Learning to Love History Through Historical Fiction

HistficI think Rudyard Kipling had it right: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” When I came across this pin on Pinterest I realized it was something I wanted to explore more in-depth, because I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve learned more from the historical fiction I’ve read than I did in all my years of studying history in school.

For those prone to argue, yes, I know historical fiction is part fiction. I’m not saying we should base all of our knowledge on it, but that it can spark interest in a certain time period or person much easier than a dry history book can. For example, I just finished Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Its backdrop of the Cathar Inquisition in thirteenth century France made me want to learn more about this little-known sect of medieval Christianity. I can promise you that if we covered that in school, I don’t remember a word of it.

Why does historical fiction stay with us? Well, for one, stories are the way the human brain processes information. We tell each other stories every day in the form of conversation without even noticing we’re doing it. Chances are good that when you’re telling your friend about that awesome party you went to, you’re going to tell her stories about the evening, not a chronological recounting of events (unless you are Sheldon Cooper, in which case you wouldn’t have gone to a party anyway). I think this is the fundamental flaw in many history textbooks; they focus on cramming as many dates and facts in as possible, and thus, lose the true story.

As author Heather Web recently said in a recent Huffington Post article, “What’s not to love about history? I think it gets a bad rap from our grade school and high school days where many teachers force-fed us timelines and names to memorize, as opposed to teaching us to explore movements and larger concepts–never mind all of those juicy stories. This is what history, and historical fiction, really is: juicy stories.”

That brings me to my second point about historical fiction. It breathes life into history in a way traditional textbooks don’t. This happens through the story and the characters, no matter if they are fictional paupers begging at the cathedral gates or real-life kings and queens. They represent the plight (or fortune) of people in a given time period, they show us history in action through a personal lens with all of its love, triumph, grief and pain. Whether we leave a historical fiction work thinking, “Oh my God am I glad I didn’t live in that time period,” or “Dude, where’s the time machine? It would have been so cool to live in that time,” we’ve personalized the story. History now matters to us.

And matter it should. Beyond the oft-repeated proverb “if we don’t remember history, we’re bound to repeat it,” history shows us what is right and wrong with humanity, emphasizes the good that we should seek to amplify and horrors that should never be permitted again. By living these things through the fictionalized lives of real or made up people, we become more compassionate and empathetic. I just finished a book called The Hammer of Witches by Begoña Echeverria, whose graphic portrayal of the Basque witch hunts made me realize what danger we place our entire community in when we fail to see the humanity of those around us and instead choose the bandwagon of bigoted hatred and fear.

Personally, I would love if history classes in high school (or at least college) incorporated historical fiction into their curriculum, especially as way of whetting the appetite for certain time periods or topics. (Come to think of it, that’s kind of what my high school Western Civ teacher did when she had us read 1984 before studying totalitarian societies. I’ve been hooked on dystopia ever since.) For example, I personally think Susanna Kearsely’s forthcoming A Desperate Fortune has the clearest explanation of the reason for the Jacobite rebellion/exile I’ve ever read. Historical fiction can even take you places the history books rarely do. Jo Baker’s Longbourn gives a glimpse into the lives of servants and soldiers in Regency England, while most history books stick to the sterile facts of monarchy and war.

And you wouldn’t even have to use books, or at least not books alone. There are so many period films and TV shows that they could be incorporated as well. Even if they are of questionable historical accuracy (*cough* Tudors *cough*) that can be used to spark discussion. “Spot the inaccuracy” could be part of a test. It could be employed interdepartmentally as well. The Paris Wife could be an intro to Hemingway or The Secret of All Things a prelude to biology. The possibilities are endless. (Man, now I wish I had my PhD. or even a master’s in history so I could create this class.)

