Women at a Cliff Edge

by Amanda Rackstraw and Gwendolyn Sterk

A conversation between the author and her daughter about ‘Gwawr’, a short story in Planet 224. The story is set in the ninth century and follows a woman’s experience of the incursion of Norsemen into her community. This was the time of Viking raids along the south Wales coast.

Following the publication of ‘Gwawr’, the author and her 34-year-old daughter, a feminist activist and violence against women professional, had a conversation about gender, womanhood, identity and their relationship to the land. The generational differences in approaching aspects of feminism allow them to explore the author’s intentions and the fluidity of meaning from differing perspectives, while acknowledging their shared experiences of the landscape. This conversation took place after a walk together along the cliff tops of Dunraven Bay where the story is set. The author was particularly inspired by the outline of the cliff edge, which at a certain point resembles the silhouette of a woman’s face in profile.

Gwendolyn: I found it interesting that at the beginning of the story Gwawr names herself. That could be read as making a feminist point about identity and agency in the narrative. Was that a conscious decision?

Amanda: Not a conscious decision to make a point, no. I ‘thought’ the opening there on the beach under the cliff and up on the top overlooking the channel. In a sense, the character emerged from the rock: that is, from speculating on what women might have been there; thinking about whether there is a kind of (spiritual?) residue of human lives there in the rock. When she was realised it didn’t seem right to ‘name’ her. I wanted her to do that. So she ‘calls herself’, Gwawr which in Welsh means ‘dawn’. And dawn is where the story starts and ends.

Gwendolyn: So Gwawr’s identity grows out of the landscape? I’m struck by the physicality of Gwawr and her connection to the land and nature; we have been standing upon her as well as with her today in the cliff tops. Women’s bodies have often been aligned to land and its ownership or the conquering of it. This has often been done in highly problematic ways by men, both in fiction and in real life. I feel within this story, knowing you as a woman, mother and a writer, that Gwawr’s physicality within the landscape has its own identity. Would you say the theme concerns women and their connection to the land? Identity again: is it about ownership – of self, and of self as part of the land? There’s a strong sense of belonging. But this is threatened by the power of colonisation and the resulting loosening of ties.

Amanda: Yes, the sense of belonging to a specific place, the deep connection someone can have to a certain place, is at the emotional core of the story. On a personal level I’m interested in a close relationship to the land. In writing this I was also thinking about how taking or enticing people away from their homeland destroys natural family bonds and sets up conflicting loyalties. Gwawr cannot be ‘used’ in the same way as her sisters. She gets to stay embedded in her homeland, but she spends her life pining for her sisters and living in a community that has sold out to powerful invaders. (Invaders, rather than colonisers: it seems their ambitions were to seize what they could get and move on, although there was certainly settlement in some places.)

I don’t know whether her sisters were brutally treated and raped or whether they were taken to Ireland or Iceland (there is DNA evidence that points to this) and formed lasting relationships with men who were setting up new communities. The point is, as far as the story is concerned, that this was a time in history when warrior aristocracies prevailed; ‘virtue’ and ‘goodness’ were attached to wielding power, and male physical strength and bravery were prized. Gwawr doesn’t set out to fight these men. Neither does she give way. She survives. She is the woman who is there in the land, in a way the spirit of woman, neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ – certainly not an archetypal heroine – but a woman who is and always will be there, one who loves, loses and survives. An ordinary woman, not a special woman picked out from learnt history.

Gwendolyn: Even if these men didn’t settle, in taking the women, were they, in a sense, taking the land? Did these men see the women as part of the land? Was it all plunder?

Amanda: To be able to take the women would reinforce their status and power. Dwyn has a sense of this – being plunder. Still, eventually she goes.

Gwendolyn: It seems to me that there is a male perspective of woman and land as one and the same in the sense of ownership. However, I’m aware that the two types of men acknowledged within the story are presented as binary opposites. The indigenous men are described as short, passive, not desirable, while the men from the North are tall, active and exciting (if not desirable to some of the women). Bit hard on Welsh men! Did you see this binary when you were writing?

Amanda: There is speculation that people populating this part of Wales at the time would have been descended from the Silures tribe, who were settled there centuries before and put up fierce opposition to the Romans. Historically, they were known to be short, dark with curly hair. Some thought they had originally arrived from Spain. In any case, there seems to be sufficient evidence they would have been quite unlike these tall fair men from Scandinavia. I’m not trying to present the Welsh men as ‘undesirable’ so much as speculating on how the invaders might have connected and communicated with the Welsh, and how they might have seemed as incomers, as strangers, as different. I was thinking that perhaps it wasn’t as popular culture has presented: tall horned men with swords carrying off screaming women. It may well have been that they found a way to barter and negotiate to their advantage. It may be that their protection was useful against other threats. I don’t think the women fell into the arms of the Northmen. What I tried to imply was that it may have been that whole communities decided it was more propitious to collaborate. Certainly there were settlements in Swansea, the Gower and around Glamorgan. There is evidence of Britons in Wales, at certain times, making their peace with the Danes and even collaborating to fight off Anglo-Saxons as in Mercia in 878.

Gwendolyn: OK. The three sisters represent different attitudes to men. They perform different identities of women when interacting with the Northmen. Hunydd is excited, Dwyn afraid; Gwawr rejects, is practical, strong in her lone stand to survive without them.

