Monday, April 30, 2007

Housekeeping: dates on posts

I notice that the blog is showing the dates on which I started writing my posts, rather than the dates I published them. Hopefully I can work around that in the future, so not to confuse myself and others! [edit: thanks to a friendly comment, that problem is solved ... though why I should object to my posts traveling back in time, I'm not sure!]

Also, thanks to POD Critic for the Thinking Blogger Award for this site.

Using Archeology in Stories

"I wish I could say that I won that contest ... but my perform-
ance was well received, and toasted afterwards by one of the local lords, who gave me a ring-brooch from his own shoulder in token of his approval. A simple thing it was, but pleasant, made of good bronze, with a red enamel design covering the two terminals of the ring and the base of the pin. It had been fashioned at his own court of Dinas Powys, a short journey to the south and west from Caer Dydd ... Though I have since had many finer jewels, I still keep that brooch as a talisman. Worth is not always measured in weight of gold." -- Gwernin, in Storyteller

Dinas Powys was a real princely site, if a small one. Located on a hilltop a few miles southwest of Caerdydd, it was occupied in the mid-6th century, the date of Storyteller, and its excavation revealed signs of imported luxuries such as the amphorae in which wine and olive oil were shipped. The feasting that must have taken place there also left its mark in the form of abundant bones of cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens, with a few deer and salmon bones for good measure.

Metal-working and jewelry-making debris was also found at Dinas Powys. Gwernin's brooch (pictured above) is a replica based on a fragment of a lead mold-stamp. The brooch itself would have been cast in a two-piece clay mold, and afterwards may have been ornamented with glass or enamelling. Although simple compared to many of its contemporaries, it was sturdy and workmanlike, a good thing of its type, as I can testify, having worn and used its re-embodiment for years.

From such fragments, the storyteller makes his tale, and brings the past to life.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Nice Dish of Pig-Meat

"Pigs are not my favorite animals. Valuable and useful they are indeed, their flesh making good eating and their skins good leather. Powerful and magical they are as well, for did not Arawn King of Annwn himself give the first pigs to Pryderi, Prince of Dyfed, in token of the friendship that was between Arawn and Pryderi’s father Pwyll? And did not Gwydion the Magician steal those self-same pigs from Pryderi by a trick, and bring them home to Gwynedd? ... No, I like a nice dish of pig-meat as well as the next man, but I hold with the Irish that the pig-run should be kept out of sight and scent and sound of the owner’s house, and not only because of the smell of it."

So says my narrator Gwernin in Storyteller, and I have to say that by and large I agree with him - although for less personal reasons. Archeology indicates that many Britons, both during the Roman period and later, shared his taste for pork. It seems to have been particularly popular on Roman-era urban sites, and also at some legionary forts, although it was usually second there after beef. Pork bones also turn up with interesting frequency as offerings in graves, suggesting that it was either a prestige food or in some way connected with the supernatural. The story about Gwydion's pig raid (in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion) strengthens the supernatural connection, for Annwn was the Celtic underworld, and later in that story a sow is again involved in an equally magical context.

The Welsh Triads, a compilation of lists of people, animals, and occurences grouped in threes which served as a memory aid for bards and storytellers, has an interesting item called "Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain." The Swineherds in question were Pryderi (see above), Drystan (=Tristan) and Coll son of Collfrewy, and the Drystan part of the triad seems to refer to a lost Arthurian tale. Another Arthurian connection occurs in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, where the hero Culhwch gets his name because he was born in a pig-run. Pigs in general have an inportant place in Celtic literature, and in Irish sources pig-meat was considered the food of the gods. They could also lead to trouble there, as in the tales of Mac Datho's Pig and Bricriu' Feast.

Think about that when you bite into your next ham sandwich.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Music to Write By

POD Critic had an article yesterday about soundtracks that go with stories. I have a few favorites myself, though my preference overall is for silence while I work. When I can’t get it, though, here are some tracks I like.

First, early harp music – the earlier the better. Two Worlds of the Welsh Harp is a good place to start if you can find a copy – it mixes 18th century Welsh harp pieces with earlier compositions from the ap Huw manuscript. I prefer the ap Huw pieces myself – they have an intricacy that reminds me of some of the earlier poetry, and are like no other European harp music I know.

For a different kind of early harp music, I suggest Queen of Harps, by Ann Heymann. This is early Irish music – pre-O’Carolan – played on the wire-strung Irish harp in the early manner, using the nails rather than the pads of the fingers.

For a younger style, but still a wonderful Celtic sound, try any of Patrick Ball’s recordings. (He is also a fine storyteller – if his travels take him near you, go and see him!)

Not to leave out Scotland, I recommend anything by Alison Kinnaird. One or two of her albums have pieces by Ann Heymann as well.

A more modern type of Welsh music, but inspired by the ancient tales, is Ceredwen. They only have 2 CDs so far as I know; I recommend O’r Mabinogi. (Language warning: the lyrics are all in Welsh, although the liner notes are bilingual.)

That’s enough for today – time to put the headphones on and get back to work!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Gold is lost in the ground..."

The quote above is from one of the interior stories in Storyteller, and is meant to emphasize the transient nature of physical treasure as opposed to the "undying fame" a bard's praise could give. Fortunately for the researcher, however, not all gold that is lost in the ground stays there. The British Museum has a good bit of it, and thanks to their Compass feature, you can view many of these treasures without leaving your chair.

Want to know what sort of belt buckles Anglo-Saxon kings were wearing in the 6th and 7th centuries? The Taplow and Sutton Hoo burial mound sites can show you. How about the purse that went on that belt? Or some of the money that may have gone into the purse? Talk about conspicuous consumption - the Anglo-Saxons were into it in a big way!

The tendency of people throughout the ages to hide something away for later has definitely made the archeologists' job easier. I particulary like coin hoards myself. In early Britain these range from Iron age gold, through Iceni silver of Queen Boudicca's time, to early and later Romano-British hoards, to Anglo-Saxon silver.

The one thing you won't find in the British Museum, or in the National Museum of Wales either, is Welsh coins. Unlike some south British tribes before the Romans arrived, the people in what was to become Wales never got in the habit of striking coinage. As to what they used instead - well, that's another post.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Imagining the Past

Writing good historical fiction, it seems to me, requires equal parts of research and imagination. The research is needed for an author to learn as much as possible about the solid, verifiable facts that make a story real: everything from what the hero probably wore (wool? silk? linen? leather? what color, and how dyed? what weight, and how woven? underwear? raincoats? and by the way, where and how did he get it?) and had for dinner (bread? wheat, barley, or rye? meat? pig, cow, or sheep, and roasted or stewed? drink? beer, ale, wine, mead?) to the rulers and boundaries of kingdoms (or other political units) and the probable number, organization, arms, armor, and fighting style of their retainers. Some of my recent reading has included books on food in Roman Britain, horse care and accessaries in the late Roman Empire, the most recent excavations at Sutton Hoo, and the life and activities of St. Columba, to mention only a few.

And the imagination? That's for filling in the gaps, especially when writing about Britain in the Dark Ages (now called the "Early Historic Period"). We don't, in fact, know much about what the hero wore, although reasonable extrapolations can be made from neighboring cultures, where people ended up in peat bogs rather more often. We don't know what color those vanished clothes were, though literature and available dye-plants and processes give some suggestions. We are on slightly firmer ground with the food question, since archeological sites often provide a lot of animal bones and fragments of charred grain, but the lack of pottery of that age from some parts of Britain is puzzling, to say the least. And nobody really knows what sort of language the Picts spoke, although (mutually contradictory) scholarly opinions abound.