I just hate the idea of history meaning less and less to future generations. But if mine is any starting place (I’m at the tail end of Gen X), things aren’t looking good. A recent report by the American Historical Association (I’m a member), showed that schools issuing history degrees are showing a downward trend, which isn’t too surprising given the recent economy. The more we can use historical fiction to spark interest, the better off we will all be. The day history becomes only dead guys and boring facts is the day we lose a valuable record of our humanity.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? What historical fiction has made you care about history? What do you wish young people had to read in school? Do you think there is danger in mixing fiction in with our history?

Guest Post: HF Author Sarah Kennedy Talks City of Ladies and Christine de Pizan

I am so excited to have as my guest today historical fiction author Sarah Kennedy, whose recent book, City of Ladies (second in the Cross and Crown series), was one of my favorites of 2014. (Here’s my review; still waiting for Historical Honey to post it. And here’s the related article I wrote for the Historical Novel Society.)

Today Sarah talks about her book, as well as the real-life inspiration for its title and main themes. Thank you for being here, Sarah!

Cities of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy

When I began my second novel, City of Ladies, I didn’t have a title in mind.  I wanted to move my main character, Catherine Havens, forward in time:  get her married, put her in charge of a large household.  Catherine, however, is not the sort of person who would simply forget the convent that she grew up in, which was a community of women (despite the presence of a priest and the male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church).  She would, of course, keep women around her.  She is comfortable with women.  She respects their ability to reason and work.

As the novel evolved, Catherine’s newly-formed household seemed to draw to it former nuns, and Catherine wanted to protect them.  The women have nowhere else to go—and yet they still have skills and knowledge that can help the girls and village women nearby.  What else would Catherine do besides take them in and shelter them?  This is part of her calling, as she sees it, even in a secular world, and it also becomes part of the problem of the plot, as the women begin to turn up dead.

At some point in the drafting, the original City of Ladies began to tug at my mind, both as a book that Catherine would have owned and as a metaphor for the world Catherine is trying to build under Henry VIII.  The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) was written about a hundred and fifty years before my book’s time period, by a woman named Christine de Pizan.  Christine was Italian by birth but spent much of her life in Paris.  She was unusually well-educated for her time (like my Catherine), primarily because her father (like Catherine’s father) insisted upon it.

City of LadiesChristine was happily—and conventionally—married in her teens and bore three children.  Her husband, however, died, leaving Christine to raise her family alone.  This she did by writing, becoming the first woman in European history to earn her living as an author.  Other women did write—and some of them were widely known—but they were nuns, who had the leisure and the status to circulate their work.  Nuns didn’t have to make money, but Christine did.  And she succeeded.

The authorial tradition was heavily against her, and The Book of the City of Ladies takes on the cultural and theological arguments against women in general.  Christine writes in defense of women’s moral and intellectual worth, against the backdrop of “all manner of philosophers, poets and orators too numerous to mention, who all seem to speak with one voice and are unanimous in their view that female nature is wholly given up to vice” (6).  As she becomes more and more despondent about being a member of such a flawed sex, she is visited by three ladies, who reveal themselves as Reason, Rectitude, and Justice.  These three ladies encourage and assist Christine in building her “City of Ladies.”

This city is metaphorical.  The book itself is the structure, and within it are the “lives” of many women, historical, biblical, and mythological, who have been exemplary or have done extraordinary things.  They are mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives—and they show that women are resourceful, caring, intelligent, and moral.  The entire book becomes, as Rosalind Brown-Grant notes, an example of the “biographical catalogue,” and it seems designed more for visiting than for a beginning-to-end tour.  The three-part structure and multiple sub-headings and “arguments” within the text make for fruitful lucky-dipping.  Christine’s City of Ladies may be old-fashioned in its emphasis on moral virtue in women, but her goal is not to provide a defense of what women should do but rather a defense of what women are.

My own City of Ladies is a metaphor, as well, but it’s also the physical house where Catherine Havens lives.  She dreams of a world where women can read, write, think, and work.  My Catherine does want to go out into the world and use her knowledge.  She wants to hear her calling for herself—and then act to make the most of her gifts, which she believes are given to her by God.

