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Mark Chadbourn

interviewed by Sandy Auden

One superficial layer of the unconscious is undoubtedly personal. I call it the personal unconscious. But this personal unconscious rests upon a deeper layer, which does not derive from personal experience but is inborn. This deeper layer I call the collective unconscious...and the contents of the collective unconscious are known as archetypes.
Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)

Archetype [noun] The primitive type, model, or pattern on which everything is formed.
The New Elizabethan Reference Dictionary



The scope of a Mark Chadbourn fantasy is always ambitious. In The Age of Misrule sequence, he created a The Hounds of Avalon by Mark Chadbourncontemporary world stunned by the re-emergence of magic and Gods; he took us to many atmospheric British locations and introduced us to the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons -- ordinary people who discover their destiny in the strangeness of the new world around them. The entire trilogy was steeped in historical fact and ancient ritual.

In his second series, The Dark Age (featuring The Devil in Green, The Queen of Sinister, and the soon to be released The Hounds of Avalon) more Brothers and Sisters of Dragons battle harsh odds against a determined evil. Chadbourn deepened his draw on Celtic mythology and ancients symbols, chased through the landscape of the Gods in the Otherworld or stagnated in the suffocating depression of a supernatural siege.

But there's more to a Chadbourn story than adventure and history. It would take many pages to explain his books in full and even then you'd only be covering the high level details. You see, Chadbourn's real ambitions are embedded in his prose. They flit on the periphery of your vision, planted with intent and no small amount of influence. And to spot them, it helps if you first understand what an archetype is all about...

Reading Between The Lines

"Archetypes can be found in all mythologies and are part of the secret language of the subconscious person," Chadbourn explained. "When we talk about people, every person World's End by Mark Chadbournconsists of the conscious mind and subconscious mind and they're so different that it's like having two people within the same body. The secret language of the subconscious has lots of information packed into images and they can leap through and inform the conscious mind at the front.

"Mythology uses archetypes within stories as a way of passing on the information, encoded within the archetypes, to generally guide and influence society. They're powerful tools because they use this core language that everybody understands. We're always affected by them even though we're not aware of it because these frames of reference are encoded into us.

"If you think of computers. Archetypes are basically the information already on the hard drive when it comes from the shop. It's responsible for the operating system, and that's what's in us. When we see archetypes around us, they are images that can move us to tears or laughter or fear, without us knowing why. When you get that strange feeling and you don't know why it's affecting you, it's often because this archetypal language is talking directly to you. So mythology remains powerful even today because these archetypes are embedded in it.

"I've studied and read about archetypes for years and years. I've had a real interest in psychology and philosophy and there's lots of areas I dabble in that I think are all linked. I'm very interested in basic philosophical questions about why we're here and what we're doing. All those things that everybody is interested in but most of the time in life you can't be bothered to think about them because you're too busy actually getting on with life.

"When you're a writer, you have plenty of time to indulge yourself in these stupid concepts. So I've read a lot about it and I've thought about it a lot myself. The more you study archetypes, the more you come to realise how much they inform your everyday life.

"Jung did a great deal of work on archetypes. He started off thinking they were just language/image based. Then he started to think that maybe they could actually affect the world outside, that they could affect matter in the natural world. He felt they were so powerful that he started going down the line that they actually had a life of their own. He believed they were elemental forces that we tapped into and we could control them, or maybe they controlled us. In a way, they are the elemental spirits and spiritual beliefs some religions have at their core.

"Jung recognised that whether you see them as elemental beings or deeply powerful psychological forces, they're sitting deeply inside us, affecting us and the world around us all the time. The more you get into it, the more you see how they shape your day to day living in a way that you don't really recognise most of the time. It's like deep programming.

"When I first started writing these fantasy novels, I'd been interested in archetypes and mythologies for a long time and I wanted to see if the core archetypes, that the ancient cultures used in their stories, still affected us in the modern world. When you're about writing them, they come to affect you on a day to day basis but I think they also affect the readers, which is what I see in the emails they send to me. The more you surround yourself with them, the more you find them popping up in your dreams, appearing in different shapes and forming the world around you. There's a lot of power there, it's just hard to define what they actually are.

"These days, I've absorbed so much of the archetype information so deeply that I don't have to think too hard about what characters I need to fit certain archetypal roles in my stories. When I was writing World's End, I went back to the very earliest templates for stories. With some of today's fantasy books, I get the impression that the authors have looked at Lord of the Rings and written a book. That's as far back as they've gone and they're just reflecting what they've learnt from Lord of the Rings.

"Fantasy goes back thousands of years, to the original stories that were told around the fire. Back then, stories were for special occasions, for feast days or when everyone was gathered together. And story had a much more potent function in those days. Because many of those cultures didn't have a written language, they only had oral traditions, and they passed on information coded into the stories.

Darkest Hour End by Mark Chadbourn"When you go back to the old fairytales, they were basically lessons for living. Like Snow White was a story for young girls about awakening sexuality and watch out for older women who will be jealous of you as your sexuality blossoms. They bury these messages in the story because you were more likely to remember the information in a story than if someone sits down and tells you it baldly. Stories go directly into the subconscious and lock into you more deeply. So in all these verbal societies the stories were much more powerful, they affected people more and they also had significantly more information vital to their society, life lessons and history.

