Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel - North Side
Something a bit different for this entry. I was going through one of many boxes of old photos that I have from my studies and travels and came upon a packet of prints from a visit to a truly amazing place - Rosslyn Chapel.
Having lived in St. Andrews, Scotland for a couple of years I had the opportunity to visit new and interesting sites all of the time, from Melrose and the Roman fort at Trimontium in the Scottish borders to Inverness and Eilean Donan castle and everything in between. It was something new every weekend. You can visit prehistoric sites, Pictish sites and Roman sites, of which there are many. I'll talk about the latter at another time. Finally, there is a wealth of medieval sites to visit and I have a few entries coming up on those.

Building materials for restoration work
One of the most interesting sites that I did visit was Rosslyn Chapel. I was fortunate enough to have done this in the pre-Da Vinci Code days of publishing after which, I am certain, hordes of eager tourists turned the quiet chapel into a virtual marketplace of symbology. I'm not trashing that as I'm sure the major influx of funds has helped Rosslyn Chapel's restoration along nicely. When I was there there was scaffold everywhere, along with piles of stone that were to be used in the work. But oh, what a place, and what a treat for me and my three friends to have it all to ourselves at the time. 

Rosslyn Chapel lies just south of Edinburgh and has been known as many things throughout its history - the Chapel of the Grail, a key to the secrets and treasures of the Templar Knights, the survivors of which were absorbed, some say, into the Masonic order. Certainly, many authors and historians have contributed to theories that go beyond the boundaries of conventional academia. And why not? It makes for fascinating fiction as well as some perfectly viable historical theories. A few book mentions later on.

North Aisle
Carving of Lucifer, the Fallen Angel
Rosslyn Chapel Chapel was founded in 1446 by Sir William St. Clair, the last St. Clair Prince of Orkney, who was buried in the chapel. It took some forty years to build what remains today and even that was not what was intended, for the original plan called for a larger structure. Evidence of this was found in an early excavation when the archaeologists discovered foundation walls that went well beyond the existing walls. Not everyone perceived Rosslyn as a sanctuary, a work of art or marvel of mysticism. Many, especially protestants, labelled Rosslyn as a house of idolatry, no doubt disconcerted by the images staring at them from every corner of the intensely ornate chapel.
Outer wall of St. Clair Castle
I will not go into the long history of Rosslyn Chapel here as this is more of a short pictorial tease, however, this place was not awarded the respect that was due to such a work of art. In 1650, during the Civil War when Oliver Cromwell's troops were besieging St. Clair Castle (only about 100 meters away), the English horses were stabled in the chapel. In 1688, pro-Protestant villagers from Roslin entered and damaged the chapel because it was "Popish and idolatrous". It was abandoned until 1736 when James St. Clair repaired the windows, roof and floors. If you have read a great deal about Rosslyn, the Templars and/or Masons, you will know that the name of St. Clair (or Sinclair) figures prominently. In April of 1862, the Rosslyn Chapel was rededicated as a place for worship and has undergone various stages of repair over the years, including when I visited in 2000. 

Carving detail
 It is, unfortunately, easy to get taken up with picture taking in such a place. I know that at first, I certainly did, but once I ran out of film I was able to sit quietly in that place and admire it for a while. I remember it being very quiet and there certainly was a feeling of constantly being watched (and not by CCTV cameras!). No, there was definitely a feeling to the place, unlike any other. Yes, you do have some of the usual religious iconography and stained glass but there is more of the unusual and mysterious. Questions certainly abound. For instance, the appearance of American vegetation such as aloe or Indian corn! There is a plethora of mythical creatures, dragons especially, of unusual angels such as the one playing the bag pipes, or another carrying the heart of Robert the Bruce (could it be the Black Douglas who was to take the Bruce's heart to Jerusalem?).

Angel carrying the heart of Robert the Bruce

The Apprentice Pillar
One of the most famous works in the chapel is the Apprentice Pillar. This twisted pillar, based with eight coiled dragons, is a true masterpiece and the story goes that when the master mason when away, his apprentice continued to work and created something that far surpassed that of the master. The master mason was so enraged with jealousy that he killed the apprentice with his mallet.
I think however, that the most striking thing for me was the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chapel. At one point, you look up and there above is an intricate pattern of alternating daisies, lilies, flowers, Roses and stars.

Ornamented Barrel-vaulted Ceiling
Numerous books have been written about this place, countless pictures published on-line but, there is no substitute for actually visiting it, interacting with it. Rosslyn has quite a story to tell, no matter what your perspective. You can gaze at it for hours and not see it all.
Here are a few recommended reads that touch on Rosslyn but also on the Templars and Masons. If fiction is your thing, check out Jack Whyte's Templar Trilogy in which the St. Clairs make an appearance. Oh, and why not check out Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code - it may not be literary fiction but it is highy entertaining and has caused millions of people to pick up a book and read who might not otherwise have done so. Besides, he fictionalizes some quite interesting theories put forward by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh as well as other alternative historian/detectives.

A couple of non-fiction recommendations that I have are Rosslyn, Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail by Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins and secondly, The Sword and the Grail by Andrew Sinclair. The latter is a very interesting exploration into the Templars and the possibility that they discovered North America more than ninety years before Columbus's journey of discovery. I know, it sounds mad but it is truly fascinating and besides, the Vikings discovered Newfoundland some five hundred or so years before Columbus! For you alternative history buffs out there, you'll already have made the link to the carvings of Indian corn and aloe on the walls or Rosslyn Chapel.
More to come in another few entries about some extraordinary sites in Scotland and other places. Hope you have enjoyed these shots of Rosslyn Chapel.

Angel with engrailed St. Clair cross

Knight with lance

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance for All

Today is the 11th of November, Remembrance Day here in Canada (the 14th in the UK). This is a day to think on the sacrifices of men and women in the armed forces now and in the past. Remembrance Day is not only about World War I and II but also Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan. It is about remembering those who have served in any conflict of nations.

When I went to Remembrance Day ceremonies at Queen’s Park in Toronto this morning, I was happy to see so many people present. As ever, it was a solemn occasion blessed with sunlight and crisp autumn air. The bugle sang out sadly and when it stopped, four artillery cannons commenced firing. The sound of just one of those cannons going off was shocking to say the least and I tried to imagine, in vain, what it must have been like for any soldier when there were literally hundreds of those things going off. For troops to push on to the next trench, or take a hill, with cannons thundering all around, well, it must have taken a rare form of courage.

D-Day Invasion - Normandy

Warfare plays a prominent role in human history and is something that historical novelists write about a lot, something that readers are thrown into. I remember reading John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields in grade school and I still wear a poppy this time of year. Like so many others, my grandfathers served in both World Wars – one with British forces under General Allenby during WWI and the other with the Greek Merchant and U.S. Navies dodging German U-boats in WWII. I wish they had lived longer so that I might have learned more from them, and though most of their stories are lost to our family, I still remember. Just because a conflict fades farther into the past does not mean that its importance is diminished in any way. War is ugly, no doubt and despite the Homeric ideals that have lived on for thousands of years, there is nothing romantic about another soldier’s brains exploding next to you.

There are countless novels and films about the World Wars, Vietnam and other modern conflicts. But, as this is a blog about historical fiction in the ancient and medieval periods I have a few recommends about turning point conflicts in the more distant past.

As far as historical battles go, the Battle at Thermopylae (480 B.C.) stands out over the ages as the true measure courage and sacrifice. When the Persian king, Xerxes invaded Greece he was met at the narrow pass of Thermopylae by 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians. The Greek forces delayed the Persians long enough for the rest of Greece to rally its forces – they all perished. For a good novel about this conflict, check out Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.

