Monday, July 14, 2014

The Timelessness of Arthurian Tales

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a new series I had started watching called MERLIN.

As I said then, I was shocked by what I perceived as the ridiculous aspects of the show and how much they had changed the Arthurian cycle. However, after the first few episodes of the show I began to see its qualities and the wonderful ways in which it revived the Arthurian legend for a new generation.

This past weekend, I finished watching the fifth and final season of this BBC Series.

I’m actually a little sad that the series is done. I’m also surprised at how attached I became to many of the characters, especially the characters of Merlin and Arthur whose bantering, odd, loyal relationship is the central theme and strength of the series.

We all know that Arthur dies in the end. Of course he does. But I found myself hoping that maybe, just maybe, Arthur would survive. I wanted him to! The series had changed so many other aspects of the legend, why not change that? End things on a positive, uplifting note, right?

No. The death of Arthur in story is something that is inevitable, even for a modern interpretation. It’s the death of Arthur that shows the essential elements of tragedy, sacrifice, and hope for the future that are so crucial to Arthurian tales.

In MERLIN, the actors Colin Morgan and Bradley James manage to pull off an emotional, gut-wrenching final episode that is, to me, a worthy addition to the Arthurian canon.

After watching that final episode, I found myself dealing with a familiar feeling of sadness and longing in the pit of my stomach. It’s something I always feel when I finish watching or reading the story of Arthur and his knights.

This experience reminded me why I love Arthurian stories so much, and why I will never tire of them.

I grew up with the stories of Arthur. In fact, they are a big part of the person I have become, the ideals I hold to be true and important. They speak to me on many levels. They are timeless.

Historically, those few decades straddling the 5th and 6th centuries A.D gave rise, in my opinion, to some of the most important and moving literature and literary traditions since Homer composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Whether ‘Camelot’ was a late medieval castle, or a re-fortified Iron Age hill fort at South Cadbury doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant if the sword Excalibur rose out of the water in the hand of an ancient priestess or water nymph, or if it was cast as a solid piece of iron in a stone mould by a highly skilled smith.

What matters in the Arthurian cycle are the people, and the journeys that they take.

When I think about Arthurian legend, I think about a young boy facing his destiny, I think of lovers facing insurmountable odds, I think about brave and gifted people working to better the land they love.

When I think of these stories I think about ideals of chivalry that, real or imagined, are a bright light in a world that seems to be crumbling apart, pinioned as it is between the classical and early medieval worlds.

When I travelled to Glastonbury, Cadbury Castle, Birdoswald, Wroxeter, Dinas Emrys, Tintagel, or Caerleon, I wasn’t focussed so much on the archaeology and whether it supported the legends of those places.

What pulled me into those places, what grabbed my imagination and would not let go, were the stories and people associated with those places. Therein lies the true magic.

I’ll never forget the names of Balin and Balan, Eric and Enide, Sir Gawain and Sir Perceval, Tristan and Isolde, The Lady of Shalott, Lancelot, Guinevere, Uther, and Arthur, and so many more.

If my heart were a book shelf, there would be a scroll with a special space dedicated to every chapter of the Arthurian cycle.

I feel like I’ve watched the barge carrying Arthur’s body sail to Avalon countless times, and yet the cycle is always reborn inside of me, my mind, and my imagination.

Someday, when I’m ready, I’ll write my own version of the cycle in as historically accurate a way as possible. This has always been my goal.

But, even more so, I will write my own offering to the traditions in a way that the most inspiring aspects of the tales come to the fore.

It feels like an impossible task, but then, no quest is intended to be easy.

Thank you for reading.

Which are your favourite Arthurian tales? Share yours in the Comments box below!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The World of Killing the Hydra - Part III - Sarmatian Horse Warriors

It’s been a while since we last visited The World of Killing the Hydra.

I’ve been caught up in writing posts about Herakles and Jason and the Argonauts which, I’m happy to say, have been receiving a lot of great feedback.

The myths have great appeal, so I can see why those posts are so popular.

Today, in this third installment of The World of Killing the Hydra, we’re going to look at a group of warriors who also have ties to myth, and who, as a fighting force, became legendary in the Roman world.

I want to talk about the Sarmatians.

In Killing the Hydra, Lucius Metellus Anguis finds himself getting to know the men of the cavalry ala of Sarmatians who have been sent to join the III Augustan Legion at Lambaesis, in Numidia.

Artist impression of Sarmatian Cavalry
The leader of this fighting force is Mar, a king of his people who led them against Rome in the wars with Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Mar is joined by his royal nephew, Dagon, and both men play a key part in the story.

But who were the Sarmatians?

The average person has not heard about this group of warriors that came to form the elite heavy cavalry of the Roman Empire. Most people probably know of them only from the role they play in the movie King Arthur, with Clive Owen.

