Issue #57 (August 15, 1998)
We just spent a few days at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, and while there, I had a new experience. It was simply too beautiful to get much reading done. After the child was settled at the kid's program and the husband settled at his meeting, I settled into a lounge chair by the lake with a copy of Druids by Morgan Llywelyn. I figured that by the time my husband joined me in a few hours, I'd be done with the book.
A few hours went by, and when my husband joined me with his book, I realized I'd hardly turned a page. I kept looking at the mountains, the trees, the lake, and the ducks swimming by. It was an eerie experience - I kept hearing sounds I'd never noticed before - sounds of the forest, the mountains, and the quiet itself. The experience was all the more eerie in that Druids is about such things as trees and nature. Even more eerie was my discovery upon our return to Dallas a few days later that Morgan Llywelyn is herself drawn to Colorado - she told me, "If I didn't live in Ireland, Colorado is where I would want to be. The old gods are still powerful in the High Country."
Druids is a work of historical fiction set in Gaul, what we now would consider France, at the time when Julius Caesar and his Romans were invading France, Germany, Belgium, and Spain. It is told in the first-person narrative. The narrator is Ainvar, a young man of 15 destined to become a powerful Druid priest. The book spans roughly a fifteen-year period and is quite simply an amazing blend of history and fiction (for those interested, you may order this book from Amazon by clicking here).
I had first read Morgan Llywelyn a couple of years ago. She wrote a wonderful short story in Irish Magic about the selkie myth. After I read her nearly-as-good short story in Irish Magic II, I located her on the Internet and we began to talk. Once we got over the traditional Americans-as-incapable-of-intellectual-thought portion of our discussion, we got into some good stuff. We talked about how this author of historical fiction (Pride of Lions, Lions of Ireland, and most recently 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion) found herself writing short stories for romance anthologies. We also discussed how an author of historical fiction manages to keep the history from overwhelming the fiction.
Discussions with Morgan Llywelyn:
Laurie Likes Books: Every time I go to the bookstore to browse, there is always a large selection of Irish Myths. Other than Greek and Roman mythology, there seems to be a lot of interest in Irish myths. Can you explain this, and explain your attraction to these myths?
Morgan Llywelyn: I think people are interested in Irish mythology for several reasons. Firstly, being Celtic in origin is part of the common heritage of western Europeans in a way Greek and Roman myth are not. Also, it seems familiar in that so many other mythic tales have developed from Irish myth. Arthur's Knights of the Round Table are a case in point, having developed from the Red Branch Knights of Emhain Macha. My own interest in Irish mythology is a natural extension of my historical studies, as our mythology is very much a part of the cultural milieu of Ireland.
LLB: Your selkie story in Irish Magic I "hooked" me on the selkie myth. After I saw The Secret of Roan Inishe, I was done for. My understanding of the selkie myth is that it was a Scots myth. How did it enter the Irish pantheon? What drew you to want to write about the selkie?
Morgan: Selkies, or Seal People, supposedly abound in all the northern waters of the British Isles and therefore their stories are common to both Ireland and Scotland. Bearing in mind that the highland Scots are descended from Irish settlers fifteen hundred years ago (the Dal Riada tribe of northeastern Ireland) it is not surprising that the two share the selkie.
LLB: I've been very interested for some time now in why we in the US have this benign and rather cute view of fairies (Tooth Fairy, etc), when the Irish/Scots view is so different. Mary Jo Putney and Karen Harbaugh answered this question for me recently. Can you as well?
Morgan: I cannot explain the American view of fairies other than to say it is probably an offshoot of nineteenth century romanticism. In Ireland the so-called fairy, or member of the Sídhe, was very much a real figure and is believed to be a relict of the proto-Celtic Bronze Age race which the Iron Age Celts overcame when they arrived in Ireland sometime around 500 BC. (I wrote a novel called Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish, about this.) As was the way with Celts, the conquerors ascribed supernatural qualities to the people they had bested to enhance their own reputations. Over the centuries the Irish fairy gradually mutated into a purely mythic figure but one still to be feared; a figure which quite easily co-existed alongside Catholicism.
LLB: You are known as a writer of historical fiction and historical fantasy fiction. Why did you write two short stories for romance anthologies?
