Friday, 12 September 2014

Historical Fiction on the Stage: "Sly Movements in the Shadows"

"But turn away from the light of reason and you catch, out of the corner of your eye, sly movements in the shadows. They are faint, flitting archetypes: the fool and the sorcerer, the virgin and the whore. You can hear the wheel of fortune creaking, and the gods giggling behind their hands ... " Dame Hilary Mantel.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the RSC productions of Mike Poulton's adaptations of Mantel's novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and last night, at a function organised by the Royal Society of Literature and Intelligent Life magazine, I saw Mantel in conversation with the actress, Dame Harriet Walter and playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, about (among other things) the relationships between fiction and drama.

"In our time," Marguerite Yourcenar once wrote, commenting on her novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, "the novel devours all other forms; one is almost forced to use it as the medium of expression. This study of the destiny of a man named Hadrian would have been cast in the form of a tragedy in the Seventeenth Century, or of an essay, perhaps, in the period of the Renaissance."

This is very much a Francophone perspective, of course: in the English tradition it is more likely to have been cast in the form of a tragedy in the period of the Renaissance (Marlowe might have got around to it had he lived a little longer), and as a satirical poem in the later Seventeenth Century. Even allowing for this, however, the novel has never been the only literary response to the past. A few years ago I saw Dame Harriet in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart, and the tradition of the history play, which goes back to Shakespeare, has recently been given new life in Rona Munro's cycle "The James Plays" which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.

Nobody, of course, takes Shakespeare's history plays seriously as "history," and this seems to have rubbed off in the way in which the genre more generally is perceived. When I suggested, recently, to a friend that Arthur Miller's The Crucible could be seen as "historical fiction" in much the same way as my novel, An Accidental King, is historical fiction, his response was that I took the history itself far more seriously whereas, for Miller, the history was simply a device for exploring modern themes (the McCarthyite "witch hunts" of 1950s America).

I was far from sure about this, having seen the play at the Old Vic earlier in the summer, and am even less sure now, having read Miller's essay "The Road to The Crucible." In it he describes his visit to Salem, the time he spent examining the original court records, the way he used these to shape the dialogue in his play, his tracing on the ground the footsteps of his characters:

"The tourists pass the books, the exhibits, and no hint of danger reaches them from the quaint relics. I have the desire to tell them the significance of those relics. It is the desire to write."

Abigail Williams's testimony from the Salem witch trials of 1692 (image is in the Public Domain).

That sounds very much like my own process of research and writing and, if Miller had the events of his own times in his mind as well, then so did I: An Accidental King was, in part, a response to 9/11 but, more importantly, it stems from a realisation that events in different periods reveal more profound truths about the human psyche and its reactions to similar circumstances.

Certainly Miller made some historical mistakes (I try to avoid them, as he probably did), and he also made some deliberate changes to the historical circumstances (changing the ages of some of his characters, for example, which I wouldn't personally do - but each writer must, in Margaret Atwood's phrase, negotiate their own compact with the dead), but his project does not seem to me to be so different from my own.

It remains the case, however, that whilst successful novels are often adapted for stage and screen, it is much less common for plays or films to be adapted as novels (there are plenty of novels about the Salem witch trials, but nobody has ever tried to adapt Miller's play). The novel does seem, pace Yourcenar, to be the default option when we seek an understanding of the past through stories.

Adapting a novel for the stage, as Poulton has done with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, is a different enterprise from the writing of history plays such as The Crucible or The James Plays. The fictional world has already been created; the gaps that, in Mantel's words, history is "hiding in its sleeve" have already been filled by the novelist. There were certain passages in the novels that I struggled to imagine how they would transfer to the stage-script:

"The Cardinal's scarlet clothes ... cannot be wasted ... you will see a glimpse of them in a man's inner sleeve, or in the flash of a whore's petticoat ..." (Wolf Hall).

"His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretches behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist ... " (Bring Up the Bodies).

In fact, Poulton makes no attempt to replicate either scene. Plays and novels are different things, and what works in one format does not work in another. In the first instance, the memory of Cardinal Wolsey is kept in the mind of the audience through the ghostly presence of the actor playing him at key moments during the second play (Thomas Cromwell, similarly, is constantly visible to the audience throughout both plays, even when he is not visible to the other characters on stage). In the second instance, Poulton has created an entirely different opening: the actor playing Thomas Wyatt comes on stage and recites a subtly modified version of the historical Wyatt's sonnet, Whoso lists to Hunt, I know where is an Hind.