Monument to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae
When it comes to Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) opinion is divided and differing theories are rampant and hotly debated. Was he a hero or a butcher? Was he the greatest general in history or was it is his father, Philip who should lay claim to that title for having created the army Alexander used? The questions go on and on. One thing is certain, Alexander’s campaigns ushered in a new golden era in which not only warfare and siege craft flourished but also, art and learning and technological advancement. Alexandria became the greatest city of the ancient world where the brightest minds gathered at the greatest library ever known. Some say that Alexander’s goal was to spread Hellenic culture to the rest of the world and so unite it. This might seem impossible with the violent sieges of Tyre and Gaza but then, he was also welcomed as a liberator in Egypt and Ionia and when he went east, he adopted many of their customs and traditions as his own. Alexander is one of the most complicated personages in history and I doubt that anyone will ever nail down who the man was exactly. A good series of books on Alexander is Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s Alexander Trilogy which looks at Alexander’s life from childhood to his death in Babylon.
If you are looking for a pivotal war in the Roman period, there are several to choose from, but the one that stands out for me because of a trilogy of novels is the second Punic War against none other than Hannibal. Carthage was dealt a humiliating blow by Rome at the end of the first Punic War and there was much hatred on both sides. Hannibal met his match in the person of Scipio Africanus on the plain of Zama (206 B.C.), in modern day Tunisia. The trilogy of books (Hannibal; Scipio; and Carthage) by Ross Leckie is an excellent read that I highly recommend. He manages to make us sympathetic to both sides of the conflict and a most interesting way.

Those are just a few recommended reads from me. I don’t really have any that deal with the wars of our modern age to suggest. When it comes to reminding myself of the World Wars, for example, I turn to films like Patton, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line or The Guns of Navarone. Even Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, based on the book by Louis de Bernières is a great film that sheds light on a bit of little-known history of the war on the Greek island of Cephalonia. Everyone has their favourites.

So, today, I raise my cup to the fallen heroes of the past and present. To my grandfathers and grandmothers who suffered and fought through the World Wars, to my cousin who lost her brave husband so recently in Kandahar, one of the cities founded by Alexander himself.

To the glorious Dead, thank you, now and always….

Normandy Graveyard for American Troops

Memorial at Thermopylae

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wine-Dark Sea Battles

 Today I read about the discovery of what experts believe is a Carthaginian warship ram discovered off of Sicily that is thought to date to a sea battle of 241 B.C. between the rising Roman Republic and Punic Carthage. This was the First Punic War which ended with a treaty in 241 B.C. Here is a photo of the bronze ram that was found and which is a remnant of the last great naval battle of that war:

For a writer, sea battles can provide a very different setting for engaging enemies. The sights, smells, sounds and weapons are not always those that will paint a picture of battle on land. A good example of a small scale, ancient sea battle can be found in Gillian Bradshaw’s historical novel set in ancient Greece entitled The Sun’s Bride. This book has some great sequences and while they are not the large scale battles that no doubt marked the First Punic War, they will give a good idea of what was involved.

A good resource for research on ancient war ships if you are interested is the Trireme Trust ( In 1987 this group built a full scale, working trireme and carried out numerous experiments to prove or disprove various theories related to the most common and deadliest of ancient war ships, the trireme. The ship itself, known as the Olympias, has been in movies and events in both Britain and Greece. In the summer of 2012, the trireme will be in New York City harbour as part of the tall ships exhibition and will be accompanied by an exhibition on Athenian maritime history at the South Street Seaport Museum (

So, if you want to add a little salt-sea flair to your writing, a battle scene with a twist, get your sea legs on and get your men on board ship. If your legionaries are not comfortable at sea, remember the Roman invention of the corvus, the spiked boarding plank that the Romans invented during the First Punic War that allowed infantry to fight as though they were on land when at sea. Things were likely just as bloody. If you like movies, check out The Odyssey with Armand Assante and Greta Scacchi or Jason and the Argonauts with Jason London, Natasha Henstridge and Derek Jacobi. Both of these are great fun to watch. Just remember to offer up something to Poseidon or you could find yourself adrift.

Click to view full size image
Ancient Greek Trireme

Monday, October 11, 2010

Imperial Feast

Feasting has always played an important role in the ancient and medieval worlds as well as today. Feasts were celebratory, religious and sacrificial, in honour of various gods and goddesses and other sacred occassions.

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving, so, for all you Canadians out there, Happy Thanksgiving. Our own table was overflowing with food last night and the wine was certainly flowing, perhaps not in Dionysian proportions but enough to bring a rosy hue to our cheeks. Our sacrifice was a large turkey that fulfilled its role admirably and will provide lunchtime sandwiches for a week.

The ancients did not have turkeys on their tables but they had countless feast days. A recommended read is the Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Adkins and Adkins which has a wonderful chronological list of all of the feast days celebrated in the Greek and Roman world. But what did they eat?

The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger
Well, if you are adventurous in your culinary explorations, you may want to check out The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger. This is a wonderfully varied cookbook that contains everything from really easy dishes like chicken stuffed with olives (my favourite!) to more exotic, quirky meals like rock eel with mulberry sauce. Whatever recipe you choose will help you to feed or frighten friends and family. It will also help you writers out there with your research and will add some texture and taste to you dining scenes. The book is well researched, the writers having taken the recipes within from a range of classical texts that describe dishes from such ancient cooks as Marcus Gavius Apicius (inventor the hamburger during the reign of Tiberius).

There is a lot more food and history to be had in this book as well as others that will add a historical twist to any feast. So, if living history is the thing for you, why not step back and try out a feast ancient Greek or Roman style. Could be that your next Halloween, American Thanksgiving or Christmas feast will have people talking for quite some time. Cheers!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Eleusis to Avalon

Harvest symbols at Eleusis

The Autumn Equinox is here and there is a full, waxy moon glowing above Toronto. In the city it is a bit difficult to feel a connection to harvest, our rural roots having been eclipsed long ago by fast, urban living.
In a small effort to reconnect with the earth and our western ancestors who were bound to it, I thought I’d mention a couple of traditions around what has for thousands of years been an extremely sacred time of year for many cultures. Of course, this is the time of year for Thanksgiving (earlier in Canada than in the USA) when we sit around the table en-famille and stuff ourselves like the turkeys that grace our tables. And wine, oh yes, and lots of it for the oenophiles among us. But where does all this come from? Not the pilgrims, I can tell you that.

Apart from this being the night when Summer gives way to Fall, when the length of day is equal to that of night, this time of year is also Harvest time. In ancient Greece it was the month of Beodromion and the festival Apollo, the time for one of the most sacred rites: The Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were of course, in honour of the Goddess Demeter who was associated with crops, fertility, harvest and the protection of marriage. The Mysteries also honoured Persephone, Demeter’s daughter who would go to spend half the year in the underworld with Hades. The time of harvest is associated with the death of agriculture and Persephone’s time away from her mother, the time Demeter would weep, wintertime.

Goddess Demeter
 "Queenly Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of
good gifts, what god of heaven or what mortal man has rapt away
Persephone and pierced with sorrow your dear heart?  For I heard
her voice, yet saw not with my eyes who it was.  But I tell you
truly and shortly all I know...

(from Hesiod's Hymn to Demeter - Hecate to Demeter)

...But grief yet more terrible and savage came into the
heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with the
dark-clouded Son of Cronos that she avoided the gathering of the
gods and high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of
men, disfiguring her form a long while."

