Ancient Ways Enlighten Modern Lives in Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan is a beautiful, immersive look into the lives of a British Celtic village on the eve of occupation by the Romans. While other parts of the isle toil or thrive under Roman rule, Black Lake has been relatively untouched, its people still honoring the four old gods and reverencing the cycle of the seasons as their ancestors had done for thousands of years before them. But when Hobble, the prescient, deformed daughter of a blacksmith and a devotee of Mother Earth, begins to see signs of change and a cunning Druid named Fox sets up residence in their remote village, that simple life takes on a tense tenor. Balanced on a knife’s edge between the old and the new, peace and war, the village must come to grips with its past and determine how much, if at all, they wish to fight to control their future.
Daughter tells the entwined stories of Hobble and her mother, Devout, but according to the author, was actually inspired by the bodies of dozens of Iron Age people who were preserved in the peat bogs of Britain. “In 2002, I opened the newspaper to see a photograph of an unnervingly well-preserved 2,000-year-old human body. I could not lift my gaze from the gentle face—the finely creased skin, the matted hair, the beard stubble that appeared as freshly grown as that of any living man,” Buchanan recalled. “I read about dozens of other, similarly unspoiled bodies recovered from the boglands of Northern Europe, particularly Lindow Man, a 2,000-year-old bog body that was discovered in 1984 near Wilmslow, Cheshire, in a peat bog formed by the once much larger Black Lake. Before the body was deposited in the ancient lake, the head had been bashed, the neck garroted, and the throat slit. The findings were in keeping with a sort of ritualistic overkilling that archaeologists surmised was undertaken as an offering to earn the favor of multiple gods. As I read, I wondered about a society in which humans were sacrificed, possibly with their consent, to guarantee next year’s crops or to ensure success on the battlefield. What would it be like to believe—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that the gods could be angered and then bribed to end the deluge of rain that would rot the wheat? I pondered, too, the beauty and simplicity of community ordered by ritual and tied to the land in the most exceptional way.”
This ritual is part of what Buchanan feels is missing from our modern lives. “By setting the novel in a time and place before science explained the seasons and the sun crossing the sky and the origins of mankind, readers have a chance to embrace the mystery and magic threaded through Daughter of Black Lake. It fills me with pleasure to think the novel might pry open a tiny window to seeing the astonishing in our daily lives,” she said.
And ritual is key to daily life in this novel, as archeologists and historians believe it would have been to the real pre-Roman Celts. As Buchanan explained, omens, herbs and other forms of folk magic were integral to how these people understood their lives, just as much is science is to our understanding of the world we live in. Through the eyes of both Devout and Hobble, the reader experiences the importance of these herbs in not only flavoring food, but more importantly in curing the ill, and divining the will of the gods.
Appeasing, pleasing, and trying to understand the will of the gods was all the more important with war looming on the horizon. Should the people defend their homeland from their would-be oppressors, or should they submit and work with them? “As the Romans creep closer to the remote settlement at Black Lake, some in the community fear losing their way of being in the world while others accept, even embrace, the change to come,” Buchanan explained. This leads to tension among the head families of the village and the only person who can intervene and provide direction is Fox.
In Celtic society, the Druids served as lawmakers, judges, astronomers (and thus, diviners), and were the keepers of knowledge and lore, the historians of their time. Yet not all practitioners were the white-robed, mistletoe-clad, peace-loving Druids of modern imagination. As is true today, such power and responsibility can—and did—corrupt. As readers, we wonder along with Devout, Hobble, Smith, and the rest of Black Lake, which side of the moral spectrum Fox falls on and whether his direction is divinely or selfishly inspired.
As readers follow the months and years of the novel, Buchanan’s in-depth research transports them back into a time when an unpredictable world is made a little more orderly through rules and regulated behaviors of religion, even things so small as a sign of reverence made regularly to Mother Earth or touching a carving before crossing a bridge to honor a god of the place. Buchanan believes we can learn something from these ancient people, who are at once foreign and familiar. “I expect they innately understood that by following the rules and behaving in a prescribed way, they would bring a measure of harmony and peace to their days. I wonder if a little order, a little ritual—whether it be yoga or prayer or reading before bed, might help some of us cope with the uncertain times we’re experiencing right now.”
Uncertainty is a concept which the residents of Black Lake would certainly understand, and perhaps by reading Daughter of Black Lake, we too can learn to see the magic in our daily lives and appreciate the small miraculous moments of each day. Life is as unpredictable now as it has ever been, though until the pandemic, we had fooled ourselves into believing we had a measure of control. While most of us no longer worship Mother Earth or pray to gods of war, we can still learn from the people lovingly brought to life in Buchanan’s novel, for while times change, humanity is, at its core, essentially the same. Just as in the book, we have the capacity to choose good or evil, to have our minds closed to new ideas or open to change, and what we choose will ultimately decide our fate.
About the contributor: Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction and women’s fiction author, as well as a book reviewer for HNS, Historical Honey and Sirens. She can be found online here.