Medea, Princess of Colchis

I loved the heroic stories of the ancient Greeks when I was a kid. I actually knew the difference between Theseus and Perseus and knew all about Helen of Troy (‘was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’), the labours of Hercules but I particularly enjoyed the tale of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest on the oracular ship, the Argo, for the Golden Fleece1. guarded in the kingdom of Colchis. Just as Troy was re-discovered as a real place, in the nineteenth century, Colchis too has been identified as an actual place at the eastern end of the Black Sea, in modern day Georgia.

I never bothered to visit Troy when I was in Turkey recently but I was intrigued to pass through the former kingdom of Colchis, just north of Batumi in the former soviet republic Georgia. In the main square, there was no statue of the so-called hero Jason, but instead, on a towering column, proudly holding aloft the Golden Fleece, the statue of Medea, Hecate’s witch-priestess, the sorceress daughter of King Aeëtes and the Caucasian nymph Asterodeia and Jason’s accomplice in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Statues generally honour male heroes but here was a statue honouring this incredible woman, driven by forces beyond her knowledge, and led by her own ambitious, driving powers committing the most appalling acts of fratricide, regicide and filicide in the name of love helplessly engendered by the very gods themselves. Mind you, I wouldn’t say Jason was much of an angel, either. Here’s my take on Medea’s story.

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Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, the guardian of the Golden Fleece upon which the security of the kingdom depends, is smitten by Jason on first sight because the goddesses. Hera, who had sworn to aid Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and Athene, who wanted revenge for the past misdemeanours of Pelias, usurper of Jason’s throne, persuade Aphrodite to bribe her son, Eros, to make Medea conceive of a fierce passion for the Argonaut.

Aeëtes refused to hand over the Golden Fleece, reasonably enough and threatened to tear out Jason’s tongue out and chop off his hands. Medea convinced her father, the king of Colchis, against his will, to offer Jason the fleece on condition of fulfilling seemingly impossible tasks – yoking fire breathing, brazen hoofed bulls, sowing dragon’s teeth, from which fully armed warriors will spring, itching for a fight and other heroic acts.

Medea promises to use all her powers to help Jason to yoke the twin bulls and to overcome the sprouting warriors on condition that he love her forever and take her back to Greece on his return. Jason swears by all the gods of Olympus to keep faith with her. Medea concocts blood-red pomegranate juice mixed with the two stalked Caucasian crocus and honey, which shields Jason’s body and weapons.

Aeëtes, shocked at the ease at which Jason performs the impossible tasks and unaware of his daughter’s assistance to the hero, goes back on his word and foolishly confides in her that, during a banquet to celebrate Jason’s achievements, he plans to burn their ship, the Argo and massacre all his companions, the Argonauts.

Medea immediately leads Jason and his companions to a grove where the Golden Fleece hangs, guarded by a dragon of a thousand coils, larger than the Argo itself. Medea soothes the hissing monster with her occult incantations as Jason stealthily unhooks the Golden Fleece from the oak tree and hurries down to the cove on the Black Sea where the Argo waited.

Setting sail immediately, an enraged Aeëtes followed Medea and Jason, chasing, not only his daughter and the fleece but also, his only son, Medea’s brother, Apsyrtus who had accompanied them. Desperate to slow her father, Medea kills her younger brother and tosses him, piece by piece, overboard, forcing her father to stop and collect each piece in order to be able to provide full funeral rights.

Unfortunately, the oracular beam of the ship Argo, refused to sail further with them aboard until atonement be made for the murder.

Jason and Medea travel overland to Aeaea, the island home of Medea’s aunt, Circe who reluctantly purified them of the murder with the blood of a young sow! The Colchian pursuers, guessing that Jason and Medea would be picked up from there, demand from the king of Aeaea, on behalf of their king, Aeëtes, the return of both the fleece and Medea herself.

Citing ill treatment at the hands of her father, Medea sought protection from the local queen. The king was obliged to respond to the demands of the Colchians and, influenced by his wife, proclaimed that if Medea was virginal, she must be returned to her father but otherwise she could stay with Jason. The queen immediately told Medea and she and Jason bedded there and then on the Golden Fleece.

