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The Origins of Epic

by Vaughn Roycroft

Putting this website together got me thinking about what led me to start writing again, and how I ended up writing epic fantasy set against the fall of the Roman Empire.

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 three decades to get to the actual writing, but in a way, I’m glad. During my 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’m interested in many of tropes of the genre (the world-building, the hero’s quest, the reluctant king, the lost glory of a previous era) but less so in others (sentient non-humans or the use of magic). And although many of the tropes are tired and overused, I’m interested in discovering new ways to examine them. Which led me to an exploration of 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, my Spali are Scythians, and so forth. My interest in the Goths began early, when I heard someone speculate that Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan were based on the Goths.

When school history courses covered the fall of the Roman Empire, the fact 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

Alaric’s Lost Diary: So why not just write historical fiction? In my reading I came across the Goth king, Alaric, the first barbarian leader to sack Rome. I learned that he was a former Federati (foreign fighter of the Roman army). Seems Alaric besieged Rome in an effort he to gain rightful payment for his men, and that when he did resort to sacking the city, 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 needs to be told, and from the Gothic perspective. Sadly, there is little source material, and what little exists is by Roman sources. 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, a reader instantly conjures preconceptions. I’m simply seeking the freedom and distance to tell my stories without those associations.

What’s so fantastic? I mentioned my interest in the origins of legend, and how I’m 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 want to portray strong women in an atmospherically correct ancient setting without any pretense to their strength being unusual. So I made ‘em up, using all the historical trappings as I could gather. And if I might, the Skolani are indeed fantastic.

 Inversion vs. Deconstruction: As I said, I’m interested reexamining tropes from new angles. So I started with the ambitious heir of a banished chieftain, bent on restoring his family’s status and honor. I added a priestess who 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. Rather than an eruption of evil or a dark lord, I have insidious internal political strife, which spurs the coming of the Romans, all incited by the actions of demagogues and bureaucrats. And the imperials certainly aren’t inherently evil. I wanted to explore the motives of each side, what comes of divisiveness born or resentment and fear, followed by what comes of the xenophobia of an epic culture clash. I feel it’s more revealing to show the points of view of characters on both sides. But I’m not seeking to tear tropes apart (as is so popular these days). I want 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. So many times I’ve wondered, Where is this stuff coming from?  I have laughed and cried with my characters. I continue to work diligently, in large part to find out what happens next. And, hopefully without sounding pompous or self-congratulatory, I remain amazed by what continues to come of the effort.

 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. One of my fondest hopes is that readers will not only enjoy the stories set in Dania, but will be inspired, provoked, moved, and left reflecting. Another of my fondest hopes is to do this 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!