Wednesday, August 24, 2011

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

Click here for Part One of the interview.

KS - The novel is full of wonderful realistic touches. Authun a white-haired old man at age thirty-five, underscoring that life in the Viking age was nasty, brutish and short. Historical realism features prominently, as well. One example alludes to actual gender relations of the pre-Christian era: "Disa had divorced her husband and, since he was heavy with his fists, the assembly had voted that she be allowed to keep his farm." I’m very curious about your research process – mythological, literary and historical. Do you start with a historical concept – say, the use of the shield wall – and then build a scene around it? Do you write a scene and then look for facts to give it a realistic touch? How does research relate to the creative process?

M. D. Lachlan (a.k.a. Mark Barrowcliffe)

ML - I have a background in wargaming and have read a lot of military history in this period. I think my first contact with berserkers came in a book called Skirmish Wargaming by Donald Featherstone when I was around 11 – shortly before I started playing Dungeons & Dragons. My characters in D&D were often berserkers (pre-dated the barbarian character class and so much cooler). Even then I was interested to get stuff right, so I did a lot of reading about Vikings and Norse myth. So this mythology and history has been a large part of my imaginative life for many years. There’s plenty of stuff that I don’t need to research because I just know it.

Featherstone's Skirmish Wargaming

The shield wall, for instance, is something I was very familiar with. What I didn’t know was what it was like to be in one. For this reason, I used research material from battle reenactors. I think they have a lot of valuable stuff, because they try to recreate the fighting styles and lives of the Vikings and therefore encounter similar problems and emerge, you would presume, with similar – or at least plausible – solutions.

There actually isn’t that much evidence for the use of a shield wall as a Viking tactic in this early period. There is evidence for its use soon after, though, so I thought I was justified in using it. You also have to use your common sense. OK, some people in the line have formed a shield wall before, some haven’t. What does that do to the organization of the wall? Also, my experience of being in football (soccer) crowds when the police are herding you made me realize how difficult it might be in such a press to actually draw or use a weapon. The old exit to the Arsenal ground at Highbury or the old Chelsea Stamford Bridge (a good Viking association there!) were narrow funnels at points, and you literally couldn’t get your hand to your head to scratch your ear sometimes.

Reenactors who haven't quite mastered the shield wall

My research process is to read a lot of background stuff, making occasional notes if something strikes me as particularly interesting. I’ll read three or four good, authoritative books on the subject. In fact, for Wolfsangel, I read more than that, including revisiting the Eddas and the sagas. Then I write. As I write, I might encounter a question that needs answering. If I can’t find the answer immediately (five or six minutes), I don’t worry about it and write on. Then I address the missing information when I’ve finished the book. It’s always the really little things that are difficult to discover – how extensive was the deck on an early Viking longship? Even though East and West Norse were intelligible to each other, would accent have proved a problem? If you think this is unlikely, listen to this version of someone speaking Geordie – a British dialect that bears a lot of traces of Old English. He’s speaking your language and this is not a particularly extreme form of the accent.

On the deck of the recreated Viking ship Íslendingur (built 1996)

KS - You have said that "writing is an oddly magical process. It’s something that I don’t know where it comes from, and – when it’s going well – it literally feels like I’m the first reader of it. I don’t feel that the intellectual side of my brain has much input into it . . . When I’m writing, it genuinely feels like it comes from a place that is beyond the influence of my conscious thought." This reminds me of Robert E. Howard’s description of writing the Conan stories: "The man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen – or rather, off my typewriter – almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred." I’ve often experienced this phenomenon when composing music. My best pieces have popped fully-formed into my head, and I feel that I’m just transcribing them – that I didn’t consciously create them, but that I’m hearing them from “somewhere else.” Isn’t this experiential event what the ancient Norse called "Odin"? I mean, don’t you think that they experienced the same creative rush – and its subjective experience as something coming from outside the conscious mind – and attributed it to the god who possesses, who inspires, who brings frenzy?

Robert E. Howard's room in Cross Plains, Texas

ML - I think you’re right. I’m always wary of sounding like a lunatic in interviews on this subject. I don’t think the creative impulse comes from outside but that’s certainly how it feels. This is why I have difficulty answering some of your questions where you ask exactly where certain things originated and I feel almost that the best reply I can give is, "Er, somewhere."

There have been many names for this experience throughout history. The most common, of course, comes from Greek (rather than Norse ) culture in the shape of the Muses. The Muse visits the writer at his desk – or the musician or the dancer – and grants them their art. And sometimes, even for the best artists, the Muse simply fails to turn up.

Hesiod Listening to the Inspirations of the Muse by Aman-Jean (circa 1890)

KS - You write that "Authun was a Volsung, a direct descendant of the gods and was a vessel for their powers," but that the "battle-fond poet [Odin] felt threatened by his fierce descendant and had cursed Authun to sire only female children. He could not risk him producing an even mightier son." This is the exact opposite of the relationship between Odin/Wotan and the Volsung family in Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen, in which the god manipulates events specifically to create the mightiest human warrior possible. In Norse myth, Odin wants to gather the greatest human warriors to build his army for the final battle with the forces of chaos at Ragnarök. Why did you decide to flip this relationship between Odin and his descendants on its head?

