Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part XI

“DARK AGE” BRITAIN

[image description: stonehenge by garethwiscombe, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

After an unsuccessful attempt by Julius Caesar to conquer “Britannia”, later to be known as Britain or the British Isles, it was the Roman Emperor Claudius who finished what his ambitious predecessor started. By 87 A.D., well after the death of Claudius himself, Britain was fully part of the Roman Empire. But after the fall of the Western half of the Empire, Britain was left to its own devices–and defences. The Romanisation of Celtic Britain, followed by its Christianisation, followed in turn by its conquest by Germanic pagans who themselves eventually converted to Christianity, makes for a fascinating and complicated history, and if you’re interested in learning about it, a good place to start is with the following documentary video:

The Entire History of Roman Britain (55 B.C. – 410 A.D.)

There. Now that we’ve gotten all that history out of us, let’s proceed to enter the legendary land of Arthur, King of the Britons.

One of the great things about dark ages is that they lack any reliable written record so they’re fertile ground for myths and legends. So in this installment of my worldbuilding series I’m going to relax a bit when it comes to historical accuracy, since that’s really not all that necessary to the crafting of a believable fantasy world. So, let us consider the plight of post-Roman Britain. Beginning at around 410 A.D., when the province received its Dear John letter from its beloved Empire (although it kind of already knew about the break-up well beforehand, even if it wasn’t official yet), the island was a sitting duck, ripe for the taking. Without Rome’s protection, it was only a matter of time before it would be overrun by heathen barbarians. Enter the legendary Celtic hero Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table… except there’s no evidence he existed, and many historians doubt that he ever did.

It was Geoffrey of Monmouth, and later Sir Thomas Malory with his Le Morte d’Arthur and Alfred, Lord Tennyson with his Idylls of the King, that we have to thank for most of our modern-day ideas of what King Arthur Pendragon and his Knights at Camelot were like. But the earliest tales of the legendary king and his court can be found in the Welsh collection known as the Mabinogion. These “stories … appear in either or both of two medieval Welsh manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch or Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, written circa 1350, and the Red Book of Hergest or Llyfr Coch Hergest, written about 1382–1410, though texts or fragments of some of the tales have been preserved in earlier 13th century and later manuscripts. Scholars agree that the tales are older than the existing manuscripts, but disagree over just how much older” [ibid]. 

Another early Arthurian tale from around the same period I should mention, especially now that there’s a new movie out that’s loosely based on it, is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of which there are several translations from the original Middle English into modern English, one of which was rendered by none other than J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s a great story, which I’ve heard the movie somehow manages to bungle, but I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen it for myself. Speaking of movies, all of these wonderful tales of the Dark Age of Britain eventually culminated in what I consider to be one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981).

[image description: screenshot from Excalibur (1981) in which Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon, mounted on a black steed, holds aloft the mystical sword of kings, Excalibur; whilst beside him Nicol Williamson as Merlin in a black hooded cloak stands as emissary and advisor to the king.]

If you’ve read the three tales in the Mabinogion concerning Arthur, as well as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, you’ll have found that they all have a fairy-tale quality that most modern adaptations of the legend of Arthur lack, to their severe detriment. Yet Boorman’s classic captures that fey energy almost effortlessly, and in nearly every scene. While the story it tells is obviously drawn from multiple sources of this enduring, quintessentially British legend, there is nonetheless a cohesiveness to the thing that to this day marks it as a masterpiece of filmmaking in any genre. Of course, the contributions of the cast and crew cannot be overstated. Nigel Terry plays Arthur as both a boy and a man. No mean feat! And he does it so well, so seamlessly. And Nicol Williamson was simply brilliant as the mysterious enchanter Merlin, as was Helen Mirren as his evil counterpart, Morgana. The cinematography of this film is nothing short of amazing as well, not to mention the brilliant score, featuring original music by Trevor Jones supported by pieces from Richard Wagner and Carl Orff.

Excalibur | Soundtrack Suite (Trevor Jones, Richard Wagner & Carl Orff)

In this fanciful Dark Age, anachronisms abound, such as full-plate armour existing long before it would actually be invented, but it doesn’t matter. This is an entirely new fantasy world woven from threads of legend, medieval romances, and actual history, which is presumably what many of us are aiming for in our worldbuilding. Anyway, let this rather rambling post serve as a reminder to include myths and legends in your worldbuilding, and don’t be afraid to have them blur or overlap; just as the characters populating your fantasy world wouldn’t necessarily know the difference between legend and historical fact, you can have fun keeping your readers or players in the dark along with them–at least at first. A great way to do this is to include magical artifacts or holy relics in your novel or game, but without revealing right away if they are real or just legendary, their precise whereabouts unknown, though vague rumours or ancient texts might offer a clue or two.

[image description: a giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge. British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

One of the most powerful and enduring myths to come out of the Arthurian Cycle is the Legend of the Grail, I suspect partly due to its mysterious nature and partly to its later religious connotations. Though it apparently didn’t start out as such, it would eventually come to be equated with the cup that Jesus of Nazareth used at the Last Supper, and which caught his blood at the Crucifixion [ibid]. The Middle Ages were a time when Christians often made dangerous pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and sacred relics were being sold by the dozen by mountebanks. So it makes sense that the ultimate sacred relic, the Grail, would sear itself into the public imagination. For role-playing purposes it would count as a legendary item; most likely one with restorative and healing properties, though in the Arthurian tales it’s more of a MacGuffin.

One of my favourite artistic movements, that of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, drew from the deep well of inspiration that is the Arthurian Cycle also. I just love the paintings and poetry generated by this movement, especially as pertains to Camelot and the noble (and not so noble) exploits of its knights.

[image description: a detail of the painting The last sleep of Arthur by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (Public Domain).]

Whether the legend of King Arthur was based on a real historical personage or not, one thing we know for certain is that despite his or anyone else’s efforts Roman Britain was ultimately overrun by the invading Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, its former Celtic population pushed to the western and northern limits of the island to make way for what would eventually become England.

But before that happened, it seems likely that this “Dark Age” of Britain wasn’t as chaotic a time as one might suppose, as this next video illustrates:

Why The Dark Ages Were Actually A Time Of Great Achievement

Coming Soon: The Castle Comes to Europe

Previous: The Rise and Fall of Empires

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

One thought on “Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part XI

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