Prehistory - the literary dimension

Alison Skinner


Historical novels are not a terribly fashionable literary genre at present. They rarely have their own sections in bookshops, unlike fantasy and science fiction, and never get discussed on late night Channel 4 features, like crime novels. This neglect, appropriately, has historical roots.

Traditionally, historical novels meant either the romantic interpretations of Scottish and English history by Sir Walter Scott or the children's books of Henty and other Victorians in which juvenile heroes (and occasionally heroines) witnessed glorious moments in Our Island's History and biffed the foe in various pats of the Empire. The lack of genuine historical accuracy in these works, and the blatant propaganda values inherent in some of them, tended to discredit the whole genre, although they remained very popular.

Between the wars and just after, historical novels became a sub-section of the romantic novel, with a few honourable exceptions, featuring dark, broody Regency heroes, rampaging Plantagenets or philandering Tudors and Stuarts, according to the tastes of the writer. Both pre- and post-War the historical setting performed a useful function in allowing writers to discuss sex more frankly than might have been allowable in mainstream fiction, but the continuing problems of lack of proper research and artificial dialogue perpetuated the view that historical novels were a purely escapist form of literature, not worthy of serious consideration.

Things started to change around the late 1960s and 1970s. A new generation of writers started to take their work more seriously, while simultaneously the quality and quantity of published historical research increased dramatically. It now became possible to create authentic backgrounds, at least to the level of contemporary knowledge, and writers became more meticulous in communicating to the reader where the real history ended and their invention began. Historical fiction now divided into two channels - those who wished to continue to write romantic fiction with an historical background switched to the multi-volume family saga, usually with strong female characters, set in periods from the eighteenth century to the Second World War; those wishing to write genuine historical novels started to select the less well-known periods and characters which had some resonance with modern times and interests.

Increasingly it has been the prehistoric period which has inspired writers and the 1980s has seen a real flowering of writing on this period, mostly incorporating archaeological, anthropological and folklore findings. These novels are of a wholly different order to the acres of sub-Tolkein triple book fantasy sagas currently clogging up booksellers shelves and represent a genuine attempt to explore the roots of British human prehistory. Some guesswork is inevitable with the lack of hard evidence, but readers can make their own minds up as to how far they accept a book's presumptions.

Among the reasons for the new interest in this period is likely to be the new finds coming t light during the past twenty years from Dark Age and prehistoric eras and the more imaginative presentation of archaeology at sites and through the media. Earth mysteries enthusiasts who have photographed and documented sites, issued guide books and created a demand for reliable versions of legendary and folkloric source material such as the Mabinogion, the Welsh Triads and the Ulster cycle stories of Finn McCool and Cuchulain have ensured that a rich source of symbolic material is available to all who have the talent to make use of it. A new generation of post-war writers of an age to have been influenced by the Sixties explosion of interest in leys and unexplained phenomena is now starting to emerge with their own voice and vision of these times.

Why might current researchers have an interest in this material? The answers are varied but everyone visiting and using ancient sites has an interest in the thought processes and beliefs of the original inhabitants. Good writers can provide an imaginative insight into these which can enhance one's understanding and enjoyment.

In this article I will be mainly concerned with the novels set in the earliest periods of human habitation from the ice age to the iron age.

British historical novels - a sense of place

An appreciation of landscape and a strong regional sense are characteristic of British literature in general and it is no surprise that many historical novelists carry on this tradition.

Children's books can be very influential and three classics need to be mentioned at this stage. Rudyard Kipling may be a rather unexpected figure to encounter at the start of an overview such as this, but he was a multi-faceted character with an enthusiasm for English history, who might well have taken an interest in ley lines and landscape research had he lived to a later age.

He wrote two children's books, Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies [full bibliographical details below] which are based on the Sussex Downs and share a great feeling for the enduring character of the landscape and the waves of prehistoric people, Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans who have lived, fought and migrated across it. In the stories, two Edwardian children are introduced by the mythological figure of Puck to characters from the past who were alive around their home in Roman, Norman, medieval and Tudor times. The stories are interspersed with poems and show an obvious knowledge of English folklore and legend. Peter Bellamy, a traditional folk-singer who has made two records of poems from the books set to traditional folk melodies, is convinced that the author was familiar with the original folk songs and used similar metres in his poems.