Morgan: My principal work is historical fiction, not historical fantasy. But I can understand why people have that misconception. I have been writing historical fiction continually since my first novel, The Wind from Hastings, was published in 1978. With my second novel, Lion of Ireland, I began exploring the Irish culture of the tenth century – which meant also studying and writing about the druids. Druids were not fantasy, and druidry was no more fantasy than Catholicism or any other modern religion is. (A subject for debate in itself!) The druids were the intellectual class of all the Celtic races, and included judges, historians, genealogists, teachers, healers, sacrificers, and diviners. They were not priests as such, in spite of what Marion Zimmer Bradley writes, nor were they magicians in the ordinary sense. Their sorcery was analogous to the Christian concept of transubstantiation; a form of shape changing. In the case of the Celts it began with sympathetic magic, with luring the animal within range of the hunter by appearing to assume an animal shape. (I wrote The Horse Goddess, just re-released by TOR/Forge, about this.) To write about these people in their own time I had to write with the perception that druidry was real. It was real to them.
Since the entire body of my historical work about the Celts and the Irish stretches from the seventh century B.C. forward, it includes a considerable amount about druids. American booksellers, inundated with a lot of sometimes bad and poorly researched fantasy loosely incorporating someone's idea of druids, began putting my historical novels on the fantasy shelves . They could not differentiate between a cultural recreation and a fantasy. To a lot of Americans, anything with the word druid in it must be fantasy. It's pity, really, but not a problem in Europe.
Two of my historical novels did take mythological subjects as their heroes – Red Branch, about Cúchulain, and the eponymous Finn Mac Cool. In both instances I examine the subjects as real people set in historic time, but committing deeds which would subsequently cause them to become mythological. In Finn Mac Cool I have Finn deliberately spinning his own myths to impress the band of warriors he was trying to lead.
Because my books which contained these mythic elements were so well received, TOR asked me to write a straight fantasy, The Elementals, which I did. I have also written two volumes of a fantasy trilogy, The Arcana, together with my partner Michael Scott, a well-known fantasy writer. In addition I am frequently asked for short stories for various anthologies. In addition to the two romances for Irish Magic I have written for horror anthologies and mystery anthologies, as well as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche for a Holmesian collection.
I believe a good writer should certainly be able to write more than one type of fiction, just as readers can red more than one type of fiction. Writing short stories is an excellent way to clean my palate between the long, hard effort required for major historical novels such as my latest, 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion. (Which contains no myth and no druids, but certainly does have a love story as every good novel should.)
My own reading runs the gamut from a vast amount of non-fiction, to literary fiction, war stories, books about politics, thrillers, humor of the Garrison Keillor variety, and many other topics. I don't read historical fiction at all for fear of inadvertently picking up something which isn't factual. I don't read what is currently called romance either, although I love some of the great romantic novels such as Doctor Zhivago, Gone with the Wind, and Anthony Adverse. They are novels in the best sense, covering the whole range of human emotion and experience in addition to the relationships between men and women.
LLB: Forgive my misstatement - when I saw The Horse Goddess, I assumed it was a fantasy. I'm quite familiar with the Druids, and, in fact, have read several historical fiction books about them. None were historical fantasy - they were all historical fiction. BTW, none of your books that I've seen has ever been anywhere except in the fiction section here in the U.S.
Obviously your short stories for the Irish Magic anthologies were love stories. You said in your comments that every good novel should include a love story? Can you expand on this?
Morgan: Novels concern the whole span of human existence, and as emotional relationships are such a big part of human experience, they should be represented in every novel. They need not be limited to heterosexual relationships or even human/human relationships. The very deep and abiding love between the hero of Jack London's masterpiece, Call of the Wild, and his dog Buck, is a case in point.
LLB: How were you asked to contribute love stories to these books considering your background not as a romance writer? Did you enjoy writing these love stories, and how did it differ to put the romance at the fore rather than just a part of the story?
Morgan: The editor of Irish Magic I was a fan of my work and took a chance that I would be willing to write a story for her. She offered good money for it - so, like any writer who supports him or herself entirely through writing, I said Yes! And, I did enjoy writing them, because I enjoy writing. Each new work is a challenge and I always enter into it as fully as possible. As for making the romance paramount, it was simply a matter of re-focusing. I also write books for children occasionally, and they also involve re-focusing. You can tell anything in a children's book, you just have to tell it from an emotional perspective rather than an abstract one. Writing a romance story involved the same structuring.
LLB: How do you keep from having the history overtake the novel - some historical books, romance or otherwise, end up reading more like text books than fictional pieces. One romance in particular reminded me more of a lecture from the War College on medieval battle strategy than a book of fiction. How do you weave the narrative around the history to end up with the correct balance?
Morgan: This is a very good question. Historical novelists constantly struggle with the tension between telling a good story and conveying all the necessary history, without telling the reader more than he wants to know. It's impossible not to err on one side or the other occasionally, but I try. My very first editor, the brilliant Ruth Hapgood at Houghton Mifflin, gave me the best advice: "Does this move the story forward in some way? If not, don't tell it." When the history is necessary to move the story forward by explaining or driving, I tell it. If it's irrelevant, I don't.