Heading home, passing the isle of Crete, Talos, a monstrous bronze guardian, blocked passage to the Argo by but Medea soothed the brute with her honey mouth, promising to make him mortal if he would only drink from the potion she offered. Gulping it down greedily, Talos fell into a deep sleep and Medea removed a bronze plug from his heel which sealed the single vein running the length of his body. Out gushed a colourless fluid which had served him as blood, rendering him inanimate.

Finally reaching Jason’s home of Iolcus, they discover, that in their absence, the usurper Pelias has finally killed Jason’s aged father and mother and fortified the city so that it is impenetrable to the Argonauts. Medea then offered to take the city single handedly and told Jason to hide the ship nearby and wait for her signal of burning torches on the palace roof. Disguising herself as a crone and carrying a hollow image of the goddess Artemis, Medea approached the city gates and demanded entry, crying out that the goddess Artemis wished to honour the piety of Pelias by making him young again so that he could sire heirs to his throne.

Pelias, no fool, doubted her until Medea transformed herself before his very eyes into her youthful and beguiling form. Behold now the power of Artemis, she cried as she chopped an aged ram into thirteen pieces and boiled them in a cauldron before the king’s wondering eyes. Muttering Colchian incantations and appealing to Artemis to assist her, Medea pretended to rejuvenate the ram by suddenly producing a frisky lamb from inside the hollow stature of Artemis that she had positioned beside the cauldron. Fully convinced now, Pelias, lulled by Medea’s charms, fell into a deep sleep on his couch. Medea then ordered his daughters to cut up their father’s body, just as she had done with the ram, and boil him in the same cauldron so that the rejuvenation could begin. As soon as the bodily parts were in the cauldron, Media led the daughters up onto the roof of the palace, each of them carrying a lit torch so that they could invoke the power of the moon while the cauldron was simmering. Seeing the lit torches being waved on the palace roof, Jason and the Argonauts stormed the city successfully only to later accept banishment by the Iolcus council. Jason, fearing the vengeance of Pelias’ daughters for the cruel murder of their father, wisely abandoned the city to them.

Following Medea’s advice, Jason set sail again on the Argo and presented the Golden Fleece to the temple of Zeus before heading to the Isthmus of Corinth. Medea, the only surviving child of her father Aeëtes, the rightful king of Corinth before he moved to Colchis, now claimed the throne and the Corinthians, awed by both Medea and Jason’s deeds, accepted Jason as their king.

A prosperous decade passes and Medea presents Jason with several children but his eye is caught by Glauce, daughter of king Creon of Thebes, and he renounces his vows to Medea, determined to take Glauce to his bed. Medea urges him not to, reminding him that he also owes the throne of Corinth to her but Jason insisted that an oath made under pressure was non-binding. Medea appeared to give way and sent all of Jason’s children to Glauce bearing a hand-woven white gown and a tiara of fine gold as a peace offering. No sooner had Glauce slipped on the gown and placed the tiara on her head when she burst into unquenchable flames, consuming not only her, but also her father, King Creon and all the child messengers that Medea had borne Jason.

Leaving a destitute Jason, unloved by the gods for having forsaken his vows to Medea in their name, Medea, fled in a chariot pulled by fearsome serpents, first to Thebes and then Athens before hearing her uncle Perses had usurped the throne of Colchis from her father Aeëtes. Hastening home Medea restored and then expanded and ruled the kingdom with her father.IMG_1855

 

I suppose that counts as a happy ending for Medea but poor old Jason wandered destitute until, finally returning to his birthplace, he sits down to rest under the beached remains of his ship, the Argo, and a beam from the bow falls on him, killing him outright!

 

  1. Apparently it was quite common to stretch a sheepskin on a wooden frame and place it at an appropriate place in the river where gold particles could be deposited and colleced later.

