Lena’s world, in the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, is imaginary, but at the same time it isn’t: it is firmly rooted in the landscape and history of Britain and Northern Europe. I started writing Empire’s Daughter with nothing more than an image in my mind, an image of a young fisherwoman, a fishing village, and the harbour and hills. But the picture in my mind wasn’t imaginary: it was Anglesey, Ynys Môn, an island off the coast of Wales.
So, when I picture Tirvan, this is, more or less, what it looks like in my mind.(Remove the modern aspects!) The fishing harbour would be where the beach is; the village houses close to the harbour (perhaps the cliffs aren’t quite so steep, at least in one area), and the meeting hall, the baths, the forge and the sheep-fields further up the hillsides.
This landscape isn’t unique to Wales; you’ll find similar coastal coves along much of the West Country of England, on both coasts, and throughout Scotland. And I’ve only been to Anglesey once, but still, it was that landscape that began the book.
And likely influenced its development. Anglesey was a holy island to the pre-Roman people of Britain, and associated with the resistance of these people to Roman rule, that resistance centred in their priests, the Druids. In AD 60, the Roman general Paulinus attacked Anglesey, destroying sacred groves and shrines, and in folk memory driving the Druids into the sea. It took a few years (and a few more battles for supremacy within Britain) but by AD 78 Anglesey was firmly under Roman control, the Romans building forts, mines and roads on the island. (At least one road is still in use).
I knew all this, from various courses I’d taken and books I’d read. So, when Anglesey arose in my consciousness as the referent for Tirvan, it brought with it all these Roman associations…which in turn led to me modelling the Empire’s military on that of Rome, and indeed the basic infrastructure of the Empire on that of Britannia (Britain) during its time of Roman rule.
In further installments, I’ll talk about how other aspects of Roman military and non-military life influenced Empire’s Daughter, and where and why it deviates completely from any known history. (That is why I call it historic fantasy; there’s no magic, which the word ‘fantasy’ usually connotes, but it certainly isn’t history! Maybe I should call it ‘imaginary history’!)
Photo: Porth Swtan, by Graeme Walker [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In Empire’s Daughter, men and women lead very separate lives, the women living together, primarily in farming and fishing villages, the men in mandatory military service. Male children are taken at age 7 to begin military training; girls are educated in their own villages, and then apprentice to a trade. Where did these ideas come from?
There isn’t one source, one society that I borrowed from. The idea of male children being taken at seven into military training is from the social structure of the ancient city-state of Sparta, where exactly that happened. Spartan boys were basically cadets until age 20, when they took on greater responsibility in the military; they could marry at 30, but did not live with their wives, but stayed with their military comrades in barracks….and that was the germ of the idea of the men and women living almost completely separate lives, except for a couple of weeks each year.
The Roman Empire’s military structure also influenced how I envisioned the lives of men in the Empire. Roman soldiers served 25 years in the military, and could not (officially) marry unless they were of officer class, although they often formed permanent relationships with local women. But again, it was that sense of a primarily masculine life that influenced how the men live in Empire’s Daughter.
The lives of women were influenced by a number of sources: Icelandic and Viking women, for one, where women frequently were completely responsible for farming and fishing and all the other work while the men were at sea, either fishing (Iceland) or raiding (Vikings). The apprenticeship of girls at twelve to a trade is simply based on long practice throughout much of the world, for both boys and girls: even my own grandfather was apprenticed at age twelve to a coal merchant in England, in about 1896. (The photo of a female blacksmith is from England, c 1915-1920)
Now, as to why there is this tiny, isolated Empire at the edge of the world, underpopulated and ring-fenced by the Wall, the mountains and the sea….well, to say more would need a big SPOILERS alert. You’ll have to read the books to find out!
Roman soldier picture: By Pablo Dodda (Flickr: Roman Soldiers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Woman blacksmith picture: Bain News Service; taken in England c 1915-20; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. No known copyright restrictions.
The Empire is a northern nation, analogous to Britain or northern Europe. In common with its real-world cultures, Midwinter is a time of celebration.
“…Midwinter’s Eve being a traditional time of fun and feasting. I thought about the games and song and food I would miss tonight in the meeting hall at Tirvan. Even the littlest babies came, and toddlers fell asleep on benches or the floor as the night progressed.”
While religion is a background element in Empire’s Daughter, not a component of the plot, its world would not have felt real to me without including some acknowledgements of how its culture marked the turning points of the year, especially Midwinter. The darkest days of the year and the rebirth of the sun – far enough north, that’s literally true, as the sun disappears for several weeks – have been marked by cultures around the world: by Jul, or Yule in pre-Christian Germany and Scandinavia; by Saturnalia in Roman culture, and in the cult of the Roman ‘soldier’s god’, Mithras, as the birth of the Unconquered Sun. It is this god that the Emperor Callan addresses when he says “The god of soldiers receive you, my brother, or I will know the reason why when I stand before him myself.”
