And now, just in time for Halloween, I have a guest post to share about balancing legends, history, and imagination in historical fiction. Welcome to Joan Schweighardt, whose novel The Last Wife of Attila the Hun appeared this month. I will interview her for New Books in Historical Fiction early in the new year. Meanwhile, you can find her links and contact information at the end of the post.
Dealing With The Dragon…
and other challenges of combining legend and history in fiction by Joan Schweighardt
Whenever I consider a legend about ancient times, I have to wonder if there is any truth to it. No one believed that Homer’s Iliad referred to any real historical events until an archeologist by the name of Heinrich Schliemann excavated a site he believed to have been the location of the so-called “fictional” Troy, in what is now Turkey. Not only were scholars forced to concede that Schliemann had in fact discovered the real Troy, but various objects found at the site seemed to confirm that many elements of Homer’s story were based on true events.
When I saw that some of the Germanic myths and legends that found their way into an Icelandic collection called the Poetic Edda made ambiguous but earnest attempts to bring the historical Attila the Hun into their narratives, I began to believe that there might be some tie-in between the legends and history. And when I began to research and found places where the historical and legendary materials seemed to intersect, I was inspired to start writing a novel based on my findings, the result of which is The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. Like Heinrich Schliemann, the more I excavated, the more I began to believe the legends were true—or at least based on some true events. I know there are many wonderful writers out there who don’t need that spark of truth in their legends or myths in order to mix them confidently with history, but I am not one of them.
Salmon Rushdie is. He has made his reputation in part on his talent for combining mythical/legendary and historical materials that are seemingly unrelated. Yet journalists never seem to tire of treating this propensity like something potentially risky. A month or so ago, when his new novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights came out, I noticed that several interviewers asked him the same question, which was, basically: Isn’t it counterintuitive to ask history and myth/legend to lie down together in the same bed?
The question made me think of my son, when he was a little boy. He used to love to play with GI Joe action figures back then. He had a huge collection of the vintage soldiers, each of which stood less than four inches high. When the twelve-inch figures came on the market, I thought he would like them too, so I bought him one. He was rather appalled. He tried to explain to me that the twelve-inch guys and the four-inch guys were like people from different planets. They were inharmonious, out of synch; they could not co-exist—let alone play together—in the same world.
The legends I drew from for The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, the Germanic legends that had found their way to Iceland, existed there as part of an oral tradition for centuries before someone bothered to record them. By that time the Germanic legends and myths had become so mixed up with Icelandic myths that it would be no more possible to pull out the pure strands of Germanic legend than it is to separate flakes of snow once they’ve fallen and settled together—if I’d only had the Poetic Edda to refer to. Luckily, the Germanic legends that traveled to Iceland had also remained in Germanic regions of Europe, and were recorded there too, again centuries after the period in time they describe. Most famous is an anonymously written epic poem called the Nibelungenlied. The fact that the legends in both the Poetic Edda and the Nibelungenlied attempt to pull historical figures (Attila as well as others) into their narratives gave me the courage I needed to mix history and legend (and yes, some myth too) together into one big pot.
My protagonist Gudrun (or Guðrún or Kriemhild) comes from the legendary materials, and of course Attila hails from the historical. The main point of intersect between the legendary and the historical materials is that the legends lead us to believe that Gudrun marries and kills Attila, while Roman historians writing at the time of Attila say that Attila did in fact marry a Germanic woman just before his death, and she may have killed him. That is the only obvious tie between them, but that was good enough for me. I was ready to start building bridges back and forth between the legendary and historical materials on my own after that. By the time I was done, I felt rather like Schliemann must have when his shovel first struck Troy.
My other challenge in combining legendary and historical materials was dealing with the dragon. According to the legends, Sigurd, Gudrun’s true love, goes up into the mountains with a dwarf named Regan who walked the earth when the gods did, to slay a dragon who is actually Regan’s brother (post shape shift), to avenge the death of Regan’s father (whom the dragon brother killed) and retrieve the gold that the dwarf-dragon stole. Among the pieces in the hoard is a cursed sword. Because of these and other magical elements, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun could have been a fantasy easily enough. But I felt that the inclusion of such starkly fantastic elements side by side with starkly historical ones would be too great a contrast and make the whole hodgepodge less compelling. So I opted to render the dragon stuff realistic by having it happen “off stage.” The reader never “sees” the dragon. He or she, however, knows exactly what the dragon looks like because he or she is there when Sigurd comes down from the mountain after slaying the creature and tells Gudrun’s brothers all the wonderful details about his adventure. Nor does the reader ever get the skinny on the gods or the Valkyries or the long-living dwarves from me, the author. He or she gets these details direct from the characters, from their conversations.
