The Battle of Grunwald and the Fate of the Teutonic Knights

400px-Grunwald_Wojciech_Kossak copy

Battle of Grunwald

On this day, June 14th, every year, the Polish and Lithuanians celebrate the Battle of Grunwald; they celebrate with pride, erecting mock-ups of the battle to honour this important—yet largely unknown moment—in history: when the proud Teutonic Order fell to its knees and Poland became a nation.

Which brings me to my book The Last Summoner and how I get my ideas for stories…

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverI teach writing at the University of Toronto and fiction writing at George Brown College in Toronto. A question I’m often asked is how I get my story ideas. I always start by sharing my favourite example of how I came to write my historical fantasy The Last Summoner:

It started in 2008, when I saw the most incredible image by Croation artist Tomislav Tikulin as I was browsing sites on the Internet. The image was of a magnificent knight, standing in a war-littered mire and gazing up, questioning, at the vaulted ceiling of a drowned cathedral. A great light shone upon the knight in streams of white gold–as if a message from heaven. It sent my imagination soaring with thoughts of chivalry, adventure and intrigue.

Who was this knight?

teutonic_knight_by_flipation

Teutonic knight

With that image imprinted inside me, the next nexus moment came when I stumbled across a significant but little-known battle in the medieval Baltic, the Battle of Grunwald. It would turn out to be the defining battle for what are now the countries of Poland and Lithuania. On June 14, 1410, they were still part of Prussia and tyrannized by the Teutonic Order, who were Christianizing the pagan Baltic on behalf of the Pope. In truth, the Order had been for centuries gathering wealth and land for colonizing Germans in their drang nach osten; they built sturdy castles (many of which still stand today) and grew into a force of monk warriors, feared for their cunning strategy and treacherous combat abilities.

The Battle of Grunwald was, in fact, an upset in history. The Teutonic Order was powerful, intimidating and extremely capable. They should have won; but the peasant armies of Prussia slaughtered the Order, killing most of its knights. Historians debate that the hochmeister’s arrogance—indeed the arrogance of the entire Order—precipitated their downfall. They underestimated their adversaries and got sloppy.

After the Polish and Lithuanian armies outsmarted the Order and slayed the Order’s hochmeister, along with many of their knights, the Order’s own peasant slaves finished the job using clubs, pitchforks and stones.

Every year, the Polish and Lithuanians celebrate June 14th with pride, erecting mock-ups of the battle.

vivianne-medieval-fighterIntrigued by this little known order of religious crusaders, I pursued the premise of an alternative consequence: what if the Teutonic Knights had NOT underestimated their enemy and won the Battle of Grunwald? Would they have continued their catastrophic sweep of Northeast Europe into Russia and beyond? Would they have claimed the whole for Germany’s expansionist lebensraum movement, fueled by its sonderweg—a dialectic that would ultimately lead to the killing fields of the Holocaust?  What if the success of the Teutonic Order helped consolidate a united fascist elite, ambitious to conquer the world? What if Nazism sprang up 100 years earlier than it did in our current reality?

The Last Summoner arose from this premise. Enter our hero, young 14-year old Vivianne Schoen, Baroness von Grunwald, a self-centred romantic who dreams that her ritter will rescue her from an arranged marriage to some foreign warrior. As a result of an impetuous choice, she makes the startling discovery that she can alter history—but not before she’s branded a witch and must flee through a time-space tear into an alternate present-day France—now ruled by fascists. There, she learns that every choice has its price.

knight-cameo copySpanning from medieval Poland to present day Paris, The Last Summoner explores the sweeping consequences of our “subtle” choices. From the smallest grab to the most sweeping gesture, we are accountable for the world we’ve made. During her 600-year journey to save the world and undo the history she authored, Vivianne learns wisdom and humility. Through the paradox of history, she learns that what might have seemed the right choice for an immediate future, turns out to be disastrous for a distant future. To win is also to lose; to save oneself one must surrender oneself; and to save the world one need only save a single soul.

The knight standing in the drowned cathedral is none other than Vivianne.

Inspired by Tikulin’s knight depiction, I managed to convince my publisher at Starfire World Syndicate to purchase rights to the image; Tikulin’s image–Vivianne’s dream–became the actual cover of my book. I was overjoyed! When The Last Summoner hit the shelves in 2012, it quickly soared into an Amazon Canadian bestseller and remained in the top 10 for several months in the category of fantasy, historical fantasy and science fiction. The book continues to find new readers who enjoy the thrilling time-travelling journey of its 15th century heroine and its surprising plot.

