I had the great fortune to interview Octavia Randolph last August while attending Dragon Con. She gave a reading from her most recent book, Sidroc the Dane, as well as participated in panels; she even walked in the parade. I found her gracious and welcoming, and it turned into more of a chat than an interview–I’m out of practice–and I thought I’d share my experience here.
I had been in email contact with Octavia throughout the previous day, and we decided to meet at her hotel room at 1:00, after I had procured my badge. This being my first trip to Dragon Con, I had no idea where anything was, so I decided that a good strategy would be to look for people wearing costumes or geeky T-shirts and follow them. It worked.
I found the Sheraton and got in line to get my badge. The lines were discouragingly long but moved very quickly; I spent the time reading people’s shirts. It was kind of like Disney World with air conditioning.
After I claimed my all-important badge–you can’t do anything con-related without it–I went in search of the Hilton and Octavia Randolph. At this point, I had not yet discovered the sky bridges that allow con-goers to move from hotel to hotel in relative comfort, so I arrived at the hotel sweaty and exhausted. It turns out that the Hilton is one of the few places in downtown Atlanta where you can actually sit down comfortably–as in, not on the floor. I found a spot to park my tired tuchas and catch my breath before going upstairs for my appointment. I got into a conversation with a lovely man named Shaun, who was equally tired and disheveled, as he charged his phone and waited for his room to be ready. He showed me a picture of himself in armor he created from plastic dish pans he had purchased at Dollar General.
After a brief freshening up session in a restroom, I located the bank of elevators and went in search of Octavia. I found her room easily and she opened at my knock, inviting me in and telling me how happy she was to meet me. She offered me something to drink and then we got down to it.
Maggie: What was your inspiration to write a book set in 9th century England and Scandinavia? How did you start?
Octavia: The entire saga for me is a cultural autobiography. I am interested in what made England, and notice I make the distinction between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and England. We’re talking of England geographically and conceptually. What made these people rise to be the greatest world power? There’s Ælfred, just 23 years of age, who watches kingdom after kingdom topple until his is the only kingdom standing. This young man who thought himself destined for the church and not for warfare because he had four older brothers, suddenly found himself thrust into this situation and he must uphold what’s left of Englishness there and did it extraordinarily well. It took a tremendous amount of silver. Ælfred and his brothers literally paid the Danes off with 24,000 actual pounds of silver to cease and desist, leave us alone. And of course, it was never enough. The Danes were always forming and reforming; you could not make a deal with one chieftain that would be honored by the next. Because Ælfred was the tactician and the inspiring person that he was, he was able to craft a lasting peace with Guthrum so that there could be trade in both areas. True, it was a partitioned society, but there could be trade and there could be the beginnings of what formed the final big, bloom of English culture until the catastrophe of 1066. So yes, it’s a fascinating story.
Maggie: Your books are meticulous in their historical accuracy and detailed descriptions. You have obviously done a lot of research.
Octavia: As a little girl, I loved looking at anything that was Anglo-Saxon. All the artifacts fascinated me. The Sutton Hoo treasure, those buckles with the garnets and the carnelians, the horse trappings. There was something about the artifacts, the physical artifacts of the era that made it so visceral to me. And beautiful objects inspire me: the hand-carved combs, skillfully wrought swords, and gemmed goblets of the world of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. Almost everything interests me: I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon and Norse runes, and learned to spin with a drop spindle. In 1999 on a huge research tour of all of Scandinavia, I found Gotland , my spiritual home, and that was why in The Claiming Sidroc and Ceridwen end up on Gotland, because to me it would be the ideal place to end up on. I’m so happy that, almost 20 years later, I am finally able to move there myself and make it my permanent home.
I feel that I have a bounded responsibility to adhere strongly to my ideal of historical veracity, for the simple reason that history is so little taught today, that we rely on our novels, our television shows, our films to an almost frightening extent to inform us about the past. And because I am one of those people who happens to believe that fact is more fascinating and thrilling than fiction, I am happy to use a rigid historical framework. There are plenty of interstices to allow me to weave my characters within what have come down to us as received history. As I said, I feel a bounded responsibility because there is so much misinformation out there, because history is sadly no longer taught as it was to our ancestors in the 19th century, where they had a really strong grounding in history, it’s very important for me to start with that framework and bloom from there.
Maggie: Did you get to England?
