A.L. Butcher is the British author of the Light Beyond the Storm Chronicles fantasy series, and several short stories in the fantasy and fantasy romance genres. She is an avid reader and creator of worlds, a poet and a dreamer. When she is grounded in the real world she likes science, natural history, history and monkeys. Her work has been described as ‘dark and gritty’ and her poetry as evocative.
Please, welcome A.L. Butcher on my couch!
Dragons – why do they captivate us?
Dragons have been part of mythology for centuries. The Welsh, for example, have Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon as the national emblem – a dragon passant (standing with one foot raised) on a green and white background. Although the currently flag is relatively new the mythology of the Welsh Dragon is at least fifteen hundred years old, possible even Roman. The kings of Aberffraw used it to symbolise their power and authority after the Romans left. The first recorded use of it to Symbolise Wales is from the 9th Century (Nennius – Historica Brittonum). Geoffrey of Monmouth linked the dragon to the Arthurian legends – after all King Arthur’s father was Uther PENDRAGON, and so again the dragon is intrinsically interwoven with British myth.
Henry VII (Henry Tudor) had a dragon on his coat of arms – the Welsh heritage again coming to the fore and during the reign of his son, the might Henry VIII the red dragon standard was often flown on Royal Navy ships.
In the Mabinogion the Red Dragon fights the invading White Dragon and his pained shrieks cause women to miscarry, animals to perish and crops to fail. The king of Britain (King Lludd) visits his French brother Llefelys and, on his advice, digs a huge pit, filled with mead and covered with a cloth. The Dragons cease their battle, drink the mead and fall asleep, still covered in the cloth. They are then trapped beneath Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. Centuries later King Vortigern attempts to build a fort there, and every night the castle foundations are demolished. Wise men tell him to find a boy with no father and sacrifice him – to appease whatever is causing the problem. That boy is Merlin, who will become the Great Wizard, and he dismisses this advice and tells the king about the dragons. The two dragons are freed and continue their fight – the Red Dragon symbolising the people of Vortigern and the White Dragon the Saxons. The latter is defeated – thus these are the Saxons who failed to subdue the people of Vertigorn who would become the Welsh.
Dragons symbolise great power and strength. They are, perhaps the most legendary of beasts and to defeat one (or field one) was only the territory of the greatest of heroes. Chinese, Indian, Malayan, Japanese, Khymer, Phillipino, Korea, Catalan, French, Greek, British, Germanic, Scandinavian, Slavic, Romanian, Albanian, Pre-Islamic, Tartar, Judeo-Christian and Turkish mythology all speak of dragons, wyverns, wyrms or basilisks. The ancient Egyptians worshipped a crocodile named the Messah – which later became a dragon, and the sign of Kingship. Think about it – the Nile crocodile is a supreme predator, a feared monster and little can best it. What better ideal for kingship – powerful, terrifying and unbeatable.
Then of course we have the symbolism of dragons as the ultimate evil – the devil or other wicked beast destroying the good Christians and being vanquished by a Christian Hero. On the other hand Chinese Dragons are seen as lucky.
Dragon literature is diverse – Christian mythology (as mentioned), Norse, Celtic, Beowulf, St George, to name but a few. And more modern writers such as Tolkien, Cindy Lyle, George RR Martin, Cressida Cowell, JD Hallowell, David Gaider and many, many more feature a dragon of one sort or another. Here’s a challenge – type Dragon in the search engine of Good Reads – I tried and there were over 100 pages of books with ‘Dragon’ in the title and that’s just the beginning. Movies, video games, table-top games and toys feature the most legendary of monsters. Dragons are all around us – some kind and benevolent and some much less so. We are culturally bound with Draco and his kind. There are many books – such as Cindy Lyle’s Dragon Within, JD Hallowell’s Dragon Fate and Dragon Blade.
This brings me to Heroika: Dragon Eaters. This anthology turns the tables. Our dragons are not the nice sort. They are the alpha predator, the scourge of land, water and sky, they are true monsters. Only the bravest, most desperate or foolhardy take them on and fewer life to tell the tale. Dragon Eaters came from an idea from fantasy author Janet Morris – who wanted a ‘snake eaters’ type of anthology. The best of the best fighting the worst of the worst you might say. What was born was seventeen diverse tales from ancient mythic to futuristic and steampunk. They share a theme, albeit a loose one, and all types of dragons are slayed, vanquished and devoured. I suppose you could say the winners eat the losers. As you’d expect it is filled with blood, scales, fire and magic, swords, airships, flying beasts and so very much more. (See the links below).
How important is fantasy in our society?