"It is not easy to turn a novel into a play," Mantel tells us, "and it requires insight and technique that I myself could not have supplied. But I am happy to have been part of it. I'm not dispossessed of my novel. I'm not evicted; we're just moving to another part of the wood."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 17 - "The Wake," by Paul Kingsnorth

When I first started this series, I was determined to avoid an undue bias on specifically British history, and some of the works that I might otherwise have included (Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, for example) were therefore left out. There are some events, however, which have such a profound impact on world history that it would be perverse to ignore them; and the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 is surely one of these, shaping the future of Europe rather than simply that of Britain, and with an influence that endures down to our own times.

The history of the invasion itself is well known. The Norman Duke, Guillaume le Batard, landed at Pevensey, fortified Hastings, and defeated the English army at Battle. What remained of the English force fell back on London, where Edgar the Atheling was proclaimed king, but he and his earls surrendered at Berkhamsted, and the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, who had previously crowned Edgar, was forced to crown Guillaume in his place. That, however, is very much a satellite view of history.

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, showing the construction of a castle (image is in the Public Domain).

England at the time was sparsely populated. Between London and the South Downs, for example, there was scarcely a farmstead that merited a mention in the Domesday Book of 1086. Most people lived in scattered rural communities, where some owned land, and others worked the land owned by others.

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow, Norfolk. Photo: Ron Strutt (licensed under CCA).

In 1066, they would have been surprised by the arrival of a Saxon thegn arriving to muster men of fighting age, many of whom would never return. Some months later, they might have caught their first sight of the invaders themselves, as they burned, pillaged and raped their way across England. By 1086, almost all the land was in foreign hands, divided up between 200 of the new king's Norman followers, the landscape itself permanently marked by the physical symbols of the new reality: the Norman castles and churches, abbeys and cathedrals.

Hallaton Castle, near Leicester, its earth mound and surrounding enclosure typical of the first generation of Norman castles in England. Photo: Tim Heaton (licensed under CCA).

Ely Cathedral. Photo: Bob Jones (licensed under CCA).

Page from the Domesday Book, covering land ownership in Rutland (image is in the Public Domain).

Paul Kingsnorth's Booker long-listed novel, The Wake, looks at these events through the eyes of one man in one such community in Lincolnshire. Buccmaster of Holland is a socman (a free landowner), whose two sons join Harold's army, whilst he himself remains on the land, determined to wield his grandfather's sword in defence of his own land.

Like Cerdic Elesing in Alfred Duggan's Conscience of the King, Buccmaster is a morally ambiguous character. Violence is often his first rather than his last resort (and not only in his dealings with his mortal enemies); he is typically na├»ve; frequently paranoid; sometimes deluded; and there may be several dark secrets in his past. Difficult as he may be to admire, we can certainly understand his determination to maintain some measure of control over his own destiny in the context of a changing world which he struggles to understand, let alone influence.

Ormesbury Little Broad, Norfolk, a fenland setting similar to that on the novel (the Lincolnshire Fens that Buccmaster might have known have been almost entirely drained). Photo: Craig Tuck (licensed under CCA).

The novel is narrated from Buccmaster's own viewpoint, and here Kingsnorth rises to one of the greatest challenges that any author can take on, in successfully inhabiting the mind of someone very much less educated and sophisticated than himself. The "shadow tongue" which he has developed "to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today" is, to my mind, the least challenging aspect (from the reader's point of view) of the book:

"songs yes here is songs from a land forheawan folded under by a great slege a folc harried beatan a world brocan apart. all is open lic a wound unhealan and grene all men apart from the heorte. deofuls in the heofon all men with sweord when they sceolde be with plough the ground full not of seed but of my folc

aefry ember of hope gan lic the embers of a fyr broken in the daegs beginnan broken by men other than us. hope falls harder when the end is cwic hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of age was writen in the songs of men

so it is when a world ends

who is thu i cannot cnaw but i will tell thu this thing

be waery of the storm

be most waery when there is no storm in sight

feoht tell them feoht"

The true challenges to the reader are on the moral and emotional planes. With almost every twist and turn of the story, I found that I would have taken a different decision to that taken by Buccmaster (disturbingly, some of the killings are exceptions); and in almost every case, I would have been less likely to survive. This is fiction doing one of the things that fiction does best: leading us through situations in which most of us have never been placed, and which none of us would ever wish to face in the real world.

