30 December, 2006

Sisters of Aphrodite: Radio 3 Sunday Feature

The Christmas Eve Sunday Feature on Radio 3 (available on Listen Again) was an interesting 45-minute documentary on female deities and their worshippers in prehistory. I found the overtly feminist tone rather irritating, and in places I got confused over dates, but there were plenty of noteworthy nuggets of information and ideas embedded in the narrative.

The presenter, historian Bettany Hughes, started with the prehistoric female figurines such as the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf. These figurines turn up over a wide area of Europe and Asia from France to Siberia and are dated at anything up to 25,000 years ago. I didn’t get a clear date for when they went out of use, but had the impression from the programme that the date range might run up to about 4,000 BC. The figurines are conventionally interpreted as representing a Mother Earth Goddess, hence the title ‘Venus’ applied to many of them by the excavators who discovered them. Their wide distribution has been interpreted to mean that the Goddess cult was universal, or at least very widespread. The programme suggested that the figurines might represent real women, rather than a universal goddess. Which is an interesting hypothesis, although I’m not sure how one would go about testing it – how could we tell whether an artefact represents a real woman, an idealised woman, an earthly incarnation or representative of a deity (e.g. a priestess) or a goddess, or indeed a combination of all of them? (This is touched on in an interesting web article, which is well worth reading - though I wonder if his contention that Stone Age women resembled Raquel Welch in the film One Million Years BC may contain an element of wishful thinking).

One suggestion made in the programme was that the preponderance of female figurines (apparently something like 95% of Stone Age figurines for which the sex can be identified are female and only 5% male) indicates that women held high social status. One contributor suggested that this might be connected with the development of farming and a settled lifestyle. The argument suggested that home-based activities such as raising crops in a garden, tending livestock in a yard, making pottery, weaving textiles, etc can be readily done by women, and that when people became sedentary and such activities became at least as important as hunting, women’s power and social status increased. There’s some logic to this, and I think I remember some anthropology survey that claimed that women have higher status in agrarian societies (e.g. peasant farmers where the staple crop is rice) than in hunting communities (e.g. the Inuit). (But I can’t find the reference, so don’t quote me on that, I may have mis-remembered it). Unfortunately, I don’t see how that hypothesis squares with the age of the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf, which is dated to around 24,000 years ago. As farming is supposed to have started around 10,000 BC in the Near East and taken several thousand years to spread across Europe, this would suggest to me that the ‘Venus’of Willendorf was carved in a hunter-gatherer society, in which case the postulated connection with the development of farming rather falls apart.

Another suggestion was that some of the female figurines represent a sort of childbirth manual. This suggestion was, I think, based on statuettes found on Cyprus near the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Paphos. The contributor argued that there are no temples associated with Goddess worship at the right date, and the figurines bear no insignia suggesting they represent a deity. But his excavations showed a high level of infant mortality and a number of women buried with neonates who had presumably died in or shortly after childbirth, which he interpreted as indicating that infant mortality was a problem of great importance to the society at the time. The figurines are shown seated with their knees apart, a recommended position for childbirth, which may indicate they were used to demonstrate a way to bear a child that might maximise the survival chances of both mother and baby. Though I don’t know how one could tell the difference between this and a good-luck charm or an invocation to a goddess who was thought to protect women in labour?

The programme then went on to look at female figures in art and artefact from the Bronze Age up to the Classical period in Greece, arguing that at least some of them represent women worshippers rather than goddesses – e.g. the lady carrying a tray of cakes. (Did you know that cake-baking moulds turn up in temple deposits from classical Greece? Now that gives a whole new meaning to How to be a Domestic Goddess, doesn’t it?) One of the titles quoted for a goddess of this approximate period (I got lost in the dates here, so I don’t know if it’s Bronze Age or Classical or both) was ‘Queen of Heaven’, a title that could be readily applied to numerous goddesses from numerous religions (ox-eyed Hera comes to mind, as does Frigg from Norse mythology). The parallel with the Virgin Mary was drawn, and there is a Christian church dedicated to Mary built on the site of the sanctuary of Aphrodite, suggesting that whoever built the church either saw a connection between two powerful female figures or thought it was worthwhile trying to make one. Apparently Mary’s title in some remote Cypriot villages is ‘The Most Blessed Aphrodite’, making the connection explicit. And a monastery high in the Troodos mountains owns an embroidered girdle which is reputed to have belonged to the Virgin Mary and is reputed to have the power to help infertile couples conceive – as evidenced by the many women who come to the monastery to wear the girdle and pray, and then write grateful letters to the monks when they later become new parents. Homer tells a story of Aphrodite lending her embroidered magic girdle to Hera. In that case the girdle had the power to make men and gods fall hopelessly in love with the wearer, which is not quite the same as aiding conception (though obviously connected) – perhaps Aphrodite’s girdle was a little risque for the Virgin Mary and was adapted to a new role, or perhaps it always had several attributes and different aspects dominated in different circumstances.

It doesn’t seem to me very surprising that religions/mythologies/cults (call them what you will) should pick up ideas and rituals from their environment, building on and adapting what has gone before. Pope Gregory the Great advised Abbott Mellitus to do just that when trying to convert the pagan English to Christianity, to make the transition to a new religion more acceptable by doing it in small steps (the letter is in Bede, Book I, Chapter XXX). Perhaps the practice has a long history. What do you think?

26 December, 2006

The White Mare, by Jules Watson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Orion, 2005, ISBN 0-75286-537-4

The White Mare is set in what is now Scotland in AD 79-81. All the main characters are fictional. The historical figures of Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia at the time, and Calgacus, leader of a confederation of tribes in Caledonia*, are important secondary characters, and there is a walk-on part for the Roman historian Tacitus, who was Agricola’s son-in-law and whose history is the only documentary record of the events.

Rhiann is a princess and priestess of the Epidii tribe in what is now Argyll in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Her tribe, in common with the others in Alba* (the name used for Scotland throughout the novel), reckons royal descent through the female line instead of the male line, and Rhiann is the only woman of childbearing age in the Epidii royal family. She therefore has an inescapable duty to marry and bear a son who will be the next king of the Epidii – if she does not, some other clan of the Epidii, or perhaps even another tribe, will take over the Epidii by force. When Eremon, an exiled Irish prince, arrives in Epidii territory with his warband of loyal followers, the Epidii druid and chieftains demand that Rhiann marry Eremon as a political alliance. Recognising her duty, Rhiann agrees, but a traumatic experience has left her emotionally crippled and terrified of marriage. Meanwhile, in the south of Alba, the Roman governor Agricola is leading a military invasion that will threaten not only the Epidii but all the tribes of Alba. Rhiann and Eremon have to protect their own tribal territory against the Roman threat, persuade the other tribes to unite into a wider alliance, overcome a variety of enemies nearer to home, and somehow come to understand each other well enough to forge a lasting relationship out of their marriage of convenience.

I first heard of The White Mare when Marg of Reading Adventures reviewed it. I’m delighted to see this under-utilised period of history being explored in historical fiction. The only historical account is the biography of Agricola written by the Roman historian Tacitus (full-text translation available here). Tacitus was writing only a few years after the events, and as he was married to Agricola’s daughter he may well have had access to first-hand information from Agricola himself. This closeness to the events being described lends veracity to Tacitus’ account, though it should be remembered that he (like all historians) will have selected from the material available to him and presented that which he thought most relevant to his narrative. There are no sources telling the Caledonian side of the story. As a result, there are enormous gaps in our knowledge of the social structure, values, culture, religion, language and history of first-century tribal Scotland, leaving tremendous scope for the novelist’s imagination. The author will have had to make up most of Rhiann and Eremon’s world and the people in it, and a helpful Historical Note sets out the skeleton of historical facts and the reasoning behind some of the extrapolations (part of the Historical Note is posted on the author’s web site under ‘History’). I am not an expert on Iron Age Scotland by any means, but I found the novel plausible. The female royal line is controversial (in this period, most things are). Bede, writing in Northumbria in AD 731, says that the Picts* reckoned royal descent through the mother in his day, though he tells the story in the context of an origin myth and modern scholars have suggested that it may be a contemporary tradition rather than a fact. I know of no incontrovertible evidence either way, so you can take your choice. The religion of Iron Age Scotland is unknown, and the author has postulated two competing religions, a male-dominated religion with druids similar to those recorded in Gaul and further south in Britain, and a female-dominated religion based on worship of an earth-mother Goddess and rituals centred around stone circles. It has previously occurred to me to wonder whether there might be a connection between the tradition of female royal descent and worship of a powerful female deity, so I have no problem with seeing both in the novel. Again, there is no definite evidence either way.

The White Mare recreates the lost world of Iron Age Scotland in rich detail, with attention paid to politics, religion, legal and social structures, a working economy, and details of domestic life including food, drink, clothing, jewellery and medicine. It recognises that there were different points of view regarding the coming of the Romans, as the Votadini tribe of south-east Scotland are presented as co-operating with Agricola, which is entirely consistent with the role documented for the tribe in later Roman Britain. I have my doubts about the credibility of a Roman-style palace being built in the middle of the hill-fort at Traprain Law in AD 80 as described in the novel (the remains of its foundations and tiled roof would surely have been visible in archaeological excavations, and there is no mention of such remains in a reasonably recent article), but I don’t suppose the entire area of the fort has been meticulously excavated, so who’s to say? The central characters, Rhiann and Eremon, are firmly anti-Roman and so the novel gives more emphasis and sympathy to this point of view, but the Roman side of the story is presented as well and the Roman characters are not demonised. Agricola is a character in his own right, with his own desires and motivations, and a rather timid Roman engineer is occasionally used to observe and comment on Caledonian society.

