In ancient Britain bitter weather, harsh conditions and tribal inter-fighting conspired with other elements to make life difficult and cumbersome. Beltane, therefore, was a welcome diversion, certainly for many reasons, amongst them the community-wide celebration of oncoming summer and the freedoms it ushered in. Occurring in May, modern peoples could relate to the anticipation and joy of the season, replete with symbols of new life, light and plenty. Lovers united, the sun waxed its power and people prepared animals and household goods for the time when winter would once more secure its chilly embrace.
It is in expectation of this time in A.D. 71 that Nancy Jardine sets her account of Nara of the Selgovae, whose first words in the book are uttered to a wild boar: “You have my spear and my sword, but you will not have my life.” Nara’s declamation immediately tells of her strength as well as humor, despite being wracked with frustration at her predicament—namely being stuck in a tree, shortly to be felled by a boar she had the misfortune to encounter.
As The Beltane Choice opens Nara playfully foresees reality when a handsome stranger rescues her, resulting in immediate mutual attraction, despite her own inexperience with the opposite sex. Nara, however, is reticent about divulging her own information apart from her general identity, and the would-be lovers discover they come from enemy tribes. Believing he may have a worthy bargaining tool in Nara, Lorcan of Garrigill takes the girl as his prisoner; over the course of several days the two head for the Garrigill stronghold, where he plans to develop his strategy for repelling the approaching Roman army. During this time the pair slowly begin to learn about one another and both are beset by conflicting and confusing sentiments. It is a journey rife with displays of anger and emotional outbursts on the parts of Lorcan as well as Nara.
Here Jardine expertly establishes in her narrative the method of cross perspectives, a potentially tricky technique given the confusion that so often results in the attempt to streamline characters’ perceptions into dialogue and passages. No such difficulty here, partly because of the protagonists’ opposing viewpoints, but also owing to the smooth flow of their dialogue. The author masterfully handles the speech with language that feels genuine without being foreign. Months are measured in moons,age in winters. She also maintains a masterful balance between a reader- and writer-friendly storyline, utilizing such words as bannockand bratt, terms that may be unfamiliar but which populate sentences that draw us into the world they inhabit. Within this journey the reader so often instinctively comprehends, frequently without the registration that this was ever lacking in the first place.
As inhabitants of this world, that is the 21st century, it would be difficult not to be aware of the divide between representations of men and women in an earlier era, and those of our own time. Men who treat women with respect often are believed to have only recently popped into existence; before their arrival, males of the world were cruel or indifferent, without exception imposing their will onto the females of their societies.
Unfortunately, in many or even most instances, this was indeed true. However, history does tell of not a few women who broke from their received roles and the men who valued their subsequent contributions. While these men and women may be statistical anomalies, historically speaking, they are not unusual. Therefore, to happen upon men in The Beltane Choice who show consideration towards women strengthens the story, especially given Jardine’s treatment of them. They are in fact products of their time, but the author is clever enough to recognize that an insightful man intuits value where he sees it. None of the characters pretend to pander to our sensibilities: Lorcan’s father is an irascible old man, short and stinging with his words, but an able leader who is dismayed and disgusted when he learns of another chief’s horrific treatment of his own daughter. Tully is wise enough to know the worth of a gifted woman, even if her own father did not.
But Jardine also keeps it authentic: as in real life, it takes all kinds, and readers come across able and productive men, as well as those who simply take from life without thought to the consequences, for themselves or others. In Garrigill Nara the Selgovae is attacked by two who resent her presence—perhaps also her beauty—and are later punished for the deed. While an important episode that highlights the suspicion of and willingness to harm anything foreign, the episode and its aftermath remain undeveloped, which is unfortunate owing to the import of recognizing such episodes that mar or weaken unity against common enemies.
Nara’s beauty, recognized by all, exists on multiple levels, and despite her sometimes-poor choices with regard to action or response, she is shown to be keen and level headed, thoughtful and deliberate. Such is her way in how she considers the upcoming Beltane festival and the choice she will have to make regarding a lover. Will she have a choice? What of the Roman army marching on the settlement where she is held captive? And her native estate? How does all this impact the array of emotions she feels in response to Lorcan, her captor? He is absolutely smitten with her, though he, too, experiences conflict within and without. He is dedicated to his father and the safety of their tribe, but wants to have Nara as well. He realizes his plan has gone awry and he, too, considers the future with apprehension.
Nancy Jardine has woven a tale as complex as the Celtic knot that graces the book’s cover. Winding and illusory, readers may see one circumstance, but events intercede to disabuse us of any notion that this is a simple story. The endless and unified nature of the cover illustration reflects the events occurring in the lives of those in The Beltane Choice, individually and as humans who experience these occasions across time. And, like the winding knot that appears as sheer simplicity but is much more beneath, the smooth passage from Nara’s entrapment by the boar to her ultimate choice, the author utilizes language in a way both straightforward and elegant.
I would be remiss to omit any sort of detail about the sexual tension that runs through the entire book and moments in which Nara and Lorcan’s indecisive attractions teeter on a precipice. The suggestive nature of the wording is very much like the Celtic knot as discussed above: on one level very evocative and at times openly sensual. But to leave it at that would be less than honest, because it is also lovely and metered, occasionally blatant, as reflected in the pair’s actual experiences. More suitable to the abilities of a mature reader—one who can rise above mere titillation—it is the poetry of two bodies, articulated perhaps as those of the era, with their sexual sensibilities, may have expressed it. It is also crucial to note that Nara and Lorcan both see it as much more than a mere physical act—though they are honest with themselves (and us) and do not deny this aspect—incorporating into their possible union the future at the heart of the Beltane choice—and The Beltane Choice.
The Beltane Choice by Nancy Jardine
2012, Crooked Cat Publishing Ltd.
By Lisl Zlitni
Review Team Member
Q&A with Nancy Jardine
Nancy, what compelled you to write about the time period of AD 71?
As a teacher of 11-12year olds I tended to teach other historical periods (Victorian/WW2) but totally loved it when I could teach about the Roman and Celtic period. I really enjoyed learning about the Celtic Era- especially with regard to British Celts. I loved the practical activities I could do with my classes to show the impact the Roman Empire made on the local populations in Britain. Making small scale models of roundhouses and Roman Bathhouses, learning Celtic music, creating Celtic and Roman artwork and other craftwork was brilliant. My classes especially loved it when we created a Roman feast. They loved it even more when we made cardboard shields and weapons and had a mock battle between local Aberdeenshire (Scotland) Celts and the Romans at the Battle of Mons Graupius! (No deaths of course!) All of that made me desperate to some day write works of fiction set in the Celtic Roman period.
What makes your story unique from other Historical Novels?
The Celtic Roman era is not one that is covered very often by historical authors. There are a lot of novels that are more of the Celtic fantasy sub-genre, but that’s not what I set out to write in The Beltane Choice. I wanted my novel to be based on historical accuracy as much as possible, though still a work of fiction, but without fantasy or modern Wiccan influences. I also wanted to base it in the borders areas of Scotland/England since most of the work I’ve read that is Roman/Celtic Britain based has tended to be set in what we now call the south of England. The southern areas of Britain became romanised, but the north was much more resistant to domination. That idea fascinated me.
What was the research involved?
I’ve always been intrigued about the Roman and Celtic period, and have visited as many visitor centres as possible over the last few decades, so I’ve absorbed a working general knowledge of the era. A lot of the research was done for teaching my classes, therefore initial source materials tended to be from a mixture of books- some for children, and others for the history lover. Some of the research came from the internet, but more from Library texts. For The Beltane Choice I read as much as I could find on Brigante and Selgovae tribes, but there isn’t much available- since the oral tradition was the Celtic norm. It is thought, by some experts, that the Druidic order could write- though did not encourage the practice for the Celtic people. I also read a lot of Celtic tales, and absorbed some ideas from that.
How long did it take you to write, The Beltane Choice?
Quite a while! The first draft of The Beltane Choice was written years ago (around 2004) during a school summer holiday, but laid aside. In those days I tended to only ‘write’ during long holidays, mainly non-fiction historical projects for school purposes. It wasn’t till around 2008 that The Beltane Choice was resurrected and another draft written. It has probably gone through 3 main rewrites, earned two rejections, and has had many revisions to get to the present stage.
Layered Pages Review Team Leader