Back to Ancient Greece

I have recently been watching Troy: Fall of a City, the BBC series showing on Saturday evenings, based on Homer’s Iliad  It has had mixed reviews and after a couple of episodes I nearly gave up, for the usual BBC problem of lack of light and lack of audible speech. By the time everyone emerged into daylight, I was at a loss as to who was who. I had to search my memory for the main characters, others were lost to me for the rest of the series – yes, I stuck it out.

I think my love of Ancient Greece comes from reading the books of Mary Renault – including The King must Die and The Bull from the Sea. For a long time it was my subject of choice – too many books to remember now, and probably many more than those set in the Anglo-Saxon period! I preferred The Odyssey to The Iliad. I think you do when you’re young, all those adventures with monsters and magic, and a happy ending. The Iliad was more complicated, with its theme of men killing each other for honour and revenge. I could never remember who killed who and in what order.

If I was to understand the series, I needed help. Did I have anything on my Kindle that was relevant. I must admit I buy books on special offer that I think I might read when I’m in the mood. The first I found was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which I see I purchased in December 2017. (Not that long ago, I must have bought it after watching The Handmaid’s Tale.) This was part of a series retelling of  Greek myths. Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, who waited 20 years for her husband to return. In this version of the story Odysseus doesn’t come out well. Was he bewitched by beautiful goddesses or just delayed in a bar somewhere, and does it really matter? Penelope is still in Hades, a very boring place, where she meets people she used to know – Helen is still surrounded by admiring men. Penelope tells her story from her own point of view. She is interrupted by a chorus; the twelve maids killed on the return of Odysseus commentate on the story and on their hard lives. This is in the form of verse in different narrative styles. The book is clever, entertaining and thought provoking.

The second book I read was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Purchased in 2015). This is the story of Achilles, told by Patroclus, his friend. Patroclus the son of a minor king, admits that he has nothing in his favour. He is not good looking, he has no talent for sport or fighting, and he is not too bright. He is ignored and despised. When he accidentally kills anther boy, he is exiled, to the court of King Peleus. He joins a group of boys, united in their admiration of the king’s son, Achilles. Achilles is everything Patroclus is not; handsome, talented at everything. His mother is a sea nymph, Thetis and he is destined to become a mythical hero. He spends much time alone, he fights alone because no one can compare to him. It is an interesting portrait. Achilles knows he is the best, it is a fact and he has no need to boast of it. He could be unlikable, but he is so innocent, everyone loves him. One day he notices Patroclus and makes him his only companion, to the disgust of everyone. They grow up together, study in the mountains with Chiron. (There is a beautiful description of the fear of meeting a centaur for the first time.) They fall in love.

When the call to Troy comes, Achilles refuses to go, but his mother insists this is the only way for him to become immortal. She hates Patroclus, suspicious his love tarnishes the glory of her son. Achilles sets sail for Troy and Patroclus with him. In this version, Achilles is the only Greek with fair hair, an interesting twist in the controversial casting of Achilles in the TV version.

There was one thing that worried me as I got further into the book. It is written in the first person in the voice of Patroclus. He is the perfect narrator, always there but never noticed. How would the author cope with his death which, of course comes before that of Achilles? She succeeds, wonderfully, in an imaginative and emotional way.

I am glad that the showing of the not entirely successful television series, drove me to reading these amazing books. The second explained something that I had never understood before; why Achilles behaved the way he did and how magnificent it was.

I also realised how similar the Anglo-Saxon period was to Ancient Greece.

The sense of the gods and how they controlled a man’s life.

The hierarchy of gods and men and how you must obey your superior, in all things.

Finally the strength of a man’s oath, and the dishonour he must experience if he breaks it.

Honour is everything.

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Review – The Daughter of Time

I’ve had a bit of a Tudor binge over Christmas. It started when I saw the ebook of A Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey on special offer. This is a book that I had heard of, but never got round to reading. It has been mentioned several times in class. In fact, last term we did an exercise based on it – exploring what we could find out about a face in an unknown, historical portrait.

That is what the book is about. A policeman, stuck in hospital with nothing to do, is brought a pile of portraits by a friend. She knows that he prides himself on identifying whether a person is guilty or not, just by looking at their face. He becomes fascinated by one particular face – he decides this man is not a criminal, more probably a judge or a soldier. He is shocked to find out that this is the portrait of Richard III, reviled killer of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

He shows the picture to other people. Everyone sees something different, depending on their own experience. For example, the doctor sees illness – “Poliomyelitis” and a nurse “Liver”. The Matron says “It is the most desperately unhappy face that I have ever encountered.” The only person who sees evil is someone who recognises the man.

