Friday, November 30, 2007

No one is free who is a slave to the voices in their head...

This is based on some conversations with a friend about characters who start getting uppity and demanding more stage-time. In real-life, the process spans from about last March to Tuesday night just gone. Enjoy.

Warning: utterly nonsensical, and I don't even have any sherbet in my system to act as an excuse... make sure you don't trip over the random movie references...

The scene: Kirsten is at her desk, typing happily away at her laptop. Suddenly aware that she's not alone, she freezes, and turns her head slowly to see two men standing next to her with crossed arms - one a Roman general, the other a Caledonian king.

Roman: So... thought you could get away with it, did you?

Kirsten: (nonplussed) ...Away with what?

Caledonian: Writing a novel about the Roman invasion of Scotland, eh?

Kirsten: (brightening) Yeah! It's always fascinated me: you know, the thought of two intelligent, cunning, equally-matched generals fighting it out among the mountains of the Highlands -

Roman: Buttering us up won't change a thing, darling. We know you haven't featured us in it.

Kirsten: And just who are you two that I should feature you in it?

(They look at each other incredulously, then draw themselves up.)

Roman: Well, for your information, I am Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of Britannia.

Caledonia: And I am Calgach the Sword, King of the Caledones. But you can call me Calgacus. Everyone else does.

Kirsten: Wow, what an honour! Can I have your autographs?

Agricola: No.

Calgacus: We're here to demand why we're not in this book-thing of yours, and then to demand that we be in it.

Kirsten: B-but I'm writing a star-crossed love story set against the backdrop of the invasion, so unless you two want me to rename it the Battle of Mons Brokebackius, then - (Agricola and Calgacus reach for their swords) - I mean, yous are in it! You both have very significant cameo roles!

Agricola: Not good enough. We want some spotlight.

Kirsten: Er... didn't your son-in-law make you the subject of an entire book? Whaddya need me for?

Agricola: Well, for starters, I'd like a nice, rounded role with backstory, conflict, emotional resolution - the works.

Calgacus: And I'm fed up with everyone talking about how great that William Wallace lad was, while I'm forgotten to history.

Kirsten: Well, to be fair, William Wallace did win the Battle of Stirling Bridge. If I remember right, you lost at Mons Graupius... (Calgacus draws his sword; Kirsten pales and drops her gaze) I'll see what I can do...

Agricola: (smiling) Great! Oh, and by the way, my son-in-law says he wouldn't mind a bit-part. I promised I'd see to it.

Kirsten: Isn't nepotism wonderful? (Agricola goes for his own sword) ...I mean, the more the merrier! Hang on, I just need to consult with my original protagonist. Marcus! Get over here!

(Marcus comes running in.)

Kirsten: Marcus, I couldn't help but notice you're quite backstory-less. I'll need some insight here.

(Marcus, terrified, whimpers and shakes his head.)

Kirsten: Oh God, not another hero with a dark and angsty past. You really don't want anyone to know about it?

(Marcus shakes his head again.)

Kirsten: Well, unfortunately, what with you being the MC and all, I can't not ignore your dark past, so... here - why don't you write it down here so I can read it?

(Marcus nods, then begins scribbling on a scrap of paper, which he then hands to Kirsten. She reads it, her eyes going wide. She looks up at Marcus incredulously.)

Kirsten: You expect me to be able to write this?

Marcus: ...Sorry.

Kirsten: It's all right. My sympathies go out to you. Well, on you go. I'll call you and Gairea back when you're needed.

(Marcus turns to leave, but then an afterthought occurs to him and he turns back.)

Marcus: Oh, by the way, Cathal says the role you're given him is far too two-dimensional and he'd like a fuller, more heroic story. And Tribune Vitulus says he's fed up being the laughing stock of the Twentieth Legion, and he wouldn't mind a spin-off novella.

Kirsten: Does he now? Well, Marcus my lad, tell Cathal I like his idea, but tell the tribune he can spin on his spin-off... if that makes any sense... ... Anyone else out there?

Marcus: Er... a priestess from Bronze Age Kilmartin. She says you met while you were on holiday. And some guy calling himself Saint Columba. He wouldn't mind turning up in a book sometime.

