What inspired you to write The Red Knight?
I am a passionate fan of the cult of chivalry and all that entails.. I honestly can’t remember whether I read T.H.White’s Sword in the Stone or Steinbeck’s Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights‘ first, but I read them close together, and they were followed by a visit to the cloisters in NYC. And I love the wilderness–the real wilderness, where you are five miles from a road. I guess Red Knight puts the two together.
Where did the first seeds of the idea for The Red Knight come from?
The Traitor Son series was born like Athena from the head of Zeus. Okay, that’s a bit strong, but I was looking at an icon of Saint Michael and the Dragon (it hangs in the Met) and my mind wandered–about how monsters might have really worked, about why monsters are such a common motif–and about exactly how Saint Michael got his red-brocade covered breastplate to do up. I sew, I tinker, I make armour, and I reenact. That image of Saint Michael asks so many questions–often, when I’m stuck on The Red Knight, I go back and look at it again. Why does he have a buckler? With a long sword?
How does the Red Knight differ from classical chivalric characters like St. George, Arthur, and Charlemagne?
The Red Knight is very much in the mold of the classic chivalric heroes; that is to say, he wants to be a hero, he has a strict code, and he is ruthless in a way we moderns seldom imagine a ‘good’ character to be. In the modern world, ‘good’ people suffer from pangs of conscience, while ‘bad’ characters are monomaniacal in their pursuit of their goals. Saint George—the real one—was a fourth century legionary officer who refused to order some of his men executed when they had done nothing wrong. I’ll skip the long historical process by which he became a dragon slayer—he was an officer who died for his men.(NB Assuming we accept the latest information on the various Georges.)
Arthur and Charlemagne were kings, and very effective ones, at least in literature, and both of them were capable of doing quite horrible things, either in anger or in pursuit of a ‘higher goal’. Like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, none of the medieval heroes ever, that I know of, says ‘Oh, I killed a guy—that is SO wrong.’ The Red Knight is meant to be in that mold. He has an internal life—he thinks about things. But he has goals, and he will pursue them, and devil take the consequences. The creatures of the Wild are not orcs—they have lives of their own and an equally valid world view. Despite which, none of the main characters will ever think much more about killing them than they think about killing deer for meat. Or each other, for chivalric sport.
The devil—that’s a good segue to the other main point. In a world where everyone believes in God (book two will widen the world view to include Islam, Judaism, and some survival of ancient pagan practice, all equally valid and ‘good’) the Red Knight feels that he has been cursed by God—destined, in fact, from birth to be the anti-hero, the lord of the bad guys. I’m not going to spill just WHY he thinks that, but it is essential to see that this character is striving to be a good knight DESPITE carrying the load of a nasty curse. He, quite literally, hates god. He assumes that god hates him. And he’s trying to do the right thing anyway. Arthur, Charlemagne and St George assumed, always, that god was on their side. Gabriel Muriens assumes that god is on the other side.
You reenact both medieval fighting and aspects of day-to-day life, right?
It’s true–I’m an avid practitioner of so called ‘Western Martial Arts’ and I fight with a long sword all the time. I wear the clothes, even in the woods–in the Wild, as I think of it. My friends and I go out into the Adirondacks for a week at a time, camping, traveling, shooting bows–and cooking and sleeping and bathing and washing laundry and singing songs–all of which are as close to the way things were done in the late middle ages as we can manage. There’s pictures of us being especially cold and wet on the website at Traitorson.com.
Do you think your attention to detail, when it comes to the reality of fighting in that time period, distinguishes The Red Knight from other epic fantasies?
The answer is both yes and no. Yes–I try to ‘get it right’ whether the character is lighting a fire or drinking hot wine in cup made of horn or using a sword or lance–but I’d add that there are a great many other writers who’s attention to such details easily rivals or exceeds mine. JRR Tolkien leaps to mind. I think that Tolkien led fantasy readers to expect–even to crave–wealth of material culture detail. I can remember visiting one of the Lord of the Rings exhibits in Toronto–kit from the movies–and noting how many fans could instantly identify items–even artistic styles–even though we’d never ‘seen’ them before. One of my favorite ‘Old School’ authors–pre-Tolkien–is William Morris. He was an artist, a master craftsman, a creator of the so called ‘Arts and crafts’ movement, and his style of writing–he write at least three fantasy novels–included a wealth of material culture and ‘lifestyle’ detail because he loved all the ‘stuff.’
So we hear you have a collection of swords and armor. What’s one of your favorite pieces?
