For those who missed my last post, I’ve been on a camp this week called Re-Fresh, and while I’m not going to talk about it in detail, I thought I’d draw on some of the experiences that stood out.
Yesterday we went up to Hadrian’s Wall to a particularly well-preserved section near Housesteads Fort. I’ve got a vague idea that it might have been on our specification for Roman Britain back when A-Levels were still a thing (I’m so delighted not to be in school any more, it’s ridiculous), but I can’t remember entirely, which shows how much went into my long-term memory. One of the leaders on the camp was a Classics teacher, so he was able to give us a bit of a tour of the area.
This section of the wall’s great because they actually allow you to walk on it for a short while, although given the intense drop on one side, it’s a somewhat nerve-wracking experience. Maybe that’s just me, because I don’t trust my legs enough to believe I’ll actually be capable of staying upright.
Obviously as a student of Roman Britain, it was interesting for me to see the actual area that we’d studied. I’ve been to Hadrian’s Wall briefly before, but it was to a less well-preserved area and we didn’t particularly go and look at it, since we were passing through on our way somewhere else. Now that I’ve got the knowledge of the construction from studying Classics, it was intriguing to see it ‘in the flesh’ (or stone, as the case may be).
I’m always humbled by historical sites like this and by the immense age of these constructions. It makes you feel terribly small, realising that thousands of people built this wall and we don’t know their names. They’re dead, they’re gone, but this wall is still here — generations and generations later. And it’ll still be there for a while yet, unless something happens to destroy it.
I find Hadrian’s Wall a particularly interesting monument, if you can call it that, because it reminds me a lot of fictional examples I’ve read. That sounds weird, but I’ll explain. It’s this idea of civilisation being separated from barbarity, as perceived by those who constructed the barrier. On one side of the wall there’s a completely different world to the other. And obviously that’s a total over-simplification of the Wall itself, since throughout its existence there were frequently soldiers stationed further North and whatever, but that’s the basic idea.
On one side, the Romans, and everything they thought they’d brought to Britain. Their way of life. Their buildings, their clothing, their language. On the other side, a tribal society born of older traditions and perpetuating a way of life entirely alien to them, but which they couldn’t quite overcome.
Then you look at books like Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series: Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen. (There’s a fourth one come out this year, right? I haven’t got hold of it yet, if it’s even out already. But I want to.) In these books, there’s a wall that divides the Old Kingdom, a place of magic and ghosts and weird happenings, from Ancelstierre, a relatively normal place apparently based on early 20th century England. One’s ‘civilised’ and uses technology, which doesn’t work on the other side of the Wall. The other’s a place where the dead can walk and magic is everywhere.
For me, there’s a definite parallel between Hadrian’s Wall and the Wall in those books. I don’t know if it’s deliberate — I don’t know if that’s exactly what Garth Nix was going for — but it seems to be unlikely that in the process of writing it never even occurred to him that there were similarities, if it wasn’t a conscious choice in the first place.
Andrew, the Classics teacher leader who was telling us about the Wall, explained how soldiers were posted in forts and at milecastles, a constant garrison on the wall to protect it from any attacks. From the Old Kingdom wiki, you find this: On the Ancelstierre side, [the Wall] is guarded constantly by the perimeter garrison, who are armed both with guns and swords. [source]
This epitomises what I love about history and studying our own past: it can become fiction, entirely different from the truth, but because something in us recognises it as an existing cultural event, we don’t question it. It makes everything more believable.
I recently came across a Tumblr post that totally summed up what it’s like to look at the past. It looks at London and says: I’ve got nothing to add. This city, it’s got such a wealth of weirdness that’s far beyond most people’s imagination, such stories to tell that we’ll never hear spoken. There are words in the foundations of the places we live, and they whisper stories from history that we turn into fantasy and make them even more real than they ever were.
I didn’t see any Dead walking near Hadrian’s Wall. Nor did I see any Celts. But the feeling was there: that I could have done at any minute, and it wouldn’t have seemed odd to me in the slightest. Okay, maybe a little bit. But I’m pretty sure I’ve got the kind of brain that’s relatively accepting of that sort of thing. I’ve read so much YA fiction that I’m always disappointed when none of my friends turn out to be supernatural creatures of some ilk.
History breeds fiction. Over time they get confused — history becomes legend, legend becomes myth, kudos if you catch the reference. I recently read a book that sought to disentangle King Arthur from the legends that have been written about him (I reviewed it over on my book blog), but I like tangling things up. It’s why I weave so much history into my novels, and it’s why I think studying ASNaC will be an integral part of shaping what I write in the future.
And I love that I live in a country where I can stand on a wall that’s nearly 1900 years old, because seriously, that’s pretty cool. Like really cool. Like dude, history.