Finding Fantasy In The Past – The People

There are ethical problems wrapped up in writing historical fiction. Should you use a real, once-living person as a character in your fiction? Their lives reduced to nothing more than plot points and themes? In essence, a human being’s existence shackled to the pursuit of the writer’s own ego?

Would you want some future author to make you the bad guy in their little story, the walk-on joke, the mumbling idiot, the obstacle?

And let’s face it, we don’t even know what the people around us are truly like, never mind those who existed hundreds of years ago. In those cases, we often only have a few scraps of paper to sketch out the things they did, with little hint to their motivation.

This becomes even more of an issue in fantasy, where the historical characters are divorced from the realities of their lives. It’s something I’ve certainly struggled with while writing the Swords of Albion books, which utilise a host of real people from the Elizabethan age. To be honest, even after writing I find it hard to decide if it was the right thing to do. I justified it to myself by my attempts to make the historical figures as true to how contemporary accounts described them, but that still leaves a great deal of psychological gap-filling.

The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men are set around the Court and Government of Queen Elizabeth, but she plays only a secondary role. I have less interest in the cosseted lives of Kings and Queens than I do in the men and women who do their bidding.

The stories concern spies, who had, for the first time, become a powerful weapon of the state in this era. And so in the first book one of the central characters is the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a dour, puritanical man who suffered much personal misery in his life, but who gave his all in service to the Queen. His successor in The Scar-Crow Men is Sir Robert Cecil, a clever, cunning politician who battled against prejudice and mockery for his hunchback and short stature – the Queen called him her ‘Little Elf’. These two men represent different approaches to power and control, one quite honorable, the other self-serving. They act as counterpoints to the flawed, vacillating central character, the spy Will Swyfte.

Swyfte’s friend is the acclaimed playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine among other plays. He was something of a rising celebrity at the time. He may have been a spy (there is some evidence); he may have been gay. In the books, Marlowe is another counterpoint to Swyfte, a man slowly being destroyed by the dark business of spying and the demands placed upon him by service to the state. Marlowe allows the reader to see Swyfte’s strengths and flaws more easily.

Despite my antipathy towards the lives of Royalty, the fact that important people play important roles is inescapable in this era. The common man was mainly concerned with simple economic survival. And so, as Swyfte travels the known world in his spying, we encounter James VI of Scotland (and future James I of England), Philip II of Spain and Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France. Each one responds – and responded – in different ways to their regal status, and again, each one allows us to see Swyfte in a different light.

Dr John Dee is a key figure in both books, and the third, to come, and he really is the link between the history and the fantasy. Dee, who tutored the young Elizabeth, was both a scientist and an occultist, an inventor and mathematician who communed with angels and cast magic circles. Many of the themes I’m tackling have Dee at their centre.

There are others – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, the Earls of Leicester and Essex, the master criminal Laurence Pickering, the King of Cutpurses, who may or may not have been an invention of the Elizabethan equivalent of the tabloids. Each one was chosen carefully for what they said about Will Swyfte, in the same way that any writer chooses supporting fictional characters.

I hope I did them justice, but know in my heart I didn’t. No writer could.

Finding Fantasy In the Past – The World

When I decided I was going to write an historical fantasy, the attractions of the Elizabethan era were many. It was, for one, a time very much like our own, when society was going through massive changes – a rapid increase in new technology changing the way people lived their lives, foreign wars over resources and in pursuit of power, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated acts against the state funded by foreign powers, heightened surveillance at home, a fear of foreigners among the common man, rising wealth for a few but near-poverty for many, and massive leaps forward in art, literature and music. Not only would we understand the Elizabethan man and woman, there were stark resonances with our own age that would add a nice layer of complexity to any story.

Spain was the sixteenth century equivalent of the US, a global superpower influencing geo-politics at many levels. Under King Philip, the country ruthlessly pursued power and wealth, invading Portugal and putting pressure on France and the Low Countries while exploiting the New World’s resources of gold and silver. Though a devout man, Philip was not averse to using religion as a cover for some of Spain’s more aggressive actions and thereby keeping his subjects firmly behind him.

Beside Spain, England was a small nation with ambition and pluck, but little real power and no great wealth. Thanks to Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church, the nation lived in a near-constant state of fear of either retribution from the Catholic powers of Europe or insurrection within from Catholic agitators. Young priests were being trained in foreign seminaries and sent to England to foment revolution and to spy. The Government feared Philip’s expansionist policy and rumours of an invasion of England began long before the Armada set sail.

