A Magic World: Fantasy and the Use of Magic

It would appear that my little post from last night started a bit of friendly sparring, at least between myself and my mentor, so I thought I might pick up on where he left off. This post started out as a comment to Dr. Robinson’s recent blog post, Why I don’t believe in magic. I then decided that what I had to say was a bit too long for “just a comment,” so here it is.

In his blog post, Dr. Robinson explained that one of the reasons why he doesn’t like magic in stories (aka fantasy in general) is that it’s too easy. He writes:

“My biggest argument I have against fantasy is that it makes things too easy, and in a sense, that’s what makes writing it hard. If you are looking for a way to breathe underwater, poof, use magic and you can. If your character is about to be thrown into a volcano and needs to escape, hey, there’s always magic to help. And if the character is brutally killed and lying in pieces on the ground, a little magic can bring him back together. Too easy. Too hard.”

I can definitely see where he’s coming from. There is a reason that moving from writing fantasy as a general rule to writing historical fiction for my honors project was hard for me. I’m still intimidated by the thought of writing historical fiction (and I haven’t really even attempted to take a stab at science fiction) because writing fantasy is so much easier. You don’t need to explain everything because some things just are. But I think he may be mistaken in one way.

Despite being easier, good fantasy follows rules. If I create a mage character in one of my stories, for instance, I need to decide how that mage’s magic operates. In my book “Prism World,” the Phantoms have the ability to use magic. Why? Well, they just do. There’s really no logical explanation for it. But there are rules, too. Not just anyone can use magic; only those with the blood of a Phantom can. But what about a story that seemingly lets anyone use magic? A good example, I think, would be the anime Fairy Tail. The story centers around a world much like our own but which operates more on magic than on science. Wizards’ shops can be found in practically any town (in the very first episode, the main character laments that the town she is in only has one wizard shop in it). The car runs not on gas but on the wizard’s mental energy. The wizards themselves can do pretty much anything: summon the zodiac, breathe and/or eat fire/lightning/metal, create weapons and creatures by summoning ice, change sizes, even freeze time. It is a world ruled by magic. But there are still limits. The main character, Lucy, could never breathe fire like her friend, Natsu, because he is the adopted son of a dragon and the dragon has given him magic that makes him, essentially, a dragon in human form. And despite their powers, they always have some sort of weakness. The magic defies logic but still follows rules.

The problem with what I personally like to call “dime-a-dozen” fantasy, your cheap, run-of-the-mill fantasy, is that there are no rules or boundaries. Or, if the story seems to define a certain rule at the beginning, the author breaks it because he or she has written the character into a corner that, aside from a little deus ex machina, would end up in the destruction of that character. So, no. If a writer is smart, he or she will refrain from doing ridiculous things like bringing a dead character back to life. (Unless, of course, there is a very specific reason that follows the rules of the world that has been created). I can think of a great many examples where this has happened. The one that comes most readily to my mind is in the book The Sword and the Flame by Stephen Lawhead. (If you don’t like spoilers, you might steer clear of the rest of this paragraph). The Sword and the Flame is the third book in a trilogy, a trilogy I very much liked. In the first book, the main character, Quentin, befriends a young man who I believe is named Toli. Toli acts as Quentin’s most loyal companion throughout the trilogy. However, he is killed at the end of the third book because of Quentin. I picked up a few things about that world while reading up until that point. There is an instance in which the spirit of a dead companion comes back to guide Quentin, but other than that, dead is dead in this world. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about necromancy). Despite these seemingly pre-set rules, however, Toli is revived…a whole whopping paragraph or two later. Breaking the rules was bad enough. Doing it moments after the initial death was even worse.

It’s an easy trap to fall into as a fantasy writer. After all, I am the only one making up the rules. Why not add that little fluke to save my character from the mess I’ve written him into? I think the worst case of this that I have seen in my own writing was in a book I’m still working on. I created a character that was supposed to die. But by the time I got to the death scene, I had become too attached. So I created a magical (or, in this case, divine) deus ex machina that saved him and promptly made him a leading character in the story. Logically and, based upon the rules I had previously set out for my world, this character should have died. But at what point does magic become too much magic?