Researching Sarmatian warrior culture was a fascinating part of the research for Killing the Hydra.

The Sarmatians were a Scythian-speaking people from north of the Black Sea, and the high point of their civilization spanned from the 5th B.C. to the 4th century A.D. when they eventually went into decline because of pressure from the Huns and Goths.

Lance head of a Sarmatian 'contos', a 16 foot lance
The Sarmatians were a nomadic Steppe culture whose lands extended from the Black Sea to beyond the Volga in western Scythia.

Herodotus believed the Sarmatians (or ‘Sauromatae’) were descended from intermarriage between Scythian men and Amazon women, and that ever since the two peoples joined:

"the women of the Sauromatae have kept their old ways, riding to the hunt on horseback sometimes with, sometimes without, their men, taking part in war and wearing the same sort of clothes as men… They have a marriage law which forbids a girl to marry until she has killed an enemy in battle; some of their women, unable to fulfill this condition, grow old and die unmarried." 
(Herodotus, The Histories, Book IV)

Indeed Sarmatian grave discoveries have revealed armed women warriors, so it seems likely that such tales would easily have given rise to the Greek perception that the Sarmatians were descended from the Amazons, those beautiful and terrible daughters of Ares.

Amazons in Battle

In Killing the Hydra, Mar, in conversation with Lucius, relates to the young Roman how the women of their people also fought:

"The women of our land are brave souls. We do not lock them up before the hearths of our homes. They are free to ride with us and wield the sacred sword. Some are priestesses and others have been gifted by our gods with foresight. Sarmatian women are nobler than what your Latin word 'noble' implies."
(Mar, in Killing the Hydra)

And what of the men? Sarmatian men were fierce warriors and skilled horsemen, and according to the Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus, they:

“...have very long spears and cuirasses made from smooth and polished pieces of horn, fastened like scales to linen shirts; most of their horses are made serviceable by gelding, in order that they may not at sight of mares become excited and run away, or when in ambush become unruly and betray their riders by loud neighing. And they run over very great distances, pursuing others or themselves turning their backs, being mounted on swift and obedient horses and leading one, or sometimes even two, to the end that an exchange may keep up the strength of their mounts and that their freshness may be renewed by alternate periods of rest.(Ammianus Marcelinus, Roman History, Book XVII)

Sarmatian Crown
 Sarmatian art and culture is also very rich.

Animal imagery was common in their artwork and often included such totem animals as dragons, griffins, eagles, sphinxes, snake women, and of course, horses. Often, these images were tattooed on their bodies.

The characters of Mar and Dagon are naturally curious about the dragon imagery on Lucius’ armour and weapons. They see it as a sign.

Also, if you remember the Sibyl’s prophecy from Children of Apollo, you will know that Lucius’ meeting with the Sarmatians is no coincidence.

The Sarmatians take their gods very seriously, but the one they most revered was their war god who was represented by the Sacred Sword.

Sarmatian Warriors on
Trajan's Column
The Sarmatians’ favourite trial of strength was single combat.

They believed that there was mystical power in battle, and when they defeated their enemies, it’s said they often took the heads, scalps, and beards of the vanquished, drinking blood from the skulls of the slain.

Ancient cultures often did have what we might perceive as barbaric rituals, but it’s sometimes difficult to detect truth in the midst of Greek and Roman propaganda or storytelling.

The picture painted does make for a wonderfully colourful group of warriors.

Despite the tales of fighting women, magic swords, scalping, and the drinking of blood, there is one fact that remains certain – the Sarmatians were some of the best cavalry the world had ever seen.

They were sometimes known as ‘lizard people’ because of their scale armour which covered both the horse and rider almost completely.

The Sarmatians were heavy cataphracts, the shock troops that were used to ride down the enemy while wielding their long swords, and the contos, a lance of about five meters, or sixteen feet long.

Artist impression of a
Draconarius carrying a Draco 
The image that the Sarmatians are probably most known for, however, is the draconarius.

This was their war standard which they carried into battle. It consisted of a bronze dragon’s head with a long wind sock attached to it. It was held on a pole and carried at a gallop. When the wind passed through the draco, it made a loud howling sound that was to terrify the enemy.

The draco was adopted as a standard by all Roman cavalry in the 3rd century A.D.

It’s amazing that, as a highly disciplined fighting force, the Sarmatians remained active for as long as nine centuries.

When Marcus Aurelius won a decisive victory of the Sarmatians in A.D. 175, he obtained a force of heavy cavalry for Rome that would make the auxiliary forces much more of a force to be reckoned with.

Coin of Marcus Aurelius showing Sarmatian captives

As ever, the Romans knew a good thing when they saw it.

