Today I have the opportunity to host an interview with Kim Rendfeld, author of The Cross and the Dragon. Her novel is set during the reign of Charlemagne which is such a different time period for historical fiction. Read on for more about her work!
Your novel, The Cross and the Dragon, is set during the time of Charlemagne, around the year 778 – this is not a typical choice of time or setting. What was it about this period that inspired you to set this novel, and your other works-in-progress, here? How did you come to be interested in Charlemagne?
A German legend about Roland (Hruodland in The Cross and the Dragon) compelled me to find out who this guy was, and that led me to researching this period. What I found was great fodder for a writer. Among aristocrats in the Carolingian era, and the Middle Ages in general, the political and the personal were intertwined. Whom the king married was not only cause for gossip, but had real political consequences, including peace or war.
At the beginning of The Cross and the Dragon, Charlemagne (King Charles in my novels) is going to war with his ex-father-in-law, who is threatening Rome. I didn’t make that up. (If you’d like to know more about Charles’s high stakes family feud see my post on Unusual Historicals)
Charles was a complex man and every choice he made was political, from whom and whether he married to his choice of clothes (for more about the latter, see Unusual Historicals). He was intelligent and one of the few people able to read. Seeking knowledge himself, he had his sons and his daughters educated. He adored his daughters.
Yet he was also ruthless. Exhibit A: a mass execution of 4,500 Saxon warriors. In his defense, I will say he was responding to brutality. The execution followed devastating losses in battle from an enemy who burned churches and killed indiscriminately, young and old, male and female (more about that incident in my post on Unusual Historicals).
His personal life was complicated. He divorced his first two wives, yet was a steadfast husband to his last three. He seized land from his first cousin (and ex-brother-in-law). And one of his sons tried to overthrow him.
How can I resist this era?
Your website indicates that the story told in The Cross and the Dragon is inspired by legend; can you tell us more about this?
**What I’m about to say is a spoiler, so readers who would like to avoid it should proceed to the next question. **
Spoiler text is written in a white font, highlight this passage to read the answer to this question!
During a family vacation in Germany, I learned about the legend behind the construction of Rolandsbogen, an ivy covered arch on a high Rhineland hill. Roland builds the castle for his bride and goes off to war in Spain. He survives an ambush in the Pyrenees, but his wife is told he died. Not wishing to marry another, she takes a vow of chastity and joins the convent on Nonnenwerth, a nearby Rhine island. Roland comes back too late and spends the rest of his days at his window trying to catch a glimpse of her to and from prayers.
This legend is not true. The historic Hruodland died in the ambush at the Pass of Roncevaux. Yet the story left me with questions such as “Why would someone lie to the bride?”
**End of spoiler**
This time period would be difficult to research, I would imagine. Is this true and where did you have to go to find your sources, and what kind of information did you have access to?
This era lends itself to a paucity of information. Few people could read and even fewer could write. But fortunately, some people did write things down, although they had an agenda, and better yet, scholars have translated medieval Latin for the rest of us. (Historical novelist’s disclaimer: any mistakes are mine and mine alone.)
My library includes:
- Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel, written about 830-33, at least 16 years after King Charles’s death. You can read an older translation at Fordham’s Medieval Sourcebook.
- Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers, written by several anonymous authors in the eighth and ninth centuries and one of Charlemagne’s grandsons.
- P.D. King’s Charlemagne: Translated Sources, a collection of annals, letters, contemporary biographies, capitularies, and more.
- Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, which describes details of life outside the wars.
You have a companion piece to The Cross and the Dragon titled The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar and a work-in-progress about Fastrada, a queen of Charlemagne. What can you tell us about these works?
Ashes is about Leova, a pagan Saxon peasant who has only her children left after losing everything in Charlemagne’s 772 war—her home, her husband, her faith, even her freedom. Leova will do whatever it takes to protect her children and seek justice against the kin who betrayed them. Yet the most agonizing dilemma for her and her family is what they will do when they find out a Frankish friend and protector is the soldier who killed her husband.
