Wednesday, September 14, 2011

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

Click here for Part Four of the interview.

KS - The title of your book and the symbol it references are somewhat problematic, as you have discussed in previous interviews. Wolfsangel is not "wolf’s angel" (in the English sense), but a German word for "wolf-trap" that refers to a so-called runic symbol. The symbol has a disputed history, but no version of its origin traces it back to the Viking age. There was a rather nasty hooked trap used to capture wolves in Germany, and its shape is echoed in German heraldry dating back to 1340 – well past the end of the Viking age and not in Scandinavian territory. You reference the hunting tool in the novel in a wonderfully poetic way when the werewolf feels "as if the rune was hooked through his throat, pulling him up towards a terrible destiny." In any case, this early version lacks the central cross-bar of the Wolfsangel symbol, which doesn’t appear in heraldic design until sometime around the 18th century.

How to use a German Wolfsangel: (1) Sling longer piece over tree branch.
(2) Wrap meat around z-shaped hook. (3) Wait for wolf to take bait.

The symbol – as we know it today – was popularized by the Nazis, who used it as an insignia for several military divisions and programs. As far as I can tell, they got the symbol from the German occultist Guido von List. It seems to be based on "Gibor," the 19th "rune" in The Secret of the Runes (1908), which detailed the "occult vision" he had in 1902, when the "secret of the runes" appeared to him in a vision while his eyes were bandaged after a cataract operation. Tellingly, the 18th "rune" is the swastika. I’ve asked some colleagues (scholars, publishers, religious leaders) to weigh in on any runic origins for the symbol, and their reaction is telling.

List's Gibor

An Icelander said, "I cannot find a single reference to this symbol in my library." One (polite) German said "I do not know any older German source," and another (rather more forward) German said that "the Wolfsangel itself is, so far I know, more or less a kind of Fleischerhacken ["meat-hook"] used for wolf hunting. Not a rune. Wolfsangel seems to me really Nazi. He should use another name." A Norwegian said, "I have only seen that rune used by people like Boyd Rice/Death In June" – musicians associated with neo-nazi politics. The symbol is now banned in Germany and is categorized in the Anti-Defamation League’s Visual Database of Extremist Symbols under "Graphic Symbols," notably not under "Pagan Symbols Co-opted by Extremists."

Wolfsangel on cover of Rice's Music, Martinis and Misanthropy

You have said that, "in the Norse myths, the runes and the history of the Vikings we have a huge cultural treasure. We shouldn’t hand it over to morons without a fight." No argument here. In the novel, however, you acknowledge the non-Viking origins of the symbol, writing that it is "not one of the twenty-four runes given by Odin." When the witches first see the Wolfsangel, they have varied interpretations. Some see it as a thunderbolt, some as a werewolf. "Others," though, "saw a different meaning in the rune, one that it would bear down the centuries until one day someone gave it a name. Wolfsangel. This was not a word the sisters would have recognized, though its sense was clear to them – wolf trap." Did you choose this symbol because the book was originally intended – as you’ve said in interviews – to take place in WWII? Did you first plan to use it as a Nazi symbol, then reset it as a rune when moving the action back to the Viking age?

After the interview, a leading runologist wrote to me
about the runic origins of the Wolfsangel symbol:
"The whole concept seems very much like 19th-20th-
century rune magic. Pure hogwash, in other words."

ML - It’s a serious point you make, so I’m going to give it some serious attention – starting by telling you how the symbol ended up in the book and going on to discuss if its Nazi associations outside of the US and UK make it illegal or unusable.

The symbol appealed to me because it has three meanings – wolf trap, storm and werewolf, depending on the orientation. I have no idea where I got that information from – it’s something I think I picked up as a kid. I was very interested in runes, in hieroglyphs and all sorts of magical symbols and used to scan the encyclopedia for references to them. So the symbol was in my unconscious, I think, and that’s why it suddenly hopped out on to the page when I was writing.

