Category Archives: Historical fiction

Weather – here on Earth

"Alexa, open Cumbria Weather"
“Alexa, open Cumbria Weather”

I thought I’d blog about weather today, firstly because it often matters when writing about the past, and secondly as a kind of shameless advert for my most recent Alexa skill. Let’s get that out of the way first – it’s called Cumbrian Weather, and it requests a short-range forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Service. Why not just use the built-in weather service on Alexa? Well, MWIS focus on weather insofar as it impacts outdoor pursuits such as walking, cycling, rock-climbing and so on. So the forecast includes essential things like whether the peaks are covered in cloud, what the temperature is at 750m, what height you reach freezing point as you climb up, and the like. All of which interest me, so I have accessed this data-feed and present it through Alexa. Like all my Alexa skills to date, it is entirely free to enable and use.

Rough weather on Bryher, Isles of Scilly
Rough weather on Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Which brings me nicely to the impact of weather on historical fiction. You get macro-level events that shape the whole story, such as drought, floods, a long winter, and so on. These are often used to set the scene, or the tone, for a book. Storms at sea are a staple of maritime fiction, and are a handy device for placing characters in unforeseen circumstances.

But in daily life as well as fiction, it’s also the smaller scale events that can derail the best intentions. And the nature of these events varies hugely with location. In London, where I am writing this, then the impact is often seen on transport – the famous autumnal “leaves on the track” problem which no doubt will be affecting commuters before long. A century or so ago, pollution and fog could easily combine to produce an unpleasant, unhealthy, and all-but-impenetrable smog.

Puma Mountain rescue helicopter practicing in low cloud near Fairfield
Puma Mountain rescue helicopter practicing in low cloud near Fairfield

Up in Cumbria, a night’s rain in the wrong place can end with localised floods. Storm Desmond, back in the winter of 2015, left major roads unusable, and washed away several bridges, quite apart from the impact on houses and shops. That aside, you can have a run of several days when even low peaks and ridges are invisible because of low cloud, frustrating work and movement between valleys. The various mountain rescue teams are regularly called out to succour people who have been caught by surprise up a height, and are completely unprepared for a weather change.

These more rapid, more local shifts and switches are every bit as important to fictional characters, as their real life equivalents are to us. Naturally, the particular kinds of weather change that matter to people vary from place to place – one location may have low cloud and mist, another one sudden blizzards, and a third sandstorms. It’s as well to find out what your characters might have to contend with!

Next week I’ll be having a quick look at weather on other planets. Not yet an everyday topic for most of us, but potentially it will be in a few years.

Meanwhile, here’s another quick reminder of Cumbrian Weather… available now in the UK Alexa store, and to appear soon in other stores world-wide.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

A first extract from Quarry

I’ve made occasional comments about a prehistoric novel I am planning, set in what we now call Cumbria, and tentatively called Quarry at this stage, Well, I had thought that this was only at a very early planning stage, and that I wouldn’t start actually writing anything until The Liminal Zone was done and dusted – and possibly The Authentication Key (=Far from the Spaceports vol 3) as well. (For any readers waiting for those two books, fear not… they are definitely in progress…)

But as things turned out, Quarry has been nagging at me until I put something down, so here is an extract. It is probably from very near the start, if not the actual opening. Bonus points to anyone who can not only identify the high ground mentioned, but also the tarn… (tree cover in the period in question was much more extensive than now)

==============

Quarry image
Quarry image

Bran woke, all at once as the unfamiliar sun kissed his eyes. He had bedded down the previous evening at the edge of a stand of short trees, all bursting into greenleaf. A broad swathe of grass ran down to a round pool.

The clouds had lowered as he reached the mere, and he had read that as a sign to stop. Not that the sign meant much, as cloud and springtime mist had walked beside him from the moment, two days ago, when he had started to climb up from the broad valley into the hills. The stones of a gathering circle, straddling the place where five ways crossed, had swum out of fog as he neared them, and he had turned half-left and stumbled along the ancient ridge track, anxiously placing his feet where so many others had walked, until the next cairn appeared. And the next, and the next, until he was weary of half-seen forms, and chilled by the wind and the droplets of water that clung to wool and leather, hair and skin.

