Abaddon Books

Toby Venables on Historical Friction

2 years ago

Last September, at FantasyCon in York, I gave a reading of a chapter of (the then unfinished) Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand. The scene involved my protagonist, Guy of Gisburne, visiting his psychopathic nemesis Robin Hood in the Tower of London in the hope of extracting information about a new threat. Hood gladly offers his help – but in a rather more hands-on way than Gisburne has anticipated. He holds out his shackled wrists and suggests Gisburne frees him so they can track the villain together. “Come on, Guy!” says Hood, gleefully. “It’d be fun, wouldn’t it? You and me against this crazed killer. We’d be the talk of the town!”

As always when reading new work aloud, a few parts had leapt out as being in need of a tweak (the key reason I continually harangue my students to do it). Some rather unmusical combination of syllables here. Less than smooth syntax there. When I admitted to the audience (five people and a cat) that a couple of moments had jarred, one of my listeners nodded slowly in recognition. “Yes... talk of the town’... Did they even say that then?”

They did not say that then – at least, not in those words. The fact is, nearly all the words I had used in the novel were not authentic to late 12th century England.

Most of the population – the ordinary people – would have conversed in an early version of Middle English which was, as yet, not very far from the Anglo-Saxon (AKA Old English) spoken at the time of the Norman invasion. While this forms the basis of our modern English and provides us with most of the words we use every day, nearly all of these would sound foreign to modern ears. It also came in a variety of dialects – standard English was centuries away – coloured by interaction with Norse speakers in the east and Celts in the west.

The majority of the characters in the novel, however, would have been speaking a different language altogether: one we call “Anglo-Norman”. This was the first language of the knightly and ruling classes in England; a form of French brought from Normandy – itself Norse influenced. Gisburne, who grew up with an English mother and Norman father, speaks both languages – as, doubtless, would many members of England’s senior or middle management, through sheer necessity.

Then there were other forms of the langues d’oïl brought by more recent arrivals from France and Plantagenet territories (closer to the French we learned in school), and the Latin of monks and scribes, in which most documents would have been written. Had the novel been written in entirely authentic terms, it would not simply have been in archaic language – it would have been in several languages and dialects, none of which are now familiar – except, perhaps, to medievalists.

This is one of the dilemmas that faces any writer of historical fiction. Do you embrace literal authenticity and put up potential linguistic barriers between your characters and your readers? Or do you make your characters relatable and accessible by employing modern language – abandoning linguistic authenticity altogether, even though painstaking research may have gone into the (re)creation of the other physical details of your world?

One radical solution to this problem was demonstrated by Paul Kingsnorth, whose recent Booker Prize longlisted novel The Wake – describing Hereward the Wake’s rebellion against the invading Normans – was written entirely in a form of Anglo-Saxon. That this presents the reader with a challenge is an understatement. Kingsnorth’s aproach, however, is reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which is written in the street slang of its hooligan protagonist: he provides just enough that is familiar, just enough context for us to work out what the unfamiliar means. In effect, he teaches us the language.

“To put 21st century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters,” explains Kingsnorth in his endnote, “would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.”

Kingsnorth’s novel is a masterpiece – a unique experiment which conveys a powerful sense of the times, with its linguistic textures intact. Yet, when it comes to his rationale, I couldn’t agree less.

Is this really the only valid approach to historical fiction? If so, then Wolf Hall is also “just wrong”. So are all works of historical fiction that do not use authentic language. In fact, in terms of fiction dealing with the medieval period, the only work I know of that fits Kingsnorth’s criteria is his own novel. Fair enough to settle on your own, original approach. Fine to experiment. I’m all for that. But to dismiss all other approaches as “just wrong”? That’s… well… just wrong.

But there’s a catch with The Wake. The language Kingsnorth is using is not authentic Anglo-Saxon at all. It is what he calls a “shadow tongue”; selected Anglo-Saxon mixed with modern vocabulary “mutated and hammered to the shape of OE words and word endings to suit my purpose”. It is, he confesses, “pseudo-OE” – not an actual ancient language, but a hybrid of his own creation, using modern syntax and drawing on a mish-mash of dialects (and “a smattering of Old Norse”) in a way only a modern mind with modern resources could (there may not be iPads, but there are certainly search engines and digital libraries in Kingsnorth’s crowdfunded novel).

In other words, these are 21st century sentences. They’ve just been dressed up (or down) more effectively than most. It would seem that this issue is not, after all, about hard and fast rules, but about where we draw the line. Me? I draw it in a rather different place. I’m not attempting to hide the fact that this is a modern construct. That’s just not what I choose to do. History itself – as a text, at least – is a modern construct. And, when it comes down to it, even Kinsgnorth confesses to one meta-rule in the writing of his book which had the potential to overrule all others: “do what the novel needs you to do”.

Amen, brother.

And so, back to “talk of the town”. I would defend this with my last breath. They had towns. They talked (no iPads). And, lacking as they did newsfeeds, twitter, TV and even print, things passed on by word of mouth – reputations, stories and legends – had far greater currency then than now (these are really what the Hunter of Sherwood books are about). While they didn’t have that precise idiom, the sense it conveyed – of becoming suddenly famous, and being the subject of intense, excited speculation in this one locale, if only briefly – was exactly right. It is the perfect expression of what is in Hood’s mind. It belongs. And we instantly know what he means. If it jars, tough – I’m not interested in the kind of fantasy world that promotes amnesia of the here and now anyway. I’m a writer, not a damned anaesthetist.

So, while I won’t yet give Gisburne an iPad, nor have Melisande de Champagne do tai chi in a cardigan (as Maid Marian was seen to do in the recent BBC series of Robin Hood), I will give them words that express their true thoughts most keenly. Because, for me, that’s what history is, not something dead and distant, but something vital, alive and relevant. And here, once again, is where I diverge from Kingsnorth.

In describing his reasons for using “pseudo-OE”, he says: “I wanted to be able to convey, not only in my descriptions of events and places but through the words of the characters, the sheer alien-ness of Old England”. What I strive to convey is the precise opposite: how like us these people are, how they love, hate, think, feel, plot and have ideas just as we do. They are not strange or alien. They are us – within us, and around us. In our blood, our buildings, our food, our language and our stories.

There are numerous clichés about learning from history – but they are clichés for a reason. History is our constant companion. Something we should learn to love and keep close, even though it may at times frighten us – and perhaps because of that. It is a looming presence upon which we all too often turn our backs, preferring ignorance, like a frightened child turning from a shadow, even though, from time to time, we know it will catch us up and tap us on the shoulder.

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