Cover Reveal: The Once and Future Queen

The Once and Future Queen will be out in November (exact date TBD). I’m thrilled to share the cover and back page copy with you! Depending on when I know the publication date, I may or may not do pre-orders. I’ll let you know at that time.

I hope you are as excited for this book as I am!

Guinevere’s journey from literary sinner to feminist icon
took over one thousand years…and it’s not over yet.

Literature tells us painfully little about Guinevere, mostly focusing on her sin and betrayal of Arthur and Camelot. As a result, she is often seen as a one-dimensional character. But there is more to her story. By examining popular works of more than 20 authors over the last one thousand years, The Once and Future Queen shows how Guinevere reflects attitudes toward women during the time in which her story was written, changing to suit the expectations of her audience. Beginning in Celtic times and continuing through the present day, this book synthesizes academic criticism and popular opinion into a highly readable, approachable work that fills a gap in Arthurian material available to the general public.

Nicole Evelina has spent more than 15 years studying Arthurian legend. She is also a feminist known for her fictional portrayals of strong historical and legendary women, including Guinevere. Now, she combines these two passions to examine the effect of changing times and attitudes on the character of Guinevere in a must-read book for Arthurian enthusiasts of every knowledge level.

Another Top 10 Fun Facts About the Celts

This is Soay ewe. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This is Soay ewe. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One of my most popular posts of all time is A Celtic Primer (Top 10 Fun Facts). Since that one was such a hit, I thought I’d give an encore. This post, like it’s predecessor, focuses on the British Celts before the coming of Rome. (I’ve listed the source at the end of each one, just in case you want to learn more.)

  1. The term Celts, as commonly used, is a misnomer – The Celts were not a single race, but a people defined by their language, which dates back to the eighth – sixth century BC. Q Celtic is a version where the “qu” sound is pronounced as “k” but written as “c.” P Celtic replaced the “qu” sound with a “p.” This may have been brought to Britain during the Neolithic period. and is the basis of the native language of the Britons. (Alcock, Daily)
  2. The Celts spoke multiple languages. Most British Celts were bilingual within a generation of the 43 AD Roman conquest, speaking their native dialect at home and Latin for business. It’s also believed that the Druids knew Greek. (Southern)
  3. Female slaves were an actual unit of measure. A female slave was called a cumal in Medieval Irish law. A cumal is a unit of measure equivalent to 3 oz of silver or 8-10 cows. (Wyatt)
  4. Sheep are more interesting than you think. The early Celts kept a type of sheep called Soay (see right, they still exist) that shed their wool naturally (who knew?), though shearing, which took place in May, produced a softer wool. They were plucked by hand until the Iron Age invention of the shears. (Alcock, Daily and Life, Lawrence)
  5. Names held great importance. The Celts believed that to name a thing was to give it power. A Celt had two names: a personal name and that of his/her father, which is like having a first and last name. (Lawrence) For example, I would be Nicole, daughter of Richard. (Many times the father’s name included a characteristic like “the bold” or “the brave.”)
  6. Beware their women drivers… The early Celts fought in chariots with a pair of small horses (which had their tails and manes plaited to avoid tangling in the reins). Each chariot had three people: a driver, archer and spearman. Boudicca is famous for this method of fighting. (Moffat)
  7. I can see how this Wolfhound could do a man in... (By Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) (Druck ca. 1920) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

    I can see how this Wolfhound could do a man in… (By Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) (Druck ca. 1920) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

