Critically acclaimed bestselling author Karen Maitland is one of the leading contemporary historical novelists in Britain. She combines compelling storytelling with research filtered carefully through her narratives. There are few writers who manage to master the balancing act, of allowing the reader to learn about the past while being completely immersed in the story. Maitland does this with great skill. Her characterisation is immediate, placing her protagonists in the historical context while making them accessible to the modern reader. Maitland has a new novel out, The Falcons of Fire and Ice, published by Penguin. It is a dramatic narrative about the Inquisition, and my review of it follows.
Karen met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about history and fiction.
Falcons of Fire and Ice concerns the inquisition. How much do you think the world has changed and does the historical adventure the novel portrays hold any lessons for modern society?
Human nature doesn’t change. Our knowledge has advanced beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined, but our patterns of behaviour unfortunately have not. Religion has always been about wielding political power and has been an immensely potent force for control since ancient times. In last few decades we have again seen the rise of extreme fundamentalism in most of the world religions, where activists try to impose their beliefs using fear and violence.
This was exactly the situation in 1564 when Falcons of Fire and Ice is set, where the Inquisition was using torture and murder to destroy Lutherans, Muslims, Jews, and so-call heretics, while the Reformation was using fear and violence to impose Protestantism on Catholics. The irony was that both the Inquisition and Reformation instigators purported to be Christians and in both cases the very first book they banned and burned was the Bible.
In the novel, the characters are searching for a rare white gyrfalcon. If you try to force a falcon to do something against its will or instinct, if you try to break its spirit, it becomes useless as a hunting bird. A trained falcon remains a wild bird which chooses to co-operate with a human, which is a magical and wonderful relationship.
If there is a lesson in the novel, it is that history teaches us you cannot make anyone believe anything by force. They might appear to conform out of fear, but the moment you loosen your grip of terror, you’ve lost them. Threatening people will only make them more determined to resist.
To what extent do you think history is a narrative and part fiction?
History is a fiction which is constant being rewritten and restructured. It’s a series of often unrelated incidents which we try to form into a narrative. We all naturally weave the events of our own lives into a story – my disastrous holiday, the bizarre thing that happened to me on the train – leaving out some elements, exaggerating incidents, guessing at the motives of other people until we have constructed a story. We deal with events in history in the same way because that is how we make sense of the past and present.
The recent excavation of the bones of King Richard III in England reopened the debate about whether he was a good king or a bad one, as if there somehow has to be an objective truth out there waiting to be discovered. When the French army set out to free England from ‘the evil tyranny of King John’, were they invaders bent on conquest or heroic liberators? It entirely depended on who was writing about it at the time and what they had to lose or gain from a change of power. You only have to read different media reports of the same incident today to know that even though we live in a world of instant communication there is no such as truth just a series of stories.
In ‘Metahistory’ Hayden White posits the theory that a historian begins his work by putting together a chronicle of events which is organized into a story before the material is put into a plot which is latently expressing an ideology. As a historian what do you make of his theory and how do you avoid narrative prejudice when writing history?
I think that is an excellent way of describing the process and I am not sure as historian it can be avoided. Historians analyse past events through prism of the culture and ideology of their time and place, because we cannot ‘unknow’ the knowledge of our own age.
But one of the tasks of a historical fiction author is to help the reader to view the world as the people of the time might have done, a view which is often acutely uncomfortable for the modern reader. And this where, I think, historical fiction has advantage over historical non-fiction.
The historical fiction writers tries to suspend judgement and enter into the mind-set of their characters. If the characters at the time believe that eels were born from fish slime, you, as the author, must believe that utterly yourself, even to the point of thinking you could prove it. You have to fight a battle sword thrust by sword thrust, in fear or hatred, without knowing whether your side is going to win or be defeated, because your character has no way of knowing that.
Historians describe a battle from hindsight, knowing what the consequences of that battle have been in the centuries since. A historical fiction writer lives in the present moment with the character on the battlefield and knows only that the character is terrified of dying and so is able to leave this century and enter the past.
To what extent is the demystification of the ideology of magic important to you as a novelist?
There is tendency to regard medieval belief in magic as primitive and foolish. As a novelist, I want to show that in fact it was often quite logical. If you were taught that a saint could cure a person simply through touch, you would equally believe that you could be cursed into being ill by someone wishing you harm.
Medieval belief in magic was often based on observation. In the Falcons of Fire and Ice a child is struck by a rapidly moving black cloud sending her into delirium. Down through the centuries, several eye-witness accounts of such clouds were recorded by both locals and explorers in Iceland, which that makes me believe this wasn’t just a myth. They actually saw something.
