Rome has conquered Britannia. The tribes, disarmed and overwhelmed, imitate the manners of their Roman masters and practice the old ways only as those masters allow. Led by the Archdruid Ardanos, the priests of the old faith who survived the massacre on the isle of Mona exist on sufferance, and the priestesses are both sheltered and confined in Vernemeton, the Forest House where Lhiannon, now old and tired, is High Priestess at last.
But a new generation is growing up, who never knew the old wars. Eilan, the lovely grand-daughter of Ardanos, falls in love with Gawen, not knowing his other name is Gaius, and he is the son of a Cornish princess and a Roman officer. Forbidden to marry, he thinks she is dead, and she believes he has forgotten her. By the time they meet again, she is sworn to chastity as a priestess in the Forest House.
But their love has not died. She bears his son in secret, and becomes High Priestess of Vernemeton when Lhiannon dies. Her great hope is to create a world in which Roman and Briton can be friends. Through all these years the priestess Caillean remains her confidante and her friend. Gaius, knowing her lost to him, takes a Roman wife he cannot love.
The years pass, and Gaius becomes infatuated with a girl who reminds him of Eilan when she was young. Seeking her, he is captured by angered Druids who intend to make him a royal sacrifice. To save the younger girl, Eilan proclaims herself the priestess he sought, and dies at his side.
Caillean, who has been on Avalon, re-establishing the order of priestesses there, returns only in time to rescue Eilan and Gaius’ son.
The Forest House was the first book on which I collaborated with Marion. She suffered a major stroke while working on the first draft, and although she was able to complete the manuscript, the stroke had affected her ability to focus, the result was not publishable. At this point her husband suggested that she ask me to work with her on revising it, since I not only understood where she was coming from spiritually, but knew a fair amount about Roman Britain.
Opera buffs will recognize in the plotline a strong resemblance to the story of Bellini’s Norma. Marion had been a fan of the opera since she was a girl, and as a teen-ager had written a short novelization. With this book she had the chance to tell the story in full at last.
The libretto of the opera was based on an early 19th century French play. Neither the French playwright nor the Italian librettist knew very much about actual Druid culture (in the opening scene, the Druids are conducting a ritual to the “Celtic war-god”, Irminsul, which is actually a sacred tree of the Germanic tribes), but the music is gorgeous and the plot highly romantic. Marion very sensibly transferred the action to Britain which she knew something about.
Next came the question of when, exactly, the story took place. When Marion was writing Mists of Avalon, she mentioned that she had started out to make the book more historical, but when she realized that history would not allow her to do what she wanted to with the story, she decided not to worry about it. The Arthurian legend stands outside of history, and can legitimately be treated as such, but The Forest House and the other books in the series have to stay within nodding distance of the known facts.
Fortunately, for the first century in Britain we are well supplied with information, thanks to the Roman writer Tacitus, who wrote a biography of his father-in-law, who served as Governor of Britannia. I was therefore able to flesh out the character of Gaius by having him participate in the battle of Mons Graupius.
Humanizing him was harder. In the opera, the Roman officer is fickle–as so often in Grand Opera, one wonders what the heroine sees in him. When we turned in the manuscript, the revision specs (8 pages worth, from four editors in the UK and US) included a request to make Gaius “more sympathetic”. Marion and I looked at each other, and said, in unison, “We can’t–he’s a tenor…”
The major change that I made in Marion’s original draft was at the end. True to the opera, which ends with all the principals dead on the floor, the in the first version, all the main characters perished. This struck me as being terminally depressing, and I suggested that we send Caillean off to Avalon to re-establish the college of priestesses there, so that she would survive to speak the eulogies and pick up the pieces. This also, as it happened, made it possible to continue writing about Avalon.