It’s a hard answer, really, and I suppose that deus ex machina, particularly in fantasy, isn’t going anywhere any time soon. As such, I can definitely see where my mentor (and the newest member of our writing club) is coming from. I think that one of the biggest challenges we face with our project is finding a balancing point. Magic isn’t the only thing that can defy logic. There are plenty of examples in nature where this is also the case. Granted, the water-breathing thing is strictly a magic thing…for now. I’ve already been playing with some possible “science-y” explanations, but I’ll save that for another time. Essentially, what it all comes down to is the rules you set. If you set the rule that a certain group of people can breathe and speak underwater, you have to find where the boundaries are. Are they the only ones that can do it? Is it a skill that is taught or is it inherited? There are definitely questions that I need to ponder in order to create a story that is done well enough that the reader can, at least, utilize some measure of suspension of disbelief. But in the end, as a fantasy writer, I have to disconnect myself, in part, from the scientific world. After all, as I said in last night’s post, science fiction and fantasy really are two different things.


Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Several years ago, when I went to self-publish my first medieval fantasy novel, I noticed that, when I went to choose the genre category, science fiction and fantasy were lumped together under one tag. It didn’t bother me then, ignorant as I was, but after this evening I’m beginning to wonder whose smart idea it was to think that the two were one and the same.

It’s inevitable. You get a bunch of logic-minded science fiction writers and a bunch of dreamy fantasy writers together and you’re sure to end up in a long debate over something. This evening was a prime example.

The writing group I have been a part of for the extent of my college career, the Rough Writers, began work on a joint fictional world at the beginning of last semester. We’re an interesting mix of people: a steampunk/apocalyptic writer, a couple of medieval fantasy-ish writers, an urban/vampire fantasy writer, a young adult/realist writer, and a new member whose specialty I am unsure about. Recently we have begun to write stories based in our collectively created world. My mentor, Dr. Robinson, and I both brought in stories for the club to look at this evening, and it didn’t take long for us to get into that endless “Science Fiction vs. Fantasy” argument.

For those of you who have been keeping up with my posts, you may have read my story segment entitled “A Coming Storm,” a story featuring a race of people that lives in the ocean. I have a fair amount of dialogue going on in the story, so when it came time to comment, the new member asked, “How are they talking under water?”

“It’s magic,” I answered.

“Well, yes,” he responded, “but you can’t talk underwater. You have to establish rules in a story.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “and the rule is that they can talk under water.”

I won’t try to recreate the whole conversation because I’d probably need several posts to get through it, and honestly we did little more than go in circles as it is. He kept trying to put logic into it. I kept trying to convey the fact that magic defies logic. That’s why it’s magic. I don’t think he ever managed to wrap his head around that concept.

To be honest, I never really thought much about the difference between science fiction and fantasy until very recently. I am, after all, equally fond of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Narnia, and Star Trek. My video games range from Fable II to Mass Effect, with lots of stuff in between. I never stopped to think about the differences. I am, after all, the sort of person that can accept most things in a story without asking why. (There are exceptions, granted). But when it comes to magic vs. science, I was always able to accept that magic was magic and science was science. You only ask as many questions as the instance requires and, when it comes to magic, you accept that it defies logic (unless the author constantly changes the rules, and then you have a problem).

Of course, there are varying degrees of science and magic in fiction. Think of skeletons, a common enemy/feature in fantasy. How is it that that skeleton in Skyrim, though lacking any semblance of muscles, eyeballs, or brains, can manage to pull back the string of a bow and hit my character from half a mile away while I, with present (though lacking) muscles, functioning eyesight, and a fairly decent brain spend 5 minutes just trying to string my beginner’s bow? Well, it’s magic. I have to accept the fact that this defies logic. (Doesn’t mean I can’t make fun of it though). Then you have The Avengers. The power and technology in there: Is it magic? Is it science? Is it both?

The world that my writing group has created allows for both science and magic to be used liberally, but regardless of that fact, there are those that just can’t seem to get past the logic aspect (or lack there-of, as the case may be). So how do you satisfy both? Is it even possible? I have discovered that just because I’ve written and self-published 5 books means very little. As a writer, as a human in general, I still have a lot to learn. I know it’s not possible to make everyone happy, but it sure would be nice to at least be able to help logic-minded people understand the fantasy point of view. But then, maybe I’m just too much of a dreamer. After all, if it were that simple, the science fiction vs. fantasy debate would have been solved a long time ago.

