* In your most recent novel, PATHS OF EXILE, your protagonist, Eadwine, inhabits the world of seventh century Britain. What drew you to this period in time?
First, it’s in this period that the countries we know as England, Scotland and Wales first came into existence. In the pre-Roman Iron Age, Britain was composed of lots of tribal territories. The Romans turned the southern half of the island, south of Hadrian’s Wall, into a single Roman diocese and the northern half stayed non-Roman. By the time William the Conqueror arrives in 1066, that Roman vs non-Roman boundary at Hadrian’s Wall had vanished and been replaced by forerunners of the modern countries, none of which has a political boundary along Hadrian’s Wall. How did that happen?
Second, seventh-century Britain was astonishingly diverse. There were at least four main ethnic groups (Picts, Britons, Irish and English), each of whom were further subdivided into distinct kingdoms, at least five languages, at least three religions (English heathenism, whatever the pre-Christian religion of the Picts was, and Christianity – which itself had several variations, such as British, Irish and Roman), and cultural links with Byzantium, Scandinavia and Merovingian France. They were all fighting with each other, marrying each other and learning from each other. No one culture had come to dominate the whole island. People make much of today’s “multicultural society”, but the seventh century probably ran it close.* How much of your novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?
There aren’t many facts in seventh-century Britain
It’s a period that’s just starting to emerge into history, largely thanks to the book written by Bede in 731.
The main character in the novel, Eadwine, is a historical figure, but Bede tells us very little about his time in exile, which is when the novel is set.
So almost all the novel is fiction, but it’s woven in the spaces between the facts.
Where I could find a solid fact, I would not change it.
I summarised the few facts in the Historical Note in the novel and on my website, http://www.carlanayland.org/exile/historical_note.htm
, and am gradually compiling a series of articles going into more detail, which can be found on my blog (http://www.carlanayland.blogspot.com/
). * Tell us something surprising about women in 7th century Britain.
There seems to be a rather lazy assumption around that because the Middle Ages was a misogynistic era, women must have been treated even worse in the less well documented early medieval period. Even a cursory glance at the primary sources shows how far from the truth that image is. Bede tells us that the queen of East Anglia in the 610s influenced – arguably even dictated – her husband’s religious and foreign policy, and says of Abbess Hild of Whitby in 680, “…. not only ordinary folk but also kings and princes used to ask her advice and take it.” Queen Eanflaed of Northumbria in the 650s arranged for St Wilfrid’s education and convinced her husband to grant land for a monastery as penance for a political murder. A warrior captured in battle in 679 called in favours from his time in a queen’s service to get himself ransomed. The Old English poem The Husband’s Message, in which a man who has won fame and wealth by military adventure in a foreign country asks the woman he loves to join him because without her his life is not complete, is as romantic a declaration of love as any I know of from any age. And in Old English the word ‘man’ meant mankind in general, with separate words for an adult male (wapman) and an adult female (wifman). This suggests to me that men and women were seen as fulfilling different but equally valuable social roles, with neither being subservient to the other. I hope that isn’t surprising; but perhaps it is.
* Your protagonist, Eadwine, is a king of Deira, which was once located in northern England. Your descriptions beautifully evoke the richness of the land. Did you imagine most of the landscape, or did you draw inspiration from visits, photos, or books?
Thank you! I’m a keen hillwalker, so I knew most of the upland locations long before I started writing the book. All the places are real, and you could walk the moors above Severa’s farm and follow the route of Eadwine’s journey along the cliffs in the snowstorm. The moors haven’t changed much since they were deforested in the Bronze Age, so the bogs and the boulders that Ashhere thinks are trolls are just as described in the story. In the lowlands, there would have been more forest 1400 years ago than now, low-lying areas that are now drained for arable fields would still have been marsh, and places that are now villages would probably have been single farms, if inhabited at all. So I had to imagine the landscape with more trees, more marshes and fewer people. * How did you research the complicated history behind PATHS OF EXILE?
I start from Bede’s history, because he was writing only about 100 years after the events so he’s the nearest we have to a contemporary source. I also use surviving British sources, such as the Historia Brittonum, the Welsh Annals and the Welsh Triads, since although they were written down quite late they may contain kernels of older tradition. They give a perspective from another point of view, which is invaluable when trying to imagine such a diverse period. I use modern history books, but some are very speculative so I treat them with caution and I check the references wherever I can. Surviving literature, such as Beowulf, The Husband’s Message, The Wanderer, the Exeter Book Riddles, and Welsh poetic epics such as Y Gododdin and the Canu Heleldd gives a starting point for imagining social values and attitudes. Almost nothing is known of the pre-Christian English religion, but the names of the gods were the same as those of the Norse gods, so I draw freely on Norse myths. Then there is the archaeology, which can tell us about the burial customs people followed, the clothes and jewellery they wore, the structures they built, and the tools, utensils and weapons they used. I put all this together, and then I start using my imagination!
Michelle, thank you very much for the opportunity to answer these questions.
Thank you Carla! And feel free to visit Carla Nayland online for more information about Paths of Exile.