Friday, April 26, 2013

Blood, Love, and War in the Reign of Charlemagne: An Interview with Historical Fiction Author Kim Rendfeld

1) Please tell us about The Cross and the Dragon. 

The Cross and the Dragon is a tale of love amid the wars and blood feuds of Charlemagne’s reign. Here is the blurb:

Francia, 778: Alda has never forgotten Ganelon’s vow of vengeance when she married his rival, Hruodland. Yet the jilted suitor’s malice is nothing compared to Alda’s premonition of disaster for her beloved, battle-scarred husband.

Although the army invading Hispania is the largest ever and King Charles has never lost a war, Alda cannot shake her anxiety. Determined to keep Hruodland from harm, even if it exposes her to danger, Alda gives him a charmed dragon amulet.

Is its magic enough to keep Alda’s worst fears from coming true—and protect her from Ganelon?

2) What inspired this book? 

The inspiration came to me during a family vacation in Germany, when we encountered the legend behind the Rhineland ruins of Rolandsbogen. What follows is a spoiler and readers who would like to avoid it should skip to the next paragraph. The legend is that Roland (Hruodland in The Cross and the Dragon) built a castle for his bride and went off to war in Spain. His bride received false news that he was killed, took a vow of chastity, and joined the convent on Nonnenwerth, a nearly island in the Rhine. Roland returned too late and spent the rest of his days at his window, just trying to catch a glimpse of her as she went to and from prayers. I found out later that the legend was not true and that the historic Roland died in the ambush at the Pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees in 778.

However, the legend of Rolandsbogen refused to leave me alone. It followed me home on the plane and would not rest until I sat down at my computer and began to type, even though I knew little about the Middle Ages, let alone the Carolingians.

3) Please tell us a bit more about your main characters. 
There is a lot to like about my heroine, Alda, a young Frankish noblewoman. She’s strong-willed, intelligent, wise, and compassionate, but what I admire most about her is her courage. Her love for Hruodland is so strong that she is willing to make herself vulnerable to physical danger. Giving him her most precious possession, the dragon amulet mentioned in the blurb, is just one example. Later, she will take a great risk for her husband’s sake.

Hruodland loves Alda’s strong will and cleverness, even though he’s been taught the ideal wife is submissive. But he is also a medieval man, and medieval men did not completely trust their wives, which is why is he is subject to bouts of jealousy. Still, he will defend Alda against any enemy and is even willing to die in the attempt.

Hruodland and Ganelon, my villain, already dislike each other at the start of the novel, but the fact they both want Alda as a wife deepens their animosity. Ganelon is a good-looking guy. Unfortunately, his looks are the only thing to like about him. Reviewers have rightly pointed out how loathsome he is. Alda describes his heart as black and twisted as a piece of burnt wood.

4) Please tell us how you approached the balance of fact and fiction, especially given that your basis is a historical legend that in of itself has some fictionalized details of the events and people it is about. 
Any portrayal of Roland is going to be fictitious. All we know about the man is where and when he died and that he governed the March of Brittany.

The Cross and the Dragon borrows from the story of Rolandsbogen and the Old French epic The Song of Roland, both light on historical and heavy on fiction, yet historical events are woven into its narrative. The wars in my novel are real, and I’ve done my best to stay true to Frankish politics, culture, and customs. For example, I’d never have a girl refuse to marry a guy because she was apathetic to him.

As much as I cherish accuracy—to point of researching whether bishops wore miters then—the story must come first. The key word in historical fiction is “fiction”; I am a novelist, not a scholar. But I include historical notes at the end of my novels where I confess to the liberties I’ve taken. I owe it to the readers.

5) The period your book covers seems less popular than later, and for that matter, earlier periods of European history. Why do you think that is?

This is pure speculation, but I wonder if the answer lies in the fact that this period is little known to a general audience, at least here in the States. When I started writing this novel, I’d heard of Charlemagne and knew it meant Charles the Great, but that was about it. I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment, and that’s a pity. There is so much more to this era than that.

The family drama alone could rival a soap opera, and it led to a war and an attempted coup. There is not enough space here to discuss everything, but let me give you a little taste. At the start of my story in 773, Charles is in his mid-20s, twice divorced, married to wife No. 3, and about to go to war with his ex-father-in-law who is threatening Rome. This is all true. As a storyteller, how can I resist?

6) Do you see historical fiction as an educational tool or merely an entertainment tool? If the former, what advantages do you think it has in that regard? 

My first responsibility as a novelist is to keep readers interested all the way to the end, but if I’ve done my job right, the reader will learn something new about the history. As an educational tool, historical fiction can show that the past was populated by people, not cardboard cutouts. Too often, we’re taught history as a list of events, who did what where, an approach that turns off many students. In historical fiction, we can understand people of the past saw the world differently, but they worried, grieved, loved, and felt great anger and great joy as we do today.

7) Are there any other early medieval period legends you are interested in revisiting?
My muse instead decided to bring me the heroine of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, Leova, a peasant Saxon mother determined to protect her children. Charlemagne fought bitter wars against the pagan Saxon peoples on and off for more than 30 years, something I could only touch on in The Cross and the Dragon. The Saxons, who did not have a written language as we know it, are history’s losers, and I wanted to give them a voice, even a small one.

Legends and folk tales still play a part, though. I used folk tales as one way to imagine what the Continental Saxons might be believed—their religion is mostly lost to us. And I’ve included a story about Saxon leader Widukind, a historical character, having different colored eyes.

8) Where can reads find out more about you? 

You can find out more about me on my website and my blog If you’re into social media, you can also connect with me on Facebook (, Goodreads (, or Twitter (@kimrendfeld)

9) Where can readers find your book? 

The Cross and the Dragon is available in e-book and print from many outlets including:

Amazon U.S.
Amazon Canada
Amazon U.K.
Barnes and Noble

You can find readers’ reviews and even more vendor links at The Cross and the Dragon’s Goodreads page. 

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