Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Panels, publications and Arthurian legends

I am new to author panels. So far, I’ve chaired one and sat on three. I generally come up with great answers around four o’clock in the morning, after the panel is finished. My most recent panel was at Conflux13, the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference where I felt more out of depth than usual. Why? Because speculative fiction (science fiction/fantasy) is not my natural domain. But the theme of Conflux was Grimm Tales and, as I’ve written a historical coming-of-age tale with embedded Wales fairy tales and fantasy elements, I slipped in under the razor wire.

The first panel, I participated in was entitled:

WTF is “crossover” anyway? Crossover, genre mashup, what is it? Why do we love it? What are your favourite examples?

I was fine on that panel. I’m a librarian. I can talk categories – their limits and uses –  for hours. The second panel was called:

Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. Cultural appropriation. What is it? What are the impacts? What can we do to avoid it?

This was a topic in which I also have some insight as prior to writing The Tides Between, I knew little about Wales. Through my research, I’ve fallen in love with Welsh history, it’s myths and fairy tales and learned to speak the language. I’m not sure whether that counts as cultural appropriation? It feels more like I’ve been culturally appropriated. I sure do hope I haven’t @#!!*#@ed it up

I could easily have discussed cultural appropriation in works of historical fiction. But had less confidence in terms of speculative fiction. I therefore turned to the Heritage and History of Wales Facebook group and asked for examples in which Wales history and culture had been well represented, particularly in relation to the Arthurian legend, as this fell under the Speculative Fiction banner.

A group member suggested Bernard Cornwall’s Warlord Chronicles handled the British history elements well. Perfect! Cornwell is an Englishman, who lives in America, and no doubt, he didn’t consider his books as cultural appropriation. (Wales is after all part of England, isn’t it!? :-)) However, I downloaded the first book, started reading, and, after declaring the source of my information (Heritage and History of Wales), gave the trilogy as example of a culturally sensitive representation of Wales’ early history.

Now, thanks for your patience, here’s where the thinking of good panel answers in the middle of the night comes back into the story. I was challenged on the panel. Someone asserted that Cornwell had misrepresented the middle ages – by portraying it as non-religiously and ethnically diversity. Of course, the Warlord Chronicles are not set in the middle ages. They are set in the sixth century. But I didn’t think of that at the time (I think I may have just sat there slack jawed). But I have thought about the assertion a great deal since and, now, having read the complete trilogy  (which was magnificent, by the way, in terms of pace, character, story and voice). I am ready to give the answer I wish I’d given on the panel.

Religion

One of the things I enjoy about Cornwell’s writing, is his depiction of religion. The Warlord Chronicles are narrated through the first person viewpoint of Derfel, a Saxon child captured in a raid and raised British. Derfel, is proudly pagan and follows a pantheon of British Gods as well as Mithras, the warriors god. Derfel is not fond of the Christians. However, through his eyes, Cornwall gives us good druids, and evil druids, good Christian priests and evil Christian priests, faithful adherents to the Saxon Gods, as well as their opposite. We get a picture of a religiously, pluralist society in which religions both clashed and co-existed.

Race and Culture

I am not expert enough in the era in which the the Warlord Chronicles is set to say whether its depiction was ‘accurate’. But Cornwell makes a point of showing us black men, Irish men, and the British Kingdoms (in all their dynastic diversity). The Saxons are, likewise, not depicted as an ethnically homogenous group but a mixture of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. He gives us characters that believe in the ethic purity of Britain and want that purity restored and those who believe in the political unity of Britain but realise they can’t turn back the ethnic clock.

Women

Women didn’t do too well in this era of history. Cornwell doesn’t shy away from the facts. War involved rape, women were pawns in dynastic power struggles, and they had little opportunity to exercise power. However, within the constraints of that reality, he gives us strong women, flawed women, evil women and wise women. Although, their plight in this era was bleak, and the policies and attitudes towards them often appalling, there is an underlying respect for women throughout the trilogy and a sense that Cornwell is not using their subjugation as sexual titivation (as some current TV series seem wont to do).

Non-cliche

Cornwell’s characters are delightfully non-cliche. Merlin is a mischievous old man full of idiosyncratic ill-humour, Arthur is strong and fearsome but also shy of power and deeply flawed, Derfel is loyal, yet forced to make compromises, Guinevere is hard and ambitious, yet, also beautifully intelligent, Aelle, the Saxon King is fierce and blood thirsty, yet not without honour, Cerdic, more sinister, even Niume, the most single minded proponent of an ethnically pure Britain, evokes our sympathy, though her choices are often evil.

