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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