Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by R. N. Morris, Author of Fortune's Hand: The Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh

11 October 2020

Special Guest Post by R. N. Morris, Author of Fortune's Hand: The Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Drawn by ambition to Elizabeth’s court, Walter Raleigh soon becomes the queen’s favourite. But his meteoric rise 
attracts the enmity of powerful rivals.

Imagining the past, conjuring the future

Fortune’s Hand is a historical novel narrated by Walter Raleigh. It imagines him at the moment of his execution, lying with his head on the chopping block. The whole of his life flashes before him, just as the executioner’s axe comes down. 

The narrative follows the chronological timeline, sticking broadly to the historical record, although there are one or two incidents in there – such as Raleigh being transformed into Halley’s Comet and flying towards the sun – for which there is, to my knowledge, no documentary evidence. 

One of the biggest challenges I faced was deciding what to put in and what to leave out. Raleigh lived a full and fascinating life. Obviously, I couldn’t include it all, though that didn’t stop me trying. The first draft of the novel came out at over 200,000 words. In the final edit, I got it down to pretty much half that. 

He was involved in complicated court politics, convoluted plots and confusing intrigues, any one episode of which might have made a novel in its own right. He married, fathered children, including an illegitimate daughter in Ireland. Very little is known about her apart from the fact that he remembered her in his will. A whole relationship can be imagined from that detail. 

He was a courtier, a soldier, a shipowner, a founder of colonies, an occasional and indifferent sailor (he suffered badly from seasickness), an unapologetic plunderer of Spanish treasure, a ruthless suppressor of rebellion, and, oh yes, a poet. All that from relatively modest beginnings: Raleigh came from gentry stock, unlike his noble rivals. So he was something of an outsider too. 

Perhaps the most dominating, and tumultuous, relationship of his life was with Elizabeth I.  But his life was populated by a host of supporting characters too. Some were relatively minor. Others, more significant. People who were important at one period of his life, dropped out of it altogether later. Or they appeared on the scene relatively late in his life, to play an unexpectedly significant role. 

In other words, Raleigh’s life, like all lives, was messy and chaotic.  

By the twin arts of emphasis and editing, historians and biographers succeed in creating an impression of coherence. I’m not a historian or a biographer. I’m a novelist. My job is to tell a story. The best stories tend to have a defined narrative arc, a beginning, middle and end, a limited number of characters and no extraneous detail. Stories also have meaning, something that the author wanted to say. It’s not enough, in my view, to simply write a fictionalised biography, fleshing out the known facts with evocative descriptions and imaginary dialogue. 

For me to write a novel about him, Walter Raleigh had to cease to be a historical personage and become a fictional character. I had to somehow break free of the straitjacket of history, but at the same time I couldn’t play fast and loose with the known facts. I was not writing Walter Raleigh: Vampire Hunter. 

I had to sort through the mass of detail and incident to find the story that I wanted to tell.  

So what is that story and why did I want to tell it? 

To answer those questions, I have to go back to the moment when I first decided to write this novel. I was visiting an exhibition at the British Museum about the mythical city El Dorado and the quest for gold. What struck me was the way that human beings can be taken over by an idea and driven to do extraordinary things under its influence. They can put themselves at great risk, for instance crossing an ocean in a flimsy wooden boat, or gambling fortunes on a far from certain outcome. 

What’s more, the idea that drives them can have no basis in reality. It can be a myth fuelled by rumour.  

The world today is in many ways very different to Elizabethan England. But we still see this same willingness to be seduced by a compelling idea, the same tendency to believe what we want to believe.  

Raleigh’s relationship to the myth of El Dorado is interesting because he seems to have been both in its thrall and a cynical exploiter of its power in his own self-interest. (Perhaps he has more in common with some modern politicians than we might at first suspect.) He used the myth to entice backers for his highly speculative ventures, including the final, ill-fated expedition he undertook during James I reign.  

He promised to find El Dorado and bring back its riches. But there is some evidence that he didn’t literally have in mind an actual city. He seems to have been happy to interpret El Dorado rather more loosely. If it turned out that he got his gold from raiding a Spanish fort or capturing a galleon, then that would serve just as well, even if James had expressly forbidden him from attacking Spanish interests. El Dorado was a flexible as well as a powerful idea. 

Raleigh was at one point in his life accused of atheism, which was a far more serious matter then than it is now. His intellect, as well as his imagination, roamed fearlessly. And so I have no doubt he was capable of contemplating the possibility of a godless universe, and of discussing the matter with the philosophers and freethinkers of his School of the Night. Perhaps he looked upon the myth of El Dorado in a similar light. 

It is often said that the Elizabethan age was a time of contradictions: of brutality and poetry, bear pits and theatres. Raleigh embodied those contradictions like no one else. It would not have seemed strange to him to hold two seemingly contradictory positions on El Dorado, to believe in it as a literal reality, but also to exploit it as a persuasive myth, wanting it to be true, but making other plans in case it wasn’t. 

Raleigh was a visionary, a dreamer with the charisma to make other men act on his dreams. His dreams were not necessarily ones we would approve of today: a manifesto of aggressive colonial conquest would garner few likes on twitter.  

What I saw in the myth of El Dorado - and its hold over Raleigh, and the subsequent hold it gave him over others - was the power of the imagination. One of Raleigh’s associates was Dr John Dee, mathematician, alchemist and astrologer. It can be argued that Dee was instrumental in creating the foundation myth of the British Empire, giving Raleigh legitimacy for his colonial ventures. Dee was also a conjuror of angels and demons. 

For men like Dee, imagination and magic were interlinked. In his ability to envisage the future, and then will it into being, I think the same was true for Raleigh.  

R.N. Morris

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About the Author

Roger (R. N.) Morris is the author of thirteen novels. The latest is Fortune’s Hand, a historical novel about Walter Raleigh.  He is also the author of the Silas Quinn series of historical crime novels and the St Petersburg Mysteries, featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment. Find out more at Roger's website and find him on Facebook and Twitter at @rnmorris

(Photo credit Calum Furminger.)

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