Monday, March 1, 2010

Nothing to See Here

L.G.C. Smith

I don't do revenge. It has a certain dramatic appeal, but when you get right down to it revenge done properly usually requires more time and energy than it's worth. Beyond high school (where all bets are off) or when someone very, very seriously harms your child, practical concerns dictate that most folks are too lazy for revenge.

When wronged, I stew a bit, then move on. There may be a fantasy or two where the offending party undergoes a humiliating public revelation of their true (dastardly) character. I may have, a few times only, pretended I was a powerful witch able to hurl bad karma acceleration curses at the odd malicious soul I've run across. Then...onward. Sometimes forgiveness is required. Fairly often a little perspective does the trick.

Fictional characters, however, have carte blanche to indulge revenge impulses of towering magnificence. This is one of the joys of fiction. As in romance where manly men readily learn to deal with emotion in ways satisfying to women, so can wronged characters fritter their lives away in service to revenge without wearying of the ass-backwardness of it all. Currently, I'm writing a couple of characters based on real people for whom revenge was as mother's milk. These guys were seventh-century Anglo-Saxon kings.

Early Germanic societies seem to have put a high premium on revenge. I comment as a novelist here, not an expert, but the legal systems in use in the early Anglo-Saxon period (450-700 AD) had a lot to say about blood feuds and compensation for crimes against persons and property. Everybody had a price, from the kings and their kin down to the slaves who cleaned up after the pigs. Families, especially those worth a lot, generally seemed to have a right to revenge. Or, possibly it would be more accurate to say that they had a duty to revenge.

My characters are based on the very real Northumbrian kings and rivals, Æthelfrith of Bernicia and Edwin of Deira. Bernicia encompassed much of what's now the county of Northumberland, while Deira was centered on York and the surrounding area. This picture is taken on the beach just south of Bamburgh, which was the main fortified settlement in early seventh century Bernicia.

Æthelfrith took over Deira to form the basis of what would become the kingdom of Northumbria. He killed Edwin's father and assorted family members, married Edwin's sister, and forced Edwin into exile.

It's not hard to understand why Edwin was impelled toward revenge on Æthelfrith, and he did achieve it ten or fifteen years down the line. Thus when Æthelfrith was killed in battle by Edwin's allies, Edwin took over a combined Northumbria and became perhaps the most powerful ruler of his time.

Then Æthelfrith's sons who were children sent into exile when Edwin took over, came roaring back another fifteen years later and killed Edwin. In succession, they they ruled Northumbria as perhaps the most powerful kings of their time. And so it went. Lather, rinse, repeat.

For men like Æthelfrith and Edwin revenge was a defining aspect of everyday life. It's not precisely fair, but one can describe the history of Britain in the seventh century as a series of revenge-driven raids by warlords who were heavily intermarried with all the other warlord kings. It was the original family feud.

Against this backdrop of constant squabbling --deadly squabbling in a population that could ill afford to lose too many farmers, blacksmiths, or cheesemakers -- I can see why the Anglo-Saxon kings, like Edwin, accepted conversion to Christianity. It offered them a way out of the endless cycles of revenge. God took over retribution duties, and paying penances to the Church reduced the toll in dead farmers and pillaged fields when the warlords couldn't contain their violence.

Times have changed when it comes to the role of revenge in our lives. We now trust many aspects of revenge to governments and call it the justice system. Flawed, yes. Very. Better than warlords? Most definitely. Ethically, we have several millennia of religious history urging us to let evildoers take their chances with the the higher powers and karma so the rest of us can worry about getting three kids to four different sports activities in three cities in two hours.

In the meantime, my time-traveling Anglo-Saxon kings are finding themselves in a world that doesn't give a rip about their mandates for revenge. What's more, they now find that the person they most seek to annihilate is the only person alive who shares their past. That's way more interesting than any revenge scenarios that may have come up in my real life.


Sophie Littlefield said...

Blood feuds!! You know how much I LOVE your characters, and Aeth's bloody impulses and instincts make him so....yummy and manly and visceral. I dont' think I'd want a real boyfriend who went around slicing up everyone who pissed me off, but in fiction it's just so darn enticing.

And you know what, LGC, I think you have more potential for zestful vengeance than you think :) Whenever someone is mean to me you're always on my side and I appreciate that. I'd totally go into battle for you too.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Very cool info! Hard to believe we ever crawled out of feudalism, isn't it?

Thanks for making my sparse knowledge of this time and place much richer!!!

Juliet Blackwell said...

Loved this post! makes me wish I were back in graduate school...isn't it fun? I do love research, especially the bloody, vengeful kind;-)

jane said...

I need to read what you have written-this is so my type of thing(being a medieval history major and all..). Can you please email your titles???

L.G.C. Smith said...

Hi Jane,

My previous books were westerns, both historical and contemporary (and old!), so I don't think you'd be much interested in them. This is a new direction for me, and I'm not quite ready to go agent hunting yet. The draft is done and I'm in the middle of revision. Then I have to sell it -- and you can bet I'll let everyone know when that happens.


Jane said...

Good luck to you then Lynn! Can't wait to read it-