Del Rey: Growing up in Virginia, I was haunted by the mystery of the vanished Roanoke colony—no survivors or bodies discovered, only the word "Croatan" carved into the colony’s timber walls. Your new fantasy novel, The Briar King, provides one solution to this mystery. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and its roots in the history and mythology of our world?
Greg Keyes: The deep background of The Briar King comes from a fixation I have with history and philology; even when I’m creating a fantasy world, I want to see connections to ours. It doesn’t seem logical to me, for instance, that a fantasy world could have characters with Christian names if that world has never known Christianity. If people speak Gaelic and worship Irish gods on a continent that doesn’t exist in this world, I want some explanation as to how that came about. To follow the story of The Briar King, it’s not particularly important that the reader pick up on the fact that the "Virgenyans" are the descendants of the lost Roanoke colony, that Hanzish and Herilanzer and Crothanic are dialects of Gothic, or that Vitellian is derived from a creole of Oscan, Umbrian, and Etruscan. My goal was to create a world both familiar and strange, and I find it’s the familiar elements that I have to explain to myself, if to no one else.
One of the first things we learn in the book is that humans were forcibly brought from our world. This allows me to play with mythology, history, and language in a way that doesn’t break my own rules. It also gives me a point source for creativity to imagine my fantasy world in all of its detail. After thousands of years, what sorts of societies would the descendants of various groups from Earth—from different times and places—form?
DR: I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, but nothing prepared me for the richness of The Briar King. In terms of sheer quality and originality, it’s your best so far. In fact, it struck me as something of a creative breakthrough… You’ve written on a large scale before, especially in the Age of Unreason series, but what you’re doing now seems grander. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the scope of the task you’ve set yourself here? How do you stay focused?
GK:I don’t feel overwhelmed because it’s so much fun. I’m working with my favorite stuff every day: language, myth, fairy tales, history, and storytelling. I realized yesterday—while working on the second book in the series, The Charnel Prince—that I needed to know what the Crothanic word for "windmill" was. They were introduced in passing in The Briar King as a part of the landscape, but I didn’t have to name them at the time.
Two weeks ago, in Flanders, I went on a Sunday evening bike ride with my brother’s family and my mother. We visited a working windmill, and I noticed that the Dutch/Flemish word for it was "molin," similar to the French "moulin" (as in Moulin Rouge ). Both come from a word meaning "to grind." My windmills are in the country of Crotheny, where they speak a language descended from Gothic (a Germanic language that is a cousin of Dutch). I went to my Gothic dictionary and found the verb "malan," meaning "to grind." Then I put it through the morphological and sound changes by which Gothic becomes Crothanic, and ended up with "malend" for windmill. Now, my point is, I enjoy this. It’s like playing with toys. Whether I’m working on the big picture or small details, none of it is a chore.
That’s the world-building. Telling the story is a different beast. I think a writer has to stay interested in the story—if he doesn’t, I see no reason why the reader should. To that end I write characters that I enjoy working with. And though I know how the series ends, plot twists come along every now and then that surprise even me, and that’s always terrific. I know the ending, so for me the joy is in the journey.
DR: What you say about philology reminds me of Tolkien. How important to you as a writer generally, and as the writer of this series in particular, was The Lord of the Rings? What other writers or books were important to you?
GK: As a boy, I was absolutely fascinated by the appendices in The Return of the King. Tolkien worked with a lot of the same historical materials as other fantasy writers, but the extent to which he transformed it and owned it led to a fantasy world that had absolute self-conviction. It’s a world with dialects, folk songs, bird names, small habits, and grand designs. It seems real because Tolkien took nothing for granted, allowed nothing in his world by default—indeed, it was a world built to justify the languages he’d spent most of his life creating. I was right there with that. I wanted to know where he got all of that stuff, and so I started reading mythology. By sixth grade, I had started my great Tolkienesque novel, which of course I never finished. But I kept building worlds.
Every book I’ve read has influenced me. Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, Philip José Farmer, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Gene Wolfe were all early influences, but it would be impossible for me to name every writer—within or outside the genre—who has given me something.