Just as Buccmaster predicts the catastrophe to come (even if he does not know the form it will take), so Kingsnorth, in the manifesto of his Dark Mountain Project, predicts the collapse of our own civilisation (without suggesting either the timescale or the precise mechanism, although climate change is clearly a part of it, as is a loss of public confidence in the institutions of government, and in "the stories we have told ourselves" about our own past). I have not lost confidence in the stories I have told over a lifetime of teaching, writing and political engagement, but here is a new story, told in a very different way. Its cadences will go on reverberating in my mind for many years to come, but so will the challenges that it poses.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Historical Novel as Time Machine

In an extended review of Philip Hensher's The Emperor Waltz published in the current issue of Prospect Magazine, Sam Sacks writes of "the rise of time machine fiction." "The smooth, uninterrupted passage from a beginning to an ending," he suggests, "has fallen out of favour. Instead, books that juxtapose multiple stories from different periods in time ... have grown into a genre of their own." He cites A.S. Byatt's Possession, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and, most recently, The Emperor Waltz, as examples of this genre.

In contrast to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, none of the characters in these novels actually travels in time. It is the reader who is presented with the illusion of doing so. Sacks sees this "time machine fiction," however, as the "offspring" of a creative tension between Wells and his contemporary, Henry James, "combining the Jamesian attention to character we associate with modern 'literary fiction' with the high-concept didactic approach of Wells," and he traces a line of descent from James and Wells through Richard Powers's Three Farmers on their way to a Dance; to Possession, Cloud Atlas and The Emperor Waltz.

Richard Powers's Three Farmers on their way to a Dance takes, as its starting point, a photograph of three young men taken in 1913 or 1914 by the German photographer August Sander. It explores modern themes in the history of photography and technology as well as presenting the fictionalised lives of the three men as their lives unfold after the photograph was taken.

It was certainly Cloud Atlas, together with Katy Ward's Girl Reading, that inspired me to write my own "time machine novel," Omphalos, which will be published later this year. The form seemed to me to suit my purpose in exploring, through fiction, the history of a specific place that I have previously explored through non-fiction.

Having hit upon this idea, I sought further inspiration from a re-reading of several novels that seemed to me to be doing something similar, but these were not the ones on Sacks's line of succession.

The first was Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which he does mention in passing. For me, this is, perhaps, the first, and probably also the greatest of these novels, taking the reader on a breath-taking waltz across four centuries of European and Asiatic history.

I turned then to Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night, a Traveller... and Invisible Cities. David Mitchell has acknowledged Calvino as the primary influence on Cloud Atlas, and it is from Calvino that both Mitchell and I derive the structural form of Cloud Atlas and Omphalos, the idea of a story within a story within a story, like a series of nested Matryoshka dolls.

Russian Matryoshka dolls. Photo: BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons, licensed under GNU.

In my case, the specific stories, and the periods in which they are set (the present day, the 1940s, the 1790s, the 1510s, the 1160s, the 5th Millennium BC) are suggested by the specific place that inspired Omphalos, even though two thirds of the action of the novel takes place elsewhere (Normandy, Brittany, Venice, Crete, Jerusalem, Galicia, Gascony). I could have added a story set in the 1920s, and another set in the 1880s, but I judged that the novel was long enough without them, and I didn't feel that they would necessarily add much to the underlying themes of transgression and reconciliation, and of people finding themselves on the wrong side of history.

La Hougue Bie, Jersey. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

I read Kate Atkinson's Life after Life (like Orlando, it is an unusual variation on the theme of a "time machine novel") whilst I was editing Omphalos, and quickly realised that she and I had drawn on some of the same historical sources. I wanted to make sure that I did not use the same vignettes, and edited some of my paragraphs accordingly.

In his review of The Emperor Waltz, Sam Sacks identifies a number of "traps" into which the writer of "time fiction novels" can easily fall. First there is " ... the danger of devolving into a kind of interpretive game, a lit-crit mystery whose meanings must be decrypted rather than naturally perceived. Authors unbounded by time are susceptible to the allures of omniscience, which can turn their characters into puppets and snuff out the lifelike vitality of the realist tradition."

