Sunday, October 12, 2014

"True Grit" the novel, a review

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I gave this book 5 stars because I simply haven’t enjoyed reading a novel as much as this one in a long time. Most people will be familiar with the story from the epic John Wayne movie and those with a childhood in the 1970s  probably remember it being on TV pretty much every Christmas. However, while the film tells the same story what is missing, what can only be got from reading the book (and what is probably the unique value of this tale) is how it is told.
The plot is a quest for revenge. A “miserable scoundrel” shoots an upstanding member of the frontier Arkansas community and in a world of crooked lawyers and uncaring judges, his fourteen year old daughter takes it on herself to see that justice is done. It is she who narrates the tale and we see everything through her eyes. Headstrong, independent and single minded, Mattie Ross represents a certain character of frontier woman, the sort for whom the world is black and white and the moral ambiguities that plague many don’t get in her way. At one point late in the narrative, looking back as an old woman, she comments that many folk say her only loves are “her bank account and the Presbyterian Church” and that is about the depths of her introspection which perhaps gives a good idea of her character. Anyone coming from a Scots-Irish background will probably recognise her character straight away.
It is her single-minded, unquestioning pursuit of justice that drives the plot and leads her to team up with a Texas ranger called LeBeof and the inimitable Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshal every bit as much of a rogue as the outlaws they chase. It is natural justice, regardless of what the law thinks, that Mattie seeks and what Cogburn recognizes and responds to. An immature, at times unsympathetic character - she shoots a man in the head at one point and the reader is left with little doubt that the deed ever troubled her sleep - having the story told through her eyes reminded me of another classic of naive narration, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane.
All in all, the book is an excellent portrayal of the hard life on the frontier of the United States in the last century and the sort of personalities it took to forge that nation. Not always heroic, noble or pushed by high minded ideals, it was the Mattie Rosses and the Rooster Cogburns who probably did as much to build the West as the Lincolns.


View all my reviews

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The battle of Moira and the origins of Scotland

As Scotland ponders its future with or without the rest of the UK, I was taking a walk around the village I live in and it occurred to me that this was the very spot where (arguably) we all first came together in the proto-guises of our current national identities. Naturally it was for a fight.


Today Moira is the sleepy Northern Irish village I live in, right on the edge of Counties Armagh and Down. It was once blown to bits by the IRA but apart from that nothing much has happened here recently. However, Moira was once the scene of considerable slaughter. The battle of Moira occurred in 637 AD. It was a bloody affair and notable enough that it was reported not just in the Irish annals but also in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and also in a particularly fine painting by the artist Jim Fitzpatrick:

The reason for its widespread fame was not just the level of carnage but the participants. On one side there was an army from the South, led by an O’Neil who was High King of Ireland. Against them stood a coalition of forces led by a King of Ulster but comprising warriors and princes from the north of Ireland and what is now Scotland, as well as a contingent of Anglo-Saxons and even a few Welshmen (well, Britons).

This possibly comes as a surprise to some. Surely our incessant wars began 800 years ago with the arrival of the English (or rather the Normans), not 1377 years ago when we all lived in a misty poetic utopia? With that in mind we should take a further look at the combatants. 

Congal had been High King of Ireland, but an accident involving a bee sting resulted in him being blinded in one eye. No longer physically perfect, this meant he could no longer hold the High-Kingship which even in the Christian-era had sacred connotations. Like a lot of modern Ulstermen would have done, he sued the owners of the bees for compensation (the ancient law tract still survives). However he was to say the least “put out” by the affair. Before long he was at war with his successor (and foster father), Domnall mac Áedo of the Clan Connell who took his place as High King. They met in battle in 629 at the Battle of Dún Ceithirn and Congal lost. Having nowhere left to go in Ireland he fled across the sea to his cousins in Scotland.

Roman writers and Geographers placed the tribe called the Scots as living in Ireland. Similarly, Saint Patrick’s writings in the 5th and 6th centuries place the Scots in the north of Ireland. By the 7th century, however, the northern Irish kingdom of Dalriada had spread itself from its original powerbase in North Antrim across the sea to the islands and shores of western Scotland, taking their language and culture along with them. It was among these folks that Congal, still King of Ulster, took refuge and brooded on his revenge.

Eventually he came back and claimed his throne again. War inevitably followed and conflict raged across Ireland for several until Domnall once more marched north, determined to rid himself of his disgruntled rival once as for all. Hopelessly outnumbered but the advancing army form the south, Congal called on his friends and relatives overseas and an army came to his side. The politics of North Britain were such at the time that the Dal Riadan prince (also called Domnall) could call on allies from neighbouring kingdoms too so along came some British princes from the Brythonic tribes of the Old North (in Welsh, Hen Ogledd), possibly the Gododinn or Ystrad Clud ). Theses were the rump of ancient British kingdoms who had not yet succumbed to the Anglo-Saxons invading from the south. These men spoke an ancient version of the Welsh language. Amazingly, given that all these folks were fighting for the same pieces of land in what is now Scotland, a contingent of Anglo-Saxons came along too. One of this crowd brought along a cavalry cohort, which raises intriguing possible connections to a son or grandson of one of the historical figures (Artuir mac Aedan) identified as a candidate for the inspiration of the legend of King Arthur, recently outlined by David Pillings here: http://pillingswritingcorner.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/real-arthurs.html . As we will see, this is not the only Arthurian connection to the battle.

As always in Ireland, there seems to have been a religious element to the whole affair. Domnall's army included a Christian Saint in its ranks, Ronan Finn. Ancient accounts of the battle of Moira mention kings among the Ulster army who are pagans. The ancient poems about the battle abound with pagan celtic spirits and omens. Old Gods like Mannan MacLir and the Morrígan, the celtic battle goddess, make appearances. This is an interesting point. The battle was taking place 200 years after Saint Patrick had supposedly made Ireland Christian and 74 years after Saint Columba had founded Iona, yet supposedly parts of the north still followed the old ways. 

Readers of Irish legend, Seamus Heaney, Flann O’Brien, Joseph Heller and Neil Giaman’s “American Gods” will be familiar with the character of “Mad Sweeney” , a pagan Dalriadan King who is driven insane in the heart of battle and goes and spends the rest of his days living in the woods thinking he is a bird until he eventually suffers a threefold death. Arthurian and Welsh scholars will see direct parallels with the story of Merlin and the Battle of Arfderydd . I will no doubt return to this subject in a future post. Suffice to say, the battle where Sweeney went mad was Moira. By co-incidence there are still a few with the Sweeney surname in and around Moira and Lisburn. Whether they are related or not I can’t say.

