The Ring Cycle


Charles nodded and turned his horse. Men and horses littered the ground, wounded, dying, dead. Bullets sang through the air, shells exploded, cannons rumbled. Beneath his coat, his shirt was plastered to his skin. The smell of blood and powder, the screams of men and horses, the sight of gaping wounds and blown off limbs had become monotonous reality. He steered his horse round two dead dragoons sprawled over the body of a horse with the lower part of its face shot off.

That’s a quote from Imperial Scandal, which I’m currently in the midst of revising. Imperial Scandal begins in a world much like that of Vienna Waltz, at a ball given by the British ambassador (where you met Cordelia Davenport in last week’s excerpt). But that glittering world teeters in the brink of war as the Allied army waits in Brussels for Napoleon to march from Paris. The glamorous world of the British ex-patriates in Brussels is shattered at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball with the confirmation that the French have crossed the frontier. Soldiers march off to fight in ball dress. The last part of the book moves back and forth between the battlefield where Charles/Malcolm is pressed into delivering messages for Wellington and Brussels where Mélanie/Suzanne and Cordelia are nursing the wounded.

I’m currently in the midst of revising the battle scenes, which are some of the most challenging I’ve ever written. On my first draft I was preoccupied with getting down the logistics of the battle, weaving in the plot developments that needed to happen and getting my characters in the right place at the right time for the historical chronology. Not to mention making sure I had details of uniforms and weapons right. I was reasonably happy with how the battle sequence turned out in the preliminary version. But now I’m layering in more texture and emotion. And sheer horror. Waterloo was a particularly bloody battle with some 47,000 soldiers killed or wounded. At the end of the day, the field was strewn with dead or dying men and horses.

Earlier this week I heard a clip on NPR of Kurt Vonnegut talking about how he wanted to write about war in a way that didn’t glamorize it. That really resonated for me with the scenes I’m currently working on. It’s a challenge to capture the bravery and acts of courage and yet not lose sight of the horror and insanity. Which also means not pulling back in describing the violence and brutality.

It’s a grim world to live in as a writer. A couple of days ago I saw a fabulous final dress rehearsal of Götterdämmerung, the last opera in Wagner’s Ring at San Francisco Opera, which with its destruction and tragedy and wasted lives seemed very apropos of the scenes I’ve been writing. I drafted this post outdoors in the café at the California Shakespeare theater waiting for their production of Titus Andronicus to begin. A play rooted in war and definitely about violence, which also seems apropos. And having now seen, the production, which was brilliant and disturbing, these lines seems particularly to resonate with the scenes I’ve been writing, which moves back and forth between the Allies and the French:

But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets,
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.

The battle of Waterloo has been dramatized brilliantly by a number of writers. Two of my favorite depictions, both brutal and heart-rending, are Georgette Heyer in An Infamous Army and Bernard Cornwell in Waterloo. I’m only hoping I manage to not disgrace myself in comparison.

Which battle scenes in fiction do you find particularly effective? Writers, if you’ve written battle scenes, what are the particular challenges you faced?

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Melanie to Raoul, where, among other things, she talks about Frederick Radley. Which brings up another question. What did you think of the revelations about Mel/Suzette’s relationship with Radley in Vienna Waltz, and did you think she was telling the full truth to Charles/Malcolm?

Saturday night I saw Rhinegold, the first opera in Wagner’s Ring at San Francisco Opera. This is a sort of sneak preview a new production of the Ring, co-commissioned by Washington Opera and San Francisco Opera, an “American Ring” with imagery taken from America’s history and culture. Rhinegold used imagery from the Gold Rush and the twenties. As I understand it, the rest of the operas will go forward in time. We’ll get the full Ring cycle in the summer of 2011.

At the first notes of music Saturday night, I remembered Angel’s comment when he came back in a late episode of Buffy and watched Buffy fight: “oh, I’ve missed this.” :-). I’ve loved the Ring operas ever since I first saw Die Walküre at fifteen. The emotion, the complexity, the intrigues, the passion, the power games. Before the opera, my friend jim and I were talking about Battlestar Galactica, which he loves, and I’ve recently started watching. It turned out four different people around us also are big fans of the show, and we ended up in an enthusiastic discussion until the lights dimmed. It was actually quite apropos to the opera–“emotion, the complexity, the intrigues, the passion, the power games” could describe Battlestar Galactica as much as the Ring.

Imagery from the Ring (sometimes based on the Ring itself, sometimes based on common cultural sources) is all over literature and popular culture. As we we’re leaving, jim said when we saw the operas before, he’d never thought about the parallels to the Fellowship of the Ring. The Star Wars movies abound in parallels, with the twins separated at birth, the naive young man who learns to become a hero, the mysterious, unknown father who sells his soul for power. Watching Rhinegold on Saturday, I kept thinking of Cigarette Smoking man as Wotan, with Mulder and Scully as Siegmunde and Sieglinde. Of course, The X-Files abound in mythic references, Orpheus and Eurydice and the Oresteia among others.

I first saw the complete Ring cycle on stage at San Francisco Opera with my mom when we were writing A Touch of Scandal, one of our Anthea Malcolm Regencies. Over dinner before one of the operas, I said, “actually this has a lot in common with our book. The Melchett family are like the gods, their estate Sundon is Valhalla, and Fiona is like Siegfried, a child raised in secrecy who comes back to reclaim her birthright and bring down the family. The Marchioness of Parminter is Wotan. Gideon is like Brunhilde, once connected to the Melchetts (the way Brunhilde was to the gods), but now Fiona’s lover and ally.” I was being half tongue in cheek, but as I talked I realized how very many parallels there were.

And there are the Charles & Mélanie books. It’s not entirely coincidence that Secrets of a Lady also involves the search for with supposedly mythical powers. Charles and Mélanie aren’t brother and sister, but their past history is more tangled than either of them realizes. I can definitely see Raoul O’Roarke as a Wotan type–a puppet master who makes morally ambiguous choices and plays dice with those close to him, though he genuinely does care about them. I could also see Mélanie as a Brunhilde–a warrior who struggles over losing her powers when she falls in love and marries and yet who maintains her ability to think and act for herself.

Have you ever seen the Ring? Do you like looking for mythological parallels in literature and popular culture? Writers, do you consciously use mythological reference in your books or sometimes realize they’re there later on?

With this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition, I’ve continued with letters written from Dunmykel during the events of Beneath a Silent Moon, this time David writing to his sister Isobel, trying to puzzle out the relationship between Honoria and Kenneth Fraser.