DR: The Briar King is the first book of the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series. First, is the series going to be a trilogy? And second, what is the significance of thorn and bone?
GK: It will actually be four books. Thorn and bone imply life and death, but you may notice that thorn is a rather harsh signifier of life. The world of Everon (this is both the name of an age and the world itself) has reached a pivotal point, and its leaders are faced with a critical choice, though they do not all recognize it. Some will choose the way of thorn, others that of bone.
DR: The Briar King draws upon and reimagines an impressive array of religious traditions, myths, and fairy tales. What do you look for in your source material? What do you keep, what do you throw away, and why?
GK:I look for things that strike my fancy and that have good story potential. I also seek out archetypes that resonate well across the centuries and try to think of some new shape to put on them. The Briar King himself was inspired by Cernunnos, the Celtic antlered god, by Dionysius (not the cute, fat drunkard Dionysius from Disney, believe me), the Slavic Leshi, and the Green Man, who peeks at us from odd places in European churches, to name a few. But he doesn’t correspond simply to any of those.
How I sort things—what elements I keep—has to do with the way I build worlds. I begin by reading—Beowulf, Njal’s Saga, the Acallam na Senorach, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Mabinogion, the Mahabharata, Russian Bogatyr epics, sources on Etruscan and Umbrian religion, and so on. I just sort of swim in it for a while until the big ideas come together: what the struggle is about, how the magic works, what the principal supernatural forces are. After that, I focus my research, including things or excluding things to work within the structure I’ve formed.
DR: The church plays a central role in the novel both because of its political power and the magical abilities of its priests, which derive from a long roster of saints who have left portions of their power behind in holy places known as fanes. Tell us a little bit about the church, the saints, and how your magical system works.
GK: Like the medieval Catholic Church, the church in The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is a religious, political, and military unit. They control the sedos magic (and the fanes that focus it), and they control access to it. As you say, power comes from traces left by "saints," but the saints themselves are multiple aspects—avatars, if you will—of greater powers known as sahtoi. There are thousands of saints but only a few sahtoi, and these correspond to big-category religious spheres—death, war, love, fertility, knowledge, and so forth.
Priests walk faneways, a series of places that all bear traces of the same saint, and in so doing acquire the magical characteristics of that sahto. A monk who walks the faneway of Saint Mamres (also known as Saint Michael, Saint Tew, Saint Nod, etc.) gains magical enhancement to his martial abilities. A priestess who walks the faneway of Saint Mefitis gains magics useful in the subtle arts of assassination. The inspiration for this system came mostly from pre-Roman Italic religion (especially Oscan and Umbrian) in which "stations" were visited, not unlike the stations of the cross in modern Catholicism. But there’s a good bit of integration with other mythological beliefs about sacred places. In the names of the saints and in their powers, the astute will notice the traces of numerous old European gods, just as we find them among the Catholic saints.
DR: Last question, and a little off the subject… I was a foil man on my college fencing team, and so I took a special delight in the characters of Cazio and his drunken mentor, z’Acatto, who practice the martial art of dessrata. How did you come up with the idea of dessrata… and where can I sign up for lessons?
GK: I’m also a foil fencer and have an interest in earlier forms of the art. Dessrata is based on seventeenth-century rapier, which was sort of intermediate between modern fencing and the hack-and-slash of broadswords. Modern foils and epees are all point—you can only score with a thrust—and this was also true of their immediate predecessors in the dueling world, the eighteenth-century court sword. Rapiers were heavier than modern fencing weapons but didn’t have a whole lot in the way of an edge—they were still mostly point weapons, designed for unarmored civilians to kill each other with by poking real hard. In other words, while rapier was different from modern fencing, it had more in common with it than two knights bashing each other with broadswords while waiting to see who had the best armor.
Dessrata came from my perusal of various seventeenth-century rapier manuals and from my own experience as a fencer. I had a lot of fun with it—and with Cazio, who is convinced he is the greatest dessrator ever.
I teach foil fencing in Savannah… but, sadly, not dessrata.