Arthurian Legend Tour Part 10: Stonehenge and Avebury

Stonehenge from within the circle.

Stonehenge from within the circle.

Well, this is my last post on my Arthurian Legends tour of southern England. It’s kind of appropriate that it’s on two biggies: the impressive stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, which we saw on the same day, our last day in England.

Stonehenge
We were fortunate enough to get on the list to watch the sunrise inside the circle at Stonehenge. This meant a 3:30 a.m. wake up call, which came all too quickly. We all looked at each other with one eye open and then napped in the car. Unfortunately, no one told the weather gods to make it a nice day. It was overcast, which dulled out the sunrise and it was also very, very windy.

Maureen, "King Arthur," me, and Tres inside Stonehenge.

Linda, Maureen, “King Arthur,” me, and Tres inside Stonehenge.

We had as our guide a modern Druid who calls himself Arthur Pendragon and claims to be the incarnation of said king. (I know an author on Twitter who claims to be the incarnation of Guinevere. I keep thinking I should introduce the two and see if they remember each other.) He was very kind, told us all about the structure and led us in a Druid prayer called “the Druid’s Oath:”

We swear
By peace and love to stand
Heart to Heart and Hand in Hand
Mark O Spirit, and hear us now,
confirming this, our Sacred Vow.

I visited Stonehenge years ago when I was in college and I have to say, it is much more impressive inside the stones. They are so huge – at least 3 – 4 times the height of a man. Arthur told us that at least 1/3 of each stone is underground, so they are even larger than they appear. And still no one knows how they got to Salisbury Plane from Wales, where they were mined. Arthurian legend would have you believe Merlin brought them by magic, but I bet there was another explanation.

056Jaime made the interesting statement that despite it’s age, Stonehenge is younger than a lot of the circles we visited and was clearly built as some sort of display of power, and likely only used by an elite few. Its energy is very masculine, whereas many of the other circles have a more feminine energy and were built for use by all, regardless of rank. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been less interested in it than the others. It could also be that it feels more touristy. That’s no fault of the people who work there or how it’s maintained. I think it’s just a natural offshoot of it’s popularity and all the hype built up around it in pop culture.

Avebury

A small part of Avebury

A small part of Avebury

After breakfast, we visited Avebury. It’s a completely different site, both in terms of energy and geographic layout. Avebury is so huge, there’s no way you can take it all in at once. That’s why it’s usually photographed from the air; it’s the only way to get it all in one shot.

Jamie told us there were four places the ancient people of the area visited, each at a different season, a quarterly gathering of the tribes. The Sanctuary, a timber circle that is no longer standing, was the location for spring (Imbolc/Candlemas). Avebury was summer (Beltane). Silbury Hill was autumn (Lughnasa). West Kennet Long Borough, with its repository of the dead, was the gathering place in winter (Samhain).

The avenue

We started out walking the processional way or avenue, which is a series of stones that act almost like guideposts or pillars, welcoming you to the site. It is very impressive and must have been even more so in ancient times when there wasn’t as much around as there is today. Nearby (across the street, actually) is a hewn stone several times the size of a person. It is said that is where the high priestess sat to welcome the tribes as they gathered, walking up the avenue. I sat there and can testify that is has both the sight lines and the power to be a very commanding throne.

Me sitting on the "high priestess' seat" at Avebury.

Me sitting on the “high priestess’ seat” at Avebury.

One of the very interesting things about Avebury is that it’s actually three stone circles, one of which is the largest in Europe. The stones are considered either male or female, based on their shape and location. Today, the at least some of the land is owned by a herdsman, so there are sheep everywhere. They must be used to tourists, because they didn’t pay us any mind. The shepherd was actually out checking his flock while we were exploring the circles and he told us all about the white chalk that naturally occurs in the ground and how his family came to own the land and their agreement with the National Trust to keep it sacred for those who visit.

Tolkein's beech trees.

Tolkein’s beech trees.

