Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A is for Aethelbald

Inspired by a handful of other blogs I’ve seen doing an “A-Z challenge,” I’ve decided to do A-Z posts related to Heartless for the month of June. This is, in part, just to see if I can do it! It's also to celebrate the upcoming release of Veiled Rose (hoorah!). Here you will find interesting anecdotes and histories for many of the characters, settings, and themes of the first Goldstone Wood story.

The first one is a no-brainer. A is for Aethelbald. Who else could get this prestigious position?

Aethelbald’s name was a bit of a spontaneous choice for me. The very first (unfinished) draft of Heartless was written as a short story for a previous blog, posted in fragments. In that original story, nobody had names. Una was simply the princess, Gervais was simply the first suitor, and Leonard was simply the jester. Even the Dragon was just the dragon (no caps).

Aethelbald, poor fellow, didn’t exist at all. At least not in a recognizable form—though the wood thrush made a brief appearance.

But when I began the first novel-length draft of the story, I knew the character of Aethelbald would have to exist. I distinctly remember contemplating what was to be the third and final installment of the short story and realizing that . . . well, I’d left out the heart of the entire tale! Without Aethelbald, there was no hope for my poor little princess.

Perhaps she could save herself, but I didn’t believe that. I could certainly see her trying to . . . but could she work in herself a real, inside-out transformation? Could she forgo her true nature? I just didn’t see her having the ability to do that. Not on her own. So I considered having one of her former suitors return and save the day. Maybe the first suitor reformed? Or maybe the dragon had deceived the princess, and the jester wasn’t truly treacherous?

But that ran me right into the theme I most wanted to avoid in this story: The princess’s problems are all solved by finding a good man. Ugh. What a message!

Thus the short-story came to a screaming halt and the novel was begun. And this time everything started with the first appearance of Prince Aethelbald in Una’s life. I knew that I wanted him to be a Christ-figure in this fairy tale. So I based his character and appearance off this verse in the Bible:

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men . . .” Isaiah 53:2-3

Prince Aethelbald is not a romantic figure. He is not handsome or dashing or charming. He is unnoticeable in a crowd, especially when compared to flashy characters such as Prince Gervais, or witty characters such as Prince Lionheart. He is easily passed over by my heroine as he doesn't fulfill her simplistic dreams of “romance.”

And he needed a name to go with that role. A name as unattractive as anything I could find . . . a name that was noticeable only in that it was laughable.

The first that came to mind was Ethelred . . . as in, King Ethelred the Unready. I mean, seriously? Do names get any worse? But I didn’t really want people associating this character with that historic king. So I took the next best one, which was Aethelbald.

Which actually means, “Noble and Bold.” Both of which are qualities that Prince Aethelbald has in abundance. He is noble and true, and he is bold in declaring his love for Princess Una and in facing all manner of dangers to rescue her. But he is also quiet. And he is steadfast in his love. He is willing to wait, no matter how harshly Una rejects him, for he knows the pain her rejection will cost her. He knows the price she will have to pay for insisting on her own will and her own way.

Aethelbald, despite that terribly unromantic name, is the ultimate hero. He is willing to abase himself for the sake of his Beloved.

Did you notice the scene at the end of Heartless when he finally confronts the Dragon face to face? The Dragon does not at first recognize him. “How can that be?” you might ask. Isn’t Aethelbald the “Enemy” the Dragon refers to on more than one occasion? Why wouldn’t the Dragon recognize someone he hates so violently and has plotted so long to wound?

But one word from Aethelbald is enough to scare the Dragon. He instantly recognizes that voice! Then he begins laughing and says:

What are you made up as? Look at you, pathetic creature, a little man-beast! Never thought I’d see the day that you, my Enemy, would reduce yourself to such a state.” (Heartless, p. 344)

Later on, in the same section, the Dragon goes on to say:

I am stronger than I once was, and you . . . Ha! You are nothing but a man!

Obviously, Prince Aethelbald is not wearing his natural form. And I’m not talking about his switching between human wood thrush shape . . . After all, why would the Dragon call Aethelbald’s man form pathetic when comparing it to something so frail as a songbird? There is something more to this Prince Aethelbald than meets the eye. Something Una has not yet begun to realize. He has other forms, other aspects he has worn in the past, much more powerful than his current, humble state.

He also has other names, as evidenced by Chapter 2 during his brief exchange with Torkom, the goblin dealer. Torkom calls him "Eshkhan," which means "Prince". How many other names might this ageless being, who is neither mortal nor Faerie, possess? Perhaps more Tales of Goldstone Wood will reveal them.

He is “Aethelbald” for his incarnation as a man, however, a name which first inspires laughter but which means so much more.

By the by, I usually pronounce it “Athel” in my head. But this, for all it is familiar to me, is incorrect. The real pronunciation of the first syllable would rhyme with “day.” Felix pronounces it like “Apple” himself, so obviously Felix thinks the same way I do! Surprise, surprise . . .


Faith King said...

How many other names might this ageless being, who is neither mortal nor Faerie, possess?

Well, Aragorn has at least six that I can think of off the top of my head, so Aethelbald has some catching up to do. I'll start a tally. ;-)

But that ran me right into the theme I most wanted to avoid in this story: The princess’s problems are all solved by finding a good man. Ugh. What a message!

It's interesting to me that you, as a Christian author, and I, as a Christian reader, do not take offense at Aethelbald in this respect because of the recognition that he represents the only One who can truly save us, man or woman. But I wonder how many secular readers would recognize (even just from an objective, scholastic understanding of theology) the difference. If they do recognize the message, would they be intrigued or agitated? Both? Having read Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, I was extremely distressed by the very anti-faith themes that manifested in the series' climax. So I think there's a part of my brain always going "Hmmn, does the same thing happen to non-believers in reverse when (if) they read Christian stories?"

Rhetorical questions, I know. There's a voice in my head that plays Devil's Advocate a lot. Sometimes I just tell him to sit in the corner and shut up-- I want to enjoy a book that doesn't offer up any apologetics for its spirituality!

Anonymous said...

Aethelbald is my favorite character in Heartless, though I do love Monster. I'm enjoying reading you A-Z entries!!!!

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

Thank you both for your comments!

@Faith King: As much as I dislike Philip Pullman's work, one does have to give him credit for presenting his views clearly. I've always figured that if you're not insulting someone, you're probably not making your point with anyone. Truth is offensive. I think a LOT of non-believers get very upset while reading Christian fiction. But I don't think that means that Christian writers should soften their beliefs. Perhaps find ways to present their beliefs in less "preachy" fashions . . . but still without watering them down. Hoorah for YA fantasy giving us such great opportunities to present the Gospel in new lights! :)

@Anonymous . . . I love Monster too! Hoping to write a whole novel with him as the main character one day! ;)

Anonymous said...

Christa here!

Aethelbald is my favorite character in the whole book (and a literary crush, which you already knew) and I can't wait to see him again in some more Tales of Goldstone Wood!

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

I'm glad you enjoyed reading Aethelbald! I have enjoyed developing more of his story and deepening the mystery around him as the series progresses . . . :)

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for the entire A-Z series!