Green Grows A Witch’s Garden

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Hellebore, a witch's friend since ancient Greece

Helleborus x hybrida, a typical Helleborus orientalis hybrid for the late winter garden. Hellebore has been a witch’s friend since ancient Greece, where it was used as a cure for Dionysian frenzy. From Wikimedia, CCA Share-Alike 3.0.

Hellebore, aconite, mayapple . . . you shouldn’t be growing those. It’s dangerous and unethical to grow poisonous plants,” opined the Well-Known-Witch and Published Author at a convention seminar.

Well, I’d thank you to find anything nice that will survive a summer in Richmond in the shade of large trees that isn’t poisonous,” I retorted. Said author did her gardening in California, which has neither a winter nor even a summer as known in the former Confederacy. “Besides, these are traditional witch-herbs for a reason. Most poisons are simply overdoses of powerful medicines.” Perhaps I was a bit more forceful than she was used to in an audience. I wasn’t very impressed by her novels, and her attitude towards herbalism excluded well over half of the plants in just about any garden. Because the truth of the matter is that an awful lot of things are poisonous if you’re an idiot, and contestants for the Darwin Awards will always find something stupid to get into whether you help them or not.

Only qualified doctors should be using anything that powerful,” she tried again.

Doctors,” I replied, “know absolutely nothing about herbs. And very little about people, either.” Let us say that she went her way and I went mine, and I had made one more enemy among the primadonnas of fantasy and science fiction by my unwillingness to admire blatant pap presented as Great Wisdom. The greater wisdom, of course, was that such people could have been very useful to my writing career, but tact was never my strong point when dealing with Authorities who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Aconitum napellus

Aconitum napellus, or Wolfsbane, is a gorgeous ornamental that grows in shade on stony soil, but it requires excellent drainage and a good dose of lime. It is also so poisonous that it’s not really safe to handle without gloves. Courtesy of Theoi.com Greek Mythology site.

I love my herbs. And many of them are quite nasssty sweethearts if you don’t pay them proper respect (not unlike Established Writers whose work revolves around patently unscientific “science fiction” or magical systems with holes big enough to accommodate a Klingon battle fleet). Aconite, for instance. A beautiful flower which supposedly will tolerate a shady site and poor soil. Unfortunately, the kind of poor soil it likes wasn’t the kind of poor soil I had available, and I struggled for years to get the silly seeds to germinate until I learned that they almost never do – standard practice is to propagate from root divisions. But Hellebore did magnificently, and although I couldn’t get those to germinate either when I intentionally planted them, they soon began to self-sow and spread. It was so nice, to have fresh flowers in the house in February!

 

Foxglove

Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea. Foxglove is happy with ordinary garden conditions, will tolerate some shade and self-seeds prolifically. Courtesy of H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons, CCA Share-Alike 3.0

Foxgloves are another “poison” which should be more widely cultivated. Easy to grow from seed, and magnificent in bloom, they will self-sow readily and fill the garden with their offspring. Foxglove of course is the original source for several major heart medications still invaluable for congestive heart failure, which will probably be what kills me someday. Mayapple (podophyllum) and Vinca major (now re-dubbed Cantharanthus), however, provide potent cancer chemotherapy agents, and also grow well in the heat and humidity of the Southern Atlantic region. Mayapple is in fact a native to the Eastern Woodlands, but that doesn’t make it “mandrake”, no matter what someone tries to sell you. Mandragora officinalis is an entirely different plant, with entirely different chemical properties, that like Aconite likes to grow on limestone outcrops in the Balkans, not the acid loams of Eastern North America.

Mayapple

Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, sometimes sold as “American Mandrake” despite the COMPLETE lack of kinship with Mandragora Officinalis. True Mandrake is a European native that doesn’t take kindly to North American conditions. (Photo courtesy of Velocicaptor via Wikimedia Commons.)

Last week I discovered that the seedling I pulled up when I left Ohio, thinking that it was a volunteer from the lilac bush, was in fact Solanum dulcamara, or Woody Nightshade. The Woody Nightshade is nowhere near as dangerous as its famous cousin, the Deadly Nightshade; although children may die (rarely) from eating the berries, the leaves can be simmered into oil and made up into a nice little ointment that numbs the skin for burns and insect bites. Or they can be mixed with some less potent plants – I’d have to dig up the recipe, which is in the mountain house, where I have no internet – to make a nice shamanic smoking mixture, perfect for a little bit of astral travel with the right meditation, or just for evening relaxation without.

