Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Taking Liberties with Myths and Legends

(I hope my scribe Simon Acland has not taken liberties with my story. I am beginning to have suspicions after he posted this as a guest blog on WiLoveBooks

The history in my First Crusade novel The Waste Land is pretty accurate. I enjoy reading historical novels in part for the insight they provide into real events, and the feel that they give for life at the time. So I have been careful to try to achieve verisimilitude, going back to the original 12th century chronicles written by the Crusaders, their Muslim opponents, and their Byzantine observers for some of my source material. I confess to using my imagination in the way I have drawn the characters: there is no historical evidence that Duke Godfrey de Bouillon liked drink and women; indeed he is often portrayed as a saintly knight, but there might be an element of hagiography in that. Nor is there evidence of his rivalry with his brother Baldwin. And I have put my own spin on the shenanigans around the Holy Lance in Antioch. One of the purposes of the modern story of the St Lazarus dons that ‘wraps’ my First Crusade tale is to point out the reality behind some of the less credible historical facts (the First Crusade was full of truly extraordinary events) and vice versa.

Where I have taken some dreadful liberties, though, is with ancient myth and legend. I have taken some stories from Ovid, the Holy Grail myths, the legends about the Assassin sect, and an imaginary Gnostic Gospel, and put them all in a great melting pot (I use that term deliberately, for reasons that you will understand if you read The Waste Land).

Apart from this being quite fun, I have the excuse that I am following in a long tradition. Ovid’s Metamorphoses are based on much older stories from early Rome, Ancient Greece and Asia Minor. He embroiders them, poeticises them and makes them his own. The first Holy Grail tale, the Roman de Perceval , written by Chretien de Troyes around 1180, takes as its major source King Arthur and earlier Celtic fertility legends. These are the inspiration for the father of the Fisher King, whose kingdom is laid waste until the wound in his loins is healed. Chretien de Troyes died before he finished his masterpiece, whereupon other writers took his story and rewrote or completed it. Robert de Boron, writing around 1200, was the first to mix in Joseph of Arimathea and make the Grail the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and to catch his blood when he died on the Cross. The German Wolfram von Eschenbach was arguably the first person to bring the Templars into the mix in his Parzival. If you are interested in the way these myths and legends have developed, have a look at Sir James Frazer’s great anthropological study The Golden Bough, or Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance.

In modern times, renewed interest in the Grail was sparked in 1982 by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. This faux history set off the idea that the Grail – the ‘San Graal’ – was the bloodline of Jesus – the ‘Sang Real’ – which was continued by Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. And of course there have been many variations on the theme, mixing in Assassins, Templars and even extraterrestrials.

But the element of the tradition which I like most is perhaps TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, from which I have borrowed my own title. Part of Eliot’s genius was to mix imagery from Ovid and the Grail to create a timeless masterpiece. He references Frazer and Weston as key influences in the controversial ‘Notes’ to his great poem. In homage, I have used snippets from Eliot’s poem for my chapter titles, and hidden 23 direct quotes from the poem for Eliot enthusiasts to find.

If that all sounds very pretentious, don’t be put off. My The Waste Land is a humble adventure story, or, as I subtitled it “An Entertainment”.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Sources for The Waste Land

(My scribe, Simon Acland, tells me that this is an article Adam P Reviews hosted on his blog , whatever that may mean)

“So are you a historian then?”

That’s the first thing many people ask me when I tell them I have written a novel set in the First Crusade. When I say, “No, a modern linguist actually”, and that my inspiration came from studying the 12th and 13th Century Grail Romances, they normally say “Wow, you must have done a lot of research.”

At that point I feel a bit of a fraud. To me, research implies toiling in libraries among dusty documents, written in ancient languages in indecipherable script. For me it was much easier than that.

Because the First Crusade is such an extraordinary period of history, and occurred at a pivotal point as Europe was making the transition from the Dark Ages to medieval times, there is a wealth of good books about it. The modern Granddaddy is Stephen Runciman’s A History of the Crusades (Cambridge 1951), but has been followed by many other distinguished works. The main historians other than Runciman on whom I relied are Jonathan Riley-Smith, Christopher Tyerman, and Thomas Ashridge. And I was able to find some specialist works, for example about Cluny, the great Benedictine Monastery where my hero Hugh de Verdon starts his journey, about the fabric of the City of Jerusalem, and the intricacies of medieval warfare.

For the novelist it is also fortunate that many of the contemporary chronicles are available in print and in translation. These fascinating texts were mostly written by monks who accompanied the leaders of the Crusades to the Holy Land. They tend to support the image and reputation of the individual leader in whose entourage the authors travelled, for the prominent Crusaders were always at each others’ throats. But texts such as the Gesta Francorum, the Gesta Tancredi, and the Historia Hierosolimitana provide an invaluable direct insight to the way the Crusaders thought.

The picture would not be complete without the Muslim point of view, especially because the Arab world was far more civilised, tolerant and advanced than Christendom at the end of the 11th Century. Ibn al-Athir is the most distinguished near contemporary Arab historian, and there are several useful summaries of his and others’ work such as Francesco Gabrieli’s 1957 Arab Historians of the Crusades. Then Usama ibn-Munqidh wrote a delightful diary about his life, starting early in the 12th Century, published as An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades. Although it postdates the First Crusade itself, and so does not provide any information about the events themselves, it shows the Arab life at the time and the barbarism of their Christian attackers.

A third perspective is provided by the Alexiad, the biography of her father written by Anna Comnenos, the daughter of the contemporary Byzantine Emperor Alexios I. She also shows the Crusaders in fairly uncivilised light, although she clearly fancied Bohemond of Taranto!

So the lucky novelist is spoiled for choice. Partly because of this, and unusually for a novel, I did include a bibliography of the works I found most useful at the end of my book. A word of warning, though. It is not just an academic bibliography. You may be surprised to find references to adventure classics such as John Buchan’s Greenmantle and Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. This is because there are a couple of episodes in The Waste Land that pay homage to these books. And you may be surprised to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail included on the list. Well, see if you can spot the knight who says “Ni” in The Waste Land! Or watch my video at, and then you will understand!