Thursday, 26 December 2013

Great Books of 2013: The Struggle for Freedom in Historical Perspective

In the year in which the world said goodbye to the great icon of the struggle for freedom in the modern age, it seems appropriate to turn to the history of societies more remote from us in time for perspectives on this recurrent aspect of the human experience. Nelson Mandela managed to find a way forward in the struggle for freedom in his own country which also respected the natural human desire for peace and reconciliation, and conquered the desire for revenge which springs just as naturally from the darker recesses of the human psyche. Few leaders, historically, have been so successful.

Two of this year's historical fiction releases caught my eye as providing insights into the struggle for freedom, both of them taking their examples from the ancient world. Both, also, focus on regions and periods that are only sparsely documented, giving their authors free rein for the exercise of their literary imagination, using fictional rather than historical protagonists.

In T.E. Taylor's Zeus of Ithome (Crooked Cat Publications), the struggle for freedom is that of the people of Messenia (a corner of south-western Greece) against the Spartans in the 4th Century BC.

                      Messenia from the summit of Mount Ithome.

The protagonist, Diocles, is not, by training or inclination, a warrior, but a peasant, who has known nothing but a life of servitude. He becomes an outlaw when he goes to the aid of a friend who is attacked, killing the assailant, a Spartan. Fleeing into the wilderness in fear of his life, he is befriended by an older compatriot whose agenda is much more explicitly political. Diocles does not really choose the struggle for freedom (more than anything, he cares about his family and his sweetheart), rather it chooses him, and he is forced to follow the path of the warrior as his only hope of being reunited with those he loves. The book follows his progress as he learns to fight and forges alliances prior to returning to liberate his homeland. Since Diocles is barely more than a child at the beginning of the book, the story is as much a Bildungsroman as it is a war narrative: Diocles inevitably learns as much about himself as he does about the world around him.

The city of Messene, established as the capital of Messenia at the end of the conflict described in the novel. Mount Ithome, sacred to Zeus, is shown in the background.

Brennus of Garrigill, the protagonist of Nancy Jardine's After Whorl, Bran Reborn (Crooked Cat Publications), by contrast is a mature man, born to be a warrior, his whole identity tied up with that status even before the struggle for freedom begins.

The struggle for freedom in this instance is that of the Brigantian people of northern Britain, faced with the northward expansion of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD. This is also, in a sense, a Bildungsroman, but it deals with a very different stage in the protagonist's development. The "Whorl" of the title is a battle, one that has already been fought and (by the Britons) lost. Badly maimed in the battle, Brennus finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being dependent on a woman, Meaghan, the elderly healer who tends his wounds. She, in turn, become dependent on him, but this is a role for which he is ill prepared. With a significant price upon his head, he is also forced to adopt a new and humbler identity as Bran, a simple farmer and trader. When a stranger arrives with unwelcome news, his world falls apart completely. This novel is the second of a trilogy and, if the first, The Beltane Choice, (set against the same background of conflict between Romans and Britons) is a meditation on the theme of love, this one is a meditation on the theme of defeat, and on the possibility of resilience in the face of it.

Stanwick, one of the strongholds of the Brigantian people.

An Iron Age bronze relief in the form of a horse's head, from Stanwick.

Both novels offer an engaging human perspective on conflict, subjugation and resistance, from the point of view of ordinary people, rather than that of the great actors on the historical stage. Both, also, provide fascinating glimpses into events and circumstances about which the history books have little to tell us.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and Kindle Edition only 77p/99c until Sunday 29th December.


  1. Great post, Mark. And a Happy New Year to you!

  2. My apologies that I missed this post earlier, Mark. Thank you for your fantastic insight into some of my intentions in my Celtic Fervour series.