In The trouble with Dark Age heroes I wrote about the difficulties in making warlike Dark Age leaders and in particular, Cinaed (Kenneth) Mac Alpin into the heroes that a modern audience will appreciate without avoiding the brutality in their nature and therefore rewriting history. While reading the proof of the print copy of The Girl from Brittia (hopefully out soon!) I realised that there is a character in that book who is very similar to Cinaed.
This character is not Radigis, the hero of the story. In fact I can’t imagine a character less like Cinaed, than the gentle and sensitive Radigis! There are more similarities with Wehha, the devoted warrior brother, but even here there are significant differences. Wehha lacks Cinaed’s easy command of every situation and has far more of an ability to put others before himself.
No, it seems to me that the character most like Cinaed is Theudebert, the Frankish king and dark puppet master of the story. In The Girl from Brittia he is very much the villain. Trickster, domineering, commanding, ruthless, happy to play people off against each other – I’m not even sure which of them I’m describing here! It would be very easy to write a story from the point of view of one of Cinaed’s enemies and paint him, not as the romantic hero, but as the evil villain.
In history there are very few true heroes or villains. Motives often have to be guessed at. Historical sources tend to have their bias and history is written by the winners. But in the historical novel there needs to be a point of view, a character we’re cheering on and perhaps also one we’d like to get their comeuppance. The same character can very easily be both. Think how differently the character of Anne Boleyn can appear, depending on whether the story is from her point of view or Katherine of Aragorn’s.
King Alfred the Great is rightly considered one of the Dark Ages’ great Kings, but he was a lot more brutal and a lot less god-fearing than the common perception.
This bias is as true for current events as it is for historical ones. When I check my phone’s news feed I can often see one article stating how well Britain is doing since Brexit (ie all Bremainers were scaremongering over nothing) while the one underneath it is about how reluctant another country is to do trade deals with us (ie we’ve got a lot of hard work to do. who know’s which side was right) and the next one is about the post-Brexit surge in hate crime (ie Bremainers were right to be worried – it’s a disaster).
So even as our own story is being written, it seems easy enough to make one event either a triumph or a disaster, depending on your source and influence people accordingly. For the historical novelists with all the pieces already in place, it’s even easier. I will never write that book from the point of view of Cinaed’s enemies. Cinaed remains the hero. But Theudebert is another matter. The Girl from Brittia is the story of Edlin and Radigis. Theudebert is in it, but it is not his story. His story remains to be told and if I were to ever tell it his role would vary depending on which of his wives featured. He could very easily go either way.