    Dogs were more than pets. The Celts used wolfhounds, which some say were the world’s tallest dogs, in war and hunting. In war, they could not only brutally attack the enemy, but once the enemy threw their spears at them, they (the enemy) were rendered defenseless. (Duffy)
  8. Barter wasn’t their only method of payment. The use of coins may have come about in Britain as a result of trade with Greece. We know coins of the Belgae came to Britain before they started making their own. The first British minted coins were in 100-70 BC. (Alcock, Daily and Cunliffe)
  9. The Celts could float your boat. Traditional Celtic boats were hollowed out logs or coracles, leather or skin stretched over a light wood frame. There is reason to believe that the British Celts may have modeled larger vessels after  the Veneiti of Gaul, who had a large fleet of ships they used to trade with Britain. These had flatter bottoms to sail in shallow water, high bows and sterns to sail in rough seas and gales, and sails made of raw hides or leather.  (Lawrence and Alcock, Daily)
  10. Cooking happened even before the cauldron. One early method is the potboil, in which stones were heated and  placed in a trough of water, which has been proven to cook food just as well as heating over a central cauldron (which came later). Fish could be wrapped in river clay, left to dry, put in a shallow pit filled with hot firewood and left to bake. (J Alcock, Daily) 

Sources:

Alcock, Joan. Daily life of the Pagan Celts
—–  Life in Roman Britain.
Cunliffe, Barry. Iron Age Communities in Britain.
Duffy, Kevin. Who Were the Celts?
Lawrence, Richard Russel. Roman Britain.
Moffat, Alistair. The Borders.
Southern, Patricia. Roman Britain: New History 55 BC – 450 AD
Wyatt, David. Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain

Do you have questions about the Celts? If so, leave them in the comments or hit me up by email and I’ll see if I can answer them.

Dinogad’s Smock, an Ancient Celtic Cradle Song

Thank you all for staying with me through a few weeks of writer-related posts. I promised you something special, so here it is.

When I was researching for my third Guinevere book, I came across an interesting nugget in Tim Clarkson’s book, The Men of the North. He mentions that written in the margin of one copy of the 7th century Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin were the first four lines to an ancient Celtic nursery song called Pais Dinogad or Dinogad’s Smock. At more than 1,400 years old, it is believed to be one of the oldest extant songs of its kind from a Celtic culture.

There are many translations, but since I don’t read any of the languages, I can’t say which is best. Here’s one sung and one written (which likely vary from one another):

Dinogad’s smock, speckled, speckled,
I made from the skins of martens.
Whistle, whistle, whistly
we sing, the eight slaves sing

When your father used to go to hunt,
with his shaft on his shoulder and his club
 in his hand,
he would call his speedy dogs,
‘Giff, Gaff, catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’,
he would kill a fish in a coracle,
as a lion kills an animal.

When your father used to go to the mountain,
he would bring back a roebuck, a wild pig, a stag,
a speckled grouse from the mountain,
a fish from the waterfall of Derwennyd

Whatever your father would hit with his spit,
whether wild pig or lynx or fox,
nothing that was without wings would escape.

Dinogad’s smock, pied, pied,
It was from marten’s skins that I made it.
‘Wheed, wheed, a whistling!’
I would sing, eight slaves sang.
When thy father went a-hunting,
A spear on his shoulder, a club in his hand,
He would call the nimble hounds,
‘Giff, Gaff; catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’
He would kill a fish in his coracle
As a lion kills its prey.
When thy father went to the mountain
He would bring back a roe-buck, a wild boar, a stag,
A speckled grouse from the mountain,
A fish from Rhaeadr Derwennydd.
Of all those that thy father reached with his lance,
Wild boar and lynx and fox,
None escaped which was not winged.

Esmerelda’s Cumbrian History gives a better account of the history of the song than I ever could, so please visit her site for all the details. I’ll just give a short summary here. As mentioned, it was found recorded in the margins of Y Gododdin, so it was originally thought to be from the of the Gododdin (today’s southern Scotland) culture, but has since been dated to 6th century Cumbria. However, it could have been sung by mothers for centuries before. Another source identifies the original language as Cumbric, the ancient language of the British Celts, and notes that “the wild cat [in the song] is thought to be the lynx, which became extinct in about 500 AD, so the poem is dated to that time.”