(from Hesiod's Hymn to Demeter)

The cult of Demeter and Persephone existed for over one thousand years and Eleusis, one of the most sacred places of ancient Greece was where the highly secretive ceremonies would take place in September and October. Sparse details about the ceremonies include bathing in the sea, sacrificing a piglet (not a turkey!), various sacred, secret objects and a procession from Athens to Eleusis.

The site of Eleusis is itself an amazing archaeological site that is well worth the visit if ever you have the opportunity. Apart from the vast complex of temples, and other remains, you can see the cave where Persephone supposedly descended into the Underworld, a door to Hades. Facing the dark entrance is a well known as the “Tears of Demeter”, thus named because of the goddess’ weeping in that spot. All quite moving.

The Door to Hades

Let us not dwell too long in ancient Greece however, for our Celtic ancestors in Europe also revered this time of year. To the Celts, harvest time was also known as Alban Elfed (Welsh for ‘Light of Autumn’), and the Feast of Avalon (Feast of Apples) among other names.

To the Celts, this was the time of year when the acorns fell from the sacred oaks and the last sheaf of wheat was cut by a young maiden. It was a time of reverence and thanks for the Earth’s bounty, a time to harvest once more and to slaughter animals before the onset of winter. An offering of apples would often be placed on burials to symbolize rebirth, hence the Feast of Avalon, Avalon of course being the ‘land of apples’.

Glastonbury Tor - 'In insula Avalonia'
 Harvest time, to the Celts, also preceded the sacred festival of Samhain which marked the end of the light of summer and the beginning of winter’s dark. Again, the cycle of light and dark, birth and death is an ever present arch-type, a cycle of which our ancestors were keenly aware and for which they had a deep respect.

So, as we sit to our laden tables this autumn, perhaps we should tip a bit of wine to the goddess who wept for her daughter’s departure into darkness, for the end of light. When the harvest moon shines down on us in all its luminescence where we live in a world of concrete floors and steel girders, think on our forest and field-dwelling ancestors, those who looked up at that same moon for ages from the dark circles of their sacred groves and gave thanks for all they had.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Oh Behave!

I quote Austin Powers. Yes, Austin ‘Danger’ Powers who is known to have said this occasionally when an erotic comment escaped some vixen’s lips on the silver screen. You’re right, absolutely nothing to do with ancient and medieval history or historical fiction. However, those two words not only denote Austin’s curious interest in the lewd but taken together they can also bring about a question:

When writing historical fiction, how much detail should one put into scenes that contain sex and nudity, be it a loving scene, a highly charged moment or in some cases, a scene of sexual violence? Opinion is divided, certainly in my own writers’ group. But really, where does one draw the line in historical fiction before it becomes more of an historical romance or an erotica moment?

I read an article the other day in one of the writing magazines that talked about the dos and don’ts of writing fiction. One of the don’ts included not underestimating one’s readership, not explaining everything in detail but rather leaving things up to the reader’s imagination. Makes sense but I am sometimes surprised, and not in a good way, by some of the things I read in historical novels; things like detailed rape scenes just don’t do it for me. They feel like the only use is for shock value. We know that rapine was a fact of the ancient and medieval worlds but such a heinous act, and the psychological effects upon the victim, can be related to a reader without going into the minute details of the whole thing. People know what it is and for most, the mere implication of such a thing happening is enough to convey the message.

One time, when I was looking for some new historical fiction, I picked up a novel set in the dark ages and began to read the first page. I had read one good review about this particular author so I thought I would check it out. To my horror, the very first scene was of a young woman being impaled upon a stake and it described in gory, perverted detail how here clothes were lifted and the stake inserted into genitalia as a large group of men looked on. I put the book down and will not pick up anything by that author again.

I may sound a bit preachy here but that does an injustice to historical fiction. I am certainly not a prude by any stretch of the imagination but I do feel that with all the suffering in the world authors have a responsibility to convey messages that will encourage humanity to goodness. Yes, evil is present, bad things happen but spare us the details at times.

On the other hand, someone, a reader or writer, with Mr. Powers’ cheeky view on life might enjoy a bit of randy detail in a scene and why not? They did know how to party it up in the ancient world. A bit of skin shown by flute girls at a banquet could be a bit of all right. Or you could add to the intrigue by having pairs of folks coupling in the wings while the Emperor is distracted. Sexy and dangerous. A bit of fun is good, but do we need to go so far as to see up close and personal things going in and out of other things? Probably not, this is historical fiction, not Penthouse Letters.

What about if two characters are deeply in love and you want to portray that to the reader? Remember the ‘show don’t tell’ rule but also remember not to show it all. The true love between characters will be apparent in how they interact, how they treat each other at all times, how they are when they are apart. If your two love birds are in an intimate moment, set the scene and give them a bit of privacy. The reader’s imagination will do the rest.

Basically, there are many ways to look at it, and many genres in which sexuality and violence are expressed in different ways. Historical fiction has recently garnered the respect it deserves and that momentum should be maintained – we are not writing true crime or erotica, we’re writing and reading well-researched and hopefully well-written historical fiction.

To finish off, I would like to relate an incident that occurred in one of my writing classes several years back. This was an evening class at a community centre. Everyone in the class had writing aspirations and many had short stories or first drafts of novels. The class had about ten to thirteen people in it, mostly women (old and young) apart from myself, twenty at the time, and an older English gentleman, a veteran working on a memoir. Once a week, the teacher would ask one of us to read another person’s work out loud and then everyone would provide input. My work of short fantasy had been read out the previous week so I was off the hook, content to sit back and bask in the positive vibes and constructive comments everyone had given me.

That week the teacher had selected several pages from one of the ladies’ romance novels, something set in the Wild West, complete with cowboys, banditos, covered wagons and women with names like Clementine and Annabelle.

“Adam”, the teacher swivelled her chair to face me, all the heads around the table following suite. “Would you like to read for us today?”

“Sure…” The lady sitting directly across from me was the author. As she sat there, apprehensive, wide-eyed, anticipatory, the teacher slid the sample pages to me. The teacher, I should say, did not like to read the samples ahead of time, preferring to rely on first impressions and initial impact. I accepted the pages, cleared my throat. Everyone except the author was staring at the table or ceiling, waiting for the blank canvas of their minds to be filled.

“Where the Sun Sets,” I read the title and pressed on. The setting was fantastic, romantic. The purples, golds and greens of the plains came alive and we were all drawn in. The characters were likeable, heroic, flawed, human. I tried to read well, to do it justice and glanced up occasionally to see the author brimming with pride and everyone else smiling at some far off place and time of happy memory. People gripped the table edges and chairs when the banditos rode in, grimy and destructive as in a Clint Eastwood movie. The hero, a cowboy, a cool dude with feelings, saved Ms. Annabelle from certain shame and a life of hardship when he rode after her and her captors for two days, tracking them like a wolf.

Ms. Annabelle was in danger, no doubt and we weren’t sure if the hero would reach her in time. But he pressed on. Oh yes, this author had her audience hooked. Even I forgot that I was reading in front of an audience. They didn’t care about me or my voice, they cared about the words, their rhythm, the images they conjured so magically. To make a long story short, the hero dispatched all ten banditos with stealth, skill and shear cohones. Ms. Annabelle was weeping but ever so grateful. The pair were taken care of by a doctor at the closest town. The hero insisted on sleeping outside Ms. Annabelle’s door because he wanted to make sure she was safe from any more suffering. Ms. Annabelle, unable to sleep because of the heat, the sweat and the man outside who had saved her, tossed and turned and finally went to the door.