A Coming Storm

For anyone who has read my posts recently, you are probably aware that my writing club and I have been working on a project in which we all work together to create a common world in which we can write our own individual stories. So far, I know of three of us who have taken a stab at actual stories, and what I have found is that we still have a ways to go before we’ve got some solid ideas. Still, though, the project has been great fun and I’m eager to see where it ends up.

There are currently 5 races that we’ve created so far: the Espeirians, a race that lives on islands that float in the sky; the Sireni, a human race that has the ability to breathe underwater and lives in cities beneath the ocean; the Sinti, a gypsy/American Indian/migrant race; the Aeryans, an Ancient Greek/Roman/Western European sort of culture; and the Crae, who are essentially cliff dwellers. Seeing as how the other two club members I’ve spoken with have been working with stories about the Espeirians, I thought I’d take a stab at a different race. For my story, I chose to write about the Sireni.

It’s actually rather ironic that I chose to write about the aquatic race, as it was the one race I was having the hardest time wrapping my mind around when we first started planning. I can’t say that it was particularly easy to write about. I’m accustomed to writing from a modern, retro, or medieval perspective, but it has always been based on land. With this story, however, I had to take a step back. What would life be like in the ocean? What would land-dwellers have that ocean-dwellers couldn’t and vice versa? What would change? What would they have in common? When settlers came to the New World, they used familiar words for unfamiliar things. Thus, the word “corn,” which originally meant “wheat,” came to be used to describe what we (we United Statesians, at least) now know as corn. It happened more than once in real life. Would it happen in a fantasy world, too? And if so, what words would be reborn?

What you will find below is the first draft of the story I’ve been working on. It’s still very rough, but I’d say it’s a good start. (No bias, right?) Happy reading, and don’t forget to leave feedback!


Working Title: A Coming Storm

Dappled sunlight glittered in through a nearby window as Ajla tightened the last of her bootstraps around her leg and glided to her feet, rocking back and forth as she stared down at the boots’ rounded toes. For a moment she didn’t look away, seemingly entranced by the sight. A moment later, however, a squeal escaped her lips as she twirled excitedly in the middle of her room.

“Mom!” came a familiar voice from just outside the bedroom door. “I think Ajla just hurt herself again.”

The young woman glared menacingly at the door before taking long, proud strides through her aquatic world and pulling the door open to glare at her younger brother, Luka, who lay placidly in the hallway playing a game with stones and seashells.

Quietly Ajla crossed her arms over her chest, tapping one foot against the stone floor, waiting for her brother to acknowledge her presence. It was several seconds, however, before the boy finally glanced up.

“What?” he asked, looking back at his game.

“I did not hurt myself, thank you very much,” Ajla huffed, tipping her chin up slightly.

“Uh-huh,” Luka grunted, hopping one stone over two tiny conch shells.

“I didn’t,” his sister insisted, stomping one foot slightly. “Look! Look at what I’m wearing!”

Luka glanced up slightly again.

“You look weird without your fins,” the boy said, sitting up. “How’re you going to swim with those things?”

“I have been specially trained for this,” Ajla smiled proudly. “And now I finally get to go to the capital to prove why they chose me as the top of my class!”

“The best warrior on Rising Hill,” Luka grunted sarcastically, crossing his arms and looking utterly unimpressed. “Yeah. That’s something. Hey, Ajla, when you leave, can I have your room?”

Ajla opened her mouth to respond, but before she could say anything, she heard a familiar laugh come from nearby. She turned to see her mother, Emina, come to a stop beside her, the woman’s fin-clad feet settling lightly on the stone floor.

“Luka, show your sister some respect,” Emina chided lightly, taking Ajla by the shoulders and turning her so that she could look her daughter in the face. “You are looking at a new Loviti. There is hardly a greater honor in all of Sirenia.”

“What do you think, Mother?” Ajla asked, motioning to the tight synthetic cloth that wrapped around her chest and waist and to the finless boots on her feet.