The mist had stayed with him through all of that day and the next, veiling the peaks and ridges on either side. When he finally stood in the travellers’ place at Pen-y-lugh, the long lake it stood on was shrouded, the east and west shores soon fading to shapeless bands of darker grey. The townspeople, seeing the set of tools at his belt, and the tattoo of the stone-workers clan, had directed him up a gentle track. He had left the settlement again, and worked an easy way around the side of a crumpled hill.

Now there was morning sun, and a still air that left not a ripple on the circle of water in front of him. His shadow fell across it as he stood, and the trees opposite – oak and birch, hazel and holly – stood upright on the heels of their own reflections. He looked down at their length stretched out in the water, and saw below all of them an arc of grey rock, speckled with white.

He looked up again, eyes tracing the trunks and the leaves, until he was looking at the real spur instead of the reflected one. It was his first sight of the place where he would work. From here, it was a two-headed beast. A long curved ridgeback ended in those proud upraised horns. Perhaps it had once settled from the skies onto the valley wall, its fiery ardour slowly solidifying into crag and rock. Or perhaps it had welled up from the world below, forming these shapes as it contended with the outward air. Now it was cold and hard, and the snow of winter still streaked its spine and flanks.

He leaned back against the rowan tree which had sheltered him last night, and gazed, filling himself with that first sight. Somewhere below those outcrops, he supposed, his dwelling-place was waiting, though it was hidden from him by all the forest between. But his task, day after day, would be to clamber up between the beast’s paws, to find and follow its congealed veins as they wound their precious way back into the stone body. There he would tease out the best of the unformed teardrops of rock, and shape them into gifts. Gifts for war or gifts for love: each one would be a thing of beauty drawn out from the mountain.

A squirrel chattered nearby, and a family of wagtails began to dabble along the water’s edge. It was time to go; it was time to finish his journey to the quarry.

==============

High Street, ancient trackways, and Romans

Ullswater, looking roughly south-west towards Helvellyn
Ullswater, looking roughly south-west towards Helvellyn

As well as Boot and the Hardknott Pass, which I’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks, I spent a fair amount of time around Ullswater while in Cumbria. It’s the second longest of the lakes (after Windermere) and has often been claimed to be the most aesthetically pleasing. For example, Wainwright called it, “that loveliest of lakes, curving gracefully into the far distance“. Be that as it may, it certainly has a wealth of natural beauty and historical interest. But the fact that at many points around its shores, the hills encroach very steeply, means that it is only thinly settled, and parts of it are quite difficult to approach except on foot or by using one of the several launches that go to and fro.

Helvellyn against the skyline
Helvellyn against the skyline

The particular part I want to focus on runs down the eastern side of the lake. It is another part of the Cumbrian network of ancient trackways – later adopted by the Romans for their own purposes. This one is now called High Street, running by the hill of that name a little further south, and ultimately connects to Ambleside… and hence Hardknott, Boot, and the coast.

The Cockpit, looking roughly south
The Cockpit, looking roughly south

My starting point, after some gentle approach climbing up from the lake, was at an ancient stone circle called The Cockpit. Nobody knows the original name, or indeed the original purpose. It probably dates from the Bronze Age, could be up to about 5000 years old and is one component of a large collection of ancient sites on Moor Divock. Whenever and whyever it was built, it lay then as now on a crossroads. A roughly north-south route from Penrith to Ambleside crosses a roughly east-west route coming across from Castlerigg (near Keswick) to the Eden Valley and Shap. The much later Romans would be making similar journeys, though they were more interested in their settlement near Cockermouth than in looking at the Castlerigg stone circle. And nowadays casual explorers like me go there.

