The Literary Dwarf, Tyrion’s Historical Forbears

Over on the Tales After Tolkien Society blog, after an entry about a particular Game of Thrones episode, someone asked about placing Tyrion into the context of the appearance of dwarf characters in medieval narratives, in particular Arthuriana.  Not long ago, I participated in the Malory Aloud readers’ theater performance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, and one of my brief roles involved kidnapping a dwarf who was the companion of the scene’s protagonist, Sir Gareth.

This image seems to represent a Little Person as a court jester.

This image seems to represent a Little Person as a court jester.

In current conversation, the preferred term is little person, and we are aware of several physiological reasons for what is commonly referred to as dwarfism.  Tyrion, and many of his literary compatriots, have one of a variety of hereditary or genetic syndromes resulting in disproportionate dwarfism, as opposed to proportionate dwarfism.  In researching this article, I came across the story of Jeffery Hudson, a 17th century dwarf in the court of Queen Henrietta Maria.  He claims to have grown a good deal after being captured by pirates (his is quite a life and worthy of more study!).  Such growth is not unheard of in the case of psychogenic or psycho-social dwarfism which can be reversed, allowing for rapid growth when the causes of the psychological and physiological stress are removed.  But I digress. .

During the Middle Ages, like many other variances in humanity, dwarfism was perceived as a sign from God, either a judgment upon the parents (in Game of Thrones, Tyrion likens his position to that of being a bastard–the child his father would prefer not to acknowledge) or a reflection of the inner nature of the individual.

Some little people were taken into the courts of nobility, as a reminder that the noble family, with their presumed health and beauty, had been so fortunate as to be blessed by God, while others were not.  The dwarf, or another person with a physical or mental difference, would be fed, clothes, feted (we all remember the Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Feast of Fools, do we not?) as an earthly indulgence. They were often the lucky ones, in spite of being treated more like pets than like people, because, like other non-normative individuals outside the court, they would otherwise be reviled.  Infants with clear differences were often left, or meant to be left, outside–“exposed” as they called it–to live or die as God willed.  The popularity of dwarf entertainers is attested to in documents of Imperial Rome, and more recently in anthropological evidence.  (Generally more of the former than the latter–perhaps because Little People were considered such a curiosity that scholars and authors tended to exaggerate their number and presence).

Because they were perceived as outside of the natural hierarchy of humanity, they were often granted greater leeway in what they said and did, immune from the punishment that would ordinarily be imposed.  We commonly refer to this role as that of the fool or court jester. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, fools could be sorted into two varieties, the “natural”, an individual born different, and the licensed fool, an individual granted the status of the fool by official notice.  Rahere, the founder of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital and the church of the same name, was one of the latter.

Tyrion fulfills this role in spades, serving as one can speak truth to power, always saying or doing something outrageous or insulting, but existing in a liminal space which protects him from harm.  He provides humor, but also commentary on the “noble” characters around him.  His physical stature gives him a unique status in his society. Likewise, the “natural” fool of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance was perceived as touched by God in more ways than one–their remarkable form and their outrageous utterances both having a divine origin implying that they were worthy of consideration.

Such individuals appear in Arthurian legend, historical record, and, of course, the plays of William Shakespeare, where they often perform (like Tyrion) as both comic relief, and vital commentary on the action of the play and on its major players.  Another intriguing literary dwarf and jester was Edgar Allan Poe’s Hop-frog, who reveals the perfidy of the court in appearing to coddle an individual they clearly find revolting–and who then exacts his vengeance for their treatment.  James Thurber presents a dwarf jester in his fantasy novella, The White Deer:  a dwarf much abused by the king and his elder sons, but defended by the younger son, the work’s protagonist, who succeeds on lifting the curse placed on the titular deer and on her brother, the dwarf.

