Setting The Scene In Wessex: The Pre-Historic Era

Local-Interest Literary & Dramatic Works
Set In The Pre-Roman Era

 

Pictured: the 18C antiquarian William Stukeley's contemporary map-drawing of Avebury as it survived.

 

 

Normally in this series, we would first cover works written during the era being discussed, but of course for the pre-historic era this is by definition impossible, for the label means it predates written history itself. A few possible fragments from early Greek travel accounts survive from the very end of our period, which are usually reproduced and discussed in studies of Stonehenge and which may document pre-historic legends or myths [see below].
Professor 'P' And The Jurassic Coast, by PJ DavidsonRegardless of how recently a work was written, in principle we should start as far back in time as possible in terms of actual time-setting. The region of course has a major prehistoric coastline, the Jurassic Coast, dating back to the dinosaurs and before. As this was formed aeons before humans evolved, the only type of human participant possible is a time traveller, and we do get this with Dr Who style SF adventures. A local-interest example is the 2004 illustrated popular-science children's book Professor P And The Jurassic Coast, by Peter James Davidson (pen name of an IT consultant).
At the end of the last Ice Age, Hengistbury Head was a major hunter-gatherer site, at the mouth the River Solent, where the reindeer herds crossed and so the groups known as Palaeolithic Reindeer Hunters and the later Mesolithic Archers gathered. Since the late 19C, there has been an entire popular-fiction genre covering what we used to call the "caveman" era. Of course the setting of all such novels must remain rather vague, for any recognisable place-names would be anachronistic.
The ‘caveman’ novel with the earliest setting is The Inheritors, by the late Sir William Golding. Author of the Lord Of The Flies, he was a longtime Wiltshire resident (a neighbour of "Gaia" theorist Dr James Lovelock, he coined the eco-term Gaia). His acclaimed 1955 tragic novel, set "generically" around a river-mouth before the last Ice Age, concerns the destruction of the Gaia-worshipping Neanderthal people (the story is told from their ingenuous, unworldly viewpoint) by the wilier The Inheritors coverhomo sapiens sapiens – the first modern men. ("This beautiful prehistoric fantasy is told from the point of view of the doomed Neanderthals, as they try to escape their fate ... Clearly informed by Rousseau's theory of the `noble savage' ... it charts the passing of a whole world" -Waterstone's Guide To Books)
An introduction indicates this is happening circa 35,000 BC, when the first cave-painting Cro-Magnon people arrived. However the process of species extermination would take time, and some scholars believe the Saxon epic Beowulf derives from a prehistoric folktale which describes a final such conflict with a surviving Neanderthal family. [See sidebar on Beowulf]
The first sequence of Edward Rutherfurd's eon-spanning 1986 bestseller Sarum is set as the Channel floods with meltwater around 7000 BC, and he has a Stone Age family settling in the wilderness near Salisbury. The next chapter dramatizes the arrival (up the Avon) of the first farmers, which leads to the development of the first earth henges and stone circles, up to 2000 BC. The novel is massive and incorporates explanatory scene-setting educational background for each era, so it also functions as a popular-history text.
As Europe's nomadic hunter gatherers began farming, they founded a pan-European culture, called the Danubian Tell Civilization, meaning the people who dwelt among the prehistoric mounds called elsewhere tells and in England barrows -- in which Wessex is especially rich. They became in literature the Faery Folk of Celtic lore who lived on happily in the "hollow hills. In Celtic legend, the Aes Sidhe or Mound Folk were renowned artificers, the name Briton itself being thought to mean "People Of The Designs." Archaeologists say it was the people they call the Beaker Folk buried in the mounds around Stonehenge with their magical cups who brought metal-working to Britain. It is suggested this may also have been the pre-Christian origin of the Grail legend. All this helped inspire mediaeval romancers and later novelists. One of these was J.R.R. Tolkien, a 1930s resident of Milford-On-Sea and when he retired, of Poole, dying in Bournemouth. (He also wrote an influential translation and study of Beowulf.)
In the Bronze Age, the main trade route from southern Europe ran from Christchurch Harbour’s headland, Hengistbury, north, towards what would be come the most famous centre of the era. This trade route corridor is shown in the frontispiece map to Rutherfurd's Sarum, showing how the Avon Valley was the route inland to the novel's main setting, between Salisbury (New Sarum) and Stonehenge. Stonehenge was the ceremonial centre of the civilisation of the Bronze Age "Wessex Kings" which flourished from 3000 BC to 1500 BC, and virtually every novel set in prehistoric Britain focuses on it. Some follow the archeo-historians' theory that Stonehenge was built as monument to a tribal alliance, the strongest of which we can surmise (due to its controlling the coastal access), would have been in the eastern Dorset-New Forest area.
Other novels focus on the rival archeo-historians' theory it was an astronomical observatory. In the Bronze Age to which the final, now-ruined, version of Stonehenge belongs, the tin needed to make bronze was exported according to one Roman historian via "Ictis" – possibly Wectis or Wight - one of the fabled trading-port "Tin Isles" that first put Britain on the classical civilisations' maps. Thus some novels also incorporate the arrival of the metal working trade, usually from the Mediterranean, as the harbinger of social and cultural change. The recurring motif here of a Trojan connection first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-C. Historia Regum Britanniae (History Of The Kings Of Britain), a largely fanciful pseudo-chronicle account of the pre-historic beginnings of British monarchy with the arrival of a contingent from fallen Troy, led by Brutus, who defeats the native race of giants.
There are dozens of novels set at or around Stonehenge, going back to 1842, inspired by 18-19C antiquarian theories about Phoenician snake-worship and human sacrifice. Later novels reflect subsequent theories about its uses, so each reflects current archaeological orthodoxy. Regardless of the particular theory invoked, these novels all deal plotwise with why it was built (3500 BC-), rebuilt (c2200 BC), or fell into disuse and ruin (c1800-1200 BC). The linked World Heritage Site of Avebury [pictured opposite], which is actually older and larger, gets less attention but does figure in some works, as does Silbury Hill adjacent.

