Readers, today we have one of my writing buddies, Nicole Evelina, here to talk about Arthurtian fiction! This is a genre dear to my heart, because I went through a very long period of Arthurian-obsession, and I'll admit—that obsession persists today. Nicole has some great things to say about historical fiction and fantasy, mythological settings, and strong women in history. Check it out!
I’m proud to announce that I am now an ebook reviewer for the Historical Novel Society! Since my other reviews on this site are longer and more impassioned (say it ain’t so!), I wrote this one within the HNS guidelines as a kind of “audition” for the role. Following that review are a few comments on the second book in the series.
The Crown is not your average Tudor tale. Sure, all the usual players are there: King Henry VIII, Princess Mary, Thomas Cromwell, even Queen Katherine, but they are on the periphery. This is the story of Joanna Stafford, a noblewoman turned novice at the Dominican priory of Dartford around the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.
Nancy Bilyeau does a masterful job of illustrating a side of Tudor life you don’t often hear much about. What was it like to be Catholic during a time when Henry was growing increasingly antagonistic of the Church? What happened to those whose religious vocations were invalidated thanks to the king’s vendetta? Add in a murder and the search for a precious relic that may or may not save the day, and you’ve got the makings of a great read.
The strongest point of the book for me was the portrayal of daily life, secular, royal and religious. Bilyeau obviously did her research and it shows in the details that make the world come to life. Joanna is an engaging, sympathetic heroine, and those around her, Brothers Edmond and Richard, the Sisters and Geoffrey Scoville are unique, if flawed, characters.The who-done-it of the murder was also well done, and is concluded in a way I never would have guessed.
But it’s not a perfect book. Sometimes Joanna’s reactions seem forced, like we didn’t get enough insight into the way her mind works to understand why she reacted as strongly as she did. I liked the relic idea, but the search for it wasn’t fast paced or life-or-death enough for me to hold my breath about it. (There are some great examples of how to write atmosphere around this plot point, though.)
All in all, this book is highly recommended for fans of Tudor fiction. 4/5 stars.
Since the time I originally wrote this review, I’ve also read the sequel, The Chalice. I liked it slightly more than The Crown, mainly due to the whirlwind of action in the last 1/4 of the book. Most of the same comments apply, although we do finally get explanation for Joanna’s reactions, which was missing from the first book. They really helped me understand and sympathize with Joanna.
Joanna’s relationships with Edmund and Geoffrey, as well as the use of prophecy (although historically accurate) seemed a little melodramatic to me, and contributed to my wariness during the first half of the book. But once that is dispensed with and we finally get to the action that Joanna must perform, the book picks up speed and is hard to put down. Bilyeau also includes a masterful plot twist explaining Henry VIII’s bizarre reaction to Anne of Cleaves. 4.5/5 stars.
Have you read The Crown or The Chalice? If so, did you like either one? If not, are you interested in them? Why or why not?
When I say the word “Camelot” what do you think of?
Probably a grandiose medieval castle made of stone with turrets and spires, something out of a fairy tale. And that is how it has been portrayed in drawings, movies and TV shows.
(Full disclosure, my Camelot does have some of these elements, but I’ve also given you a logical explanation of why it could be possible. In that, I’m invoking the fantasy side of the genre of historical fantasy. But all of the other castles in my books are true to the time period.)
But the reality of Celtic castles, if we assume King Arthur lived somewhere in the late fifth to early sixth century, is very different. In fact, the word “castle” really doesn’t even accurately describe them. They were more like fortifications than homes. For the most part, rulers didn’t have permanent residence there. The castles were protection for the surrounding populous and their livestock in case of attack.
Most Celtic castles were likely hillforts, which kind of resemble what would later become the motte and bailey style of castle. They were based on large earthenwork hills. The castle itself was at the top in the center, surrounded by one or more wooden palisades, and usually at least one earthen wall or ditch. There are many where the hill is terraced and each terrace has wooden walls and earthen ditches or ramparts to make it even more difficult for the enemy to succeed in siege.
The castle itself was likely to be wooden because timber was readily available. The exception is that stone was plentiful in Highland Scotland, and some British rulers, especially on the western coast, were thought to have fortified their wooden castles using stone. But they didn’t build them the way we picture until the 10th century. In fact, castles as we think of them didn’t come into prominence until the reign of Edward I, who is credited with building the great castles of Northern Wales.
These hillforts would have been defended with arrows, swords, axes and spears, along with sling shots. In order to conquer one, the enemy (depending on what technology they had available) may have used ballista bolts in addition to pure manpower.
