"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Shape Shifting in EOLYN

One of my favorite books growing up was T.H. White's The Once and Future King, based on the legend of King Arthur. Years -- uhm, okay, decades -- later there are still scenes and passages from this book that remain vivid in my memory. I liked White's portrayal of Guenevere, for example; his very sympathetic treatment of this legendary woman who loved two men, and the two best of her time. And I especially liked Merlin's tutorship of Wart (young Arthur) during his childhood. As part of Wart's instruction, Merlin turned the boy into one animal after another: a fish, an ant, a hawk (if I recall correctly), and others that don't come to mind in the moment. I mean, how cool is that? What I wouldn't have given to have teachers who could turn me into animals. Even JK Rowling's magnificent Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry could not replace, in my imagination, the wonderful tutorship of Merlin.

When I crafted the childhood of Eolyn and Akmael, I wanted them to have a touch of Merlin's approach in their training. So Ghemena and Tzeremond both include shapeshifting as part of their students' instruction. Both Akmael and Eolyn experience shapeshifting during their younger years while they are mastering the principles of Middle Magic. In one scene, they spend an afternoon trying to change each other into animals, but don't succeed. This is because in the world of Moisehén, mages and magas cannot induce shapeshifting on their own until they learn the techniques of High Magic.

In theory, a person who has mastered High Magic can shapeshift into any animal with which he or she has had contact. This gives Eolyn, especially, a very wide range of options, since she grows up in the forest and interacts with all its creatures on a daily basis. Yet, as magas and mages reach adulthood, they tend to favor certain forms over others. Both Akmael and Eolyn favor the forms of Wolf and Owl -- yet another expression of the underlying affinity between these two characters, who develop a strong friendship and mutual attraction, despite the circumstances and formidable conflicts that separate them.

There are few animals, in my mind, that embody as well as Wolf the image of fierce independence coupled with a deep need for meaningful companionship -- Eolyn and Akmael, through and through. I have a special love for wolves, though I have never had the privilege of seeing them in the wild. A few years ago, we went camping in northern Minnesota, where we heard the wolves at night. It was just spectacular.

Owl, of course, is a creature of the night, with amazing wings that are designed for an absolutely silent flight. Day creatures like ourselves are crippled by darkness, but Owl is at home in the night forest, which for us is shrouded in mystery and fear. When I do night walks with students in the field, I always include a moment when we turn off our headlamps. All of us. The darkness is astounding -- a deep inky black that is hard to imagine anymore for folks who live in urban environments. It makes you especially appreciative of what it means to be nocturnal.

If I could be changed into any animal -- just for a little while, because I actually like being human and wouldn't want to permanently shape shift -- I would be a mountain lion, or puma. The puma is more of a New World animal, so it doesn't appear in EOLYN, but one of it's cousins, Lynx, lives in the South Woods and shows up on occasion. I've always been partial to the strength and ferocity of the wild cats, and the kind of powerful sensuality that accompanies their every movement. African lions are another one of my favorites. They're just cool.

How about you? If you could shapeshift into any animal, what would it be?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Children's Magic

A couple announcements before getting into today's topic.

First, EOLYN now has a page on Facebook. There's a link on this blog -- scroll down the column on your right, and you'll find it. If you haven't already, please take a moment to "Like" the page, and spread the word about EOLYN by suggesting it to your friends. This will be my primary tool for making announcements about readings and other upcoming events for the novel, although -- for those of you who have yet to succumb to Facebook fever -- you can rest assured this information will also be posted on the blog.

On a somewhat related topic -- just because it's also about marketing -- this week classes start at Avila University, where I teach biology, ecology and related subjects. I'll be telling my new and returning students about the novel, so hopefully the blog will get some new visitors. For that reason, if you're a regular, you might see some repetition here. For example, I'll be reposting the first three chapters of the novel over the next few weeks.

So much for announcements. Let's talk about Children's Magic!