And so Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies became the only choice when I sought out a title.  My Catherine began life in a convent, and the historical Christine went to live in one as an older woman.  In hindsight, it seems natural that Catherine claimed that book as one of her most prized possessions.  It gave her something that Christine herself didn’t have—a foremother who showed her in writing what a woman, even under a harsh king, could accomplish.

Source:
Brown-Grant, Rosalind, editor.  The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan.  London:    Penguin, 1999.

Do you have any questions or comments for Sarah? Please leave them below. She will be popping in and answering comments/questions as she can. And again, go read her books if you haven’t already!

Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 2

Deb during one of our classes

Deb during one of our classes

This is the second in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here’s part 1 in case you missed it.

Having learned our fill on character, our lesson for day 2 was on plot and history. A lot of people find plotting overwhelming, but as Deb said, “all we’re doing [with plot] is taking a person from point A to point B.”

How History and Plot Work Together
The elements of a historical narrative are the same as the story historians construct about the evidence they have found. We tend to think of history as what really happened, but a lot of times we just can’t know, even with a lot of evidence. Many times the evidence, even eyewitness testimony, is contradictory.

That’s why historians look at evidence and then go back later and construct a narrative to tell a particular story. Like historical fiction writers, they end up leaving 99% of what they’ve learned off the page. It may sound like they aren’t being true if that’s the case, but if they included it all the book would be overwhelmingly lengthy and boring. They, like fiction writers, have to stick to a central point or purpose and only radiate out so far from that, and only when doing so enriches the overall point they are trying to make.

Genre and Plot
There are tons of traditional plot models out there, but Deb told us none of her books follow any of them. She believes that is a perfectly valid choice for an author to make. (Honestly, my books don’t either.) We explored the traditional three act structure, the hero’s journey (often used in fantasy) and a basic plot structure and talked about how they are alike and how they differ. (By the way, the images I’m linking to here are the exact ones Deb gave us as handouts, so you can pretend like you were there with us.) It’s a good idea to at least familiarize yourself with the elements of these and other models so that you know the basics of what’s expected from a story, even if yours doesn’t fit neatly into one of them.

Deb doesn’t define herself as a genre author. This means she writes broader fiction that doesn’t fit into a category like mystery, paranormal, romance, etc. However, many writers, myself included, do choose to write within a given genre. It’s important to note that different genres have different expectations. As an author you have three choices:

  1. Work within your genre – All genres have expected conventions, word limits/page expectations. (For example, romance has very particular word counts and expectations of what has to happen by a certain page. Thrillers are also known for having strong pacing expectations.)
  2. Work outside of genre – This is what Deb does. It tends to give you more freedom in length and what you can and can’t do, but it can also be difficult for agents and publishers to classify when it comes time to sell it.
  3. Work against genre – In order to do this, you need to know the rules of the genre well. After all, you can’t break rules (well) you don’t know or understand. And if you break them badly, you won’t have a story people want to read.

History defines the outer limits of where you can go in historical fiction. Within in historical fiction, your sub-genre (fantasy, romance, mystery, thriller, etc.) constrains the genre. In other words, if you’re writing historical fantasy (as I do), you’re still subject to the general rules of fantasy writing; you just happen to be setting your fantasy in another time period.

Bringing History into Your Plot
Deb made the very interesting point that very few people are participants in historical events, but history still affects each one of us. There are three main ways we interact with history:

  1. History that is going on around you that shapes what you eat, wear, etc. – This affects everyone. For example, if I was setting a book in pre-Roman Britain, my Celts would likely not eat onions or celery because the Romans brought those to Britain. However, because my Arthur and Guinevere live after the Roman invasion, it’s logical they could eat those things.
  2. History you are a direct participant in  –  Fewer people will be part of a battle or other significant event. This could be due to their station in life, or they might just happen to live where something of import takes place and get caught up in it. For example, because they are rulers, both Arthur and Guinevere are active participants in the historical battle of Mount Badon.
  3. Doing historical things – Deb gave the examples of being a blacksmith, riding side saddle or teaching in a one room schoolhouse. These are things that you wouldn’t really know are historic while you are doing them. It’s only by looking back through history that we can define them as historic. For example, Guinevere is a Druid priestess. To her, that is a natural part of her religion. Only to us, 1,500 years later, is this considered historical.

