World Building

A confession: we’re not much into world building in what, in our own shorthand, we call our Wheelworld stories, the stories around the sell-sword Kaila, scribe Ymke and teenage rogue Sebastien.

From a thread on Twitter about King Arthur, which is worth reading: ...the popularity of arthur stories is largely a manufacture of british protestants to invent a pre-catholic, post-roman, christian romantic past that could be deployed in the service of social conservatism as articulated through storytelling, architecture, and interior design.

We find this thought very freeing as authors who have lost too much time to find out “which foods are old world and which new world produce” and are reluctant to make their late medieval-ish fantasy conform precisely to the limits of what tech existed in what analog country in our world. It’s detail-focused, rather than processing from generalities upward. It’s never been our ambition for Wheelworld (the clue is in the fact we’ve begun ironically referring to it like that) to be one of those ultra-precise fantasy worlds where we know every linguistic, historical, topographical, flora/fauna detail.

One of the maps of Ricardo Pinto’s Three Lands, from Stone Dance of the Chameleon

We love created worlds like that. There’s an incredible complexity and subtlety that becomes possible when you truly know every inch of your fantasy world. Our friend Ricardo Pinto, with his Stone Dance of the Chameleon series, surpasses Tolkien in the depth and originality of his conlangs, genealogies and history. His website offers a taste of the background material he created for his magnum opus (and we really recommend the revised, seven-part edition). Our imagination however works the other way round, and we lean into that: broadly, we look at what the story needs, and make the world to fit those needs.

In this approach, we follow in the footsteps of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, whose Hyborian world is overlaid on the map of Europe as we know it, and whose place and personal names purposely echo cultures we know. His Aquilonian kingdom reminds us of the medieval French Aquitaine; when he mentions the people of Shem, we know roughly where they come from. It’s a shorthand for him, using the general knowledge of the readers, so that he can get on with the story he wants to tell. Likewise, for The Red Man we’ve used a version of the northern Netherlands, Road to Starohrad is set in Prague (sort of) and for The Return of the Uncomplaining Child we looked (literally) at Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen. We allow our readers’ associations to construct our world in their minds.

Map of the Hyborian Age by Robert E Howard

If we had made a map of Wheelworld, it would be a bit like that of Europe, though stretched out in certain parts, shrunk to insignificance in others. Our “northern Netherlands” definitely seem to be larger. Our approach has been to unfurl the world under our characters’ feet as we’ve needed new parts of it. None of them had the kind of education, or the kind of things expected of them in life, to give them a king’s or a scholar’s understanding of their world. So that world has… unrendered bits. Their world is like a medieval map, with vague “somewhere over there”s and “here be monsters”.

And things work a bit differently in that world generally. How different depends on what we’d like to do, or sometimes where our trio leads us. We haven’t talked about this before because it always seems like such a cop-out when meticulous world-building is a thing many people adore in fantasy.

Detail of the Hereford Mappa Mundi

Our curiosity lies more in the daily human relations of the world than its full historical record. Oh, bits of its history have emerged and continue to emerge. It’s getting more solid, and parts of it will get very solid as we take you through the rest of our heroes’ adventures. But its life and vigour rely on there being hinterlands; unmapped, unregarded bits. And one theme that keeps coming up is the precarity of civilisation: not even the lofty bits, but the everyday standards, like not murdering your neighbour. In that sense too it’s Howardian.

Granted, at least he did have a map!

Once More, With Nibelung

I wasn’t going to do any further Nibelungen posts, but when looking for designs for Dr Caligari I stumbled upon a cache of production art for Die Nibelungen, and couldn’t leave it alone. I’ve also added some photos of the scenes as the designs end up as, and some (possible) inspirations. Meanwhile, I’m still enjoying Stephan Grundy’s Rhinegold; after 300 pages about his lineage, Siegfried eventually gets born!

“Behind the scenes”, with Paul Richter as Siegfried, and Fritz Lang on the far right.

Otto Hunte’s design for the castle of Worms, and the castle as it appeared in the film. This castle has been a model for the one in our story The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, but set on a rock like Brunhilde’s. What I love is that while the model is hidden in a lot of fog and lighting, you can see a lot of detail in the drawing, including the little dwellings outside.

Design for the dragon and shooting of the scene. Paul Richter once more in giant fur diaper.

Arnold Böcklin’s 1896 painting Silence of the Forest, Siegfried in the forest with giant trees. This analogue was pointed out by Lotte Eisner in her seminal book The Haunted Screen.

Caspar David Friedrich- Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1825-30), Erich Kettelhut’s set design drawing for Alberich’s marsh (1923) and the corresponding scene from the film.

Erich Kettelhut’s design for Brunhilde’s castle, and the castle as portrayed in the film.

Siegfried’s death, first as set drawing by Otto Hunte, then the resulting set (plus speared Siegfried). As Böcklin may have been an inspiration for Siegfried in the forest, it’s tempting to go back to his 1877 Elysian Fields for the birch trees at the lake setting.

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A Fistful of Nibelungen

The Nibelungen have been on my mind, lately. Doing the portrait of Ymke and Kaila got me in the mood again. Painting that, I realised that among the illustrations for The Red Man and Others I hadn’t yet done any of Sebastien. I’ve got that sorted, now.

About a decade ago I’d got Stephan Grundy’s Rhinegold from a charity shop. I started reading but got bogged down; a lot of back story before Siegfried is even born, filled with names starting with Sig. So I returned it to charity. Then, years later, I decided to give it another chance, and bought another copy. I loved it. So much, in fact, that I gave it to a friend. And then a couple of weeks ago,I bought my 3rd copy.

