When I set out to write Awen years ago, I wanted to tell a story, not reconstruct a lost history. Eighth-century Britain is better understood than many people realize, thanks to archeologists and historians and literary scholars, but there are still gaps in our knowledge. So as well as writing fiction, I found myself engaged in a forensic task of fitting together the fragments of a nearly forgotten world.
Awen grew from a note about a young man who travels far to spread a new idea. When I started, I had no notion of how to write a novel. I made it up as I went, learning from endless mistakes. My best teacher was always the elusive Canu Heledd poet, a master of polished understatement and powerful imagery. I researched in libraries and museums, met archeologists and scholars, visited strongholds and churches, waded streams, rode the moorland, traced farm boundaries and hiked many kilometers of Offa’s Dyke. As the story grew through early drafts, I began to understand what it was about and what was at stake.
Storytelling is our most ancient and powerful way to draw people into history. A novelist’s gift and obligation is to explore not only other lives but their truth in our own lives. History and fiction, knowledge and reflection, go hand in hand. But don’t mistake Awen for history; rather it is my best effort to fill the gaps in what we know while telling a story.
In preparing the book for a new release I took the opportunity to add minor corrections and changes to make the story clearer. Some details of material culture I changed after seeking out new research and updating my original research. I wanted any factual elements in this story to be as correct as current knowledge permits, though I find there is still room for interpretation.
Twelve centuries later the passions and politics of Awen still matter. Wales survives next to a greater power with a mixed reputation; a Canadian can identify with this situation.
At one time I meant this book to right historical wrongs and fight the colonization of minority history. I could reveal a sweep of landscape and lost kingdoms, poor in material wealth but rich in tradition, arts, power and diplomacy that shaped present-day sensibilities. I could illuminate the exceptional ethical concerns of an unknown poet.
But there is no need. The reawakening of Wales—Cymru, to use its rightful name—as a cultural powerhouse has done all this.
Now I am happy if readers gain an understanding of what was lost and what was saved from that extraordinary time. Others have done their job of interpreting the early medieval world for a scholarly audience; my job is to tell you a story about people we can now only imagine.
Globally we face lethal threats to dealing with each other sanely as individuals and as nations; I believe this ancient story of conflict and resolution can shed light. We can learn from our terrible mistakes. We can do good when the opportunity comes. Awen, like the poetry that inspired it, remains a cautionary tale.
— excerpted from Awen, 2020