Wednesday, February 26, 2014

5 Reasons to Look Forward to Season 2 of Vikings!

One of the best shows on TV last year was Vikings on the History Channel. (In my humble opinion, it was second only to Season 3 of Game of Thrones.) Season 2 of Vikings begins tomorrow, but before it starts I thought I’d re-cap 5 things about last season that have me looking forward to this one.

Ragnar and his Vikings were pretty badass!*

1. Ragnar Lothbrok!

I thought it was a brilliant move for the show’s writers to center Vikings around one of the most legendary Norsemen who ever lived. Historically, Ragnar Lothbrok (also known as “Ragnar Hairy Breeches”) was a hero of Old Norse poems at the dawn of the Viking Age. His sons, who included Ivar the Boneless and Ubba Ragnarson, would go on to become quite famous too. Anyone familiar with Bernard Cornell’s The Last Kingdom about the Dane’s efforts to conquer Britain in the Ninth Century will know these boys well!

Ragnar, who is played by Travis Fimmel, has everything you’d want in a protagonist. He’s brave and likeable, fierce yet merciful, nobly ambitious, and bit conflicted. Even though Gabriel Byrne (as Jarl Haraldson) was the show’s most famous actor when it premiered, Fimmel’s Ragnar makes the series as great as it is. Short of Jon Snow and Arya Stark, there’s no one on TV I like to root for more.

Men learn not to mess with Lagertha!

2. Ragnar’s Wife Lagertha is Very Cool Too!

The legendary Lagertha was a fierce shieldmadien whose courage was equal to the bravest man. In the show, she is perfectly portrayed by the beautiful Katheryn Winnick. Last season, she showed her mettle as a warrior and her wisdom as a queen while ruling in Ragnar’s stead. Last season ended tragically for her, and I fear it will only get worse. But she’s still one of my favorite characters on the show.

3. Brother Athelstan and the Christian/Pagan Tension

Being a fan of medieval monks, I was happy the writers turned Brother Athelstan into a regular character. In episode 2, Ragnar enslaved Athelstan after the famous sacking of the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Lindisfarne (you can watch a more amusing portrayal of that even here). The Vikings attack on Lindisfarne in 793 is considered by many historians to mark the beginning of the Viking Age. And while it’s unlikely that Ragnar Lothbrok was actually there, it was appropriate for a show about the early Vikings to include this event.

Monasteries weren't the safest places in the Viking Age!

Now back to Athelstan. He’s the character who lets the viewer observe the Danes and their culture from more of an Anglo-Saxon Christian point-of-view. He’s also an enduring character who earns Ragnar’s trust and a high place in his home. In the episode late last season in the Temple at Uppsala, his character created a stark contrast between his Christian faith and the Norse religion with its disturbing human sacrifice. The tension between Christianity and pagan beliefs would be a big deal for much of the Viking Age, and I’m glad the writers incorporated that element through Athelstan.

4. The Brothers’ War

Ragnar’s brother, Rollo, stayed loyal for a while, but ever since he’s fallen in with Siggy, the late Jarl Haraldson’s widow, he’s been dreaming of Ragnar’s throne. Now Rollo has secretly betrayed Ragnar, setting up a war between brothers that should provide a major source of conflict in Season 2 (in fact, the first episode is called “Brother’s War”).

This princess turns Ragnar's world upside down!

5. The Mysterious Princess Auslag

I didn’t realize she was an actual historical princess until after watching Season 1, but her appearance at the season’s end threw me for a curve. Ragnar first sees her bathing, and she’s so mysterious and ethereally beautiful that I half-expected the show to suggest she was a maiden of the Fae. (In fact, in the show she’s the daughter of Brynhildr, who in Norse mythology is one of the Fae-like Valkyrie!) In any event, Auslag seduces Ragnar—and in the big twist—now carries his son. This revelation has turned Ragnar’s life upside down, and if real history is any guide, she will be playing a much larger role in Season 2. And I suspect Lagertha will be none too happy about it either!
Let me know if you have something you liked about Season 1 of Vikings or are looking forward to in Season 2. Or just send me a comment after tomorrow’s show!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Magic of Medieval Fiction: The Seventh Century, When the World Changed

My meandering series on The Magic of Medieval Fiction moves into the Seventh Century, an era that is squarely within the Dark Ages as far as historical novels go. In fact, attempting to even identify novels set in this century proved to be a huge challenge. But maybe there’s a good reason for this.

