In this episode, Nikki Gamble talks to Clare Pollard about her debut children’s book, The Untameables, a radical reworking of Arthurian Myth and Legend in which the story follows the fortunate of a young dog boy, Roan and a kitchen girl, Elva, as they set forth on a quest to find The Holy Grail and restore Camelot to health.

The Untameables is reviewed for Just Imagine by Barbara Valentini.

Transcript

Please note that this transcript has been edited for readability. Filler words and repetitions have been removed, and some sentences have been reordered. However, the transcript remains true to the words that were spoken.

Nikki Gamble

Hello, everyone, and welcome. We are going to talk to Claire Pollard about her debut children’s book, The Untameables. Claire is an award-winning poet whose first poetry collection, The Heavy Petting Zoo, was published in 1998 and received an Eric Gregory Award. She’s also a playwright and a literary critic. Her first play, The Weather, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, and she has also written an adult non-fiction book, Fierce Bad Rabbits, the tales behind children’s picture books.

She’s also the author of a forthcoming novel, The Modern Fairies, which will be published by Fig Tree in June. And I can tell you this is right up my street. I cannot wait to read it.

However, today, we’ll be discussing The Untameables, which is published by The Emma Press.

Welcome Claire.

Clare Pollard

Hi. So nice to be here.

Nikki Gamble

Before we talk about The Untameables. I wondered if we could talk a little bit about Fierce Bad Rabbits. I can see a connection between these two books. What prompted you to write it?

Clare Pollard

I write in every genre I always. Every time I have an idea, it has to find its form. I’ve always loved literary biography; I’m just ravenous to know about the lives of other writers. So, I’ve always liked the idea of writing a literary biography of sorts. And I rediscovered all those picture books when my son was very small, even before he understood them. When he was one, I’d already stockpiled all the old books, more to occupy myself while he fell asleep than anything else.  I just had this inkling of an idea that this whole golden generation of picture book writers had such interesting life stories, and no one had really told them. So that was the starting point, the idea of a group biography. but it evolved beyond that into a literary analysis of picture books.

We need to consider what we’re teaching our children, what these metaphors and images mean, and where these stories come from. come from. Because if you’re repeating these stories hundreds of times to your children, what are you actually teaching them about the world?

Nikki Gamble

It is analytical, but it’s also a personal journey. The voice is very personal. The first line reads. ‘Opening a picture book from your childhood can be dangerous.’ So, when you revisited these childhood stories, does that mean they took on new meanings for you?

Clare Pollard

I was talking more about nostalgia – perhaps the dangers of nostalgia. Everyone says, ‘Oh, all those writers have such tragic stories, but all grown-ups have stories. There’s almost no grown-up who hasn’t had some deep sadness in their life; that’s just part of being an adult.

As soon as you reread these books, they become a portal into your childhood. You’re literally reading the same words and looking at the same images. For me, it’s like falling through a rabbit hole into your childhood, and it brings a lot of stuff back. I’m always crying when I’m reading. Children’s books tap into emotion for me in a way adult books often don’t. I can’t read the end of Dogger without crying.

I still read books to my children. they’re seven and ten now, but I read to them every night. They’re always looking up at me like, ‘oh, mum’s started crying again’.

Nikki Gamble

Let’s talk about The Untameables. Could set the story up for us and take us into a reading, which will give us a flavour of the book.

Clare Pollard

I do believe the stories we tell our children are important, and I love myths, folktales, and fairy tales. So, I loved the idea of introducing my son to the Arthurian myths, which I’ve always loved in various forms.

I bought the Usborne Illustrated Tales of King Arthur and thought we would love it. But then the stories didn’t sit quite right. My son is a very, very gentle boy. He doesn’t like violence at all. He wouldn’t even eat chocolate that had a face on it.

The Arthurian myths have been called the matter of Britain, and they’ve always been loved by kings like Henry VIII because they’re about the rightful King of Britain. The Knights of the Round Table are essentially the ruling class. The stories are propaganda for the ruling class. The message is that these great guys deserved to be in charge.  And so, the inkling of the ideas was, what about the people who live below stairs? Could I do a working-class take on the Arthurian legends and approach them from a different perspective?

I’ll read the first page and a half.

Welcome to Camelot, the home of King Arthur. Yes, it’s real. I know it’s hard to imagine after so many years, so many losses, But it’s important to try.

Let me show you. This is a land where there’s still enchantment, before the forest was razed, before the extinctions. The deep green woodland is lit by primroses and bluebells in the spring, and in autumn berries roll on the floor like spilt beads. Red deer munch, beavers build their dams and bears nap. At night, howls make the canopy shiver. Look at the dragon in its nest, its scales and sharp-boned wings. A baby eats a morsel of regurgitated mouse from its beak. You think it impossible, but when they existed, they were no more impossible than the lynx or grass snake.They were everyday creatures.