George R. R. Martin, a scholar himself, drew on these ideas to craft a character in alignment with medieval ideas of dwarfism, who both fulfills the role of the jester, and exceeds it.  Like the “natural” fools of the Middle Ages, Tyrion excites notice both within the novel, where he is often referred to as “the imp”, and from the readers.  His presence at first invites us, like the noble courts of old, to marvel at those different from us, and enjoy his entertainment value, then rebuffs this voyeurism by developing an engaging and remarkable human being, in the end no different at all.  Tyrion is someone we can identify with because we have all, to a greater or lesser degree, felt reviled and outcast at some time.  We can imagine his state as worse than ours, then surprise ourselves by admiring him, and perhaps even wishing we could be more like him:  more bold, more witty, more willing to exceed the roles we have been given.

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Dark Apostle News. . . or Not

Most of the time, this blog focuses on areas of research and musing about things both medieval and fantastical, but from time to time it also includes updates about my novels for the benefit of the fans out there.

Guardians at Heidelberg Castle

Guardians at Heidelberg Castle framing a void

Up until now, the Dark Apostle books have enjoyed an annual summer release, the first week in July, which means that I would now be leading up to the launch date announcement, where I link to my on-line footnotes to the book, after doing a cover reveal, and posting a plot blurb and all of that good stuff.  Alas, though I turned in book four in April of 2015, there have been some delays on the publisher’s end, so the book will not be a summer release after all.  The current plan is to launch book four in February, in time for Boskone–making one of my favorite conventions that much more exciting.

But hey, I can still post some footnotes, and give you some things to speculate on.  Book four is entitled Elisha Mancer, and moves Elisha’s journey to the continent, primarily the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, mostly) and Rome, as he tracks down the conspiracy of necromancers who plan to bring Europe to ruin.

You’ll visit destinations like  Trier and Heidelberg.

Meet striking characters based on historical figures from the 1340’s like Charles IV and Louis IV, the dual (and dueling) emperors, and the extraordinary Cola di Rienzi, the madman who ruled Rome.

Go underground in a medieval salt mine and so much more!

And yes, there are other hints hidden throughout my last year of blogging but that would be telling. . .


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Maps and Direction: Exploring a Metaphor

I recently stopped in at a local gas station/convenience store to look for a local area map that will help me think about where to buy my next house.  The woman next to me in line immediately asked where I wanted to go, and offered to give me directions.  On my way out of the store (empty handed–wonder if other people still buy maps any more), it occurred to me that people have begun to confuse directions with maps, as if, having an app for that precludes the necessity or advisability of having a map for the same thing.

But directions and maps are actually very different.  Directions will tell you how to get where you’re going, maps tell you about where you are.  Directions are useful if you are heading to a very particular place.  The contemporary version of directions, from an app like Waze, will give you turn-by-turn instructions, and suggest alternate routes if something goes wrong.

map of a hike I am planning

map of a hike I am planning


the trail description and directions for the same hike

Directions won’t help you find the most interesting route.  They won’t help you find another place you might like to go, or understand the territory you’ll be passing through.  Apps will find you a restaurant or retailer, especially if they have paid for the privilege.  But they won’t help you understand the growth pattern of an area, the way that topography affects the road systems and the lives of the people who live there.  They don’t suggest the landscape, the levels of congestion or the overall layout of the place.  If I want to *go* somewhere, I’ll get directions.  If I want to *know* somewhere, I’ll get a map.

The fantasy genre is sort of obsessed with maps.  It is one of the signs of epic fantasy that the book begins with a map, and some recent novels have several–a diagram of a key fortress, a street map, and a wide-view of the countryside.  One of my favorites series, the Steerswomen books by Rosemary Kirstein is, in fact, all about how the maps get made, and the maps in each book expand from the previous one as the character explores and understands the territory.

But many of the recent maps are really just a set of directions.  They display in a graphic format the five or six key places, and where they are in relation to each other.  Tolkien’s maps included mountains, swamps and forests, just as real maps usually do, and might include places the book isn’t even going.  They sketch an entire world by revealing a sense of the place, and suggesting that more lies beyond the borders of the page, just as any local map will include roads and rivers and mountain chains that parade off into the unknown.