Wow—you have me pegged. This is my brand-new, just delivered late 14th century Italian cuirass. It has a lance rest that folds so I can also fight with a sword (it’s the sticky outty thing by the right arm hole) and a V-stop to keep an opponent’s lance from slamming into my neck and killing me. I got it so that I can fight on horseback—and because my old breastplate was made for me when I was 17 years old, and I’m now 50. It was getting harder and harder to shoehorn the old man into the young buck’s armour.
How would you prepare for a battle with a legendary knight?
First, it is essential to understand that this is not MMA. In chivalry, the doing is in itself a source of glory. Winning is good—just fighting is almost as good. Fighting well—to the best of your ability—is very good.
So I’ll start by training very hard. Four workouts a week, an extra round of boxing to up my endurance, and a little more running. And I’ll wear my armour two days a week.
And I’ll eat a lot of meat. I’m not interested in how modern athletes train—I’m interested in how knights trained. So I won’t take dietary supplements and hormones. No cheating. Why cheat, when all you can gain is personal excellence? You only cheat yourself.
I’ll spar a great deal, too. I have several friends, locally, who are very good—I’ll spar with them every couple of days.
What would you wear for the battle?
For equipment—if you give me unlimited funds to go with this dream, I’ll order a complete new harness—a new suit of armour. Men did, in the middle ages, when faced with an important fight. I’d probably agonize over which armourer to go with. But the truth is, I have an excellent harness right now, and I’d be happy to wear it, although I’d like M. De Charny to wait until my new gauntlets arrive… All late fourteenth century plate, which may be better than M. De Charny’s, in which case I’ll need to make alterations until we are similarly equipped. Fiore should, by 1390, have the same harness I have, give or take some pieces.
How about your weapons?
I have a sword that I love, a trainer from Albion Swords here in the USA. But if we were to fight with sharps, I’d still carry an Albion—a different one. And an all steel rondel dagger by my friend JT Pälikkö in Finland—it’s like a crow bar for getting an armoured man out of his armour. Very nasty.
I’d need to borrow a horse for the mounted passes; I can think of several people I’d approach. Do I get a new jousting saddle? There’s six thousand dollars… please buy more books, I need all this stuff…
So you’ve got the armor, the training, and the weapons… Where would this battle take place?
Since this is a dream, let’s make the setting appropriate. I want all my friends to see me get trounced by these truly great fighters (and take notes so we all learn) so I’d like a set of barriers, some well-decorated wooden stands, pavilions, servants, good wine, beautiful horses, magnificent clothes—and all my reenacting friends. I’d like to do it in the Adirondacks—the setting of much of the Wild and one of the most beautiful places on earth.
If you could duel any noble knight from history or literature, who would it be?
First—I have thirty plus years in various forms of sword fighting and martial arts, and any of the noble knights from literature would, I suspect, put my on my arse in about ten seconds. They did this sort of thing for a living. I write books.
Just leafing through the pages of Fiore’s ‘Flower of Battle’ (he was a medieval knight and master of arms who wrote a treatise on how to fight, the basis of my training system) is a chilling experience. This is how you break a man’s arm—in armour. This is how you throw him to the ground. This is how to kill him when he has a visor. When he has no visor. Is his armour really good? Roll him over and stab him in the back. The pictures make it very visceral.
And while we’re on that topic, I was once a very fast and very strong young man, and now I’m fifty. I work out a great deal and I practice, too; I’d be facing a man who trained every day from age ten or eleven. Marshal Boucioult, one of the great knights of the fourteenth century, practiced by climbing the underside of ladders in full harness—full plate and chain. That’s the underside of the ladder.
OK—Just so you don’t expect me to win. Now—my fight. I’ll take two—one to satisfy the left brain, and one for the right brain.
For the spiritual beauty of the thing, I’d like to face Geoffry de Charny. He was, by most measures, the greatest knight of the later Middle Ages. He was loyal, he was brave, and he wrote a book, and perhaps most importantly, he lived what he preached. There is, to me, something almost sacred about him—he died holding the oriflamme at Poitiers, doing what he said he’d do. He also fought in tournaments, and I’d like to face him with a long sword—for points. Not on a battlefield, for real. And a few passes with the lance—I’m just about to learn to joust. I expect I’d spend a fair amount of time looking at the sky—but why not be beaten by the best who ever lived?
For scholarly satisfaction, I’d like to face Fiore Furlano de Civida d’Austria delli Liberi da Premariacco, known to modern western martial artists as ‘Fiore.’ He wrote the book that I practice, as I mentioned above. There’s considerable debate among swordsmen and women concerning exactly what he meant about a few things, and I imagine (this may be hubris) that in a few passes, I’d see more of his system than all hundred and some odd pages of his book. So I’d like to face him on foot, armoured and unarmoured, with spear and with sword.