15 August 2013

Wonder of Rome - Blog Hop


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original cover art: Chris Collingwood


Arthur
the boy who became a man, 
who became a king, 
          who became a legend
So what has King Arthur got to do with a Blog Hop entitled The Wonder of Rome?
Nothing at all if you are thinking of the traditional Medieval tales of knights in armour and the turreted castle of Camelot, but a lot if you consider that Arthur - if he had truly existed - should rightly be placed in that 5th/6th century Dark Age period of British history between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo Saxons (the English).

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Like most avid history book-a-holics my attention was drawn to the stories of King Arthur in my early days of reading anything and everything remotely historical. But I was never too keen on them. Lancelot seemed to be a bit of a show-off, Arthur was a drip and I had no patience with that silly woman, Guinevere. I quite liked the horses and the knights though. 

As my taste in reading matured I realised that the reason I had no time for the Round Table, Holy Grail and Merlin was because there was no historical accuracy in the stories. 

None at all. Not a jot. 
The Arthurian myths are just that – myths. 

Not that there is anything wrong in that, but I was interested in the reality of history and the Matter of Arthur came not remotely near. Until I read Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave and Hollow Hills. In her author’s note she mentioned that if Arthur had existed he was more likely to have lived in the post-Roman era, that highly turbulent time between the going of Rome from Britain and the arrival of the Anglo Saxons and the formation of England.

This is what I had been craving! The real Arthur, the true place of where and when he had lived, loved and fought – I was hooked. I devoured every history book I could lay hands on about this fifth/sixth century legend – but the more I discovered, the more I became dissatisfied. IF Arthur had existed he was not the ultimate chivalric King of All Britain. IF he had existed he was more likely to have been a small-time warlord of …. Well of somewhere in Britain. Maybe what is now Wales, or Scotland, or the West Country, or Somerset… for the crunch truth is, there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Arthur was a real person. All the supposed and offered evidence doesn’t stand up in court; as with Robin Hood it seems that Arthur is a legend that over the centuries became more and more exaggerated.

My other frustration was that all the novels I read about Arthur (with the exception of Mary Stewart and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword At Sunset) were even more annoying – I was forming my own opinion of what might have happened, and other novels did not fit what I had in mind. So I wrote my own.

It took me ten years to complete what eventually became the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy – the manuscript I submitted to an agent became book one, The Kingmaking and the first half of Pendragon’s Banner (the third book, Shadow of the King came after publication of book one).

There were three things I was determined to achieve in my interpretation of this Dark Age King:

Arthur would not be the chivalric, god-fearing King apparently obsessed with Holy Relics  who appears in the Medieval Tales.
Guinevere was not going to be a namby-pamby spoilt brat of a girl who screamed at spiders. Nor was she going to betray her lord King and husband.
I would write the ‘what might have really happened’ tale – with a warts an’ all Arthur set in the earlier than usual era of 450-500 AD.

I researched Roman Britain in the fifth century to the best of my ability – and I do confess here that a good part of the knowledge I gained then is now out of date. Smoke holes, for instance. Twenty to thirty years ago it was believed that the British (Celtic/Iron Age) roundhouses with their almost conical thatched roofs had a central “smoke hole” as a chimney. We now know that, in fact, the smoke seeped out through the thatch – British Villages would not have had neatly interspersed columns of smoke drifting upwards from each house-place, but would have been enveloped within a general fug of smoke.


Nor is the old theory that the Saxons came, invaded, settled and drove the native Britons westward into what is now Wales and the West Country  true. (The word Welsh/ Wealas is an English [Saxon] word meaning 'foreigner.) Yes, there were a few battles, yes there were a few families who probably abandoned their farmsteads and went elsewhere, but on the whole the few Saxons who first migrated from Germany and Jutland settled along the coastline and rivers of what is now England in relative peace. The Englisc took British women for wives, the daughters married British men - and England and the English emerged.


It was only during my research that the truth about Roman saddles came to light. Thirty-odd years ago it was presumed that a Roman rode bareback or on a pad of some sort. (And I do use the word'Roman' in general – the ‘Roman’ army and cavalry was made up from many and varied creeds and cultures – most of whom were not Italian!)

Then a Roman saddle was found. The illustration shows what it looked like. 


The rider tucked his back and hips against the two rear pommel horns, and his thighs under and into the two front horns – giving a very secure seat, much as a modern side saddle does.

Note how the leaping head and fixed head "pommels" of a side saddle
tuck over and into the rider's legs
We are also used to big horses today – that old image of a knight in armour being hoisted into the saddle is another nonsense myth (in fact knights were very agile in their armour, despite the weight).  I read one Arthurian novel that referred to Arthur riding on a great big horse with feathered (hairy) legs – clearly intending the Shire horse. Absolute nonsense. The Shire breed developed during the sixteenth century. War horses were not heavy horses (the Shire is known for being a placid ‘plodding’ breed – ideal as a draught horse, not agile enough to be used in battle.)