After several days of heavy fighting Congal was killed and his army was defeated. The result was that Domnall and the O’Neils extended their influence over the north, which they ruled for the next 1000 years until the Flight of the Earls in 1607. The Dal Riadans lost their remaining Irish lands and from then on their energies were focused in north Britain in the foundation of the fledgling Kingdom that eventually became Scotland.

Moira still bears some echoes of the battle. In the 1830s a newspaper report mentioned the finding of large numbers of human and horse bones during the construction of the railway line near Killultagh. A similar account mentions another vast quantity of human bones being found near the Lime Kilns on Claire Hill. There are old townland names within the village that point to further clues: Carnalbanagh translates as “Grave (Cairn) of the Scots” - or rather “Of those from Alba”, the old name for Britain. Beside it is Aughnafosker, usually translated as “field of slaughter”. Moira itself means “Plain of the raths (ancient ringforts)” and at one time there were many of those in the area. Unfortunately most of them have been destroyed by over-zealous farmers and property developers.
A few survive, like the one in the middle of the roundabout:

Or the huge Pretty Mary's Fort, the ramparts of which are still impressive:

Aughnafosker is mostly covered by the housing development in which I live and last week work began on covering the final green field part of it beneath 70 new houses. 

Can anyone lend me a metal detector?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Holy Gail and a dark age armageddon

It's taken some time but I've finally got round to writing about the Grail.

Recently, an article appeared in the press about how British Police raided a pub in search of the Holy Grail: 
While the article is slightly weird, it proves the on-going fascination with the topic of the Grail. Obviously I share this fascination as the Quest for the Grail was the engine that drove my first novel, Lions of the Grail  and, as the titles suggest, it was a theme that continued through the recently released sequel, The Waste Land and will persist through the third book in the series, tentatively titled “The Fisher King”.

The mystery of what the nature of the Grail actually is, issomething that fuels people’s fascination. It is generally described as a cup - the cup that was used at the Last Supper and also sometimes the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Christ as it flowed down from the cross. However over the centuries it has also been described as a cauldron, a plate with a severed head on it and, perhaps most odd, a stone that fell from the sky. Its the gloriously vague nature of the tales of the Grail combined with their multiple authours and the several strands of tradition -both Christian and Pagan- that have been entwined in their creation that have allowed all these interpretations to not just be created, but actually be plausible. 
I returned to this topic recently while I was re-reading Parzifal, the  medieval German romance written by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the 13th century. While going through it I began to think that there may be more to the “Stone from the sky” interpretation than meets the eye, and in fact it may even be an echo of an actual, catastrophic event that happened in the 5th Century.

We are familiar, if a little uncomfortable, with the concept that every so often something hurtles out of deep space and smashes into the earth, wiping out large quantities of life causing massive devastation. It is the current popular theory, for example, of what killed off the dinosaurs.
A few years ago Professor Mike Baillie of Queens University of Belfast appeared on a Channel 4 TV series which detailed the effects of a cosmic impact in the mid 6th century AD. The basic theory was that a large object, probably a comet or a asteroid had struck the earth in the Northern hemisphere sometime around 536 AD, throwing so much dust and debris into the air that it caused what we would refer to as a "nuclear winter".
His theory is outlined in this article

Through tree ring dating and historical references he showed how over a period of several years vegetation had grown at a stunted rate leading to famine and disease throughout Northern Europe.
This reminded me of the tales of King Arthur, particularly those surrounding the Quest for the Holy Grail. As most of those familiar with the tale will know, one of the roots of the Quest is the striking (unwittingly by Sir Balin) of the "Dolorous Blow", a fateful stroke that maims the Fisher King through the thighs, making him infertile and therefore destroying the fertility of the land, thus turning the kingdom into the "Waste Land". 
As Thomas Malory put it in his Le Morte d'Arthur: "and through that stroke three kingdoms shall be in great poverty, misery and wretchedness twelve years". 
Medieval peasants struggling in mud

It is only the finding of the Grail that can heal the Waste Land. What if the folk memory of the cosmic impact had become mythologised into the legend of the Waste Land and the Grail?

I've always been curious about the fact that while most of the stories of King Arthur take place in a vague far away and long ago" realm, the story of the Grail is specifically dated. Almost all versions of the tale concur that it began when Galahad arrived at King Arthur's court at Pentecost, 454 years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Given conventional wisdom, that would mean that the quest for the Holy Grail began in 487 AD (Jesus being 33 years old when he was crucified). Given that Galahad was 18 years old on when he arrived at court and that he was conceived at the same time Balin struck the dolorous strike that would date the origin of the Waste Land to 469 AD.

So could the Waste Land have been an actual event, a decimation of Northern Europe due to climate change invoked by an impact from an asteroid or meteorite throwing massive amounts of dust and smoke into the atmosphere? Prof. Baillie's cosmic impact theory, backed by dendrochronology , places the event around 536 AD, which is 67 years after 469 AD, however given the vagaries of medieval time measuring, calendar changes and the fact that authours like Mallory were writing nearly as far distant from the 6th century as we are from them, its close enough to give pause for thought. 

Another curious link between the story of the Holy Grail and the idea of an object from space hitting the earth exist, mainly in the version of the legend mentioned above, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal. The work is one of the earliest to deal with the Holy Grail (written circa 1220 AD) and unlike in other versions of the tale, Wolfram's grail is a stone, not a cup. Specifically, it is called the `Lapsit exillis'. This name is a piece of pseudo-latin that does not satisfactorily translate to any meaningful phrase, but two suggestions are "stone from exile" or "Stone from Heaven/the sky".

Wolfram specifically says the stone/Grail is kept by the Knights Templar, and that he learnt about the tale from a man called "Kyot", who in turn got it from a Jewish source in Moorish Spain. The Templar and Moorish link points to the The Fifth Pillar of Islam, the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. One of the main rituals of the Hajj include walking seven times around the Kaaba and touching a Black Stone, an ancient cornerstone of the central structure within the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The most prevalent theory of the nature of The Black Stone is that it is a meteorite.

So all sorts of intriguing possibilities exist.