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“The Last Summoner” sandwiched nicely between Ray Bradbury and George R.R. Martin

The Last Summoner is a blend of fantasy, history, and alternate history,” writes Canadian author Kristene Perron. “Fourteen year old Vivianne , the story’s hero, discovers that she has strange powers on the eve of the legendary Battle of Grunwald.  Marked as a witch, Vivianne escapes through time and space, but her actions change history and threaten to destroy the world.”

Kristene had chosen the book to review based on a description I had provided of the painting that inspired the novel created by artist Tomislav Tikulin.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcover

Illustration by Tomislav Tikulin. Cover design and typology by Costi Gurgu

The Last Summoner fascinated Kristene. “Ordinarily, historical fiction doesn’t excite me,” writes Kristene. “But the premise of this novel—which included a good dash of fantasy and time travel—was an exception. There is history aplenty and Munteanu has obviously done her homework. The world of 15th century Germany is authentically realized and the little touches of fantasy blend seamlessly.” She was pleased with Vivianne as a hero and how I had “endowed [my] protagonist with the skills and knowledge necessary for the plot without stretching plausibility.”

teutons3-close1

Kristene then added, “What I most enjoyed about this story was that for the majority of it I genuinely didn’t know where the plot was going or what would happen next. I’m one of those annoying people who can usually figure out the entire plot of a book or movie within the first few scenes (watching movies with me can be challenging), so to come teutons3-close02across a story that stumped my super CSI powers of deduction was a real treat.”

“For those in love with science fiction at its best, The Last Summoner is a complex story of ignored responsibilities and their dire consequences, of love and betrayal that span centuries and multiple worlds. Time travel, multiverse travel, immortality, alternate history in which the Nazis have won, not in the twentieth century but way earlier, in the Teutonic age. Angels and mutants, utopias and dystopias, even a Tesla occurrence— everything a science fiction reader could ever desire in a book. A masterfully told story with great characters. Nina Munteanu moves flawlessly from a medieval story to a modern one and everything in between.”—Costi Gurgu, author of RecipeArium

Jonathan, history buff and author of Sci-Fi & Fantasy Reviews , writes: “The Last Summoner is a unique story melding Germany of the 15th century and modern France, even if a different France from what we would recognize. The story centered around the very real and pivotal Battle of Grunwald in which a coalition of Polish and Lithuanian forces defeated the monastic Teutonic Knights. The book takes a look at the young 14-year-old baroness of Grunwald, someone not quite human, and how she attempts to right a wrong and get history back on track…The author is a good writer, and her wordsmithing is excellent…The historical research was outstanding…Given that this is fiction, and that two settings did not follow history as we know it, never-the-less, each event was either very accurate to our known history or made logical sense in the other settings. I am not a huge fan of alternative history books, but in this one, I was extremely caught up in the final section of the book, and I had to contemplate how the world might be different with only a few changes to our history.”

vivianne-dark-medieval-knight copy

Jonathan adds, “While I was familiar with most of the historical background of the book, I was unaware of some facts, such as the Tartars taking part in the Battle of Grunwald. I thought this was a mistake made on the part of the author and went to confirm that, but in fact, the author was correct…a clever, well-written book. I would recommend it without hesitation.” The reviewer did have one quibble: my liberal use of French and German in the book.

Professional photographer and science fiction/fantasy reader, Rick LeBlanc shared that he’d “read The Last Summoner on the flight back from World Fantasy Con: could hardly put it down. Just loved the historical references of gear, place and events. The characters red-leaves-in-pond-vicki horton-botwere incredibly strong and involved you in their lives. The flow was fun & fast-paced. Merci, Nina. Great book!”

“I loved, loved, loved the metaphors. A page-turner that left me wanting to be Vivianne when I grew up.”—Carina Burns, author of The Syrian Jewelry Box

knight-cameo copyThe Last Summoner is an enticing fantasy exploring the Knightly order and adding many new perspectives.”—John Taylor, The Midwest Book Review

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. 

The Art and Magic of Storytelling: Part 1, Sparking the Premise

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcover copyFrom where do we get our stories?