The Shire - about 18 hands high
In the years before the eleventh century horses were of a height that we would now call a pony (the term pony is also a relatively modern word!) The average height in the fifth century for a mount would have been about 13.2 – 14.00 hands (a ‘hand’ being the width of a man’s hand, about four inches)
As with the modern Native Breeds of Britain (Exmoor, Dartmoor, Welsh etc) these sturdy animals could easily carry a full grown man – here’s the proof of my own Exmoor pony with my son-in-law-to-be riding him.

This Exmoor pony is 12.1 hands high
I gave my King Arthur something a little flashier to ride – an Arabian breed, which were known here in Britain during the Roman period of occupation. The Arab is a breed of horse with its skeletal spinal frame slightly different to other horses – and bones of a distinctive Arabian-type horse were found near Hadrian’s Wall.
It is easy to imagine why Roman officers and men of wealth would want to own a horse of this kind – they are beautiful creatures. And if Romans could import lions, elephants and giraffes for use in the arena there is no reason why the Arab desert-Breed could not be transported overseas either.

The Arabian horse - Kathy is 5'7 the horse is 15.2 hands high
So my Arthur was a rough, tough, rugged warlord who had to fight hard to gain his kingdom, and even harder to keep it. His wife, Gwenhwyfar (as I named her) was equally as capable – she possessed a sword and knew how to use it. 

Following the early legends my Arthur and Gwenhwyfar had three sons, Llachue, Gwydre and Amr. One is referred to as the son of Arthur the soldier. Another died killed by his father, Arthur, another, was killed by a boar. 
Oh and Mordred? In the early references he is Medraut, and his demise is recorded as “Medraut who fell at the battle of Camlann”.
There is absolutely nothing to say, however, that he was killed fighting against Arthur.





For those reading this who are grumbling that I have things wrong – that the word King is an English term – I thought long and hard about the use of language in my novels. I use the Latinised place names (Londinium – London, Eboracum – York) because it seemed right to do so, but Dux Bellorum seemed clumsy. Everyone knows Arthur as a king. So I kept the term.
After all, if you are going to be really picky I should have written the entire thing in Latin or British (Welsh) so I regard the story as a “rough translation.”

And at the end of the day anything about King Arthur is just that, a story. Be he real or nothing more than a man of legend, long may he reign in the world of Imaginative Fiction.


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Competition to win a copy of the Kingmaking now closed. Winner announced shortly.
And the winner is (picked at random : Jacqueline Baird. Thank you to everyone who entered & congratulations Jacqueline.


Click HERE to read more of the Pendragon's Banner Trilogy and to where you can purchase the books
(available in paperback and as an e-book)

If you enjoyed this post - or even if you didn't LOL)- please travel onward to these other Blogs for more interesting articles by a variety of authors on the Wonder of Rome:
recommended reading: There is an excellent book about the facts & fiction of  King Arthur - the myths, legends, history, and what we can ever really know about him:
Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall 

The latest (favourable LOL)  Amazon.co.uk review for The Kingmaking:

"Spell-binding, magnificent, gutsy, heartbreaking, raw with bloodshed, triumphant! Helen Hollick's Arthurian trilogy quickly draws you into the world of legend. No genteel fairytale story of Camelot, this! Gutsy, sweaty, and real. The Dark Ages brought vividly, to life! This is the legend I want to believe in. Yes it is cruel in places, but they were cruel times. I want to read about them, but I'm glad not to have lived through them. Still, I feel as though, for a while, I was there - and it was breath-taking!"



41 comments:

  1. Comment posted on behalf of Scott Hunter : www.scott-hunter.net

    Hi Helen - I'm so glad to have found an author willing to dig for the historical Arthur, not to repeat ad infinitum the popular version we've seen so much of in film and literature. I can imagine Arthur as a post-Roman warlord, still with much of the Roman general about him, but very much a man of his time. I look forward to reading your work!

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  2. Wonderful post and a fabulous book. I enjoyed the different portrayal of Arthur that you chose to go with. Best wishes with the blog hop.

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  3. Excellent article, Helen, you describe Arthur along the lines I would have of a general/warlord of his time.
    Jess Steven Hughes

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    1. thank you Jess - it doesn't seem to me that a powerful warlord would also be a soft-hearted pat people on the head sort of guy. Those kings have always been the weaklings.

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  4. Helen, I am ready to start Book #2 now! I am in love with your fleshed out, visceral Arthur the MAN! It's a much better read than the fairy tale legend. And thank you for having Guinevere stand by her man!

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    1. Thank you Jacqueline - My Arthur and Gwenhwyfar have quite a few turbulent times - but doesn't any relationship?

