Runemarks

About the book | Using Runes | Fingerings | Witchlight

Background

Runemarks goes back a long, long way. My first full-length try at a novel was a sprawling 1000-page monster (with illustrations) called Witchlight, written when I was nineteen and rejected by every publisher I sent it to on account of its length, its complexity and the darkness of its imagery.

In many ways, Witchlight was the prototype of Runemarks. It was set in the same place, the valley of the Strond. Its heroine was also called Maddy, she had a sister called Mae, a goblin friend (whose name, like that of Sugar-and-Sack, was taken from accounts of the Pendle witch trials) and most of the action went on in World Below – but Runemarks goes back even longer than that.

Anyone who remembers me from school will probably tell you that I was always doodling in class; but instead of just drawing random stuff in the margins of my rough books, my doodles took the form of long, complicated comic-strips – inspired, I think, from Astérix, but often starring Norse gods. Why Norse gods? Well, I’d always been interested in mythology. I started off with the Greeks and the Romans, but found the Norse tales more attractive somehow, funnier and more human and hugely more dramatic. The only problem was; there weren’t enough of them. No-one had written them down at the time, and the fullest accounts came from Christian chroniclers centuries later, and were at best, incomplete, and at worst, badly distorted.

The solution was simple, I thought. Write more. And so I did; I took the characters I liked best from the Norse pantheon and wrote my own versions of their stories. Fanfic, you’d call it – or godfic, I guess. The original material was sketchy enough for me to allow full rein to my imagination, and I wrote hundreds of adventures – many of them in comic-strip form – in a series of school exercise books. In these early versions, Loki is a youthful skateboarder (and has much in common with a certain Bart Simpson yet to come); Frigg is enormously fat; Balder the Beautiful is (of course) bald; Idun is a kind of New Age hippie chick and Thor is just like Desperate Dan; huge, bearded and not very bright.

Of course, according to Voluspá (the Prophecy of the Seeress), the gods are all doomed to die at Rangnarók, the end of the world. That didn’t stop me wanting more. So I created for myself an imaginary universe, based on that of the Norse legends, but a world post-Ragnarók, in which the Prophecy of the Seeress has been revealed to be as inaccurate as those Christian re-tellings of the old tales.

In this world, the gods have survived, although their powers are much reduced, and they live on Earth (and sometimes under it), occasionally battling other gods, fighting giants and quarrelling among themselves.

It’s an idea that never quite left me alone.

Four or five years ago, I dragged the manuscript of Witchlight out of its drawer and read it aloud to my daughter, Anouchka. She loved it so much that I started another one, a story for just Anouchka and me, just for fun, and I read it to her chapter by chapter, working on it in what free time I had left from my “adult” novels. I called it Runemarks, and for a long time I kept it a secret between Anouchka and me. It felt like playing truant, somehow; and besides, I was enjoying it so much – and so was she – that to tell my publishers about it would have spoilt the fun. But Anouchka wouldn’t let it go. Having thoroughly overseen the creative process – she was my first and toughest editor, saying; more of this, please, and; NO! You can’t kill X -! – she now urged me to publish the book – in fact, she wanted me to write a whole series of books about Maddy and her friends – and in the end I gave it a try …

Funny, how these things happen. I was fourteen when all this began. Now my daughter’s the same age. And of all the books I’ve written so far, this one has been the most fun to write.

The Book

Runemarks is set in a universe of nine Worlds, not unlike that of Norse legend. Five hundred years have passed since Ragnarók, and the world has rebuilt itself anew. The old gods are no longer revered. Their tales have been banned. Magic has been outlawed, and a new religion – called the Order – has taken its place.

The Order is a crusading religion. It works from an ancient text – simply called The Good Book – and its ultimate mission is to bring Perfect Order to all the Worlds. This means an end to Chaos, to magic, to superstition, to false belief, to dreams, to stories (except for the stories in the Good Book) as well as to Faëries, goblins, dwarves, witches – and of course any old gods who still happen to be around.

In a remote valley in the north of Inland (the “civilized” part of the Middle Worlds), lives a girl called Maddy Smith. She is the heroine of our tale, and she is nearly fourteen years old. No-one in the village likes her much; she is reputed to be imaginative, she tells stories, talks to goblins and worse still, she has a ruinmark on her hand, a sign associated with the Bad Old Days.