“You are the most beautiful warrior I’ve ever seen,” her mother smiled.

“That’s because all the warriors you’ve seen are old men,” Luka muttered.

He looked away quickly when both Ajla and Emina shot him piercing glares.

“Hush, Luka,” Emina sighed. Then she turned back to her daughter and, smiling broadly, wrapped her arms around her in a big hug.

“To think that the daughter of a couple of kelp farmers could reach the rank of Loviti,” she laughed. “You have made your mother, at least, very proud.”

A giggle escaped Ajla’s mouth while Luka merely groaned.

“Well, then, I’m off,” the young woman said at last, giving her mother one last hug before darting past her and down the hall.

“Don’t forget to tell your father good-bye!” Emina called after her daughter. “Otak be with you.”

Ajla paused long enough to wave in acknowledgement before disappearing around the corner. Emina and Luka watched her go in silence, then Luka stood up and tugged one of the sheer, fin-like pieces of cloth strapped to his mother’s arm.

“Mom,” he said, looking up at her with a serious expression on his face. “Now can I have Ajla’s room?”


Ajla listened quietly to the distant rumble of the ocean waves above her as she tightened one of the straps on the harness of her war mount, her dolphin companion named Zara. Tiny, bright-colored fish darted around the coral that had grown up on the stone stable where all the farm’s gear was kept, and Ajla giggled as a small school of them zipped around her head, one or two pausing to look her in the face before turning and continuing on their way.

The soft pulse of the ocean gently tossed Ajla’s jet black hair back and forth as it streamed out behind her, kept out of her face only by the shell-decorated tie that held it back in a simple ponytail.

“There now,” the young woman said, gliding back and placing her hands on her hips in satisfaction. “All set.”

Almost as if on cue, a familiar clicking sound caught her ear and Ajla turned to see another dolphin rider come gliding over the forest of kelp that danced on the near horizon. The rider, a young woman with sandy blond hair, raised her hand in greeting when she spotted Ajla. She, too, wore the tight synthetic clothing of the Loviti, and in her right hand she carried a blunted spear. A boarding axe hung at her hip and a small satchel was slung over her shoulder.

“Niada!” Ajla grinned, waving as the blond drew her mount to a stop nearby.

“Ready?” Niada asked, sitting up straight as her mount hovered just above the stable.

“Almost,” Ajla nodded. “Just give me a moment.”

Quickly the young woman darted back into the stable. A moment later she reappeared, a spear in her hand and a boarding axe at her hip. She then grabbed a handle on the harness that was located just above Zara’s dorsal fin and swung up onto her mount’s back, hooking her feet in the harness stirrups before sitting up straight.

“Now I’m ready,” she grinned.

The two young women exchanged smiles before leaning over their dolphins’ backs and with a wave of their spears they were off.

“I’m so glad they chose you as the second recruit,” Ajla said as Rising Hill disappeared into the blue void behind them.

“Me, too,” Niada laughed. “I’m just glad the number one student was my best friend.”

“What?” Ajla teased. “You didn’t want Ajdin to be the number one student?”

“Oi!” Niada huffed, frowning and glaring out at nothing in particular. “I couldn’t care less if I never saw that idiot again.”

“If you say so,” Ajla grinned. “Anyway, there were only three of us. Someone had to get left behind.”

“Right,” her friend nodded. “And in any case, Ajdin clomps around on land like a beached whale shark. If someone had to get left behind, it might as well be him.”


Other stories based on this project:

The Art of Mapmaking

Cartref map for blog

I must say that one of the things I love most about writing fantasy is that I get to create maps. I love maps. Always have. Which is ironic, since I’m terrible at geography, but anyway…

It is interesting to see the evolution of my map-making skills over the course of my writing “career.” The very first map I ever made, at least for a book, was the map for The Four Stars when I was about 16.

Four_Stars021This map was done entirely by hand and then scanned into the computer. Thus, the unique font in which the names are written. The first version of this map was drawn in the back of the first notebook I used when writing the story, and I’m pretty sure that I drew it before I even finished writing. Anyone familiar with the books (a limited few, I admit) would notice places on the map that rarely or never appear in the story (namely Myrddin, Brynmor, and the Dragontree Grove). All of these places were intended to be more important than they turned out to be, and when I put this map in the book, I was simply too lazy to take them out. As such, they are there…for decoration…or something like that.


