by Steffen Larsen
Josefine Ottesen has twice changed the landscape of children's
literature in Denmark. In 1986, she published the big fantasy novel "The
Feather and the Rose" which set a national standard for writing fantasy
literature. And now - almost twenty years later - she has done it
again! She has kicked the fantasy genre far further than to just
ordinary boarding school stories! The trilogy about "The Warrior" is a
masterpiece and would probably have attained world fame had it been
written and published in English.
Josefine Ottesen has performed as an actor and has directed theatre plays, but writing has always been closest to her heart. Originally she got the idea for the trilogy by watching and wondering about her own son. Why did he react the way he did? What was the difference between him and his sister? Why do fighting and competition appear to be a natural part of boys' lives? And is fighting only a male thing? So - as the poet says - everything begins with wondering and a question.
During the fifteen years between "The Feather and the Rose" and "The Warrior", Josefine Ottesen has written several other novels. One could argue that her inspiration from new age thinking and Eastern philosophy were identifiable in her breakthrough book and this is also, to a certain degree, the case when you look at "Kiss of the Dragon" and "The Rainbow Stone", both great fantasy novels. They are also books from a period of transition when she strived hard to master her talents and find a true concept for her imagination. And she succeeded. She had extraordinary success with a story published in eleven small volumes - "Drageherren" (Lord of the Dragon) - that are written and illustrated for boys (mostly) who find reading difficult - and maybe boring too. This series changed reading habits in many Danish classrooms. The stories in this series are much simpler than "The Warrior" but they have got the same intensity. "Lord of the Dragon" is a straight-forward fantasy in plain words, but it has the power worthy of a great storyteller who can make her points clearly, and here she does it with immense precision so nothing will distract the reader. This series is a masterpiece of adaptation and is equally well-illustrated by Niels Bach.
"The Warrior" is so unique because it goes beyond the traditional fantasy antagonism of good and evil and has its own powerful will to reach a conclusion (and produce a result). Both author and work are searching for clarification. This is philosophically based fantasy with the intention of understanding parts of boys' lives that are frowned upon in modern civilisation. Here we deal with the nature of struggle and a boy's inner world. Josefine Ottesen goes to the extreme in her attempt to envelop these issues. And with her main character coming out of nothing - without family and without past - it makes it easier for the author to succeed in explaining him: To let Odd - the future warrior - be a male prototype, a human being devoid of knowledge about his past and with nothing but the genetic code of a "he" inside him. Odd has no inborn politeness or inherited restraints, so he plunges into all kinds of scraps and seeks adventure everywhere. The action contains a great deal of cold-blooded violence. There is more blood flow and atrocities than you normally see in fantasy. But it has a purpose: To describe the path of a boy from childhood to manhood; from being a slave to becoming a warrior and, finally, an enlightened king. This is a long and winding road full of betrayal and ambush. And it is the thesis of the story that every male has to walk this road - normally with a lesser degree of violence! - to understand the meaning of his life and time.
Right now Josefine Ottesen is working on a new trilogy no less ambitious than "The Warrior". Her theme for this new series is suffering. Why shall we not suffer? Why is it a taboo? This time an important theme is handled with a female as the main character. The first part of the trilogy tells about expulsion from society and ethnic cleansing. The suffering of the Jewish people has not been far from the author's mind when writing. In this first book, "Historien om Mira: Dæmonernes hvisken (The Mira Chronicles: The Whisper of Demons)", a landscape is created, the conflict established, and the main characters put into position. As the first volume is not yet published (but will be by the end of August 2005), it is not possible to judge whether this trilogy will win the same reputation as "The Warrior" did. But the language is as rich, beautiful and elaborate as in its predecessor. For both series she has chosen an extremely varied, but at the same time puristic language, only using words that fit precisely into the time in which she has set the stories. In this way she revives a lot of old, half-forgotten, but still fully understandable Danish - and she gets teenagers to read it. As a writer Josefine Ottesen has been tremendously productive in recent years and it is with a great deal of curiosity that one waits for the multitude of stories that might come out of her head, written with laser-sight, an excellent technique, a clear mind, and a warm heart. It is obvious that the library shelves loaded with fantasy and remarkable stories have changed since Josefine Ottesen first visited them. But the true greatness of her writing lies in her strength and devotion, in never compromising the commitment to achieve new understanding, and in the creation of a vision from what she has learnt.
Does Josefine Ottesen only write fantasy? She doesn't! But all her stories are filled with imagination and magic. She has written two series for younger children, the "Roselil"-series and the series about "Grønnesø" (The Greenmere-series) where she tells about everyday life in fantastical surroundings. These books are very popular among young children in Denmark. Josefine Ottesen has also written texts for picture books and is currently working on further serials.
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The following is a compilation of two interviews with Josefine Ottesen in the monthly magazine Børn og Bøger (Children and Books) published by the Municipal Association of School Libraries. The interviews were published in September 2003 and May 2004. In both cases the interviewer was Steffen Larsen.
The boys for whom I wrote the books are not readers.
Josefine Ottesen was wondering how to get boys to read. Then she wrote the Warrior trilogy. The story of the Good King. And once again the author sets new standards for Danish fantasy.