Kirsten: Only dealing with Roman-period characters right now. Tell them to stay in the waiting room.

(During this exchange, an immaculate man in a senator's toga has entered the scene with his wife, unnoticed by Kirsten. She turns back towards her computer, then jumps as she notices them.)

Kirsten: Who the hell are you?!

Man: (clears throat) Publius Cornelius Tacitus. You might have heard of me. And this is my wife, Julia.

Kirsten: Oh, wow! Tacitus! This is the greatest honour yet! I must be your number one fan - I mean, not so much that I'd tie you to a bed and break your ankles with a sledgehammer, but you get the idea... it's why I agreed to let you have a cameo in my book.

Tacitus: (looking slightly panicked) Yes... I've changed my mind about that. I want a bigger part.

Kirsten: B-b-but you have a nice, neat little walk-on part. Don't you like it?

Tacitus: Ye-eah... but I want a whole subplot.

Kirsten: What??

Tacitus: Let's face it, you owe me. If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have a story, now would you?

Kirsten: (mumbles) No...

Tacitus: So we have an accord? Just since you love me so much?

(Kirsten sighs, then holds out her hand resignedly for Tacitus to shake.)

Kirsten: Hey, Julia, do you want a bigger part with Tacitus? What with you two being married and all?

Julia: We are? I always get the impression he's married to his books and the cursus honorum.

Kirsten: (glancing between them) ...Well, it sounds like there's some interesting backstory going on here. Sounds like there could a be a whole book with you two -

(Julia and Tacitus look at each other, then at Kirsten)

Kirsten: ... I walked right into that one, didn't I?

(They nod.)

Tacitus: I mean, think about it: if you wrote a book with me in it, you would have an excuse to include Pliny the Younger in something, wouldn't you?

Kirsten: (hopefully) Mini-Pliny?

Tacitus: (nods) Mini-Pliny.

Kirsten: All right, let's do this!

Agricola: Er... aren't you forgetting about us?

Calgacus: Yes, aren't you going to get on with your Flavian novel first?

Demetrius of Tarsus: Get on with it!

Exiled Irish Prince: Yes, get on with it!

Cohort of mutineering Usipii: YES, GET ON WITH IT!!

Kirsten: Well, if that isn't proof I've been watching Monty Python too much...

Emperor Domitian: Get on with it!

Kirsten: (ducks her head and starts typing again) Sorry, sorry! Now, let's see... what can I do to build on the story here...?

Tacitus: (splutters in outrage) And what do you mean by that?

Kirsten: Well... come on, your account's a bit vague in places, and you're hopelessly biased. I want to write a more balanced novel. (hands a copy of The Agricola to Calgacus) Here, see what you make of it.

Calgacus: (flicking through the book) "They make a desert and call it peace"?? You actually expect me to come out with something like that?

Tacitus: (goes red) And what's wrong with it?

Kirsten: Well, to be fair, it does sound a bit like you were channeling the writers of Braveheart while you were scribbling away.

Calgacus: (mutters) William Wallace again...

Tacitus: Well, I don't care! It's historical fiction you're writing, Kirsten, so you'll just have to follow the rules, won't you?

Kirsten: I was always under that it wasn't rules that written history provided, but more sort of... guidelines...

Julia: (head in hands) Tell me she didn't.

Agricola: ...She did.

Kirsten: Okay, okay! I'll write! (gets typing again)... Now, you know what'd be good? A book - a sort of semi-sequel to this - set on the Antonine Wall.

(A centurion and his very pretty slave girl materialise with a bamf!)

Centurion: You called?

Kirsten: (pales) Oh no...

Centurion: Marcus Cocceius Firmus, centurion of the Second Legion Augusta, commanding officer of the Auchendavy fort.

Kirsten: Oh, yeah, I've read about you. If you don't mind my asking, are you, like, related to Bigus Dickus, because that is a really unfortunate name you have there...

(Firmus' jaw clenches; his slave girl titters)

Slave girl: He gets that all the time. Anyway, as his personal copyist, I've drawn up an outline of our story, and we'd like you to add some meat to the bones. What do you think?

