Shadowbox: Le Roi Sacré

The idea of the Sacred Kingship – Le Roi Sacré in French – forms the basis of the universe I invented for both THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN and SHADOWBOX.

(It’s also the underlying foundation of the Cuckoo Club, which appears in both novels.)

The notion of the Sacred Kingship is spread throughout western culture and rears up in surprising places, at times. You’ll see it in the Grail Story, in the Druids performing their rites at Stonehenge, in Ancient Egyptian mythology.

“The god Osiris, who was also the king, was killed by his brother Seth. The body of Osiris was sealed in a chest and thrown into the Nile River…”

The Sacred King is also being evoked wherever you see a Green Man, whether that’s on the side of a mediaeval cathedral or on a beer label.Hop back

James Frazer collected myths and legends across the world for a mind-blowing compendium that seemed to be the norm for 19th century academics. Within the pages of THE GOLDEN BOUGH you’ll find stories of the sacred king – the green man – from many cultures, some of whom relied only on oral storytelling to pass on their literature.

The sacred king seems to be endemic to temperate climes. You need seasons – in particular, a season of dormancy contrasting with a season of fruitfulness. The sacred king is deeply linked to the provision of food, of crops, of annual harvest.

In brief, the sacred king is the consort of the Mother Earth Goddess, sometimes in the form of the clan matriarch. He reigns for a year until he’s sacrificed in a cycle that foreshadows the Red Wedding.

In other interpretations, the sacred king reigns as consort to the goddess until he is defeated in combat by a challenger to take his place.

This is the version of the sacred king that I adopted in both SHADOWBOX and THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN.

Strong hints within the myth of the sacred king suggest a matriarchy at the heart of the cultures which told the story.

The underpinning principles of patriarchy and feminism can be traced to the characters of eternal goddess and sacrificial king.

Too many advertising campaigns play on the tropes, but the pair of doomed lovers is also, perhaps, linked.

  • Snow White, asleep in her bower, rescued by a prince.
  • Rapunzel, trapped in her tower, rescued by a prince.

At their base, these three stories seem to have deep roots in the story of the eternal goddess and the sacrificial king.

Greek and Irish mythology tells of ordinary mortal men chosen by goddesses to be their champions, a twisting of the tale somewhere along the line to make the male character as important as the female instead of just some dude.

Certainly, within my novels I’ve given the sacred king a more active role, as knight protector of the goddess while also enjoying a near-magical protection in his own right.


Louis Beauregard takes risks no mortal man in his right mind would take unless he held a reckless disregard for human life, his own and that of others – even his friends.

But ask yourself: if someone believes themselves to be protected by divine intervention, how much of their good fortune arises from sheer chutzpah?

The darker side of self-belief, then, when we have a “God-given” right to do as we please, and to Hel with the consequences.

We tend to romanticise the past – and more pastoral times – without remembering that our ancestors had no problem with bear baiting, bull baiting, and other forms of animal torture (including people baiting).

In the western world we look aghast and horrified at such cruelty when other cultures take entertainment from those acts.

Lord Summerisle – a sacred king?

The Sacred King was one of these cruel entertainments.

How much of James Frazer’s evidence was based on field observations and to what extent he relied on the records of other early anthropologists can be found in his extensive bibliography. A singular work as the Golden Bough is, there are now many experts on folklore and myth.

Others seek not to discover the earliest roots of our stories but to link themes across cultures, to understand what it means to be human in terms of the stories we tell all the way back to the beasts in the forest and the strangers who come to the village in winter.

(The Journal of Mythic Arts is a great place to start.)

The sacred king is one such story, shared across cultures and linked to many, many more, influencing us even today through advertising, superstition and faith.

Adding my own interpretation to the canon, in the world of the Cuckoo Club novels, didn’t seem too presumptuous.

Next in the SHADOWBOX series: Mad, bad and dangerous to know.

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Shadowbox: Germinal 2

In Germinal 1 I described how the story of SHADOWBOX developed from its earliest beginnings to the point where I knew what I wanted to write – what story I wanted to tell. But still I held off, unwilling to start writing until I had a framework – a storyboard – a script for the action.

In THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, in keeping with the novel’s theme of a Sacred Kingship attuned to the tidal waters of the Thames, I deliberately set the action against the schedule of a complete tide cycle, 24 hours from high tide to high tide. The constriction set the pace for a novel that dealt with action, adventure, peril.

SHADOWBOX is different.