I've written before about how Norse mythology may contain a folk memory of a similar event. Perhaps someday I'll perhaps to pull the two together. It might make a good book.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Meet my main character: Fergus MacAmergin

This post is part of a blog hop called “Meet my Main Character”. I’ve been tagged in this by the estimable Simon (S.J.A.) Turney. If anyone is not familiar with Mr Turney’s work then shame on you, :-) . He is a Historical Novelist whose enormously successful Roman Army series, Marius’Mules  has made him the poster child of independent writers. Simon now also writes a series set in Ottoman Istanbul. You can read his blog here: http://sjat.wordpress.com/ 

Today, I have decided to write about Fergus, the hero of my own attempt at Roman Army militaria, “The Spear of Crom”. 

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historical figure/person?

The name of the character is Fergus MacAmergin. His original conception was in the ancient Irish hero Conal Cernach. Conal’s father was a poet/warrior/lesser God called Amergin, hence “Mac Amergin”. Fergus was originally to be called Conal, however a frequent comment I get asked when folk read the title of the book is “Isn’t Crom the God of Conan the Barbarian?” (he is, but Robert E Howard the writer who in the 1930s created Conan, borrowed the name of Crom from an ancient Irish pagan God) and Conal would have been too close to “Conan”.
Fergus is a Hibernian Celt who finds himself in the Roman Army, part of an auxiliary cavalry regiment recruited from other Celts known as the “August Wing of Gauls”, the Ala Augusta Gallorum. He comes from a slightly obscure tribe called the Cruithne, who may or may not have been the same as the people we now call the Picts. It was this connection that prompted me to portray him as tattooed, the inspiration for the designs coming from a couple of symbols that frequently appear on Standing Stones from Pictish areas like these:




While Fergus is a fictional character, he did spring from a few fragments of historical fact. Gnaeus Julius Agricola is another major character in the book, and he was a real historical figure. Agricola was a Roman military tribune in Britain who later on became Governor. Not many people are luck enough to have a historian for a son-in-law, but Agricola was one of those folk and thanks to Tacitus, his daughter’s husband, we have a record of Agricola’s life and career. Tacitus mentions that Agricola kept an exiled Irish king as a companion, and "pretended to be his friend" with the view to using restoring him to his throne in Ireland as an excuse for a future invasion of the island by Rome. That invasion, of course never happened.

2.When and where is the story set?

The story is set in the year 59 AD. Twenty years after the initial conquest, the Roman Army is still bogged down fighting insurgents in the Province of Britannia (Britain). The XIV Legion, led by General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus the brutal new Roman Governor, heads West to crush the Ordivices, a rebel tribe led by druid priests based on the Holy Island of Ynys Mon (Anglesey). There is hopefully something for everyone - druids, Romans, cavalry battles, strange pagan rites, a scythed chariot and a desperate battle for an ancient hill fort.

3) What should we know about him/her?

He is a Celt, but he’s in the Roman Army. What’s that about? The Imperial Roman Army was not just made up of citizens in the Legions. They added to their ranks by recruiting troops from conquered nations. The Celts being superb horsemen, it was only natural that they formed a large part of the Roman Cavalry. The Latin word for cavalry was Ala -wing- and its from the plural form Alae that we get the modern English term “Allies”, which largely preserves the original meaning. While it may have been unusual for a Celt from Hibernia (Ireland) to be in the Roman cavalry, military records show that British tribesmen in Roman uniform took part in battles against other British tribes at the time.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Fergus’ life is certainly messed up. The poor guy loses his wife and new born child, sacrificed to the God Crom by the druids. He joins the Roman army but as a non-Gaul in a Gaulish regiment is an outsider and passed over for promotion. He falls foul of his Commanding Officer, gets wrongly blamed for a superior’s stupid decision and ends up sent on a suicide mission behind enemy lines. Then there is Cerridwyn, a female druid on a secret mission for the insurgents. Fergus hates the druids because of what they did to his family, but finds himself having to join forces with Cerridwyn as they have a common cause. Apart from all that there is the Spear of Crom itself that everyone is after, but that's a whole story to itself (and the plot of the book).

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

Fergus genuinely wants to be a Roman citizen. In his own words: “There is more luxury and comfort in a Roman army barracks than the hovels my people call palaces. The baths, the games, the gymnasia, the theatre, roads. libraries, books, underfloor heating: We have none of that, and that’s what I want.”
Within the plot of the book though, he is motivated by revenge. On one level Fergus is driven by hatred of his God for what Crom has done to him. He sees himself as personally at war with the strange diety and his followers, the druids. One particular druid, Anfad, was partly responsible for the deaths of Fergus’ wife and child and now Fergus finds himself confronted by the same man in a different battlefield.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The book is called “The Spear of Crom”. It's named after a mythical magic spear that appears in Irish legends which had to be kept in a bucket of blood as it burst into unquenchable flames when taken out. The premise behind the book is that what if something like that actually existed? Say someone discovered a highly reactive metal that burns on exposure to the air (e.g. Magnesium or Phospherous). Two thousand years ago they are highly likely to have thought it was magic.

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

The book is already available from all good kindle retailers and online bookstores.


Friday, April 11, 2014

The battle of Carrickfergus

As some of you may have read on Facebook, I experienced an odd co-incidence over the last couple of days. I'm currently writing the climax of a novel that will be the sequel to Lions of the Grail (tentatively titled "The Wasted Land") and found myself writing about a largely forgotten battle that took place in medieval Carrickfergus . 

I've wanted to write about it for years because it sounds so brilliant- There was an amphibious assault, desperate fighting in the streets and a besieged castle where the defenders had turned to cannibalism. It all happened on Good Friday and Easter Saturday in 1316. 

When I checked the date of Easter in 1316 I found it was on April 11, and I was writing a fictional account of events that had happened 698 years ago to the day.

Perhaps those old ghosts were calling to me over the centuries? 

Anyway, for those who haven't heard about it, this is what happened.

In 1315, a year after defeating the English at Bannockburn, Edward Bruce (brother of Robert) invaded Ireland, starting a now largely forgotten side war to the Scottish Wars of Independence.

A year later, in 1316, his war had ground to a stalemate, exacerbated by the onset of the terrible European famine that would kill millions over the coming years. Carrickfergus Castle in Ulster still refused to surrender, something which must have particularly annoyed Edward Bruce who was now using Carrickfergus town as his new capitol (he had had himself crowned “King of Ireland” by this time).

