My latest novel, The Red Sleeve, is a reworking of the Maid of Astolat episode from Malory's 'Morte D'Artur'; a medieval romance of unrequited love which obsessed the Victorian psyche; most notably in Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and the Pre-Raphaelite influenced paintings of artists such as Waterhouse.
My own take on the story, predicated on a quest for the origins of the romance hero, re-adapts the dynamics of the tale, positioning Launcelot, the original knight in shining armour, as the narrative focaliser. Malory's fiction, with its teleological thrust, is less concerned with what a character thinks and feels than what she/he does. Thus the conflict between Launcelot's public role as the queen's champion and his transgressive private persona as her lover is played out in the political arena, eschewing exploration of the inner demons of desire.
It's these inner demons which fascinated me. Like so many Romance heroes, Launcelot is a flawed hero. Betraying Arthur, his closest friend and liege lord, not only marks him as a traitor, but inevitably opens up a gap in Malory's original narrative in which to allow for the play of guilt. And even in his treachery Launcelot is impelled by a code of chivalry demanding fidelity and service to the beloved. Thus his public disavowals of any adulterous relations between himself and the queen are primarily to protect her reputation. So in a sense he is a liar and a cheat in the service of a noble cause; that of saving the queen from slander. But we mustn't forget that he is also a hero in the more traditional sense of valour; literally riding to the rescue to save Guenevere's life when she is finally condemnned for breaking her marriage vows to the king.
And yet ...
In the end we're not quite convinced either by Launcelot's protestations of fidelity to the queen, or the motivations behind his martial role as her champion. Always ready to fall into all the traps beauty sets, throughout the 'Morte D'Artur' Launcelot finds himself bedding other women. And his excuses? Those of any cheap Saturday night seducer: The woman trapped him. How? Why, with a love potion ... translate that for booze or drugs if you want the contemporary version!
And isn't our hero always a little too ready to show off his prowess! Even slaying close friends whom he apparently fails to recognise in the fury of battle. Adding the sin of pride to his catalogue of venalities.
Finally, Malory too finds the whole chivalrous knight template wanting. It's Galahad, our hero's son, who's allowed to achieve the glory of the Grail. And for all his exertions, Launcelot doesn't get the girl; ending his mortal life a hermit, complete with ashes and sackcloth, not a glint of armour shining.