ML - Again, I can’t claim premeditation. It just seemed right, seemed to fit with the feel of Norse mythology and of my story. To talk of "decision" in creative writing misses the essential nature of the process. I did not decide. I just wrote it. The decision, I suppose, came in the editing, when I decided to leave those words in. You’re right, though – the sentiment seems more Roman or Greek than Viking. I suppose it does tie in with Odin’s treacherous nature, however, and partly explains it.

KS - Describing the Fenris Wolf, you write that “the tale said the wolf would lie there until the twilight of the gods – Ragnarok – when it would break its bonds and kill the All-Father Odin. It would usher in a new age, ruled by beautiful, just, fair spirits, not the corrupt, battle-mad, vengeful, and deceitful gods they called the Aesir, of which Odin was the chief.” You’ve written that "you might argue these [Snorri’s works] are examples of the new religion denigrating the old by turning its gods into men, but the whole body of Norse myth is written by Christians. Our only view of the old religions comes through the writings of Christian scholars." So, are you reverse-engineering the Edda by purposefully flipping the roles of the major characters? Do you think it’s possible to give the Eddas a postmodern reading that makes Odin the villain and Fenris the hero?

The Binding of Fenris by Dorothy Hardy (circa 1909)

ML - It’s possible. Fenris gets treated pretty badly. He hasn’t actually bitten anyone by the time he gets tied up and seems quite a civil sort of wolf. I tend to do that by instinct, to look at things backwards. As I say, I don’t really deal in heroes or villains – at least not in this story. It’s just a matter of seeing the various interests of the competing characters. The gods want to live, they’ve restrained Fenrir because of that. That doesn’t make them evil, it makes them pragmatic. The wolf wants to kill them. Again, that doesn’t make him evil – it’s an understandable reaction to being tricked and trapped. It’s possible to have a story where everyone is acting correctly according to their morals and for them still to be in opposition with each other.

KS - You repeatedly refer to Odin as insane, which seems more Germanic than Scandinavian. The German Wodan is rage and fury personified as he drives the Furious Host through terrifying winter skies. The Scandinavian Odin is the god of wisdom who outwits wise giants in riddle contests, brings poetic inspiration to humankind, gives ecstatic wisdom performances. In some Eddic tales – especially as Bölverk (“evil-doer”) – he does heartless and wicked things, yet he seems more cold and calculating than insane. Your version goes against high-profile interpretations of the last 200 years, including Wagner’s devious Wotan, Tolkien’s wise Gandalf and Branagh’s Old Testament Odin. However, I must admit that the vision of Odin that Loki gives Saitada in Wolfsangel does seem psychologically right in portraying the mythic god who stirs battle in the world: "The expression on the man’s face was terrible. Saitada had seen it before. It was the look men wore at cock fights or when cheering two dogs to rip into each other, the look the smith’s friends had worn as they’d held her down – a look of delight in violence and lust for more." Do you really see the mythic Odin as such a wholly negative character, or did you simplify his complexities for plot purposes?

The Wild Hunt / Furious Host by Emil Doepler (1905)

ML - My Odin is just one aspect of the mythic Odin, but my interpretation is justified by looking at his names. Bale-worker, Gallows-burden, Raven-friend, Ghost King (not sure about the translation on that one), Frenzied One, Deceiver, Lord of the Hanged, Ruler of Treachery, Slain God. I wouldn’t call him negative. I’d say that he is unguessable, alien, godly, mystic and inhuman. One of the central horrors of Wolfsangel is that the characters are trapped in the schemes of a god whose mind is too alien for them to grasp.

I happily admit that I’ve conflated Wodan with Odin and brought out one side of him. I did so for dramatic purposes. Magic to me – and Odin is king of magic – is a scary, unpredictable, unknowable force that can easily turn on its practitioners. It’s also very akin to madness. It was lodged in my head that Odin was god of magic, madness and poetry (among other things), and I admit I didn’t check the source material on that. I still think it’s an interpretation that stands up, but I would concede that the insane nature of the god, while there in Norse myth, isn’t to the fore.

Odin by Carl Emil Doepler (1882)

I wanted a god that was appropriate to my idea of magic – something won by great privation and self-sacrifice and also something that is very dangerous for the practitioner. This comes from a variety of sources but primarily from Odin’s sacrifice of his eye at Mimir’s well and his hanging on the tree. It’s a matter of feel, really, and my Odin felt right both in respect to the myths, to the names he’s given in the sagas and the Edda, and to what we know of some of his actions. I’m not pretending to offer a mythologically-complete version of Odin, just a dramatic and plausible interpretation. And he’s certainly more true to the myth than the Thor film version – a peace-loving patriarch!