What interests me about this is the intimate nature of this song. Most finds from the time period are military in nature. This is very different; it gives us a glimpse into a very personal moment between mother and child. The lyrics tell us what likely was on the minds of the people who created it. This mother was singing to her child about his father’s heroism, both in feats of strength and providing for his family. We also learn about his weapons and the food the family ate.  Her son’s smock was made from the pelt of a weasel-like animal (you’ll die of cuteness if you Google them) and the family owned slaves (which wasn’t unusual for the Celts, and is to me a possible indication of an earlier time period than the dates above suggest). Her words convey obvious pride in her husband. I can picture her including wild gestures and maybe even funny voices to amuse her child, just as we do with bedtime stories today.

I can’t help but notice that, at least in this translation, the father is referred to in past tense. It makes me wonder what happened to him. Is he dead? Did he die in battle? Was he killed during the hunt? Did he abandon is wife and child? Or is he alive and well, still sharing a happy home with his family? Maybe he is just too old for hunting. And what made the woman compose this song? Or had she grown up with it?

How did the person who wrote the first four lines in the book know the song? How widespread was it? (It could have been commonly known like Rockabye Baby is now, as Esmerelda suggests, or it could have been passed down through generations of a family.) Why was it written down in the margins of Y Gododdin? Was this perhaps a tune stuck in someone’s head or (gasp!) could the writer have been a woman who had recently been singing it to her child?

Little nuggets like this are why I love writing historical fiction. Were I (or anyone else) to novelize these musings, it would be one less bit of ancient lore lost to the amnesia of history. I have no plans to tell this particular story, but Dinogad’s Smock does make a brief appearance in book 3 (I’ve taken some liberties as to why Guinevere would have known it). I hope you’ve enjoyed this little surprise from history as much as I did.

Have you ever heard of Dinogad’s Smock before? Do you know of any other ancient (or even near historical) lullabies? Which ones do you recall from your own childhood? Mine were pretty standard, Itsy-Bitsy Spider and the like.

PS – I’ve found that many times when I embed YouTube videos into posts, they are slammed with spam. If at any point you read this and comments are closed, that’s why. 

Samhain: The Celtic New Year (Part 2)

Image is public domain via wikimedia commons

Some of you may remember that last year I did a post on the Celtic feast of Samhain that was a sort of experiential fiction. It was a nice experiment, but I’m not sure it conveyed information the way I would have liked, so this year I’m going to talk about the holiday in a more straightforward fashion.

Samhain (October 31 or November 1, depending on your source), was the beginning of the Celtic new year. It was also the Celtic feast of the dead. (You may see similarities between the modern Day of the Dead and even Catholic All Souls and All Saints celebrations.) It was the day when the veil between the worlds was thinnest (Beltane, May 1, is the second) and it was believed we could touch the spirit world and it could touch us. Ancestors were revered and remembered. To this day, people in the Celtic world still follow the same ritual they did 1,000 years ago: doors are left unlocked, meals are prepared for those who have passed and a light is left burning to guide the spirits to a place of warmth and welcome at the hearth fire.

But ancestors were not the only spirits abroad on Samhain. The Sidhe (also called the faerie) rode out from their hill forts, searching for mortals to beguile and lead back to their kingdom. The Pooka (or Puca) roamed the forest. This strange creature could shape-shift, but most often appeared as a black stallion with fiery golden eyes, or a hybrid animal that was part goat, horse and bull. The shake of its mane struck fear into the hearts of the Celts. All fruits or crops still on the vine on Samhain were property of the Pooka, and to disobey this unspoken agreement was to risk a great curse.

Due to the nearness of the spirits, divination was a common practice. There were many types, but apples, apple seeds, and hazelnuts were commonly used on this day, especially when asking about the all-important topics of love and health. Another common practice was for each member of the household to cast a white stone into the hearth fire. If it was moved in the ashes when the family arose the following morning, whoever cast it would not live to see the next Samhain (kind of morbid, no?).