This is a Carrickfergus castle on a more peaceful morning:

The besieged garrison in the castle were becoming desperate. Rather than see it fall, Sir Thomas de Mandeville-the exiled Seneshal of Ulster- launched a daring attempt to break the siege by sea, taking five ships packed with soldiers and supplies north from Dundalk. The Scottish poet and biographer of Robert Bruce, John Barbour, lists some of the chiefs of the Irish army:


"Brynrane, Wedounne, Fitzwarryne,
And Schyr Paschall of Florentine,
That was a knycht of Lumbardy,
And was full of chewalry.
The Mawndweillis war thar alsua,
Besatis, Loganys, and other ma;
Savages als, and yeit was ane

Hat Schyr Nycholl of Kylkenane."

If you've read  Lions of the Grail you'll recognize the name Savage in there. :-)

The besieging Scots were taken by surprize. One chronicler says De Mandeville took treacherous advantage of a truce supposed to be in place for Easter week (Easter Sunday was April 11 in 1316). Only a small force of Scots, under command of Sir Neil Fleming, were watching the castle. The relief force landed in the harbour beside the castle and on April 10 De Mandeville launched his attack. Hopelessly outnumbered, Fleming choose bravely to fight them in order to buy time for the rest of the Scottish army to arm and arrive from their encampment outside the town.

Desperate street fighting ensued. Fleming was killed but succeeded in stalling the attackers. Edward Bruce and the rest of the Scottish army arrived and it was the turn of the Irish to be outnumbered. The battle spread throughout the town. De Mandeville, conspicuous among the Irish in his expensive plate armour, was singled out. Gib Harper, Bruce's arming man, felled De Mandeville with his axe.  Edward Bruce finished the old knight off with his knife. With that the relief attack failed. Carrickfergus castle had to once more close its gates to avoid letting the Scots in.


Amazingly, the defenders managed to hold out for another five months, though this was achieved by eating some of the Scottish prisoners they had taken.

So does Richard Savage survive? You'll have to read the new book to find out.

Ironically, as I write this, I find that it seems that some of the current occupants of the town decided to recreate some of these events....
http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/mob-on-rampage-in-carrickfergus-as-police-advise-public-to-avoid-area-30175767.html 




Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Solstice@Newgrange

This post is part of a blog hop organized by the Helen Hollick (), the theme is “shedding light in the darkness”, an appropriate one for the shortest day of the year.


21st December is, of course, the shortest day of the year (for those in the northern hemisphere). John Dunne memorably described it as “the year’s midnight”. At this nadir of the calendar whatever life remains in the natural world seems to be withered and frozen to an almost dead stop. The wheel of time has slowed and rattled nearly to a complete stop. Dunne captured it brilliantly in his “Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day”:

'… it is the day's, Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks/Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world's whole sap is sunk;The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk, 

However, like all nadirs, this is a turning point. From here on the days begin to lengthen, the sun gets warmer and life begins to slowly but surely return to the world. As the theme of this blog hop goes, light will be shed in the darkness.

Clearly our ancestors  felt this too, and nowhere is this more plain than in the megalithic monument in Ireland now called Newgrange.


Older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, this impressive mound sits on a curve in the Boyne, a river still sacred to some in Ireland. The name Newgrange isn’t exactly new - it dates from the 1370s - however some still refer to the place by an older name, “Brú na Bóinne”, and this is the title given to the World Heritage Site that covers Newgrange and the complex of other megalithic tombs and stone circles in the area. The title “Brú na Bóinne” comes from medieval Irish tales written down three centuries earlier, but it’s sobering to think that that even then the place was four thousand years old and whatever the original name for the place was, or what its purpose was, has long been lost in the mists of time.  

Some clues remain, however. Tantalizing hints that suggest meaning but could just be red herrings left by history to prompt us to jump to incorrect conclusions, or at least postualte theories that can never really be substantiated. In archeology the term “ritual site” seems to have become a common synonym for “we have no idea what went on here” and Newgrange fits into that category. Theories abound: Possibly a tomb, possibly a temple, maybe even a place were our ancestors took hallucinogenic drugs (the last one prompted by the unique spiraling rock art there). One thing is clear and that is that for some reason, the Winter Solstice was important to the people who built Newgrange.

On the shortest day of the year, the rising sun shines directly along the long passage into the central chamber at the heart of the mound. The sun enters the passage through a special opening, directly above the main entrance.  


This can’t be a co-incidence, as another tomb nearby in Dowth also captures the sunlight on the soltice day. Clearly this event had enough significance to our distant ancestors to prompt them to take on such feats of engineering.

Its long been an ambition of mine to be there and witness this phenomenon in person. Mum and Dad took us to Newgrange in the late 1970s and we always talked about “some day” making the pre-dawn trip but somehow the solstice always came and went without us getting round to it. Unfortunately its fame and popularity is such now that the only chance to get in is by entering a lottery. You can enter it yourself if you feel lucky: http://www.newgrange.com/solstice-lottery.htm  

However, I’m excited to find that the event is streamed live on the internet: http://www.newgrange.com/webcast.htm, a sort of Soltice@Newgrange.com so maybe I will make it, at least virtually, after all. 

Some people may baulk at the idea of modern technology invading even this most ancient of religious sites but to me it seems appropriate. The construction of Newgrange must have taken the most advanced technological capabilities available at the time: The calculations required to make sure the passage meets the sun on the Solstice alone are impressive and some folk at the time perhaps regarded it as sufficiently advanced to be somehow magic. It is a wonder of architecture, mathematics and engineering as sophisticated for it’s time as the Internet itself is to ours. Why shouldn’t the two come together?

I will finish with a piece of appropriate music. I thought maybe some sort of piece by Enya but in the end, what could be more appropriate for the Winter Solstice than a bit of Jethro Tull?



You can find the rest of the participants on the "Light in the darkness" blog hop here:
  1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  2. Prue Batten : Casting Light....
  3. Alison Morton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk
  4. Anna Belfrage  Let there be light!
  5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars: Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810 -12
  6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
  7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
  8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark?
  9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  10. Pauline Barclay Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
  11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
  12. David Pilling  :  Greek Fire Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  13. Debbie Young  Fear of the Dark
  14. Derek Birks Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
  15. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
  16. Tim Hodkinson : Solstice@Newgrange
  17. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
  18. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
  19. Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
  20. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times.
  21. Christina Courtenay : link and title to be announced
  22. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
  23. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light - A Short Story
  24. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
  25. Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
  26. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
  27. Lucienne Boyce We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
  28. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
  29. Sky Purington  : The Scotch-Irish Impact on American Holidays. 
  30. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression

Friday, December 06, 2013

Historical Tales

I'm delighted and honoured to say that I have a short story in the latest anthology by the inkslingers (http://www.inkslingerbooks.co.uk/), "Historical Tales". This book is a collection of tales that span the centuries, it's now available in kindle format and includes stories by excellent writers like SJA Turney, Gordon Doherty, Prue Bratten, AJ Armitt, Paul Murphy, Jon Dickman, Rob Wickings and Robert Brooks.
The stories:
Fronto & Sybil - By SJA Turney - Set between Marius' Mules books 4 & 5: Fronto visits Rome's most famous oracle in the company of she-who-must-be-obeyed. Dreadful portents are fated to be revealed in the caves of Cumae.
The Gladiator - By Paul Murphy - It's judgement day for Danaus, the Empire's favorite gladiator, when he finds the past betrayal of his family, through a stolen love with a Senator's daughter, catching up with him on the sand of the arena floor.
The Pict - By Gordon Doherty - Urcal has known only the bitterness and brutality of war for so many years. But in his final hours he returns to the Wall where it all began, and comes face to face with his dark past. 
Holmgang - By Tim Hodkinson - 941 AD. A small Irish Norse-Irish village cowers, expecting attack at any moment from a crew of ruthless vikings. A stranger arrives from the sea: Is he friend or foe?
Gisborne - By Prue Batten - The King’s man – as he nocks his arrow he wonders, is he a kingmaker or a kingbreaker?
The Conqueror - By AJ Armitt – As Mehmed the Conqueror’s army draws closer to the gates of Târgoviște; an encounter with a captured knight throws the likelihood of an easy conquest into doubt.
Onna Bugeisha - By SJA Turney - The widowed lady Shimoda Kumiko fights an impossible battle to defend her poor village from bandits, while a powerful ninja spins deadly webs among the powers of the province. 
Thirteen - By Jon Dickman - In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, two friends, condemned to death, are reunited and discover a higher treachery.
Trooper Jane - By SJA Turney - In the aftermath of the battle of Marston Moor, Oliver Cromwell pays a visit to the home of Sir William Ingilby in search of the Royalist officer who tried to put a bullet in his brain. 
Conviction - By Prue Batten - Banished to ‘the arse end of the world’, a convict battles mind and body to stay alive and make sense of his punishment.
The Penitent - By Rob Wickings - Sister Carmen always believed that St. Ignatius was a refuge for women in a world where they were treated more than harshly-until Mary arrives to show her that forgiveness is just another form of sin.
Known unto God - By Jon Dickman - A deadly game of cat and mouse plays out beneath the blood soaked fields of Ypres. Lost in the deeper darkness, the hunters become the hunted.
Master Plan - By Robert Brooks – The Black Forest, Germany, and as the allies close in Hitler continues to plot while the Third Reich teeters towards its inevitable fall.

You can get the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Historical-Tales-SJA-Turney-ebook/dp/B00H3PZ46K

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Wonder of Rome



This post is part of a blog hop (the first one I’ve ever done), the theme of which is “The Wonder of Rome”. At the bottom of the post you can link to, hop over and read more of what other historical fiction writers interpretation of this theme is. Perhaps predictably, mine relates to war.

There is no doubt that ancient Rome still holds a fascination for us today. The achievement of its Empire and the civilization it created are undeniable, the fact that it’s language-Latin-is still a lingua franca in medicine and science by itself validates the theme of this blog, and there are a myriad of other possible topics that could be described as wonders that still hold the attention and amazement of modern people today. For anyone looking for a quick summary, you can watch this:



However, setting central heating, roads etc. aside, I think I can name one Roman related object that casts a very long shadow that reaches from the 1st century AD through to the vikings and down to the middle ages. By happy co-incidence that would also manage to provide a connection my new book “Spear of Crom”-set in Roman Britain-with my medieval book, “Lions of the Grail”. 

For my “Wonder of Rome”, I’ve chosen the spatha, the long, broad-bladed sword first used by auxiliary cavalry units in the Roman army. 

When we picture the Roman soldier, the image that usually springs to mind is one of the legionary with his rectangular shield and short sword, the gladius. However in terms of longevity and influence (on swords at least) it was the spatha that cast the longest shadow. 
The spatha was about a meter long, making it about a foot longer than the stabbing gladius. The sides of its 4 to 6 cm wide blade were straight and for most of its length almost parallel, then tapered at the end to either a sharp or rounded point, depending on whether it was the infantry or cavalry version.


For the cavalry, the tip of the blade was rounded to prevent a trooper stabbing himself in the foot or accidentally injuring his mount. The purpose of the the weapon was for slashing downward at the enemy from horseback and the blade’s extra length helped with that. The infantry version, which seems to have appeared in service during the 3rd Century AD, had a sharp tip that allowed infantry in the front ranks of battle a longer reach. The name appears to have come from ancient Greek however the weapon itself seems to have come from either the Celts or the Germans. As auxiliary troops from those nations joined the Roman army they seem to have brought their own distinctive sword pattern with them, and this migration began with fighting units that were aligned to the particular talents of those nations. Our modern word “ally” (perhaps most famous nowadays from the Word War 2 Coalition of Allies) derives directly from the name of the cavalry regiments who accompanied the legions: the Allae. The word translates as “wing” rather than “friendly nation” but that is due to the placement of these units on the battlefield, where they spread out like the wings of the eagle on either side of the legionary foot soldiers to guard their flanks from attack. 
The Roman legionaries all had one one thing in common. Every last one of them, from the son of the rich Roman who joined up for adventure, to the merchant who joined the army to escape his debts, to the man who enlisted because he thought it was an honorable career and even right down to the scumbag who had been dragged out of prison and pressed into military service, all of them were Roman citizens. The cavalry came from allied (aka conquered) nations of Rome. They were not citizens, however, through military service (usually 25 years of it) they could earn their diploma, and with it the right to become citizens of Rome. The cavalry around the 1st century were celts and Germans from the newly conquered Gaul and Germania territories and it seems these warriors brought not just their superb horsemanship to the Roman Army but also their characteristic long bladed swords. 
The First Century Roman historian Tacitus first mentions these swords in his account of how the British King Catactacus during a battle in his insurgency against Rome found himself between a rock and a hard place: with the legionaries and their gladii on one side and the auxiliaries and their spathae on the other. A couple of centuries later and the legionaries themselves were carrying the spatha instead of the gladius. This may have been because of the phasing out of the large rectangular shield and the increased need to put some extra distance between the Roman soldier and his enemy.       
After becoming the standard sword of the Roman army the spatha design of sword continued to be produced across Northern Europe (or perhaps the design was perpetuated where it had originally emerged from?). It gave birth to the classic ring sword of the Migration Period (most probably the weapon Beowulf wielded against Grendal’s Mother). As Bram Stoker memorably put it in Dracula, when the vikings “bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the werewolves themselves had come”, they bore with them swords still recognizable as the spatha pattern. The viking sword is regarded as the last recognizable descendant of the spatha, though the half-civilized offspring of French-settled vikings, the Normans, carried “arming swords” across the English channel in 1066 and these weapons represented the final transition of the spatha from viking weapon to what would become the representative weapon of the medieval knight. Indeed, without his sword a knight could not even be a knight, as it was crucial to his vows and the rituals around the making of a knight.

