TL: You have published several works of non-fiction about J.R.R.Tolkien. What led you to write a novel?
MD: Actually, I started writing fiction many years before I started writing about Tolkien. My first medieval historical novel, The Finnsburg Encounter, was published back in 1991. And I wrote most of The Rood and the Torc before I wrote any of my Tolkien books. I have also been working on a three-volume fantasy novel for many years. The first volume, The Gifted (Volume 1 of the Daegmon War), is due out this fall.
TL: Is there any relationship between your newly published novel and your interest in J.R.R. Tolkien?
MD: Certainly. It was my love of Tolkien’s literature, and my desire to better understand his sources and inspirations, that led me to take graduate courses in Old English at Cornell University in the late 1980s. At the time Professor Robert Farrell was teaching Old English and Medieval Studies at Cornell, and I heard that he had studied at Oxford University and had known Tolkien personally. So I took the opportunity to take classes from him on Old English literature. And then another class. And then I did research under him in Medieval Studies. Eventually, I co-taught a class with him on fantasy and horror. He let me teach the section on The Lord of the Rings and he taught Stoker’s Dracula and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
TL: And there is a connection between these studies and your novel?
MD: Yes. Sorry. I got sidetracked. Back to your question. I studied Old English to get a deeper appreciation of the literature that Tolkien loved, including poems such as The Battle of Maldon, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and especially Beowulf. And I also wanted to gain a deeper understand of Tolkien’s creative writing. Tolkien worked closely with and thought deeply about those works of Old English literature. For example he has one beautiful essay that connects ideas of heroism and moral responsibility in those three poems I just mentioned. Reading what he said about those poems in his non-fiction essay gives great insight into his portrayal of heroism in his own creative writing. Of course he also has a famous essay entirely about Beowulf, a well-known posthumously published translation of Sir Gawain, and very recently a brand new translation of Beowulf.
I never attempted to translate Sir Gawain, but in my graduate courses I did translate large portions of The Battle of Maldon and Beowulf. It was reading, and translating, and studying Beowulf and one other Old English poem—in appreciation of Tolkien’s scholarly work—that led to my novel.
TL: What was the other poem, and how did they lead to you writing fiction?
MD: For a final project in my first graduate course with Prof. Farrell, I translated the poem Deor and wrote a paper on it, and actually wrote several additional stanzas for the poem in both modern English and Old English. The poem briefly recounts several famous figures who came through tragedy and sorrow and back into joy and hope. At least we assume they were famous. Some of them certainly were, like the famous smith Weland who appears in the poem. But others have since been lost to us. They are now known only through the references of that one poem. So I had the idea of imagining and retelling one of those stories in novel form. A few weeks later I was on to studying and translating Beowulf, and decided I would do just that, except with the tragic tale of Finn and Hildeburh from Beowulf rather than one of the characters from Deor.
TL: The story of Finn and Hildeburh is summarized by the poet at Heorot in Beowulf after the hero Beowulf wins his fight over Grendel. It is a poem within the poem. Finn was a Frisian chieftain and Hildeburh his Danish wife.
MD: Correct. But we actually know very little about them. There are only two sources. One is the short episode in Beowulf. The other is a fragment of another poem about “The Fight at Finnsburg.” Tolkien, of course, was familiar with the tale from both sources, and he wrote an essay about the later of them. I decided to write a novel imagining the story leading up to the famous fight at Finnsburg.
TL: An that was your earlier novel, The Finnsburg Episode, published twenty years or so ago. And that led to your new novel, correct?
MD: Yes. It is likely that Finn and Hildeburh were historical figures, but we know them only as poetic literary figures. In writing that first historical novel, I had to set it in some real time and space. Although there are certainly arguments for other times, I chose to set the story in the early 7th century. The Danes were beginning their rise to power, and it was toward the end of the period when the Frisians were ruled by their own chieftains. In the previous century and a half, the Saxons and Angles had taken over England and driven the Britons off to a corner of the Isle. Maybe a little of the choice was arbitrary. But in any case, I spent two years researching the time period. Jewelry. Food. Culture. Architecture. Agriculture. Historical events. Literature. Not just in Friesland, but also in surrounding countries such as the Merovingian dynasty in what is now France, and also northeast in Denmark. I also wrote a lot of Saxon and Germanic poetry and legend. I wanted not only to write a exciting and captivating tale with compelling characters, but also to give feel and mood of the times and setting.