As I read the words it started to feel warm. Something in the back of my mind said, Should I stop now? Why isn’t the teacher stopping me? I’ve read so much already! I could feel my neck getting warm. The Englishman beside me started to cough. Then, different words started to appear: sweaty, longingly, caresses, kisses and even licking. Intimate parts were being explored in the sweaty sheets of this bed on the south-western frontier. The hero stood above Ms. Annabelle who could not take her eyes off him and scanned his beautiful face, shoulders, torso and hips until her eyes fell upon… Oh, shit, do I have to read this? Really? The author stared at me and, my face red as a Roma tomato, I forced myself to finish, to get it over with.

…until her eyes fell upon his…swollen member.

“Ok Adam. That’s enough. Good reading.” The teacher sat back in her chair and I sank as far as I could go into my turtleneck, the Englishman beside going through a full-on coughing fit now. I wondered if anyone would loosen his ascot for him because was so utterly red, choked by embarrassment. “Well,” the teacher continued, “it sure is hot in here!” Everyone allowed themselves an uncomfortable chuckle. “Feedback?”

Some folks pointed out the beautiful descriptions of the landscape. Others highlighted the build-up between the characters, how they eyed each other along the wagon train but always within the bounds of propriety. The teacher nodded. I said nothing. I’d done my part. When the input from students was done, the teacher leaned on the table and smiled, looked at the author.

“This is a great romance novel, fits the genre archetypes very well but had your own unique style. Very good.” The author relaxed visibly but the rest of us knew it was coming. “However, an author should never, EVER, use the phrase swollen member.” Thank god she said it. “Leave that kind of detail to the reader’s imagination.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Olympic Youth

Today I wanted to draw your attention to something that many might not know about. In an e-mail newsletter I received from
the International Olympic Committee (IOC) I received a link to a video of the lighting of the Olympic Flame for the inaugural
Youth Olympic Games, a new initiative intended to get youth interested in sport and the Olympic spirit.

I love the Olympics and how it brings the world together like no other event (sorry World Cup fans!). The historian in me loves the tradition of the Olympics, the sacredness that, though today is somewhat dulled by marketing, for thousands of years was adhered to. It was something that blanketed the ancient world in peace for a time. The Olympic Games were, of course the most sacred of the four major games in ancient Greece, the other three being the Nemean Games, the Isthmian Games, and the Pythian Games.

Ancient Olympia was, and to my mind is, a most sacred place, a place of peace. I have been there a few times and, despite the hordes of tourists and idling buses outside the ancient sanctuary, I am always awed with the sense of peace that falls over my person when I set foot among the temples, columns and remnants of ancient arcades. The visitors seem to disappear and all I hear is the thrumming of cicadas in the light of Apollo’s sun. Yes, I do get carried away, but you can’t help that in a place like Olympia. When you walk the gravel pathways between the ruins, along the fallen column drums of the once-great Temple of Zeus (whose statue was a wonder of the ancient world) or walk down the barrel-vaulted tunnel to the stadium, the ghosts of past Olympians walk beside you. It is as though they are welcoming you to join them on their eternal stroll through the sanctuary, whispering to you to pass on the wisdom of the Olympic spirit, warning you to respect that most sacred of places.

If you have not been to Ancient Olympia, go. It is truly a wonder and a feeling to be tapped into. And if you do go, push the bustling, noisome tourists from your mind (because not everyone gets it), find a quiet corner beneath the shade of an olive tree and listen for voices of the past, the roar of the crowds that rang out for millennia. It is truly special.

The IOC has posted the flame lighting ceremony on their website for the Youth Olympic Games and if you have a bit of time it is definitely worth watching.
This will give you a taste of an ancient ceremony, undertaken with the sincerity that it deserves. The Olympic flame begins its journey here every time, lit by the priestesses of Olympia by the light of the sun that shines on this place.

It is very exciting that the Flame has been kindled in Olympia to herald the dawn of a new tradition. Good luck to the youth of the world and may Nike (Victory) be with you.

(Photo credit: Associated Press)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Living History

Summer is now upon us and that means a plethora of outdoor events at historical sites around Europe and North America. The Ermine Street Guard and Antonine Guard in the UK as well as other Roman re-enactment groups will be out in force to dazzle spectators with precise military formations, cavalry tactics, firing of ballista bolts and replicas of everyday items Romans would have used. Members of The Society for Creative Anachronism will be touring the Renaissance Fair circuit entertaining fair goers, trading goods and washing down greasy turkey legs with pints of frothy ale. English and American civil groups will be re-enacting famous battles etc. etc. Every period of history has its own fans and enthusiasts who go that extra league to immerse themselves in an era for which they likely feel they are better suited than our current one.

These events and displays are usually a great time and in some cases highly educational. Re-enactments can stimulate interest in a particular period, further research and even help academics figure out the use of a newly-discovered artefact. Other times, its all about folks dressing up and having a great time.

For writers like myself, living history re-enactors and re-creations are an invaluable source because of the thorough research that has been done before hand and on an ongoing basis. In the case of Roman re-enactment groups, some authors have trained with them to get a better understanding of the feel, the mechanics of a certain weapon, pieces of armour and even a Roman cavalry saddle which, of course, did not have stirrups but rather four horns for bracing the thighs against. The latter is actually much more comfortable and utilitarian than one would expect.

A good friend of mine has been a member of the Antonine Guard in Scotland for several years ( - the group does regular talks at schools, documentaries and also trained the actors and extras for the new film CENTURION). When writing Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, I was able to read over a copy of the group’s field manual which details troop drills and all the Latin commands that were used in the Imperial Roman Army. What a great source to add detail and accuracy to a historical tale. Teachers, if you are listening, rather than having your students slug their way through the usual, dry history book, invite a period re-enactment group to your school and see what a difference it makes to knowledge retention and learning enjoyment. And while you are at it, assign your students a good historical novel!

So, next time you are out touring and you see a sign for a historical demonstration, don’t be so quick to dismiss it as a gathering of oddball history freaks. Drop in and see what it is all about. Yes, you may be confronted by a band of greasy, chicken&chips-eating yobs sporting a mish-mash of period costumes and bad accents but, on the other hand, you may also be in for a real treat, a chance to learn some fascinating facts about life in a by-gone era from people who truly value the past and accuracy in their portrayal of it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

History vs. Vampires – Battle in the Marketplace

No, this is not a new book but rather an ongoing concern for historical novelists and readers of the genre. I’ve just read an article in the latest edition of SOLANDER, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society, which warrants a bit of discussion.

The article, entitled "Recession Reading" takes a look at the state of historical fiction in today’s market, a market that has been hit by the economic downturn of the last few years. Some genres are booming however, and the one on top right now seems to be Teen Vampire Novels! Sure, I can understand the draw of the paranormal as something inherent in human beliefs – the unknown, the mysterious and inexplicable, something bigger than ourselves. But what does the rise of the vampire novel mean for the fate of historical fiction?

Not much, as Vampire novels are a fad and, like ‘chick lit’ or other catch phrase genres, it will have its time in the spotlight (maybe the dark since vampires don’t like light). Historical fiction can be long lasting. Look at the Iliad and the Odyssey, thousands of years and still going strong! The trick, whether you have a ‘marquee character’ or not, is to have themes, conflict and a range of emotions that resonate with readers, things that our humanness can tap in to. And who’s to say that you can’t combine history and the paranormal. Elizabeth Kostova wrote a historical novel about Dracula, and the Historian was a massive debut novel that garnered much praise and commercial success even though it wasn’t that mainstream. Alice Borchardt, Anne Rice’s sister, also wrote some historical fantasy novels about Romans and werewolves. The two genres can indeed live in harmony.