Octavia: Yes, yes. Seeing things in books and early exposure to early English poetry was wonderful. The cadence of the language, everything about it spoke to me in a way, yes through my blood, of course, but there was just an aesthetic desire. I love this and I want to get in there and there was so much scope for imagining. We were so lucky to have the written material that we do have. I was just interviewed for a documentary on literacy and I was pointing out that there’s a giant… I deal with two extremely powerful cultures, the Norse and the Saxons, who had terrific oral poetry traditions. But we have so much more on the English side, because the Norse only had runes, painstakingly carved into wood and stone with knives and chisels, whereas the Anglo-Saxons had scribes who could write in both Latin and Old English on parchment with readily-made-up ink, and so, we have so much material.
Maggie: And what we do have written down about the Norse was recorded hundreds of years later.
Octavia: Yes, that’s right, Snorri Sturulson, and he died in 1241. We don’t even know the name of the Svear, the Swedish king, in the 9th century who made an agreement with Gotland. We know the day on which Ælfred died, October 27, 899, because there were scribes with a nimble and useful technique to record things, but there are just such enormous gaps in Scandinavian history because there was no easy way to record anything. So we’re so blessed to have what we have. All of that was exciting to me, to have these two conflicting cultures that were so alike because they are literally cousins, blood cousins, but the earlier Christianization of the English gave them the great gifts of literacy. All of that added to the fascination for me. I never had imagined when I wrote the original trilogy, that I would be spending so much time in Scandinavia, both in my books and in my life. Now I can make the true commitment. And now I’ve been exploring with Tindr’s dear wife, the Sammi maiden, Seara.
I don’t think a culture was ever as brutalized by Lutheranism as [the Sammi] were. There’s been some extraordinarily good scholarship about this and on the original Christianization of the Scandinavian people. The color, the beauty, and the pageantry of the early church had its own allure and the miracle of transubstantiation and the bells and the incense and all of those things would be very appealing to the Heathen mind, because it’s another form of magic and a beautiful and alluring one. The Reformation just crushed the spirit of the Scandinavian people, it really, really did. That absolutely remains; my point was that the conversion to Roman Catholicism was much easier than the sterner, crushing blow of Lutheranism. I just see it in the Gotlandic churches where all the beautiful images were painted over. The beautiful statuary was broken up, burned, buried, whatever. It was just destroyed. Alright, it’s nice to be lofty, but there’s beauty in things and objects of ritual significance. That was my problem. I felt that it was wanton. You know, Christianity absolutely had its own allure, but for the Sammi people, the destruction of the drums, I mean things like that. I mean Shamanism was right out the window.
Really until very recently, up until the ‘80s, many children were forcibly removed from their families. It was appalling: terrible forced assimilation, brutalizing people’s lives and certainly religious connections. Yes, there is much to make amendments for, much to atone for. And we’re so grateful for any of the beauty that remains and stories that can be resurrected, because the richness of the culture is so beautiful. The reindeer heart of the world. That stays with me forever.
Maggie: You use some actual historical figures, for instance Ælfred, but many of your characters are created by you. Are they based on historical people?
Octavia: I would say that they are very often archetypes. First of all, every name I use is an attested name. I don’t ever create a name, whether it’s Norse or Angle or Saxon. I never use a name that I can’t point to and say, “Yes, there really was an individual named this way.” As far as Ceridwen, who we know was a half Welsh and half Angle girl, raised by the Benedictines, therefore taught to read and write, that is a believable scenario, because we know that women like Ælfred’s mother was literate and she was responsible for teaching her four sons to read. So I would say that more what I’m doing is, I’m looking at certain archetypes I can find in history and say, “Yes, it’s alright that my characters behave this way, because I can find other examples in history that behave similarly.” There was, interestingly enough, a great jarl named Sidroc. So that was fun for me, because the moment I saw that name, many, many years ago, I loved it and I thought, “What a tremendous name!” It had so much strength, such potency.
Maggie: So that means there was a Toki somewhere, too?
Octavia: Oh yes, there was a Toki, as a matter of fact, I’ve seen the runestone on which Toki is memorialized. The two brothers, Ring and Rap, are memorialized on a Gotlandic runestone, too. Very often, I’ve taken the names from Gotlandic Norse names. So that’s always been fun for me too, because I love Gotland so much.
