Well, it’s been an adventure for all of us lately, hasn’t it? Although ‘adventure’ is probably a polite word for the bewildering changes thrust upon us by the advent of Covid 19. For writers, it’s been a chance to focus (and I mean really focus, given the lockdowns that many of us have experienced). It’s allowed me to think long and hard about my new series, ‘The Chronicles of Albion’, and how to keep the new books connected with Middengard, while spending far more time with characters in the human world. And the end result? ‘Gloriana’ which, as one reviewer has so kindly put it, is an exciting blend of fantasy and history. It certainly has a glorious cover (if you’ll pardon the pun). And did you notice the cat? What has a cat to do with anything? Quite a lot, in turns out….
What makes you write a particular book? Does the story find you or do you find the story?
I’ve been asked this question a few times (or versions thereof). In my case – like many other authors – I write what I love reading. I read a lot (all those library books as a child, remember) across most genres (except romance, sorry just can’t go there, unless it’s Jane Austen or the Brontes). But I know my limitations. I’m not going to win a Booker prize any time soon and I’m (largely) too lazy to do painstaking research. But I have a good imagination and I love stories that consider the many things in heaven and earth that…(yes, thank you Hamlet). So when it comes to Middengard, here are a few of the books and paintings that have inspired me.
Beowulf – I first read this epic poem over 35 years ago, in the original Old English (show off). Written in the ninth or 10th century, the tale is as heroic and gripping as any modern epic. The poetry, with alliterative verse rooted in the oral tradition, is powerful and mesmerizing. In historical terms, the characters are Norse pagans and whilst the poem’s authorship is unknown, some scholars believe it was composed in Yorkshire….(others claim the Midlands but I’ll stick with the Yorkshire angle).
Morte d’ Arthur (Sir Thomas Mallory). I can’t remember when I first read these books. When I was at school I think (although they weren’t on the syllabus) – and then later at university. Written in the 15th century, the books are a reworking of existing tales of the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Whilst many modern versions of the myths are well-known and well read (T H White’s “The Once and Future King is one of my favourites) these early retellings are captivating and the language (this time defined loosely as Middle English) has its own compelling beauty.
The Lady of Shalott – poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and painting by John Waterhouse (19th century). You can’t really go past these lines can you:
“The mirror crack’d from side to side, the curse has come upon me cried, The Lady of Shalott.”
Inspired by Malory, Tennyson wrote his own version of the Arthurian myth with his cycle of narrative poems “The Idylls of the King.” The Lady of Shalott is a stand alone poem, loosely based on the legend of Elaine of Astolat and her unrequited love for Sir Lancelot. It’s one of those fascinating, albeit melodramatic, Victorian poems that once they’re in your head…well, they clearly stay there. Look out for Lady of Shalott themes coming up in Book 4 of the Middengard Sagas…(out in 2018).
Sorry for the radio silence. I’ve been busy editing “Stone Wielder” and attending to other parts of my life….but writing (and the next project) is never far away. I’ve started the first chapter of two new books…not part of the Middengard Sagas, different books entirely. I’ve been reading and working (ah yes, there is still some accounting/consulting work to be done) and attending to health matters. In three weeks I’m having foot surgery, I’ll be laid up for six weeks, so maybe I’ll get beyond chapter one of the new books…
But of course none of that is relevant to the topic for today. You might have noticed by now I’m a Shakespeare fan (pop-up Globe Theatre coming to Melbourne soon – how exciting is that???). And I’m a huge GOT fan (along with zillions of others). I read all the books in 2013. Then I binge watched the TV series on DVD (no Foxtel in our house) – or sometimes on long-haul plane flights (disadvantage: small screen; advantage: sure passes the time). And having just finished series 6 on the way back from my US trip, I was struck (not for the first time) how Shakespearean the whole drama is. A few examples:
- Cersei’s speech seeking vengeance for her dead children (understandable, she’s kinda out of them now) – hugely reminiscent of the widowed queens Margaret and Elizabeth in Richard the Third, and Lena Heady carries it off with aplomb.
