Wednesday, February 03, 2010

John James - Votan

Delighted to see that Neil Gaiman is set to re-publish Welsh writer John James’s all but forgotten first novel, Votan (1966). Described by Gaiman as, “probably the best book ever done about the Norse,” it is the story of, Photinus, a Greek trader who is mistaken for a Norse god. It kind of anticipates The Life of Brian in its theme of mistaken identity and in its irreverent humour (though Photinus is far more knowing than the naïve Brian). James’s skill at inhabiting and subverting a mythological framework is what really sets this book apart from other Dark Age fictions.

James penned a sequel to VotanNot For All The Gold in Ireland (1968) – which employed the same technique but used the Mabinogion and Celtic mythology for its inspiration. Another much darker book followed, Men Went to Cattraeth (1969), which is based upon Y Gododdin, a Medieval Welsh poem attributed to Aneirin. This is, I suppose, his most ‘Welsh’ book. James went on to write other historical works (Seventeen of Leyden (1970), Lords of Loone (1972)), though they never gained as much attention as his first three novels.

He articulated his preference for writing historical fiction thus: “If you write about the present it is very much more difficult to make things sound convincing. But writing about the past means that you are writing about a situation in which you know at least as much as anyone else.”

Born David John James he was originally from Aberavon. He studied philosophy at St David’s College, Lampeter, before completing an MA in psychology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He became a psychologist for the Ministry of Defence, lecturing on the selection and training of air crews for the RAF at Brampton. He lived with his wife (a teacher), two kids, and a Siamese cat in St Ives, Cambridgeshire.

*Re-published in the Neil Gaiman Presents series, Votan will include a new introduction by Gaiman outlining his reasons for resurrecting this forgotten gem. Including the influence it had on his own novel, American Gods.