(To see our list of Irish Romances, please click here.)
The Marriage of Convenience/Arranged Marriage/Mail-Order Bride Romances:
In an earlier column, I mentioned that one of my favorite romantic story lines is that of the marriage of convenience/arranged marriage/mail-order bride. I was curious, however, as to why we love to read these stories, why we find them so romantic given that they are based on the thoroughly unromantic premise of love after marriage? We know the premise is historically accurate. But just like the alpha hero we love to read about but would never want to be with in real life, love after marriage is somehow a very romantic premise in a romance novel, but one we would cringe at in this day and age.
Susan wrote, "Before I realized I was drop-dead gorgeous , I would gobble up fantasies that involved two people thrown together in marriage despite the lack of any emotional bond between them. (And thank you, Laurie, for pointing out that these are fantasies we'd utterly hate in real life.) Why the appeal? Well, I spent much of my youth hating my weight, my hair, my skin tone, etc., ad infinitum; and working like a demon (but with very little success) to correct or hide those horrid flaws. Especially from the men I hoped to fool into falling in love with me. So the idea of being flung together with a man for whom one feels no desire (and hence no compulsion to please), yet who proves to be not only worthy of love but actually able to fall in love with you - when you weren't even trying to win him....Yikes! What could be more delicious?"
Susan added, "When you are temporarily feeling unlovable, the fantasy of winning true love simply by being yourself, instead of having to embody the combined assets of Martha Stewart, Julia Roberts, and Cameron Diaz, is so seductive. Just as when you're feeling too unattractive (or just too tired), to have great sex, but great sex is what you're craving, the rape fantasy ("I get to lie back, feel all this pleasure in spite of myself, and - hallelujah! - I don't have to give a rat's @#$ about whether or not he notices noticed my cottage-cheese thighs! He WANTS me!") can really pack a punch.
While I tend to use the terms arranged marriage and marriage of convenience romances interchangeably, because they are based on love after marriage, many readers do not. In fact, AAR reviewer and Historical Cheat Sheet editor Ellen Micheletti wrote, "I wonder if I am splitting hairs? I have usually thought of the marriage of convenience as one where the two parties know each other and marry for some reason - like wanting to give an orphaned child a home. In an arranged marriage, the hero and heroine do not know each other at all, and enter the marriage as strangers. I know these two scenarios often overlap, but this is how I have differentiated them. Anyone else?"
Because Ellen had hit upon a distinction I hadn't, I asked her to further explore with readers these terms, and to see of others found them interchangeable or not. Here is her report:
The arranged marriage and marriage of convenience are common plots in romance novels. Although there are some readers who use the terms interchangeably, I think there is a difference. I stated that as I saw it, an arranged marriage was one where the man and woman did not know each other or knew each other only slightly. Whereas a marriage of convenience was one where the man and woman did know each other and married for some unromantic reason (to give an orphan a home for example) and later found love in the marriage.
Most readers agreed with me, with Laura adding that the arranged marriage is often set up by third parties, who have financial reasons in mind. Writers often use the arranged marriage plot in historical romances because it was the normal way a marriage was contracted in those days. What makes an arranged marriage a romantic one, is how the writer shows the heroine making the hero fall in love with her. TJ said, "Most arranged marriage stories are historical ones. In the past, a husband had the absolute power over his wife since his wife was his property. Anyway, when the woman married a man who didn't love her, she's got no leverage and is at the mercy of her husband. But at least in romance novels, she makes him fall in love with her--she is no longer the weak one, but his equal. Moreover, it's very amusing to watch them feed off of each other throughout the book".
Juliet said, "I think the arranged marriage scenario appeals to all of us because it gives the less than overwhelmingly stunning girl a chance to get the rich, handsome, everybody-wants-him guy, and have him fall madly in love with her for all the aspects of herself one can't see easily. It also allows the author to describe the hero and heroine and their relationship in detail over time, mixing the intimacy of marriage with the excitement of courtship. And, everyone has gone through the pain of dating, the misery of rejection and that awful fear that nobody is ever going to want me. The arranged marriage scenario says the pairing up gets done without having to go through all of that and this being a romance, it all works out wonderfully for both of them. It's a really appealing fantasy".
The marriage of convenience plot is still used in a lot of contemporary stories. Laura said, "In a MOC, the couple is mutually agreeable to the marriage, for whatever their individual reasons".
