Wednesday 30 August 2017

Inspiration from The Dark Ages: Why I Wrote The Serpent Sword

If you’d asked me to name some Anglo-Saxon kings before I started writing The Serpent Sword, I would probably have managed Alfred the Great, perhaps Ethelred the Unready and that last great Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, of the Battle of Hastings, 1066 and arrow-in-the-eye fame. I think most people would probably be in the same boat as I was. There are other periods that I knew a lot more about. School history lessons focussed more on the Tudors, the Norman Conquest, the medieval period of the Crusades and the Hundred Years War, and then of course, the Industrial Revolution, and the two World Wars of the twentieth century.

The Romans might have got a mention at school, and those ever-popular raping and pillaging Vikings. They were always a firm favourite with teachers and students alike. Especially young boys like me, who imagined themselves riding the waves on a dragon-prowed longship and relished the horrific tales of battle and the perhaps fictional blood-eagle. But the Vikings didn’t come to Britain until the end of the 8th century, long after the stories I write have finished.

So, if I knew next to nothing about the early seventh century, why did I choose to write my debut novel about a young man in Northumbria in 633 AD? After all, writing a novel is hard enough, without choosing a subject you haven’t got a clue about. The real answer is that I didn’t choose the period, it chose me. So what makes someone who has never written a novel decide to pick up a pen, or more likely nowadays, sit down at their computer?

Well, in my case, it was a television programme one evening back in 2001. It was about archaeological digs taking place in and around Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. I had lived near there as a child and always loved the area, so I watched with interest. I was alone at home that evening and something sparked inside me. I fired up the PC and started to type descriptions of the images that were thronging in my mind. I wrote a scene of a young man arriving on the beach at Bebbanburg (the old name for Bamburgh). I had never written anything of novel length before and I had a full-time job, a young family and I was halfway through studying for a degree, so progress was never going to be fast.

But something about the story just kept nagging at me. Who was this man I saw in my mind’s eye? Why had he arrived by ship? Where had he come from?

I started buying any books I could find on the period, and the more I learnt about the so-called Dark Ages in Britain, the more I became hooked. I discovered that Britain was made up of small kingdoms. The Romans had left a couple of centuries before, but war was still frequent between the different Anglo-Saxon rulers. And there were also regions ruled by native Britons. Welsh, Scots and Picts all vied against the Germanic peoples who had settled the land after the Romans had left these shores. I learnt the names of Anglo-Saxon kings that should be taught in all schools: Edwin, Oswald, Oswiu, Penda and many more. They were not kings of England, but kings of exotic sounding places like Bernicia, Deira, and Mercia. But these were men who helped to forge the land we know as England (the name itself comes from Angleland).

My research in the area brought back memories of my childhood in a village on the border of England and Scotland. The wildness of that land had always stayed with me. The rocky coastline of the North Sea, birds wheeling in a leaden sky, the snow-capped Cheviot Hills on the horizon. It was easy to imagine men and women living, fighting and dying in that land 1,400 years earlier. Men and women just like you and me, with loves, passions, fears, and yet so far removed from us that they could easily be thought of as truly alien.

They lived in a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Kings with retinues of warriors defended their people against attack, but such protection was often short-lived, with most kings meeting their ends in bloody battles. Religion too was in flux, with the resurgence of Christianity spreading over the land. However, in the early part of the seventh century, it was still very much the new religion, in competition with old gods we more commonly relate with the Vikings.

The term ‘Dark Ages’ has become outmoded in recent years, with academics now preferring ‘Early Medieval’. But I believe that despite the enlightenment of some during that time and the incredible skill of craftsmen who produced intricate and exquisite jewellery, weapons and armour, the period really is dark. It is lost to us in the gloomy distance of the past. Something about the men and women of the seventh century inspired me one night fifteen years ago, and they have been speaking ever since.

All I can do is listen and tell their tales as best I can. 

