This week we are joined by Tim Walker, who is here to tell us about his novel A Light in the Dark Ages.
Can you describe your world or setting?
The world of my book series is post-Roman Britain covering the years 410 – 530 AD.
How did you build this concept, what research did you do?
I conducted extensive reading of history books and online articles that fed my fascination for this little-known period in British history known as ‘The Dark Ages’ precisely because of the paucity of historical and archaeological facts. I was intrigued by two unconnected early historical sources placing King Arthur around the year 530 at the Battle of Camlann – his final battle where he is mortally wounded. This prompted me to sketch out a timeline of possible kings and conflicts that connects the end of Roman Britain to the death of Arthur, and by doing so, attempting to take both Uther and Arthur out of the ‘legend’ box and place them in a plausible historical tale of the early Dark Ages.
Why did you choose this setting?
The idea for my first book, Abandoned, in what turned out to be a series, came to me during a visit to the site of former Roman town, Calleva Atrebatum (renamed Silchester in the Middle Ages). I wanted a walk one summer’s day, and it is not far from where I live in Berkshire in southern England. The site is unusual, and an archaeologist’s dream, as it was abandoned a hundred years or so after the Romans left and was never built over or re-occupied. It is a green field site where cows graze, enclosed by the remnants of the town’s stone walls. For me, it was an inspiring place, and I started to wonder, ‘what would life have been like for the Briton inhabitants of the town in 410 AD and what would they have thought about the Roman evacuation? Would they have regarded it as liberation or abandonment?
What’s unique about your world?
What’s unique is that there is a black hole in British history covering approximately two hundred years about which little is known. It is wedged between the carefully documented three-hundred-and-eighty years of Roman rule that had brought a high level of infrastructure and cultural development to Britain, and the more brutal and unsophisticated rule of Germanic tribes that followed a brief war of resistance by Celtic-speaking Britons. This started to change following the conversion of Saxon kings and their followers to Christianity, starting from around the year 600, when the written word was gradually reintroduced to Britain by priests taught to read and write in Latin.
How do you explain the science or magic in your world?
Ancient peoples believed in magic or witchcraft as it covered those aspects of the natural world of which they were ignorant. For example, meteors and shooting stars were believed to be dragons flying across the night sky. In post-Roman Britain there was almost certainly a resurgence of the traditional beliefs of the native Britons that had been suppressed by the Romans who were fearful of the power of their religious leaders, known as Druids. These were animistic beliefs based around making sacrifices to the various gods of nature for a favorable outcome for their prayers. These sacrifices were rarely of a human nature – more often burnt offering of animals or crops, or coins and trinkets thrown into sacred lakes where water deities lived. I take the view voiced by some historians that in the towns, Christianity would have held sway, as this was the established religion of the Roman empire in its final years. Other Roman gods were also worshiped, and many temples to an array of gods have been uncovered by archaeologists. It is thought that Christianity slowly supplanted traditional pagan beliefs through simply hijacking their festivals and taking over their temples over a number of years. This process is ongoing through my book series, and my character, Merlyn, is a champion of the old beliefs, but encourages Arthur to embrace Christianity as he sees it as a growing influence over the minds and hearts of the people. Merlyn is a clever and learned man, in a time of widespread ignorance. He is not averse to using magic ‘tricks’ to deceive people and show his power or authority as a means to getting his way.
What was the most surprising thing you found out while researching/writing your latest book?
I came across an eccentric and obsessed historian called Graham Phillips who was featured on a television documentary insisting that he had found a ‘real’ Arthur in Dark Ages history. I was intrigued enough to buy his book, The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, in which outlines his case for ‘Arthur’, which in the Brythonic language of the time means ‘The Bear’ spelled ‘ur Arth’, as a title held by the kings of Powys in mid-Wales. The kingdom of Powys in the late fifth and early sixth centuries covered a much larger area than the current county of Powys – a kingdom that included much of central Wales and the west midlands of modern-day England. He argues that King Owain ur Arth was no less than the King Arthur of legend, based at the Roman fortified town of Viriconium. Archaeological digs at Viriconium support his assertion that the Roman town was occupied and extensively rebuilt in the early 500s – the time when Arthur was said to have ruled. He also claims to have identified a likely site for Arthur’s last battle, on a meadow by a crooked bend in a river (the literal meaning of ‘camlann’) and even a possible site for a sacred lake with two islands, where he believes Owain/Arthur is buried. The land is privately owned and he has not yet obtained permission to survey these hillocks on land that is now pasture, following the draining of lakes and marsh land. Interesting stuff that demonstrates that historians are still looking to unlock the mysteries of our missing years. These remain unproven theories, but fascinating nonetheless.
How do you handle the food in your world?
In my world there are two traditions – the ‘high’ culture of the Romans, still clung to by landowners and leaders, and a more simplistic Celtic way of life, cooking meats on open fires outside roundhouses of stone, mud-brick and thatch. The Romans developed crop farming in Britain, so wheat, barley, oats and corn would have become part of the diet, with flat breads and cakes baked in earth ovens. Domesticated animals – goats, sheep, cows, pigs, would have provided meat and milk. Ale would have been brewed from hops and barley. Perhaps the elite continued to have feasts at which imported wine was drunk, with an array of nibbles served on platters including small birds that were caught in nets, such as larks, together with dried fruits, flat breads and local produce.
What was the most mundane item that you used that really has cool tech or magic behind it?
Swords were regarded as magical weapons, and certainly the elite would have benefited from blades made from steel fashioned under a more intense heat than normal blades, that would have cut through cheaper iron swords, and splitting helmets, perhaps adding to their perceived power and that of the bearer. Arthur’s sword, named ‘Caliburn’ by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the earlier telling, morphing into ‘Excalibur’ by the time of the Middle Ages romantic authors, could well have been thrown into a sacred lake after his death, as an offering to a water goddess (Sulis and Coventina are two names I’ve come across) in exchange for safe passage to the after-world. There are seemingly fantastic and barely believable elements of the Arthurian legend, like the magic sword, that can actually be made sense of by historians who have studied Iron Age beliefs and practices.
What did you include that you wish was real today?
I wouldn’t mind a magic sword! Although I’d never be able to take it out…
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I have tried to delve into the history behind the legend of King Arthur to find a real man – a real Dark Ages warrior. In doing so, I have learned a lot about manners and customs in Roman Britain, and the customs and beliefs of the Brythonic-speaking Britons. Then a third culture crashes onto the shores – the Angles and Saxons, who worship Woden, Thor and other Germanic/Nordic gods.
Readers will judge if I have done justice to my attempt at evoking the world of fifth and sixth century Britain, and presented Arthur as a believable (and possible) historical character.