Lunar New Year of the Dog and Dog Days

Friday 16 February marks the 2018 Lunar New Year of the Dog, heralding spring. However, where I am right now the end of summer is approaching with autumn just down the road. I suppose that the Year of the Dog is related to the Dog Star, Sirius – so named as it appears to follow at the heels of the hunter, Orion. Dog days are also reputed to be the hottest period of the year. IMG_5215

I used to think the 12 Zodiac animals of the Lunar New Year matched with the Western horoscope of the dozen star-signs and I knew what I was in both systems – a snake and a crab respectively. A few years ago, when I lived in Vietnam, I realised that each animal had an aspect attached to it. I felt absurdly smug when I realised I was a water snake, having an affinity with that element, as opposed to, for example, fire, wood, metal or an air snake. And just as the 12 animals of the Zodiac follow each other in set order, so too does each aspect as they cycle through one or other of the five elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth

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It is often referred to as Chinese New Year, which must rankle with non-Chinese people who also observe the Lunar New Year, much like, perhaps, people in South American countries resent citizens of the USA claiming themselves to be American.

Despite having lived in Hong Kong for a full cycle of the Zodiac, I only encountered the frustration and delays as a massive migration of people took place and never really experienced the almost frantic excitement in the build up to the start of the festival that I encountered when I lived in Vietnam.

Tết Nguyên Đán to give it its full name in Vietnamese, like the Christian Easter, is a movable feast, usually falling around the end of January and before the middle of February.

However, with Tet being such an important holiday, it is essential to approach it with suitable reverence and intense preparation. Much like a western Christmas when shops start to gear up for the festive season as soon as Hallowe’en is over, so too do Tet preparations begin in earnest not only in shops and businesses but also in every home in the country. Shops fill up with gaudy decorations, usually some variation of the phrase Chuc Mung Nam Moi, ideally wrought in fine gold on a red velvet background – red and yellow being the principle lucky colours for an auspicious start to the New Year – but of course all variations on that theme, provided the colours are maintained, is acceptable.

The Kitchen God – and every household has one – must be propiated with gifts and offering because it is he, and he alone, who will report back to the Celestial Jade Emperor on the family’s efforts over the previous year and it is the Jade Emperor who will decide the future prosperity of each household.

Once the home has been thoroughly cleaned, paying special attention to the kitchen, then it must be suitable decorated. Red and yellow flowers will predominate although orange marigolds may be included. Yellow forsythia branches must adorn the home while peach and cheery blossom trees are especially popular. Kumquat trees laden with small fruit are also popular, symbolizing fecundity and abundance, something everyone aspires to in the New Year.

The largest, voluntary, world-wide migration of people take place prior to the Lunar New year as millions of Chinese and other Asian people return to their home birthplaces, similar, dare I suggest, to the mass gatherings for the Haj which followers of Islam feel it is incumbent on them to perform at least once in their lifetime.

Part of the excitement in the build-up to Tet, of course is preparing to receive long-absent family members and to scrupulously clean the home before Tet, as once the holiday begins, no cleaning may be done lest one inadvertently sweeps or throw away the good luck one is due on account of the preparations you and your family have made.

Imagine, if you can, having your birthday, Christmas, Easter, Wedding, Anniversary, Valentine’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday, St. Patrick’s day and all other major belief systems’ days of veneration all rolled into one glorious holidays where everything can be devoted to a glorious extravaganza of eating, drinking and gambling. Add to that, of course, the annual rollover of age in that at the beginning of Tet, every single person becomes a year older, so in fact, it is your birthday so what is there not to celebrate?

It’s bit different where I live now – although I am going to a Lunar New Year buffet. Unlike China and Vietnam whereat least 10 work free days is de rigeur, here in Australia it is just another day at the office although the Asian communities here of course plan their celebrations and lion dances, but for the ordinary Aussie, it is no big deal.

So, tomorrow, Friday 16 February is the first day of Tet and is considered the most important as the first visitor to the family home will set the luck for the coming year and is reserved for the nuclear family focused on the paternal side of the family. Children dressed in their new finery, bow to their parents and offer traditional greeting – Sống lâu trăm tuổi (Long life of 100 years) and formally receive a red packet – a small red envelope, decorated with traditional wishes, containing assorted bank notes while friends wish each other Tiền vô như nước (May money flow in like water).

The second day of Tet is then reserved for the maternal side of the family and for respected friends and acquaintances.

Anyway, this is first year of the Earth Dog since the last Earth Dog back in1958. Communicative, serious, and responsible in work, it seems, according to the characteristics assigned to that Zodiac. Hmm … as opposed to an Intelligent, hardworking, and sincere Fire Dog or the conservative, desirable, cautious, and always ready to help Metal Dog or the sincere, reliable, considerate, understanding, and patient Wood Dog or finally the brave and self-centered, even seemingly selfish, well-versed in dealing with financial issues Water Dog! Wow! Hard to choose among them all. Why can’t they all be combined in one?

The Year of Earth Dog also means that we will not see another one until 2078!

Inspired, enthused and curious about the frequency of dog in current English, I present the following words that are badly written or expressed – Doggerel!

If you are bored see if you can match up the dictionary definition with the numbered and italicised phrases in the following. Answers some time later, if anyone is interested. Happy New Lunar Year of the Dog!

 Doggerel

He felt his commanding officer had discarded him as someone worthless 1 and it really ranked. Who did they think they were to treat him like this, giving him menial tasks to do, as if he were a junior in some boring office .2.

He ground out the butt of his cigarette 3. under his heel and replaced his fatigues and military I.D.4. with a soutane and a clerical collar 5 before slipping his knife into a side pocket.

Despite the full heat of the last days of summer 6, he broke into a gentle trot7. This was a chance to redeem himself. Up until recently, his time in the unit had been less than happy, problems and unfair treatment 8. seemed to follow him wherever he went 9.

Worn out 10, he felt his luck had deteriorated 11 and this was just another period of inactivity or decline 12. He took out the small shabby notebook, the corners worn and battered with use 13. and looked at the directions and notes he had been given, knowing full well he had no chance 14. of making her change her mind 15.

A sharp bend 16in the road ahead revealed the villa on the hillside and he knew he would have to emphasize how delighted he was 17 when he met the selfish 18. occupant there if he was to overcome her suspicions.

The old lady was wearing ridiculously smart and ostentatious clothes 19 but it was obvious that her health had deteriorated 20. Her skin was lined and wrinkled, soft and doughy but her eyes remained sharp, as did her long nails. She lay back, weak and exhausted as if from influenza or gastroenteritis 21.

He’d be disgraced and more than probably dropped from favour 22. if he didn’t complete this mission. This was the last and least pleasing part 23. of something he had to do but it was necessary if he was to regain favour.

Distracting her with some debased form of Latin he vaguely remembered from his school days, he slipped the knife from his pocket in a fluid, easy motion and …

A. Dog days ^ K. dog-in-the-manger
B, in the doghouse L. dog leg
C. dogsbody M. dog’s life
D. dog end ^ N. dressed up like the dog’s dinner
E. dog eared O. gone to the dogs
F. dog tired P. like a dog with two tails
G. dog trot Q. a dog’s chance
H. dog tags R. throw to the dogs
I. dog collar S. teach an old dog new tricks
J. dog’s disease T. Dog Latin

^ Two distinct meanings!

OH! Almost forgot – It’s a dog’s life can refer to a life of ease and luxury as in these pampered muttsIMG_2204

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The Sea

I first read John Banville’s extraordinary tale, The Book of Evidence, based on a real-life murderer staying as a guest at the Irish Attorney General’s residence while on the run,

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back in the late eighties. Banville’s insightful recount of the “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented*” set of circumstances which arose in Dublin in the early eighties was fascinating.

Funny how things change, along with latitudes, and Banville, like other authors I read back then, became forgotten, discarded and in competition with an increasing variety of TV shows, movies and the advent of video recorders and that was before VCD or DVD and Blue Ray!

Anyway, jump forward to now.

The Sea by John Banville caught my eye recently. Seen through the haunted eyes of the narrator, Max, an art historian, who returns to the seaside village where so many disturbing events one childhood summer took place.

Bereft of his recently deceased wife, Anna, Max seeks to come to terms both with his bereavement and the events that have haunted him since that summer so many years ago.

The early mention of the strange tide at the seaside village and Max’s odd assertion that he would not swim again combined with the novel’s bleached out seascape cover hooked me. My childhood summers too were spent down at the seaside so the title resonated with me too!

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Anyway, Max switches, ably assisted by booze, from recent episodic memories of the surgeon’s almost unseemly haste in washing his hands of the death of his wife, Anna (“At that, as if released Mr. Todd gave his knees a quick smack with two flat palms and jumped to his feet and fairly bustled us to the door”) to other, less well understood images from a traumatic childhood summer when the insouciant and feckless Grace family arrived for the summer holidays at the small seaside village.

The first thing I saw of them was their motor car parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel … on the shelf under the sportily raked back window … was a touring map of France, much used. …the girl’s voice coming down from on high, the running footsteps and the man here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink, jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.”

Mingled with scenes from his current stay at the Cedars – the cottage where he has retreated since his wife’s death.

“There goes the Colonel, creeping back to his room That was a long session in the lav. Strangury, nice word. Mine is the one bedroom in the house which is, as Miss Vavasour puts it with a demure little moue, en suite.”

Staying now at the same guesthouse which the wealthy Graces had rented that summer, Max drifts in and out of the past and present, interspersing his memories of the twins, the withdrawn Milo and the petulant Chloe, their lush mother, Connie Grace, jovial Carlo her husband and the outsider Rose, with the newly discovered trivia of his life at Miss Vavasour’s guesthouse where he is the only other guest along with the Colonel.

“Miss Vavasour is downstairs playing the piano. She maintains a delicate touch on the keys, trying not to be heard. She worries that she will disturb me, engaged as I am up here in my immense and unimaginably important labours.”

Unfamiliar with their world, Max attributed godlike stature to the Grace family but it was with the voluptuous Mrs. Grace that attracted the young Max.

“Was that a complicit smile? With a heaving sigh, she turned and lay down supine on the bank with her head leaning back on the grass and flexed one leg so that suddenly I was allowed to see under her skirt along the inner side of her thigh all the way up to the hollow of her lap and the plump mound there sheathed in tensed white cotton.”

Slowly, the three threads of Max’s memories coalesce and mysteries, cunningly concealed throughout the novel, are revealed and minor characters assume major proportions while the erstwhile understandings are now shown to have been misunderstandings.

Gracefully the strands, of seemingly unconnected events from the triad of introspective settings that Max relives, are woven into a stunning denouement whereby all is made clear from what had been only partially hinted at and mistakenly understood before.

Fantastic, a great read.

 

*          Attributed to Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien with reference to Charlie Haughey’s government during that period.

The Argument

When I first started this blog – God, more than a year ago, some time in 2015 I think – the original idea was to promote my book, Raiding Cooley which I published as an E-book back then.  I confidently expected to start on my next masterpiece almost immediately.  Raiding Cooley CoverSee how wrong I can be!  Anyway, this blog thingy morphed into different paths, some, or all, of which I hope to continue pursuing. However, the consequent result was that I never got around to doing any new creative writing – i.e. another blockbuster!  Ideas did float around in my head, sequels and prequels and so on but it was always too easy to find a reason to do something else.  I suppose a story depends upon a character and the plot natuarlly evolves from what the character does and what happens to the character. So, here is my initial draft of God knows what – an initial character.  Comments, suggestions, ideas, complaints … anything?  Anyone?

An Introductory Paragraph

406 A.D. Roman rule is collapsing in Britannia as the legions are recalled to continental Europe. Barbarian tribes assail the Empire from all sides. Maewyn, scion of proud Brythonic stock long accustomed to Roman rule, refuses to assume his father’s role as Decurion, the “exactor” of taxes from the local Brythonic people.The scene takes place in a Roman style villa in the far western Brythonic province of Britannia.

The Argument

‘You know what your father needs’ Conchessa paused until her son looked up at her. ‘You do, don’t you?’ she insisted, adjusting her toga.

‘I told you before. I am not going to collect the taxes. I don’t care about being Decurion, do you not hear me? I refuse to do Rome’s dirty work.’

Contemptuous of both his parents’ Roman status and their newly adopted Christian piety, Maewyn glared at his mother opposite the atrium fountain.