An unexpected surprise for me on the site was getting to see the beech trees that J.R.R. Tolkein sat under when he wrote his books. Supposedly, they were the inspiration for the talking, moving trees in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, I had to get my picture taken under them and pray that some of the inspiration would rub off on me! It is a very serene spot and I can see how looking out over the hillside with the trees whispering above him would have made his imagination take flight.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

The last place we visited that day (since West Kennet Long Borough was closed) was Silbury Hill. It is very near Avebury. It’s a cone-shaped hill that is said to be around 5,000 years old. Today it’s covered in grass, but it was believed once to be chalk like the earth beneath. It’s the tallest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and one of the largest in the world. Like Stonehenge and Avebury, its purpose is unknown, but local folklore calls it the resting place of a King Sil, who was buried on horseback, with the hill raised up around him.

I hope you all have enjoyed traveling to Arthurian England with me. If I get to go to Scotland next summer like I hope, there will be more blog posts from that trip. It’s my aim to trace the final voyage of the Votadini as memorialized in the poem Y Gododdin. Cross your fingers that the grant I’m applying for (since the trip is research for book 3) comes through!

Have you ever been to Stonehenge, Avebury, or Silbury Hill? If so, what did you think of them? If not, what would you like to know? What have you read/seen about them in popular culture?

On Site in England: The Next Best Thing to Going Back in Time

The area of my trip.

Where I’ll be for the next 2 weeks

By the time you read this, I’ll either be in the frantic final throes of packing or blissfully winging my way across the Atlantic. That’s because I have the opportunity of a lifetime: taking a tour of England that is all based around Arthurian legend!

I’ve been dreaming about taking this tour since I first heard about it a few years ago. The leader is the guy who helped Marion Zimmer Bradley research the Mists of Avalon (which is what inspired me to write my books). We will have special guests on parts of the tour, including internationally renowned Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe, modern-day Bard Kevan Manwaring, and other scholars on mythology and ancient sacred sites. Poor Mr. Ashe has no idea what he’s in for – a whole lot of questions about how to attack and defend a hill fort, plus anything else I can think of. His is a brain I can’t wait to pick!

Anyway, since I’m going to be gone two weeks, there will be no new posts here until June 16, which is our two year blogiversary! After that, I’ll do a series on sites from my trip and things I learned about the legends. Here’s a preview, by way of the itinerary of my trip:

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor

Day 1: Travel to London, then to Whewell on the way to Glastonbury (which will be in all three books of my trilogy).

Day 2: Tour Glastonbury, including Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn, drinking from Chalice Well, climbing the Tor and visiting Glastonbury Abbey.

Day 3: Visit Cadbury castle, one of the sites thought to be home to Camelot. (This is one of the settings in book 2.) See the ancient Druid oaks of Gog and Magog.

Day 4: Travel to Cornwall, stopping at the holy well of St. Clether. Tour Tinagel castle and Merlin’s Cave. (I can’t wait for you guys to see where we’re staying in Tintagel. It’s breathtaking!)

Day 5: Visit the faerie glen of St. Nectan, the village of Boscatle and Rocky Valley (which has two Bronze Age carvings in a Cretan labyrinth).

Day 6: Head to Penzance and St. Michael’s Mount. Quality time by the sea.

Day 7: Take in the stone circles of Boscowen-un and the Merry Maidens, along with the stone monoliths called The Pipers. Visit the holy wells Madron and Sancreed.

Day 8: Visit haunted Bodmin Moor and the area made famous by Daphne Du Maurier. (I’m very excited about this because I want to write a gothic fantasy someday and am hoping to get the thread a of plot based in local legend.) Spend time in Dartmoor and Marlborough.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Souce: Wikimedia Commons)

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 9: Journey to Stonehenge for private access inside the stone circle to witness a real Druid sunrise ritual. Meet J.P. Reedman, who I interviewed, and whose book, Stone Lord, I reviewed. Visit Avebury – the largest stone circle in the world – West Kennet long barrow – the largest burial mound in Europe – and Silbury Hill.

Day 10: Travel back home, no doubt in awe and incredibly grateful for all I’ve seen.

This trip includes several items on my Bucket List. There are no words for how excited I am. I can’t even believe this is really happening. This is invaluable research for my books, a precious networking opportunity with Arthurian scholars and just plain fun for a geek like me. I won’t have Internet access while I’m there, but you’ll get plenty of photos and stories when I get back. I hope you all have fun while I’m gone. I’d tell you to behave, but I know my readers better than that!