In most of these stories, the couple know each other. They are usually older, maybe have been divorced or widowed, but for some reason or another, they need to get married. One book that illustrates a marriage of convenience story perfectly is Paula Detmer Riggs' Once Upon a Wedding Jess Dante is an attorney who is divorced, Hazel O'Connor is a child psychologist and a widow. They are friends and professional colleagues who have known each other for some time. The attraction between the two is a smoldering undercurrent that neither of them will acknowledge. When a client of Jess's gives birth to a little girl in jail, and then dies after she asks him to take care of her child, Jess is in a bind. He is handicapped (he has only one arm) and a single man with a handicap is not a good candidate to be allowed to adopt a child. If he were married, he would have a much better chance. Jess proposes marriage to Hazel. Of course it will be a marriage of convenience, she! signs a prenuptial agreement and all is very business-like. Their business agreement does not survive their wedding night and after some problems and conflict, Hazel and Jess admit their love and get the family each has always longed for.
The mail-order bride plot is a combination of the arranged marriage and the marriage of convenience plots. The marriage is arranged, but by the couple themselves who usually "know" each other through correspondence. It's a marriage of convenience, because most of the time the woman enters into the marriage because she needs a home. She may be an orphan, or has been displaced in a war, and finds herself homeless for one reason or another. The man needs a wife. He may be a widow with children, or have a new homestead, or just be plain lonely. Anyway, he needs a wife and she needs a home. Of course, in a romance, the fun is to see them fall in love along the way.
There are many variations of the mail-order bride plot and it is not necessarily confined to historical romances. In The Bride Wore Spurs, the hero and heroine did not know each other. One bride brought along a friend in the hopes she would marry when she got there. In Texas Destiny, Amelia came to Texas fully intending to marry Dallas Leigh, but fell in love with his brother, Houston. In LaVyrle Spencer's The Endearment, the mail-order bride lied about her past and brought her little brother along with her to the total shock of her groom.
In Duncan's Bride, Linda Howard did a very good contemporary version of the mail-order bride. Reese Duncan (who lives on a ranch far from a town where there are any eligible women), advertises for a bride in the classified section of a newspaper. I know that there are men in isolated areas of the country - Montana and Alaska, who have done that.
The possibilities are endless and I don't see the arranged marriage - marriage of convenience - mail-order bride plot going out of favor anytime soon. In fact, as we get more and more comfortable in the cyber age, I am looking forward to stories where the hero and heroine meet on-line.
(To see our list of Arranged Marriages - including Mail Order Brides, Arranged Marriages, and the Marriage of Convenience, please click here.)
Okay, Follow Me Now:
Back in Issue #55, we talked about villains becoming heroes/heroines. And, I brought up the issue of Political Correctness in romance. There is an entire section here at AAR devoted to this topic, and many of you recently posted about it. But a couple of you posted about these topics in ways I hadn't considered myself, and I think the comments are important, especially in how they relate to the alpha hero.
Mary Lynne, in writing about villains as heroes, said that she had recently read a book with an extremely alpha hero. She described him as "one of those damaged guys who treats the heroine cruelly, almost brutally in some ways while treasuring her and protecting her in others." She wondered whether villains who have the potential to become heroes are related in some ways to the alpha hero. Because the alpha hero can be "callous, even vicious, in what he does to the heroine, why is it that we forgive these actions in an alpha hero?"
Adele Ashworth, whose first book, My Darling Caroline, will be published next month, wrote, "Is politically incorrect behavior in a scene of forced seduction accepted because we, as readers, know in the deep corners of our minds that the man forcing himself on our heroine is ultimately a 'hero' and in 150 pages (or whatever) he will love this woman in a manner in which we women who read romantic fiction would love to be loved? Does the reader's knowledge of the hero and heroine's eventual happiness together say, 'It's okay that he's penetrating you sexually while you're saying no because if you just hang on for a few more chapters you'll discover that this magnificent man will love you desperately forever'?"
I think Adele raises a very interesting point, and I don't know that I have an answer. In Catherine Coulter's Fire Song, for instance, the hero is absolutely horrible to the heroine throughout the book. This hero raped another woman in a previous book, and I don't know that he raped his heroine. I never forgave him for his behavior because he was so thoroughly despicable (although probably true to his times), and because I never felt he loved the heroine. In some other romances I've read where the hero was horrible to the heroine, and where forced seduction may not have even been an issue, but the hero was horrible nonetheless, and true to his times, if I felt he never loved the heroine, I never forgave him. Where the hero has forced his affections and I felt he truly loved the heroine in the end, or even at the time, I probably was able to forgive him.