This is a question I am asked time and again. My readers, friends and colleagues alike marvel at my imagination, and ask me how I create these fantastical worlds and situations. Cornered in a moment of inarticulate bliss (this often happens to me), I shrug and blather off some ridiculously obscure tale of luciferous logolepsy.

The simple of it is that it always comes as a spark. Followed by inspiration. And from there, a story emerges. Premise to dramatization. So, let me tell you a story about how my 2012 historical fantasy The Last Summoner —about a medieval time traveler who must save the past from the future—came to be.

It all began with the Battle of Grunwald and the Fate of the Teutonic Knights—that is, when I stumbled upon it during an Internet ramble. But, in fact, it started before that—the spark, that is.

My part in this piece of history really began sometime in 2008 with the vision of an incredible image by Croatian artist Tomislav Tikulin (who had done the cover art for a previous novel Darwin’s Paradox). On Tikulin’s website I glimpsed the image of a magnificent knight, standing in a war-littered mire and gazing up, questioning, at the vaulted ceiling of a drowned cathedral. A great light shone upon the knight in streams of white gold. It sent my imagination soaring with thoughts of chivalry, adventure and intrigue.

Who was this knight standing in the mire?…

teutons3-close1

With that image imprinted inside me, the next nexus moment came when I stumbled across a significant but little-known battle in the medieval Baltic, the Battle of Grunwald. It would turn out to be the defining battle for what are now the countries of Poland and Lithuania. On June 14th 1410, they were still part of Prussia and tyrannized by the Teutonic Order, who were Christianizing the pagan Baltic on behalf of the Pope. In truth, the Order had been for centuries gathering wealth and land for colonizing Germans in their drang nach osten; they built sturdy castles (many of which still stand today) and a force of monk warriors, feared for their cunning strategy and treacherous combat abilities.

vivianne-dark-medieval-knight copy

The Battle of Grunwald was, in fact, an upset in history. The Teutonic Order was powerful, intimidating and extremely capable. They should have won; but the peasant armies of Prussia slaughtered the Order, killing most of its knights. Historians debate that the hochmeister’s arrogance—indeed, the arrogance of the entire Order—precipitated their downfall. They underestimated their adversaries and got sloppy. After the Polish and Lithuanian armies outsmarted the Order and slayed their hochmeister, along with many of their knights, the Order’s own peasant slaves finished the job using clubs, pitchforks and stones.

Intrigued by this little known order of religious crusaders and their bizarre fate in an upset battle with a peasant army, I pursued the premise of an alternative consequence: what if the Teutonic Knights had NOT underestimated their enemy and won the Battle of Grunwald? Would they have continued their catastrophic sweep of North-east Europe into Russia and beyond? Would they have continued their catastrophic sweep of north- east Europe into Russia and beyond? Would they have claimed the whole for Germany’s expansionist lebensraum movement, fueled by its sonderweg, a dialectic that would ultimately lead to the killing fields of the Holocaust? What if the success of the Teutonic Order helped consolidate a united fascist elite, ambitious to conquer the world? And what if, as a result, Nazism sprang up 100 years earlier?

The Last Summoner, arose from this premise. Enter our heroine, young 14-year old Vivianne Schoen, Baroness von Grunwald, a self-centered romantic who dreams that her ritter (her knight) will rescue her from an arranged marriage to some foreign  warrior. As a result of an impetuous choice, she makes the startling discovery that she can alter history—but not before she’s branded a witch and must flee through a time-space tear into an alternate present-day France ruled by fascists. There, she learns that every choice has its price.

Warrior Woman Silhouette

Spanning from medieval Poland to present day Paris, France, The Last Summoner explores the sweeping consequences of our “subtle” choices. From the smallest grab to the most sweeping gesture, we are accountable for the world we’ve made. During her 600-year journey to save the world and undo the history she authored, Vivianne learns wisdom and humility. Through the paradox of history, she learns that what might have seemed the right choice for an immediate future, turns out to be disastrous for a distant future. To win is also to lose; to save oneself one must surrender oneself; and to save the world one need only save a single soul.

knight-cameoThe knight standing in the mire is Vivianne.

