The Origins of Epic
by Vaughn Roycroft
Putting this website together got me thinking about what led me to write Legacy of Broken Oaths and what the story and the writing of it has meant to me.
Literary Life Launch: As I describe on the About Vaughn page (just a click away), my writing journey started with Tolkien in the sixth grade. Still, it took me a long time to get to the actual writing, but in a way, I’m glad. During my twenty years in the business world I read quite a bit of epic fantasy, but even more historical fiction and nonfiction. My life experience and breadth of reading meant I was bringing more to the party.
Tropes Ahoy: Although I consider him the father of the modern genre, I knew I didn’t want to recycle Tolkien. I was interested in many of tropes of the genre (the world-building, the hero’s quest, the reluctant king, the eruption of evil) but less so in others (intelligent non-humans or the use of magic). And although many of the tropes were tired and overused, I was interested in exploring new ways to examine them. I became particularly interested in the origins of legend and myth.
Gottari—To pour forth. Cheers! Many historically astute readers will deduce that the Gottari Tribe of my work is based on the Germanic tribe of the Goths. In fact, Gottari is the Goth’s name for themselves, meaning to pour forth, as in across the land, (roaming Europe as opposed to filling a cup with mead, although they did that too). Gottari is to Goth just as my Tiberians are Romans, my Hellains are Greek, and so forth. My interest in the Goths began early, when I read that Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan were based on the Goths. When school history courses covered the fall of the Roman Empire, that the city was sacked by the Goths was always a footnote. The seemingly divergent viewpoints (cool horse-warrior good guys vs. evil horde that helps to extinguish the light of the civilized world) led to an ongoing curiosity.
Blood of Eorl the Young: During my early exploration of the internet in the 90’s, for fun I did some genealogical research and stumbled upon the work of a distant cousin. She traced our family back to Pennsylvania, then back to the old world. Her findings led her to believe our ancestors were German Protestants fleeing religious persecution. She went on to speculate that they were a splinter group of the Visigoths (very speculative, IMO). Hold the phone, I thought; here I was thinking Éomer was so awesome, and I was a freakin’ ancestor of the Rohirrim all along. How cool is that?! [Disclaimer: I do not actually believe my family tree can be traced to the Goths.]
Alaric’s Lost Diary: So why not just write historical fiction? In my reading I came across Alaric, the Goth who famously sacked Rome first. I learned that he was a former Federati (foreign fighter of the Roman army), that he was trying to gain rightful payment for his men, and that he did relatively little damage and left (unlike the Vandals, whose antics in sacking Rome coined our modern term vandalism). I immediately thought Alaric’s was a story that needed to be told, and from the Gothic perspective. Sadly, there is little source material, and what exists is written by the Romans. If Alaric or his fellows wrote anything about themselves, it didn’t survive. Short of finding Alaric’s secret diary (sources say he was literate), writing from a Gothic perspective would be largely speculative. In other words, I’d have to make stuff up.
Conjuring Your Baggage: So why the alternate names? Why not use modern names for the places and peoples of my world? In a word: freedom. Historical fantasy allows me to pick and choose the elements of history, culture and religion I think will best serve the story. And it also gives me a bit of distance from the readers’ preconceptions. If I say Gothic warrior or Roman legionnaire, your mind instantly conjures some preconceived notions. I simply wanted the freedom and distance to tell my story without those associations.
What’s so fantastic? I mentioned my interest in the origins of legend and some of the tropes of epic fantasy. But I was less enamored with the elements of the genre that make it, well… fantastic. My work has no system of magic, but my world is steeped in mysticism. I have no dragons, elves or wizards (I do have a seeress or three). I suppose my most fantastic element is the Skolani—an all female warrior sect, oath-bound allies of the Gottari and sacred guardians of Dania’s borders. I wrote another article on why I felt the need to create kickass warrior chicks, but in a nutshell, it was to write strong female characters. I wanted strong women in an atmospherically correct ancient setting without any pretense to their strength being glaring or even unusual. So I made ‘em up, using all the historically accurate trappings as I could gather. Take my word for it, the Skolani are fantastic. Perhaps my proudest creation.
Inversion vs. Deconstruction: As I said, I was interested reexamining tropes from new angles. So I started with a megalomaniac king, who gains his realm through violent conquest and is killed by the empire before the story starts. His son is not just a reluctant king, but actively resistant to kingship. His mother is either a seeress or nuts (reader gets to choose). There is a prophecy, but I was more interested in how those assigned to a destiny react to having it thrust upon them. My hero’s quest is actually flight. Rather than an eruption of evil or a dark lord, I have the coming of the Romans at the direction and behest of imperial bureaucrats. And they certainly aren’t inherently evil. I wanted to explore the motives of each side, what comes of the xenophobia of an epic culture clash. For me it was interesting and fun to show the points of view of characters on both sides. But I wasn’t seeking to tear tropes apart or down (as is so popular these days). I wanted to explore choice and honor, friendship and loyalty, love and loss.
Invoking the Muse: I had no idea what a powerful experience I was in for when I started this journey. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield speaks of finding your muse through doing the work. I dug in, working steadily every chance I got, and was rewarded by Her blessed inspiration. So many times I would wonder, Where is this stuff coming from? So many times I would try to force a character or a plot element, only to find myself corrected by my muse. I have laughed and cried with my characters. I worked diligently through the first draft primarily to find out what happened next, and how it ended. And, hopefully without sounding pompous or self-congratulatory, I remain amazed by what came of my efforts.
The Road Goes Ever On: I have learned more about myself on this journey than through any other aspect of my life. And I remain humbly grateful for the blessings I have received thus far. One of my fondest hopes is that readers will not only enjoy the work, but will be inspired, provoked, moved, made curious, and left reflecting. Another of my fondest hopes is to do it again and again, to have succeeded to the point where you, the reader, will happily accompany me each time. So pour forth (into a cup) and cozy up by the hearth. Together, my brothers and sisters; forth to Dania, and beyond! Fluga Fram!