I never try to hide my methods: the horror of my interrogation chamber is so graphic it should probably come with a warning. Yet the victims keep trooping in- thanks this time once again to the offices of my good procurer, the Magic Appreciation Tour, we have ensnared Lori Fitzgerald making the rounds for her latest work, entitled The Dragon’s Message. I have eagerly anticipated her arrival, not just because I have a new branding iron I’ve wanted to try out, but for several other reasons. My spies inform me that Lori is a devotee of Medieval Lit (sooooo close to Medieval History!), has excellent taste in books and television, and even frequents Ren-Faires (one of the only places in the Alleged Real World where I can blend in). No more delay, let’s get cracking… and I do mean that literally
:: whip-cracking sound :: confess, benighted reprobate, and it will go easier for you!
Q: OK, first of all… a novelette, seriously? I was barely seated, just getting warmed up on this cool tale, and suddenly I’m nearing the end. Is this some new form of torture for your fans? Perhaps I should take notes! Or is there a devious method to this idea of yours. Tell us how you hit upon the notion of publishing something so bite-sized.
A: Finding a peaceful block of uninterrupted time during daylight hours in a household with two young children is quite the dropping of the gauntlet. In fact, can you untie me for a second so I can break up the light-saber battle going on in my living room? (Anachronistic, I know, but explain that to a 6 year old and an 8 year old.) Perhaps one day I’ll be able to concentrate on a lengthier work (I do have novel ideas), but right now I feel a great sense of accomplishment with my novelettes. I find snippets of time here and there throughout the day to write, in between errands or while dinner is in the cauldron. This type of “scheduling” I think lends itself better to a shorter form. Never fear, there will be more stories in the world of The Dragon’s Message. I have both a prequel and a sequel in mind. I would love to bundle all three stories together in a longer form, perhaps even a paperback.
Q: I can name one tale there had BETTER be a sequel to! At the risk of spilling all the magic beans, there be dragons here. I want you to rank these creatures in your world, along the following Eat-to-Greet scale: Tolkein’s Smaug = 1, LeGuin’s Sobriest = 4, McCaffrey’s F’lar = 8. Where do the scaly ones of your world rank in their relations to humans? (Ed. Note. The dragons of the Lands of Hope rate about a 2. On a good day.)
A: I would say that my dragons are most like LeGuin’s Kalessin. Although the details of their backstory is for another tale, I can tell you that dragons are scarce and mistrustful of humans generally because they have been hunted for the magic in their blood. Out of necessity for survival and to share their true nature, they have bestowed their knowledge to one human of each generation. One special human. In The Dragon’s Message, this is Lady Rhiannon, and she is the only human who knows their secrets and can decipher the language that is written in the Dragon Tome. Here be dragons (and an excerpt):
When Rhiannon was small and had just learned to read, her mother brought her into the hall one day when her father was on campaign, and led her to the large table upon which a great map of their lands lay. She instructed Rhiannon to read the words of the landmarks: castle, road, mountain, forest, village. The young girl touched words inscribed over a place where trees met craggy peaks. “What does that say, my love?” her mother prompted.
“Here be dragons,” Rhiannon answered, glancing up at her mother.
Her mother nodded, smiling. She knelt down in front of Rhiannon so they were at the same height. The lady’s hazel eyes sparkled as she whispered, “I have a secret to share. But I can only share it with a little girl with red and gold hair,” she pulled playfully on Rhiannon’s braid,” who knows how to read.” Rhiannon giggled. “Are you a little girl such as this?” Rhiannon nodded eagerly, and her mother laughed. She stood up and gestured at a tapestry on the wall. “Come, child, the dragon guards our treasure.”