- Jon’s speech to his troops prior to “Battle of the Bastards” – shades of Henry V before Agincourt. (OMG how good was that battle. Shame Jon or Sir Davos didn’t realise Ramsey Bolten had stolen all his battle strategy from the Romans – who were pretty good at wiping out local insurgents. At least Sansa’s got her head screwed on).
- Comic interludes – surely the Hound (glad he’s made a reappearance) is going to serve, well, not as Falstaff exactly….but it’s good to have some breaks from mass mayhem and take it down to an individual level.
Oh, and another thing….Brienne and Jaime Lannister. Not Shakespeare now, but that relationship has to be one of the best modern takes on Arthurian courtly love we’ve seen for a long time. When Jaime allowed Brienne to sail off down the river…well, let’s just say I was snuffling into my hankie at that point.
As for Season 7 – well, it will be a while between drinks for me – although I read all the articles after each episode goes to air. So I know what happens…Spoiler? No – it will prevent me having a heart attack when I eventually get to binge watch. (N.B. to producers: you cannot kill off Jaime Lannister. There will be serious consequences to my wellbeing).
Jinx the cat (and the Author’s agent when in a good mood) writes: “The Old Kingdom” books by Garth Nix are my favourite, because they feature a VERY IMPORTANT CAT, called Mogget. Why you-know-who couldn’t take the hint and write me a key role in the Middengard Sagas is anybody’s guess. Talk about loyalty.”
Hugh Mackay: The Good Life. This one’s from me (Author here). I read this book a couple of year’s ago. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction (except history and biography) but this sounded really interesting. Social researcher Hugh Mackay poses some challenging questions: what constitutes a good life? How can I live a life worth living? When he posited the view that we can all lead a good life, or at least a better life, by looking outwards and not always inwards, by thinking about other people and not always ourselves, I wanted to cheer. He doesn’t tell you to be a dogsbody, but he does tell you to help others, in whatever way you can. It really is that simple. Read it and learn.
The wonderful Meg writes: “Interesting question June “what book changed my life”, but hard to answer as I have always been a voracious reader, devouring books from family bookshelves and the public library at the rate of at least 6 a week -incidentally I think the free public library is one of the treasures of western democracy. However, with a little thought I’d like to mention “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain. I had always been fascinated (and appalled) by the first World War, but had never read such a hugely powerful book from a woman’s perspective who survived terrible grief and went on to be such a strong woman, a faithful friend and a powerful feminist……… I read the book back in the 70s when I was exploring feminism and my life as a woman and it brought a new perspective to that struggle.” (Author’s note here: Meg, I am super-impressed that you knew Vera Brittain…how wonderful to have had such a formative relationship, fairly early on in your life).
Do you have a book that made an impact on your life? If you do, please share! Everyone love’s to hear everyone else’s stories. You can contact me via the website here or via the FB author page: @ June Wilson Author.
I was vacuuming today and thinking about Shakespeare (as you do). Thing is, I’m a bit nerdy about Shakespeare. Like I am about Doctor Who. (No link. Whatsover. Except I am a BIG FAN). Anyway….my thoughts were occasioned by a theatre outing the night before, to see Monash Shakespeare’s production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).”
For those who don’t know, this is a comedic take originally written in the 1980’s, which offers a compressed and witty version of all 37 plays. In the Monash production (put on by students at the university), I was impressed by the quality of the performances and the 21st century updates. It certainly made the plays accessible for those who (like my husband) thought Hamlet was a small village in Midsomer Murders.
After lots of fun and mayham, Hamlet – as Shakespeare’s greatest play – was left till last. And whilst the tone throughout was comedic, there was a serious moment, when a young cast member delivered one of the great soliloquies. Literally a hush fell – the audience (after so much laughter) suitably stunned by the poetry and emotion in those few lines.