Because I thought Adele was onto something, I asked her to further explore this idea. She then posted the following:
"I had only been considering forced seduction, but what about all those heroes who are despicable in their actions toward the heroine for 340 pages of the book, and then in the last ten proclaim their undying love and we forgive them? Do we, as readers, know this is coming and so accept the hero's previous awful (or politically incorrect) behavior? Would we accept or respect a man who treated us this way (or a sister or friend) in real life? I doubt it. What about in 1640 or 1840 where this might have been true to the times?
"Where a romance becomes thoroughly disappointing is when, at the end of the book, we readers don't feel the hero has had a reasonable motive for forcing himself on the heroine - whether it be in bed or abusing her verbally or whatever. Alpha heroes typically were cold and unfeeling on the surface and treated our heroines sometimes horribly, and yet we loved them anyway by the end of the book, and I think this relates directly to the author's skill in making us believe. I think physical violence is the only thing I couldn't forgive in a hero, and yet isn't that what rape is? Confusing. And if we know the hero is being tender and deeply loves the heroine (even if he doesn't yet realize it) and wants her to be pleasured as he penetrates her sexually, but she is screaming no, do we forgive him because we know in the end the heroine will forgive him and they will live happily ever after? Technically this is still rape, and yet we love the hero anyway.
"I think the romance author must be very clever in her writing skills to make us believe the hero is justified in his despicable actions toward the heroine. If she doesn't do a good job of this we hate the hero and hate the book."
"Often, readers aren't given a deep psychological reason for why a villain is cruel. We have some plot motivation - the hero/heroine wronged the villain in the past, or the families of the h/h did, or the villain wanted something the h/h had and couldn't get, or a myriad other reasons. But very rarely do we get into the psyche of the villain, even though we may be given a rationale for his actions.
"Alpha heroes are very popular, and the alpha who becomes gamma, because the author shows us how the hero's mind works and lets us see his path to 'redemption' by the heroine, is incredibly prevalent. But in many cases the alpha hero is still alpha to everyone but the heroine. He makes an exception in her case, but he's still alpha to the world. If this storyline is so popular, then an extension of that - transforming a villain into a hero--makes sense. A villain who might have had reasons for earlier actions in one book is then given the full insight and analysis that an author extends to her heroes. And when we are granted knowledge of the villain/hero's psychological motivations, he transitions from the latter to the former. He's given a path to redemption, just as an alpha hero is given a figure (the heroine) through which he can find resolution for his particular demons.
"This is a really raw thought for me, and I haven't had the time to refine it and explore it thoroughly. But I do see a real tie between villains and alphas in terms of their actions, so it seems logical that readers can therefore accept villains who become heroes.
"An interesting extension of this, to my mind, is the following: I wonder if readers have read books where a former villain is transformed into a hero, and the book failed in their eyes. If so, why? What was unsuccessful about that villain's transformation?"
The Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board again. Here are the questions I'd like you to consider responding to:
Irish Magic - Let's make this a catchall. Which books have you read that others consider odd? For instance, when I told a dinner party full of people that I'd read a book about Druids, they found that odd. Never mind Perfume about a man who kills people for their scents. And, if you are a fan of Irish myth, romance, and/or literature, post about that as well. Do you have any comments about my discussions with Morgan Llywelyn? Finally, we are working on adding Irish romances to our Scots/Irish Romances List, so we want you to add your favorites!
The Marriage of Convenience/Arranged Marriage/Mail-Order Bride Romances - Share why you enjoy these types of romances, and, if you'd like to get into the debate about whether it's important to differentiate between them, that would be good as well. And, as a reminder, we here at AAR love these types of romances and have a number of them listed in our Arranged Marriages List in our Special Title Listings section. We'd love you to add your favorites as well, and if you too enjoy this type of book, you'll find lots of great titles here!
Alpha Heroes, and the Transformation of Villains to Heroes - What do you think about Mary Lynne's comments? Can you answer some of her questions, particularly books that have failed to adequately transform villains into heroes? Are villains and alpha heroes sometimes two sides of one coin?
Political Correctness and Alpha Heroes - What do you think about Adele's comments? Why do we forgive the alpha hero who treats the heroine poorly throughout so much of a book? Do we forgive them (likely some of us do and some of us don't, or we do in some books but not others). Do we forgive because we know he'll show his love on the last pages? Can this issue be tied to the hero who used forced seduction along the way?
Publisher Survey - I first ran a publisher survey two years ago. It was extremely interesting. In light of new lines of romance and new publishers getting into the game, and others leaving it(the start of Sonnet Books as a showcase for Pocket's historical romance authors who are on their way to lead author status, e-publishing, the demise last year of Harper's Monogram line), should we see if our tastes are changing?
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