The King’s Speech – plot, theme and Muse

We went to the pictures the other day for the first time since Slumdog Millionaire, entering with some trepidation, wondering if our eardrums would survive. But we reckoned that going to the matinee of a film squarely aimed at middle and above in both class and age, we were safe. And we were. We went to the art cinema rather than the Odeon and settled down amongst some very well-dressed people with white hair.

Is this a great film? I’m not sure. The plot was predictable of course, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that in the end the king triumphs over adversity with the help of an unorthodox speech therapist – one with no qualifications to boot.

Some of the jokes were good but some fell flat towards the end. And the set piece, of fast action to excited music (thanks, Mozart), seemed to be just what it is: a set piece designed to create emotion, only it didn’t. It was faintly embarrassing because of its transparency.

So is this a great film? You bet. Because it sets your solar plexus a-quiver and, unless you are very hardened, has the tears pouring down your cheeks. But why? Is it the script, the performances, the direction? Well, all of these have their part to play, and all of these will probably get Oscars, but I think the cause is elsewhere.

You hear a lot about plot but rarely ever hear about theme. If plot is the bones of a story, theme is its soul. The theme of a piece can often be expressed as a cliche: ‘crime doesn’t pay’, ‘don’t believe what others tell you’, ‘triumph over adversity’, etc. At first glance, the latter is the theme of The King’s Speech. But there is yet another level to this film.

The personal drama of the Duke of York, overcoming his reluctance to be king, especially one with a debilitating speech impediment, is played out against the abdication of Edward VIII, the resignation of Baldwin and the advent of the second world war. What we are witnessing is the very peculiar and fateful change of main players. Scenery was shifting: the inadequate and downright bad were being displaced and the good were being shoe-horned in. For a moment I even saw the king as Frodo and the therapist, Lionel Logue, as Gandalf. These two have a part to play of mythic proportions in the battle of good and evil. The moment when the new king is walking side-by-side with the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr Churchill – that’s when I began to quiver. Because without these two men, one wonders if we’d have had the strength and conviction to win the war.

Did the script writer set out with this story in mind? Perhaps. But all too often writers begin with one idea which then morphs into another one. The ‘hook’, the very gist of the film, which finally becomes the blurb of the trailer, often that’s the last thing the writer discovers. But the process of discovery is helped if the writer is concerned with two things: theme, and accuracy (that is, being true to the story).

The blurb for this film is: ‘When a nation needed a leader, when the people needed a voice, an ordinary man would help him find the courage.’

Getting to that psychological depth of understanding is the gift of the Muse. It’s a mistake to think that Muse inspires a piece at the outset. She doesn’t. Her work is to show us what it is we have. Her other name is Insight.

I could be wrong of course and the truth is that the script writer had the whole story in mind when he began, that the irony of a stutterer speaking for a nation has long been realised by everyone except me, and that the script was all written down in a single draft. But somehow I doubt it.

All the scheming and plotting in the world won’t result in something lasting, transcendent. Anything that’s authentic, that’s real, comes in the form of a gift.

– Jose Saramago
(1922 – )
Portugese author


The Da Vinci Toad

One of the markers or signifiers that we are in the made-up land of the novel is that the characters are fictional. That tells us immediately, however subtley, that the story isn’t ‘true’; i.e. it never happened, especially not to those characters. A good story will use these fictional ingredients to tell a deeper truth. There never was a Marsh family full of little women, but there were plenty of other families just like them.

What concerns me as a novelist working with historical material is how we treat ‘real’ characters, ones that lived and breathed and did things all in a certain order for certain reasons. I get my kicks first finding out what they did and when, and then speculating as to why. In that respect I’m very close to a historian except that I’m allowed to dramatise the story and make it seem real, taking the reader into the heart of events. I try not to bend the facts. That’s my obsession and I’m keeping it.

If I come across a novel, especially one set in my period of the Renaissance, that deliberately makes hay with the facts of history, e.g. The Medici Guns, I will not read it because I would get virally infected with misinformation. (It’s not just fiction where this happens: Lauro Martines rewrote history in April Blood when he ‘tried to write like a novelist’.)

