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Behind the Dragon Ring

Research is half the novelist's fun. I thought you might like to know more about the real things, places, and people Ben Harper knows and works with in The Dragon Ring.113

King Alfred, the Vikings, and the Dragon Ring

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 876 includes this entry.

And in this same year the army of the Danes in England swore oaths to King Alfred upon the holy ring, which before they would not do to any nation; and they delivered to the king hostages from among the most distinguished men of the army, that they would speedily depart from his kingdom.

The leader of this army is not named. Other entries suggest that the it was under the command of a leader called Guthrum, whom the Chronicle calls a king and gives no patronymic or surname. He certainly became a king after the events of this story, and so like most others I’ve placed him in Alfred’s hall.

There’s also no certain knowledge of what sort of ring it was the Danes swore on; one alternate version calls it a holy bracelet, a modern author calls it a saint’s toe ring! But when I first read the chronicle, what I imagined was an arm ring of a type familiar to everyone in that part of the world, used by lords to reward their followers and by everyone to display their wealth and their lord's esteem.

There’s no reason why it could not have been the property of a saint as well; everyone's family was pagan once! The chronicler calls it “holy” which it would not have done if it were a pagan heirloom—unless perhaps it had been altered in some way. In The Dragon Ring, I've proposed an alteration.

There is no mention of an interruption to the proceedings. Oaths were sworn, and as Oberon knew, broken literally overnight. Guthrum took Exeter and Alfred was able to hold him there till the following summer. What happened next is full of twists, turns and reversals of fortune, the stuff of legend and historical novels. It is also far outside the scope of Ben and Raven’s remit. Maybe they'll check back in with him another time, if the need arises..

My principal source for this material was Justin Pollard’s fascinating and very readable Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England(2005). H.R. Lyon’s The Vikings in Britain (1977) and Robert Wernick’s The Vikings (1979) and many others were very helpful in creating a picture of the age. On related topics, Alaric Hall's Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (2007) and Karen Louise Jolly's Popular Religion in Late Saxon England were full of wonderful things. Thanks to both Ari Berk and Rebecca Roberts for pointing me at titles and loaning me books which I really must return someday.

The Chronicle Itself

Originally compiled on the orders of King Alfred the Great, starting around 890, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was maintained and continued by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th Century. The translation above is by Rev. James Ingram in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London, 1823), with additional readings from the translation of Dr. J.A. Giles (London, 1847). 

See Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #17.

The Iron Roman Road

I’ve been asked to say something about the iron road that discomforts the fae so much. Roman roads were built in layers according to a standard method, adapted to local resources. In iron-producing areas, roads were actually surfaced with iron slag. After the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, road maintenance ceased. Over time much of the metal would have been torn up and put to other purposes, or simply buried.

When I first learned about these roads from another author, and knowing of the fae aversion to iron, I knew I had to have one, even if stretched plausibility a bit by putting it in the valley of the Avon.

The dragons on the cover

Cover art for The Dragon Ring was developed by Scott Perkins from a design derived by Ari Berk from period models such as this one.

Elizabethan England

This era has been an area of deep interest for me since 1964, the year of Shakespeare's 400th birthday, and a perpetual research project since the late 1970s. Only a portion of that research can be used in a novel, of course, but I couldn’t write without. To see where it all comes from, please drop by our portal site at Renaissance: The Elizabethan World and the especially the flagship of the site, A Compendium of Common Knowledge 1558-1603.

The Compendium is also available as a paperback book (2008) at any online bookseller, though the website is the always more up-to-date source.

Map of Elizabethan London

The fold-out London map in the faerie diary is based on the Agas map of 1561 now in the Metropolitan London Archives, and available online from British History Online. Like Ben's map, if you click on a section, it gets larger to see more detail. Unlike Ben's you'll just have to take my word about streets the map doesn't show..


The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths is one of the twelve ancient “livery companies” of England (there were 48 livery companies in Tudor times, now 108), and still exists today. After losing their grand establishment during the Great Fire of 1666, they rebuilt it in the same place in Forster Lane where it stands today.

Today we use the word jeweller for anyone who makes jewellry., but in the 16th applied only to one who dealt in jewels but did not set them, although even they were members of the Goldsmiths..

Despite the name, a goldsmith worked in both gold and silver. All precious metals were officially inspected, graded and marked in Goldsmiths' Hall as they are today.

 This 16th century engraving shows a typical goldsmith's workshop, remarkably similar to Marcus Tandy's. The fellow on the left is turning a draw wheel for making wire 


I've crossed a bit of Dartmoor a few times, the first when I was in the UK for a science fiction convention. (Brighton is fine in ’79!) Most recently just a few years ago, to get the feel of England under my feet again. So much better than having to rely on photos, friends who live there or know it well, and websites like this from the Dartmoor National Park Authority.

