Keeper of Nimrah: An Author’s Literary Journey
For years, Jaron and his friends have been waging a losing war defending their valleys and villages against mountains infested with marauding hordes of would-be invaders, fueled by an ancient sorcery. But when a troublesome stranger rides into the city looking for the heir to the throne of Carasul, Jaron’s already unstable world is thrown into convulsions as he embarks on a perilous search for the hidden realm of Losia.
Haunted by the ruins of a traumatic childhood, Jaron is an unlikely candidate for a mission that will ultimately determine the fate of an entire continent. As the narrow confines of his old life expand into a cosmic battlefield peopled with fresh dangers and unexpected allies, he finds himself caught up in a desperate race against time to save a world he didn’t think he loved from the encroaching evil of Nimrah. But what he discovers is not what he expected and his journey makes him question everything that led him to it, bringing him up against a fearsome truth that threatens to consume him.
Where It Came From
It is very difficult to pin down exactly how or when the story began. For as far back as I can remember, I have been making stories. I always had one going, something to revert to in spare moments, on long car rides, during lonely afternoons – a place to go. I filled journals with scraps of make-believe languages, maps, sketches, and long rambling passages of detailed descriptions of fabulous landscapes. But somehow or other, at some undefined point in time, the stories began converging into ‘the story,’ into a single more or less coherent narrative, a single world wide enough to contain them all and gradually developing in depth and detail. While the final product is almost entirely unrecognizable from the multitude of earlier versions and drafts, there was never any real break in continuity amounting to a ‘beginning.’
Keeper of Nimrah is what I think of as epic realist fantasy with semi-apocalyptic undertones and elements of psychological drama. By realist, I mean serious. I cannot help deploring the popular attitude – admittedly becoming less dominant – that connects the notion of fantasy with the merely make-believe, with the sort of fun and easy story-telling that delights in employing all the trappings of traditional fantasy with the object of getting characters in and out of fantastic scrapes that are difficult to take seriously. This is the sort of attitude that is responsible for most contemporary fantasy novels getting consigned to the young adult genre, and is, in my opinion, a sad commentary on the condition of our culture’s imaginative consciousness.
My own preference, which has dictated the tone of Keeper, is to steer clear of much of the stock supernatural apparatus, the magical creatures and devices, the enchantments and wonderful powers too often cheapened and made commonplace by tactless, often even bungling, overuse. This not out of a need for originality taking the form of a condescending literary snobbery, because I do sincerely believe that the best material is to be found among the traditional, practically universal themes of our oldest myths and fairytales, but in our age of overproduction and overconsumption, it is far too easy to lose the significance of these things by overdoing them. This is not to say that Keeper is any less a fantasy, but in the particular context of the story I want to tell, I find that the element of fantasy tends to fulfill its function best when it is used more as a rich, fertile backdrop, the undergirding fabric of the story, providing the proper atmosphere, but not popping up everywhere in too garish a fashion so as to interfere with the gravity of the narrative and the authenticity of the characters’ choices, interactions and predicaments.
That said, the storyline itself, apart from any fantasy components, certainly reflects my affinity – or weakness – for classic themes. I have always been intrigued by the idea of an unplanned journey, a sudden spontaneous quest driven by desperation into the unknown. Throughout the development of the story, that idea took on a multidimensional character as the original journey sparked several parallel and follow-up journeys, not merely physical, but also psychological and, in some sense, spiritual. The story itself turned into a complex network of these overlapping journeys, occasionally at odds with each other, often sharing similar themes and motifs, sometimes breaking off in entirely different directions, and the writing process morphed into a strenuous navigational exercise.
All of that, however, had mostly to do with the plot itself, by very nature a fluid, dynamic thing. But I don’t think the plot is necessarily the central feature of a story of this sort, as counterintuitive as that may sound. In my experience, the most significant element of fantasy writing is the art of engendering atmosphere. The characters and the particulars of the narrative are born out of this defining quality or tone, a specific ‘feel’ that provides depth, something that might be thought of as a compelling sense of place more than anything else, and is by nature thoroughly static, a very permanent thing. I find it impossible to separate the story from the world where it happens, and sometimes it is as if the world dictates what happens, as you develop a feel for what belongs here, for the people and events that really fit.
Lewis refers to this quality as a theme or a state, even a state of being, and in his insightful essay, On Stories, he explains that there is a great deal more to a good novel than excitement, adventure, and intense action moments, and the series of events that comprise the plot are ‘only really a net whereby to catch something else’. To take Lewis’ own example, consider the strange feeling roused by a title like William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, something no story can really live up to, but which some very well-made stories – including, in my opinion, Morris’ own – can bring us tolerably close to. In our best passages we approach it, and our carefully constructed word-necklaces weave patterns around it, never quite landing on it, but coming ever closer, close enough to become infused with the taste and thrill of it.
