Part Eight: Conversation with Eric Hemmers — Where Did the Idea come from for ‘The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son’?


Part 8:  This conversation is in ten parts.

EH: It sounds like you have worked out the time line for the five books in a thoughtful and logical manner.

OD: That remains to be seen. Stories tend to have a life of their own and can sometimes take the oddest twists and turns that the writer might not have planned. But, I think a good writer will let the story reveal itself as it is told. It just works most of the time.

Now, in addition to Cael’s story—he is the bear’s son, remember, there are numerous other stories taking place or being told at the same time. As Cael has adventures with his companions he will learn other stories, background stories you might say, that will reveal more the islands’ story as well as that of other important inhabitants/characters.

These five books tell a complex and richly layered narrative.   Everything is connected; nothing is really random. The characters’ decisions at any given point in the story has a direct consequence and propels the story to its logical conclusion. Or, as I am fond of saying, for every action there must be a reaction.

EH: I am dying to ask about more of the details of the story and the characters that you think are the most interesting. Any chance of getting a glimpse of these?

OD: Hmmm… Eric, that is a tough request because you’d have to know a bit of background information in order to understand why some characters are so important to the story.

I can tell you that what interests me in writing this story is the idea that most people never venture very far from where they live (for the most part). Therefore, the actual distances in Moel Eyris is fairly compact, but the terrain and the sea makes getting around difficult. Remember, too, that essentially the world of Moel Eyris is a medieval world, and on some islands downright primitive (on purpose). It can take much longer to travel a short distance than you might imagine in these islands.

The main islands are: Skrael, Noord Eyr(is), Eyr (with twelve skeelings), Hylde, the Isle of Mey, and Peedie Eyr(is) and Eynhallow—which is an ‘island within an island’. Originally, I had only wanted there to be five islands—five Initiations, five dragon eggs, five Atecotti, five companions. But, it turned out that I needed seven islands in order to make sense of the narrative and some of the islanders’ background history.

Being as obsessive-compulsive as I am, each island has its own distinct architectural style, crafts or trades that it is most famous for, and most importantly home to a specific type of islander.

Skrael, for example, is where the trows live. Their story is a sad one and this is the bleakest and most desolate island that they were driven too (over the long course of the islands’ history).   Noord Eyr(is) is its closest neighbor and the inhabitants of this island are a bit different from other islanders and more accepting of the trows. The architecture on these two islands is all stone and on Skrael some of the most primitive.

Eyr is the largest island, the main island, and the locale where most of the action over the course of the story takes place.   It is rugged and difficult terrain and has specific regions where particular islanders live. The best example is Mowdie; this is the Realm of the Island Bears and is separated from the Ooterlands by the Northwoods. The Ooterlands is the Realm of the Yule Bear (see Bear Noel). The Noorderlands is the domain of the skeely-wifes and Moel Weorpe is the Realm of Owlers. The four skeelings make up the far northern reaches of Eyr.

The architecture of these skeelings is primarily stone and in the case of the Island Bears, stone and wood and sometimes turf roofs.

The skeeling of Thorne is the gateway between the northern skeelings and the southern skeelings.   Eynhallow and the The Fens are significant features in this midland region. Moudiewart, Moel Terre, Moolland and Moel Breeks are found in this area. The two smaller woods—The Toad and The Woad are found in this region as well.

The architecture style is stone and wood with a number of variations.

The southern skeelings are The Nedderlands, Moel Faulds, and Moel Gearde. Moolstery is, of course, located off the southern tip of Moel Gearde. Moel Faulds is the Realm of Scuppers, the mole messengers that play an important role in the story.

That leaves the three islands of Hylde (Realm of Dwarves); the Isle of Mey (Realm of Mossies and lies closest to the Realm of Faërie); and Peedie Eyr(is) (Realm of Bees).

Hylde is the least accessible and known island. The dwarves keep to themselves and are the most secretive of the islanders.   Peedie Eyr(is) is famous for its bees, honey, beeswax, and thatched roofed houses.   The houses are made of stone, but the roofs are whimsically thatched in tall pointed peaks.

Each island, too, has a distinctive colour about it. Peedie Eyr(is) for example is fond of and dominated by yellow. The Isle of Mey is green. Skrael and Noord Eyris are grey.

EH: You really have thought of everything in terms of these islands, haven’t you? It really is your Middle Earth with its own unique features and history.

OD: I hope so! I would have to say again that it is my twenty years of traveling in Scotland and its islands that really shaped my island world and its histories and architecture.

Now, I know you’re dying to hear about some of the characters. I’m only going to give you a quick outline with the briefest of descriptions. It’s all going to get very confusing, I’m afraid.

Let’s see, where should I start.

The first inhabitants of the islands were the dragons. And of these, three were the most important. And of the three is Cymrodorian that was the most powerful. It was this dragon that lends its name to the Cymry of Maols and the Cymrood of Skeely-wifes.

The five Atecotti came next and learned the magic and mystery from the dragons. They are the Oldest Old Ones; the Ancient Ones; they are most closely connected to the standing stones and stone circles in the islands. They give breath to the standing stones. The Atecotti are the ancestors of the trows and are living mummies, kept secret and protected by the trows.   Trows are based on Neanderthals in physical appearance and strength. They speak a more archaic dialect and have their own distinctive words. I like playing with words and inventing colourful words. Trows provide the perfect opportunity to introduce an entire host of words and humor in ways that I can’t think of any other way to do.