As time went on, I got a little more creative with some of my maps. The one shown above is from one of my unfinished novels entitled Sentinel. As before, this one was hand drawn on the back cover of the notebook I was writing in, but this time I used some colored pens and added a bit of design to the map itself. I believe that this was the first time I ever used the diagonal lines around the coastlines to indicate water, and frankly I’m not sure where I picked up this habit.

ancient vengeance mapSome time around or shortly before I went to publish Ancient Vengeance, I discovered a lovely little program called GIMP, which I call “Poor Man’s Photoshop.” It’s a free image editing software that operates much like that lovely $300 program you’re probably familiar with. GIMP gave me a whole new set of tools for creating my maps, including the ability to add solid color into them, making features such as water easier to distinguish.

Cartref map for blog

Recently I have taken another step in my journey to producing maps for my fantasy worlds. My newest work is the first draft of the map for the world my club has collectively created, the world called Cartref. Aside from the basic map outline, everything was assembled in GIMP, from font to compass rose to everything in between. There is a definite benefit to creating maps in GIMP. Most (in fact, all) of the locations listed on the map were named by me, myself, and I, mostly because getting my club members to name things is about like pulling teeth. However, the world we are creating is a common world, so everyone has to agree before we can make something official. Creating a map for a situation like this, if I were to do things the normal way in any case, would have been a pain, as names very likely could change between now and the final draft. In GIMP, however, I can essentially save the project in “limbo.” Every word, every color, every dot has its own layer, so if something needs to be changed, all I need to do is delete that item and be done with it. Very nifty, I must say.

I’ve had a few people comment on my maps over the years, and one or two have even asked me about how to create them, so for those of you who are interested, here are some tips:

#1: Study Other Maps

The majority of my maps were based off of maps I had seen beforehand. My favorite styles are, of course, the classics: Narnia and Middle Earth. But there have been others, too, and each one features ideas for how to handle the various geographical features, everything from towns to mountains to forests and beyond.

#2: Know Your Geography

The truth of the matter is that every really good fantasy writer is as familiar with the real world as he or she is with the world in his or her mind. I’m not saying you have to look at a blank map of the real world and tell me where Bangladesh is. (I certainly couldn’t do it, anyway.) But what you do need to be aware of is how the world works. For instance, you will often find mountains between an ocean and a desert. Why? Mountains block a lot of the moisture that comes up from the ocean, usually leaving the land on the other side dry and parched. Think of the land between the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies: Nevada, Utah…maybe you could count Arizona. Now, I haven’t been everywhere, granted, but I’ve seen Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Yeah…they’re a bit lacking in the foliage department. So, when making your map, you might want to consider what the land might look like if you saw it in real life. Not that everyone will care, but it lends credibility to your world.

#3: Make it Real

It doesn’t matter how pretty the coastline, you will never see a continent or island with a perimeter that is 100% smooth. It’s the thing I love most about nature. If you can’t draw a straight line, that’s ok. You don’t see very many straight lines in nature anyway. In map-making, jagged edges are a plus. The way I do that is that I simply tighten the muscles in my hand and slightly move my hand back and forth as I draw. That may be easier said than done, but the idea is to make the lines slightly jagged. It makes for a much more realistic map.

#4: The Computer is Your Friend

If you’re not friends (or frenemies, as the case may be) with your computer by now, you might want to work on that relationship. I have found GIMP to be indispensable when it comes to map-making, but there are other programs that work just as well. Photoshop should probably work just as good or better, but it has more functions and can tend to be a little more confusing than GIMP. Well, it’s more confusing to me, anyway, but that’s not saying much…

#5: Have Fun!

You can always carry around a list of dos and don’ts regardless of whether you’re creating maps or writing the next Great American Novel, but there really is no point to it all unless you’re having fun doing it. Map-making doesn’t have to be a chore. Though I spend hours on mine, it’s just as easy to create simple maps, too. It all depends on how much you put into it.

Talking Owls…and Other Clichés

It’s ironic, really. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog about owls. And here I am again…talking about owls.