Milepost marker
Milepost marker

So from The Cockpit you head south – like Burnmoor near Boot, the current terrain is wild and slightly boggy, but back in the days of prehistoric occupation it was rather more pleasant. There’s a long steady climb up towards Loadpot Hill, but well before you get there you can see many of lakeland’s most dramatic peaks in the distance – Blencathra, Skiddaw, the whole length of the Helvellyn ridge, and then Fairfield and others heading south. You also regularly see other signs of human occupation, from other prehistoric arrangements of stones through Roman mileposts, to a very few much more recent (and ruined) dwellings. The track itself stretches out in front of you, and there’s a real sense of walking in the footsteps of a whole throng of ancestors. You really could walk on through the Kirkstone Pass and down to the shores of Windermere, provided you were equipped for the journey.

(Former) Roman altar, old St Martin's church
(Former) Roman altar, old St Martin’s church

I didn’t do that, but turned off the ridge into Martindale, where one last historical treat awaits. The current old church of St Martin’s dates from Elizabethan times, but a church has been there since the Middle Ages. The font – which has been used there for some 500 years – was originally a Roman altar, retrieved by some enterprising villagers from somewhere along High Street. In the graveyard is an ancient yew, which some believe is among the oldest living trees in England and could be up to 1300 years old. That would probably predate the first appearance of Christianity here, and would mean that, like the Roman altar, it had once been involved in very different expressions of spirituality.

All in all a great walk, and one to revisit at some stage. And, of course, all good raw material to stir into the (pre)historical novel Quarry which is slowly coming together in my mind.

The ancient ways...
The ancient ways…
...and the ravens overhead
…and the ravens overhead

Hardknott Pass and the Roman fort of Mediobogdum

The road up to the Hardknott Pass, from the west
The road up to the Hardknott Pass, from the west

Last week I talked about my trip across to Boot and thence up onto Burnmoor to enjoy the prehistoric monuments there. Readers will remember that I had got there over the Hardknott Pass. But the pass itself enjoys another ancient ruin – the much more recent Roman fort of Mediobogdum. It is surprisingly well preserved – presumably because it is far enough away from any of the nearby farms that the stones were not robbed too extensively for building projects.

Galava (?) Roman Fort, Ambleside
Galava (?) Roman Fort, Ambleside

It’s one of those forts which makes you curious about the Roman predilection for building forts at regular intervals. At least, I presume that this is the reason for building just here. The next fort along is down at Ambleside, at the top end of Windermere – we suspect that this is either Galava or Clanoventa as mentioned by Antonine, and the local publicity strongly favours the first of these. That fort – which is also worth a visit – has been nicely reconstructed so you can easily imagine the life of the garrison, with easy access along northern, north-eastern, and southern land routes, and a decent-sized port to access the lake. But from Ambleside you can also head  more-or-less due west, towards the distant sea. To get there you have to cross ridges containing some of the highest Lakeland peaks, and the Romans – like modern road-builders – chose to go over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes.

(As an aside, just to finish the chain of forts and roads, you can head roughly north-west from Ambleside to get over the High Street route (which was an ancient track long before the Romans borrowed it) up to near Penrith and thence on to Hadrian’s Wall. I’ll be saying more about High Street in another post soon. From Penrith you could also go along what is now the A66 west towards Troutbeck, or east towards Appleby-in-Westmorland. Or southwards towards Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale and Lancaster.)

Hardknott Fort, looking towards the Irish Sea and Isle of Man
Hardknott Fort, looking towards the Irish Sea and Isle of Man

But then we get to the business of regular intervals, The Romans could have marched on a few miles further down into the valley before building their next fort – say down to the village of Boot, which is comparatively sheltered and protected. But no – the fort was built high up in the pass. In summer it is a spectacular place, with views all the way down Eskdale to the Irish Sea and over to the Isle of Man. The road ended at the sea, at Itunocelum. Now, on a fine day, it would be a great place to be posted. But even in summer, you get a lot of days with low cloud pressing a long way down the pass, or wet trade winds bringing drizzle or worse up from the sea. My guess is that even in summer, you get the great views at most one day in three.

Hardknott Fort
Hardknott Fort

And then there’s the winter days, when a soldier in the garrison would expect lots of gloom, cold and darkness! If you had come up here from southern Italy, you might well be wondering where on Earth you had come to! It’s not even as though there were large numbers of hostile natives to keep at bay – it would have made more sense to site the fort somewhere else.