This is a continuum. Characters can move on it and different characters can be in different categories at the same time as one another. So your main characters might be doing historic things or being directly involved in historic events, while your secondary characters are only doing historic things. Or your main character may always be doing historic things, but those historic things might change in the course of the book as the history that is going on around him or her affects his/her life.

We all know this, but it bears repeating, especially in the context of historical fiction: history for history’s sake is boring. You may be impressed by what you know, but you will lose the story and your readers if you include all of it. (This is why I started this blog, so that I had something to do with all that extra knowledge and didn’t feel like it was going to waste if it didn’t end up on the page.) Pick the historical things that allow your character to work within your plot. History is a pot of resources you can dip into to find something that makes your characters work i.e. show something about a relationship, help in character development. It shouldn’t be there just because you learned it.

Story Openings and Other Various Tips
As any writer will tell you, knowing where is the best place to begin your story is very difficult. As writers, we often have to “write our way” into the novel and so where we started writing isn’t necessarily the best place to actually begin the book. Deb’s suggestion for finding the elusive “inciting incident” is to find the moment where everything changes for your character and start there. As she said, “It’s like sinking an anchor for yourself and the reader.”

Deb’s tip: Look at your WIP and start reading at page 151. What before that is truly necessary and what is you writing to get to where you need to be? Delete anything that isn’t absolutely essential.

Trivia: Deb told us that A Discovery of Witches originally had a lot more of Diana at the library at the beginning, but she cut it because nothing was happening.

Other tips:

  • Create a file or a book for yourself that is your “bible” with all the information about your characters, plot, and references so you can easily refer back while writing and editing.
  • If you’re going to use something extraordinary like time travel, magic or reincarnation in your story it has to have a reason beyond you wanting to do it. It has to add something to the story.
  • Letting information out slowly over time is always better than a dream, flashback or other contrived tool.

Next week: What Deb taught us about setting.

What do you think about Deb’s advice on plot and history? Writers, what tips do you have? What’s worked for you? Readers, what do you like the best in the plots of the books you read? What annoys you?

My Morning in Glastonbury with Geoffrey Ashe – Part 2

A model of what Glastonbury Abbey looked like in the Middle Ages

A model of what Glastonbury Abbey looked like in the Middle Ages

Last week we talked about Geoffrey’s Ashe’s thoughts on Glastonbury as it relates to King Arthur. This week we’ll continue with Glastonbury Abbey, as described by him and his wife, Pat, who was our tour guide around the grounds.

I have to say that I wasn’t expecting much from the Abbey, but it is truly a magnificent place. It’s hard to try to describe the sheer size of the walls. Even standing there, it was a stretch to imagine the size the Abbey must have been its heyday. Photos and even the model in the museum can’t do it justice.

There has been some kind of settlement on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey since the early Christian era. The foundations of an early Roman building have recently been discovered under a local supermarket (the area used to be part of the Abbey grounds). There was once a church, known only as The Old Church, on the grounds that was so old, no one knew who put it there. Tradition places it early in the Christian era. It was made from wattle and was said to be built by Christ’s disciples (Joseph of Arimathea group) in the first century. It may have existed where the Lady Chapel is now, and was considered the holiest place in England.

The remains of the Lady Chapel today.

The remains of the Lady Chapel today.

So is the tradition of Joseph (and possibly the young Jesus) coming to the area possible? Mr. Ashe admits this theory is what first drew him to the area. While he believes the part about Jesus coming along to be “modern fantasy,” he believes it’s possible Joseph came because there were very strong trade routes between the two areas, especially in tin.