The policeman, Alan Grant, decides to find out more. He wants to solve a crime, five hundred years old.

The advantages, for the plot, is that this book was written in 1951. For a start, no one would be bored in hospital, with television, internet etc, so it would never get started. In this case, he must wait, for a member of staff to bring in a book on history, then another. He finds books disagree, nothing satisfies him that the “case” has been properly solved. He needs to look at original sources. The friend  who brought the pictures finds someone to work for him; a young American doing research in the British Library. He follows the policeman’s instructions, moving from contemporary historical accounts, back to original documents. All this takes time. The focus of the book remains the policeman, never moving from the hospital room. Of course there are no mobile phones, he must wait, patiently, until his assistant visits with information and is then sent for more.

Finally the policeman comes to a conclusion – a conclusion that runs against all accepted wisdom. The American assistant, astounded at the new interpretation, prepares to write a book that will make him famous and show his father he is not worthless. Then there is a final twist – which I won’t reveal in case someone hasn’t read it.

Although written and set in the 1950s, it does not seem old-fashioned. That, I suppose, is why it is a classic. It never moves beyond those four walls of the hospital room but covers relationships from modern times back into the past. It explores the meaning of history and how it is interpreted by historians  for their own ends. And of course it is a proper detective story, with a satisfying ending – whatever your views on the “truth”.

A perfect example of how to write.

I then moved on, from the sublime to, well, The White Princess – both book and TV series. But I’ll save that for another time.

As for my own writing, I started the year well, with 2,340 words on New Years Day. Since then, I’ve only done another 989. I intended to do more yesterday, but needed to look up a fact. I couldn’t find it and ended up sorting out all my writing paperwork, class notes, homework, letters from publishers etc. At least I achieved something, if not what I wanted!

Review – The Anglo-Saxon Fenland

Your protagonist must have a home.

A home to leave to go adventuring, or a home to return to. Perhaps he has no home, but is searching for it or it is forever lost to him. It is part of his background story. Even if you never describe it, you should know where it is, or was.

When I started writing about Byrhtnoth, I tried to find out where he came from. There seemed to be no information. There are suggestions that his ancestors were from Mercia. Politically he was linked to Athelstan, Aeldorman of East Anglia. There was another person of the same name, living around the same time, he was Bishop of Ely from 970 to 996. Byrhtnoth was a patron of Ely Abbey, giving it many villages, mostly in that area. He was buried at Ely after his death at the Battle of Maldon.

It seems reasonable to assume that his original home was in the area. I pored over maps and selected a particular village, on the edge of the Fens (The fenland is that mysterious area around the Wash, on the junction of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire.) At the time we were travelling regularly along the A14. One day we made a diversion and drove through the village; we looked at the church, walked a bit. It would do as a base on which to build Byrhtnoth’s village. My made up village probably bears no resemblance to the original, it has changed due to the vagaries of plot. I have never managed to find a name for it, it is just “The Village”.

Earlier this year a book was published, The Anglo-Saxon Fenland by Susan Oosthuizen (details here) and I thought I’d better read it. What if I found I had written some detail that was incorrect? I don’t think I have, but I now have lots of facts to sprinkle lightly into the descriptions.

The book first poses the question: “When did the Anglo-Saxons arrive in the fenland?” The area was extensively farmed in the Roman period; what happened when thy left? Did the native Britons abandon the area, leave an empty space into which the Anglo-Saxons moved. The answer seems to be no. A detailed study of place names suggests that locals and invaders (if such they were) mingled, continuing to farm the area. If the area had been abandoned, the landscape would have changed, dry land would have appeared and trees. It is an area that looks empty, but in fact it has been carefully managed, probably for millennia.

I learnt about the different soils and how the height of water affects the grasses and other plants. It is a rich area, but only if eternal vigilance is maintained. Everyone had to work together. Many of the grazing animals, cattle in one area, sheep in another were regularly moved, to make use of type and height of grass. Areas were left to regrow, pregnant beasts and young got the best grass in spring etc. The important thing was, that all this was done in common. Everyone would have to get together to agree what was to be done when. Groups of vills (parish, manor etc.) were bound together, all utilising the same fen; the next group, another fen, which might be quite a distance away. So, everybody, lord, peasant, anyone who owned land in a particular area, had a say in what was done – democracy of a sort.

There is a lot more in the book; about the way the water was directed to where it was needed. That flooding was important. If the land didn’t flood it reduced the amount of rich silt, to grow the grass. Only lack of flooding caused a problem.

