PEERING INTO THE DARK (AGES)
When I originally decided to focus my novel writing career on the so-called Dark Ages, I only partially knew what I was letting myself in for. As a Nottingham history student, I read Sir Frank Stenton’s authoritative contribution to the Oxford series. A browse through his pages and footnotes shows you how the best of historians struggles to piece together people/places/dates.
Many of these categories are subject to debate, even controversy.
The problem, of course, boils down to record-keeping. It is well known that the primary source of our knowledge of the period, loosely 500-1000 AD, are monastic writings, many of which occurred retrospectively, even centuries later. Otherwise, we rely on charters and archaeology. The latter, thankfully, has developed into such a science that we can rightly claim to be ripping open a veil that has shrouded the period for so long. One thing that we have learnt from the various excavations, and even the more honest metal detector hobbyists, is that the Dark Ages were illuminated by magnificent artistic craftsmen, working metal but also weaving silk.
My latest novel, my current work-in-progress, has provided me with more head-scratching than usual. I chose to write ‘A Tale of Two Vikings’—that’s the subtitle—about two of the many Norse-Irish involved in the diaspora following the Viking expulsion from Dublin in 902AD by the Irish. First, I wanted to use real historical figures, rather than invent two archetypal fictional characters. I have no regrets, even if the choice took me into a historical labyrinth made up of blind turns, dead ends and pitfalls.
Let’s take my main characters: Óttar mac Iarnkné (a.k.a. Óttar the Black) and Ragnall ua Ímair. Dark Ages? What was the formula above? People/places/dates? Right, so what did I find or not find? First, Óttar was the subject of historical debate because the records confuse him with his father and cousin. Some historians debate whether a seventy-year-old Viking could have led his men in battle in the early tenth century. Of course not! I sorted that out to my satisfaction and feel fairly sure that my Óttar was actually the man expelled in 902. Places? The same. What happened to him after 902? Obviously, we have conflicting versions. Some accounts are so different that for (date?) I could choose. In the same year, at the same time, he can be found contemporaneously as far afield as Brittany and Scotland! And what about Ragnall? Some historians have gone as far as to claim that he was the famous Rollo, who founded the Norman dynasty. Nonsense! Then there’s the small matter of his death. It’s recorded that as king of Jorvik (York) he died in 920, whereas serious historians make the case that he simply left York that year and went on to raid in the Loire Valley and elsewhere for another twenty years. I’ve made my choices and as I write this, instead of sitting down to write Chapter 26, with 80000 words behind me of the novel, entitled EXPULSION, (look out for it, hopefully later in 2022), The End in nigh!
What have I learnt from researching this novel? About the Dark Ages – so much! I’ve had to research economic history, the salt and silk trades; religious history, the conversion of Viking pagans; political history, the Caliphate versus Byzantium, including the components of Greek Fire! And that’s not all, the hardest part was piecing together chronology and trying to plot the story to answer the questions what happened to whom in this period? Not to mention, trying to combat stereotypes about Vikings. Hopefully, in my small writerly, not scholarly way, I hasten to add and underline that, I have achieved an entertaining, informative page-turner. That is my desire. Thanks for reading this.
4/3/2022 09:07:08 pm
I'm an avid reader of John's work, in varying genres, and cannot but admire the attention to historical detail and accuracy that can only happen through meticulous research. I write fiction about history but I often wish I was a historian instead - my books would be be far better, and sell more copies! This blog is a very useful insight into John's approach to his writing.
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