It fitted well with the central theme of the book. Its use as a magical symbol which embodies all three meanings was a driving force of the plot. I have to be honest and say I did no research at all on it while I was writing the book and was unaware of its association with Nazism or neo-fascism until the book was nearly finished. Then I think I looked it up on Wikipedia and was given some pause for thought. However, the entry I read referenced it as a heraldic symbol, and my further research seemed to bear that out.

However, the Wolfsangel looks
much more like List's Gibor than
it does like heraldic symbols such
as this one from circa 1340

I was aware it may or may not have been a rune of the Viking Age but I incorporated it as a matter of artistic license. There is some suggestion that it is a version of the rune Eihwaz, which is a Viking rune, but I understood it emerged as a 13th-century Mason’s mark. Had I thought that rune originated with the Nazis – which I don’t think it did – then I would not have used it. I think it’s just part of the Nazis' haul of symbols swiped from Norse mythology, Rome, Victorian and Edwardian pagan revivalists and other cultures. Some of those symbols are beyond redemption, clearly – the swastika is rightly outlawed in Germany. But some of the symbols had a life before Nazism, continue to have a life independently of Nazism, and their association with the ideology – certainly in my country – is weak or non-existent. And in fact, some symbols that actually did originate with the Nazis outgrew them and have an entirely different cultural resonance today. The Olympic torch, for instance, was invented for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and the first lighting of the Olympic cauldron by a torch bearer was presided over by Hitler.

As far as my research goes the Wolfsangel is a heraldic symbol – one that is used in coats of arms in Germany and which continues to be used to this day. So it predates the Nazi smash and grab on mystical cultures and, crucially, it has a life independent of association with Nazism today. There are also uses of it which are contemporaneous with List but, as far as I know, have no connection to him. The 1910 novel The Warwolf by [Hermann] Löns incorporates it in a non-nazi context.

Löns' The Warwolf

List was certainly an unsavory figure and a Nordicist, but he wasn’t a Nazi and in fact was decried by the Nazi’s chief occult cheerleader Karl Maria Wiligut. However, some of what he thought chimed with the Nazi philosophies. But, then again, ideas of racial superiority and anti-semitism were common in that era. We were only just out of the Victorian age, where racist prejudice had the status of scientific fact. And not everyone who held those views was a Nazi. Churchill, for instance, was a supporter of eugenics and wrote, "the unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate." So, though it’s tempting to put List into the box "proto-Nazi," that may be a historically-inaccurate way of viewing him. He certainly talked a great deal of bunk and some of it nasty bunk – just as Churchill did – but it’s a long way from there to the Final Solution. He clearly had some horrible views, but they belonged more to the Victorian and Edwardian ages than they did to that of the horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

List was plundering heraldic symbols and adopting them to his runic alphabet, so it seems possible he got the Wolfsangel from heraldry. There’s no evidence Hitler took the swastika from List. It was a symbol in use by several German nationalist and folk movements, but it seems likely that Hitler adopted it from the Hindu symbol, based on claims by the orientalist and racialist Émile-Louis Burnouf that it was a fire altar seen from above. So I dispute your implication that the Nazis took both the swastika and the Wolfsangel from List – which is what I assume you meant by your use of the word "tellingly." They grabbed runes from a variety of sources, some of which weren’t actually runes but Hindu symbols.

There really is evidence of a connection, including
1932 statement by prominent member of the Guido
von List Society that Hitler is "one of our disciples"

Also, if you’re going to say that the Wolfsangel is intrinsically a Nazi symbol because the Nazis used it, then you’d have to say that Nordic neo-paganism is irredeemably stained by its association with Nazism, which continues to this day. Some neo-nazis do identify themselves as Odinists. I don’t think the link is unbreakable, though. I think it’s possible to be a Nordic religion revivalist and a decent human being. However, it’s undeniable that Nordic neo-paganism has its roots in nationalism and racialism. It’s also undeniable that, for many neo-pagans, it has left them behind.