It is useful to know, in an extended work of fiction, the relationship between the places mentioned. How long will it take them to travel through Mirkwood?  Which cities lie closest, or are there islands in that ocean?  In addition to my collection of maps both historical and contemporary, large-scale and intimate, I also have a few hand-drawn maps, where a stranger provides me with not only directions, but an idea of how those directions fit into the landscape.  I think the most interesting maps in fiction are those that operate in a similar way. They’re not just the geography of the place, but also suggest the history and the significance of that geography, like Kirstein’s maps, or the map in Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which is drawn by the protagonist to diagram the relationships not between the places, but between the nobles who rule them.

The long and the short of it is, directions are useful, but maps are a heck of a lot more meaningful.  Which got me thinking about this as a metaphor for writing.  One basic distinction many writers make is between “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants, and “plotters” who develop outlines in advance.  In metaphorical terms, the pantsers are like those apps.  They have an idea of where they want to go, and the app–the muse–gives them turn-by-turn instructions for how to get there.  The route might be long, meandering, traffic-laden–it might be short, direct and boring.  The writer doesn’t know the route before they set out.

Plotters might be more like the people who use Mapquest.  They get all the directions in advance, including landmarks or distances, and a handy overview map that shows how the route fits together, and allows for changing the route and making other choices before the wheels hit the road.  (In case you’re wondering, when I drive someplace, this is how I go, and I try to also print a local map of the last few turns showing the neighborhood.)

But the maps. . .when I am writing something big, I’m not just picking my point A and point B and filling in the bits in between.  I begin with a broader picture than that.  Essentially, I begin by creating the mental map of the space in which the book (or the series) takes place.  With the Dark Apostle books, it involved actual maps of places, plus lots of research about the time period, the settings, the tools of the medieval surgeon, and all of those goodies.

My next project will be a secondary world epic fantasy.  Creating my map for this one involves world-building: in part, literally.  What is the substance of this place?  What landforms are important to the world?  Creating cultures and the settings they arise from and dwell in–along with the flora and fauna of those places (which sends me back to the research books again).  I get to create a cosmology, and develop a pantheon of religious figures and a variety of belief structures.  When I am finished with the brainstorming and development phase of this project, I’ll be ready to print up the directions to take me from the beginning to the end of the first novel–but I will also be able to see the territory it moves through, to consider how that route interacts with other places and other pathways, so I can return to the map and find many more stories.

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How do you Keep an Author in Suspense?

I am an avid follower of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for a truly terrible opening sentence for a book–entries are now open for 2016, if you are so inclined.  At the very least, you should click through to the 2015 winners and scroll down to Fantasy and Historical fiction if you’d like a good chuckle.  One of the finalists a few years back featured the typical dying victim of a violent crime, bleeding out on the floor from terrible injures, gasping as the detective leans over him. . . and revealing with his dying breaths exactly who the killer is, why they did it, and where to go to find them.  Thus destroying any hope of suspense.

Although studies suggest many people actually spoilers and enjoy a work more when they know how it ends, that is rather a different thing from a story having a complete lack of suspense.  In fact, I suspect that knowing the ending before knowing the middle creates a completely different type of suspense. It generates the tension between knowing how it ends, and *not* knowing how it got there.

One of my favorite books, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, in effect is told backward and forward at the same time.  You know, at the start of the book, that the alien encounter for which the characters are so eagerly preparing ends badly–you know who survives to return to Earth, and in what condition he arrives.  At the same time, you get to follow along with the excitement of planning the voyage, building the team, discovering the aliens and learning their culture.  So the question is, what goes wrong in storyline A, the voyage, that results in storyline B, the aftermath.  By holding the image of the protagonist at his most optimistic, alongside the image of him at his most abject, the reader becomes desperate to reconcile the one with the other, and the ending of the book is actually the hinge point between the two narratives.

The fact of the matter is, most people don’t actually like to be surprised.  Surprises are often disruptive, like adventures to hobbits, they are an intrusion into an otherwise orderly and enjoyable life.  We might not mind being surprised by the details of an event–but honestly, we’d like to make sure we’re dressed for it, and have brought the right number of pocket handkerchiefs.    We’d rather the spouse says they are taking us out for supper, even if we don’t know where, than that they suddenly show up at the office, leaving us suspicious of motivation and looking for the hidden camera.