And that’s the power of Shakespeare. Which meant (back to the vacuuming) there was plenty to think about today. I thought of all great Hamlets I had seen – some on stage and some on film. For film versions, here are my top 3:
Kozintsev’s 1964 Russian version (obligingly sub-titled). Saw this when I was 17, the school took us to a screening in Bradford (in 1977 I should add – I’m not that old). The most atmospheric version I’ve ever seen: black and white, score by Shostakovitch. If you haven’t seen it, search it out.
Ok, I’ve still got a bit of a crush on Ken (much to my husband’s disgust). Seen this version several times, well-filmed, and he wasn’t over-acting (sadly, it can happen). And while we’re on the subject of over-acting, I’ve never liked the Laurence Olivier version. Sorry, but there it is.
Saw this one only recently – National Theatre Live film of the stage play, wtih Cumberbatch in the central role. AMAZING. SEE IT. (I suppose I didn’t mention he’s my current favourite actor – maybe along with Tom Hiddleston. Ooh, and maybe Ben Wishaw).
And for Shakespeare lovers – you can see them all in “The Hollow Crown”: Ben Wishaw as Richard II, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V and Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III.
As for the Hamlets I would have liked to have seen but haven’t: Mark Rylance (RSC 1988) and David Tennant (RSC 2008).
Have you got a favourite Shakepeare play/film/character? Or do you loathe it all (schoolroom versions have a lot to answer for). Love to hear from you!
So, War and Peace. Everyone’s heard of it, right? How many times have you heard someone say: I don’t need War and Peace! a quick summary will do (or words to that effect). It may be the most well-known book that the average reader (even supposing there is such a person) hasn’t read.
Of course, there’s no denying it’s length. At nearly 600,000 words, it’s a whopper. But consider this, all the Harry Potter books put together contain almost 1.1 million words. And the Game of Thrones books (as they stand – where on earth is the next novel George?) contain a massive 1.7 million.
But I would like to make a personal plea to readers everywhere – if you haven’t tried it already, give it a go! I’ve shared my personal experience of reading it below, in the hope it might inspire you…..
So…the year was 1982, April to be precise. I was unemployed, 10 months out of university and 4 months out of a disastrous stint selling shoes on the Isle of Wight (don’t ask). My mother had advised me to do a shorthand/typing course, and whilst it had been tempting to ask whether she still thought it was the 1950s, I bit my tongue and got on with it. It was better than doing nothing.
So there I was, in Leeds, dreary bus rides, walk to dreary training building. I can’t remember a single other person doing that course, but surely there must have been. High point of the day was the 1 hour lunch break, which I spent in my favourite dark basement cafe (everything seemed dark back then) nursing a cup of coffee and a scone (I was broke, you know). And devouring, page by small typescript page, ‘War and Peace.’ How wonderful it was to be transported to another world, where all the characters had fascinating names I could never hope to pronounce, who struggled with all the BIG questions in life on a personal, moral and philosophical level….(as opposed to understanding shorthand).
…and then there are the battle scenes – the book being famous for the depiction of Napoleon’s advance on Moscow – hailed as some of the best ever written. And I love a good battle! I was often shocked to emerge onto a rain-spattered Leeds pavement when I had imagined myself at Borodino, surrounded by canon fire rather than the passing of the number 33 bus to Ilkley.
I’ll never forget that particular reading experience. And after 35 years, I think it’s time for a re-read. In bigger typeface, mind you.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, I passed that course. Never used the shorthand, but touch typing – well, it could have been the best skill I ever learnt, the way things turned out.
Some important contributions this month. This one is really special, from Emma, aged 10:
Wise words from the young. In my case, it’s taken me 50 years to get a book out in the public arena (yes I really am quite ancient). Although I started early – reading “Adventure at Lighthouse Creek” to my fellow 7 year olds at Featherbank junior school (deep and darkest Yorkshire), through to my historical romance written at 19 (“not quite what I expected” from my English Lit. tutor at Manchester) and a whole lot of other false starts…here I am!! So Emma, if you follow your own advice, you will never go wrong.