There were two deciders for me. The first was that, contrary to your information earlier, the Wolfsangel is not banned in Germany. I researched this before deciding on using it. According to the German law, the symbol is illegal if used in a neo-nazi context – as it should be. In any other context, it’s fine. The German publishers were happy to reproduce the symbol in the book. The Wolfsangel is still used in coats of arms in Germany and in True Blood, which I assume is shown in Germany – it’s shown everywhere else! I was surprised that True Blood’s use of the Wolfsangel emerged a month after my book was published – one of those weird coincidences – and I haven’t seen the episodes with it in. What it does show, however, is that the symbol can be shown without controversy in a fantasy context.

German Criminal Code actually does punish anyone who
"domestically distributes or publicly uses, in a meeting or in
writings disseminated by him, symbols of one of the parties or
organizations" such as "a former National Socialist organization"

The second decider was that, in my primary market – US and the UK – the symbol has entirely lost any resonance it did have. Very few people would associate it with Nazism in the UK – and I believe very few in the US, too – outside of academic and specialist circles. I had no idea the book would sell in Germany, but we’ll come to that later. I tested it on a wide audience, and no one had even heard of it.

The symbol was used in the WWII version of the book. It’s used as in the Norse version of the book as a rune that lives inside someone. Other symbols the Nazis used are there, too. The Wolf’s Head was used by the main character as his family crest. He referred to it as "one of the many venerable symbols the Nazis have so presumptuously appropriated." The original WWII version was a fairly sustained and direct attack on the Nazis, their barbarity and their ridiculous occult research program. In the very first version, the main villain is a Nazi, and he falls very foul of the Norse gods – whom he is trying to summon. There are also two parallel threads – the descent into lycanthropy of one of the main characters, who manages to hold on to his humanity, and the far more disturbing descent of the other main character, a flippant but well-meaning young man who finds himself in the orbit of the SS and is utterly compromised and degenerated by the experience.

An obsession with wolves & the occult isn't unique to Germany.
Example 1: The symbol of Yale University's Wolf's Head Society

I was very pleased with the story, and it’s as well written as anything I’ve ever done. However, I cut it, after a lot of thought. The reason was that I just wasn’t convinced that an event as terrible as the Holocaust could be handled in what is, essentially, a fantasy story. I still don’t know that I made the right decision, because it was powerful stuff that made valuable points about the uses of faith – independent of its truth – in directing correct moral action. I was concerned, though, that my intention would be misunderstood because historical fantasy is, primarily, a form of entertainment. If you incorporate the barbarities of the Nazis in that context, would people think I was presenting them for entertainment? That was not my purpose at all. So I cut all the stuff in Germany out, even though I thought I had come up with something affecting and worthwhile.

The WWII version that was submitted to publishers only had Nazis in it flying at 40,000 feet over Coventry to bomb it. It’s a detective story set in the Blitz on my home town of Coventry in the UK. I may release the WWII story as an eBook one day, if my publishers agree – because it could be 20 years before I get there, if I keep proceeding through history. Which version I release will depend on a lot of consultation. I may even consult you, Karl! The one with the Nazis in it is definitely up there with the best stuff I’ve ever written. However, it may be treading on too many sensitivities. I have asked one Jewish friend of mine what he thinks of it, and he loves it, but I fear he may be untypical. X-Men, of course, touches on the whole concentration camp horror, and I have seen no complaints about that, so my feeling is that what I’m writing would be fine. It’s not like it’s making light of the Holocaust. But I’m not sure. So – if you’d care to read it – I’d love to get your opinion. Also, if you know any Jewish scholars who’d be willing to read it, then I’d love to get their opinion too.

Coventry Cathedral after the German bombing of November, 1940

KS - How do you feel about your choice now that the book is out in the world? In Germany, the novel has been published as Wolfskrieger ("wolf warrior"), and the cover features an image of a large, Marvel-style Thor’s hammer – two choices that clearly distance the book from what most Germans would see as fascist imagery. How would you explain your use of the symbol to a German or Israeli audience?