The most important thing that a historical novelist needs, or so it seems to me, is a sense of balance and proportion. On the one hand, you should do the research first, so as not to invent things unnecessarily or make obvious mistakes (e.g., tomatoes in your Pictish soup) which will put off better educated readers. On the other hand, you have to remember (or at least I sometimes do!) that this is fiction, not a research project, and that the desired outcome is a novel, not a scholarly article. Although educating the readers along the way (in as unobtrustive a manner as you can manage) is good, at the end of the day the historical novelist's job, like that of any storyteller, is to entertain - and to make the reader want to come back for more.

Did I mention I'm working on a sequel to Storyteller?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Myrddin, Merlin, and Taliesin

Some people who have read my book Storyteller may have been wondering why there is no mention of Merlin in the early Arthurian tales that Gwernin tells and hears. The answer is simple: in those days he was not part of them.

Merlin, as Arthur’s magician and prophet, was a literary creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 11th century. In his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey took a number of old Welsh legends and reshaped them to his purpose. One of his sources concerned a 6th century British poet / prophet / madman called Myrddin Wyllt, to whom various prophetic poems were attributed. Myrddin (pronounced roughly Merth-in) was supposed to have run mad after a battle in which his lord was killed, and to have lived thereafter as a wild man in the Caledonian Forest, subsisting on apples and acorns, and emitting poetry and prophecies. Using his own writer’s magic, Geoffrey changed the madman into a magician, and re-christened him Merlin, possibly because of an unfortunate resemblance of his original name to a French word for excrement.

Taliesin, who instead of Merlin is associated with Arthur in early Welsh sources, also gained a reputation as a prophet, and the 9th century poem Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin features a dialogue between him and Myrddin, in which they take turns uttering prophecies in their characteristic verse styles. In my tales I've given the historical Taliesin parts of what was later Merlin’s role.

After all, he was there first.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Saturdays and Sundays are usually writing days (when they aren't SCA event days), so this blog will usually be quiet on weekends. But since I'm just getting started, I'll post a couple of tidbits from my back files.

Welsh poetry tends to be syllabic rather than strong-stress (another post!). The following is in a Japanese syllabic form called tanka, which some of us enjoy playing with on one of my yahoo lists. The syllables per line fall in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. Here's one:

Thoughts on writing history
Blood, sweat, fear, sharp steel,
the screams of men and horses -
these make a battle:
but the poet's voice after
makes the undying legend.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Mead: drink and metaphor

Mead is a word that occurs frequently in Welsh poetry, and not just in the context of drinking. One of the earliest fermented beverages for which we have evidence – traces have been found in Bronze Age grave goods – making basic mead requires only honey, water, yeast, and a little time. Strength and sweetness depend on the proportions of the ingredients, and meads can vary from champagne-dry to dessert-wine sweet. In the early Middle Ages it was probably drunk as soon as it clarified, and there are many references to glas medd – “green” or fresh mead. The locus classicus for this sort of mention is the long poem – or collection of poems – called Y Gododdin, possibly composed in the second half of the 6th century, and attributed to Aneirin. And that brings us to the second part of my title.

The mead-feast that a king provided for his retinue was not just a drinking party. It also was a bonding ritual, and symbolized the compact between them. The king provided maintenance – food, drink, weapons, and housing – for his warriors, and they on their part followed him and fought his battles. To pay for your mead – talu medd – meant to fight, if need be to the death, for your lord. To paraphrase Aneirin, “they drank mead, sweet, yellow, ensnaring … though sweet was its taste, its bitterness was long.” For the warriors of Y Gododdin, the price of their mead was considerably more than a hangover – but that is a different post.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Poets, Storytellers, and Bards … What’s the Difference?

Seems simple, right? Poets write poetry, storytellers tell stories, and bards … what do bards do?

In the early Middle Ages, they probably did both of these and more. The Welsh bards, for example, were primarily professional praise poets (the modern Welsh word bardd still means “poet”), but they were also specialists in genealogy, history, mythology, and other traditional “lore” – areas with no well-defined boundaries in those days! In the Mabinogion, Gwydion the magician, while disguised as a bard, entertains Pryderi’s court with “pleasant tales and storytelling,” and the text also says that “he, Gwydion, was the best teller of tales in the world.” Other sources suggest that the bard might serve as a magician or a prophet as well, and the early poets Taliesin and Aneirin were later represented as both (Myrddin / Merlin is a special case, and a different post).

