Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dark Age Fiction with M Harold Page.

Today's post is an update and a continuation of an on-going conversation with my friend M.Harold Page we have had for the past several years. Like most good friends we pick up where we have left off as if, it was a pause in the conversation while one of us goes to the fridge to retrieve a cold beer. We started our conversation about the new Young Adult novel downloadable from Amazon he just finished. Titled- (Shieldwall:Barbarians.)

(c) Jacques Marechal
DS: How long have you worked on this project?

MHP:Think I wrote it in a couple of months. It was a while back. I delivered to my agent, but then got caught up in writing novels for Paradox Interactive. It made a very good audition piece though. It took about a week to edit and tweak it ready to go out on Amazon. I put a lot of reliance on my network of beta readers, mostly fellow writers at my stage.

DS: What was the impetuous for writing a dark age novel in the first place?

MHP: You'll laugh.

DS: No mate, I won’t laugh. (holding my crossed fingers behind my back.)

MHP: My son Kurtzhau liked Romans back when he was cute and 8. And he wanted to know how the Roman Empire fell. I did this at University, but couldn't remember the details, so I delved into some books and... Holy S#$%!

DS: Holy S#$%???? What does that mean?

MHP: There was this battle - Chalons - in AD 451, that was like Ragnarock. About the size of Waterloo. Everybody showed up for this fight. The chronicles have 100K men DEAD ON THE FIELD.

DS: What was the old Norse line? The Crows feasted well that day…

MHP: Yep! KIA numbers were an exaggeration, but whatever you divide by, you end up multiplying again to get the number of combatants. Just like Waterloo, everybody was too shocked on the next day to do anything. And in reading about Chalons, I read about Aetius - basically Maximus - and the Germans and the Huns… And here was this wild amazing history, with a war out of Tolkien, and I just had to write a story set in it.

MHP: Barbarians! - book 1 - doesn't take us as far as Chalons. Instead it puts the hero at the Siege of Orleans, basically Helms Deep. In fact I'm fairly sure JRRT used Orleans as his template for that. So that's why I wrote a Dark Age adventure. Plus I'd been listening to a lot of Viking Metal

M Harold Page on the right during his Shield Wall Breaking Days.
(c) Richard Taylor.

DS: What made you settle on a Jute as a main character?

MHP: Well my Dad is from that neck of the woods in England.

DS: There is a Jutland in England? Pardon my geographical ignorance.

MHP: Mostly it was because I settled on Hengest as the main character. He's real. Jutes settled around the south of England. There were a couple of pockets. Mine are near the mouth of the Thames estuary. They and the other Germans were there as "security contractors" to the Romanised Britons. Didn't go so well, long term

DS: Thanks for clearing that up. (For a moment there I thought I had slept through another lesson from school.) You know in Friesland, there are pockets of languages where you can just show up and start talking to the natives and they understand English, and with a little bit of effort you can make out Friesian.

MHP: Not surprising. English is an odd language. Successive waves of Germanic barbarians basically spoke baby language to their subjects, and it stuck.You know, few verb endings, dropping the gender of nouns, that kind of thing. Basically you and I are speaking like comedy barbarians to each other.

DS: Gaaar! Me hungry! OK all BS aside, you have us set firmly in the Dark Ages. For the readers who might not know, explain why it is called the Dark Ages please?

MHP: Mostly it's Dark because it's hard knowing what happened then. Nowadays, Early Medieval is the more Politically Correct term. Once upon a time, historians thought everything between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance was "Dark" because it sucked.

DS: Hahaha that was the explanation I was looking for. You know Gaul suffered less of the Dark Malaise than most former Imperial Colonies. It was such a cool place as far as your average barbarian went, they basically kicked the Roman landlords out, and said to the peasant class, "Carry on. We'll be around this coming harvest to collect the tax just like the last guy did."

MHP: Lots of continuity. Best deal was in the south where the Visigoths settled and ran things. However Late Rome was already pretty feudal. No togas, lots of personal household troops.

DS: Anyone who didn't like the new management plan would be dealt with the same way they (Visigoths) dealt with the Romans. At the point of a sword.

MHP: Visigoths, however, were crazy ass barbarians One king was ambushed while undergoing blood letting - otherwise he would have been armed. Before he died, he took out several of his assassins using a STOOL.

DS: Well the Visigoths might have been crazy but they did start two of the most powerful kingdoms in what would later be called Spain, those of course being Castile and Aragon.