You see, suspense is at its best when you have an idea what to expect.  A surprise–someone leaping out of a closet to shout “Boo!” for example–totally lacks suspense.  So we are startled, and you can watch dozens of jump-scare videos on YouTube of this exact reaction.  Shortly after that, annoyance usually follows.  But people watch videos of jump-scares for the same reason we enjoy spooky movies or suspense novels.  You go into the experience knowing what will happen, but not when or how.  That knowledge builds a pleasant sensation of tension, which will then be cathartically released when the probabilities collapse and you reach a well-deserved ending.  David Farland refers to this as the Stress Induction/Reduction theory of entertainment.

Of course, individual readers have different thresholds for the build-up of tension, below which, it’s not interesting, and beyond which it becomes intolerable.  Some people love high-tension narratives, others prefer less. Some people re-read the same books repeatedly, in spite of knowing not only the ending, but also precisely how it all happens.  And different genres have different expectations of suspense.  In a mystery, the reader wants to keep guessing who the killer is, right up until the moment the protagonist figures it out, then think “Of course it had to be!”  In a romance, the reader wants to feel the tension grow between the hero and heroine throughout the narrative, but most readers also want to know this tension will resolve into a happily ever after.

I have been brooding on suspense because I am currently waiting to hear back from three different directions about three different book projects.  This is not a form of suspense I enjoy.  I would rather have the spoilers up front:  this book will be accepted, but at a lower advance than you’d like; this book will need another round of revisions; this book will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.  Then I could settle back in my chair, with my popcorn, and watch the sequence unfold until that ending arrives.

This is the trouble with suspense in real life.  I don’t know what genre it will be.  Is this passage of my life a romance, with a happy ending implied up-front?  Or is this a horror story, where my feelings of foreboding will pay off in disaster?  If the next few months are to be a fantasy narrative, will they be of the whimsical variety, the stressful but ultimately triumphant, or the grimdark?  Alas for me, only time will tell.

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Location, Location, Location: The Roles of Setting in Fiction

A few of my recent posts have focused on settings I visited and researched for my work–definitely one of the perks!  But it may seem as if I am a bit obsessive about my settings.  That’s because setting is one of the defining features of fiction–and especially of fantasy.

A bell tower from an early church, among modern buildings

The Lost Tower of London:  a lovely little place, with a high-contrast setting.

We tend to think of a setting as the backdrop for the action that takes place there, but setting can have a great influence on many other aspects of fiction–even if you don’t subscribe to the “setting as a character” school of thought (which I don’t).  Setting creates resonance with the themes and emotional beats of the work. It can contribute to or inspire plot points.  And it shapes the characters who live, work, and pass through it.

Think about a certain famous work beginning this way:

In a walk-up, in the Bronx, there lived a hobbit.

Even if you wanted to tell the same basic story, it is now completely different.  And so is he.  Who would Bilbo have become if he grew up, not only outside the Shire, but above ground?  If you wanted to re-create the same cozy feeling and small-community sensibility that Bagend exemplifies, you’d be working with very different social cues and signifiers in the description and in how people react to it.

It’s so easy to default to the familiar. In fantasy fiction, we’ve even developed a term–  Consensus Fantasy Setting–which denotes a very recognizable pastiche of medieval life and architecture, with lots of half-timbered houses and people who eat stew when they take a break from riding their horses though a spooky forest of identical spooky trees.  Here it is:

This narrow Medieval street from a town in Dorset gives a sense for the architecture and feel of 14th century London.

This narrow Medieval street from a town in Dorset gives a sense for the architecture and feel of 14th century London.

trees in the New Forest

trees in the New Forest











Yep, there are actually places like this–these ones are in England–and I think it is no coincidence that many American authors go straight for these images when they begin to write.  That place on the left?  That’s the inn where the travelers meet up for their adventure, before they ride through the forest. . .  I guess I cheated. Because my series is set in 14th century England, I actually used these settings.  I hope I brought them to life, not merely as a stage set given to me by a previous generation of writers, but rather, by studying, researching, and visiting them when possible, to look for the details that reveal the specific place and time.  The New Forest, for instance, is actually a palimpsest of continuous human occupation since the Bronze Age or before, a fact that shaped the characters’ lives and the things they see when they enter.

