Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Sunrise on Avalon includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anna Elliot. 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.
In the final installment of Anna Elliot’s Twilight of Avalon trilogy, Sunrise of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde’s love and secret wedding vows endure the ultimate test. As Octa of Kent and his ally, the traitorous Lord Marche, amass their armies for a great war against Britain, Trystan and Isolde are forced to make choices that will decide not only their future—and the future of their unborn child—but the future of Britain as well.
The rulers of the smaller kingdoms of Britain hold an alliance against Octa and Lord Marche, but Britain’s High King Madoc knows their alliance to be a tenuous one. When Madoc’s son is abducted by Octa’s forces, Isolde embarks on a dangerous journey to recover young Rhun by pretending to seek alliance with Octa. She is successful, thanks to her bravery and the assistance of friends and confidantes, and Rhun is returned to his father’s side.
Trystan, ever secretive and haunted by his past, is repeatedly called away on missions that prevent him from staying by Isolde—and Isolde’s reoccurring visions of Trystan’s ultimate face off with Lord Marche, perhaps resulting in Trystan’s death, cause her to constantly fear for his safety. Only after the final battle has been fought and Britain has been saved can Trystan and Isolde’s love prevail.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- “[Trystan] made himself shift even more fully into the mindset of combat, narrowed his focus to only here and now… Keeping Isolde safe was—had always been—the first” (ms-51). Discuss the characters’ main priorities in the novel. What do they seek to achieve? Which characters succeed in their quests, and which fail?
- Although Isolde does not consider herself a Christian, she finds herself comforted by and in good company with the nuns of the Abbey of Saint Eucherius. How would you describe Isolde’s relationship with the nuns, and why do you think they get along so well? What values do they have in common?
- Return to ms-70 and reread Mother Bethildis’s reflections on faith. How do her words bring together the themes of faith and fate in the novel? What do you think Mother Bethildis means by “unexpectedly perfect”? Which other characters in the novel would agree with her assessment, and which do you think would differ in opinion?
- How did you feel about Isolde’s decision not to reveal her pregnancy to Trystan? Do you think it was wrong of her to do so, or did she make a wise choice? What does Isolde’s decision reveal about her character and values?
- Isolde regards Fidach as a man who has “deliberately created an identity for himself” (ms-73) in order to keep others from truly knowing and from hurting him. Do you think her analysis is correct? Which other characters have created a persona that they wear “like a cloak” in order to protect their true selves from harm?
- As Isolde worries about her vision of Trystan’s possible death, she wonders if the future can be changed. And she is certainly not the only character to do so: What opinions regarding the inevitability of fate are expressed by the various characters in the novel? Which do you find to be most aligned with your own views on destiny?
- How would you describe the evolution of Isolde and Madoc’s relationship throughout the course of the novel? Were you surprised by their marriage at the end of the book, or by Madoc agreeing to Isolde’s false death? Why or why not?
- The kings of the council—united to defeat Octa and Marche—hold a fragile alliance. As Madoc observes: “They’d be happy to plunder each other’s lands and slaughter each other’s warriors and rob each other’s wealth as they would Octa’s or Marche’s” (ms-p166). Did you have confidence that they would be able to overcome Octa and Marche? How was Madoc able to keep them united?
- How does Isolde’s responsibility as a healer influence the novel’s action? Do you think the outcome of the novel would have been different if she did not have “the sight”?
- Similarly, towards the end of chapter five, Madoc suggests to Isolde that “there is that in this world which cannot be healed” (ms-170). Though she does not respond to his suggestion, what do you think her reaction may have been? Would she have agreed?
- Despite all the pain Lord Marche has caused, Isolde determines that he may be “not entirely a monster” (ms-216) or that he at least regrets the man he has become. Did your opinion of Marche change throughout the novel and/or trilogy? Why do you think Trystan was unable to kill him when he had the chance during the battle, and what did you think of Marche’s final charge?
- Though the trilogy is set in Arthurian times, many of the struggles the characters face are similar to those people may face today. Was there a particular character to whom you felt you could relate to? What about that character drew you to her/him?
- The Arthurian legend in all of its many forms has been passed from generation to generation for centuries. How has it been interpreted in various art forms and media outlets (film, literature, music, etc.)? If the members of your discussion group would like to further immerse themselves in this genre, consider choosing another novel from the Twilight of Avalon series for your next reading selection.
- Isolde is a gifted storyteller by all accounts, and she tells a number of folk tales throughout the novel. Using resources online or at your local library, see if you can find records of some of the tales Isolde recounts.
- Work together to create a chart of the characters in the Twilight of Avalon trilogy and their relationship to one another—a family tree of sorts. If your group enjoys creating the chart of relations, you may consider putting together a timeline of events as well. You can use these creations as resources during your discussion.
- If the trilogy’s main characters were alive today, what songs do you think they’d have on their iPods? Challenge the members of your group to draft playlists for their favorite characters.
- To find out more about author Anna Elliot and her books, check out her website and blog at http://www.annaelliottbooks.com.
Which came first: your desire to write, or your interest in Arthurian legend?
I fell in love with Arthurian legend in college, years before I ever thought of writing my own retelling of one of the legends. It was such a joy and a privilege to get to live in my own version of the Arthurian world while I was writing the books.
The genre of historical fiction seems to grow in popularity every day. What do you think accounts for readers’ interest in the genre?
Speaking for myself, I love history, love imagining the past and how different it must have been to live in a time without so many of the modern contrivances we take for granted today. And yet I love reading the primary sources and realizing how much of human nature and the human experience has remained the same throughout the ages: love, hate, faith, despair, hope. The essentials of life are constant, no matter how much the world around us changes.
