This post is a follow-on from the world-building posts that I’ve shared last month. If you’re interested in the Welsh Triads, there are some really good translations out there – particularly Rachel Bromwich’s editions: The Legal Triads of Medieval Wales and The Triads of the Island of Britain.
[Note that the Medieval Welsh referred to themselves as the ‘British’, a label unique to them at that time, and recalled a pre-Anglo-Saxon past where they had control of the whole island of Britain. ‘Walsh’/Wallis’/Wallia’ is originally a Saxon term meaning ‘foreigner’ that was adopted by the Welsh for themselves by the 12thC].
They are a kind of catalogue of laws and traditions, many referring to King Arthur (the Welsh version of the tales before the French got hold of him and turned him into a romantic hero), the tales of the Mabinogi and other characters, both fictional and historical. They are catalogued in groups of three, and for some of them we no longer know the full tale or the person to whom they refer.
|53: Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain. The first of them Matholwch the Irishman struck upon Branwen daughter of Llyr.
The second Gwenhwyfach struck upon Gwenhwyfar, and for that reason the Battle of Camlan happened afterwards. And the third Golydan the Poet struck upon Cadwaladr the Blessed.
|Teir gwith baluawt ynys pridein. Vn onadunt a trewis matholwch wydel ar branwen uerch lyr. ar eil a drewis gwenhwyfach ar wenhwyuar. ac o a achaws hynny y bu weith kat gamlan wedy hynny. Ar dryded a drewis golydan uard ar gadwaladyr vendigeit.|
First, get to know your sources.
What are they? What folklore or superstitions or texts are you using? Who wrote them and how were they received by the audience – do you know enough about this to be believable if you’re using them as they are?
Never assume an original audience was more gullible than you because they lived further back in the past. In the vast period known as the Middle Ages, which in Britain is divided between the Early Middle Ages, from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West to around 1066, the Late Middle Ages from around 1000/1066-c1300 and the High Middle Ages, which can cover up to the sixteenth century for some historians, people usually didn’t take things as literally as people do now. At least this was true for those in the Literalism is largely a nineteenth-century way of seeing the world, imposed retrospectively on history.
They lived in a world where stories were the main medium of teaching, and while they may have believed things on one level, they also worked with multiple layers of metaphor and meaning.
The writing of history was not [or not only] considered a literal record of events, but a form of art. History was written to instruct and entertain, so could include fables, or events re-written to be fables, and show contemporary readers greater truths about the human condition rather than the smaller, less important truths of what actually happened. Artistic licence was more or less expected as part of the genre.
With this in mind, do your characters have a similar attitude to their history? If only a small % of your population is literate and people teach and learn via oral tradition then they may well do.
If a lot of the written records have been destroyed, as in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian situation, then again, the answer may well be yes. However, there may be a literalist kick-back in these sorts of situations, where people are searching for ‘answers’ or ‘the truth’, or have other factors which make them more inclined to believe the written word over the spoken word. Which situation is happening in your story – and which is your protagonist leaning towards/a fervent believer in?
Lots of stories play with this trope, like The Book of Dave by Will Self.
In the world of Cadair Bran, the survival of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth means that most of the texts and history that have survived are to do with Wales and Welsh history, so the Welsh Triads form the basis of their new world order. They are also foundational for new triads, or the adaptation of the old ones.
For example, there are three Arthurs: one is the fabled King Arthur; one is the mid-level civil servant, Arthur Lansdowne-Hall, who played a key role in trying to stop the war leading to the Third Desolation of Britain [as it is known] and died a tragic hero, and the third is Mad Arthur, a feared opportunist scavenger running a crew of air pirates in a stolen helicopter.
Fact and fiction blur at the edges, and real, contemporary personalities are fictionalised and mixed up with others thought to be worth remembering.
All the characters think along Triad lines, because these are subliminal and foundational to their culture. They will see patterns in threes because they have been trained to do so their whole lives. Even if they don’t really believe in the power of three, they can’t help but notice it, or allow it to subconsciously affect their lives.
A group of three strangers will automatically provoke certain feelings that a group of five or two or four would not. This would be automatic, not rational. Patterns of three would pop up in their lives and be associated with positive or negative outcomes, depending on the thing being grouped.
In terms of the little things, food is a good example. People would gravitate to three meals a day or at least trying to eat three times; being unable to eat three times a day would have a negative subconscious/conscious effect on them, even if they had eaten sufficient food for the day. Some characters, if they only ate twice or ate more than three times [snacking,e.g.], would feel out of sorts without knowing quite why, and this would affect their mood and attitude. This would never be explicitly pointed out in the narrative, but be an underlying thing for the reader to pick up on.
More explicitly, directions would be given via three landmarks to look out for on the way from A to B, and again, this might not be a conscious thing. It’s just the way everyone around them talks.
So, with this in mind:
How do the folktales, superstitions, foundational texts etc affect your culture? How does the culture affect your characters?
What subconscious effects will there be as a result? How far will your characters’ actions, syntax, bias/prejudice (both positive and negative) be impacted, and under what circumstances?
If you’re interested in the Arthur of the Welsh, check out the University of Wales Press series on the various forms the Arthurian tales took. The series includes: