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The Road to "Askar" - Ideas and Themes behind the novel.

A Point of View from John Calder, publisher and editor of "Askar",
with a response by the author, Bronwyn Calder

Am I promoting Askar because it's good, or because I am married to the writer? The answer is "both". Sure it's good value for us to have a project in common, but we are both strong on having our own creative ideas. Being Bronwyn's novel does not earn it my attention as of right. Askar needed to be excellent to compete for my time.

Bronwyn began writing "Askar" in the late 1980s as a text-based role-playing computer game. She worked on it little by little through the 1990s. I pushed her to complete a first version by 2003 and rewriting, editing, debate, and work on the film script version led us to declare it ready late in 2007. Bronwyn has a track record in traditional publishing in our small and remote home country of New Zealand, but traditional publication of a novel for a world-wide audience would have been a long hard road for her. We are both interested in and actively experimenting with the new media digital revolution so taking control of our e-Book and our Print-on-Demand publishing was very much where we wanted to go.

Bronwyn is a Christian believer. I am not. That makes for some interesting negotiation.  I take an editorial line of respecting Christian culture and worldview as an inspirational source but argue against any need to be pushy about promoting Christian belief to secular readers. I suggest that if there is a God then she or he is not depending on this story as a promotional package! The most that believers should expect of "Askar" is that it could be one of hundreds of God-influences which would work together to affect hearts and minds.

One of Bronwyn's Christian themes is an anti-sorcery message. Bronwyn is concerned that sorcery is romanticised in popular culture and aims to counter that in "Askar" by depicting it as an evil and dangerous force which runs destructively out of control when unleashed. On first reading these scenes I had another interpretation which Bronwyn agreed to work with, the idea of sorcery in her fantasy world as an allegory for weapons of mass destruction in our world. For example, the sorcerer's duels where destructive forces can only build because there is a conflict to feed on , are allegories for any arms race. I have in mind the poison gas attacks of the First World War as well as the nuclear arms races of our era.

Between the first complete draft in 2003 and 2007, Bronwyn moved into a more activist "evangelical" Christian subculture. That had me worried that she would have less freedom of thought to riff on biblical themes. When she allowed me to see the completed rewrite I was mostly relieved. Bronwyn's feisty feminist themes are still in place and the creator-deity of her imaginary world remains "the goddess". We did however have several intense debates, one of which I rate as one of the biggest "fights" we have had in our marriage!. Bronwyn had written her heroes into disastrously losing a battle and facing the end of their civilised world when a magical act-of-goddess rescues them from out of the blue. I had a BAD reaction when I read this. I think I yelled something like "How DARE you lead me through 400 pages of sophisticated characterisation, plot, sex, politics, religion and damn fine ripping yarn only to spoil it all with this cheap trick!" This started 3 days of passionate argument. Bronwyn had wanted to make it very clear that the use of sorcery had failed and the goddess was the only supernatural force that could be relied on "to protect her people". I said that Bronwyn's earlier version could be interpreted as the goddess giving a subtle, perfectly timed and very clever twist to destiny to trick the forces of darkness into self-destruction. She agreed and we changed it back.


Classical and Biblical references for Askar

The Bible - Deborah, Barak and Sisira
Deborah the wife of Lappidoth was a prophet and a leader of Israel during those days.
- Judges 4:4, CEV Bible

"Askar" has a plot similar to The Book of Judges, Chapter 4 where the Israelites are led by a woman, the prophetess Deborah, who unites rival tribes to fight a common enemy.
Rather than expand this into a historical novel, Bronwyn has created an imaginary world in the manner of J.R.R.Tolkien ("The Lord of the Rings") or C.S.Lewis (the "Narnia" stories) where she can bring in many other references and themes. The civilisation of Urkan has elements of the Old Testament Middle East and Classical Greece.

 

The Bible - The Temptation of Christ
The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert, so that the devil could test him.
-
Matthew 4:1,  CEV Bible

Bronwyn explores the big WHAT IF of a religious leader giving in to such a temptation. In a way George Lucas does this too with Anakin Skywalker in the "Star Wars" movies but with the idea very dumbed down for mass entertainment purposes. Bronwyn hits it with a full treatment of the resulting personal and emotional journey from the point of view of Jena the fallen prophetess. The trigger for Jena's fall is misplaced patriotism. Her turning point line in the film script is: "If Askar has such a weapon then Urkan needs it too". You can read that as "If South Korea has such a weapon then North Korea needs it too"  and so on as arms race mentality echoes as a curse to humanity across the ages. We have included this in our movie clip "Test Scenes for Askar".

 

The Bible - Sorcery is bad
They used magic and witchcraft and even sacrificed their own children. The Israelites were determined to do whatever the LORD hated. - 2 Kings 17:17,   CEV Bible


"The Histories" by Herodotus of Halicarnassus c435 B.C.

With this the herdsman uncovered the infant, and showed him to his wife, who, when she saw him, and observed how fine a child and how beautiful he was, burst into tears, and clinging to the knees of her husband, besought him on no account to expose the babe; to which he answered, that it was not possible for him to do otherwise, as Harpagus would be sure to send persons to see and report to him, and he was to suffer a most cruel death if he disobeyed. Failing thus in her first attempt to persuade her husband, the woman spoke a second time, saying, "If then there is no persuading thee, and a child must needs be seen exposed upon the mountains, at least do thus. The child of which I have just been delivered is stillborn; take it and lay it on the hills, and let us bring up as our own the child of the daughter of Astyages. So shalt thou not be charged with unfaithfulness to thy lord, nor shall we have managed badly for ourselves. Our dead babe will have a royal funeral, and this living child will not be deprived of life."

On first reading "Askar" I saw similarities between Bronwyn's story of the lost princess Daria and Herodotus' story of the lost prince Cyrus and I suggested making more of a connection with Herodotus. Bronwyn felt at first that she did not want to compromise her originality but she changed her mind and her Prologue now tells how baby Daria's life was saved by swapping her for a newly stillborn baby. As co-author of the "Askar" film script I have gone for a homage to Herodotus by basing the first 2 minutes of the film script  closely on his account.  I use Herodotus' names for adoptive parents and I adapt some of his dialogue.  


A Response by the author, Bronwyn Calder

I remain troubled by characterising Askar as a Christian book because I feel that Christians may be disappointed that it is not Christian enough and non-Christians may be put off. As an evangelical Christian I don't feel it is particularly Christian because there is no Christ figure and not much in the way of redemption and forgiveness – although there is some. What I was most concerned about when writing this book, apart from making a rollicking good read (ie, love, sex, battles and mystery) was reflecting the truth of the creation as I believe it to be. That is, no matter what universe you're talking about (and Askar is not a place anyone on this Earth can reach by normal means) there is only one Creator and He (or She) is in charge. That's about as far as the "Christianity" goes really.


Acknowledgements

Bible quotes and links are from the Contemporary English Version (CEV) Bible, translation � 1995 by The American Bible Society.

"The Histories" by Herodotus of Halicarnassus:
A translation by George Rawlinson is provided online by The University of Adelaide
A translation by George Macaulay is provided online by www.Gutenberg.org