Medb's Influences & Inspirations
Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien
ike most fictional characters, Medb hErenn is an amalgam of many different ideas and inspirations, some conscious, some subconscious. This page begins a three-part discussion of how these affected her characterization.
Some influences can be very strange indeed. For example, let us digress for a moment and describe what Kevin L. O'Brien believes is a strong influence that he (re)discovered. His niece was over at his house one day, and they watched a DVD movie of a cartoon version of Pippi Longstocking. And he was struck by just how much she and Medb were alike. His sister had read the book when they were both young children, so he was familiar with the character, but he had forgotten the details. As it turns out, Pippi is as strong as an ox, has a prodigious appetite (for food), and is irrepressibly self-confident. She is also acrobatic, has two animal companions, is decidedly and unabashedly unconventional, is as rich as Croesus, and is the daughter of a king. And, to top it all off, she ties her hair into two braids. Though her personality is far bubblier and more carefree than Medb's, Mr. O'Brien cannot discount as inconceivable the possibility that Pippi Longstocking is one of the subconscious inspirations for Medb hErenn, at least in certain key details.
But then, that's pretty much how it works. Writers see, read, and hear things that get buried in the compost heaps of their minds, only to decay and settle over time, eventually creating the loam from which new ideas for characters and plots grow. Another trite metaphor is that of making liquor. Their experiences go into the fermentation pots of their minds to form a mash, to which they then add the yeast of imagination, and over time an alcohol of ideas ferments in their subconscious. The process of writing a story then distills this alcohol into the pure spirit of a plot or a character, which they can then process further with themes and conflicts to create the finished work. The point is, that anything and everything writers experience can conceivably help produce a finished work, and writers are often unaware of just what inspires and influences their creative process.
Very often, the creation of a character results from a trigger, and that was the case with Medb hErenn. While it's hard to be exactly precise, the pieces all fell into place when Kevin L. O'Brien started planning a series of stories about an adventurer in the Dreamworld of H. P. Lovecraft. At first he simply had a basic idea, nothing more, plus some thoughts about possible plots. But he couldn't go very far until he had a central character. He knew he wanted to do something similar to Brian Lumley's adventures of David Hero and Eldin the Wanderer; that is, write essentially heroic fantasy with a touch of dark fantasy, horror, and the Cthulhu Mythos where appropriate. He thought about making one of his other fictional characters a Dreamer, but none of them seemed appropriate for the role of a heroic warrior.
Of course, he had the example of Maureen "Muffy" Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson, to suggest the possibility that a staid Waking World character could in fact be a swashbuckling adventurer in the Lands of Dream (an idea he eventually used when he created Röthgâr the Reaver), but he wanted to steer clear of anything that smacked of gratuitous imitation. (And while he admits that he loves the Muffy Birnbaum stories and lusts after the brave and unflappable Muffster, he didn't want to write parody. Even so, the Divine Miss Birnbaum is undoubtedly another of Medb's inspirations.) Then again, he could have gone the King Arthur / Medieval knight route and created a chivalric warrior, but in his opinion that had been done to death, as had been the rogue, the ranger, and even the Amazon. He wanted to try to come up with something different; not necessarily unique, just not another serving of the usual.
The first break came when he was leafing through his copy of Sirens, a compilation of the artwork of Chris Achilleos. He came across the illustration Lost in Ice, and in the short explanatory note that accompanied the picture Mr. Achilleos described how he enjoyed designing a realistic costume for a barbarian warrior instead of painting him in the stereotypical loincloth. That got Mr. O'Brien to thinking about using a "sophisticated" barbarian; that is, a warrior who wasn't some uncivilized savage, but wasn't an example of the flower of chivalry either. A warrior who could be a well-trained, disciplined fighter, with a code of honor, who knew how to behave in polite society, but who also wasn't afraid to get rowdy, who was ruthless and amoral when necessary, and who had a taste for drinking, feasting, and wenching.
