history and fiction

A reader deserves to know the proportion of history to fiction in any work such as Awen. I do not knowingly alter facts, but I build fictional bridges to span the historical chasms that bedevil students of early medieval history. Awen is my best attempt to reconstruct events, but inevitably it crosses more void than solid ground. There is a great deal we may never know. Did Heledd and Cynddylan live or were they a poet’s creation? What conflict led to the battle at Rhuddlan in 796? Who fought it, who won and what did it change? Who or what caused Egfrith’s death? We may never have answers, least of all generally accepted answers. Even when history is carved in stone like the Elise’s Pillar text, ongoing debate tests its veracity and significance.

I have drawn as much as possible on the Canu Heledd englynion to shape this story. Many of the images and events of Awen spring from these stanzas and from other early poetry.

Most of my premises are based on literary studies, historical analyses and archeological findings. I read with a deeply sceptical eye for bias and propaganda; when possible I consult original sources in Welsh, Latin and Old English. Nonetheless, medieval scholarship is a running wave. Antiquarian historical theories of a century ago are now mere curiosities; as time passes, new theories will doubtless render Awen and many other books less historical and more fictional.

In Awen I question statements and beliefs that some writers have taken at face value. Both the Northumbrian historian Bede and Charlemagne’s Northumbrian teacher Alcuin, for example, are justly revered for their wisdom and learning, yet both men wrote with hostility to the British. Their accounts of British events, persons and customs must therefore be weighed against that hostility. Similarly, I question our record of the shift from indigenous beliefs to Christianity in Britain, which comes almost entirely from Christian writers with a strong interest in emphasizing the universality of conversion and the extinction of earlier ways. Increasingly, our keener investigation of early literature, folk survivals and archeology gives us a more complex view of the transition.

Searching for the places and people mentioned in Awen can be arduous. Few landmarks survive. Mathrafal, which may have been a Powys court as early as the eighth century, is a grassy hummock today. Aberffraw lies beneath streets and houses. Rhiwaedog is still a working farm, well-known in Penllyn as a former seat of power, but its oldest building dates from centuries after the time of Cyngen Powys. Our oldest manuscript containing Canu Heledd dates from the fourteenth century. The lettering that Cynfarch drew for his king’s declaration on Elise’s Pillar has all but worn away.

Still a landscape remains visible that would have been familiar to the characters portrayed in Awen. Apart from that, eighth-century Powys and its people belong to the geography of the imagination.

— excerpted from Awen, 2020

further reading:

Many scholarly books and articles are available on this period, and a number of websites and blogs deal with it. The books below are a few of my sources for the historical and literary background of Awen.

Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein. University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1978.

K.R. Dark, Civitas to Kingdom. Leicester University Press: Leicester, 1994.

Wendy Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages. Leicester University Press: Leicester, 1982.

Ann Dornier, ed., Mercian Studies. University of Leicester Press: Leicester, 1977.

Nancy Edwards, “Rethinking the Pillar of Eliseg.” The Antiquaries Journal, 89, 2009, pp 143–77.

Patrick Ford, The Mabinogi. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1977.
—The Poetry of Llywarch Hen. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1974.

David Hill, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1981.

Kenneth Jackson, The Gododdin. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 1969.

Dafydd Jenkins, trans. and ed., The Law of Hywel Dda. Gomer Press: Llandysul, Dyfed, 1990.

Lloyd Laing, The Archaeology of Late Celtic Britain and Ireland c.400–1200AD. Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1975.

John Morris, ed. and trans., Nennius, British History and The Welsh Annals. Phillimore: London, 1980.

Patricia Murrieta-Flores and Howard Williams, “Placing the Pillar of Eliseg: Movement, Visibility and Memory in the Early Medieval Landscape.” Medieval Archaeology, 2017, 61 (1), pp 69–103.

Jenny Rowland, Early Welsh Saga Poetry. D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 1990.

Lewis Thorpe, trans., Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne. Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1969.

Howard Williams, “Remembering Elites. Early Medieval Stone Crosses as Commemorative Technologies.” Arkaeologi in Slesvig/Archäologie in Schleswig. Det 61. Internationale Sachsensymposion 2010. pp 13–32.

Sir Ifor Williams, The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry. University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1972.
—Canu Aneirin. Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru: Caerdydd, 1978.
—Canu Llywarch Hen. Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru: Caerdydd, 1978.
—The Poems of Taliesin. English Version by J.E. Caerwyn Williams. The Dublin Institute for Advances Studies: Dublin, 1975.

Since the first edition of Awen appeared in 1997, excellent new books have also become available.