Sunday 12 June 2016

The Triumph Tree and other wonders: by Antonia Senior

Delight I'd find in an island breast,
on a rock's peak, 
that there I might often gaze 
at the sea's calm.

That I might see its heavy waves
over the brilliant sea
as it sings music to the Father
on its constant way

Columba's Island Paradise (12th century)
Translated from the Gaelic in The Triumph Tree (Canongate) Edited by Thomas Owen Clancy.

We writers of historical fiction give voices to the people of the past. But we are unsatisfactory ventriloquists, burdened as we are by our own prejudices and assumptions. 

In the rush to speak for them, we sometimes forget that our ancestors had their own voices. The period and place that I wrote about in The Winter Isles - the twelfth century West coast of Scotland -  is poorly documented.  There are no newspapers, emails, record books, letters, lost scrolls, tax records, trade receipts, census records. There is precious little archaeology. There is, however, poetry. And what poetry it is!

I was utterly ignorant of these islands' pre-modern poetic tradition until I started researching The Winter Isles. In fact, the book would never have been written unless I had stumbled across another book - The Triumph Tree, edited by Thomas Owen Clancy. It is a collection of early Scottish poetry from 550AD to 1350 AD. There are 5 languages represented: Latin, Welsh, Gaelic, Old English and Norse. 

The linguistic tangle reflects the history: borders were not neatly drawn and identity was a thing in flux. As Clancy explains in his introduction to the book, most anthologies of Scottish poetry begin in the 14th century, with the beginnings in Scotland of the use of English in written form and its cousin, lowland Scots. 

Triumph Tree attempts to rectify this omission - but there are obvious problems of categorisation. What counts as Scotland in this period? Who wrote what, and when? Early Scottish culture laid emphasis on the oral tradition of poetry. Much is lost - but what has survived is wonderful. There are various strands - the Latin poetry of the church, the gaelic bardic tradition and the Norse sagas brought by Scotland's Viking invaders. 

The poem I have reproduced above is one that I found most useful in writing my own book. It is from a tradition of poetry surrounding the life and legacy of St Columba. St Columba, an Irishman, founded a monastery on Iona in 563 AD, and the tiny island off the coast of Mull became the centre for Celtic Christianity. Celtic Christianity is marked by beautiful hymns which are rooted in the poetry of landscape, and by a tradition of works by later poets imagining themselves to be Columba. Historical fiction poets, if you like. 

 A Celtic cross on Iona

One of the things I adore about Columba's Island Paradise is the sense of the writer's spirit. How alive he is! His character shines from the page. His humanity. His quiet joy in the small pleasures. 

The ending verses read:

That I might ponder on some book,
good for my soul;
a while kneeling for dear heaven,
a while at psalms.

A while cropping dulse from the rock,
a while fishing; 
a while giving food to the poor,
a while enclosed.

A while pondering the lord of heaven,
holy the purchase;
a while at work - not too taxing! -
it would be delightful.

In his concerns and occupations he is both recognisably like us and obviously dissimilar. It is this contradiction I attempt to express continually as a writer of historical characters: the tango between resonance and dissonance. The strong woman who is pre-feminist; the warrior who is preoccupied by Christ. Like the monk in Iona, I try to make my characters feel in familiarly human ways even as they think in unfamiliar grooves.

I particularly love that phrase - not too taxing!. It makes me think of afternoons spent in the garden, reading for books for research or review - not too taxing! yet good for the soul.

The Celtic hymns have a hypnotic power and rhythm. I am a resolute atheist - and yet I always seem to write about periods in which religion is paramount. I found reading the poetry of early Gaelic-speaking Christians invaluable for trying to approach the mindset of people who think so differently, and yet live and breathe and love just as we do.

My favourite was the Litany of the Trinity, ascribed to Mugron, the Abbot of Iona in 980 AD. It is a form of Gaelic devotional verse in which God or the Saints are invoked in an incantory way. It is very long, but here is a fragment:

Perfect God.
Merciful God.
Marvellous God.
God of the earth.
God of the fire.
God of the varied waters.
God of the rushing storm-tossed air.
God of the waves from the ocean's deep house.

This is a God who belongs in the waters now cruised by comfortable Calmac ferries. This is a God whose word is audible not inside a cathedral, but out on the white strand at Iona, with skuas wheeling overhead and a raging sea beyond. 

My husband is learning Scottish Gaelic, and our house is full of extraordinary modern Gaelic poetry which carries the spirit of the early writers: it is rooted in landscape, bold in form and utterly unembarrassed about being beautiful. 

I tried to borrow a little of this spirit in writing The Winter Isles. Perhaps I pulled it off, in places. But if I did, I owe all to The Triumph Tree, and the man 900 years ago who found delight in an island breast, watching the sea's calm.
 My gang and I finding delight in an Island's breast, watching the sea's calm...................


Sue Purkiss said...

Love the last two lines in particular of the last poem. Thanks, Antonia!

Mary Hoffman said...

Welcome to the History Girls, Antonia! We shall be very glad to see you here every 12th of the month and this is a grand start.

Leslie Wilson said...

Beautiful! Celtic Christianity was so deep, and so much about people's everyday experience and the 'practice of the presence of God.' I did enjoy this post.