Kirsten: I think Centurion Firmus is going to be seriously skint by the end of the book - commissioning all those altars, forking and re-forking out for you...

Firmus: Yes... (gazes wistfully at the girl)... but so worth it.

(Marcus and Gairea come running in)

Gairea: Hey, we were here first!

Agricola: Back off! I'm here now! All your Caledonia are belong to me!

Julia: Showing your age, Dad! You've had your spotlight! Move over!

Calgacus: I am not leaving until I get a different speech.

Tacitus: (rolling up the right side of his toga) O RLY?

Calgacus: YA, RLY.

Tacitus: Bring it!

(What can only be described as a "kerfuffle" descends.)

Slave girl: (snatches Firmus' vine cane and prods Kirsten) Oh, by the way, we'd like some sexual tension in with our story. Perhaps a kinky role-reversal love scene...

(Kirsten's head meets the keyboard. When she looks up, she sees that a gladiator and an actress have also now appeared from nowhere.)

Gladiator: Salve, scriptrix! I'm Lucius, and this is my girlfriend Verecunda. You might remember us from reading Women in Roman Britain and we think we could make for either a really angsty love story, or a really funny double act...

(Kirsten's head promptly implodes.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Aaaargh *brainmelt*

(The scene: a large pile of very thick books, all of which have either the phrase Celtic or Roman Britain in the title. The pile moves a little, then suddenly they go flying as Kirsten surfaces from under the pile, screaming, "No, Agricola, I don't care what your policy with the procurators was!!")

Ye-eah... if it isn't already obvious, the weekend was fairly stressful on the coursework front. Managed to stagger out of my Latin test on Friday, dazed. No time to recover, however, since I had a Celtic essay and my Archaeology worksheet to finish off for Monday (or so I thought... details to come). I had it all worked out time-wise, but suddenly before I knew it, it was midnight on Sunday and I was two hundred words over my limit for the Celtic essay and trying desperately to cut it down. Argh! How was I supposed to be able to write an essay on the effects of Romanisation in Britain in just two thousand words?!? This is counting Scotland and Ireland, too! And talk about uniformity of quotes - the only contemporary author I could turn to was Tacitus. The quote book didn't have any of the quotes I needed, however, so I had to rummage around for my own copy of the Agricola. (geekdom has its perks!)

So, anyway, managed to trim some stuff (still two hundred words over - going to pay for that, aren't I?), but it was now past one and I still hadn't finished off my worksheet. Damndamndamndamn. I give it a shot, thinking if I have to give up sleep for a night then so be it, but temperamental websites and various technical difficulties made it impossible to do anyway. So I end up having to print out a hard copy in the morning to hand-write.

Needless to day, I slept in on Monday morning. Just managed to get into Latin in time, with essay and worksheet in my back. After Latin I go to hand in my essay - only to find out that it wasn't actually due in till Wednesday! %$@^&!!!$ "F**k it," I think, "it's done." So I hand it in and go up the library to get the worksheet done - to be handed in that afternoon. Barely get that done - still scribbling away on strange Neolithic artefacts in the middle of my Celtic lecture.

Lecture is on Celticity in Britain and Ireland. Halfway through, it hits me - I wrote 2000+ words on the Romans in Britain and didn't even mention Boudica once! Ohmigod! Ohmigod! Surely to God that's instant fail!!

Worksheet gets handed in, give or take some answers which even I don't think are right, and I stumble to the underground to go home, still thinking omgdidn'tputboudicainmycelticessayandonlyquotedtacitusasaclassicalauthorgonnafailgonnafail, wonder if it'd be possible to rework the essay tonight or tomorrow night and hand it on the appropriate day.

Decided against that. I'm just going to say - with some reservations - what's done is done, and it now frees up the rest of my week (I'm not going near my Archaeology essay till this weekend at least). Only problem, after that essay, I don't think I can bear to go near Agricola or the first century for a few days. I think I might have to take a holiday to the Antonine Wall, see if Centurion Cocceius Firmus is free this week...

