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Photo: © Andrea Tajti
Dan Jones is an award-winning historian of the Middle Ages and the New York Times bestselling author of The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses. A charismatic television presenter, he has narrated Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty, a four-part series based onThe Plantagenets, as well as another series about castles in England and France. He is a columnist at the Evening Standard and has contributed to Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Smithsonian, and many other outlets.
Forget whatever stodgy, hide-bound stereotype that might come to mind when you encounter the word “historian”: Medieval historian and author Dan Jones isn’t anything like that.
He’s the kind of guy that you wish you could have been one of your teachers: His passion for history is contagious. It’s not enough for Jones that you learn the facts; he wants you to enjoy learning them. He writes for general readers, and doesn’t get offended or confused if you relate the subjects of his books to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones because he’s a fan, too. Jones, who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and watching Star Wars, is only too happy to discuss the entwined roots of pop culture and history.
The author’s books The Summer of Blood: The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, and the just-published The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors are vivid and engaging. These aren’t your grandpa’s history books: This is history on fire, and these books throw sparks that, if readers aren’t careful, may ignite a love for history within them that won’t be easily extinguished.
Jones, who I’m still not convinced isn’t a time-traveling journalist with a sword-proof vest, recently chatted with me about The Wars of the Roses, and why Tyrion Lannister got off lucky at the Battle of Blackwater.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: I loathe the “elevator pitch” question, so let’s try this: Imagine you’ve been asked to give a presentation on your book to a class of squirmy, hormonal, teenage clock-watchers in a late afternoon high school history class. You’ve got maybe 30 seconds to grab their attention. How would you pitch the book to them?
Dan Jones: Okay, kids. Do you like Game of Thrones? Do you want to know where that stuff really came from? Well, here you go. We’re going straight to source: the most astonishing period of war and turbulence in British history, all told in a vivid, readable, accessible way, underpinned by absolutely thorough and rigorous scholarly research. There are no dragons. I’m sorry about that. But everything else? Read on.
PRH: Yes! As I was reading this book I found myself thinking of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones: The intrigue, eccentric and scheming characters, and brutal warfare all struck a cord with me. I don’t know how you’re familiar with the HBO series or the books it’s based on, but if you are, do you see any similarities between the two?
DJ: I love Game of Thrones, and yes – as I just told the squirmy high-schoolers – there are interesting and deliberate parallels between that story and the real history of the Wars of the Roses. York/Lancaster=Stark/Lannister. Etc. But what it is important to say about GoT is that it is really just inspired by the the Wars of the Roses, and if you start seeking real historical episodes transposed directly into the plot of the books or television series, you will go insane.
Game of Thrones is historical mash-up, taking place in an alternative middle ages, but magpie-ing the best bits from thousands of years of human history, stirring everything together in a big pot, seasoning it with a lot of fantasy and ending up with something distinctly and uniquely its own, spewed from the fevered imagination of the genius that is George RR Martin. That’s why it rocks.
PRH: It seems to me that we’re seeing a renewed interest in pseudo-medieval entertainment. In scarcely more than two decades, things like Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, and Dungeons & Dragons have gone from being (wrongfully) considered the province of children and socially inept, possibly dangerous adults to the building blocks of popular culture.
For example, the release of the latest edition of D&D was covered in Forbes and The New York Times, George R.R. Martin is a regular guest on late-night talk shows, and the word “hobbit” has entered the popular lexicon.
Does this kind of thing have any spill-over in the history world? Will this get people curious enough to want to learn about kings and queens, warriors, and (human) monsters and heroes?
DJ: Historical fiction is the gateway drug to history. I find that people tend to migrate from the made-up stories – stuff like Game of Thrones or The White Queen or Bernard Cornwell’s novels or whatever – on to the hard stuff of real history. I love that, and I can never comprehend why some historians (although not all) are sniffy about historical fiction. Sure, some people have a hard time distinguishing between what they have read in novels and what actually happened, but that’s okay. We can live with that, if it means that there people are being inspired to read history books and watch history TV shows.