Solanum dulcamara

Solanum dulcamara, or Woody Nightshade, commonly found at the woodland margins in Ohio and upstate New York, but rarer in Virginia.

Of course, not everything I grow is poisonous in ordinary doses (even water can be toxic in some circumstances, of which I have personal experience). I expect I’ll empty out the contents of my recipe-books here over time. But how terribly constrained and boring it must be, to arbitrarily cut yourself off from half the botanical world because it requires the same care in handling as a hot stove or clothes-iron or sewing-machine. Or a cat. Cats have teeth and claws, which can be painful and even deadly. Touch not the cat, says the motto of the Gaelic cat clans, without a glove. Especially when she’s been chewing nepeta cataria. That’s a good rule for Aconite as well. And Nettles. And Buttercups. And Poison Ivy, which I do not plant, but it grows anyway.

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Úlfhednar

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Miniature Model by Pegasos of a "Berserker"

Miniature Model by Pegasos of a “Berserker”, actually an Ulfhednar. The Berserker, or Bearsark, wore the skin of a bear, while the Ulfhednar wore the skin and adopted the attributes of a Wolf.

The Úlfhednar were fighters similar to the berserkers, though they dressed in wolf hides rather than those of bears and were reputed to channel the spirits of these animals to enhance effectiveness in battle. These warriors were resistant to pain and killed viciously in battle, much like wild animals.” [Wiki]

Snorri Sturluson says in the Ynglinga saga that they “were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them.” This state has been documented by historians and anthropologists the world over. Whether as a spontaneous reaction to stress, or the result of deliberate psychomanipulative techniques, it is possible for a warrior to enter the state of consciousness the Norse called berserkergang, characterized by the massive release of a potent blend of psychoactive stress hormones including adrenaline, acetylcholine, dopamine, and endorphins. The effects are quite similar to those of methamphetamine or PCP, and gratuitous “adrenaline junkies” who become habituated to this mechanism area about as pleasant to live with as speed addicts. But in a world when war was waged by pure physical prowess, access to such psychochemical performance enhancement could have spelled the difference between life and death, defeat and victory. And while a variety of techniques were used to achieve it, one of the most common was the practice of spiritual identification with a notably ferocious animal.

In creating Ardely’s Wolves I quickly dispensed with werewolf lore developed over the last century in response to the needs of the motion-picture industry. Instead I went back to the original source of the myth: the warrior who seeks to possess or be possessed by the spirit of the Wolf, often clothing himself it its skin in order to merge with his spiritual mentor. Such wolf-warriors have been found in every human culture sharing territory with wolves, from the Siberian tundra to the ancient Norse, the Slavs, the Romans and the Indian tribes of North America. They are attested by cave paintings and classical sculptures, Scythian gold and Hallstadt burials. They are frankly described in literature from Byzantium, medieval Norway, and Belarus. They are however noticeably absent from the stories of medieval France and Germany, and lacking even a native word in Italian, Spanish, and Portughese – odd indeed in people whose ancestors worshipped Mars in the form of a giant wolf, and whose standard-bearers wore wolfskins into battle.

The cult of the Wolf-warrior was clearly suppressed by the advent of Christianity. Beliefs of deep mystical significance do not, however, disappear overnight. As the real practice of mystical wolf-identification was suppressed by the new religion, it retreated into legend. Like cannibalism and human sacrifice, the ancient totemic practices were now the subject of slander and scandal, never indulged but always attributed to someone living on just the other side of the mountain. Late Roman law gradually applied older sanctions against ritual cursing and magical homicide to all previous pagan religious practices. Over the course of the “Dark Ages”, the old gods were incrementally redefined as demons, and pagan religion as “demon-worship”. Like animal sacrifice and divinatory practices, the once-sanctified process of spiritual kinship with animals became prima-facie worship of The Devil, thereby opening it to free-association with every other fictional aspect of Satan. Yet the Bulgarian (and thence Romanian and Greek) vrkolak linguistically originates as “wolf-skin”, clearly indicating its continuity with the totem practice, as does the Hungarian farkasember, literally “wolf-mask”, which suggests ceremonial masquerades as continued in rural custom well into the twentieth century (many continue to be celebrated today, but mainly for the tourists).

In Transylvania in 1003, well beyond the boundaries of the original Roman Empire, a Hungarian Christian King was fighting a war against his own pagan nobles for the specific purpose of imposing Roman Christianity as a state religion. Records, such as they are, indicate that both Stephen and his cousin Varzul were originally baptized as Orthodox Christians. But an Arpad chieftain would certainly know of the old wolf-cult as practiced in Roman, Slavic, and Maghyar traditions. In a world where new military technology was virtually unknown, ambition and desperation could push such a man to cross the lines drawn by relatively recent moral scruple and seek out an ancient means of “force enhancement”. And a following based among the more traditionalist nobles could very well have approved. This is real Magic: useful, practical, and as effective today as it would have been a thousand years ago. Not a demigod or an Iron Man, but Captain Transylvania as practiced long before Stan Lee conceived of adamantium.

It AIN’T About The Sex . . .

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TwilightWolves2

Yes, they’re gorgeous. They’re paid to be. And they probably prefer men anyway.

I’ve gotta say it. After prowling around the other folks writing about werewolves in blogs and fiction these days, I’m getting the impression that all ANYBODY thinks about is SEX. Big fangs equals big you-know-what. Violence equals passion. Werewolf bitches running around naked under the moonlight. And so on . .

 

Sex & the Single WerewolfStrippers vs Werewolves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look, folks, I know that the modern mass-media is designed to fuel unrealistic sexual fantasies, leaving the audience in a continuous state of craving for unattainable desires. It’s a gimmick. It SELLS stuff. It’s a deliberate ploy, appealing to the most fundamental Lowest Common Denominator, activating instinctual drives and leaving them hanging, so that the advertiser can then come in and associate just about anything with the artificially-stimulated craving and elicit a Pavlovian response. What I don’t understand is why y’all fall for it. It’s transparent. The psychology has been known for eighty years. Surely you can recognize an elementary conditioning routine and TURN IT OFF? Along with the television set, which with the cost of cable has become another gratuitous tax on poverty. I recognize the craving for escape from a lifetime of running on treadmills to increase the profits of one’s Corporate Masters, but the last thing a captive population should be doing is ardently collaborating with their enslavers.

Now, I know this is the point where I’m supposed to launch into the flowery discourse on how “sex is wonderful, etc., etc., with a willing adult partner in the fulfillment of mutual affection, etc., etc.”. But I’m just going to skip it. Personally, I find sex BORING. I’ve been known to fantasize about home decorating or period costume design during intercourse. And I don’t write about it. Except for comic relief. Because it’s the prime example of how rational, intelligent beings stop everything and behave like utter idiots when their animal instincts are activated. Which is hilarious when the person behaving like an idiot is someone else.

Mating wolves

Mating wolves, courtesy of photographer Temaki via Wikimedia Commons, CCA 2.0

Does this mean I don’t believe in love? Hardly. I just don’t happen to think it’s particularly dependent on sex or vice-versa. I’m very fond of family and friends, and I absolutely ADORE my cats. Maybe I’m fixated at an infantile stage in my psychological development, where the love of parents and siblings still dominates the nascent stirrings of the need to populate the earth with my genetic code. So I write about LOVE, not about ripping each other’s clothes off. And my werewolves spend a lot more time worrying about keeping their friends and family alive than procreation. Even where sex is the primary driver of a plot – and yes, Wolves DO have to mate, or there’d be no cubs and no Royal Succession – I keep it to a few titillating incidents. I mean, really, if you’re that interested in the specifics, I daresay you have enough imagination to cover them for yourselves. Personally, I haven’t the slightest interest in sex with large canines. My own totem is a lioness.

On the other hand, there WAS that fellow decked out as an absolutely purrrrrfect man-sized grey panther at a science-fiction convention thirty years ago . . .

