Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Enchanted Interview with Rebecca Barnhouse, author of PEACEWEAVER

If it's not already obvious, I'm a big fan of smart, well-researched historical fantasy, and an even bigger fan of retellings--so I jumped at the chance to host the delightful Rebecca Barnhouse in a new interview with the Enchanted Inkpot, for her new novel, Peaceweaver, set in the world of "Beowulf."

Sixteen-year-old Hild has always been a favorite of her uncle, king of the Shylfings. So when she protects her cousin the crown prince from a murderous traitor, she expects the king to be grateful. Instead, she is unjustly accused of treachery herself.
As punishment, her uncle sends Hild far away to the heir of the enemy king, Beowulf, to try to weave peace between the two kingdoms. She must leave her home and everyone she loves. On the long and perilous journey, Hild soon discovers that fatigue and rough terrain are the least of her worries. Something is following her and her small band of guards—some kind of foul creature that tales say lurks in the fens. Will Hild have to face the monster? Or does it offer her the perfect chance to escape the destiny she never chose?
  --from the Random House website

Peaceweaver is in bookstores NOW, and here is our conversation with its fascinating author:

Tell us a little about the novel and its origins and about building Hild's wonderfully believable world. What is a "peaceweaver?"

I’m so glad you found it believable. Even though they’re both set in early medieval Scandinavia, and they’re both inspired by Beowulf, I wanted to give Hild’s world a different feel than Rune’s in The Coming of the Dragon. The society of the Danish nobility depicted in the first part of Beowulf—the hall of King Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow—was the impetus for the society in which Hild grows up. In Hild’s world, noble women wield power indirectly by influencing the high-status men when they serve them mead in the hall. That’s what Hild hopes to do, although things don’t work out the way she anticipates.

One role women in this society play is that of the peaceweaver (freoðuwebbe in Old English, if anybody wants to know!) who marries into an enemy tribe to help bring about an end to hostilities. Yet as Beowulf himself notes, the blade seldom rests no matter how worthy the bride. In many Anglo-Saxon stories, both the peaceweaver and the family she has tried to create come to grief when the peace she has been sent to weave is ripped apart. Hild knows these stories when she is chosen to be a peaceweaver.

This is your second novel inspired by the epic of Beowulf. Can you explain your process of adapting that material into a novel for modern young readers?

In The Coming of the Dragon, I retold the end of Beowulf, cleaving closely to the poem’s plot for much of my novel. Beowulf plays a much looser role in Peaceweaver. Instead of modeling my plot on it, I borrowed elements from the first section of the poem, as well as from other Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature. Although they gave me fun ideas to work with as I wrote, the story is Hild’s. The more familiar you are with Beowulf, the more you will recognize characters or lines or situations from the poem, such as the baby in the boat, which comes from the story of the Danish leader, Scyld Scefing, in the beginning of Beowulf.  But an appreciation of the novel requires no familiarity with the poem, or any other medieval literature, for that matter. 

When I first read Peaceweaver, I wanted to know how old Hild was, and you had a very interesting answer to that question--but I see now that the book does include Hild's age! I'd love to know more about the challenges of depicting historical young people for twenty-first century readers, and how you strike that balance of authenticity and approachability.

People in medieval Europe (not to mention in many modern cultures) would not have paid close attention to their ages. They might not have known how old they were; in fact, it would be more surprising if they did. But it’s a convention of middle grade and YA literature that readers get told exactly how old characters are. For several years, I struggled to balance scholarship with storytelling. It wasn’t until I finally loosened my death grip on my scholarly habits and allowed the needs of the story to win that I actually got published. Even then I feared that academics would come after me with pitchforks for things like having my characters know their ages. They didn’t, of course. On some matters of authenticity, however, I stand firm, especially in terms of not giving medieval characters modern attitudes. But I’ve finally realized that if readers won’t read the book in the first place, the historical accuracy doesn’t matter a whit.

Your first novel, the marvelous Book of the Maidservant, is straightforward historical fiction, but you've since written several books of historical fantasy. Do you find that there is a blurring of the fantastical and the natural in the eras you write about that is different from the way modern peoples view things?

The Book of the Maidservant is set in England and Europe at the very end of the medieval period, the 15th century. Johanna, the maidservant, lives in a world patterned by Roman Catholicism; it’s woven into every aspect of her life. Miracles and visions are an accepted part of that world and things that might seem fantastic to us would not to her. Johanna’s world is much more urban than Rune and Hild’s, the 6th-century Scandinavian characters in The Coming of the Dragon and Peaceweaver. They tend to find magical and/or religious explanations for natural events in their rural landscape (such as misty days or thunder or the success of crops). Although all three of them live in the Middle Ages, Rune and Hild are separated from Johanna by almost a millennium, and their animistic view of nature would be as foreign to her as it is to us.

Can you recommend any resources for young readers inspired by your books to learn more about this period in history?

Judson Roberts has a wonderful website about his research for the Strongbow Saga, which I highly recommend. Readers who want to know about the culture of the hall can find online material about archeological finds in Lejre, Sweden, where a hall that must have resembled King Hrothgar’s—the one Grendel attacks in Beowulf—has been found. One of my favorite sources is Benjamin Bagby’s performance of Beowulf in Old English, as he imagines an Anglo-Saxon scop, or bard, might have performed it. Excerpts are available on YouTube. And I’m a big fan of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s book of The Norse Myths, which I first read when I was in high school.

You have what I consider a fascinating day job in academia. How do you find the interplay between your academic life and the writing life?

I’m lucky because I get paid to think about literature and language and writing. I teach Beowulf and The Book of Margery Kempe (the inspiration for my first novel), so I frequently revisit these works and other medieval literature, which inevitably leads to story ideas. Although it can be difficult to find writing time during the semester, and my creative energy is devoted to teaching, there are definitely payoffs, such as long winter and summer breaks that I can devote to writing. Usually by the time summer rolls around, the ideas are bursting to get out.

Thanks for these great questions, and for having me on the Enchanted Inkpot!

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Elizabeth C. Bunce is the author of A Curse Dark as Gold and the THIEF ERRANT novels, StarCrossed and Liar's Moon. She occasionally misses the chance to put her archaeology degree to work. Visit Elizabeth at

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