The Twilight of Avalon trilogy has been read and praised by readers who are familiar with Arthurian legend, as well as readers who are encountering it for the first time. Did you have a specific audience in mind while you were writing these books?
I really didn't have a specific audience in mind, no, though I did try to make the trilogy accessible to both readers familiar with the original Arthur and Trystan and Isolde legends and readers who haven't encountered them before.
What books would you recommend to readers who want to learn more about the legend of Trystan and Isolde?
I have a gorgeous copy of a fifteenth century manuscript of the legend, called Illuminated Manuscripts: Tristan and Isolde. It has all the gorgeous illuminations and illustrations from the medieval manuscript and really calls up the world of the story.
What was your research process like for the Twilight of Avalon trilogy?
I read all the Arthurian primary sources. Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain was the version of the story I'd decided to use as the basis for my book, so of course I read and re-read that, as well as Nennius' Historia Brittonum, another early source of Arthur material. I read the early Welsh Arthurian tales like Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy, as well as the later medieval legends like Le Morte d'Arthur. And then I also read both the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, neither of which mention Arthur, but which give a picture of the political climate in sixth-century Britain. (That being the age in which scholars agree a historical Arthur might have existed, it was also the period in which I'd decided to set my story). And of course I also read all the available versions of the original Trystan and Isolde story.
I read every book I could get my hands on about Dark Age Britain in general, and the possibility of a historical Arthur in particular. Since I'd decided to make Tintagel Castle in Cornwall the setting for Twilight of Avalon, I also studied the archaeological work that's been done at the site. It's a fascinating place. The Arthurian connection has been largely discounted by scholars as mere literary invention. But the latest archaeological work has suggested that there was at least some kind of a princely fortress there during the 5th/6th centuries, which would have been contemporary with King Arthur's (if he did in fact exist) time.
And then, too, I pretty much had an enormous pile of research books on my desk throughout the writing process that I would constantly refer to as I worked. I would often need to double check a date or a place name or other historical reference, or look at pictures of Cornwall to refresh my mental image of the landscape I was writing about. And all the herbal medicine that Isolde uses meant a lot of research during the writing process, as well, looking through early herbals and medical tracts to find cures that would have been known and used in 6th-century Britain.
In a review of Twilight of Avalon, Publishers Weekly acknowledges that the Britain created for this tale is “both familiar and distinctly alien” to fans of other medieval romances. In which ways do you think your Britain falls in line with the “norm,” and in which ways is it set apart?
The Twilight of Avalon trilogy does present a version of the Trystan and Isolde story that's quite different from the original medieval tales. But the legend as we know it today is really very much a product of the courtly medieval style of literature, very much grounded in and shaped by chivalry and knightly honor. Essentially, the tale as it has come down to us reflects a 12th or 13th-century world and sensibility—which doesn't work so well when you try to drop it into 6th-century Britain, the age in which a historical Arthur might have lived. That was one of the main reasons I wound up being fairly free in my adaptation of the legend: to make it belong better to the world of Dark Age Britain I was uncovering—and falling in love with—in my research.
I did, though, try to stay true to what I considered the essential plot elements of the original Arthurian and Trystan and Isolde tales. In terms of Arthurian legends, I wanted to be sure to address the relationship between Arthur and Morgan and the conception of Modred, their son, as well as Modred and Arthur's final battle at Camlann. And I had to include the character of Merlin (or Myrddin), who has always been a particular favorite of mine and who just refused to be left out of my story. And then in terms of the Trystan and Isolde legends, I felt it was of course important to maintain the triangle between Marche, Trystan, and Isolde that forms the fundamental conflict of the original story, as well as Isolde's skill as a healer and Trystan's skill at swordsmanship and disguise.
In a previous interview, you mention that your characters “speak” to you and can sometimes inform you of the direction to take your stories. Which character in the Twilight of Avalon trilogy did you “speak” with the most, or feel the most connected to?
I truly love all my characters--even the villains!--but I'd have to say that I felt most connected to Isolde throughout the writing of the trilogy. I was inside her head and she was inside mine for three whole years. And I think (hope!) that she's the heart of the trilogy.
Were there ways in which writing the final book of the trilogy differed from writing the first two installments? Which book was the most difficult to write? Which book was your favorite to write?
Well, I was pregnant with my youngest the whole time I was writing Sunrise, the final book of the trilogy—which in many ways was amazing, since it made me feel so much more connected to Isolde carrying Trystan's baby throughout the book; it was that much easier for me to access her emotions. And then in other ways, I wouldn't necessarily recommend all the volatile pregnancy emotions as the perfect complement to bidding goodbye to your cast of characters! Even though I love where I left Trystan and Isolde, goodbyes are hard.
For whatever reason, Dark Moon of Avalon was by far the easiest of the three books to write. I think Sunrise was the hardest, not only because it was last, but because I wanted to make sure all the plot threads from the first two books were woven together at the end. Still, I think Sunrise is my favorite of the three. Though that's a little like asking me to pick a favorite child. I really loved writing them all.
Did you know all along how you wanted your telling of Isolde and Trystan’s story to end? Or did the “right” ending reveal itself to you along the way?
I did know all along how I wanted Isolde and Trystan's story to end. Not only that, but I actually wrote the very last scene of the third book first, before I'd even started work on Book 1. It was such a wonderful moment to actually reach that summit point in their story when I finally came to the end of writing Book 3.
Now that the Twilight of Avalon trilogy is complete, can you offer a glimpse into your next project?
Nothing definite yet, but you can stay posted on my website: www.annaelliottbooks.com