Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Interview with M. D. Lachlan (Wolfsangel), Part One

Set in the Viking Age, British author M. D. Lachlan's novel Wolfsangel is the first book in an important new historical fantasy series. Lachlan uses Norse myth in a brilliantly imaginative way that is at once traditional and radical. Unlike the myth-inspired yet newly-created characters in The Lord of the Rings, several figures in Wolfsangel come straight from the Eddas and sagas – including Odin, Loki, berserkers and werewolves. However, Lachlan's portrayal of their actions and his interpretations of their motivations are anything but orthodox. Through a heady mixture of research and inspiration, Lachlan has created a polyphonic work that is both allusive enough to engage readers with a knowledge of Norse myth and elusive enough to create a page-turner reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith's best.

Cover to Wolfsangel

As Mark Barrowcliffe (his real name), Lachlan has published Girlfriend 44, Infidelity for First-Time Fathers, Lucky Dog and Mr. Wrong. His 2007 book The Elfish Gene chronicled a youth obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. Fenrir, the sequel to Wolfsangel, is due to be published by Pyr in the United States in October.

In the first part of what he has called "the most involved interview I've ever had in my life," Lachlan discusses his influences, the nature of writing historical fiction, kitsch in the fantasy genre and Viking cosmetic dentistry.

KS - The series of novels that begins with Wolfsangel will, according to the publisher, "spill over into countless bloody conflicts from our history." I imagine a series that starts in the Viking Age as historical fantasy, moves through various eras and genres like steampunk and alternate history, and ends up in the far future with a hard SF novel. Is your series going to have this large of a scope?

ML - Only to the present day. I’d be a lousy SF writer. Fantasy is in my blood, SF isn’t. I like SF, but I dreamed of dragons and swordfights as a kid, not spaceships and lasers. I will be going forward in time for as long as the series proves popular. It will end up in the Victiorian era, should I and the series last that long, but I will be avoiding steampunk tropes. This is for two reasons – the first is that I’ve never read a steampunk novel so wouldn’t know how to reproduce their tropes if I tried. The second is that – as with SF – you need to have a real love for something to make it work. My love is for real history, so I would try to engage with the Victorian period by making my story as realistic as possible – the fantasy elements aside. I have some ideas, but I won’t go into them here.

When fantasy engages with Victoriana, then it tends to do so in a fairly limited way, from what I’ve seen. Steampunk has quite a narrow focus, from what I understand of it. The Victorian era has a huge scope, and I’d hope to explore some of that. The novel I’ve admired the most that’s set in that period is Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. It explores some of the big fractures in Victorian society. I must read [William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's] The Difference Engine, though. I’ve been meaning to get around to it for years.

Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White

The WWII story is written and currently in two forms. The most likely form to emerge is a detective story. However, it will depend on my books selling very well, as publishers might fight shy of publishing something that has moved so far away from the original.

KS - The idea of a series that takes the characters over a great span of time and literary styles probably found its apotheosis in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which was published over a thirteen year period (1946-1959) and evolves from Gothic fantasy to a sort of Kerouackian Bildungsroman. Was Peake someone that influenced you as a writer?

ML - No. I’ve tried several times to get through Gormenghast and never managed it. This sounds dreadfully philistine, but the story doesn’t present itself quickly enough for me. I find the detail that Peake puts into his work can be grueling. He’s clearly a very important writer, and I’m sure that I write to an extent in his shadow without ever having read him all the way through. I was a big [Michael] Moorcock fan, and Moorcock has influenced my work. Peake’s an enormous influence on Moorcock, so inevitably on me too.

One of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast manuscripts

I will try Peake again one day, but I think life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy – no matter how much you might be able to admire them.

KS - The great realism of your novel – especially the intensely personal description of battle – is reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories. Were his works of historical fiction an influence on your series? Do you read much historical fiction or history, in general?

ML - I deliberately avoided Bernard Cornwell because I didn’t want to end up reproducing his style or, worse, writing against it. The realism, if it comes from anywhere, comes from my own martial arts and fencing experience. The nervousness you get before a judo contest or going in for a session of heavy sparring at boxing informed how I described the people’s feelings in a battle. Everyone feels nervous in those situations, everyone has moments of doubt and has to fight down their fear. And that’s in modern, regulated sport. How much more nervous will you feel facing an armed and lethal enemy?

I read an awful lot of history and some historical fiction. I particularly enjoyed Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships for its ability to capture the Viking character. I’ve read a lot of Robert Harris and also enjoyed stuff such as Q by Luther Blissett and The Name of the Rose [by Umberto Eco]. I’ve read little historical fiction about war. I don’t find this a drawback when I write – I like to come at things from my point of view, not carrying respect or dislike for another writer’s way of doing things.

Bengtsson's The Long Ships

I’m glad you used the word "realism." The "ism" is crucial. What I’m offering isn’t an academic document that will act as a reliable guide to life in the Viking Age. I’m offering a well-researched novel. There’s a big difference. I have much greater license than historians do when approaching their work.

For instance, the berserker cult of "Odin the Frenzied" relates strongly to descriptions of berserkers, the full body tattoos are inspired by Arabic descriptions of Vikings, but there are elements to them that I simply don’t have the evidence to support. My berserkers appear as sort of violent ascetics of Odin – they spurn personal wealth, they don’t really wash (very un-Viking-like, from what I understand) and they work as mercenaries largely for the reward of battle. They’re clearly fictional creations. They do fit with the feel of Norse myth but there’s no evidence such people existed. In fact, the berserkers of the sagas seemed very interested in personal wealth. But my berserkers do feel real to me in the story. So they’re not real, but they are realistic.

KS - You have mentioned Michael Moorcock as an early influence, and I can see echoes of his concepts in Wolfsangel. The idea that the werewolf is reborn as a different character in each novel of your series is somewhat analogous to Moorcock’s idea of the Eternal Champion that ties together so many of his own works. Your character Authun is nicknamed the White Wolf, which can be seen as an Odinic reference or an homage to Moorcock’s Elric, who was also known as the White Wolf. Authun calls his weapon the Moonsword, and you write that "it came from 'beyond the dawn,'" which seems like a tribute to Moorcock’s Hawkmoon novel, The Sword of the Dawn. Was all this done purposefully, or do you think that Moorcock’s works are simply bubbling around in your creative subconscious?

Moorcock's The Weird of the White Wolf

ML - I’d forgotten Elric was called the White Wolf. It seems these works are bubbling around in my head, as you say. If Authun is equated with anyone it’s Vidar from the Edda – Odin’s son, second in strength to Thor. There are correspondences with the Eternal Champion, but the real influence on Wolfsangel is Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. There, the characters find themselves acting out a mythic story. The characters in Wolfsangel are reincarnated, but it’s more that they are reborn still trapped in a repeating story – or at least a story that tries to repeat itself. It’s up to them to fight against it.

The expression "beyond the dawn" was simply a poetic way of saying "the east" – a manner of description I thought the Vikings might apply to a mythic weapon.

Moorcock's The Sword of the Dawn

Moorcock is a great visionary and a storyteller and also a very good phrasemaker – he comes up with very evocative one liners. "Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch" was the calling cry of my youth. He’s also a very good creator of the still image. You can really picture Hawkmoon looking up at his ornithopters or Elric sitting on the dragon’s back with Stormbringer in his hand. I tried to get that feeling with the witches and when the wolf is watching the shamans in the cave.

A key difference between me and Moorcock is how we pitch our level of exoticism. I mean this in no critical way at all when I say that Moorcock presents a surface exoticism. There’s a lot of glittery stuff in Moorcock – albino warriors, fantastic armor, ranks of animal-headed soldiers, ships that sail on the land. That’s a big reason a lot of people love fantasy and Moorcock does it brilliantly. I never got through the Jerry Cornelius stuff, so perhaps he goes deeper than that there, but there’s really no need to. Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum all sparkle in a beguiling way.

The exoticism of my stuff is that of history, which can offer a different sort of weirdness – such as when Vali doesn’t know what a tower is, because he’s never seen one, or the "vastness" of Haithabu – a town of around 100 houses. And Moorcock, of course, has invented his myths whereas I’ve taken mine from history and adapted them. So my writing has an exoticism that’s pitched at the level of what people think and, sometimes, do – which can seem odd to modern readers and, I admit, is potentially alienating.

Reconstructed Haithabu Viking village in Schleswig, Germany

For instance, one reader commented that he didn’t find it realistic that the berserker Bjarki and the merchant Veles would arrive at their destination island to find it covered in mutilated corpses and still explore it. They would turn and run. I argued that it would be more unrealistic for Bjarki not to explore it. He’s a berserker, a man who lives by the creed that "One thing I know that never dies / The fame of a dead man’s deeds." He would need to seem brave in front of his men and would welcome the chance of killing a famous monster or proving himself against great danger. Veles is simply dragged along with him at this point.

Site of Viking longhouse in Iceland, with replica in background

Another thing that is strange to modern readers – and to me – was discovering how the Vikings lived. The idea of a village, to me, would have been a collection of about 20 houses. To the Vikings, though, this would have been a good-sized town, very few of which existed. The needs of the story in Wolfsangel meant that I put Forkbeard’s hall among some other buildings. That’s historically accurate – such conglomerations of buildings did exist, but they were rare. It’s a dramatic necessity, though – for the action to unfold as it does you need a fair few people together. The chances are that the king’s hall would have stood completely alone – as would many of the longhouses. At this point, many Vikings lived apart from each other on their own farms, separated from neighbors by quite a distance. It’s a very isolated existence from the modern point of view.