"You'd get people memorising all four thousand lines of The Odyssey or The Iliad and they'd travel round and tell people. Memory was much more powerful then, because they didn't have written language and people worked at skills to develop their memory. They could remember much more than we can in our modern day. They could remember all those lines in detail but obviously the story would change over time, because they would add some things or take them away, depending on their effect on the audience.

"With these stories, you can see the need for archetypes: they need a Leader or a King; they need a Princess or a Princess Warrior Woman; they need a Mage or Wise Man. And once you've seen the archetypes then, when you're working on your own characters, you can find one that will fit into those holes. That doesn't mean that the characters have to be as one dimensional as the archetypes, that's not the way it works. The archetypes tend to underpin the characters, or the characters are multidimensional but they fill out the role of the archetype. I was aware of this when I was putting my fantasy books together and the whole of Age of Misrule follows the very ancient story templates. It has a quest, it has the magical items, and all the things you know have been run into the ground in Fantasy but I tried to approach them in a different way and make them more relevant to the way we live our lives today in the modern world.

"As well as representing the archetypes, I wanted my characters to be real people. I think today we expect our characters to reflect us, we don't want one dimensional fantasy people. Well, some people do obviously, because those kinds of fantasy books sell really well. But if you're reaching out to different audiences, which I was trying to do, then you want characters that are as flawed as the people around us. Because we're all flawed, there aren't any saints. And I think the most heroic people are Always Forever by Mark Chadbournthe ones that have deep flaws but overcome those traits, rather than those who are perfect and easily drop into the life of being a saint.

"I work all this into my stories because one of my philosophies is that if you sit back then someone else will take control; someone who operates under a philosophy that is in opposition to your own. So every person should become active to defend the things they believe in. As a writer this is my way of doing it. I put ideas out there, thoughts out there, for people to consider and to circulate. And it's a war really, a war of ideas. Everybody's putting ideas out there. The ones that get the most ideas out there and reach the biggest number of people are the ones that win. I don't want extreme right wingers to put ideas out there that will shape society and affect my life and those around me. I want to combat that with my own ideas and those are buried in the stories. You don't make them obvious or preach to people, you have to bury them as deeply as possible so it sneaks into the subconscious.

"In my fantasy stories, the heroes aren't toffs or princes that are given to a poor family who rollover with the aristocracy. They're normal people who are working/lower middle class. I'm showing that all people have the power to change things, that's the broad, clear message. In a lot of fantasy, all the people are high born and it's sending out a message that these are the movers and shakers, that the rest of you are followers. Frodo's the toff in the Shire and poor old Sam's the one who trudges along behind towing his bags, the working class bloke. Tolkien had Sam as a thick but loyal follower, he's not the one gets to carry the ring or be a hero, but I think everybody likes Sam more, because nobody likes a toff do they?! When you look at the story, you don't think about things like that but it's still there as a coded message: it's always the upper classes that are the heroes. I find that disconcerting."

The Modern Reader

"Story has evolved from two-dimensional characters of the 60's. We've been swamped by story in a way that previous The Devil in Green by Mark Chadbourngenerations never have, with TV and film more than anything else. VCRs and DVDs give everybody access to stories all the time. We understand the rhythms of stories, we know when the twists and turns are going to come, we know the characters and the kinds of stories that are out there in a way that previous generations never did. So we've become extremely sophisticated and we demand more. The more you have, the more complex your tastes become and nobody will settle for simple characters anymore.

"We've become aware of the tricks of the storyteller. Now, the storyteller has to become tricksier to make it work for you. For a story to be effective, a writer has to think about the plot more and in greater depth than the reader does, which means making characters much more complex, much more rounded.

"But the fact remains that we still need story, it gives meaning to our lives. It allows us to consider why we're here and why we're The Queen of Sinister by Mark Chadbourndoing what we're doing. It allows us to consider the bigger issues. If all there was to life was being a wage slave in an office we'd have very poor existences. Story allows us to immerse ourselves in an environment where we can look at the bigger picture, get a perspective on things we wouldn't have now. Storytelling is a structure in which we consider the meaning that is embedded in life, the meaning that you don't see around you always because you're so rooted in what you're doing.

"It's not escapism though. In away, I think it's actually the opposite. Stories force you to look at what is really important in life what it is to be a human being in the modern world. To consider, on a very basic level, the differences between good and evil and the reasons why human values are important. To consider why you're doing what you're doing, to look at the subtext of life, to consider life as a story and rather than just see the surface, to look at the meaning beneath.

"I've kept this in mind throughout all my books, especially the latest one, Hounds of Avalon. It's a very complex book, packed with incidents. It's very dense, in terms of ideas rather than reading, and I think that offers value for readers. If a story is too simple these days, it doesn't affect people. I've put a lot of thought and detail into the books, and increasingly so with each volume, to try and reach that density of ideas. The Hounds of Avalon by Mark ChadbournThere's a lot going on at the surface in Hounds but there's a lot going on deep inside it too, multiple strands, multiple themes. Because I want to give some meat to the story and that's how I deal with the increasing sophistication. You don't make stories more complicated, you make them more complex. By that I mean you don't have one story that's tied up in knots, you have a complexity of several different idea strands that connect with each other beneath the surface.