Samhain marked the beginning of the darkest part of the year, the beginning of winter. Just as the earth went dormant, so too, did the tribe, hunkering down in the ice and cold and praying they would survive the lean days to come. Agriculturally, it was the end of the growing season. The full moon nearest to the feast was (and still is) called the “blood moon” because this is the time of year when shepherds/ranchers would slaughter part of the herd to be able to feed the animals through the sparse nights of winter. This was the last time most families would eat well until the summer harvest.

The god Cernunnos as depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Image is public domain via wikimedia commons.

The symbol of Samhain is undoubtedly the bonfire. Not only did it dispel the evil spirits, it united the tribe. In some areas, every single fire in the whole tribe/village was rekindled from the bonfire (although the same has been said about the bonfire at Imbolc as well.) If nothing else, the bonfire served as a rallying point for the party, during which men and women ate seasonal foods and danced to keep the dark spirits at bay. Sacrifices and wishes were often thrown into the fire in the hopes of swaying the gods. Some go so far as to say animals or humans were part of this, but as you can imagine, this a subject of great controversy.

In its religious aspect, Samhain memorialized the death of the God (commonly called Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter). He is often symbolized in the King Stag, the deer whose horns would either fall off with the coming of winter or be wrenched from his head when the young stag takes over (i.e. the old year giving way to the new, just as the generations do). It was also the day of the Crone aspect of the Goddess (commonly called Cerridwen or Hecate). She is the symbol of death, she to whom all return in the end, but she is also the bringer of rebirth through her cauldron of life (do you see where the traditional image of the witch came from?). She is not to be feared, as much as venerated for her wisdom. On this day, all made their peace with the inevitability of meeting her at their death.

Here’s a Samhain meditation I think captures the Celtic nature of the feast quite well, even though it’s geared toward modern neo-pagans: “Harken Now, the Darkness Comes,” by Lark. (I’m waiting to get her permission to post in full. Until then, I’m linking to it.)

Sources:
The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev
The Golden Bough by James Frazer

What about you: have you ever heard of Samhain? Seen it written about in fiction set in Celtic or Arthurian times? Have you ever celebrated it? If so, how?

The Anglo-Saxons in Britain: Part 2

Pre-1066 illustration of Anglo-Saxon warriors on horseback. By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When last we left the Saxons, they were defending the British against the Picts and Scots under a peace treaty that paid them in money, food and land for their services. All was well for a time, but then the Saxons began to think bigger.

It is clear that by the mid-fifth century, the Saxons were growing restless with their narrow strip of land and seeking greater inroads into the country. They brought more and more of their Germanic fellows to Britain and demanded increasing amounts of payment. Eventually, they broke their treaty and began sacking British towns. According to Gildas, the leaders of the Saxons were called Hengest and Hosa and they ruled Kent. Nennius tells us that Vortigern married Hengest’s daughter in an effort to secure peace and Bede gives us the story of the hidden daggers in the Saxons’ boots at the council where they betrayed Vortigern. But that is the stuff of mythology and folk legend, not verifiable history.

On and on the two sides fought, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, neither really gaining ground. According to Phillips and Keatman, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which Snyder discredits as unreliable during this time period) “lists no battles between 465 and 473. This must have been a period of consolidation on both sides when defenses were prepared and personnel organized” (73). In 473 (again, according to the Chronicle), the Saxons won a great victory, but then shortly thereafter, the Britons held them at bay.

This is the time period of Arthur’s 12 great battles (as given to us by Nennius), if you believe that Arthur existed. If not, the closest historical leader scholars can point to is Ambrosius Aurelianus. Synder credits him with challenging the Saxons in multiple locations until the battle of Mount Badon (somewhere between 485-510). After that defeat there was a period of peace. As Phillips and Keatman write, “In the half century that followed Badon, until the time of Gildas’ writing, Britain enjoyed a period free from external attack. Indeed, there is archeological evidence of a reverse Anglo-Saxon migration; considerable numbers returned to the continent of Europe, uncertain, no doubt, of their precarious foothold in Britain” (77). Especially since Phillips and Keatman’s archeological evidence is weak (pottery shards in Germany that supposedly show they were settlers direct from Britain – but they don’t talk about how or why the shards lead us to this conclusion), I doubt the validity of the reverse migration. I have a feeling that while some may have returned home, the Saxons were, in general, still in Britain licking their wounds and biding their time to rebuild the forces they lost at Badon.