Anyway, I finished the novel. It was published in 1992. And I moved on and started working on a fantasy novel.
TL: But obviously you returned to the 7th Century for another novel. What brought you back?
MD: Three things. The first is that an acquisitions editor for another publisher, in turning down a different project of mine, commented that she’d read and really enjoyed The Finnsburg Encounter, and would be interested in a sequel if I wrote one. The second factor was that I had done all the work over several years of trying to put myself imaginatively in that time, and it made sense to make use of that work and to tell another story set there. But the third and most important reason is that, in writing The Finnsburg Encounter, some new unexpected characters had made an appearance in my story. One, in particular, was Kristinge, the second son of Finn and Hildeburh (who for some reason never before appeared in any of the poems, perhaps simply because they had kept him hidden for his own safety.) Kristinge appeared in my first book, but I didn’t get to know him well. At the end of the tale, he is seen riding south under the protection of a monk and an old warrior. I decided I wanted to tell Kristinge’s story. I wanted to discover what he would do, as a young man of twenty-two or so, upon discovering that he was the lost son of Finn and Hildeburh. That’s where the new novel begins. Kristinge, knowing that his father, brother, and uncle are all dead, killed in the Fight at Finnsburg, sets off across Europe to find whether his mother is still alive.
TL: So the new novel is a sequel?
MD: No and yes. I wrote it as a self-contained novel. It begins six years after the end of the first, and almost the entire cast of characters is different. You needn’t have read my 1992 novel in order to read and follow my 2014 novel. It makes sense—and I hope it will be enjoyable—to be read on its own. And one of the ironies is that by the time I finished The Rood and the Torc, the editor who had asked for it was no longer interested or no longer with the company. But it is set in the same time, and based on the same legend, or history, or tragedy of Finn and Hildeburh.
TL: How are the two novels the same, and how are they different?
MD: My writing has improved a great deal over twenty years. I think that’s the biggest difference. I write better prose now than I did when I was in my early twenties. Stronger and more economical. The new novel is also written in a more modern and accessible voice. In my earlier novel, I was trying to capture something of the literary style and voice of Old English heroic poetry with my meter and phrasings. That first novel also covered a much broader sweep of time—about twenty-five years.
Another difference is that the first novel, The Finnsburg Encounter, though set in a time in history, was more rooted in figures from heroic literature. The recent one is more tied to a number of actual historical figures whom we know quite a bit more about. Merovingian kings. Abbotts and abbesses. Frisian chieftains.
Other than the improvement in my writing, I’d say the other most obvious difference is that The Rood and the Torc, is less epic and more personal and intimate, and maybe a little more romantic. It spans only a couple years. It is the story of one person’s quest for self-discovery and not the story of the fate of a whole nation. My hero Kristinge has spent the last six years being trained as a monk in an Irish-run monastery in southern France. He grew up in Frisia partly under the tutelage of a great bard, and he himself has some gifts in that direction. Now he discovers he is the son of a famous king who died a tragic death. There are three paths before him. Maybe all of them are open. Maybe none of them are. Maybe they are exclusive. Maybe they aren’t. Is there value in being a poet? That’s a real question he struggles with. And of course he now also learns that he may have a mother who is still alive—a mother he never knew.
TL: Are there any more connections to J.R.R.Tolkien, in addition to having a mutual inspiration in Beowulf?
MD: You know, it’s interesting. People think of Tolkien’s writing as this great work of “other-worldly” literature. But Tolkien always thought of his Middle-earth writings as being in some way set in our world. Middle-earth is just an Old English and Old Norse word for the world of men. So in that way, I guess my novel has more in common with Tolkien’s writing than it is with most fantasy literature. But Tolkien did not set his works in one particular historical period, as I did. They are set outside of history, or in pre-history, or in a mix of histories. And they have a more fantasy element of enchantment. There is no “magic” in my novels.
Perhaps the only other similarity is in names. Not surprisingly, since Tolkien’s land of Rohan is rooted in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, as are my historical novels, there are a couple instances where I have some very similar names. But they were not copied from Tolkien, but simply rooted in Old English, and my characters rooted in my research.
Still, I would hope that readers of my books about Tolkien would also enjoy my fiction. For all my research, I think my goal in writing my novels was similar to the goal Tolkien stated for himself: just to tell a really good tale that would hold people’s attention. I haven’t done it as well as he did, but I think and hope I’ve done it well enough that folks will read my book and enjoy it, and tell others.
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