I could go on, the book was fascinating. I learned a lot. I hope it will improve my writing – I certainly need to find out more about dairy farming in the tenth century. There must be another reference book about that somewhere. Too late to put it on my Christmas list?

I found it difficult to write this week, I kept being called away to go and buy a tree, make decisions about decorations, when to buy a turkey, etc.

I put my blinkers on and manged 6,294 words this week – I was surprised. I don’t expect I’ll do much in the next week, perhaps the week after!

I have planned some special blog posts over Christmas, so keep a lookout for them.

Happy Christmas and wes þú hál  if I don’t see you before.

Review – The Briton and the Dane

“Gwyneth walked towards the formidable Keep, nodding to the guards patrolling the wall-walk once she reached the top of the tower. She breathed in the sea air, admiring the beauty of the land as the sun disappeared below the horizon, mesmerized by the rich and colorful hues of the darkening sky. She was comforted by the melodious sound of breaking waves crashing against the rocky cliffs, which was a calming respite from the throes of a violent world.”

This is the start of  “The Briton and the Dane” by Mary Ann Bernal. I downloaded this book some time ago (June 2015, Amazon tells me.) I got 18% into the book, before giving up – it was so bad. Looking for something to review this week, I decided to give it another try. After all, Amazon’s reviews for this book average 9.5 stars. The reviewers rave over it. Was I missing something?

I pressed on to about 50% – My opinion hasn’t changed.

Let’s return to Gwyneth in her castle. Not a bad start, a bit dramatic, but you need to hook the reader. She sees a wounded stranger, wandering the beach. She rescues him, patches him up and “the sight of his bulging muscles caused her heart to beat faster” and she instantly falls in love with him. A bit quick but this is Historical Romance. Actually I would have liked a picture of the bulging muscles on the cover – it would have helped to relieve the tedium!

We meet Gwyneth’s family: her father Lord Richard, her brothers David and Stephen. Gwyneth does not know that her father has arranged a marriage to another man, she runs away, etc. There are other characters all in love with or married to the wrong man. There are political complications. The language is a type of cod medieval that I last heard in (very) old films. A phrase picked at random, during a fight to the death:

“Lord, please spare David,” Gwyneth silently prayed, “and end this fight before blood is spent!” (In fact, typing it out, I’m not sure what this means!)

None of this would necessarily put me off, except for one thing – Remember? I am writing a series of posts on the subject of Anglo-Saxons and (in this case Romance). This book is set in the reign of King Alfred. The bulging muscles belong to a Dane called Eric, but you would never have guessed from the other names, that they are Anglo-Saxon. These Norman names would not appear in England for more than two hundred years.

It is set shortly after King Guthrum’s defeat by Alfred and his conversion to Christianity. Lord Richard is the Lord of Wareham. Now I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to Wareham, I might well have passed through it on holidays in the area, but I am pretty sure there are was no Anglo-Saxon castle (with keep) on the cliffs there. In fact, there are no cliffs, rocky or otherwise. A quick check on Wikipedia would tell you that:

“The town is built on a strategic dry point between the River Frome and the River Piddle at the head of the Wareham Channel of Poole Harbour. The Frome Valley runs through an area of unresistant sand, clay and gravel rocks, and much of its valley has wide flood plains and marsh land. At its estuary the river has formed the wide shallow ria of Poole Harbour. Wareham is built on a low dry island between the marshy river plains.”

Yes, King Alfred built earth ramparts round the town and it was occupied by the Danes in 976. But sorry, no “formidable fortress sitting atop the rocky cliff”. There were no stone castles until the Normans built them 200 years later. Just a few ruined walls left by the Romans.

For me this book failed on every level. The plot is difficult to follow – people tell each other what is happening, repeatedly and there are unexpected flashbacks to explain what happened in the past. The setting was wrong and there was absolutely no sense that these characters were living in the ninth century.

As for Gwyneth and Eric, I have no wish to find out if they live happily ever after. I assume they do as the series continues for two more books, with what looks like a spin-off, plus a time slip novel. There are many, much better, books out there to read instead.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this, I wrote 6,541 words last week (with this post that means I’m over my weekly target of 7k!)

 

Review – Northman

“843 AD. A Viking raid on an Anglo-Saxon village in England sets into motion a train of events that results, 1200 years later, in the release of an eternal evil into the lives of two unsuspecting and damaged people: archaeologist Kate and ‘B’ movie film director, Michael.” 