Tuesday 8 August 2017

What Mary Anne Yarde Learnt about the folklore of King Arthur when writing The Du Lac Chronicles

It is my pleasure to welcome to my blog Mary Anne Yarde, award-winning author of the International Bestselling series, The Du Lac Chronicles.

Mary Anne grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury, the fabled Isle of Avalon, was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were part of her childhood.

What Mary Anne Yarde Learnt about the folklore of King Arthur when writing The Du Lac Chronicles

I have always been passionate about history. One Christmas, I must have been around three-years-old, my Grandmother bought us a set of encyclopaedia — I know that does not sound particularly exciting, but I loved those books. I would often take one of these massive books off the shelf. I would then lie on my stomach, on the floor, flick through the pages and look at the pictures. I don’t know how I knew which one was the history encyclopaedia, but that was the one I always got down. History fascinated me, and it still does.

Growing up near Glastonbury meant that I knew, from a very early age, all about the stories of King Arthur and his Knights. What I didn’t know was that this love for history and King Arthur was not only going to inspire me to write an award winning book series, The Du Lac Chronicles, but also I was going to become a lover of folklore.

Researching the life and times of King Arthur is incredibly challenging. I am not going to say I have discovered who Arthur was because I haven't. There are so many possible Arthurs, so many theses as to who he was. But one thing where Arthur is prevalent, and you are sure to find him, is in folklore.

Folklore isn’t an exact science. It evolves. It is constantly changing. It is added to. Digging up folklore, I found, is not the same as extracting relics!

Arthur, as I said, lends himself to folklore, but it isn’t just Arthur the man I found myself looking for. I wanted to discover what influence he has had on Britain over the centuries, and what I found, surprised me.

The Dark Ages, where the majority of Arthurian stories are set, is notoriously difficult to research because of the lack of primary written sources. Of course, there are the works of Gildas, Nennius and Bede as well as The Annals of Wales, that we can turn to, but again, they are not what I would consider reliable sources, even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which were compiled in the late 9th Century, have to be treated with caution. Archaeologists have had more luck, but even they have not found Arthur, and they did try — they spent four years trying to locate his body at Glastonbury Abbey and came up with nothing. Which begs the question...

Why did the monks claim that they had found Arthur's body in the first place?

I have learnt of three reasons.

Firstly the Welsh were revolting and Arthur had become their figurehead. The English needed a body to prove that this Welsh figurehead was dead. Secondly, there was a new interest in Arthur thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s newly released, History of the Kings Of Briton and thirdly, there had been a fire at the abbey and it was in desperate needs of funds. The monks of Glastonbury were nothing if not pragmatic and they knew that Arthur would bring in the coins.

Glastonbury Abbey
Geoffrey of Monmouth's book is now considered a ‘national myth,’ but for centuries his book was considered to be factually correct. Can you imagine that?  A work of fiction that was believed to be a true account of Arthur's life! Monmouth did have his critics, but they were mostly brushed aside and ignored. Monmouth made Britain glorious, and he gave us not Arthur the general, but Arthur the English Christian King. And what a king he was.

Let’s take a quick look at Edward III (1312-1377). Edward wanted his reign to be as wondrous as Arthur's. Edward believed in the stories of Arthur and his Knights. He had even started to have his very own Round Table built at Windsor Castle. He also founded The Order of the Garter— which is still the highest order of chivalry that the Queen can bestow. Arthur, whether fictional or not, influenced kings, and I find that fascinating.

Edward III

In have discovered that there is always a little ring of truth in Folklore, and I love that. I guess all stories have to start somewhere. I never thought I would be a champion of folklore, but now I have discovered that I am.

Folklore can tell us a lot about a nation and I have learnt not to overlook it. I am just sorry that it took me so long to understand what a priceless treasure it really is.

In my series, The Du Lac Chronicles, I decided to weave history and folklore together and I am so glad I did because I get to embrace two of my favourite things at the same time — history and the stories of King Arthur!


Image attribution

Edward III as he was depicted in the late 16th century ~ Wikipedia
Picture of the Knight ~ Pixabay
All other photographs are copyright Mary Anne Yarde.

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