Sistersong as Social Narrative


In modern society, it can feel nearly impossible to escape from news focusing on politics, social issues, or conflict. Regardless of where one falls on the social or political spectrum, there is no avoiding the fact that these topics are instrumental in shaping the cultural narrative. Exploring the implications of these topics is similarly vital and, as readers of historical fiction well know, an ideal place to do so is within the pages of a book. Lucy Holland’s Sistersong (Macmillan UK/Redhook US, 2021) examines several social and political topics through the fascinating lens of a forgotten character from a traditional folk ballad.

Sistersong centers around three sisters, children of King Cador of Dumnonia, whom Holland interprets as the sisters from the ballad “The Twa Sisters.” Riva is the eldest of the three, scarred for life by a fire; Keyne, the middle child, battles with her family to be accepted for who she truly is; and Sinne, the youngest, is spoiled and thoughtless in her pursuit of romance. When a mysterious warrior, Tristan, arrives at their father’s stronghold with urgent news about an imminent invasion by a dangerous Saxon king, a chain of events is set off that will affect the sisters in unimaginable ways. Aided and mentored by the fictional Myrdhin, and stymied by the historical Gildas, the royal sisters embark on their own journeys to become the people they were meant to be.

Throughout the novel, there is a recurring theme of agency. “The Twa Sisters” is a murder ballad in which a man comes between two sisters and “even the bonds of sisterhood are not strong enough to withstand the sexual jealousy that leads one sister to murder the other.” Holland believes the genesis of such ballads stems directly from the limited role women had in society. She tackles the question of agency by giving the sisters control over their fates while also acknowledging the social role expected of them.

Riva, Keyne, and Sinne, as royal daughters, were expected to marry men their father chose for them based on political alliances. This expectation is fundamentally at odds with Keyne, who identifies as male and battles daily to be recognized as such by his family. Disregarding Keyne’s identity and refusing to use masculine pronouns for him is a symptom of erasure. This misuse of language and deliberate forgetting of people because it “does not fit with the narrative upheld by the patriarchy” partially explains a lack of gender-fluid or transgendered people in much of the historical record, despite evidence that these identities are not found only in the modern world.

“The absence of people like Keyne is indicative of the way they are written out of the dominant social narrative. In writing Sistersong, I felt it was vital to restore such people to a society in which they undoubtedly participated.” Holland envisioned Keyne’s identity as an explanation for why “The Twa Sisters” initially referenced three siblings but by the end, there were only two mentioned.

Holland’s novel begins in 535 CE, in post-Roman, pre-Saxon Britain. She describes it as a liminal moment in time, an ideal term to apply to the political, social, and even spiritual shifts that were occurring. Further, the discovery of a Romano-British settlement near her home in Devon intrigued Holland, as well as the relative lack of primary sources and the fact that the region was one of the last in Britain to come under Saxon rule. As such, she felt that it was a “perfect setting for a folktale that would draw heavily on myth as much as history.” Sistersong balances on that fine line between myth and history, which readers see in Holland’s use of Christianity, paganism, and pure magic. This commingling of religions was not fictional. As Holland explains, the installation of Christianity into Britain “was not a smooth or straightforward process. Tensions between these two spiritualities led to a complicated fusion of beliefs … in which both religions were practiced alongside each other, vying for control of a nation’s collective soul.” Religious and political issues were also overshadowed by the steady migration of the Saxons throughout Britain.

When dominant groups begin to shift, as they are doing in Sistersong, the intersection between the groups and the way they write the social narrative can cause a great deal of conflict. Holland exemplifies such conflict in the characters of Myrdhin and Gildas. Myrdhin is a variant of the Arthurian wizard Merlin; Gildas was a historical monk who lived in the sixth century. His major work was De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), which was an excoriation of the five most recent rulers and ecclesiastical leaders of his time. Myrdhin embodies the waning strength of druidism and other pagan religions in the face of the rising power of Christianity and its ability to convert kings to the new faith. Gildas reflects the sense of inevitable change that came to British society alongside his religion. The conflict between Myrdhin and Gildas was natural – they did represent opposing religions, after all – but Holland admits that her portrayal of Gildas might have been “overly influenced by his vitriolic treatise.” She is quick to point out, though, that she didn’t intend for him to be the stereotypically evil priest common to historical fantasy: “I am sure he believed wholeheartedly in the benefits that Christianity could bring to Britain; it’s this belief that directs his actions in the book. He is guilty only of intolerance … but it’s worth remembering, of course, where intolerance can eventually lead.”

There are so many pertinent topics covered in Lucy Holland’s enchanting novel, Sistersong, proving again that historical fantasy is an excellent medium in which to examine them. The issues that occupy our thoughts today are much the same as they were in early medieval Britain, at least in this beautifully written novel. Holland’s skill brings to life a mysterious period of history and shows that history, myth, and folklore can intersect in wonderfully relevant ways.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Kristen McQuinn is a medievalist, single mother, history buff, and sci-fi geek. Her book, The Two Isabellas of King John, is forthcoming from Pen & Sword Books. You can follow her on social media: @TrekkieKristen (Twitter) or @hergraceslibrary (IG).

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 97 (August 2021)

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