No, I'm not a Monday person.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nomenclature in Flavian-era Scotland

I think I might actually have hit upon a scheme that works!

One of the challenges I was having was trying to fit a "type" of language to the Caledonian characters in my book, and thus a decent naming scheme to the characters. Of course, we don't know what the people of first century Scotland spoke, though it was likely a precursor to the later Pictish language. Pictish itself is a debatable subject, since it's all but lost to us. However, the two main theories seem to be this: either it was a P-Celtic language, related to Welsh and Breton, or it was an earlier, non-Indo-European dialect.

I've gone with the former theory for two reasons: a) it's easier for me to get names when I run out of ones to snaffle from the Pictish king list, and b) it's the one that makes more sense, to me anyway. We've got names like "Maelchon" and "Drustan" which appear to have comparable forms in the P-Celtic languages, like "Maelgwyn" and "Tristan", and our only actual first-century name - "Calgacus" - does seem to be Celtic under the Latinisation. So, now, most of my Caledonians have Welsh names where the king list fails to turn up results (in the case of female names, for example). I don't think the Picts really spoke Welsh, any more than they spoke Gaelic, but at least it gets across that these people are speaking some sort of P-Celtic tongue.

The exception to this is the Epidii tribe in Argyll. The reason for this is that I've depicted them as a sort of seed of the later kingdom of Dalriada, and they, along with a certain exiled prince, are part of a subplot which deals with Agricola's plans to invade Ireland. It was for this reason that I decided to make the Epidii a bit more "Irish" than the rest of the tribes, and the easiest way to show this was to give them all Irish names, or names based on Irish. This decision was originally made purely to suit the needs of the story, but it seems I might just have a leg to stand on here - archaeology suggests that Argyll has had strong links with Ireland since as far back as Neolithic times. That was good to find out, and it made my decision feel a lot less random than it did originally.

There! I've managed to organise my thoughts on the matter! I'm glad I'm back blogging - it has a very "Penseive effect". ;)

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Got my first essay for Celtic Civ. back today. I got an A3!! Hurray!

I wasn't expecting anything as good as that; I wasn't even expecting the thing to pass. Though I think I freaked out my tutor a bit - I kind of squawked, "What?" when he told me.

Haha! I passed my Celtic essay! :D :D :D

Now I'd better go. Scrubs is on.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Gaia Avatars!

All right, so I'm probably the only person who's just come across this. That's right, it's the GaiaOnline avatar-making site. My sister has hours of fun with it, so I gave it a whirl, trying to make little anime versions of the characters from my book. My favourite so far is Cathal, battle-fury of the Epidii tribe:

In't he cute? (Btw, I doubt the Picts fought with katanas, but it was the best I could do, lol!)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Producers

Went to see The Producers today at the King's Theatre. F-ing brilliant, every second of it! Even better than Chicago, which was the last thing I went to see, and which I also loved!

I was a bit apprehensive, since I know the 1968 film almost off by heart, so I was worried I wouldn't find it so funny this time round. Couldn't have been more wrong! I laughed as if I was seeing it for the first time. There was a great atmosphere, too, and the cast didn't hold back at all, even though we went in the afternoon, not to the evening show.

'Course, nothing quite beats the original, but this performance definitely matched the new film, and was maybe even a bit better. Cory English was just outstanding as Max Bialystock, easily as good as Nathan Lane, and I've never seen Joe Pasquale in anything before, but he was great as Leo Bloom. I loved his blue blanket tantrums! :D The rest of the cast were great, too, especially Allan Stewart as Roger DeBris - he was hysterical!

The highlight was, of course, the Springtime for Hitler number. Yay all-singing, all-dancing Nazis! But I still miss L.S.D. "Love power..."/"I lieb ya, baby, I lieb ya!" XD

There was some great interaction with the audience, too, and with the sign language guy at the side of the stage. Just added to the whole experience!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Latin results

Got the results for my first Latin test back today. Could have gone better, I suppose, but it could also have gone much worse. I didn't do nearly as badly as I'd thought, though I'm still annoyed that most of the bits I got really wrong were things I KNEW. And if I hadn't been so panicky, I would've got them right, too. >:(

Still, I did well on my translations, so that bodes well.

