One of the greatest challenges facing a historical novelist is choosing what information to use from a sea of research. But just as tricky is wanting to find out about a historical event or place and discovering that almost nothing is known about it for sure. Kim Rendfeld dealt with both of these situations as she wrote her latest novel.
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By Kim Rendfeld
The title for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is derived from the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Continental Saxon peoples, including my heroine, Leova. The one thing we know with certainty: Charlemagne ordered its destruction in 772 and took the gold and silver in its temple.
The nature and location of the Irminsul is uncertain—as is whether it was the only one. Some sources say it was a stone pillar, others say wooden pillar, and still others say it was a tree. It’s been described as having an idol of the war god atop it. Because of the presence of a carving, some have placed it at the Externsteine, north of the Saxon fortress Eresburg.
We can’t turn to the pagan Saxons for any clarity. They did not have a written language as we know it, and the Church did everything it could to obliterate a religion it considered devil worship.
So what’s a historical novelist to do with so many contradictions? Choose the most plausible version that best fits her story and confess her liberties in an author’s note. Or a blog post.
My first liberty is to call the Irminsul the Pillar of Heaven. Irminsul is often translated as “universal pillar.” I chose Pillar of Heaven in my novel because frankly it sounds better. And Wodan, the war god whose idol might have surmounted the pillar, was a sky god, so the Pillar of Heaven is not too much of a stretch.
Next was the location. Leova lives in a village just outside the fortress of Eresburg. Having it nearby allowed her to smell the smoke when it burned and see the charred blotch it left behind. It made the loss more real and more devastating.
Flames are a dramatic form of destruction, which is why I decided the pillar should be made of wood. To the Continental Saxons, the Irminsul’s destruction was the equivalent of burning a cathedral. Did the Saxons believe anyone who desecrated their sacred monument would face the gods’ wrath? Again, there is no text to verify it. But this was age that believed in divine favor and retribution, so that idea passes the plausibility test.
From a storyteller’s point of view, actual facts about the Irminsul are not as important as its impact on the characters. And in this case, Leova’s faith is shaken, as you will see in the excerpt below.
“I greet you in the name of Our Lord, Jesus the Christ,” he roared. “My name is Father Osbald. We come in peace and mean you no harm.”
By his accent, Leova knew the priest was a Saxon from Britain, like many of the other priests who had come to her village. They were mild men bearing treats for the children along with the teachings of their odd religion.
“But the God who destroyed the Irminsul will strike down anyone who harms us,” the priest said. “The sound of our horn will summon scores of Christian soldiers to our aid.”
From the corner of her eye, Leova saw Wulfgar and Ludgar shrinking back. Perhaps, the Christian God was stronger than the gods of the Saxons.
“We will give safe conduct to Eresburg to anyone who promises to accept baptism,” Osbald continued.
Wulfgar’s voice boomed. “How can you give safe conduct? You are not warriors.”
“We do not need swords and armor when we have the power of the one, true God. The Frankish soldiers know God will condemn their souls to eternal torture if they harm anyone in our care.”
Osbald spoke Saxon, but Leova could not understand half of what he was saying. From the confidence in his voice, Leova surmised the Christian God had given His priests magic power, enough to cow warriors into submission. How she needed safe conduct to the fortress—and Derwine!
“What is baptism?” Leova asked.
“You vow to follow Christ, forsaking your devils, and He cleanses you of your sins,” the priest replied.
“Do we have to shave our hair in that strange way?” Sunwynn asked.
“No, child.” Osbald chuckled. “The tonsure is an honor reserved only for men of the clergy.”
Baptism appealed to Leova. She suspected the conquerors would be more generous with those who shared their religion. Maybe it was fate to follow a stronger God. The Saxon gods had allowed the Irminsul to be destroyed, Leodwulf and Derwine to die, and Eresburg to be conquered by foreigners. Despite her sacrifices and prayers, the Saxon gods had betrayed her and her family!
“I and my children accept your offer,” Leova called to the Christian priest, “but we will attend to our dead first.”
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To read the first chapter or find out more about Kim Renfield, visit her website, her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist, or like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.