Writing a Sixth Century Road Trip

I am still doing research for “Caledfwlch” and will be for many more months. I have, however, also begun writing. As with “Bel Nemeton,” the second book in the series features a split perspective with part of the action split between a contemporary time frame and a Sixth century Arthurian one (other, shorter, perspectives may also be introduced, I haven’t decided).

Part of the Sixth century storyline involves Myrddi (Merlin), Bleys (Blaze), and Arthur (for reasons of aesthetic preference, I’ve kept the king’s name in its familiar form rather than reverting to its Celtic versions). Traveling overland from a nebulously placed Camelot (there are so many suggested locations for a historical Camelot, none of them terribly convincing) to Pictland.

It would be entirely possible to fast forward through all that and simply resume narrative upon arriving among the Picts. If this was a short story, I certainly would. In a novel, however, I can afford to give some detail to their travels, using the opportunity to bring the world of Sixth century Britain to life, provide some character exposition, and insert a little derring-do.

The research underpinning this part of the story has been every bit as challenging as the research into the Picts (see my previous post). There is, of course, no authoritative map of Britain in the early-to-mid Sixth century. Even determining what lands and kingdoms Mryrddin and his party would pass through on their journey requires sifting through vague and contradictory information before making my own assumptions (possibly shaded a little by dramatic potential).

To the best of my ability, their travels will take the thrio through Powys, Pengwern, Elmet, Reghed, Damnonia, and Dal Riata before entering Pictland.

Along the way, each of those lands will get a little bit of color, if not a small story. Pengwern contains an abandoned Roman city whose name appears to be a Latinization of the Britonnic term for “City of the Werewolf” (really). How could I not play with that? Elmet, I think, will be Bleys’s home turf, good for some exposition about the history of Myrddin’s tutor. Reghed is often considered to be the “Gorre” of Arthurian legend, which gives some hints about what I may do there. Unlike the previous lands, which were are all Brittonic or Welsh, Dal Riata is the land of the Scoti (Gaelic speaking invaders from Ireland from which the name “Scotland” is ultimately derived). So there’s some good opportunity for cross-cultural tensions and, I think, maybe a bar brawl.

After that, it’s into Pictland and Sixth century Wally World (just kidding, mostly).

Knit-Picting

Book Two in the series isn’t due until May 2016. Nevertheless, I’ve already begun my research. The story will feature the Picts prominently. Delving into what is known about the Picts has been both fascinating and challenging.

Of all the Celtic peoples (acknowledging of course, that even the term “Celt” is anachronistic) of the Isles, the Picts are arguably the most enigmatic. Aside from archeological evidence, almost everything known about Picts comes from other peoples … and even that is not a large corpus of information. So it might appear to be an open question, what was a Pict?

In the absence of a large volume of hard data, it appears many people have treated the Picts as a blank canvas on which to project their own ideas, hopes, and fears. Often, this leads to depiction (no pun intended) of Picts as a kind of uber-Celt, with every trait common associated with Celts exaggerated. Others portray Picts as the ultimate “other,” ignore solid evidence as they portray Picts as non-Indo-European (to say nothing of Celt) and an outlier or exception to much that is commonly understood about human society.

Popular conceptions of the Picts … as technologically primitive, socially primitive, and extremely warlike appear deeply ingrained in both popular consciousness and mass media – from Robert E. Howard to the 2004 Clive Owen/Keira Knightley film “King Arthur.” There may be a kernel of truth in the last aspect, sources from multiple cultures describe Picts as notorious pirates and, certainly, they were one of the barbarian groups troubling Rome and even southern Britons. It is difficult, however, to build a case they were more “barbariany” than other barbarians. Conceptions of technological and social primitivism, however, are utterly erroneous. Archeological evidence supports that Pictish material culture and technology were on par with their other Celtic and Saxon neighbors. In fact, in some areas, notably metal working and artistry (Pictish art tended toward the naturalistic, in contrast with the stylized forms of their neighbors) a case could be made they were slightly ahead of the curve. Socially, while Pictland apparently lacked the larger settlements of southern Britain, its political and religious systems were also on par with their neighbors.

At this point, as presented in my story, the Picts will adhere strongly to the model supported by archeology and other scholarly research … while also featuring a nod to those more fanciful conceptions of myth and legend (especially of the Robert E. Howard variety).