When one has created a set of fictional characters and set them in the past,  attention to background detail is extremely important, but you can of course let your story have its head – albeit within reason. This is the safest way to go, for sure. Taking on real people, to my mind, carries a burden of responsibility. I really don’t like them being turned into murderers or descendants of Jesus at the whim of a whimsical author looking for the quick buck. I’m not saying those books shouldn’t be written; just that I shouldn’t feel compelled to read them let alone write one myself.

I accept that the more fanciful conspiracy theory-type books can be a stage on the way, leading the avid reader into checking the facts and reading a bit more deeply in the subject. That can only be to the good. After all, I arrived at my own high-mindedness via cowboy stories, Erik von Daniken, tales of Atlantis and quite a long time being deeply fascinated by UFOs. But I worry that people take the stuff of the Da Vinci Code as real. It, and others like it, sit like toads on my period, spoiling everything.

I’ve just watched Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. True? Of course not. Anyone who takes a gravity-defying ride on a super truck and comes out of it still wearing his hat and carrying his whip is clearly the stuff of fantasy. You suspend belief, enjoy the ride, and mentally check off what elements of plot may be visible amidst the roaring tyres and swarming ants. Yes, there are such things as the Nazca lines. Yes, they could have been landing strips for aliens – it’s plausible. Those quips in the classroom – I find myself trusting that the archaeological in-jokes are well-researched. Is the story true? No, of course not. Jones has most archaeologists crying with laughter. But it’s a good romp, like the National Treasure series, and is firmly in the Rider Haggard school of adventure stories.

A film I enjoyed tremendously for its accuracy to detail was Shakespeare in Love. Of course it didn’t happen, but it could have done. The plot was so carefully infiltrated into time you could practically date the events. That’s what I like: good research, good story, painstakingly and cleverly done, which puts flesh on the bones of history and makes us just a little bit wiser.

Which all brings me back to my friend’s son and his question, and why he should even wonder if Knights of the Grail is true. My Arthurian stories are filled with monsters, miracles and improbabilities, drawn from the canon and then embellished further, so that the Questing Beast has digestive problems and always betrays his presence by belching. There are even running taps in one of the castles. I really enjoyed myself, after the strictures I live under with adult fiction, being as magically-realist as I wanted to be. And along comes this child and asks, ‘Is it true?’

Was there a King Arthur, a Grail, a knight called Bedevere whose love of his life was his cat? Well, yes, but not in this dimension. Tread softly now, for you tread on my dreams, and the Otherworld of the imagination has its own truth.

[I’ve just been listening to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Radio 4 and today’s fascinating discussion was about Aristotle’s Poetics. Apparently Aristotle considered poetry – which would include novels – to be superior to history as a form of moral education, because poetry deals with universals while history deals with particulars. It will be broadcast again tonight, if you are interested and live in the UK].

Mummy, is it true?

There is so much to discuss on the topic of truth and accuracy in historical fiction that I hardly know where to begin. Let’s start with this article in The Australian: Passion for the past leaves little for nitpickers. It’s about the film, The King’s Speech, and how the director is so obsessive about detail that those who like to find fault are being quite exercised to find any. Interestingly, the film is on track to pick up lots of major awards without resorting to special effects, a sensational plot, hot sex scenes or a shark. It’s just the plain old fashioned recipe of a great script and terrific acting. But how important is it to get the details right?

I live in Oxford. Naturally I’m fond of Inspector Morse and, now, Lewis. But I’ve had to get used to the film makers playing God with the scenery. The police inspector comes out of the gate of a major college but not on to  the street that runs past it. He chases a villain towards the north of the city and, quick as a flash, they are in open countryside. Or, even worse, he’s now chasing him in a southerly direction. The director will probably argue that it cost less to film in open countryside than an arterial Oxford road, or that it looked better, or that it set off Morse’s pale complexion rather nicely. But each time someone plays merry with the facts, someone else is upset and, in the case of Morse, it’s everyone who lives in Oxford. Strange, to wantonly annoy your key audience.

So how lovely to hear of a film maker who is ‘obsessive’ about accurate detail. Let’s applaud him with as many Oscars as are appropriate.

