This reading group guide for Dark Moon of Avalon includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anna Elliott. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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At the outset of Dark Moon of Avalon,
Britain faces a serious threat from Lord Marche, who seeks alliances with the Saxon kings in order to assume power. Both targets of Marche’s wrath in his quest to rule, childhood companions Isolde and Trystan once again set out on a risky journey, this time acting as diplomats, persuading the rulers of each of the smaller kingdoms that their help is needed to keep Britain from the hands of a tyrant.
Trystan and Isolde find unlikely allies along the road—a group of ragtag mercenaries from all over the globe, including a pair of African brothers; a stern but generous abbess; a motherly figure from Isolde’s childhood; and the fiercely loyal dog, Cabal.
In the course of their travels through dangerous countryside, Isolde and Trystan find their relationship fraught with new tensions. Each privately feels that their presence puts the other at greater risk. Just when their situation is at its most desperate, their romance finally comes to fruition. After she heals Trystan from a series of grave injuries, Isolde confesses her true feelings, and they marry in time for a final, critical battle against Marche’s troops.QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. “She’d been called Witch Queen for all the seven years she’d been wedded to Con . . . [a]nd in all that time, she’d had not a flicker of true Sight, what her grandmother had once called the space inside where one might hear the voice of all living things . . .” (page 11). How would you characterize Isolde’s experience of the Sight? Why was her gift of the Sight absent during her first marriage? To what extent do Isolde’s visionary abilities differ from those of her grandmother, Morgan? Why might some people compare her abilities to witchcraft?
2. What does Isolde’s recurring dream of Lord Marche and their wedding night suggest about the nature of their connection? How does the fact that Marche is Trystan’s father complicate Isolde’s feelings about her brief marriage to Marche? In what respects do Isolde’s memories of that night hint at the post-traumatic stress of a victim of sexual assault?
3. “Camelerd was hers, her own domain by right of her birth, however little her place as Con’s High Queen had allowed her to attend herself to its rule” (page 24). In what respectsdoes the political intrigue of the region shape the plot of Dark Moon of Avalon
? How would you characterize Isolde’s relationship with Madoc, Britain’s High King? Why does she trust him, and he, her? How much of Isolde’s decision making is based on what is best for Camelerd and its inhabitants?
4. Why is Trystan’s identity as Marche’s son a threat to his safety? What does Kian’s willingness to conceal Trystan’s true parentage suggest about his loyalty? Why does Isolde feel the need to protect Trystan from Madoc, Cynlas of Rhos, and other leaders?
5. What is the significance of the ballad that the court musician Taliesen plays to Isolde—the tale of a maid whose lover is held captive by the Fair Folk and turned into a series of savage beasts (page 113)? How does the tale relate to Isolde’s own struggles to reconcile her true feelings for Trystan? What role do stories and legends play in the course of the novel?
6. “And you want me to take you—you alone, without a guard—across the Saxon war lands? Get you inside Cerdic’s court so that you can propose an alliance to him?” (page 128). Why does Trystan agree to journey with Isolde through dangerous country to help her meet Cerdic? How would you describe their experience as fellow travelers? Who is more vigilant against their anonymous pursuers, and why?
7. How does Hereric’s injury hinder Trystan and Isolde’s progress on their travels? How would you characterize Trystan’s allegiance to Hereric? What is unique about Hereric’s method of communication? How does Isolde attempt to soothe Hereric in her healing efforts, and to what extent is she successful?
8. “That’s the trouble with growing up with someone. They know too much about you” (page 288). What do Trystan and Isolde know about each other that other people don’t know, and to what extent do you agree with Trystan that he and Isolde know “too much” about each other? How does their childhood together enable them to read each other’s thoughts? What accounts for their mutual concealment of their true feelings for each other?
9. “This whole journey, she thought . . . has been running away of a kind. Running from Madoc’s proposal. From the men who attacked the boat. From Fidach. Even, in a way, running from Trystan” (page 323). What explains Isolde’s compulsive need to run away? What might she be running toward? What is Trystan running away from, if anything?
10. How did you feel about Isolde’s revelation to Hereric in the closing scene of the novel? What does Isolde’s decision not to delay Trystan’s departure reveal about her strength of character? How is her decision informed by her views of fate? ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Would your book club like to host an interview with Anna Elliott to ask her more questions about Dark Moon of Avalon?
