Friday, 26 July 2013

Bride of the Spear - Kathleen Herbert

(Currently OOP. My edition: Corgi, 1989, 304 pages, ISBN 0552133310)

Two generations have come and gone since Arthur brought the tribes of Britain together, and the unity he created has long since been shattered. In the battle-scarred land of Lothian, Princess Taniu, haunted by obscure memories and the brutality and lust rampant in her father’s court, finds solace in the old tales of heroism and the dictates of a wandering holy man. When the king of Cumbria sends his envoys over the hills to ask for the princess as a bride for his son, her father King Loth is more than happy to use her to form an advantageous new alliance. But Taniu has given her heart to a young Cumbrian huntsman named Owain, and her body to the Christian faith. Determined to remain pure, she refuses to surrender herself. Yet some choices have already been made for her, far in her past, bringing in their train deceit, murder and heartbreak; and the chance to move beyond all three.

Bride of the Spear, originally titled Lady of the Fountain, was first published – in an edited form – by a small press, before being taken up by Bodley Head in 1988. Based on events in the ‘Life of St. Kentigern’, it forms the first in a trilogy set in Britain during the 6th and 7th centuries – the Celtic Heroic Age. The novel evokes the world of warlords, saints and heroes with skill, and a great deal of accuracy. Barring a few pertinent explanations, Herbert has written a novel which treats the attitudes and trappings of the past so holistically that the history is simply there to be absorbed by the reader, making for a smooth and engrossing read. The plotting is tight, making something gripping and credible out of the fragments of hagiography. Herbert’s prose is limpid and energetic, subtly humorous in places. She approaches the violence of the times, and the poverty of the lower classes, with frankness, but also restraint; and one of the things I like a lot about the novel is the way she conjures something beyond the stereotypically grim Dark Age world, giving us a place muddy, miserable and dangerous, but also holding colour, beauty and human warmth.

Many of the characters, including Taniu and Owain, are historical figures, with whom Herbert’s fictional men and women easily mingle. One of the great strengths of the novel is its characterisation, which is refreshingly down-to-earth. Taniu, courageous, compassionate, but at first blind to the danger of her rigid principles, is a believable 6th century princess; caught up in the machinations of both men and women of power, but far from passive, she is easy to empathise with as we see her learn the truth about herself and her beliefs. Owain, too, is a compelling character who has a great deal to learn about who he is. A convincingly flawed man whose innate nobility and passion are tempered by cold detachment and actions that may strike us as reprehensible, the fact that Herbert neither excuses nor judges him allows us to take him and his values on his own terms, understand the way he sees the world, and appreciate the way his is blindsided by his own body. Other viewpoints weave in and out of those of the two protagonists, adding depth to the plot and its secondary characters, all of whom, even the antagonists, are well-rounded with believable motives and emotions.

Novels that have a place for the natural world always score highly with me, and this is one of those. Drawn with clear, assured strokes – Kathleen Herbert was a keen walker with a good knowledge of the areas she describes – the landscape is an integral part of the novel, almost a character, as powerful and ever-present as the pagan ways with which it’s saturated.

At its heart the novel is, of course, a story of love, and both the best and the worst moments of that journey are well shown, in particular the mix of tenderness and sexual tension between the protagonists; and the bickering that arises from belonging to two rival kingdoms!

A comprehensive map at the front of the book shows all of the locations in the novel, and there is also a list of place names with their modern equivalents, and a list of characters. 

Bride of the Spear is currently being prepared for republication by Cumbria-based company Trifolium Books. Visit their blog for more information, including pictures of the new cover.