Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Review of Living with a Visionary by John Matthias.


John Matthias, Living with a Visionary, Dos Madres Press 2024.

This small but astonishing book is John Matthias’ lament for his wife, Diana. It illustrates the truth of Geoffrey Hill’s suggestion that if a writer gets the balance between trauma and technique right, the end result is great art.   


At the heart of the book is a 13 page prose narrative. Diana was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and then became the victim of increasingly frequent hallucinations. She died due to complications from Covid. There are poems on either side of the prose. The three that precede it were written for or about her before she became ill. The piece that comes after it, Diana’s Things, is a sequence of 8 short prose paragraphs. There is also an afterward by Igor Webb which feels like a fussy stranger at a funeral, telling the mourners how to react. This I could do without. 


The story is traumatic enough to have stopped many people from writing, but Matthias is one of the most interesting American poets I’ve read, and a technique developed over a life time holds the subject, stops it from overwhelming the writer, and shapes it into art.


The relationship, destroyed by illness and an implacable medical system caught up in the Covid pandemic, is revealed in the three initial poems. ‘Of Artemis Aging (For Diana on her 65th Birthday)’ plays on her name, the Roman version of the Greek Artemis, the hunter goddess. It has its moments of gentle humour:


‘Actaeon turned/Into a stag. I’ve seen Diana at her bath but never was/devoured by my hounds, only by my longing.’


The Goddess does not get old, and cannot change. If she could change:


She might be like the woman called by her roman name,

Reading in a book beside the fire in my own house.

She has come down all these years with me, and she

Is getting old. She turns the pages slowly, then looks up.

Her wise ironic glance is straight as a shaft of gold


The comparison between sterile, unchanging Goddess and aging familiar namesake is handled in a way that the goddess comes off second best but the subject of the poem is celebrated and yet made particular. This skilful use of myth is carried over into the next poem. 


Good Dream  takes the story of Baucus and Philemon from book 7 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Ovid’s story, as Matthias points out, is one of the few gentle ones in his book. The elderly couple, having offered the God’s hospitality when no one else did, are offered a wish. Their wish is to have their house turned into a temple; that they be its priests, and that above all they will not outlive each other. As they are dying they are changed into two trees, facing each other. What more do you need to know about the writer and his wife’s fifty years of marriage? The poem and the dream end:


The three remaining walls of my house collapsed

And I was standing in a marble temple, and I

Was not I. Beside me, Serpent Aesculapius arose

In flaming cloak. Diana spoke: I am a linden tree

And what I was replied: I have become an oak. 


But as the prose recounts, the poet does outlive his wife. He isn’t allowed to visit her when she is dying because of Covid. At the beginning of her hallucinations she has seen a ‘flowery man’ in the hall. At that stage she knew he was not there. Unable to visit her due to Covid restrictions, his last contact with her is over the phone. He is reading her the poem he wrote for her 65th birthday: ‘I couldn’t continue. “You’re doing great dad,” my daughter said, “but she wants to know about the flowery man.” So I told her everything I knew.’ 


The emotion that generates the story is left outside, and the facts are assembled and related and allowed to speak for themselves. Although the poet’s own experience is harrowing enough: taken to hospital, kept separate from his wife, put into the psychiatric ward and only allowed out when a friend organises a legal intervention, the focus remains on Diana, not on himself. The result is much more moving than any wailing could be. 


What follows the prose is Some of Her Things, a meditation on a life through seven objects. In his dream he is standing in a river, with an impossibly large suitcase which contains all her possessions. He knows she is dead but she is present on the other bank of the river. She tells him ‘Do like Henry James’. He has no idea what that means. ‘ Do like Henry James,’ she repeats, ‘but save me seven things’. 


It turns out that Henry James was asked to dispose of Constance Woodson’s things. He drowned her clothes in a Venice lagoon. Or tried to:


‘A ball gown billowed up and wouldn’t sink. It seemed that Constance Fenimore Woodson swam beside them’. 


As Henry James discovered, drowning the past is not that easy. The danger is being drowned in it. In the seven sections that follow each thing is linked to a memory, or memories. It builds the kind of picture we all have of someone we know well, associated with items that have personal significance. Only once, in the last piece in the sequence, does the poet come close to a direct description of his own feelings. 