But if you lived in the 1500’s and saw a fast moving cloud coming out of nowhere you’d probably think it was ‘Sending’, a malicious force sent out by neighbour with grudge. Now we believe the mostly likely explanation is that it was a ball of gas emitted by volcanic fission which was often the precursor to a full volcanic eruption which might not occur until several months later.
But don’t I think magic and the supernatural can be entirely explained away. Not yet anyway. I’ve witnessed very strange incidents in Africa and other places in the company of very rational scientists which none of us can begin to explain, at least not within our present knowledge, and I’m glad about that. Who would want to live in world without mystery?
Tell us about the strange events you have witnessed.
I tend to weave these incidents into my fiction. In The Owl Killers, the description of the anchorite, Andrew, has a line in it about her swelling to twice her size in front of pilgrims when she was in a meditative trance. It was phenomenon that was associated with a number of medieval holy men and women right across Europe, but I witnessed something similar in a tribal ceremony out in the African bush. And that’s one of the things which fascinates me about folklore – entirely different cultures often share the same myths or beliefs.
For example, being in two places at the same time or biolocation. Many cultures from American Indians, Aboriginal and African tribes believe in the power of certain shamans to appear in two places at once, but phenomenon is also associated with modern saints such as St. Padre Pio and was even reported of Vladimir Lenin when he lay dying.
A few years ago I came across a story of a Victorian woman who unknowingly saved the life of her sister by appearing at the window of the man who was trying to murder her. This appearance frightening the murderer so much he released his victim unharmed. But the sister who saved her knew nothing of this and was sitting at safely at home, miles away.
Shortly I read about this I was interviewing a solider who’d fought in a conflict in the Middle East shortly after World War II. He told me that a colleague was out on patrol when it was attacked and he was only survivor. He managed walk back to the base and in front of several witnesses, warn of an imminent attack. Dismissed by his commanding officer, he staggered out, heading towards his own quarters.
Except that he didn’t. He was in fact at that moment lying wounded in the desert where he’d been shot, and that’s eventually where he was found. He’d never moved, in fact he would have been incapable of it.
What we believe really happened in these stories or even if they were just tales, in one sense doesn’t matter, what intrigues me is that such different cultures have stories about such things from ancient times to the modern day.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I think it’s great in that it is encouraging new readers to discover the joy of books. But I see it not so much of a revolution, rather a different format to be added to those we already have. I don’t think it will replace print books. But just as the coming of TV caused cinema and radio to redefine themselves and specialise in what they do best, maybe the same will be true of print books.
One thing that worries me though is the transient nature of e-books. A few years ago I was involved in project across Britain recording elderly people talking about their lives. These recording were to be archived in local libraries as a resource for future researchers. What could be better people telling their own stories in their own dialects? The trouble is there are now no machines left in those libraries to play the recordings, because the technology become obsolete, so in effect those memories are lost, and only those stories that were transcribed into print form survive.
In The Owl Killers, a novel about the beguinage or the medieval cities of women, I draw on a book The Mirror for Simple Souls written by the beguine, Marguerite Porete, who in 1310, was burned to death as a heretic for writing that book. All copies of the book were supposed to be burned with her, but her followers hid copies and in the twentieth century they were republished. If she’d published on e-book back then, doubtless her books would have survived for a while on her followers’ kindles but would they still have been able to be read seven hundred years later? What if the ancient Greeks or Romans had committed everything to e-books?
Who are your literary influences?
The first adult book I ever read aged 13 or 14 was Graham Greene’s the Power and the Glory, and I found myself totally besotted by a drunken, lecherous runaway priest with ulcers and bad teeth. It was the first time I realised novels could be about flawed people and books didn’t have to end with ‘happily ever after.’ I continue to love Graham Greene for his anti-heroes and also the great sense of place he evokes.
In terms of direct literary influences on my own writing I tend to find these in much older work such Beowulf and the Norse Sagas. Although, these were written centuries before the Medieval period about which I write, the structure of these stories probably do influence the novels I write, especially when my characters themselves are telling stories.
I’m a big fan of magic realism authors including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter , Patrick Süskind the great Isaac Bashevis Singer and a recent absolutely favourite Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I’ve been listening to his The Midnight Palace on unabridged audio.
