The trouble with Dark Age heroes

While my focus is on Women of the Dark Ages, unless I write about one of the many women who took up a religious life, the chances are there is going to be at least one and probably more  strong male characters in the book. This throws up a number of challenges in remaining true to the history, while still making the character sympathetic to a modern audience.

Marriages of girls as young as twelve or thirteen were considered normal to people of the time, but would be rightly condemned today.  I had my concerns when portraying the dynastic marriage of the frightened  fifteen-year-old Pict princess to the arrogant twenty-two-year-old Cinaed Mac Alpin, as to how that could result in a love story. Here I was able to avoid some of the issues by leaving the marriage unconsummated until she was well past the age of consent even by modern standards. This had the added bonus of accounting for the three year gap between their marriage and the birth of their first child.

The issue of teenage marriage will become even more relevant in the story I’m currently working on, with a teenage bride and an age gap that makes the seven years between Cinaed and Baena appear as nothing. I have no intention of making this one a love story, but having looked carefully at both historic characters I don’t want to portray it as overwhelmingly negative or completely lacking in affection

Cinaed’s marriage is in some ways the least of the problems in keeping him a sympathetic character. The historical records show him as a reputable warrior, while the possibly historic, possibly mythological events known as Mac Alpin’s Treason show him to be someone capable of brutal atrocities and despicable acts. In creating this character I have tried not to shy away from this aspect of his personality, but to balance it with other more noble characteristics. As well as ambition he is genuinely motivated by a desire to protect his land and his people. We also get to see his gentler side in his relationships with his family. We see him as a devoted and loving son who is crushed by the deaths of his parents. We see his unswerving loyalty and friendship with his kinsmen, Domnall and Graunt. Sometimes serious, sometimes playful, and not without rivalry, those three always stick together. While the raising of his children was undoubtedly left to their mother and other women, he is a doting father willing to indulge in horseplay and games during his rare moments of leisure.

Strangely I had the opposite problem with Radigis, the Varni Prince in ‘The Girl from Brittia’. In the original source he appears distinctly weak, continually pulled in all directions by the other, much stronger characters and making self-pitying excuses for his lack of action. Not exactly hero material for any age! But careful reading of Procopius’s account helps to account for his character. First is the description of the Franks, as people who had the power to help or hinder the Varni. The threat is obvious – the Varni are at their mercy. Radigis ends up not necessarily weak, but definitely powerless.

The other point that is made is that Radigis is an only child. Cinaed has his brother Domnall. Edlin, the Girl from Brittia, has her brother Wehha. Both Cinaed and Edlin gain strength from that support. Radigis is alone. There is also another issue which is relevant to his character. Unless your parents really hated each other, being an only child in the Dark Ages probably means one thing – a lot of dead siblings. Who can blame his parents for slightly over-protecting their only surviving child?

So Radigis emerges as a character who is not weak, but who has never had to be strong. He is defenseless, but he has the courage to find his defenses. Like all young men of his rank he has been taught to fight and to lead men in battle, but he is better suited to leading in peace. He is not the killing machine that Cinaed, Domnall and Wehha have all been raised to be. I would hope that even in the Dark Ages he would not be condemned for that.

‘Kenneth’s Queen’ and ‘The Girl from Brittia’ are available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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