I believe it’s intrinsic to our cultural identity. Think about it – the myths we hold – the stories we tell our kids. Why are tales like Cinderella, Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings etc. still popular and why have books like Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter and Discworld series been so phenomenal? I’m a Brit – we are surrounded by mythology – fairies, dragons, monsters, St George, Boudicca (who was real), Robin Hood, King Arthur (who probably weren’t), magic swords and so much more. Europe has a very diverse mythological history – Celtic, Nordic, Roman, and Greek to mention but a few. In our language we speak of ‘Herculean tasks’, ‘Achilles Heel’, ‘the Sword of Damocles’, a person being a ‘dragon’ and even the days of the week harken back to our pre-Christian and mythological roots. Most people may not even realise how fantasy and mythology are with us each day. Thursday is Thor’s day, Wednesday is Woden’s day and so it goes on. Did you tell your kids about the tooth fairy? Father Christmas? The Easter Bunny? (OK maybe not that one but a rabbit giving out chocolate – sounds great to me.) All have a fantasy element. Even adults love it – I bet you know plenty of people who like dragons, fairies, elves or unicorns? Roleplaying games and table top games are popular; fantasy computer games like Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls and The Witcher have millions of fans.
My own town (Bristol in the UK) has a statue of Neptune in the docks. It’s a port town – and at one point much trade was done here, and there is a sailor’s church….right across the road from the statue of Neptune. That’s what I call hedging one’s bets. We have a pirate history – Blackbeard himself drank in one of the old pubs (yes it’s true), and many of the other British pirates, including Woodes Rogers are from this area. What has this to do with fantasy? When it comes down to it pirates were, for the most part, murdering outlaws whose careers ended at the end of a rope or visiting Davy Jones. But many of these outlaws have legendary status – fighting against the ‘oppressive’ Royal Navy, East India Company or whatever legal power was in charge at the time. We like an antihero. Pirates were brave, daring and bucking the system. Fantasy lets us forget or cloud the truth of who these people really were, now they are something much more and many of us yearn for that excitement and daring.
Fantasy allows us to dream, to imagine a more exciting world. Jack Sparrow is an icon, Blackbeard is a folk hero. Reality is what you make it. The oldest tales were stories of monsters and incredible feats performed by heroes and demigods, told around the fire or sung by bards. Fantasy is a way of making sense of the world – an otherness in which the impossible becomes possible. I think it allows us to explore worlds we would otherwise never discover – worlds far less mundane than our own and more fantastic.
Is language evolving and is the printed novel on the way out?
I actually did a blog post about this a while ago. Language evolves, of course it does. Word usage changes over time and between regions, new terms are added and some fall from use. I bet you hear teenagers on the bus, or in the schoolyard using terms you don’t understand, or out of the context you know? Right, so do I. When I was a kid ‘wicked’ meant good, for example. Text and email speech permeates our world, especially online. LOL, ROFL, OMG, AFAIK. Shorthand of a sort. But they appear in conversation, text and popular media. Wikipedia has a page dedicated to text speak and in a quick google check threw up 38500000 suggestions for related pages!
It has been argued that the proliferation of this language is undermining story writing. Is this true? Probably not. I think a reader expects a well written, intelligent story written in decent English for a novel – something like Facebook is a whole different arena. I suppose you could say its formal vs informal. Compare Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens or Hugo, to writers today – the language and style has changed enormously.
Many people read online now – Kindle, Nook, PC e-readers and apps for phones. Reading is more portable than ever before. I love to read – and going on holiday, for example, before I got a Kindle my suitcase or backpack would be filled with books – now all I need is a Kindle. I recall at school/uni carrying several large textbooks around but now – just look at them online. I still buy print books – I find research easier in print – and I do buy print for a few authors, but mostly now I read on a device.
There are many people who still like printed books, they don’t own an e-reader or simply prefer the feel of a ‘real book’. I think e-readers have made books more accessible. For a start the printed books available in large print or Braille is woeful. That said it costs a lot to convert a book to Braille and certainly for indie authors that cost is prohibitive. When I was setting up my own books in print I really wanted a large print edition – but the production costs are higher – as the book is longer – and in the case of my second novel I would have had to split it in two to produce a large print edition. An e-reader or screen can change the text size easily, have different background brightness and text to voice, which is so much more versatile than a huge and expensive large print book. It also means that far more books are available to people who may need a larger font. I’d say reading is evolving.
Here’s the blog post link on text speak and the evolution of language.
What’s your favourite myth/legend?
I love the old Greek and Roman myths, the tales of Odysseus and the Trojan War and the pantheon of Ancient Greece and Rome. What I love most is the complex and dynamic storytelling and the wide variety of monsters, heroes and situations. The ancient gods were a tumultuous lot, forever squabbling, and double crossing one another. Don’t trust a Greek God, or a Roman one of course. I re-read the Odyssey recently and enjoyed it immensely. Odysseus is a real anti-hero by our terms, and a real hero by ancient terms. He’s clever, cunning, and brave and he plays by some of the rules but makes more. Most importantly he’s a man – with all that means: lover, warrior, flawed individual who sometimes makes mistakes but seeks to rectify those. He defends his men and his honour but, by modern standards, he’s a bit of a bastard. He steals, he’s arrogant, and he takes lovers – compare this with far Penelope who has waited twenty years chaste and demur for his return. That said she is brave, in a different way – she uses her wiles to trick the suitors and protect her son and lands. She rules fairly and she doesn’t give in to their pressure. She fights her battles not with spear and shield but with cunning and charm.
