1481995 Curiosities served
2008-08-15 2:17 PM
Reconciling Fact and Fiction
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On his JournalScape blog Rambler posed some perceptive questions about One For Sorrow which got me thinking about the historical basis for our characters. I posted answers in his comments section and then, since the newsletter deadline was bearing down I decided to expand on my comments into an article.
This edition of The Orphan Scrivener also contains some news and a much more interesting essay by Mary about Sunday excursions to the windy shore of the North Sea when she was a youngster.
Mary and I do our best to stick to the known facts. We don't change the dates of events to fit our plots or decorate Constantinople with architecture that wasn't there at the time. At the beginning of the eighth book, which we've just begun, we were forced to remove a monument we wanted a character to see because, unfortunately, the monument -- which would have been a nice touch -- had yet to be erected.
Most of our characters are figments of our imaginings but even they are occasionally threatened by reality.
What about Thomas, we were asked, the knight from King Arthur's court who appears in One for Sorrow in search of the Holy Grail? Does he make any sense, historically? Probably not from an academic point of view since the knights of the round table legend seems to be a medieval literary creation. On the other hand, there is no reason why Wolfram Von Eschenbach's fictional Parsifal, or a character like him, should not meet up with our fictional Lord Chamberlain John.
We decided to include a knight in our story after being surprised to discover that if King Arthur were indeed a real person -- and there may have existed a powerful warlord around whom the legend sprung up -- he was a contemporary of Emperor Justinian. Since Constantinople and its many churches were awash in relics, such as the famous Virgin's girdle hauled out to protect the walls when the city was under attack, it struck us that it would be the first place in the world a questing knight with any sense would look. I'm not sure the grail legends have the knights looking for the grail or finding it in any locations that can be reliably linked to known geography. But they did travel a lot. One of the places associated with the grail -- the island of Sarras -- has been said to be in the vicinity of Egypt, even further from Britain than Constantinople. Then too, Mary and I are still not convinced that Thomas is really a knight rather than a fortune-hunting con artist. Or, he could actually hold the Roman knight's rank of eques and be prone to exaggeration.
Then there is the self-styled seer, Ahaseurus, who also plays a role in the first novel, and returns in the fifth. Does he have a foot in reality? Again, he is based on a legend of later vintage. Ahaseurus was one of many names given to the Wandering Jew, a man who supposedly mocked Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was subsequently condemned to walk the earth until the Second Coming. In some versions of the story he is identified with Joseph of Arimathea who, in certain variations of his own story, is a guardian of the grail. Those old legends serve up a smorgasbord of tempting possibilities for authors.
And like King Arthur, the Wandering Jew was not made up out of thin air. Some conjecture that the legend arises from Jesus's words in Matthew 16:28: "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."(King James Version)
Anyway, Mary and I are agnostic on the question of whether our Ahaseurus really is a supernatural being or just a clever charlatan.
Finally, we were asked whether someone checking the history books would find that Justinian actually did have a Lord Chamberlain and he was, unfortunately, not named John the Eunuch. To which the answer is, yes. By 538, according to one scholar, Narses -- a eunuch like John -- served Justinian in the capacity of Lord Chamberlain, having held other high offices for several years.
The term Lord Chamberlain, or sometimes Grand Chamberlain, appears to be a rather loose translation by Victorian historians of the position called "praepositus sacri cubiculi" or more literally "person placed over the emperor's palace." (Somehow I can' see a books being subtitled "A Praepositus Sacri Cubiculi Mystery.") The title doesn't describe the actual duties, which apparently depended on the emperor's whim. Narses is best known to history, not for running the palace, but rather for his efforts on Justinian's behalf during the Nika riots, when the emperor was nearly overthrown, and for his command of the Byzantine armies in Italy. Although he was in his mid-seventies when given his generalship, he helped bring Rome back into the empire, albeit only temporarily.
Narses is an interesting character in his own right, but Mary and I are not fond of historical figures as detectives. We prefer to make up our own protagonists. But where does John fit in?
We reasoned that since Lord Chamberlain meant whatever Justinian wanted it to mean, he could also appoint more than one Lord Chamberlain. The Byzantine Emperor was not only an absolute dictator but even headed the church. The emperor stood at the pinnacle of society and all power flowed downward from him. Our Justinian answers to no one, aside from Mary and me who insisted he appoint a second Lord Chamberlain.
Aside from John once remarking that he prefers to stay in the background rather than being a public figure like Narses, Justinian's real Lord Chamberlain is barely noted in our books. This, however, is due to change since the eighth novel deals with the Nika riots and is more firmly rooted in specific historical events than the previous seven. Narses, unavoidably, will be a major character.
We are still in the process of figuring out in detail his relationship to John. When we do come up with an answer, we hope readers will agree that it doesn't do too much violence to historical fact.
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