Certainly there will be elements of mystery in Omphalos, as there are in most good novels, but these elements are secondary to the main arc of the stories. I have tried to avoid the allure of omniscience by telling each story in a different format: a series of letters in one case; diary entries in another; a 16th Century travelogue; an imagined oral narration. These are testaments which do not, in fact, exist, but which could have done. In each case I researched the genre, examining real wartime letters at the Imperial War Museum; real 18th Century diaries and 16th Century travelogues at the British Library.

The diary of Henriette Dessaules, McCord Museum (Image is in the Public Domain).

Second, there is the risk of "mysticism," with overreliance on "connecting devices." "Connection itself becomes their overarching theme as they assert a bond between the past and the present (and sometimes the frighteningly unknown future) based on the constants of human nature, national heritage, or family ties."

In Omphalos, the main "connecting device" will be a physical place, but there are also objects from one period which crop up in another, and suggested (but not explicitly stated) family ties across the generations, but these, again, are secondary, and, although the characters in each story face problems that arise from "the constants of human nature," their cultural backgrounds lead them to face these problems in very different ways. There is an implied question, here, about the resources we have (or lack) to confront these problems ourselves, but this is a question for the reader. Like George R.R. Martin, "I'm not the sort of writer who gives answers. I prefer to raise questions."

Finally, there is the risk of didacticism, tilting a work "far more towards H.G. Wells than Henry James." In the case of Omphalos, I hope that the fact of having already told part of the story in a non-fictional context has innoculated me of any temptation towards didacticism in the novel itself.

The non-fiction is about the stories we know; the novel is about the stories we do not, and cannot know, and is entirely narrated through the subjectivities of the characters (there will be nine protagonists, all but one of them fictional).

"Today," Sacks asserts, "'time machine fiction' reigns supreme." Certainly it is now an established sub-genre (other examples are Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, and Sebastian Faulks' A Possible Life) and, of the thirteen books currently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2014, one clearly belongs within it (Ali Smith's How to be Both), whilst three others have some elements of similarity to it (Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World; Howard Jacobson's J; Niall William's History of the Rain).

There is also room on the list, however, for a more conventional work of historical fiction (Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North) and for Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, which, like Jim Crace's Harvest last year, distinguishes itself mainly through its highly imaginative use of language. "Time machine fiction" is not the only show in town by any means, but it is emerging as one of the distinguishing literary tropes of the early 21st Century.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA. His third novel, Omphalos, will be published later this year by the same publisher.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 16 - "Monkey" ("Journey to the West"), by Wu Cheng'en

Literate civilisation in China has its origins in the Shang Dynasty (c1200 BC) and, remarkably, the written characters of the period are still recognisable to modern readers of Chinese, making it the oldest surviving written language in the world.

From the time of Alexander the Great, who established a series of Hellenistic cities in the territory of what is now Afghanistan, a trade network existed, linking China and India to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. This "Silk Road" was not a road in the sense that the Appian Way was a road, and nor was silk the only commodity traded along it (Indian spices, such as cumin & pepper, transformed the culinary culture of the Mediterranean world): it rather took the form of a series of understandings between chains of adjacent communities which collaborated on an informal basis to facilitate the transfer of goods and ideas.

"Sancai" figures of the Tang Dynasty, c 728 AD, at the British Museum. Photo: Mike Peel ( - licensed under CCA. Depicted are two guardian figures, two officials (one civil, the other military), two heavenly kings, two camels with an attendant, and two horses with an attendant.

In 629 AD, a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang left the Chinese capital, Chang-An (Xi'an) on a journey to India, with the primary aim of gathering Buddhist scriptures to return to China. His journey took him through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan & Afghanistan (it is from his account that we have the first written record of the great Buddha statues of Bamyan, destroyed by the Taliban in our own times).

9th Century representation of Xuanzang, Dunhuang Cave (image is in the Public Domain).

The Buddha statues of Bamyan, as depicted by Alexander Burns in 1832 (image is in the Public Domain). Xuanzang visited on 30th April, 630 AD, and recorded a third, reclining statue, subsequently lost.

Xuanzang arrived in India in 630 AD, and travelled extensively there, finally returning to Chang-An in 645 AD, where he joined the Da Ci'en Monastery, and led the building of the Wild Goose Pagoda to house the scriptures he had brought back from India.

The Wild Goose Pagoda. Photo: Bobak Ha'Eri (licensed under CCA).