Some writers, agents and publishers however, take a darker view of the market and today’s readership. Said article quotes maritime historical novelist James Nelson as saying that “Historical fiction for men is dead.” Mr. Nelson is also reported to have suggested that the historical novels that end up on the store shelves may be an issue of gender rather than the market or the emergence of new formats. I’m not quite sure I agree with this and though it may be true of maritime historical novels, there are other historical novelists who are quite successful such as Steven Pressfield, Simon Scarrow and relative newcomer, Christian Cameron. These three write novels that appeal to, and are purchased by, men. Ok, women account for a much larger portion of historical fiction readers, but men are certainly in there. Historical fiction for men is certainly not dead.

Here’s a question: Can historical fiction overcome gender boundaries? And if so, could that be the key to revival and success?

I would argue, YES, of course it can! Having worked as a bookseller I have had numerous conversations with store patrons about what they like, what they don’t like and what they want to see more of. In my experience, some authors appeal equally to both men and women; writers such as Jack Whyte (Dream of Eagles series), Guy Gavriel Kay (historical fantasy), Bernard Cornwell (his Arthurian cycle), Lindsay Davis (Falco novels) and Steven Saylor (Rome sub Rosa series). There are just a few examples of many that I have noticed appeal to both men and women. There are many more. In North America we sometimes have trouble looking beyond our borders to read things over seas as well. When I was living in Scotland and England, I was constantly amazed by the number of men I spoke to at the pub or elsewhere who were interested in archaeology, Roman and medieval history and the knowledge with which they spoke about these subjects. This is due to the nature of television programming there and the fact that the remnants of those periods of history are right in their own backyards, quite literally (watch Time Team!). For my own writing, my test readers for CHILDREN OF APOLLO have included both men and women and both groups have been interested and want to read more, read on. That is encouraging and perhaps indicates that I have not written with one specific sex in mind. I’m just writing about the human condition and hopefully, victory will follow.

But I digress. The SOLANDER article mentions a conservatism on the part of publishers in this current economic climate that is worrisome for writers at the moment. They want what is popular, they want vampires! I think that what is forgotten at times is that the trends are created by those publishers who will take chances, just like the publisher who took a chance on wizard stories written by someone named J.K. Rowling, or even Vampire stories by a certain Stephanie Meyer. I don’t think I need to say much more than that. Historical fiction is always on readers’ radar in one form or another, sometimes peppered with the paranormal, sometimes with hardcore scholarship. Be it ancient Egypt, Rome or Greece, medieval England, the Wild West or World War II, there are people out there who want to read this stuff, on paper, on the internet or on an e-reader. Young and old audiences both are ready and waiting for something old to be given a fresh new face. Historical fiction definitely has staying power and will not be yielding in the battle for the marketplace any time soon.
(Roman Cavalry painting by Peter Connolly - great historical re-creation artist)

Monday, May 31, 2010


It has been a while since I posted the first excerpt of CHILDREN OF APOLLO and so, as a few folks have asked for more, I am posting another little bit. This does not come immediately after the first excerpt but rather a few chapters into the book.

The main story begins in A.D. 202 and after a lengthy, dangerous patrol from Aegyptus to Numidia our hero, Tribune Lucius Metellus Anguis, is on furlough with his men for games at the amphitheatre of Thysdrus (modern El Jem in Tunisia - this photo). This is a magnificent site in the middle of plains of olive groves and the structure itself is better preserved the the Colisseum in Rome. While exploring this site, you can certainly hear the crowds, see the skilled displays of the fighters, hear the pain of their defeat or the roar of their victories. The following is one of the fights witnessed by Lucius and his cohort of men.

(from Chapter VIII - Iugula!)

The tribune stood there, lost in thought until he was brought to by the clanging of swords and the renewed roar of the crowd. The final combat had begun, the previous one all but forgotten. Lucius decided not to go back into the theatre but rather to watch from one of the empty corridors that led to the arena floor.
He could see the two heavily armed gladiators moving about the sand in their dance of death. A murmillo and a thraex or Thracian fighter. Lucius watched as the two heavy-helmed gladiators pummeled each other relentlessly to the droning of drums and the cries of bloodthirsty spectators. Lucius wondered what drove these men and where they found their strength. Was it made easier by the fact that each was fighting a faceless foe? They dazzled the audience with an incredible array of slashes and parries, displaying their skills with incredible determination to win and live. Both were bleeding profusely, the murmillo from a cut to the right leg and the thraex from a gash across his muscular chest.
The sand went red about their shuffling feet and in a barely perceptible instant the murmillo’s shield flew from his sweaty hand allowing the thraex to parry a desperate sword thrust and land a heavy kick to the vulnerable man’s chest with the bronze greave covering his leg. The murmillo tumbled onto the ground, winded. He moved to get up but the thraex was upon him, knocked his sword from his bloodied hand. He made to get up yet again but the thraex smashed him in the centre of his face with the boss of his small shield, ripping his helmet from his head.
He groaned as he lay there on the clotted sand and raised his right hand in a sign for mercy and surrender. Lucius’ heart began to pound, the blood flowing to his head and ears, as if he could feel the adrenaline from every person there present. Inwardly, he hoped to hear the word that would save his life, missum, missum, enough death for today. The thraex stood above the fallen murmillo, flipped him over onto his stomach and grabbed him by his bloody hair. He glanced up and around at the standing crowd. They cheered. Then, almost in total concert, they began to chant aloud, “Iugula! Iugula! Iugula!”, Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!
The thraex looked to the editor who nodded gravely. The victor pulled the murmillo’s head back to expose his neck and pulsing veins. Lucius could hear the shouts of his troops as the lethal blade was drawn slowly and cleanly across the fallen man’s neck. His blood spilled out to soak the sand of the arena one last time before his head was released and he fell to the ground. The thraex made his way to the editor’s platform to receive his prize, the palm branch for victory. Upon his head was also placed the valued corona, a laurel wreath for outstanding achievement; he had won ten consecutive fights and for the day he was the people’s hero.
Dressed as the thraex, this man had appeared invincible and imposing, but with his head bared and his weapons shed, he was no longer a gladiator but a young man, no older than Lucius. The youthful innocence of his face and curly black hair betrayed the sight that all had just witnessed, adding to what Lucius thought to be the incredible juxtaposition of the Roman arena. Lucius turned to go out and wait for his men in the open air, away from the amphitheatre.

Unveiling the Obscure

Some time ago, in my entry entitled The Hundredth Book about Caesar? I talked about a member of our writers' group whose book is set during the reign of Emperor Maximian and how he was told by an agent that people would rather read the hundredth book about a well-known historical personage than about an obscure emperor no one knew anything about.

A book I finished recently has helped, in my mind, to combat the narrow view outlined above. In my last entry I mentioned that I was about to start the historical novel Family Favourites by Alfred Duggan. Having finished said book in a short period of time I can say that Duggan sets up a sturdy shield wall in the face of the ‘hundredth book about Caesar’ theory.