Hand in hand they walked to the tapestry of the sleeping dragon. “Your great-great grandmother wove this tapestry when she was an old woman. It took her a long time to complete, with her hands gnarled so, like the twisted oak by the drawbridge.” The dragon was curled up in front of a turret, with stone dolmens in a semi-circle behind it, interspersed with trees and a mountain peak in the background and bright blue sky above. The dragon’s scales were crimson and woven through with glittering gold thread, and its curved horns and talons were gold. As they paused in front of the large tapestry, Rhiannon looked closely at the eyes of the dragon; she thought perhaps she could see a slit of gold, as if the dragon were only pretending to be asleep.
Rhiannon’s mother stood on tiptoe and moved part of the tapestry to the side, revealing a slit in the stone wall. With her free hand she reached in and drew out a large leather-bound tome. She motioned her daughter to come sit with her on one of the benches that lined the walls. “Look and listen well, my daughter,” she said, and ran her fingers along the smooth cover, “this book is our special treasure, and it contains many secrets within its pages. I am going to teach you how to read them.” She opened the book as Rhiannon snuggled closer to her, her mother’s loose red-gold hair falling over the girl’s shoulder and brushing the crinkly parchment pages of the book which she turned until she came to the picture of a girl.
“The first secret is a story…”
Q: I was very taken by the unfolding liaison between your two main characters. It’s an April-October relationship, quite touching- the girl who long ago gave a knight her scarf as a favor is now grown. We see a lot through Rhiannon’s eyes- what can you tell me about the knight Gwydion and his feelings? And importantly, how old would you say he is now? I wonder that he stayed unmarried in this society, especially as renowned as he’s become.
A: Gwydion is about my age…and no amount of torture gets a lady to reveal her age! In my head I have Gwydion around 15-20 years older than Rhiannon. When he takes the quest to bring Rhiannon to
safety he is simply fulfilling his liege-lord’s orders, although he has a fondness for Rhiannon from when she was a child, as readers will see from a flashback as well. However, on their journey Gwydion quickly realizes that she is not a child anymore and (luckily for him) is also quick to change gears and respect her as a lady. Once he sees her more as a peer he allows himself to fall for her. Sir Gwydion is the champion knight of Rhiannon’s father, basically his general, and so between fulfilling his duties to his lord and also running his father’s estate as the eldest son, he has had a lot on his trencher and thus never got married. And there’s also the dragon’s actual message to consider…you know, destiny and true love and all that written in flame can’t be ignored. It’s a scorching hazard.
Q: Yowch! Quite correct :: sucks fingers :: You’ve already given ample evidence of your guilt in this writing-fantasy matter. But now we come to the most grievous of crimes- you help to spread the word on the internet! Tell us more about your involvement with Once Upon a Fan.
A: I’m so proud to be a Staff Writer for the website Once Upon a Fan, the top-rated fansite for ABC’s show Once Upon a Time. One of the popular features of our site is the Origins articles, where we compare and contrast literary characters with their portrayal on the show. I’ve written Origins articles on Sir Lancelot, the Sword in the Stone, and Robin Hood, among others. I’ve tried to show how the symbolic landscape of the medieval mind comes into play in various aspects of Once Upon a Time as well. You can find the Origins library here. I really owe my publication to the show and the fandom. Once Upon a Time inspired me to create my own worlds again after 20 years (oops, is that an inadvertent clue?) in which I stopped writing to focus on my teaching career and having a family. The website and all the writers, artists, and crafters I met in the extremely creative Oncer fandom encouraged me that my lifelong dream of publishing could become a reality.
Q: Aha, confederates, we shall have them arrested shortly. Where does all this leave you for your writing schedule? Have one, much? I see evidence of two children in my spies’ reports. Egad. Do you have a sacred space with a locked door? Set times to jot your thoughts? If I could take away any money-trouble with a wave of my wand- no wait, that’s my cat-o’nine-tails, hold on- there, supposing you COULD devote full-time to writing, would much change about your writing life?
A: I would love to have a sacred space, but alas, my laptop and I are wandering minstrels. Sometimes I write at the kitchen counter, sometimes in the attic, on rare occasions in the dungeon where the library and playroom are located. I would prefer to have a set time and schedule to write, maybe a few hours every morning, but that just doesn’t fit with my lifestyle right now. Sometimes the kids wake up sick and the actual storming of the castle has to wait a few days (after all, that’s what sieges are for).