And in fact, because this topic really kind of grinds my gears, I’ll go one stage further: I’d say that the relationship between historical fiction and history puts the onus on the historian to write prose that will engage and excite people coming to history out of novels. That’s one of my main ambitions as a writer: to publish books that are as thrilling to read as any work of fiction – but are also totally historically accurate and underpinned by the best and latest research. Partly that’s I want people to read my books and feel the same excitement I feel about the past. Partly it’s because I would be doing an immense disservice to the fabric of the real human past if I made the stories I tell sucky and boring.
PRH: This was a very readable, exciting account of what was a complex series of events: I could practically hear the snap of bow strings and smell of gunsmoke during battle. How did you build your narrative skills? Do you read much fiction, yourself? Who are or were your influences, if so?
DJ: I read history, fiction and long-form journalism in about equal measure. My favourite historical novelist – and we don’t often think of him in this sense, but this is how I see him – is James Ellroy. American Tabloid is the greatest work of historical fiction I’ve ever read: a sick nightmare of history, conspiracy theory and period argot that grabs you by the nuts and doesn’t stop squeezing from the first page to the last. If one day I could write a book like that set in the middle ages, I’d die happy.
As for my own work: stylistically, I owe a lot to my years spent writing journalism. It gives you a beat, a rhythm and feel for storytelling that translates quite usefully to historical writing. (What is history, after all, if not journalism with its eye trained on the distant past?) Structurally, I owe a lot to theories and models of screenwriting. I believe firmly that the modern reader’s response-instinct to good storytelling has been shaped by the tropes and narrative shapes of the screen, and if you want to make them hot under the collar, then you do well to ape or adopt those shapes and tropes when you write for the page. (One of my favourite books of last year was John Yorke’s Into The Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them, a seriously smart distillation of story theory that is as useful to me as a historian as I imagine it is to all the budding screenwriters who have it on their desks.)
PRH: As an author, can it be hard for you to find a sweet spot between doing your duty to the topic as a historian without boring or overwhelming casual readers? How do you choose what to leave out and what to keep?
DJ: You have to be clear in your mind about the story you are telling. Where am I going with this? What is the story, and what is the argument, and how do I advance those two things simultaneously? I can’t say there’s a hard and fast rule – or at least, not one that I am clever enough to articulate succinctly. At the moment I guess I’d put it down to gut instinct. You just gotta feel for it.
PRH: I don’t want to put you into any boxes as an author, but would you describe this as a work of narrative or popular history? Sometimes I think that there’s a little bit of a tendency in academia to look down on works written for laymen, but I may be wrong.
DJ: Box away. I write popular narrative history. I’m proud. Those aren’t dirty words. History – if we look back into its origins as far back as Herodotus – comes from a tradition of great storytelling underpinned by scholarly research and serious intellectual argument. Why deviate?
But I agree with you, there is still a bit of a snobbery towards ‘popular’ historians remaining in a few stubborn corners of academia. As though anything that is accessible must be unworthy. But that attitude is not as prevalent as you would think, because most academics are smart people, able to comprehend that popular writers bring historical topics to an audience that would otherwise, to be frank, not give a shit.
The smart academic knows that among that audience, stirred up by the populist writer, there will be kids who get the history bug so bad that they come and study history at universities. And that this is a good thing for academics.
PRH: One of the things that used to intimidate me about reading history was that I felt like I couldn’t possibly learn about one event without knowing about the events prior to it, and suddenly I’m stuck reading about stone-age pottery fragments with thousands of years to work through until I got to what I actually wanted to learn about, like the Vikings or Crusades.
I don’t know if this kind of panic is common, but in case it is, do I have to be a serious history student to enjoy The Wars of the Roses? Also, I know that this book is a follow-up to The Plantagenets, but will I have to have read that to enjoy The Wars of the Roses?
DJ: No and no. If you are between the ages of nine and one hundred and nine, you will be able to read and enjoy The Wars of the Roses.
If you have studied history you will like this book. If you have never studied history, you may surprise yourself when you read this book. If you are wholly ignorant about medieval topics, you will learn about them from reading The Wars of the Roses. And even if you know all about the wars of the roses, you will still appreciate my particular take and arguments about the the Wars of the Roses. At least, that’s the intention. I hope that’s how people feel when they read the book.
