Palamides, Felimid and Arthurian Legends

I’m really pleased that DMR Books is publishing a short story of mine about Palamides, that Thracian horse soldier who first appeared in the yarn “Buried Silver”, in FANTASTIC STORIES, February 1977. “Buried Silver” later became the final part of the novel BARD. Palamides makes a minor appearance again in BARD IV: RAVENS’ GATHERING, but I always thought he – and some others – should have main roles in more stories. Those “others” include a few more characters lifted from Arthurian legend, like the sorceress Vivayn, the brothers Gareth and Gaheris, and Count Artorius himself, the Romano-British original of King Arthur.


The character Palamides, as “Sir Palomides le Saracen,” seems to make his first appearance in the 13th century “Prose Tristan”. Palomides is there described as a son of the King of Babylon. He appears in LE MORTE D’ARTHUR, too, as a rival of Sir Tristan’s, a friend of King Pellinore’s, and a hunter of the foul Questing Beast.

In the BARD novels, Palamides was once a cataphract (heavy cavalryman) of the Eastern Empire. When young he served in Syria, and then on the Danube frontier, where he was captured by Bulgar raiders and traded north as a slave. (En route he encountered vampires in Bohemia, once a Celtic tribal territory and now dominated by Slavs.) His last master was a Saxon chief in the neck of the Jutland peninsula, who shortly migrated to Britain with his entire household. Once in Britain, Palamides escaped and joined the mobile cavalry force led by Count Artorius, whose struggle against the Saxon invaders formed the basis of the legends of King Arthur and his knights.

Like Arthurian legend itself, the ideas for the background to Felimid’s travels in Britain, and the folk he met there, came from many sources. One was Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” comic strip, set in the fifth century – with lots of liberties taken, such as medieval stone castles in post-Roman Britain and a giant crocodile in the fens. But there were elements of history too. Val battled Huns and Vandals. With his comrades Tristram and Gawaine, he went to Rome and encountered Flavius Aetius, a kindred spirit, before the general was murdered by his worthless emperor. (Foster took inspiration for some of the story lines from Lord Dunsany’s fantasies, and it’s hard to go wrong doing that.) There was also Malory’s MORTE D’ARTHUR, from which, along with Gareth and Gaheris, the writer borrowed the names Ulfius, Tor and Brewnor for some of the Count’s horsemen, and turned Sir Kehydius into a yellow-haired Welsh warrior named Kehydi. They appear in a novella called “The Brotherhood of Britain”, part of Mike Ashley’s anthology THE CAMELOT CHRONICLES (Robinson, 1992).


There were non-fiction sources too. John Morris’s THE AGE OF ARTHUR, Collingwood and Myres’s ROMAN BRITAIN AND THE ENGLISH SETTLEMENTS, and THE PENGUIN ATLAS OF MEDIEVAL HISTORY. Nora Chadwick’s CELTIC BRITAIN. Some very valuable material came from the Thames and Hudson series, ANCIENT PEOPLES AND PLACES, particularly the titles EARLY CHRISTIAN IRELAND, BRITAIN AND THE WESTERN SEAWAYS, and THE PICTS.

The main inspiration was Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel about the “historical” Arthur, SWORD AT SUNSET (1963). It may be the best fictional treatment of Arthur as the last Count of Britain and commander of a mobile cavalry force, fighting tooth and nail against the invading Saxons, to be written yet.

Other sources are THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE by Bede and THE HISTORY OF THE BRITONS by Nennius. The CHRONICLE’S first version was composed late in the 9th century, so the references to the 5th and 6th have acquired errors and distortions. But I found some of the chieftains and events useful for the BARD novels, like King Oisc of Kent, son of the semi-legendary Hengist. Oisc is described as ruling Kent for twenty-four years and dying in 512 A.D.

The father-and-son duo of Cerdic and Cynric carved out a kingdom further to the west, in what is now southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Cerdic (the CHRONICLE says) arrived with five ships in 495 A.D. Thirteen years later, he fought, defeated and killed a British king named Natanleod on the mainland. The entry for 508 A.D. says that Cerdic and Cynric slew Natanleod “and five thousand men with him.” It’s doubtful if there were even one thousand men in the battle. On both sides. Post Roman Britain just could not field armies that big. For purposes of the BARD novels, though, I assumed that the battle did happen but the numbers were smaller. I wrote a short story about Cerdic set fairly early in his career titled “The Conqueror of Vectis.” I sold it to Jerry Pournelle for his anthology, DAY OF THE TYRANT.