German edition of Wolfsangel

ML - Well, obviously, I don’t want to upset or offend anyone, but I don’t think I have! The symbol is used in Germany, as I said, entirely independently of fascist associations. I don’t know if most Germans see it as fascist imagery. If any do, then they haven’t mentioned it to me. The symbol is in the book in the German version. No one from the German publishers even raised it as an issue with me. So I don’t know how strong the association is in Germany. I should imagine that it’s stronger than it is in the UK, though. Sometimes books are retitled for no apparent reason. My book Lucky Dog was retitled When the Hound Came in German – not a title that gives the right impression in English at all! No one consulted me about that either. So I have no idea if the book was retitled out of concerns about the symbol’s association or for other reasons. I have no idea if the German publisher even recognized the association.

Let’s assume it was retitled out of concerns about the associations of the Wolfsangel – as seems likely. It was still left in the book, complete with an illustration of the symbol. I think this is because, when Germans read how I introduce the symbol in the context of the story, they can clearly see it is not used to support a fascist outlook, nor to make any political comment at all. I have had no comment from Germans on its use whatsoever, and it’s only come up in one interview worldwide so far, other than this one – and then because the interviewer’s flatmate was a military historian who recognized the sign. Thankfully, I have had no fascist idiots mistaking me for one of them either.

The important thing here is that the symbol is obscure in my country and in the US, and I am clearly not using it in a Nazi context, nor is there a crypto-fascist agenda in the book. Symbols are defined by context, and the context here is very obviously not one that supports Nazism or fascism. In fact, it very clearly points out the value of ordinary, fallible, humanity.

I would explain it to a German or Israeli audience by saying all of the above. There was certainly no intention to offend and, as far as I can see, no one has taken offense.

KS - In contemporary genre fiction, one major difference between writers in the US and the UK is the British willingness to kill off major characters over the course of a story. Think DC Comics versus 2000 AD – Superman and Batman keep dying and resurrecting, while the Mighty Tharg (2000 AD’s green alien editor) seems quite gleeful about bloodily axing long-running characters without a moment’s hesitation. Grant Morrison, especially, seems quite bloody-minded whenever he’s allowed to play in the sandboxes of American comic companies. You have said, "If I’d written Lord of the Rings, Sam would have been left dead on the mountain." Why do you think there’s this difference between American and British writing styles?

The death of Wulf Sternhammer, 2000 AD's time-traveling Viking

ML - I’m not sure I accept that. George R. R. Martin chops people down with relish. And Tolkien was British. No one you really care about dies in Lord of the Rings. In a country as big and as culturally diverse as the US, I’m not sure you can talk about "American writers" in any sense other than they happen to all live or work in the US.

Surely somebody cares about poor Gollum!
Painting by Frank Frazetta (1973)

If there is a difference, it’s because we British have a chip on our shoulders about happy endings. Somehow they don’t seem very clever, and we have a chip on our shoulders about that too. We’re the people making vomiting noises in the medal-giving ceremony in Star Wars. And was I the only one who felt sorry for the RDA Corporation in Avatar?

A writer needs to kill some of his characters occasionally to get taken seriously by the reader, to increase the dramatic charge. Otherwise, it’s all too comfortable. I never liked James Bond as a kid, because I never thought he was ever in any serious trouble. Spider-Man, however, earned huge respect from me when the writers killed Gwen Stacey. Wow! That never happened to Lois Lane. However, Bond is English and Spider-Man is as NYC as a stand-bought hot dog. You need to get the reader’s respect, and killing dearly loved characters is just one way to do it..

But let’s suppose you are right, or at least there is something in what you say. Why the difference? Do US writers grow up in a story-making culture so influenced by Hollywood and TV that the happy ending becomes almost a reflex for them, a tick? Can’t see that would account for much of a difference as we see the same films. Our public TV, however, is much darker. If you look at a lot of our cop shows – or even comedy shows – they are quite bleak, sometimes. Apparently, when the sublime Fawlty Towers – England’s best-ever sitcom, for my money – went to the States, US viewers were turned off by the unremitting nastiness of the main character. However, a lot of British men saw the rude, reactionary, abusive, snobbish, half-mad, sneering Basil Fawlty as a role model, or at least as saying and doing the things they would like to. The Office: An American Workplace features a foolish but essentially lovable main character. The main character, David Brent, in the English version has very few redeeming features at all. And yet a mainstream audience loves the show – it’s on public TV, not tucked away on a cable channel.