History is stranger than fiction

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A detail from the monumental cyclorama “The Arrival of the Hungarians” by Arpad Fezty, painted 1892-1894

If one is going to write historical fantasy, it has to have some relation to the real world. Well, maybe it doesn’t – I’ve seen plenty of steampunk slammed together with a few pairs of goggles, a fleet of airships, and some glue and bailing wire to hold the whole contraption together – but that doesn’t work for me. When I was writing medieval, I learned to start a fire from flint and steel and fight with broadswords and rapiers; when I wrote about Alexander, I experimented with cooking beans in a crockpot and an open fire (Spartan beans, by the way, really aren’t half bad). And so if I was going to write a novel that took place in Transylvania, I was going to learn a bit more about Transylvania than Bram Stoker did, keeping in mind that Stoker had neither air transport nor the internet.

It seems that Transylvania is one of those places that belongs to a different country according to who you ask. Furthermore, that disagreement extends back to at least 900 A.D. While an article branching off of Romanian History assured me that the name of the Transylvanian chieftain defeated by Stephen of Hungary was unknown, an article in the History of Hungary stated his name, date of reign, and pedigree. And so it went. In keeping with a magician’s understanding of Reality’s mutability, the Truth According To Wikipedia changes according to the week in which it is read (rather like this blog).

Apparently there are some significant disagreements as to which sources are to be considered reliable, compounded by the fact that those who can read Hungarian may or may not be fluent in Romanian and vice-versa. Outsiders fluent in Hungarian are in fact incredibly rare, a fact which has occasionally led to its use, like Navaho, as a military code. I find the sheer music of its sounds right up there with Welsh and Breton French for the Most Beautiful Spoken Languages In The World. Anyway, the point remains that the history of Transylvania is a matter of some contention. Having no ancestral dog in that fight, I used Romanian as my primary Valakyan language (it’s not as pretty, but easier), but Hungarian historical sources, as they seemed more complete – although that appearance relies heavily on medieval chronicles of dubious veracity. Still, Truth is a moving target, and the important thing for a good story is a good story-line.

The story of Transylvania begins with the Dacians, who were almost certainly related to my old acquaintances from Makedon, the Thrakians. The Dakiae were semi-nomadic shepherds who rotated their flocks between upland summer houses and winter pastures in the valleys and plains. In fact, their descendants still do the same today; the only thing that’s changed is the increased population density of both humans and sheep. But with the invention of coinage around 600 BC the mountain tribes suddenly had it made, as their poor highland pastures were chock full of gold and silver. Within a couple of centuries they were richer than Croesus had actually been, and importing luxury goods from their more civilized southern neighbors by the barrel. This of course led to some of those neighbors deciding that they’d rather grab the gold by force than trade for it, and the Romans conquered Dacia in 106 A.D. This was rather late in the development of the Roman Empire. They barely had time to marry a few local girls, export a few tons of gold and silver, make a few converts to Christianity and build a couple of massive public baths before the deteriorating finances and incoming Hordes of the fourth and fifth centuries swept them away.

In the aftermath, the Carpathian Basin was either depopulated or overrun by so many different tribes that nobody could keep it straight who was in control. I expect that it was obvious who was in charge at the time if you happened to be there, but written records suffered a severe setback. By the time stability was re-established in the region, the winners had significant incentive to see the past through filtered perspectives. Both Romanians (Vlachs) and Hungarians (Magyars) claim to have been in possession of Transylvania immediately prior to the conquest by Stephen(Istvan) in 1003. Other claimants included Visigoths, Huns, Gepids, Avars, and Bulgars. In all likelihood the region was a patchwork of small fiefdoms ruled by local chiefs descended from any or all of these.

My story of Vasili, the Saint/Sinner/King who sacrificed his soul for the good of his country, derived from a similar patchwork. First and foremost, it was fiction. The earliest versions I was able to find concerning Stephen’s conquest of Transylvania claimed that the only story available was highly speculative and that the name given for the Transylvanian chieftain whom he conquered was probably in fact not a name at all, but the title of a specific sort of Magyar chieftain who might even have been a rival for political control of the Magyars as a whole. That left me a lot of freedom. I chose Vasili as a nice generic name: being Greek for King, it could be either a personal name or a placeholder. After a week or so of reading and checking resources I concluded that the modern concept of “werewolf” derived from fairly standard totemistic practices known throughout early Europe. As a witch of forty years’ experience and the daughter of a Bersark, I could cobble together enough specifics for a workable ritual, whether or not that was the one actually in use in 10th-century Hungary.

To this I added a character from the other end of Romanian history: Cornelius Zelea Codreanu, leader of the fascist Legion of the Archangel Michael in the 1930s. I had read his autobiography some years before and been fascinated by the combination of violence and martyrdom, of evil perpetrated for the loftiest ideals, and of sheer mystical fanaticism. Pulling up his file on Wikipedia I found the wonderful sentence: “. . . the Legionnaire might have to perform fanatical and violent actions that would condemn him to damnation, which was considered the ultimate sacrifice for the nation.” This became the fundamental motif behind the Wolves and Bloodguards. The concept of sacrifice is one of the oldest of magical principles, as is the King as the symbolic sacrificer the sacrifice for the nation. Vasili thus gains the earthly powers of the Wolf and preservation of his kingdom by the deliberate sacrifice of his Christian soul and hope of salvation.

Granted, magical acts are rarely truly hereditary, but we shall scoot merrily along past the possible marriage of a Magyar leader who may or may not have been Stephen’s grandfather with Menomorut’s daughter, and the established Hungarian sources which declare Gyelu, the chieftain of Transylvania resident at Alba Iulia (or Gyulafehérvár,which became Chrystopoli because it’s prettier and easier to pronounce) to have been in fact Stephen’s own uncle on his mother’s side. I eventually decided that Vasili’s wife Sophia had been a pretty powerful witch. And a witch working on the product of her own womb has a lot of influence on what comes out. When you come down to it, the hereditary aspects of the Ardealeu bloodline can be arranged with quite minor genetic tweaks, but anyway, it is fantasy, and a writer is allowed a few minor indulgences like excess hairiness and glowing golden eyes.

No, the real kicker was that after coming up with all of this, and being well over halfway through writing The Wolf And The Forest, I was continuing to research the battle between Stephen and Koppany for control of the Magyar kingdom. That was when I discovered that Stephen in fact had a cousin, next in line for the throne after his Uncle Koppany who he had killed in order to secure the crown, and whose name was Varzul. Which in addition to being one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s favorite names, just happens to be the Hungarian form of Vasili.

The Ardely Adventures: A Transylvanian Fantasy

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The cover for my first novel published on Amazon. I’ve finished writing two more, but I haven’t gotten the covers and proofreading done yet.

It started out simply enough. It was winter in Ohio, and I was stuck in yet another a dead-end job, living in a small town with no one interesting to talk to. TV was not an option, as my rooftop antenna had blown down the previous spring. Radical political posturing on the internet had grown stale. My bookshelf was full of once-read and many-times read novels, but I’d had a great deal of difficulty lately finding anything at the bookstore that I was actually inclined to continue past the first chapter. Everything on the market seemed to be either a boring repetition of something I’d already read, or so janglingly urban and “cutting edge” that reading it was an exercise in nihilism. I wanted to visit a strange new world full of old-fashioned virtue and timeless valour, where predatory self-interest and stabbing one’s comrades in the back wasn’t an accepted social norm, and it seemed that the only way I was going to get it was to write it myself.

I’d written two unpublished novels and a half-dozen short stories before, but this time, all I intended was outright theft. I’d given up on the idea of getting paid for writing when I ran out on my marriage and my good job to deal blackjack in an Oregon casino. But I needed entertainment, and regardless of what others thought, I have always written primarily for an audience of one: myself. I wasn’t planning on creating a masterpiece. I merely wanted to spend the next three snowed-in months somewhere else. For that I needed a plot that could be embellished with the things that really pull me into a story: strong but emotionally fragile characters, exotic settings carefully detailed, magical powers that didn’t offend my own forty years of study and practice, and preferably a complete escape from the Modern Era. And since I’d always found the plot to be the most difficult and least rewarding part of writing, I had no concern about following the advice of Robert Heinlein and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down with railroad ties.

I’d already used The Prisoner of Zenda for my second novel, transposing it into the middle of a space opera set in cavalier California. No, I haven’t tried to publish it. Ask me nicely, and I’ll read it out loud late at night, after we’ve finished The Eye of Argon. And after filing off the names and personal identifying data of all the characters stolen from Real Life, some of whom were still alive at last check. Anyway, I did like Prizoner of Zenda, but you can only do that once. My eye hit upon a line of old Andre Norton novels collected long after I had originally read them in my teens. Short, efficient plots oriented towards males between the ages of twelve and seventeen, and I still adore them so that shows you where my development got arrested. Surely there was something in there that could be adapted to suit.

Not precisely, of course. Most of Norton’s juveniles can be summed up in a few lines: naive young outcast is denied a place in society, jumps or falls into an unexpected situation (kidnapped by aliens, crash-landed on an alien world, accidentally dumped into a medieval fantasy land by stepping through the wrong door) and survives by making common cause with an “older brother” figure that he/she initially distrusts. After exploring a strange and dangerous territory to reach an expected safe haven, they discover and confront one or more Evil Parental Figures, with a happy but believable resolution. Big Brother then introduces the protagonist into the society from which he/she was previously excluded.

All right, this isn’t hard. In fact, it worked well enough for Norton to pump 300 novels out of it. I especially liked one that was set in an obscure Eastern European nation – rare during the Cold War era of my childhood. Exactly when was another matter, as the historicity was rather sloppy and couldn’t decide if it was taking place in the 19th century (swords and cavalry charges) or the 20th(automobiles and communists). Where was also questionable; a decidedly imaginary location somewhere in the Balkans. It wouldn’t hurt, I thought, to improve upon it just a little. Fill out the somewhat cardboard characters, especially the villains, as I firmly believe that villains have a right and responsibility to be People, too. Clean up the history – I abhor bad history. I could work in the lead-up to WWII, with all sorts of possibilities for an extended Steampunk theme (my apprentice Donal had been mad about Steampunk lately). And while I was at it, I could replace the non-existent werewolf. I mean, really. The Grand Mistress of fantasy writing a novel with a “werewolf” who was only pretending to be a werewolf to impress the peasants? She should have been ashamed of herself. Of course, I had no intention of publishing such a derivative work. How could I? I fully intended to steal the plot wholesale. I was only keeping myself sane over a very long, very cold and dreary Ohio winter.

Three months later I was staring at a hundred thousand words and was still only two-thirds of the way through the plot, which had begun to wander away from plan before the end of the first chapter. A firm date had been attached, with historical details appropriate to an alternate universe separated from ours at a precise date. I indulged in historical tourist attractions: a ride on the Hindenburg, a dance in a Paris cafe, sausages and beer in Munich, and monster movies at Adolf Hitler’s mountain chateau, all copiously researched online (I LOVE Wikipedia) and tied together by the emotional trauma of an adolescent who wasn’t sure whether or not his father had been a werewolf. A half-dozen new characters were born out of febrile imagination, including a cameo appearance by Hitler himself. Others diverged so far from the originals as to be unrecognizable. Constanti took on the role of a sibling rival, while the parental Generals became all too obviously human – not to mention subtly revealing a relationship that would never have been acknowledged in the 1930’s, and certainly not in a children’s story. Vlad, who had been created as an apology to Vlad Tepes for writing him out of history, was approaching mythic proportions. Appropriate magic had been introduced based on my own practical experience, and a Wolfskin practice grounded firmly in local folklore and traditional practices. Nothing remained of the original plot except a protagonist with a hyphenated name and an outlaw king who now really was a werewolf, or at least one of those animal-spirit warriors from whom werewolf stories derive.

And the location . . . well, I had intended to move it from an undefined somewhere far too close to Germany to the highlands of Serbia. But topography was important for a story poised on the brink of WWII. I didn’t want Hitler’s tanks to have an easy time of it if they eventually invaded. I Googled a satellite map of the region and began searching for a valley on the edge of nowhere, surrounded by high peaks and nasty mountain gorges, caves to hide in and racing rivers to drown unwary invaders. And I found a high plateau ringed by forests and mountains, halfway between Greece and Germany and on the southwest border of Russia. It was perfect. It also turned out to already have a certain literary and historical reputation. The Hungarians call it Erdely, and the Romanians sometimes change that to Ardely. But in English-speaking nations, it’s more commonly known as Transylvania.