Chariot of the Soul - finding ways through transition
To join or not to join the continent of 'Europe' in the form of the Roman Empire resonates with Britain's current question of whether to leave or remain in the European Union. The theme in its own particular way runs through this accomplished new novel by Linda Proud, 'Chariot of the Soul'.
Togidubnus is the son of a British king and his Druid wife. It is a doleful marriage, born of the king's abduction and rape. He grows up in the light of his mother and in the shadow of his father before he is sent into exile to Rome, aged ten, as a hostage for Verica's, his father's, loyalty in pre-invasion Britain. He grows up in the home of Antonia, sister to Augustus, watchful of the unfolding family tragi-comedy that is the birth of the Empire and as a friend to Claudius who, exaggerating his infirmities, survives to become Emperor and the conqueror of Britain. Togidubnus is, also, friend and student of Seneca, Roman senator, and Stoic philosopher and one of the themes of the book is his attempt to make a Stoic of himself and how this tradition of 'Logos', of reasoned self-observation, survives his transition back into an unsettled country, full of stresses; and, his rediscovery of his intuitive, feeling self at home on the boundary of that Other-world, that yet is enfolded in this one, legacy of his mother and preserve of the Druid.
Togidubnus' apparent task, on returning to Britain and commissioned as such by Claudius, is to persuade the British kings of both the value of being incorporated into the Empire thus resolving the unsettlement of their feuding and bringing order and prosperity. Equally, to remind them that resistance is futile and brutally damaging. This messaging receives mixed and complex reactions ranging from the embracing or simply acquiescent through to that of hostile resistance.
Emergent, however, through the trials and tribulations, failures and discoveries, of this mission is the dawning realization that Togidubnus' mission is yet something other. It is not the simple exchange of one order for another but how to enable a 'third' to emerge. How does a society, a culture emerge that preserves and merges the fruits of both and can surrender some of the shadows of both? What might it look like and how would it emerge? How to marry the global fruits of a unifying empire with the particular gifts of place especially when that place is seen through the lens of being sacred and hallowed? How do we do that individually, within our own selves - how make the universals we recognize at home in our complex, multiple selves, make them particular and alive? Likewise, how do we do that as a community that does not surrender its identity into a uniformity whilst seeking a deeper, wider embrace within a common humanity anchored in shared rules and a way of life? As with Plato's metaphor of the chariot, it is not choosing one or other horse that navigates you safely but learning to become the rider, balancing all.
It powerfully captures a moment of great transition and evokes the choices that such a transition force upon us to be taken whether with awareness and consciousness or to be simply fallen into. As is oft repeated, fate comes upon us better if we go out to embrace it.
These themes are subtly woven into a beautifully imagined story, deftly told, full of vivd character, scene, plot and place that captures one's attention from the outset and does not let go until the end that, satisfyingly for this reader, offers the prospect of more to come in the planned second volume.
On the way, it makes excellent use of what we know both of Rome and, more challengingly, pre-invasion Britain. It is both a realistic story and one that weaves into it the potential magic of the Druid in credible ways.
It is historical fiction of a very high order taking you back enthralled to its particular place, authentically pictured, whilst holding up a mirror to ourselves.