But here is Mediobogdum. On a clear day it is genuinely spectacular, and also gives a peculiar insight into Roman military thinking.

Hardknott Pass
Hardknott Pass

Prehistory between Eskdale and Wastwater

Burnmoor Tarn, with Scafell and Great Gable behind
Burnmoor Tarn, with Scafell and Great Gable behind

A few days ago I finally achieved a long-standing goal of walking north from Boot (in Eskdale, Cumbria) up towards Wastwater. Boot is quite remote, to say the least. The shortest route from Grasmere, by a considerable margin, is over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, but these are difficult in a lot of weather conditions, so some folk take the longer route around southern Cumbria via Ulverston and Broughton-in-Furness. Happily the weather smiled on my journey, so the passes needed only ordinary care – and I’ll be writing a bit more about Hardknott on another occasion. Wastwater has a reputation of being the most remote lake in all of Lakeland, but since it has a fairly direct route up onto Scafell or Scafell Pike (depending which track you choose at the start, down in the valley) it still attracts a decent number of people.

Looking toward the Irish Sea from Burnmoor
Looking toward the Irish Sea from Burnmoor

The attraction for me was the chance to see some of the prehistoric sites just north of Boot. Today the region is a rather damp and unprepossessing tract of moorland, but back in the Neolithic and Bronze ages, it supported a reasonable population who (presumably) found it a pleasant spot to live. Times change. Back then, the sea level in the north-west of England was probably somewhere between 10 and 30m above where it is now. The change is principally because the land has risen rather than the sea level falling. As the weight of ice fell away from the land after the close of the last ice age, say about ten thousand years ago in round numbers, the land bounced back (the technical term being “isostatic rebound“). If you take a map of present-day Cumbria and shade in another 20 metres worth of sea, you find that places like Boot were not so far away from the coast.

Not only that, but the vegetation was quite different. Much larger tracts of land were wooded. It is not yet clear whether the trees formed continuous forest, or were scattered in coppices, clustered around the various tarns and streams. Whichever of these is the case, the landscape back then would look very different from what we see today. This change is partly climatic and partly to do with land clearance – the (fairly recent) adoption of sheep farming in the hills has had the side-effect of considerably reducing the tree cover. Some places have kept a decent amount of woodland, but others have almost completely lost it.

Rocky outcrop above Boot ("the altar")
Rocky outcrop above Boot (“the altar”)

As you climb up from Boot, passing some comparatively recent peat-cutters’ houses, you come up onto the moorland plateau. To your left is a belt of lowland, leading to the Irish Sea. Ahead, if you have picked the correct track up onto Burnmoor, is a large rocky outcrop. It overlooks not just one or two stone circles, but no less than five! The first – Brat’s Hill – is the largest, comprising 42 stones in a 30 metre ring, and containing 5 burial cairns in the interior. Following this are two pairs of two smaller circles – White Moss are closer, and Low Longrigg further away.

Brat's Hill circle, with Great Gable in the distance, and the slope of Scafell to the right
Brat’s Hill circle, with Great Gable in the distance, and the slope of Scafell to the right

Why five circles so close? Did they serve different purposes? Did some fall into disuse and needed to be replaced? Did they belong to different clans or religious groups? Or take turns of importance according to some rota? Were the smaller ones practice rings for children or novices? We just don’t know. Most people assume that the outcrop was used as an integral part of the whole – perhaps to summon people to the place, or address them once there. Was it used for group exhortation, religious ritual, treaty negotiation, or social debate? Whatever the original use, it is often now just called “the altar”. Today, as well as the sea off to one side, the great peaks of Scafell and Great Gable overlook the plateau. It is a magnificent place. Perhaps the stone circles were originally in woodland glades – in which case some of the distant views would not be visible. But my personal suspicion is that the trees stopped well short of this area, and that the long views of mountain and sea were an important part of the experience.