During the Middle Ages, the Abbey was at the height of its power. It was the largest cathedral in England other than old St. Paul’s in London. This means nearby Wells Cathedral was smaller, and that is of mind-boggling proportions. It had a grand scriptorium which purportedly housed the largest collection of books in Europe. (Today, only about 40 of these books remain.)

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The Abbot’s Kitchen

The Abbot was more than the religious leader; he was also chief justice for the area. He had his own kitchen, a separate building on the grounds which survives in tact today. It contains four ovens, one in each corner of the room, each with their own chimney that vented into one hole in the roof. These air vents served to bring in cool air, while pushing hot air and smoke out. They were so effective, they became models for others in buildings all over Europe.  It would have had a huge hall next to it, in which the Abbot would have entertained kings and other nobility when they visited.

And the monks did more than pray. They carried out important medical works for the sick, helped the poor (including at an almshouse on the grounds that was dedicated to poor widows) as well as public works, such as draining the water that still made the surrounding area marshy.

Have you ever heard the nursery rhyme of Little Jack Horner? (“Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said ‘oh, what a good boy am I.'”) It turns out that Jack (John) Horner was a real person, but he was far from the little boy portrayed by artists. He lived in the area of Glastonbury during the time of the dissolution and was extremely helpful to King Henry VIII. He had a book of titles to the divisions of land that made up Glastonbury. As the story goes, he took one out of the book for himself before presenting the book to the king (hence, the title was the plum in the rhyme).

This photo gives you some idea of just how huge the Abbey would have been.

This photo gives you some idea of just how huge the Abbey would have been.

The Abbey was one of the last to be dissolved by King Henry VIII. It lasted until 1539. It is said that Henry stayed at what was then called the Pilgrim’s Inn (today the George and Pilgrim’s Hotel) across the street from the Abbey to personally watch it burn. When that happened, it wasn’t just the monks who were turned out. The Abbey was also a center of learning, so teachers, librarians and musicians lost their livelihoods and homes as well. After the dissolution, the property passed into private hands as the king gave favors and paid debts. In the 1970s, the Church of England bought it and it is now an international tourist destination, in addition to an important piece of history.

What do you think about Glastonbury Abbey? What questions do you have about it?

Six Articles for Readers, Writers and History Buffs

This 5th century ring, recently discovered in Britian, will important in book 2. (Photo credit: Mail Online)

This 5th century ring, recently discovered in Britian, will important in book 2. (Photo credit: Mail Online)

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed I spent almost my entire 3-day weekend making edits to the rough draft of Book 2 (working title: Camelot’s Queen). This means I didn’t have time for a proper blog post. So instead, here are a handful of news items and blog posts that have made my author’s heart sing over the last few weeks. I hope you enjoy them as well.

  1. Unique sapphire ring found in Yorkshire field may have been owned by 5th century European royalty Hmmm….considering the time period and location, it was likely to have been owned by a post-Roman Briton. Can we say King Arthur or Guinevere? Look for this ring to make several appearances in Book 2.
  2. Social Media for Writers – My agent extraordinaire, Jen Karsbaek, wrote this insightful piece on the Foreword Literary blog last week. She makes some great points I didn’t even think of when I wrote mine. (PS – Did you know you can get Foreword shirts/hoodies online?)
  3. Why I Love Novels in First Person – HF author Nancy Bilyeau (whose first book, The Crown, I am currently loving!) wrote a fantastic post over at Historical Tapestry on the merits of writing in first person. This POV has its limitations, but I have to admit I love it. I’m not sure I’ll switch third in the future.
  4. Let Your Characters Live and Breathe – James Scott Bell wrote a lovely post on what to do when your characters won’t do what you want them to do. My favorite tip: go with them; they’re usually right. The surprises in writing are actually my favorite part. They are what tell me this particular story has taken on a life of it’s own – and when it does that, it’ll be successful.
  5. An Interview with Ashley Barron – I don’t know any of this writer’s work, but I LOVED her interview. Worth reading for writers and readers alike.
  6. Think You Ought be in Pictures? – In case you’ve ever wondered about how books get turned into movies, here’s  a great post from agent Rachelle Gardener that spells it all out. (I don’t know about you, but I’m still crossing my fingers!)

