Questions and Topics for Discussion
In this extraordinary thriller, rich in the atmospheres of medieval and contemporary France, the lives of two women born centuries apart are linked by a common destiny.
July 2005. In the Pyrenees mountains near Carcassonne, Alice, a volunteer at an archaeological dig stumbles into a cave and makes a startling discovery-two crumbling skeletons, strange writings on the walls, and the pattern of a labyrinth; between the skeletons, a stone ring, and a small leather bag.
Eight hundred years earlier, on the eve of a brutal crusade to stamp out heresy that will rip apart southern France, Alais is given a ring and a mysterious book for safekeeping by her father as he leaves to fight the crusaders. The book, he says, contains the secret of the true Grail, and the ring, inscribed with a labyrinth, will identify a guardian of the Grail. As crusading armies led by Church potentates and nobles of northern France gather outside the city walls of Carcassonne, it will take great sacrifice to keep the secret of the labyrinth safe.
In the present, another woman sees the find as a means to the political power she craves; while a man who has great power will kill to destroy all traces of the discovery and everyone who stands in his way.
ABOUT KATE MOSSE
“I want the women to have the swords”
Kate Mosse is an author and broadcaster. She is the presenter of BBC4’s Readers and Writers Roadshowand guest presents Saturday Review for Radio 4.
Kate’s first novel, Eskimo Kissing, was published to great acclaim in 1996, followed in 1998 by an exciting, bio-tech time-travel thriller, Crucifix Lane. Her short stories and articles have appeared in a range of magazines and newspapers.
Kate has published two non-fiction books: Becoming a Mother, a companion to pregnancy and childbirth (now in its fourth edition), and The House: Behind the Scenes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which accompanied the award-winning BBC television fly-on-the-wall documentary series.
Kate is the Co-Founder & Honorary Director of the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is the author of several of the Orange Prize education initiatives and chaired the judging panel for Orange Futures—a promotion supporting the work of women novelists aged 35 and under. She also judged the Orange/Scotsman Young Communicators Award in May 2002. She is also one of the regular judges of the Financial Times/Arts & Business Sponsor of the Year Awards and has judged many writing competitions for adults and children.
On TV, Kate is the presenter of BBC Four’s Readers & Writers Roadshow. Among Kate’s guests on the show have been many of the world’s leading and best-selling authors including—Dr Maya Angelou, Philip Pullman, Paulo Coelho, Beryl Bainbridge, Joanne Harris, Professor Richard Dawkins, Ian McEwan, Peter Ackroyd, Tracy Chevalier, Joanna Trollope, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Fay Weldon, Jean Auel and Ian Rankin.
From 1998—2001, Kate was Deputy Director of Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex, the first woman ever to hold the position. She has written and presented several programmes for BBC Radio 4 on the arts and sponsorship. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Kate was named European Woman of Achievement for Contribution to the Arts in 2000.
Kate and her husband live in West Sussex and Carcasonne, France.
A CONVERSATION WITH KATE MOSSEQ. What inspired you to write this story?
Sixteen years ago, my husband and I bought a tiny, stone house in the shadow of the medieval walls of the Cité of Carcassonne in the Languedoc, southwest France, about two hours’ drive from the Pyrenees. My husband—who’s an interpreter and teacher, as well as a novelist—had lived in Paris for several years and we wanted a fulltime base in France for our family, but it was a coincidence we chose Carcassonne. A recommendation from a friend of a friend of my mother-in-law was the only reason we found ourselves heading towards the Pyrenees. I knew nothing of the area, nothing of the history of the region.
The first time I went to Carcassonne, November 1989, I was six months pregnant with my first child and it was cold and wet and dismal. But yet, I fell in love straight away. I felt I belonged in Carcassonne, that it was the right place for me to be. I explored both the Cité and the surrounding countryside, realising straight away that the landscape of southwest France was the landscape of my imagination.
Labyrinth is, in some ways, my love letter to Carcassonne—even though it took me some to realise what I wanted to write—and the mountains, hills, rocks, woods are as much characters in the story as the people, real and imagined.