Maiden Castle
Maiden Castle

Further on – once you have torn yourself away from the rings and skirted the fringe of Boat How – you get to Burnmoor Tarn, nestling in a hollow of the surrounding ridges and overlooked by Scafell. On the northern side the path goes over a saddle and down into Wastwater. And up in the saddle there is a more substantial ring of stones, called Maiden Castle (as so many of these places are). The stones are about 7m across, and are positioned on a slightly larger dry area, raised a little above the damp moorland. It is almost certainly a burial cairn, and you have to wonder who wanted to be buried here, overlooked not just by Scafell and the Gable, but also several other more northerly peaks which have by now become visible.

From here, I turned back to Boot, but you could go on exploring this plateau for a considerable time. But whether you stay a long or short time, the area leaves more questions than answers in your mind. What were these circles used for? Politics, religion, or just fun? One day, I intend exploring these questions in fiction, with an as-yet-untitled story centred on the stone axe “factory” in Langdale… I now have a working title – Quarry – but not much storyline yet…

 

 

There’s a good story here, I think…

The last few days have been vastly busy for me with outside jobs, and I am way behind on blog matters! But I did come across some recent research about the movements of stars which fascinated me, and which has prompted this post. It also has the seeds of what could be a fine prehistoric story, which one day might get written.

If you do a quick search for “what is the closest star to our sun” then you will get the reply “Alpha Centauri” (or perhaps, more precisely, “Proxima Centauri” – if you ask Alexa she will give you quite a detailed response). This multiple star system is situated just over four light years from us – for comparison, Pluto is under 5 light hours from the sun. But Alpha Centauri is very like our sun in terms of size, energy, and so on, and is easily visible from the right locations, so has appeared several times in stories.

The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)
The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)

But what if you then consider the movements of stars over time? All stars near us are involved in a vast circling movement around the galaxy’s centre, but this movement is not regular and orderly in the way that the planets’ movement is around our sun. Stars approach each other and move away, potentially having huge effects on the clusters of planets, comets, etc that accompany them. So what happens if we look forward or backward in time?

So as you can see, Proxima Centauri will get steadily closer to us for the next 30,000 years or so, then lose its role to Ross 248. But none of these stars gets closer to us than about 3 light years, which is comfortably far away and is unlikely to cause any serious issues.

Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)
Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)

Perhaps you are wondering where the story is in this? We will get there…

Now, these stars are mostly fairly bright, and many of them have been known since antiquity. But in recent years, powerful space-based telescopes like Hubble have discovered that far the most numerous stars in our galaxy are not bright ones like our sun, or super-bright ones like Sirius, but small, dim ones called red or brown dwarfs. These burn extremely slowly, conserving their fuel in a miserly way that means they will hugely outlive our sun. They are invisible to the naked eye even at quite close range (astronomically speaking)… but many of them have planets of their own, and if these planets huddle close enough in, then they could quite easily be habitable. To date, much of our quest for life elsewhere in the universe has looked at stars broadly similar to our own, but maybe we should be looking by preference at these dwarfs?

So… what if we roll back that chart in time to a scale of 70,000 years rather than 20,000, and include the paths of dwarf stars in it (a feat which has only become possible in very recent years). For context, 70,000 years ago anatomically modern humans had already experienced their first large-scale migration out of Africa to other parts of the world, and would soon be doing so a second time. They were sharing the world with Neanderthals and other hominids, and would be for another 30-40,000 years, including various times of interbreeding. They were using stone tools and showing signs of “behavioural modernity” (religious and artistic sensitivity and such like). Slightly earlier, there may have a global crisis involving the Toba supervolcano eruption -some argue that this caused massive population loss, others are not convinced.

70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)
70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)

Whatever the effects of Toba, around 70,000 years ago a binary star system came very close to us – about 3/4 of a light year in fact. It consists of 1 red dwarf with 1 brown dwarf,  both under 100 times the mass of Jupiter. It is called Scholtz’s Star, or WISE J072003.20-084651.2 if you are feeling thoroughly pedantic. Now, 3/4 of a light year is still way outside Pluto’s orbit, but it is inside the region called the Oort Cloud, a loose collection of icy rocks and potential comets that accompany our sun and from time to time journey down into the inner solar system to become visible for a brief time.

