12.12.12 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 4.3: Historical Expertise in Medieval Studies (Or, Having Some Fun Setting the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology against the Three Religious Worlds of Medieval Europe & the Mediterranean Sea)
I’ll write more about the broader scope of a medievalist’s training in later blogs, but in keeping to this track of the journey that led to my writing epic fantasy, I need to bring up one part of that training because of its relevance to the The Artifacts of Destiny series.
In all first-year grad students’ introductions to medieval studies, besides learning background elements such as the Transformation of the Roman Empire (West & East) & the Barbarian Invasions, they’re made very aware of the “three great religions” that informed Medieval Europe (c. 500-1500 A.D.): Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
No surprise there — since the emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313) granted religious toleration in the empire and Theodosius I (d. 395) followed up by making Nicene Christianity the official state religion in 380, Judeo-Christian traditions steadily supplanted the varieties of pagan worship that had marked Roman rule in cities and countryside around the Mediterranean Sea.
By the time Islam arose (c. 610, with the revelations experienced by Muhammad), the Roman Empire of Late Antiquity had been almost fully Christianized. The conflict between these two traditions was explosive, with a rapid expansion of Islam throughout the modern Middle East, North Africa, & into the Iberian Peninsula in the century after the Prophet’s death.
That, in a snapshot, is the general state of religion in the Mediterranean by the 8th century, when the Vikings started attacking from Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe.
In the eyes of established Christianity, the Northmen’s paganism presented just as much a threat to both an emerging “feudal Europe” in the West and a continuing Roman Empire in the East, and it’s this triple dynamic of “Vikings vs. Islam vs. Judeo-Christianity” that I’ve found fascinating for my entire medieval history career. Fascinating because we’re still living with the repercussions of those conflicts over a thousand years later!
So, in The Artifacts of Destiny series, I wanted to try and capture these religious and cultural interactions in a unique, action-packed, and entertaining “historical epic fantasy” story. Foremost in my approach would be the same even-handed treatment of history that one should always strive for when studying (and teaching) about past people and events. In my books, religion would play a part, but it wouldn’t appear as preachy or moralizing. Instead, I wanted to give the reader as realistic a portrayal of the medieval Christian, Jewish, and Muslim peoples and relationships as they existed in their own time.
Who needed to invent a Middle-Earth or Narnia, when I believe that the medieval world offers the potential for just as exotic and fascinating locales and peoples? If I could succeed in making a story that used history as a canvas and fantasy as my paint, I’d be able to depict my two passions in a thrilling story; namely, medieval history and epic storytelling, all while staying within the established fields of western European and Mediterranean history, with an added heavy dose of Norse mythology!
For this series of books to be compelling, though, I’d have to remember my medium. I might try for descriptions well-rendered enough that they’d evoke images of historical sites and fantasy worlds in the reader’s mind, but this wasn’t a painting. I might strive to portray the kinds of characters, dialogue, and action seen in the best fantasy adventure movies (Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is one of my favorite literary fantasy books AND fantasy films), but these books wouldn’t be films. They’d be written works (well, I could hope for some color on the covers…), and therefore completely reliant on words to take the reader into realms fantastic. To do that, the novels would have to be written in a style that would, first, satisfy me as a reader; remember, I’m a self-avowed, unapologetic, & life-long fantasy geek, but I’m also a reader with a serious side who (by training & passion) appreciates great literature, and so demands much from the authors whom I admire.
Therefore, to succeed, I’d need to try and apply a discipline that ran like a Norn’s Thread through all my interests, from those early encounters with Greek & Norse mythologies, to the fantasists I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, and, even to medieval & early modern authors such as Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Boccaccio, & Shakespeare. That is, to be true to myself, I’d have to incorporate my love of literature. Now, that’s all well and good (what writer shouldn’t?), but not so easy to put into practice. I enjoyed writing when I first started these books, but I certainly didn’t know if in writing my stories I could discover characters such as Dante & Virgil, make use of themes like the daily challenges that frame the books of The Decameron, or reveal relationships as memorable as Hamlet and Horatio’s. What I did know was that I wanted to at least try and create a work that entertained the reader, while perhaps offering a bit more.
Again, to make a story that I’d like to read, my books would have to strive for some kind of meaning, to make some kind of comment on the human condition. That meant, the novels would have to be literary.
Which brings me back to the point that I’d begun discussing in my previous blog (ajcarlisle/12/10/12). To resume that line of thought after this historical aside, the question remains: how can epic or high fantasy be “literary?” (and should it try to be?)
Next time: Finding the Literary Side of Historical Epic Fantasy: Characters, Locales, & Women!