I visited Barcelona in November 2014 and, as a tourist, I was obliged to take a wander down Las Ramblas. Despite being largely a tourist trap area there is something quite wonderful about the place. As I walked along with everyone else, glancing at the street entertainers and the various stalls that all seem to sell things of a questionable quality that you don’t need, the Manic Street Preacher’s song, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next came to mind. It is a piece about the Spanish Civil War and the line quoted is a reference to George Orwell’s account of the fighting in Las Ramblas; the activity that actually lacked any intent apparently. It was a scene on more than one occasion, however, of fighting and death.
Many historical novels contain violent confrontation as part of their story, not just between protagonists but often between armies or fleets of warships. Indeed historical novels often seem to embrace conflict on an epic scale. In ‘The War Wolf’ I recount the story of the Battle of Fulford Gate, an engagement in which some 15,000 warriors fought; a considerable number for the time. People seem to find it exciting. Certainly war as a subject has been a part of human culture since the first written language was developed. The Battle of Megiddo is widely considered the first engagement to be reliably recorded and that took place in the 15th century BCE. Ever since then we have researched, recorded and written about human military encounters.
In that respect I am no different. The period of 1066 is characterised by three very violent encounters by the three opposing sides, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. One aspect of writing about a period where written records were not habitually kept is that it becomes easy to lose touch with the human element of the actual events. We can only imagine what the Battle of Fulford Gate was like for the participants because no one thought to write down their experience, or if they did it has been lost to time. The very site of the battle itself is also being lost to time as the modern world encroaches upon it. When I researched the battle I had to look elsewhere to get an idea of what it might have been like. Fortunately warfare did not differ that much from the time of Megiddo to the advent of gunpowder. Heavy infantry supported by light infantry, missile throwers and some cavalry, although not in the case of the Saxons and Vikings, was the general order of battle. It was not difficult to transfer a Greek hoplites experience of the Battle of Plataea in the Persian Wars to become that of a Saxon frydman fighting before the walls of York in 11th century England.
For all the use of creative licence, however, my account of Saxon warfare remains strictly third-hand at best. When George Orwell wrote about the fighting in Las Ramblas during the Spanish Civil War he did it from personal experience because he was there. Walking down Las Ramblas, with or without intent, knowing that people died there during one of Spain’s most bloody periods of civil strife reinforces the human aspect of what happened. Men died on both sides. These men were sons, brothers, husbands, fathers to other people. They went out of the world violently and left a hole in the lives of the others. The men who died at Megiddo and at Fulford Gate were no less the same and the friends and family that they left behind suffered no less either.
Although I acknowledge as a writer the intrinsic excitement of reading a battle within a story I also recognise that in every instance there must be human loss. I try to make my characters sympathetic to the reader in order to try and get that point across. In ‘The War Wolf’ there are no good guys and bad guys, no evildoers and heroes in the clichéd sense. The Saxons are fighting to defend their lands, their people, and their way of life. The Vikings are fighting to take what they can for reasons that legitimise their actions within their own way of thinking. The same applies to the Normans as well. Indeed, both the Norwegians and the Normans are pressed by political concerns that lie beyond the boundaries of England and yet both are tied to the Saxon crown by blood through a shared history.
As I walked Las Ramblas I was reminded of the fact that the human story is a fascinating one that can seemingly be presented in an almost infinite number of ways. The important thing to remember, I think, is that no matter which way a writer decides to tell a part of that story they must always strive to retain the humanity of their tale. Battle is indeed exciting to read about if your life is not at risk during it, but even within the safety of a book the author should also remind the reader that there is always a cost to human life when two warriors meet in a fight to the death, and it often extends beyond the two combatants as well.