Inspiration from The Dark Ages: Why Matthew Harffy Wrote The Serpent Sword

If you’d asked me to name some Anglo-Saxon kings before I started writing The Serpent Sword, I would probably have managed Alfred the Great, perhaps Ethelred the Unready and that last great Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, of the Battle of Hastings, 1066 and arrow-in-the-eye fame. I think most people would probably be in the same boat as I was. There are other periods that I knew a lot more about. School history lessons focussed more on the Tudors, the Norman Conquest, the medieval period of the Crusades and the Hundred Years War, and then of course, the Industrial Revolution, and the two World Wars of the twentieth century. 

The Romans might have got a mention at school, and those ever-popular raping and pillaging Vikings. They were always a firm favourite with teachers and students alike. Especially young boys like me, who imagined themselves riding the waves on a dragon-prowed longship and relished the horrific tales of battle and the perhaps fictional blood-eagle. But the Vikings didn’t come to Britain until the end of the 8th century, long after the stories I write have finished.

So, if I knew next to nothing about the early seventh century, why did I choose to write my debut novel about a young man in Northumbria in 633 AD? After all, writing a novel is hard enough, without choosing a subject you haven’t got a clue about. The real answer is that I didn’t choose the period, it chose me. So what makes someone who has never written a novel decide to pick up a pen, or more likely nowadays, sit down at their computer?

Well, in my case, it was a television programme one evening back in 2001. It was about archaeological digs taking place in and around Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. I had lived near there as a child and always loved the area, so I watched with interest. I was alone at home that evening and something sparked inside me. I fired up the PC and started to type descriptions of the images that were thronging in my mind. I wrote a scene of a young man arriving on the beach at Bebbanburg (the old name for Bamburgh). I had never written anything of novel length before and I had a full-time job, a young family and I was halfway through studying for a degree, so progress was never going to be fast. 

But something about the story just kept nagging at me. Who was this man I saw in my mind’s eye? Why had he arrived by ship? Where had he come from? 

I started buying any books I could find on the period, and the more I learnt about the so-called Dark Ages in Britain, the more I became hooked. I discovered that Britain was made up of small kingdoms. The Romans had left a couple of centuries before, but war was still frequent between the different Anglo-Saxon rulers. And there were also regions ruled by native Britons. Welsh, Scots and Picts all vied against the Germanic peoples who had settled the land after the Romans had left these shores. I learnt the names of Anglo-Saxon kings that should be taught in all schools: Edwin, Oswald, Oswiu, Penda and many more. They were not kings of England, but kings of exotic sounding places like Bernicia, Deira, and Mercia. But these were men who helped to forge the land we know as England (the name itself comes from Angleland).

My research in the area brought back memories of my childhood in a village on the border of England and Scotland. The wildness of that land had always stayed with me. The rocky coastline of the North Sea, birds wheeling in a leaden sky, the snow-capped Cheviot Hills on the horizon. It was easy to imagine men and women living, fighting and dying in that land 1,400 years earlier. Men and women just like you and me, with loves, passions, fears, and yet so far removed from us that they could easily be thought of as truly alien.

They lived in a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Kings with retinues of warriors defended their people against attack, but such protection was often short-lived, with most kings meeting their ends in bloody battles. Religion too was in flux, with the resurgence of Christianity spreading over the land. However, in the early part of the seventh century, it was still very much the new religion, in competition with old gods we more commonly relate with the Vikings.

The term ‘Dark Ages’ has become outmoded in recent years, with academics now preferring ‘Early Medieval’. But I believe that despite the enlightenment of some during that time and the incredible skill of craftsmen who produced intricate and exquisite jewellery, weapons and armour, the period really is dark. It is lost to us in the gloomy distance of the past. Something about the men and women of the seventh century inspired me one night fifteen years ago, and they have been speaking ever since. 

All I can do is listen and tell their tales as best I can. 

*********

Matthew Harffy is the author of THE SERPENT SWORD, an action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age. The sequel, THE CROSS AND THE CURSE, will be published in August.

Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. He has co-authored seven published academic articles, ranging in topic from the ecological impact of mining to the construction of a marble pipe organ. Until very recently, Matthew also sang in a rock band.

Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters. 

Website: www.matthewharffy.com

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MatthewHarffyAuthor

Buy The Serpent Sword here: http://bit.ly/2a3ryip