About a week ago, we went to see the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast at Starlight Theater, a lovely outdoor venue in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a warm and clear night, with a beautiful sunset, followed by a half moon illuminating the dark sky. The theater was packed with children, mostly little girls, all decked out in their princess outfits. It reminded me of how I, too, dreamed of being a princess when I was a little girl. In fact, my paternal grandfather's nickname for me was "meine kleine Prinzessin", German for "my little princess". And he put a lot of energy into reinforcing that particular fantasy of mine. Of course, one day I grew up, and started reading my history, and found out that being a real princess wasn't always what it was cut out to be. In fact, most often it was downright nightmarish. That particular disillusion probably ranked right up there with learning the truth about Santa Claus.

But children need their fantasies, and we cultivate them and indulge them, and value them in a way that only adults who have lived them, and lost them, can do. In the world of Moisehen, the capacity of children to fantasize is considered a form of magic. Just like Primitive Magic (which I talked about in my June 7 post), Children's Magic is thought to be innate.

In an early draft of the novel, Eolyn's mother Kaie teaches her that Children's Magic

"is the magic of play and discovery. It is called Children's Magic because all children who are well kept express this magic. But a strong maga knows how to practice Children's Magic, no matter what her age. It is the magic that keeps us fresh and imaginative."

The final draft of EOLYN contains no explicit discussion of Children's Magic, though it is mentioned in a scene about a quarter of the way through the book, when Ghemena prepares a sacred fire as part of Eolyn's initiation into High Magic. For kindling, she uses "less traditional twigs of Linden, the protector of Children's Magic". But the friendship that grows between Eolyn and Akmael in the South Woods is infused with Children's Magic, and all the spirit of imagination, adventure and affection that comes with it.

I feel compelled to point out that a child's imagination -- and therefore, Children's Magic -- is not always a bright and airy thing. One of my favorite movies is Pan's Labyrinth, a story about a girl, Ofelia, who lived in Spain during an era of fascism. Ofelia lives a rich fantasy life set in a parallel world that -- while it provides an escape from her family's brutal reality -- is just as dark as the "real" world. The timeless popularity of Grimm's Fairy Tales is another testament to the appeal of the darkly fantastical to children the world over. Even Beauty and the Beast, for all the pretty songs and nice costumes with which Disney has dressed it up, is in the end a downright scarey little tale about the potential costs of being a princess.

Today's image is from the movie Pan's Labyrinth, showing Doug Jones as the Faun, and Ivana Baquero as Ofelia.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hidden Magic

It turns out I have a mage in my family tree!

Meet Ed the Wizard, also known as Edmund Peuschel, pictured here on his wedding day, with his beautiful young bride Margaret.

Dad told me Ed's story just a couple months ago. He lived in Kansas City, Missouri, in the mid 19th century, where he ran a saloon with his brother. Ed the Wizard had the singular ability to take his head off and hold it in his hands. To this day we don't know what his secret was, but I suspect it involved getting his clients good and drunk before the show started.

Or...Maybe he was a wizard for real.

Ed was the grandfather of my grandmother, Rita Gastreich (Rita Peuschel, by her maiden name). Rita studied ballet as a girl, and during the 1920s performed in New York as a soloist with the Albertina Rasch Dancers, featured in many of the Ziegfield shows. (In addition to clicking the link to find out about Albertina Rasch, you can see a photo of my grandmother in my July 8 post, Celebrate.)

It was during the off-season, when Rita came home to Kansas City, that she met the man who would become my grandfather, Karl Gastreich. Karl had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany just after WWI, at the tender age of fourteen. He came from a proud old German family, and was slated to marry a bride handpicked for him from a similarly proud old German family back in the fatherland. But he fell in love with Rita, and scandalized his extended family back home by marrying an American woman.

When Rita married Karl, she abandoned her identity as a professional dancer. All the photos and letters from that time were stored away and never talked about, along with her last pair of pointe shoes. It was not until the mid 1970s, when my sister went to study at the Joffrey in New York, that Rita brought all the old photos out of the closet and revealed her charismatic past to her children and grandchildren.