‘I suppose I stand midstream only in a dream, but I am broken to the point I can't tell.’


It’s one of poetry’s harsher realities that no matter how traumatic or ecstatic the experience or emotions that generate the writing, once they are written down and handed over to a stranger they risk becoming cliches. As human beings we might sympathise with the writer, but as experienced readers of poetry we may well be bored and wonder why someone wanted to tell us this. At the other extreme, a death becomes an occasion for poetry and the sincerity of the poet can be questionable. Even a great poet like Tennyson’s sincerity was and is questioned for the writing of In Memoriam.


What Matthias has achieved here is to produce a sincere lament for his wife but in such a way that the lament is interesting as a made thing. My discussion of doesn’t do it justice. Total strangers will share and feel his loss, but the book is also an exemplary lesson in how to turn trauma into art without in any way betraying the experience or the subject. 



Orla Davey reviews A Man of Heart.

Liam Guilar’s A Man of Heart transforms historical record into contemporary poetry, unearthing narratives of 5th-century Britain by blending reimagination with realism. His compelling sequel to A Presentment of Englishrycontinues his poetic retelling of the British history depicted in Layamon’s Middle English verse poem Brut. Filtering Layamon’s 12th-century imaginings into free verse, Guilar rewrites the foundations of Britain with relevance and urgency, grappling with the abandonment of the Roman Empire, threats of impending raids, and power politics.

You can read the rest of the review by clicking on the link below.

Opening a review is always a fraught moment. But in this case the writer seems to have understood some of the things I was trying to do. It's like opening a package expecting a bomb and finding a cake.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Review of Seven of the wildwood, Mary Youmans. Wiseblood books.

This review first appeared in The Brazen Head, December 2023

Seren of the Wildwood  Marly Youmans. Wiseblood books. Illustrated. 72 pages. HB 16 USD



The Wildwood holds the remnants of the past,

Strange ceremonies that the fays still love

To watch-the rituals of demon tribes

Who once played havoc with the universe,

And everything that says the world is not

Exactly what it seems is hidden here,

But also there are paths to blessedness


So begins Seren of the Wildwood, Marly Youmans’ narrative poem that drifts the reader through a tale that seems both familiar and strange. 


Traditional fairy and folk tales have been a resource for many modern writers and film makers. The old story is usually rewritten to correct a perceived ideological bias, or to rationalise the magic, or to make it acceptable to modern audiences, whose ideas of story have been shrunk by mass market films. With notable exceptions, rewriting fails to produce anything that comes close to the originals in their ability to unsettle and entertain. Writers can study archetypes, read the psychoanalytical literature, immerse themselves in Joseph Campbell et al, naturalise Propp’s Morphology, and still produce a story that fails to hold an audience[i].


The stories Walt Disneyfied are closer to inappropriate dreams that don’t care about your daylight ideology or your preferred version of the world. They exist in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, recalling a time when the wolves were real and the forest was a dangerous place. [ii]


Marly Youmans’ story moves bodily into that space, where nothing is quite what it seems, and never quite what it should be, where hope and disappointment are as commonplace as leaves and what we might label cruelty is just the way the world is. 


Her poem is not a retelling of a previous story. Rather a new story, inhabiting old spaces to make them new again. Seren grows up on the edges of the Wildwood, her childhood overshadowed by the death of her brothers, which the story ascribes to her father’s ill-chosen words. Constrained at home by her mother’s care, she is lured into the trees by the promise of friendship and adventure. She meets characters who harm and help her, moving through a dream like landscape, made real by Youmans’ descriptions, until she finds her way home. 


The poem is written in sixty-two stanzas, each consisting of twenty-one lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter ending with a ‘Bob and Wheel’. The Bob is an abrupt two syllable line, the Wheel four short lines rhyming internally . They break the visual and aural monotony even the best blank verse can produce over a long narrative; they can summarise the stanza, comment on it, or provide an opportunity for epigrammatic statement: 


[…]Next, a King

Not young but middle-aged his curling beard

Gone steel,

His mind turned lunatic,

His body no ideal

Of grace and charm to prick

Desire: man as ordeal.