The Last Summoner, published by Starfire World Syndicate, was released in 2012 and remained a Canadian bestseller on Amazon for several months. It represents my first historical fantasy in an otherwise repertoire of hard science fiction. The Polish and Lithuanians celebrate June 14th with pride, erecting mock-ups of the battle annually. Some day I hope to participate.leaves over water

The cover art for The Last Summoner is that very image that inspired my story. The Universe gifted me with the chance to acquire the image from Mr. Tikulin and a publisher willing to purchase it. I’d entered my own dream.

 

 

p.s. definition for luciferous logolepsy: “an illuminating obsession with words”

 

This article first appeared on Warpworld on Nov. 30, 2013.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

How We Will Tell Stories in the Future

Human and Robot Sharing a Story

Human and Robot Sharing a Story

In the early 1400s, when Lady Vivianne Schoen (the hero of my book  The Last Summoner) lived, one of the largest libraries in Europe was at the University of Cambridge; it held an impressive list of 122 books. That library currently houses over 7 million books.

Books were a work of art in the 1400s. And part of an elite. Delicate, large and beautiful, they were created in the language of the church—Latin—and in turn copied entirely by hand by the monks. With the dimensions of a current newspaper, but much thicker, these large illuminated manuscripts sometimes weighed more than 50 pounds.

There is a scene early on in The Last Summoner where, under the tutelage of Pere Daniel at her father’s castle in Grunwald, Vivianne learns this arcain craft of manuscript copying.

An illuminated manuscript, the exemplar, and its parchment copy, still in progress, lay on the desk top; both were held down from curling by several hanging weights. Ink pots, gold leaf, a pen knife and a quill lay beside the sloped desk-top—the scribe’s tools.

Père Daniel had studied the art of manuscript illumination, scribing, binding and even parchment-making at the Sorbonne. Last year he’d begun to teach Vivianne the art of creating illuminated manuscripts and she had eagerly begun her own, finding that she had a steady hand at illumination. Père Daniel had shown her how to make parchment from the skins of deer that the Baron brought back from his hunts in the Grunwald forest. Despite the availability of paper, parchment was preferred “because it is velvety, folds easily and gives an agreeable flexibility to pen strokes compared with the unyielding flatness of writing on paper,” the chaplain reasoned. He always gave a reason for the painstaking preparation that involved flaying, soaking, stretching and scraping: “Parchment wants to curl onto its darker, grain side; and hastily prepared parchment wants to do it more.” Nothing was better than parchment made from game “because the vein marks left from blood in the skin when the animal died is the animal’s contribution to the art of illumination,” he attested with the fervency of a man with a passion.

Père demonstrated with exacting care and infinite patience how to use the illuminator’s tools and create a professional-looking manuscript. He provided Vivianne with parchment, a quill for a left-handed scribe, a penknife to sharpen her quills, a pot of ink and a sloping desktop. He taught her how to make iron-gall ink by mixing a solution of tannic acids and copperas with added gum arabic from the dried-up sap of the acacia tree as thickener. It was important, said the Père, to pick a mature oak-gall, one that bore a hole from the matured wasp that had developed inside and left a juicy concoction of gallic acids. The galls were then crushed up and boiled for a long as it took to recite the Pater Noster three times, he’d said. The blackness, he told her, resulted from the chemical reaction of the oak-gall potion when copperas was stirred in. He’d shown her how to create the vermillion color, commonly used in headings, which he made from brazilwood chips infused in urine and stirred with gum arabic. Vivianne never asked Père Daniel where he got his urine. She and Père also raided Theobald’s kitchen to hunt down the outer right wing pinions of a goose for making a quill pen that naturally curved to the left, because she was left-handed.

Père showed Vivianne how the height of the written area should equal the width of the whole page in a well-proportioned manuscript. Père also showed her how to rule the guidelines for the script and make the initial under-drawing of her illumination in plummet then in ink after which the gold leaf was applied. Vivianne had become adept at applying the gold leaf over the raised gesso, that she made of slaked lime and white lead mixed with pink clay, sugar, a dash of gum and egg glair glue. After painstakingly painting the gesso where she wanted the gold leaf to remain and letting it dry, Vivianne then carefully lowered the fragile tissue-thin leaf over the gesso and pressed down through a piece of silk then buffed the gold to a brilliant finish with a dog’s tooth by vigorously rubbing back and forth until it was smooth and the edges where there was no gessocrumbled away.