Where this might have led, he cannot say, because shortly after this he began re-reading the ancient Irish sagas, and it struck him that here was the perfect kind of sophisticated barbarian. The Iron Age Gaels of Ireland were heroic warriors: professional, well-trained, equipped, and disciplined, as well as fearless in battle, yet they held to a worldview that emphasized personal honor and glory in combat. As such, their battles tended to resemble melees of one-on-one duels, with the victors taking the time afterwards to strip their opponents of their arms and armor and, if they were still alive, hold them for ransom. They loved treasure and gold, and counted their wealth in cattle and personal possessions, but they also loved art and learning, poetry and song, and were fine craftsmen who created works of great beauty. They had a sophisticated sense of humor based on both satire and farce, but they also loved stuffing themselves with food, drinking themselves insensate, and engaging in raucous and dangerous sports, including mock combat that sometimes turned deadly. They were an intelligent, rational people who loved philosophical debate and argument, but they were also fearfully religious and very superstitious. It didn't take Mr. O'Brien long to decide to make his Dreamlands adventurer an ancient Gael.
Then Kevin L. O'Brien came upon the story of the death of Medb, Queen of Connacht, and he realized that she would make the ideal model for his character. As such, it's probably safe to say that the legendary Medb of Connacht, heroine of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, is the primary inspiration for Medb hErenn. Certainly, he based her name, life history, and mannerisms on the legendary woman, and used the same, as well as the scholastic speculation surrounding her, as the jumping off point for developing his character further. However, there are three major aspects of her personality that make Medb hErenn who and what she is, but only one of these are based directly on Medb of Connacht. These aspects are her prodigious sexual appetite, her skill and ferocity as a warrior, and her magical talent.
The first aspect is the one based on Medb of Connacht. The legendary queen was called "Medb of the Friendly Thighs"; she often boasted that she needed seven men to satisfy her; and she once proclaimed that she always had at least one man in the shadow of another. On top of that, scholars tend to believe that she was a euhemerized fertility and sovereignty goddess, with whom the king had to mate every year both to legitimize his rule and ensure the fecundity of his people and the land. And there is the meaning of her name. All of this suggested a character who could match Conan the Cimmerian in drinking, feasting, and screwing.
However, there the resemblance ends. In the Táin, there is a scene where the great Ulster hero, Cú Chulainn, routs Medb's guard and comes looking for her. He finds her hiding under her chariot, and when he confronts her, she weeps and pleads for her life, beseeching him to protect her as he would any other helpless woman. As such, instead of capturing her and holding her for ransom, he gives her safe conduct back to Connacht. And throughout the epic up to this point, while Medb is shown leading her army, she is never depicted as doing any actual fighting (though a mortally wounded warrior did describe the woman who attacked him, and Cú Chulainn identified her as Medb.).
Mr. O'Brien didn't like that. He was willing to make his character devious, even duplicitous, but he didn't want a coward. He imagined his Medb as standing before Cú Chulainn and challenging him to single combat; what's more, he imagined her defeating him handedly. In addition to this, the primary deity of war among the Celts was almost always female, and this was certainly true of the Gaels. They had at least four war goddesses, named Morrígan, Macha, Badbh, and Nemhain. They all shared the same characteristics, and so were largely interchangeable; in fact, some commentators have suggested that Morrigán was the primary being and the other three were her avatars, representing various aspects of her nature. One of these aspects was the warrior, and in any guise (but especially that of Badbh or Nemhain) she would terrorize the Gaels before battle. As such, Mr. O'Brien envisioned Medb using fear and intimidation to demoralize her enemies before and during battle. (And paradoxically, the war goddesses were also fertility goddesses, and often tried to seduce heroes for their own pleasure. This fits in well with the idea of Medb of Connacht as a euhemerized goddess, so it seemed natural to make her a fighter as well as a lover.)