The Bob and Wheel, most famously used is Gawain and the Green Knight, inevitably evoke medieval precedent, as does the walled garden Seren finds but can’t enter. Although the Wildwood is not the harsh landscape Gawain rides into before returning home, the Knight of Romance rode into the forest to seek adventures because the forest was the place where the normal social rules and expectations did not apply. There is often a didactic element to such stories, but fortunately Youmans avoids the temptation to turn hers into a sermon.


Her poem is full of good lines:


Like some grandfather’s pocket watch wound tight

But then forgotten, Seren moved slower 

And slower. 


The descriptions of the landscape anchor the fantastic story. In the following quotation Seren is heading towards a river she must cross and discovers a waterfall:


And so she travelled toward the roar of rain

With thunder , apprehensive as she neared

The lip where torrents catapulted free

From stone and merged into a muscular

And sovereign streaming force-the energy

That shocks the trembling pebbles into flight

And grinds the massive boulders into bowls.


Occasionally it is not easy to decide if a line is padded or what might be padding is deliberate stye: ‘It seemed satanic, manic, half insane’, but this is so rare that the fact it’s noticeable is a tribute to all the other lines where it isn’t.  


The poem is rich in images and incidents and packed with a diverse cast of characters but what does it mean? 


This is the wrong question. In school we are taught ‘how to read a poem’. For ‘read’, understand ‘analyse’ and the purpose of the analysis is to explain ‘what the poem means’ or, in its most depressing formulation ‘what was the poet was trying to say’. These questions and the approaches they require have little to do with the experience of reading poetry outside the academy. 


Stories, poems, and narrative poems especially, can be a way of thinking in and through language, in a non-linear, perhaps non-rational, associative way. The story works for the reader when it activates memory, prior reading, knowledge and experience. The question therefore should be, what does the story do for you while you’re reading it, and afterwards, when a phrase, an incident, or an image remains in your memory.[iii]


Youmans’ poem encourages such a line of thinking; there are numerous allusions to other stories, tying Seren into a network of intertextuality, (at one point she is helped  in the story  by remembering the stories she has been told), there are images, which evoke a host of medieval precedents, but Youmans avoids the simplification of neat equivalence or the temptation of a tidy conclusion. 


In terms of traditional narrative arcs, if you believe in the importance of such things, the story ends abruptly and very little is explained. There are questions left unanswered and threads that were run out but not neatly tied together at the end. The reader is being treated with respect and left alone with the story. It is a book that invites and rewards multiple rereading. 


Reading is made easier because the book itself is a beautiful object. Wiseblood books are to be commended on producing such a fine hardback at such a low price. Printed on good quality paper, one stanza to a page, Seren of the Wildwood is illustrated by Clive Hick-Jenkins. His black and white images complement the tone and mood of the story.

[i] There are obvious exceptions to this generalisation and to be precise everyone who has told these stories has altered them; the Grimms were notorious revisers.

[ii] There are still places where the animals are dangerous and the landscape hostile. 

[iii] The undeniable consequence of this line of thinking is that the book that haunts one reader is the same book another reader can’t be bothered to finish regardless of the reviewer’s praise or condemnation. This seems especially true of narrative poetry.  









Thursday, January 18, 2024

King's Champion. A Ballad of sorts.

This Is the companion piece to 'Taking Possession'. (See previous Post) First published in The Rotary Dial. I had been reading Percy's 'Reliques of Ancient English Poetry', one of those rare books that were influential in their own time and still readable today. I wanted to try a ballad style story, knowing that half the effect of such a form is lost if there is no tune and no singer.  I am also intrigued by the phenomena of trial by combat or ordeal. There is a story of William Marshall, the most famous knight in his day, being accused of treason by King John. The Marshall demanded he be given the right of trial by combat. Since no one was willing to face him, the charges were dropped. The same phenomena is evident in Malory's book, where Lancelot demands the right to prove the queen's innocence in single combat, despite the fact that everyone knows she's an adulteress. 
End of Prologue. 

King’s Champion.



The journey made, his duty done,

the invitation to remain was not refused

while winter raged and sulked 

about the castle walls. Humming  

a minor key in passages and towers 

the wind fumbled the tapestries.


Beside the brazier keeping watch 

on a land gone hard and white,

everything seemed dead 

or waiting to be born. Summer,

stories they remembered

for this stranger from the south 


who joins the winter games   
and watches m’lord’s daughter.  

