Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.6 in a short series

Jill Dalladay
Jill Dalladay

Jill Dalladay, classicist, historian and Latinist, wrote The Abbess of Whitby, an account of the life of Hild, the seventh-century Anglian noblewoman who oversaw the joint monastery at Whitby during some of the most crucial years of the Church in England. It’s a wonderful book, highlighting an aspect of the history of Northumbria that I simply didn’t have the space or time to do more than touch upon in Oswiu: King of Kings.

But, working in the same era as I do and with such impressive credentials to her name, I was eager, although a little nervous, to know what Jill thought of Oswiu. I’m delighted to say that she liked it. Here’s what she had to say:

‘It seems to me we live in times when all is changing, and what our fathers took as solid and secure, we can no longer trust,’ says the hero of Oswiu, King of Kings, teased by the ambiguity and interplay between the old one-eyed Raven-God, Woden, and the new Christ. Full of incident and adventure, this third book in Edoardo Albert’s masterly Northumbrian trilogy highlights the edgy family dynamics of rival dynasties in the turbulent seventh century world of gold and glory. Albert’s writing sweeps us along through nervous raiding parties, sweaty rides over parched hills peopled by wraiths, the muscle-straining tension of the warriors’ shield-wall, and the comfort of the smoky mead hall with fire sprites dancing in the logs. A satisfying climax to this mammoth enterprise.

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.5 in a short series

Matthew Harffy
Matthew Harffy

See this fellow? If you think he looks like he wouldn’t be out of place in the 7th century, you’d be right. Back when I was finishing off Edwin: High King of Britain and congratulating myself in having this extraordinary period in British history all to myself, I discovered that there was another writer working on a book set during the reign of King Edwin. After employing a few old English words, I set to stalking him online and discovered to my horror that, yes, he really was writing in my period and that, even worse, he was really good.

When Matthew found out about me – you can read how this happened in his interview with me here – there was much tentative circling, rather like two wary warriors, not quite sure of the other’s intention. But we soon realised that we would do better standing shoulder to shoulder than facing each other, a realisation bolstered by the fact that we could each admire the other’s work wholeheartedly while realising, with some relief, that we were doing quite different things with our takes on the 7th century.

Since Matthew writes about the same period I do, he clearly knows it backward. So I was delighted when he said he’d read an advance copy of Oswiu: King of Kings. I was even more pleased with what he said about it:

“In Oswiu: King of Kings, Edoardo Albert brings to vivid life the battle for the land and souls of the British people in the seventh century.  Albert tells an epic tale of kings and queens, omens and shieldwalls, where the future of a people was decided as much through the guile of its priests as the strength of its warlords. He deftly weaves the threads of a memorable cast of characters into the weft and warp of a vibrant tapestry of war, mystery and intrigue. Yet the true strength of Oswiu: King of Kings, is in the depiction of the effects of conflict on the men and women of the Dark Ages. As Albert reminds us there is much more to conquest than the ringing clash of swords.”

And if you don’t rush out and buy Oswiu now, I’ll get Matthew to send his hero, Beobrand round to have a word with you – and you really don’t want to get Beobrand annoyed!

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Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.4 in a short series

Andrew Norriss
Andrew Norriss

Some unusual acquaintances are made online. In my case, few have been more unexpected but more welcome than my getting to know Andrew and Jane Norriss online. The name might not immediately mean anything but anyone watching TV in the 1990s will know Andrew from The Brittas Empire. Andrew wrote the first five series.

brittasempire001bBut then, with one of the more unexpected career swerves, he decided to throw in TV writing in exchange for the considerably less lucrative vocation of writing books for children. Mind, he still couldn’t completely escape the octopus clasp of television, for the producers took one read of his book Aquila and immediately saw what anyone reading it must see: that this is one of the most perfectly crafted stories ever written. And they promptly slapped it on television.

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I must admit that the Aquila TV series was really rather wonderful. But, of course, past performance is not an indicator of future returns and, given the unlikely collision of talents that go into making a good TV programme, it’s unlikely that the lightning of success would strike again. Besides, working with TV people is like supping with the devil: something best done with a very long spoon.

So, thankfully, Andrew’s been able to escape the dead grasp of television, and he’s been busy writing further books for children – most of which I’ve read and reviewed, here (The Unluckiest Boy in the World) and here (The Portal)  and here (The Touchstone). His latest, Jessica’s Ghost, I fear lays him open to the further blandishments of TV land so get in there and read it before some producer ruins it.