A friend of mine who was married to a great artist once said of her husband, “For him, every object, whether it is a person or an animal or a lamppost, is either something he might want to include in a painting one day or something he can dismiss.” At the very best of times, that is what writing feels like to me. In the case of writing of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, my “I must have that” moment began when I first read the legends in the Poetic Edda. I am not the first person to be mesmerized and inspired by these legends. Wagner, who would have read not the Poetic Edda but the Nibelungenlied, based his Ring Cycle on them. Tolkien borrowed heavily from them as well. And so have many other writers (and painters). The interesting thing to me is that no two “offshoots” look alike. Every version I am familiar with is different than every other one. It may be risky to mix legend/myth with historical events, but I’m glad I did so, because having the chance to immerse myself in these materials was literary bliss.
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In February, I interviewed Ann Swinfen for New Books in Historical Fiction and blogged about it, as I usually do, a few days later. In the interview, we discussed her lovely The Testament of Mariam and, in passing, her latest novel This Rough Ocean. Her five-part (to date) series The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez got barely a mention, although even then I intended to read it. The series is, after all, set in the sixteenth century.
Well, life went on, and as so often happens, Christoval took a back seat to other interviews and GoodReads challenges and my own Swan Princess, now nearing the end of draft 2. It was early this month before I picked up The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez as part of a full set, in part because I discovered that Christoval, known to friends and family as Kit, will be heading to Muscovy soon. When I learned Kit’s real secret, with its parallels to my Nasan, I couldn’t resist. And since I wanted to be prepared, I decided, as they say, to begin at the beginning. Within twenty pages, I was in love with the series. So this is one of my rare Hidden Gems posts. Definitely, seek out these books without delay.
The series begins in 1586. Elizabeth I has been on the throne for almost thirty years, and from the point of view of the schoolchildren we once were, life should be good. No more religious wars under Gloriana, right? No worries among the Protestants that the Catholics will come back in force and burn everyone, no fear among the Catholics that they will be accused of treason en masse and sent to the stake, no conspiracies to get Elizabeth off the throne in favor of a king or just a different ruler more to some ambitious subject’s liking?
Well, not quite. In fact, in what would be sure to cast dismay into the souls of kids everywhere if they knew, Elizabeth’s hold on the scepter remained shaky through much, if not most, of her reign. The Spanish wanted England, the French wanted England, the Scots wanted England, and there were factions within the country willing and eager to back anyone but the queen. Most of the factions had some religious motivation, given the culture of the day, but religion was often a justification and cover for naked power plays, then as now. Specifically in 1586 the Spaniards—whose king believed he had a right to the English throne by virtue of his marriage to Mary Tudor and who were in general feeling their oats because of their victories in the New World and, more recently, over Portugal—were planning to bring their Inquisition across the English Channel by any means available. (In Christoval 2, The Enterprise of England, they hit on the idea of a mighty armada.) Meanwhile, the French were placing their hopes on Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had under house arrest but was reluctant to execute due to the precedent it would set.
In this fraught atmosphere, sixteen-year-old Kit Alvarez, a refugee from Portugal and the only surviving child of a once-wealthy Jewish family that converted to Christianity to avoid the Inquisitorial flames, wants nothing more than to become a scholar and physician like his father. For reasons that are revealed early on, formal university training is out of bounds for Kit, but an apprenticeship at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London offers a worthy alternative—until Kit’s skill at math comes to the attention of Sir Francis Walsingham. Queen Elizabeth’s chief spy master needs a skilled code breaker fluent in Spanish and French to crack the ciphered messages his agents are intercepting between the court in Paris and Mary Queen of Scots’ luxurious prison. He selects Kit for the job, and since his sphere of influence extends to the hospital, Kit has little choice but to accept. With raw memories of Catholic forces invading Portugal, Kit soon embraces the new mission while trying to juggle commitments to father, hospital, and state. But the last thing he really wants in life is another set of secrets to protect.
Kit is a charming and fascinating character, beautifully developed, the story full of interesting twists, and the writing (as in The Testament of Mariam) lively and original. As I do for the books whose authors I interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, here I’ll quote the first paragraph to whet your appetite. See how quickly the sense of a personality, a time, a place, and a problem are established. A Hidden Gem indeed!
