Category Archives: History

Invasion, migration and assimilation

Cover - 1066 and All That (Goodreads)
Cover – 1066 and All That (Goodreads)

Last weekend, a whole bunch of people, including a number of my online friends, have been remembering and reenacting the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings – 1066 and All That. It so happens that everyone I know who was at Hastings the other day favoured the Saxon side, from which perspective Harold is a fallen hero, who came so close to repelling the invaders in the south as well as the north. But I suppose that a great many of the participants took the Norman side, and so found themselves once again victorious.

In fact, most people I know prefer the Saxons, and harbour a deep-seated wish that things had gone differently. Perhaps this comes from a desire to cheer on the underdog, or from hearing about how viciously the Normans set about securing the land they had claimed (especially in the north). But I suspect it is also because we were brought up on tales of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, striving as disenfranchised and downtrodden Saxons against their wicked and uncouth Norman overlords.

Hastings reenactment 2016 (Getty images via BBC)
Hastings reenactment 2016 (Getty images via BBC)

I have to admit that, personally, I struggle to see the Saxons as unequivocally the nice guys in our history. My own historical preference is earlier, often swimming in the uncertainty and veiled mystery of times before the written word gave us its particular perspective. And from my view, the Saxons (and Angles, etc) are new arrivals who themselves had claimed a new land by often violent methods. The tales of Arthur and his Companions, stripped of their courtly Medieval topcoat, tell us of a time when British and Welsh leaders tried to protect their homes from wave after wave of incoming aggressors.

Statue King Arthur at Tintagel (Trip Advisor)
Statue King Arthur at Tintagel (Trip Advisor)

Ultimately their stand was a failure – from south to north the Saxons defeated and occupied British land, and the points of resistance were only sandcastles in a rising tide. Perhaps the last to fall was Dunmail, in what we now call Cumbria. As this last king of the British lost his last battle, his last few loyal men took his crown and cast it into Grizedale Tarn, so the new usurper would not have the satisfaction of claiming it. Like Arthur, the promise is that Dunmail will – one day – arise again to claim his crown and kingdom.

Grizedale Tarn from Dollywaggon
Grizedale Tarn from Dollywaggon

So – making what I suspect are controversial statements – I kind of feel that there was something karmic in the events of 1066. The Saxons had arrived and pushed aside the earlier occupants, and now something very similar was happening to them.

Now, arrivals into a country are a curious thing. It’s worth thinking about how we reconstruct what happened. In the past we have had to rely on written perspectives, often put down on paper, papyrus, or clay many years later by the winners or their ancestors. Or we look at archaeological remains, which by their nature can only say so much about their owners. Did the same culture adopt new artefacts quite suddenly? Or did a new culture simply reuse the same things as their predecessors? Nowadays we can have a bit more insight from DNA testing, and the outcome of this has sometimes supported and sometimes challenged prior expectation. More of that later.

DNA map of Great Britain (University of Oxford via The Independent)
DNA map of Great Britain (University of Oxford via The Independent)

There are basically two ways that new arrivals interact with those people already there. Sometimes there is violent displacement of the old by the new. This seems to have happened in Bronze Age Britain, where there is hardly any genetic continuity between the Beaker People and their Neolithic precursors – the great stone monument builders have left almost nothing of their genetics throughout most of Britain. This DNA result rather overturned the prior thinking that the change represented a peaceful transfer of ideas.

Other times the old and new quietly absorb each other and are enriched by the process, playing out on a national or regional level the process of human reproduction, with all its delights and difficulties. Newcomers might arrive for all kinds of reasons, martial or peaceful, but after a few years one finds a fusion of the two emerging – a child of both originals.

A beaker of the Beaker People (Natural HIstory Museum)
A beaker of the Beaker People (Natural HIstory Museum)

Now, at the time of arrival, nobody knows what will happen, and it’s natural for the current inhabitants to fear and deride the incoming hoard. So the Saxons did to the Normans.. so the Britons did to the Saxons… so the Neoliths did to the Beaker People… and no doubt so the Neanderthals did to the Homo Sapiens clans. We still see this played out today, as nationalist politics finds innovative ways to arouse anxiety about “the other”. They’ll take our jobs… they’ll impose their religion… they’re not like us… slogans about “the other” can be found in pretty much every part of our world, fuelled by migrations and flights from war and famine. Personally I remain optimistic, and look for the creative fusion of cultures rather than the catastrophic collision. But looking back at history, it takes effort to find creativity, and we humans don’t always manage it.

Going back to DNA, there are still limitations. We can now – tentatively, and extrapolating from individual cases – identify where intercourse has combined the heredity of two cultures. So we know that the DNA map of Britain correlates pretty well with some historical events, and not with others. We know that pretty much all humans outside Africa have a significant percentage of Neanderthal DNA. We know that a teenage girl’s finger from Siberia shows her to be the child of one Neanderthal parent and one Denisovan parent, some 90,000 years ago. But what we don’t know is the circumstances of the intercourse. Was it a socially sanctioned event, even a personally consenting one? Or was it something darker, the result of forced prostitution or rape? DNA cannot tell us, but that’s the kind of detail we would like in order to uncover the interactions of peoples. It’s one of the great anxieties of mankind – do the newcomers arrive in peace or war?