So, both the women’s villages and the military celebrate Midwinter, although the women’s celebrations have more in common with Jul, and the military’s with Mithraic ritual. The Empire’s tradition of making major proclamations at Midwinter, however, is based on the later Christmas Courts of the monarchs of England, when many political decisions (including coronations, notably of William the Conqueror) occurred (but not necessarily so formally as at the Emperor’s Winter Camp proclamations).
On December 21st….at home in Tirvan, Lena would be partying at the Meeting Hall, eating and drinking, dancing and singing. The Jul log, a massive root, would be burning in the hearth, the fire started with a piece of last year’s log. Some of the women would stay awake until dawn, to greet the newly-born sun.
The military too has its Saturnalia: food and drink, dance and song, which Lena is happy to participate in, but somewhere outside the camp, a more secret ritual is taking place, acknowledging the birth of the soldier’s god. (This is neither mentioned nor described in the book, by the way, as it had no place in the story. But likely both Casyn and Callan are there. Turlo? Probably not. I think he’s out on the hills with Pan, personally.)
Of course, Midwinter is a plot device, in that it is a turning point in the year, and a turning point in the story, for both the Empire and for Lena. The book begins roughly on May 1, May Day, Beltane, traditionally the day when young women can see their future husbands by various divinations (or, in the book, meet the man who will change their lives) and ends at Midwinter and the dawning of a new year.
The land has its rhythms and pacings, its periods of calm and its periods of change, reflected and acknowledged in the rituals and celebrations of pre-Christian northern Europe, which in turn provides the background structure to the action in Empire’s Daughter. Did I set out to do this, consciously? No. It seems that my own internal rhythms, which are set far more by the natural world than by the artificial calendar we have imposed upon it, simply insinuated themselves into the writing. That doesn’t surprise me: so much of what we write comes from places inside us we barely know.
Sunrise photo: By Fabolu (selbst aufgenommen von Fabolu) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In Lena’s world, the world of the Empire, sexuality is varied and fluid. This is, I hope, presented simply as part of the background and the culture of this world, but to some extent it is also based on history.
Sexuality is both innate, sexual preferences and gender identity something we are born with (and that do not necessarily conform to the gender identity we are assigned at birth) but the strength of sexuality as a basic human need can also mean that sexuality can be situational. Men or women deprived of the company of their preferred sexual partners for long periods will seek and find sexual release and comfort where they can. In the Empire, the structure of the society, where men and women live separately for all but a couple of weeks per year makes situational sexuality a normal and accepted practice in the lives of both men and women.
But of course, there is a wide range of sexual preference within this society, as there is in any, so the partnerships range from the men and women who prefer their own sex: Finn, the young officer; Siane and Dessa, at Tirvan; those who prefer the opposite sex: Tali, whose love for Mar keeps her living alone throughout her life; and those who are more fluid: Lena, the protagonist; many of the women of the villages, many of the men of the army. One or two characters may be construed as transgendered: Halle would be one. My intent was not to define the characters by their sexuality, but let them be whatever they are, incidental, for the most part, to the story.
Where did this come from? Greek and Roman societies were well known for accepting sexual love among athletes and soldiers of the same sex. The Oxford Classical Dictionary, paraphrased on Wikipedia, states:
The ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation as a social identifier as modern Western societies have done. Greek society did not distinguish sexual desire or behavior by the gender of the participants, but rather by the role that each participant played in the sex act. (Oxford Classical Dictionary entry by David M. Halperin, pp.720–723)
The Sacred Band of Thebes was a 4th Century BCE troop of elite soldiers, comprised of 150 pairs of male lovers from the city of Thebes in Greece. The troop, whose historical existence is accepted by most scholars, given its mention by classical writers such as Plutarch, was destroyed by Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) in 338 BCE. Indeed, some military commanders of the classical era believed troops of lovers fought the hardest, because they were defending those whom they loved, not just the state.
Less is known about female same-sex relationships. The Greek poet Sappho was head of a thiasos, an educational community for girls and young women, where same-sex relationships were part of life. The same may have occurred in Sparta.
Moving forward to the Roman era, many of the same attitudes regarding male to male sex continue, with the exception being within the military. In the Republican period (4th to 1st centuries BCE) soldiers were forbidden, by penalty of death, to have sex with each other, although sex with male slaves appears to have been acceptable. In the Imperial period, this prohibition may have been lifted, as marriage was forbidden to soldiers.
Hadrian, the Roman Emperor from 117 – 138 CE, whose British wall is the model for the
Wall in Empire’s Daughter (and the upcoming sequel Empire’s Hostage) had a lover named Antinous, one, likely, of Hadrian’s ‘harem’ of both male and female lovers. But when Antinous drowned, Hadrian mourned him publicly, founding the Egyptian city of Antinopolis in the boy’s memory and having him deified, suggesting (strongly) that his attachment to him was deep and serious. In the British Museum’s exhibition marking fifty years since the decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales, the heads of Hadrian and Antinous stand side by side, honoring their relationship. (Hadrian’s the one with the beard.)