Q. Why are there so few adventure heroines, and even fewer female adventure authors?
I’ve always adored adventure stories—from Rider Haggard’s classic novel She and Dumas’ The Three Musketeers to more modern proponents of the genre such as Wilbur Smith’s The Seventh Scroll and Alastair McLean’s Ice Station Zebra. It’s a strange contradiction that despite the huge success of adventure movies—Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Last Samurai, Kingdom of Heaven etc—It’s a literary category that’s fallen out of favour, is seen as a little old-fashioned maybe, but still I knew I wanted to write the sort of novel—lots of jeopardy, lots history, lots of battles and sword fights — that I most enjoyed reading. Sometimes, books choose their authors, I think, rather than the other way round.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that many of the traditional characteristics of top class adventure writing—strong lead characters, action, peril, quest, challenge, a cliffhanging climax and final showdown, the defeat of the baddies by the goodies—have actually been appropriated by crime/thriller novelists, as well as historical writers. Adventure writing is still alive and kicking, it’s just a matter of definition.
But … I wanted to write an historical adventure/thriller story with a twist. Rather than a traditional action hero, I wanted the women to get to do the swashbuckling for once. I wanted the girls to have the swords, rather than find themselves always waiting to be rescued. I wanted them to be firmly at the centre of their own story—sure, there’s lots of love (and sex!), adventures, setbacks and triumphs—but Labyrinth is a quest novel rather than a “happily-ever-after.” (And judging from the letters and emails I’ve had so far, there are lots of male readers, as well as female readers, who like the idea of the women doing the swashbuckling!).
Q. You wrote two previous novels that were considered quite literary. With Labyrinth, you’ve had a big popular success in Britain, sales to foreign publishers, a major launch in America, and so on. Is there a conflict between literary quality and commercial success?
I don’t think readers worry about such labels. What matters is whether or not a book is well written and whether or not it happens to be your cup of tea. We all have different tastes, and reading, particularly of fiction, is a personal relationship between an individual author and an individual reader. The only questions worth asking are: Does the novel make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end? And, when you’ve finished, do you wish you could start all over again? Commercial/literary, thriller/adventure, historical/contemporary, all that most authors want is for our novels to find their way into the hands of readers who’ll appreciate our work. It’s all about the fit, not the label!
Q. Who were the Cathars, and why do they figure so prominently in your book?
The Cathars were a sect of Christians who flourished in southwest France and Italy in particular, from the end of the 11th century to the middle of the 13th century. Although there’s much discussion about the origins of their religious belief—there are links with Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Bogomolism as well as some aspects of Hinduism—it is difficult to trace their particular brand of Christianity to just one source. The term “Cathar” was not a contemporary phrase—they were denounced as heretics by the Catholic Church and referred to as such in the Inquisitional Registers and they called themselves simply Bon Homes or Bons Chrétiens—but it is the term most commonly used today. The Cathars were Christian Dualists who believed in a universe of equal and opposing forces, permanently and finely balanced: light versus dark, good versus evil. God ruled Heaven, the Devil held sway over the World and everything in it, so they therefore had no concept of Hell beyond their living existence. Fundamental to their belief system was the doctrine of Reincarnation. What few Cathar writings have survived talk of human being as spirits encased in “tunics of flesh,” waiting to be returned, through reincarnation, to Heaven. At the point when all matter ceases to exist and all spirits have returned to God, then the World—the Devil’s Kingdom—will end.
Because of their Dualist doctrine, the Cathars had no churches or sanctified buildings, they despised the Cross as an instrument of torture, and had no need of relics. The only thing they valued was the power of the Word and their most sacred text, within the New Testament, was the Gospel of St John. They were vegetarians (although they ate fish) and, most interesting of all given the historical context, had female as well as male priests—an issue that the Church of England is still struggling with in the 21st century!
Of course there were fanatics, as in all religions, who hated the World and everything in it, but for the most part Cathar followers were tolerant and accepting of other systems of belief.
As a result, at the time of the historical sections of Labyrinth—1209-1244—the Catholic churches in the Languedoc were empty for the most part and much of the population, from the Counts in their castles to the ordinary folk at the gates, were sympathetic to, if not actually followers of, the Cathar church. Their groundswell of support, coupled with their beliefs, obviously put them into opposition with the accepted Catholic orthodoxy of the day.
Q. The Crusade conducted against the Cathars by the northern French was very brutal and lasted for decades. It also gave birth to the Inquisition, which most of us think started in Spain. Why do you think this historical episode is so little known today?
Although it is usually associated with 14th century Spain, the Inquisition was actually established a century earlier, in 1233, by Pope Grégoire IX, under the control of the Dominican Order, precisely for the purpose of extirpating Cathar “heresy.” All attempts by the Catholic Church to defeat the Cathars through theological debate had failed, as had attempts to conquer the people of the Midi by launching a Crusade against them.Finally, accepting they had lost the battle of words and that the sword was not enough, the Pope decided he needed something more systematic, more suppressive, more insidious. The Inquisition was born. And the consequences of this still haunt the Catholic Church today.