So he decided to make her an Amazon, and he based her on another character he had created (but has never used, so far), one he called Cona. As that name might suggest, he envisioned her as being a female Conan, and like him a master of armed and unarmed combat. However, he also patterned her after Robert E. Howard's vision of Conan, and made her an intelligent fighter, who depended as much on her brain as her brawn. Though she would practice the better part of valor when necessary, she would never cower under a chariot, or beg for her life as a helpless woman. Mr. O'Brien simply transferred these traits to Medb hErenn, with one major exception: Medb's supreme self-confidence (which is her greatest weakness) would often prompt her to act rashly, sometimes without thinking. Also, though well-trained in the martial arts and capable of fighting with great skill and grace, he envisioned Medb as being something of a brawler, quite comfortable with using her fists and fighting dirty.
Finally, he decided that she would practice heroic nudity. Among the Celts, there was a tradition that warriors would go into battle wearing only a torc, belt, and sandals — if even that much — and protected at best only by helmet and shield. It was by no means universal — not every tribe practiced it, and the nobility at least preferred to wear chainmail armor while the rank-and-file soldier often wore trousers and a shirt — and it had been discontinued by 50 B.C.E. But it had fired the imagination of the Classical commentators, who had mentioned it quite prominently in their writings, and up until 300 B.C.E. warrior Celts depicted in art where almost always shown naked. While there may have been a religious aspect to this practice, more than likely it was pure bravado, meant to show the courage of the warrior and his contempt for both his enemy and death. (Which is interesting, because the Celts actually feared death; but then, they feared personal dishonor even more and nothing was more dishonorable to them than cowardice in battle.) There are precious few records of women warriors among the Celts, and none that stated that women fought naked, but for various reasons both logical and prurient, Mr. O'Brien decided that Medb hErenn would feel honor-bound to eschew armor and even clothing, and fight her enemies stark naked.
The magical aspect of Medb hErenn is not based on a single source, but it was the first trait to evolve out of his speculation about her. Though in the Táin she is not depicted as using magic, there are stories of her testing warriors in the guise of an old hag or a young maiden. To the Irish, this came from the ability to caste illusions and was indicative of strong magical power. Again, this fits in well with Medb of Connacht as a euhemerized goddess. And some traditions linked Medb of Connacht to the Faeries, going so far as to say that she had Faerie blood, or that after her death she became queen of a Faerie mound. Also, a third aspect of the nature of the war goddesses was their ability to prophesy. Especially Badbh, who would appear by the side of a stream, washing the clothes of the warriors fated to die. Then too, both Badbh and Macha would take the form of crows or ravens and fly over the battlefield, to revel in the carnage and feed on the corpses afterwards. As well, there is a story of how Macha cursed the warriors of Ulster, that whenever an enemy threatened their borders they would be struck down by the pains of child birthing and would be unable to fight.
Finally, one thing Mr. O'Brien wanted to do with Cona that would make her different from REH's Conan was that she would not be afraid of magic, but would in fact be trained in its use. (He actually had an idea for a Conan novel, entitled "Conan the Magician", where the Cimmerian would be forced to learn some magic to defeat a foe that could not be beaten by force of arms; at the end of the novel, though, he would reject magic altogether. When Mr. O'Brien created Cona, he simply made her more open to the idea of learning how to do magic.) Besides, his character's evolution had quickly progressed to the point where he was envisioning her as having great strength and endurance, and great longevity, and her involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos sparked the idea that, like Abdul Alhazred, she would write her own grimoire of Mythos lore. So the picture of Medb hErenn the Sorceress just seemed to emerge as a natural consequence of her nature and background.
Four other inspirations and influences would almost certainly be Jessica Atreides of the Dune Chronicles by Frank Herbert, Angelina DiGriz of the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison, Aleytys of the Diadem From the Stars series by Jo Clayton, and Morgaine Anjuran kri Chya of the Qhalan Gate series by C. J. Cherryh. Likely influences would include Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore, Bradamant by Ludovico Ariosto (Medb will in fact face Bradamant's implacable enemy, Marfisa, in a future story), Patricia Savage (cousin of Doc Savage), Galadriel by J. R. R. Tolkien, and Mavra Chang of the Well of Souls series by Jack L. Chalker. Yet even for the first three, their influences are fairly limited, mostly to personality traits and emotional reactions.
Back to Her Character Profile.