I was looking for reference material for the painting of Sebastien, and in particular the clothing worn by the men in Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen films. Doing that, I stumbled on this link which has the set photos taken by Horst von Harbau (family of Fritz’ wife and Nibelungen screenwriter Thea, I guess). They’re in a very high resolution, and you see details in them you can’t even see on high definition DVD. So, have at it!

Lang’s Die Nibelungen has inspired one story in the Suske en Wiske comicbook series which was a staple of my childhood. Fans praise the early stories of the 1940s, like De Ringelingschat. Author Willy Vandersteen has clearly drawn his inspiration from Lang’s epic, as you can see in particular in the topmost female character’s clothing. I wonder whether its influence has been as clear in other comics or works (aside from the 1960s remake, that is).

Just as this comicbook story is rooted in Lang’s film, and added a lot to it, the design of the film also was not spun out of whole cloth. The sets were designed by Karl Vollbrecht and Erich Kettelhut (google that name, and you’ll see some other great films he designed for), and the costumes by Aenne Willkomm and Paul Gerd Guderian (whose name we used in our story The Return of the Uncomplaining Child). I bet Lang gave them Franz Keim’s 1909 version of the story, or more likely the 1920 reissue, as inspiration.

It’s a small book, not even 15 X 15 cm, with abridged text written for Austrian schoolchildren. It’s an example of Gesamtkunstwerk, an object in which different branches of art come together; in this case typography and illustration. These illustrations, 8 double pages, are by Carl Otto Czeschka, and bring the work of the other Vienna Secession Movement artist Gustav Klimt to mind. Their influence on Lang’s Nibelungen epos is clear.

Lastly, just because I had to get it off my chest, here’s a .gif I made, which might come in handy some day…

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A Tale Of Two Women: Die Nibelungen (1924)

“I think that the Otasringar are shaped by the ancient forest that surrounds the rock, just as those giant tree trunks made their mark on me when I guided my horse between them just a few years ago. There’s very little green in the city, and what trees and shrubs there are get snipped and pruned carefully. It’s as if the Otasringar fear the forest so much that they’ve hewn a culture from granite, with high walls and small windows, to keep it out. Yet with those looming, stark buildings and those winding streets, they ended up living in an echo of the very forest they sought to escape.”

We were looking for a setting for The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, the third story in The Red Man and Others, when we bought the Eureka! Masters of Cinema edition of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), wonderfully restored by the Murnau Stiftung. “That’s it,” we thought. So, Siegfried’s forest becomes the forest surrounding the rock of Otasfaust, and the castle of Worms becomes Otasring, but perched on the giant rock on which we find Brunhild’s fortress.

It was in Die Nibelungen that Hitler found the myth that would shape his Third Reich, though it seems that what had him on the edge of his seat are the elements that aged the least well. Siegfried (Paul Richter) doesn’t quite have the physique that you’d expect, not helped by the outsized fur diaper he’s wearing. The dragon is not the miracle of movie magic either, being more like Georges Méliès’ early century paper mache creatures than Willis O’Brien’s stop motion dinosaurs in The Lost World of a year later.

However, when Siegfried comes to the civilised world of the medieval city of Worms, what impresses most is the architecture and set design, which can best be described as ‘monumental’. The design of the costumes mostly works, with its emphasis on bold shapes and patterns. Only here and there they are undermined by the actors wearing them, like King Gunther (Theodor Loos), who looks like a chubby boy playing dress-up.

From a 21st century perspective, Siegfried comes across as a bit of a jerk at times, and the blonde folk of Worms are definitely not written as the good guys. It would be tempting to imagine the Nazis didn’t understand the movie, but it’s more likely that they interpreted the film and its themes as suited them, whatever its authors intended (writer Thea von Harbau went on to work for the Reich, while her husband Fritz Lang fled to America).

Die Niebelungen is not Siegfried’s film, really. He’s the gun on the wall in the first act that gets shot in the third. He’s the Macguffin, the engine of change. In reality, the film belongs to its women, Brunhild (Hannah Ralph) and Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Whereas the men behave like boys, and are acted with big gestures, it’s the women who have real emotions. Brunhild is the strong woman who is wooed with chicanery, with an invisible Siegfried helping King Gunther win the challenges she sets him. Then, when Gunther is unable to perform in the marriage bed, Siegfried has to stand in again. Truth outs, though, and while the men, including Hagen (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) were dishonest, Brunhild comes right out with it in the open and demands the life of the man who robbed her of her virginity. Damn right; justice for Iceland queens!

So, what’s a king to do than stab his buddy in the back. That, of course really, really upsets Siegfried’s wife Kriemhild. As opposed to some other actors in the movie, who like their grand, operatic gestures, Schön emotes mostly with her face. Kriemhild’s looks reduce her brother and the other knights to a locker room of boys who have to bandy together to stand against one angry woman.

It is a prequel to what’s to come in the second part of Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge! I actually prefer this second part; it’s got less hokey bits, its scale is even bigger, and there’s an all-prevailing sense of doom hanging over the whole thing, with Kriemhild a killer queen whose revenge is terrifying but who never loses our sympathy (hello, Maleficent?). Meanwhile, the boys remain loyal to each other, no matter their misdeeds. Nibelungentreue still suit the modern day Tiki-torches brigades well.

The two Nibelungen movies are still worth watching; Siegried may be the best known, but for my money Kriemhild’s Rache is as strong if not stronger. As with all movies of the silent era, Die Nibelungen relies heavily on visuals to tell the story, so do yourself a favour: watch a good looking version, not some Xth generation copy off YouTube!

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