While it’s not as common as it once was, the use of the term “Dark Ages” had some justification behind it. The period from the fall of Rome to the 700-800s was “dark” because written records had largely ceased to exist. Historical records were carried largely in oral storytelling, through the use of myth and stories. What accounts of the period exist do so in records written 200 to 300 years later.
After Rome withdrew the last troops and authority from Britain late in the fourth century, the island was subject to repeated invasions that continued off and on until the Norman Conquest in 1066. Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Frisians, Irish, Scots, and Vikings all found their way to Britain. The Saxons in particular invaded and fought the last of the native Britons; survivors were pushed in Wales, Cornwall, and what came to be called Brittany. What’s known about this period, and especially the 6thcentury, is what’s been gleaned from archaeology and legends.
One story concerns the Battle of Dyrham, thought to have been fought in 577 A.D. close to the city of Bath. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says three British kinds were killed in the battle, but little is known other than the names listed and the areas they likely ruled. It was a fierce battle, with the British defending and outnumbered by a large Saxon force.
In the novel Glass Island, author Gareth Griffith builds a story around the battle, and a fascinating one it is. He tells the story of Eleri Gwir, the daughter of Arawn, king of the Summer Land in western England and eastern Cornwall. Arawn and his people face the inevitability of fighting the Saxons, who are drawing ever closer. It is a story about warfare, strategy, diplomacy, and treachery, and suggests that the British were as much defeated by their mutual suspicions and squabbling as they were by the Saxons.
The novel is also a love story. Eleri Gwir, known as the Truth Speaker, is a close friend with Gwion, the boy she grew up with. But then the Red Cloaks arrive – the descendants of the Romans who are still trying to bring some semblance of authority and stability and fight the Saxons. And she meets their captain Macsen.
It’s a time when the old religion, while never having been fully eradicated by the Romans, is still around to vie with the new Christian religion. Eleri is an adherent of the old religion, with its place gods and its sacred island in the Water Land. The island is known as Ynys-Wydr, or Glass Island (and gives its name to the novel). The interim fights and battles include Eleri and other woman warriors, a tradition known from pre-Roman times.
Griffith was born in Wales and moved to Australia. He’s been a teacher, researcher, and writer, and served as the director of research for the parliament of New South Wales for many years. He’s now focused on writing about Wales and the Dark Ages.
While we know how the great battle will end for the British, that doesn’t stop Griffith from telling a great story, a great national story, in Glass Island, a story about the original British, what they endured, what they sacrificed, and how a remnant managed to survive.
Top photograph: The site believed to be that of the Battle of Dyrham, just north of Bath in England. The battle was fought between Britons and Saxons, with the Britons defending the hilltop.