A boggart giggles as she curdles milk. A griffin carefully scrapes a burrow into the cliff with her paws and squats on it to lay eggs. A fairy in a gossamer dress trips over a toadstool. A green-skinned giant pulls on his muddy boots.

And look! In the heart of all this wonder and wildness, at the castle of Camelot, Its pale, tall walls cut with narrow slits for arrows, Its deep moat and drawbridge and many guards, Its defences of catapults and cauldrons of boiling oil. Inside are men who hate this land. And will, in time, destroy it. Who only trust what they can conquer, rule, or own. They sit in the great hall around a round table, and every chair says something on it like strongest knight, or world’s best knight, or cleverest knight in glowing golden letters. And they eat meat, drink wine out of jewelled about what heroes they are.

Here’s to another dead traitor they like to toast about whoever didn’t agree with them that week. Perhaps you’re thinking. Hang on, I thought those Knights of the Round Table were nice guys. You think you’ve heard stories like this before, but the truth I, you haven’t.

Nikki Gamble

Even in that short introduction, there’s so much to talk about. I suppose one of the first things that strikes you is that this land, Camelot, is populated by fantastic beasts, wild boar, and unicorns, and they’re being hunted to the point of extinction.

You described one of the knights, Sir Lionel, as a blonde-haired thug who always boasts that he once killed what was, in truth, just a constipated pig. So much for the myth of the big wild boar that they go out to hunt.

Hunting is a theme that threads through the book.

Clare Pollard

I loved the medieval descriptions of the feasts they would have with all the meats, and that became a central motif. You always see the knights with their hunting trophies all over the walls, the heads of unicorns feasting on things like puffins, – sucking their rainbow beaks. I had quite a lot of fun doing the research on that.

It’s definitely got an environmental theme.  I’ve been reading quite a lot about rewilding, which really interests me. And it still blows my mind that Britain used to be covered with rainforest. We’re one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. And that process did begin back then.  I think it’s interesting to teach children that the environment in Britain used to be so much, richer and that landowners have depleted it over time.

As you say, there are mythical creatures in this Camelot. What I really loved and used a lot for research were the bestiaries the monks wrote and illustrated in the Middle Ages. The resources online are amazing; so many people spent hours uploading all the beautiful images.

What’s interesting is they’re this mixture of early science, trying to name every creature they know and the facts they know about the creatures with these completely made-up beasts that nobody had ever seen.

I love this matter-of-fact mixture- how you would get a unicorn or gryphon next to a bee. Then, there are the facts they think they’ve learned about bees, such as that bees have a king. Obviously, they have a queen, but they just assumed it must be a guy!

Nikki Gamble

Something else that really interested me was the voice that you’d chosen to tell the story.

Clare Pollard

Yes, The Untameables and my new adult novel, The Modern Fairies, have many parallels. I’ve always written in the first person because a lot of my poetry is first person; it’s come much more naturally to me. These were my first attempts at writing in the third person.

I love the classics: Middlemarch, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, where the story is narrated in the third person, but it’s voiced. It feels like a storyteller chatting to you and making little asides. With both books, I wanted to try that voiced third person.

I was very concerned with storytelling. That’s my main concern in both books; It was a chance to hone my storytelling skills and tell a good tale. And I wanted it to sound like a really good tale you’d be told by the fire. I

It is revealed at the end who the speaker is, but, in some ways, it’s just me.

Nikki Gamble

We can’t have a story without protagonists. Your two protagonists are Roan, a boy who looks after the dogs, and Elva. Let’s start with Roan because we meet him first.

 Clare Pollard

So that was a real role—dog boy. There’s a dog boy in The Sword in the Stone, which is partly perhaps why I thought of it. I wanted this boy to be someone who loved animals, who was talented and gentle with them because he was surrounded by brutality.

I just wanted him to be a different sort of male protagonist. You don’t get many boys in books who are gentle and who don’t like fighting and who cry; it was interesting when I first tried to get this published, a few people said to me, couldn’t Roan want to be a knight and then discover that being a knight is about friendship? Even reviews have been tagged #For your little knights in training. There’s this idea that boys necessarily like violence or fighting. In some deep part of me, I rail against that.

Roan’s mother is ill which is why he sets out on the quest. He hears the Holy Grail can heal people, and Elva suggests that it might heal his mum.

Nikki Gamble

Tell us about Elva,

Clare Pollard

I think Elva’s fantastic. She’s one of my favourite characters that I’ve ever written. She helps out in the kitchen, but she’s far, far too intelligent. She shouldn’t be working in the kitchen. And she’s taught herself to read.

She has what today we would call scoliosis. In those days, she would have been considered a changeling and alienated from the castle because of this difference. I have a couple of friends who have scoliosis of the spine, although not as bad as Elva. She came to me fully formed. That was just who she was, and it made sense that it would give her a reason to want to go looking for the grail. It’s another obstacle. And it’s a major one. She’s so heroic. She’s also a bit of an activist and quite self-righteous. She’s not a perfect character, but I absolutely love her.

Nikki Gamble

I appreciated how you reflected the historical period while speaking to our modern sensibilities.

Did the children’s names come easily to you?

Clare Pollard

I just looked through a book of medieval names, but with Roan, I was thinking of the Rowan tree; it’s a natural name that seemed to suit him.

Nikki Gamble

We’ve talked about wildness and rewilding, which brings me to the title, The Untameables, because the opposite of wild is tamed, imprisoned, or domesticated. Wild is a word that has so many layers of meaning. But when you were titling the book The Untameables, what was going through your head there?

Clare Pollard

I have a line in Fierce Bad Rabbits that I always return to: ‘Obedience is not a virtue.’ With kids, we always act like obedience is a virtue and a moral good in and of itself. I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of the evil in the world has been done by people who are only following orders or who are obedient to those in power and do not question the system. We often fear what’s wild and messy and what we don’t understand.

I wanted this to be an anti-authoritarian book. I love children’s literature that’s anti-authoritarian.

Nikki Gamble

There’s a bit in the story where they meet the Green Knight, and he spells it out. ‘They’re not going to tame us. You can’t tame nature.’

This is a quest story in which Elva and Roan are in search of the Holy Grail. What happens to them on their journey?

Clare Pollard

Well, they encounter lots of different wild creatures. There are dragons in the wild, unicorns, elves, giants, and a questing beast, one of these great medieval beasts made of a bit of this and a bit of that, a bit of leopard and a bit of snake.

I’ve also included some of the stories I’ve taken from the traditional Grail quest. For instance, there’s a castle of maidens where many maidens have been imprisoned. And there’s another one where if you bang a gong outside, a knight comes out and fights with you.

Nikki Gamble

Tell us about the castle of maidens. And why there are so many maidens in your story?

Clare Pollard

There’s a prophecy that a maiden will be Camelot’s downfall. Because of that, the knights want to imprison every woman they encounter. They like to tell themselves that they’re rescuing these women from other bad knights or other castles.

It turns out that perhaps Elva is the maiden of prophecy.

Nikki Gamble

One of the maidens is the Lady of Shalott. She makes a cameo appearance. But her story is not quite as we might recall it from Tennyson.

Clare Pollard

As I said, I love all these Arthurian versions and how the story changes over time. There were also lots and lots of Victorian versions of these Arthurian myths. The Lady of Shalott is probably the most famous. It is a brilliant poem. It’s completely haunting, and it sticks in the minds of everyone who reads it.

The Lady of Shalott is imprisoned in a tower and can only see the outside world through a mirror. This story really speaks to our current moment. You can imagine so many teenagers these days who just stay in their rooms and can only see the world through a screen. I’m quite interested in the image of a second-hand version of reality.

She’s been told this is all she can do because she’s been cursed, which seems incredible to me. In Tennyson’s poem, it doesn’t say who cursed her or who told her about the curse. It seems very much like domestic abuse. Why are they keeping her under control? Under lock and key, essentially. Anyway, she gets out in my version,

Nikki Gamble

You blend the narrative of Tennyson’s poem with the story of Lancelot and Elaine.  I think you call her Elaine at one point, even though the poem doesn’t. That is one theory about the poem.

The discussion about The Lady of Shalott brings me to another question about the female characters in Arthurian legend—Morgan Le Fay and Vivian, who’s sometimes called Nimue. They have such depth that they seem to be the most interesting characters in the legends.

Clare Pollard

They’re so mysterious, so ambiguous. They’re on the cusp of being fairies or witches and almost family to Arthur. They’re framed slightly differently in every version. Even Guinevere, our heroine, has a passion for Lancelot, which causes the end of Camelot.

There’s a very deep anxiety about women that runs through all these stories. Women are very dangerous, and you can’t get a purchase them because they’re untameable.

Nikki Gamble

More untameables!

You’re a poet as well as a novelist, and I think the most damning thing about Lancelot is that you made him write this terrible doggerel.

Clare Pollard

Well, I think he probably would have done. A lot of our ideas of courtly love come from Arthurian legend and the medieval period. Women are put on a pedestal, but really, it’s all very homosocial; it’s all about the men’s relationships, and the women are just the prize.