Amanda: Yes, of course, they must all be different. Three sisters is a common trope in stories: Cinderella to Chekhov. Just thought of that! Gwawr is a little like Olga in Three Sisters. Dwyn like Irina even. Ha! Maybe something in the unconscious memory there. (My past as an actor.) Whatever, yes, they are different and so have different fates. It is Gwawr who interests me: the woman who ultimately rejects these men, their physicality, their brand of masculinity, even though at the start she recognises its potential usefulness to her people.

Gwendolyn: Yes, but Gwawr is rejected herself. You have written her with disability, she has a limp due to an undisclosed childhood trauma or illness, you have written this in a character before. Why do you think this disability, and rejection, recurs in your writing?

Amanda: I’m not sure.

Gwendolyn: Is it that Gwawr is a representation of yourself and do you see yourself as ‘broken’ in some way? Does Gwawr’s limp represent some deeper, introspective injury or trauma?

Amanda: That’s interesting. And, I suppose, possible. But not something I’d considered before. When I wrote Yde Girl, the character was based on a bog body which was found to have physical deformities. I found this fascinating in terms of speculating how and why she might have been abandoned or sacrificed in the bog. With Gwawr it seemed feasible that these invaders were looking for women as good breeders; they would have rejected deformity. An ignorant and repulsive attitude to us now, but not inconsistent with how it was with such cultures.

Gwendolyn: As a feminist I’m interested in women making autonomous decisions. What choices did these women have? Did you think about their choices, and whether they made the right ones?

Amanda: Of course! But if everyone makes the right decisions in a story there’s no story. Gwawr could have helped her sisters escape their fate. I don’t spell out why she didn’t do that. Maybe she was protecting the men in her community. Maybe her father had pre-arranged it. Maybe the sisters just got drunk and were carried away. I wasn’t trying to write a plot that would come out right in the end. I was just wondering what it might have been like to be a woman in a world with these values. I get a little impatient with historical stories that give the female characters all the knowledge and values of the 21st century. I’m far more interested to get inside the head of an ordinary woman who experienced the complexities of conflicting emotions brought about by changes she could do nothing about. There is strength in surviving. That’s enough for me.

Gwendolyn: So there’s an assumption of desirable, physically strong men dominating these societies and these being unquestioned patriarchal societies?

Amanda: No! There’s an understanding that these were patriarchal societies. And that physical strength, fitness and endurance were prized. Apparently Northmen dreaded a straw death, that is one in which a man died in bed. They died fighting. They lived short brutal lives and were succeeded by young sons who went out on similar expeditions. That’s how it was. They were immensely cruel by our standards. (Although we could think of places in the world where such cruelty is happening now.) I don’t know how ‘desirable’ they were. I’ve assumed that these sisters were at least excited by their arrival, and may possibly have found their strength and power attractive. Gwawr in the end does not find them in the least attractive. If you want to make a contemporary comparison you could think of the young girls who naively followed young men involved with ISIS.

Gwendolyn: There’s not a contemporary reality expressed here. You imagine women as they were then. You haven’t written to make connections with women’s reality now?

Amanda: No. Although thinking how it might have been for a woman living at in a completely different time and culture, is bound, in a way, to impact on how you feel about yourself in your own time and culture. I’ve tried to find a reality that belongs to a woman in a certain place at a specific time in history. I’ve based it on what is as far as possible historical fact. That there is little precise empirical evidence concerning the presence of Northmen in south Wales, (apart from placenames), allows me to speculate. It’s fiction. If women readers find thoughts arising from the behaviour and attitudes of the characters unsettling, then I wouldn’t be so unhappy about that. Unsettling is fine. Better than a satisfying urge to applaud a character who in the last paragraph leaps up from behind a rock to slice off Viking heads and rescue her sisters.

Gwendolyn: Why did you write it?

Amanda: I wandered around Dunraven Bay thinking, ‘What if?’ What I imagined inspired me. I did the research. I got quite excited by things I found out. For instance, there actually was a small lead mine not so far away. The Nordic boats were built to be light and flexible and could navigate rivers and fjords. They would have been suitable to come into a small bay like Dunraven and slide up onto the shore. They would not have had to go down to Aberthaw. Loyalty of certain tribes could be fickle, depending on imminent threat, and a consideration of who might best be able to help with defence. Norwegian and Swedish men were mostly blond and they prized blond hair, using a soap with lye content to bleach hair that was not blond. Due to a diet comparatively high in protein, they were on average taller than people from southern areas of Europe. Norsemen married to women they captured while raiding benefited by improving their genetic pool and disease resistance. Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Icelandic women showed 63% of them were of Celtic origin while the remaining 37% were of the Norse origin. Y-DNA analysis of Icelandic men showed 80% of them were of Norse origin and the remaining 20% were of Celtic origin. Irish annals also give evidence of Vikings taking women away to new settlements.

It was enough to inspire and encourage speculation.

In the end, though, I came back to standing on the cliff and gazing out over the channel. How many women over the centuries have done that? And what could have been in their mind?

What was in ours?

Photograph of the Amanda with Gwendolyn

© Photograph courtesy of Amanda Rackstraw

If you would like to read ‘Gwawr’, you can buy Planet 224 here Planet magazine, and you can buy Planet here and our subscription package includes exclusive access to the digital edition of the magazine and our recent archive, which includes issue 224.