Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Of Druids, Bones and Historical Fiction

The High Court today rejected the demand from druid, King Arthur Pendragon, for the immediate reburial of human remains excavated at Stonehenge in 2008 (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14629536). That they will, eventually, have to be reburied strikes me as a massive and unacceptable blow against science (I remember writing my PhD more than 20 years ago, bemoaning the fact that a Victorian excavator had reburied human remains that could have informed the chapter that I never got to write), but at least they will first be thoroughly studied.

Archaeologist Mike Pitts said in a BBC interview this afternoon that such study makes it possible to “recreate and retell” the stories of these people who lived 4400 years ago, “to bring them into the present,” and thereby "show them respect."

Of these particular people, as yet we know little. That’s why it’s so important that archaeologists have the chance to complete their research. But Pendragon has been arguing for years that other remains should be reburied. The “Amesbury Archer” is a case in point. We know rather more about him: that he lived around 2400 BC (broadly speaking, the period during which the bluestone circle at Stonehenge was built) and was an immigrant from central Europe; that he was one of the first users of copper and gold in Britain; and that he was sufficiently important to merit one of the most elaborate burials of his age.

Coincidentally, I am just reading J.S. Dunn’s debut novel, Bending the Boyne (Seriously Good Books, 2011), in which he features. A character based loosely on him features, also, as a character in my short story, “The Raft and the Waterfall,” available from Ether Books (http://www.etherbooks.com/). I say “based loosely on” because I think that for a writer to tie him/herself to the specific details of the archaeological record would make it hard to write good fiction. My character gets to live rather longer than the real “archer” did, for example, because this suits my narrative purpose. I wouldn’t do this, of course, with a fully historical figure, such as Julius Caesar or Henry V, but somehow it seems more acceptable to do so in the case of a man whose name and full life-story we can never know, to use him as the inspiration for a character rather than turning him directly into one.

In doing so, I hope to recreate, on an imaginary plane, a society and a way of life which the real man would recognise, a world in which people did travel between central Europe and southern England, pioneer the use of technologies that we now take for granted and build some of our most iconic monuments. And yes, in doing so, I believe that I show more respect than disrespect for our distant ancestors, none of which would be possible if we found excuses to discard their remains.

The remains of the “Amesbury Archer,” together with the objects buried with him, are displayed in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. The photograph is reproduced courtesy of Wessex Archaeology.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 4)

A prior training as a scientist (or a historian) neither qualifies nor disqualifies a person from writing fiction. Great fiction has been written by people from almost every imaginable background. To my mind, however, the writer who has, after Golding, been most successful in bringing these remote periods to vivid, irrepressible life, is the American social anthropologist, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

In Reindeer Moon, Marshall Thomas’s first parson narrator, Yanan, unlike Golding’s viewpoint character, Lok, is a fully modern human and, as such, has no structural limitations in her use of language. Because she is narrating in the first person, however, Marshall Thomas denies herself the opportunity, which Golding and Auel both take, of stepping out of character to explain things from the perspective of the reader’s world. All of her metaphors, similes, jokes and figures of speech must be drawn from the lived reality of Yanan’s world, and it is precisely this which makes that world come alive for the reader.

The rest of the people fed the fire and got ready to cook the meat...everyone waited for me to divide the carcass. Timu helped me, since making a division was something new to me. I had to be sure that my in-laws got the best parts – the hind-parts – while making sure that my kin got even shares of the front parts. And Timu didn’t act as though the carcass was his...he nicely covered the only real mistake I made – treating White Fox as Meri’s betrothed and Swift merely as my co-wife’s kinsman – by apologising as if he had made the mistake himself” (Reindeer Moon, Chapter 11).

One might, perhaps, question the use of the term “in-laws,” with its modern legalistic connotations, but it is difficult to know what one would put in its place, other than an invented word which would make the text less readable. One might question, also, Marshall Thomas’s use of Latin-derived medical/anatomical terms to describe bodily functions (her characters have “coitus” rather than sex, and they “defecate” and “urinate” rather than shitting and pissing). Perhaps Marshall Thomas (or her editors) had in mind the sensitivities of her readership, but it is difficult to respect these sensitivities whilst taking the reader into a world as visceral as Yanan’s.

These, however, are minor quibbles in relation to a novel that really does take the reader into a long-vanished world:

Yoi...began to sing. Meri and I joined – it was Yoi’s fire-river song, to be sung by at least two people, since the idea for this song came from wolves’ songs with two parts. Yoi began, and Meri and I followed, singing strongly, although the song seemed to be drawn away from us by the huge sky...When the sun was low, we got hungry...Yoi took from her bag a long strip of meat from the dead mammoth, lightly cooked and bad smelling. A small piece of it was enough” (Reindeer Moon, Chapter 11).

Friday, 5 August 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 3)

The theme of conflict between groups provides a fast-moving plot for Bjorn Kurten’s The Dance of the Tiger, but this otherwise convincing storyline is undermined by the use of modern military terminologies that can surely have had no place in the thought processes of hunter-gatherers living 35,000 years ago:

Wolf...described the situation. Shelk had put garrisons at Big Lake, Blue Lake, Swidden Moor, and doubtless other places too...’We have divided into three groups, and we harass Shelk’s lines of communication...He’s sent many troops against us, but we always avoid them. Meanwhile, we’re gathering strength to assault his headquarters at Caribou Lake...There will be an enemy patrol before long’” (The Dance of the Tiger, Part 3).

Kurten also has a lake described as “...a festive mirror for the sun,” the laughter of hyenas described as a “...shrill falsetto,” and a drunken character emptying his “wine-cellar.” We don’t know what language was spoken in Palaeolithic Scandinavia, but it seems unlikely that it would have included words for “mirror,” “falsetto” or “cellar,” let alone “troops,” “headquarters” or “patrols.”

Kurten was a palaeontologist, an expert on fossil bears, and his novel was published to great acclaim by his fellow scientists, Richard Leakey and Stephen Jay Gould. Jean Auel may have had this in mind when she criticised the attempts of scientists to write fiction about their subject material.

“When I have read fiction written by scientists,” she wrote recently, in the Historical Novels Review, “I am often disappointed. Although it is assumed that they do, they don’t always research their fiction as well as they research their own science. After all, it’s only fiction.”