MHP: Yep. And it's a hairy, murderous lineage. Or noble, manly and proud. Take your pick. I speak as one descended from the pagan riffraff that settled England. Our lot were mostly the stay home Germans who didn't get involved with the Roman Empire until they packed in ships and turned Britain into England.

DS: Well you are not the only one. I am descended from the riffraff that left England that was descended from your riffraff. (Or kicked out, which might be a better way of describing it.)

MHP: Who says genealogy can't be like a Viking Metal ballad?

DS: No one! Or at least not me. Back to your novel. What was the biggest stumbling block you encountered while writing your story?

MHP: Describing tactical situations. Pre-Technology Commanders don't get pretty maps, Heads Up Displays or a view from a Helicopter.

DS: OK for the young reader out there, define Tactics vs. Strategy.

MHP: Strategy: We'll push down this river and find a town to sack.
Tactics: Oh sh#$% they're shooting at us! Take cover while I try to burn the gates.

DS: I will say this much, the story reads as a primer one would use to train platoon leaders and young platoon sergeants on how to lead. And I mean this as a compliment. It is not dry or boring by any stretch of the imagination. For long time or old time gamers it feels like you are involved in a game of Platoon Leader © Have you ever fought in a shield wall yourself?

MHP: No. But I have broken one, at a mixed era reenactment event.

(c) Jacques Marechal

DS: Wow! There has been a lot of discoveries in interpretative history, where previously held ideas have been rudely shattered. I have read where scholars utterly dismissed dark age or even middle age accounts of life in a shieldburg. I personally have seen two hundred plus fighters running full tilt hit an old fashioned Anglo-Saxon style shield wall and...bounce! I bet that was hard to convey to your readers.

MHP: But from a WRITER pov, this is a problem. A lot of people have a lot of ideas, some of them strongly held and based on experience. The Romans certainly took the wedge seriously. A lot of their manuals are filled with how to receive a shield wall or fighting wedge. Their manuals talk about forming inverse wedges to receive them.And so on. A lot of kinetic energy spent by both sides seeing who could shove the other guy around the battlefield.

DS: The annals of history are replete with infantry fights turning into slowly revolving wheels of death. Where at the end of the day’s fighting the victors might find themselves on the complete opposite side of the battle from where they started from.

MHP: Intimidating isn't it? What our ancestors could do while other people were trying to kill them at the same time.

DS: Yes it was. Especially since most of the people who fought in the shieldwall of the dark ages was not a professional fighter or soldier. They were farmers and millers and bakers.

MHP: Go to the Bay of Marathon some day, look at the monument raised to the shopkeepers, farmers, cobblers....who faced the rest of the known world and won. Forget 300. Marathon was the battle. You had to be tough back then.

DS: Why YA or Young Adult Fiction?

MHP: Initially, so my son could read it From a literary point of view... well, YA is the last bastion of old fashioned adventure yarns. I've been reading a lot of Harold Lamb and wanted to give it a go. Shieldwall is also pretty much "in the tradition of" the YA writers I grew up reading. There's this writer Ronald Welch who wrote incredible military stories for boys. Welch won the Carnegie Medal for "Knight Crusader" which makes you *feel* Hattin  Yes a big chunk of Howard as well. but that takes ,me onto the other thing Too much YA for boys is either "teamplayer" or "sole operator" stuff

The Battle of Hattin-XV Century French Manuscript.

Just like Conan isn't really much of a leader, beyond "Rah follow me while I wade in blood do try to keep up"
I wanted to do like Ronald Welch and Rosemary Sutcliff and write a book about leading: You're in charge. Now what?

DS: Leadership is a horse of a different color to write about. It is normally something that in my opinion very few do well. It is hard to give an inner monologue and keep the action flowing at the same time. Both of which you do very well in this book.

MHP: There are no certain prescriptions one can offer, except to think about the people you are leading. In the case of my story, my hero has to deal with his rowdy men, his murderous rivals who want to frag him, interactions with other forces, unit tactics taking all that into account, oh and battlefield management while smiting.

DS: I would like to thank my friend M Harold Page taking the time to talk to me about his latest book. More importantly to give a wonderful unfettered conversation. Rarely does this happen in our hurly burly world. For those of a military bent, be you a young leader of men or seasoned pro, I put this adventure story right up there with the lessons taught in “Defense of Duffer’s Drift.” by Maj General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton. It is a rollicking good read and it will help those so inclined to think their way through any number of problems. Although I don't advocate using a sword to lop the heads off of your opponents!
M Harold Page's personal blog can be found at:

Jacques Marechal, photographer par excellence, his website can be found at:

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