The main characters are well rounded, with a mix of good and bad qualities. Both Rhiann and Eremon are complex and intelligent with a strong sense of duty, and both have previous painful experiences to overcome. Caitlin and Conaire are in some senses sunnier versions of the two leads, with less responsibility on their shoulders and consequently more opportunity to be fun and outgoing. The main plot driver is the relationship between Rhiann and Eremon, and the overall tone is one of epic drama, sometimes veering into melodrama. Occasional verbal sparring between Rhiann and Eremon, Caitlin’s artless chatter and laddish humour among the warriors provide a few glimpses of humour to lighten the tone.

The secondary characters, such as Gelert the crafty druid, cruel king Maelchon, scheming Samana and noble Calgacus, are vividly drawn, though their clearly defined roles in the plot limit the aspects that can be portrayed and they may appear somewhat one-dimensional. Rhiann is a strong character without being a warrior princess, and although the Goddess cult is feminist the society as a whole isn’t presented as a feminist utopia.

The novel is very long (605 pages) and rather slow, in part because the detailed world-building takes up a lot of room, and in part because Rhiann’s emotional trauma seems to be repeated rather more than I thought was necessary. It starts to pick up around page 250 or so, but I still found it a slow read and would have preferred a faster pace and fewer reminders of Rhiann’s personal problems. This may be because I found it hard to credit that Rhiann’s aunt, a fellow priestess in the Goddess cult, didn’t recognise the reason for Rhiann’s aversion to marriage until well over halfway through the novel, whereas it seemed obvious to me within a few pages.

Most of the plot elements are not resolved at the end of the novel. You have to read the sequel, The Dawn Stag (even longer), to find out what happens in the end, so be prepared to embark on a 1200+ page odyssey.

There is a strong spiritual and religious theme in The White Mare, particularly for the Goddess cult (the rival druid religion gets less emphasis). Occasionally this spiritual theme spills over into events that appear to be overtly magical. For example, Samana casts a spell on Eremon, and Rhiann uses some sort of magic to bewitch a Roman sentry and gain access to a Roman fort. As I’ve said elsewhere, I am not a great fan of fantasy elements in historical fiction, and for me this tended to weaken the story.

I found it odd that none of the characters ever compared their situation and the choices facing them with the recent experiences of the tribes further south in Britain. The White Mare is set only a generation or so later than Boudica’s revolt against Rome in AD 61 (review of a novel telling Boudica's story here), and Cartimandua’s reign as a pro-Roman client queen. Yet no-one in the novel ever tries to draw lessons from the decisions made by Boudica and Cartimandua and the other tribal leaders further south. Geographical isolation isn’t the explanation, as there is reference to a marriage alliance with a prince of the Trinovantes, one of the tribes that joined Boudica’s revolt, so clearly the tribes in the novel have contact with their contemporaries in the south of Britain. Cartimandua’s territory is likely to have bordered Votadinian territory so she and Samana might even have been neighbours. Maybe the tribes of Caledonia don’t consider the other British tribes worthy of attention (though they are evidently considered worthy of marriage alliances with royal females). Maybe the events were so traumatic they were wiped from popular memory. However, it also extends to the Roman side, as Agricola fought military campaigns in Britain shortly after Boudica's defeat, yet he never refers to her revolt and its aftermath as a dire warning of the consequences of resisting Rome. I find this apparent disconnect from recent history rather puzzling.

A richly detailed recreation of Iron Age Scotland at the time of the first-century Roman invasion.

*The nomenclature of the inhabitants of what is now modern Scotland is confusing in the extreme. Tacitus refers to Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde as Caledonia. In later centuries, Latin writers from the late Roman Empire (fourth century AD or so), and Bede, also writing in Latin, refer to the inhabitants of north-east Scotland (roughly, north of the Forth and east of the main spine of the Highland mountains) as Picts. Irish writers writing in Irish at the same sort of time as Bede refer to the same area as Alba and its inhabitants as Albans. No source preserves the name that the inhabitants of the area used for themselves in their own language, whatever it was. It is entirely possible that these different names refer to different tribes who displaced each other; for what it’s worth, I’m more inclined to think that the simplest explanation is that they are all different names for the same people, with ‘Picts’ and ‘Pictland’ replacing ‘Caledonia’ in later Latin sources (possibly by a similar process to that which replaced the names of medieval duchies with the names of the larger kingdoms that absorbed them, e.g. the areas that were Gascony and Aquitaine in the 13th century are now referred to as parts of France), and ‘Albans’ and ‘Alba’ being the equivalent terms in Irish Gaelic.

15 December, 2006

December recipe: Alternative Christmas Pudding

This is my contribution to Marg and Kailana’s 2006 Advent Blog Tour. If you’re following the Tour, welcome!

Traditional Christmas Pudding can be a bit on the heavy side after the traditional huge Christmas turkey-with-everything-you-can-possibly-think-of dinner. Besides, with mince pies and Christmas fruit cake there’s rather a lot of dried fruit around, and it is possible to have too much of a good thing. So when it’s my turn to do the Christmas catering, I often make this chocolate sponge pudding instead of the usual plum pudding. It’s sweet and rich, the sauce is festively alcoholic, and it’s light enough to be a pleasure even after a big meal.

It’s known in the family as Stockbroker’s Pudding because it’s a modified version of a recipe I found in the Financial Times, back in the distant days when my job involved reading it (yes, that austere and august financial publication runs a cookery column on Saturdays, or at least it did in the early 90s. Not many people know that). If you’re feeling flush, you can substitute the cooking sherry in the sauce with brandy or whisky, in which case I suppose it should be called Merchant Banker’s Pudding :-)

Serves 8.

Stockbroker’s Pudding

Chocolate pudding:
1 oz (approx 25 g) cocoa
4 oz (approx 125 g) butter
4 oz (approx 125 g) granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp (1 x 5 ml spoon) vanilla essence
6 oz (approx 160 g) self-raising flour
1 Tablespoon (approx 15 ml) milk to mix

1 wine glass cooking sherry (or brandy or whisky if you prefer)
4 Tablespoons (4 x 15 ml spoons) clear honey
0.5 pint (approx 280 ml) milk
0.25 pint (approx 140 ml) double cream (I think this is called heavy cream in the US?)
juice of 2 lemons
1 heaped Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cornflour (heaped means piled as high as it will go)

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs and vanilla essence.
Mix the cocoa into a paste with 1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) of hot water. Beat into the eggs/sugar/butter mixture.
Fold in the flour and add enough milk to give a soft dropping consistency (i.e., the mixture is soft enough that a spoonful will just drop off the spoon).
Put in a greased pudding basin, cover, and steam for 1.5 hours approximately, until set and risen. You can make the pudding to this stage the day before, if you like, then all you have to do on Christmas Day itself is heat up the sponge and make the sauce as follows:

Mix the cornflour to a paste with a little cold milk.
Put the rest of the milk in a small saucepan. Stir in the cornflour paste and heat the mixture gently until it comes to the boil, stirring all the time. When it boils, the sauce will thicken.
Reduce the heat, then stir in the honey, followed by the lemon juice and alcohol.
Beat in the cream and remove from the heat.
Turn the chocolate sponge out onto a plate, pour the sauce over it, and serve.

Happy Christmas, one and all!

10 December, 2006

The Albatross of Mixed Metaphor......

...is alive and well and roaming the hallowed halls of the BBC. A trailer for a Radio 4 documentary on global warming warned, “....we are on the precipice of a runaway train.”

Most listeners no doubt just laughed or said “Whisky Tango Foxtrot?!” or “What do they pay the editors for?”. Mitch Benn of the satirical sketch team on The Now Show turned it into a comic song. Here’s an extract:

I’m caught between the Devil and a hard place
Between the fire and the deep blue sea
Between a rock and the frying pan
What a terrible place to be

I kicked two birds with one bucket
Bit more bullets than I could chew
I burnt my bridges at both ends
That’s a pretty dumb thing to do

And now I’ve got a snowball’s chance in a handcart
I hope you’ll let me explain
I’m standing on the precipice
Of a runaway train

Now I’m hoist by my own line and sinker
Since I opened up a whole bag of cats
I put my nose out of joint on the grindstone
I don’t know why I did that

I took a bull by the china shop
I won’t do that again
Now I’m standing on the precipice
Of a runaway train

You can hear the whole thing on Listen Again, either by listening directly or by downloading the MP3 file to play on your iPod. The song starts 24 minutes into the 8 December edition. (The rest of the show is also good for a laugh, if you like satire on British/world news and politics). It’ll be available until Friday 15 December, when it will be replaced by the next edition.

By the way, the discussion on historical fantasy in the post below is still running. I just thought I’d better post this now so you all had a chance to go and listen before the programme expires!

08 December, 2006

Historical fantasy

For me, historical fantasy is to novels what bacon and egg ice cream is to food; however much I like the components individually, the combination leaves me a little baffled. Reading Temeraire made me think about why this might be, so I’ll try to explain it here.

Better start with some definitions. For the purposes of this post, historical fantasy means a story that features supernatural powers and/or creatures unknown to natural history alongside real historical events or in a setting that claims to be a real historical time and place. I’ll illustrate how I think it differs from historical fiction, alternate history and fantasy by means of made-up examples:

  • Historical fiction - real events and setting, no supernatural forces. E.g. William of Normandy defeats Harold of England in battle in 1066, by shooting Harold in the eye with an arrow.

  • Historical fantasy - real events and setting, with supernatural forces playing a key role. E.g. William of Normandy defeats Harold of England in battle in 1066, by casting a spell on Harold or smiting him with a fire-breathing dragon.

  • Fantasy - invented events and setting, with supernatural forces playing a key role. E.g. Gwilym of Northland defeats Rorhald of Cornerland in battle in the Year of the Stunned Spider, by casting a spell on Rorhald or smiting him with a fire-breathing dragon.