It’s a great story – in fact we use ‘Odyssey’ to mean an epic journey – and so it is. In ten years Odysseus nearly gets eaten by a cyclops, drowned, turned into a pig, he’s seduced, lost, shipwrecked, hunted by an angry god, supported by a favourable goddess and eventually has to fight to win back his queen and kingdom. Some would say he gets off lightly – Agamemnon gets murdered by his wife….
How can we learn from literature?
Literature is massively important. Books have changed the world, and not always for the better. Storytelling is as old as the hills and since the invention of printing has become more accessible. Books bring us new worlds and new ideas – and open up so much. Think of all the books and writers which have made a difference – Darwin’s work, Anne Frank, Aristotle, Newton and the story tellers like Shakespeare, Poe, Tolkien, Verne and more. Not to mention sacred books.
Many books have a message, covert or not, and if the reader is left thinking about the book long after reading then that author has done his or her job. Literature is civilisation, or at least a great part of it. Art, music, literature and science are what mark us apart from other animals. To our knowledge no other creatures use writing (although some use music and art) and so our histories, our desires and fears and our humanity endures.
What have I learned from literature? History; love and love lost; compassion; about what bastards humans can be to one another, and how kind; I’ve discovered new worlds and rediscovered old ones; I’ve learned that freedom can be found in a book, but if one is not careful so can oppression.
How important are research and consistency? How far does suspension of disbelief go?
Research is vital in world building, I think. Even if one’s world is vastly different to Earth some things are likely to work the same way. Gravity is still gravity, for example. The key is consistency in worlds like that – readers notice if a ship or spell works a certain way on page 8 and a totally different way on page 58. If the world in which the book is set is pseudo Earth or historical Earth then do the leg work. It will show if you don’t. For example a couple of years back I read a book set in the time of the Black Death in England – the story was good, the research was good but the ending… well for me at least it didn’t work. It was possible but implausible and the rich world building which had been elsewhere wasn’t as convincing. I was shaking my head and saying ‘no that’s wrong’.
If a reader is thrown out of the story because the scene is implausible, or those medieval knights suddenly whip out ray guns when they’ve been using swords until the epic battle then that’s likely a reader lost. A realistic world, even a totally fictitious one, will mean the reader wants to stay there, he or she cares about the characters and environment. As a reader I hate poor world building – another example: a few years back I was recommended a popular fantasy book – it had good reviews on Goodreads etc. and it was a group read. I gave up after chapter four. The world building was non-existent, the character building little better and by then I didn’t care about the plot. The chapters I did manage to trawl through were riddled with inconsistencies. I’d like to add this was NOT a self-published book – it was a book written by a reasonably well known author. Afterwards I took time to read all the reviews and it turned out it was a love it/hate it book. Readers gave either 5 stars or 1 with very little in between. On the other hand I’ve read plenty of books where the world-building and research is supreme. That world was, in effect, real.
For my own work I tend to do research if it’s needed. I’ve researched herb lore and herbal medicine, medieval weapons and buildings, flora and fauna of specific regions, food, whether a dragon could actually fly and if so how, chemistry (said dragon). I’ve studied mythology and ancient religion, world archaeology, medieval cities, Roman and Greek culture, and I’m currently running a series on mythological creatures on my blog. I have a degree in politics and sociology and a diploma in Classical Studies so I have a background in ancient history, systems of government and power, political ethics and to a greater or lesser degree they’ve all been useful.
Why do you write?
I write because it keeps me sane. I write because I enjoy it. I write because I have stories to tell and they want to live;) Reading and writing are freedom, escapism and wonder. I write stories I’d like to read and stories I hope other people will want to read. I write poetry too. Most of its dark and introspective. In many author interviews the interviewer asks “what made you become a writer?” It’s not that simple. If you’re a writer, like any other form of art, it’s what you are, who you are. Now, of course, writing for oneself and never showing anyone is not quite the same as trying to publish. But both authors are writers. Some are getting paid for it (well hopefully), and some aren’t. That doesn’t make those who aren’t less of a writer. Publishing my first novel is one of the most terrifying things I’ve done, but I am glad I did.
I’ve always been imaginative, a teller of stories and a playmate of imaginary friends. It’s who I am. If you don’t like what I write then fine, don’t read it. I don’t like everything I read. Writing makes me happy and success is what you make it. My mother died just after I released book I but she lived long enough to see it (I’m extremely grateful for that). Even in her last few months my writing made me happy, and that made her happy. I took her a print book and she got out of bed, called all the family, called all the neighbours and told them I was a published writer. For a while at least she forgot her awful illness, the pain and the sickness. I said then if I never sell another book then I didn’t care THAT is success. I made a dying woman smile and laugh. I made her proud of me. THAT is why I write.
Thanks for having me today.
Thank you! What a great interview! I’m still a bit dazzled. Readers, be sure to check out the links below and feel free to dive into the wonderful world of A.L.’s stories!