I’m delighted to post today an exclusive interview I recently conducted with William Horwood, author of the Duncton Wood series. Dedicated followers of this blog will be well aware of the high regard in which I hold William and his Duncton novels in particular, so it was a real pleasure to chat with him about a range of topics, including what got him into writing in the first place, inspirations for his work, the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of being a writer and, perhaps most interestingly, the potential forthcoming re-publication of the Duncton novels with Unbound, an award-winning crowdfunding publishing company. As you’ll see from the interview William was very open and incredibly generous with his time, giving answers that were sincere, full, interesting and, often, quite amusing! Read on for more…
Greg Bear (born August 20, 1951) is an American writer best known for science fiction. His work has covered themes of galactic conflict (the Forge of God books), artificial universes (The Way series), consciousness and cultural practices (Queen of Angels), and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio, and Darwin’s Children). Greg Bear has written 44 books in total. His most recent work is the Forerunner Trilogy, written in the Halo universe. Greg Bear was also one of the five co-founders of the San Diego Comic-Con. While most of Bear’s work is science fiction, he has written in other fiction genres. Songs of Earth and Power is an omnibus edition of two classic fantasy novels from the eighties. In The Infinity Concerto (1984) Michael Perrin endures years of captivity and deadly struggles in the Realm of the Sidhe, a fantastic, beautiful and dangerous world. In The Serpent Mage (1986) he returns to Los Angeles – but the Sidhe are following him. Greg Bear’s land of elves is not the pretty, enchanted place of so many fantasy novels but is an oppressive, menacing land of cruelty and fear, ruled by the unfeeling fair folk of Celtic mythology. His brilliantly descriptive narrative draws the reader in until you feel part of this world. Songs of Earth and Power isn’t an easy or comfortable read but it is one that is well worth the effort.
In The Lord of the Rings a strange and primitive folk named the Woses came to aid the men of Gondor in breaking the siege of Minas Tirith. These wild woodland people lived in the ancient forest of Druadan, below the White Mountains. In form they were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied and they knew wood-craft better than any man. The men of Gondor called the Woses the Wild-men of Druadan and believed that they were descended from the even more ancient Pukel-men of the First Age. These Wood Woses or Wild-men were an example of J R R Tolkien’s seemingly boundless capacity to invent plausible and memorable fictional races from the gaps and errors in ancient literature – in this particular case the mysterious medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For Tolkien was by no means the first author to make use of the literary and mythical archetype of the Wild-man. This is a mythological figure that appears fairly frequently in the artwork and literature of medieval Europe, comparable to the satyr or faun type in classical mythology and to Silvanus, the Roman god of the woodlands. Tolkien’s skill is in adapting this archetype to the landscape of English folklore through his fantasy masterpiece.
Among the foulest beings that ever inhabited Middle Earth were the Great Spiders. They were dark and filled with envy, greed and the poison of malice. First of the beings that took spider form was Ungoliant, mother of the evil race that plagued the world thereafter, as well as a close ally of the first dark lord, Morgoth. Her origins are unclear, as Tolkien’s writings do not explicitly reveal her nature, other than that she is from “before the world”. Ungoliant fled after devouring the light of the Trees that once lit the world in its springtime and it is not known what ultimately was her fate, although it is suggested in The Silmarillion that her unremitting hunger drove her to devour herself. At some point, however, she gave birth to a race of Great Spiders, including the character Shelob in The Lord of the Rings and the spiders of Mirkwood in The Hobbit. Unlike many of Tolkien’s other creations, such as Smaug, Beorn, ents, orcs, hobbits and so on, even the most eminent experts on his work have struggled to find clear sources for the Great Spiders of Middle Earth. It is, however, possible to begin to explain the origins of these terrifying creatures by reference to Tolkien’s earliest inspirations (and fears) as a child.
Although Middle Earth is full of monsters that are highly original, Tolkien also introduces us to some fairly familiar foes: the trolls from The Hobbit, for example, are quite traditional in the way they are depicted. Although it must be said, by the standards of most trolls in mythology and fantasy, the three encountered by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit were mental giants. Bert, William and Tom spoke and understood the tongue of men and had an elementary, if faulty, knowledge of arithmetic. They were, none the less, turned to stone as a result of the quickness of wit of the wizard Gandalf and in this they conformed to myth and legend in more than one way. For the idea that trolls “must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of” is an ancient one, with the god Odin playing the same trick as Gandalf in the Old Norse poem Alvissmal. Elsewhere, again in keeping with Scandinavian trolls, Tolkien tells us that “In their beginning far back in the twilight of Elder Days, these were creatures of dull and lumpish nature and had no more language than beasts”. Like orcs, Tolkien’s trolls were bred by the artifice of the first Dark Lord Morgoth, and were his own twisted version of the noble race of Ents. But trolls were rightly feared, for they were twice the height and bulk of the greatest men, had skin of green scales like armour and they desired most a diet of raw flesh. As if that were not bad enough, by the time of The Lord of the Rings a troll-race not before seen appeared in Middle Earth – one that, unlike the older race of twilight, could even endure the sun.