And for my fellow history lovers, don’t worry, I’ll get back to the Celtic history and Arthurian legend posts soon. I still owe you posts on divorce and children in the Celtic world and I have two DVD series from the Great Courses to load me up with new material as soon as I get a chance to watch them.

What about you? What articles/blog posts have you enjoyed lately? Please share them in the comments so we can all read them.

Cooking with the Celts

Celtic iron age roundhouse WyrdLight.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Celtic iron age roundhouse WyrdLight.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ever wondered what it would have been like to eat with a Celt? What do you mean, “no?” Go with me on this anyway.

The answer depends on the location and time period. I’m confining my discussion to Britain because that’s what I know best.

The pre-Roman Celts ate with fingers and dagger off of plates made from wood or bread. Food was either passed around or served at a low table. They sat crossed legged or squatted on floors covered in rushes or animal skins. Food was usually cooked over a central fire in a round house. We know the Celts ate well, with pork or beef being boiled in large cauldrons or roasted on a spit. It was also salted for later use. Fish, bread, honey, butter, cheese, venison, boar and wild fowl were also common. A favorite was salmon with honey. Porridge was a typical breakfast, possibly along with ale or mead and maybe a few bannocks (flat cakes made from barley or oats).

Hospitality was highly valued, so much in fact that strangers were allowed to eat before being asked their name or what they needed. At banquets, the chief or king gave the “hero’s portion,” the choice thigh, to the bravest man in the clan.

Replica of a Roman kitchen by Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Roman kitchen by Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the Roman invasion, kitchens of Celts who adopted the Roman ways weren’t too different from yours, at least in terms of cooking implements. They didn’t have microwaves, but they did have ovens to bake bread and stoves/hearths on which to boil, fry or stew. They also had sieves and ladles, chopping boards, baking sheets, and pots and pans of iron or bronze. They could even adjust the heat level of their stoves by placing the cooking vessels over metal tripods of varying heights.

The Romans brought with them many new  foods, such as onions, leeks, lettuce, lentils, celery, plums, apples and walnuts. They also brought herbs used in healing and cooking such as dill, garlic, fennel, sage and rosemary. Their love of food was accompanied by a great love for wine, which had been imported by the southern and eastern Celtic tribes before the invasion, but was in high demand after. Oddly enough, the Celts were known for their dislike of olive oil, something highly prized by the Romans.

With these new foods came new table manners. Roman men ate on couches, their left hand supporting them, right hand used in eating. Women sat on basket chairs. They used finger bowls to cleanse the fingertips and napkins to wipe their mouths. Napkins were also used to take home leftovers (ancient doggie bag!) According to Gifford, they ate with knives and spoons of bronze, bone or silver. Other historians claim the spoon wasn’t invented until much later on. Those people say soup was eaten out of a communal bowl that was passed among the dinners. (Eww…Soup is off the menu in my books just because I can’t verify which way is correct for eating it.)

What about you? What have you heard, read or seen in books (fiction or non-fiction) or movies about the eating habits of the Celts?

—–

Sources

Alcock, Joan. Food in Roman Britain.
Alcock, Leslie. Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen, and Priests: Britain AD 550-850
Duffy, Kevin. Who were the Celts?
Gifford, Clive. Food and Cooking in Ancient Rome.

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Pendragon University, School of Arthurian Legend

A crest I created for Guinevere and Arthur. It could also be the seal for Pendragon University. Copyright: Nicole Evelina

I’ve spent way too much time looking at master’s/Ph.D. programs online lately. Need proof? A few days ago I woke up around
1 a.m. with a thought: what would a major in Celtic Arthurian legend look like? I was awake for the next two hours pondering just that.