The Merovingians were still around ... what secrets were they hiding?
By the Seventh Century we’re more than a hundred years past the fiction-rich Age of Arthur in Britain. Instead, we have the early years of the seven Saxon kingdoms that would eventually form England and play an exciting role in historical fiction, but we’ll have to wait until the Ninth Century for that.

The Merovingian dynasty still ruled what would become France, but their fictional heyday wouldn’t come until Robert Langdon started talking about them in The Da Vinci Code. The Visigoth’s ruled Spain, yet if there’s any good Visigoth-centered historical fiction that takes place after the fall of Rome, that would be news to me. And speaking of Rome, there was nothing going on to inspire any compelling historical fiction that I was able to find. In Europe, that’s about it. A big fat yawn.

Islam spread across the Arabian Peninsula

But that doesn’t mean absolutely HUGE things weren’t going on in the Seventh Century. Actually, it’s the century where the whole world changed—big time I might add—because in the year 610 a man from Mecca name Muhammad climbed a mountain and spoke to the angel Jabril, and you probably know what happened next. In short time, the Prophet Muhammad united all of Arabia under Islam. By 632, the year that Muhammad died, the “Muslim Conquests” began and by the end of the Seventh Century, the followers of Muhammad would conquer Syria, Armenia, Cyprus, North Africa, Egypt, and Persia.

And Amir Hamza was an Arabian hero!

There may be a ton of historical fiction centered on the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim Conquests, but if so I couldn’t find it. What I did discover is a Persian epic called The Adventures of Amir Hamza. Hamza was the paternal uncle of Muhammad, and his story is a magical tale of bravery and adventure that sets the literary stage for the Eight Century’s classic Persian text Tales from the Arabian Nights. Here’s the description of the story from a translation available on Amazon:
[A] panoramic tale of magic and passion, a classic hero’s odyssey that has captivated much of the world. It is the spellbinding story of Amir Hamza, the adventurer who in the service of the Persian emperor defeats many enemies, loves many women, and converts hundreds of infidels to the True Faith before finding his way back to his first love. In Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s faithful rendition, this masterwork is captured with all its colorful action and fantastic elements intact. Appreciated as the seminal Islamic epic or enjoyed as a sweeping tale as rich and inventive as Homer’s epic sagas, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is a true literary treasure.
The New York Times Book Review called it “The Iliad and Odyssey of medieval Persia, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga . . . in an interpretation so fluent that it is a pleasure to sit down and lose oneself in it.” I bought the book on Kindle and am enjoying it a ton. I promise to post a review when I finish it. But other than this classic text, I’m at a loss to identify any other significant fiction set in this century.
I may be missing something, however. So, if you know of any good historical fiction set in the Seventh Century, please let me know. Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy The Adventures of Amir Hamza!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Game of Thrones Trailer #2 - Vengeance - Is Out

Yesterday, HBO released the second trailer for Season 4 of Game of Thrones. I love how it begins with Arya Stark listing the names of all the people she's going to kill! Looks like this one will finish A Storm of Swords, though I understand there are bits from A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. Only 7 more weeks ...

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Bit of Pirate Humor - Blackbeard's Crib!

In honor of Black Sails, my new favorite show during the endless winter that exists between each season of Game of Thrones, I discovered this little bit of pirate humor thanks to the talented folks at Horrible Histories. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

My Interview With Author L. Marrick

This week, I was lucky enough to interview author L. Marrick about her new historical fantasy The Hallowed. I really enjoyed the novel, which is a unique prequel to the story of King Arthur and Merlin (you can read my review here).

Welcome to the blog, Ms. Marrick, it’s great to have you here. Let’s get started with a question that’s been percolating in my mind since I finished The Hallowed.

Q: The series is titled the “Dynasty of Arthur and Merlin,” but it begins with the emperor Constantine III in the early Fifth Century. Why did you choose to start your series with Constantine?

Thanks Joseph, and I’m so thrilled to be on your blog!

I started researching the Arthurian Legend back in high school, when I first fell in love with it. One thing that really caught my imagination was that King Arthur had ties to Roman history. Constantine III was not only a British king and Roman emperor, but also, according to some stories, Arthur’s grandfather. I loved the idea of a single family leading Britain out of Roman rule to independence over the course of several generations. I loved the idea of starting from a structured, historical place (Rome) and seeing a more mythological realm slowly rise as the family turns away from “the establishment” and finds their own identity.

Q: In your Author’s Note—which is very good by the way—you mention there’s a historical basis for the character of Julian. How much of Julian was historically based and how much was the product of your imagination?

