by Jules Watson
Edition reviewed: Orion, 2005, ISBN 0-75286-537-4
The White Mare is set in what is now Scotland in AD 79-81. All the main characters are fictional. The historical figures of Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia at the time, and Calgacus, leader of a confederation of tribes in Caledonia*, are important secondary characters, and there is a walk-on part for the Roman historian Tacitus, who was Agricola's son-in-law and whose history is the only documentary record of the events.
Rhiann is a princess and priestess of the Epidii tribe in what is now Argyll in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Her tribe, in common with the others in Alba* (the name used for Scotland throughout the novel), reckons royal descent through the female line instead of the male line, and Rhiann is the only woman of childbearing age in the Epidii royal family. She therefore has an inescapable duty to marry and bear a son who will be the next king of the Epidii - if she does not, some other clan of the Epidii, or perhaps even another tribe, will take over the Epidii by force. When Eremon, an exiled Irish prince, arrives in Epidii territory with his warband of loyal followers, the Epidii druid and chieftains demand that Rhiann marry Eremon as a political alliance. Recognising her duty, Rhiann agrees, but a traumatic experience has left her emotionally crippled and terrified of marriage. Meanwhile, in the south of Alba, the Roman governor Agricola is leading a military invasion that will threaten not only the Epidii but all the tribes of Alba. Rhiann and Eremon have to protect their own tribal territory against the Roman threat, persuade the other tribes to unite into a wider alliance, overcome a variety of enemies nearer to home, and somehow come to understand each other well enough to forge a lasting relationship out of their marriage of convenience.
I'm delighted to see this under-utilised period of history being explored in historical fiction. The only historical account is the biography of Agricola written by the Roman historian Tacitus (full-text translation available here). Tacitus was writing only a few years after the events, and as he was married to Agricola's daughter he may well have had access to first-hand information from Agricola himself. This closeness to the events being described lends veracity to Tacitus' account, though it should be remembered that he (like all historians) will have selected from the material available to him and presented that which he thought most relevant to his narrative. There are no sources telling the Caledonian side of the story. As a result, there are enormous gaps in our knowledge of the social structure, values, culture, religion, language and history of first-century tribal Scotland, leaving tremendous scope for the novelist's imagination. The author will have had to make up most of Rhiann and Eremon's world and the people in it, and a helpful Historical Note sets out the skeleton of historical facts and the reasoning behind some of the extrapolations (part of the Historical Note is posted on the author's web site under 'History'). I am not an expert on Iron Age Scotland by any means, but I found the novel plausible. The female royal line is controversial (in this period, most things are). Bede, writing in Northumbria in AD 731, says that the Picts* reckoned royal descent through the mother in his day, though he tells the story in the context of an origin myth and modern scholars have suggested that it may be a contemporary tradition rather than a fact. I know of no incontrovertible evidence either way, so the reader can take their choice. The religion of Iron Age Scotland is unknown, and the author has postulated two competing religions, a male-dominated religion with druids similar to those recorded in Gaul and further south in Britain, and a female-dominated religion based on worship of an earth-mother Goddess and rituals centred around stone circles. It has previously occurred to me to wonder whether there might be a connection between the tradition of female royal descent and worship of a powerful female deity, so I have no problem with seeing both in the novel. Again, there is no definite evidence either way.
The White Mare recreates the lost world of Iron Age Scotland in rich detail, with attention paid to politics, religion, legal and social structures, a working economy, and details of domestic life including food, drink, clothing, jewellery and medicine. It recognises that there were different points of view regarding the coming of the Romans, as the Votadini tribe of south-east Scotland are presented as co-operating with Agricola, which is entirely consistent with the role documented for the tribe in later Roman Britain. I have my doubts about the credibility of a Roman-style palace being built in the middle of the hill-fort at Traprain Law (the remains of its foundations and tiled roof would surely have been visible in archaeological excavations, and there is no mention of them in a reasonably recent article), but I don't suppose the entire area of the fort has been meticulously excavated, so who's to say? The central characters, Rhiann and Eremon, are firmly anti-Roman and so the novel gives more emphasis and sympathy to this point of view, but the Roman side of the story is presented as well and the Roman characters are not demonised. Agricola is a character in his own right, with his own desires and motivations, and a rather timid Roman engineer is occasionally used to observe and comment on Caledonian society.
The main characters are well rounded, with a mix of good and bad qualities. Both Rhiann and Eremon are complex and intelligent with a strong sense of duty, and both have previous painful experiences to overcome. Caitlin and Conaire are in some senses sunnier versions of the two leads, with less responsibility on their shoulders and consequently more opportunity to be fun and outgoing. The overall tone is one of epic drama, sometimes veering into melodrama. Occasional verbal sparring between Rhiann and Eremon, Caitlin's artless chatter and laddish humour among the warriors provide a few glimpses of humour to lighten the tone.
