I’m pleased to be hosting another guest post from Nan Hawthorne this week. Nan has just published An Involuntary King, set in Anglo-Saxon England. Check out Nan and her writing at her blog (one of several), Tales From Shield-Wall Books.
How Facts Made Fantasy into Fiction
By Nan Hawthorne, author of An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England
The very first words of what would become my novel, An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England www.shield-wall.com, were penned by me in 1964. My new friend Laura and I had met at a weeklong camp and started play-acting a medieval fantasy about a king named Lawrence and a queen named Sunshine. The first time pencil hit paper I was writing as the king to the queen from whom he was separated — I can’t remember why except that I lived in Juneau and Laura lived in Ketchikan. Even when the letters turned into narrative vignettes we maintained our love for the sort of medieval fantasy that adolescent girls favor. There was no consideration of the where and when, not really. Lawrence and the renamed Josephine reigned over Generic Medieval Kingdom in some sort of Generic Medieval Period.
But… I wanted more. I am enough of an ISTJ to want to know the when and where, and to have a sneaking desire to make it somewhere and sometime possible.
So, pre-web as it was, I did a little 14-uear old research and came up with the idea that “Dark Ages” meant no one knows a thing about the period, and I specifically chose the decades before the one event I knew about.. the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. I chose Lincolnshire to be where our kingdom lay — since nothing was known about any of it, who would say me nay? — merely because The Wash made it easy to locate on a map. In my romantic adolescent way I chose the name “Christenlande” for the kingdom. The year was 764 AD and everyone was living happily ever after in stone castles and the place was lousy with knights and tournaments and minstrels.
And that’s where things stood when I started writing the stories again, or rather rewriting them for Ghostletters www.ghostletters.net . It was only when I had decided to turn my attention to a serious rewriting of “The Story” as we called it and turning it into a novel that I started to look into what was really known of the “Dark Ages”. The opening scene of the novel had young Prince Lawrence taking three steps at a time as he ascended to his father’s castle chamber. I was about to relearn my medieval fantasy. By the time I was on the second draft, facts had come along to help me create fiction that was better and to create a love in me for what they revealed.
Medieval fantasies are delightful. Fairy tales tend to be set at least in costuming in the Middle Ages. But somewhere out there was something many historical novelists who focus on the era discover, that reality, though often brutal, is even more appealing that fantasy. Had I persisted in my vaguely 12th century setting I would have been forced into changing who the characters were, but by leaving it late 8th century, I had to relearn history. As it turns out, that was a pleasure beyond reckoning. I lost a fantasy but I gain Anglo Saxon England.
Here is what the basic difference is. Instead of castles, the Anglo Saxons had vertical timber walled forts, meadhalls, and daub and wattle. Instead of feudalism they had tribalism. The very word “king” comes from “cyning”, an Old English word that refers to kin, signifying that the only requirement to be king was to be within the kin of the ruling family. Instead of the eldest son following in the late king’s place, a group of councilors called the Witan chose the most worthy man from the kin. Even better than that, it could happen, and did on several occasions, that the worthy kin was a woman, like Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. I learned that women had more rights in the period than they would again until the late 19th century. I learned that instead of knights one found warriors, housecarls, in shield-wall, and they fought on foot in the open, not encased in suits of armor on huge destriers. Towns were a new fangled concept. The distance between king and peasant had far fewer and less stringent layers.
In short, it was an era I could get my teeth into. The “Dark Ages” were filled with light in spite of the popular belief. There were people like Alfred the Great who wrote everything down, and I mean everything. There were monks galore who did the same. The archaeological evidence fills in much of what monks might not write about. There might not be tumbled down stone castles but there were cylindrical sections of earth where the material analyzed proved to be a foundation pole. As romantic and fun as the fantasy Middle Ages were, the reality of life in a highly developed agrarian society that gave us our jury system among other legal precedents was far more engaging.
The result of this journey of discovery is that I started out with a sweet little medieval knights and ladies fantasy but ended with five hundred years of a far more egalitarian and enlightened history than I knew existed. I ended up with a culture of which I cannot get enough. All my future novels will be set in Anglo Saxon England — that is, unless I write a fictional biography of my prostitute grandmother’s life in the Yukon.