Maggie: Salt figures very big in your books.
Octavia: Yes. Salt was huge, and of course, in Sidroc the Dane, Sidroc’s father was lucky enough to score some Malden salt, Anglian salt, and it is prized for its whiteness, purity and incredible saltiness. A lot of Scandinavian salts were good tasting, but they weren’t so concentratedly salty. So this was real gold, which is why he decides to take it to Gotland. The farther away he can take it from England will increase its value even more. Salt, of course, throughout early history was not only the basis of the word salary, but it was of extraordinary worth, and actually, it was compact to travel with, as long as you kept it dry, which is why it was packed in lead sheathing very often. That was to protect it. It was one of the best waterproofing methods they had. And there was no transfer, of course, in those days from the properties of lead, so it was perfectly alright. Yeah, salt does figure largely in the books. People are always happy when they have salt. When they are given salt, Ceridwen and Gyric, in book one they are traveling and they meet a kind woman who gives them a twist of salt with the rest of the things they buy from her, and she’s so delighted to have any salt to bring up the flavor of foods was always greatly relished.
Maggie: The family at Kilton, are they based on anyone or any family or a combination of families?
Octavia: We know that there was a royal estate at Kilton, and we also know that it eventually ended up as Ælfred’s property.
Octavia: So that’s all I’m going to say about that. The characters, from Godwolf and Modwynn on down, Godwynn and Gyric, they are again sort of archetypes I can turn to. These were typical class and gender roles carried out by an aristocratic family and being very close to the royal family of Wessex. They are also invented characters, but very true to the way a family of that level of nobility would have interacted with Æthelwulf and his last son Ælfred.
Maggie: Another thing about your book that is different from other historical fiction that I’ve read is that your dealing…well honestly, the blinding of Gyric. That is not something that you often see in a main romantic character in a book. That takes a lot of guts to maim your hero.
Octavia: And it was such a horrible maiming, Unfortunately, I have to say that was extremely common occurrence, and it was practiced on both sides. There was actually a later Alfred, about 50 years after King Alfred, who was a noble æthling, and he was treated that way by Saxons, and he actually died as a result. It was a horrific punishment to render a man unfit for ransom, and yet not to kill him was the cruelest thing you could possibly do. For Gyrich to be rendered unfit for his role, his gender role, in life which was to be a warrior and to support his brother Godwin when Godwin would become lord, and to fight with then Prince Ælfred.
Maggie: Gyric would have been the war chieftain.
Octavia: Yes, exactly. He would have been Godwin’s right-hand man, and for this to have happened to him it is such a profound loss. Of course, he never recovers from it. He is deeply shaken by it, and thank God that his family still values his life and fortunately, because Ceridwen can produce not one, but two heirs for the hall of Kilton, they are so profoundly grateful to her that she has been able to do the impossible and bring him back alive. But his life is a really terrible one and even with my imaginative powers, it is extremely hard for me to encompass how horrific and how narrow his life appeared to him.
Maggie: If he hadn’t been in a rich family, he would have been a beggar.
Octavia: Oh my goodness, yes. It’s really difficult to countenance. In a way I think that his death from fever was a kind of blessing in a way, because he had fulfilled a very important role at Kilton in producing not only Ceric, his son, but also through the tragic deal he made with his older brother, providing a true blood heir for Kilton in Edwin.
Maggie: Something tells me that’s going to be an issue.
Octavia: [Octavia laughs] How perceptive. In Silver Hammer we left with the faithful horse thane, Worr, really putting two and two together there. He was the one who asked Ceridwen the direct question and she said yes, he did enter my bed for four nights. And so now that Ceric is a young man and he sees how much he looks like his uncle, he is fighting to keep that knowledge contained, because it’s explosive. We will see. Worr is a very good man, he really is. He is a good and true person and would not, because he loved Gyric so much, would not do anything to betray that trust. But it’s going to be very interesting and there will be some very interesting thing that happens there around the true identity. And it will probably happen in book seven.
Maggie: Do you have other books planned beyond seven?
Octavia: The narrative arc is such an expansive one, Maggie, so Alfred is going to die in 899, so
Maggie: Refresh my memory. Where are we year-wise?
Octavia: At the end of six, we are in 894.
Maggie: So Alfred has five years left?
