I’ve been obsessed with stone circles since a family holiday to Brittany when I was 15. I remember vividly my fascination with the stone alignments at Carnac which kicked off a lifelong passion. I’m what my best friend’s husband, who’s an archaeologist, calls “a stone botherer” which doesn’t bother me at all as my stone obsession has taken me to some incredible places from Orkney to Ireland to Cornwall and back to Brittany.
When I started writing ‘Beltane’ I always knew there was going to be a stone circle in it and that it’d be an important part of the story. There’s something otherworldly about stone circles which has always intrigued me. It’s partly because no one knows why they were built and why the Neolithic people went to such trouble to align them to the sun or the moon. I also find there’s an energy about them which doesn’t exist in other places. It’s this energy which I imaged as awen, the magical power of the druids. I realise this may sound either very hippy or completely bonkers but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this. Non-fiction books like ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ about ley lines and the connection of ancient sites and, also the comments I get from readers have helped me recognize that other people experience this too.
Recently when I was choosing the cover design for ‘Storm Witch’ I started thinking about the role of stone circles in fiction. When I thought about it I could only come up with a very short list of books with stone circles in them. Possibly that’s because I’ve not been reading the right books. When I was researching this post, I googled and found a Goodreads list which has 65 books, both for adults and children, on it but that doesn’t seem a lot when I think about the number of stone circles in the UK, Ireland and France.
Interestingly only one of the books that I thought of is on the Goodreads list which is ‘Outlander’ by Diana Gabaldon. Craigh na Dun is the portal which allows Claire Fraser to travel back and forwards in time. It’s fictional but there’s a theory that it’s based on Clava Cairn near Inverness which I visited years before I read Outlander and which definitely isn’t on the top of a hill.
The concept of a stone circle as a portal is in Guy Gavriel Kay’s fabulous ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’, a fantasy trilogy about a group of Canadian students who are transported into the world of Fionavar. The book draws on Arthurian and Norse legend and is definitely worth reading if you’ve not discovered it yet. In the series, Stonehenge operates as a magical portal to transport the students back to Fionavar. I find this portal idea really interesting as it acknowledges the unknowability of stone circles and also their liminal quality; they’re in the world that we know and yet apart from it.
Thomas Hardy uses Stonehenge as the setting for the arrest of Tess in Tess of the Dubervilles. There’s some fairly heavy-handed symbolism with Tess lying on one of the stones to sleep which ties in with Hardy’s theme of the gods determining Tess’s fate. I remember being quite cross with Hardy that he’d ended the book in this way because I’d expected Stonehenge to symbolise Tess and Angel’s escape from Victorian society’s oppressive morality not the moment with the law caught up with them.
There’s so much folklore surrounding stone circles that I’m surprised not more of it has found its way into fiction. Folk tales were a way of making sense of the landscape and, as Neolithic sites are still difficult to understand, it’s not surprising that people made up stories about them. This is why they’re often believed to be the work of giants, like the Devil’s Arrows in Yorkshire, or people turned to stone, like The Hurlers in Cornwall or Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria.
Although I go to museums, watch TV programmes and read books which seek to explain why stone circles were built, in the end, those are only theories and provoke as many questions as they answer. The folktales matter more to me as they retain the sense of mystery that I find so strongly at stone circles. I think that’s what fiction can do too. It’s another way of interpreting the purpose of these monuments and, although stone circles don’t actually transport you to eighteenth century Scotland or another world, they are a glimpse of long forgotten ritual and half-remembered folklore which can be powerful inspiration for a writer.
I’d love to hear about your experiences of stone circles and any books which you recommend that feature them.
Thanks for reading this. I hope you have a good bank holiday weekend.
Images from Shutterstock and Pixabay.
The Sun and the Serpent by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller (1989) Mythos
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991) Random House
The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay (1984-86) Harper Collins
Tess of the Durbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)