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    2. Congratulations Jacqueline you have been selected as the winner for the Wonder of Rome Blog Hop -
      Could you e-mail me, not sure of your e-mail address to arrange to send your prize
      you can contact me via the link on the menu bar above!

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  5. Hi Helen - great post, and I am very curious to read more about your Arthur - but boy am I glad not to love in a conical house infested with smoke :)Would love a copy of the first book in the series!

    My beef with the medieval Arthurian legends is that Arthur, his knights and dear Guinevere are all so refined,borderline anemic - very far from the robust, tough people they must have been to live and prevail in the breaking point between the old and the new.

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    1. Funnily enough I don't think the round houses were that smoky as the smoke all went up into the roof and lingered there. The only time it wafted about was when the door was opened and the wind gushed in - so it is probable that these houses had at least two doors, which one being used depending on which way the wind was blowing!

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  6. I wrote a warlord Arthur, too. I loved the research! One of the nice things about writing fiction, at least in the case of Arthur, is that you can mix in a little myth, too. You must, as Arthur is myth! And there is so much to choose from, myth and history both.

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    1. Yes it is nice to be able to make things up and know you can do so with flamboyance! After all we don't even know if Arthur actually existed, so his whole "life" is up to the author's imagination!

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  7. I am excited that you have written on Arthur. I love that you really get into the subject with research instead of relying on folk tales. Now I am craving this trilogy!


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    1. I enjoyed the research Carol - although as this is Arthur you can never be certain whether any of the research is accurate or not - but I think that is what makes the stories about him so enduring: we all have our ideas of what might have really happened!

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  8. As you already know, I absolutely LOVE your Arthur and your version! I too found myself brilliantly inspired to read every non fiction book on Dark Age Britain that I could after reading The Crystal Cave and Sword at Sunset, and your books renewed that thirst for historical research for me as well! If I were to write about Arthur myself, I would also place him in about the same time or perhaps as a Roman Cavalry officer who chose to remain behind upon Rome's departure from Britain...something like that. The possibilities just fascinate me to no end.

    I also enjoyed reading your research and points on the breeds of horses and the Roman saddle! I've read a lot of opposing opinions over the years on the stirrups and pommels *laughs*

    Great entry!

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    1. Stirrups didn't come in until much later - and that was one of the reasons why an Arthurian cavalry had been dismissed - you couldn't throw a lance or fight from horseback without the secure purchase of a stirrup.... and then a Roman saddle was discovered and it was found that the secure purchase came from tucking the thighs into the pommels (i.e. up and in instead of down and in) In the same way my daughter Kathy finds that riding side saddle is very secure because of the two pommels, especially when jumping, for instance, rather than the use of the stirrup.

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    2. Thank you Helen for a fascinating article- full of the technical detail which fascinates me and lends authenticity to your books! I would have asked about stirrups too, had Cathy Helms not done so above! I didn't know that a Roman saddle had been found- when and where? (preparing to nip over to Birdoswald to see the reconstructed armour and saddles!) The saddle you describe makes complete sense, and I can imagine Aneirin in 'Men Went to Catraeth'using one, although sadly, John James must have died before that discovery was made.
      I like to think that Arthur rode one of our sturdy Fell Ponies for everyday though! :-D That is if he was a Cumbrian!

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    3. I can't remember now when the saddles was found (or where) I'll have to dig my books out - I think it was around the time I started writing Kingmaking, so it was probably in the early 1980's. I think the wooden tree was found (and it might have been found near hadrian's Wall - but that might be my memory playing tricks) Once found reconstructions were made and it was realised that these saddles are depicted on various sculptures, tombs etc once it was known what to look for. They are, apparently, very comfortable to ride on & quite secure.
      And yes the Fell type pony would have been used - though whether the Fell breed was distinctive back then we don't know - were there different types in the various regions I wonder - i.e. the Exmoor, Welsh, Highland, Fell... or were they fairly similar? The Welsh, for certain, changed over the centuries, getting an input of arab breeding at some point. Some say Arabs swam ashore in North Wales from wreckages of the Spanish Armada, but I like to think the influence came from good Roman-based breeding.

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  9. Very interesting post especially your observations about horses during this time period.I must share this with my horse-crazy cousin.I know she will love this post too. Thank you for the giveaway. denannduvall@gmail.com

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    1. I did quite a bit of research about horses while writing the trilogy because I am a horse-lover (we have three horses at the moment - have had 7 ponies at one point though!) I started riding when I was four, got my first horse at sixteen; stopped for a brief while to have a baby, but then she started riding when she was three and the cycle has continued ever since! I do find it annoying that so many people (even authors) assume that people in the past had to ride big horses - completely misunderstanding the ability of our native ponies.