One of the stories, 'The Knife and the Naked Chalk' in Rewards and Fairies deals with the Neolithic sheep herders living on the Sussex chalk, who have only flint technology and whose flocks are threatened by wolves. One of their number sacrifices an eye to learn the secret of making bronze and is hailed as the new Tyr and worshipped as a god in place of the original female goddess figure.

The extracts from the two following poems would sit well in any modern Earth mysteries magazine:

'and see yon marks that show and fade
Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made
To guard their wondrous towns.

Trackway and Camp and City lost
Salt Marsh where now is corn
Old wars, old pence, old arts that cease
And so was England born

She is not any common Earth
Water or Wood or Air
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare

Puck's song from Puck of Pook's Hill

Oh, do not tell the priest our plight
Or he would call it sin
But - we have been out in the woods all night
A-conjuring Summer in
And we bring you news by word of mouth
Good news for cattle and corn -
Now is the Sun come up from the South
With Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Sing Oak and Ash and Thorn, good sirs
(All of a midsummer morn)!
England shall bide till Judgement Tide
By oak and Ash and Thorn

A tree Song from Puck of Pook's Hill

Historical writers in the 1950s did not have access to all the new information on Britain's past available in the 1980s and 90s, but were particularly interested in the folklore, mythology and ritual of prehistory. The Golden Bough by Sir James Fraser was a very inspirational source with its accounts of fertility corn cults and seasonal rituals around the world.

Rosemary Sutcliff is a distinguished historical writer for children and her works of the Roman and Celtic period have been enormously influential. Her book Sword at Sunset alone was one of the major influences on the whole genre of Arthurian Dark Age fiction, switching the emphasis away from the Mallory-derived medieval retellings popular up to then.

Sutcliff has lived extensively on the Sussex South Downs and was strongly influenced in her childhood by Kipling's Puck stories which led her to consider the Roman and Norman periods for her own work. She too set one of her stories in the neolithic period Sussex downs and Warrior Scarlet is a convincing reconstruction of the life of bronze age tribesmen and specifically the rite of passage of a handicapped boy who has to kill a wolf unaided in order to be accepted into the life of the tribe. She is very good on the details of day-to-day living and her accounts of ritual events have great power and resonance.

A fellow children's author in the 1950s, Henry Treece, wrote many books set in the Saxon and Viking periods which were characterised by a considerable toughness and realism. He also wrote four stunning novels for adults covering neolithic, Celtic, Roman and Arthurian periods. His books set in the neolithic period are extremely powerful and take an unsentimental view of the period when fear, uncertainty and self-preservation may well have been predominant emotions. The Golden Strangers records the triumph of sun-worshipping people over the small, dark neolithic indigenous people and is strong on ritual and tribal life. Treece's last book, The Dreamtime, is an imaginative work, not clearly located in any particular period or place, describing the adventures of a wandering man with an artist's sensibility who makes contact with various hunting and fishing peoples, some hostile, others friendly, until he finds a tribe who make drawings on cave walls and are willing to accept a fellow artist.

Naomi Mitchison is a distinguished Scottish novelist and essayist, now in her nineties, who was well-known in the 1950s for her historical novels set in the Greek and Roman periods. A visit to Skara Brae however, at a relatively advanced age, was the inspiration for a new novel, set in the Orkneys, which deliberately attempts to reconstruct the possible way of life of these people. Early in Orcadia gives a convincing account of tribes whose main preoccupations are food and survival and the exploratory drive which sends a boat load of humans and animals across to the next island beyond the horizon. She also tries in her use of language to convey the possible thought processes of her characters.

George Mackay Brown, a native of Storness in the Orkneys, is steeped in the history of his islands and draws on their long history as themes for his poetry, short stories and novels, which are all recommended. He has tended to write more on the Viking, medieval and later periods in Orkney than the neolithic period, but his book of short stories, Hawkfall, opens with an impressive account of a ritual burial at the Maes Howe megalithic tomb. His non-fiction work An Orkney Tapestry contains more writing on the Ring of Brogar, the Stones of Stenness and Maes Howe.