‘Your father will explain everything later to you,’ Conchessa continued quietly.

‘There is nothing to explain.’ Maewyn snapped. ‘Do I have to tell him how things are here, in this far-western province of a crumbling Empire?’

”Don’t talk like that to your father. If Calpurnius becomes a deacon in the State religion, his property and responsibilities are passed on, in their entirety to you, his son.’

*

Maewyn pulled the copper goblet towards him, cradling it in his pale hands and smelling it, before looking up at his father.

‘Don’t you understand?’ Calpurnius demanded. ”The legate is insisting taxes must be collected as usual. Do you think I want to give up all of this?’

He gestured at the tilled fields stretching from the walls around the villa down the hillside, bounded by the blue line of the sea below them.

‘The legate! All the Belgae and Germania auxiliaries in Seguntium are being recalled, even now.’ Scornfully, Maewyn pushed the goblet away. ‘Roman power is collapsing along our coast, and everywhere else.”

‘Listen to your father.’ Conchessa pleaded. ‘Is there anything that you ever wanted that has not been provided for? Ask yourself, where does our wealth come from?’

‘I don’t care where it comes from. You want it, not me. And besides,’ Maewyn spat scornfully, ‘Barbarian raids are increasing. Soon there will be no-one to tax and nobody to give it to, despite your new religion.’

‘Don’t talk to me like that, you ungrateful whelp” Calpurnius shouted, his face purpling with rage. ‘We are Roman citizens and we have a responsibility to our position as Decurion and to Emperor Honorius.’

‘I thought we were proud Ordovices, the last tribe in Britannia Prima to have withstood the might of the Romans?’ he demanded of his father. Standing up abruptly, his stomach roiling in fear at his defiance, he pushed his stool back so that it crashed on the mosaic floor.

Lamentation

I have just finished Lamentation, the sixth novel by C. J. Sansom in the Shardlake* series, a massive 700 page historical mystery and detective story centred on the last year of the reign of the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII from the summer of 1546 until his death in January 1547.

The humanitarian and caring Matthew Shardlake, lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, is once again, unwilling, involved in the murders and religious mayhem that ran rife during Henry’s reign.

The novel begins with the ghastly account of the burning at the stake of Anne Askew, and three other unfortunates in Smithfield, accused of heresy, a charge which Shardlake himself will face later on in the novel, recalling the last time the hunchback lawyer was dragged to the Tower of London for a tortuous questioning.

IMG_0997Without giving too much away, as Henry VIII vacillates between reform and traditionalist religion during the last months of his life, his court is divided between the Catholic and Protestant councillors vying to control Henry’s successor, the eight-year old Prince Edward. Henry’s last wife, the reformist Catherine Parr, formerly Catherine Latimer and the unrequited love interest of the solitary and melancholic sergeant -at-law, enlists his aid as she desperately fends off attacks from within the court and from mysterious and powerful influences in the world outside Whitehall.

As with the previous five Shardlake novels, the multiple plots concern a legal case unconnected with the hunchback lawyer’s involvement with the Tudor courts, something he had previously sworn to avoid. The inevitable conflicts, brought about by intimidation and violence, confirm the determination and bravery of Shardlake, showcasing his conscience and the inevitable consequences in a world of religious and political turmoil.

As always, London itself plays an atmospheric role as Shardlake trudges the dusty and pungent streets and alleyways of the medieval city in his quest to aid the endangered queen and to solve the litigations case between two quarrelling siblings with which he has become embroiled. The authentic background, the rich characterisation, and the wonderful weaving together of plot and historical reality combined with the final, real-politic twist make Lamentation the apotheosis of this sextet of fantastic novels.

Excitingly, C.J. Sansom hints, in the very last pages of the novel, that Shardlake may continue to see further service, but this time, in the service of the future Queen, Elizabeth I. Like many others, no doubt, I hold my breath in anticipation and look forward to a continuing Shardlake saga.