I wonder if January at my place is some sort of holiday or pastime for these two. Just like last year, I woke up late last night/early this morning to the hooting of two owls. Only, this time my reaction to them was decidedly different. It’s been over a year now since I moved into my apartment, so what was once a foreign and frightening noise to me has become rather commonplace now. It’s been a while, though, since I’ve heard the owls outside my window, which is probably why I woke to that sound last night.

I was still half asleep when I heard a low hooting outside my window, and the first thing that crossed my mind was, “I wonder if it’s sitting in a different tree. Its voice is really low.”

A moment later, a higher-pitched hoot answered the first call.

“Oh,” I thought. “I recognize that voice.”

I laid there for a minute, listening to the owls “talk” to each other, and then a random thought came to me, “I wonder if the one with the higher-pitched voice is the girl and the one with the lower-pitched voice is the boy. Do owls even work like that?”

I had to laugh at myself for the thought, but it did get me to thinking about something else as well: the concept of anthropomorphism and clichés.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, anthropomorphism is when a person, usually a writer, gives human-like qualities to something that isn’t human. The main characters in my book, Random, and Kadin, the talking elvin wolf in my old Star Series, are all examples of this. They talk, smile, laugh, argue, and think – more or less – like humans.

Anthropomorphism is listed as a fantasy cliché on most of the lists I’ve looked at and, while not considered to be as big of a cliché as prophecies and super mega evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil villains, it still isn’t looked on very highly. Not that it’s any less common. Look at Disney. Actually, that may be part of the reason I so often make use of it, but that’s a post for another time.

I’ll be the first to admit that one of my major challenges with writing is that I have the tendency to use clichés…a lot. And anthropomorphism isn’t the only one I’ve been guilty of. My problem is that most clichés don’t even bother me. If I like the characters, that’s all that matters. Even if the plots aren’t that impressive, as long as the characters are loveable, that’s usually good enough for me. Furthermore, I like dragons, I don’t mind the old wizards (unless we’re talking about Gandalf, and then I just want to throw things at him), and the fact that a world can perpetually remain in the feudal era doesn’t bother me in the least. And yes, I like talking animals, too.

With 7 classes, a club, volunteer work, real work, and an honors project to think about, writing for fun hasn’t been at the top of my list of priorities, but I have been giving thought to the rewriting of the Star Series. There was a time when I had a grand plan for these books, but nowadays, all I really want to do for the moment is get the four I’ve already written back up for sale. But that requires addressing the issue of the massive number of clichés found in their pages. And, as you might expect, anthropomorphism is one of the top problems to look at.

I’ve been told, “It doesn’t matter as long as you give it a fresh perspective.”

Knowing how to do that isn’t easy, though. Perhaps it is merely the result of a lifetime of trial and error. I don’t know. I guess, in the end, as long as you do your best, you have to trust that the story has told itself the way it wants to be told. After all, even stories tend to take on a life of their own.

Some clichés are easy to address. Others, such as the problem of anthropomorphism, are much harder, for me at least. It may end up being that I’ll never fully eliminate it from my stories, though, and I think that’s ok. The challenge isn’t so much that I use that cliché as it is in making the problem unobtrusive in the story. Mastering that, I believe, is one of the great marks of literary success.

Ah, the musings that can be inspired by owls…

Willy’s Covenant: First Steps

scottish covenanters

“Then ‘the lawyer of the Covenant,’ Archibald Johnston, Lord Wariston, later to die a martyr’s death, lifted on high a beautiful ram’s skin, four feet long and three feet eight inches wide, on which had been inscribed the noble words of the ‘National Covenant of Scotland.’ He read every word slowly and clearly, for all to hear. Objectors were invited, but there were none…The signing went on until eight at night. There was many a wet eye, for the Covenanters well knew the sorrows that might follow. There were flat tombstones around the old church, and on these this blessed document may well have been signed. Some signitories added after their names ‘Until death,’ and some ‘did draw their own blood and use it in the place of ink.'”Scottish Heroes by Harry W. Lowe (pg. 18)

Happy New Year! Well, I’m a week late, but they say better late than never, right?