It is this ‘something else’ that inspires me to write. I remember getting so excited when I first read that passage of Lewis’, because it corresponded precisely to my own experience both in reading stories and in my attempts to create them. My favorite thing about Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, The Nibelungenlied or Gilgamesh – all, incidentally, fairly major influences involved in the evolution of my own story-crafting – was never the narrative itself as much as the atmosphere they created, something I like to think of as ‘weather’, because of the way it sets the mood.
Of course, this sense of ‘weather’, whatever it is, varies immensely from story to story, but I find that all the really good stories have some version of it, to a greater or lesser degree. I believe that the desire to manufacture it is at the heart of, and is the thing that really drives what Tolkien refers to as our tendency towards subcreation. It isn’t easy to nail down exactly what it is comprised of, although I think we often learn to recognize it at a very young age. It involves all the elements of culture, topography, history, legend and so on, but there is more than that. It is subtler and more intuitive than that.
In my own experience, it is intimately connected with music and landscape. I never started a story with a tidy narrative in mind; I’d hear one of Enya’s songs and resolve to write down the story that I felt was living inside that melody. Or I’d spend a long time outside just watching a particularly fascinating landscape and imagining the kind of things that could go on there, the type of happening that belonged. Many of my favorite scenes in Keeper are really set somewhere along the Black Sea where they were originally conceived, in a secluded forest glade, on a narrow rocky seashore, among hills scattered with tiny villages and hazelnut orchards, or at the deserted ruins of an as yet unexcavated Roman shrine.
The rich Turkish landscape, combined with my own childhood experiences in the Middle East and my early fascination with the Greek mythologies, is responsible for the Mediterranean tone of Keeper. And indeed, the evolution of my own concept of ‘atmosphere’ is intimately connected to my experience with mythology, and not just Greek. In fact, I find that good fantasy is essentially mythological. All the primary elements of wonder and mystery, of depth and magic, of the heroic, the beautiful and the tragic, all of the classic themes and story archetypes that resonate with us so profoundly, blending elements of common human experience with the compelling fascination and strangeness of ‘the other’ – they are all things that grow out of our own Earth mythologies and color our best stories.
While the Northern mythologies – Norse, Scandinavian, Finnish, Welsh, Old English – have always been my favorite and inevitably wield a significant influence on my style, contributing several key ideas to this story as well, the mythological structure of Keeper took much of its inspiration from Middle Eastern themes – Aramaic, Persian, Jewish, Ottoman, early Mesopotamian – found in ancient texts and apocryphal works such as the Book of Enoch. I don’t like borrowing heavily from any one source, which I find tends to cheapen the final product, so the influence is not always immediately obvious, though certainly significant. The stellar cults of Persia and Egypt, the dark angelic hierarchies and fantastic eschatology of early Hebrew mysticism and Babylonian legend, the ‘watchers’ of ancient Sumer and the myriad networks of overlapping, interweaving connections between all of these sister mythologies have long dominated my imagination.
These various influences, however, cannot be analyzed and dissected in order to discover the purpose of Keeper. People talk a great deal about the purpose of stories, but I don’t think it is really possible to distinguish a good story from its function. If someone writes a story for the purpose of conveying a message to his or her audience, although there are significant exceptions, chances are it will turn out mediocre at best and intolerably tiresome at worst.
But if someone writes a story in order to capture a certain ‘something else’ that has infused their world with meaning and inspired them to seek out the hidden purpose at the heart of things, an atmosphere that they have carefully distilled from the music of every enchanted wood they have walked in, from the quiet power of every stirring tale they have read, from the wordless poetry of every song they have heard, and from their own most profound moments of discovery in the midst of the coexistent extremes of ineffable sorrow and ecstasy, then it will be a good story, and it will be shot with truth, and it will leave none of its readers unchanged. If a person writes a story because it is running laps in their head, flapping its damp, fledgling wings against the bars of their brain in a frenzied attempt to get out and take to the wind, then it will be a good story, and it will know its function and fulfill it.
Keeper of Nimrah wasn’t written with a message in mind – I abandoned that sort of writing very quickly after a few dull attempts – but it was written in the trenches, so to speak, out of my own deepest experience of the great War that draws the same uncompromising battle lines in every story. It was written out of my own vision, long in the growing and ever unfinished, of the goodness and glory that not only lies in wait at even the most dreadful corners of every world, springing upon us in the oddest fashion, but is also on its way, rallying its forces and launching an invasion and sparking our souls with the hope that sometime, somehow, something is coming our way. And finally, this story was written out of the sweet sorrow of my own consuming longing for a certain something else that I will never be able to explain, no matter how many stories I spend in the effort.
By Shannon Lise
(Keeper of Nimrah is available in paperback at Amazon.com)