Cecilia Holland is a modern, well-respected historical novelist whose work covers many different historical periods and geographical locations. Pillar of the Sky is her one excursion into prehistory so far which sets out to explore the origins of Stonehenge. This is seen as the personal vision of one man who persuaded his tribe to work with him on the great arch but fails finally through a series of accidents and his over-riding obsession. The book accurately depicts the dressing and erection of the stones according to current archaeological theory.

Peter Vansittart wrote a number of historical novels in the 1960s and 1970s set in the Roman and Arthurian periods. He is a fine writer with an unsentimental view of the ancient world, vividly conveying sights, smells and pagan beliefs. His book, The Death of Robin Hood, is set in four different periods, all linked by the symbol of the Green Man and Sherwood Forest.

The first section takes place in prehistoric Sherwood where Hodekin, one-eyed Wood King, is worshipped by the local community and accepts ritual sacrifices to ensure the fertility of humans and crops. The next section covers an episode in the Robin Hood story in the twelfth century when the man in the woods has taken on the mantle of outlaw and the local population hover uneasily between christianity and paganism. The third section elates the history of the Luddite gangs in Nottingham, whose mythical leader 'King Ludd' hides out in Sherwood Forest like the earlier Green Man.

The last section is set in the 1930s in the shadow of the impending Second World War and shows a child growing up in Nottinghamshire where Robin Hood and King Ludd are now children's tales and there is a reminder of the Aryan myth-making of the Nazis.

The Vansittart book illustrates a popular literary technique at present which illustrates the continuity of life in a particular area by presenting episodes from different eras. An exceptional example is provided by Ielfstan's place 15,000 BC - 1919 AD by Richard Girling. This reconstructs the history of the village of Islington in Devon by describing episodes from different stages in history. The first chapter describes a nomadic band hunting horses in the area and the second a fertility ritual among neolithic people. Further chapters relate stories from the Roman, Celtic, Saxon and Viking periods, leading on to the Black Death, the Reformation, Civil War and the industrial revolution. In each of them we see the place taking on its distinctive characteristics and the people becoming settled into it.

A similar technique is used by Edward Rutherford in Sarum. This relates the history of life on the Salisbury Plain from the ice age to the present day, including the building of Stonehenge and the construction of Salisbury Cathedral. At 1,344 pages, it would not be described as a quick read but the early chapters covering the prehistoric period are well done and a considerable amount of historical knowledge is displayed.

The newest example of this approach is a book by Raymond Williams, the well-known literary critic. His aim was a sequence of books on the history of life in the Black Mountains in Wales from prehistory to the present day, but his death occurred just after publication of the first novel, People of the Black Mountains - The Beginning. The framing device for the book is the night-long quest of Glyn, a present-day man from the area, for his grandfather who has gone out walking over the hills. Glyn hears voices coming out of the night - ghosts of the earlier peoples who had lived in the area. The stories cover the period from the ice age to the coming of the Romans and record innovations in technology and the coming together of different cultures such as the hunters and farmers and subsequent changes to the environment, such as forest clearances. Later chapters show the influence of Druidic teachers and incorporate folklore of the area such as the Wren Hunt. The book conveys the lengthy passage of generations necessary for even small changes to occur and is a lively and well-researched contribution to the genre.

Modern writers - exploring the springs of human nature

The influences which have stimulated historical novelists have also been at work on mainstream writers who are including themes from prehistory in their work.

Peter Ackroyd is a much-praised post-war modern writer with a gift for literary pastiche. His novel Hawksmoor, set simultaneously in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries explores occult goings-on associated with the East End London churches in Spitalfields.

His most recent fictional book, First Light, has as its central theme the excavation of a fictitious megalithic tomb in Dorset. The archaeological procedures are well-researched and he conveys very well the awe felt by the workers when they find themselves standing in the English equivalent of New Grange. Various other threads are intermingled into the story, such as astronomical observations and the activities of an old Dorset family who are guardians of the tomb. Ackroyd uses these elements to explore the continuity of belief from the past to the present and the possibility that our present-day astronomical expertise may be a rediscovery of knowledge rather than a unique experience.