But the idea of stage setting can be a useful one.  In the movies, you choose a location and film there.  In a book, as on stage, you need to bring everything the audience will experience–whatever they see, hear, smell (aside from the things each member of the audience brings on their own).  So crafting a setting in fiction is the result of a series of deliberate choices about what details will most reveal the place–and also the people who move through it.  Different characters might enter the same setting and notice very different things, having unique reactions as a result.

The right setting for a given scene can elevate the work to a new level, by bringing out that history, the characters’ reactions to it, and the emotional tone of the work. I have recently been studying both George R. R. Martin, and Martin Cruz Smith, thinking about how they achieve the effects that they do. They have a startling number of things in common.  One of them is the effective use of setting.  It’s handy if you have the option of inventing settings, as GRRM does, then you can build in the resonance that you want–like putting eyes on trees in the Godwood, and being very careful about how those places are described.  If you are using real places, as Cruz Smith does, or as I did for The Dark Apostle, then you look for the places that give you a thrill–and will hopefully do the same for your characters and your readers.  I often start with a map in great detail, and look for something striking, or thematically relevant to the scene.

Does that mean you can’t set a deeply resonant and exciting work in an ordinary American town?  Of course not–it means that you need to look more deeply into that place and consider what you find there, and that you may find unexpected things.  The town where I used to live was build in a river valley, with many buildings set into the slope, so the library had a short stone bridge to reach the front door.  Beneath the bridge, a space closed off by a metal grate, chained and locked–a low stone chamber.  Everyone in town probably knows about this spot, and most of them shrug it off.  But my murderer might use it to stash a body–or my teen wizards might use it as their hide-out.

A secret room beneath the library steps? Yes!  In an ordinary town, an extraordinary setting–and thereby hangs a tale. . .




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Historical Scenes and Settings: Trier, the Roman Capital of Germany

Not long ago, I did a profile of Aachen, Germany, Charlemagne’s capital city, and one of the unused settings I research for Elisha Mancer, book 4 in The Dark Apostle series.  Today, I’m going further back in time, to a setting I did, in fact, develop into scenes in the book, the Roman capital of Trier.

germany 554

Roman-era Porta Nigra, or Black Gate, into the city of Trier

Wait a minute, Imperial Rome had a capital in Germany?  What gives?  When Rome was working to subdue the Gauls in nearby France, they expanded this city on the Rhine, and used it as a base of operations to oversee the Western Roman Empire until the 4th century.  At that time, it was one of the largest cities in Europe, with a population estimated between 75,000 and 100,000 people.  Many of the city’s landmarks date from this time period–as does its square Roman layout.

A model of the Porta Nigra as it appeared during the Middle Ages

A model of the Porta Nigra as it appeared during the Middle Ages

By the time Elisha gets there in the 14th century, only the impressive ruins remain, some of them re-used for other purposes entirely.  Much of the land inside the walls had been reclaimed as farmland, with a much smaller population living within.  However, Trier was also the oldest seat of a bishop west of the Alps.  It evolved into the Archbishopric of Trier–and the archbishop who held this seat became one of the electors of the Holy Roman Emperor.

There is one building which, to me, really shows the history of this fascinating city, and that is the Basilica of Constantine.  Originally part of the imperial palace, this imposing red brick building fell into disuse, then was used as the home of the bishop.  The round apse had a tower built inside with living quarters and a battlement at the top for defense.  The building was then converted into a church, and became a protestant church during the Reformation–a use it retains to this day.

The apse of the Basilica as it now stands.

The apse of the Basilica as it now stands.

An artist's rendering of the Basilica when it was a residence.

An artist’s rendering of the Basilica when it was a residence.

One fascinating aspect of writing historical fiction is the attempt to reconstruct for the reader an earlier time.  The city of Trier shows that this reconstruction is a continuing effort, the admiration of the past and its incorporation into an ever-changing present.