I’m betting that somewhere in the world a course design looks much like this, but since I haven’t found it yet, I give you the major of Arthurian Studies at my fictional Pendragon University:

Required Courses

  • Celtic History 101 (Vienna to British tribes)
  • Celtic History 201 (Roman occupation to Anglo Saxon rule)
  • King Arthur: Man or Myth?
  • Arthurian Legend 101 (Characters)
  • Arthurian Legend 201 (Historical, Mythological and Literary Sources)
  • The Battles of King Arthur
  • Celtic Law
  • Celtic Daily Life
  • The Druid Religion: Then and Now
  • Classic Arthurian Literature (myth and oral history through the Middle Ages)
  • Modern Arthurian Literature (18th-21st centuries)
  • Arthur’s Enemies: the Picts, Irish and Saxons
  • The Meaning of Arthurian Legend Today
  • Capstone Tour (Glastonbury, Cadbury, Carlisle, Tintagel, etc.) – this tour does exist and I’m going on it next June!
  • Thesis/dissertation

Optional Courses

  • Archeology (emphasis on Roman occupation and post-Roman Britain)
  • Language of the Celts
  • Celtic Herbalism
  • Arthur’s Children in Myth and Literature
  • Arthurian Places Across Britain, Wales and Scotland
  • Warriors and Fighting in Celtic Times
  • Avalon: Myth, Legend and New Age Pilgrimage
  • Beyond the Walls: The Gododdin and The Highlands
  • Food in Post-Roman Britain
  • Arthur in Film and Pop Culture
  • Standing Stones and Monoliths
  • Lecture Series: Women in Arthurian Legend
    • Morgan
    • Guinevere
    • Isolde
    • Elaine
    • Priestesses of Avalon
  • The Holy Grail
  • Symbolism in Arthurian Legend

I even realized that some of my favorite fellow Arthurian/history bloggers could be instructors that this fictional school: Tyler Tichelaar, Ian Forbes, Tim Clarkson (Senchus) Mac Wilson (Badonicus) and Oxford professor Jonathan Jarrett, just to name a few. And if you want a required reading list, check out my research page.

Do you know of any schools that offer something similar? If a major like this existed, would you be interested? Which classes would you want to take? Which classes would you want to teach? What would you add to the list? What books would you recommend?

Arthurian Legend: Historical Fiction or Fantasy?

When I first started to seriously consider getting my work published, I posted to an online message board asking whether agents/publishers consider Arthurian legend historical fiction or fantasy. I received only one reply (rather snarky), “Oh that stuff gets passed off as historical fiction all the time.”

That was when I realized not everyone thinks Arthurian legend is a serious topic (or sub-genre, if you will) for historical fiction. Where it should be classified really depends on your definition of “historical.” If by that word you mean something firmly grounded in evidence and fact (especially written), then you won’t ever be able to accept Arthurian legend as historical. But if you accept a looser definition that includes anything that takes place in another time period and attempts to recreate the history, culture, politics, religion, etc. of that time, then you open yourself up to including Arthurian legend.

I’m happy to say that the Historical Novel Society (HNS) counts it as historical fiction. As stated in their Guide to King Arthur:

From the point of view of historical fiction, the Arthur mythos has always pin-pointed the fault-line between history and story. The historians pull in the direction of a realistic, Celtic post-Roman world. Their Arthur is without magic, without high-Catholic symbolism, and without chivalry. The fantasy authors pull the other way, setting the stories in a time outside time, often depicting a battle between Christian ‘magic’ and pagan ‘magic’, plundering the myths for narrative and atmosphere. Literary authors tend to stand one foot in both camps, enchanted by the magic realism and epic poetry at the heart of the stories, but wanting to give emotional consistency and humanity (usually historical humanity) to the protagonists.”