The non-fiction account of Xuanzang's journey, The Great Tang Records of the Western Regions, compiled by his disciple, Bianji, is standard reading for anyone writing about the Silk Road, but English translations of it are rare and expensive.

Wu Cheng'en's novel, written during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), takes Xuanzang's account as a starting point, but weaves a series of fantastical tales around it, in which Tripitaka (the name he uses for Xuanzang) is accompanied on his journey by a monkey-spirit (Sun-Wukong, or "Monkey"), a pig-spirit (Zhu-Baijie, or "Pigsy") and a river ogre (Sha-Wuqing, or "Sandy").

Tripitaka and his companions, as depicted at the Summer Palace, Beijing. Photo: Rolf Muller (licensed under GNU).

Together, they encounter a variety of natural and supernatural beings, and have to find ways of cooperating with one another in order to overcome them. It is a picaresque and comic masterpiece with a serious underlying spiritual message of redemption and enlightenment. It is also a portrait of China as it saw itself in Wu Cheng'en's time, with a complex intermix of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist ideas superimposed on enduring ancient folk beliefs.

The original Chinese novel is very long (as is Bianji's factual account), and almost all English translations are abridged. Over the years, I have dipped into several rare library editions, but the most readily available is the Penguin edition of the translation by Arthur Waley.

"'I am the Great Sage Equal of Heaven,'" said Monkey. "'Five hundred years ago I made trouble in the Halls of Heaven, and Buddha clamped me down in this place. Not long ago the Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin, whom Buddha had ordered to look around for someone to fetch scriptures from India, came here and promised me that if I would amend my ways and faithfully protect the pilgrim on his way, I was to be released, and afterwards would find salvation' ... "

"When the wind subsided there appeared a monster of truly terrible appearance. He had short bristles on his swarthy cheeks, a long snout and huge ears. He wore a cotton jacket that was green but not green, blue but not blue, and had a spotted handkerchief tied round his head ... Monkey caught hold of him and making a magic pass changed himself back into his true form... When Pigsy turned and saw Monkey with his sharp little teeth and grinning mouth, his fiery, steely eyes, his flat head and hairy cheeks, for all the world like a veritable thunder-demon, he was so startled that his hands fell limp beside him and his legs gave way. With a scream he tore himself free, leaving part of his coat in Monkey's hand, and was gone like a whirlwind ... If you do not know how far he chased him or which of them won the fight, you must listen to what is told in the next chapter."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Monday, 18 August 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 15 - "The Sea Road," by Margaret Elphinstone

In strictly chronological terms, this book and the next might be thought to appear on my list in the wrong order, but this post seems to follow on more logically from the previous one and, as we shall see in the next, placing some works in any chronological succession is a complex matter.

The peoples of Scandinavia had never been subject to the Roman Empire, and had developed a rich cultural and artistic tradition with roots going back deep into prehistory. In the 6th, 7th and 8th Centuries AD, as Gaul and Britain recovered from the chaos of the empire's collapse, these Norse cultures seized the opportunity to expand. Between 793 and 850 AD, Viking raiders attacked monasteries and towns along the east coast of England. The raids were followed by settlement, and the emergence of Norse cities such as York and Dublin, linked by trade networks that extended through Russia as far as the Black Sea and the Byzantine Empire.

For some, however, the old world was not enough. If there was an ocean, there must surely be something on the other side of it, and the Viking trading ship, the Knarr, provided them with the means of exploring it.

The Skuldelev 1 ship, a knarr (large cargo ship) found in the Roskilde Fjord, Denmark. Photo: Elgaard (licensed under GNU).

A reconstruction of Skuldelev 1 in Roskilde's Viking Ship Museum. Photo: Boatbuilder (licensed under CCA).

In the last years of the 9th Century, a Norse settlement was established on Iceland and, in less than a hundred years, the settlement of Greenland had begun. The settlement of Brattahlid, on Greenland, was established in the 980s by Eirik the Red, banished from Iceland for killing a man. Eirik's son, Leif, sailed west and landed on the coast of Newfoundland in 1002, and this was followed by further expeditions over the next few years. This is the first documented contact between Europe and the Americas, and it continued, at least sporadically, until the 14th Century.

The ruins of Eirik the Red's setllmenet at Brattahlid, Greenland. Photo: PederM (licensed under CCA).