Nothing to soften the darkness, 

until spring, then mounted, armed, 

into bright sunshine and bitter wind 

taking the princess to her wedding. 



The journey done, the prize delivered.

The king’s doubts laid to rest 

in private conversations: 

the land’s well-run, the castle’s sound.

So the wedding goes ahead

But first, obligatory festivities. 


He is the King’s Champion 

and he kills not for pleasure: 

it’s just what he does. On the first day

he won everything and all the women 

would have thrown their honour 

in the moat to be with him. 


On the second day he was undefeated. 

When the Princess smiled he fled, 

risked his life on the point of a spear 

and hurtled down the lists. 

On the third day the stranger came.

Wind tugged the bunting, swirling the dust.


His shield was black, his armour black

his herald, dressed in black, rode to the stands

saluted the young King, and said:

My master says: this woman is my wife.

She is no maid. He claims his right

to prove this truth in combat.


The King called for his Champion: 

You lied! You found the rumour true: 

a Knight came courting for his Lord 

and won the Lady’s heart instead. 

You will defend the honour 

of this woman I must marry. 


Your skill must prove her purity

stainless as the robes she’ll wear 

on coronation day. And if you fail, 

I’ll feed them to the royal pigs.  




Spears shatter, horses buckle, 

scrambling clear they pound away. 

His enemy anticipates each stroke. 

But he predicts the Knight’s attempts. 


A mirror image of himself,   

who tip-toed passageways 

who risked the terrifying consequence

and wanted his reward. 


They paused. Leant on their swords.

Blood dripping on the troubled dust. 

All summer long I had her, gasped the Knight.

We plighted troth. I am her spouse. 


I know you did, the Champion replied,

and that is neither here nor there.

Her father won’t acknowledge you:

he wants a grandson on the throne.


My master was impatient.

he proved if she were maid  

the first night that she came 

and that is neither here nor there.


He needs her father’s castle

his lands, his loyalty, his men 

to keep the northland settled

at this stage of his reign.


What matters is not

the truth of your claim

but this ritual proof

we both know proves nothing.


He had not trained to parry words.

Edge striking battered metal 

slashes the knight’s head from his body.

The Champion paused to breathe, 

and bleed, then straightened up

and turned to the applause 


The King and Princess came in finery

to stand above the metal and the meat. 

A royal gesture had it dragged away: 

blood spatters on the Ermine 

from the puddles round her dainty feet.

He took her hand. Gentles, the liar shamed

tomorrow this false-slandered lady 

shall become your Queen and mine. 



Sunday, January 7, 2024

Taking Possession. A story of the Norman Conquest.

 This poem, the second experiment in telling a story in verse, aiming for a scrupulous meanness in the diction, was first published in The Brazen Head.


Taking Possession.


Normans on the great north road

somewhere in England in 1071.[i]

Hubert, lord of these grey riders,

fought at Senlac, and since then

has been useful to the King

His reward, the manor he rides towards,

larger than the home he left in Normandy.


Walter, his seneschal, riding beside him, 

fought at Senlac with distinction,  

rallied the savaged in the Malfosse .[ii]

Between them, non-armoured, long haired, 

Aelfric, an Englishman. Their local guide.

Their translator. He makes them awkward

in ways they’d struggle to define. 

If pushed, Walter might reply; 

he has no scars: his hands are soft.


The manor is wooden, unfortified.

Too easy to attack and futile to defend.

All this, thinks Hubert, I will change.

After the automatic military appraisal, 

the childlike revelation: this is mine.

All mine. A group waits, women, children,

men so old they can’t stand straight.


The lady of the manor steps towards him.

Hubert remembers that in the English time

she could have run this place without a husband.

Now she and it are forfeit to the crown, 

the crown bestowed them both on him

and he has come to take possession.

That thought will take a long time growing old. 

He examines her the way he will inspect the cattle,

fields, fish weir and the little mill.

Tall, straight, young, blonde: she will do.


‘Where are the men?’ Vague images  

of those long legs, fine hips and breasts

do not make him stupid. ‘Where are the men?’

He has lost friends who were not so cautious,

in this green folded landscape, where the trees

and ditches hide those desperate for revenge. 

Aelfric translates the question.

‘Where you should be.’ He ducks his head

til he remembers he rides with the victors

and she’s the one who lost and all her pride

will not avert the fate that rides towards her.


