Credibility, Reason, and Dragons in the Sky
A commentary on Chapter 5 of The Wistful and the Good, Lady of the Hall
This is one of a series of commentaries on the historical background and literary issues raised by my serialized novel, The Wistful and the Good. You can follow both the novel and the commentaries on the index page and subscribe to get the latest updates.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that the raid on Lindisfarne was preceded by a famine and by signs and portents in the sky.
"Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense flashes of lightening, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 June the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God's church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter."
Were their such portents? Or is this all just hyperbole added by the chronicler to place the event in a more portentous context? We have no way to know. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is our only source of information on this, as it is on many events of the period.
Setting aside the fiery dragons (and acknowledging that we have no real idea what the chronicler meant by these words) neither lightening nor famine are such rare events (and lightning may well precede famine if an ill-timed storm damages the crops). There may well have been lightning and famine before the raid, and if so it is no surprise that people would draw a connection between them.
The human mind always seeks for patterns in events as it struggles to find order in the universe. This need to find order is why we read stories and why we write them. In stories, things happen for a reason. This makes our pattern-seeking brains happy. It is why stories are catnip for the psyche.
Finding order in events is more than comforting though. Our ability to anticipate and prepare is key to our survival. All the more reason for our minds to crave and seek the order and predictability that comes with stories. All the more reason for people to be dismayed and frightened when an event occurs for which there was no warning, no anticipation, and no immediately apparent cause. Whatever disaster befalls us, we look for a comprehensible cause, for someone or something to blame, and for a way to propitiate fate so that another disaster of the same kind does not befall us again.
We tend to dismiss the ways in which earlier peoples analyzed the disasters that befell them, the causes they attributed to them, and the connections that they drew between things, as silly superstition. This is grossly unjust. Our own reactions today are scarcely calm and logical, and we are working from a much broader knowledge base about the basic mechanics of the universe. Such knowledge as we have of the mechanisms of creation is hard won. It is also far from complete. Even the prognostications of the wise and white-coated often turn out to be wrong, and sometimes comically so. We are better at this analysis, of course, but only because of countless generations before us trying to find and understand such patterns. Their ways of finding and understanding these patterns were not like ours, but the fruitfulness of our methods is itself a piece of hard-won knowledge that we would never have come to without all the centuries of effort that preceded its discovery.
I noted in the previous commentary that people of this age would have seen a much greater level of integration between the physical and spiritual realms and between physical and spiritual causes. Their seeking for portents then, was a perfectly rational approach to explaining and averting disasters, given the information and understanding of the universe available to them at the time. Do not mock them, then, lest ye be mocked in your turn by future generations to whom our science will perhaps seem infantile and full of holes and misunderstandings.
The universal human tendency to mock and look down upon people who know less than we know (or think we know) creates a problem for the historical novelist. How do you portray the ideas and attitudes of people in historical fiction fairly without losing the sympathy of the reader?
Some authors take the easy (and popular) way out and simply make all their sympathetic characters modern skeptics and all their villainous ones superstitious idiots (or monsters). This is grossly anachronistic, but it fits with modern prejudices, so no one tends to object too hard, unless it is particularly blatant.
On the other hand, it defeats the main reason for writing historical fiction, at least as a serious literary form. The point of setting a novel in the past is to change the environment within which some element of the universal human story is played out, and the purpose of doing that is to dig down to the part this is universally human and not the product of a particular age or style. But if you make your protagonists modern people in fancy dress then you have brought all the relevant aspects of the modern into the past and the search for the universal is abandoned.
Of course, the universal is not simply going to emerge out of a past-set story like some Platonic perfect form. People are always enculturated. Nobody has a pure universal experience. They have a particular experience that is inextricably bound to their time and circumstances. What historical fiction can do is bind the bare bones of a story to a different time and a different set of circumstances so that it plays out in a way it would not in our own time. This gives us a kind of triangulation that we can use to position human experience more fairly and more fully in whatever time and place we encounter it. And it is for this reason that we need to represent the beliefs, expectations, and habits of thought of past times as fully and fairly as we can. If we don’t we are not setting the stories in their own time even if we get every button and bowline correct.