So, in short, there was no conscious decision to set my Odin against anyone else’s. There was just the desire to make the god consistent with the idea of magic in the book and to draw in certain other elements that aren’t strictly Norse but do chime with the god’s Germanic counterpart – such as the bog bodies. If I had a symbol for my idea of magic it would be the bog bodies. There are lots of explanations for how they got there but, in my interpretation in Wolfsangel, they are magical practitioners indulging in extreme rituals that go wrong.

Tollund Man - possibly sacrificed in a bog (circa 300 BCE)

KS - At one point in the novel, the character Vali decides that "one day he would drink Odin’s blood, tear that god down and make him pay for his corpse lust." Although Norse myth has many instances of Odin’s ambivalence and untrustworthiness, he is also the chief god in the Eddas, provides the gnomic wisdom of Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One"), brings life to humanity, and gives wisdom, poetry, runes, and so on. Doesn’t this use of Odin as villain forward the contemporary fantasy trope of focusing on auxiliary characters as protagonists and questioning central figures? Prominent examples of this trend include John Gardner’s Grendel (1971), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983) and Gregory McGuire’s Wicked (1995). There is a real postmodern delight in taking the side of the underdog or villain of the piece. Is Western society so jaded that we can’t get any pleasure from C. C. Beck’s Captain Marvel, but must always insist on Frank Miller’s Dark Knight? Are we in such a dark place as a culture?

ML - I would accept that, in some ways, Wolfsangel is a postmodern narrative, but I’m not sure it is in the way you seem to imply or in a way that would be accepted by postmodernists. It is postmodern in the sense that it doesn’t have sharply drawn villains and heroes, and there isn’t an immediate apparent overarching concept of good and evil. People fight for their own interests, which are seen as culturally-determined rather than absolutes of good and evil.

The Dark Knight and the Big Red Cheese

However, that’s as far as it goes. I think there is a definite value system in Wolfsangel which is modern but not postmodern. It’s certainly not Viking, though the characters themselves display Viking ways of thinking – with the exception of Vali who is characterized as a very progressive individual. Wolfsangel is not relativist. It upholds the values of humanity and almost of the mundane. It champions ordinariness against heroic action while – in a way that is either postmodern, ironic or hypocritical, depending on your view – centering the narrative almost exclusively on heroic action.

Vali wants to be a farmer, not a hero; Feileg wants to be a man, not a half-wolf. The gods are not the central focus in Wolfsangel – the people are. It’s a human story and the humans in it are, on the whole, flawed but decent people.

In pitting the humans against dark and strange gods, I hope that my story moves away from the "scarred hero" cliché (which surely reached its nadir in the Nicholas Cage remake of The Wicker Man, but don’t get me started). In this way, Wolfsangel isn’t a postmodern story at all; it’s nearer to an old fashioned tragedy – starcrossed lovers finding themselves challenged and torn apart by a merciless and cruel world. It has more in common with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago than it does The Dark Knight Returns. Notice how I effortlessly compare myself to an author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Nicholas Cage in The Wicker Man (2006)

Odin is not a villain. He is the enemy of one of the central characters, true, but I don’t think that equates quite to "villain." And remember that Odin is in the story in many forms, and, like every other character in it, he’s seeking primarily to protect himself or what he holds dear.

Spider-Man, God of Thunder

If you want to equate the story to a comic book, I’d say it’s not near to Captain Marvel or Frank Miller. Although it’s vastly different in tone, it’s closer to Spider-Man. There you have a human hero who is forced to come to terms with the reality of what he is and to try to retain the vestiges of a normal life the best he can. He is neither a paragon of heroic virtue nor psychological damage. If I had to come down in one camp or the other, Captain Marvel or the Dark Knight, I’d say the book is nearer to Marvel. The character of Feileg, in particular, is straightforwardly heroic. Yes, he’s suffered, but that makes him a realistic character rather than a postmodern cipher for alienation and the collapse of meaning. In fact, Feileg is anything but alienated, and he sees his life as full of meaning. Vali’s entire journey is a quest to hold on to meaning and to reaffirm it.

Bradley's The Mists of Avalon

I loved The Mists of Avalon when I read it (although I’m convinced I read it in 1981 – seems I couldn’t have), and I do think it’s interesting to approach some stories sideways. We always like a new view on things. You don’t need to go as far as to call it postmodern. A better word is, perhaps, "novel." The novel has always undermined things and turned them around from its very foundations. When the novel takes on myth, it inevitably alters and skews it to its own ends. No one called Don Quixote postmodern, but it took an existing form – the heroic romance – and turned it on its head. That was written in 1605 and, as such, is a seminal moment in the creation of the modern novel. So the "Frank Miller" impulse has been with us from the start, and if we’re in a dark place as a culture, we’ve been in it for a long time.

Click here for Part Three of the interview.

1 comment:

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