This (nearly) past year saw the publication of my second novel The Valley of Decision – the culmination of a long process that began six years ago. At that time, I had finished the manuscript that became The Last Heir and I needed a new project. I had never written fantasy, had never planned or even particularly wanted to write fantasy. But there were three influences coming together to lead me there.
First, there was Steven Curtis Chapman’s song “Burn the Ships”, in which he re-told the tale of how Cortes, well, burned his ships. (I should note here I’m listing the influences in reverse order of importance.) What captivated me in this song was the sense of radical commitment, the blazing will to never go back, even if only death lay ahead. This roosted in my imagination for a long while, before coming home in Keiran, the chief character of The Valley of Decision. (The burning of the ships also directly inspired Keiran’s destruction of Dokrait.)
Second, I was in those days repeatedly reading G. K. Chesterton’s poem The Song of the Wheels, whose phrases and lines recurred in my mind like a song. I eventually memorized it, and that was pure efficiency, as I no longer needed to go fishing up the written form. The Song of the Wheels is the song of “the little things” – “only men”, “a gasp is all their breath” – and how they broke free of King Dives and his hives “full of thunder, where the lightning leaps and kills”. I think I understand the poem better now, but I fully felt it even then, the oppression of the weak and the freedom they gained when they finally grew bold enough to choose.
My final inspiration was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I had already read the books years before, but a new thought struck me regarding the story: Why were the Men enslaved to Sauron and Sauraman always enemies – usually to be defeated, occasionally to be pitied, but still only enemies? Why couldn’t they ever be heroes? I thought a rebellion of the slaves against their Dark Lord would have been tremendous. In my imagination, I could see some sort of captain of the slaves making a direct assault on the Dark Lord. While quoting Chesterton’s Song of the Wheels.
With this scene playing in my head, I began to consider writing the story of the slave rebellion against the dark lord. I took up the work of all writers, even writers who tell stories about imaginary people in non-existent worlds: research. I began exploring European folklore, and I grew intrigued by what I found.
The neat divisions of our modern culture – beautiful fairies, benevolent elves, mean goblins, grumpy dwarves – are wholly upended in the old stories. I was impressed, too, by how alien and sinister Faerie was to mankind in old-fashioned fairytales. Tolkien, I came to see, had rather glorified the Elves; certainly, in the old world where the tales of Faerie were first told, no right-thinking mortal was ever off his guard around faeries of any description.
These realizations came to impact deeply The Valley of Decision, which existed then as only the germ of an idea. I hope, in the weeks and months ahead, to explore how. With this post, I open a new series – “Through the Valley (of Decision)”.