As someone who receives a great many pitches for recently released and forthcoming historical novels, I am often struck by an odd sense of disconnect. For reasons that I’m sure have more to do with marketing than editorial decisions, certain historical periods get far more than their share of attention—World War II and the early Tudors, I’m looking at you—and other times and places, equally filled with drama but less familiar, are considered not to have even the potential for mass appeal.
There must be a logic to this style of decision making, because the favored settings seem to sell lots of books. But as a reader, I much prefer new and less well-traveled paths that will take me to places I have never visited or know little about. So I was delighted to receive A. M. Linden’s The Oath, first of her Druid Chronicles, which takes us back to Britain on the brink of Christianization and the transfer of power from Celts to Anglo-Saxons. Read on to find out more.
You have such an interesting history. How did writing a fiction series get into the mix?
I began the story that evolved into the Druid Chronicles as a way to balance the formal writing I did at work with something that was just for fun. Once I’d come up with my characters and needed to flesh them out, however, I fell back on the adage “write about what you know.” It is, therefore, not an accident that two of the major characters are the medieval equivalent of health-care professionals. More seriously—and I say this from my heart—there is a reason that the heroes and heroines of this series make great sacrifices and fight all odds for the sake of the story’s children, and that is because of the privilege I’ve had to work with families of children with special needs and so have seen firsthand what real heroism is. Returning to your question, I guess I just took a mix of the good, the bad, and the funny of what I’ve seen around me, used it to make up my characters, and set them loose in Anglo-Saxon England.
And what made you want to write about eighth-century Saxons and Celts, including Druids, in particular?
The early medieval period is “long ago and far away,” and yet its mythology is so much a part of our literature that the era has always had, at least for me, a familiar feel. It was those two traits that made eighth-century Britain such a compelling setting when I began writing this series. As for Druids, again it was mythology—in this case conjuring images of nature-worshipping wise men and women—that led me to make them the driving force in a story about the struggle between Christian monotheism and pre-Christian polytheism.
The novel opens with a history of Theobold and his reign in the fictional realm of Derthwald. It sets the stage for what’s to come (and is interesting in its own right), but why start there?
While The Oath and the subsequent books in the series are set in fictional locations and populated with imaginary characters, the Druid Chronicles is intended to be historical in the sense that it is, at least in part, an examination of the interplay between sociopolitical events and its protagonists’ lives. In addition to providing the story’s setting and explaining why this particular kingdom doesn’t show up in the actual historical record, The Oath’s prologue outlines Theobold’s rise from warlord to king and introduces his power-hungry nephew, Gilberth. What’s most important, however, is that it ends at the pivotal juncture between the kingdom’s history and the story’s current events—the aftermath of the battle Theobold waged against a war band of pagan Celts led by Rhedwyn, a charismatic Druid priest who is, among other things, the biological father of Caelym, the series’ main protagonist. This is the point at which the lives of the story’s central characters first intersect. Following that battle, in which Rhedwyn and most of his followers were slaughtered, Annwr, the sister of the Druids’ chief priestess, was captured by Theobold’s warriors, then sold as a slave, while Caelym was left to fill Rhedwyn’s position and will eventually be sent to rescue Annwr.
The next person we meet is Caelym, who might be considered the central character of this book, since the oath is his. Tell us a bit about him and where he is in chapter 1.
At the opening of The Oath, Caelym, a young Druid priest, has just reached the outer walls of the Abbey of Saint Edeth the Enduring, a convent in the northeastern corner of the Kingdom of Derthwald. Caelym is both extremely gifted and extraordinarily handsome—traits that have combined to make him more than a little conceited, and he is prone to show off when the opportunity arises. That said, he is absolutely sincere in his religious beliefs and is prepared to face any hardship to obey the dictates of his shrine’s chief priestess. With only an ambiguous prophecy and a map drawn from legends, Caelym must find Annwr. He has set out on this quest believing the intense Druidic training that he’s undergone has prepared him for the dangers he will face but will need to overcome his pride and accept help from unlikely sources if he is going to succeed.
Caelym is searching for Annwr, whom he imagines as young and beautiful. He’s in for a bit of a surprise, but how did Annwr come to be missing and why is he searching for her?