The great thing about Dark Age Britain as a setting for fantasy is that while it was real, and certain facts are known, the records are scanty. The imagination has freer rein than in better documented times and places, just as it did on Mars and Venus before any space probes visited them. More concrete knowledge of those times comes from archaeology than written annals, and misty legend pervades everything. When a writer wants to bring in myth or magic, he has the choice of at least three pagan mythologies, Celtic, Germanic and Roman, along with the Christian beliefs.

With regard to King Natanleod, I have assumed that he had a daughter named Vivayn who was fifteen when Natanleod fell in battle. She was already skilled in magic, especially casting glamours or illusions. The pirate chieftain Cerdic married her to his son Cynric to help keep his new British subjects docile. Vivayn had no choice about it, but was still denounced as a traitress and harlot.


Vivayn, or Vivien, also known as Nimue, is an important figure in the Arthurian legends. She’s the Lady of the Lake who enchants and traps Merlin, but also the foster mother who raised Lancelot beneath the waters of her mystical lake, and one of the three queens who transports Arthur to Avalon after his final battle and death. In the BARD novels she’s partly Christian (inclined to the Pelagian heresy, which was so popular in Britain that Saint Germanus had to be sent there to combat it) and partly pagan, with the lake goddess Ceridwen as her special patron. She’s unfaithful in her forced marriage to Cynric and escapes it in the end. She appears in the first BARD novel and again in BARD III: THE WILD SEA and BARD IV: RAVENS’ GATHERING. Three short stories about Vivayn also appeared in WEIRD TALES between 1988 and 1991; “The Ordeal Stone” (#292), “Spears of the Sea-Wolves” (#301) and “Revenant” (#303), in which she encounters a murdered young woman’s restless ghost. At one time, while still Cynric’s wife, she had been abducted by the Danish pirate Gudrun Blackhair and held for ransom.

Gudrun is another person who left traces in legend. There is a Gudrun in both the Volsunga Saga and the Prose Edda. She is described as being the hero Siegfried’s wife and, after his death, being married a second time to Etzel (a German name for Attila the Hun). That marriage ended badly. The story is probably derived from the real Attila’s final marriage, to a German princess named Hildico. In the BARD novels, Gudrun Blackhair lived when both Siegfried and Attila had been dead for decades, and presumably her story was woven into theirs later on. Her lover, a bard himself, assures her at one point that this will happen; that future stories will give her other names and link her with people she never knew.

Bards, like other craftsmen and artists, held a high place in Celtic society. They extolled their patrons’ great deeds and noble ancestry, and, if slighted or cheated of their fees, could destroy reputations with their greatly feared power of satire. My idea for Felimid grew out of that, and various minstrels real and fictional, like Alan-a-Dale in the Robin Hood ballads, the French poet and rogue Francois Villon, and Richard the Lionheart’s lute player, Blondel.

Leigh Brackett, the empress of planetary pulp fiction, had a number of pseudo-Celtic cultures set on Mars and Venus, and other places, Ciaran in “The Jewel of Bas” being a raffish harper, story-teller and thief, while Romna in “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is a more traditional sort of tribal harper and poet. Robert E. Howard created a memorable mad minstrel, Rinaldo, in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Reluctant to slay him, in spite of Rinaldo’s dangerous hatred for him, Conan tells Prospero, “He’s beyond my reach. A true poet is greater than any king.” In one appearance and few words, Rinaldo leaves a vivid memory with the reader. There is Poul Anderson’s comfort-loving minstrel, Cappen Varra, from the warm civilized south, out of place among a crew of roughneck Vikings in “The Valor of Cappen Varra.” And there is, definitely, John Myers Myers’s Golias, the archetypal storytelling poet in that rollicking novel SILVERLOCK; Golias, whose other names include Orpheus, Widsith and Taliesin.

If readers of Felimid the bard thought him fit to rate among that bunch, it would be a distinction he’d treasure.