Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

Please feel free to post comments--I'd love to hear from you.

The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.


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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A few words about the Macsen's Treasure Series and The Anvil Stone

One of the questions I am asked most often is, “How did you get into writing about Arthurian Britain?” Usually I mumble something about how it comes out of my Welsh and Scottish heritage and that’s probably true. People of Celtic descent seem to always have an eerie connection to the past as well as a need to express it through writing, music, dance, art, or some other form of creativity.

Or maybe it’s just one of those fascinating benchmark eras where one sector of society clashed so painfully against the encroachment of other sectors that the quest for freedom became paramount. It is also a time so hidden from history that any writer seeking to portray it is faced with a monumental challenge to intuit the era’s mindset. That it involved the people from whom I descend makes it personal.

The goal of a historical fiction writer is to meld fact and imaginative storytelling into a seamless tale, at once fresh and exciting as well as timeless and realistic. My intention in writing this series was not to merely retell a portion of the Arthurian legend. That has been done many times. Rather, I wished to bring alive a period of history through the eyes of Celtic people who could have lived then and blend the events that led to Arthur’s rise to power as an influence upon their lives. Though based on a broad array of fact drawn from archaeology and other resources, the series is also based on legend and should be regarded solely as fiction. Each book can be read alone; the prominent characters, chronology, themes, and background tie them together.

In working with eras such as the fifth century Britain to which King Arthur likely belonged, historical accuracy can be notoriously difficult, given that very little documentation survives. The Macsen’s Treasure series is loosely based on the combined history and legend of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae). Geoffrey was a cleric who attempted to write a history encompassing nineteen hundred years of British kings, from the first, Brutus, to the last before the Saxon conquest. However, while some of Geoffrey’s figures and events probably were historical, his work includes many blatant inaccuracies as well as outright patriotic and ecclesiastical posturing. His narrative ultimately served to popularize the legend more than provide an accurate account.

Historically, we simply don’t know how much of the legend is true. What we do know is that as the Roman empire began to falter in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the legions gradually evacuated from Britain, the last of them leaving around AD 410. This left Britain open to invasions, first from Picts from north of Hadrian’s Wall, Irish from the west, then Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, among others) from the continent.

Much debate has gone on about whether the Germanic people were invaders or settlers. They were probably a combination. Either way, their settlements continued to encroach, which caused a great deal of tension. Then around AD 500, it appears that they were pushed back, and a period of peace and prosperity ensued. This stability is attributed to an improvement in British leadership that may have been the legendary King Arthur. In the mid-sixth century, however, British strength fell apart and the Anglo-Saxons methodically conquered the land that is now called England.

The Macsen's Treasure series is the saga of spy Marcus ap Iorwerth and his beloved wife Claerwen These principal characters are fictional. The named kings and other nobility (e.g., Uther, Ambrosius, Vortigern, Ceredig, Budic) are possibly historical. The Saxon leaders, Hengist, Octa and Eosa, may also be historical. Myrddin is of course the legendary Merlin the Magician. In the legend he is probably fictional, though it is believed he may be a composite figure of several historical bards. For the purpose of the series, I have fictionalized him as the last “high druid.”

Welsh names for places and people in Britain have been used in the book as much as possible in the attempt to evoke the sense of language for the era, although the tongue actually was a precursor of Old Welsh. Of course the Roman influence is there as well. For example, Marcus ap Iorwerth’s name is as paradoxical as he is himself; while his given name is Roman, the structure of his full name is purely Welsh. The word “ap” means “son of,” hence, Marcus, son of Iorwerth. In contrast, Winchester is an Anglicized place-name, and was probably not used until after the Saxon conquest that led to the creation of England after Arthur’s demise in the sixth century. It is used in this form because of its familiarity to the reader.

To give a sense of Celtic beliefs before Christianity’s conversion was completed in Britain, I have chosen to instill a bit of spirituality through a Celtic visionary mysticism called “fire in the head,” as well as Druidry. To some, the visions may represent an element of fantasy; however, I believe it belongs within the historical belief system that was still in practice among more remotely located native Celtic people of the time.

The dates used in the chapter headings are meant to simply be guideposts for the passage of time and are pure conjecture on my part. According to historian Geoffrey Ashe, “it would usually be pretentious to give even a ‘circa’ date.” Dates found in source materials, when they are found at all, vary astonishingly from one source to the next.

In the third book, THE ANVIL STONE, Claerwen’s vague vision of a battle in the mountains of Gwynedd is a reflection of a Welsh tradition that Arthur’s final battle at Camlann occurred near a place called Cwm y Llan. Another tradition says Arthurian treasure is concealed in Marchlyn Mawr, a mountain lake that is now a reservoir. For those who recognize the story of Arthur’s knight Bedwyr throwing Excalibur into a body of water, these two traditions put together give the notion that Excalibur might lie at the bottom of one of Gwynedd’s mountain tarns.

Marcus’s swords are likely quite a bit larger than what was normal for his time. However, as a clever, inventive man and a blacksmith to boot, he very well could have created his own swords that were more suited to his needs and nature.

And lastly, within the context of the series, Macsen’s Treasure is a five-piece set of ceremonial symbols sacred to the high kings of Britain. Consisting of a crown, torque, spearhead, sword and grail, it is purely fictional and does not exist in the Arthurian legend or in history. However, trappings of kingship such as special crowns, scepters, and swords have been held dear by monarchies throughout the centuries. Couldn’t it be possible that this notion speaks to the question of where the famed sword Excalibur and the Holy Grail came from?

Sometimes it’s those little questions of “what if?” that prompt a story to be told. For some, to find the answer can become an obsession. In my case, that may be true, and perhaps it is also that the spirits of my ancestors have chosen me to tell their tale as much as I have chosen to write about them.

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