Octavia: That’s right. He has five years left. And, of course, his more than able son, Edward, is running his own campaigns now. But there is so much history that needs to be told because of that huge second incursion that came in, those 250 drekars that and landed hundreds and hundreds of disenfranchised Danes that had been mucking around Frankland and were finding the pickings very slim. Of course, once Guthrim died it was a free-for-all. The peace that he had made was no longer being honored by most of them and the long-settled Danes did come and side with Hastein and his troops. So there is a lot of history that we want to cover. I think that there probably will be ten saga books. The other thing that has been extremely wonderful and moving for me is the response to Sidroc the Dane, the origin story. I’ve been hearing from readers who say, “We want to hear about Ceridwen’s mother,” you know, this nameless Welsh woman. Or we want to know about the ten years in Sidroc’s life when he was separated from Ceridwen. We want to know more about Ælfwin. So there’s always hope I feel like.
Maggie: A character I’d like to know more about is the woman that they call Bova.
Octavia: Sparrow. Yes.
Maggie: Now there was a saint called Bova.
Octavia: Saint Beuve
Maggie: Oh sorry.
Octavia: No, Beuve is her modern name now. Bova is her old French name. Thank you, because she’s a fascinating character and, boy, does she play an important part! As Sidroc says in the end of six, “whoever rang that bell deserves a warrior’s share,” because it startled everybody and Ashild and Asperg were able to ride out and catch those thanes at the gate. She’s a very interesting young woman and of course a girl who suffered terribly.
Maggie: I expected her and Tindr to get together.
Octavia: She can’t get together with anyone.
Yes, she is truly a Christian. When she saw Ceridwen writing in the ashes, she was so thrilled, because she thought, “Writing! This woman is a Christian.” That was the one thing she still had left. She’d lost everything, this little girl. To think that she still had the faith that meant so much to her, Ceridwen had no choice but to teach her more. Yes, she truly has a vocation and it will be interesting to see how far she can go with that. Sigewif is an extraordinary abbess and she is astute at picking people. Bova is an unlikely candidate because she is truly not from an aristocratic family. But we’ll see what happens to Bova and how she develops. She’s been through a lot of trauma, but there is almost a mystical side of her. I could see her becoming an anchorite or something because when she is on the point of hysteria during the attack on Oundle, she’s in that little bell room and she is talking to the angels and wants to summon them. There is that aspect of the mystical about her and I can almost see her becoming an anchorite and doing something fairly extreme with her life. Extreme and beautiful. Thank you for encouraging thoughts in her direction.
You know the minor characters are never minor, they are what add color and richness to the palate and it is wonderful to know that a secondary or tertiary character has impressed someone like you, so thank you.
Maggie: I also like Rannveig.
Octavia: Oh yes, Rannveig. We all need a Burginde and a Rannveig in our lives! She’s my strong business woman.
Maggie: I like how we saw some of her early life.
Octavia: Yes, at the beginning of Tindr, when you see her courtship with Dagr. We see that she is this strong, proud young woman who won’t look at this younger boy. But he wears her down and they end up having a beautiful marriage together. It is just so sad the way they lose their two little girls and Tindr is left deaf by the fever. She went through an awful lot.
Maggie: But they did.
Octavia: Yes, they did.
Maggie: We look back at these things and think how horrible but that’s what happened in the days before antibiotics.
Octavia: Yes, yes, it did. People just lost multiple children in days from terrible contagion.
Maggie: Have you written any other books besides the Circle of Ceridwen Saga?
Octavia: Yes. I have written the two little novellas, Ride, a retelling of the Lady Godiva story which was published in Narrative Magazine. I rewrote the story of Melkorka from Laxdale Saga. It’s the story of an Irish princess who is kidnapped and taken as a slave to Iceland. Then I have a large, important, literary novel, which is a biographical novel, about the art and social critic, John Ruskin. That’s called Light, Descending. That’s very different from anything else that I’ve written, but a book that I am intellectually proud of. So that’s a total of ten. And there’s more coming. I really hit my stride with the saga and I’m so grateful for the support of my readers. I love them to pieces and I feel so blessed to have made such a deep connection with the men and women who are my saga members. It’s a joy, because we have a common interest. I am always astounded at what people post in the saga group. People are going out and finding research and wonderful images. It’s so much fun for me because I get to see how people’s imaginations are sparked. It just gives me joy.