Today, Scholtz’s Star can only be viewed in the southern hemisphere, in the constellation Monoceros. It’s about 20 light years away and receding from us. Back then you’d have needed to look in the constellation Gemini (though the shapes would be a bit changed because of stellar movement).

So, would Scholtz’s Star have been visible to our remote ancestors? Well, probably not in its normal state. Even at 3/4 of a light year, it would almost certainly be too dim to be seen with the naked eye. But many red dwarfs are what are called flare stars – their brightness flares up to many times the usual intensity on an irregular basis. And if a flare event happened while it was near to us, then it would have been vivid to our ancestors. Back then, the best time for viewing would have been in the autumn of the northern hemisphere, from the tropics northwards. So my remote European forebears might have stood and wondered at this – although the Europe of 70,000 years ago looked rather different to today’s map!

And here of course is the story – what would these people have made of such a star? Suppose that it had entered our neighbourhood while in quiescent mode – invisible to their naked eyes just as much as ours – and then flared up while close. A new star would have appeared to them, and I wonder what they would have made of it. I don’t expect they had a great deal of time for abstract philosophy back then, but I’m willing to bet they told stories and sang songs – what part would Scholtz’s Star have played in them?

Artist's impression of Scholtz's Star (Astronomy.com)
Artist’s impression of Scholtz’s Star (Astronomy.com)

Text and Repetition

Cover: King Arthur, by various authors (Amazon)
Cover: King Arthur, by various authors (Amazon)

Today’s post follows on in a loose manner from last week’s, but is also inspired by thinking about film versions of books. The connection is once again the complex of tales to do with Arthur and his companions – the so-called Matter of Britain. As mentioned last time, these stories – even the oldest variants of them that we know – are in constant tension and conflict with each other. There is no single authoritative original version, and different tellers of these tales have focused on divergent features. Did Arthur die on the battlefield? Was he taken away mortally wounded to die elsewhere and be laid to rest? Did he go elsewhere to be healed, and return one day? What did happen between Lancelot and Guinevere? Was the Grail a peripheral distraction, or the vital centre of the whole company? And so many other questions, all unanswerable… or rather with so many possible answers.

Now, the group of authors we call the Inklings relished this endless magical well of possibility, and drew from it in many different ways according to their preferences and personalities. But, as the book I have been reading comments, “To some readers, the idea of endless revision may imply infidelity to a source text. Compare this to the experience of many logocentric moviegoers, who experience sharp disappointment or anger when the film adaptation of a beloved book appears to them to be a travesty of the author’s work.

Merlin and Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)
Merlin and Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)

Now, one feature of the Arthurian tales is that they have metamorphosed into several different media – prose, for sure, but also poetry, music, film, art, sculpture, cartoons and animation. And, allowing for the availability of these technologies, this multi-media presentation has been part of the tradition from as far back as we can trace it. Did our twelfth century ancestors argue whether the French prose Vulgate cycle was better or worse than Lazamon Brut’s massive poetic treatment? Or did they, in fact, relish and appreciate the diversity of approach?

Of course we don’t know if such a debate happened, but this whole study has made me reevaluate my own reaction to film versions of books. Like lots of us, I have in the past had the kind of “disappointment or anger” mentioned above, but am revising my views. To be sure, any book or film (or comic, or play, or musical, or opera, or whatever) might be uncompelling simply as a piece of artistry, but that is a separate matter. Just to tell the tale in a different way is not, I think, such a problem. Quite apart from the varying strengths and weaknesses of each of those media, each story-teller will choose to focus on different facets of the tale as suits their purpose and interest. And that, I think, is not a bad thing. Of which more next week…

Text and intertext

I have just started reading a non-fiction book entitled The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain. It’s not a catchy title, but so far I am hugely enjoying the content. As you might expect, it’s academic in tone, consisting of a series of essays by different people all around how the various members of “The Inklings” approached and reworked Arthurian material. And inevitably it has provoked my own thinking in various ways.