Modern novels set around Stonehenge or Avebury include Paul Capon [1912-69]'s 1960 Warrior's Moon (which puts the original "Artor," Utha et al in a 3rd-millennium BC setting).
For those who want an "Atlantis" connection, the 1972 Stonehenge —Where Atlantis Died by Harry Harrison and Leon Stover (respectively an SF author and a writer of nonfiction books on Stonehenge), is set 1473 BC and depicts a much bloodier, war-torn society where Mycenaean influence turns the tide. (The historical rationale involving Mycenaea and Atlantis is explained in an Afterword.)
Moyra Caldecott (1927-2015)'s 1970s "Sacred Stones" tetralogy was inspired by Avebury, begun with her The Tall Stones; (1977) and completed by The Temple Of The Sun, Shadow On The Stones, and The Silver Vortex.

 

A work by a local novelist is the 1982 The Priestess Of Henge by David Burnett (owner of Dovecote Press in Wimborne). This 434-page saga, told from the viewpoint of an up-and-coming high-priestess, has Stonehenge built up c2200 BC to reconcile rival solar and lunar calendars in a world where an unpredicted eclipse leads to chaos and war.

Pillar Of The Sky (1985) by Cecelia Holland (1927-2015) has Stonehenge rebuilt from an earlier ruined version, on the orders of a new leader to unify his people.

Stonehenge: A Novel Of 2000 BC by Bernard CornwellThe millennium-eve (1999) novel Stonehenge: A Novel Of 2000 BC by Bernard Cornwell (best-known as the author of the "Sharpe" novels) also has an historical endnote explaining his approach and use of fictional place-names to avoid anachronism. (Stonehenge is “The Old Temple”, Avebury is “Cathallo”, etc). The blurb describes the building of Stonehenge as a tale of “ritual and sacrifice, patricide, betrayal and murder, sibling rivalry, and a quest for power, wealth, and spiritual fulfillment.” Merlin Built Stonehenge (2005) by inventor Bruce Bedlam uses the mediaeval Merlin legend to dramatise his theory the stone circle was merely the framework of a multi-purpose roofed wooden structure. Stone Lord: The Legend Of King Arthur, The Era Of Stonehenge by J.P. Reedman (2012) again has the origins of the Arthur legend amidst a crisis surrounding Stonehenge worshippers, circa 1900 BC.

Left: A number of novels set in the time of Stonehenge, ie of megalithic temples, use the Arthurian legend for their plot, implying this is when the various motifs originated.

In the past five years, there have been a number of archaeological discoveries around Stonehenge, leading to new theories, such as its being "the Lourdes of the ancient world." (For a recent roundup, see Stonehenge’s 2006 ‘Biography’ by Prof. Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University.)