I never learned directly from my grandmother why she chose to conceal this charismatic past for so many decades, but it's occured to me in recent months that something in the mystery of her silence provided one of the seeds for EOLYN, a novel in which we find a variety of characters who, for one reason or another, hide the full extent of their magic.

I suppose we all have hidden magic; a special part of us that we aren't comfortable sharing with just anyone, and that we often simply choose to keep to ourselves. But it's when external forces obligate us to hide our magic -- through repression or other forms of violence -- that we lose something very important to our lives and humanity. This is a core theme of EOLYN, where magic is denied first to one class of people, then to another, and always with adverse consequences.
To this day, I am very grateful Rita brought her photos out of the closet. Otherwise, I might never have known who my grandmother really was.
For those of you who may not have noticed, this week I added a new page to the blog, A Brief History of Moisehén. Read it to find out more about the prohibition of magic among Eolyn's people.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Names in EOLYN

It's not always an easy task to find the right name for a character. In fantasy, there's an added expectation that names will be distinctive, representative of the unique worlds and cultures from which our characters derive. On the other hand, I've had readers tell me that "strange" names with difficult pronunciations are one of the elements of fantasy that they don't like. So the key is finding something that's different, but not too different. Though I think the 'strangeness' of any given name is not only a product of how it sounds, but how it fits - or not - into the context of the fantasy world in question.

My own surname "Gastreich" originated in fourteenth century Germany. It's a "real" name, but I suppose it sounds like it could have been pulled from a fantasy novel. Certainly very few people in the U.S. can pronounce it, or spell it, without explicit instructions. And even then, it seems to be difficult. But I like the name Gastreich because it has such a deep history, and ties me to a wonderful family of very talented and loving people. In its earliest derivation -- that is, in Old German -- it literally means "taster of wines" -- a tradition we have been faithful to now for more than five centuries. (Though please don't ask me to tell you about wines; I just like to taste them!)

Ever since I can remember, I've had a sense that names are important part of our identity. So as an author, I put a lot of thought into the names of my characters, and will play with different versions of similar names over and over until I find something that 'feels' right. Every name in the novel EOLYN has a history and meaning, if not for us, then for that character and his or her culture.

The name Eolyn was derived from 'Eowyn', of Tolkien fame, a name I have always liked and a character I have always admired (though it's an interesting irony that my protagonist Eolyn is intent on shunning all arms, while Eowyn seemed rather intent on taking them up). My friend and fellow author, David Hunter, has pointed out that the prefix 'eo-' can be taken to mean primeval, and 'lyn' signifies 'pretty', making Eolyn, in a sense, an 'archetypal beauty'. It's an interpretation I like a lot, though it wasn't what I had in mind when I chose the name. In the untold backstory of my novel, Eolyn's mother Kaie chooses 'Eo-' in reference to one of the pagan names for spring equinox, 'Eostar'. Eolyn was born in the springtime, but also Kaie was expressing a hope that her daughter would bring a new 'springtime' -- a renewal of magic as well as life -- to her people.

The name Akmael was derived from 'Asriel' (Lyra's father in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy), and 'Achim', a German name that I have always liked, but that wasn't quite regal enough for a king, although I let Akmael use it anyway when he first meets Eolyn. I wanted the -iel or -ael ending, because in our culture these are suffixes associated with angelic names (Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, and so forth). While Akmael is not an angel, and angels don't really exist in his world, I wanted to give him a name with that kind of power. That's how I found 'Akmael', but in the imaginary world of Moisehen, Akmael's mother Briana chooses the name, derived from "ahkma", which is the sacred word for "first". For Queen Briana, Akmael represented the start of something entirely new for her people, the first king to be born of a mage and a maga; the union of the blood lines of Vortingen and the Clan of East Selen; and also the birth of a new beginning after the annihilation of her people and her sisters in magic, the magas. In other words, she was packing a lot of hope into this one boy.

So, both Akmael and Eolyn are meant to represent a 'first', a 'something new', for their people. In hindsight, I now realize they represented something new -- and wonderful -- for me, too.

Today's image is of Miranda Otto, who interpreted the role of Eowyn for Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.