In the aftermath of the battle between Theobold’s army and Rhedwyn’s war band, Annwr and two other priestesses were sent out of their hidden sanctuary to gather precious herbs for Rhedwyn’s funeral bier. When the three young women were discovered by a band of Theobold’s warriors, Annwr was captured, carried off, and sold to become Aleswina’s nursemaid. The other priestesses were drowned in a river trying to escape, and because a shawl that belonged to Annwr was found with their bodies, it was believed that she had drowned as well. Fifteen years later, their oracle tells the cult’s chief priestess, Feywn, he has had a vision that Annwr is alive and being held prisoner by the Saxons. Hearing this, Feywn orders Caelym to find Annwr and rescue her.
Annwr, also known as Anna, lives near the Abbey of St. Edeth the Enduring, which is the home of your third major character, Aleswina. What is her story, including the relationship between her and Annwr?
The daughter of King Theobold and Queen Alswanda, Aleswina was four years old when her parents died within a day of each other—Alswanda allegedly in childbirth and Theobold, overcome with grief, by either jumping or falling off a cliff. Her cousin, Gilberth, who assumed the throne of Derthwald on Theobold’s death, discharged all his uncle’s guards and servants, including the nursemaid who’d attended Aleswina since her birth. That nursemaid, a Saxon, was replaced by the newly captured Annwr. If Aleswina had been old enough to bear children when Gilberth came to power, he would have married her to cement his hegemony over her mother’s kingdom. As it was, he kept his little cousin confined to her nursery, where she lived in isolation with Annwr for the next seven years. With only each other for company—and both left deeply traumatized by the events that brought them together—Annwr came to love Aleswina as a daughter, while Aleswina was desperately attached to Annwr from the first. When Aleswina is sent to a cloistered convent at the age of thirteen, she takes Annwr with her and the two manage by a combination of stealth and exploitation of Aleswina’s royal status to meet together in the convent’s garden. Now nineteen, Aleswina is still a novice, and she is running out of excuses to avoid taking her final vows, a change in status that would mean she could no longer keep her beloved servant in a cottage on the abbey grounds.
A big part of the background to this novel is cultural conflict between Britons (that is, Celts) and Saxons, exemplified by a struggle between the ancient pagan religion of the Druids and Christianity. What do readers need to know about this issue to understand the novel?
The conversion of the indigenous Celtic population of the British Isles to Christianity took place during the time of the Roman occupation, and while there were presumably holdouts, it was essentially complete prior to withdrawal of the Roman forces at the end of the fourth century. Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons occurred at different times and under different circumstances in the various kingdoms that were established in their takeover of the area we now know as England, but for all intents and purposes this second wave of conversion was complete by the end of the sixth century. With the male Saxon warrior class being the dominant political power and a patriarchal form of Christianity ascendant, the underlying questions in The Oath are whether a tiny, demonized minority who believe their chief priestess is the embodiment of the supreme Mother Goddess can escape persecution—and what will become of Aleswina, who is caught between incompatible cultures.
Are you already working on the second novel in the series? What can you tell us about it?
Book 2, The Valley, begins a generation earlier than the other novels in the series and recounts the events that set the main story in motion. Llwddawanden, the valley of the book’s title, is a hidden sanctuary where the remnants of a once powerful Druid cult have carried on their ancient ritual practices supported by a small but faithful following of servants, craftsmen, and laborers. Narrated from the viewpoint of an elderly priest who’d been Caelym’s teacher and mentor during his formative years, it interweaves the story of our hero’s growing up with mounting conflicts within the shrine’s highest ranks. Besides Herrwn and Caelym, central characters in The Valley include Ossiam, an enigmatic oracle; Olyrrwd, a cynical physician; Feywn, the shrine’s beautiful supreme priestess; Arianna, Feywn’s rebellious and headstrong daughter; Feywn’s sister, Annwr; and Annwr’s daughter Cyri. The Valley is completed and is scheduled for publication by She Writes Press on June 28, 2022.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Thank you! These have been the questions I’d have hoped a friend who liked the book would ask.
A. M. Linden is the author of The Druid Chronicles, a five-volume series that began as a somewhat whimsical decision to write something for fun but became a lengthy journey that included creative writing classes, research into early British history, and travel to England, Scotland, and Wales. Additional information about the books is available at https://www.druidchronicles788ad.com.