A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Paperback covers of the novels from the 1970s and 1980s, when they knew something about illustrations.
How do myths get started? What experiences point people towards explanations that draw from their beliefs in invisible, parallel or ancient worlds whose rulers seek to control the destinies of humans? For John James (1923 – 1993) the answer came in the shapes of a Greek businessman of the middle years of the Roman Empire and a British poet of the post Roman Empire. Between 1966 and 1969 he wrote three novels that explored what can happen in the margins of a literate and militaristic society that can conquer but not control the societies that form the peripheries of its empire.
Two of the novels tell the story of Photinus, a Greek trader. In Votan we find him in the Roman frontier city of Vindobona, modern day Vienna. He gets out pretty quick, worried that his extra-marital affairs with a Roman officer’s wife are going to get him into trouble. He decides to head into northern Germany and wrest control of the amber trade from the wonderfully named Cat Men. Amber in this world, more than gold, means wealth beyond the dreams of Croesus.
It’s clear from early in the novel that James wanted the reader to associate Photinus with Viking myths. He hangs, literally, in a tree, suspended, literally, between life and death; he plunges a spear into a tree (important motifs in Viking mythology); he travels to Asgard, works for Njord in his palace of Valhall and is called Votan Allfather. In return he gives the Northern tribes writing and honey liquor. He also brings about, at the behest of the god Apollo, and for reasons that escaped me, the destruction of Asgard in a conflict with its rival neighbour under its leader, Loki. Not only is Asgard destroyed, the balance of power between the tribes is destroyed too; the amber trade is disrupted; a power vacuum opens and at the novel’s close, it is uncertain who will fill it.
For all the allusions to Viking mythology, I was drawn much more to the character of Photinus the merchant rather than Votan Allfather. He is a business man who appreciates both the role of profit and honour in the world view of the Germanic tribes. Wars are, he accepts, necessary. However, they are not to be fought over abstract principles (possibly in an allusion to the expansionist imperial dream of Rome.) Rather they further business by creating monopolies and destroying competitors. The tribes value honour much more than any mercenary would but they also enjoy the benefits that trade with the world across the Rhine brings them. Gods, ritual, the invisible world play important roles in their world and are respected and worshipped. However, nobody would dream of going to war because they believe one god is better than another.
Not For All the Gold in Ireland opens with one of the most arresting first sentences I’ve ever come across:
Well if you really want to know how it was I came to be on that lugger, on a fine reach south-west in a north-west gale, with the north coast of Ireland on my left hand, in company with a Druid, a Colonel of Thracian Cavalry (misemployed), the King and Queen of the Silurians, a Priestess of the Gods Below, to whom I may or may not have been married, and a handful of Brits who alleged they were sailors, then I will tell you.
However, not that the novel goes downhill from there, it lacks, what I can only describe as, the philosophical underpinning that charged Votan with so much emotional energy. Photinus’ belief in the gods remains as strong as ever but there are no friendly chats with Apollo. As a result, his journey to Ireland, nominally to guarantee his family’s monopoly in all gold shipments out of that country, takes on the feel of a caper movie. More The Italian Job than Heart of Darkness. Having said that, there are times when I would rather watch the former than read the latter.
James left the best for last. Men Went to Cattraeth, to pursue the movie theme a little more, would be akin to The Seven Samurai: noble, brave and true, a war band of fifth century British warriors march south at the orders of King Mynydog from their fort in the lee of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, to retake land captured by the Saxon invaders. They call themselves Romans and worship a Christian God. They despise the Saxons, looking on them as less than human and have no compunction about killing them regardless of sex or age. Like the seven samurai, most of them will not come back to their hearths, dying in the breach in the old Roman walls of Cattraeth (possibly modern Catterick), mourning the loss of their charismatic leader Owain.
James took as his inspiration the early Welsh poem Y Gododdin. Its authorship is attributed to Aneirin and it is his narration that guides the novel. As a result of his experiences as a prisoner of the Saxons, he no longer composes or sings poetry. But he accompanies the expedition, as much out of unrequited love for the royal-born Bradwen as for any desire for the fame that follows victory. He survives the massacre at Cattraeth and finds his poet’s voice, singing the death songs of the British warriors as, one-by-one, they die. Returning to Eiddin (Edinburgh) he confronts King Mynydog and discovers that he was backing the wrong myth. Owain, Mynydog tells him, was never to have united the British tribes. To his less famous cousin will fall that particular task.
There is no Celtic Twilight in these novels. The Irish hero Cuchulain, as depicted by James in Not For All the Gold in Ireland, is a world away from that of Yeats. This is not the world of The Golden Bough or From Ritual to Romance. James seems to be saying that we are much more complex than all that, combining both the sacred and vulgar in one common experience. We will always try to turn a profit no matter the religious, cultural or political norms that seek to construct the myths that try to tell a people who they are.
John James:Votan and Other Novels (Gollancz, 2014). ISBN 9780575105508. RRP £9.98.
Mind duly boggled.
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I bought all three of those books in 1971or 72, because I liked the (original) cover illustrations. I did not intend to keep them after their first read-through, but I found them strangely compelling. I kept them for years – may indeed still have them in a box somewhere – despite one girlfriend’s acid description of them as”trash”. Mind you, she wanted me to read Simone de Beauvoir instead, so she went and the books stayed. John James may have taken liberties with historical accuracy, but I didn’t care. They were (are) still a cracking good read.