Examples of hillforts in Arthurian legend include Traprain Law (King Lot’s capital in Lothian), Badon (if one takes Solsbury Hill outside of Bath to be the location of the battle of mount Badon), Maiden Castle (which is linked to several Arthurian stories), and Cadbury (which Geoffrey Ashe and many other scholars believe is the true location of Camelot).
But what about Tintagel, you might ask? It’s the most famous surviving castle linked to Arthurian legend (Arthur’s birthplace) and it’s made of stone. We know the site was occupied during what I’ll call the Arthurian period, but the castle itself dates to the 13th century. I’ll be visiting Tintagel in less than a month, so I can tell you more when I get back.
PS – Scholars can’t agree on if Camelot existed, much less where. Someday I’ll do a post on some of the possible locations. What I’ve described here is typical of the time period, but we may never know for sure what Camelot really looked like.
British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam
Strongholds of the Picts by Angus Konstam
Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World by Matthew Bennett and Jim Bradbury, et al
There are probably more because I wrote most of this post from memory. Please check my research page for more possible sources.
How do you picture Camelot? What have you seen portrayed in movies, books or TV? Are there any other Arthurian castles you’re curious about?
Wow. When I finished this book that was all I could think. But I’m sure you’re going to want more in a review, so here it goes:
The Night Circus is the story of a mysterious circus that is only open at night and comes and goes from a location without warning. But the circus is only a backdrop for a much more serious event: a magical competition between Celia and Marco, who were drafted into this fight as children without their consent because of their abilities to control time and space. Over time, it becomes clear that their competition involves not only the two of them and their masters, but the whole circus and the fate of everyone in it.
This is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel, which is so hard to believe because she writes with the skill of someone who’s been honing her craft for 30 years. It’s a lush, romantic, suspenseful tale worthy of the hype it has received. Morgenstern truly makes magic real through her prose. The descriptions are so vivid, so evocative in their creativity that you feel like you’re in a dream in the whole time – one you can’t wait to get back to. From the searing pain of a binding spell to the lofty heights of a circus tent meant to emulate walking the clouds, you’ll feel like you’ve lived it all by the end of the book. The plot is well paced and will leave you breathless at certain points, while wishing you could freeze the story on a particularly beautiful scene at others. The characters are strong and unique, about as far from stock as you get. Thanks to the author’s masterful storytelling, you form a relationship with them as you read that makes them all feel like family, even the ones you despise.
If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that the ending fell a little flat for me. The book is so grandiose that I was expecting a bang at the end, when it really just quietly came to a conclusion. What happens makes sense, but it’s a little bit disappointing that there wasn’t one more dramatic revelation. It’s like being on a roller coaster and going up that last hill, but instead of the final sharp descent, you just travel on an even track until the ride stops. But that’s not enough for me to take anything away from my 5-star rating of the book.
I listened to this as an audio book and I have to say it was a little difficult to follow the jumps in time since I couldn’t just flip back a few pages to see the order of things. But the narrator, Jim Dale, once again proves why he’s the best in the business. I highly recommend this format.
In short, this is an incredible book that I will read over and over again, if only to escape from reality and hopefully learn to be a stronger writer from Morgenstern’s enviable talent. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.
PS – This is the only book written in present tense I’ve ever read where I didn’t notice it (and I hate present tense books). I actually felt it was the only way the story could have been told. Bravo to the author for showing this skeptic how this manner of writing can be done well.
Have you read The Night Circus? If so, what did you think of it? If not, is it something you plan to read?
Today's guest post is by the amazing Nicole Evelina, whose dedication to research is awe-inspiring. Don't believe me? Check out her blog!
I’m a historical fiction writer, so I do a lot of research. But you don’t have to be writing in another time period to find research necessary when writing a novel. Sure, you can make up a lot, but chances are good that unless your characters have the exact same life experiences as you, you’re going to need to do a little fact-finding along the way.
In a comment to last week’s post on children in Celtic law, Cassandra Page asked what satirists are. I started to answer her, but then realized it is far too complex a subject for a comment. Hence, today’s blog post.
In the modern world, when we hear the word “satire,” we may think of a kind of humor that makes fun of politics or culture in general, ala Saturday Night Live or The Colbert Report. But in the Celtic word, satire was a much more serious matter.
Poets or bards had two major functions in Celtic society: to praise or blame. If praised, a person would be remembered as a hero or great person down through the centuries. If blamed, they would be infamous forever. It is the satirists who did the blaming. The Celts, particularly the Irish, gave these poets full sacred status. Their words were so powerful they could be considered magic. A person’s reputation could be enhanced through praise, or damaged by satire. Satire was thought to be so powerful, it could kill. Poets were known in myth to “rhyme to death” people and animals (usually rats). There was a poet’s spell called Firt Feled that could cause one’s enemies to die.
