I am thrilled to have Edoardo Albert on my blog today talking about the importance of factual content in historical fiction. His Northumbrian Thrones series follows kings Edwin, Oswald, and Oswiu through the 7th century. The impact of division between English kingdoms and coming of Christian missionaries enables him to create exciting narratives with multifacted characters. His latest release is Oswald: Return of the King.
Guest Post by Edoardo Albert
You know, it’s difficult not to feel jealous of Dan Brown. Apart from the extraordinary sales, the magnificent disregard for language and having Tom Hanks play his hero in not one, not two but, as of next year, three films, there’s the fact that he doesn’t have to waste any time doing research. Obviously, he claims to have spent years researching the Robert Langdon stories but this is just as clearly a clever piece of metafiction on Dan Brown’s part (a very intelligent man weaving a post-modern narrative of fame through the cultural and historical decay of western culture). Anyone conversant with Leonardo, Dante or albino monks will know that, as part of his metafiction, Brown introduces nonsense dressed up as researched fact in order to draw the reader into the story. Then, having done that, Mr Brown sits back, counts his money and prepares the next piece of metafiction.
I, on the other hand, as a humble and (much) poorer narrative craftsman, am constrained: I have imposed upon my story the straitjacket of actual history. Much as I’d like to, I can’t change events, or even tidy them up a bit to make a neater narrative package. Now, I know many fine historical fiction writers believe it is perfectly all right to telescope, edit or alter events to fit their narrative. For instance, Bernard Cornwell in The Last Kingdom alters the timeline of events and has his fictional hero, Uhtred, as the victor in the climactic Battle of Cynwit, and in his Sharpe novels Richard Sharpe becomes the man who first seizes a Napoleonic eagle and blows up the Fortress of Almeida. These are superb books, but it is not quite what I am trying to do in The Northumbrian Thrones series.
What attracted me in particular to this time and place is its liminal character. Northumbria itself was a borderland between the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons, it physically straddled the old Wall delimiting the Roman Empire, and, culturally, the time was immensely significant as the Anglo-Saxons stood poised upon the edge of settled, unified states and conversion in religion. Now, many novels set in pagan England seem to me not to look the facts squarely in the eye: the pagan Anglo-Saxons had roundly defeated the Christian Britons, driving them into the marginal lands of mountain and moor; they held mastery and were a martial, warrior people. Yet, despite this, during the seventh century they freely chose to abandon the religion of their fathers, the conquerors, and adopt the religion of the Britons, the vanquished. This is what actually happened.
How can we understand that? On the face of it, it seems the most unlikely outcome. All the smart gold in the seventh century would have been on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms remaining pagan and the eventual extirpation of Christianity throughout the rest of Britain as the religion of the kingdoms that dominated, culturally and militarily, became the norm through the land. Yet, the opposite happened. The Britons, the vanquished, remained the losers in land and power, and yet the victors took on the mantle of their belief. In an age when belief in the gods was intimately linked with success in battle, why on earth should this have happened?
The history of the three successive kings of Northumbria, Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, is intimately linked to this transition. During their reign, Northumbria became the pre-eminent kingdom in Britain and its king Bretwalda, overlord of the other kingdoms of the land. All three men were born pagan but became Christian and, as kingdoms followed kings, they took their people with them into the new religion. But it was no easy process, as I hope to show in my books; kingship was a fraught and dangerous business in those days, and few kings died anywhere but upon the battlefield. Thus, in the narrative of real history, I have an arc of triumph and disaster, return and fall, that might have been written by a master storyteller, and yet which actually happened. With such rich material, my challenge is to do it justice, and make these men and women, who created what was to become England, live and breathe upon the page and in the minds of the reader. By keeping strictly to what happened, I found it actually easier to tell the story and make it real – and I hope it will give the reader an insight into this crucial but all-but-forgotten period in history.
Learn more about Edoardo Albert
Edoardo Albert is a copywriter, editor and writer of short stories, features and books. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Ancient Paths, and he has written features for Time Out, TGO and History Today. His first novel in the Northumbrian Thrones series, Edwin, was published by Lion Hudson in 2014; Northumbria: A Lost Kingdom was published by the History Press in 2013. He is also the editor of the new Time Out Cycle London Guide.
Oswald: Return of the King has been recently released as the second book in Edoardo Albert's Northunbrian Thrones series. It is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK.
After the death of Edwin, who slew his father, the young prince Oswald seeks to regain the throne.
The exiled family of king Ethelfrith of Northumbria arrive, after much hardship, on the island of Iona, where the monastery founded by St Columba has become a centre of worship and learning. Young Oswald becomes friends with a novice, Aidan. When Aidan professes his final vows, Oswald and his little brother Oswy are received into the church.
As befits a young prince, Oswald learns to fight. However, Aidan’s example attracts him and he is on the point of deciding to become a monk when news reaches Iona that his half brother, Eanfrith, has been killed by Cadwallon, the king who defeated Edwin. Oswald sails back to Northumbria and meets Cadwallon in battle, defeating him and killing him.
Oswald, now undisputed king of Northumbria, gives Aidan the island of Lindisfarne as his base. But Penda, the last great pagan king in England, is raising troops against him…