Author Interview: J. P. Reedman, Stone Lord: The Legend of King Arthur, Era of Stonehenge

J.P. Reedman, author of “Stone Lord: The Legend of King Arthur, The Era of Stonehenge”

Today we have a very special guest, author J.P. Reedman, whose historical fiction novel, Stone Lord: The Legend of King Arthur, The Era of Stonehenge, was recently published.

Q: Thank you so much for joining me and my readers.  By way of introduction, please tell us a little about yourself. 

Janet: Stone Lord is my first published novel. I began writing fantasy when I was 11, back on the west coast of Canada, where I grew up. I had lots of stories and poems published in the small presses in the ’80s, and had a long foray into ‘fan fiction’ but slacked off when I moved to the UK in 1992—I was too busy traveling around and having fun! A serious illness ten years ago kick-started my writing again; I knew then that it was time to sit down and really make an effort, and not to think you had all the time in the world.

Q: Stone Lord is a very unique take on Arthurian legend, as most books about King Arthur are set the Middle Ages or Celtic times. What inspired you to set yours in the Bronze Age?

Janet: I have read all the different Arthurian versions, plus non-fiction and the legends in the Mabinogion. There were so many versions of the Arthurian legends I began to think that, like Robin Hood, there may have been more than one source of inspiration for the character. I believe there probably WAS a dark age Arthur who stemmed the Saxon tides for a while…but certain mythic qualities in the legends speak of an older time, long before the Dark Ages. In the Welsh Mabinogion Arthur fights monsters and witches, not Saxons, and his company have the thinly disguised names of gods. Then there were Geoffrey of Monmouth’s anachronistic mentions of the building of Stonehenge, a monument many thousands of years older than the historical Arthur. Add to that, stories of weaponry coming from and being deposited in lakes (a custom that began in the Bronze Age), swords in standing stones, and you start to see what may be the root of some aspects of the legend.

Q: In reading the excerpts from your book available online, I noticed the main characters have names that are derivations of the names we normally associate with Arthurian legend. How did you determine what you would call them?

Janet: With great difficulty! I knew that it wouldn’t sound right to call them by their traditional established names, which are a mix of Celtic, French, and even a bit of Germanic. So I looked for older or more ‘primal’ sounding versions of the names, and found them most often in Irish myth—for instance Arthur’s sword Excalibur seems to have the Irish hero’s sword Caladbolg as its direct ancestor, so I used a version of this. I decided I wanted ‘Celtic sounding’ names, but with alternate spellings so as not to sound TOO familiar or confuse people about the timeline. And if anyone is wondering, it is now thought that Celtic languages were in Britain at least from 2500 BC.

Q: What types of traditional research did you do for this book? What are some sources you’d recommend if others want to learn more about the Bronze Age or its people?

Janet: Visit the monuments if you can! There’s nothing like being in the field. There are several brilliant books on the subject of Stonehenge and the British Bronze Age. Stonehenge by Mike Parker Pearson contains much of the recent findings in the Stonehenge landscape, and Aubrey Burl’s Rites of the Gods covers the ritual side of things.

Q: You’ve also done some archeological research. That’s something few people can claim. Please tell us a little about this research, how it came about and how it influenced your book.

Janet: I work part-time at Stonehenge itself and have been lucky enough to talk with many of the top archaeologists in the field. I also have worked myself on a marvelous site just 2 miles from the stones where there is an ancient sacred pool full of deposits that spans the ages from the Mesolithic to medieval times. A rare type of Bronze Age dagger was found in the spring, and this really started to make me think about the Excalibur tradition. The site is on private land and covered in trees; an iron age hill fort stands next to it, and the Avon river curls around it like a serpent…it’s a truly magical place and may well become a site of worldwide importance.

Q. You have some very nice nods to traditional Arthurian legend in your work, such as Ardhu (Arthur) moving a stone and taking a sacred dagger from underneath it. What made you choose to portray the Sword in the Stone in this manner?

Janet: I saw a video about someone who could move large stones. He did it using a pivot point and I thought, ‘Yes, that could work!’ I began to think again, about Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of Merlin dismantling Stonehenge when it was still in Ireland. It wasn’t magic that moved the stones but his ‘ingenious machines.’ I didn’t want to use magic in Stone Lord, so I had to come up with something that could be done and would look visually impressive to onlookers.

Q: One of the most fascinating aspects of your story, at least to me personally, is the mythology of the people and how it affects their daily lives. Can you please tell us a little about how you came to learn about it and the role it plays in your story?

Janet: When reading many books about prehistoric people, I was nearly always disappointed by the usage (or lack) of personal mythology/ritual. People laugh when archaeologists dig a mysterious mound and say it’s ‘for ritual’ but it WAS a very different world to ours, one when you really didn’t know if the Sun would return every Midwinter, where  a simple virus or a bad tooth could kill you, where you would have to placate the powers for your continued survival.. I studied anthropology briefly in the ’80s and tried to make a fairly realistic portrayal of what I think Bronze Age Britons might have believed in—a world where the spirits of the dead co-existed with the living, where trees, stones, rivers all held tutelary deities. It wasn’t the ‘fluffy’ time some authors like to make it either; there is plenty of evidence that strange and not-so-nice rites did take place on occasion.

Q: Your pre-historic version of Guinevere, whom you call Fynavir, is Irish. Why did you choose this background for her? How did you choose how to place the other characters since they are very much out of their traditional element in your book?

Janet: The name Guinevere has the same origin and meaning as Fynavir—White Phantom. Findabhair was daughter of the Irish Queen Maeve in the famous saga The Cattle Raid of Cooley. I liked the idea of a marriage alliance being made, especially as much British gold work of the Bronze Age came from Wicklow. It is now also thought that the Irish hero sagas have roots in earlier prehistory rather than just in the Iron Age. As for the others, I did try to keep some of Arthur’s familial ties in tact. I used Cornwall for his mother’s Y’gerna’s home as not only was Tintagel in the original, it was a very important place in prehistory—the source of Britain’s tin. Lancelot (An’kelet) is a prince from Brittany in France…not a million miles from the ‘canon’ Lancelot who was also from that area; Brittany has had strong tied to Britain since the Stone Age and also has a great megalithic culture.

Q: Some reviews have likened your book to Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. Obviously they are both set in pre-historic times, but beyond that do you find it an apt comparison? How would you describe your book to those trying to decide whether or not to read it?

Janet: Auel’s book is set at a very much earlier period than mine, but I can see some resemblance. She may have been writing an adventure epic but she knew her stuff about the people and their lifestyle.

Q: What is one misconception you’ve heard voiced about your work and what would you say to clarify?

Janet: I’ve had a few people who don’t seem to recognize that it is fiction! I am not expounding a theory on King Arthur in any way. You could almost call what I write a form of alternative history, I suppose.

Q: Do you believe there was a historical King Arthur? Why or why not? Or do you think it really matters?

Janet: I do think there was, but whoever he was, he has assimilated both mythic characters and a whole handful of different historical figure into his mythos. That’s why there are legends in various parts of Britain concerning him, from Cornwall to Wales, to Scotland.

Q: Is Stone Lord a stand-alone book or part of a series? What are you working on next?

Janet: There will be a second part which carries through to the end of Ardhu’s life. It introduced several new main characters, including Ardhu’s illegitimate son, Mordraed.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Janet: I hope that this book might also give people a better idea of the Bronze Age era in Britain. Too many people still have this image of ‘cavemen’ in shaggy skins grunting as they haul stones around a landscape. These people are our direct ancestors and no less intelligent than us—they wove cloth, wore gold jewellery, forged bronze weapons, used razors and had buttons on their clothes!

Q. Where can readers find the book, online or in print? Where can people connect with you online?

Janet: Stone Lord is available in print and kindle on Amazon. Other e-book variations are available on SMASHWORDS, and print copies from Barnes and Noble and Waterstones.com. There is a blog at stone-lord.blogspot.com, and also a Stone Lord Facebook page. Both have lots of archaeological items as well as information on the book.

Thank you again for spending time with me today. I wish you the greatest success with your work, both now and in the future.

Do you have questions or comments for Janet? Add them here and she’ll respond.