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Stripping Down the Layers of (Hi)Story

Briars and Black Hellebore is a fantasy story, but its setting, the tiny kingdom of Vepres, is inspired by the deep forest valleys at the outskirts of the Holy Roman Empire, somewhere near the border of real-life 11th-century Bavaria and Bohemia. I decided to nail down a very specific time and place to ground my fictional kingdom because medievallish fantasies of Europe have become so entrenched, thickly layered upon each other, and derivative of each other that I want to peel back those layers and build something fresh on a truly ancient foundation.

I know it is impossible to know everything about a distant time and place with a high degree of accuracy and nuanced understanding, but I want to clear my palette of as much of the collective cultural-fantasy patina as I can pry loose, to open the creative space for a whole new fantasy world. I want to separate the elements of factual historical evidence, fluidly evolving folklore, revisionist history and censorship, cultural misunderstandings, and modern values so that I can remix those elements in a way that is deeply meaningful and pleasing to my tastes.

I admire the great storytelling genius of works such as Tolkien's series, Wagner's operas, the Game of Thrones TV show, and books like Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, but frankly, all those examples are the exact things I am avoiding as I work on my clean-sweep, foundations-up rebuild of a fantastical, early medieval fairy tale realm. All those examples feed off many of the same ahistorical, problematic cultural fantasies about medieval times and European history that I want to scrap as I dig further back into stranger-than-fiction, factual history.

For the past couple of months, as I work on collecting details and ideas to layer on to the first 1/3 of my story manuscript, I am simultaneously doing a sort of archaeological dig to uncover the way that stories, concepts, cultures, and fantasies have evolved over time--sometimes organically, sometimes by the hand of a single individual or conscious movement--sometimes innocently, sometimes with shockingly evil intent and consequences.

My research has uncovered ghastly, horrible, nightmare-inducing accounts of real life in ancient and medieval Europe, child-slavery, brutal warfare, colonialism, racism, propaganda, oppression, and misogyny. The history of folklore is the history of human degradation, the deepest cultural nightmares of the oppressed, and the covert survival of ancient values and ideas that are never kept "pure" but are ceaselessly co-opted, chained, shattered, bought, sold, defiled, bastardized, and redeemed in storms of complexity that mimic the movements of the tribes of Europe during the Migration Period.

"The Siren" by E. R. Hughes

One marvelous thing I've found in my research is an antique English-translation print of the first volume of Straparola's 16th-century fairy tale collection, La Piacevoli Notti, printed in 1894 and illustrated by painter Edward Robert Hughes. This collection contains several tales also found in the Arabian Nights (recorded by Straparola 300 years before the Arabian Nights collection traveled to Europe). Besides having that wonderful antique-book smell and awesomely cool typesetting, the book is filled with illustration plates in a very trippy style that appears to be a combination of painting and photography.

I'm no art history scholar, and I haven't found any evidence so far that Hughes ever combined photography with his paintings, but this series has a distinctly different look than the rest of Hughes' well-known paintings (or the ones I can find online). The black-and-white plates appear to be images of artworks that combine photographs of people and objects with painted backgrounds, foregrounds, figures, clothing, and added textures. It looks plausible that some of the pieces are photographs of mat paintings with people and things in the foreground and paint on top of the photograph. Whether or not my guesses about the technique Hughes used to create these images is correct (they could be, for example, strictly made with paint, combining layers of painterly and photo-realistic renderings within the same picture), the artist's intent to create a weird, disorienting, unusual aesthetic is clear. The images show a whimsical tension between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space, between realism and stylized forms, and between motion and stillness. Hughes has used some kind of pioneering technique in these works to achieve a look that is different from business as usual.

In my teasing apart of many layers of human history and human fantasy, I am preparing to create a work of literature that, like Hughes' illustrations for La Notti, surprises and delights its audience with a new arrangement of old elements. And as a work of fiction, my techniques, like Hughes', will remain shrouded in just enough mystery to sustain the magic.

Incidentally, if you ever want to have nightmares about child slavery and become so disenchanted with Ralph Waldo Emerson that your conception of him is forever tainted with horror, have a crack at The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. This book is incredibly enlightening, entertaining, and horrifying, a must-read for anyone interested in European myth and history and American culture and politics. Not incidentally, it is also a contextual must-read for anyone interested in tracing the evolution of fairy tales from modern Disney versions to the ancient past.


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