Sounds a bit like last week’s blog post? It’s not, but there is a link. Having written a review of a book combining Anglo-Saxon and humour, why not continue the “Anglo-Saxon and …” theme? I decided on Horror – I fancied a bit of gore. I don’t know where I came across this book, Northman, by J D Hughes. It might have popped up in one of Amazon’s lists of recommended books. The description continues:
Then, their descent into absolute terror begins. Ultimate conflict. Ultimate sacrifice. But more is at stake than their lives, or their love. Are you ready for terror? Come on in. Thorkild is waiting for you.” – sounds good!

By coincidence, the story concerns a ninth century Viking in a burial mound, a female archaeologist and a male film maker, but it couldn’t be more different. It starts with the Viking Thorkild, sailing up the Trent for a bit of rape and pillage. This is particularly graphic violence, as is the revenge taken by the villagers – a mixture of British and Saxon.

The book turns to a series of mysterious events. A second world war German plane drops a bomb that doesn’t explode, until, years later, a tractor hits it. Planes inexplicably crash. A poacher apparently kills himself.

Kate, the archaeologist, who has arrived to investigate the Viking remains scattered by the explosion, is attacked. She is found by Michael, who has just finished a film. They are attracted to each other, but reject their feelings. They are both grieving for previous partners, dead or just estranged.  It was at this point I nearly gave up – the characters seemed unsympathetic, almost wooden and there was too much background detail. I wanted to get onto with what I thought was the story – the usual reincarnation of the historic characters/ghosts in modern people and the fight to destroy/lay to rest the dead Viking. (As told in several of the novels by Barbara Erskine and many others.) This is similar, but much more.

Kate and Michael meet again, unexpectedly, in Madrid, but are drawn back to England. Other characters appear, a Spanish translator, Kate’s elderly archaeologist boss, an RAF accident investigator. A flask of radioactive material heading for recycling splits on a ferry at Dover, causing multiple deaths. A museum attendant in Chicago is skinned alive and a woman in Madrid is decapitated. What is the connection?

Gradually everything comes together in a climax, or several climaxes. Things change depending on the point of view. This is what makes the whole book so terrifying. You think you understand the plot, but something happens and you are knocked backwards. The action jumps from place to place, from person to person and from the past to present and back again. The random acts of violence catch you unawares, the long expositions on men and women and the differences between them start to make sense, perhaps.

There is a lot of description, particularly of dark woods, of darkness in general, but even in the heat of Madrid, there is something uneasy in the brightly lit modern hotel.

It is the ideal horror book – enough plot to keep the brain busy, and that hint of menace to keep you looking over your shoulder.

I’m not going to give away the plot, but by the end, everything has changed, in unexpected ways. Only one person knows the truth, though – and the white horses!

The ebook, published in 2014 is only £1.49 and there is a more recent paperback for £10.99.

Mr Hughes has written another, similar book “And Soon the Song.” I have already purchased it. He has also written short stories details on his blog

So, where shall I go next in my “Anglo-Saxon and …” series? Romance perhaps? One of those books with a well muscled man on the front?

Or something else? Suggestions welcome, only please make it something short – I only managed to write 5,500 words last week.

And I really must get on with some Christmas shopping!

 

Review – Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?

Recently, in class, we have been learning about “Voice” and how different genres need to be written in a voice typical of that genre. I have had difficulty with this – I just write, without thinking about  how I do it. One of the genres we discussed was humour and Tom Holt’s book “Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?”. Someone lent me a copy. I loved it!

If you are the sort of reader that enjoys the idea of Vikings rampaging across Northern Scotland (or indeed, London) dressed in grey suits from Marks and Spencer – complete with swords and helmets, this is the book for you.

The story is simple. An ancient barrow is discovered, filled with a crew of sleeping Vikings. Clumsy archaeologist Hildy Frederiksen disturbs them, just in time to save the world from an evil Sorcerer-King. A standard fantasy  plot (I assume – I don’t read much fantasy.) that is high-jacked by the upending of expectations.

For example the Vikings, who talk and act as you would expect, are completely unfazed by the modern world. As people used to facing sorcerers and dragons, what is there to be feared in a double-decker bus? It’s just magic. They find there are places in Scotland that they say haven’t changed in 1200 years – alcohol can still be drunk on the same premises.

The Sorcerer-King is a rich businessman in a London tower block. He invented computers and controls newspapers. Extra enjoyment, for me, came from the fact that this book was published in 1988, when computer languages were FORTRAN and BASIC and radiophones in cars were a rich man’s toy.

There are wizards and elemental spirits that get drunk on electricity. There is a wolf who was transformed into a man so long ago, that when he returns to wolf shape, he cannot remember how to attack. And there is a BBC film maker obsessed with a conspiracy involving the Milk Marketing Board.