‘Her brothers, father, uncle, nephews died 

at Stamford bridge and Senlac hill.

Their tenants and dependants died with them.’[iii]  


The idea that Englishmen are long-haired, 

beer swilling, effeminate, will creep 

into the Norman mind but not in Hubert’s 

even if he lived a long and idle life.

Those longhaired drunkards stood their ground,

all day. Charge after charge breaking 

on that obdurate line of shields.  

Anyone who’d seen a horse and rider split

by one swing of an axe would think twice 

about disparaging the man who swung it.

But Aelfric swung no axe. That much is obvious.




After inspecting the boundaries, 

a wary country ride with scouts,

after the inspection of the manor house, 

after the welcome meal, Hubert decided 

it was time to inspect his human property.

The men at arms were organised.

Guards posted, tasks allotted.

Walter thanked, allowed to leave.


Hubert talking to his Lady through Aelfric

was reminded of those shields.

When he was polite, she seemed insulted.

When he had tried to show an interest 

she had seemed offended. He sensed 

that what he said was not the words she heard.

She was nobility, understood the world

and what would happen next and so he doubted  

his tame Englishman was being honest.

He would have to learn her language,

some words at least, while she learnt his. 

Bed, he thought, could be his classroom.


He stood up, took her hand. She did not move. 

‘If you don’t go with him’, said Aelfric  

he’ll strip you for his men at arms.’

It was a stupid lie. This Norman was no fool

who’d break his prize possession out of spite.

Aelfric ignored the look she cut him with.

Once she’d been too proud to notice his existence

now she was this Norman’s mattress 

and whatever in his character was broken, 

or unfinished, rejoiced at her humiliation.


The curtains closed behind them. 

Aelfric edged towards the drapery, 

heard the sound of fabric falling, 

imagined the pale body emerging. 

He heard Hubert’s belt and sword unbuckled  

then set down, heard them move together.

Imagined his hands, heard Hubert grunting, 

then making garbled noises like a stricken pig.


A female hand, the curtain parted. 

She was naked, radiantly naked, 

white flesh tinged pink about the throat.

Aelfric moved. She was majestic, 

desire erased the thought that he’d been caught

erased the room, erased his name 

and everything except desire

for the body moving closer to him

small hands reaching for his belt. 


Who knows a dead man’s final thoughts?

Perhaps he was thinking mine at last,

perhaps he heard her say, ‘You should have died

with all the others’, and perhaps, before the knife 

sliced the artery in his throat and geysered blood, 

he realised she had spoken flawless Norman-French. 


She caught him as he fell, pulling him down

screaming in English, help, help, murder, help.

Walter, sword drawn, running, saw 

the Englishman raping the frantic lady

thrashing on the floor, hauled him away 

one quick blow striking off the head.


The woman, sobbing, pointing at the curtains.

Behind them Hubert’s naked corpse, 

twisted, reaching for the knife stuck in his back.


While the bodies were removed

Walter held the shuddering woman. 

The King still owed him for the Malfosse. 

Perhaps this manor. He would need a wife. 

Hands skilled in settling a skittish mare

gentled the shaking body 

aware of its taut lines, soft curves, 

its bloody promise. She would do

when he came to take possession.






[i] This date is entirely arbitrary. 

[ii] When the English army finally broke and ran at the Battle of Hastings, a small group turned and savaged the pursuing Normans at a place the Normans called The Malfosse.

[iii] Fulford Gate, Stamford bridge, Senlac, the three battles fought by the English in 1066. Many of the victors at Stamford Bridge died at Senlac (Hastings). 

Friday, January 5, 2024

The Buried Giant by Kazoo Ishiguro. Puzzling over value. Literary Allusions.

The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro. Faber  2015


‘The Romans have long since departed, and Britain is steadily declining into ruin.’ Blurb.


Discussions of literary allusions usually disappear into theories of intertextuality, rather than discussions of the effects specific examples have on the reading of a particular text. 

The Buried Giant is a good example of conscious intertextuality, where elements of the story are deliberately waving in the direction of any number of famous texts. 


