The Wise Woman of Ys
Had great fun recently reading “The Wise Woman of Ys” by R.A. Forde. An engaging British forensic psychologist who writes historical novels on the side, his everyday name is “Robert”.
Below is a chat I had with him. EJW
EJ: How is Ys pronounced, and how do we know?
Robert: We don’t know exactly how it was pronounced in the fifth century, but the tale is known today in France, where it is pronounced “eece”, to rhyme with “fleece”. Originally it would have been a Breton word, and probably written “Ker-Is”. “Ker” is a Breton word simply meaning “town”. It is related to the Welsh “Caer”, which occurs in place names like Caernarvon and Caerphilly. Breton and Welsh are so closely related that speakers of the two languages can often understand each other quite well. This goes back to the period of the events related in “Wise-Woman” and “the Dream of Macsen”. During this time Britain was subject to invasions by the Saxons and Irish, and many British people (who spoke a language similar to Welsh) emigrated to the north-west corner of France, hence the name Brittany. It was known locally as “Armorica”, which roughly means “the land facing the sea”. The area was considerably depopulated at that time, following a popular uprising in which many people had been killed or enslaved. The Roman authorities were quite keen to have somebody settle there, in order to defend it. Many towns in present day Brittany and Normandy have names of British origin. Quite a few others have names which originated as the names of Roman army units.
EJ: What first piqued your interest in legends of this period?
Robert: Many years ago as a teenager I read an account of the legend of Ys, which is quite widely known in France, especially Brittany. The legend comes from the same period as the legends around King Arthur in Britain (the fifth century, shortly after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire). It was about 20 years before I began to write the story.
EJ: How do you research background? Do you rely on primary
And if so –how do you get access?
Robert: I read a great deal of history. This includes not just political history, wars, kings, etc, but also social history. For example, I have a book on the practice of medicine in the ancient world, and another about wild plants and their medicinal uses. Both of these came in useful when writing “Wise-Woman”. I have had to buy a lot of books!
There are some books which reproduce original documents. Where the originals themselves exist they are preserved in museums, of course. Most of them are written in Latin, but the published versions provide a translation. Since I studied Latin to the age of 17 in school I have been able to check on some of the translations, some of which are 19th century and a bit too free for my taste. The period of “Wise-Woman” is not well recorded by contemporary writers, but there are some contemporary records, mostly written by monks. British writers sometimes forget that there are continental sources; for example, I found useful material in “The History of the Franks” by the monk Gregory of Tours.
A very useful thing which I did was to draw a timeline on a very large sheet of paper, so that each time I read something which might be useful and had a known or strongly suspected date I entered it on the timeline. This meant that I gradually drew up a picture of the historical events, including things like battles and plagues, which I could work into my story. I think it is important to do this, even if you end up not using most of the material, because it creates the illusion of a complete world. Your characters have a cultural background, to which they make reference on occasions, and don’t just exist in isolation. A supremely effective example of this is Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. He created a history, culture, and even invented languages. Most of what he did doesn’t actually appear in the story, or not in any detail, but it creates an atmosphere of credibility.
I collected far more information than I needed for “Wise-Woman”, but I used quite a bit of that in my second book, “The Dream of Macsen”, even though it was set about 100 years earlier. Much of the historical and cultural information was still applicable. I think it’s very important not to shoehorn in all the information you’ve collected, as it becomes pretty stodgy, but if you carry on writing in the same genre it will probably all come in useful in the end.
EJ: I know you are a skilled singer of folk songs-do you find they provide insight in to this era?
Robert: Not really. Some British folk songs do have roots far back in history, although most are actually more recent. However, although the origins of some songs go back a long way, they are not a description of anything very useful to historical fiction writers. It is more that there are scraps, references or traces of ancient legends.
EJ: How much of your literary work is fiction, and how much do you consider accurate history?
Robert: I think that depends on the story. “Wise-Woman” was based on a legend, not on history. I tried to make it realistic by providing an historical background which was as accurate as I could make it, but the events which actually happen to the central characters are invented. With “The Dream of Macsen” it was slightly different, because the characters were actual historical characters about whom something is known. We do not have the full picture, but we certainly know about some historical events in the lives of those characters, and I tried not to change anything. Inevitably, where only the main events are known, one has to fill in the details, but I tried not to contradict the known history.
EJ: You have written these books from a woman’s point of view.
Why? Was this a deliberate choice?
Robert: It was forced on to me by circumstances, really. In “Wise-Woman” the central character is female. Without wishing to give too much of the plot away, there were reasons why I did not want to write it from her point of view. However, I wanted to write it from the point of view of someone who was close to her, a close friend or companion. No one could have occupied that position in those days without being another woman (or girl, as the story starts when they are quite young).
In “The Dream of Macsen” the character of Macsen is male, but again there were plot related reasons why I couldn’t write it from his point of view. I decided to adopt the point of view of his wife, Helena, as he was thought to have been married to a highborn British woman, although a Spaniard himself. After “Wise-Woman” I suppose it came more easily too.
EJ: There’s serious conflict and violence in your stories. You are a forensic psychologist as well as an author, and spend a good of time in the courtroom. Do you see the present criminal justice system in the UK as having gradually evolved from ancient practices?
Robert: I think it might be more accurate to say that it evolved in a series of fits and starts. There was nothing gradual about Magna Carta, for example. It was pretty much a case of the barons mounting a rebellion and telling King John to sign it or else. It did, and still does, provide for some curbs on the power of the state. But as late as the 18th century there was still no right to a defence lawyer, and no prosecution service. Criminal cases were brought by private individuals, who were rewarded by the court in the event of a conviction. Unsurprisingly, the system was riddled with corruption, and there is little doubt that many innocent people were condemned on the basis of trumped up charges. The system also changed because of public feeling in many cases. For example, the death penalty was available for several hundred offences in the early 19th century. Public feeling grew against the imposition of a death penalty for minor offences, with the result that blatantly guilty people were being acquitted by juries who refused to send them to the gallows for, say, a minor theft. The government was left with little option but to wipe a lot of capital offences off the statute book. They had also lost the American colonies (!) as a place to send convicted felons, but fortunately discovered Australia just in time to start sending them there. Even so, there was a growing movement against cruel and unusual punishment. One of my favourite stories from this period is about a woman who stole from a shop in order to buy food for her children (there being no public welfare at that time). The jury convicted her and a fine was imposed, which she would have been unable to pay. She would probably have been transported to Australia in lieu of payment, but the jury passed the hat round and paid her fine, effecting her immediate release!
EJ: How did you decide to publish on Kindle?
Robert: I became aware of the Kindle self-publishing scheme because I saw it mentioned when visiting the Amazon website. I had got back the rights to “Wise-Woman” after its original publication in print, so I was able to reissue it myself. Then I began to wonder about some other books. “Macsen” had not been published in print, so I followed up with that.
EJ: What are your plans for future books?
Robert: After “Macsen” I decided to branch out into a different genre. I have always been a keen science fiction reader, and for a while was attached to the British military in West Berlin. I began to formulate some ideas for a science-fiction/horror story set in the North of England. This resulted in a third novel which has now been published on Kindle as “The Devil’s Issue”. This is set in the early 1990s and is therefore quite different from the earlier books.I haven’t given up on historical books, and I still love that Romano-British period, so it is quite likely that more will follow.
The books may be viewed on R.A. Forde’s Amazon author’s page: http://www.amazon.com/author/raforde
EJ Wagner, as usual,