Mix all this together in a language that twists and turns, that caused me to laugh out loud. Not too loud, I hope. I read most of it on a coach to London and back. Other passengers must have wondered what was so funny about my family history research. I wanted to read out some of the cleverest lines. Instead I will mention some here:

The Sorcerer-King is in his office, feeling bored, so he gets out his sword: “With a grunt, he swung the sword round his head and brought it down accurately and with tremendous force on a dark green filing-cabinet, cleaving it from A to J.”

The wolf/business man is on his way to Scotland, to find out what is happening. “In the age of the supersonic airliner, a man can have breakfast in London and lunch in New York (if his digestion can stand it); but to get from Manchester to the north coast of Scotland between the waxing and the waning of the moon still requires not only dedication and cunning but also a modicum of good luck, just as it did in the Dark Ages.”

It is not just the evil characters (see last post) that provide the fun, it is also the Vikings. They all have their own characters, their own jokes; their disappointments when they discover the saga telling of their famous deeds has not survived the years, or has been twisted out of shape – like the Sutton Hoo helmet which they explain to the British Museum guide has been wrongly recreated.

In charge is King Hrolf, who experiences all the hidden doubts and loneliness of a leader. Like them all, he must fight or die and go to spend eternity in Valhalla, although apparently that is not what it was. “Nice enough place, I suppose, except that the food all comes out of a microwave these days and the wish-maidens are definitely past their prime. A bit like one of those run-down gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall, if you ask me.

They would have got nowhere, though, without Hildy. She joins the Vikings, driving them about in a variety of vehicles, selling Viking rings to dealers for cash, buying multiple servings of fish & chips to feed the King and his warriors and of course the M&S suit to disguise them. She does so well that the king give her a Name – Vel-Hilda. “The Nose word vel is short and means “well”. The same may be said of you.” A piece of wordplay worthy of the Vikings (or Anglo-Saxons).

Did I learn anything from this book? Something about building memorable characters and the use of the right word to define time and place. Also I will read more books by Tom Holt – why hadn’t come across him before?

I like to use a little humour in my writing, but I’m not sure I could manage something so accomplished – though it would be fun trying.

Writing update: 9,356 words in a week. Although not necessarily in the week in question. I was stopped in my tracks by the trip to the National Archives in London and distracted by a (possible) ancestor who left an estate worth one thousand pounds and upwards – in 1666!

Must go now – my publisher has sent the final proofs for the complete cover of Bright Sword and I must go and drool over it.

Review – 1066, What Fates Impose

This book, by G. K. Holloway, tells the story of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. After a grisly account of the death of King William in 1087, it returns to the beginning, to 1045 and the marriage of King Edward (later called The Confessor). After many years of Danish rule, England has a king from the house of Wessex, but is Edward the right man for the job? His mother is Norman, he has spent most of his life in exile in France. It is on his wedding night that he makes the fateful decision not to provide an heir.

His wife is Edith, daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin and his sons are the most powerful family in the country; they are feared and hated by other Earls and the King himself. They try to wield power fairly, for the most part. Years pass and Godwin, together with his sons are unjustly exiled but return, more powerful than before.

The lack of an heir to the throne creates unrest, as various factions jockey for position. Someone suggests to William, Duke of Normandy that he has a claim, however remote. He likes the idea and from that moment England’s fate is sealed.

This is a long book, well over 400 pages, and the author knows his subject. He has obviously done a lot of research, explaining the politics of the day as well as including vivid descriptions of everyday life. The reader soon learn of the differences between life in England and France. The reader is forced to stand by, knowing what is to come, but unable, like the participants themselves, to do anything to prevent it.

Personally, I would have liked slightly less detail. A little judicial editing would have slimmed down the book and given the characters room to breath. For example we don’t really know why King Edward behaves as he does. Does he really believe “God will provide” or does he want to destroy England? Perhaps he is just inept – he was, after all, the son of Æthelred the Unready.

William of Normandy knows exactly what he wants. He tells us towards the end of the book, on the morning of the battle:
it’s a question of will. You simply decide what you want and then you grasp it with all your determination. You do not flinch; you do not allow yourself to be distracted. You disregard criticism, you dispose of enemies and discard those who call themselves your friend but simply get in your way.” And he believes God is on his side.

Other characters  are less sharply drawn. Even Harold Godwinsson is unable to prevent William forcing him to take the vow that causes him such problems.

But perhaps this is intentional. It heightens the sense of the inevitable, that nothing can stop what the fates impose – the downfall of England and the horrors which will follow under Norman rule.

Although long, the book is easy to read and if you are interested in the history of what lead up to the Battle of Hastings, you couldn’t find a better account.

 

Note: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.