  • Invented history - invented events and setting, no supernatural forces. E.g. Gwilym of Northland defeats Rorhald of Cornerland in battle in the Year of the Stunned Spider, by shooting Rorhald in the eye with an arrow.

  • Alternate history - real events and setting with one or more major alterations from recorded history, no supernatural forces. E.g. William of Normandy loses to Harold of England in battle in 1066, or William defeats Harold by using gunpowder.

Of course these all merge into one another, since books follow a continuous distribution, not a series of discrete groups. And it should go without saying that this is in no way intended as a hierarchy, and that I don’t consider any category to be superior to any other. There are some that I enjoy more than others, but a personal taste is not a judgement.

Supernatural, in this context, means an event or action for which no natural explanation is plausible. E.g. a human who can breathe underwater without special equipment, animals that talk in human languages, people who turn into animals and vice versa, inanimate objects that act or speak of their own volition, people who rise from the dead, and spells that work (whether they slaughter armies, move mountains or do the washing-up). It doesn’t include belief, technology or random coincidence. E.g. a warrior who believes he is possessed by a god, kills the enemy leader against heavy odds, turns the tide of battle and is hailed by the other characters as a god (that’s belief); painting a dog with phosphorus so the other characters think it’s a ghost (that’s technology); cursing someone who then falls dead of a stroke (that could be coincidence); dreaming that a colleague is in trouble, going to their rescue and arriving in the nick of time (that could be coincidence).

I enjoy historical fiction, fantasy and invented history (I’d put Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan in this latter category). But I find I have more trouble with both historical fantasy and alternate history. Why should that be?

I think it’s because I see a disconnect between the components of the story. A real historical time, place or event exists independently of the world of the novel. I usually know a little bit about the historical background before I start, and that may well be what drew me to the novel in the first place. Even if I know little or nothing about the history, I probably have some idea about the geography, climate, plants, animals and natural resources. As I read, I’m combining what I already know with what the author puts in the novel and building up a combined picture. I’m sure all readers do this to some extent, which is why authors don’t feel obliged to explain that Paris is the capital of France or that alcohol makes people drunk. Some background knowledge has to be assumed. In the case of historical fantasy or alternate history, as soon as William loses at Hastings or wins by using magic, there’s a direct conflict between what I already know and what the novel is telling me and the picture in my head falls apart. I have to consciously keep track of which version I’m supposed to believe, and this distracts me from the story.

I don’t have this problem with fantasy or invented history because the world in the novel has no independent existence that can conflict with the novel. I take Tolkien’s word for it that wizards can light fires with magic words or that dwarves fight with battle-axes, and as long as the author doesn’t tell me something different in the same novel I don’t have a problem. Al-Rassan might strike me as remarkably like medieval Spain and Rodrigo Belmonte as remarkably like El Cid, but they are not claiming to be medieval Spain or El Cid, so I don’t have a problem when Rodrigo Belmonte’s fate diverges from El Cid’s.

So I get around my difficulty with historical fantasy or alternate history by treating it as fantasy or invented history, taking place in a parallel world that happens to share some features with the real world. Provided I remember to do it, this avoids a collision between two incompatible mental images and leaves me free to enjoy the story for itself - if it’s compelling enough.

Does anyone else do this? I think I’m in a very small minority on this one. What do you think of historical fantasy?

05 December, 2006

Miscellany - Advent Blog Tour, and air travel

Remember how much fun it was opening the little doors on your Advent Calendar as a kid? Marg and Kailana are organising a virtual advent calendar this Christmas.

Here’s how it works (text from Marg's blog post):

Each day anyone who wants to participate could take turns sharing a little treat with our friends here in blogland. For example it could be something about a holiday tradition (and it could be whatever holiday you celebrate if you don't do Christmas), or a recipe, or a picture of a hot guy, or a favourite Christmas memory, movie, song...anything you like. We will create a list of links so that as people express interest we will add them to the list, and then we will post a link directing visitors to the appropriate blog. To give people a chance to get organised, we will start on Sunday 10 December. If there are more people than there are days that's fine too.....the more the merrier! So do you want to see a little treat each day?

More details, including the list of participants, available from Marg and Kailana. I’ve signed up for 16 Dec. Be sure to join the tour when it starts on 10 Dec, and if you feel like joining in you could always ask Marg and Kailana if there’s room for any more.

Recently I had reason to take a flight from London City Airport, which is an airport I haven’t used before. It’s a small airport tucked into the London Docklands financial district, and does mostly short-haul flights to European cities for the business travel market. Having a fairly short runway and steep approaches to clear the tall buildings, it doesn’t take big airliners and mostly flies 50-100-seater planes like the BAe 146.

Years ago a much older colleague was telling me that he used to do a lot of business travel way back in the 50s and 60s when air travel was still a big deal and most of the pilots were ex-military. He said you could always spot which pilots were ex-Navy, because even when they had a mile of runway to play with they still took off and landed as they'd learnt to do it on aircraft carriers. Plunge down like a dive bomber, bounce a couple of times, slam on all the brakes, bring plane to quivering halt in 50 yards, then realise the terminal building is still rather a long way off and sheepishly taxi the remaining mile while the passengers and cabin crew are gingerly picking themselves up and wondering if they're still in one piece. I am sure he was exaggerating :-) But London City would suit a Navy pilot.

You taxi out sedately enough, more or less like a normal airport. Then you turn onto the runway, the pilot steps on the gas, the engines roar into their best "When I grow up I want to be a Concorde" impression, the plane shoots off down the tarmac like a scalded cat, and about five feet later the pilot hauls the stick back and you've got a bird's-eye view of the Thames Barrier and the Millennium Dome (am I the only person who thinks it resembles a stunned spider?) while the plane pirouettes on one wing tip and heads off down river. The weather was clear over England, so I got to see the Thames estuary with the Essex marshes fading off into the distance, then we flew along the Kent coast and crossed the Channel at Dover. I couldn't see the castle, but I could see the harbour breakwaters and the line of the white cliffs, and Cap Gris Nez near Boulogne on the other side jutting out just like it looks on a map. I've walked the French coast path between Cap Blanc Nez (which really is white) and Cap Gris Nez (which really is grey), so it was rather nice to see them from the air.

Much more fun than flying from a huge hub like Heathrow :-)

27 November, 2006

Flight of the Sparrow, by Fay Sampson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Robert Hale, 1999, ISBN 0-7090-6402-0

First, a disclaimer. I have a passion for seventh-century Britain, particularly Northumbria and its neighbouring territories, and one of my own novels is set there. I try to review objectively, but my fascination for the period may colour my reactions, so you might want to bear this in mind

Flight of the Sparrow is set in Northumbria, Mercia and Gwynedd and spans most of the life of King Edwin of Deira (also known as Edwin of Northumbria). It begins around 588 AD* when Edwin’s homeland of Deira is annexed by Aethelfrith the Ferocious of Bernicia and Edwin is sent into exile as a small child. It ends with his death in 633 AD. The central character is Edwin himself, who narrates the novel in first person. Most of the other main characters are also historical figures, including Cadfan and Cadwallon of Gwynedd, Bishop Rhun of Rheged, Raedwald of East Anglia and his queen, Hild (later to be the Abbess Hild of Whitby who featured in the novel Wolf Girl), Bishop Paulinus of York and Edwin’s faithful friend and thane Lilla.

Edwin grows up as a political refugee at the court of the Christian British King Cadfan in Gwynedd (modern North Wales), always overshadowed and mocked by Cadfan’s son Cadwallon and always in fear of Aethelfrith the Ferocious. Aethelfrith’s pursuit drives him to the English kingdoms of Mercia and then East Anglia, until with help from Raedwald (spelled Redwald in the novel) he regains his kingdom. A new wife and a missionary from Kent pressure him to accept Roman Christianity, but Edwin has a guilty secret in his past that he cannot confess to either wife or priest.

This is an elegantly written psychological study of religious guilt, self-doubt and the corrosive miseries of exile. It is narrated in first person throughout by the central character, Edwin. Readers who are captivated by the character of Edwin will find the book compelling; those who don’t warm to him may find the close focus on a single individual claustrophobic. I would have liked to get out of Edwin’s unhappy head once in a while and see the world through other eyes. Other characters experience sharp conflicts - for example, the thane torn between loyalty to his king and religious belief - but only Edwin’s dilemmas and uncertainties are fully explored. The narrative is in past tense for the first half of the novel and then shifts to present tense for the second half. This change in tense must be profoundly significant but I have to admit I still haven’t figured out why, and I found it distracting.

Flight of the Sparrow is closely focused on Edwin’s self-doubt and religious guilt. Other aspects of life receive less attention, so the world of the novel can feel rather earnest. I missed the epic heroism of Beowulf and Y Gododdin, the dry wit of Rhiannon in the Mabinogion and the earthy humour of the Oxford Book Riddles. The novel gives the impression that it might be part of a larger work, as characters such as Rhun of Rheged and his granddaughter Rhiainmelt are introduced in some detail as though they were going to be important, and then disappear. Hild’s story too is clearly unfinished at the close of the novel. I wonder if there may be more to come?

For some reason, the Battle of Chester has been moved from its conventional date of 613-616 to some considerably earlier period, since in the novel it takes place when Edwin is still an adolescent (he would have been 28-31 if the battle had been given its conventional date). The conventional date is not secure (few dates in this period are), being derived from a single source (the Annales Cambriae) and not specifically dated by Bede**, but specific events are so rare in this period that I would have preferred to see its traditional date retained, or a reason for the move given in an author’s note.

