If you love medieval French literature, you will discover that I have hidden a lot of ‘easter eggs’ in This is Not a Werewolf Story. For example, the names Bisclavret, Raul, Oliver, and Nicolette. Those are the names of my favorite heroes from my favorite medieval epics and romances. I tried to make my characters share a strong personality trait with their medieval namesakes. So Oliver Swift (the dean) is a man who likes to see the truth, just like Olivier in the 12th century Song of Roland. And Nicolette Tern seems nice enough but don’t push her around because You Will Regret It—just like the heroine of the 12th century Aucassin et Nicolette. Bisclavret is not a werewolf in my story or the one Marie de France included in her famous collection of short lyric narratives we call The Lais—but he does have an unusual problem and in the end, only the king of the country (or the ranger of the park) can see the knight under all that fur. Now in the medieval epic Raoul de Cambrai, Raoul gets himself into a lot of trouble and ends up doing some really bad stuff. It’s not all his fault—the king is a huge jerk—but still, that’s no excuse for calling your best friend bad names and hurting his family. So that Raoul isn’t really my Raul, but since the name means ‘wolf’, how could I resist? And my Raul does have to learn how to control his temper and not take his frustration out on the innocent.
There are a lot more Easter eggs, and not all of them come from medieval French literature. I don’t want to give them all away, because that’s the reader’s job to find them. I only told you those ones because I figure most of my readers haven’t spent the last 20 years reading 12th century literature…But I hope some of you will spend a little time looking into it now. You can start by signing up for a French class.
That’s kind of how I did it.
I have spent a lot of my life reading folktales, fairy tales, epics, and legends. Eventually, when I went to college, I studied medieval French literature. What I like best about it is the way authors from that time would take stories from different times and places and cultures and blend them. That’s why medieval works always feel so familiar and so strange, and why there are intriguing holes or lapses in logic in them. It’s like the blocks in a crazy quilt–the stories don’t always fit together perfectly. You can see sometimes that one block was from a baby’s jumper and another block came from a little girl’s dress. Of course it’s the author’s job as much as the quilter’s to do his or her best to hide the seams, but sometimes, they might have to change the color of the thread.
When I had the chance to start teaching medieval literature myself, first at the University of Washington and later at the University of Puget Sound, I started noticing how few students were willing to sign up for medieval literature classes. I knew that it was a lot like green eggs and ham—if they tried it, they would probably like it. I’ve always been writing novels in my free time and at some point I had the idea that maybe one way to bring students back to studying these old stories would be to take them and make them new again. That’s what a medieval author would have done, right? So I took the skeleton of my favorite story from Marie de France, and I built around it. I decided to make it a story kids would like to read and parents would like to read to their kids, because I knew I needed to cast my net wide and deep if I was going to catch enough of the right kind of fish.
As I researched how I would tell my version of the story, I found some wonderful, skin-tingling similarities between the Celtic, Germanic, Persian, Christian, and Norse legends that are at work in medieval French literature and the stories of the different peoples native to the Pacific Northwest. One of the most important commonalities was the idea that the boundary between the spiritual world and the physical world can be breached, and that there are specific locations (forests, trees, hills, bodies of water) where access is easiest. Also, there was a shared conception of shape-shifting in many of these cultures. In a story, shape-shifting serves to open the door (or window) between the spiritual and the physical that is hidden inside of each of us. Opening that door as a reader leads to a deeper understanding of who we are and how profoundly we are connected to one another and especially to nature.
I got goosebumps the day I read a story from the Umpqua and saw that just like in the stories of Marie de France and other medieval legends, the white deer plays a role as a messenger between worlds. Because of the deep connection between landscape and culture, I realized that if I was going to set my story in the Pacific Northwest, then I needed to make parts of its stories a part of my story too.
There are special places in the world. They are as full of meaning as any monument. The stories that belong to those places are as specific and historical as anything recorded inside the jacket of a book.
Here are some resources, grouped by category, that you can use if you’d like to find more of my Easter eggs. But if you want to read the whole story, then you need to spend some time in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll see what I mean.
Native American Stories
Beck, Mary Giraudo. Shamans and Kushtakas.
Clark, Ella. Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest.
Holm, Bill. Northwest Coast Indian Art. An Analysis of Form.
The Carving of the Maiden of Deception Pass.
Thrush, Coll. Native Seattle. Histories from the Crossing-Over Place.
Trafzer, Clifford (editor). Grandmother, Grandfather, and Old Wolf.
Aucassin and Nicolette.
Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth.
Hollander, Lee (translator). The Poetic Edda.
Marie de France. Lais.
The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes.
Light and Lighthouses and Augustin Fresnel
Crew, Henry. The Wave Theory of Light.
Leffingwell, Randy and Pamela Welty. Lighthouses of the Pacific Coast.
Levitt, Theresa. A short bright flash. Augustin Fresnel and the birth of the modern lighthouse.
The Boston Men
Guss, O’Mahony & Richardson. Whidbey Island.
Kellogg, George. A History of Whidbey Island.
Meeker, Ezra. Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound.
Washington State History Museum