Seeing as how my project, Willy’s Covenant, is going to be a determining factor in whether or not I graduate with honors, you can expect to see lots of posts containing information about my progress for the next few months. And, as the period for research is winding down and its about time for me to put my skills to the test, I thought I’d go ahead and share what I’ve been doing so far.

You don’t hear much about the Covenanters. At least, I had never heard about them until a few years ago when I “discovered” my ancestor, William Gilliland. Though I can’t say they were particularly successful in their efforts, I find the Covenanters to be fascinating, and if there’s one thing I can definitely credit them for, it was their courage. I can hardly think of better “hero models” than them.

The story of the Covenanters starts long before Willy’s Covenant. In his book Scottish Heroes, author Harry W. Lowe writes, “In old Greyfriar’s Churchyard, a hallowed spot in the romantic city of Edinburgh, on a chill day in February, 1638, nigh sixty thousand Scots assembled, from every lowland county, for a day of fasting, prayer, and a noble deed for the faithful” (pg. 17). The “National Covenant of Scotland” was, technically, the mark of the second Covenanter movement (the first Covenanter movement started in the 1500’s). This conflict would continue until William and Mary, both protestants, invaded and took over rule of England, an event which came to be known as the Glorious Revolution.

The primary reason I chose Willy’s Covenant as my honors project was because of one thing, really: I knew it would be hard. In all honesty, I have very little information regarding my ancestor, and what I do have is mostly hearsay. It is estimated that “Willy” was born in or around the year 1660. Some sources say he was the son of a Scottish gentleman, though it was unlikely that he was of noble birth. I have yet to find any documents stating that Willy did indeed participate in the Covenanter movement, but it seems plausible that he might have, as I have found records of other Gillilands who were caught about the time of the Battle of Bothwell Bridge who were then shipped off to North America, most likely as indentured servants. As for his family, I have nothing, so a lot of what will appear in the book will be little more than educated guesses and creative license. It does appear that Willy escaped to Ireland after the battle and he seems to have lived there until about 1688, when he was finally captured and brought back to England. I don’t know how long he was in prison, but he was most likely pardoned shortly after and given a tract of land in Ireland thanks to the Glorious Revolution. He married a girl named Elizabeth (what little I know of her, she was most likely Scottish as well) and their first son John Gilliland was born in Londonderry, Ireland in 1689 right around the time of the Siege of Derry.

One of the major challenges I face is knowing how Willy would have reacted to the conflict within the Covenanters themselves. One of the primary reasons the Battle of Bothwell Bridge was a failure was the fact that there were two leaders who had differing opinions of how they should react to royalist forces. On one side was Robert Hamilton who, as far as I can tell, was an advocate for a more brutal punishment of the royalists, who he didn’t believe could be true Christians if they were supporting the king. On the other side was James Ure (also spelled Ore in some cases), who was of a more mild opinion. As Ure puts it in his “Narrative of the Rising at Bothwell Bridge,” “…we [Ure and his party] told them [Hamilton and co.], they were more taken up with other men’s sins than they were with their own, and that it were our duty first to begin with ourselves” (pg. 465). Ironically, Ure’s account of the events leading up to the battle, as well as his account of the battle itself, was published after his death and commented on by none other than Robert Hamilton himself. Thus, the narrative contains both viewpoints and has been extraordinarily useful in helping me develop the story. Still, there’s no way to know for sure which side William Gilliland would have been on. I, myself, would most certainly have been on Ure’s side. Here again, though, it may come down to educated guesses and creative license.

So far, I’ve got a lot of great material to get me started on the project. Most of the materials I have are reprints or scanned copies of books written in the 1800’s. For instance, I have a collection of letters written to and from John Grahame, Viscount of Dundee (one of the primary “bad guys” in the story) that create a record of the royalist side of the conflict up until just shortly before the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. Ure’s account of the battle is very descriptive, which will help me with creating a relatively accurate depiction of the conflict, and then there is the ballad that inspired this project, “Willy Gilliland,” which contains a romanticized rendition of the legend of my ancestor. I also have some more recent, factual works that will help me with creating a believable story. Now the only thing left to do is to see if I can successfully weave fact and fiction into an enjoyable narrative.


If you’re interested in looking at the resources I know for sure I’ll be using, here is a short list: