PW: What inspired you to intersect Greek myth with Celtic legend in Celtika and now The Iron Grail?
Robert Holdstock: I'd gone to a performance of Medea, the play by Euripides, starring Diana Rigg. The set was all bronze shields, which rang, rattled and thundered as she and Jason argued and fought. Medea, as you know, killed her two sons by Jason, and the two little boys playing those roles, blood-spattered and thrown into their beds after the murder, were clearly—to the audience—having a good natter and laugh as they lay for some time—murdered. It gave me the idea that not even Medea could have so brutally killed her children. What if she had only killed them by illusion? Then hid them! And Jason finds out! And goes searching! And gets a new band of argonauts together. Heroes from other ages, other times, other lands. Maybe like Merlin!
PW: Were you influenced by Joseph Campbell's work?
RH: Very much so. The four-volume Masks of God was essential reading for me 20 years ago. I focused particularly on the first volume, Primitive Mythology. Campbell's work, like that of Frazer [The Golden Bough], tickles the imagination, in fact, opens up the gates of imagination.
PW: Do you view Merlin as a hero or antihero?
RH: He's a detached observer of the human condition, no matter what age he passes through. In Arthurian times he's a buffer between the real and the supernatural worlds. His actions strike me as being not manipulative in intention but with the intention of maintaining the processes of destiny. My Merlin is simply an explorer, a hedonistic young man who can't escape his love of life and change, the need for the world and time to surprise him with its culture and rituals. He steadfastly refuses to squander his enormous powers of magic in order to maintain his youthfulness. So: neither hero nor antihero; an early version of the watching man.
PW: Why does Merlin continue to fascinate us?
RH: Perhaps part of the answer is that he has existed and will exist through many ages, and therefore he has seen and understood the world of reality and the supernatural in ways that we cannot comprehend. Like the greater world we cannot understand, he is unpredictable. We are wary of him as much as we are made curious by him.
PW: Will you return to the romance between Merlin and the sorceress Niiv?
RH: I feel there is a terrific story in the relationship between Merlin and Niiv, but I don't feel ready to write it as yet. That said, books are their own masters, so a certain flourishing of the relationship may well happen in volume three. There's no secret as to Merlin's reluctance to love Niiv. His fear is as much to do with his desire and heartfelt love, that shock of recognition that he has found a soul mate, as much as the fact that she will die and leave him alone again. I believe he's frightened by time itself, by the simple passage of days. He can't settle to love because he's all too aware that loneliness awaits him.
PW: Is the Holy Grail so many seek more fragile than we realize?
RH: Quite the opposite. What is fragile is not the Grail, but the seeker of the Grail. The Grail transmutes according to the needs of the seeker; it can reflect courage or cowardice. I should also point out that the "Iron Grail" of my novel is in no way the Holy Grail of Arthurian Legend. The text alludes to the "cauldron of rebirth," the Celtic symbol by which fragile man is reborn. But the "Iron Grail" of the book is a tricky concept. The clue is in the lines from the Tennyson poem ["Ulysses"]: "Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."