The Fighting Man could be said to be a bit of a change of pace for me – being an historical novel – although those familiar with my work will recognise the dark humour, the plot twists, the immersive ambience and the general sense of joyous evil which (I hope) is my trademark.
I’ve long wanted to write an historical novel. Not least as I have a fascination with history – especially medieval history – and love trying to get inside the heads of humans from different epochs. Historical novels that seem to give an authentic glimpse into an alien past are, for me, deeply satisfying and I’ve long seen it as a challenge to accomplish that glimpse for others.
So how do you get into the heads of people from the past?
In my own lifetime I’ve witnessed clear evolution in the prevailing attitudes of ordinary individuals buffeted by the winds of change, from the 60s of my infancy to now. So how on earth could I possibly comprehend the manifold phases of zeitgeist stretching from here back to 1066?
Well, obviously I can’t with any certainty, but there are some clues. The written records for a start, such as they are, always bearing in mind that history is written by the victors.
But there are other more subtle clues. I believe that human beings are essentially the same now as they were a thousand years ago. Certainly that is true physically, but beyond that we love, we laugh, we politic, put food on the table and try to get ahead. We may do these things very differently now, but fundamentally, the yeoman farmer driving a pig to market and supping an ale with friends was no different from the stock market analyst shouting his mates after getting a bonus for hitting his quarterly targets.
It goes deeper than that. For example, the contraceptive pill (introduced to Australia in 1962) to my mind was the biggest change in male/female relations since the dawn of time. And it’s my generation (Baby Boomers et seq) who’ve had to deal with the change.
How could young women growing up in the C21 genuinely understand, in a real visceral sense, what it was like growing up in that pre-pill milieu – the pressures on girls to be chaste and the shame of being proven otherwise?
That shame, of course, devolved from the pre-agrarian revolution times when the land could only support a finite few. In those days – pre-C14 England – marriage was literally a licence to produce children – new mouths to feed from the small parish pool. Those who bred out of wedlock, and their bastard progeny, were utterly scorned and reviled – not for any particularly moral reason, it was a purely economic problem. But we carried that stigma across the subsequent centuries – through the Renaissance and Reformation – the Ages of Discovery and Enlightenment – the industrial revolution, mass urbanisation, the wars of imperial and political revolution and then the mobility of post-war populations and suddenly – in 1962 – men and women were finally equal as far as control of their bodies was concerned.
But that didn’t mean an overnight adjustment. In 1962 there were still centuries of socio-cultural baggage that had to be dealt with – like the importance of monogamous marriage – and it’s that same socio-cultural baggage that allows me to peer myopically across the millennium and make inferences about the folks that went before.
So what were they like – the denizens of the C11? (I’m limiting myself to Western Europe because that has been my study.)
The medieval mind rested on two broad pillars – the church and vestiges of pagan magic which had, especially in rural areas, managed to survive in secret despite the church’s efforts to wipe them out, and in fact the two different traditions blurred somewhat. Historians refer to the various patron saints as the paganisation of the church. They refer to ecclesiastical magic – prayer as incantation or the communion rite as symbolic of sacrifice and the imbuing of oneself with Christ’s characteristics by consuming his flesh and blood. This was powerful stuff to the medieval mind (and not so far from the Neolithic mind).
The C11 people didn’t see the world the way we do. They saw God and magic everywhere with the physical world in front of them just one plane among many which was visited all the time by powerful spirits from other planes and used like a chessboard by the Gods. Human beings were like pieces being moved around a board by any number of ethereal players and prayer was a way of trying to influence the players but if prayer didn’t work there were other remedies offered by witches and wise women – and to this day there is an innately superstitious reflex in all of us. I for one always put my left shoe on first – the consequences of putting my right shoe on first simply don’t bear thinking about.
So, God and magic are central to The Fighting Man. Of course, I don't let those get in the way of telling a compelling story. There is no magic – it is history, not fantasy – but there is the flavour and ambience of magic as I try to give the modern reader that glimpse I referred to earlier.
The basic synopsis is as follows:
In the year 1060, young Brand Holgarsson’s family are wiped out in a Viking raid arranged by Brand’s treacherous uncle Malgard. Malgard is named thegn of the town of Stybbor in East Anglia while Brand is made outlaw and hunted through the woods by Malgard’s men, determined to extinguish the last possible claim to Malgard’s thegnship.
Aided by a strange young woman, Valla, who claims to be 242 years old, Brand escapes and is befriended by Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and the choice of the Saxon nobles to be king after the childless Edward (the Confessor). Brand nurses his dream of vengeance over Malgard while sharing Harold’s perils and waiting for Valla who will only return from The Place of Dreams if Brand has remained true to his promise to lie with no other woman.
All stories come together at the Battle of Hastings, where Harold’s great banner, The Fighting Man, flew above the field at Senlac Ridge in opposition to the papal cross carried by William the Bastard.
Beyond that, The Fighting Man is the kind of book I love to read myself, full of intrigue, sex and violence. Because that’s the way people are, and in my opinion, the way they’ve always been.
The Fighting Man will be in all good bookstores or Booktopia by early December 2017.