Flight of the Sparrow has a strong ethnic/national consciousness, almost a ‘clash of civilisations’ theme. The English characters talk of “the English conquest ” and “since our longships landed we’ve dreamed of taking the whole island of Britain” and of the English “pushing west all the time and driving your British cavalry back to the sea”. The British characters talk of “There’s only us in the west left free” and “your English warhost strides across our island” and “we will do our part for Britain”. This concept of ethnic struggle is expounded in the tenth-century poem Armes Prydein, but other sources such as Y Gododdin or the Canu Heledd or the Taliesin poetry or most of Bede seem to be concerned more with the doings of individual kings and kingdoms. I find it particularly hard to imagine that the English settlements were driven by some organised strategic battle plan for the conquest of Britain that extended over two hundred years or more (the far more centralised Roman state invaded Britain in a piecemeal and patchy way, taking a bit here and a bit there as opportunity arose, so why should the English settlements be any different?). The settlement pattern seems to me to be equally consistent with the simpler explanation of opportunistic land grabs by small groups at the expense of their neighbours.

The central character, Edwin, is portrayed as irresolute and fearful, racked by self-doubt and a crippling inferiority complex. Things happen to him and he reacts to circumstances, rather than driving events, and he is always afraid of what other people might think of him. This may well reflect the realities of growing up as a political refugee, a cross between a beggar, a hostage and a pawn, always dependent on his host’s charity or political whim. Such an existence might well do lasting psychological damage, and this novel provides an unflinching portrayal of the bitter hopelessness of exile. One key thing that seems to me to be missing, however, is a convincing demonstration of how this insecure, uncharismatic individual, prone to daydreaming in battle and apparently not physically strong (he is always having to be rescued or supported by his faithful bodyguards), managed to become a successful warrior-king. Seventh-century Britain was not a society known for fixed institutions, political stability and bloodless transitions of power. Kingship might be inherited by blood but it also had to be earned and maintained by the sword. Edwin’s own kingdom of Deira might have rallied to him on the strength of blood alone, but why would the warriors of his enemy Aethelfrith swear allegiance to him, and why would the other English kings acknowledge him as overlord? The novel says they did, but it does not show a convincing reason. I found this apparent mismatch between the weak, indecisive character of the narrator and the successful warlord hard to accept. I suppose the reader just has to take it on trust that he must look more sure of himself than he is.

The novel is elegantly written in literary prose, with lyrical descriptions of landscape and religious rites and a strong spiritual component, particularly for Christianity.

A psychological study of exile and religious guilt set in a fascinating and neglected period of British history.

Has anyone else read it?

*The date of Aethelferth’s annexation of Deira is not known and an alternative date of 605 AD is also argued (there may be others, but 588 and 605 are the two main contenders). I personally think the case for 605 is more convincing but the evidence, such as it is, can bear multiple interpretations.
**Bede puts it in a chapter headed ‘AD 603’, but says only that it occurred ‘long after the death’ of St Augustine. He doesn’t give the year of Augustine’s death, but it is possible to deduce that Augustine was still alive in 604 and was dead by 609, so either of these would be consistent with the Annales Cambraie date.

21 November, 2006

In Our Time: The Peasants' Revolt

If you have the slightest interest in medieval England, you may like to know that Radio 4's In Our Time programme did the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 last week. You can listen to it from the In Our Time page on the BBC's Listen Again service. Programmes stay available for Listen Again more or less indefinitely. If you want to download it as an MP3 file so you can play it on your iPod, you need to collect the file on or before Thursday 23 November, as the MP3 file is usually only available for the current programme, so on Thursday it will be replaced with the file for the new episode.

As ever, Melvyn Bragg and his guests pack more information and ideas into a 45-minute radio programme than your average blockbuster TV docudrama gets into a whole series. For example:

  • although it’s called the Peasants’ Revolt, it actually included artisans, churchwardens, reeves, bailiffs and similar people of substance. “Middle England on the march”, as one of the contributors said.

  • the rebels displayed remarkable organisation and ease of communication. Letters travelled across East Anglia in a day. The attack on the privileged monastery at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, was instigated on receipt of written instructions from the men of Kent. The rebels converged on London from multiple directions on the Feast of Corpus Christi, a day everyone knew and could recognise. This rebellion was sophisticated and organised, run by people with considerable administrative ability, and that in itself seems to have terrified the top brass, who had never imagined that the lower orders could be so effective

  • the mayor of London didn’t want his city sacked and was staunchly anti-rebel. He and the aldermen raised what amounted to an army, which was effectively the only armed force on the government side as the king had almost no troops of his own

  • the rebels burned but did not loot - declaring, “we are not thieves” - and in some cases they selectively destroyed administrative and tax records but left academic and monastic libraries untouched.

  • the rebels showed a remarkable ability to get into supposedly impregnable fortresses - the Tower of London, Rochester Castle, numerous others. Either there were a lot of sympathisers who were ready to betray castles to the rebels, or they were remarkable bluffers and/or negotiators, or there were ways and means of getting into medieval castles that meant they weren’t as tough as they look. This reminded me of Alianore's recent post about the rescue of Edward II from Berkeley Castle in 1327. I wonder if the rebels used similar techniques for gaining access to castles, whatever they were.

  • serfdom was already in terminal decline and continued in terminal decline after the rebellion. One reason for this was that it served neither the peasants nor the aristocracy well, as both sides needed and benefited from increased flexibility of labour. Richard II himself flouted all the legislation intended to prevent labour mobility when he was building Windsor Castle, because he needed the labourers. In which case one wonders why the government tried to legislate to prevent labour mobility in the first place? Presumably following the Way of the Ostrich and trying to avoid change by pretending it wasn’t happening.

I could go on, but I won't, as the programme covers it better than I could paraphrase. If you're at all interested in the era, do go and listen. You'll find it’s 45 minutes very well spent.

Did anyone else hear it?

15 November, 2006

November recipe: Christmas mincemeat

Yes, I know, it's only November, and Christmas comes earlier every year, but mincemeat has to mature for a few weeks before you can use it. So if you fancy making your own mince pies this year, November is the ideal time to start.

Why bother, when you can buy ready-made mincemeat in jars? Well, same reason as for any other food, I suppose: you know what's in it, and you can vary the recipe to suit your own tastes. Want more rum in it? Go right ahead (but leave some in the bottle to drink). Want it more or less sweet? Alter the amount of sugar. Someone in the family with a pathological hatred of cut mixed peel? No problem, miss it out. Fancy adding some glace cherries, dried apricots, chopped dates, almonds, nuts? Substitute some of the dried fruit with the equivalent weight of your preferred ingredient. (Yes, cherries in mincemeat is probably as heretical as potatoes in a Cornish pasty, but so what?) Prefer other spices? The choice is yours.

This recipe uses cooking apples, because the trees in my garden and my neighbour's garden produce cooking apples. If you prefer dessert apples, cut the amount of sugar by half and adjust to taste.


1 lb (approx 500 g) cooking apples, when peeled and cored
8 oz (approx 250 g) currants
8 oz (approx 250 g) sultanas
8 oz (approx 250 g) raisins
3 oz (approx 80 g) cut mixed peel
8 oz (approx 250 g) demerara sugar
0.5 tsp (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
0.5 tsp (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
0.5 tsp (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground mixed spice
1 orange
1 lemon
5 Tblsp (approx 75 ml) dark rum

Grate or finely chop the apples.
Mix with the dried fruit, sugar and spices in a large bowl.
Add the grated rind and juice of the orange and lemon.
Add the rum.
Mix well.
Pack into large jars and press well down. The less air there is in the jars, the better the mixture will keep.
Cover the jars.
Store in a dark cupboard. After about a week, open the jars, press the contents down thoroughly and reseal. By this time the sugar will have drawn some of the water out of the apples and the mincemeat will have started to form its characteristic sticky juices. Try to press all the fruit down so that the juices just cover the fruit, as it seems to keep better this way (I think because the sugary liquid acts as a preservative in the same way as in jam, but don't quote me on that).
Leave in a dark cupboard for 3-4 weeks to mature, then use in mince pies or whatever other dish of your choice.

The first time I made this I got the quantities wildly wrong and we were still eating mince pies after Valentine's Day. So I know it keeps at least that long.

09 November, 2006

Charles le Temeraire and Jeanne Hachette

A friend reading my review of Temeraire observed that the name for him always conjures up images of a contemporary naval thriller, The Deep Silence by Douglas Reeman, which features a nuclear submarine called HMS Temeraire.

This led me to wonder about the origin of the name Temeraire. In the novel Temeraire, Laurence names the newly-hatched dragon Temeraire after a ship that was captured from the French and taken into the British Royal Navy. Sure enough, the name does indeed have a long and distinguished tradition in the Royal Navy, perhaps most famously immortalised in Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire. Presumably Reeman was drawing on this naval tradition for the name of his fictional submarine.

The French, you will remember, got there first with the name, since the original HMS Temeraire was a captured French ship. French naval history takes the name back to at least 1671.

Temeraire means ‘bold’ or ‘daring’ in French, an auspicious meaning for a fighting ship. It’s derived from the same Latin root as the English word ‘temerity’, which the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘rashness’ (from Latin temere, rashly). Not, perhaps, quite so auspicious.

This meaning takes us back another two centuries, to Charles le Temeraire, fourth and last Duke of Burgundy (1433-1477). His nickname can be translated as either Charles the Bold or Charles the Reckless, both of which seem to have suited him. Wikipedia gives a summary of his career, with more information in the French-language version, if you read French.

Charles le Temeraire was married to Margaret of York, sister of Richard III and Edward IV of England, which is where I first heard of him. He gave his two brothers-in-law shelter in his territory when Warwick the Kingmaker temporarily threw them out of England in 1470 during the Wars of the Roses, and then lent them ships and men to sail back in 1471 and turn the tables. Without Charles le Temeraire, English history might have worked out rather differently. (Those of you who have read Sharon Penman’s novel of Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour, may remember that Charles gets a walk-on part in it about a third of the way through). Charles was killed in 1477 fighting the Swiss and the Duke of Lorraine, and his only daughter Marie of Burgundy was one of the great heiresses of her generation. She married Maximilian I of the Hapsburg dynasty, which is how the Hapsburgs came into possession of the Low Countries and fought over them for the next couple of centuries. Charles’ widow Margaret, as Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, made life as awkward as possible for Henry VII after he defeated and killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, by funding assorted Yorkist rebellions, including those of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.