So as this journey ends I urge you to continue to explore the Wonders of Rome by visiting the other authors who are participating in this blog hop. You can "hop" to their own takes on this theme at the links below:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Lughnasa

The time of year of the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Lughnasa is approaching. Adherents in the reconstructed pagan religions like wicca and druidry will point out that this festival is also part of the modern pagan calendar too, and on reflection in many ways it has never really gone away.
About ten years ago, on the last Sunday in July, my wife and I climbed Slieve Croob, a small mountain in County Down, Northern Ireland and the source of the river Lagan (the main river that eventually flows to the sea through Belfast). 

We had not been going out for long at the time and were still desperately trying to appear as sporty and outdoor-type to each other as possible, so we went through a phase of mountain climbing, biking, snowboarding and the like so as to appear ”wind swept and interesting” as Billy Connolly put it. 
It was a typical July day in Northern Ireland: Overcast, misty with the odd shower of rain and we were out for a Sunday afternoon walk. As we climbed the hill we were surprised by the number of other people who emerged from the gray mist above us on their way back down the mountain. Unlike us with our hiking boots and peter storm jackets they wore everyday clothes form jeans to tracksuits to trainers and duffle coats. There were a lot of young children and quite a few old people too. These were clearly ordinary people rather than hill walker types. In the car park at the bottom of the hill they were catered for by a table full of orange squash and an ice cream van.

What we didn’t know then but I do know now, was that these people were taking part in a ritual that goes back to time immemorial. For millennia, people in Ireland have been climbing up mountains around the end of July or the start of August as part of the rituals around the festival of Lughnasa. The folklorist Máire MacNeill published a study of the festival in her book “The Festival of Lughnasa”. Through comprehensive study of medieval and surviving traditions she pieced together a picture of a festival that involved the common elements of the faithful climbing mountains to honour their Gods, the sacrifice of a bull and some sort of ritual play where a young God is imprisoned by an Old God, but eventually escapes and triumphs, a story that may still survive in the mummers plays today.

Who were those Gods? The name of one of them is obvious and appears in the name of the festival. Lugh was the long-armed, many talented God who was worshipped in one form or another across Celtic Europe and after who towns as diverse as Lyon in France, Leiden in Holland and Loudoun in Scotland are named. He was the father of Ireland’s most famous hero, Cuchulain and his deeds are the subject of many ancient Irish tales and medieval Irish Literature. He currently is having a renaissance within the Wiccan and other neo-pagan religions that blossom across the Internet.

Who Lugh’s dark opponent was is more obscure. One of the other names for this time of year, however, was Domhnach Chrom Dubh - Black Crom’s Sunday. While Lugh’s memory may survive, if anyone has heard of Crom these days, the chances are it is as the God worshiped by Conan the Barbarian, either in Robert E Howard’s sword and sandal epics, or in the 1980s movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. After all, who could forget such classic cinematic moments this ?

Alternatively, it may be familiar as the name of the castle in County Fermanagh currently being used as a location for the new BBC series “Blandings” based on P. G. Wodehouse’s books .

Few will be aware that Crom was a God worshiped by the ancient Irish. And not just any old God either. It looks like Crom could well have been the main deity worshiped by the original people of Ireland and the tale of Lugh’s battle with him could well be a mythologized version of the battle between the incoming Celts with their new Gods and the indigenous people. His religion is associated with a bull, standing stones (an ancient name for a ring of standing stones was a cromlech) and, as readers of my novel “The Spear of Crom” will know, human sacrifice. He survived into the Christian era too. When Christianity came to Ireland, the Church had the extremely successful idea of taking over existing traditions and holy places instead of stopping or destroying them. The Goddess Bridget merged with Saint Bridget. Saint Patrick replaced Lugh as the spiritual hero of the people and it is he who we see going head to head with Crom (and defeating him) in the surviving tales. Another tradition the Church took over was the tradition of climbing hills at Lughnasa. The pagan pilgrimage became known as Garland Sunday, or Blaeberry Sunday. The actions were the same but now its Jesus and the Christian Saints who are honored.  

And that's what those people were doing that misty Sunday on Slieve Croob. Did they know they were continuing a tradition going back to pagan times? I don’t know but I’ve always thought the nearby village of Dromara has more that a touch of “The Wicker Man” about it.

I’ve chosen the last Sunday in July (this Sunday) as the most appropriate date for the end of the Goodreads Giveaway competition to win a copy of “The Spear of Crom”. You can enter here: 

Monday, July 01, 2013

Goodreads Giveaway: The Spear of Crom

My new book, The Spear of Crom is currently running as a Goodreads giveaway from now until the old pagan holiday of Crom Cruach, Black Crom's Sunday. For your chance to win one of 2 free copies of the novel, go to http://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/57666-the-spear-of-crom

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bernard Cornwell


Last night I made the trip down to Cape Cod to see Bernard Cornwell speak at the Osterville library.
I was slightly surprized by the venue. Osterville has the look to me of my village of Moira back home: The sort of one-street hamlet where upper middle class ladies go on a Saturday afternoon to get their hair done, look at expensive clothes and then have a cup of coffee and a bun. The library is an impressive, new building but it is still not exactly the venue you would expect to see a best-selling author with the reputation of Cornwell in. The room was understandably packed though there must have been no more than forty or fifty people there. It is rare enough to get the chance to listen in person to a man who could well be described as the master of modern Historical Fiction, but to listen to him speaking in a small room to such a small group of people was unique. In the UK Bernard Cornwell could easily fill a space the size of the whole library and draw a crowd ten or twenty times that size, so it was a great opportunity to listen and ask questions. Not only that but there were juice and cookies supplied!