“I was washing alembics when he came. Often, in the months and years that followed, I wondered how things might have turned out, had I been away from home. My father had been summoned to one of his private patients and I had pleaded to go with him to the great man’s house, for I had never even stepped over the threshold of the mansion in the Strand, but the winter had been severe, we were short of many remedies, and I must stay at home and wash the alembics so that we might spend the evening distilling. I did not like being alone in the house, with the dark afternoon heavy in the sky outside, and chill draughts plucking at the back of my neck like the unforgiving fingers of the dead. The old timbers of the house swayed and creaked and moaned in the wind.”
And congratulations to fellow Five Directions Press author Courtney J. Hall, whose debut novel, Some Rise by Sin, is now a Book Muse Recommended Read!
This week I had my first repeat interview with an author for New Books in Historical Fiction. Besides marking a milestone for the podcast channel itself, the interview gave me some interesting insight into the broader themes that can animate an individual writer’s work.
Virginia Pye’s first book, River of Dust, which we discussed in September 2013, focused on the tragedy of parents who lose their only child to abduction. But that novel—like her Dreams of the Red Phoenix, released just this week—also explores the complex mix of awareness and misunderstanding that affects people living far from home, in a culture they believe they know but in which they remain forever strangers, separated from those around them by assumptions so deeply held that neither side questions them. Some of these assumptions come perilously close to prejudices, but Pye’s characters are, for the most part, well-meaning people, their errors the result more of natural arrogance or a failure of imagination than of malicious intent.
Like River of Dust, Dreams of the Red Phoenix is set in northwestern China among a community of missionaries from the United States. The Reverend Caleb Carson is in fact the nephew of John Wesley Watson, the minister in the first book. (The two stories are, however, completely independent—not part of a series.) Twenty-seven years have passed, and expectations have changed. Yet the smoke and mirrors remain, obscuring both sides of the cultural exchange even as war and revolution threaten to complete the destruction wrought by the perennial dangers of drought and hunger.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Of the brutal conflicts that characterized the twentieth century, none equaled in scale the catastrophe that struck China when the Japanese occupied the northern part of the country just as the Civil War was picking up steam. According to some estimates, 22.5 million people died in these twin acts of destruction. Dreams of the Red Phoenix (Unbridled Books, 2015) takes place during a few weeks in the summer of 1937, as seen from the perspective of North American missionaries who only think they understand the local culture and their place in it.
Sheila Carson—mourning the recent death of her husband, the Reverend Caleb—can hardly bring herself to get up in the morning, let alone supervise work around her house or rein in her teenaged son, Charles, who soon causes trouble for himself and his mother by taunting the Japanese soldiers who patrol the area. But when attacks on the civilian population send a stream of wounded and hungry people into the mission looking for aid, Shirley, one of the few trained nurses in the compound, is pulled into service, her house turned into a clinic. The mission’s protected status, based on U.S. neutrality in these years before World War II, falls under threat when the Japanese army suspects that the refugees include Nationalist and Communist soldiers, and Shirley must decide whether to leave with her fellow Americans or stay and help the charismatic Communist general whose philosophy appeals to her idealistic nature. Her memories of her husband, her responsibilities as a mother, and her own sense of right and purpose are pushing Shirley in different directions even before outside forces intervene to complicate her path.
As in her earlier novel, River of Dust, Virginia Pye here takes stories of her own ancestors—in this case, her grandmother and family friends—and weaves them into a vivid, evocative tapestry of love and loss, belonging and alienation, deception and truth.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the Five Directions Press library panel on “Everyday Heroines.” Those of you who have read my novels, especially The Golden Lynx and The Winged Horse, are entitled to a quiet snicker here.
Sure, Sasha, the female protagonist in Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, could be considered an ordinary person—if ordinary people routinely start training in exquisite but intense art forms at the age of four and rise to the pinnacle of their profession by the early twenties. Nina, heroine of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, is a graduate student in history—at an elite university, yes, but still a quite ordinary person in her own right. In the book, however, she is running around aristocratic London playing Lady Marguerite Blakeney, at least until she lands in the French countryside, where she has to adopt one persona after another, most of them members of the hoi polloi.