A lesser-known fact about Charles le Temeraire, and one that he might not care to have remembered, is that he shares with England the dubious honour of having his troops soundly defeated in battle by a young Frenchwoman of humble origins called Joan. Charles’ Joan was Jeanne Laisne of Beauvais, nicknamed Jeanne Hachette. I first came across her story in a French cafe, reading an advert for a commemorative beer, ‘Rebelle’, made in her honour by the local brewery.

Charles was always trying to conquer bits of northern France to connect his territories in Burgundy with his territories in the Low Countries, and in 1472 his soldiers assaulted the town of Beauvais. The assault was going well, and a Burgundian soldier had gained the town walls and planted the Burgundian flag there. Jeanne, aged about 16 at the time, is reputed to have seized an axe, thrown the luckless soldier and his flag off the walls, and led the men of the town’s garrison in a charge that repelled the attack. Yes, ‘hachette’ means what you think it does, and it’s an even more graphic image when you reflect that ‘steak hachee’ means, approximately, mincemeat. Which is presumably what Jeanne and the rest of the rebels made of Charles’ soldiers. Apparently Jeanne’s reward was to be married to the husband of her choosing. I should imagine he was careful to behave himself.

From a fictional dragon and a fictional nuclear submarine, through the British and French navies, to a 15th-century reckless duke and a local heroine called Joan the Hatchet. How’s that for a meander down historical byways?

02 November, 2006

Temeraire, by Naomi Novik. Book review

Edition reviewed, Voyager (HarperCollins), 2006, ISBN 0-00-721909-1

Temeraire is a historical fantasy, with the premise that flying dragons were used as an aerial strike force during the Napoleonic Wars. All the main characters are fictional.

Will Laurence, captain of a Royal Navy ship, captures a French frigate and finds that it is carrying a dragon’s egg that is just about to hatch. A dragon has to be harnessed immediately after hatching, or it will turn feral and be useless for military service. The person who harnesses the dragon will be its handler for life, as dragons are reluctant to accept a change of handler once the initial bond has been formed, and will have to join the Aerial Corps as an aviator. Aviators are held in honour, since dragons are a key weapon, but they live apart from the rest of society and are not considered respectable. So Will Laurence is initially horrified when the newly hatched dragon spurns the man chosen to be its handler and takes a fancy to him instead. His strong sense of duty compels him to harness the baby dragon and give it a name - Temeraire - even though this means he has to give up his beloved ship, his family’s approval and his prospective wife. Fortunately, Temeraire proves to be more than adequate compensation. The excitement of training in aerial combat and finding their place among the other dragons and aviators proves a rewarding and fascinating experience for them both. And finally they are called upon in a desperate attempt to foil an airborne invasion, where Temeraire’s extraordinary powers are revealed for this first time.

Temeraire is a rattling good yarn with a fair amount of action and some very appealing characters. Indeed, almost all the main characters are remarkably nice people; I can only think of one really unsympathetic character (an aviator who neglects his dragon). Although the aviators are initially suspicious of Laurence, as an outsider entering their closed society, they mostly accept him and get on very well together with almost no petty infighting or backbiting. Perhaps this is due to the beneficial influence of the dragons, who are universally kind, courteous and well-mannered. One wonders why the dragons aren’t running the world, as they’d probably make a better job of it than the humans. Temeraire in particular is a very attractive character, intelligent, affectionate, willing, considerate, eager to please and utterly without guile. No wonder Laurence gets so fond of him. His first word, minutes after hatching is “Why...?”, and he retains this curiosity about the world throughout the novel. I find this appealing in itself, and it also provides an excellent world-building device, as Temeraire has to learn everything about the world and Laurence has to learn to adapt to the strange society of the aviators and the techniques of dragon combat. The reader therefore painlessly learns along with them as they explore their new environment.

The plot has many separate strands: Laurence and Temeraire have to get to know one another; Laurence has to adapt to his new life and social position; they both have to learn about aerial combat; there is a minor espionage sub-plot; a splendid illustration of an abusive relationship; a mystery over Temeraire’s breed and why his egg was aboard the French frigate in the first place; the military build-up to the climactic battle scene; and a tangential romantic encounter for Laurence. This makes the book feel very much like the first in a series, as there is clearly huge scope for further exploration.

There are some nice flashes of humour, mostly of the understated variety - for example, the scene where Laurence finds himself delicately explaining about whores to Temeraire, or the scene in which dragons turn out to be a more appreciative audience for music than London high society. And the scholarly Appendix on the different breeds of dragon, written in the style of an 18th-century paper to the Royal Society, is great.

I found the historical setting distracting and annoying, a problem I often have with historical fantasy (more on this in another post). I can’t suspend my disbelief sufficiently to accept that dragons fought at the Battle of the Nile or that Nelson survived Trafalgar, and so every time a historical event or person was mentioned it detracted from the story. This was further compounded by the repeated references to the aerial invasion force setting off from Cherbourg and requiring an easterly wind to carry it to Dover. Sorry, but the last time I looked at a map Cherbourg was a long way west of Dover. An easterly wind might be handy for invading America from Cherbourg, but for invading Britain a southerly would be more useful and would take you to the Isle of Wight. An invasion force arriving at Dover on an easterly might have started from Calais or Dunker or Ostend, but not from Cherbourg. Once I decided to read Temeraire as pure fantasy, set in an invented world that just happens to share some names with ours, these annoyances disappeared and I could get on with enjoying the story.

One difficulty I had was in fitting the social structure of the novel into the world as described. Longwings are the most important strike dragon, since they can spit poison. They can only be handled by women. Now, this implies to me that every battle since the time of Henry VII (when the Longwing breed was first developed, according to the Appendix) would have had at least one female war hero. For example, Longwings (and presumably also their female captains) are said to have played an important role in defeating the Armada. Is it really credible that the presence of female aviators would have stayed such a secret for 300 years that Laurence had not even suspected their existence until he joined the Aerial Corps? And surely the presence of women in a key military role would have had some effect on the evolution of the role women expected to play in the rest of society? Yet the social norms outside the Aerial Corps are those of Jane Austen’s world, with women who appear to have little career choice other than finding a husband. I also found it puzzling that the dragons, who are clearly at least as intelligent as the human characters and enormously stronger, routinely obey humans. Why do they take orders from people? Why do they let humans dictate their breeding? Perhaps this will be picked up on in later books in the series, as Temeraire shows attractive signs of independent thought.

Many thanks to Marg, Nessili and Joy Calderwood, whose enthusiastic reviews convinced me to give Temeraire a try!

Has anyone else read it?

31 October, 2006

A rose by any other name.....

Sign seen outside a farm gate in Norfolk, UK:

Horse Muck - 50p
Equine Residue - £1.00
Poo de Chevaux - £2.00

Clearly a man who knows his market!

25 October, 2006

Ancient Egyptian hair dye - technology finally catches up

Ever wondered why the people in Egyptian tomb paintings all seem to have such lovely lustrous black hair? Apart from the fact that the well-off wore wigs, of course. It turns out that the ancient world used a hair dye that - apart from the unfortunate drawback of being toxic - was several thousand years ahead of its time. I’m indebted to Philip Ball of Homunculus for an explanation of this ancient technology. Annoyingly, the American Chemical Society website with the original research report isn’t open-access and I haven’t got a subscription, but there’s enough information in the Homunculus post to work out the basics.

First, a little background on hair structure. Hair is made up mostly of a protein called keratin, which is the same material that makes up hooves, claws and fingernails. Each keratin molecule is a long slender thread coiled to form a cylindrical helix, exactly like a spring. This is why hair is flexible and will stretch before it breaks - the keratin molecules can uncoil and stretch out before springing back into their original shape, like a spring. Four of these keratin springs are twisted together to form a rope, called a protofibril, and eleven of these protofibrils are twisted together to form a thicker rope, called a microfibril. Microfibrils are packed together in long thin bundles called macrofibrils, the macrofibrils pack together to form long thin cortical cells, and the cortical cells pack together to form a single hair. There is a neat little animation here showing how all this works. The ropes are held together by chemical bridges between sulphur atoms in adjacent keratin molecules. You need a lot of these sulphur bridges to hold the many millions of keratin molecules together in a single hair, so hair contains a lot of sulphur. This high sulphur content is why hair and feathers smell so disgusting when burned - many sulphur compounds smell foul (hydrogen sulphide, the characteristic stink of rotten eggs, is a good example). The more sulphur bridges, the stronger the structure - so fingernails have more sulphur bridges than hair and are therefore stronger, even though they are made of the same keratin protein. Permanent wave and hair straightening products work by breaking these sulphur bridges and then reforming them while the hair is pulled into a different shape.

With me so far? Good. The ancient hair dye recipe is as follows: Mix lead oxide with slaked lime (a strong alkali) and water to make a paste. Rub this paste into the hair for three days. After this time, the hair will be dyed black throughout, and the dye won’t fade or wash out.

The alkali component of the dye breaks some of the sulphur bridges holding the keratin molecules together, and the sulphur then reacts with the lead oxide to form lead sulphide. Lead sulphide is a dense black substance that’s insoluble in water - it’s similar to the black corrosion that forms on silver jewellery. The clever part of the dye recipe is that the lead sulphide forms tiny crystals that attach to individual keratin microfibrils, deep within the structure of the hair. This makes the dye deep, long-lasting and permanent. It’s also something that materials science has only recently learnt how to do.