Tegnér's Fridthjof's Saga

KS - Your evocative description of the Moonsword is that it is "long and thin with a pronounced curve to it. It was stronger than any straight sword and, though lighter, had cut enemy weapons many times. Authun had bought it for a fortune from a southern merchant who said it came from 'beyond the dawn' – by which Authun had supposed he meant the east. Wherever it came from, Authun knew it was enchanted, forged – as the merchant said – by magical smiths in the legendary kingdoms of the sands. The merchant had named it Shamsir, and Authun had kept the name as it seemed to contain the stir of the desert winds, or at least how he imagined they would sound." This is all reminiscent of the legendary sword Angervadil, the name of which means “wader through sorrow” – very appropriate for the weapon in your book. Angervadil belonged to saga heroes Viking, Thorstein and Fridthjof. It was described by Esaias Tegnér in his poem Fridthjof's Saga (1825):
Angervadil the brand was hight, and the brother of lightning.
Forg’d had it been in some eastern land (saith ancient tradition),
Harden’d in dwarf-fires red . . .
When in wide hall drawn it glitter’d
Like quick lightning flash there through, or a sky-streaming northilight.
Hammer’d gold was the hilt, but the blade was cover’d with runics
Wonderful, all unknown in the North, but known at the sun’s gates –
There, where our fathers dwelt, till th’ asas led them up hither.
You call the sword a shamsir, which is a curved Persian sabre. Was Tegnér’s poem (or its source sagas) something that you read in researching your novel, or is this idea of the eastern sword something that has seeped into the fabric of fantasy fiction, divorced from its original source?

ML - Having characterized Moorcock’s work as full of glittery items we come to . . . a glittery item of my own.

The sword is a scimitar, which is basically a mild anachronism. "Shamsir" is simply a Persian name for a sword of any description – but it tends to refer to a specific type of sword when used in English, rather like the French épée.

Turkish shamsir (19th century)

I am stunned by that correspondence between my description and Fridthjof’s Saga. I would love to say that I took the inspiration from there, but unfortunately I didn’t. I just saw a scimitar in Authun’s hand when I pictured the scene on the beach – though it’s possible, I suppose, that I’ve read this poem and forgotten about it. I do read a lot in the area, and I forget – or bury – a lot as well.

I knew the Vikings had contact with the Caliphate, so wondered if it might be possible he had bought it from a trader. Scimitars were in use in the 8th century but not in the style of Authun’s sword. However, I thought it plausible that certain pioneering smiths may have come up with the weapon, so I didn’t feel I was being too cavalier by giving one to Authun. Again, I’m a creative writer, not a historian, so I didn’t feel too bad about this leap.

Fridthjof and Angervadil (1909)

Later, and after the fact, I thought to equate the Moonsword to the sword called the Wand of Destruction, Lævatein, forged by Loki at the doors of death. So the idea of the sword came first, and then I recalled the myth and thought it might fit my purposes.

By making the sword a scimitar I also wanted to make a point about the multiculturalism of the Vikings.

KS - The Lord of the Rings clearly makes use of Norse myth and saga as its primary source material, but "the names have been changed to protect the innocent." You decided to keep the references explicit, to set the action in the actual world of Scandinavian myth and legend – choices that move the work from epic fantasy to historical fantasy. Whatever genre name you use, how would you describe the difference between the literary end results of your and Tolkien’s decisions?

At the Grey Havens by the Brothers Hildebrandt (1978)

ML - Gosh. More and less successful would be one way. Who can argue with Tolkien? He’s one behind God when it comes to numbers of books sold. I think Tolkien provides a much more reassuring world than I do. Things are set right at the end of Lord of the Rings, evil is defeated at a cost and our heroes retire to live indefinitely in the Grey Havens. In my world, the heroes are caught in the schemes of the gods as if in some crushing machine, and they have to struggle terribly and pay an awful price if they have even the chance of an escape.

Tolkien is, in some ways, reacting to the same forces that informed modernism. He sees the world falling apart, the threatening future, just as T. S. Eliot did. And, like Eliot, he uses myth to stitch it back together again. He has a very solidly Christian moral outlook.

In my world humanity is not just threatened, but doomed by fate. That’s the Viking view.

J. R. R. Tolkien

I would say Wolfsangel has a much less solid idea of good and evil – one that I tried to interpret from Norse culture. There is right action and wrong action, but no one is intrinsically bad, not even the Witch Queen. Also, characteristics such as being uncompassionate or bloodthirsty can be seen as good things in my world – or at least as strengths.