Making books was called “black art” from the black ink that stained the worker’s hands after a long day of creating type. Readers were mostly scholars and the religious elite. In fact, reading was an elite occupation. The majority of people at the time were illiterate and had no interest in books. Moreover, books were written in the language of the church, not in the commonly spoken language of the countryside such as English, French, German or Spanish.

So, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the revolutionary printing press in 1452 to publish the Gutenberg Bible, neither monk nor Joe peasant took much notice. The monks considered the product inferior to their works of art and dismissed the new technology—until it had largely replaced their trade.

In fact, the presses formed the very basis of the artistic Renaissance, the religious reformations and the scientific revolution, wrote Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. “The printing press allowed the spread of information that couldn’t be controlled by the clergy, kings, politicians, or the religious elite,” adds New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton in I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works. Storytelling was no longer confined to an elite clergy; books could be created by anyone and shared in the spoken languages of the people.

Bilton shares another interesting fact: Gutenberg’s printed books were as heavy and unwieldy as the original handmade books of the monks. It was much later, in 1502, that Aldus Manutius of Venice invented a more portable book that could fit in a large jacket pocket; essentially inventing “the mobile phone of his day” wrote Bilton.

Historian Alistair McCleery wrote that the political and religious leaders initially panicked over the potential for the uncensored sharing of new and varied ideas among the lay public (which brings to mind similar fears of what the internet was providing to and enabling in the lay public: uncensored self-expression by the masses for the masses). Up until then, sharing stories among the common folk was limited to oral storytelling, which suffered from inconsistency and other limitations of the oral tradition. Within a short period of time, the ability to record and share “stories” had moved from a closeted elite to the world citizen. That is what the printing press—and the Internet today—did. Both have shifted the zeitgeist of an entire world.

Storytelling today is changing again. While many people still read books and go to the cinema, watch pre-programmed TV or rent DVDs, many more enjoy their stories through other devices like computers, downloads, mobile phones and e-readers that provide material through other media and venues such as Indie and self-publishing, amateur YouTube videos, interactive games and social networks. We stand poised on the edge of a wonderful cliff that celebrates the expression — and consumer choice — of the individual. The music industry shows this the best, where people dismissed the prepackaged albums and CDs and opted to create their own unique playlists through individual song downloads. The publishing industry is currently struggling with its own painful yet thrilling metamorphosis as is the visual arts industry. In fact, they are all blurring into one large integrated amalgam of artistic expression.

The information you get today is coming “more and more through your friends and through your social network. It’s being distributed through channels of trust and the trust isn’t necessarily the BBCor The New York Times. It’s people,” says B.J. Fogg founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University.

During the days of packaged content, leading storytellers were published authors, journalists and writers of newspapers and magazines. “Now distribution channels matter less and anyone with an appropriate device can be a storyteller,” says Bilton, who shares that on the internet we tend to follow individuals we trust (e.g., Clive Thompson or David Carr) as much if not more than established organizations (like Wired Magazine or The New York Times). Accessible technology, platforms, free applications and software has truly enabled the individual.  No longer confined to the written word via paper books or visual expression through movies or TV shows, storytelling has embraced many forms. Amateur and professional have equally blurred.

It comes down to content. Technology and format aside, nothing compares to a good solid story. We all listen to or watch stories. We all tell or show stories, some of us more than others and some better than others.

With the advent of new and accessible technologies and applications available to individuals, the art of storytelling has entered a new renaissance. Good stories, like good content, will always prevail and surface into prominence, like cream in milk. They have just been released into a sea of possibilities like a stream previously confined in a gorge, spilling joyfully into the ocean.

Harnessing the opening range of technologies available to us will only give us more choices to tell our stories. For instance, my latest book Outer Diverse (the first book of The Splintered Universe Trilogy) was published by Starfire World Syndicate in print form and e-format and will soon be available in audio format through Iambik. I have also created associated YouTube promotional videos and am working with colleagues to produce a short story musical video on the book. Another colleague has embraced the image of the strong female hero with a jewelry line called the Rhea Hawke Collection and is looking at other “storytelling” merchandise. I am discussing with other colleagues possibilities for a graphic novel and an interactive video game version of the trilogy that will offer reader participation in storytelling.

The future embraces story in all its possible facets. Our role as storytellers is to embrace the future in all its facets.

robot workers01

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.