The drawback is that lead is poisonous. Homunculus comments that this rarely bothered people in the ancient world, since lead compounds were used in cosmetics (and paint, until very recently). This may be because life expectancy was shorter then, as he points out. Lead is a slow cumulative poison and it would probably have taken years to accumulate a lethal dose from face paint or eyeshadow, quite possibly more years than the average lifespan. It is also often very difficult to recognise the connection if the effects are delayed, as would be the case with chronic lead poisoning. If you have been using lead cosmetics for 40 years before you fall ill, your face paint or hair dye isn’t the first place you look for the cause of illness. It took Richard Doll years of rigorous epidemiological research to demonstrate a connection between smoking and lung cancer, and I don’t suppose he had a counterpart in Ancient Egypt. Moreover, the ancient Egyptians were great users of wigs, and some examples have even survived to this day - the British Museum has some in its collection (the link is to a picture gallery, click on page 6). A wig would only need to be dyed once as the dye would not grow out, so exposure to lead from a hair dye used on wigs would be much lower than the same dye used on natural hair. It seems quite possible to me that the lead hair dye might not be sufficient to cause poisonous effects if it was applied to wigs rather than to hair (unless there was some poor slave whose task it was to dye wigs all day, which would surely be a candidate for Worst Job in History).

22 October, 2006

Miscellany: history quizzes and a short story competition

Skint Writer is running the second Skint Short Story Competition. Entries must be no more than 1500 words, never before published (not even on the Web), and the closing date is 30 November 2006. The theme is spirituality. Full details here. Entries are posted on Skint Writer's blog - I haven't found a page that groups together all the entries so far, so scroll down through the posts until you find them. If you can write short stories, why not give it a go?

If you're interested in history, and if you're reading this you probably are, test your general knowledge with the history quizzes on the European History website. There are lots to choose from, including:

The links take you to the first question in each quiz. Pick your answer, click on it, and you'll be told whether you were right or wrong and invited to try again or go on to the next question. There are 15 questions in each quiz.

Let me know how you get on!

There are lots more to play with, and if you don't find one that takes your fancy, you can create one and submit it to the site via email.

16 October, 2006

Nigel Tranter's historical novels

This is in response to a query in another discussion, in which someone asked which of Nigel Tranter’s novels were worth reading besides the Bruce Trilogy.

Nigel Tranter wrote more than 60 historical novels set in Scotland, plus a great many other books. The public library in the town I lived in as a kid had a lot of his historical novels, and I read twenty or thirty of them. So although I haven’t read everything, and a good many of them have blurred together in my memory, I can probably claim that my impression of his novels is based on a reasonably representative sample.

The typical Nigel Tranter historical novel takes a chunk of Scottish history and dramatises it in narrative form. It may be a historical event or episode, e.g. the Wars of Independence or Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight after Culloden, or a dramatised biography of a historical figure, e.g. William Wallace or Rob Roy MacGregor, or a combination of both e.g. the Bruce Trilogy is both a biography of Robert Bruce and an account of the Wars of Independence. Sometimes the main character is an important historical player, e.g. Bruce or Wallace, sometimes it is a real figure on the periphery of events, e.g. Thomas Kerr of Ferniehurst who tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots’ personal rule in Scotland in Warden of the Queen’s March. As far as I can tell, the novels stick closely to historical events and weave a story in the gaps where information is missing.

Real life, and therefore real history, doesn’t usually follow a nice neat “story arc” (I think that’s the correct lit-crit term?), and doesn’t always take the most dramatic turn of events. I find many of Nigel Tranter’s novels episodic, rather than following a simple three-act play structure with a character in pursuit of a single goal. I think this is probably a consequence of respect for the underlying history. For example, it would be satisfying for Robert Bruce to defeat his main antagonist (Edward I) in battle to win Scotland’s independence, and it’s less dramatic for Edward I to die of a stroke and Robert Bruce to defeat his successor, Edward II, at Bannockburn. But that’s how the history happened. Another author might have chosen to alter the date of Bannockburn or the date of Edward I’s death in pursuit of a dramatic clash between the main protagonist and the main antagonist. Tranter sticks to the history. I prefer that approach - that’s why, in my view, it’s called historical fiction - but plenty of people disagree. You take your choice. When the underlying history is stirring stuff, as with the Wars of Independence, the actual events are dramatic enough to carry a story, even if it may not be as neat as books of literary theory prescribe. When the underlying history is rambling, as with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight after Culloden where he seems to have stumbled from one refuge to another without much of a goal beyond avoiding capture, the associated novel seems to be rambling too.

Tranter is good at capturing political complexity. Taking the Wars of Independence again, plenty of Scottish nobles fought for Edward I and/or against Bruce. Rather than taking a simplistic nation-state view that they were ‘traitors’ or ‘backsliders’, Tranter’s Bruce Trilogy recognises that family loyalties and rivalries were at least as important as nationality (a concept that hardly existed at the time). Similarly, although Robert Bruce is the hero of his trilogy he is not without flaws, and although Edward I is on the opposite side he is not shown as a black-hat villain but as a fully developed character with a mix of good and bad qualities. Expect to find at least two sides to every war, and good people on all of them.

Tranter is also very good on historical detail, especially on minor aspects of everyday life. Expect to learn about the workings of a Highland shieling (summer grazing in the high mountains), the method for waterproofing boots when going duck shooting in a marsh, castle architecture, battle tactics and strategy. Landscapes are accurately and vividly described. I happen to have visited the Pass of Brander, Rannoch Moor, Glen Sligachan on Skye and Glen Trool, and they look much as described in the novels. The plants and wildlife are right too, except for that curious conspiracy of silence about the midge common to most Scottish novels and maintained by Highland tourist boards to this day.

Tranter’s historical novels are stronger on battles and politics than on relationships and romance. There are some convincing romantic relationships, such as Robert Bruce’s marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh, but they are not a key feature. If you enjoy romance and relationships, you’ll do better elsewhere. His prose style is fairly straightforward, though it does tend to be verbose and can veer into the coy. Love scenes in particular can get so purple as to be unreadable for me (they are short, so easily skipped). If you subscribe to the view that the only acceptable dialogue tag is ‘said’, you may have problems as Tranter’s style is to vary the verb wherever possible, so you get ‘mentioned’, ‘observed’, ‘began’, ‘returned’, ‘wondered’, ‘asserted’, ‘objected’, and so on. I like variation, as I find ‘he said/she said’ gets on my nerves, but one can have too much of a good thing and occasionally I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a game of Thesaurus Bingo. Also expect quite long stretches of narrative and backstory, with a fair amount of ‘telling’ not ‘showing’.

In summary, I’d say Nigel Tranter’s historical novels score highly for content, but less so for structure and style. So the ‘best’ for you are likely to be those that deal with a period or a character you’re particularly interested in. A bibliography organised by historical period and character can be found on the Nigel Tranter website*.

The ones that stand out for me are:

  • The Bruce Trilogy, for its recognition of the political complexity of the Wars of Independence, for the delightful character of Jamie Douglas, for the heroic figure of Bruce, for the description of the Hebridean Lordship of the Isles, and for the battle scenes. Easily my favourite of Nigel Tranter's novels.

  • Macbeth the King, because the historical Macbeth is an intriguing historical puzzle and Shakespeare was very unfair to him. And Thorfinn of Orkney is great if you like big bluff hairy Vikings.

  • Margaret the Queen, about St Margaret daughter of Edgar Aetheling and wife of Malcom Canmore (Macbeth’s successor), for the comparison between the ‘Celtic Church’ and Margaret’s Roman Christianity.

  • Wallace, as an antidote to the historical liberties taken in the film Braveheart

Four that stick in my mind as being rambling and meandering, with lots of detail but not much of a story (a bit like Odinn’s Child in that respect) are:
  • Crusader - an affectionate portrait of a high-spirited eight-year-old who becomes King of Scotland, fine if you like winsome children

  • Highness in Hiding - a travelogue of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s wanderings after Culloden, fine if you do a lot of hillwalking and can recognise every mountain pass they limp over and sympathise with every bog they fall into

  • Gold for Prince Charlie - lots of description of Highland shielings and how to keep goats

  • Warden of the Queen's March - the main character, Thomas Kerr, isn't party to the dramatic incidents in Mary Queen of Scots' life (e.g. was she complicit in the murder of Darnley, what was her relationship with Bothwell, etc), and his own life isn't that exciting.

* This is one of those annoying websites where it seems to be impossible to link directly to a specific page, so scroll down to the bottom, click the yellow button labelled ‘Links Page’ and then scroll down and click the flag next to ‘A dated timeline of the historical novels’.

13 October, 2006

October recipe: Spiced apple and walnut cake

The local market was selling wet walnuts the other day, and roadside stalls offering apples to passers-by have grown like mushrooms, as they always do at this season. So this weekend looks like a good time to bake apple and walnut cake, and here is the recipe for anyone else who is similarly inclined. You can substitute other nuts for the walnuts (almonds work well), or dried fruit of your choice, or miss them out altogether. I always make this with cooking apples, because that's what the tree in my garden produces, but it will also work with dessert apples if that's what you've got. (If the apples are sweet enough to eat raw, they're dessert apples). I would reduce the sugar to 5 oz if using dessert apples, or you can leave it as in the original and get a sweeter cake. You can use windfall apples, just cut out any bruises or damaged bits. You can also substitute spices of your choice for the cinnamon and nutmeg. Ground mixed spice works very well. You can use white or wholemeal flour or a mixture - I like half white and half wholemeal.

If you don't have a shallow baking tin, use a loaf tin or a deep round cake tin instead, and allow about 1.5 hours baking time.

Transatlantic note: I believe that plain flour is called 'all-purpose flour' on the American/Canadian side of the Pond, and that ground mixed spice is called apple pie spice. But I may be wrong, so use your own judgement. And I have never understood cups as a measurement, so I'm not even going to try.