These books are amazing. A great example of: Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. I didn’t do them justice on the panel. But hopefully I’ve now corrected that omission. They are officially on my favourite-books-to-be-re-read-often pile.

Previous

A review of Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin

Next

The things I never meant to achieve

9 Comments

  1. Felicity Banks

    What a great article. Thank you for “continuing” the panel here.

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      It was a good topic – very thought provoking

  2. Chris Foley

    Interesting criticism that Cornwall doesn’t portray enough ethnic & religious diversity in his books.. I suspect it was a throwaway line intended to present the speaker as culturally sensitive relative to you.

    I’ve read a few of Cornwall’s books – recently I read his Grail Quest stories and years ago I read his Sharpe novels. I haven’t read his early Medieval stories though I have seen some of the TV adaptations – so it depends on what the person was referring to.

    Cornwall’s Grail stories (set in 15th Century France) show internal Christian conflicts, and ethnic and language diversity across what is now modern day France. There are some Jews, with a Jewish doctor being important. Could he have written more? Possibly, but that may distracted the story. Traditional grail stories are otherwise Christian stories (with some mixing of pre-Christian elements).

    As for early Medieval Britain – while I haven’t read Cornwall’s books, I’m quite familiar with historical evidence after long years of study. Modern writers/TV makers/Film makers have traditionally portrayed culturally monolithic images – Britons vs Saxons. Only a handful of works come to mind in the last half century that have departed from that image. Yet the sources imply diversity amongst the peoples we now call Britons and Saxons, which were obscured in later centuries (such as in the works of Bede and later) by which time contemporary writers wanted to present a sense of us versus them in the British vs Saxon conflicts. Bede wrote that the English of his time were descended from Angles, Saxons & Jutes – but collectively were ‘English’; Procopius wrote that Britain was occupied by Angles, Frisians and Britons. Other contemporary writers had their own ethnically typologies for Britain.

    What about pagans at that time? The Saxons, Irish & Picts were pagans until each experienced their general conversion but, as with their British Christian neighbours, pagan traditions continued long afterwards (think of the maypole).

    What about non-Europeans in early Medieval Britain? We have evidence of trade with the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine artefacts have been found in various parts of modern day Wales & England. Did the traders only visit the trading ports or do they travel inland? Did they settle and marry? Were the trade goods passed from trader to trader across Europe and so the goods arrived via Frankish traders instead? Did the Jewish communities of Romano-Britain survive into this period? The evidence is unclear.

    Cultural depictions of the past are tricky things, with writers and readers alike overlaying their contemporary views over other people’s treatments of the past.

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      What a wonderfully thoughtful reply. Cornwell did portray great cultural, ethnic and religious diversity and, yes, you are right, it must always serve the story rather than detract from it. We were asked to provide an example of an author who had done a good job and one that had not been so culturally sensitive. Unfortunately, my example was challenged and I was too slow and didn’t not have sufficient knowledge of the texts to defend my position. Oh, well, next time…

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      PS> The Warlord Chronicles are worth a read!

  3. Chris Foley

    Sorry for the long comment. I get carried away about early medieval Britain. It comes from reading too much…

    • Elizabeth Jane Corbett

      All comments are welcomed, long or short. They are a blogger’s reward. 🙂

  4. Chris Foley

    To follow on from my comments – if we should be concerned about ethnic and religious diversity in our portrayals of the past, how do we know that the past was diverse? And how to we define and determine that diversity’?

    I’m reminded of an observation that an English historian once made (apologies, I can’t remember who but I think it was in the context of determining ethnicity from graves surviving from early medieval Britain) – historians have traditionally categorised ethnicity of graves based on physical evidence. Often grave goods. So, if a Germanic-style broach was found in a 6th Century grave in England, the person was deemed to be Anglo-Saxon; if the broach was Romano-British, then the person was British and so on. This approach fitted a view that historical ethnicities were clearly defined to contemporaries and that we as modern observers can interpret the clues; and that the neat little maps historians draw up about the inexorable march of Anglo-Saxons from the English east and south-east to the west from the 5th/6th to the 7th/8th centuries can be archaeologically verified.

    But, the historian observed, in his normal life he drove a German car. Therefore, if he was buried with his car, then would someone in a thousand years think he was German?

    In a sentence that historian demolished 150 years of moderns scholarship on early medieval Britain.

  5. Elizabeth Jane Corbett

    The more I read, the more I perceive our lack of knowledge. Interestingly, Cornwell depicted British communities living within the Saxon territories which I believe was likely – people having no choice but to stay and accept different overlords. So, if such communities did exist, they may well have worn Saxon brooches, used Saxon weapons and adopted Saxon customs. So, what would their graves have contained.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

%d bloggers like this: