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.


  1. Good review. I've been waiting for the new Trifolium edition to appear before posting a review (and looking forward to being able to get a new copy to replace my old Corgi edition, which is getting rather battered now).

    "a place muddy, miserable and dangerous, but also holding colour, beauty and human warmth" Exactly so. This is one of the aspects I like very much about the book.

    I also like her treatment of Caer Voran (it's just about exactly how I imagine Birdoswald, although the move to living in a hall occurs later than I imagine it at Birdoswald). I don't know if the timber halls at Birdoswald had been discovered when she wrote the novel; if not, they fit remarkably well. And her account of Ida and the founding of the English kingdom of Bernicia is also very plausible. I do like the sly humour as well.

  2. I was intending to wait for the new edition as well, but then on impulse took the novel up with me to Cumbria (where better to read it? :)) and thought it would be nice to review soon after finishing it, while the details were still fresh. I'm looking forward to the Trifolium release too - I've only had my Corgi four years, but it was obviously well read before it came to me. :)

    Was it 1987 the Birdoswald excavations were started? I think the novel was originally published in 1982, so the depiction of Caer Voran is remarkably prescient. Yes, I like the account of Ida as well - it makes for a much more satisfying story when someone dares to look at the way Britons and Anglo-Saxons might have interacted for mutual benefit, rather than just adhering to the polarized accounts of the past.

  3. Thanks for a sensitive and detailed review Beth. It is great when I find others who appreciate Kathleen's work as much as I do! My edit will take longer than anticipated as I have decided to add in a substantial section of historical notes- mainly from Kathleen. (although Carla has also been generous with her knowledge- many thanks Carla!) Raymond Thompson has kindly given me permission to reproduce parts of the detailed interview he did with Kathleen in 1991.
    I also love Kathleen's humour and am glad it is preserved in her books, since there is very little trace of it now!
    Carla and Beth- I must go back and visit Birdoswald again- I haven't been for some years.

  4. Welcome Connie, and thanks for stopping by the Nest. :) I look forward to seeing the novel with the historical notes. From what I've read in the 1991 interview, Kathleen was a meticulous researcher (as is Carla!) and turned up some really interesting information. And I think the notes will be a huge boon to readers who want to know more about what often appears to be a very obscure period.

    That's a great shame...I'm glad that Kathleen's books are here to preserve that sense of humour, too.

    I visited Birdoswald for the first time this summer, and was very impressed. There's definitely something special about standing within those Roman walls, knowing that there was once a thriving post-Roman community there. But my goodness, it was windy!

  5. Where better to read it, indeed! You could probably visit the exact locations along the Wall and in Carlisle, and the site of Owain's defeat of the cattle raiders on the Solway shore.

    If those dates are right, I wonder if she was very pleased to see that the Birdoswald excavation results were so consistent with her picture of Caer Voran? I hope so.

    I see post-Roman Britain as a large group of kingdoms with varying cultures/ language/ heritage, all more or less on a par with one another and all trying to change that situation in their own favour. Some succeeded for a while (e.g. Rheged, perhaps), some for rather longer (Northumbria, Strathclyde), and some seem to have vanished leaving only a hint in place names (Craven) or archaeology (Birdoswald and Trusty's Hill if they weren't Rheged, Wroxeter if it wasn't Pengwern). One king/kingdom might ally with another for a while if it was to mutual advantage, and that alliance might or might not last. Kathleen Herbert's version of Ida's takeover of Bamburgh fits in with that picture very well. I also like her thumbnail sketch of Ida :-)

    Did you escape the local speciality of horizontal rain at Birdoswald? No wonder the Romans built an indoor exercise and drill hall :-)

  6. Yes, I thought that. I've sometimes wondered about the little waterfall where Owain meets Taniu; whether it was a real one that Kathleen had seen, and where in the hills it might be if it was. But in some ways, it's nicer not to know. :)

    So do I. I don't know how much discussion there was of the reoccupation of Roman forts before the traces at Birdoswald were discovered, but even if there was some, I imagine it must still have been pretty thrilling seeing the archaeology back up what she'd written - and that close to the fort she chose, as well.

