Saturday, August 3, 2013

Verlvik: behind the curtain

With the Amazon reviews going up for Blood Brothers, I've been noticing particular interest in the Verlvik character. On the one hand, a lot of readers love him, considering him "completely alien... yet completely magnetic." On the other hand, one reviewer (so far) thought he was a cringe-worthy stereotype of a native American.

I'm not surprised that he's a polarizing figure. He's a lot farther out there than any other character in the book, at least when it comes to the types of characters I'm used to seeing in Fantasy fiction. Despite that, he does come from somewhere more than just my own head. I'm the type of writer that puts stock in the advice that before you even try to write a book, you should read several hundred others. Verlvik is an example of how the things I've read blend together in my brain, and come out through my fingers when I write.

If you're the type of reader who doesn't want to see behind the curtain of the creative process, if you're concerned that learning the source of a character will somehow lessen that character's vitality, you might want to stop reading now. But if you're curious about the things that inspired the creation of Verlvik, read on.

Without a doubt, the single source that had the biggest influence on the creation of Verlvik was the book shown above, Witchcraft Today by Gerald Gardner. Gardner's book first came out in the 1950s, and is considered one of the texts that lead to the creation of the modern-pagan movement. It's packed with unusual ideas, but the idea that caught my imagination most strongly was Gardner's contention that British/Irish concepts of faeries come from an actual pygmy race that used to live in the British Isles, alongside but separate the other groups living there at the time. Gardner believes this race is the same group that archeologists refer to as the Picts--he even goes so far as to say that the word "pixie" comes from the word Pict. He draws on other archeological suppositions about the Picts--that they painted themselves green, that they used poisoned arrows--and segues from there into the core topic of Witchcraft Today, which is the description of a religion developed by the Picts, known in modern times as "witchcraft". Key to Gardner's concept of this religion, which he calls Wicca, is that it has two gods (a male horned god, sometimes referred to as Cernunnos, and a female mother Goddess), and that it relates nature with divinity.

The next source that led to the creation of Verlvik was an article about the Hadza tribe that appeared in the December 2009 issue of National Geographic (the picture above comes from the article, and you can read the article online by clicking this link). The Hadza tribe are described as one of the last remaining examples of a group of people living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that was common worldwide about 10,000 years ago, and the author (Michael Finkel) approaches the article from the angle of "what knowledge is gained by living this way?" I found the article incredibly interesting, especially the sense it gave of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle imbuing the people who practice it with a worldview marked by the lack of boundaries between the natural world and the person living in it. Certain other details--the Hadza attitude to eating animals; the cuts women make beneath their eyes to encourage themselves not to cry--were highly influential to my depiction of Verlvik's tribe and of his place (or lack of place) within it.

Probably the third most influential source to Verlvik's story was Carlos Castaneda's book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge". This is Castaneda's first book, originally written as his master's thesis for the school of archeology at the University of California. It's broken into two main sections: a first-person narrative of Castaneda's experiences with a Yaqui sorcerer named Don Juan, and a more scholarly analysis of the structure of Don Juan's beliefs. What I found most interesting was the way hallucinogens were used as religious sacraments, in various elaborate ceremonies, by Don Juan--especially the way that those sacraments modified the user's perceptions of the world around them and their place within it.

Another major source of inspiration, especially relating to Verlvik's concept of "all is one", comes from Sharman Apt Russell's book Standing in the Light. Russell's book was one of the first to expose me to the idea that all things, scientifically, are just different forms of the same materials. Her book also lead me toward the Scientific Pantheists, a group that has developed an approach to a nature-centered religion that also embraces scientific knowledge.

These four texts form the core of the inspiration behind Verlvik, but details of his character and story were further fleshed out by dozens of other sources, a whole hodgepodge of books and probably more than a few movies, as well as just general hearsay information about various topics. The Back to the Land movement--in its American, largely-political forms (such as that described in Helen and Scott Nearing's book The Good Life), and in it's Jamaican, religious iterations (as referenced by artist-activists like Burning Spear, and as portrayed in movies like Rockers and Countryman), were deeply influential. I'd say that Verlvik's appearance--small, with ginger dreadlocks and green skin--comes from a mix of Gardner's Celtic Picts and Jamaican Rastafarians. His personality and worldview come from a mix of the faerie stories from the British Isles (especially relating to the capricious personalities of the faeries, so often contrasted with human behaviors and attitudes) and the "part of nature" philosophy of various hunter-gatherers. His battle with the behemoth is a reference to a theory about the small size of the pygmy tribes in Africa (to be considered a man and have rights to a wife, tribe members had to kill an elephant; small-stature, which allowed men to get beneath the creatures more easily, thus became evolutionarily favored). His sing song voice, with "each syllable a different pitch", comes from the local pigeon accent in Hawaii. His use of a blowgun, as well as the forest home and the tribal Common Grounds, are references to Amazon tribes. A few events--such as his smoke-spoken vows with Kalvrava and his burial underground (which is sort of like a modified vision quest)--were vaguely inspired by native American rites blended with Christian concepts of baptism and being "born again".

Despite the wildly divergent influences, I personally think Verlvik came together in as a very vital and real character. He found his way into the story almost on his own--I'd started the book by alternating between Grillis and Athemon, and it wasn't until Verlvik wandered out of the forest in Athemon's fifth chapter that I had any notion of him at all. I think my subconscious mind recognized a need in the book--a character who could balance Athemon's oppression and Grillis's rejected state--and Verlvik was born to meet that need.

In the end, not every one will love him. But I do, and I'm proud to think I had a part in his creation.

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