Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Golden String

How Providence actually works in the lives of people is a theme running through Centurion's Daughter. The main character, Aemilia, is at times dimly aware of a sense of direction in her life; a realisation that a series of odd coincidences are not just chance, but a fortuitous combination of events that nudge her in a certain direction. It is only when she begins to try and carve out a path for herself that she loses this awareness and things start unravelling for her. But she always comes back to what Malcolm Muggeridge calls the Golden String, which eventually leads her to a destiny she did not expect.

I give you the end of a Golden String,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s Gate
Built in Jerusalem’s Wall.

Muggeridge was quoting from William Blake in his autobiographical Chronicles of Wasted Time, a work which I read years ago and never forgot. It became a central theme of the novel: what is Aemilia's place and what is she supposed to be doing with her life? At the beginning of the book she hardly knows - she is completely preoccupied merely with her survival, looking for a father she had never met in order to escape a master who wants to force himself on her. It is only when she finds her feet in her new settings and gradually begins to think for herself that the big question raises itself. She is half Frank, half Roman, and does not know in which world she belongs, being drawn in different ways to them both. How she resolves this dilemma and finds her true calling in the dangerous tangle of human affairs takes up the rest of the book.

The point which interests me here was showing how gently, almost imperceptibly, God steers us in the course of our lives without ever revealing himself. For me God is a tightrope walker par excellence. The most precious gift he has given us, and the one he respects the most, is our free will. We have a span of eighty odd years to decide whether we will, consciously or unconsciously, side with God or against him. With a very few exceptions, God does nothing that ever forces free will to a decision. There is enough evidence lying around to conclude that there is a God, but the evidence is not of a kind to oblige our acceptance. We are able, as long as we live in this world, to disregard God completely, even to the point of rejecting his existence.

For Aemilia, the hints of what God wants for her come, firstly, in the form of  enlightening thoughts, answers that seems to emerge out of nowhere for problems she cannot resolve by her own thinking; secondly, in the odd course of events. She is protected from a fatal suspicion by Syagrius who uncharacteristically does not see the obvious. She is brought by circumstance time and again to meet the man she will ultimately marry, the right man for her. It needs her co-operation, but eventually things fall into place, a little too neatly to write off as mere chance.

Does this correspond to real life? I think it does. One can either find the Golden String or try to manufacture something to replace it. The substitute must ultimately fall apart in one's hands. It's not golden, and gold lasts.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Whether a novel succeeds or not...

I'll make a confession. Centurion's Daughter hasn't exactly been a best-seller. In fact, royalties for the last year have totalled the princely sum of $50. When I got that news I did two things:

a) said 'Thy will be done' to God;

b) wondered what exactly does make a book a success.

I'm still working on b). Centurion's Daughter is sold through Arx, a small but established publisher specialising in Catholic historical fiction. The editor put a real effort in to publicizing the book, so nobody can blame him. The book itself, I've been told by people who have read it - and not all who have a reason to flatter me - tells an interesting story and is well-written. People like the cover, and the illustrations are a bonus. Oh well.

Looking into things, I get the impression that these days an author is expected to blow as loud a horn as possible, whenever and wherever he can, using every means at his disposal to get his book noticed ahead of the other several hundred thousand hopefuls who are trying to do exactly the same thing. Like getting his family and friends to write favourable reviews on Amazon (not so easy as Amazon is wiseing up and pulling reviews submitted from the same IP address), or even going as far as to post disparaging reviews for rival authors in order to drag their ratings down. Also visiting as many relevant or not-so-relevant sites as possible purely for the purpose of announcing the arrival of one's New Book. Anything that works, or looks like it might work.

Well, quite honestly, I can't be bothered.

Not that it works in any case. The bottom line from people who are the most experienced in this business is that nothing will promote a bad book. Write something worth writing about, write it well, polish it thoroughly, and give it an airing. Then let it go where it will. I flatter myself at least that I've done that.

I'm not grumping. Well, not too much. Right now I'm working (on and off) at a sequel, Crescentius the Great, which takes place about ten years after the events in Centurion's Daughter. Here is the opening chapter, which is probably going to change in a rewrite. Hopefully it will be ready by the end of the year when it will get its airing in turn. Then let it go where it wills. Or God wills. The main thing is that it will have been the best I can do.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Designing the cover for Centurion's Daughter

A picture tells a thousand words, which means that this post will have lots of pics and hopefully few words.

Designing the cover was fun. I originally worked on one attempt that I abandoned as being to puerile for the book's theme. It was meant to wrap around from the back to the front of the book. It shows Aemilia and Tarunculus on the walls of Soissons as the beaten army of Syagrius comes trickling into the town.

After scrapping it I tried something completely different. I found these pictures (some have the owner's permission; the others - I wouldn't have a clue now where they came from and they have been changed beyond recognition anyway).

First the background material. The sky.

And the black ground (I deleted the yellow sky).

Then the centurion's helmet. This fellow was delighted to have his picture as part of a novel cover.

And the centurion's face in profile (which was considerably darkened in the final composition).

Then the scale armour and scarf around his neck, taken from this pic.  The image was flipped in Photoshop.

Finally Aemilia's face, taken from this pic of the statue of the Empress Antonina.