    For a moment I misread that as 'kingdoms with varying vultures' which I suppose, if the poetry of Llywarch Hen is anything to go by, is fair enough. ;) Ida is quite a character, isn't he? For someone who only gets about a paragraph to himself, he has a lot of personality!

    Luckily we did. Having said that, a mug of hot chocolate was very welcome. (On a sunny day. In July. Poor Romans - an indoor drill hall is something, but how did they cope without hot chocolate?) It did rain a bit at Bewcastle, but only enough to be atmospheric, so we were very fortunate.

  7. It's said in the novel to be in Argoed Llwyfain, which Kathleen placed in the Bewcastle Fells. It may well be a real waterfall somewhere in those hills. It's a large area, and not one I know well, so I couldn't begin to guess at its exact location. Connie might know, if Kathleen ever recorded the location.

    The impression I had from Tony Willmott's book was that the halls were a total surprise, so that may suggest that the idea of continued use of Roman forts was at least not widespread.

    Mulled wine? :-)

  8. Ah Beth ... the search for the waterfall! Sadly, Kathleen couldn't tell me, although I did ask. However, I asked her many years ago about the location of another waterfall: the one where Riemmelth lures Elidir, and he is a heartbeat from falling into its depths. (This is the opening chapter of Queen of the Lightning)The incident is set in the woods near Ravenglass in the south of Cumbria. Kathleen laughed as she said: 'Oh that's at Nunnery- the waterfall is the same- I just moved it!' Nunnery walks are in the North East of the County, on the Eden, at least 60 miles away) She also told me however, that she had hung there, looking down into that caldron of thundering water, haning on by her eyelashes, and had felt the visceral fear that Elidir felt. I visited this waterfall, having got permission from the landowner, and she was right- it is indeed terrifying. The point is not that Kathleen "moved" it, but that her descriptions are so rooted in real physical experience that they make the reader feel they have been there. There is a stab of recognition when you see a place thus described! Knowing that she would sometimes take a scene and place it somewhere else made my search for the right waterfall harder. Like you Carla, I am unfamiliar with the Bewcastle Fells anyway, so I started looking at closer falls as background for the cover. Fortunately, just about every waterfall in the Lake District has been snapped and posted on Flikr, but I had the added constraint that it needed to be accessible for cameras, tripods and the model. In the end, I compromised a little for the latter reasons: the waterfall at Newlands Hause is not unlike the one Kathleen describes, is a short walk from the road, which is about three quarters of an hour from our house. I think the result is evocative enough! Of course, I will still continue to seek the 'real' one- I will know when I see it! Meanwhile, I have the model but not the location lined up for Queen of the Lightning!

  9. Connie - the waterfall may well have been an amalgam of several, or inspired by a waterfall elsewhere. Who knows, it might even have been one of the falls at Newlands Hause! What matters is that it can be real in the reader's imagination in the scene. As Beth says above, in some ways it may be nicer not to know :-)

  10. Carla - Interesting - so it does sound like Kathleen might have been a little ahead of her time in that regard, then.

    Ah yes, mulled wine - should've thought of that. Sadly the only thing that came to my mind was a bunch of Asterix-style Britons offering their conquerors hot water with a spot of milk in it...

    Connie - I think in some ways I prefer the location to remain mysterious, but I can appreciate that may have given you a bit of a headache where choosing a waterfall for the photoshoot was concerned! Newlands Hause was an excellent choice, though; beautiful, and very arresting as a cover image. I'd hoped to visit the Newlands Valley when I was in Cumbria earlier in the summer, but ran out of time - maybe on the next visit.

    Kathleen's visit to Nunnery Walks being such a strong experience as you describe, I can see why she might want to include the falls, irrespective of location. I did look for photos, but unfortunately couldn't find any. What a shame it was closed off, although from what I could gather it was for safety reasons? And yes, that rootedness in place is one of the things I really like about Kathleen's world-building - the way she makes the landscape her characters move through so real.

    Oh, that's good! I look forward to seeing the genesis of that cover - I really enjoyed watching the one for Bride of the Spear develop.

  11. Happy Christmas! Hope all is well with you.

    1. Carla, thank you - a very Happy Christmas to you too, and best wishes for the New Year!

      Yikes - it's only now that I've realised just how long ago I last updated this blog! I really ought to put up an explanatory post; I certainly intended to, but the MA had other plans. ;)