Secondly: you don’t need to read The Plantagenets first. The books are a pair of complementary works but can be read either in sequence or separately. Up to you.
PRH: When I was reading about Henry VI, I wondered if he might have been mentally ill or living with an autism spectrum disorder. Of course, it’s impossible to know without having met him.
If you could possibly sit down and chat with any of the historical personages depicted in the book, which among them would you choose?
DJ: Margaret Beaufort. The great survivor of the book and one of the most extraordinary women of her age.
She gave birth to Henry Tudor when she was 13 years old and somehow lived to see him crowned king of England. A truly amazing woman. I’d sit down with her, please.
PRH: Was a medieval battlefield total chaos and horror? This is how I’ve imagined one:
A smoke-choked, muddy, wild melee of clanging swords, spears, and axes (and maybe a hoe or shovel or two), the baying of ferocious war dogs, and the cries of the dying trampled underfoot by warhorses and battle-blind men too scared to even notice as yet another indiscriminate volley of arrows fall from the sky.
Am I wrong?
Also, were armored knights still considered important on the battlefield? I recently heard that knights did battle in the Middle Ages by more or less slaughtering the enemy’s peasants and setting fire to their villages. Is that true? Was there a professional soldier class, or did nobles just levee their armies from among peasants?
DJ: I guess I’d say that a medieval battlefield was a profoundly confusing place, in which it was very hard to see or know what the hell was going on a lot of the time. Accounts of battles in this period are almost always partial or muddled, and one rule of thumb I’d like you to pass on to your readers is to say that if you are ever reading a history book and see a map of a medieval battle with those tidy oblong boxes representing troop positions, and neat little arrows representing troop movements, your bullshit radar should start going ping-ping-ping. We’re not talking about simple melees, but we are talking about an uncertain and chaotic form of conflict. There was a good reason why, for much of the middle ages, men tried to avoid pitched battles wherever they could (siege warfare being preferable). Battles were frightfully uncertain things in which severe losses could be sustained and great violence was certain.
Look at Towton, 1461: 28,000 men killed in a morning, and the crown seized by a new king. You leaf through the archaeological reports from that battle and it’s grotesque. There’s one skull, belonging to a skeleton we call Towton 25, which has a wound (from an axe-blow or similar) reaching diagonally from forehead to chin that would be deep enough to stick your hand in. I always laugh when I am watching Game of Thrones and I see Tyrion Lannister’s little facial scar, which I believe he earned at the battle of Blackwater. Now Tyrion’s sulking because he can’t get so many girls. Ha! Tell that to poor old Towton 25, with his head split open like a burst watermelon. Hideous.
As for a few of your other questions: your imagination seems pretty reasonable and accurate. Read the bits of my book on Towton, or Barnet, or Bosworth and that’s what you’ll see. Regarding knights: some fought dismounted, on foot, but cavalry was still used, particularly to rout an army in retreat.
Random burning and terrorising was a feature of the Hundred Years War in particular – the English technique known as the chevauchee was basically a rampage through the countryside – but many people realised that it was quite ineffective in the long term. Certainly it did not endear a local population to a would-be conqueror. People tend to prefer to be ruled by those who protect them, rather than those who slaughter them.
Professional soldiers: well, this is a militaristic society, so the basic standard of military expertise among the male population would be higher than today. But we also have professional, hired soldiers – mercenaries. The Welsh were known to be especially fierce.
PRH: Last question, I swear! What’s the latest word on The Plantagenets television series?
DJ: I have hosted a four-part documentary series for Channel 5 in the UK, which is based on The Plantagenets. It’s called Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets, and it premieres in the UK in November. I hope it’ll be in the US in 2015.
I’m currently looking at drama adaptations for both books, which I think has to be the logical next step. The stories are so cool. The subject is so hot at the moment. I would love to see Tom Hardy playing Henry II, or Eva Green as Margaret of Anjou. Or whatever. How cool would that be?
PRH: As long as Hardy doesn’t wear the Bane mask, I think it would be very cool, Dan! Thanks for your time, and I hope that our fantasy readers check out The Wars of the Roses.
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