Meanwhile, we have only just begun on this topic. I’ll continue with it over the next couple of posts. I’ll just leave you with this. My friend’s 7 year old son asked his mother to ask me if my book about King Arthur is true? I was disconcerted to say the least. It’s not my place to tell any child there’s no Santa Claus. I spoke to him about it and found myself describing the different levels of truth, how things may not be literally true (no, Sir Bedevere did not arrive on Port Meadow one day and have to tell twenty-one stories in order to get back to the Otherworld); but somewhere deep inside us there is a just king who is sleeping right now and needs to wake up. He accepted that (bright kid).

Yesterday I found him reading a book, author and title forgotten, but obviously it was an adventure story which, in my day, would have been ‘Biggles Flies Again’ by Capt. Johns. And so I asked him, ‘Is the story true?’ ‘No,’ he said at once, ‘of course it isn’t!’

Which raises the question, how does he know that? I discussed it with his mother, and we think that some stories have markers in them which alert you to the need to suspend all credibility; and others don’t. It’s the second kind which can be dangerous fiction. And the Da Vinci code is a prime example.

The question is, really, does it matter if gullible people get to believe things that writers make up? And what if the writer doesn’t think he/she is making it up, but is receiving it through the channel of divine inspiration? I’m not being facile here – all authors hope for that.

I suppose I’m a bit miffed that someone who believes Lorenzo de’ Medici was of the bloodline of Jesus is making a fortune. I’m not bothered about the fortune: I grieve for the truth. Because what is really important about Lorenzo will be lost in the glamour and glitz and sheer vivacity of conspiracy theories.

What does anyone else think about these matters? How far can we, should we play merry with the facts to ‘let the story have its head’. And what are facts, when it comes down to it?

PS. Dorcas Lane in ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ has pierced ears I noticed last night. True to period, I wonder?

Homage to Mary

‘Historical fiction’ is a broad genre, including so many other genres: romance, adventure, murder mystery, you name it. My books are square pegs in an infinite vista of round holes, and sometimes I get very lost, down and altogether upset about it. ‘Take me in!’ I cry to the distance, but there is no response. It’s up to me if I want to be a misfit – and I guess I do, truth be told.

And then, with a little bit of grace and a twinkle of fairy dust, I remember. I remember how all this started, and who it was who inspired me: Mary Renault. A misfit if ever there was one, but perhaps she created a class of her own.

I wrote an article many years ago in homage to the author who was my favourite when I was crossing the threshold into adulthood. It was published in Solander, the journal of the Historical Novels Society, and is often cited as a source for info on Mary (although I drew what I knew from a very good biography of her by David Sweetman). So I thought I would refresh its perennial web presence by posting it here on Pages. It’s long – coffee-break reading.

Any other fans of Mary out there?

PS. The link to the article is at the top – has its own tab.

God speed to the Plough

January by the Limborg Brothers shows the unenviable Duc du Berry rolling about in food.


Let the Wealthy and Great
Roll in Splendour and State,
I envy them not, I declare it.
I eat my own Lamb,
My Chicken and Ham,
I shear my own fleece, and I wear it.
I have lawns, I have bowers,
I have fruit, I have flowers,
The Lark is my morning alarmer.
So jolly boys now,
Here’s God speed to the plough
Long life and success to the Farmer.

Plough Sunday is the first Sunday after Epiphany.  Since the industrialisation of agriculture, we’re used to seeing the plough more or less follow the combine harvester in the early autumn. Even allotmenteers aim to get the plot dug over before Christmas, to let Mr Frost go to work on those walloping great clods.  But in the traditional agricultural year, the stubble was left to feed poultry and geese, and ploughing was left until after Christmas.

They used to take ploughshares to be blessed in the church; today some farming communities take their tractors (presumably only as far as the lych gate!).

Perhaps there was another reason for starting to plough now. We went out to the allotment today because it was sunny and not freezing cold, just a nice winter’s days like wot we used to have in the good old days before white Christmases! Most of our usual winter staples – the purple sprouting broccoli, the kales, the sprouts – were dead and the oriental greens had turned to mush. There was not much for us to do so we spread some muck around on the potato-patch-to-be. New ground, it had been dug over just before the November snow, and Mr Frost has indeed done his work. The clods are wet but crumbly and the manure has broken down very well. Just chucking it about seemed a ritual in its way, throwing dark brown on to mid-brown. It’s an earth day, for sure.