This was a dark time of terror and sweat and deceit. Yet in a sequence of stories that were essentially about duality, I could also look to the other, more positive face of the time. This, too, was the English Renaissance, with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and other writers blazing a trail, alongside composers like Tallis and Taverner, and architects like Inigo Jones. There was a great deal of enlightenment after long centuries of moral repression. Brothels were tolerated, including one composed entirely of young men. London was growing at an astonishing rate – faster than it could truly cope – and had become one of the great cities of Europe. So it was an exciting, vibrant time too.

The stories were to be about the point where fantasy collided with reality, but the more I researched, the more comparable and contextual collisions I found – socially, culturally, religious, political. Any fantasy – any story – needs a rich world and plenty of innate conflict. It was all here.

And while England was increasingly embracing what would come to be science, it still had the supernatural fears of past centuries at its back. The Elizabethan era was really the point where the country was caught between reason and unreason, hope and fear, past and future.

With the idea of a country trying to move forward while held back by the hooks of a superstitious past came the opening for my antagonists, the otherworldly Unseelie Court. Their existence was encoded in every myth and legend and folktale; the English had always lived in fear of the Fair Folk. But under Queen Elizabeth, England wanted to break free of their shackles and move into a new, brighter age.

Next time I’ll look at some of the historical characters who populate The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men and why I chose them.

Inspiration For Writing

You don’t want to seem like a nutter when you’re on public radio. So when the host asks me – as they always do – where do you get your ideas from, I steer clear of the truthful answer: “psychic connections through the aether” or “hypnagogic messages dictated by our mysterious overlords“. I usually mutter something about stumbling across an interesting fact. Always go for the boring option. It keeps you out of the coats with no arms.

But we can speak honestly here. We all know about the mysterious connections in life. The stuff that goes on behind all those scientific processes. The weird, inexplicable occurrences lurking in the corners of day-to-day existence. The gods and imps and fairies and demons that we like to call other things because, you know, that whole coats with no arms thing…

When I say “the universe speaks to me”, I mean it speaks to all writers, all musicians, all artists. We each tend to put a different face on it, but it’s the same voice. So where do my gods and fairies and demons lurk?

In pubs with stone and timber and glowering locals and beer with strange names. In deep rural life which city folk think is backward, but is wild and dangerous and so removed it might as well be another planet. In bands that you might stumble across in the back rooms of pubs and never hear from again. In stone circles, crumbling ruins, lonely pools, old houses. Across those city liminal zones – industrial estates under sodium at 3am, empty, broken-windowed factories and wasteground with rainbow-streaked puddles. In black-faced, mirror-glassed morris men and biker gangs. In snatches of music heard after midnight. In moots and meets and markets held under moonlight. These are the places where stories are born. These are the locations where my writing gods live.

And for a specific example, here’s one of the inspirations for Age of Misrule

The Dancing Did remain one of my favourite bands, a quarter of a century after they split up. Characterised as “neo rustic pagan bop” or “a cross between The Clash and Steeleye Span”, you can find out more about them here.

Their album, And Did Those Feet, is little-known but essential, particularly if you like fantasy or any of those things I listed above. The lyrics are clever, witty and poetic and deal with ancient things encroaching on the modern world – listen to ‘The Wolves of Worcestershire‘ or ‘Charnel Boy‘. A remixed version with a booklet and additional tracks is available from Cherry Red.

The Dancing Did’s thematic equivalent today may well be Cornish collective Kemper Norton though the music is very, very different. I came across them through the regular ravings of Warren Ellis, another fan. More inspiration. I bet they never imagined they’d be dragging a story about Elizabethan spies and Faerie into the light…

Crop Circles – New Swirled Order

A friend, the artist Frank Mafrici pointed my attention to a great German documentary on crop circles (with English voiceover).

I’ve always been extremely sceptical about wilder claims for the origins of crop circles. They appear manmade, albeit fantastic examples of landscape art, especially some of the most recent examples. However, I was always slightly troubled by one aspect – I haven’t come across any great art where the artist hasn’t eventually taken credit for it.

Whatever your thoughts, the documentary makes fascinating viewing. It includes details of research by scientists – physicists, chemists, mathematicians – and specifically signs that the crops have been damaged by electro-magnetic radiation. Some stems are blown out at the nodes by escaping steam. There are also changes to the soil, with molten particles a regular feature.

Despite all the received knowledge (groups of hoaxers using planks to flatten the corn at night), one local witness revealed a crop circle wasn’t in the field at 5.30am, but appeared later that day.

And if there are artists at work – using EMF pulse machines – I applaud their attention to cultural memes. One of the crop circles is in the shape of the Mayan calendar, and another shows the position of the planets in the solar system at the end of 2012. Hugely entertaining. Take a look.

Police Officer Sees Aliens At Crop Circle

Courtesy of Warren Ellis, the first item relating to the previous blog post, herewith known as “the pattern”.