Family Favourites, written by Duggan in 1963, takes a close look at the reign of the teenage Emperor Elagabalus, a descendant of the Severan dynasty and the Syrian priests of the sun god at Emesa. The story is told from the point of view of a Gaul who ended up serving in the Legions during the civil war at the end of the second century A.D., a war in which Septimius Severus was the victor. Family Favourites throws the reader headlong into the third century Roman Empire and gives an intimate, human, amazing and sometimes distasteful view of Imperial politics in which every action, decision, had to be weighed in order for a foreign ruler to maintain the loyalty of the Praetorians, the regular Legions and the people of Rome, the mob. The fact that Elagabalus was only thirteen when he came to the purple adds a palpable uncertainty. His family included Julia Maesa (sister to Julia Domna, Severus’s brilliant Empress) and her daughters Julia Mamaea (mother of future Alexander Severus) and Julia Soaemias (mother of Elagabalus); these ‘Syrian women’ were some of the most powerful women in history to that point, intelligent, strategic, caring and sometimes ruthless. And sadly, they are little-known to most of today’s readers.

I won’t summarize the story because only the book can do itself justice. It does strike me however that even though most readers would be unaware of these historical personages or this period of Roman history, they would still thrill to this novel that puts the inner imperial workings under the lens. Good historical fiction can and should transport the reader so that they can experience time and place unlike our own, no matter the ruler at the time. I think (and this is just my opinion as a reader, writer and former bookseller) that most people read historical fiction not only to learn about people of the past, but also to feel, experience, the past. When I read, or write for that matter, a bit of good historical fiction I want to hear the roar of a crowd at the amphitheatre or hippodrome, feel the rumble of their feet pounding in unison. I want to smell the incense that might be burning in a corner brazier of a room used by an Emperor or the aroma of a stew a poor Suburan family might be eating at meal time.

Many great writers have taken on Caesar, but they have also tackled more obscure characters. The strength of the tales is in how they are told, I think, more than what exactly is told. That’s the beauty of historical fiction, that it can pump new life into old tales, give new perspective and almost reincarnate heroes, villains and villagers.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ave Marcus Antonius!

I am always on the lookout for new historical novels or novelists that I have not yet had a chance to read. After reading an article on historical fiction in the Historical Novels Review, I had a few names of past writers that I took with me to my local library. The trip was quite successful.

One of the authors I came across was Allan Massie, who writes the rugby column for the Scotsman. As it turns out, Mr. Massie has written several novels of ancient Rome including, Augustus, Tiberius, Antony, Caesar, Caligula and Nero's Heirs. Not all of them were available but of the ones that were, I decided to begin with Antony.

Gore Vidal says of Allan Massie that he is "Master of the long-ago historical novel." Well, you would have to read more to decide that for yourself but I can say, having just finished Antony, that Mr. Massie has taken an exceptionally unique approach. The novel is Antony's memoir, written after the battle of Actium but before Octavian (later Augustus) takes Aegyptus. Most everyone knows the story of Antony and Cleopatra so I won't go into it here. The character that Massie creates of Antony is of the type of man that was able to approach the greatness of an Alexander. Where the latter heralded the beginning of the Hellenistic age, so did Antony prove to be the final hero of that same age. He was victorious in battle, loved by Rome and by his Legions, and known the world over as the possible provider of a golden age and even as Dionysos incarnate. Truly an amazing character that Mr. Massie has managed to portray with humour, bravery, honour and pathos. Godlike and yet vulnerably human as well.

I would certainly recommend this book just for its portrayal of Antony however, the picture painted of Cleopatra is certainly unflattering. This historian in me was cringing whenever Mr. Massie's version of her would appear as she is a spoiled, conniving woman who just comes across as stupid. This flies in the face of what historians such as Michael Grant and writer/historians such as Steven Saylor have been saying which is that Cleopatra was nowhere near stupid but was a highly intelligent woman who spoke countless languages, had a keener political insight that even Caesar himself and had a vision of the future that required an equally great partner such as she had in Caesar or Antony. To balance out Massie's sad adaptation of Cleopatra, one should definitely read Michael Grant's biography of her which is not too long but loaded with helpful information and great research.

Truth is, we all have different perceptions of how things should or should not be, even in hindsight. Unless a personal diary emerged from either Antony or Cleopatra, we will likely never know the true story of their rise and fall, their loves and hates. The reality may not be Shakespeare but it may not be that far off either. Remember, history is almost always written by the victors and in this instance, the victor was Octavian, later Augustus, who had launched a masterful propaganda campaign against Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, one of the greatest Romans of the age. Perhaps this is an example of how fiction can indeed become history?

Despite a couple of little dislikes, I will definitely pick up another of Mr. Massie's Roman novels. The other novelist I picked up at the library was Alfred Duggan who wrote some Roman novels earlier in the 20th century. I now have Mr. Duggan's novel, Family Favourites which is about the Severan Emperor Elagabalus who was one of the successors of Septimius Severus and Caracalla in whose reigns my own novels are set. I'll let you all know how that one turns out.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Clash of the Titans - 1981 vs. 2010

The other night I went to see the new Clash of the Titans movie with Sam Worthington in the lead role as Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae. Now, this is a story that I have really held dear for most of my life, having begged my father to take me back to the theatre to see the original movie four times when I was a kid.
I can still recall quite vividly how I felt seeing the flick in 1981 at the theatre in Devonshire Mall in Windsor so very long ago. From the moment Acrisius casts the coffin (for lack of a better word) into the sea I was bewitched with a sense of something ancient, magical. The Gods, the moon, the weapons of 'divine temper', all of it. Wonderful. I was scared to death of the scenes with Medusa and Calibos, well he was just a nightmarish figure that added to the mystery of it all. Pegasus is still the best - who doesn't want a winged horse?

So, how does Clash of the Titans 2010 stand up to the old one? Well, I'm not one to automatically opt for an older version of something just because it is the original (such as many folks do for something like Star Wars). In fact, these two versions of this ancient tale are quite different from each other but stand well side by side.

Clash of the Titans 2010 has been updated with loads of CGI and a few new characters such as Draco and Io (Goddess of the Dawn) and Hades (God of the Underworld). Things have also been bloodied quite a bit so this will not be a good idea for a six year old kid. On the upside, the female characters are stronger, Sam Worthington does a surprsingly good job as Perseus and the beasts are all amazing, especially Pegasus (still my favourite).

There are some things I did not like, however. Sometimes, the statement that 'less is more' is true and it is just so in this case. In the original movie, the music was not littered and driven throughout the movie as it is in the new one. One scene where I found this particularly annoying is the Medusa scene. The original was terrifying just because your senses were on edge - almost no music and the only sounds were Medusa's rattling tail, Perseus' laboured breathing and a few hissing arrows. That made for a very intense, dramatic scene. In the new film, there is just too much going on with all the action blanketed in non-stop, driving music.

As I have said in my previous post on 'Hollywood Historicals' however, if a movie generates interest in something, even if it is causing one young person to pick up a book of Greek Mythology and read a bit, that is truly a good thing. I'm sure Clash of the Titans 2010 will have achieved this. Sure, things have changed (the Gods wear shiny armour and Argos is a city packed onto a seaside mountain) but if these tales are to remain timeless, they need to be made current for new audiences and I can find no fault in that. Better an updated, different version of a classic than that very classic turning to dust in the wind.

