History is full of colourful individuals, stretching back from ancient times right up to the present day. One figure who has fascinated me for years is Maelgwn, fifth century king of Gwynedd in north Wales. He’s already appeared in my novel, The Faerie Handmaiden of Annwyn, and looks set for a part in a new story I’m planning. Characters inspired by Maelgwn have also turned up in some of my other fiction.
So, why does Maelgwn interest me?
Firstly, through my passion for fifth and sixth century north Wales. He’s one of the best known characters from the time and place who doesn’t come from myth and legend. Secondly, he’s a villain, and nasty people are always more interesting for writers than nice people. Maelgwn was berated by the contemporary writer Gildas (who calls Maelgwn ‘Dragon of the Isle’) for various evils: turning away from God, illegal marriage, and assassination are just a few, with Gildas hinting at more sins which he doesn’t describe. Myths and legends are equally unambiguous in their treatment; Maelgwn is portrayed as a tyrant who is often outthought and given his comeuppance by more intelligent or more pious enemies.
As a novelist, characters like Maelgwn are a godsend. He comes over as a strong character and a powerful bully. Gildas and other early sources give colourful detail, such as his death in a local church when he was driven mad by the Yellow Plague, and giving him the epithet ‘Maelgwn Hir’ (‘Maelgwn the Tall’), although I’ve seen this argued as being mistaken for a different Maelgwn. The stories he attracted could fill several novels and I’ve found myself using him, or characters inspired by him, in several stories without having to repeat anything.
All that is great material for an author. Another bonus is that in a period of few written sources there is very little else recorded about Maelgwn, so apart from his (often unspecified) sins and his dates, there isn’t much to go on (other than his notable height, assuming the right Maelgwn!). That gives writers wonderful scope for filling in the blanks according to the story’s needs.
In summary, Maelgwn is a brilliant subject for historical novelists, and I’m sure I’ll continue to use him in my stories set in ancient north Wales.