Q: If I had to use the old infiltrate-through-the-garderobe trick, a mother of little kids is the one I’d send. I suppose that will have to suffice, for now. So many instruments, so little time… You may go. But be certain that you leave ample contact information here- your book and web links for reader-interest, should we need to drag you back for further interrogation. Thanks, Lori!
A: Thank you, Will…I think! But it’s never truly torturous to talk to a fellow medievalist.
The Dragon’s Message, a Dragon Tome Novelette, is available on Kindle and Nook for $1.99.
A dragon writes a cryptic message with its ember breath in the evening sky…
Lady Rhiannon watches from the turret wall with an ache in her blood. She’s the only person who can decipher the message as the sole keeper of the Dragon Tome. When an old enemy threatens the castle, her father charges his knight with escorting her to a safe haven—the same knight Rhiannon had a crush on as a girl. But she must now convince him to change his plans, for she has her own sacred charge to fulfill…
So begins a journey to hidden ruins where magic slumbers in the stones and love lies in the heart, waiting to awaken. As Rhiannon and the knight face seemingly insurmountable odds, only the dragon knows if they can fulfill their destiny…
Here are the magic links:
Barnes & Noble: bit.ly/1epYuBC
You can also find me on Twitter @MedievalLit and on Facebook at my author page White Raven Writing.
I’ve wanted to do this for some time and I hope you enjoy my attempt to create a series of blogs around great works of heroic fiction that most folks haven’t read. Several of these I have mentioned before in one forum or another but now I want to try and do several things: amuse you, get you interested in checking them out, and perhaps find a window into the writer’s craft through these past works that resonate with us so well in other forms.
There’s no shame in seeing the movie, let me hasten to mention that. In nearly every case I can think of, I found the book to be better, but usually that was only after seeing the tale. When a classic is redone, it’s interesting to see whether the basic inner stuff of it has changed. I find, most often not; even Hollywood doesn’t always screw that up!
For my first theme, I want to look at two great classics that share one such common idea. Their heroes, set in almost the same time period but halfway around the world, do the same thing when faced with evil. They adopt a secret identity. This raises a great question, one that classic heroic and epic fantasy seldom touches on- why pretend?
Most folks know why Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent took on a mild-mannered alter ego- freedom to act and the need to protect loved ones from harm. But Superman and Batman, it turns out, were far from the first.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is widely thought to be the first hero in history to have a secret identity. It’s also one of the first heroic fantasy tales authored by a woman, the Baroness d’Orczy in 1903. There’s definitely something up with that, and if I say much more I’ll be accused (with justice) of chauvinism. But I’m here to tell you, guys aren’t nearly as interested in hiding their powers as women are in believing this dope before them truly has hidden talents. Deep water here, and I don’t swim well…
This is a gorgeous tale of death and danger in the blackest days of the French Revolution, when the Reign of Terror was eating people by the hundreds. Faking his disinterested, foppish life as a useless English dandy, Sir Percy Blakeney conceals from everyone- including his beautiful new French wife- that he secretly commands, as one of his followers puts it, “nineteen men who would lay down their lives” for him. Guided by his brilliant mind, the Pimpernel and his gang outwit the horrid, cruel, secular (!) French soldiers and agents to save dozens of innocent French aristocrats from the guillotine’s embrace. Then he returns to English society sporting the latest fashions, on the arm of his wife making witty remarks and annoying everyone- especially her- with his “inane laughter”.
We discover as the story moves briskly along that there has been a terrible misunderstanding crossing the main characters, one that probably won’t be happily resolved and which could lead to Blakeney’s death. He had only started his career of rescuing French nobility when he married the gorgeous Parisian actress Marguerite, whom he secretly still worships. For her part, Marguerite defended her beloved brother Armand by speaking down about a leading aristocrat, and her denunciation led to the death of that entire family- staining her with suspicion of sympathy for the Revolution. Blakeney adopts the guise of a flaccid fool, always honoring his wife and giving her every luxury but never letting on that he could be the mysterious hero capable of leading such daring and intelligent escapes. She is stung by the change in her husband and resorts to sarcasm, making fun of him in an effort to rouse the man she thought she knew. All this makes her look even more guilty to Blakeney’s heartbroken view. And when the dastardly French agent Chauvelin gets wind that Marguerite’s brother Armand may be helping the Pimpernel, he blackmails her with the young man’s life in order to enlist her help in exposing the enemy of the Revolution.
One remarkable aspect of this secret identity theme is that the hero is so obviously torn; he dare not let Marguerite know the truth because she appears to side with the enemy. Yet Percy is hopelessly in love with his wife still. After a moonlit encounter on their veranda where Marguerite implores him to be more truthful with her, he holds firm as the lazy, disinterested dandy until she turns to go. Then he throws himself to the tiles and kisses the ground whereon she walked. I’m telling you, chicks dig this stuff!
But the other aspect that may be of interest to the writer is that this situation compels us to see almost nothing directly from the hero’s point of view. For at least three-quarters of the story, you search for the Scarlet Pimpernel along with everyone else (you do better than they do). Nothing is told from Percy’s perspective until close to the end; there is a level of remove where you don’t read what he thinks or feels, only what he says and does. This increases the tension and reveals his character beautifully, whereas an omniscient third-person view would struggle hard not to seem maudlin or cute. Much of the heart of the tale is really from Marguerite’s point of view. The moment when the awful truth finally breaks down the doors of her mind- when she realizes that she has already led her husband, the man she always loved, into Chauvelin’s death-trap- is the height of the story.
Hugh Grant did well enough in the movie-version I would say, but the earlier flick with Leslie Howard (who played Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind”) sticks in my head. Ironically, it was Howard who immortalized the phrase “Sink me!” coming from the dandy Sir Blakeney; yet in the first book of The Scarlet Pimpernel Blakeney never uses that phrase. Also Merle Oberon perfectly matches my image of Marguerite.
In summary, we have a tale in which the hero adopts a secret identity specifically to prevent his plans from being overset and to keep his men from even greater danger. And he takes this foppish guise chiefly to keep the tale away from his beloved- not because he fears harm to her, but because he suspects she is his enemy. This sets up tremendous pathos and conflict in every scene they spend together, and d’Orczy exploits this original idea with fabulous prose that cuts to the heart of the scene each time. Her descriptions, dialogue and turns of phrase are uniformly apt and convey the emotion without slowing the pace too much. I think like any reader, I had moments where I “got it already” and was a bit impatient when she lingered on an image or reinforced an emotion, but there was nothing here to take me out of the tale for a second. I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as classic Heroic Fantasy (using my Fantasy Solar System taxonomy), shading towards Cinematic mood in places, particularly where Percy adopts an ingenious disguise despite his enemies knowing what to watch for.
Final bit of trivia- it was first put up as a stage play and evidently struggled, but the novel was published in the same year and did wonderfully right away. And I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as one of my top three ever Broadway shows- “Into the Fire” still makes me stand up and cheer out loud.
I downloaded The Scarlet Pimpernel for free to my phone from Amazon Kindle Classics- this is a wonderful value for me because I’m often traveling or without my laptop and can still read quite easily on the phone. I can change the background and font-size to suit my failing eyes, and the only feature I miss from the laptop version is the automatic dictionary. The free versions do suffer from imperfect formatting and there is the occasional mis-spelled word or even repeated phrase, but it’s nothing to pull down your enjoyment of the tale. Here’s another site to get it as an e-book, and you can also listen to it as an audio-book.
So, which tale is set at the same time, but far away and also makes use of a secret identity? Stay tuned for Part Two! And let me know how you reacted to any version of The Scarlet Pimpernel you may have seen or read.