  • See my earlier blog about the first five Shardlake novels in the series

Going back to the Roots

Given that the original reason for this blog thing was to blow my own horn with regard to the book I wrote and self published on Smashwords – and yes, it is still available on Amazon but I have no idea where that money goes as I seem to have failed to set up a banking account with them.  Anyway, never mind, live and learn.  So, to return to origins – this blog thingy was meant to be about my book Raiding Cooley (or Cúailnge, if you prefer) in particular and other writings that I come across, do myself, admire and so on.  In that vein, here is a scene I have been working on recently.  It is going to be part of something much larger and this scene takes place fairly near the start of a much longer story.  Anyway, comments, likes, dislikes, objections, that sort of thing – basically any feedback at all would be most gratefully accepted.  I can’t really give you any more as this is very much part of a work in progress and I might never actually use this scene.  Wonderful, ain’t it!

The Argument

” You ungrateful whelp, you will do as I say,” Calpurnius crashed his gnarled fist down on the polished table, making the goblets jump. “Don’t you understand what this means to us all? Do you think I want to give up all of this?” he shouted, gesturing at the tilled fields stretching from the walls around the villa down the hillside bounded by the blue line of the sea below them.

Maewyn stood up abruptly, pushing his stool back roughly so that it crashed on the mosaic floor. “You can’t make me do this. I don’t care, it’s your job – not mine,” but even as his stomach roiled in fear at this rebellion, he could hear the petulance in his own voice and was ashamed of himself.

Ignoring his mother reproachful looks, he brushed past his father and rushed out of the villa, past the fountain in the vestibule.

His parents’ Pelagian Christianity meant nothing to him and Maewyn looked with youthful scorn upon his father’s attempt to evade his duties as a tax collector and councillor by taking shelter in his relaxed form of religious orders. Certainly he had no intention of assuming his father’s harsh and ruthless role exacting taxes from the local Ordovices people rather than making up the deficit from his own land and slave holdings. Nevertheless, he had to admit that his family’s way of life was comfortable and he enjoyed the respect his father and his father, Potitus, before him had garnered over the years, landowners who had long accepted Roman ways and customs. Their cultured way of life was in sharp contrast to the local Brythonic tribes from whom they exacted the heavy tax that Rome demanded from its provinces and localities. The whole idea of collecting taxes for the Romans was pointless now that the empire was collapsing, Maewyn told himself. Even the legate, Stilicho would be recalled to Rome shortly despite what he had overheard the previous night.

“You know the law” Stilicho had insisted, enjoying the power his position afforded him in Britannia Prima. The Roman was powerfully built with blunt, heavy features, thick dark hair swept back from a broad forehead above a long bulbous nose creased heavily at the bridge. His thin mouth was accentuated by the persistent shadow on his square jaw, despite the ministrations with an obsidian blade. Hard, grey eyes had assessed, understood and despised the fawning attempts of Calpurnius and Conchessa to distract him with a beaker of the dark yellow wine he favoured.

“But you know these raids on the coastal districts make collecting the taxes difficult,” Calpurnius had pleaded. It was true, Goidelic raids were becoming more frequent as Roman power declined in the west and although the last stronghold of the Celts on the island of Mona had been replaced almost three and a half centuries before with a permanently garrisoned fort at Seguntium, the raids had increased in frequency and daring recently. Stilicho, as the newly appointed legate to the western province of Britannia Prima, was keen to lead a retaliatory raid on Hibernia. Broad, muscular shoulders and pale scars on his thick forearms were proof of his military bearing and experience.

“You know the law,” he repeated implacably. “What is not collected must be made up from your own pocket. You can always sell your slaves to raise the necessary portion.”

Shardlake

What makes a book irresistibly good? What type of book garners remarks like “couldn’t put it down”, ” a real page turner” and so on?

Are they character driven, or is it the genre, the plot, the setting, the style, the twist or the originality? All of them, of course and much more as well.

But to find, not only all of the above in a strong, character-driven novel, but also a specific and vivid historical mystery in Tudor times, is a find indeed.

In the Shardlake series of novels by C. J. Sansom both mystery and a historical vividness blend seamlessly in the humanist form of a candid and honest barrister at Lincoln’s Inn during Tudor times. Unwillingly, he finds himself working for Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s first minister, and other members of the court as the massive task of dissolving the monasteries’ grasp on power and land begins. An ardent reformer in his youth, Shardlakes begins to withdraw from the capriciousness and cruelty of the court but finds himself investigating, on Cromwell’s behalf, the murder of a high official at an isolated monastery in the depths of winter.

