Saturday, July 23, 2011

Introducing the Traveller

The Traveller, a nameless immortal wanderer, is by a long way my most reused character.  To date, he’s appeared in four novels – including At An Uncertain Hour, published in 2009 – and 21 short stories, eight of which have been published.  And that’s only the start.  So who is he, and what makes him tick?

He originated some forty years ago as a minor character in my (still) ongoing epic fantasy trilogy, The Winter Legend, though his role in that story has increased over the years.  He was called Tollanis then, but I fairly soon established that this was merely the local word for traveller, and that it was more of a soubriquet than a name.  He was a mysterious figure, “cursed” with immortality.  Such is the luxury of youth.  Now I’m considerably closer to my bus-pass than to school, I struggle to see where the curse is.

My big breakthrough with this character came by accident.  During the nth rewrite of The Winter Legend, I felt it might be effective to hint at some sort of background for him and, completely off the top of my head, I made a comment about an ancient legend concerning “the Traveller” who’d fought the Demon Queen of the South.

Now, this intrigued me, and I wanted to know who this queen was and why he was fighting her.  Before long I’d written a biographical sketch about him.  The Traveller was born in a tiny village among the mountains, which he’d left in his mid-teens.  He sometimes claims to have forgotten his original name, but he actually has reasons for wanting it to be lost.  After many years of wandering in an enchanted ship, and numerous adventures, he’d stumbled into a spell that had rendered him immortal.

The Traveller’s immortality doesn’t mean he can’t be killed – though he recovers better than most from both sickness and injury – but he doesn’t age beyond his apparent thirty years, and therefore his body doesn’t degenerate and die.  Theoretically, he could live forever.

During the 1990s, I began writing stories about the Traveller’s wanderings, and eventually I tackled the tale of his thousand-year war against the Demon Queen, another immortal he’s encountered before.  This became At An Uncertain Hour, which was published by Publishing.  Besides this and The Winter Legend, I have two more novels projected that will feature the Traveller, and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities in short stories.  The most recent Traveller story I wrote is set later than most and shows a society struggling towards technology – a fantasy/steampunk blend.

My concept of the Traveller has developed considerably since my teens, although the core character has barely changed.  The main influences on his development (deliberate or unconscious) have been the Ancient Mariner, Doctor Who and Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane.

The Ancient Mariner has many similarities to the Traveller.  Both find themselves unwillingly immortal; both travel on enchanted ships; both “have strange powers of speech” – the Traveller has a kind of magical equivalent of the Universal Translator.  He even uses an albatross as his symbol.  The differences, though, are more significant.  The Traveller’s condition came about by trying to do the right thing, not by a criminal act.  Most of all, he refuses to see his condition as a curse, as the Mariner certainly does.  Far from expiating his guilt, the Traveller sees his extended life as an opportunity.

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since I watched the very first episode as a child, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I should have been influenced.  Still, it wasn’t until someone else pointed it out that I realised how many similarities there are between the Traveller and the Doctor, ranging from journeying in an extraordinary craft to the mystery about his name.  The characteristic they share most strongly, though, is the tension between longing to be footloose and travel everywhere, and the inability – perched uncomfortably between idealism and megalomania – to turn away from need and oppression.

Wagner’s Kane is a now largely forgotten sword & sorcery series from the 70s.  On the whole, the plots of the stories were fairly unremarkable, but they had intriguing settings and atmospheres, and are well worth reading, if you can get hold of the books.  Most of all, though, Kane was a fascinating character.  Supposedly the Biblical Cain on his eternal wanderings, he’s sometimes the hero of the stories, sometimes the villain, often somewhere in between.  I was captivated by the idea of a strong central character wandering through stories that each take place in different periods of history, and when I began writing the Traveller’s adventures, I tried to achieve a similar effect, but with a more morally positive character.

Not that the Traveller’s a saint.  Far from it – he’s constantly tormented by memories of disasters, of lives he’s ruined or ended by trying to help.  He’s an ordinary man, in a lot of ways, trying to navigate the complexities of moral choices and do the right thing.  It’s just that he has a lot longer than most of us to learn lessons and regret his mistakes.

Many would see immortality as a curse – that the immortal would be constantly mourning the loss of loved ones, and find it intolerable that they grow old and die.  The Traveller certainly has his share of regrets – he says once that “a life without regrets is a life that hasn’t been lived” – but mostly he looks forward. “To love for a lifetime,” he says, “yet not be exhausted.  Then to love the next generation the same way.  How many people have that privilege?”

The Traveller certainly feels the pain of loss and tragedy from his life, and there are times when it threatens to overwhelm him.  Ultimately, though, he believes that “Life isn’t a curse or a blessing.  Things happen, and you deal with them: that’s all.”  I think he’s right.

Oh, and the true name he doesn’t disclose?  That will be revealed in the novel I have slated to write when I’ve finally completed The Winter Legend, along with the reason why I’ve kept it secret for so long.  I hope it will be worth the wait.

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