…And this one too, from a dear friend across the water (a lot of water) on the Emerald Isle:
Book that changed my life…….. I love reading, from a very young age I disappeared into the world of Enid Blyton, where on every tree I saw became a possible adventure. Then, at around 11, I read “Little women”. As one of four girls I identified with these four sisters, their relationships and inner turmoils (and of course I was Jo!). Although there are parts of all of these girls in all of us, which is what made this such a good read!
“The Shack” made me re-evalute my expectations of God and the part he/she plays in my life. It really impacted on my faith in a positive way. And lastly, “The last days of Rabbit Hayes”. I read it from start to finish in 6 hours. First book all nighter I had done in a while. Not an Epic by any stretch but touched my heart and I cried and laughed for hours . There are lots more that have changed me, if only for a day, I could write for hours.
And finally from another dear friend, who has not yet read an ebook (yes I can understand all the issues with ebooks – real, paper books will always be my personal preference…):
“YOUR new book may be a life changing book in one way as I do not have an Amazon account but will have to set one up to be able to read it! I am a bit old fashioned as I still like to hold a book in my hands.”
So…Middengard, what does it look like? If you’ve read “Stone Keeper” you’ll have your own ideas. But I thought it might be a nice idea to share some of the places that inspired me.
The thing is, I love walking. Comes of the fell walking my parents made me do when I was young. We complained at the time (my sister and I) – no trips to Disneyland for us. It was always walking, walking, up some windswept moor or other or some foggy mountain in Scotland. Remote cottages with no TV, heating if you were lucky….Anyway, I digress. The walking bug has stuck with me, and whilst living on this side of the equator, I’ve done some magnificent walks on the South Island of New Zealand. This picture, which was taken whilst walking the Milford Track, was my inspiration for the Black Tarn that Stanor, Alice et al reach in Chapter 9 (and which Alice and Toby return to in Chapter 17).
Beautiful, isnt’ it? And further on, on the same track, there are magnificent waterfalls. Certainly one worthy enough to hide the entrance to the Anhaga’s cave:
No wonder Stanor tells Alice to watch her footing. I got within barely ten metres of this cascade and was drenched in spray. Good job Alice is the hardy type.
But what about Melbourne? Are the places there real? Yes they are, and they’re right on my doorstep. Here’s the Shrine of Remembrance, I walk past it nearly every day. Now, you can’t tell me there aren’t any secret passages in there….
And just wait till Book 3 (spoiler alert) … we get to the Australian Outback then. Now that is worth seeing – so make sure you check the blog once Book 3 is on sale.
So….Middengard. What’s it based on? Did I make all that stuff up? No, I’m not clever enough for that, I’m afraid. We all need inspiration. Norse mythology was mine. (I’m in great company: Tolkien anyone?).
Norse mythology is fascinating – and quite complex. I only wanted to use bits (hey, I’m a writer, I can be choosey). So here’s a very, very high level summary. And then a bit about what I used and why.
There are nine worlds in Norse mythology, all with wonderful names:
Niflheim – land of fog and mists Muspelheim – land of fire and lava
Asgard – home of the Gods Midgard – home of the humans
Jotunheim – home of the giant Vanaheim – home of the Vanir
Alfheim – home of the light elves Svartalheim – home of the dwarves
Helheim – home of the dishonorable dead, thieves and murderers
All nine worlds are held in the branches of the world tree, Yggdrasil.
So, I was a bit selective here. Midgard became “Middengard” – which is an alternative spelling in Old English texts for our world, or the earth. But in my stories, Middengard is the hidden world, the world that existed before the earth was populated by men, after the Final Battle (see Ragnoräk, below).
I also chose to combine the characteristics Niflheim and Helheim, to make one terrible place, where Alice’s mother is imprisoned.
Gods and Goddesses
There a number of Norse Gods and Goddesses, some more familiar to the modern reader (or filmgoer) than others. The male Gods are known as the Aesir and the female Gods as the Asynjur. The Vanir are also Gods, who fought with the Aesir but made peace with them after Rangoräk. They are known for their sorcery and ability to see the future. (Following this? Come on – keep up!).