The secondary characters, such as Gelert the crafty druid, cruel king Maelchon, scheming Samana and noble Calgacus, are vividly drawn, though their clearly defined roles in the plot limit the aspects that can be portrayed and they may appear somewhat one-dimensional. Rhiann is a strong character without being a warrior princess, and although the Goddess cult is feminist the society as a whole isn't presented as a feminist utopia.
The novel is very long (605 pages) and rather slow, in part because the detailed world-building takes up a lot of room, and in part because Rhiann's emotional trauma seems to be repeated rather more than I thought was necessary. It starts to pick up around page 250 or so, but I still found it a slow read and would have preferred a faster pace and fewer reminders of Rhiann's personal problems. This may be because I found it hard to credit that Rhiann's aunt, a fellow priestess in the Goddess cult, didn't recognise the reason for Rhiann's aversion to marriage until well over halfway through the novel, whereas it seemed obvious to me within a few pages.
Most of the plot elements are not resolved at the end of the novel. You have to read the sequel, The Dawn Stag (even longer), to find out what happens to the characters in the end, so be prepared to embark on a 1200+ page odyssey.
There is a strong spiritual and religious theme in The White Mare, particularly for the Goddess cult (the rival druid religion gets less emphasis). Occasionally this spiritual theme spills over into events that appear to be overtly magical. For example, Samana casts a spell on Eremon, and Rhiann uses some sort of magic to bewitch a Roman sentry and get into a Roman fort. As I've said elsewhere, I am not a great fan of fantasy elements in historical fiction, and for me this tended to weaken the story.
I found it odd that none of the characters ever compared their situation and the choices facing them with the recent experiences of the tribes further south in Britain. The White Mare is set only a generation or so later than Boudica's revolt against Rome in AD 61 (subject of the novel Boudica: Queen of the Iceni) and Cartimandua's reign as a pro-Roman client queen. Yet no-one in the novel ever tries to draw lessons from the decisions made by Boudica and Cartimandua and the other tribal leaders further south. Geographical isolation isn't the explanation, as there is reference to a marriage alliance with a prince of the Trinovantes, one of the tribes that joined Boudica's revolt, so clearly the tribes in the novel have contact with their contemporaries in the south of Britain. Cartimandua's territory is likely to have bordered Votadinian territory so she and Samana might even have been neighbours. Maybe the tribes of Caledonia don't consider the other British tribes worthy of attention (though they are evidently considered worthy of marriage alliances with royal females). Maybe the events were so traumatic they were wiped from popular memory. However, it also extends to the Roman side, as Agricola served as a junior officer under Suetonius Paulinus in the campaign that defeated Boudica, yet in the novel he never refers to her revolt and its aftermath as a dire warning of the consequences of resisting Rome. I find this apparent disconnect from recent history rather puzzling.
As it happens, the scanty evidence records no female names at all from Iron Age Scotland. The only names we have are those in the Pictish king lists, which are (naturally) all male, and the name of the leader Calgacus recorded by Tacitus, which is Latinised and may mean something like 'The Sword' or 'The Swordsman'. The author has used Calgacus' name in the form recorded by Tacitus, and has used names from the Pictish king lists for many of the male characters from Alba. The absence of female names has been handled by using a mixture of Irish female names (e.g. Caitlin) and Brittonic or Brittonic-style female names (e.g. Rhiann, Linnet). This seems very reasonable to me, though some of the names chosen are modern (e.g. Caitlin, which is the Irish Gaelic form of the name Catherine) and may seem anachronistic to some readers.
A richly detailed recreation of Iron Age Scotland at the time of the first-century Roman invasion.
*The nomenclature of the inhabitants of what is now modern Scotland is confusing in the extreme. Tacitus refers to Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde as Caledonia. In later centuries, Latin writers from the late Roman Empire (fourth century AD or so), and Bede, refer to the inhabitants of north-east Scotland (roughly, north of the Forth and east of the main spine of the Highland mountains) as Picts. Irish writers writing in Irish at the same sort of time as Bede refer to the same area as Alba and its inhabitants as Albans. No source preserves the name that the inhabitants of the area used for themselves in their own language, whatever it was. It is entirely possible that these different names refer to different tribes who displaced each other; for what it's worth, I'm more inclined to think that the simplest explanation is that they are all different names for the same people, with 'Picts' and 'Pictland' replacing 'Caledonia' in later Latin sources (possibly by a similar process to that which replaced the names of medieval duchies with the names of the larger kingdoms that absorbed them, e.g. the areas that were Gascony and Aquitaine in the 13th century are now referred to as parts of France), and 'Albans' and 'Alba' being the equivalent terms in Irish Gaelic.