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After “The End”

I have had the experience several times now of reading a book that I am very much enjoying–right up until the end.  Then the work either fizzles out, simply stops, or blatantly kicks me in the teeth (as a reader).  Leaving me feeling, well, WTF, author?

Authors spend a lot of time crafting beginnings.  They worry and work over their middles–but sometimes, they neglect the most important part.  Endings are critical.  Mystery writer Mickey Spillane said that the first page of your book sells that book, and the last page sells your next one.  If you deliver a satisfying reading experience all the way through, then readers will be eager to pick up your next title (and for you writers out there, remember that your first reader is likely to be an editor/agent/reviewer/blogger).  And if you fail to deliver that complete experience, then your next book is likely doomed.

Author and psychology professor Jennifer Lynn Barnes  in an article for the Novelists’ Inc. newsletter recently pointed to a reason why endings are so important.  She references an experiment involving subjects plunging their hand into painfully cold water (A) or plunging their hand into painfully cold water, then into slightly less cold (but still painful) water for a longer period of time (B).  The subjects overwhelmingly preferred B, in spite of the fact that the suffering overall was longer.  They preferred their suffering to end on a better note.  (The Ninc newsletters go online for public consumption about six months after publication–so you’ll have to wait for the full article–totally worth the read.)

It turns out (and if you examine your own experiences, you will probably find anecdotal confirmation) that in any given experience, people tend to remember most the highest point–the most thrilling, most terrible, most beautiful–and the ending.  So, for example, I took a trip to Hawaii last year where we got to visit with seahorses (most beautiful), and had a really terrible flight off the island.   High point, ending.  We also visited with a dolphin, and if I sit here to recall more, I can dredge up those memories, but if you said, “How was your trip to Hawaii last year?”  likely, I’d mention the seahorse and the flight–and nothing more.

The ending of the experience is what solidifies the whole thing.  It encapsulates what that experience was like, bringing it together and resolving the emotional impact on the reader/experiencer (even if the thing itself is somewhat unresolved, like the middle book of a trilogy).  You get to that ending, and you’re thinking, “Wow–that was great!”  Or maybe, “Wow, I was really enjoying this–until now.”

The same moment, plot-wise, can deliver a very different impact on the reader, depending on the order of ideas, sentences, phrases, or the effort of the author to find just the right image for that final note of resonance.  Imagine this is the last line of a story:

Jerry helped his injured companion up onto the horse behind him.  She might not survive the night, but at least they rode on together.

Or this one. . .

Jerry helped his injured companion up onto the horse behind him.  They rode on together, but she might not survive the night.

The first example, in spite of the companion’s injured state, leaves you with the positive impression of these two characters, together through it all.  The second one ends on the downer that it doesn’t matter if they are together, she’s doomed.  Sucks to be her.  And probably sucks to be Jerry, too.  The same things happen.  The same phrases are used.  The impact is *completely* different.

An ending can be flat–neither enhancing nor detracting from the experience of the work.

It can be brilliant–the shining capstone on the work that leaves you googling the author for their next title, right now!!

It can be a sucker punch–one that rewards the readers’ time, patience and investment with a moment that undercuts everything the reader loved about the book.

Please note:  if what the reader is loving is the horror, the pathos, the dread, then the ending doesn’t need to be happy at all–that’s not what I’m suggesting:  it needs to be the culmination of the reader’s emotional engagement, even if that emotion is a negative one.

The endings that bother me are the ones that turn the contract with the reader on its head, refusing to provide any satisfaction, leaving the reader hollow, ignoring emotional resolution or the potential for positive emotion even in a negative or unresolved situation, the endings that feel like you found a bug at the bottom of your ice cream sundae.

For you writers out there, take a hard look at those critical last moments on the page.  Are they delivering the impact you want to leave with your reader?  Are they the clincher for the experience you’ve been crafting so diligently?  Is this a final page that will encourage the reader to seek out more?

For you readers, what was the last truly satisfying book you read?  How did it end, and could the ending have been stronger?  weaker?  Have you, like me, suffered that terrible let-down of a great book with a bummer ending?

The first pages of a book are where the author makes a promise about the journey to come, and the last page is where they deliver. . . or not.




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