8 October 2018
I loved Linda Proud’s Botticelli Trilogy and was intrigued to hear that her new book would take in the unfamiliar territory of early Roman Britain. Fortunately, Chariot of the Soul was everything I’d hoped it would be: a sensitive, thoughtful book that looks at our small island and touches on very timely themes about identity, assimilation, compromise and confrontation with a great pan-European power.
Not, I hasten to add, that this is a coded allegory on Brexit. Proud is far too sophisticated to do such a thing. But it feels significant, and interesting, that she takes a different tack from most other fiction writers on Roman Britain that I’ve encountered so far. The classic line is to emphasise the doughty resistance of the Brits against the invading Romans: something we see in books from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth through to Manda Scott’s Boudica novels. But Proud tells a contrasting, equally important story: the tale of those Brits who chose to work with the Romans, seeing the value in being part of a wealthy trading network, valuing comfort and luxury and better ways of doing things, attracted by public baths and hypocausts and good, well-policed roads, and the chance to live without constantly dreading the next cattle raid or hall-burning. Of course, it’s never really a choice between one or the other, and Proud’s novel dwells frequently on the grey areas of doubt that attend any moment of great change. What are we losing? How do we take the chance of developing our quality of life, without forgetting who we really are?
Proud’s hero is Togidubnos, the son of Verica, king of the Atrebates. Consigned to the Romans as a hostage at the age of ten, Togidubnos leaves the world he knows behind him and is taken down to Rome, a place of strange customs and stranger gods. Here he lives with the lady Antonia, studies with her awkward but shrewd brother Claudius, and watches from afar as Caligula morphs from golden boy to terrifying tyrant. This Roman upbringing makes Togidubnos more of an outsider than he was before: half-Atrebas, half-druid on his mother’s side by birth; and now somehow wholly Romanised. Educated in Stoicism by Seneca and travelling in Greece with Vespasian, Togidubnos is exposed to a world that makes his homeland of Britain seem hopelessly, shamefully barbarous. But, try as he might, he is forced to return. An enigmatic prophecy at Delphi calls him home; he sees familiar symbols cropping up in new ways; and then his father, Verica, arrives in Rome demanding help from the new emperor Claudius against the upstart Caratacos. As a Briton with an unshakeable connection to Rome, Togidubnos is the perfect candidate to go ahead of the army, in the hope of convincing his fellow Britons to yield to the empire.
I’ve read another book about Togidubnos, not that long ago. Mark Patton’s An Accidental King calls him Cogidubnos and covers a larger timespan, though it failed to grab me. Proud’s novel succeeds where that one faltered because it takes a much broader view of the world and anchors Britain firmly within the network of the Roman diaspora (whether Britain wished to be there or not). The characters feel completely real and, just as I like it, never come down firmly on the side of either black or white: Togidubnos himself doubts his mission, his motives and his loyalties many times, as he assimilates back into his boyhood world. Proud also incorporates some of the more mystical elements of ancient British life, to an even greater extent than Manda Scott did in Boudica: we don’t only have druids, but also the ethereal Shee and the time-bending powers contained within sanctuaries and stone circles. Sometimes this kind of thing bothers me within novels, but it works here because it feels like a plausible extension of the landscape, its lines, ridges, barrows and ageless chalk figures cut in the hillsides. It conjures up the strangeness that’s buried only a little way under the surface of the British landscape and its mythology, and succeeds in feeling mystical rather than fantastical.
Although this is a new departure from Proud, it rings with confidence and authenticity and, excitingly, seems to be only the first part of a longer story. Dreamlike and pragmatic by turn, it’s one of the best books I’ve read by her, perhaps trumped only by the exquisite Pallas and the Centaur. While there is obviously much research here, it’s worn lightly: there’s a helpful map and list of place-names at the front, which I found myself flipping back to every time I came across a new name. In her historical note, Proud confesses that she has had to do a fair amount of imaginative reconstruction, but it’s difficult to tell the difference between history and fiction and I felt entirely comfortable in her hands. This forms a satisfying complement to the Boudica novels and, if anyone’s just finished Manda Scott and is wondering where to get their next ancient-history fix, I’d nudge them this way. Highly recommended for those who want a thought-provoking story about Britain’s history that prizes negotiation above violence, peace above war and philosophy above blood.
25 October 2018
To join or not to join the continent of ‘Europe’ in the form of the Roman Empire resonates with Britain’s current question of whether to leave or remain in the European Union. The theme in its own particular way runs through this accomplished new novel by Linda Proud, ‘Chariot of the Soul’.
Togidubnus is the son of a British king and his Druid wife. It is a doleful marriage, born of the king’s abduction and rape. He grows up in the light of his mother and in the shadow of his father before he is sent into exile to Rome, aged ten, as a hostage for Verica’s, his father’s, loyalty in pre-invasion Britain. He grows up in the home of Antonia, sister to Augustus, watchful of the unfolding family tragi-comedy that is the birth of the Empire and as a friend to Claudius who, exaggerating his infirmities, survives to become Emperor and the conqueror of Britain. Togidubnus is, also, friend and student of Seneca, Roman senator, and Stoic philosopher and one of the themes of the book is his attempt to make a Stoic of himself and how this tradition of ‘Logos’, of reasoned self-observation, survives his transition back into an unsettled country, full of stresses; and, his rediscovery of his intuitive, feeling self at home on the boundary of that Other-world, that yet is enfolded in this one, legacy of his mother and preserve of the Druid.
Togidubnus’ apparent task, on returning to Britain and commissioned as such by Claudius, is to persuade the British kings of both the value of being incorporated into the Empire thus resolving the unsettlement of their feuding and bringing order and prosperity. Equally, to remind them that resistance is futile and brutally damaging. This messaging receives mixed and complex reactions ranging from the embracing or simply acquiescent through to that of hostile resistance.
Emergent, however, through the trials and tribulations, failures and discoveries, of this mission is the dawning realization that Togidubnus’ mission is yet something other. It is not the simple exchange of one order for another but how to enable a ‘third’ to emerge. How does a society, a culture emerge that preserves and merges the fruits of both and can surrender some of the shadows of both? What might it look like and how would it emerge? How to marry the global fruits of a unifying empire with the particular gifts of place especially when that place is seen through the lens of being sacred and hallowed? How do we do that individually, within our own selves – how make the universals we recognize at home in our complex, multiple selves, make them particular and alive? Likewise, how do we do that as a community that does not surrender its identity into a uniformity whilst seeking a deeper, wider embrace within a common humanity anchored in shared rules and a way of life? As with Plato’s metaphor of the chariot, it is not choosing one or other horse that navigates you safely but learning to become the rider, balancing all.
It powerfully captures a moment of great transition and evokes the choices that such a transition force upon us to be taken whether with awareness and consciousness or to be simply fallen into. As is oft repeated, fate comes upon us better if we go out to embrace it.
These themes are subtly woven into a beautifully imagined story, deftly told, full of vivd character, scene, plot and place that captures one’s attention from the outset and does not let go until the end that, satisfyingly for this reader, offers the prospect of more to come in the planned second volume.
On the way, it makes excellent use of what we know both of Rome and, more challengingly, pre-invasion Britain. It is both a realistic story and one that weaves into it the potential magic of the Druid in credible ways.
It is historical fiction of a very high order taking you back enthralled to its particular place, authentically pictured, whilst holding up a mirror to ourselves.
17 January 2019
Chariot of the Soul takes place in the period around 43AD and the Emperor Claudius’ decision to achieve fame through invading Britannia and adding it to the Roman Empire. Given the chaos of the political situation as I write, it is highly plausible that the consequent clash of cultures continues to reverberate into the C21st. I’m not going to give plot spoilers – to a certain extent we all know what happens in the end – but this telling puts a very human, often tragic, face on the realities for those who tried to do what they thought was right in a world where ultimately there would only be losers. The main character, a British tribal chieftain’s son raised as a hostage in Rome, is sent back to ease the passage of the invaders. He has got used to, you could even say brain washed by Roman culture and society; to go back to primitive Britain feels like a huge regression. But as he rediscovers what makes Britain so special, so different, he also starts to appreciate the collision course he is set on. Is peace possible? Is there a middle way of making a ‘deal’ with the implacable Roman Empire that could squash the tribes like flies? Many of the characters are known from history but this book gives them personalities, depth, flesh, flaws and courage. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I found myself in sympathy with Delfos/Togidubnos as he strives to make his countrymen recognise the danger. I too wanted to bang their heads together even as I applauded the desire not to surrender. I will be very excited to read the second volume when it comes out.
1 October 2018
In the background the threatening presence of the Romans and Claudius: who can resist them? What does surrender mean? Is there any kind of third way?
Linda Proud is a terrific storyteller, bringing history vividly to life. I can’t wait for the next one!
21 November 2018
I enjoyed the way the writing style slipped from the cooler and detatached, more ‘austere’, Roman section to the poetic and passionate for Togidubnus’ return to his native Britain, and the way he gradually falls in love with it again and comes to understanding of the Britons’ total engagement with the natural world and finally to self awareness. Beautiful and sad and nostalgic, a hymn for that we have lost, are losing.
The book finished on a sentence that leads straight to a sequel – can’t wait!
15 March 2019
A rich understanding emerges, applicable everywhere today, how each group has its ways of thinking, behaving and being that with wisdom and justice may engage in a higher form of existence.
23 April 2019
I have just finished reading Chariot of the Soul and I must congratulate Linda Proud on an excellent novel. It worked for me on many levels. The story was both interesting and it engaged my love of history. I love England and reading about it as it might have been in a more unspoilt time was also a delight.
More importantly, the spiritual dimension. I have recently read an essay by Jeremy Naydler published by the Temenos Academy called ‘The Perennial Philosophy and recovering the theophanic view of nature’. A really sexy title! However, it speaks of the same thing as your story, connecting with the divine in nature. The sense that we are poorer by losing touch with the natural world is an important side to your story. A timely and important message.
Thank you again for a great read. Keep writing and long live Togidubnos.
2 January 2019