What Lies Behind It All?

Some of the queries that have come up in the FAQ section deserve rather longer answers than they’ve received there. One of the most-often asked is: what was the inspiration behind The North Beyond; and since this is a fairly fundamental question, it seemed appropriate to make it one of the first topics in the author’s blog.

I can’t say why, because I don’t know why, but even as a child I was fascinated by things northern. Apart from a brief flirtation with jungles (an addiction to Kipling’s First Jungle Book and R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island) all my childhood reading was centred on Norsemen, sagas, Romans in Britain, Anglo-Saxons, Arctic exploration, legends of the north, you name it. I couldn’t get enough. I loved midsummer mainly because the sun set so late and was followed by a twilight that lasted even longer. Northern light, northern night, the Northern Lights… I could almost taste the words on my tongue.

This fixation with ‘northernness’ is by no means unique and probably its most famous exemplar is C. S. Lewis. I should confess here that I’ve not read any of Lewis’s fiction. I have, though, read, and can heartily recommend, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis by George Sayer; C. S. Lewis: The Authentic Voice by William Griffin; and The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter (in which for good measure you also get biography and analysis of J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their other friends who formed the informal group known as the Inklings).

It may seem strange that a fantasy novel should take its first stirrings from something so mundane as a motorway, but that’s the way it was. And it was many years ago, because The North Beyond has had a very long gestation period. If you travel north along the A1(M) in England (this is the road that has traditionally been known as ‘The Great North Road’ – now there’s a name to conjure with!) you will see large blue roadside signs that tell you how many miles before the next town or city. But eventually the signs will begin to say also ‘The North’. No miles indicated: simply ‘The North’.

The very first time I saw one of these signs, my attention was immediately engaged. ‘The North’. It sounded so grand, so enigmatic, so eminently desirable; the more so in that no indication ever followed as to whether one had reached this mysterious destination. One kept on travelling, but nowhere was there a sign saying ‘Welcome to the North’; in fact if one drove far enough, the sign indicated that one had passed the border into Scotland. Did this mean that ‘The North’ was somewhere in England?

I wanted ‘The North’, wanted it badly. Time went by and I was able to explore the north of England pretty thoroughly. I loved it dearly but couldn’t hide from myself that somehow it wasn’t quite the north I was looking for. The chance came for a holiday in Finland. Two weeks spent in primeval forest, beside crystal-clear lakes, with no light-pollution and hardly a sign of human activity, were sheer bliss. But even this, wonderful though it was, wasn’t the north I wanted. Eventually a long-held ambition was realised with two visits to Iceland. This was tremendous: the language, the landscape, the light, the seas, the skies, the wildness, the wide horizons, the northernness… but… even this wasn’t the north I was looking for.

The conclusion was inescapable. I had searched and sought, but in vain. My north was a north of heart’s desire, loved and longed-for, but always out of reach.

And so a story began to arise in my mind to fit the name. The North Beyond.