We know very little about Julian. Edward Gibbon mentions him in passing (basically to tell us when he died). We know he was Constantine’s son. But I’ve corrupted even this one little existent fact, and made him Constantine’s nephew (because I have no respect for the dead).

I’ll admit, I didn’t pay much attention to Julian when I first started writing. Constantine was supposed to be the main character, but for some reason it just wasn’t working. It felt forced. So I decided to do a little writing exercise from a different character’s perspective. I picked someone who would have been close to Constantine in his final days, and that was Julian. Once I started that “little” writing exercise, the book blossomed. Before, it had felt as though I was trying to tell Constantine what to do (and he would never have that!), but once Julian showed up and started doing things all by himself, I knew I’d found my true main character.

Q: Much of the story is focused around the power that makes Julian “Hallowed.” What inspired your thoughts on this “Hallowed” power?

I guess I could talk about being inspired by The Force from Star Wars, or Harry Potter’s wizarding powers, or Professor X’s telepathic abilities. The Hallowed arts are a lot like all of those. I didn’t go out of my way to be different, but neither did I try to copy anything. What I really took my cues from was my own practice and experiences of meditation, and the power the mind has in relationship to reality. I wanted Julian’s powers to give him a connection to other realms, like the afterlife and the otherworld, but most especially to his own higher self. I believe that when we access our highest selves, anything is possible, and meditation is probably the best tool we have for that.

Q: I thought the character of Guntilde was really well-written. What inspired you to create her for this tale?

Thank you! I have a particular affection for Guntilde, although she probably wouldn’t return the sentiment.

Guntilde is a Frankish woman in Constantine’s army. She was raised by the men of her clan, and is married to one of them. She could very easily have become a classic “warrior woman”—all about girl power while swinging an axe and falling in love. But I’ve never appreciated that archetype (Stereotype? Cliché? Whatever.). I wanted someone different.

Guntilde isn’t into girl power. She hates anything that has to do with being a woman. If she could turn herself into a man, I think she would. She’s afraid of her own emotions, and Julian—who is not “a man’s man,” and who seems to need her protection—brings those emotions out of her. He makes her feel vulnerable and she can’t stand that. But at the same time, her emotions for him are strong, so she can’t leave him alone.

Q: Although I didn’t mention him in the review, I also really liked the character of Edobich. Is he a historical figure? And what can you tell us about him?

Oh, I took a lot of liberties with the historical character of Edobich! Seriously. A lot.

He was real. He was one of Constantine’s Frankish generals, who drummed up reinforcements when Constantine was besieged. As far as I know, the real Edobich was not a freed slave, nor was he physically unable to speak. But I wanted a character who had once been made to feel very powerless (a tongueless slave seemed to fit the bill), and yet found an inner place that not only helped him survive, but also to access his own wisdom and courage. Given a position of power, I thought a man like that could be truly great.

For reasons I can’t get into here, I modeled Edobich on the kind of talent and loyalty I thought a knight of the round table ought to show.

Q: Can you give us a hint about whether Book 2 in the series will continue Julian’s tale? Or will it move up in the timeline closer to the actual days of Merlin and Arthur?

Both! Book 2 will include several more familiar Arthurian characters, but we don’t have to move forward too far in time to see that happen. King Arthur was said to be doing his thing in the early Dark Ages, so we’re talking about the fifth/sixth century—not long after Julian’s running around get caught in sieges.

Q: Last question: About a year ago I ran a post titled “Who Was King Arthur” about the potential historical origins of the legendary British king. As an author of Arthurian fiction, what is your view?

Historically, I think that Arthur was probably a warlord—one of many chieftains who was particularly good at beating back invaders and rallying men of all stripes to help him do it. The name “Pendragon” means “Chief Dragon” or “Chief of Warriors,” and it was adopted by Arthur’s father and uncle (it wasn’t their given name). That’s my historical take.

But versions of the Arthurian Legend that try to eliminate mythology and just focus on history are miserable, in my opinion. The story has bones but no soul. That’s not what’s made the legend endure. Mythologically, there’s a lot more to Arthur. He’s a savior-king who can deliver a golden age of peace. He has access to powers other men don’t, such as magic (Merlin) and innocence (Sir Galahad). He has allies in the otherworld. He has access to his highest self, which makes him the best choice for a King of kings. He dies, but doesn’t really die.

I hope to elevate the history and bring the myth down a notch or two for my Arthur.

Me: After reading this, I'm really looking forward to Book 2! Thanks L. Marrick, and best of luck with The Hallowed!