Behind the Scenes: Chapter 1, Part 2

Welcome back, fans of King Arthur and historical fiction, to the second post about the process, references and details behind writing The Retreat to Avalon. This series of articles will give greater insight to some of the events and people described in the story, which could be helpful as the second book moves into the convoluted maze of Dark Age Britain.

This post is really geared towards people who have read the book because, well, spoilers will happen. This article will not have any spoilers, so it will be posted in it’s entirety. Future posts, however, will hide spoilers for the people who really want them.

Chapter One

And we’re off!

Today we’ll talk about the first thing you see when you start to read: the Chapter 1 illustration. As I’ve discussed in this post, the chapter artwork was done by Luka Cakic, and he did a fantastic job. The idea of having an illustration at the beginning of each chapter was important to me because much of our imagery of the Arthurian world is based on the romances, depicting Arthur and his “knights” in a much later time frame than they actually would have existed. The chapter art would, I hope, help the reader mentally enter the world of Dark Age Britain.

Luka Cakić

So starting right off, I open with a castle. Not the type of castle most people think of, with tall stone walls and towers, but a hillfort. A circular ditch and parapet topped by a wooden palisade. This was the typical form of British strongholds from the Iron Age through the early Middle Ages.

The houses inside are round, typical of British homes for centuries, with a stone base and conical thatched roof. It isn’t a large fort, but would have been average for a minor warlord in that era.

I’ve tried to use actual locations as accurately as possible in my story, and this one has a backstory. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, what became The Retreat to Avalon started out differently in my head. Rather than Gawain, the main character was going to be a low level warrior no one had heard of. That character would have been the result of a bit of silly fantasy based on my own family legends.

From a great article by Tristan Pollock

A kiss by any other name…

My last name, Poage, is Irish, or Scots-Irish, and from my research years ago, I learnt that the name originated in Scotland, in the Renfrewshire district of Glasgow, among the Strathclyde Britons. Strathclyde is a later name for the kingdom of Alt Clut, which my readers will recognize. This kingdom was the last of the Briton kingdoms outside of Wales, disappearing around the 11th century.

Not much to go on, so I took to studying current and old maps of the area. Well, sure enough, there is a place called Pollok Country Park. The Poages and Polloks share a family coat-of-arms and appear to be connected to this region at least as far back as the 12th century. A wooden castle beside the White Cart Water, and near the current 18th century Pollok House, dated to that period. But this was far too late for my purposes. And I was curious about how the name Pollok was associated with this area.

Pollok House

You see, Pollok comes from the Gaelic name “Pollag”, meaning “People by the small pool”. It seems unlikely that the Gaelic name, “Poag” (meaning “kiss”) would be so badly misspelled or mispronounced to be confused with the Gaelic name “Pollag”. I think it much more likely that closely knit families melded over centuries in this early period of scant records.

The Pool

But Pollag is a toponymic surname, derived from a location, so I expected to find a small lake or pond around the park. It took some very close study to find it. At the north end of the park atop a small drumlin (a kind of hill created by the passage of glaciers during the ice ages) is a small spring-fed pond. Today it is obviously altered into a man-made garden pool, but it’s existence goes beyond recorded memory. Considering this, and the fact that it is spring fed, it’s reasonable to believe it may have always been there. Another, even more striking bit of evidence lies nearby. The remains of a small hillfort!


The first place I went on visiting Scotland this year.

Excavations suggest it originated in the Iron Age, but may have been in sporadic use right through the early Medieval period. This fit my theory quite well, and thus the little hillfort of Pollag became part of The Retreat to Avalon. I used information from the excavation, such as the unusual cobbled causeway, in my description of Gawain’s home.

Behind me you can see the remains of the ditch that surrounded the fort.
Difficult to pick out, but I am standing on the stone causeway at the entrance to fort.

Putting it all together.

So now I’ve got a possible site for the founding of my family name, assuming my theory is correct. And now you know how it became the location for Gawain’s family home.

Once I had started writing, I realized that the story would be better if I used the great heroes of the Arthurian world, not just King Arthur. Gawain, my favorite of his “knights” popped right to mind. I thought I would have to completely re-write the beginning of the story, but on researching the original Welsh legends on which The Retreat to Avalon is founded, I realized it wouldn’t need much tweaking at all. But those details will come in another post.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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