Sunday, 30 December 2012

Favourite Books of 2012: Prehistory, Myth and Fiction.

I have been engaged in debates during the course of this year, as to whether “historical fiction” can exist where there is no history. Writers such as Hilary Mantel and Cathie Dunn clearly draw extensively on the historical record to inform their fiction, but if one is writing, as I do in Undreamed Shores, about a period before written history, does it still count as “historical fiction”? It’s a semantic question, of course, but semantics matter to a writer.

Given my long-standing interest in this theme, it probably comes as no surprise that my final selection falls on two books that seek to push the boundaries of “historical fiction” back in time. Nancy Jardine’s The Beltane Choice (Crooked Cat 2012) is set in northern Britain in the 1st Century AD, J.P. Reedman’s Stone Lord (Mirador 2012) in southern and western Britain in the 2nd Millennium BC. Strictly speaking, Jardine does have some history to inform her work, notably Tacitus’s Agricola. Given, however, that Tacitus almost certainly never visited Britain; that he relied for information mainly on his father-in-law, whose biography he was engaged in writing; and that Jardine, in any case, like Dunn, is concerned with the lives of ordinary people caught up in the sweep of history (the sort of people unlikely to have come to the attention of the historian or his military father-in-law), the historical record provides only minimal assistance.

Archaeology and mythology provide far richer seams for these writers to mine. Both draw extensively on archaeological evidence, and both also make extensive use of myth, recognising the possibility that myths written down in one age may embody (in Reedman’s words), “older substrata,” a sort of literary equivalent to the physical marks in the landscape of which MacFarlane writes so eloquently.

Nettle-sharp tears of frustration reduced Nara’s vision,” writes Jardine, “as she…ploughed her way through pitted undergrowth. Wrenching aside jagged gorse bushes…the thorns scraped blood-red lines on her arms…A glance over her shoulder caught the beast smashing on behind, scattering leaves…its trotters pounding the earth…

Pursued by a wild boar - her prey, which has become her pursuer, Nara takes refuge in a tree, calling out to two deities, the goddess Rhianna and the horned god, Cernunnos. Gods and spirits haunt the pages of these novels, but this is not fantasy in the vein of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis: the reader is not called upon to believe in their reality on an objective plane, only to understand their reality in the minds of the characters.

Depiction, believed to be of Cernunnos, on an Iron Age cauldron found at Gundestrup, Denmark.

In similar spirit, Reedman writes of her character, Keine: “She had drifted away from the Mid-winter fire-feast to enter the woods, the taboo area of the Old Hunters…she returned, dazed and raving, telling tales of bears with the voices of men, and crows that stood as tall as young saplings. They had danced with her in the forest…She fled at night’s end, fearful of what she had done, of the dread being she had lain with in the shuddering forest, but it was too late. The horned chief…had left her with a gift – or curse – from that solitary coupling. The seed of his unnatural loins blossomed like a dark flower in her belly…”

“The horned chief,” dubbed Min’Kammus by Reedman, is Cernunnos in another guise, but in her reference to “The Old Hunters,” Reedman traces a conceptual thread back to the Mesolithic world of the hunters in whose footsteps Robert MacFarlane walked out from the familiarity of Essex into the now-drowned world of “Doggerland.” There is, perhaps, some archaeological basis for this, albeit tenuous. At Star Carr in Yorkshire, fragments of deer-skull have been found, dating back ten thousand years, modified so as to allow them to be worn as head-dresses.

Mesolithic head-dress found at Star Carr, Yorkshire, now in the British Museum.

This is not to say that the Iron Age “Cernunnos” would have been understood by Nara in the same terms that Keine understands Min’Kammus, or that either concept would have been the same as that of the Mesolithic hunters, only to suggest that people of all ages responded to the landscape around them, with each generation drawing on its own past (the gap in time that separates Nara from Keine being no greater than that which separates Nara’s world (a world peopled also by figures as familiar to us as Claudius Caesar and Saint Paul) from our own.

This is, of course, fiction. No academic writer would go nearly so far as Reedman or Jardine go in attempting to resurrect the belief systems of prehistoric societies, let alone the lived emotional responses to those beliefs that are depicted here, but that is what fiction, and perhaps only fiction, can do. 

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


  1. What an excellent post, Mark, and not just because you've mentioned my writing. I'm delighted to be included in your favourite reading of the year and thank you very much for your recognition.
    Your post has given me more than one thing to think about. I think I'll 'plan' to do a similar blog feature Dec 2013 regarding favourite novels. A novel being categorised as 'Pre-historical' is also something to ponder since I'm writing a sequel to The Beltane Choice - the date only varying by around a decade.

  2. It's interesting to speculate whether a writer such as Jardine or Reedman requires more imagination than one who writes of less ancient times. Since I write about the World Wars, I have a treasure trove of factual materials and yet these become mere snippets in stories imagined about everyday people who lived through the experience. Still, the challenge of creating worlds like those you've described seems more daunting. Thanks for telling us of these two writers.

  3. When does "prehistory" end and "history" begin? French historians and archaeologists use the term "proto-history" (which would applie to the whole of the 1st Century AD in most of Britain, and the 1st-5th Centuries AD in the north of Scotland and in Ireland) but the term is less fashionable here.

    Does it require more imagination to write about distant periods? Probably not, but it is perhaps a different sort of imagination. Where I really see that is in William Golding's writing, since it covers such a wide time period (35,ooo BC in the case of The Inheritors, 19th Century for Rites of Passage.