Siberian cave where the girl's finger was found (Bence Viola/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)
Siberian cave where the girl’s finger was found (Bence Viola/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

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.

Variations on history

Last week I spoke about science fiction and fantasy, and the crossover world between them. Today I want to look at another genre which offers a twist on the normal world. Many of my author friends write historical fiction – stories based around real historical contexts or people.

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

My own series of Late Bronze books, which were my first real foray into writing books at all, fit neatly into that category. Kephrath, the town at the centre of those three books, is a real place, and the wider events fit in with one interpretation of the scanty historical record. The people I describe are credible for their place and time, but they are imaginary. Obviously I’d like Damariel, the village priest and seer, to have really lived in history, but we don’t know, and probably will never know for sure.

Now, by setting those books at the end of the Late Bronze Age – around 1200BC or so – I gave myself a huge advantage. This wasn’t my original motive: I simply liked that part of history and wanted to approach it in fiction. But the unexpected advantage is that our knowledge of that time is very scant.

Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)
Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)

Serious academic debates take place over how to understand particular texts, or how to reconcile apparent contradictions. The regnal dates of Egyptian pharaohs are often speculative by years or even decades (despite the seemingly definitive values often written in books or web pages), and that uncertainty multiplies when you look to other nations. Accurate details of anybody lower in rank than the most elite are extremely sparse. So I am writing in a place where fixed facts are scattered very sparsely.

Now many of my friends do not have this luxury. They are writing in places and times where recorded facts hem them in on all sides. Their stories are still fiction, but their characters often have little freedom of action in their densely packed surroundings.

This wouldn’t matter so much – after all, a story is a story, you’d think. But a small number of reviewers are ruthless in their critique of perceived anachronisms, and waste no opportunity to highlight them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research along with everyone else – but one feels that such reviewers miss the point that they are, in fact, reading fiction. I am sure that this is a tiny minority of the total readership, but they seem to exert undue influence, certainly over the sensibilities and anxieties of authors.

I have every respect for authors who, despite these difficulties, persevere in writing about places and times that they thoroughly love. And I’m certainly not suggesting that those who write other kinds of books are simply trying to avoid trouble: all of us in the indie world write what we do because that’s what we want to write about! But it is interesting that there are other close relatives of historical fiction which avoid some of the pitfalls.

Cover - Pavane (Goodreads)
Cover – Pavane (Goodreads)

There’s alternate history – at some point in the past, events diverged from what we know. A classic of this kind is Pavane, by Keith Roberts, where the timeline branches with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. But there are many others – probably the best known to many readers of this blog will be Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series. History unfolds a bit like our own… but also a bit different, and depending on the intention of the author either the similarities or the differences can be centre stage. So long as the world is internally consistent and convincing – which is no simple job – it doesn’t really matter if the facts get , let us say, jumbled up.

Cover - The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)

Another option is historical fantasy – a setting from history is chosen, but with a twist. The twist can be to take seriously beliefs and assumptions of a past age – such as the reality of magic, for example. Or it can be a much more radical departure. Guy Gavriel Kay, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, presented what was essentially the complex political and religious situation in Moorish Spain as Christianity started to recover territory. And yet… it also isn’t that. The world isn’t quite true to that portion of our own history, but has its own quirks and direction. (I read it with a book club, and it didn’t quite work for me as a novel, but I have every admiration for the feat of imagination involved.

Science fiction occasionally gets in on the act, as well. Ursula LeGuin used her considerable knowledge of sociology and anthropology to root her alien cultures in a credible past. So one of the cultures in Rocannon’s World is a bit like meeting Medieval Europeans… but again, it’s not quite like meeting them. And fantasy novels of course need a plausible culture to root themselves in, whether that be the familiar territory of elves and orcs, or something from elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, of course, there are those brave souls who set their books in this world, in a real part of history, and with their characters surrounded by real historical individuals. For my part, if and when I return to history from the intoxicating world of science fiction, it will probably be back in the ancient past – much longer ago than the comparatively recent times of the Late Bronze Age. We shall see.

Half Sick of Shadows and IndieBrag

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

I was going to write a blog on something to do with Alexa, but that will now appear after the Christmas holiday break. That’s partly because I have been moving rocks and making new gravel paths, and ending the day somewhat fatigued…

So instead, this is just a short post about an email I received last night, saying that Half Sick of Shadows has been awarded an IndieBrag Medallion.

Specially, I read this:

We have completed the review process for your book “Half Sick of Shadows” and I am pleased to inform you that it has been selected to receive a B.R.A.G. Medallion. We would now like to assist you in gaining recognition of your fine work.
In return, we ask that you permit us to add your book to the listing of Medallion honorees on our website www.bragmedallion.com.

Well, needless to say I haven’t yet had time to do the stuff at their website – that will follow over the next few days – but that was a very nice piece of news just as the holiday break is starting!