What inspired me to set my debut novel in Celtic Britain

By Ilka Tampke

Posted on August 6, 2015 in Books with tags Ilka Tampke, Mythology

Author Ilka Tampke joins us on the blog to tell us more about her debut novel Skin, a spellbinding tale of magic and identity set in Celtic Britain.

I am often asked why I wrote a book set in the British Iron Age, and there is a reason. About twenty years ago, I was a backpacker living in central London.  I took a road trip with a close girlfriend to Somerset in the southwest countryside. We visited many of the pre-historic sacred sites of the area, such as Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circles. It was midwinter, so it was very cold and misty, and I was really surprised by how touched I felt by these ancient places. I was particularly drawn to the hills and natural springs around Glastonbury.

Stonehenge

On one particular freezing morning, my friend and I climbed the Glastonbury Tor, which is a big grassy hill that rises quite dramatically out of the Somerset levels. It is the subject of a great deal of local mythology and folklore and is believed to have actually been a significant site to the ancient British tribes. We plodded up the steep path, through the mists, past grazing sheep, and as we stood on top of the hill, staring out over a vast and beautiful landscape of fields and forests, I found myself unexpectedly overcome by a feeling of connection to this place. As if I were related to it. And the thought came into my mind that I could be standing on the bones of my pre historic ancestors. Perhaps what I felt was that I could be indigenous to this place.

It was a powerful feeling of peace and belonging.

Glastonbury tor

From this point on I was fascinated by Britain’s ancient history, particularly its spirituality.  I read widely about the myths and legends of the Glastonbury Tor and the paganism of pre-Christian Britain. But at that stage I had no idea that I would ever write about it myself.

During my twenties and early thirties I did very little creative writing. I was working as an arts festival director and as a mother. But when I did begin writing in my late thirties, I was compelled to draw on those moments in Glastonbury to begin a story that would touch on my own ancestral past. At first I wrote a series of fragments and short scenes set in a non-specific ‘celtic-y’ ancient world, and I toyed with the idea of setting the novel in an entirely fictional time and place. But the more I researched, the more drawn I was to the specific world of the late British Iron Age, with its story of invasion that held so many parallels to Australia’s own.

I began researching in earnest, and once I had pushed beyond the crystal-healers and new-age neo-pagans, I found just a glimpse of the real-life people of Iron Age Britain. I found people who saw their gods and goddesses in every part of the natural world, who lived and died by the rhythms of the seasons and of the cosmos, who seemed to place value on education, and value (at least in comparison to the classical world) on women.

Celtic goddess

They were also a people who were invaded by a colonising force which sought to displace their native culture, or at least assimilate it into something congruent with Roman idea of ‘civilisation.’ I found it difficult, but valuable, to try to imagine the experience of the colonised people, having always identified myself with a different position in a similar narrative.

Writing Skin entailed a fair amount of research. There are three sources of information about pre-Roman Britain:

  1. Archaeology, specifically grave goods and excavations of Iron Age villages.
  2. Written histories of Roman and Greek writers, like Ceasar, Strabo, Tacitus, though we must always be aware that their narratives are written from the perspective of an invading culture that understood itself to be greatly superior.
  3. Irish and Welsh vernacular written sources—the sagas and epic stories—that were committed to writing in the middle ages, but were believed to derive from oral histories of many centuries earlier.

I read books written by scholars of all three of these sources, particularly focusing on the history of druids and British paganism, and I did some practical research, too. Last year I travelled to England to meet with the archaeologist Francis Pryor, one of the presenters of the TV programme Time Team, who very kindly agreed to read my manuscript and speak with me. I visited the site of the township where my novel is set, Cadbury Castle hillfort in Somerset, which is now another big green hill, but was once a major centre of Iron Age Britain. I also visited a series of museum villages where archaeologists have constructed magnificent Iron and Bronze Age roundhouses using the same materials and technology that would have been used two thousand years ago. Outside they looked like mud huts, but inside they were incredibly beautiful: a perfectly round space with no edges, no corners. The lime-washed walls were ablaze with swirling Celtic spirals painted in yellow and red. Cattle and deer hides covered the floor and a fire smouldered at the centre. They were really calm, contemplative and meditative spaces with a very different atmosphere to a modern domestic structure.Cetic round house

It was an amazing feeling to walk for the first time into one of those enormous round rooms. I felt like I was finally walking into the world that I had inhabited in my imagination for so many years.

I also went back to the sites that I had first visited twenty years ago, and they were still as magical and special as I remembered them.  Glastonbury in particular has become a spiritual touch-stone. It always makes me feel as nourished and touched as it did when I first went there. It always welcomes me home.

Skin, in my novel, refers to a totem: a symbol of connection to other people and to the natural world. I was inspired to write the book by a sense of yearning for my own skin: for identity, belonging and for a time when our relationship with the natural world was one of care and reverence, not of disrespect.

There are many things in my life which give me ‘skin’: my children, my friends, living in the country, my choir, growing vegetables, my writing, and yes, my hopelessly naughty dog, Betty. I wish for you that, in whatever form or shape it takes, you find your skin.

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