Satirists most often criticized nobility for lack of generosity or hospitality, giving bad advice or dishonorable conduct, but they could also pressure them into obeying their own laws. Satirizing someone without legal cause was a serious crime that carried with it heavy penalties, including loss of sick maintenance (a duty of the tribe to all classes of Druids due to their station) or in the case of women, loss of honor price. Women were dealt with more severely under Brehon law than men, and a vast majority of illegal female satirists appear to have used the power of their words to curse. But women were legally able to satirize under many conditions, including when a person to whom she had made a pledge rendered the pledge invalid. This was one way Celtic society made sure people kept their word.
For an example of the power of satirists, read material from the Ulster Cycle where it is clearly shown that kings sometimes acted against their natural inclinations out of fear of satire. Because Celtic kings could not rule if they were maimed or blemished, it said that all a satirist had to do to depose a king was raise a boil on his skin by means of his satirical words. (I imagine this something like giving him hives from anger or anxiety.) Because of the power of their words, originally poets and satirists were treated with much respect and their requests never refused. But toward the end of the Celtic era, they began to abuse their power, and became so hated that the role of satirist was outlawed.
Have you ever heard of satirists before? Have you read about them in legend? What do you think of the belief that people’s words can hold so much power? Do you have any additional questions about Celtic life?
Secrets of the Druids by John Matthews
Magic of the Celtic Otherworld: Irish History, Lore and Rituals by Steve Blamires
Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief by Sharon Paice Macleod
In a tribal society where kinship was revered above all, children were given special prominence in law.
Raising children was generally the equal responsibility of both parents and their families. Oddly enough, if a child was born due to rape, seduction or if the family didn’t give consent, the responsibility for raising the child fell to the father. (You’d think it would be the other way around, but maybe this was a form of punishment for wrongdoing.) The father was also responsible if the mother was dead, ill, disabled, insane, a satirist or outcast from her tribe.
The mother had the sole responsibility for the rearing of the child if the father was foreign, a slave, a satirist or outcast from his tribe. If a woman got pregnant by a son with no income/lands of his own against the wishes of his father, she was responsible for the child. Also, a prostitute was responsible for all of her children.
There was no such thing as an illegitimate child in the Celtic world. All children were raised by the tribe. However, in the case of nobility, a man would have to “adopt” his illegitimate son for him to be considered an hier.
Fosterage was very common. In short, it meant that a child, whether male or female, would spend some part of his or her childhood in the household of another family, learning a trade, how to fight or govern (depending on their class) from them. The child could be sent to the foster family at any time once he or she reached one year of age. The child would return to their birth family when he or she reached marriageable age (14 for girls, 17 for boys).
This situation not only helped educate their children for their future roles in society, it strengthened bonds between families and tribes. During the time the child was being fostered, the foster family was responsible for their education (facing heavy penalties if it wasn’t imparted well) and was responsible for any harm or injury to the child.
There was also literary fosterage, where ollamhs, or masters of craft, who took students in for payment (or in some cases, nothing). These students were essentially adopted by the masters.
Under Celtic law, a man was required to care for her elderly parents. If he couldn’t afford to care for both, he was to care for his father and forget his mother (so much for the rights of Celtic women!) Couples who had no boys had the option of adopting a male heir, although this was considered a last resort under Irish law, and not even mentioned in Welsh law (Thompson 134). Kin could also adopt children if something happened to their parents. Nothing that I have read mentions adoptions by childless couples, but I’m sure it happened.
As with everything else in Celtic law, inheritance was complex. Under Irish law, children had the same rights of inheritance regardless of the status of their mothers (first wife, second wife, mistress, etc.). So the son of the chief wife and the son of a lesser union (see the types of Celtic marriage for examples) had equal right to inherit, provided the father acknowledged both children. However, the sons of known prostitutes, sons who were outlawed, or abandoned children who had not been formally adopted could not inherit.
Daughters were entitled to a share of personal property, but not necessarily to land unless there were no sons or the daughter’s husband was a foreigner with no land of his own. Even when a daughter was considered an heiress, she “received only a ‘life estate’ of family property which then reverted back to her paternal family group at her death” (Thompson 138). However, Thompson also notes that “in some tracts, daughters divided property equally with sons, whereas in others, a single daughter divided the estate with her brothers. In any event, parent-daughter(s) transmission of wealth was clearly guaranteed by law in the late-classic and early Christian periods of Irish history” (146).
I promise, this is the last post on Celtic law for a while…maybe ever. I just felt that I’d be remiss to not to broadly cover these important parts of Celtic life.
Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage by Epona Perry
Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson
The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell
What do you think about this topic? How have you seen inheritance or other laws regarding children played our in Arthurian or Celtic literature? Please let me know in the comments.