Had a museum session for Archaeology on Wednesday as well, looking at some of the Antonine Wall slabs. And I could even translate bits of them! Well - all right - I don't suppose it takes too many brain cells to work out that an inscription reading "TITO AELIO HADRIANO ANTONINO AVG PIO" is a dedication to Antoninus Pius, but at least I could feel all smug at recognising it was in the Dative case! XD

God, I'm sad.

I guess I need to start working on not getting so bloody panicky.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Book review: The Pict, by Jack Dixon

Warning: there’s spoilers in them thar reviews.

Typical. I start getting stuck into a NiP about the Flavian invasion of Scotland, and suddenly everyone starts publishing books about it. First came Jules Watson’s Dalriada trilogy, now comes Jack Dixon’s debut novel The Pict.

Ah, well. Who can blame them? It’s a fascinating story, all the more so because our only contemporary source comes from Tacitus’ (hardly impartial) biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who led the invasion. But while Tacitus relates the story from the Roman point of view, Jack Dixon looks to the other side of the tale, and gives us a fictionalised account of the life of the man who defied Agricola: the elusive “Calgacus”. This hooked me in at once, as Calgacus had a solid supporting role in Watson’s The White Mare and The Dawn Stag, but since he’s an MC in my own piece, I was looking forward to seeing how someone else portrayed him in the spotlight.

The Pict begins in ancient Scythia, where a ragtag band of refugees, led by a man named Cruithne, are forced to flee their homeland and, with the help of the Scoti, found a home in a distant corner of the world, hidden away behind the mountains and mists. This chapter makes use of key elements in the traditional origin myth of the Picts, as related by Bede (I think. *shifty eyes*).

A thousand years after Cruithne’s migration, we come across eleven-year-old Calach, a precocious young warrior and hunter of the Caledonii tribe. While visiting a mysterious glen said to be home to the spirits of the ancestors, he meets the even more mysterious Girom, an elderly Obi-Wan-esque figure who offers him some spiritual guidance: never to let fear, or hate, rule his heart, for they will weaken his spirit. Later, Calach proves his prowess as a warrior when he rescues his boyhood crush from a gang of thugs and Melcon, king of the Caledonii, allows him to be recognised as a man before his traditional coming-of-age. Ah, bless.

We now skip forward several years, and Gnaeus Julius Agricola has just arrived in Britain, under the orders of the Emperor Vespasian, to conquer the last part of the province. We’re given a brief overview of the first few years of Agricola’s governorship, then we plunge straight into AD 82. The Ninth Legion, frustrated and vengeful from the memory of Boudicca’s rebellion, march into southern Scotland and inflict a bloody and unprovoked massacre upon the inhabitants of a peaceful village of the Selgovaii tribe (who I’ve only ever seen spelled “Selgovae”, but okay...). News of this atrocity reaches the other tribes, and they all reach an agreement: to unite as one and drive the Romans out. Due to his renown as a warrior and tactician, Calach finds himself thrust into a position of leadership, a position he isn’t entirely comfortable with, thinking instead that his brother Gabhran would make a better leader, and longing to live out his days peacefully with his wife, Fiona. Now, with the freedom of the Pictish people at stake, and with tragedy and betrayal shadowing his every move, can Calach hold true to his vow not to let darker forces take over his heart? (And was that nervous penpusher in the corner a certain Cornelius Tacitus...?)

At 190 pages, this isn’t an epic book by any means, and it moves along at a fairly quick pace. The bulk of the story is taken up by Calach’s internal struggles and the guerilla tactics employed by the Picts as they chip away at the hated Ninth Legion. Dixon makes the bold move of eschewing the battle of Mons Graupius entirely, and when Calach and Agricola finally do face off, it’s not on a battlefield, but in a tête-a-tête where Calach effectively makes Agricola his biatch and tells him to retreat and never allow a Roman force to enter Pictish lands again (Inchtuthil and the glen-blocking forts notwithstanding).