Cornwell was a tremendously entertaining speaker, talking for over an hour and a half, completely off the cuff, fielding questions and keeping his audience enthralled and amused throughout. The official theme of the talk was supposed to be Cornwell’s book 1356 (or “four minutes to two” as he repeatedly referred to it, much to the bemusement of the American audience). The book has just been launched in the USA, however he ranged over a wide range of topics from how he first got published to fascinating insights into his writing process.
Someone with the writing track record of Bernard Cornwell has every right to blow their own trumpet, but despite his declarations of self-promotion, I found him in many ways quite modest and self-deprecating. Through snippets and stories about his life and career glimpses of the sheer depth of the man’s historical knowledge became clear, as well as the lengths to which he is prepared to go in the name of research. At one point he waded into an Indian river to judge its depth and see whether Sharpe and his men would have had to hold their equipment over their heads. The fact that no one beyond the residents of the nearby village would actually know how deep that river is says a lot about his commitment to veracity.
For someone like me who has been a long term fan of Cornwell the evening was a veritable cornucopia of information, like how Richard Sharpe got his name (after an English rugby player), why there is a rifleman Dodd in Sharpe’s squad or why he really stopped writing the Starbuck stories, along with hints and tips about how he got where he is today. Some things he said that particularly stick in my mind are: It’s not that hard to write something. It’s harder to write well. It’s very difficult to write something that people are interested in reading. Also, there is no such thing as writer’s block. Can you imagine a nurse phoning into Cape Cod hospital and saying I can’t come to work today because I’ve got nurse’s block?
At the time, it came as surprise to me that Cornwell is one of those writers how doesn’t plan his stories. He just sits down and writes them. However on reflection, having witnessed the man in action, it is obvious he was born with a genius for story-telling, whether it be about walking his dog passed a civil war commemoration in Charlestown or a series of books about Dark Age Britain, there is no question that Bernard Cornwell keeps his respective audience thoroughly entertained (and-dare I say-a little bit educated too).
Exciting news came in the form of his upcoming works: A non-fiction book about Waterloo then a whole new series kicking off next year.
After it was over he did not simply rush away but made time to speak to everyone, sign books and briefly chat, no matter how inane the questions or comments were from awkward, slightly tongue tied fans (like myself).
At one point in his talk, Cornwell touched on the current crisis in the publishing industry and likened it to what has already happened in the music industry. “Musicians can still get by though as they can tour,” he said. “But no one is going to pay $150 to listen to listen to me talking.”
After last night’s performance, I for one wouldn’t be too sure.
The event was organised by Books by the Sea , the excellent independent bookshop in Osterville, and I would like to thank both them for going to the effort and Bernard Cornwell for providing such an entertaining and enlightening evening.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Book: The Spear of Crom


I'm delighted to say that my new book, The Spear of Crom, is now available in paperback.



This is the "blurb" from the back cover:

"68 AD. The XIV Legion under the command of General Suetonius and the Tribune, Gnaeus Julius

Agricola, march west on a mission to crush insurgent tribes in Rome's newest Province, Britannia.

Fergus MacAmergin is an officer in a Celtic auxiliary cavalry regiment riding alongside the Legion.

As the British tribes wage guerrilla war on the Romans, Fergus falls foul of his commander. His

punishment is to lead a squad of men on a suicidal mission deep behind enemy lines.

Joining forces with Agricola, Fergus is tasked with finding a mystical spear, said to be the weapon

that pierced the side of Jesus Christ on the cross.

As the assignment unfolds, it becomes clear that there is more to the spear than meets the eye and

he is heading directly for a confrontation with dark forces from his past."

The paperback is available here (http://www.feedaread.com/books/The-Spear-of-Crom-9781782993476.aspx) and on Amazon in a couple of weeks from now. Also in Kindle

format (http://www.amazon.com/The-Spear-of-Crom-ebook/dp/B00BFHIP7M).

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

New Website!

After some comments that apparently my digital footprint is rather small, I've finally got round to getting myself a website for my books, writing, upcoming news and as a way for folks to contact me. Hopefully it will take off and become the hub for my online life but this represents the first step. I'm pleased with how it looks and so far the feedback has been good. Step one was establishing it. Step 2 will be incorporating this blog into it and working out a way to syndicate it.
So please take some time to check it out: http://www.timhodkinson.com/

For those of you interested in the technicalities of how it was built, all I can say is HTML5 rocks 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

On Scythed Chariots


I mentioned on an internet forum that my new book “The Spear of Crom” had “Romans, Celts and scythed chariots” and another member asked the question “isn't there quite a bit of doubt about the use of scythed chariots in Britain?”

That is a very good question. Speak of scythed chariots and the image of the statue of Boadicea in London probably springs to mind. It’s impressive but is it historically accurate?

The use of war chariots by British tribes is recorded by classical writers, e.g. Tacitus mentions them being used by the Caledonions against the Romans at the battle of Mon Graupius (which happened somewhere in Scotland round about 83 AD). Whether these bore scythes or not is a different matter. There is one specific classical reference to scythed chariots in Britain but I believe current academic opinion is that this was just Roman propaganda. There also seems to be a lack of archaeological evidence, but then there is no archaeological evidence for the druids (who also play a key role in my book), either.


My rather brief description on the forum, however, was inaccurate on 2 counts: What appears in my book is not hordes of "scythed chariots" but an instance of a war machine called a "sickle chariot". The hero of my book is a Hibernian based very loosely on an ancient Irish hero called Conal Cernach combined with another character from Irish history who may or may not have hung around with  Gnaeus Julius Agricola in the 1st Century AD. As mentioned in my last post about the druids, in writing the book I used a lot of research from early Irish literature, particularly the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Táin Bó Fraích and the Táin Bó Flidhais. While the existing texts of these works are very early medieval the language used is much older and the setting is traditionally around the time of Christ, so bang on for the period my book is set.



I took my rather outlandish depictions of the druids (e.g. wearing cloaks made of bird feathers or bull hide) from these sources rather than the modern new age idea that seems to be based on 19th century revivalism. It was in Thomas Kinsella's translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge that I found a description of a rather impressive device used by the hero Cú Chulainn called the sickle (as opposed to scythed) chariot. That vehicle is described as being covered all over with spikes and sharp points, rather than revolving blades on the axles, and the "sickle" name seems to come from the power it gives Cú Chulainn to mow down his enemies.



