Blackguards has been gathering quite a nice bit of hype lately, or so I’ve seen on social media, and I’m pleased to be able to host a guest post by one of the contributors. Please welcome Lian Hearn as she talks about the project!
Ragnarok’s Blackguards Anthology is the first time I’ve been invited to join a project like this. It came at good moment. I’d just returned to the Eight Islands, the fantasy world of Tales of the Otori, to write two more books which are set around three hundred years earlier than Across the Nightingale Floor. In this I look at the lives of the legendary hero, Takeyoshi, the founder of the Otori Clan, and of the five children from whom the five families of the Tribe are descended. So I’d been rereading my own books – not something I do often – and had come to an incident in Brilliance of the Moon which I’d always felt was a bit underwritten. It takes place when Takeo has come to Maruyama and confronts the Tribe families living there. He disposes of them rather quickly, though sorrowfully, in three paragraphs. One sentence stood out at me: I hoped to spare the lives of the young ones but the Tribe poisoned their own children rather than give them to me.
I am interested in this level of extremism, all too common in headlines these days. I wanted to write a story from the point of view of these young people of the Tribe who would choose death rather than compromise with someone they have been taught to hate. One of the (countless) things in Japanese culture that interests me greatly is the traditional attitude to death. From infancy, children of the bushi class were taught not to fear death. Even today testing your courage by visiting graveyards at night is a summer pastime. Japanese history, epics, tales and plays are full of characters, usually in the prime of life, who commit suicide in various ways, often by ripping their bellies, a method of death both painful and undignified. Women cut their throats or throw themselves into wells. This is invariably admired, if in a rather sombre fashion. Not to commit suicide is a greater crime, worthy of contempt.
Villains in Japanese history tend to be, above all, cowards. Strong men of courage are admired, no matter how conventionally ‘bad’ their actions might be. Characters like sengokujidai warlords, Hideyoshi’s generals in the brutal invasions of Korea, for example Kato Kiyomasa, Ishikawa Goemon, who was boiled alive and hence gave his name to a type of bath, or wicked Iemon in the kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, have always been fantastically popular. There is less emphasis on personal responsibility or personal sin, rather a profound empathy for beings caught up innatural disasters, of which war is but one. And from Yoshitsune to the Byakkotai, failure, as long as it is heroic, is as deeply admired and as highly valued as success.
My story didn’t quite fit the description of blackguards (an iredeemably European word for me though I really like the two comparable Japanese words, akutô and gorotsuki). It is about people who live by their own laws, not those of the greater society. Within the Tribe families it is unthinkable to break these laws. No one escapes the Tribe forever. But for a moment we hope it will be possible, that the young will be set free from the darkness and allowed to live.
We all have our shadow side that we try to suppress, that when we see it in other people arouses hate and fear in us. But what is the shadow side of of those already on the dark side? Why do they hate and fear compassion and goodness in others? It is their own shadow side that they refuse to recognise, seeing it as weakness. The conflict between these is neverending and fascinating to me.
Lian Hearn is the bestselling author of the Tales of the Otori. Her most recent book, The Storyteller and His Three Daughters is available wherever books are sold. You can learn more about her at www.lianhearn.com
Can I just take a moment to say how much I not only want to read Blackguards, but how much I now want to read Hearn’s other works now too?