Of course, setting a story in the past can also be used simply to address certain mechanical plotting problems. If the heart of a novel—a serious novel at least—is a choice between values, realistic characters will only confront such choices if they are forced into it. The job of the storyteller, then, is to force their characters into a position where they have to make a choice they would rather not make. To do that, we need to deprive them of all opportunities to avoid the decision. Thus the country house murder mystery forces the characters to solve the crime and confront the murderer because they are deprived of the opportunity to leave or call the police. The march of modern material progress is really all about giving us the ability to avoid unpleasant choices. It is no longer enough to have a storm bring down the telephone lines, now the author has to have every character’s cell phone run out of charge simultaneously. The march of modern technology takes away one plotting device after another. Setting a story in the past gives the storyteller more options to force their characters to the point of decision.
Much of the plot of The Wistful and the Good relies on the difficulties of travel and communication in the Anglo-Saxon period. Leif, today, would never even have set out on his voyage, for he would have heard about the Lindisfarne raid on the news and would have phoned his Uncle Attor in Northumbria to ask what reception he would receive there. Indeed, he would not have needed to go on a voyage at all. He could have raised his father’s ransom by selling his holy books on eBay and shipping them via FedEx. He and Elswyth would never have met.
So yes, some stories only work in the past. The modern world is set up to avoid people having to go on adventures, and, by and large, to prevent them going on them even if they want to. This is, perhaps, why modern stories are so often about crime and mental illness. All the bold adventuring is over. We have to go back to the past for it.
Which is to say that the historical novelist may turn to the past simply to find an occasion for drama. They may do it not merely to put their modern characters in fancy dress but to confiscate the cell phones as well. And that is all well and good as long as writer and reader both understand that that is what is going on. But it is not what I am trying to do in The Wistful and The Good. Elswyth is, as far as I can make her, and in the ways that matter to the story, a woman of her own time, as far as it is possible for me to guess what it means to be a woman of her time.
And thus I have chosen to take at least some of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account at face value and set the story in a famine year. This has other dramatic advantages. It allows me to highlight an important part of Edith’s character—her determination to see that her slave relatives do not starve—and it makes what will become an extended stay for Lief in Twyford all the more tense, since it further taxes Edith’s larder.
However, I have chosen not to bring in the tales of fiery dragons in the sky. I have tried very hard in this novel not to make my protagonists modern people in fancy dress (or, actually, really plain dress, compared to today). It is important to me that they should be credibly Anglo-Saxon in their beliefs and expectations. I say credibly, because we simply don’t know enough about people of this class to know what they would actually have felt or thought. I have simply tried to imagine how people so circumstanced, with what they had experienced of life, and with the ideas that may have percolated down to them from the broader society in which they lived, may have seen the world and felt about it.
In doing this I have had to keep in mind that I am portraying them for a modern audience and that I don’t want to slow down the story I am telling to do a vast amount of framing (something these commentaries allow me to do outside of the narrative). So I don’t want to distract the reader with ideas such as fiery dragons in the air that would, to modern ears, have a carnival funhouse aspect to them. To a people living in a far wilder and less well-known world than we inhabit, the notion of fiery dragons appearing as portents of great events may well have fit easily and reasonably into their world view. But trying to convey that to a modern reader is more likely to distract them from both the core of the character and the story.
Some readers, certainly, thrive on all of the carnival of wonders and horrors that the past provides, and many novelists have used these things to charm and engage readers. But I am interested in other things. I am trying to create credible and sympathetic characters whose view of things like slavery, religion, and family obligation are radically different from those of the modern world. With that hill to climb, it seems best to me to not add dragons on top of everything else.