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Review of “Run to the Western Shore” by Tim Pears – a Journey Through Celtic Lands


Why do people enjoy reading historical fiction? Is it because we are drawn to the simple yet violent nature of our past? If that’s the case, the first chapter of Tim Pears’s novel has everything you could want – an impressive and thrilling scene depicting a clash between a Roman legion and a group of warriors in what is now South Wales. The leader of the tribe gives his daughter Olwen to the Roman governor as a hostage bride before riding off with his warriors. If this were to be made into a film, it would be directed by Ridley Scott. However, that same night, Olwen runs away with the governor’s translator, a slave named Quintus from Ephesus. Pears shifts the focus away from the legions and horses and solely onto these two characters and their journey to reach the coast. This sudden change in tone creates a more intimate and intense story. If this were to be made into a film, it would be directed by Richard Linklater.


Upon encountering a Roman patrol, the couple is informed by the leader that any evidence of Olwen, her family, and her world will be completely eradicated. The governor will not mention them in his account. This provides yet another reason for the existence of historical fiction – to include those who have been excluded by the victors in their retelling. Despite their marginalization, Quintus, a slave, and Olwen, a young woman from a doomed group, become symbols of the culture that shaped them under Pears’s skillful writing.

At times, our focus becomes so narrow on these two individuals that we forget about their ultimate goal. However, this isn’t necessarily a negative thing. If you’ve had the chance to read Pears’ captivating West Country trilogy, you’ll understand his talent for bringing forgotten landscapes back to life. What’s more important is that the threat they face is not solely from their pursuers, but rather from the challenge of whether two people from vastly different backgrounds can effectively work together. Quintus possesses a natural ability for picking up languages, but lacks any strong allegiance to a specific place. On one occasion, he saves them by utilizing his negotiation skills. In contrast, Olwen sees compromise as a form of shame. She is brave, unpredictable, and easily provoked – both an asset and a hindrance.

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Pears has an unusual gift for creating characters you want to spend time with, even though they are not entirely likable (see Leo in The Horseman, for one). Through Olwen, he gives us a convincing portrait of Celtic culture without sentimentalising it. Our encounters with it are sometimes beautiful and charming, sometimes terrifying. The pair witness a human sacrifice – because Caesar was right, druids did go in for it. Quintus’s dark skin means he’s taken for a possible messiah figure.

Next, we have Olwen’s narratives. Quintus shares anecdotes about his family background; Olwen tells tales that trace her lineage back to a seemingly impossible and legendary past, stories that have ties to the world of Taliesin and the Mabinogion (Pears acknowledges Charlotte Guest’s 19th-century translation in the footnotes). This confused me a bit. I have always thought of Taliesin as a product of medieval courtly culture, much like Arthur, reinvented by 18th-century historians. However, there has always been the assertion that, like Arthur, there is a kernel of truth in that legend; and perhaps, that is the point being made here. Power fades away, but what endures of us are our narratives – not because they are remembered, but because they are constantly reimagined.

Source: theguardian.com