A Saxon warrior brandishes his trophy: ‘…what they were looking at was not a head at all, but a section of the shoulder and upper arm of some abnormally large, human like creature.’(p76). In case the reader misses the reference, a character explains: ’Our hero killed both monsters. One took its mortal wound into the forest, and will not live through the night. The other stood and fought and for its sins the warrior brought of it what you see on the ground there. The rest of the fiend crawled to the lake to numb its pain and sank there beneath the black water.’ (p.76) 


A Saxon hero, two monsters, one with its arm ripped off sinking into the black water. Minor variations, but too close to Beowulf to be anything elseLater, the same hero will go into combat with a dragon. But if Beowulf is being alluded to, knowing the poem adds nothing to an understanding of The Buried Giant, and The Buried Giant doesn’t offer any kind of insight into Beowulf.


While our Saxon hero points pointlessly towards a specific text, there are other examples where so many allusions are in play the result seems self defeating. There is a knight called Sir Gawain, a recently dead king called Arthur, a magic wielder called Merlin, there are wild women to be met on a blasted plain, a dragon to be killed….but what are all these allusions doing? Instead of adding significance, the ceaseless, enthusiastic pilling up of literary references empties the words of meaning. 


All the aging Sir Gawain has in common with the hero of Arthurian romance is the name. A cross between Don Quixote and one of the Knights Alice meets in Through The Looking Glass, who just might also have spent time in Browning's Child Roland. He is every literary Knight and no one in particular.


Arthur was a gift to medieval storytellers because he provided them with a ready built story world. And the basic outline of the story, established by Geoffrey of Monmouth, gave the world a beginning and end. But since Arthur became a character in modern films and fiction, the Arthurian story world is no longer coherent. Gesturing towards it gains the writer nothing. There are so many characters called Arthur, in so many divergent versions of ‘his’ story. The recent film ‘King Arthur: legend of the sword’ could have been called King Bob and his magic stick. Prior knowledge of King Arthur is of no help in understanding either that film or The Buried Giant


The allusions do create an air of familiarity.  A post ‘Arthurian’ world of villages and knights, Britons and Saxons, evil lords and inevitably crazy sado-masochistic monks. But nothing in the story alludes to anything specifically Arthurian except the names. The king could just as well be Good King Billy Joe Bob. Sir Gawain could be Barny, Billy Joe Bob’s nephew. Change the names, leave the story set in a fantasy world set in pseudo medieval times, and lose nothing.  It would still be a fine story. It just wouldn’t feel quite so superficially self-consciously ‘literary’. 


The Beowulf character Saxon tells his apprentice that the stone monastery was once built by Saxons as a defensible hill fort, which includes an ingenious stone tower to trap the attackers. If this is immediately post Roman Britain, then the Saxons didn’t build in stone until very much later.


The Saxons and Britons could be Twiggles and BogglesThe story world would then create and define the Twiggles and Boggles. Instead nothing in the story distinguishes them, they are labelled Saxons and Britons, but they have very little, if anything, to do with any meaning those words have outside the story in either history or literature.


The Arthurian/Beowulf background is short hand wall paper, a cheap set dressing, not to be taken too seriously, not to be examined too closely. It gives the book a ‘literary air’, in which the writer shows off his reading and a certain type of reader gets to feel literary because they recognise the texts. But the names and the words have been emptied of meaning. They point everywhere. They are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.



Monday, January 1, 2024

Lost Realms by Thomas Williams. Puzzling over value Style #2

 Part two.

Lost Realms by Thomas Williams (William Collins, 2022) 


Does style matter in non-fictive texts?

I think it does. I may be wrong. 


To restate the obvious, the period from the fifth through to the seventh century in Britain was very different to what preceded it and what followed. A well-known lack of evidence makes it a very dim age. But the institutions, social organisations, and assumptions of the Imperial world disappear (although not entirely), and what had replaced them by the eighth century (give or take) is only starting to emerge in this period.  


The difficulty of understanding the differences is compounded by the modern words we are forced to use to describe them. This is particularly true of those words related to social organisation and military activity.


But an historian compounds the problem when he or she starts to become enamoured of similes, metaphors and other figures of speech. The desire to explain by comparing the unfamiliar with the familiar is natural, but nothing is ever exactly like something else that isn’t itself. Often the differences are more important than the feeble similarities.  


