22 October 2011

Ruth Berman’s Quest for Bradamant

I’m pleased to post this interview with Ruth Berman, author of Bradamant’s Quest. This is a new novel about an old character, originally created in the late Middle Ages. Yet Bradamant is also the forerunner of the many female knights in fiction today, so this tale can speak to modern readers.
Bradamant’s Quest is set in a fantasy world that was immensely popular for centuries, but which we don’t visit much anymore: the “Matter of France,” or romances of Charlemagne. How did you decide to add to that saga? What does it offer that we don’t find in other great myths of the western world?

When I read the stories in the Incompleat Enchanter series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, many years back, their treatments of the worlds that Harold the I.E. visits made me interested in looking up and reading the books involved. That eventually led me to reading a translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and I thought Ariosto’s Bradamant was a fascinating character, sure of herself and resourceful in going after her true love (a warrior in the enemy army’s forces? — no reason to give up, is her feeling).

Bradamant gets treated rather poorly in modern stories, being presented as a too-big, beefy, well-meaning-but-clumsy type in deCamp/Pratt, and as a rigidly military fighting machine in Italo Calvino’s The Non-Existent Knight. I thought there ought to be more adventures for Bradamant as strong without being therefore laughable or unpleasant, and eventually decided to do something about that.

Oberon also makes an appearance in Bradamant’s Quest. I know he’s got roots in the Middle Ages, but has he played a role in Carolingian romances before? Would we recognize him from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (or would he recognize himself)?

Oberon the Fairy King is a major character in the 12th century Huon of Bordeaux, Huon being one of Charlemagne’s knights. The 1534 translation of it into English is where Shakespeare got his Oberon. The name is equivalent to Auberon, which is equivalent to the German Alberich, meaning elf-lord, although Oberon would not recognize himself in the Alberich of the stories of the Volsung Saga/Ring of the Nibelungs. Huon’s Oberon is enough like Shakespeare’s to make them recognizable, for instance, in their power and in their inclination to befriend mortals, although Shakespare made important changes, such as introducing Titania and Robin Goodfellow into Oberon’s court.

The romance authors of medieval Europe freely added to each other’s work, as when Ariosto wrote Orlando Furioso to finish Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato. These days, many people would call that plagiarism, or fanfiction (and which is more respectable?). What are your thoughts on this sort of collective fiction-making? Should we revise our ideas of originality and look at it differently today?

No one seems to object to modern Arthurian adventures. Jane Yolen likes to say that King-Arthur-and-his-knights make up one of the earliest shared-world settings, although by no means the earliest. Tennyson, when he was doing his retellings of stories from Greek mythology (and the same applies to his Arthurian adventures in his Idylls of the King) remarked in a letter to a friend that he did not like to re-tell a story if he thought it was simply a rechaufée, re-heated leftovers, but if he felt he had something to say that was more than could be found in the original, then he felt that his version was worth doing. And, as T.S. Eliot said: only bad poets borrow — good poets steal.

You’re a charter member of the Int’l Wizard of Oz Club, and you’ve been writing articles about fantasy literature and resurrecting lost stories for many years, as well as writing short stories. How does it feel to be publishing your first novel?

I’m delighted to have it in print. I remember some years back I was on a panel at a science-fiction convention about writing stories based on legends/myths. I tried to say something about Bradamant, and the moderator kept shutting me up, I think because she thought an unpublished novel could not be worth talking about. I take a good deal of satisfaction in thinking that now I can tell people about it, and if they think it sounds interesting, it’s possible for them to get it.
Bradamant’s Quest comes to us from FTL Publications of Minnesota, which offers a free peek at the first chapter.

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