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  10. Love the idea of your Arthur...very interesting! As was the Saddle...
    Marilyn (ewatvess@yahoo.com)

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  11. Thanks for the post Helen! When I teach my early medieval students about King Arthur I start by showing them a Powerpoint slide listing all of the contemporary sources that mention Arthur as an authentic historical figure. The slide is blank... But then I have a lot of fun taking apart the legend to show them what *might* have happened!

    John

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    1. How wonderful to have a teacher who teaches history in a fun way!

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  12. Hi Helen - another great post for the Wonder of Rome blog hop - as I mentioned after reading Petrea Burchard's, I realise I know so little about Roman Britain. And I was interested to read about the Roman saddle - I had to be careful not to have my characters ride with a saddle because my books are set in very early Rome - it's great to learn what they would have looked like later down the track.

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    1. I've no idea when these saddles came into use - hmmm something to add to the "Research To Do" list

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  13. Well written post. That's exactly what I was looking for.

    my page ... royal cuir sofa ()

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  14. I'm intrigued to find out more about your Arthur.

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    1. thank you Denise - not everyone likes the earthy, tough guy I've portrayed, especially those readers who see Arthur as a devout Christian King - I see him more as a pagan warlord though.

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  15. I just put Kingmaking on my Nook Wish List. Your Arthur sounds like the way I've imagined him. I, too, love Mary Stewart's Arthurian series. Can hardly wait to read it!

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    1. thank you Peggy - I'll always be grateful to Mary Stewaret for drawing my attention to th reality side of Arthur (I aslo liked her Merlin, the blend of magic in her books was very plausible) Merlin isn't in my trilogy though - nor is Lancelot!

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  16. While I want the chivalric Arthur; you are right in that kings like that didn't last. And I never, ever, believed that Guinevere and Lancelot would betray Arthur. I'm now quite interested in reading your version!! I can't wait to read about your Gwenhwyfar! Thanks for the give away! Erin ehallman@gmail.com

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    1. I can only understand Guinevere betraying Arthur if he was a useless husband (one way or another) If she had loved/respected him why turn to Lancelot? The whole Medieval story never made any sense to me. The relationship between my Gwenhwyfar and Arthur is turbulent (to say the least!) and sparks often fly between them. Arthur isn't always faithful either - but then men in the past usually weren't, tere were very few kings (and knights) who did not bed other women - even when they loved their wives. The attitude to sex was very different in the past.

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  17. A nice exploration, Helen. :-)

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  18. A really interesting blog Helen. I have always intended reading your trilogy, but now I am really eager. Whilst I have always loved the romantic legend of King Arthur, my love of historical accuracy has always left me a little confused about the time period in which the legend takes place, probably movies have contributed to this! Anyway, your interpretation sounds far more realistic to me, so I'll definitely be reading your version of events. I appreciate the effort you put into research and accuracy even if new discoveries eventually alter things! (kimberleywebb@hotmail.com)

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    1. Thanks Kimberley ((glad you finally managed to leave a comment!) Some people on Amazon have commented that my research is not good - i.e. "she thinks people slept in private bedchambers and had linen sheets" - completely missing the point that I was trying to get over that the character was a) very rich and b) that people were trying to cling to the old civilised ways of Rome where private bedchambers and linen was the norm. Had this "reviewer" read on (instead of slamming the book down and being very derogatory about it) she would have discovered that by the end of the book private bedchambers and linen sheets had been abandoned as untenable. :-)

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  19. Helen. I thoroughly enjoyed reading! Long an Arthur fan, I am always open to new ideas about the Legend. Your trilogy sounds exciting. Can't wait to read. I did cringe a couple of times while reading. I'm a romantic and, as such, usually prefer the romantic approach to Arthur. I do like the idea of your Gwenhwyfar instead of the common approach to her character. Best of all, I like your statement and couldn't agree more with it: "Be he real or nothing more than a man of legend, long may he reign in the world of Imaginative Fiction."

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    1. Thank you - we all have our own opinions of Arthur and fight like mad to defend them - which is why fiction can be so useful a tool by giving us a place to say what we think. My Arthur is very different from the traditional tales, so if you prefer a Christian King, knights and castles, the Trilogy will not be for you. On the other hand, if you're interested in something that might be nearer reality, you will enjoy the read.

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  20. Thank you to everyone who left a comment - my husband picked a name at random (all names went into a hat) and the winning name selected was Jacqueline Baird.
    Could you e-mail me Jacqueline, not sure of your e-mail address to arrange to send your prize
    you can contact me via the link on the menu bar above!

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Thank you for leaving a comment - it should appear immediately, but Blogger sometimes chucks its teddies out of the cot and has a tantrum (especially if you are a Wordpress person) If you are having problems, contact me on author@helenhollick.net and I will post it for you.
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Helen