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.