Night: Seaport by Moonlight (1771) by VERNET, Claude-Joseph Oil on canvas, 98 x 164 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

Night: Seaport by Moonlight (1771) by VERNET, Claude-Joseph. Oil on canvas, 98 x 164 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

The overwhelming emotional drive of SHADOWBOX is the grief cycle, the adaptation to change and how different people deal with that in different ways. Grief takes time to manifest itself. I couldn’t cram the action of SHADOWBOX into a single day, nor even a weekend.

I needed more time.

Tied to this was the simple fact that Louis Beauregard travels from England to France. In 1832, this wasn’t as easy as hopping on the Eurostar. Dickens describes the journey in near(er) contemporary terms in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and on that basis I knew that, again, I needed more time.

Then I remembered the elemental nature of the world I’d created.

The Sacred King – Le Roi Sacré – is attuned to the tides that affect the River Thames in London. The events of THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN take place over one tidal cycle, at the Spring Equinox. The one overarching, controlling factor in all this was clear:

The Moon.

Instantly, I grasped that a full month was the timescale I needed. My characters would have time to experience all the stages of the grief cycle in the 28 days, even if the timescale was too short for their grief to run its course.

From Full Moon – when madness stalks the earth – through the utter blackness of New Moon, when the night sky is darkest. A time of spiritual descent into shadow. Of light diminishing, of darkness, of utter annihilation.

But New Moon is also a time of renewal. A time when ideas, like seeds, sprout and grow, culminating in fruition at another Full Moon.

A month – a lunar cycle – gives my characters the opportunity to live for a little while with the consequences of the novel’s founding action.

A month is long enough for Louis to travel to Paris and for Godfrey to develop a life beyond his youthful parameters.

A month is long enough for grief to work on them both.

And thus, with this structure in place, I began to storyboard the novel which became SHADOWBOX.

Next: The fourth post in the SHADOWBOX series: The Maps I Used In 1832.

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Shadowbox: Germinal 1

I had the idea for SHADOWBOX in 2010, after I’d finished the second or third draft of THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. The character of Louis Beauregard fascinated me – here was an elderly man, still vigorous, in an unusual situation. Questions began to from in my mind.

Who was he?

Where did he come from?

How had he become the head of the shadowy organisation known as the Cuckoo Club?

As I’d written THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, some of those questions were answered – briefly, the way you’d refer to Ian McKellen’s Richard III to put his Gandalf into context, or Christopher Lee’s Saruman in the shadow of Dracula, and Scaramanga, and Lord Summerisle.

Ian McKellen. Richard III.

I knew Louis was sprightly. I knew he’d had a long eventful life. When I wrote ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE RIVER I shaped him up to face his future, to make him become the man of THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. And there I saw a glimpse of the man he’d been before.

So SHADOWBOX became a story of the young Louis Beauregard, when his position as the Sacred King was a fixed part of him, but he’d yet to fully adapt to the challenges of his destiny. He had to have a life, and I already knew he was privileged. So I asked more questions of myself:

– what was he like, this young rogue?

– what makes a character roguish?

– how would this express itself in its period? How does one become a rogue of the 1830s? When all around is excess?

In order to find out, I had to investigate the times. My notions of the 1830s were way out. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Pride & Prejudice bonnet-land, nor the preRaphaelites, nor Restoration. Deciding the time period was just one element of the story.

And then there was the conflict within the story. Conflict forces the action. It’s the trigger event that makes things happen, that gives us a story to follow in the first place, that keeps us turning the pages until The End.

This is where Godfrey Woolverham comes in. He started out as Pawel Czerczy, a goldsmith, a man who was wronged by Louis Beauregard. The conflict at the heart of SHADOWBOX was always there in my early plans. But it took a while to work that conflict into a shape I could write a novel around.

The key to this was the Amber Room of Peter The Great.

In THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, Sylvester de Winter roams London in an amber-lined coach. Something about the material properties of Baltic amber had a pivotal impact on the world I had created, and this conflict and impact could be used as a plot device.

And thus the amber carvers arrived in SHADOWBOX, to give the story a point of intrigue, a hook, or maybe a MacGuffin. The real story began to spin off, away from a simple tale of supernatural mystery and into a deeper analysis of the conflict both main characters suffered as a result of the novel’s founding event.

Godfrey and Louis were set on a collision course of death and murder, and nobody could stop them.

Next: The third post in the SHADOWBOX series: Germinal 2, deciding the timescale of the novel and other matters.

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