Whilst the rigors of life as a bureaucrat limit my time for writing, they’ve had the side effect of making me read more fiction than I have since I was a kid. Oddly enough, my taste in fiction doesn’t seem to have progressed all that much.
When I was ten I read Rosemary Sutfcliff’s The Witch’s Brat (about a disabled monk) and spent most of the year yearning to join a Benedictine order. Retrospectively, this was an unusual career path for the son of a lesbian feminist. Around the same time, my mother handed me a tome of fantasy fiction in which the protagonists were two scholars of medieval English history. One of them was a young post grad who’d taken part in the Kent State protests, and one of them was an aging professor who thought the students got what they deserved.
Inexplicably, both had the capacity to enter into a fantasy world, loosely based on post-Roman Britain, but with more dragons. The fantasy theme was a device for tinkering with the rise of Patriarchy during the Dark Ages. I remember at one point a powerful spell turns a bunch of warriors transgender. As a ten year old, I thought this was quite a clever and profound statement on gender politics.
As I made my own gradual decline into patriarchy, I started playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading the Dragonlance books. When I finally emerged, it was into the canon of the Humanities, where they made us read Judith Butler and Gaytari Spivak. This was great, but lacked dragons, magic or faux-historical melodrama.
In the last few weeks I’ve followed up Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset with the Eagle of the Ninth trilogy. These were inspired by the legend of the Roman Ninth Cohort, which supposedly disappeared during an attempt to colonise Northern Britain. The final book in the trilogy is a prelude to Sword at Sunset, set in the years when Rome abandoned Britain, the Saxons invaded and the whole place went to shit.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon covers the exact same topic, re-writing the Arthur myth purely from the perspective of its female characters; Arthur’s sister Morgaine, Lady of the Lake Viviane, and the annoyingly pious Guinevere. Like Sutcliff, she looks at the coming of the Dark Ages, but positions it as the birth of a uniquely British Patriarchy.
Under Rome, she portrays Britain as a fairly heterogeneous place in which people still painted themselves blue, worshipped a mother goddess and followed lines of matrilineal kinship. This, more or less, is the society of Boudicca. As Bradley writes it, the British patriarchy didn’t kick in until Arthur used Christianity as a way of banding together people to fend off the Saxons. There’s a sort of undertone that patriarchy is distinctly unBritish, which is kind of interesting.
For a bit of historical context, I also read Maureen Duffy’s England: The Making of the Myth from Stonehenge to Albert Square. She points out that the English didn’t actually get to England until 400AD, part of a wave of Northern German colonisers trying to find more fertile land. Angle, their homeland, was in the modern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. It was against these invaders that Arthur, who was probably Welsh, fought. As Duffy points out, his myth has been adapted to imply a fictional common origin between formerly warring Welsh, Cornish, Angle, Saxon, Pictish and various other Celtic people.
In that context, you can see why Sutcliff and, more obviously, Bradley, spend so much time writing about King Arthur; it’s here that the myth of British and English culture stems from, and here that we moved away from the matriarchy of Boudicca into the patriarchy live in now.
Would my Mother Enjoy These Books?
1. The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles by Rosemary Sutcliff: I think she’s already read them.
2. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley: Too much like the didactic 1970s, print is too small, too long.
3. England by Maureen Duffy: Interesting. She’d read it for a bit, and then decide she should walk the dog or do a spot of gardening.