With the raw material assembled I set to work. First I opened everything in Photoshop and start with the background sky. I cropped the picture then blended the sky with the blackened ground below, deleting the superfluous yellow sky from the ground pic. Then I applied a few filters to give the suggestion of a painting texture.

Next the helmet. Using deep etching I removed every part of the pic that was not the helmet itself including the face of the young man, which I replaced with the profile of the old man. I then darkened it and applied filters to give it a similar feel to the sky behind it.

 Then the scale armour and scarf, darkened down to be a suggestion and nothing more.

Now the hard part. The bust of Antonina was not ideal but was the best I could find. First I erased everything superfluous, blurring the edges as I did so.

Then I moulded the face, which meant working the jaw and completely recreating the eyes.

Finally adding the text, and voila!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Clovis...the most important man, ever

...from the point of view of the future of Mediaeval civilisation. It rather surprises me that he has been almost completely passed over in fiction. I find every aspect of his life fascinating. Let me give a brief timeline:

AD466. Birth of Clovis. His father was Childeric, a Frankish chieftain whose capital was the former Roman staging post of Tornacum (modern-day Tournai) that lay on the Roman road between Cologne and Boulogne. This area had been occupied by the Franks for about a century at the time of Clovis's birth. Childeric was an ally of the Empire, and exercised a loose overlordship over the tribes of Salian Franks, or the Franks on the western side of the Rhine.

Childeric had a bad reputation with the women, especially married women of prominent Franks, which led to his exile east of the Rhine. During his absence the Franks accepted the rule of Rome in the person of Syagrius, last Roman ruler of northern Gaul.

Childeric eventually regained the favour of his Franks and returned to Tournai. The absolute respect Clovis had for women, especially for his future wife Clotilde, suggests that he had learnt the lesson of his father's example and had made up his mind not to repeat it.

AD481. At the death of Childeric, Clovis becomes chieftain of the Salian Franks of Tournai. Shortly after this Syagrius conferred on him the post of administrator of Belgica II, one of the four provinces under Syagrius's control. This is mentioned by St Remigius, bishop of Reims, who wrote to Clovis:

Word of great import has reached us that you have received the administration of Belgica Secunda. This is not a new thing, that you should begin to be what your forefathers always were.

 For several years Clovis accepted the status quo as ally of Syagrius and lived in peace with him. He would have used this time to consolidate his power among the Frankish tribes (he was only fifteen when his father's men raised him on the shield), asserting his rank of over-king based on his status as Syagrius's foederatus.

AD486. Clovis defeats Syagrius in battle.  The causes of the war between Clovis and Syagrius are obscure and one has to read between the lines of the few scraps of evidence available. It seems Syagrius revoked Clovis's title of administrator over Belgica II and occupied Soissons, reasserting his own rights over the province. The subsequent battle at Soissons was a disastrous defeat for Syagrius, who, it seems, was deposed by his own provinces (largely controlled by a powerful militarised aristocracy) and fled to the Visigoths. He was later brought back as Clovis's captive and died at Soissons - murdered, according to the account of St Gregory of  Tours. The remaining Roman provinces did not capitulate to Clovis however, and successfully held him off during a war lasting ten years.

AD 493. Clovis marries St. Clotilde. This may have been done partly for political motives. Clotilde was a Burgundian princess, whose uncle controlled the Burgundian state after murdering her father and mother. She was also a Catholic. Clovis needed to conciliate the Catholic population of Syagrius's former provinces, who would not accept him as ruler since he was a pagan. Politics aside, it is clear he had a genuine love and respect for her, allowing her to baptize their children, even after their first child died immediately after baptism. It is also clear she deeply impressed him, even though her efforts to convert him to the Christian Faith were initially unsuccessful.

AD496. Clovis converts to Catholicism and is baptized. This is undoubtedly the single most important event of his life. A neighbouring barbarian people, the Alamans, made war against the Franks. Clovis's army was on the verge of rout in the battle. At the crucial moment he invoked the Christian God, promising to be baptized if he won. The tide turned and the Franks triumphed, killing the Alaman king. Clovis, who was not a mere political calculator, kept his word. About half his army followed his example and were baptized with him. With his conversion the war between Franks and Gallo-romans came to an end and the latter finally accepted Clovis as ruler.

AD506. Clovis defeats the Visigoths and conquers southern Gaul. The Visigoths had been the greatest of the barbarian powers that conquered the Western Roman Empire. Like most other barbarians they were Arians and had an uneasy rapport with their Catholic subjects. Intermarriage between Visigoth and Gallo-roman or Hispano-roman was forbidden and things sometimes degenerated into violent persecution. The only barbarian ruler who could fuse his people with the local inhabitants of the former Empire was Clovis, and it was his kingdom alone that in the end proved strong enough to stop the tide of Moslem conquest two centuries later. If the Visigoths - defeated with ease by the Moslems - had retained or extended their control over Gaul, it is probable Westerners would be chanting Allahu Akbar today. In any event Clovis's defeat of the Visigoths and his subsequent conquest of southern Gaul made the Franks the premier power in Europe, and it was the Frankish kingdom and its successor states that eventually became western Mediaeval Europe.

So Clovis mattered.