English culture hero Basil Fawlty moonlighting as a Scottish wizard

If there is a difference, perhaps it’s because US writers have an optimism that we lack in our country. We fell quite quickly from our role as the world’s superpower, and perhaps that has an ongoing effect on the national psyche. I don’t think modern British writers are harking back to the days of empire, but they are writing in a culture that still carries the invisible tremors of the aftershock of its collapse. It will be interesting to see, if the US loses its pre-eminent role in the world, how US writing changes.

KS - In the movie of the book, I would cast Summer Glau as Gullveig, a character with the same otherworldliness as Firefly’s River Tam. One scene in particular reminded me of a specific shot from the TV series. After Gullveig finds a dead girl in the witches’ labyrinthine caverns, "the witch leaned forward and tapped her tongue on the girl’s cheek."

Summer Glau as Firefly’s River Tam

Of course, Danielle Dax could also pull off Gullveig as “a girl, a wasted and haggard child, dressed in a long and bloody white shift.” When you were writing the novel, did you picture specific actors in an imaginary film?

From the cover of Danielle Dax's Blast the Human Flower (1990)

ML - Only Loki as John Hurt, in his Caligula role, though Hurt is too old to play the role nowadays. I kept envisaging Bodvar Bjarki either as a Swedish soccer fan I once encountered at an international match between England and Sweden – around 7'2" and built like a bear – or as Martin Johnson, the old England Rugby captain – a very intimidating individual of 6'7" and 265lbs. He’d have to change his hair color, though.

Martin Johnson & the spoils of victory

The rest, I don’t really have a solid picture of what they look like – Authun aside. I have a verbal imagination, not a visual one. I get glimpses of the characters, but they don’t sit still long enough for me to get a very clear look at them. One thing is certain, though, I wouldn’t like the corn-fed look of some of the Twilight actors. Nothing wrong with Twilight, but its actors look like what they are – affluent teenagers. My actors would have to appear a bit more starved, hungry and sharp looking.

Come to think of it, Mads Mikkelsen would make a good Authun. Valhalla Rising came out just before Wolfsangel was due to be published, and I was terrified it was going to feature the same view of magic, so mine would look derivative. It was a great film, though, and Mikkelsen certainly had the right look.

Mads Mikkelsen in Valhalla Rising (2009)

KS - There’s a wonderfully atmospheric video trailer out for Fenrir – the second book in the series – that hints at the power that a film version of the series could have. How far forward in history does this book move the story?

ML - It begins at the Viking siege of Paris in 885, so only about 60 or so years. This actually occurred and was one of the steps on the way to the foundation of Normandy. The trailer is good, isn’t it? The soundtrack is by Jonathan Harvey – Mortuos Plango. Sends shivers down the spine.

KS - What’s your planned schedule of writing and publishing the rest of the series? Has the whole process tilted more towards the exciting or to the daunting?

ML - The third is done, and the fourth will be written early in 2012. The third is set in Constantinople in about 969 and features the beginnings of the Varangian Guard – the Byzantine emperor’s Viking bodyguard.

KS - Thank you for being so gracious and patient during the interview process!

ML - Well, thanks for such an in-depth and challenging interview. It’s amazing to be questioned by someone with such a detailed knowledge of the book’s background. I’m aware that I’ve answered some questions as, "Dunno, just came out that way," but – as I noted several times – this is the prerogative of the creative writer rather than the academic. Thanks a lot, Karl. Much appreciated.


Alexander said...

Interesting interview! I really enjoy it!

Victor Genke said...

It is a pity that Norse symbols are often viewed as hate symbols. In fact, they are much older and convey different meanings. It will take a lot of time until people realize that. Thanks for this article.

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