The Legends of the Five Directions series, though, mostly takes place at the highest levels of Muscovite and Tatar society. Of the recurring characters, only Grusha, the Kolychevs’ slave, can really be considered an everyday heroine. Everyone else—even the wicked Semyon—belongs to the lineage of khans, beys, or the tight circle of boyar families who wielded real power at the Russian court. Grand Prince Vasily III expanded that circle in an attempt to secure the place of his young son, the future Ivan the Terrible, but the number of qualifying lineages remained small. The Tatar preference for polygamy multiplied the number of direct descendants of Genghis Khan with each generation, but the insistence on charismatic authority that prevailed for so long on the steppe and in the khanates set those descendants apart from the mass. So Nasan, Ogodai, Tulpar, and their kin are also not everyday heroes.
Except in one sense. Like most of the premodern world, Muscovite and Tatar society imposed strict limitations on the choices available to all individuals—male and female, rich and poor. Women, especially, were confined to the domestic sphere, their influence on outside affairs restricted to pillow talk and its daytime equivalent or wielded indirectly through the birthing and education of children. Noblewomen called the shots within their households, managing others who did the work, but the tasks themselves differed little between noble estate and peasant cottage.
For men, too, birth determined one’s profession. Peasants farmed, artisans learned their fathers’ trade, merchants inherited their business, priests raised priests’ sons to succeed them, and noblemen went to war—every year, on command, to defend the state or attack its neighbors as required. When Fedor Kolychev ran off to become a monk, he did it in secret. His choice was unusual; noblemen usually stayed within the political and military role to which they were born.
And of course, by the standards of the day, no one—aristocrat or peasant—had a free say in whom he or she married. If anything, nobles had less say than peasants, who had a chance of recognizing their future spouses by sight. Aristocratic marriages determined political alliances, and marriage of a daughter to the grand prince (later tsar) was the $64,000 prize. Grooms sometimes had a say, brides hardly ever; parents on both sides made the match, and the young couple adapted as well as possible after the wedding. Such alliances have been common throughout the world, of course, not only in Muscovite Russia.
Social standing certainly affects one’s quality of life, and in general, it is more comfortable to be rich and respected than poor and downtrodden. But throughout history, membership in society has imposed constraints on both the high and the low. In that sense, even elite heroines face everyday problems.
Image: Konstantin Makovsky, The Kissing Custom, via Wikimedia Commons.
Last Friday, JJ Marsh of Triskele Books posted an interview with the author and illustrator Patti Brassard Jefferson. The interview is not about Jefferson’s books but about her bookstores—specifically, her idea to open P.J. Boox, a physical/online bookstore specializing in the works of self-published and small-press-published authors. The store was due to open yesterday, and you can find more information about it at its website.
To me, this sounds like a really interesting idea. It hasn’t been tried before, so far as I know, and a few kinks need working out before I sign on. The proposed arrangement is not yet the partnership of which I dream. Essentially, it differs little from the consignment system that bookstores currently use for non-trade-published books—when they accept those books at all. Authors and publishers pay to rent space in the store, pay for the online setup, provide the physical copies of books to sell (including shipping costs). In return, they receive 95% of sale prices via Paypal. But they have to take the sales figures on faith, and if they live far from the store, they depend on the store owner to promote the books. A committed, knowledgeable owner may do just that, but it seems pretty obvious that the owners have a guaranteed income stream from authors and publishers, who pay up front, and a much smaller income from sales. Authors and publishers, in effect, are gambling that exposure will raise their sales enough to cover the start-up costs and make a profit. A fairer arrangement, to my way of thinking, is for stores to buy the books from authors at a steep discount (say, production cost plus the author’s regular royalty), which would allow the stores to sell the books at a price that competes with the rates online. Then both sides get something from the transaction, and everyone benefits from sales rather than shelf rentals.
Even so, the idea of a bookstore focusing on the “little guys” is both clever and promising. It recognizes that good self- and independently published books exist and that promotion in bookstores is as, if not more, important for their authors than for those picked up by commercial publishers. It adds a layer of curation: covers and text have to look professional, reassuring prospective readers that books meet basic standards. It responds to readers’ preference for books they can see: all books face out, displaying those beautiful covers to attract the eye. And it acknowledges the important role traditionally played by independent booksellers, who know their stock and their clientele and can talk up works to individual customers, just as librarians do.
So a big cheer for the innovators, best wishes to Ms. Jefferson for success with her bookstore for indies, and hopes that her venture will prompt others to follow suit. As the e-book and associated print revolutions continue, the number of Hidden Gems continues to rise. Having more ways to discover such books can only benefit readers, writers, small presses, and the bookstore owners willing to bring in non-trade-published books for sale.
Variety is the spice of life, as they say. So let’s hear it for the adventurous cooks!
Image from Clipart.com, no. 22079092.