Even though the Cathar church was organised into Bishoprics and Dioceses, the lack of specific and dedicated buildings or meeting places, the Cathars’ natural disregard for worldly goods, as well as their unwillingness to engage with the World, meant that they left few physical traces of their existence. The Crusaders razed to the ground any dwellings known to have harboured Cathars and burnt all copies of the New Testament in the local language, Oc or Occitan (from which the region gets its name). For hundreds of years, the Cathars were all but forgotten, even in France itself. Until 1960, there wasn’t even a memorial to the Cathar martyrs burned at Montségur in 1244. However, in the past thirty years and more, French historians, patriots, theologians and poets -Jean Duvernoy, René Nelli, Claude Marti, Anne Brenon, Michel Roquebert to name but a few—have been researching, writing, publishing, reinterpreting the history of the Cathars for the general reader, their way of life, their theology, their poetry and music for modern readers.
Now, by 2006, the glories and horrors of the region’s medieval past are honoured everywhere. The old Oc spellings for place names—Carcassona for Carcassonne, Besièrs for Béziers—can even be seen on the road signs. The Languedoc truly is Cathar Country.
Q. How did you research the different aspects of the book—the archaeology, the history of the Cathars and the Crusade against them, the Grail legends, and so forth?
Like all writers of historical fiction, libraries, museums, and books, books and more books! I gobbled up anything I could lay my hands on, from medieval theology, 13th century French history, battle craft, architecture, churches to Occitan poetry and music. Having thoroughly familiarised myself with all aspects of my medieval time period, I then researched Grail legends and gathered information about the development and proliferation of pavement and walls, labyrinths in medieval Europe (and beyond). For this, like all of us nowadays, in addition to visiting libraries and specialist institutions, I could not have managed without the internet. There were also one or two very specific pieces of information—for example, information about medieval manuscripts and book making—where I sought out the help of experts, such as the Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library in London.
I also adore physical research! I visited many medieval re-enactment events, both in England and in southwest France, watching Jousts and seeing how battles were fought. No one can imagine how exhilarating it is to hear and see a hail of arrows being shot, turning the sky black above your head, until you’ve witnessed it for yourself! Fortunately, my children share my enthusiasm for the medieval past, so were always happy to come with me. To get inside Alaïs’ skin, I also had a couple of sword fighting lessons what it felt like to wield a sword. It was incredibly difficult! After a week, it was clear that I would have gone down in my first battle! To my disappointment, I turned out not to be a natural swordswoman ….
Over the past sixteen years, I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring not only the medieval Cité of Carcassonne, but also many of the tiny villages, tracing the old mountain paths in the Pyrenees, disappearing down caves in the mountains, much to the consternation of my family! What I hope is that someone visiting Carcassonne, for example, or any of the key towns mentioned in the novel will be able to use Labyrinth as a guide book!
Q. Your book has been compared by many to The Da Vinci Code. Were you aware of that book when you started writing? How are the two novels alike and different?
We’ve lived part of the year in Carcassonne for the past sixteen years and I began researching, planning and writingLabyrinth five years ago now, well before The Da Vinci Code hit the shelves! I was a little worried people might think I was jumping on the bandwagon, but the sheer volume of research (and length of the book!) means that everyone’s realised thatLabyrinth is a long term project, the result of many years’ work, and it’s not come up at all. However, after I’d finished and delivered the first draft of Labyrinth to my agent in January 2004, I did buy a copy of The Da Vinci Code. I’d never heard of it, but the cover and blurb grabbed my fancy, so I took it on holiday and thoroughly enjoyed reading it next to a swimming pool in the Canary Islands! At first glance, Brown and I look to be working with a similar sort of material—secret societies, ancient secrets, based in France and the Grail at the heart of our stories. However, the moment I started reading, I realised that despite the obvious similarities with Labyrinth—and I was sure readers who liked one will like the other too—in fact the two novels were actually significantly different in tone, atmosphere, style, scope and intention.
The most obvious difference—apart from the female lead characters, the medieval backbone to Labyrinth, the focus on theology and historical analysis—is the ways in which, as novelists, present our Grail stories. The Da Vinci Code is based on the familiar Christian Grail legends of the 12th century—poets such as Chrétien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and the great German writer, Wolfram von Eschenbach. What lies at the heart of Labyrinth, however, is not a Christian Grail at all, but rather something far older that belongs to all religions and none.
