What’s a girl to do when she discovers that her heart lies in the Dark Ages? She hunts it down in whatever form it persists. Or, she re-creates her own version of it. Fact. And Fiction. Together. That’s what I’ve done in my forthcoming series of fictionalized history, set in sixth-century Scotland, called “The Chronicles of Iona”.
My obsession with all things medieval began at the age of eight when my third-grade teacher (bless her!) read us J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit”. Hooked, I went home, lay open a crisp new journal on my desk, took out my pen, and began my first “novel”. I believe it was about dwarves. Nothing came of it of course (first novels are meant to be shelved), but something is coming of the series I’m creating now.
After Tolkein, my passion was King Arthur. Not the Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Idylls of the King”, chivalrous Knights of the Round Table version (though I love that too), but the real Arthur, the warlord who kept the Saxons at bay as Roman Britain imploded. In search of him, that Romanized-Briton, that Arthur of the Dark Ages, and because I love to write, I studied literature at Brandeis University.
Wanderlust set in during my junior year there and, on scholarship, I went to study at the University College of North Wales at Bangor. They say that North Wales, Gwynedd, is the region which spawned the Arthurian legends. (Just read the Mediaeval Welsh tale “The Mabinogi”.) And indeed, what an awe-inspiring, evocative place it is. What proud, heartbreaking history and landscape. You can glimpse the past there, as if through mist. The brief taste I had of it only made me want more.
Luckily, upon graduation from Brandeis, I was awarded a Watson Fellowship, an independent traveling fellowship which, wisely or unwisely, let me loose in Europe for a whole year with nothing but my backpack, my journal, and a list of must-see historical sites that was pages long. I spent many a dreamy day in the wilds soaking up ruins, or with museum collections, or traveling through the land which cradled and created the early history of the British Isles and Europe. What didn’t I see? I saw it all: the hillfort-capital of the Scots of Dál Riata at Dunadd; towering Dumbarton, Rock of the Britons of Strathclyde; Scotland’s glens and lochs, old Caledonia, homeland of the infamous Picts; all of gorgeous Ireland, and much, much more–those lonely, magical travels form the emotive heart of “The Chronicles of Iona”.
But I am a stickler for historicity, too. I want the facts, such as they are. So, after working in Boston and marrying my true love, I returned to the U.K. to get a Ph.D. from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at The University of Cambridge. (Since Tolkein had done this at Oxford, I figured there was worthy precedent for the approach.) There, sadly, it was irrevocably confirmed to me that, if there ever was such a man as King Arthur, we are never to know it. The sources simply don’t survive, if indeed they ever existed.
But, as often happens when you follow your dreams, I stumbled across something even better. The real deal. Because there was a man like Arthur and there was a man like Merlin—and they lived in the sixth century, in Scotland and Ireland, and together they laid the foundation of the modern Scottish nation. They were Áedán mac nGabráin, who ruled from 574 to 608 as king of the Scots of Dál Riata, the greatest warlord of his age. And Columba, an exile, an abbot, a prince, a saint, the founder and father of monasteries from his beautiful island-home of Iona.
They are historical. Brief though their way-points in the sources are, their lives can be guessed at and re-created. War, treachery, love, loss, faith, redemption, the founding of a nation: their story is true. And it has never been told.
So, while I complete Book I of their series, entitled “Exile”, let me let you in on the world I have re-discovered …
Paula de Fougerolles