The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!

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Going Back to the Classics

martian-anthology This week saw the release of The Martian Anthology edited by David B. Riley, which includes my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren.” The story imagines that the crew of a Martian colony discovers dangerous microbial life in an underground cavern. The supplies they need to study and possibly neutralize that life are coming aboard a solar sail from Earth. However, something has gone wrong with the spider robots that maintain the solar sail, hence the title of the story.

A lot is made of coming up with the idea for science fictional stories, but in this case, the science fictional ideas all came together rather quickly. I knew I wanted to tell a story about Martian life. I’ve loved the idea of solar sails ever since I first heard about them in the 80s and The Planetary Society’s LightSail Project had me thinking about cool uses for small, unmanned solar sails. What eluded me for a while in this story wasn’t the science fictional idea, but discovering what the characters learned about themselves in the story. In this case, Greek Mythology turned out to be a great source of inspiration.

One way of making the fabric for solar sails is to weave very light fibers together. Because of that, I had the idea of little nano “spiders” that could be deployed on solar sails to repair them en route. They would extrude and weave new reflective sail material. That sent me to the story of Arachne, most famous for winning a weaving contest with Athena. However, Athena proved to be a sore loser and turned Arachne into the first spider. That story didn’t quite mesh with the tale I was telling, but another story about Athena did. That was the story of how Athena adopted the son of Gaia and Hephaestus and raised him to be the first king of Athens. To see how I weaved that legend into the story, pick up a copy of the anthology at Amazon. In addition to my story, you’ll find great stories about Mars by such writers as J.A. Campbell, Sam Knight, Carol Hightshoe, and Nicole Givens Kurtz.

Grimm-tales

In addition to the release of The Martian Anthology, the Kickstarter for Gaslight and Grimm also went live this week. This is a very exciting project for me, since fairy tales are near and dear to my heart. I talk about that in detail in an interview I did with eSpec books. Also, there are some awesome people associated with the project including Jody Lynn Nye, Gail Z. Martin, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Christine Norris, and Jeff Young. I’ve been a fan of the Grimm Brothers’ faerie tales since I was a kid and I gained a deeper appreciation during my college days when I read “Little Snow White” in the original German. When Disney’s Snow White came out on DVD, I was inspired to buy the complete German language collection shown here. This collection is special to me because it not only has the stories, but the Grimms’ notes about the stories.

My story in Gaslight and Grimm is called “The Dragon and his Grandmother” and I started the story by translating it myself from the German. This helped me get very familiar with the tale, which then allowed me to re-imagine the characters in a steampunk reality. You’ll also find steampunked retellings of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Cinderella,” and the Baba Yaga legend. I look forward to reading it. If you haven’t supported this project, please drop by the Kickstarter page and giving it some support. Only $5.00 will get you the ebook plus there are lots of bonuses at higher levels. If you have supported the project, thank you!!! The Kickstarter has been live for less than a week and we’re over halfway funded. Still, we can use any additional help. Even if you have pledged, take another look, maybe there’s something that can entice you to another reward level, or maybe there’s an add-on gift you’d like. Let’s help this project fly!