Visit her official website to read more about how to set up a private chat: http://annaelliottbooks.com/index.php
. You may also want to read her blog to find out what new writing projects she’s working on now.
2. Trystan and Isolde are childhood friends who claim to know too much about each other because of their long, shared history. Do you have any friends from your childhood with whom you’re still in touch? How have your relationships changed over the years? How are friendships that originate in childhood different from adult friendships? What do you think accounts for the phenomenon of childhood sweethearts?
3. What do dogs, dolphins, and parrots have in common? All of them are renowned for their ability to communicate with human beings. In Dark Moon of Avalon,
Cabal comes to Isolde and Trystan’s aid in a series of dangerous situations, seemingly reading their minds. Have you ever had any kind of special, unspoken connection with an animal? You may want to describe your experience and share it with your book group.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANNA ELLIOTT What do you think accounts for our culture’s ongoing fascination with Arthurian legend?
There are legions of answers, of course—all different, and all valid. But for me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the King Arthur legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past. Many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historic Arthur—who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid-sixth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.
And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic as well. It’s a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need. That combination of historical truth with the wonderful potential for magic was what most of all drew me to the Arthur stories when I first studied them in college. And it was what delighted me about living in my own version of the Arthurian world while writing the Twilight of Avalon
In writing your fictional version of the famous legend of Trystan and Isolde, what new elements did you want to incorporate in the retelling?
I intended the Twilight of Avalon
trilogy to be a blend of legend and historical truth. The fifth century, when scholars agree a historic Arthur might have lived, was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome’s legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of
place was forged. And it is against this backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led—or at least may have led—a victorious campaign against the invaders, driving them back for perhaps the space of a man’s lifetime and so inspiring the roots of a legend that still captures our imaginations today. I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur, and fascinated by the world in which he might have lived. So Idecided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. And yet I wanted, too, to honor the original
stories and their magical, legendary world—a world that after centuries of telling and retelling, is as real in its own way as historical fact.
It was a bit of a balancing act, I discovered. My Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories; a healer and enchantress of great renown). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld. All of which fitted in with what I’d read of both the legends and historic accounts of Celtic spirituality, pre-Christian Celtic belief, with its emphasis on the powers of herbs, on trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils.
And yet, too, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. Like the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love. So in those cases I took a more symbolic approach, which I’ve always felt is a way—though certainly not the only way—of reading the fantastical elements of the Arthurian tales. Dragons, for example, can be literal scaly monsters. But they can also be seen as a metaphor for the evil that exists outside the bounds of organized society. And a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of passionate romantic love.
So in Dark Moon of Avalon
, Trystan and Isolde do journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth-century Britain. And they don’t need a literal draft of a magical potion to fall in love—only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond. I did take a fair number of liberties with the legend—liberties that are, I hope, justified. After all, after so many centuries of retellings, adding yet another version of the story seemed silly unless I could add something new to the age-old tale.Can you describe the challenges you experienced in narrating the book from the perspectives of both Trystan and Isolde?
I actually loved—and found it very easy—to write from both Trystan and Isolde’s perspectives and have them share the narration of this story. I think, especially when there’s romance involved, that it adds so much to be able to see what both protagonists are thinking, for the reader to see exactly what’s in each character’s mind, to know how they see each other, what they reveal to each other and what they’re each holding back. I did try to always make Trystan and Isolde’s narrative voices very distinct from each other—but that wasn’t really a challenge. Each of them talked to me from the first in a very individual way, which I hope comes across on the page. What kind of medical research did you do to establish Isolde’s role as a healer?
Very little concrete information about Dark Age medicine has survived, but I used a variety of period herbals (books of herbal cures) as resources to find remedies that Isolde might credibly have used. And then another of my favorite resources was a wonderful book called Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland
by David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield, which catalogs the various medicinal uses of most plants native to Britain and Ireland in traditional herbal healing and details the geographic areas where each folk remedy was most commonly found.
I also read a lot of firsthand accounts from army doctors and combat nurses—from men and women who served in WWII through Vietnam and the war in Iraq—to get a sense of what their experience was like, what the challenges and hardest moments were that they faced. Obviously the technology and medicines available to treat battle wounds have changed immeasurably since Isolde’s time. But I think the emotions of caring for wounded men are still very much the same.