The six novels in the series (so far) span the reign of Tudor Henry VIII, from the winter of 1537 to the summer of 1546. Tudor England, where Henry has already broken with Rome and assumed the role of Head of Church as well as State, is a dangerous world of fanatical religious reformers, ambitious and jostling informers and unscrupulous and powerful performers and where to speak one’s true thoughts on religion and God could lead to charges of heresy and death by torture and burning.

IMG_0231In Dissolution, the first in the series, Matthew Shardlake, single, a lawyer, a humanitarian and a hunchback, regarded with distrust and fear by most people because of his deformity, reviled but used by the nobility for his intelligence, diligence and ability, is sent to investigate the sacrilegious murder of one of Cromwell’s commissioners in a remote monastery in the midst of a freezing winter. Drawn into a world so completely realized, the actual setting is as palpable as the villians he encounters, Shardlake’s involuntary involvement with the politics of the law and church unravels murders and mayhem. Increasingly disillusioned, he must juggle personal and conflicting ideals, as reforms seep into the kingdom. Emotionally scarred by his brush with politics and greed, Shardlake is determined to withdraw to an ordered and quiet life at Lincoln’s Inn helping those who are most in need of his legal skills.

However, in Dark Fire, the second in the series and, again at Cromwell’s express IMG_0232command, Shardlake, with the help of his new assistant, Jack Barak, must discover the source of a lost secret weapon – Greek Fire – with which Cromwell hopes to regain the king’s favour while at the same time acquiring an apparently hopeless case defending a young girl accused of murdering her own cousin.

Fascinating in both the legal details of the time – “peine et dure” being a case in point – and the seething background of the London scene, Shardlake discovers that in the world of alchemy and greed, nothing is as it seems and avariciousness plays an equal part in the life’s of both the common and noble folk.

IMG_0234Hoping to avoid further contact with the court after Cromwell’s downfall, Shardlake is nevertheless involved on missions for Archbishop Crammer and in Sovereign, he travels with Henry’s court to York on the Great Progress, dealing with legal submissions to the king but also to oversee the welfare of a traitor due to be conveyed to the Tower of London for a torturous interrogation. A seemingly irrelevant murder in York involves the lawyer and his irreverent assistant in a cache of secret documents which undermine the sanctity of the Tudor throne and which brings Shardlake terrifyingly face to face with the torturers in the Tower.

Revelation, the fourth novel, delves into the twisted IMG_0306world of a serial killer – a concept so alien to the ordinary Tudor mind that it arouses fears of witchcraft and sorcery, all the more so when inextricably linked with the prophecies of the biblical Book of Revelations. Taking on the case of an accused heretic, confined within Bedlam insane asylum, Shardlake must navigate the treacherous waters of religious purges while investigating the murder of his best friend linked to the dark prophecies of Revelations.

IMG_0241Heartstone, the penultimate novel in the sextet, sees Shardlake set off for Portsmouth on a private mission for Catherine Parr in the summer of 1545 as Henry prepares the Mary Rose and The Great Harry for a imminent French invasion.

Strong, driven characters, grounded in a specific time or era, essential but often locations are cursorily sketched or taken for granted but not so, in these multi-layered mystery events set in Tudor times. Shardlake, with his modest and unassuming air, a strong moral integrity and a keen interest in using the law to help the downtrodden, is a true renaissance man who grows and develops through constant danger among the shifting thoughts and trends of Tudor politics, a vivid and immediate setting, dealing with bewildering and baffling murders, alien to the beliefs and understandings of the time.

Multiple plot lines weave seamlessly together as characters assume unexpected relationships which reverberate through the stark realities of the Tudor world where being different or out of favour risks cruelty or execution. Shardlake, determined, scrupulous but above all, human must investigate events as feared and misunderstood at the time as terrorist outrages are today.

I’m looking forward to getting my hand on the most recent in the series, Lamentations.