Iveston on the Moor

Thank you, Google Maps for the village of Ilsington, Devon, which gave me a map, models, and inspiration for Ben Harper's home. It's not quite as small as Iveston on the Moor, but It’s church really is that old, and it is more or less across the road from the school, which is just like Sparrow's. Even their school uniforms are the same robin's egg blue. 

Iveston also has a very nice pub called The Carpenter’s Arms, that looks remarkably like Day’s Star. The miracle of the schoolroom is actually a local legend, though no fairies have been reported.

Tucked down in the southwest of England, at the southeastern edge of Dartmoor, it recently opened a new village shop after doing without one for several years. The Post Office, however, is at the back of the village hall. There are a couple of good hotels and a lot to do in the area, if you happen to visit.

For more on the history and lore of the region, Ilsington Parish has a useful website.

About the Harps

The history of the harp is long and complex, and I'll let you look it up elsewhere. Here are a few notes to help you appreciate the harps in The Dragon Ring.

The Irish or Traditional harp is not the standing concert harp of weddings and orchestras, and is in fact much older in design. While you can’t exactly throw it over your shoulder and hit the road, it is definitely smaller, and intended much more for the music of the fireside than the concert hall.

Ben’s Moytura matches, in the mechanical details and some others, the instrument played by my friend Darren Raleigh on his album, The Silver Wheel. Her name is Aoife, and she sounds just like this: O'Carolan's Farewell to Music.

The king's little harp

Oberon's Dariole is a type of lap harp, wire-strung and smaller than the Irish (clairseach) or traditional harp such as Moytura. As a result it also has fewer strings and a higher voice. This image from Unicorn Strings shows the range of sizes for comparison.

This is a pretty sample being played by Werner Hebeisen

Chris Caswell’s Harps

The late Chris Caswell was a Facebook friend as well as a delightful acquaintance from the Renaissance Pleasure Faires of old. A while ago--longer than we like to think about--he and Danny Carnahan recorded New Leaves on an Old Tree and Borderlands, which are among Ben's all time favorite albums, and mine too. (Here's the page for both on one CD).

If you think the folk harp is only a solo instrument, get this album. You'll see. Ben Harper is not based on Chris, but I know they’d be friends. Chris, who was kind enough to let me quote a verse of West Country Girl in the book, has both videos and harp lessons on his YouTube page. To learn more about this amazing man, here's his website.

Faeries: Concept Art and Inspiration

Oberon and Titania, Sir Joseph Noel Paton, 1948The Great Fae aren’t much like the dainty 19th century ones or modern, hard-bitten urban ones either. They're more like Shakespeare's, which even they acknowledge. These images are among those in my concept art folder, however, so they've all contributed in their own way.

I love the detail in this Romantic image, and the reminder that the fae come in all sizes. 


Warwick Goble, Elves


There are so many, but one of my favorites is Warwick Goble, who illustrated Il Pentamerone, The Book of Fairy Poetry, Grimm's Fairy Tales  with fairies, goddesses, and mythological creatures. These “little folk” among the meadow grasses are the ones laughing at Ben, and probably at me, too.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a somewhat bohemian circle of artists and writers resisting the Industrial Revolution with myth and poetry. The faerie world drew them as it did many quite serious intellectuals and scholars. This video is a wonderful tribute to that work. 

Modern inspiration 

Much of my conception of the Dartmoor fae  at their most mischievous and unexpected, and at their most mysterious and magisterial.comes straight from the art of Brian Froud and Alan Lee. A lot of the series was written with their book, Faeries, open on the desk. 

For more concept art, please visit my Pinterest Dragon Ring album.

The Concert in the Borderlands

Once upon a time a long time ago at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (North and South) and just a few other locations on this side of Faerie, there really was such an establishment as the coffee house and stage in the Borderlands. It was called The Tea House of the Mullah Nasruddin's Donkey, where the Turkish coffee ran all night, and the chai was made with fresh grated ginger.. 

There was indeed such a stage, presided over not by Odin but by a jovial avatar named Don Brown, on whom be peace. In the 1990s, at "that faire they used to have in Marin," it looked like this.

Mid 1990s Northern Faire, unidentified dancer, musicians: Janno, Don Brown, Darioush, and Paul W

It was as close as most of us will ever get to Faerie

or need to

The Tea House of the Mullah Nasruddin's Donkey,

The Raven Boy                   

Raven is several times compared to Gainsborough's The Blue Boy. Truth to tell, the boy in the picture is rather younger with a softer face than the one our Raven customarily presents.

It's the right coloring, though, and certainly the attitude.. In his favorite mode of dress, however, in his favorite clothes he's really a bit more like the young Lord Darnley, but with better legs.

  Gainsborough's The Blue Boy        Lord Darnley and his little brother Charles