Andrew Sinclair has written a number of modern novels and non-fiction works, but his major achievement is the three novels which make up the Albion triptych - called Gog, Magog and King Ludd. Together they constitute an examination of pre- and post-war English history and a meditation on key elements of British mythology. King Ludd is the best and most complex of the trilogy. A summary of the plot can only convey a portion of the richness of historical references included. The story opens with a student called Gog writing a thesis at Cambridge University, just before the Second World War, on the Luddite disturbances in Nottinghamshire. He is friends with future spies, goes to look at the Gogmagog giant on the hills outside Cambridge - first discovered by Lethbridge who appears in the book, walks from Tolpuddle to Stonehenge, has a vision of ley lines covering the country and has regular run-ins with his twin brother, Magog. During the war he works with the Ultra code breakers, applying a version of a Druidic ogham script to the problem. Anyone with an appreciation of English landscape and history would enjoy spotting the references in this book.

Dominic Cooper, a Scottish writer, turned to the prehistoric period for his third novel. This is entitled The Horn Fellow and describes the initiation of a traveller into a community where men and women live separately and worship a deer figure and only come together on ritual occasions. The book explores the implications of this way of life for relations between the sexes and the eventual outcome when the old ways are challenged by the newcomer. This is deliberately set in an unspecified time and place.

A new writer, Jim Crace, has written a remarkable book called The Gift of Stones. This describes a community of stoneworkers living according to custom and tradition. The technology of flint knapping is convincingly portrayed - the result of personal experience and research - but the major theme of the story is the development of narrative and story telling in human society. One of the flint knappers becomes a story teller through contact with a woman from outside the community who comes to live with them.

The work of Robert Holdstock was described in Mercian Mysteries No. 8. While his books in the Mythago Wood series are not exactly historical novels, their depiction of beings from neolithic and Celtic periods draw on archaeological and folklore research. The third book in the series, The Bone Forest, includes a Mythago novella but the remainder consist of short stories set in historic periods from the neolithic to the middle ages. A craftsman carves a Green Man in a parish church, a Saxon shaman teaches his apprentice, an ice age artist learns to paint on the cave walls and Morris men enact the real rituals which underpin their dances.

In the Ice Age - sapiens v. Neanderthals

Fuelled by the discoveries in the 1970s and 1980s in the Siberian tundra, widespread interest in the ice age period has developed. There is now considerable knowledge concerning the flora and fauna of the period, the hunting and gathering life-style of the human inhabitants of the steppe and growing awareness of the possible nature of their ritual life centring on shamanic spiritual possession, clan totems and worship of the Earth Mother.

A number of writers have started to use the material imaginatively to explore the origins of human knowledge and skill. A special theme has been the relationship between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. The effect of a number of these novels is to rehabilitate the neanderthals as human cousins with sensitivity and skills of their own who were subject to racism and genocide from the emerging sapiens.

William Golding is one of the most distinguished novelists to try his hand at a work from this period. The Inheritors, published in 1955, is an imaginative reconstruction of the life of a band of neanderthals. It is written in such a way that the writer automatically assumes the group to be full Homo sapiens as they talk simply to each other and bury their dead with deeply-felt rituals. Gradually a new group of people appear on the scene and we start to see our own species through the eyes of the others and recognise types of technology and behaviour. This book is recognised as a classic - a reminder of the limitations of human moral behaviour.

The best-known work on this period is Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear tetralogy. This tells the story of an orphaned female Homo sapiens who is rescued by a band of neanderthals and grows up with them. She later leaves the group and joins a band of her own kind where she is instrumental in demonstrating new techniques of hunting, food gathering, domesticating animals and spirit possession. At one level this can be described as a prehistoric soap opera but the story is well-written and compulsively readable, and is under-pinned by an impressive degree of research into local flora and fauna and ice age technology applied to hunting and day-to-day life. The latest book in the sequence, The Plains of Passage, has taken five years to research and write.

The book Dance of the Tiger by Bjorn Kurten is set in ice age Scandinavia and written by an expert palaeontologist. It includes a glowing introduction by the scientist Stephen Jay Gould who claims that the author has insinuated into his story every fact and theory about Neanderthals, Cro-magnons, human evolution, glacial geology and the ecology and behaviour of ice age mammals. The story describes the struggle for survival between two groups and offers its own theory concerning the disappearance of neanderthals.