Probably like those ancient Roman propagandists, I loved the idea of ancient Celts in scythed chariots. However the actual effectiveness of those revolving blades on the axles of the chariot always bothered me. Then shortly after arriving here in the USA I saw a show on the Discovery Channel where they tried to re-create a scythed chariot based on designs created by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th Century. It worked, but the key difference was that the blades rotate horizontally to the ground, like helicopter blades, not vertically (as in if they stick straight out from the main axles). It struck me that scythe blades swooping round this way much more align to the idea of a "sickle chariot" that reaps a bloody harvest than the conventional idea.



Anfad, the villain in the book, is a druid with connections to Ireland (he studied druidry there) and wanted to give him something that made him an even more formidable opponent for Fergus the hero. The idea occurred to me that a sickle chariot inspired by a combination of early medieval Irish literature and Leonardo da Vinci’s designs would be tremendously cool  :-) Yes, I know that probably makes him more of a Bond villain but that maybe gives you an idea of what the book is like. Heck, there is also a magic spear in it- though hopefully the book explains just enough of the science behind it to make it plausible. 



The idea of the chariot also led to tremendously gory final battle which was an absolute joy to write (and hopefully read).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On my portrayal of the Druids


When (if) people read my new book, The Spear of Crom, sooner or later they are bound to wonder what I have against the druids. Its fair to say that the druids who appear in my book are frightening, strange and superstitious and at least two of them are villains in the piece. Fergus, the hero of the book, hates the druids and with very good reason. As a Celt, shouldn’t I be portraying those Iron Age religious leaders (and leaders of the British opposition to the Imperial might of Rome) in a more favorable light? 
The common picture of the druids is of philosopher/gurus with long white hair and beards and robes to match, full of New Age wisdom and the authentic lore of the land. Where did I come up with these strange priests dressed in animal hides or bird feathers, with odd haircuts, distinctive head dresses and a predilection for human sacrifice?
In a word, research. I should start by saying that I am fascinated both by Celtic culture and religion (I studied it at under graduate level) and also by modern New Age revivals of the old pagan faiths. Each month I very much enjoy the new episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Druidcast (http://www.druidcast.libsyn.com/). Nor do I see Roman “civilisation” as a favourable alternative to the native culture. In the book Fergus has to come to terms with the realisation that the Roman army he has joined is every bit as “barbaric” as the tribes they are fighting. However the issue with our modern perception of the druids is that it is just that: Modern. In reality we know very little about the ancient druids and most (almost all) of what we now think of when we talk about them is a modern construction. I don’t believe this will get me in trouble with OBOD (the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids) as they openly admit that the roots of their order lie in the twentieth, rather than the first, century, though they are inspired by older sentiments.
What we do know about the druids from contemporary sources comes largely from classical writers who came from the Greek and Roman cultures. Given that the Romans were largely responsible for the suppression of the druids, their opinions need to be viewed in that light. Apart from classical references there is precious little other written evidence. The reason we have no druid records is because they did not write anything down- the ancient Celts had an oral culture and the druids were responsible for safeguarding the history and lore of the tribes preserved in their memories. The problem with that is that when the person dies, the knowledge dies with them, unless they have passed it on. There is, however, a body of not contemporary but certainly very old literature that contains many references to druids. Early medieval Irish literature has a host of tales in which druids appear and it was from them, and particularly the Táin Bó Cúailnge, that I decided to base my depiction of the druids. You are probably wondering why I thought these would be more trust worthy than classical authors. After all these tales were written down by Christian monks who would have had an axe to grind against their pagan predecessors in the religious hierarchy. However they were at least  descendants of people within the same culture as the druids (or at least the Irish druids anyway) leaving the possibility of the descriptions being at least half-remembered traditions. We can also guess that the tales are a reasonably authentic record of pagan traditions as the 11th century monk who compiled one version of the Táin felt obliged to add a disclaimer that the contents included  “deceptions of demons”, lies and things for the enjoyment of fools. 
I chose not to follow the standard portrayal of druids as clad in white. I am unsure where the idea of the long hair and beards come from -most memorably portrayed by Getafix in Astrix the Gaul- but the white robes seem to have come from the Roman writer Pliny the Elder’s description of a particular druid ritual, i.e. something they only wore at a certain time of year. Instead I followed the medieval Irish depictions of druids clad in the hides of animals, particularly the bull or the horse, or wrapped in cloaks made from the feathers of birds. To me this relates better to the possible shamanic origins of the druids. 
Another concept I chose to include was a weird haircut. It seems the druids possibly had a form of tonsure in the same way Christian monks do. One of the bones of contention in the dispute between the Celtic church and the Roman one that resulted in the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD was the difference between the way the clerics of the respective churches wore their tonsure. What the differences were is obscure but what is obvious is that the Celts did not wear their hair in the the way modern monks do with the top of their heads shaved. They were accused of having their hair cut in the “tradition of Simon Magus”, and it is surmised that in Ireland the Christian church had carried on the tradition of the druids in the way they had their hair tonsured. Simon Magus, while a villainous magician of the Christian tradition, in early Irish literature is often a sort of euphemism for druids. There are various theories about what this haircut looked like (no descriptions have survived) but I went for the one where the druids shaved the front of their heads, leaving a strangely high-looking forehead and elongated face. 
The druids commitment to human sacrifice is recorded by classical writers and Christian hagiographies and also seems born out by archaeology. The numerous bog bodies found across northern Europe are reckoned to be testament to this practice. I will deal with this topic further in a future post about the God Crom, who also appears in the book.
I realise that its probably a risk to portray the druids in an unfavourable light. However I think that we have a tendency to think that anyone who is opposed to something we are opposed to is automatically like us or at least have values that match ours. Unfortunately there are many examples from history and the present day that show this is not the case. If we look for a modern analogy to the druids resistance to the Roman army in Britain, the concept of a religiously motivated priesthood leading a guerilla insurgency against the most technically advanced military machine of the time inevitably points in the direction of Iraq and Afghanistan. I really wonder how this will go down with readers. At the HNS conference in London last September, the common reaction of agents and publishers to my pitch that I had portrayed the druids as “a bit like the Taliban” was greeted with almost universal consternation, or in the case of one bes selling novelist, a sort of half shocked laughter.
However while I've gone slightly against the grain, I have striven to create an image of the ancient druids that I believe to be as authentic as I can make it based on the research I undertook. Hopefully no one will take offence, as at the end of the day its just a novel anyway. All that said, the druids in my book are not all bad. The female druid, Ceridwyn could well be seen as the heroine of the book. 
The Spear of Crom is available now from Amazon on Kindle and is coming soon in paperback.