"My business is communication and it's about reaching as many people as possible and getting your ideas across to as many people as possible but getting it across in a language they understand. If I wrote a dense tract that had all the things I was concerned about in it, then nobody would read it because it would be boring.

"That's why I'm a big supporter of popular fiction that has depth, as opposed to literary fiction -- which doesn't communicate broadly, it just reaches a very narrow band. If you look at it purely in communication terms, literary fiction is not very good. It's very arty and it speaks to a tiny fraction of the population. Popular fiction with depth uses a way of communicating ideas that resonates out and reaches all people. You don't expect this stuff to be going on in popular fiction because the common view, for a lot of literary snobs, is that popular fiction doesn't have anything in it beyond the story. I know lots of authors and I know that's not true. They put all sorts of stuff in there, you can see it in their books if you read it carefully. There's a lot buried beneath the story -- as much as you would find in literary fiction but the snobbery tends to blind people a bit to these things.

"And you know all the subtext is reaching people from the feedback you receive. I've had some very learned papers and theses from people who have recognised the archetypes in my writing. Just on a very basic level, they talk about the importance of the Mother as an archetype and how that influences their lives. That's the goddesses in the stories, the power of the mother and the power of women. These themes, these undercurrents have affected them and made them reflect on their lives and they tend to write to me about that, about how it's made them step back from things.

"It's quite intriguing because they don't know it's happening to them. They've read the book and put it down. A few days later, it's filtered through and affected their thought processes. I almost wonder if these archetypes lie dormant a lot of the time and when they appear in some form of culture that affects the conscious mind, it's almost like a key that unlocks the door and things start rushing through it."

The Writing Process

"Of course, I don't achieve all these layers of complexity on the first draft. I don't think anybody does. The way I work is that when I'm writing a book I know the basic story -- where I'm starting, where I'm ending, I know what characters are in there and some of the points I'm going to include. Then you work through it and often things develop. Sometimes you're not wholly aware of an idea until you get to the end of the book because those ideas are shaped by the subconscious, by those archetypes working deep in your mind. You get to the end and you suddenly realise what your subconscious has been telling you all the way through the book. Then you have to go back and consciously work those ideas back into the book and make them more effective. It can take five or six drafts to get it right.

"For the new writers I think that's one of the hardest things to learn -- it's not in the writing, it's in the re-writing. First drafts are always rubbish no matter how great a writer you are and the second draft can see some big changes--of characters, and character arcs and events.

"In the subsequent drafts, you tend to sharpen things up to focus on the themes, and after that you're just trying to improve the line by line writing--like too many Germanic sub clauses, making the sentences active and not passive, trying to make it clear and not be too repetitious. And, of course, making sure you don't have a huge faux pas in there like I did in Always Forever. Several readers have spoken to me about the part where one of the characters has had his hand chopped off and he's having a new one put on. I've got him shaking hands with somebody with both hands. And you think, I've read this book fifteen times, the editor has read it ten times, how the hell did that get through? But it still does. You just can't re-draft and edit enough times.

"And all the writing and editing is incredibly intense, because you have to sink so far into the dark depths of your subconscious. You can't have any distractions. You can't have people talking to you. You can't have anything that will drag you out of it. And it can become so intense that you feel like you've run a marathon after a short period of writing. You have to go out and do something different just to get your brain working in different way, on a different level. For someone who comes from a basic working class background as me it sounds really pretentious to say it's exhausting, because working down a pit is exhausting not sitting here thinking about stories. But it is, it's mentally draining.

"I do physical exercise to release the serotonin. I do yoga, I go for runs, I like to immerse myself in films or music or comics or just go out and get drunk. Whatever it is, you've just got to do something to get the brain to switch into a different mode, to take the shackles off, because it gets burdened by the constant inward looking and you need to drag yourself out.

"And yet, despite all the intensity, I'm still quite positive and optimistic. I think humanity faces a lot of problems that we need to overcome. In my stories, I like to look at the qualities within us and how we will/can overcome those problems. All my books offer elements of High Fantasy but they mix it with something else. It's High Fantasy crossed with Dark Fantasy crossed with Contemporary settings. I don't write to rules, I just put in my books every thing that's me, everything I think about and believe about and I cover a whole broad area. Fantasy should cover the whole breadth of imagination but it sometimes seems so narrowly defined to High Fantasy that I find it annoying. I think people should have a choice. You don't want twenty-seven different choices of vanilla. You want a vanilla and a chocolate chip and strawberry. And I'm offering the chocolate chip."

© Sandy Auden 2004.

World's End by Mark Chadbourn Darkest Hour by Mark ChadbournAlways Forever by Mark Chadbourn
The Devil in Green by Mark ChadbournThe Queen of Sinister by Mark Chadbourn The Hounds of Avalon by Mark Chadbourn

The Age of Misrule and The Dark Age trilogies are published in the UK by Gollancz.

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