Spiced apple and walnut cake

4 oz (approx 120 g) butter
8 oz (approx 250 g) light brown soft sugar (or any sugar type of your choice)
2 eggs
8 oz (approx 250 g) plain flour
1 tsp (5 ml spoon) bicarbonate of soda
1.5 tsp (1.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
1.5 tsp (1.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
1 lb (approx 450 g) cooking apples, weight AFTER peeling, coring and cutting out any bruised or damaged bits
4 oz walnuts (or other nuts of your choice, or dried fruit), chopped

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs.
Fold in the flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices.
Grate or finely chop the apples.
Stir in the apples and nuts, mix well.
Spread the mixture in a greased shallow baking tin, approx. 8" x 12" x 1" deep (approx 20 cm x 30 cm x 2-3 cm deep).
Bake in a moderate oven, approx 170-180 Centigrade, for about 1 hour or until a fine skewer inserted in the cake comes out clean.
Cut into squares while still hot, cool for 10 minutes or so in the tin, then lift the squares out and cool on a wire rack. I usually cut this into 24 squares, but you can make them larger if you prefer. Don't try to get the squares out straight away as the cake is quite crumbly and is inclined to fall apart when very hot.

Can be frozen.

Can also be served hot with yogurt, cream or ice cream as a pudding.

07 October, 2006

In praise of curiosity

Lablit has a fascinating article by Mark Haw on the importance of curiosity in culture. Do click over and read it, even if you think you’re not interested in science. He argues that curiosity about the natural world was celebrated in the Victorian era, and that this was reflected in the fiction of the day. Tertius Lydgate, the doctor and scientist in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, is cited as an example, as is Eliot herself. He then argues that modern society places less value on curiosity than the Victorians did, to the detriment of literature and culture in general.

Is he right that fewer people are curious about the world around them now than was the case in Geroge Eliot’s day? I couldn’t answer that without some comparative data. Certainly there are plenty of people around who seem to have little interest in anything beyond the practical, plus the reverse snobs who acclaim ignorance as a badge of pride. But surely it was ever thus. For every Victorian vicar enthusiastically cataloguing hundreds of species of British moths or every George Eliot observing the workings of her society, there were surely others who thought no further than dinner or a new hat.

Conversely, there are enough people today who are curious about the world for programmes like the BBC’s Autumnwatch and In Our Time to find an audience. Curiosity may not be actively encouraged, and one could comment cynically that it tends to be uncomfortable for vested interests such as politicians (“Oh no! Somebody might question our actions!”) or corporate marketing departments (“Oh no! Somebody might try our competitor’s product instead of blindly buying ours!”), but it still exists. I’m thinking of the retired teacher in the next village, studying stag beetles with all the passion and knowledge of a Victorian naturalist. Of the couple I met in a pub in Cumbria, who happily discussed place names, Viking settlement, mobile phone design, the contrasts between Roman and Old English law, the OJ Simpson case, ancient Irish kin groups and historical mysteries until closing time. Of the American business consultant who was far more interested in the history and geology of the North York Moors than in whatever he was supposed to be trying to sell my boss. And probably you, if you’re reading this blog.

Curiosity, you see, is not confined to any particular field of study. History needs it just as much as science. Nor does it require a vast amount of specialised knowledge, though that often follows on as a consequence. You don’t have to be a professional to be curious, as Mark Haw’s article says. Curiosity about the world and the creatures in it - including people - is one of the joys of life, and is open to everyone.

The article made me think about other characters in fiction, beyond those like Lydgate who are recognisably scientists. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I find characters who are interested in the world around them far more appealing than those who spend much of their time agonising over their own dilemmas or showing off their superior knowledge to the reader or the other characters. For example, I was talking about historical mysteries with a friend the other day, and realised that one reason I like the Brother Cadfael series better than many others is because of Cadfael’s insatiable curiosity. He wants to know why things happen and what makes people tick, and whenever he’s offered an opportunity to go somewhere new or do something different, he jumps at it. Not only does this help to move the plot along, nosiness being a handy characteristic for a detective, it also reassures me that Cadfael is going to be good company for the next 300 pages.

What are you curious about, and do you have a favourite curious character in fiction?

29 September, 2006

The English Resistance: The Underground War Against the Normans, by Peter Rex. Book review

Tempus Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-7524-2827-6

As attested by 1066 And All That, the date of 1066 is the most memorable in English history (and one of the book’s only Two Genuine Dates). But William of Normandy’s conquest of England did not happen overnight after the Battle of Hastings. It took William several years to establish his grip on his new kingdom, years in which various English and Anglo-Danish notables rebelled against him, sometimes with foreign help from Denmark and Scotland, and in which William put down the opposition with ever-increasing brutality. Yet this period of revolt and reprisal is rarely covered in accounts of the Norman Conquest. This study by Peter Rex covers the five years immediately following Hastings, from 1066 to 1071, and provides a valuable account of this neglected historical episode.

The English Resistance begins with a survey of the three battles of 1066. Gate Fulford was fought just south of York on 20 September, when Tostig Godwinsson and Harald Hardrada defeated Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. Stamford Bridge was fought east of York five days later, when Harold Godwinsson defeated and killed Tostig and Haradrada after a forced march from the south of England. Hastings was fought on 14 October on the south coast, when William of Normandy defeated and killed Harold Godwinsson (after Harold and his army had marched all the way back from Stamford Bridge). Casualties in all three battles were heavy, and Hastings in particular saw the death of many of the English leaders and thanes. After Hastings only three English earls survived, Earls Edwin and Morcar (who had not joined in the campaign, presumably having taken heavy losses to both manpower and military reputation after Gate Fulford), and Waltheof* Earl of Huntingdon, who was the son of Earl Siward of Northumbria and had good reason to dislike Harold Godwinsson after having been twice passed over for his father’s earldom (first for Harold’s brother Tostig, then for Earl Morcar).

The book then moves on to consider William’s policy for consolidating his new kingdom. At first his administration included the surviving English earls, churchmen and officials of King Harold’s government. Over the period of the study, the authority of the English earls grdually declined and administration of both church and state became progressively more Norman. The author draws an interesting comparison with the actions of the Danish king Cnut, after his successful invasion some 50 years previously, who co-operated with the surviving English nobility to create a combined Anglo-Danish state. William comes out of this comparison unfavourably, though the author states fairly that there is no way of knowing whether William intended to replicate Cnut’s policy and was forestalled by English rebellion, or whether William deliberately deprived the surviving earls of land and authority to provoke a rebellion and so destroy them.

An account of the various rebellions against William’s rule then follows, including the rebellions of Eadric the Wild on the Welsh borders in 1067-1069, raids made from Ireland by the sons of Harold Godwinsson, the revolt of the city of Exeter in 1067, and the rising in Northumbria in conjuction with a Danish army in 1069, which was followed by the brutal reprisals known as the Harrying of the North. The rebels used tactics that would now be called guerilla warfare, hiding in inaccessible areas of hills, marshes and forests, emerging briefly to attack Norman targets where they could do so with little risk, and disappearing back into their hideouts at any retaliation in force. The author suggests that some folktales of woodsmen and ‘The Green Man’ may be derived from these times, and that some of the tales may have contributed to the development of the legend of that most famous of outlaws, Robin Hood. The Harrying of the North was an effective counter to such tactics, depriving the rebels and the civilian population alike of the means of susbsistence.

Finally, the book gives a detailed account of the career of Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile (his more famous name Hereward the Wake does not appear until several centuries later), covering his part in the attack on Peterborough and the siege of Ely in 1071 and then dealing with his likely origins, parentage and earlier career.

The narrative is lively, with a reasonable balance between fact and speculation. The author does not use footnotes or endnotes, but for the most part he says in the text which source(s) he is working from and why. Occasionally the line between evidence and opinion gets blurred, e.g. when the author says “....Orderic Vitalis is well-informed as ever....” - as I am not an expert on this period, it isn’t clear to me whether that is the author’s opinion, or whether there is evidence that Orderic is really better-informed than the other sources. Similarly, when he says that support in Northumbria “would have tended to go to Tostig not Harold” (explaining the lack of Northumbrian contigents at Hastings), I would have liked more explanation of that remark given that the Northumbrian thanes had thrown Tostig out in decisive fashion only two years before and had shown no sign of wanting him back since.

Although the material is arranged roughly chronologically, beginning with 1066 and working forward to the siege of Ely in 1071, the author does not hesitate to skip back and forth between events that happened before and after whatever he is currently describing. Usually this is to illustrate a point by means of reference to an individual’s earlier or later actions, or to follow through a theme. But it does mean the reader has to pay attention. If your concentration slips for a couple of lines you’re quite likely to find yourself three years and five counties away, and will have to go back and re-read to pick up the thread.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Norman Conquest period may also find the large number of names and places daunting, and should find the maps and genealogies in the appendix helpful

There are lots of little-known (to me, anyway) facts in the book, which make it a delight for anyone interested in the period. For example, there is an excellent discussion on the process by which lands shifted progressively from English to Norman landholders, illustrated by the records of Hereward’s (probable) family, which I found the clearest explanation I have so far come across. The author also discusses variations in English and Norman custom - for example, he argues that Norman sheriffs had wider powers than English shire-reeves, and that the English and Norman view of oath-taking was quite different. He suggests that these might have contributed to the accusations of treachery and oath-breaking levelled at both sides, if each had a different idea of what the agreements meant. And apparently William introduced the offence of ‘murdrum’, which meant that any hundred in which a Norman was found dead had to either hand over the killer within five days or pay a fine of 40 marks to the king and 6 to the deceased’s relatives. From this, according to the author, arises the distinction between murder and manslaughter in English law.