I like the idea of him writing this very, very bad courtly love poetry.

Nikki Gamble

How else does poetry come into the story?

Clare Pollard

Riddles are a big part of it. I’ve always loved Anglo-Saxon riddles, and I’ve never really played with them before; I think it’s quite fun for kids.

To achieve the holy Grail, they must solve a rhyming riddle I wrote based on some existing riddles I fused together.

Nikki Gamble

Let’s say a little bit more about the quest. They’re going to Corbenic, and they meet a family escaping from the wasteland because the tower of Corbenic is situated in a terrible wasteland, as it is in the legend. When I read this, it resonated with what’s going on in our world and the problems at this current time. Was that a deliberate connection?

 Clare Pollard

I didn’t want to make the story a commentary on modern politics. It’s just these things kept hitting me in the face. When you see the descriptions of the wasteland that’s become emptied out of people, you think, well, where did those people go? They either died or they had to go somewhere else. I think we’ve got this idea left over from the Second World War in Britain. That we’re the good guys who took in refugees from the Holocaust and so on.

In this story, the refugees go to Camelot, thinking, ‘Oh, Camelot, they’re the good guys; they’re bound to take us in.’ And then they don’t.

There’s an interesting thread in the book, which is quite complicated for the age group but nevertheless important to talk about. It’s the moral ambiguity. Everyone thinks they’re the good guys. But in real life, just because someone says they’re the good guys doesn’t mean they are. The bad guys always think they’re good. I don’t want to hammer kids over the head with a political agenda at all. But I want them to start asking questions.

 Nikki Gamble

We started our conversation with your family. Have you been able to test the story out on them?

Clare Pollard

I wrote it a few years ago when my son was about six or seven. He’s ten now, so I tested it out on him at the time, and he was really helpful. You can really see very quickly with a child when they’re getting bored what jokes land and what don’t.

Now that it’s published with the illustrations, I read it to them both.

Nikki Gamble

Do you remember any feedback and whether you changed anything based on what they said?

Clare Pollard

I definitely added in an extra poem from Lancelot because the first one got so many laughs. Once I spelt Elva, Elsa, like in Frozen, which is a bit of a Freudian slip and they soon picked that up.

 Nikki Gamble

There is a lot of humour in this book. I get the sense that maybe you’re writing for the child but with an ear or an eye for the adult who might be reading it.

Clare Pollard

I always imagined it being read aloud by an adult because that’s what I do. I wanted it to be pleasurable for both, in the same way that a good Pixar movie is pleasurable for both adults and children. I appreciate it when I have to go to the cinema if someone’s thought of me as well and planted a few little things in there for me. Hopefully, it works on both levels.

Nikki Gamble

There’s a discussion in The Untameables about how fairy should be spelt. If you spell it F A I R I E S, the I, according to the fairies themselves, means that you are an idiot. But then your book, The Modern Fairies, spells it F A I R I E S. What is the reason for that?

Clare Pollard

I wanted to make a distinction. The Modern Fairies is very much about the literary European fairy tales. In The Untameables, the fairies are of the old school; they would be full size, like in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, slightly malevolent figures who you couldn’t quite trust, who would take people off to fairyland and make them dance through the night and return them home exhausted and diminished. They’re like Morgan Le Fay and Vivien, these ambiguous, slightly dangerous figures. So, I was spelling fairies the old way, F A E R I E, to make it clear that we’re not talking about little Tinkerbell fairies flitting around.

I translated Sir Orfeo, an amazing Arthurian-era text which integrates the Greek myth of Orpheus, into Arthurian Britain. In the story, Eurydice is kidnapped by the King of the Fairies. And King Orfeo has to go down to the underworld and claim her back. I got to perform my new version in Winchester, which was once thought to be the site of. Camelot, the famous Round Table, though it has now turned out to be something that was owned by various kings like Edward Henry VIII

I’ve written three books. texts about fairies in a row now. I will have to stop before I become a mad, mad old fairy woman.

Nikki Gamble

Tell us a little bit about The Modern Fairies. Are we entering the realms of the salon fairy tale and the Conte de Fees?

Clare Pollard

Yes, it’s set during Louis XIV’s time in Paris. In the literary salons, there was a fashion for telling fairy tales, and many versions of fairy tales we know and love were being told and collected in these salons. Some interesting female fairy tellers told the early versions of Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin.

Nikki Gamble

It sounds fantastic, and I am going to enjoy reading it.

Thank you so much for joining us In The Reading Corner, Clare.

Clare Pollard

Thank you for having me, Nikki; it’s been wonderful.