As well as archaeological information there is now a considerable body of anthropological knowledge from studies of surviving hunter-gatherer indigenous peoples.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has written books on hunting peoples throughout the world including bushmen and her novel Reindeer Moon draws on this anthropological knowledge to reconstruct life on the steppe in prehistoric times. Hunting and gathering, animal life, kinship relations, rituals and shamanic possession are all represented convincingly with particular attention to the role of women. Thomas uses her knowledge of existing hunting societies to explore how human bands might have endeavoured to keep the peace and avoid conflict. This is an extremely well-written and enjoyable work.

An unnamed land - probably Scandinavia - is the setting for two books on an imagined prehistory of Lapp-type people. A woman healer and her retarded son join a nomadic band of reindeer herders and the boy is initiated into shamanic possession. The Reindeer People and Wolf's Brother by Megan Lindholm are enjoyable evocations of the life of herding peoples with well-researched details of reindeer management. A huge resonant meeting stone on the tundra is part of the ritual life of the people.

Auel, Thomas and Lindholm emphasise the contribution of female members of the groups as healers, food gatherers and processors and priestesses of the Great Mother, counter-balancing the male orientation of archaeologists and earlier writers.

A final non-fiction book draws on the experience of Australian aboriginals and nomads from other parts of the world. Bruce Chatwin's pioneering work Songlines sets out a vision of the relationship of people to landscape in which the first Australians travel in straight lines across their world at the dawn of time, naming in 'songs' features in the landscape and imbuing the whole countryside with a mythological presence. This visionary work is a fitting climax to this body of little-known literature.

Works cited

Paperbacks editions are given wherever possible.

Ackroyd, Peter Hawksmoor, Abacus 1985
Ackroyd, Peter First Light, Abacus, 1989
Auel, Jean M. Clan of the Cave Bear, Coronet 1980
Auel, Jean M. Valley of the Horses, Coronet, 1982
Auel, Jean M. The Mammoth Hunters, Coronet, 1985
Auel, Jean M. The Plains of Passage, Coronet, 1990
Brown, George MacKay Hawksfall, Triad Granada
Brown, George MacKay An Orkney Tapestry Quartet Books
Chatwin, Bruce The Songlines, Picador, 1987
Cooper, Dominic The Horn Fellow, Faber, 1987
Crace, Jim The Gift of Stones, Picador, 1988
Girling, Richard Ielfstan's Place 15,000 BC-1919 AD, Heinemann, 1981
Golding, William The Inheritors, Faber, 1955
Holdstock, Robert Mythago Wood, Grafton, 1984
Holdstock, Robert Lavondyss, Grafton, 1988
Holdstock, Robert, The Bone Forest, Grafton, 1991
Holland, Cecelia Pillar of the Sky, Victor Gollancz, 1985
Kipling, Rudyard Puck of Pook's Hill, Piccolo, 1906
Kipling, Rudyard Rewards and Fairies, Piccolo, 1910
Kurten, Bjorn Dance of the Tiger, Abacus, 1980
Lindholm, Megan The Reindeer People, Unwin, 1988
Lindholm, Megan Wolf's Brother, Unwin, 1989
Mitchison, Naomi Early in Orcadia, Richard Drew Publishing, 1987
Rutherford, Edward Sarum, Arrow, 1987
Sinclair, Andrew King Ludd, Sceptre, 1988
Sutcliff, Rosemary Warrior Scarlet, Puffin, 1958
Sutcliff, Rosemary Sword at Sunset, Hodder, 1963
Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall Reindeer Moon, Collins, 1987
Treece, Henry The Golden Strangers, Savoy Books, 1956
Treece, Henry The Dream Time, Brockhampton Press, 1967
Vansittart, Peter The Death of Robin Hood, Peter Own, 1981
Williams, Raymond People of the Black Mountains, Paladin, 1989

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No's 10 and 11 February and May 1992.

Copyright 1992, 1996, 2001. No unauthorised copying or reproduction except if all following conditions apply:
a: Copy is complete (including this copyright statement).
b: No changes are made.
c: No charge is made.

At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /
Created April 1996; updated August 2001