The (major) Inklings (PInterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/369717450630781095/)
The (major) Inklings (PInterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/369717450630781095/)

The four men mentioned in the book title had very different views on life, religion and indeed most matters, but they were united on a few quite specific areas. One was that modern life as they witnessed it emerging was poor as regards its mythological underpinnings. Another was that the Arthurian legends – the Matter of Britain – were worth keeping alive, and retelling in ways relevant to their society.

Now, one of the fascinating things about Arthurian tales is that they are in constant conflict with one another. There is no original text, no authoritative canon of tales against which some particular version can be compared. Each subsequent reteller selects the pieces they want and rejects other pieces. They put the same characters into new settings, or mix up participants in a venture. The collection of stories is hugely diverse and contradictory. What’s more, as you push back in time to look for some point of origin, the picture becomes more confusing, not less. Some of the early traditions come from England, but others from Wales, France, and Scotland, and in many cases the direction of derivation can no longer be decide with confidence.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail cover (IMDB)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail cover (IMDB)

Authors drawing on the Arthurian tradition over the years since then have carried this habit on. Arthur and his knights have been cast into all kinds of different settings – futuristic, fantastic, or resolutely historical. Tolkein, Lewis and the other Inklings did the same – they borrowed bits and pieces as they saw fit, renamed individuals and recombined them in different settings, and energised the ongoing collection of tales with their own contributions.

Now this recombination of elements of older pieces of writing into newer ones is often called intertextuality. Usually it is a conscious choice on the part of an author, but sometimes it is unconscious, and simply reflects deep familiarity with the sources. That’s from the author’s perspective. Looked at from the reader’s point of view, it means that associations and emotions triggered by the older works are drawn forward into the newer ones.

Christopher Lee as Saruman (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Saruman)
Christopher Lee as Saruman (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Saruman)

A similar process happens in film. If you have seen an actor play in a particularly striking role in one film, it is all but impossible not to see that previous character in the new one. Film-makers are, of course, well aware of this, and it often drives casting decisions. So when Christopher Lee appears as Saruman in the film version of Lord of the Rings, his previous roles in horror films constantly cast shadows around him.

Back with books and the Arthurian tradition, it has been argued that this ability to be reshaped into so many different forms is exactly what has kept it alive for so long, and through so many social changes. A fixed story that allows only one telling will wither and die, as the circumstances that gave birth to it fade into the past. By analogy with biology, successful stories are those which can adapt to new environments and new pressures.

Cover - DC Comics futuristic graphic novel retelling (Barnes and Noble)
Cover – DC Comics futuristic graphic novel retelling (Barnes and Noble)

All of which makes the quest for a historical Arthur, however interesting from a historian’s viewpoint, a rather pointless exercise from the literary one. Of course there are fascinating stories of Arthur and his companions to be told from a historical perspective – say a fifth or sixth century military leader after the Romans have left and before the Saxons consume the land. I have read some of those stories, and enjoyed them. But there are other stories of Arthur which are rooted in fantasy and magic, or where the quest for the Grail takes the questers out of our ordinary world. And stories where the company is located in another place and time. Or science fiction versions where the physical connection with England is at best tenuous. And the magic of intertextuality means that none of these are more or less proper than a conventional historical fiction version.

Thoughts along the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon
Ivinghoe Beacon

A few days ago I was walking in the Chiltern hills, at the north east end of The Ridgeway. This is often billed as Britain’s oldest road, and is known to have had some 5000 years of traffic going to and fro. I suspect that in fact usage goes back a lot further. Today’s Ridgeway (which is one of our National Trails) goes from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury (or the other way), and it is the central part of a really long route which at one time went from The Wash diagonally down to the English Channel. It is possible still to do that, by diligently joining together lots of separate paths – for example The Peddars Way gets you through large parts of East Anglia – but The Ridgeway is the section which is most generously provided with maps and signposts.

Walking on these ancient trackways always gives me a keen sense of those myriads of individuals who have walked that way before. It also invariably gives me a desire to write a story which somehow incorporates the network of paths, their very many fascinating way-stations, and the travellers themselves. But so far I have only a desire, not a plot or anything else substantial.