Ashes is mostly done. I’m making revisions to address issues my then editor at Fireship Press pointed out in The Cross and the Dragon such as head-hopping and use of Elizabethan English that doesn’t quite work in a medieval setting. I’m also delving a little deeper into historical details such as some of the practices of the Continental Saxons’ religion. Not an easy thing when you consider that they didn’t have a written language as we know it and the medieval Church did whatever it could to obliterate the religion, which it saw as devil worship. Readers who are interested can check out drafts of an excerpt and the first chapter, posted at www.kimrendfeld.com.
I have a rough draft for my novel about Fastrada, Charlemagne’s fourth wife, the most influential and the most hated. The core of this story has a modern ring to it: son who thinks he was cheated out of his inheritance rebels against his father, and when he’s caught, he blames his stepmother for his bad behavior.
I first learned about Fastrada in Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne. Einhard says Fastrada’s cruelty caused Pepin (Charles’s son from the first marriage) to rebel. I wondered: what did this woman do? None of the sources specify.
Medieval people defined cruelty as a bad thing you did to your own people; slaughtering the enemy was something to celebrate. We know about 4,500 executed Saxons from the Franks, who would have called the killing justice. The closest thing I can find to a medieval definition of cruelty is that some Thuringian rebels were blinded, barbaric to us in the 21st century but a standard punishment in Rome and Greece. Fastrada likely would have considered people who threatened to kill her husband traitors deserving harsh penalties.
Primary sources indicate that Charles and Fastrada loved each other. An unusual entry in the Royal Frankish Annals says how they rejoiced to see each other again when Charles returned from Rome, and a letter from Charles expresses disappointment she hasn’t written to him and asks her to inform him about her health.
My take on Fastrada is that she might have been maligned, the victim of a backlash by men resentful of her power.
You previously worked as a journalist. What has it been like to shift to writing fiction? Have you always wanted to write a novel?
Journalism has been both a help and a hindrance in writing fiction. Journalism’s time and space constraints taught me to get to the point. Maturing as writer has made me care more about having readers understand the story than impressing them with my cleverness.
But I had to break some habits. By its nature, journalism is distant. A news report does not take sides. It presents all sides, if possible, and lets readers make their own conclusions. Fiction is intimate. Readers are inside the character’s head. The writer is manipulating their emotions.
I flirted with the idea of writing fiction since high school in the ’80s and in the early ’90s made an attempt at a science fiction dystopia that, thankfully, never got published. I started on The Cross and the Dragon in the late ’90s because the legend I talked about earlier followed me home and refused to leave me alone until I started to write.
When you are not writing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
With a full-time job, I have very little spare time. But I enjoy gardening. On nice days, it’s difficult to sit inside and write when I could be digging in the dirt or harvesting cherry tomatoes. On a related note, I enjoy cooking, although lately I’ve been sous chef to my husband. He made sure I got fed while I was in the throes of revisions.
My husband and I also like to take trips together, sometimes to state parks in Indiana, sometimes to Las Vegas. Anyplace we’re together is good.
Rendfeld grew up in New Jersey and attended Indiana University, where she earned a BA in journalism and English, with a minor in French. She was a journalist for almost 18 years at Indiana newspapers, including the Journal and Courier in Lafayette, The Muncie Star, and The News and Sunin Dunkirk, and won several awards from the Hoosier State Press Association.
Her career changed in 2007, when she joined the marketing and communications team at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Rendfeld gets paid to agonize over commas and hyphens, along with suggesting ways to improve writing, and thoroughly enjoys it. She is proud to have been part of projects that have received national recognition.
Rendfeld, a proud member of the Historical Novel Society, lives in Indiana with her husband and their spoiled cats. The couple has a daughter and two granddaughters.
Copyright © 2012 by The Maiden’s Court