The highlight of the book was, for me, the first raid on the Ninth Legion, when the Picts slip in and out like phantoms, leaving the legionaries increasingly terrified and bewildered as they advance further north, and the descriptions, especially those of the ghostly pipes, were the most atmospheric in the book. They definitely sent a wee chill down my spine. I had my doubts, however, that the Picts would be able to break into a Roman camp as many times as they did. Tacitus only mentions one such incident and treats it as if it were a very unique, alarming event. Which it most likely was.

The inclusion of Girom as a spiritual mentor was an interesting one, and The Pict is peppered throughout with some interesting, thoughtful ruminations - especially regarding what it means to be a good person (though I think the “I took a life”/ “A life was forced on you” exchange was a bit convenient). Lots of other characters also have their own little brand of wisdom, and there were plenty of times I found myself going “Hmm...” (Though there were other times when I felt it was a bit “lesson-heavy”.)

Unfortunately, the book’s quick pace often renders the rest of the story quite simplistic. I would have liked to see more of Calach’s maturation as a warrior and tactician, rather than simply fast-forwarding in time and having to take the author’s word for it. As a result, his characterisation is often seems a bit compressed, for lack of a better word, and it was not only a bit tiresome to constantly have to read about how in awe of Calach everyone was, but also a tad predictable that the one who turned out to be a traitor was the only warrior who didn’t prostrate himself before him. (And for such peaceful, wise people, the Picts were dealing out some pretty sadistic punishments.)

In the end, The Pict’s major flaw is the same as the Agricola’s. It lauds its subject so much, and so one-sidedly, that in places the reader is left going, “Uh-huh... yeah.” The difference is that where Tacitus makes a point of depicting his Calgacus as the Worthy Adversary - a “man of outstanding valour and nobility” who managed to keep Agricola on his toes - Dixon’s Roman force comes off as naive and amateurish, and Agricola himself appears as the weak-minded rookie he almost certainly wasn’t. Suffice to say, if the Roman army had really been the way it is depicted here, then that empire would never have come into existence. In fact, apart from the token massacre at the beginning (which seems to have been thrown in there simply to show just how rotten those Romans were), I was left wondering exactly why the Picts were so worried about them.

I would have thought, too, that Calach would have had more of an uphill struggle in his efforts to unite the Picts; Dixon simply tells us that he organised them into a “well-trained and closely-knit force”. It’s mentioned, too, that the Picts have an innate suspicion of overlords, yet they have no problem accepting Calach as their leader. Even when he finally does succumb to his hatred and need for vengeance, despite all of Girom’s warnings, he still easily outwits Agricola and wins without any trouble or major repercussions (except becoming a distinctly less attractive character). I don’t know - in the end everything just seemed a bit effortless.

The omission of Mons Graupius also, IMO, did the book a disservice, as it renders it a bit anticlimactic. This could, however, be because I was expecting it to be the big set-piece, as it was in The Dawn Stag and, of course, the Agricola. I did have to chuckle a bit, though, because even though Dixon leaves out the battle on the grounds that it could be an invention on Tacitus’ part, he just can’t resist including the famous speech, which very definitely was a figment of Tacitus’ imagination.

And, just because I’m a godawful nitpicker, there are other things that are out of place. One is the phrase “AD 82” in the prose itself. This concept didn’t exist to either the Romans or Picts. Another is the mention of people laughing “like jackals”. Yep, there were lots of them running around first century Scotland. It also seemed a bit incongruous that most of the Picts had Gaelic names, since Bede and Adomnán both make it clear that the Picts weren’t Gaelic-speakers. The name Fiona is out of place anyway because, although based on Gaelic fionn, it’s not a traditional name and didn’t seem to have come into use until the eighteenth century at the earliest.

For me, The Pict was ultimately a bit too one-sided and simplistic, but if you’re interested in the Picts (who simply don’t get enough love in fiction) and/or the elusive “other side” of history, then you may find it worth a look. And even though I take issue with some of the events of the book, for one reason or another, I can definitely appreciate Dixon’s love and enthusiasm for his subject matter, and his daring to look past the “offical version” of history.