Posts Tagged ‘barbarian stories’

Barbarian Stories

October 28, 2022

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific Scottish author of more than forty novels. Barbarian Stories, published in 1929, was her fourth collection of stories in five years (two novels had also been published) and her writing at that time tended to focus on the historical, though she would later stray happily into any genre, including fantasy and science fiction. Her first novel, The Conquered, was set among the Gauls during the time of Julius Caesar; her second, Cloud Cuckoo Land, focused on the rivalry of Athens and Sparta. Barbarian Stories is a collection of stories which centres on peoples regarded as ‘barbarian’, beginning in the early bronze age and moving through time until 1045 – with one final story set in the volume’s future, 1935.

Mitchison’s key aim is to capture the sense of otherness of those distant times. In the opening story, ‘The Barley Field’ we recognise the central character Three-Red’s jealousy of his neighbour, Ash-in-the-Air’s, crop of barley – “the barley shoots were even and thick and very green” – but Three-Red can only offer supernatural explanations of the crop’s superiority to his own, just as Ash-in-the-Air does:

“…the Gods must be, very properly pleased with him… also perhaps also it had been useful to dig deep… a hand deeper than any of the others.”

Here, Mitchison includes a scientific explanation for the modern reader, but this is not always the case. In ‘Niempsor Kar’ Tibar and Lallek go to a magician’s house in search of their father. Even using their swords to nick the doorways as they go through does not allow them to outwit the magic:

“Another door, and this time Tibar was uneasy. ‘I don’t remember that curtain.’ Another door; they were back in the grey room.”

It is only when Lallek agrees to stay behind that Tibar and his father are allowed to leave. In denying the reader a rational explanation, Mitchison prioritizes the story which reads more like a legend and foretells her later fantasy writing such as Travel Light.

Unsurprisingly, many of the stories centre on the experience of women. In ‘Neimpsor Kar’ Lallek goes with her brother to rescue their father – when her long lost sister sees her, she asks, “Why are you dressed like a boy…when your eyes are so much a girl’s?” It is as a ‘girl’ she persuades the magician to release her father: women have their own kind of power. In ‘Steague Fort’ Blackbird, the woman belonging to the tribe’s leader, Mot, is disliked by the other women, and when Mot is captured, her own existence is in danger. She allows herself to ‘passed around’ one drunken night, all the while collecting gold for his ransom, before escaping from the fort. Once ransomed, Mot is able to return to the fort with men borrowed from his captor and wreak revenge. Mitchison does not disguise that women must, at times, use their sex as power – the stories feature strong female characters but they are not modernised as is often the way today.  

But for most women and girls, life is simply dangerous. In ‘A Little Girl Lost’ a child encounters a group of men preparing to attack her settlement:

“There were men standing together, more of them than the finger of both hands three times over. They had swords and spears and wicker shields, the blue war-stain in their faces, and crows’ feathers in their hair…”

Similarly, in ‘Laeta’:

“One of the neighbours’ wives ran out and caught hold of me; she pulled me in behind their door and whispered that the soldiers had come and taken father and mother….”

Overall the stories create an impression of the world as a violent, threatening place, sometimes seen through the lens of ‘civilisation’, that is the Romans, for example in ‘Mascaret’ where a human sacrifice is prevented:

“He faced the crowd, the hate of the Druids who dared not attack, the savage, insane eyes of the worshippers, whose God had failed them.”

Or ‘Maiden Castle’ where impressive fortifications protect only livestock:

“One expects streets of houses and one finds nothing but sheep.”

But there are noble feelings too, such as when, in ‘A Matter of No Importance’, Marcus Trebius returns to Rome with a British slave. Forced to give him to his future wife, he is furious when she sells him and attempts all in his power to find him again. In ‘I’m a Business Man’, the captured title character offers to pay the ransom of another man who has been taken by the same pirates and also offers him a post in his business. The man, however, declines – perhaps a wise decision as, when released, the businessman immediately captures the pirate leader’s sister in order to ransom her. This story is not alone in containing an element of satire.

Satire comes to the fore in the final story, set in the future (at the time the collection was published) – a reminder that Mitchison would later be famous for Memoirs of a Spacewoman. The story tells of a time when one of the ‘owners’ (i.e. the wealthy) is sacrificed in a barbaric form of social justice:

“It came, I expect, of the growing conviction that the rich had really too good a time of it, too much protection, too slow a death-rate.”

As with the rest of the rest of stories, it demonstrates Mitchison’s restless mind and penetrating imagination. Although this volume is unlikely to be reprinted, Mitchison herself is an author worth exploring.