But their mindset of defeat seems to have ended in the late sixth century. By 550, the Saxons had defeated the British at Salisbury, and by 577, they had cut off the British in the southwest by taking the towns of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester. By 614, they controlled Devon and by 682, had the whole of the southwest peninsula under their control, save Cornwall. To the north and west, the Angles rose to power, and by the eighth century, they had overtaken most of the rest of the country. By 927, the Saxon king Athelstan, successor to Alfred the Great, united the country into a single kingdom first called Angelcynn, then Englaland and today, England (Phillips and Keatman 78). The remainder of the Britons settled in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, eventually to carry on only in Wales – the beginning of the divide between England and Wales that exists still today.

—-

Sources:

The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder
The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell (ed.)
King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

What about you? What have you heard about the Anglo-Saxon invasions? Does it agree with or contradict what’s written here? (It’s a complex topic.) What sources do you recommend?

The Anglo-Saxons in Britain: Part 1

A.D. 500-1000, Anglo-Saxons. By by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach. (Costumes of All Nations (1882)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re anything like me, you have hazy memories of learning about the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in high school. You may even recall a map with arrows pointing from the continental Europe to the Eastern coast of Britain, indicating where the Angles, Saxons and Jutes landed. That was about all I remembered before I started researching for these books, and although this isn’t my area of focus, I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learned.

The traditional view of how the Anglo-Saxons (my catch-all term for the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – I have no desire to try to explain the difference) came to Britain is that massive waves of them invaded the isle in bloody battle (a view popularized by Bede, Gildas and Nennius). In this view, their first major attack on Britain was either 408 or 41o, during the reign of Constantine when he was busy in Brittany and Rome was rapidly pulling its support from Britain. It was a sound defeat for the Britons that only led to more trouble as the years went by.

Now this thought is being replaced by one that I, personally, think is more realistic. While it lacks the drama of earlier theories, the idea that the Saxons slowly settled over time is consistent with many other “invasions” throughout history (look at the English who colonized America or the Irish who inhabited Dalriada in what is today Scotland – those certainly weren’t all at once).

According to Snyder, the new way of thinking goes like this: in the late fourth century, the Anglo-Saxons  left their homeland in search of more prosperous lands (possibly due to changing weather conditions, rising sea levels or famine in Germanic areas). They must have come a few families or small tribal groups at a time because there is little evidence for major Saxon settlements until around 440. It is likely that in between this time, the Saxons were settling where they could, bringing their women and children over from Germany and Denmark or intermarrying with the Britons on the eastern coast, and slowly increasing their population in this new land.

In the 430s, a group of Britons sent an appeal for help against their other enemies, the Picts and the Scots, to the Roman general Aetius in Gaul, but he didn’t respond. The Britons held a council to try to decide what to do, led by a “proud tyrant,” whom mythology tells us is Vortigern (whose name/title means “proud tyrant”). Vortigern, or whoever led the council, decided to hire the Saxons as mercenaries to defend against the “peoples of the north” (Gildas, quoted in Snyder 83). The Saxons sent word to their homeland, and warships of warriors came to the isle under a peace treaty that ensured the Saxons were protected, paid and fed for their services, which they performed well.

But that only lasted so long. Next week, we’ll look at what went wrong and how the Saxons eventually took power from the Britons, forming the country we know today as England.

—-

Sources:

The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder
The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell (ed.)
King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

What about you? What have you heard about the Anglo-Saxon invasions? Does it agree with or contradict what’s written here? (It’s a complex topic.) What sources do you recommend?