What the villagers don’t know is that Maddy has skills. According to One-Eye, the secretive Outlander who is Maddy’s only real friend, her ruinmark – or runemark, as he calls it – is a sign of Chaos blood, magical powers and gods know what else…

And now, as the Order moves further north, threatening all the Worlds with conquest and Cleansing, Maddy must finally learn the truth to some unanswered about herself, her parentage, and her powers.

What lies under Red Horse Hill, that barrow of the Elder Days? Why do the goblins gather there? Who is One-Eye, her old friend, and what is he afraid of there? Most of all, what is the Whisperer, that artefact of the Elder Age that must be found – before someone else does?

One-Eye says that a war is coming; a war between the old and the new. But will rune magic be enough to combat the Examiners of the Order, and what is the source of their secret weapon, a devastating power known only as The Word?

For further information about Tricksters and Loki, in particular, visit the following websites:

Loki, by Wendy Froud
Figure of Loki by Wendy Froud
Photograph by Brian Froud

Q. & A.

How different was it, writing for a younger market?

I don’t really make those distinctions. My daughter never has, and because she was practically reading over my shoulder as I worked, she was the only person – apart from myself – that I felt I really needed to please. I’m still writing about what interests and preoccupies me – my adult readers will recognize this – and I don’t feel that authors should have to compromise on theme or style just because they’re dealing with a younger audience. As a result, anyone should be able to enjoy this book on whatever level they choose – after all, why should the kids have all the good stories?

Did you have to do a lot of research?

Well, I did most of my research when I was still at school, although I’ve been reading a great number of books about runes – as well as trying to learn Old Norse (I’ve always wanted to read Voluspá in the original). Purists will notice that I have taken some liberties with the original Icelandic texts. This is completely intentional, as are the occasional “anachronisms” in the writing. I didn’t want to write a historical novel, which is why I’ve deliberately not set the story in a recognizable place, or at any specific time. 500 years after Ragnarók could be the year 1250 AD or even a post-apocalyptic future…

Sounds like hard work. How much background do I need to know?

None at all. Everything you need is right there in the book, although if you do have some background in Norse mythology, you may get some of the jokes more quickly…

Jokes? I thought this was serious!

Well, it is – in a way. But it’s also a descendant of those comic-strips I used to write; surreal in places and often quite funny. Of course there was a lot of humour in the original myths – some of it wonderfully irreverent – and I’ve tried to hang onto that aspect of things. Norse gods are much more human than, say, the Egyptian or the Greek gods. They can frequently be petty, or vulgar, or cruel, or just plain chaotic – which is one of the reasons they attracted me in the first place. In Runemarks, I’ve taken it further; my gods have more than their share of human frailties, which ups the stakes for everyone and makes for a whole lot more suspense…

So what about the runes, then?

Well, runes are mysterious things. On one level, they’re just letters of the alphabet. On another, they have had many occult uses, although no-one is entirely clear on quite how these worked. For the rune enthusiasts among you, I have used an Icelandic version of the Younger Futhark for my Elder Script, which means that the runes may not be quite as you know them. This, too, is intentional.

For the New Script I’ve used Old English runes from the Elder Futhark, and for the cantrips I’ve used scraps of the OE rune poem texts. Other technical terms are mostly Old Icelandic. None of the language of Inland or of Chaos is fictional, because I find it hard to take made-up languages seriously…

To learn more about the runes read my beginners’ guide: Click Here.

Have you ever used runes yourself?

All the time – it’s the method I feel most comfortable with. I do pretty much what Maddy does – although she probably does it better.

This isn’t the first time you’ve written about a conflict between magic and religion. Isn’t this getting personal?

Not really; in this book I have deliberately kept away giving a name to the Order’s faith. It does bear some similarities to the early Church, just as the Good Book has some superficial parallels with the Old Testament, but in many ways it’s very different. I want to encourage readers to focus on what the Order represents in terms of oppression and intolerance, rather than to see it as an attack on any particular form of belief. And of course the irony is that the Order, whilst condemning magic in all its forms, actually practises magic of a most powerful and destructive kind. I’m hoping that some of my more discerning readers will appreciate the parallels…

How close is your heroine, Maddy, to you?

She’s a mixture of myself at fourteen and of my daughter as she is now. In fact we’re pretty similar personalities. Perhaps that’s why we both enjoyed this book so much.

What were your influences for Runemarks?

Gormenghast , by Mervyn Peake; Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth; all of Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs; John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids; Kevin Crossley-Holland’s very good retelling of The Norse Myths; Jan Fries’ excellent source book, Helrunar; Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series; Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes; plus Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and seven years playing roleplaying games and drawing cartoons in my Latin book.

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