In short, I love the original Clash of the Titans and highly enjoyed the new one. Both are works of art that succeed in transporting the viewer and bringing to life an ancient world of gods, heroes and magnificent creatures. It all fires the imagination. May there be many more such works!

photo: Relief of Pegasus at the Temple of Peace, Thurburbo Majus, Tunisia


In the past few weeks I have received three a few e-mails from folks asking about my own writing and expressing an interest in reading some samples of CHILDREN OF APOLLO which is the first book in the Eagles and Dragons series. I'm flattered by the expressions of interest and thank you. Now, time to deliver! I will be posting occasional excerpts of the book as a sort of amuse bouche for the historically inclined and fiction fans. Interest is certainly up with several new books on ancient themes out as well as movies such as Clash of the Titans. And there is still talk of a Gladiator sequel as well as an adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar's book, Memoirs of Hadrian.
Keep up the e-mails and by all means, make use of the comment boxes within the blog. Perhaps we can get some conversations going?
For the moment, I hope you enjoy this first excerpt. It is the Prologus of CHILDREN OF APOLLO and is sort of where it all begins for the Metellus Anguis family, on the eve of the battle of Zama when Rome defeats Hannibal Barca.

(Warning! Some formatting may have suffered during the posting of these words.)

202 B.C.

She was like a weathered sack of bones, possessed bones. The seeress rocked back and forth, inhaling the pungent smoke of the fire. Her body creaked and a childlike whining emanated from deep within her throat.
What am I doing here? the Roman thought as he knelt uncomfortably on the other side of the flames. I’m a soldier, a man of reason.
The woman was Punic, of Carthage. His first thought was to have her flogged out of camp but he could not, not after seeing the look in her eyes when she clutched his forearm with her gnarled fingers.
“The Gods send me to you with a message,” she had whispered. “You must hear it!”
Reason or not, Punic or not, he could not afford to offend the Gods.
“Come inside,” he remembered saying before she shuffled past his personal guard. And now he sat there, dizzy with smoke on the morning of battle, audience to the ramblings of a decrepit hag.
The wind on the plain was up. It lashed the tent walls, pulled the roof skyward. There was a loud bang, not like thunder or angry gales, but like a distant call or announcement. The Roman clutched his knees, tried to hold back the bile that rose up in his throat.
Pieces of papyrus flew about the tent, a lamp fell over and went out in the sand. The fire was suddenly still. The crone threw her head back as if slapped, gurgled some words in a tongue he did not know. Her eyes rolled and she nodded. The Roman looked around but they were alone. He felt cold, began to sweat where the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
The seeress collapsed and the flames began to move again. The Roman got to his feet and moved to her side. She was breathing. He nudged her gently.
“Woman. Are you all right?” He tried not to let his fear or disgust show.
The bones suddenly jerked to life and her arms clawed at his, pulling him down as she crawled up, something out of the underworld. She was strong.
“I have words…I have words…” Her voice was raspish, her breath fowl. But, he had to listen. It was as though someone were pushing him downward to her, from behind. “It will be a mark of greatness in your line.”
“What will?” His voice shuddered, fear beginning to show as his courage waned. “My line is already great.” He tried to sound defiant but she shook her head, her eyes now open.
“For blood and butchery, maybe. The God has given you this symbol of wisdom and strength. You are chosen to carry it.”
“Which god? What symbol? I don’t understand. Chosen for what? Tell me!” He held her tightly by the shoulders, bones lost in his grip.
Then, her appearance, her features, softened so that she resembled a kindly grandmother. She spoke soothingly to him.
“You are blessed Metellus.” She reached for the filthy satchel she had brought with her, rooted around inside. “I had a dream…” she muttered, “…in it…I saw this.” She drew something out, something no larger than the palm of her wrinkled hand.
“What is it?” he asked.
She held it up to the firelight, turned it around reverently. It was a flat, clay image of a dragon.
“This is the symbol of your line to come.” She handed it to him. He accepted it, still unsure as to the meaning. “It is a symbol of wisdom, of strength.”
“Yes, you said that already,” he responded impatiently.
She raised her arms as if to the heavenly stars. “He has honoured you with it.”
“The God.”
“Which one?”
“You will know when you are ready. He will come to you as he always comes to the chosen.”
The Roman shuddered at the thought. “Visited by a god?” Out in the camp, horns roused the army.
“I must go,” she said abruptly, packing up her things and standing.
“Wait! I have many questions.”
“Men always do.” She turned back to him. “They will be answered in time. For now, keep this symbol with you always.” She closed his hand around it. “Pass it on to the worthiest of your line only.”
She became impatient, as one does with a child who questions without end. “It is sacred, powerful, meant only for those strong enough to bear the burden.” She paused, peered into his eyes one last time. “Remember. You fight for more than yourself this day at Zama, more than Rome’s glory. I must go.”
“Wait, I’ll call you an escort out of camp…”
She was gone.

photo: Temple of Apollo, Ancient Corinth

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Realm of Goodness

Something interesting happened to me on the subway the other day. I was standing as usual, swaying like a blade of grass along with all the other commuters in the middle of the car. I was reading the latest instalment in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, the Triumph of Caesar (by the way, great book, Steven!). Anyhow, there I am standing, and swaying, trying to look cool because I don’t have to hold the overhead bar due to my impressive ability to keep my balance and read at the same time. Then, cursing under my breath because of the driver’s sudden breaking that made me do a little skip-hop so I wouldn’t fall over (completely un-cool!).

Having regained my composure, I look up to see this guy looking at my book’s cover, smirking, shaking his head. I pretended to read on, oblivious, but I could tell as he looked from side to side at our fellow passengers, he was eager to say something. Had he a soapbox, he would have stood on top of it and let loose whatever it was he wanted to let loose. Don’t look up, I told myself, Don’t look up or he’ll start talking.

Shit. I looked. He saw me and focused on me, unswerving, his audience whether I liked it or not. The book being a trade paperback, it was really too small to lift high enough to block him out. No more quiet ride for me. It would be five more stations from hell with the guy that likes to talk aloud on the subway to no one in particular. I don’t mean schizophrenic, no, as have most urban dwellers, I have had my share of run-ins with those unfortunates – in one week, I actually spoke with (was spoken to is more accurate) three different Jesus’ on my commute. The guy staring at me and my choice of book was just a blowhard commuter-talker. I couldn’t take it anymore. I put on my most imposing scowl.

“What are you looking at?” I queried.
“Unbelievable.” He shook his head disapprovingly, smirked. “I can’t believe people read crap like that.”
I shook my own head in a sort of ‘whatever’ gesture and went back to my reading (really just staring at the page). He was not to be put off now. Contact had been made.
“They were just crazy back then, all nuts.”
“What are you talking about?” He lit up when I answered and ploughed on.
“Back in history, man. What you’re reading about. Rome is it?”
“Yes. Julius Caesar.”
“Ha!” he actually made the other passengers around us jump. “Ya see, crazy bastard. One of the biggest.”
“Actually, he wasn’t crazy. He was a brilliant general and strategist.’
“Did he kill lots of people?”
“A great many people died as a result of his actions, yes.” What else could I say at that point? That much was true, but Caesar certainly was not crazy. This guy on the other hand could probably claim the title, I remember thinking.
“There you have it. Crazy! Looney tunes.”
“Wait a second,” I chirped. “I don’t think you realize how much we depend on today came out of the ancient world. And not everyone was nasty or ‘crazy’ as you say.”
“Yeah, right. Everyone’s reading stories about stuff that happened so long ago when people killed whenever they liked and robbed and went to war.”
“Like there are no wars going on now?” I butted in sarcastically.
“All I’m saying, man, is that things are better today and maybe they could be better if people would read good stories like Twilight.”
“I suppose vampires and werewolves are all goodness, not crazy at all?”
“This is my stop! He moved to the doors waiting for them to open. Before jumping out he turned around. “By the way, you talk funny, man!”