What the success of The Da Vinci Code shows is that the reading public has an appetite for such stories mixing history, myth and mystery, which can only be good for authors and good for reading. As a broadcaster and as Co-Founder & Honorary Director of the Orange Prize for Fiction, much of my work on a day-to-day level is concerned with reading initiatives and promoting writing to readers. Books such as The Da Vinci Code play an important part in putting reading right at the heart of things.
Q. Why do you think there is such continuing fascination with the subject of the Grail?
I think that all of us, men and women alike, are attracted to epic stories, stories that take us away from the mundane and the everyday, into the big subjects, the big emotions. Love, Honour, Responsibility, Duty, Loss, Faith, Sacrifice, these are issues that most of us—whoever we are, wherever we live, whatever our experiences in life—can understand.
Many of us are also fascinated by the way that history becomes myth, myth becomes legend. Readers enjoy being literary detectives, tracking stories back to their origins, working things out. I also suspect we’re most of us seduced by the idea of secrets, truths that endure beyond time or place or context. The classic stories, stories with stamina, tell us not only about times past, but also throw new light on time present.
I’d always believed that if there was such a thing as a “Grail,” its provenance would lie in some much older system of belief than the work of 13th century Christian poets—probably as far back as Ancient Egypt 2000 BCE, a period of time when there was a prodigious development of a knowledge of mathematics, magic, astronomy, and writing.
I also thought that if such a thing as a Grail—grail—did exist then it would be as much of a curse as a blessing and there would be a serious purpose to it, a reason why one person was chosen and another not. In Labyrinth the purpose of the grailis to allow someone to live in order to bear witness. In medieval times, as today, history is written by the winners, not those who are defeated. As a novelist, I use the idea of extended life as a way of telling, through hundreds of years, the conquest and subjugation of the independent Languedoc.
In the end, the human heart hasn’t changed so very much over the centuries, despite variations in experience, opportunity and expectation (particularly for women!). I think most of us, despite what we read in the newspapers every day, are looking at ways to connect with other people rather than the opposite. Good, action-packed, moving, well-researched novels, with universally-recognizable characters, are just one way of achieving connections with other people. And the Grail legends, of all the classics, fit the bill in every way.
Q. What are the origins of the story of the Grail? Why has it taken so many different forms over the centuries?
A: Although many Christians assume there is Biblical reference to the Grail, in fact it’s the poets not the priests we should be thanking! The first obviously ‘Holy Grail’ story is Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal (Perceval) in the mid-1170s (although, in common with the custom of the time, he credited his patron for having told him the story in the first instance); this was followed shortly afterwards by a poem by Robert de Boron, Joseph of Arimathea, then, most significantly, the great Parzival, by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, in 1200, which put the story on the map for good!
As for why it’s taken so many forms and endured over so many centuries, I think that the great stories are those that speak beyond time and place and context, so are constantly rewritten, reinterpreted, explored and reworked by writers, musicians, artists from different cultures, backgrounds and ages for new audiences, new times.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSIn the prologue Kate gives glimpses several leading characters. But she doesn’t tell you who is who, which to sympathise with and which to condemn. What effect does this have on how you, as reader, begin the novel?
Also in the prologue, there are glimpses of the two time periods. Do you think it is important that, after the prologue, Kate starts the novel proper with 10 chapters set in the medieval past?
How did you feel when the action moved to contemporary France in chapter 11?
How quickly did you discover that some of the modern characters mirror or echo characters from the past? Which ones did you spot first? What were the clues?
Do you see Guilhem as an unhappy character, who never fully atones for his betrayal of Alaïs, or does he finally put things right?
Have you ever felt, like Alice, such an affinity with a place that you seem to know who must have previously lived there and the emotions they enjoyed or endured?
Some of Kate’s medieval characters are real, in the sense that people with those names lived and breathed in the circumstances Kate narrates 800 years ago. Did you notice anything different about the ‘real’ characters? (For example, Raymond-Roger Trencavel, Agnès de Montpellier, Simon de Montfort and others.) And have you visited our website to learn more about these people—www.mosselabyrinth.co.uk?
There are very few scenes of violence in Kate’s novel, but those few are extremely severe. Do you think they were ‘too much’, ‘not enough’ or ‘just right’?
Kate wanted to tell an adventure story in which active women shaped their own destinies. One journalist called her ‘Wilma Smith’! Is this aspect of the adventure important to your enjoyment of the novel?
Although the Labyrinth story and the trilogy of special books have a spiritual element, they exist alongside Catharism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, not as part of any of these religions. How do you think Kate handles questions of faith?