In The Hobbit, the character of Beorn is described as a huge, black-bearded man who wears a coarse wool tunic and is armed with a woodsman’s axe. His peculiar gift is that he is a ‘skin changer’: that is, he can assume the appearance of a great black bear when the mood takes him. Whilst, shape-shifting tendencies aside, Beorn appears at first to be a relatively straightforward character from a children’s novel, he exemplifies a mass of complexities and tensions typical of much of Tolkien’s creative output. In naming his character, Tolkien used beorn, an Old English word for bear, which later came to mean man and warrior (with implications of freeman and nobleman in Anglo-Saxon society). It is related to the Scandinavian names Björn (Swedish and Icelandic) and Bjørn (Norwegian and Danish), meaning bear (the word baron is indirectly related to beorn). Beorn also one of many characters in Middle-Earth who are capable of devoting themselves to a just cause when the time is right, while preserving an aura of danger, self-sufficiency and freedom of choice. Other examples of this Tolkien archetype are Tom Bombadil, Treebeard, Radagast and even, to some extent, Aragorn. Like Beorn, these individuals are all stewards or guardians, who seem to prefer seclusion in isolated hills or homes and who live or travel apart from the other forces of good, while belonging to the same side. What differentiates Beorn is that, as a skin-changer, he belongs to the specifically pagan world of Norse mythology.
The dragon Smaug is in many ways the centrepiece of both The Hobbit book and film series – no other character more often dominates covers, calendars and promotional art related to the story. It is no accident that a dragon plays such a prominent role in one of J R R Tolkien’s very first works of fiction – he did, after all, once famously say: “I desired dragons with a profound desire”. For Tolkien’s taste, however, there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three – the Miðgarðsorm or ‘Worm of Middle-earth’ which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse; the dragon which the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd. There are elements of all three of these mythological dragons in Smaug, as well as some entirely of Tolkien’s own making, such as the dragon’s name. Tolkien once noted that Smaug bore as a name the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smúgan (to squeeze through a hole) – “a low philological jest”, as Tolkien himself put it, from an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Norse.
In the writings of Tolkien it is said that in the Elder days, within the deepest pits of Utumno, the first dark lord Morgoth committed his greatest act of blasphemy. For in that time he captured many of the newly risen race of Elves and took them to his dungeons where, with hideous acts of torture, he made ruined and terrible forms of life. From these he bred a goblin race of slaves, who were as loathsome as Elves were fair. These were the Orcs, a multitude brought forth in shapes twisted by pain and hate. The only joy of these creatures was in the pain of others, for the blood that flowed within Orcs was both black and cold. Their stunted form was hideous: bent, bow-legged and squat. Their arms were long and strong as those of an ape, and their skin was black as wood that has been charred by flame. The jagged fangs in their wide mouths were yellow, their tongues red and thick, and their nostrils and faces were broad and flat. Their eyes were crimson gashes, like narrow slits in black iron grates behind which hot coals burn. Tolkien’s Orcs have been copied many times in fantasy media – debased, changed and even made humorous. But nothing that has been published since the Lord of the Rings has truly done justice to this, one of Tolkien’s most original and fearsome creations: the brood of Morgoth, spawned from the deepest, foulest pits of Utumno.
The race of tree-like beings known as Ents are one of J R R Tolkien’s most original and beloved creations. When first he appears in The Two Towers, the lord of the Ents, Treebeard, is described as “a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck”. Treebeard himself describes his people thus: “Ent the earthborn, old as mountains”. Elvish histories tell of how in the Elder Days the Ents awoke in the great forests at the same time as the stars were rekindled. They came from the thoughts of Yavanna, Mother of the Earth, and were her shepherds of the trees, created to protect the forests from those who would despoil them. In one sense the creation of the Ents can be seen as a form of wish-fulfillment by Tolkien, who had a deeply personal love of trees and green things, as well as a horror of the industrial world. The Ents are also Tolkien’s riposte to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which he “disliked cordially”, remembering especially the “bitter disappointment and disgust… with the shabby use made… of the coming of ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill'”. Thus the ‘march of the trees’ motif is re-worked brilliantly in the stirring last march of the Ents on Isengard. Today, with the natural world disappearing around us in the face of the relentless march of technology, the concept of the trees waking to battle those who would despoil the green earth is an undeniably potent one, perhaps more so than ever before.
This is going to be a sort of companion piece to my recent post One Hundred Realms. In that article I discussed the various genres and sub-genres within the fantasy field. I think that most people would agree that, whatever type of fantasy novel you’re writing or reading, an intricately detailed world is likely to be at its heart. Indeed the very act of world-building – i.e. creating an entire world out of one’s head and putting it on a page – is a defining characteristic of fantasy fiction. Sadly, at least half of those worlds are rubbish – and I say that with the dubious benefit of having read as much of the good half as the bad half over the years! I’m far from the only one who finds this frustrating – no less a fantasy luminary than Ursula Le Guin once vented her annoyance at poorly written fantasy in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie about forty years ago. As a well-educated intellectual as well as a gifted author, her main criticism concerned the style of language employed. For Le Guin, the world that is created is indistinguishable from the words that build it. I personally think that she’s onto something – after all, her fantasy world of Earthsea is a grand example of what J R R Tolkien once called a ‘secondary universe’. But what is it that separates the likes of Earthsea and Middle Earth from the slew of identikit fantasy dross that plagues our bookshelves (and online stores for that matter) today?