Part of the Avebury stone circle complex
Part of the Avebury stone circle complex

The Ridgeway is 87 miles long – in practice a little further as you have to come away from the track to find lodgings for the night, and then make your way back in the morning. It’s easy walking, and easy to finish in about a week, or else in a series of weekends with train journeys to and fro. And one of the great things about walking it is that you are covering the ground at the same rate as your remote ancestors. You’re seeing broadly the same terrain as they did (barring houses and a definite lack of trees), watching distant rises and dips in the ground approach at the same slow speed as they did, and experiencing the sun wheeling overhead from east to west in the same way.

Now, our ancestors had different motives for walking these paths than we do. We walk for recreation and inspiration, while for them, motives of trade, diplomacy, marriage, or religious festivity would be at the core. There are all kinds of monuments spread out along the paths. We understand the purpose of some of them, but others have become obscure. We wonder at the prodigious effort involved, but cannot any more grasp the function.

Wayland's Smithy, The Ridgeway
Wayland’s Smithy, The Ridgeway

It’s also worth remembering that the various sites and signs of occupancy spread out along the 90-odd miles of The Ridgeway, let alone the much longer distance of the whole route, are themselves spread out over time. It’s easy to forget this, and imagine that a Neolithic, or a Bronze Age traveller, would be seeing the same things as you are. But the reality is quite different. There are Neolithic sites like Wayland’s Smithy, dating from about 5-6000 years ago. There are Bronze Age sites like Avebury or the Uffington WHite Horse. To the people who built these – which are themselves separated by a great gulf of time – Wayland’s Smithy was already unthinkably old. Then there are Iron Age forts, ditches, and banks – and the builders of these would have lost all sense of the earlier constructions as living sites. They would simply have been relics from the past, part of the context of the new homes and sacred sites.

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

It was this sense of a multi-layered land which was part of the inspiration for Half Sick of Shadows. This did not take place along The Ridgeway, but in a winding river valley. A chalk scarp overlooked the river, and the various human homes nearby, but there are many parts of southern England where that could happen. So that story is not tied to The Ridgeway – but the idea of the land changing slowly, witnessing the rapid passage of generations, was absolutely there. And in that story, there is someone for whom the changes in the land itself seem quick.

One day, perhaps, I’ll write those other stories of the ancient world and its journeys. Meanwhile I shall continue to walk parts of the old paths, and gather ideas for the tales as I do so.

Last year on Goodreads

At the start of every year I have a quick look back at the handy Goodreads stats to see what I read in the previous 12 months. And so this time it’s the turn of 2017…

In 2017 I read (or at least, recorded in Goodreads) 42 books. That’s the same as 2015 and a few less than 2016. Apparently that was around 10,500 pages, down from the 12,000 or so I read in each of the previous two years. Since I’ve been doing more Alexa work, that comes as no great surprise!.

Goodreads 2017 stats
Goodreads 2017 stats

In terms of ratings, I’m very consistent – slightly over half 4*, slightly under half 5*, and a tiny handful of anything less than that. That’s partly because I don’t persevere with something I really dislike, but mainly because I’d rather not give bad ratings to books. I’d rather stay silent than give 1 or 2*, and even 3* reviews are rare.

The main change over the last few years has been the ratios of different genres. I always have – and no doubt always will – read occasional fascinating non-fiction books. Last year, The Genius of Birds, and The Ancient Paths definitely fitted that bill. But for fiction, things have shifted noticeably.  And in case it’s not obvious, I should say that the majority of fiction books I read are indie.

Back in 2015 I read about 1/2 historical fiction, and 1/6 each science fiction and fantasy. In 2016 this had moved to about 1/4 each historical and science fiction, and 1/6 fantasy. And in 2017 the same trend continued to be about 1/4 each science fiction and fantasy, and 1/6 historical fiction, with another (say) 1/8 alternate history. I think this is probably going to be a fairly consistent pattern now – but in a year’s time we shall see.