The Welsh laws have references to three grades of bard, and we can assume that the required qualifications increased as you went up. In the Mabinogion example, Pryderi first asked that one of the “young men” traveling with Gwydion, presumed to be his students, should tell a tale, but Gwydion demurred for his own purposes, explaining that it was their custom, the first night after arriving at a court, for the “chief bard” to perform. The Irish situation was considerably more complicated, with a two-fold division into filid (poets) and bardagh (bards), and seven (or more) grades defined in each group. The chief distinctions between the two were that the poet’s position was hereditary and his status due to extensive training as well as ability, while the lower-ranking bard’s position was due to natural ability only.

All clear, then? For those wanting to go farther into the subject, I recommend Law of Hywel Dda, by Dafydd Jenkins, and A Guide to Early Irish Law, by Fergus Kelly. (See also the sidebar link to my Amazon lists, specifically the Early Welsh Bards list.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

About that brooch on the cover...

The explanation of the cover design for Storyteller is on the back cover, but of course people looking at it online don't usually see that. Here is the relevent quote:

“Na, there will always be need for Bards,” said Kyan. “If not to sing the warriors’ deeds now, then to remember those who fought before, and teach those who will fight afterwards the way of it … We are like the pin in the cloak-clasp, the smallest, plainest part, and yet without it the brooch falls away and is lost, and the cloak with it, and the man perishes from the cold. So is it with us. If the Bards should ever take the Druids’ road west, it would be a black day for the Cymry, for what is there to hold a people together who do not remember their past?”

Make more sense now?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

New ideas already

As you can see from the sidebar, I've already thought of new links to include on this page. I'll try to post something here most days, so visit often. Also, the comments feature is turned on and open, so if you have a link you think I would like, let me know.

I'm also going to include poetry as posts from time to time, starting with a longer introduction...

Gwernin's Boast
At the back of the North Wind
I had my beginning;
near the Head of the Alder-Wood
I got my birth.
Taliesin was my teacher,
First Bard of the Cymry --
I have slept in his homestead,
I have learnt well his words.
I have drunk wine and mead
with Aneirin in Dun Eidyn;
I have feasted before battle,
I have seen the spears fly.
I have traveled all of Britain,
north to south, east to west.
I have told tales for Princes,
I have sung before Kings.
I have walked at midnight
beneath the Summer Stars,
and in the midst of Winter
I have seen the Spirits’ Dance.
I have played my harp
beside the Gates of Annwn;
I have sung at Samhain
in the shadow of the Stones.
On the Isle of Druids
I have slept alone,
and I have watched at daybreak
for the opening of the Gate.
All through my Kingdom
my name is not ill-known:
Alder-tree am I --
I have sung songs.

(copyright 2006, 2007 by G R Grove)

Monday, April 16, 2007

So what is this all about?

"Blood and fire, gold and steel and poetry, a river’s voice in the silence of the night, and the shining strings of a harp – all these and more I have known in my time. Steep mountains, dark forests, and the endless song of the rain; music and laughter and feasting in the fire-bright halls of kings; a dusty road, and a fast horse, and a good friend beside me; and the sweet taste of the mead of Dun Eidyn, with its bitter aftermath: a dragon’s hoard of memories I have gathered, bright-colored as a long summer’s day. Now they are all gone, the men and women I knew when I was young, gone like words on the wind, and I am left here in the twilight to tell you their tale. Sit, then, and listen if you will to the words of Gwernin Kyuarwyd, called Storyteller."

That is the beginning of my novel Storyteller. The point of this blog is to centralize information about it in one place, and also to provide links to other resources regarding Welsh language and history, and the Society for Creative Anachronism - and maybe other things as I think of them.

Oh - "Tre Gwernin" means "Gwernin's home." Croeso - welcome to it!