I decided to use Gawain as the main character, a lot of aspects of the story really fell into place, and in some rather surprising ways, as we will see in future articles. One part that did not was how to imagine Gawain’s shield emblem. At this early period, heraldry had not developed into what we would recognize today. Certain symbols were common, but we have little information on how they used them, other than in adornments for armor, jewelry and so on.
I try to imagine ways that later legends and motifs from the Romance versions of Arthurian stories might have origins in the much earlier history of Arthur, but the heraldic images for Gawain just did have any correlations that I could find to the earlier era, so I decided to adopt a common motif used by British warriors, the boar, and used it in conjunction with Gwyar’s backstory.
Now you know why I chose the particular shield design for Gawain. It is a simplified version of my family coat-of-arms. I’m not suggesting I’m descended from Gawain, though!
The next article explains another, surprising, way I linked my family story with The Retreat to Avalon. I hope you enjoyed this. Thanks for stopping by.