Personally, I believe that Arthurian legend can be either historical fiction or fantasy, depending on if the author chooses to ground his/her story in history. As I’ve said before, there is very little historical evidence for Dark Ages Britain and King Arthur. Really all we know for sure is that the tribes of Britain fought against each other after Rome left their shores in 410 AD. They united (presumably under a single leader) to face the Saxons in battle at a place traditionally known as Mount Badon, somewhere around the year 500 AD (some argue as much as 30 years earlier or later on the date). They roundly defeated the Saxons, who then left them alone for decades. Their leader is traditionally called Arthur, which may be a title or a name. Around him grew the stories we know as Arthurian legend (see parts 1, 2, and 3 of my series on the evolution of Arthurian legend to learn more).

Because we have so few reliable records, those of us interested in Arthur and Celtic Britain must rely heavily on myth and tradition. This opens up a lot of room for interpretation and invention. (Hence, the “fiction” part of “historical fiction.”) But it can also lead into the realms of fantasy when we make up things to fill in the historical gaps, especially if those things involve the supernatural. But does magic always mean fantasy? Again, the answer depends on your point of view. The Celts certainly had a belief in magic. And there are people in our world today who will swear psychic abilities, the manipulation of energy and Otherworldly beings are very real, while others say they are pure make-believe or wishful thinking.

In short, until the day someone can definitively prove one way or the other that Arthur did or did not exist and we find records of his culture, there will be the possibility for both historical accuracy and fantasy in fiction that deals with him and his world.

And my books? I never thought I’d say this, but according to the HNS definition, I think I fall in the literary category. My Arthur and Guinevere live in post-Roman Britain (approximately 491-530 AD) and I’ve tried very hard to make the culture/politics true to the time period, but I also couldn’t imagine an Arthurian world without magic. Because of the tensions of the time, I carry on the fantasy tradition of emphasizing the clash between pagan and Christian, but not only in theology, also in politics and power.

Do you think Arthurian legend can be considered historical fiction? Or would you define it as fantasy? Why? Does how it’s classified or shelved at a bookstore even matter to you as a reader?

Trinity College Old Library Long Room – Heaven on Earth

Trinity College Long Room, Old Library. No photography is allowed, so this is a scan of the postcard I bought in the gift shop.

Pardon me while I indulge my dorkdom.

But if I could personally design heaven, it would look exactly like the Trinity College Old Library Long Room. For me, this is heaven on earth and I’m sure my fellow bibliophiles would agree.

Built between 1712 and 1732, it houses over 200,000 rare books. Rotating exhibits line the center isle. The ones while we were there were illuminated manuscripts from various time periods, as well as artifacts from the library’s history, including the oath the library guards have to take. Word to the wise: the guards get tetchy if you lean over the ropes to get a better look at the books, even if your hands are behind your back. Really, all I wanted was to see if I could read the titles on the spines…

The library also houses the Book of Kells, Book of Armagh, the Book of Durrow and the oldest surviving harp in Ireland (you know, the one you see on Irish coins and everywhere else). But for me, the real treasure was the library itself. I actually cried while we were in the Long Room. That’s how happy I was. Somehow seeing all those books confirmed my desire to be a full-time author and also get my doctorate in history. I’m a bookworm to my core.

The spiral staircase that greets you as you walk into the library. Also a scan of a postcard.

I could kiss the person who created this: a 360 degree tour of the Long Room Library. (Put it on full-screen mode to feel like you’re there.) I think it will get me through until I can go back again, which it now appears may be sooner than I anticipated.

In all seriousness, it’s on my Bucket List to get to use one of the books housed here in my research, preferably getting to read it in the second floor reading room. Now I just have to figure out what they have that I would need and how to go about accessing it. I’ve also added visiting all the world’s most beautiful libraries to my list. Anyone want to come with me?

I could sit and look at the stacks of books, breathing in that old book smell forever. Yeah, if I was in the world of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, I’d totally be Erudite.  And that’s fine by me.

What do you think of the library? Have you been there? Do places like this interest you? What places in the world take your breath away?