Margaret Elphinstone's novel, The Sea Road, is a first person account from the point of view of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, one of the first European women to make a life in the Americas. A historical figure, Gudrid was born in Iceland, travelled to Greenland with her father, and was married three times, first to a merchant named Thorir, then, after his death, to Eirik the Red's son, Thorvald, and finally to another explorer, Thorfinn Karlsefni. Thorfinn and Gudrid's son, Snorri, was probably the first European to be born in the Americas. After Thorfinn's death, Gudrid converted to Christianity, and made a pilgrimage to Rome.

In the novel, she recounts her story to Agnar Asleifarsson, an Icelandic monk in Rome, and we hear his voice as well as hers. Sometimes she addresses him (and, through him, the reader) in the second person and, in other passages, Elphinstone presents Gudrid's thoughts to us in the present tense.

Asleif: "I wrote down her story in obedience to a command from Cardinal Hildebrand in Rome. When she arrived there first, he received her, and later he sent for me. These were his words. 'A woman has arrived here on pilgrimage from your country ... This woman, apparently, is one of those who have gone beyond the confines of the mortal world, in the body. She has dwelt for over a year in the lands outside the material world. She has talked with demons and with the ghosts of the dead ...'"

L'Anse aux Meadows, Leif Eirikson's settlement on the coast of Newfoundland. Photo: Gregory Matthews (licensed under CCA).

Gudrid: "You must understand, Agnar, that the plan was to make a trading post in Vinland, not a farm. None of us wanted to settle permanently so far out of the world, at least, not until the trade was coming, and then the place might attract settlers. Leif and Karlsefni wanted to make sure of their own rule before they encouraged anyone else. So we were to build up Leif's houses into a winter settlement that could be a base for all future expeditions."

The remains of a Viking house at L'Anse aux Meadows. Photo: Torbenbrinker (licensed under CCA).

Reconstructed house at L'Anse aux Meadows. Photo: SemanticsDavid (licensed under CCA).

Elphinstone: "The ghosts gather in the shadow of the mountain, and look down on Sandnes. They see a patch of green pasture, hayfields in squares like blankets spread to dry. They see buildings like spindlewhorls hanging by the threads of paths woven by hooves and footsteps. A strip of shore hems the settlement, and needle-shaped boats are tucked in here and there along its length. The ghosts see how carefully made the place is, how neatly it is threaded together, but how fragile the green material is, spread between the bare rock and the sea."

This mixed narrative style could easily make for a fragmented account but, in Elphinstone's hands, it really does give the impression of a series of dialogues stretching out across the centuries.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 14 - "Conscience of the King," by Alfred Duggan

By the middle of the 4th Century AD, most of England was thoroughly Romanised. Christianity was, by this stage, the official religion of the Roman Empire, but Christian and pagan imagery are often found alongside one another in the archaeological record, sometimes under the same roof. On the rich farmland of Southern England, some families had amassed considerable wealth, and this may have attracted the attention of pirates from northern Germany.

Mosaic from Lullingstone Roman Villa, showing Europa and the bull. Photo: Carole Raddato (licensed under CCA).

Christian "Chi-Rho" symbol painted on the wall of the same villa. Photo: Udimo (licensed under GNU).

Silver plate from the Mildenhall hoard, showing a Bacchic scene. Photo: JMiall (licensed under CCA).

From around 290 AD, a series of forts were established along the coasts of southern Britain and northern Gaul, as a precaution against these pirate raids. Those cities which did not already have defensive walls rapidly threw them up.

Pevensey Castle (Anderida): the outer wall was built in the late 3rd or early 4th Century AD; the moated castle at top right is a Norman addition. Photo: Lieven Smits (licensed under GNU).

Britannia, however, had always been on the farthermost edge of the Roman Empire and, as the empire collapsed, it became an increasingly troublesome province. British forces played a key role in the attempted usurpations of Magnentius (353 AD) and Magnus Maximus (383-399 AD). By 400 AD, Roman Britain was, in effect, a failed state. Significant Saxon incursions occurred in 408 and 409 AD. Some towns found it easiest to pay individual Saxon war-bands to "protect" them, whilst others fell by force of arms. The Saxons who came, initially, as raiders, soon became settlers, bringing with them their own language, and their distinctive north European form of paganism.