Schoolmaster and neo-Romanticist poet Henry Treece (1911-66)'s 1956 adult novel The Golden Strangers, set around Stonehenge, has the incoming fair-haired nomadic 'Aryan' Celts displacing the Neolithic Iberians (archaeologically, Barley Folk v Beaker Folk); this was also published in a 1957 children's version titled Men Of The Hills, and in the US in 1960 in paperback as The Invaders. (This aggressive displacement scenario was then supported by archeo-historians.) Treece's novella The Dream-Time (1967) is the story of "a Stone Age boy who does not want to be a warrior" [Oxford Companion To English Lit], with more of a focus on human psychology. Treece also set YA novels at the end of the prehistoric era, ie when the first written accounts were appearing in the Roman and Saxon eras. His The Dark Island (1952), retitled The Savage Warriors for the US market [see cover at right] is set in southern England in the 1st C AD, when the Romans are invading. An essay on the genre, "Prehistory - the literary dimension" by Alison Skinner has this to say of Treece's work:

... Treece wrote many books set in the Saxon and Viking periods which were characterised by a considerable toughness and realism. He also wrote four stunning novels for adults covering neolithic, Celtic, Roman and Arthurian periods. His books set in the neolithic period are extremely powerful and take an unsentimental view of the period when fear, uncertainty and self-preservation may well have been predominant emotions. The Golden Strangers records the triumph of sun-worshipping people over the small, dark neolithic indigenous people and is strong on ritual and tribal life. Treece's last book, The Dreamtime, is an imaginative work, not clearly located in any particular period or place, describing the adventures of a wandering man with an artist's sensibility who makes contact with various hunting and fishing peoples, some hostile, others friendly, until he finds a tribe who make drawings on cave walls and are willing to accept a fellow artist.

Stonehenge-set works will no doubt continue to appear as it is the only pre-historic landmark in the region which is a famliar name to all, but there are some works which do not centre around it.

The artist Sven Berlin (1911-99), longtime resident of the New Forest [1953-c70] before he moved to Wight [1970s] and finally the Wimborne area [1975-99], set his 1978 Amergin: An Enigma Of The New Forest there. A mystical fable-style novel set in no particular era telling of encounters between a man, a woman, and a stag in 'the Great Forest in the South' [p34], the name Amergin comes from that of two bards mentioned in two early Irish literary cycles, one from the distant 'mythological' era and one from the Iron Age.

The prehistoric era ended with the arrival of the Romans in AD 43, who left some sketchy accounts of southern Britain as they first found it, and 20th-C. novelists (including Henry Treece - see covers opposite) have on occasion tried to build novels, usually for children, around this to paint a portrait of Celtic Iron (and sometimes Bronze) Age society. The local tribe spanning the Wessex region was the Durotriges (which may or may not mean Wall-Builders), and this is the key name to look out for if exploring the end of this period.

Beowulf – A Prehistoric Folktale In Disguise?
Some scholars, like Grimm and Chambers, have argued the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf derives from a prehistoric European folktale. Though the epic is notionally set in the Saxon-Jutish ancestral homelands of southern Scandinavia, it is also set "long ago ... in those days" in an unrecognisable wild landscape of marshes, bluffs and meres.
Grimm identified the story as a version of a folktale called "The Bear's Son." The conventional explanation of the hero’s name is that is a Saxon ‘kenning’ metaphor for bear, beo-wulf or “bee-wolf” (i.e after honey). The alternative is that it derives from beow-ulf or Beow-follower, Beow being classed by folklorists as an ancient good-luck agricultural-fertility figure. Beow appears as a legendary ancestor in the Wessex genealogy of Alfred The Great, who may have commissioned the written version. (It is written in 9th-C West Saxon dialect.) In that surprising fact (a bear as an agricultural culture hero), we can detect the survival of an older hunting-era identity, for the bear became a totemic or cult-worship animal in the ‘caveman’ era when the Neanderthal people still flourished (many ice-age cave-bear trophy skulls found in both Neanderthal and later Cro-Magnon caves).
This diachronic perspective (where you look at a work as belonging to two time-frames - here the prehistoric and the Saxon) would also help explain other anomalies such as the monster Grendel changing size from a giant ogre to a more manageable size so the hero can defeat him by wrestling (ripping Grendel’s arm from its joint). The idea is the giant ogre is a relic of the less realistic prehistoric 'wonder tale' version.
Grendel casts a giant shadow The name Grendel may be a poetic adaptation of the prehistoric winter-god ogre Wandil, whose name means Pale or White One, and which survives in ancient place names. (Dorset’s Cerne Abbas Giant may have been a late depiction of him as a fee-fi-fo-fum cannibalistic giant. The hilltop “frypan” enclosure above him is named the “Trendle”, perhaps from Tur-Wandil, a tur being a ritual turning point.) If he was originally a giant ogre, this would explain why at some points he is so large he can carry off dozens of warriors etc. Otherwise, he is described as man-size, no doubt to make the story more believable to later hearers. (Some scholars think the legendary Saxon Wild Man Of The Woods, the wudewose, was based on surviving Neanderthals.)
This brings us back to the anthropological theory of Dr Stan Gooch that Grendel, the monster "in the shape of a man," is an exaggerated folk memory of the by-then extinct Neanderthal sub-species. Part of the Stan Gooch argument is that Neanderthals were a matriarchal society, and when Grendel is killed it is – surprisingly in a Saxon epic - his mother who appears and wreaks terrible revenge. This explanation accords with the modern “take” on the legend, where the former evil monster becomes a sympathetic victim.
In mediaeval literature professor John Gardner’s 1971 cult novel Grendel, the tale is told in the first person by the outcast “monster”. Don Taylor's 1996 radio play The Seafarer with Bob Peck similarly rationalizes the situation: the young hero tackles a fierce "marsh-stepper" dwelling in a vast marsh in Wessex (perhaps the Somerset Levels), who turns out to be a deranged female outcast; but he conceals the truth to keep his position as a hero. (For not only did the "inheritors" destroy the Neanderthals, they cast them as monsters and themselves as their heroic slayers.)
Interestingly, there is a place-name reference, in a charter of King Athelstan from 931 AD, to a site on the Wiltshire-Hampshire border by Inkpen Beacon, just east of the ancient Wansdyke. It is called Beow, and nearby is a pool called Grendel's Mere.