In the aftermath of Rome’s victory, Marcus Aurelius obtained 8000 heavy Sarmatian cataphracts which became the most skilled cavalry of the age.

It is these warriors, descended from the Amazons and mighty Scythians of the Steppes, who now step into The World of Killing the Hydra.

Mar, Dagon, and their warriors turn the tides of war against the nomads in Numidia, and become an important new force in the life of Lucius Metellus Anguis.

Draco standard

The Dragons are now in the thick of it with the Eagles of Rome.

Thank you for reading. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Writing the Return – The Warrior’s Homecoming

I’m nearing the end of the first draft of Eagles and Dragons, Book III – Warriors of Epona.

This has been a very different book to write. The characters are farther along their path, and there are many new ones that have come onto the scene.

I’ve also left the marble of Rome, and the sands of North Africa behind for the fog-choked hills of Caledonia.

War has come.

My protagonist has fought a long hard campaign with his men, the most bloody and savage of his career. He’s been on campaign incessantly for about a year without the comforts of civilization or of Mediterranean warmth.

He faces an enemy that will not come out into the open most of the time, and supposed allies that he really cannot trust.

For him, life has been a constant cycle of fighting for survival. He has led his warriors, and killed for Rome, all for the purposes of advancing the Empire’s plans for conquest.

Modern Conflict
Indeed, one of the themes running through all books is that of the powerful few sending many to die on the battlefields of the Empire. The soldiers are at the whim of those roaming and ruling the corridors of power.

Sound familiar? My, how history does repeat itself.

Always at the back of my protagonist’s mind is the family that he misses. But if he thinks on them too much, if he loses his focus at any time, his enemies will tear him apart.

The warrior’s life has never been an easy one, especially when you have something to lose.

I find myself in an interesting position now, as I write the last few chapters of Warriors of Epona.

Homecoming Parade in the UK
It’s time, in a sense, for my protagonist to ‘come home’.

But how is that even possible after the life he has led? Can he really ‘come home’?

How have warriors, men and women, dealt with the aftermath of war?

In his book The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield asks a pertinent question:

“All of us know brothers and sisters who have fought with incredible courage on the battlefield, only to fall apart when they came home. Why? Is it easier to be a soldier than to be a civilian?”

In one way, perhaps life at war is more straightforward. Every day, every moment perhaps, your thoughts, your purpose, are focussed on the objective – take that position, hold that region, protect your brothers and sisters in arms, stay alive. In some cases, it’s kill or be killed.

Modern Conflict in Afghanistan
We’re back to primal instincts here.

Today, we have any number of soldier’s aid societies and government programs and guides that are intended to help veterans of wars reintegrate into society.

These groups do good work that is much-needed, but is it enough? How can non-combatants in civilian society understand the physical and emotional trauma that is experienced by warriors after the battle?

In the ancient and medieval worlds, there were no societies or organizations whose purpose was to help returning warriors reintegrate.

Spartan Warriors
Art by Peter Connolly
Granted, in warrior societies such as Sparta and Rome, the majority of warriors probably enjoyed the fighting.

Sparta, I should point out, is a unique example. All Spartan men were warriors. That was their purpose.

But in the Roman Empire, returning warriors would have had to reintegrate in a way similar to today, rather than ancient Sparta. Later Roman society valued not just fighting prowess, but also political acuity, the arts, rhetoric, skill at a trade, generally being a good citizen in society.

In some ways, the Roman Empire combined the best of both Spartan and Athenian societies.

Modern Warriors
However, going back to peace time in a civilian society after the straightforward survival life of a prolonged campaign on the battlefield would have been tough.

We read about legionaries coming back to Rome and getting into all sorts of trouble, their days and nights taken up with gambling, brawling, and whoring.

It’s no wonder that generals and emperors created coloniae of retired soldiers on the fringes of the Empire. In these places, veterans would not be able to cause trouble in Rome, but they would also be given the opportunity to have some land and make a life for themselves.

Family Reunion
In Warriors of Epona, my protagonist will soon be reunited with his family. He’ll be facing peace time.

How will he deal with this? How will his family deal with him?

War changes a person, whether it is in the past or the present day. It’s an experience unlike any other and I salute anyone who faces the conflict that comes with stepping from the world of war into the world of peace.

In the Roman Empire, they were two very different battlefields, as they are, I suspect, today.

How will my own character deal with the transition?

Only the next couple of chapters will be able to tell me.

Thank you for reading. 

Today, there are numerous organizations whose sole purpose is to help veterans, young and old, to make the transition from war zone to home front.

If you know someone returning from one of the many conflicts going on the world, here are a few resources:

US Department of Veterans’ Affairs guide to reintegration:

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America:

Soldiers’ Angels: