Prologue to The Swithen

Author’s note:
This was written as the prologue to the entire book series, to give readers a sense of how I was going to approach the characters, their view of the world and their view of the incredible events that befall them. But at the beginning of the first book, it wasn’t clear that it applies to the entire series, and it slowed readers down before they were able to get into the book. So it made its way here, to the website. Enjoy!

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One of our knights, as you will soon meet, stands in the luminous blue of early night, on a hilltop where he can look out across the undulating hills of forest. In the sky hangs a creamy white full moon. It is roughly the year 470 A.D.

This knight sees that moon, and he notices that the moon is sometimes unbelievably large when near the horizon, yet much smaller when higher in the sky. He doesn’t know what we know, that the greater amount of atmosphere he is looking through near the horizon acts like a lens, and magnifies the appearance of the moon.

So what does he think? Does he think that the moon actually grows and shrinks in size? Does he think that it grows closer and further in space? But to think that, he would have to know that it is a body floating in space, which he doesn’t.

That same lens effect is what makes the colors in the sky change as the sun sets for the night. What would a woman of that time, standing in a field, finishing her work for the day, the breeze of evening cooling the sweat of her brow, think of that procession of colors? Or if she saw a beautiful sunset—or the most beautiful sunset eyes could see? How could she account for the appearance of those colors in the sky? Magic? Or nothing—just what happens in normal life? But she surely noticed it, and thought on it.

Now imagine, just as that knight and maiden look through a lens of atmosphere that distorts the size, shape, and color of what they see, we look back at history through a lens of time. And the greater amount of time we look back through, the greater what we see is distorted.

The stories here are from thousands of years ago in time. No one knows how old they are. They were told by mouth, and remembered in the mind, because at that time only the most important things could be written down. We can only imagine how the tales evolved over the hundreds of years, as each teller remembered this part more fondly, or added a slight detail to that part, or didn’t think this other part was very important, or forgot what happened in that part. Then, from a thousand to five hundred years ago, they were finally written down, in many different versions. Then, five hundred years ago, one man combined them all into one, condensed version, and that has become the most-known version of the stories—but not the only one, and not the correct one.

Because there is no correct one.

Now, we, in our time, look back at those stories not just through the lens of extraordinary time, but also history, and science, and what we know now about how things work. What we know now, that they didn’t know then, and all that we have come to understand in the meantime. And while that knowledge might help us better understand what is happening, it can also distort our view of the people who lived back then. Because it takes us further away from what the people of that time were thinking and feeling.

Because their thoughts and feelings arose from not knowing what we know.

So, because we want to imagine what those people thought and felt back then, we must accept the limits of their knowledge, and take them at their word when they describe things that are incredible, even incomprehensible.

So if the tale says that a baby who was fathered by the devil can speak like an adult, then we must accept that this is the reality. And if it later says that one man killed sixty thousand, we must accept that this is exactly what happened. And if, back then, people believed that God and the Devil were actual forces that exerted real, concrete influence over their daily lives, we must accept that as well.

People often say “What was once considered magic is just science that was not yet understood,” and for many things, it’s true. But the people in these stories are dealing with magic, pure and simple, and their daily lives are at the mercy of forces no one can comprehend. We may understand much more than the people in these stories did—certainly vastly more—but we cannot know their lives if we disbelieve and view them with condescension, considering them the naive simpletons of an ignorant time.

Perhaps it is better to proceed by leaving space that there are things we can never truly know, and actions, motivations and events that we can never fully understand. To focus on how we are like the people of the late 400s; stumbling along, using the best information we have to contend with the vast forces of the unknowable.

 

 

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