You chose to portray the villainous Marche through flashbacks and allusions rather than actual scenes in the novel. Why?
One of the major themes that emerged in the writing of this book was the internal journey that Isolde makes to heal from the trauma in her past (which of course in some ways mirrors the literal journey she makes from Gwynedd to Wessex with Trystan). Marche is in many ways both part of and representative of the past trauma she needs to heal from in order to move on towards her future. So in this book Marche was more important as a part of Isolde’s internal journey—as a presence filtered through her own mind, in a way—than he was as an active character in the political or military aspects of the plot.
The dog, Cabal, is as compelling as the human characters in your novel. Did you base the relationship between Isolde and Cabal on any connection you’ve experienced with an animal in real life?
We did always have cats and dogs when I was growing up—and since my only brother was thirteen years older than I am, the pets were quite often my playmates. Though Cabal is really more of a composite of dogs I’ve known and what I knew from research about dogs trained for fighting and military use. Mydogs were some bouncy, ridiculously friendly golden retrievers and a miniature poodle—pretty much as far from war hounds as you can get!
Why is Isolde so openly antagonistic toward Christianity? To what extent would her position be considered dangerous or provocative in her milieu?
Hmmm . . . That’s kind of an interesting reading, since I didn’t at all intend for Isolde to be seen as antagonistic to Christianity per se. The sixth century in Britain was a time of change, in which the old pagan religion was rapidly being replaced by Christianity. Isolde has been raised by her grandmother Morgan, who did follow the old pagan ways—and who certainly felt a great deal of antagonism for the new Christian faith. Isolde herself sees the differences between the old religion and the new—sees, in
particular, the difference in women’s positions and power within the two faiths. But I don’t think I’d say that she feels the same hostility as Morgan for the Christian God. She’s simply seen so much tragedy and lost so much in her life that she’s suspicious of any
faith, Christian or otherwise, that promises all the answers to life’s hardest questions. But she is searching for answers, since she believes that some higher power must govern her own gift of the Sight, as unpredictable and unreliable as it sometimes seems. And she respects those Christians that she meets—like Mother Berthildis—and even wishes a bit that she could have that kind of perfect faith at times.
Why does the figure of Morgan, Isolde’s grandmother, loom so large for so many characters in the novel?
I could say that thematically Morgan represents the legendary Arthurian world that forms the backdrop for the world of the Twilight of Avalon
trilogy—and that would be true in many ways. But, honestly, the real reason that Morgan is such a force in the books is that from the moment I heard her voice narrating the prologues that frame the action of all three books in the series, she’s simply been one of the most vivid characters in my mind—and one of my favorites as well. She’s a very strong woman—very determined to make sure her influence is felt.
You end the novel with a bombshell of sorts—why does Isolde decide to keep Trystan in the dark about their changing future as husband and wife?
That was very tough to write! I’ve been pregnant twice now, so I do know exactly how much Isolde would want to tell Trystan and how heartbreakingly hard it would be for her to keep herself from giving him the news, especially when he’s going into danger and she’s not certain she’ll see him again. She’s very strong, though—probably far stronger than I would be—and she doesn’t want him burdened with worry for her and a baby while on a dangerous mission. And even more than that, she knows Trystan is still carrying the scars from his past and from his relationship with his own father. He’s not in a place yet to hear the news that he’s going to be a father himself. Isolde feels passionately that both Trystan and their baby deserve the pregnancy to be happy news—and she’s willing to wait to tell Trystan until that can be true. Of course, this is one of the key elements of the emotional journey they make individually and together in Book 3, Sunrise of Avalon
What did you discover in the course of writing Dark Moon of Avalon that surprised you?
One of my favorite parts of writing Dark Moon of Avalon
was the character of Fidach, because he was such a complete surprise. I’d penciled him in as more or less of a straight villain when I was outlining the book. But then I got to the point when Isolde was trapped in a burning building in Octa’s army camp and I needed a way for her to get free. I was pondering ideas when Fidach suddenly raised his hand and informed me that a) he was homosexual, which I’d not even considered before, and b) he was in fact a man of a rather high degree of honor who was going to risk his own life to save Isolde’s. Who am I to argue? I absolutely loved writing him after he’d taken charge like that.