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.