cerne giant
The giant chalk figure at Cerne Abbas, of unknown date, has prompted considerable local antiquarian interest, with over 20 interpretations as to his identity, i.e exactly who he is meant to represent. He may well be the primordial fee-fi-fo-fum giant who appears in ancient folktale, given a series of names throughout history. In modern literature and drama, he appears as an iconic pagan fertility figure emphasizing how modern man has lost touch with nature. The image above is of a reconstruction created on a Purbeck hillside for a 1995 Ken Russell tv film, for his actress wife Hetty Baynes to do a fertility dance upon.

 

 

Avebury - model
Artist's impression of Avebury in 3500 BC.


Stonehenge And The Romantic Past
It has been claimed that the oldest documented account of Stonehenge is in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-C. pseudo-chronicle History Of The Kings Of Britain. There, Arthur's court magician Merlin builds it, using stones brought by magic from Ireland, as a memorial to the slain British councillors murdered by Saxon treachery during a peace conference at Amesbury.
Stonehenge also appears in works set in recent times as a ruin evoking a mysterious prehistoric past now otherwise lost to us. Following the work of antiquarians like William Stukeley's 1740 Stonehenge, A Temple Restored To The British Druids, it would become a key backdrop with the trend to Gothicism in novels and art. (Painters like Turner and Constable painted it as the essential "Gothic" scene.) Thomas Hardy chose to set the finale of his 1895 tragedy Tess Of The D'Urbervilles here, having his heroine finally caught here, led away to hang, mocked by the merciless divine hands of the unseen Immortals.
It also inspired poetic descriptions in non-fiction works. When the so-called “cult of the picturesque” took hold in the 19th C and visiting wild landscapes became a Romantic “aesthetic” experience, authors would journey here to garner poetic impressions of the site. (In those days - before English Heritage and the National Trust took over - you could walk amongst the stones.) In 1875 American novelist Henry James visited and wrote:

"It is indeed immensely picturesque. I can fancy sitting all a summer's day watching its shadows shorten and lengthen again, and drawing a delicious contrast between the world's duration and the feeble span of individual experience. There is something in Stonehenge almost reassuring; and if you are disposed to feel that life is rather a superficial matter, and that we soon get to the bottom of things, the immemorial gray pillars may serve to remind you of the enormous background of time."

Detail from Constable's painiting of Stonehenge


 

Treece's 1861 War Dog cover

Treece's 1956 The Invaders -American paperback cover

 


Left: a US edition of Henry Treece's The Dark Island. Despite the US publisher's re-titling it and adding a lurid cover, the novel was, like Treece's other such works, a realistic treatment of its subject.

Novels on this early period usually focus on a boy protagonist, who perhaps experiences life on one side of the wars of the time, and then the other, e.g. by being taken captive. Alternatively, there can be two young protagonists, one on each side, who neverthless become friends. The most recent work in this venerable genre [pictured left] was published in 2010. The huge multi-vallate hillfort in question, Maiden Castle, was referred to as Mai Dun (Celtic for 'mighty stronghold') by Hardy, a speculative back-formation [Mai-dun > 'Maiden'], its original name being unknown. It lies just south of Dorchester in mid-Dorset, and was probably a tribal centre of the sort the Romans called oppida; it was supplanted by the building nearby of the local Romano-British centre of Durnovaria, atop which the present Dorset county town of of Dorchester would be built. The hillfort was assaulted by Vespasian's legions as part of a region-wide campaign of conquest in AD 43, which led to his becoming emperor. (His official biography says that he conquered 20 such oppida - tribal centres - plus the Isle of Vectis - Wight.)

Back to page top   | Return To Home Page