Why I wrote Waycaller
Some books are like portals that drag us (willingly) into other worlds. We are more susceptible to this when we are young. The first book portal I crossed was J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which transported me at the age of eight to Middle Earth, right into the parlour of one Bilbo Baggins. Once there, I didn’t want to come home. Mostly because the idea of second-breakfast appealed to me greatly, but also because I found that world so rich and engaging.
The world of my everyday existence was pale and uninteresting compared to Bilbo’s world, though inarguably safer. My world had no Gandalf or Lady Galadriel, only soapie stars and dull politicians. On the upside, my everyday world had no orcs or mountain trolls to threaten me in the dark hours of the night. Still, I would have willingly forgone the safety of my run-of-the-mill existence for a little danger if it meant I could tramp in the Misty Mountains or visit the enchanted woods of Lothlórien.
My love for the world that Tolkien created was total and unquestioning. That changed one autumn morning when I was eighteen. I remember it vividly. It was a cool morning, the kind of morning perfect for reading in a patch of sunlight by a window. I’d settled myself by just such a window after breakfast to finish re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t picked up those books for many years and had thrown myself into the re-reading with some excitement. When I finished The Return of the King later that day I was left with an uneasy feeling.
By that point I had noticed the strong environmental messages of Tolkien’s work. As a budding environmentalist myself I found that element of the books gratifying. But now, on this re-reading, I could not help but notice a few things that unsettled me. All the good characters, the heroes and heroines, were white people, some of them were even described that way – the White Lady Galadriel for example. Worse, all of the bad or evil characters were often described in language associated with non-white people. The only exception to this was, of course, Saruman, but his presence in the novels does not lessen the sense that the books present white people as good and black people as bad. Also, none of the main characters are female. Out of a cast of hundreds, the female characters are all secondary or incidental to the story. The single exception is Galadriel, but even she could not be described as a main character, appearing in only a handful of scenes.
This unease with a world I loved so much percolated over the years and deepened when I noticed the same things in a lot of other fantasy fiction. With the release of the first Lord of the Rings film in 2001, a film that made visual the concerns I’d had with the language of the books, my unease transformed into a desire to “write back” to Tolkien, to create a fantasy world in which women and girls were central and people of colour were represented fairly. It took me another handful of years to get started on the actual writing. The result of that “writing back” to Tolkien is Waycaller, a traditional fantasy story that includes all the things we expect of the genre (elves, dragons, magic) but that features all different types of people.
Waycaller is not much of a departure from Tolkienesque fantasy. It isn’t meant to be. It’s not about creating something completely new. It’s about celebrating Tolkien-inspired fantasy whilst making it more inclusive and appealing to young adult readers. As one reviewer said: ‘Reading Waycaller is like visiting a world you’re familiar with and love but meeting a whole lot of interesting, fascinating and likeable new people.’
I do hope that each reader finds a character or two to love in Waycaller, but mostly I hope they see themselves positively reflected in it.