We tackled the compost bin yesterday, got everything turned over and aerated. It’s got two months now to turn into black gold and I think it’s going to make it. The sense of the moment is earth and potential. But then it hit me as we came home. It was four o’clock and still light. Plough Sunday they call it, but really it’s farmers’ New Year. May it be full of good things.

[Thanks to a site called RuSource for the information].

The Coming of the Magi

Christmas cards with dark skies, golden stars and men in camels in silhouette. I’ve always liked Epiphany. ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ is one of my favourite carols. I realise a virgin birth is miraculous, but what appeals to me is the magic of the Magi. They saw a star and they followed it, and they found where it was leading.

The attraction to the Magi grew as I did my researches into the Renaissance and became ever more impressed by the figure of Lorenzo de’ Medici. His birthday was January 6th. That must have pleased his grandfather – thrilled him, even – given that he, too, had a great liking for Epiphany and had founded the Company of the Magi (sometimes called the Company of the Star).

For me the significance of the kings or wise men is that, despite all their knowledge, they had the humility to kneel before a baby. Knowledge plus humility equals wisdom. They marry ancient philosophy with Christianity, the new dispensation.

I’ve been dwelling on them a lot this week. In my hubris, I not only thought I was near the end of my novel A Gift for the Magus, I went ahead and announced it. It really seemed to me that between St Stephen’s Day and Epiphany, I would tie pretty bows in its hair and greet the new year with nothing to do. Not a bit of it. Because I also had the idea that I would like to read it out loud to David, especially the all-important first thirty pages, and as soon as I began, and he said, ‘Yes, that’s very good,’ it became glaringly obvious – to both of us – that it wasn’t.’I think it’s a bit wooden,’ I said. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘now you mention it… And while we’re being honest…’

‘Time for restructuring’, said an astrologer friend apropos the heavens, about an hour after I’d taken the momentous decision to scrap the first chapter. It was something of a comfort to learn that my woes are universal.

The first thirty pages are all-important. Most agents and publishers don’t read any further; they certainly base their decisions on those pages. If a novelist spends three years on a novel, and one of those years is on the first thirty pages, that’s just about right.

There is so much you have to do. You have to set up the story, introduce the characters, give what backstory is absolutely vital, and all this while jumping straight into the action (in media res, as Horace would say) and then running with it, like one of those people who has to tell you all about her neighbours and talks about them without any thought or consideration that you’ve never heard of them before (nor never will again).  I have a cousin like that, and what I don’t know about the people in her street could be written on a postage stamp.

So here I am, in what I thought was the last week, feeling as if it’s the first. Each evening I read to David for any hour. He trips me up on every other word, thought and idea. I mark the glitches and spend the next day curing them all. Then I read him the next chapter. Well, we were getting into a bit of rhythm there. Hmmm, thought the universe, can’t have that. And so my Mac died.

Now Macs are immortal, or so I was told, and never give you any grip, and back up everything. This one doesn’t. This one is an instrument of the demons (or angels – can’t always tell).  It dies on me by wiggling its plug out of the back. One moment it’s turning itself on from sleep mode even if all I’m doing is just passing by; the next it’s just a big black screen, and to get it to wake up, I have to kill it by pressing its power button. And everything not saved is gone forever.

Of all the times I’ve been shown NEVER TRUST A COMPUTER and SAVE, SAVE, SAVE, YOU STUPID WUZZ, today the lesson went home. Because this morning I found I’d lost the fruit of two of the hardest, most sustained days of my entire writing life.  I think I’ve retrieved everything via human memory, but it doesn’t feel quite so perfect as it did last night.

I’ve come a long way from the Magi. But Epiphany means, I think, ‘showing of the god’, or revelation. And here at this time of eclipses and bright planets, I think I have had a taste of that, of being able to see if only through a glass darkly.

Following the star doesn’t mean an easy passage. It means picking yourself up from every stumble and going doggedly on with no assurance whatsoever of finding what you think you might be looking for. You do it because you have to, because wisdom tells you to, and you just keep going.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2010. That’s about 5 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 36 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 32 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 9mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was November 9th with 74 views. The most popular post that day was Books.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for, linda proud blog, phases of the moon, linda proud, and historical fiction blog.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Books March 2010


About the author March 2010


About this site March 2010


Mind-mapping March 2010


Looking a gift horse in the backside July 2010