Josefine Ottesen lives in Svendborg, a market town on the island of Fyn. If you stand on tiptoe at a certain place in her house you can catch a glimpse of the sea. Josefine and Svendborg get along well, kind and a bit untidy as they both are. We are here to talk about her trilogy "The Warrior". Josefine is not going to say anything about her new project, she says. So in the end we talk a lot about that too.
But the first question is obvious:
- What's the intention of this Warrior series?
- It started - like most of my other books - with a feeling of curiosity or a sense of unease towards something which I then began examining.
- And what was that something?
- In this case it's very much about fighting and violence. Something that dates back to the time when my son was about 6 or 7 years of age. He and his friends were so occupied with war and violence, but not in a way that made them go round killing each other, and it never went too far. But I wondered. Why was it so interesting to them?
- Is it new to you that boys are like that?
- No, No, it's not. But the fact that it came so close and I found it hard to believe what I saw, generated my curiosity.
- Are you any wiser now?
- Certainly. When I began working on the subject, it turned out that it was not
so difficult to understand after all, and I found out that I actually had to deal with the same questions myself. That was one of the most interesting aspects about it. To me my books are always a personal journey into something that's unknown to me.
- What exactly made you realise that this was part of yourself, too?
- Well, I think I just opened up and allowed myself to see that it was here to stay, all the stuff with violence and warriors. It was neither culturally nor historically determined. It related to the gender itself. In fact, fighting implies an energy which I think is vital to all of us. And it doesn't necessarily just apply to boys. You can define the warrior as Don Juan (an Indian sorcerer) does it in "The Teachings of Don Juan" by Carlos Castaneda. He says that the difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that the ordinary man takes life as it comes - as a matter of good or bad luck - while a warrior sees life as a challenge.
- You've read a lot?
- Usually I do a lot of research when writing. I've delved into many different books and subjects. On the history of war. On Evil. The questions of victims and executioners. The martial art of aikido. As a stage director, I was lucky enough to direct the Icelandic saga of Egil, and I tell you, he's a killer! And he kills for reasons like balance and honour. But in the end he learns to control this power. And that reminds me of my project about Odd (the main character in "The Warrior") ... In a certain sense I think that we in our society have gone too far in our fear of aggression.
- Are you referring to the female domination that is also present in the
world of children's books?
- Well, if it was only there! But it's everywhere. Were it merely a question of women being dominant you could say: Okay, that's the way it is! But it's something inside society itself, like a heavy blanket. It's also present in our relationships with other adults. You can't behave aggressively; on the other
hand you can't be too indulgent either. But you're not allowed to put your foot down and cry: Enough is enough!
- You've chosen a male in his most extreme manifestation as your main
- Yes! He's like some of the boys I know from my childhood in the countryside not too long ago. When I was a child, there was this pack called the Hit-First-Dynasty - they simply set out to fight. That was something you needed to know. And if you wanted something to happen, you should just had to place yourself in front of one of them!
- What about forgiveness?
- Well, for these books I knew I had to create a non-Christian universe. Christians are in favour of mercy and compassion. To the Vikings, it was an absurdity that this man, Jesus, sacrificed himself. In "The Warrior", my intention is to define a positive, active and masculine power. A power that we normally consider to be "not good". Right? And this denial fills me with despair because it's a very important energy. In one's personal life, as well as in society. Think of the idea of The Good King. For a long time I was uncertain as to how to finish the story. I considered turning Odd into a shaman or a wise man, but then I realised it was all about the making of The Good King. A person with ideals as described in an old Danish song: Fight for what you stand for, and die for it if necessary!
- Isn't that rather predictable?
- Yes, indeed - I think so, too! But when I'd finished the first book in the series, I asked some boys how they thought the story might end. They said that Odd would be a slave again, then he'd be faced with a number of quests, and finally he'd become king. No! I said to myself. That's too predictable, but when I continued writing it came back to me all the time. He had to develop from being controlled by others to internalizing power and controlling himself. And that's what we need, isn't it? The Good King.
- Did you have boys in mind when you wrote the books?
- Yes. But the boys for whom I wrote the books are not readers.
- Did you achieve what you planned then, to make them read?
- Yes, I'm very satisfied.
- Let's talk a little more about research. How many books did you read to write "The Warrior"?
- That's a difficult question. For this specific research, I've read perhaps 10,000 pages. English professional literature on production of arms; new-age books about being a "warrior at heart"; books about shamans from all over the world; books about the art of budo; essays about being a warrior from ancient times to Vietnam, and essays about radical environmental organizations. I also read parts of Carlos Castaneda's books and almost all of the Icelandic sagas. But in addition to that I've used my personal historic research, built upon almost 40 years of intense interest in the Nordic Iron Age and the time of the Vikings. More specific in this connection are books about the organization of ancient Icelandic society and its legislation. And I've studied all the findings from the valley of the Illerup Stream (a location in Jutland where thousands of objects were sacrificed after a battle about 400 AD, ed.).
- That's quite a lot!