So, like most of the cultural structures in Empire’s Daughter, the sexuality is rooted in historical fact, although I do not pretend it is historically accurate. I write alternative history, or historical fantasy, (choose your category), not historical fiction! But I also chose to honor the existence of these relationships in history, because so many books of this type seem to gloss over or totally ignore love that is not heterosexual, and that’s just not the way it was, or is.
The setting for Empire’s Daughter, as I have written before, is mostly informed by the landscape of Wales, northern England, and Scotland. But there is one aspect of Lena’s world that comes directly from the place where I currently am writing this (the East Anglian county of Norfolk, my winter home), and that is the underpopulation of the land.
East Anglia is that part of England north-east of London that juts out a bit towards Europe. Norfolk (North Folk) is the most northerly bit of that section. In the 14th century Norfolk was the most densely populated and most intensively farmed region in England. Now, it ranks 40th of the 48 counties in population density, the number of people per unit of land.
The depopulation of Norfolk is evident in its countryside: huge churches in tiny hamlets; many lost medieval villages, now only lumps and bumps in the fields; roads degraded to footpaths and bridleways. Its relative emptiness, huge fields, hundreds of miles of paths and trails, and bird-filled skies are what bring me here to escape the Canadian winter, along with a deep familial relationship with this land. It has nothing in common with the part of the Empire Lena inhabits, except the depopulation.
The depopulation of the Empire is hinted at, addressed obliquely but never directly. But it’s an empty land Lena inhabits, villages scattered and distant, too few men to defend the land against threats from two directions. The reasons for the Empire’s depopulation and that of Norfolk are pretty much the same, although the mechanisms behind them are different. (And no, I’m not going into any more detail…not at least until Empire’s Hostage, due in mid-2017, is published! You can always google it, if you’re curious.) None of this is fleshed out in Empire’s Daughter, although it will become much more evident and developed in Empire’s Hostage. But it’s still there, a history that even Lena isn’t truly aware of, but that will influence her actions and choices, the way the stories we carry around with us influence what we choose and think and do, without us always knowing it. I wove Norfolk’s emptiness into the Empire unconsciously, only recognizing what I had done after it was written.
But as all writers condense and relive their own experiences when writing, there is one scene in Empire’s Daughter that has nothing to do with the landscape of Britain. When Lena stops at the top of the hills and stares down at the the rolling grasslands in front of her, awakening in her a longing she didn’t know she had – well, that is an almost literal transcription of my feelings the first time we drove east out of the Rockies in Colorado and I saw the High Plains spread out in front of me, all that space, all that emptiness, all that sky.
Lena’s World: Walls: Empire’s Legacy Backgrounder VI
The advantage of writing historical fantasy is that it is fantasy – in the case of my Empire’s Legacyseries, the fantasy isn’t the dragons and wizards sort, but the creation of a world loosely based on cultures, historical events, and people, all of whom existed. But I have taken huge liberties with timelines, geography, and cultures, so while the setting and background of the books may seem familiar, it isn’t anywhere you really might know.
In previous installments of this occasional series, I’ve talked about various aspects of Lena’s world. (Lena is the protagonist of Empire’s Daughter and Empire’s Hostage, in case you are new to this blog). In the newly-published Empire’s Hostage, Lena’s world expands to include the lands north of the Wall. The Wall is based on Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman wall in the north of England built by the Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 to mark the dividing line between civilized Britannia to the south, and uncivilized (and unconquerable) Caledonia to the north. It plays the same role in my books, dividing the ‘civilized’ Empire from the unconquered lands of Linrathe.
Linrathe, though, has another wall, further north, an earth-and-wood rampart called The Sterre. Where did this come from? Well, although it has a very different role in the world of Empire’s Hostage, it’s based on the Antonine Wall, another Roman wall – this one built by the Emperor Antoninus Pius, in AD 142, in an attempt to move the boundary of Roman occupation farther north. In Empire’s Hostage, the character Perras, quoting a work of history to Lena, tells her “… ‘they did not find the conquest of the northern lands easy, for the inhabitants knew the hills and valleys, forests and caves well, and used them to their advantage’. It is a wild land, Lena, and very difficult, and more so as you go north. But they did try; the Sterre, the other wall you noticed yesterday on the wall map: they built it, but could not hold it for more than a dozen years, if that. Their armies retreated south, and left these lands in peace, more or less.” The Romans held the Antonine Wall for only eight years, before retreating back to Hadrian’s Wall, likely for all these same reasons.
Here’s a picture of what the Antonine Wall looks like now, nearly two thousand years after it was built.
In the next installments, I’ll be talking more about how early-to-late medieval Scottish history influences Empire’s Hostage. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued, here is the link to the books!