Given my untrammeled enthusiasm and admiration for Andrew’s work, imagine how pleased I was to find out that he liked my work too. He’s actually read Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King. This time, though, putting my marketing cap on, I thought I’d get him to read a pre-publication copy of Oswiu: King of Kings in the hope that his recommendation might open up the 8-12 junior reader market to me. Well, not really. Oswiu is not really suitable for 8 year olds (although I don’t think there’s anything in it that would be unsuitable for a 12 year old moving on to trying adult books for the first time). But, really,  I just wanted Andrew to read it. And he did, and here’s what he had to say about it.

Edoardo Albert conjures up an extraordinarily vivid and authentic picture of life in 7th Century Britain that is hugely enjoyable. This is fabulous story-telling, with the themes of greed, ambition, nobility and the power of religion woven together with consummate skill. This is the real Game of Thrones – a fabulous story, beautifully told, that turns out to be based on fact!

You can imagine just how pleased I am with this. Andrew is probably the most talented writer I know and to have such an endorsement is praise indeed. You hear that low pitched hum in the background? That’s the sound of a writer, purring.

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.3 in a short series

James Aicheson
James Aitcheson

James Aitcheson does, supremely well, what I hope to do in my own books: employ a profound knowledge of the history of the time he is writing about to make the actions of the men and women of the time understandable to modern readers. His Sworn Sword trilogy looks at the aftermath of 1066, and how William really conquered England, while his latest book, The Harrowing, represents a huge departure from the somewhat hackneyed norms of historical fiction writing, giving a determinedly downbeat and realistic portrayal of the impact of the Conquest on ordinary people.  He’s also an excellent speaker – my boys were rapt when he spoke at the Battle of Hastings re-enactment last year and James will be there again this year. If you’re going, make sure you look out for him.

This is James with the boys:

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And with me:

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So I was delighted when James agreed to read Oswiu: King of Kings before publication – and even more pleased by what he thought of it. Here’s what he said:

In Oswiu, the concluding instalment in his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edoardo Albert takes readers back to seventh-century England: a shadowy and turbulent era when Britons and Anglo-Saxons, heathens and Christians, contested for political and spiritual supremacy.

Albert writes with great passion; his love for this period of history shines through at every stage. His research is worn lightly, and yet his depiction of early medieval life has a strong ring of truth. In particular the post-Roman landscape of northern England, littered with roads, walls and other crumbling relics of the imperial past, is vividly described: a constant reminder that power is transitory and that even the mightiest empires must fall.

As regards the eponymous Oswiu, king of Bernicia, Albert paints a credible picture of a man struggling with the many burdens of rulership: weighed down by expectations of what a good king should be; plagued by threats to his power both at home and abroad; and overshadowed (as he has often been in history) by his celebrated elder brother and predecessor, Oswald.

Dynastic rivalries, shifting allegiances and pagan mysticism combine in this atmospheric novel, evoking a volatile world in which life is uncertain, authority and respect are hard-won, honour is all-important, and divine forces hold sway.

There. I couldn’t have asked for better. Thank you, James and remember, if you’re going to see the 950th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings on 15 and 16 October, look for James in the book tent.

Write More In Less Time

Ever wanted to know how to write more in less time?

Here’s how: disconnect from the internet and switch off the mobile.

There you go.

‘But, but, it’s research,’ I hear you say. No. No, it’s not, it’s timewasting. If you really do have to look something up, find it in a book.

‘What about promotion and marketing?’ Yes, yes, I know. Every writer nowadays has to be a combination of Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian, and flaunt themselves online. Set aside a defined time to do this. If you try to do it during writing time, you won’t have any writing to promote.

So there’s your answer. Now, switch me off and do it.

 

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.2 in a short series

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Take a look at this man. Most writers have the sort of face that fits on radio: Justin Hill looks like the sort of fellow you wouldn’t want to see standing opposite you in the enemy shieldwall. Only, judging by the photo, it looks like he’d favour the naked beserker style of fighting!  So, you’d listen to what he tells you about good books to read about the Dark Ages. Particularly when he’s written one of the best of them: Shieldwall, about the best evocation of late Anglo-Saxon England I’ve read (the sequel, Viking Fire, has just come out and I’m on it big time). But just to show he’s not all trapezius and deltoid, he also weaves tales around Chinese teashops (The Drink and Dream Teahouse) and memoirs around Eritrean coffeeshops (Ciao Asmara); and, a particular delight to me, writes bolter-blasting stories in the 40th millennium too when there is only war (Storm of Damocles).

This is what Justin has to say about Oswiu: King of Kings:

‘The death of the king plunges the north into crisis. A crowning achievement: meticulously researched, a long-overdue insight into our Anglo-Saxon past.’

There you go. Reading that, you’d better order Oswiu: King of Kings. You wouldn’t want to upset Justin, would you?

The Canon of Historical Fiction – what’s in it and what’s not

What is a canon? Apart from a camera maker, it’s also a cathedral priest, a church law and, for the purposes of this blog, the measure against which we judge what is good and what is not in literature. The canon is the ultimate best-of list, the books that have survived the centuries to speak along the conversation that is human history. But the canon must also show the breadth and possibilities of a literary genre.

So here I’m going to make a stab at defining and starting the canon of historical fiction. First, though, we need to define what we mean by historical fiction. The most obvious answer is that it’s written about people in the past, so we will begin by defining our first criterion: to qualify as historical fiction the work must be set in a time at least one generation before the time of writing.

Secondly, to give equal weight to both parts of its name, it must be a story grounded in historical fact. So while there will be fictional aspects to the story, it should not contradict history. By that criterion, something like Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which I would otherwise very much like to include, has to be excluded from the canon of historical fiction as Arthur – if he existed – fought very different battles to those depicted in Le Morte.

Following from this, we must also exclude historical fantasy. While it’s true that peoples in the past accepted the supernatural much more readily and therefore, to portray them properly, supernatural and fantastical elements may be introduced into a story, they should not take precedence over history. With that in mind, I think we would have to exclude The Odyssey from the canon, for while it’s quite possible that Odysseus wandered widely in his return from Troy, the mythical elements of the story put it firmly into legend rather than history.

So, with these criteria in mind, what makes up the canon of historical fiction through the centuries. Let’s go!

The Iliad – Homer. The grandaddy of them all. The foundation stone of pretty well all western literature. And, for fans of hard hitting historical fiction, it contains some of the most brutal depictions of battle ever written, and all in dactylic hexameter! My favourite translation is the one by Robert Fagles.

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By my criteria, The Aeneid can’t be included as historical fiction (but it’s certainly still worth reading), nor Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (just as worth reading and considerably more fun).

Moving into the early medieval period, Beowulf is disqualified because of its fantastical elements but  The Song of Roland, despite the somewhat unlikely casualty figures, makes it both as an account of a real battle and as an unparalleled insight into the beginnings of chivalric culture.

Although they’re plays, Shakespeare’s histories are supreme examples of the writer bringing the historical past to life and interpreting it afresh through the ages. Indeed, Shakespeare’s take on the Wars of the Roses has probably influenced our ideas of what happened then more than those of any historian. As he’s recently resurfaced, try Richard III (although a particular favourite is Henry VI part 3).

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But historical fiction as a genre really gets going in the 19th century and the man who set it running was Sir Walter Scott. His Waverley novels introduce characters at the meeting of competing social groups, while Ivanhoe pretty well invents the modern medieval novel.

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Most of the 19th century giants of English literature turned their hands to the historical novel, with examples ranging from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (pretty well my least favourite of his works) to Vanity Fair.

But the greatest 19th-century work of historical fiction must be War and Peace. Tolstoy wrote it some 60 years after Napoleon’s disastrous (for him) invasion of Russia, although in the story Tolstoy is as much concerned with his present as the past.

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Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed also uses the events of the past – Italy in the early 17th century – as part of an examination of pre-unification Italy. It’s one of the great novels of Italian literature.

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Moving to the new world, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper pretty well created the idea of the noble Indian, while tinging it with elegiac wistfulness for a disappearing people.

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Coming into the 20th century, Georgette Heyer pretty well single handedly created the Regency romance novel – she can’t be held responsible for its subsequent mutations! Robert Graves might have regarded I, Claudius and Claudius the God as literary hack work but they show less sign of being forgotten than his poetry, while of Mary Renault’s superb novels about ancient Greece my own favourite is The Mask of Apollo, which shows Plato trying, and failing, to put his political philosophy into practice through his teaching of Dionysius the Younger, ruler of Syracuse.

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There’s a strong strand of historical fiction written for children and, of these, I’d single out Rosemary Sutcliff and her Eagle of the Ninth as one of the best examples – and certainly worthy of a place in the canon.

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While I’ve mainly confined myself to the English-writing world, there is one 20th-century novel from an entirely different cultural milieu that every fan of historical fiction should read: Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Writing as a Japanese Catholic, Endo is both a part of and stands as observer to his culture, a position also endured by the hero of Silence, a Portuguese missionary priest in the 17th century who is forced to abjure his faith in the face of the torture meted out to Christians. Silence is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, so it definitely earns its place in our canon.

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I am no great fan of The Name of the Rose, but as an example of a sub-genre of historical fiction, the historical detective story, it deserves a place in the canon. On the other hand, I admit to being a complete fan boy of George Macdonald Fraser and Patrick O’Brian: I will complete this list of the historical fiction canon with Flashman and the Aubrey/Maturin books.

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Now, it’s your turn. Tell me what else you think should form part of the canon of historical fiction.

The Reviewer: A Story Review of Robert Aickman’s Strange Stories

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The Reviewer – for that was how he signed his name at the bottom of his column – sat down at his desk. He always took an almost physical satisfaction at it: the grain of the polished wood, the smoothness of the carving, the finish, all quietly spoke, in unison, of the taste of the man who sat before it. That was, the reviewer, thought, as it should be.

He picked up his pen, feeling it thick between his fingers, and paused, holding it above the fresh expanse of virgin paper that waited, spread upon his writing desk. Always, the pause; the delicious hesitation, the wait.

Ah, the wait.

The Reviewer allowed the wait to turn into the weight: the heavy load of words, building in his mind, swirling there in inchoate, pregnant silence.

Then, release.

When it was over, and he was spent, the Reviewer put the pen down, laying it neatly beside the sheet of paper: always, exactly parallel to the edge, and an inch away. Precision in such matters was a signifier of his own singularity.

With the pen retracted, the Reviewer turned his eyes to the paper. First, he cast his eyes over its entirety, taking the expanse in, in one single, appraising glance. The shape of the review was the first element of its felicity: how often had he, in his youthful, fumbling experiments, cast aside a work simply because the words made an unbecoming shape upon the page.

But here, the paragraphs were well proportioned, their very form propelling the reading eye onwards, down the page towards the final, juddering climax. For, of course, the Reviewer saved his best work for those authors he cared for most deeply: the ones he truly despised. For them: evisceration. The exposure of their incompetence was his satisfaction, the reason for his existence as a reviewer.

And this was one of the worst. A writer whose cod historical dialogue was meant to add veracity to his recreation of the 7th century, but who revealed, by the inversion of word order and his failed attempts to catch the alliterative punch of Anglo-Saxon poetry, only the tin ear of the 21st.

The Reviewer, satisfied with the form, steepled his fingers.

Now, to read.

The writing always came in a Bacchic flood, the word frenzy flooding his body and mind, so that he did not know what he wrote; only, that he was, finally, deliciously, spent.

The reading, however, was Apollonian: the careful, weighted appreciation of every word and phrase, every syllable and sentence. The Reviewer knew no purer aesthetic experience than the first reading.

He breathed out, calming mind and body, then brought his eyes to the page.

The Reviwer read through to the end.

He stared long at the page.

The words upon it did not change.

For a moment, he thought if, perhaps, some other hand had written them. But he was too fastidious in memory to allow himself that escape.

The words. Those trite, banal, graceless words were his.

They were worse, even, than the talentless hack he had sought to expose.

The Reviewer stood up. He left the paper white upon his desk, and went out into the street. The street lamp, its dirty yellow staining the pavement, lit him. The Reviewer looked up and down the street where he lived. No one left and no one came.

The Muse had left him.

No matter. The Reviewer knew where to find her again.

The last time, she had called herself Jade. The Reviewer’s lips ticked upwards in something like a smile. She had said, he had the biggest talent she’d ever seen.

He would just have to find the Muse again.

As he set off, walking down the street towards the cluster of drab yellow neon that told of the Muse’s presence, he wondered what she would call herself this time.

The End

(There. Robert Aickman’s strange stories are, indeed, strange, and I wasn’t at all sure how to review them. But if you like this little tale, then you’ll enjoy Aickman’s stories too.)

 

The Presence of the Past – no.1 in an occasional series

Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.

So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.

Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.

After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):

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And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:

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Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.

Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:

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And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.

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It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.