The author draws a parallel between the situation in England after Hastings and the Nazi Occupation of France in the Second World War, and makes this something of a theme throughout the book. This parallel has occurred to me, and it is certainly a powerful image. I personally would be wary of carrying the analogy too far, and in particular I would question the use of terms such as “collaborator” and “Resistance”. I have my doubts as to whether the sides appeared as clear-cut at the time as they do to us now, looking back with nearly a thousand years of hindsight. Viewing Hastings as a conflict between ‘English’ and ‘Norman’ seems to me to be a modern view, treating it as a war between nation-states like the European wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1066, though, England as a political unit was only about a century old, having been established by Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, in the 930s. The Anglo-Danish kingdom of York did not always sit easily under a southern monarch, the Danish population in England had suffered the St Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002, and the wars prior to Cnut’s succession and after his death would have been within living memory in 1066. Loyalties of region, lordship, landholding and kinship, and obligations of blood-feud and vengeance, were probably at least as important to most of the protagonists as the relatively recent concept of ‘England’. Some of those labelled as “collaborators” may have considered Harold Godwinsson a usurper. Some may have suffered real or imagined insult or injury during the rise of the Godwin family to power and may have seen Harold as their primary enemy. Some may have remembered the faction fighting before and after Cnut’s reign and believed that William had a better chance of preventing a recurrence. Some may have seen William and his Normans as no more ‘foreign’ than Harold, who was Danish on his mother’s side. Some may have seen it as a private squabble between rival claimants to the throne and been happy to keep out of it until the outcome had been decided on the battlefield, after which they accepted the new status quo. Some may have regarded victory in battle as a sign of divine approval and taken that as proof that William’s claim had been just. So I rather think the author’s division of the English players in the drama into “Resistance” and “collaborators” may be something of an oversimplification.

The English Resistance is a fascinating survey of a neglected period in English history, and well worth reading for anyone interested in the Norman Conquest in particular or in conquest and its aftermath in general.

Has anyone else read it? Or have an opinion on any of the events and issues?

*Readers who read my review of The Winter Mantle may like to know that this is the same Waltheof.

28 September, 2006

Historical fiction and romance

For some reason, the terms ‘romance’ and ‘romantic fiction’ frequently have derogatory tones. This was commented on in the first episode of the BBC4 series on romantic fiction Reader, I Married Him [link], and is a regular source of comment and debate around the net.

Why does the term ‘romance’ have such a bad image? Snobbery, sexual stereotyping and prejudice are frequently cited. These have been cogently argued against elsewhere (e.g. Alyssa Goodnight, Grumpy Old Bookman, Romancing the Blog, to name but a few), and I have no more to add.

I wonder if part of the problem is one of definition. ‘Romance’ means different things to different people. In the workshop televised on Reader, I Married Him, I thought it was notable that each of the participants had their own idea of what constituted romance. My edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary offers the following two definitions that could apply to modern fiction:

A) prose or rarely verse tale with scene and incidents remote from everyday life, class of literature consisting of such tales;
B) love affair viewed as resembling tale of romance; love-story.

Now, these two definitions give me quite a different impression of the likely contents of a book. Sense A is romance in the sense that the film El Cid is a romance, in the sense that H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan and Sir Walter Scott wrote romance, and in the sense that Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, CS Forester’s Hornblower series and the James Bond franchise are romances. One might also use terms like ‘swashbuckler’, ‘derring-do’ or ‘adventure’ to describe them, or variants on ‘cracking yarn’. There may or may not be a love story in the plot, but if one is present there will certainly be a great many other things going on in the book as well, and the characters will be concerned with other activities and desires besides their relationship. This sense of ‘romance’ was in common use in the 1960s, when Hodder & Stoughton described John Buchan’s novels as romances in the jacket copy of Greenmantle, but is less common now.

Sense B is the more usual current sense. There seem to be numerous subtle gradations within it, e.g. the recent discussion here about historical romance versus romantic historical. I make the distinction on the basis of the relative importance of the love story relative to the setting and the rest of the plot. So:

  • historical fiction - may or may not have a romantic relationship as part of the plot, but if present the love story is a part of the plot and not the dominant element. Setting and historical events are vital to the plot, and character, motivation and incident feel as though they belong to that particular time and place.

  • romantic historical - a romantic relationship is a key part of the plot, but other elements of the plot are also important. Setting is important and character, motivation and incident are credible for the period.

  • category romance - a romantic relationship is the dominant feature in the plot, with any other plot elements and other characters being absent or secondary. Their relationship is the most important thing in the lives of the hero and heroine, and there will be a ‘happy-ever-after’ ending when they are happily mated. Credibility of setting, motivation, character, incident and plot are optional.

I don’t put these forward as hard and fast definitions. For one thing, they are nothing like specific enough to be useful except at the most generalised level. I do think they illustrate the pitfalls of discussing ‘romance’ without defining the term. Looseness of definition can easily slip into a circular argument: romances are all trash; Book X is good; therefore Book X is not a romance. Or, from the other side: Book X is good; Book X has a love story in it and that makes it a romance; therefore romances are not trash. Just alter the definition until it fits the argument. Other ‘genres’, such as historical fiction, crime fiction, science fiction, etc can be treated the same way. Books that the commentator likes (and are therefore ‘good’) do not belong to the genre being condemned, whereas books that the commentator doesn’t like (and are therefore trash), do.

What do you think?

23 September, 2006

Warriors of the Dragon Gold, by Ray Bryant. Book review

First published 1987. Edition reviewed: Caxton, 2001, ISBN 1-84067-384-2.

The novel is set in England, with excursions to Normandy, Brittany and Denmark, and spans the period from 1013 to 1066, ending on the morning of the Battle of Hastings. Most of the characters are real historical figures, including Aethelraed Unread (Ethelred the ‘Unready’*), King Canute, Queen Emma, Sweyn Forkbeard, Earl Godwin of Wessex, Hardicanute, Harold Harefoot, Queen Edith (daughter of Godwin and wife of Edward the Confessor), Harold Godwinsson (later Harold II), Edward the Confessor and Aelfgifu daughter of Aethelraed Unraed. In the last two-thirds of the book there is also a major fictional character, Cedric Cedricsson or Cedric Shieldless, friend to Harold Godwinsson and leader of his bodyguard.

Warriors of the Dragon Gold is a novel on a vast canvas, no less than the political history of England over a fifty-year span, from the last days of Ethelred to the eve of the Norman Conquest. It begins with the invasion of England by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute, and ends with the twin invasions of England by Harald Hardrada of Norway and, days later, by William of Normandy. The novel explores the turbulent politics of this half-century of war, intrigue and murder, and the many threads that led up to William’s invasion. In his preface, the author states that he set out to explain a puzzling scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, where an unidentified lady Aelfgifu and ‘a certain priest’ appear once and are never mentioned again. The author identifies this lady as Aelfgifu ('Gifta'), daughter of Aethelred Unraed and half-sister of Edward the Confessor, and builds his tale on the premise that she holds the key to William’s conquest of England.

The vast scope of the novel and its enormous cast of characters makes for a rather sprawling narrative. The family trees provided at the beginning of the book are most helpful in keeping track of who is who. There is no one central character throughout the novel, and different people dominate as the narrative progresses. The first third of the story centres on Gifta (the back cover blurb implies that she is the central figure throughout, but this is misleading), and follows her flight into exile, the loss of her husband and most of her family, and the comfort she finds with a young priest. Then she disappears for well over 200 pages, and the story shifts to English court politics and centres on Canute, Earl Godwin, Earl Godwin’s son Harold and Harold’s friend Cedric. This makes for a complex and episodic structure. Readers who like a story structured as a three-act play centred on one key protagonist will probably find this novel hard going. On the other hand, it means there’s a range of characters for readers to identify with, which was just as well for me, because for some reason I didn’t warm to Gifta and was much more interested in Harold and Cedric.

The large cast means that only some of the characters are fully developed. Earl Godwin is a vital and powerful figure, dominating the middle third of the novel as he dominated the politics of the time. Harold Godwinsson is likeable and engaging. Cedric progresses from a shy teenager to hardened battle commander, and is the character who changes and develops most during the story. Similarly, some of the story threads disappear for long periods, or play only a small part in the overall narrative. Gifta’s espionage activities, which are supposed to be crucial to Harold’s defeat at Hastings, are never shown in the narrative. There is a mention that Godwin ‘had not handled the thread of Tostig’s life as carefully as he should’ - which is a great line - but the relationship between Tostig and his father and brothers is not explored in any detail. Yet Tostig’s decision to get Harald Hardrada to join him in invading England is surely one of the most far-reaching events in English history - if Harold Godwinsson had not had to fight both Hardrada and then William, at opposite ends of the country, within weeks of each other, the outcome at Hastings might have been very different. Overall, the book gave me the feeling of a trilogy or possibly even a series shoehorned into a single book by means of ruthless pruning.

There are some splendid set-piece scenes, such as Cedric’s duel with Olaf, the murder of Ethelred’s son Alfred, Harold Godwinsson’s successful invasion of Wales, and the poignant scene between the English warriors on the eve of Hastings. The cultural contrasts between Anglo-Danish society and Norman ways are well drawn, with a vivid description of a Norse earl’s hall and a Norse feast. Readers who like to play Hunt the Anachronism should be warned that there is a reference to Godwin’s tenants paying rent in pigs and potatoes, and the name Cedric is first recorded in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. Since the name Cedd was certainly in use in the seventh century (Bede mentions an English priest of that name), it seems to me entirely possible that it might have been compounded with the common name element -ric to make Cedric and the compound happened not to be recorded, but it seems an odd choice of name for a major character.

A sprawling saga in a complex and fascinating period of history.

Has anyone else read it?

*The popular modern form of the nickname. Unraed means ‘Ill Counsel’ or ‘No Counsel’, a pun on Aethelraed which means ‘Noble Counsel’.