When I started writing The Wanderer, I wanted to share my love for Old English literature and language but I’ve also been a writer and editor long enough to know that a strict adherence to the truth makes for poor storytelling.
Fiction that is too self-conscious is metafiction, a story about story, or a story about language. Although such stories can be interesting, even entertaining, they’re emotionally unsatisfying, and I wanted to avoid that. I want you to laugh and cry and shake your fist as you read the book. I’ve tried to combine my love of language with my love of a good story without either one getting lost.
To that end, I’ve made a number of compromises. For example, the characters who are knights are knights in our modern sense of the word knight, as in a chivalrous warrior in service to a lord, and not in the Old English meaning of cniht, that is, boy.
I’ve also simplified a lot of things. In Old English pre-Christian beliefs, there are nine worlds. I’ve pared this down to four: the world above (Neorxnawang), the world below (Eodor), the world beside (Basu), and this world, which the Old English poets would have called Middle Earth but which I am exceedingly careful not to.
In that vein: some things I couldn’t use at all. “Orc” is an actual Old English word meaning demon or spirit of the dead but in a modern reader’s mind it brings to mind only the Tolkien creatures.
And while calling a character Mr. Evil makes him ludicrous, and I didn’t want to make my characters ludicrous, most readers don’t know that ǣboda means “messenger” and I like using that as the name of the messenger god in this story world. If you do know what ǣboda means, you’ll get the allusion and it will, I hope, give you a smile.
And because I made up my pantheon of gods over the course of a year or two, it is less chaotic than you would find in a real-world culture, but I think you’ll find it complex enough to feel real. You’ll notice I don’t use the word “goddesses” and that’s deliberate: though there are female gods I wanted to reduce the subordinating effect of using the feminine word ending.
When reading about myths and lore, you run into a lot of sexism, not so much in the mythology itself but in the person describing it: an author will describe Odin as having “rages,” but Freya has a “tantrum.” I wanted to get away from that and to let gods of any sex (or no sex at all) have rages or tantrums, depending on which action they’re actually doing.
I’ve modeled the gods after Norse and Old English gods but I’ve deliberately avoided Odin/Wodin and similar names. Readers have preconceived ideas of what a god named Odin will do, and what matters most to me is the story, not the retelling of a specific myth. I wanted a clean slate. You’ll see some echoes of these gods, of course: Guthhafoc is a version of Odin, and I know you’ll know that, but you’ll also bring a more open mind because of the different name.
In Old English and Norse mythology, destiny is preordained and unavoidable, which is not very conducive to good storytelling. So I let the Sige characters embody that ideal—the ideal of “bravery in face of inevitable annihilation”—and I challenged it by giving Lucinda, the protagonist, an outsider identity so that she can challenge this mindset.
I’ve also taken a lot of liberties with Lucinda and her friend Rose’s healing potions. Some of the plants have their Old English names, others their modern names, and some I invented, all depending on what I felt worked for the story. Please don’t use the book as a guide to herbal remedies or you will be very sorry.
While the Stone Island of Lucinda’s world is based loosely on the British Isles, I didn’t use British place names except by accident because I didn’t want readers who know the actual area to be taken out of the story: “That’s not marshland!” Well, I needed it to be marshland and anyway this is the Stone Island, not England. I based place names on what might have been found in the Old English era.
In other words, story needs, not reality, drove my decisions. I didn’t use historical personages because I don’t want people to think this is a story about England with a magical gloss over the top. Because I’m using some traditional Old English names I may have accidentally named a character after an historical figure. No concordance is intended.
Wight, spelled wiht in Old English, is the Old English word for any creature, real or not, natural or supernatural; to them, you and I are wihts. I’m using it for supernatural creatures only, and all of them are nature-wihts, or spirits of nature.
I have modernized many Old English words and have used a few kennings (“whale-way” to mean ocean, for example) but I’ve tried to restrain myself. I like giving the story a slightly remote feel; this is not the current world. It’s not even the past world. It’s an alternative one. At the same time I don’t want to pop readers out of the story to go running to Google. It’s a balancing act and one I hope has the intended effect of making a world both familiar and new.