And with that final adieu, the village idiot exited train right leaving me, looking like a moron in front of all the other readers. I crossed verbal swords with a commuter-talker and failed (I secretly hoped he was a brilliant actor trying out a character). I tried to burry my face in my book but could not concentrate for the remaining two stops, knowing that everyone was casting a pitiful glance at me from above the covers of their own books.

That night, I brought this incident up at my book group. Throughout the day I had actually been thinking a lot about what that guy had said. In a weird sort of way I suppose he was trying to be profound, a la Rain Man maybe. But I decided he was absolutely wrong about all people in the past being crazy. Never mind that that sort of statement doesn’t really apply to any age of human existence. There have of course been violent, or mad or brilliant people at any point in time. Thankfully there has always been goodness and peace to balance things out. Themes of good versus evil, light and dark are a part of us, our stories.

A blog is not really the place to explore this theme at length. However, it is worth addressing this idea in that historical fiction often does focus on people whose brutal or violent deeds are highlighted rather than whether they were good to say, their lovers, their children or their mothers and fathers. Could it be that the ‘craziness’ of the big historical hitters (Alexander, Caesar, Attila etc.) only serve to highlight the plight and the human goodness of our fictional characters about whom the real core of the stories is about?

It should be said however, the modern age does NOT have a monopoly on goodness. One has only to look at the local, national or international news on a given day to see that. In the ancient and medieval worlds, literary works (fictional or not) served to enlighten and teach the populace, to help mortals rise to greatness. Teaching texts such as the Mabinogi served to raise princes who could rule wisely and justly so that they could serve their kingship, their people well. How many prime ministers or presidents do we wish had such devoted training in ideals and morals?

One example of a past culture that stands out to me is the culture of courtly love that began some time in the 12th century at the court of Eleanor or Aquitaine and gave rise to many of the popular Arthurian tales we know today, and which are still relevant. These tales explore the virtues of not only romantic love but also of courtesy, kindness toward women and fellow man, honour in deeds and all those wonderful things that some folks are quick to label as clichés today because they find such behaviour, such ideals too difficult to understand or carry out. What I’m saying is, that an age that could idealize such thoughts can not be so full of evil and void of goodness, just as a golden age that gave rise to theatre, to marble temples and law codes is not completely wicked. Not all creations are made to bring about death and destruction.
As I see it, the art of historical fiction reconciles the past and the present ages, exposing readers not only to past evils but also to past goodness. It teaches us important values and ideals by contrasting them with the wickedness of those that have gone before. As a result, the heroes of the past (fictional or historical) are raised up as shining examples to which it would do us all no end of good to aspire.

Manuscript page from the Duc de Berry's

Book of Hours - c. 1410

Sunday, February 14, 2010

For the Love of Venus

Muse, tell me the deeds of golden Aphrodite the
Cyprian, who stirs up sweet passion in the gods and subdues the
tribes of mortal men and birds that fly in air and all the many
creatures that the dry land rears, and all the sea: all these
love the deeds of rich-crowned Cytherea.

(Homeric Hymn V - To Aphrodite)

Today (February 14) is what is commonly known as St. Valentine's Day - a time when millions of people flock to card shops and chocolatiers to pick up something that says 'I love you' for their significant other. Even though everyday should be a day of affectionate expression to the person that lights one's heart, it is good that at least one day out of the year is earmarked for LOVE.

What many people don't know is that, yes there was a St. Valentine (a priest in Rome who was martyred in the 3rd century) but he was not associated with love or affection until Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about him in such a fashion in the 14th century. It is quite probable that the real origins of St. Valentine's day, are the Roman festivals of Lupercalia (February 15), which involved purification and fertility rites, and the festival of Veneralia (April 1), in honour of Venus Verticordia (the 'Changer of hearts').

As with many Christian days, the origins are strongly pagan, invented by the church to help along conversion of the masses to the new religion. Pope Gelasius (AD 492-496) abolished the Lupercalia and established a day to honour the Virgin Mary. The St. Valentine association came later. All the politics of religion aside, this is a time of year when our ancestors worshipped Love, prayed for fertility, and honoured the sanctity of marriage - this is also the ancient Athenian month of Gamelion, dedicated to the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera.

Most of us would be hard-put to find a pagan temple in our communities, especially in North America, but perhaps it is fitting that at this time of year we take our wishes for love, intimacy, longing and genuine affection to the people that embody these most inspired feelings. Perhaps the people we love are the temples or statues where we should lay our offerings? And that is an altar at which we should do homage for not just one day but everyday that we live and breathe.

There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her
over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there
the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously...they brought her to the gods, who welcomed her when they saw her, giving her their hands. Each one of them
prayed that he might lead her home to be his wedded wife, so
greatly were they amazed at the beauty of violet-crowned

(Homeric Hymn VI excerpt - To Aphrodite)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Against All Odds

Hear your fate, O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces;
Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus' sons,
Or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon
Shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles,
For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him,
Strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus,
And will not be checked till one of these two he has consumed.

Thus spake the the Oracle at Delphi, long ago, as recorded by Herodotus, the 'father of history', in Book 7 of The Histories. This was the prophecy that was given prior to the Greek stand at Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans and 700 men of Thespiae made one of the most heroic stands in the history of the world. Roughly one thousand Greek hoplites defended the pass known as the 'hot gates' (photo above) for three days against an army of about 1 million under Xerxes of Persia. This is a deed of heroism by which all others have been measured in western history ever since, and it echoes across the ages, unspoilt, radiant, despite politics and the greed of much lesser men.

Why is it that this signal event in western history is revisited again and again, what do we get out of it today when our lives are so very different from those of 480 B.C. ? There are probably several answers to that question but for myself it is summed up in one word: Inspiration.

I know, "there he goes again, on about inspiration. Totally corny, right?" No. Not to me, and that is what matters, for inspiration, whether conscious or unconscious, is highly individualistic. I have stood on the battlefield of Thermopylae and though there is a motorway running through it and the sea has silted up for kilometers, the place casts a spell. It is not the impressive modern monument to Leonidas of Sparta and his men that I find moving but rather the little hillock the other side of the road where the Spartans made their last stand, died for what they believed in.

It is difficult for the modern mind to grasp this concept, no doubt, and out of misunderstanding, or perhaps fear, many might dismiss this as something that happened long ago. These men and their king volunteered for death and they shall never be forgotten. They lived strongly, true to themselves. They have been celebrated through history to the modern age. Artists, filmmakers and yes, writers, have paid their tributes. I won't forget a picture of American troops in Afghanistan, sitting in the sand reading copies of Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. What reading that book must have done for their morale, I can only guess at, but I suspect that it inspired in them something of a will to fight on and face their fears. This is completely separate from the politics around our sad and current state of war and the reasons for it. The president at the time was certainly no Leonidas.

Many folks will say that this simply does not apply to them, for they are not soldiers fighting in a war on some foreign field. True, granted. However, some past events, deeds, transcend all else, including war, and are applicable everywhere. We all face our own struggles day to day, and must meet whatever it is we must meet on our own, personal battlefields. For a youth, that battle might be the fear of exams or being bullied in school. For an adult, it could be facing that daily commute to go to a job that is anything but inspiring. It might be not having a job at all. A new mother may fear yet another day inside with the same routine, over, and over and over again. A family too may be dealing with the looming spectre of an allergy. However small and insignificant these things may seem, they are our own battles, fears, and it is crucial that we fight on daily.

No doubt that Leonidas and his men each wrestled with some measure of fear, perhaps of loss, of not being remembered, of failing their way of life. But they overcame and though they died, they raised the bar of human achievement to heights we can only now dream of but for which we should never cease to aim. And now, they grace our canvases, our screens and our pages.