Thomas has a habit of comparing something (unknown or in the past) to something fictive. (See previous post). This seems to be a trend in publishing at present. It may reassure a certain type of reader that there is no substantial difference between Lord of the Rings and Anglo-Saxon history or Game of Thrones and the Wars of the Roses, but that’s an obvious lie. More significantly, precision is sacrificed for effect. 


Stephen of Ripon presents Cædwalla’s visit to Wilfrid as one of student to teacher, the young prince ‘vowing that if Wilfrid would be his spiritual father and loyal helper he in turn would be an obedient son’, a Luke Skywalker to Wilfrid’s Master Yoda. […] What Stephen glosses over, however, is the manner in which the young West Saxon fugitive came to Sussex in the first place. As Bede tells it, Cædwalla swept south into Sussex with an army, killing King Æthelwealth and ‘wasting the province with slaughtering and plunder-rather more Darth Vader than young Jedi’. p. 319


[Due to a proof reading error in the original the final quotation, attributed to Bede, is completed after Jedi, not plunder as you’d expect.) 


As noted in a previous post, you could omit the words I’ve underlined and lose nothing. Not only does their presence add nothing significant, it distorts the material. If you were to stop and make a list of similarities and differences, which realistically no one ever does, then the similarities between Cædwalla and Wilfrid and Luke and Yoda, are so slight as to be meaningless. The differences, starting with one pair existed and the other is fictional, are great. What a King and a Holy man had to offer each other in this situation is not a one sided apprenticeship in a fantasy martial art, but an increase in the kind of power each is looking for: Wilfrid was no more disinterested in this than the king. Whatever the incident reveals about that particular contingent power relationship is destroyed by the Star Wars reference.  


The desire for the sound grab works its way into the texture of sentences. 


The Northumbrian King found more than a thousand monks from Bancornaburg arrayed against him, all ready to deliver their weaponised prayers on behalf of the Britons-a sort of holy artillery deployed in the face of the pagan Northumbrian war machine. P278


Delete everything after the dash? In English, writers should visualise their metaphors. What does the word ‘artillery’ evoke? Something big and loud and mechanised. The lead up to the Somme? The Germans shelling Verdun? Soldiers operating machinery, with lines of supply bringing up ammunition, or ammunition dumps. 


Now try imagining a group of monks as ‘artillery’? The image slides towards farce and trivialises the event. 


More insidious is the effect created by describing the Northumbrian army as a ‘war machine’. What do you think of when you consider the phrase ‘War Machine’? Machines of War? Tanks, Bombers, Drones? Planes and tanks rolling inexorably off production lines; factories mass producing bombs; a society geared to war: recruiting offices, training, drill, marches. 


How much, if any of that, applies to the Northumbrians? ‘Army’ is unavoidable, a convenient shorthand for ‘group of armed men’. Most of those armed men weren’t soldiers in either the Roman or the modern sense, they were farmers, and why they were there is unknown. They were probably 'armed' with knife and spear, items of daily use. Did they have any ‘military training’? There would have been a smaller group of armed men who had better weapons, and perhaps training in their use. 


How they organised their army, how many men it contained, how it fought a battle, how it was supplied, are all unknown, but it was a long way from the military organisation of classical or modern armies or any kind of production line. There was nothing mechanical about it at all. A loose modern term like ‘war machine’ simply destroys any possibility of getting at the truth of the matter. 


This is not an isolated example. 


The so called Mercian supremacy was really an exercise in early Medieval gangsterism the Mercian king was an Offa you couldn’t refuse p. 287


The throwaway ‘so called’ implies the term ‘Mercian Supremacy’ is somehow suspect. Why? But in what way was the Mercian supremacy different to the Northumbrian? Groan at the ancient joke about Offa, and then ask why ‘gangsterism’ is a better term? A gangster is a criminal; which laws and whose laws were the Mercians breaking? If they were gangsters who were the police, or the upholders of law and order? How was Offa more a ‘gangster’ than Edwin? The nature of kingship in the early Anglo-Saxon period is difficult enough to discern, without the construct being hauled off in the wrong direction by a loose evocative modern label like ‘gangsterism’.   


I think style matters. In Lost Realms it limits the author’s ability to write accurately and clearly about his subject. His imagination is inspired by the thought of ruins and loss. But beyond the descriptions of fallen masonry and weeds there are people acting in the landscape, And they go missing due to his exuberant use of figures of speech and references to his favourite fictive texts.