Reconstructed Anglo-Saxon settlement at West Stow. Photo: Keith Evans (licensed under CCA).
Alfred Duggan's Conscience of the King is a fictionalised autobiography of Cerdic Elingas, a historical figure about whom little is actually known, but who is considered to be the founder of the Saxon royal house of Wessex (the Kingdom of the West Saxons). Duggan, however, introduces a twist, in that his fictionalised Cerdic starts life in Sussex as a Romanised Briton (though with German ancestors, and therefore "Woden-born"), and only begins offering his services to Saxon war-bands when he loses out in a dynastic struggle at home.

The novel is unusual in that its protagonist, Cerdic, is a difficult man to like. He is frequently cowardly, treacherous and brutal, the novel's title being deliberately ironic - one can question whether Cerdic actually has a conscience at all. He cooperates with others when it suits his purposes, but the only human being for whom he seems to have anything resembling love is his son, Cynric. His one redeeming quality, perhaps, is his honesty, at least in this written account: he at no point tries to hide or disguise his intentions from the reader. He is, at least, a reliable narrator. Through this narration, Duggan is able to paint a credible picture of what life in a failed state might actually have been like.

"Before this scandal I had not disliked my elder brother in the least; he was an obstacle to my advancement, and one day I should have to deal with him; meanwhile we got on well enough together, for he could be a witty and amusing companion. But now I began to hate him as a person ... This was very unfortunate, for hatred made me act hastily ... I slipped the little seax-knife in my left hand into his armpit; he staggered wildly, and I stabbed him again in the big vein of his neck."

"It may seem odd, but it is the fact that I felt no compunction about leading this attack on my native land. Constans had tried to take my fairly-earned plunder, and I had been compelled to stab him; I had finished with Rome, and with Christianity, and all the ways of civilised men; I was a Woden-born noble of the family of Aellinga, and a wolf to every peaceful sheep of Britain ... One peasant recognised me, and cried shame on me for a traitor before we cut him down; but my men understood not a word of Celtic, and thought he was only shouting defiance."

The walls of Anderida, on which Cerdic leads an assault. Photo: Paul Farmer (licensed under CCA).

"This episode worried me a little, for I did not want Aella to know that I was waging war on my father; no German would understand the excellent reason I had for such a drastic step. It would be wiser if in the future I kept in the background when men were being slain in cold blood, or it would seem curious that the victims always insulted me in particular."

Behind this rather unusual narration, there are at least a couple of serious points. The first is that, in a failed state, a land with no effective law, men of conscience are unlikely to succeed. The second is that most "legitimate successions" in history have their origins in regimes that came to power through the sword. As Duggan points out in his postscript, Cerdic did, in fact, found the royal house of Wessex and, "Through Matilda, the Queen of Henry the First, the present royal family of Great Britain are Woden-born Cerdingas."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 13. "Julian," by Gore Vidal

The Roman Empire reached its high point during the reigns of the "five good emperors." The last of these emperors, Marcus Aurelius, generally thought of as one of the best, was succeeded by his son, Commodus, almost universally considered to have been one of the very worst. From this point onwards, the history of the empire is one of decline. Part of the problem, as Hadrian had well understood, was that the empire was becoming too big to be controlled effectively from a single centre.

After a long period of civil wars, the Emperor Diocletian attempted to stabilise the administration by dividing the empire into four parts, with four "tetrarchs" sharing power between them. Nicomedia (Izmet, in modern Turkey) would be the base for the Eastern Augustus; Sirmium (in Serbia) that of the Eastern Caesar; Augusta Trevororum (Trier, in modern Germany) that of the Western Caesar; and, most surprisingly, Mediolanum (Milan), the capital of the Western Augustus, responsible for Italy and Africa. Rome itself would slip into increasing irrelevance.

Four tetrarchs, late 4th Century statue now in the Treasury of St Mark's Venice. The way in which each tetrarch embraces a colleague with one hand, whilst gripping his sword-hilt in the other is an apt metaphor for the political realities of the system. Photo: Nino Barbieri (licensed under GNU).

Constantine I fought his way to power over the whole of the empire in 324 AD, and managed to hold it together until his death in 337 AD. Although his reign lasted only thirteen years, he made two profound decisions which would change the history of the world forever. The first was to embrace Christianity (it is by no means clear that he ever did so wholeheartedly). The second was formally to move his capital from Rome to Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople).

Head of a colossal statue of Constantine I. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Jean-Christophe Benoist (licensed under GNU).