Tolkien’s grounding in Norse myth is much deeper than mine. In fact, it was much deeper than virtually anyone’s, so the detail of his vision is stunning. I don’t go in for anything like that level of detail. I’m about impression and feeling, atmosphere and character point of view. If I had to name an inspiration for Wolfsangel from another writer who is inspired by myth, it wouldn’t be Tolkien but Ted Hughes, the poet. The atmosphere of his poems is remarkable – showing nature in all its ferocity, beauty and strangeness and underpinned with a mythic sensibility. That’s what I’m aiming towards in my writing.

Ted Hughes

KS - One of the most interesting things about Wolfsangel is that its fantastic locales are not fantasy; they are actual locations in the real world. Part of the book takes place near the port of Eikund, which is now known as Egersund in Rogaland, Norway. Authun is King of the Horda, and Hörðaland is a county in Norway named for an ancient Germanic tribe. Your Haithabyr is Heiðabýr (also known as Hedeby), a Viking trading center on the border of Denmark and Germany. The mystic Troll Wall that is so central to your story is – almost unbelievably – a real place on the Norwegian coast known as Trollveggen. This is something that, in a way, makes your book deeper than Tolkien’s works; the magic of the novel seems more real, because it occurs in real locations. I would have loved for the book to have a Tolkien-style hand-drawn map in the front. Was this ever an option discussed with the publishers?

Troll Wall in Norway

ML - No, because of cost. The most fantastic location – and one I visited for research – is definitely the Troll Wall in Norway – a kilometer-and-a-half high overhanging cliff. I went to the top and couldn’t see the ground – thank God – because of cloud. I would have loved a map too – though I think their use is becoming a little kitsch by now. Fantasy – at least good fantasy – is in a constant struggle with kitsch, or at least a negotiation with it. We all have our ways of dealing with it. Mine is to root my stuff in myth. Others go for a hyper-real approach, letting the characters swear, having cynical and amoral heroes, being shockingly violent or using knowing humour. Some people, of course, embrace the kitsch, and that seems very popular too. I, probably unfortunately for my bank balance, have an inbuilt loathing of kitsch and try to cut it out of my work as much as I can. But there are people – and a lot of them – who love it. Although, if you call it kitsch they sometimes get a bit angry.

Helgi und Sigrun by Johannes Gehrts (1901)

KS - I won’t give away the conclusion of the novel by saying who does what to whom, but one character says to another at the end of the book that, "If you die, my love is so strong that it will call you back from the halls of the dead." This brings to mind Hermóð’s journey to Hel’s realm in attempt to bring Balder back to the land of the living, but is even more closely related to the prose coda attached to the Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, which describes the fate of the lovers in the poem: "There was a belief in the pagan religion, which we now reckon an old wives’ tale, that people could be reincarnated. Helgi and Sigrun were thought to have been reborn." You’ve credited the publisher Gollancz with the idea to "go through history. Start in the Viking period and nine, ten books later get to World War Two." Was reincarnation integral to your original concept (and suggested by Norse myth), was it something that became a necessity to spin the first novel out into a series, or did the idea occur "naturally" as your wrote the book?

ML - Yes, reincarnation was always at the heart of the story. My central idea was that the werewolf is looking for his lost love, who is reincarnated in many lives. In the original version, the werewolf was immortal – or at least unageing – and he searched for Adisla down the centuries. That side of the story has yet to be developed – but the werewolf will very likely pass from reincarnation to being unageing. This brings up lots of problems for him as he’ll have to watch his loved ones age and die.

KS - You write of Authun that "his cloak seemed alive with sparks and even his mouth, the teeth inlaid with tiny red sapphires, seemed to burn." Was this inspired by the relatively recent discovery that Vikings – for decoration or intimidation – filed horizontal marks into their visible teeth, or was there another source for this idea?

Filed Viking teeth - very stylish!

ML - Like a lot of what I write, I can’t remember where I got the idea from. I knew – or thought I knew - that Vikings inlaid their teeth but that was before the news of the teeth-filing came out. This can only be proof that I am myself an immortal Viking who has let these insights slip and so compromised his secret. Either that or I read it somewhere else and forgot about it. Or, more oddly, that it just felt right and was one of those things that I invented that had a coincidental correspondence with reality. My bet is on number two.

I suspect this has been known for a long time, I’ve read about it and forgotten about where. I don’t log my sources in the same way an academic writer would – I’ve no need to, until I face interviews like this one! In making Authun appear as exotic, I was trying to capture the idea that the Vikings would have seemed like alien invaders to the people they attacked – strange boats, strange dress, strange language. The Vikings are conscious of this and Authun actually dresses up before the attack in order to appear more other-worldly and threatening.

Click here for Part Two of the interview.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

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