Now, everyone knows about Thor (don’t they?) and possibly Odin, so here they are, along with a few important others:
Odin (Aesir): the most powerful God in Asgard, Odin can see across all the nine worlds.
Thor (Aesir): son of Odin. He is the strongest of all the Gods and the protector of mankind.
Frigg (Asynjur): married to Odin and stepmother to Thor, she has the power of prophecy.
Njord (Vanir): father of the twins Freya and Freyr, Njord came to live in Asgard once the war between the Aesir and the Vanir was over, bringing his children with him.
Freya (Vanir): daughter of Njord, she is the Goddess of love and known for her beauty, but is also associated with fertility, gold, war and death.
Freyr (Vanir): the beautiful male God of fertility, who is also associated with wealth and a good harvest. He rules in Alfheim and is Lord of the Elves.
In the Middengard Sagas (to date), only Freya has made an appearance. I have elevated her power, leaving the male Gods largely out of the picture. Her tears – the Doom Stones – are entirely a story of my making. She plays a crucial role in guiding Alice to fulfill her destiny and is the Goddess whom the Hilderinc most revere.
Importantly in Stone Quest, the character Isolde is of the Vanir. Her powers are wide-ranging – but luckily she only uses them for good. (Or does she? That’s why you need to read Book Three when it comes out….).
If you like epic fantasy, you’ll be familiar with “end of the world” scenarios. In Norse mythology, Ragnoräk is the final battle between Gods and giants, when everyone will die, including humans. Ragnoräk will take place on the plains of Vigrid. The signs that the final battle is coming are three uninterrupted, long, cold winters with no summers between. (Dare I mention – “winter is coming”?).
After Ragnoräk, most of the Gods will die, but a new world will rise up, and a man and woman who sheltered in Yggdrasil will repopulate the earth again. Several Gods will survive and these Gods will go to Idavoll. There will be a new terrible place, a hall on Nastrond, the shore of corpses. All thieves and murderers will be imprisoned in this place.
The concept of Ragnoräk, and what came after, is an important thread in the Middengard Sagas. Stanor tells Alice about the final battle in Stone Keeper. I don’t use the name Ragnoräk as I felt this might be too confusing. In my version of the story, the Hilderinc are contributors to (if not the instigators of) the final battle, and to punish them the Gods give the world over to men, leaving the Hilderinc in a guardianship role. It is frustration with this role (and the associated loss of power) that drives Geraint, whereas mankind’s ill-treatment of their gift (the earth) is one of the factors driving Alice’s unknown enemy in Stone Quest. Stone Quest also references Nastrond and the shore of corpses, where Ellie walks to pass the interminable days of her imprisonment.
Anything Else? What about the Hilderinc?
Ah yes, the Hilderinc. All my invention, I’m afraid. I needed some kind of “super human” with warrior characteristics – like a Viking on steroids. The word “hilderinc” comes from Old English and means “warrior” or “fighter.”
Which reminds me, talking of Old English (no, it doesn’t mean English spoken by old people). It used to be called Anglo Saxon and refers to the form of English spoken in parts of modern day England, between the fifth and late 11th centuries. I borrowed words from primary texts of that era. Here are a few of them:
Aetheling – means “lord” or “ruler”. I used this term for the Gods in Middengard, as I didn’t want to make an outright reference to the Norse Gods by calling them the Aesir. There are other Gods/Goddesses in my books that I invented, so this seemed the best way round it.
Anhaga – means solitary one, recluse, outcast. The Anhaga is such a person, as Stanor tells Alice in Chapter 10 of Stone Keeper.
Dõm – means judgement. This word eventually morphed into the modern day word “doom”. It’s an important concept in the Middengard world, as Alice’s stone is a “doom” stone, being a symbol of the judgement Freya passed on the Hilderinc after the Final Battle.
Ealdor – means prince or Lord. In Stone Quest, I gave this title to the ruler of the Skellstor Council, with a focus on the latter meaning. Importantly, the Council leader is not a king, as Middengard is a form of democracy, with no reigning monarchy.
So – you’re on my Facebook author page, or my website, so you must like reading. You probably love reading. Some of you will love fantasy, but have never read, say, biographies. Others might love everything. You might be the sort of person who reads the back of other people’s newspapers, if you’ve nothing else to hand (or possibly not these days, because who reads newspaper when you’ve got 24 hour news feeds on your phone?). Anyway….I thought it might be interesting to start asking people of my acquaintance the question: what book/books changed your life and why?
So here are some of the responses. I’ve collected a surprising number, so I’ll post a few month. (As some of my dear girlfriends (DGFs) across the globe prefer to keep their anonymity, please forgive my naming system…). And if you’d like to share, send in your nomination via the “contact” page.
John (husband) Age: prefers not to reveal. Clue: definite baby boomer. Lives: Australia
“A book that changed my life? Must have been “Principles of Accounting” in Grade 8. Yep. Never looked back.”
DGF1 Age: prefers not to reveal (spotting a trend?) Lives: Australia
“Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. It was so evocative of time and place and the story was so sad and moving, the family so poor, I had to keep putting it down and waiting a week before I could tackle it again. I was an adult when I read it and living in another State, but it conjured up many thoughts and emotions in respect to my own growing up in Perth. When I look back, I think it made me appreciate what I have, what we all have, and how you can change your life, with determination.”
Former colleague and friend (male)
“Books? Never read them. No time. Plus I’d have to sit still. I’ll read your book if you like though. Well, maybe the first chapter. Or tell you what – can you do me an Executive Summary?”
Jinx the cat. Age: 14 Lives: with me at home.
“Books? I can’t read – I’m a cat. And if I could, it wouldn’t be yours. I heard a dog features prominently in Chapter One of Stone Keeper. I’m hugely offended. Now go away, I’m trying to sleep.
Me (June) Age: cough. Well, you can probably work it out. Let’s say 50 something.
“Books – there are so many I’ve loved to death. But the first standout, the one that scorched its way into my teenage consciousness, was Wuthering Heights. Not because I was thirteen and it was a love story (which I always argue it isn’t, at least not in the normal way) but because it was the first time I realised the full power of language. The way description of character and place can knock you for six, leaving you feeling drained, literally suspended in another world. If you haven’t read it, do.”
DGF2 Age: similar to me. Occupation: writer, sculptor, artist.
“The book that changed my life…? There’s more than one. I guess the first was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I grew up in a wealthy family and had not seen poverty, let alone imagined what it would be like. I read Steinbeck’s novel in 1974, when I was about 14. The events he wrote about felt close: a history just behind my back. The book awakened within me empathy for strangers. I read it again as an adult and it read like propaganda so I’m not sure about re-reading these most significant books. The next book that changed my life was Mila 18 by Leon Uris. I read it when I was about 15. I hadn’t known about the holocaust, or that there were Jewish people in the world, until I read that book. The book triggered my commitment to human rights and strengthened my dislike of patriotism and the opinions of the crowd. The next book was The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, after which I became a feminist and extricated myself from my misogynist marriage. Hopefully, there are more to come.”
William Shakespeare (ghost of). Occupation: World’s Greatest Writer
“A book that changed my life? Surely thou jest. The mountain hath no interest in the molehill. And betimes, I’m much occupied with keeping yon Tudors happy: a task that takes all my ken.”
Ruth (ruthrowlingwrites.wordpress.com) Age: fifty something Lives: Norway
“Once I started reading, which was a struggle as I’m dyslexic, I never stopped. So the most momentous reading experiences were the first ‘proper’ books I read as a child. The first was Prince Caspian from the Narnia series. I didn’t really know what was going on, but it felt magical. The second was Shadow the Sheep Dog by Enid Blyton, a homely tale that turned my everyday life into a romance (I grew up on a farm). I remember these books as a huge breakthrough: the moment I discovered I could read and absorb a story without just struggling with the words.”