Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: britain

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.

Pattern of Shadows – Judith Barrow

Having just recovered from an upper respiratory tract infection, you will imagine my horror when I found my husband had returned from a work trip, carrying another version of the sniffly, snotty, headachey and generally laid-low versions of the virus. We are now both sitting in front of the fire like a pair of old crones having had to cancel a swather of eagerly anticipated events. The only consolation in this whole gloomy picture (apart from re-watching Poldark episodes) is that I get to read and read and read some more. To aid my recovery, I decided to indulge myself in a couple more titles from Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press.

Judith Barrow’s, Pattern of Shadows, is set in the North of England during World War Two. It tells the story of Mary Howarth, the sensible hard working daughter of Bill and Winnifred Howarth, who is nursing sister in Granville, a nearby prisoner of war camp. Mary’s eldest brother, Tom, is in prison while her other brother, Patrick, is forced to work in the mines. Her younger sister, Ellen, simply wants to have a good time with her American G.I. boyfriend, Al. When Frank Shuttleworth, an embittered returned soldier, enters their lives, the family’s patterns are set to change. Though, none of them can forsee the trail of events that will unfold. Or anticipate how new, forbidden, relationships will test to their loyalties.

As my parents were both children in the UK during the Blitz, I grew up on stories of World War Two Britain. But only during the last few years – thanks to Foyle’s War, Peter Ho Davies, The Welsh girl, and a prevalence of Italian ice cream shops in South Wales, have I come to realise how many prisoner of war camps there were in Britain during this time. Pattern of Shadows, explores what it would have been like to work in such a camp, deftly handling themes of prejudice towards prisoners, conscientious objectors, and others who were at odds with the political mood of the day. Written primarily from Mary Howarth’s third person point of view, the descriptions of working class daily life are detailed and realistic. Her attitudes towards Frank Shuttleworth and her father are consistent with the times. Though, as a modern woman, I wanted to shout no, don’t put up with it! Go to the police! on more than one occassion.

The novel occasionally shifts viewpoint and, at times, these shifts aren’t seamless. I found myself having to re-read sections. There was also a tendency to use flash back when a straight linear narrative may have created more dramatic tension. But these are merely quibbles. The story worked well despite them.

I thought the novel had finished at the end of chapter seventy seven. I was surprised to find, I had four more chapters left to read. These jumped ahead to 1950 and my first thought was that they belonged in the sequel. However, that was not the author’s decision. She, no doubt, has a different tale to tell in Changing Patterns. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

 

An ignorant Aussie looks at the Scottish referendum

This week Scotland will vote on the matter of its independence. If the yes vote prevails, it will be a moment akin to the Berlin Wall coming down. Not in terms of Scotland’s living conditions. But in terms of history. The Union dates back to the seventeenth century when James VI of Scotland became James I of England and united the two crowns. The fact that four hundred years later the Scots are preparing to vote on the matter suggests the union has not always been a happy one. In fact, some would say it was involuntary. I suggested this to an English friend recently.

‘No, Liz. You’re wrong.’ He said. ‘The Scots were never conquered. They entered into a union of their own accord.’

‘Really?’ I said. What about Culloden? The Battle of Solway Moss. It seems to me they fought pretty hard to stay independant.’

‘That was religion,’ he said. ‘Nothing to do with independence.’

I said: ‘It was the same thing in that era.’

Think Henry the VIII, Bloody Mary, even Good Queen Bess. It was all about religion in those days – religion and inherited power. James I grandfather was killed at Solway Moss. His Catholic mother Mary Queen of Scots made a series of unfortunate marriages and was forced by Protestant rebels to abdicate. She was imprisoned twice, once in Scotland, and once at the behest of her cousin the Protestant Queen of England, who eventually ordered execution. In accordance with the prevailing religious beliefs of the Scottish aristocracy, James was raised a Protestant. When Elizabeth I died without issue, he succeeded her to the English throne, where he ruled by ‘divine right’ with the support of a priveleged minority. The average Scot had no say in the matter.

We don’t do things like that anymore.

That’s what I find so exciting about the Scottish referendum. Not who wins. From my vantage point I can hardly presume to know what is best for Scotland. But, through a lengthy process of devolution, the Scots have brought their nation to this moment. As far as I can tell, there has been little woad wearing, freedom fighting, remember-Culloden type rhetoric. People have been taking about what they want for their nation. Discussing nuclear armaments, Scotland’s role in the Middle East, health care, education, social welfare, the possibility of further devolution. In short, deciding the kind of nation they want to be in the 21st century. Whatever the outcome, that is a victory for democracy. And if Scotland votes yes, a significant moment in history.

Here’s what one little Aussie town has to say about the situation

 

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