Heroic Fantasy in Dark Age Wales
He is a king, a warrior, the last hope of his people—and the chosen one of the *sidhe* . . .
Writing heroic fantasy set in Dark Age Wales combines the need for research that goes beyond the world building of mainstream fantasy, but carries with it similar characteristics since what we know about ancient Wales is very slight, thus the term ‘dark’ in ‘Dark Ages’. We lack historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.
For Wales, this time was no more or less bright than any other. The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people. When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east. To a certain degree, it was just more of the same. The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is now Wales and England—for about five minutes.
It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions from Europe. This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups. Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.
My book *The Last Pendragon*, tells the story of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon (Cade) who was a real king of Gwynedd (North Wales). His father, Cadwallon, was killed in the battle of Catscaul or the *Battle of the Wall*(Heavenfield, near Hexham) in 634 AD. An unknown usurper, Cadfael, placed himself on the throne of Gwynedd, and was himself overthrown in 655 AD by the twenty-two year old Cadwaladr, Cadwallon’s son, who’d been raised in exile until he could return to claim his birthright.
Thus, Cade is a ‘hero’ in the epic sense of the word. He is heir to the throne of Arthur and like him, a flawed human who was the last and best hope for his people. His rule sits at the resting point between the Welsh retreat and the Saxon advance. As romanticized by Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the last Pendragon, the last King of Wales before the Cymry fell irretrievably under a wave of Saxon invaders. The fantasy element in *The Last Pendragon* lies in adding meat to the bare bones of history, particularly in the inclusion of Rhiann, the bastard daughter of Cadfael, and the *sidhe*. This allows me to delve into Welsh mythology and add amystical element that historical fiction generally does not include.
I was inspired to write *The Last Pendragon* by the myths and legends of the Dark Ages that have been passed down to us through the centuries. Geoffrey of Monmouth immortalized Cadwaladr as the heir to the throne of Arthur and the last of the Pendragons. It is through his writings, along with the songs of the bard, Taliesin, that Cade comes alive as a man—and yet also as a war leader who conversed with the gods and was able to lead his companions from our world to theirs and back again. *The Last Pendragon* is the story of Cade and Rhiann, but is also about the very human choice between good and evil, the cosmic battle between life and death, and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for another.
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