Like many authors I avoid reading historical fiction set in the period in which I write for fear of inadvertently being influenced by those novels, but I do like reading dark novels set in other periods such as Spider Light by Sarah Rayne. I also find that really well-written biographies such as Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore are wonderful keys to understanding how the personalities of such influential figures are shaped, which is a vital element in learning how to creating captivating fictional characters.
What is your favourite historical period?
As a novelist my favourite period has to be the fourteenth century, because it is a century which has such resonance for our own time. It began with drastic climate change, followed by waves of new diseases both of livestock and humans including the Black Death. This lead to enormous social change which saw the end of feudal system and the peasants’ revolt , with riots against the poll tax and the ordinary people rising up and executing leading Government ministers accusing them of expenses scandals, corruption and raising crippling taxes to get the country out of debt.
But it was also century in which we had sophisticated level of medical knowledge that we were later to lose because of the Reformation, allowing operations to be performed under anaesthetics and teeth to be drilled and filled. Hygiene laws were introduced governing lavatories and water being piped into towns.
But of the things that fascinates about this century is the changing role of women. At the beginning of the 1300’s they were working in every field of life from training as doctors at medical school to running businesses. By the end of the century, they were being pushed out of all fields by the power of the guilds and, with a few exceptions, it wasn’t really until the twentieth century that women started to regain entry to the professions again.
But if you ask me which period would I like to have lived in, it certainly wouldn’t have been the Middle Ages – far too dangerous and brutal! If I could go back in time, it would be to 1816 when the deliciously bad Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary & Percy Shelley spent the summer together in Geneva. Where, according to legend, on a stormy night after reading a book of German ghost stories, Byron challenged everyone to write their own ghostly tale. A challenge which was eventually to lead to the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre. I would have loved to be one of their company that summer.
Which era do you think the present one most precisely parallels?
The 14th century has some remarkable parallels with our own time, but there are other interesting parallels in the two centuries before. One is the conflict between Christian and Muslim worlds, which we see reflected in the numerous crusades and counter-attacks. On both the Christian and Muslim side they were seen as religious wars and wars to ‘liberate’ the ordinary people. But, of course, then as now, there were far more complex political and economic games being played because trade and trade routes lay at the heart of these wars.
One of the things that fascinated me when I was researching the crusades for The Gallows Curse is that women had fought on the front-line on both sides in the crusades, some Christian women charging into battle on horseback in full armour. One female Christian archer had killed so many of Saladin’s men that when she was eventually killed herself, Saladin insisted her corpse should be treated with reverence, because of her courage. Women fighting in the front line is nothing new.
The other great parallels of the 13th and 14th centuries was the multiculturalism of Britain, not only were we importing food stuffs and goods from as far away as India and Africa, not to mention the lively trade in ‘mummy’ from the Middle East, we also had many different nationalities working and living in England. In fact in the 13th century there are records of a bloody sword fight between Cambridge University students, monks from the local abbey and market traders and according to the evidence at the trial, people were hurling abuse at each in six different languages.
Do you think we live in more violent times today than we did previously?
I think it is pretty similar, certainly in terms of wars, murder and hostage taking. The weapons may have changed but the bloodlust and cruelty hasn’t. The problem in the modern era is that with automatic guns if one man goes crazy he is able kill far more people than if he’d simply been armed with a sword.
In the Middle Ages, punishments were severe, flogging, mutilation or execution for offences such as theft. For example on the pilgrimage ship if you struck fellow passenger and drew blood your hand was cut off. If you killed him, you would be bound to his corpse and flung overboard. There was probably no escaping justice in the confines of a ship, but on land these punishments didn’t have great effect on the crime rate, because unless you were caught red-handed, the chances of being arrested were low.
Some of wealthier members of society did seem to get away with a lot. Six of the seven sons of John de Folville, who owned lands in both Leicestershire and Rutland were known to have committed at least three murders, numerous rapes and made a good living from robbing travellers. In 1331, four of the brothers were paid £20 by the Canon of Sempringham and a monk to destroy a watermill owned by a man that the clerics had a grudge against. The brothers were declared outlaws, but always managed to escape capture and were pardoned by the king in a general amnesty.
They continued to commit robberies, stealing £200 worth of goods from the merchants of Leicester and kidnapping Sir Richard Wylughby for ransom, before their ringleader, Eustace, was knighted for his services to the crown. Maybe we couldn’t quite get away with this in Britain today, but I think there are still quite a few countries where you could find a modern parallel.
Thank you so much for interviewing me and asking such thought-provoking questions. Much appreciated.
Thank you Karen for a great and informative interview.
Visit Karen Maitland’s website to learn more about her work.