- You bet! Furthermore I had a team of advisers: my aikido master, a shaman, an
expert in Viking ships, a psychotherapist, the head of the department of conservation at Moesgaard Museum (near Aarhus, ed.), blacksmiths and friends and acquaintances with specific knowledge of bow-hunting, wool-spinning and so on.
- Is that all?
- No. I forgot something - I've also read about the training of special forces; I've watched every part of "Band of Brothers" on my video; I've watched "Once Were Warriors", a movie from New Zealand that almost made me sick, several times; I've seen all the episodes of "Star Wars" over and over again; and I've read the ancient Icelandic religious texts ("The Old Edda", ed.) to find the places where shamanistic rituals are mentioned. I've also read the sagas from Greenland; I've been practising martial arts for five years; I've practised shooting with the longbow, shamanistic meditation, and sailing ships with old sails.
- Have you read von Clausewitz' "On War", too?
- No! Clausewitz writes about war fought by soldiers - and that's quite different from fighting among warriors. But I have studied war and fighting as aspects of culture and history.
- Honestly now! Is it really necessary to know all these things? Do you need to know the length of a longbow, or what kind of wood it's made of, or what kind of gut is used for the string, just to write about people using the longbow as a weapon?
- When writing about areas I know well, I don't need much research, but when I enter a field with many unknown factors, I need to know as much as possible about the materials and the skills to be able to describe sense impressions - otherwise there will be no "background" for the characters to act upon. You always have to seek a balance between the specific and the more general descriptions, as you don't want to give the reader the feeling that your errand is to explain and to teach, but to tell a great story. And talking about the longbow, the difference between using an ordinary bow and a longbow is like the difference between riding a moped and a Harley Davidson. And it's very important to Odd to be in control of that weapon and to achieve the status connected with it.
- Talking about landscapes, longbows and tools: Does this mean you hardly
write a line without having a knowledge of all this?
- It depends on the book I'm writing. Most of my books have had a life of their own and each one required its own writing process. Planning a trilogy, it was extremely important for me to determine the entire storyline before I started writing. About the time I began writing volume two of "The Warrior", I read the "Lyra"-trilogy (His Dark Materials, ed.) by Philip Pullman and I was very disappointed that Pullman had so many loose ends to tie up in his third volume. By the way, I'm a big fan of his - perhaps he is the closest I come to having an idol! - but I wanted to avoid such problems so I planned very carefully.
- Do you make a map of the landscapes, the villages, and the places?
- I spend a lot of time creating the landscape because to me the landscape is an allegory for the whole story. And I must know how long time it takes to sail from Northern Jutland to Southern Norway where - as you know - the Northern kingdom is located.
- Was it necessary to write with such brutality?
- I don't know. But at least it was exciting to find a language for these things. And in the first draft, some of the descriptions were even worse, but my gentle-minded editor, Nanna Gyldenkærne, washed away part of the blood and the rapes. Actually my ambition was to describe in words all the things that attract boys in extremely violent movies and computer games. And I don't think it's possible to write about war and fighting without allowing it to get bloody. Personally I am tired of these novels about boys, tiny as shrimps, who are being bullied by big hooligans and then - like Odysseus - turn out to be smarter in the end. I wanted to write a story about one of the hooligans!
- How would you describe the main theme for these three books?
- How you develop from being violent out of impotence to choosing the fight as a solution when there's nothing else to do - unfortunately George W. Bush has not read my book!
- He might do so when it's translated into English! How do you put one book behind you and get ready for writing the next?
- I've often found my next book while writing the current one. You might not have noticed it, but "The Warrior" is very much linked to "The Rainbow Stone". Often a new book takes shape while I'm writing another one. The book I'm writing now has its origin in the last chapter of "The Warrior". So in a certain sense I agree with Holger Bech-Nielsen (a Danish nuclear physicist, ed.) who argued that the universe consists of a certain amount of substance - there will be neither more nor less than was set free by The Big Bang. So we are all a result of recycling ...
Some keep their novels on a floppy disk. Josefine Ottesen's new novel is in the tarot cards. At the time of this interview, she has not yet written many lines. But suffering is the keyword. Why are we allowed to suffer? The project is in its early stages. And you can sense that the author likes it. She has just come home from a study tour to Schwartzwald and Alsace where she has been looking at towns and castles. Now she is reading about the organization of the guilds and early feudalism. At the same time she is listening to traditional Jewish music from a group named "Klezmer". She has a sentence of inspiration for this book: "It's very hard to keep a desert." Much harder - she says - than keeping a garden. What can originate in that melting pot?
- Some of your earlier books could be criticised for being a little too didactic. But not "The Warrior". What is your response to that?
- A basic thing is that you have to have confidence - confidence in your own story, and I think I've become much better at that, and less worried than I used to be. Listen - for me writing is a mission. I know I'm not allowed to say things like that ...
- You're allowed to say it here ...
- ... but I feel that I've been put on earth to tell certain stories. I would've made a good preacher!
- Do you read what your colleagues are writing?
- I read a little to watch developments, and I often wonder about the absence of genuine adults in these books. They don't give you the feeling that it's a good thing to grow up.