For your consideration: the Daily Telegraph is reporting a British policeman had a close encounter of the third kind at a crop circle near the standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire. His description of the figures he observed – more than six feet tall with blonde hair – is of a recurring type which UFO watchers have christened “Nordics”.

The police officer said: “They ran faster than any man I have ever seen. I’m no slouch but they were moving so fast. I looked away for a second and when I looked back they were gone.

”I then got scared. The noise was still around but I got an uneasy feeling and headed for the car. For the rest of the day I had a pounding headache I couldn’t shift.”

So: crop circles, aliens and standing stones – that ticks three boxes all at once. More to come…

Countdown To 2012

If you haven’t heard of the 2012 meme gathering pace around the world, you will soon, thanks to a new movie by Roland Emmerich. According to various sources, December 21 2012 is supposed to be either a) the end of the world as a result of a collision with a comet or asteroid/a collision with a rogue, unidentified planet/a geomagnetic reversal/a black hole/some as-yet-unidentified source or b) the end of the world as we know it, caused by a shift in human consciousness, or perhaps, a spiritual awakening leading to a long foretold golden age.

Part of this belief is based on the Mayan Long Count calendar, which, according to some academics, comes to an end on December 21 (or 23) 2012. An End, with a capital E. Typically of the academic world, there is no firm agreement on this, with some saying the calendar actually ends 4.134105 × 10 to the 28th years in the future. Which is what is commonly known as “wiggle room”.

But it’s not just the Mayans. A similar prediction lies in the myths of the Hopi Native Americans, in the I Ching, some say in a code hidden in the Bible, and in the writings of the philosopher Terence McKenna, who created a formula which predicted a singularity of infinite complexity on December 21 2012, when everything and anything imaginable will occur simultaneously. Which seems to happen in my office on a regular basis.

All New Age Nonsense, some say. Well…it doesn’t matter. Much to the annoyance of my arch-rationalist friends, things which don’t exist can often have a greater effect on the world than things that do. If enough people believe we are approaching a time of “spiritual awakening” or “consciousness change”, they will make that happen. Altering patterns of behaviour. Becoming, say, more environmentally-minded. More socially aware, or politically aware. Then, 2012 becomes a focal point for changing the world. Putting it right.

On the other hand, maybe all these predictions are right.

For that reason, I’m going to be documenting here anything and everything which might relate to this. Strange events, odd coincidences, political and environmental acts, UFO sightings, religious phenomena, scientific advances and anything else which might take my interest. Who knows – a pattern might appear – or not? And as anyone who has read my books knows, I’m very interested in hidden patterns.

I’m interested to hear of any links, sightings, bizarre occurrences – personal or global, acts of activism, and transcendence, which may or may not fit into this. You can sign up for my forum and leave a message there, or DM me through that site.

I think we can have some fun with this.

Second Stonehenge Discovered

A “second Stonehenge” has been discovered, next to the River Avon and allegedly linked by a processional route to the “actual” Stonehenge. Archaeologists say this newly discovered circle was composed of Welsh bluestones.

The recent discovery is bringing about a major re-think of the entire site. (Thanks to CharlieFarlie of the forum for the link.)

Walking the Age of Misrule

Last week, UK newspaper The Guardian had a series of supplements detailing Great British Walks. The one which appeared on day five will be of particular interest to readers of this blog as it focuses on Lost Worlds and Legends-themed walks.

Several of the trails are linked to sites featured heavily in Age of Misrule – Stonehenge, Loch Ness, Thomas the Rhymer’s Hills, Tintagel – and are a great way to soak up the atmosphere and discover more about these evocative places.

You can buy the whole set of walks supplements for a tenner here.

New Stonehenge Visitor Centre Announced

The Government has announced plans for a new £25 million visitor centre at Stonehenge.

Finally.

The entire ritual site around Stonehenge is pretty much an atrocity, and a mockery of its World Heritage Site status. Moving the visitor centre a mile and a half away is one small step to redressing the shockingly poor stewardship of such an important site, but the site is still criss-crossed with noisy roads and ruined at night by light pollution.

I don’t blame English Heritage – they do a good job under difficult circumstances. I do blame successive British governments. The next step should be to get rid of the roads, if necessary through long tunnels, which would then give the entire site some of the gravity and majesty it deserves.

The usual Government argument is that the cost would be prohibitive. Perhaps they should have used some of the billions spent sending Iraq back into the Stone Age for no discernible reason.

Knights Templar Hid Turin Shroud

Medieval knights hid and secretly venerated The Holy Shroud of Turin for more than 100 years after the Crusades, the Vatican said yesterday in an announcement that appeared to solve the mystery of the relic’s missing years.

They had the Loch Ness Monster and a crashed alien spaceship too.