The Unknown Past

Graham Edwards has written a stone age murder mystery, Talus and the Frozen King. His tale takes us back to the dawn of time to witness a mysterious death on a remote, mist-enshrouded isle. Throughout the story, Edwards makes very few concrete references to where the action is taking place. We assume from various geographic or climatic clues that it is somewhere in the north of Europe but it could just as well be Scandinavia as the northern isles of Scotland.

TALUS AND THE FROZEN KING

It makes sense to keep the geography vague for these are people from a world that would be unrecognisable to us today. Even the term ‘king’ is a bit grandiose for the story’s victim. He is little more than the chief of a ragged hill tribe that lives in rude stone dwellings. To say these people live in Britain or anywhere else would be nonsensical. They didn’t use terms like that to describe their world.

This use of an unknown past has some illustrious forebears. Shakespeare uses the same approach in King Lear.

When is King Lear set? It’s not clear at all. The location must be  somewhere in Britain because the noble characters bear titles with recognisable place names like Cornwall, Gloucester and Kent. (Albany is more obscure but refers to northern parts of Scotland). There is also a key scene on the cliffs of Dover.

As for a date, there are few technological clues and almost no references to events in the wider world. The rest of the names give us few further hints. Of Lear’s three daughters, Cordelia sounds Roman while Regan seems to have Gaelic routes. Goneril on the other hand sounds Anglo-Saxon. All three names and Lear himself come from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century History of The Kings of Britain.

Nobody at the time seems to have found this lack of a clear setting confusing, which is natural when you consider how obscure most British history is. So much of the written record of our past has been lost that you can almost read the whole of Anglo-Saxon literature in a weekend.

The Normans also did such a thorough job of erasing the pre-conquest past that few people today would be able to name more than a handful of monarchs from before 1066. The list would be limited to Caratacus and Boudica in addition to the Anglo-Saxons Alfred the Great, Aethelred the Unready, and Cnut (who was Danish anyway). We also remember Edward the Confessor mainly because he played the role of Yeltsin to William the Conqueror’s Putin. The Normans weren’t going to forget that one in a hurry.

This means that the ancient history of Britain right up until the Dark Ages remains fertile territory for story-telling. An author can place their characters into a recognisable society and countryside whilst still having the freedom to invent almost anything they like. It’s long been the preserve of Arthurian legend. Take John Boorman’s classic 1981 film Excalibur. Shot mostly in Ireland, the characters never once refer to their countries as England, Ireland or France. It’s just ‘the Land’: “you and the land are one”, as Merlin often intones to the young king Arthur.

So the important thing about King Lear and Talus and the Frozen King is not when or where they fit into real history but rather whether they tell a compelling, universal story. Both works certainly do this.

It was interesting that Edwards added a note at the end of his book to discuss his vague setting. I’m not sure that it’s really necessary. Especially in fantasy fiction, there is no reason at all to justify the worlds that are being created. Nor is there any need to link them to reality in some precise way. Part of the fun of this type of writing is building an entire world and I was impressed by how Edwards did this without drowning his story in over-complicated details and pointless exposition.

You can read my full review of Talus and the Frozen King on the Amazing Stories website here.

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7 responses to “The Unknown Past

  1. Very interesting, and I enjoyed the review on Amazing Stories as well. I always liked that Excalibur was non-specific, that it kept things universal.

    Does Graham Edwards book have a definitive ending, given it is the first volume of a series? I hate reading a book which insists I read the next one, and the next…

    • Thanks Gary! Graham Edwards’ book has a very clever ending in that it resolves the mystery but allows the story to continue over future books. So it’s a continuing series that you should also be able to read out of order, although only the first book is out at the moment. I’m very intrigued to see more stone age shenanigans myself.

  2. Thanks, Alastair – fascinating post. You’ve placed me in some illustrious company there, which I’m not sure I deserve. It’s certainly a tricky balance, trying to include enough of the research to build the world, but not to swamp the narrative. My mantra when writing TALUS was always: “Forget the history and just tell the damn story!”

    • Hello Graham! I think Talus succeeded very well in that respect. It must have been so tempting to throw in every nugget of information that you came across in your research. I really liked the way that when you did reveal some detail of the world, it always had a connection to the story, like the totem pit. I loved that! Shakespeare did just the same in King Lear. He didn’t both telling the audience anything that was non-essential to the plot.

      • Thanks Alastair – this does sound very interesting. I’ll be getting a copy soon. I see so many novels with a superfluity of detail. In which case I blame the editor.

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