After Constantine's death, the empire was once more divided, this time between his three sons, all of them fervent Christians. One of these sons, Constantius II, appointed a cousin, Julian, as Caesar of the West but, at Paris, in 360 AD, his troops proclaimed him Augustus. Civil war looked inevitable, but Constantius died (apparently of natural causes) naming Julian his heir. As a young man, Julian had been baptised a Christian, and had studied in Athens under two of the leading theologians of the day, Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nazianus. He had also, however, been initiated into the pagan mysteries of Eleusis.

Saint Gregory of Nazianus, fresco from Kariye Camil, Turkey (image is in the Public Domain).

As Emperor, Julian abandoned Christianity entirely (earning himself the epithet, "the Apostate"), and did everything possible to revive pagan traditions, temples and oracles. He even promised to rebuild the Jewish temple at Jerusalem. He presented himself as a restorer of traditional "Roman" values, but had never set foot in Rome, and his own religious beliefs owed more to the Greek than to the Roman tradition (he was strongly influenced by Neo-Platonism).

Coin of the Emperor Julian. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (licensed under GNU).

A number of his letters and orations have been preserved, all of them in Greek, rather than Latin. They do, however, give us a more intimate picture of Julian, as an individual, than we have for most Roman emperors, including a clear insight into his sense of humour. This, naturally, has made him an attractive subject for writers of fiction.

The American novelist, Gore Vidal, presents a sympathetic portrait of a man driven by philosophical curiosity and a quest for intellectual coherence (which, in Vidal's view of the world, Christianity has always lacked). Vidal's "Julian" is a fictionalised autobiography in the tradition of Robert Graves and Marguerite Yourcenar, but with one significant innovation. Vidal imagines Julian's autobiography being edited, after his death, by two of his former friends, Priscus of Epirus and the rhetorician and sophist, Libanius. It is a device that allows him to introduce a good deal of humour as they send often venomous notes to one another, and also to highlight the unreliability of the historical record.

"From the example of my uncle, the Emperor Constantine ... I learned that it is dangerous to side with any party of the Galileans, for they mean to overthrow and veil those things which are truly holy ... From my cousin and predecessor, the Emperor Constantius, I learned to dissemble and disguise my true thoughts ... Yes, I was trying to imitate the style of 'Marcus Aurelius to Himself,' and I have failed. Not only because I lack his purity and goodness but because while he was able to write of the good things he learned from a good family and good friends, I must write of those bitter things I learned from a family of murderers in an age diseased by the quarrels and intolerance of a sect whose purpose it is to overthrow that civilization whose first note was struck upon blind Homer's lyre ..."

"I was admitted to all the mysteries, including the final and most secret. I saw that which is enacted, that which is shown, and that which is spoken. I saw the passion of Demeter, the descent of Persephone to the underworld, the giving of grain to man. I saw the world as it is, and the world that is to come. I lost my fear of death in the Telesterion when, in a blaze of light, I looked upon the sacred objects. It was true. More than this I cannot write. It is forbidden ..."

Priscus: "He tells altogether too much. But that was his charm ... I know that you were initiated at Eleusis and doubtless feel as much as he did about what is revealed there. I don't. ... I am cool to the mysteries, and find them vague and full of unjustified hope ... In any case, when Julian looked with adoration at that sheaf of wheat which is revealed with such solemnity ..."

 Libanius: "This is absolute blasphemy! These things must not be revealed. Priscus will suffer for this in the next world, while whoever betrayed to him our high secret will sink forever in dung. It is appalling!"

Ultimately, Julian's attempt to restore "Hellenism" (in itself, something quite different from the values of the Augustan tradition) was to fail. He had proved himself an able military commander in Gaul, but was defeated and killed in a campaign against the Persians in 363. His successors restored Christianity as the religion of empire.

Sassanian (Persian) relief, showing the future Ardashir II trampling the body of the Emperor Julian, flanked by the divinities Mithra and Ahura Mazda. Photo: Philippe Chavin (licensed under GNU).

Vidal's dialogue between the now dead emperor and his friends Priscus and Libanius allow him to side-step some of the questions that have vexed historians. Was Julian killed by the Persians, or by a Christian in his own army? Did he, as some sources suggest, claim to be a reincarnation of Alexander the Great? It all depends on who we, the readers choose to believe.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. They can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.