The Cymry of Maols (Brotherhood of Mythographers) has twenty-four maols; the Penkyrdd, Maol Rudha, is the head of the order. The Cymrood of Skeely-wifes (Sisterhood of Healers and Charmers) has only nine skeely-wifes; Hennock Pyn is the Pynwyn, the head of the order at the time the story takes place. Hennock Pyn, by the way, is a trow-wife who speaks in the distinctive dialect of trows.

There are twelve moermaols and twelve maermaols. Each maol has two maolts.

Moolstery is all male. No females are ever allowed into the isolated rock settlement.

It was Maol Rudha and Skar Crombie that founded Moolstery.   I even wrote their background story in a short story titled ‘The Kidnapping of the Boy with Red Hair’. Maol Rudha means ‘Red Maol’.

I suppose a lot of readers will think of maols as wizards. Maol Rudha, then, is my Merlin.

Maol Rudha and Skar Crombie (a shapeshifter) are life partners, even in death (of Skar Crombie). Skar Crombie is a bear that was granted the power of shape-shifting by the Atecotti in order to bring Maol Rudha to the islands.

Maols can be men, bears, trows, and dwarves.

Skeely-wifes can be women, bears, trow-wifes, dwarf-wifes.

There are trows and sea-trows.

There are ‘magical’ creatures that play important roles in the story: Grunka Blue Scudda is one of the most interesting sea-trows. He guards the Soul Cages that hold the souls of drowned islanders, fisherman, and sailors; The Errius, a magical diminutive fish; Murdaugh, the Protector of the Sea, a giant sea turtle (that was in Hanne’s Quest); and the Storm Hags that stir the Swelkie (giant maelstrom or whirlpool).

Throughout the story there are lively and interesting characters that Cael encounters.   Two of my favorites are Miss Euphemia MacCrimmon and Miss Gertie Pines. They are Watchers who live off-island.

Watchers, Guardians, and Scuppers all play important roles.   Scuppers are messengers and are most often moles, but can also be ravens, crows, or owls.

The Yule Bear is the most magical benevolent inhabitant. He brings the gifts at Yuletide to all the animals and islanders.

Eric, I have lists and lists of major and minor characters that come into the story. It would only be too confusing to try and mention them all here.

Part Seven: Conversation with Eric Hemmers — Where Did the Idea come from for ‘The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son’?


Part 7:  This conversation is in ten parts.

EH: OK, so you have essentially been working on LOME since 1978.   It’s now 2015 how far along have you gotten with the actual writing of the story? Or, should I say, stories?

OD: As you know, Eric, there are going to be five books in The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son.   Each of the five books focuses on specific adventures and revealing the magic and mystery of the islands: 1) Cael’s Initiations to becoming a maol; 2) his learning the history and lore of the islands; 3) his meeting the many and varied islanders and 4) solving the mysteries that will save the islands from the ruthless attacks by the evil Muckle Maisters.

The Overview of all five books, what the main mystery and resolution in each book will be, is written.   Each of the five books has a rough outline of chapter titles and what is basically going to take place.   Each of the five books is set in a particular island or region and will allow Cael, and the reader, to discover the islands together as he strives to solve the secrets that must be solved in order for him to fulfill his Destiny.

Here are the five books:

Book One: The Secret Book of Moolstery: basic plot is that Cael arrives in Moel Eyris, becomes friends with Peadar and Cuddy, and begins his twelve long years of study to become a maol, or mythographer and a fully fledged member in the Cymry of Maols—the Brotherhood of Mythographers

Book Two: The Secret of the Mool Dykes; basic plot is that Cael adds two more companions to his circle of friends, Maggie and Rinar, that bring the number of companions up to five.   The five companions share the adventures and perils as they aid Cael in his quest to find the five dragon eggs. The main story line is how they discover what the mystery of the mool dykes is.

Book Three: The Secret of Morag’s Too’er: basic plot is that the five companions must make their way to the Black Rock where Morag’s Too’er stands and learn the secret that is held there that can help them in their quest to find the dragon eggs.

Book Four: The Secret of the Myvyrrian Map: basic plot is that Cael must learn to ‘read’ the Myvyrrian Map and uncover clues that will help him and his companions find the lost dragon eggs. The Myvyrrian Map is the only map in existence that shows the mysteries as well as the geography of the islands.

Book Five: The Secret of the Dragon Eggs: basic plot is that Cael meets the mysterious and ancient Atecotti, learns the location of the dragon eggs, and battles Madron-an-Faär in an epic fight that will determine whether Moel Eyris will be saved or fall under the dominion of the evil Sea Wolf and disappear beneath the sea forever.

EH: Wow! I love it! Each book has a set structure that moves the story forward and brings Cael, the hero, to his final destiny in the islands.

OD: That’s it. Of course, in each book there are numerous and interesting details that, hopefully, the reader will find interesting and will help them learn the geography and magic of the islands.   Each book is designed to introduce specific characters, mysteries, and locales in a logical sequence so that the reader is kept interested and not feel overwhelmed by so much new information and words.   As Cael learns the mysteries of becoming a maol he also learns the value of friendship and trust. He must make difficult, and sometimes heart wrenching decisions that not only affect him, but other characters’ lives as well. Not to mention the fate of the islands.

And, you might want to note that word “maol” which means ‘mythographer’. And maol is spelled m-a-o-l. Maols are charged with recording the history and stories of the islands as well as other world myths. “Maolt” is an apprentice maol. Again, you can see how that word ‘moel’ is being used to define one of the core concepts in LOME: The Cymry of Maols.

EH: Why is maol spelled in such an odd way? And why does it take twelve years to become a maol? Is there any particular significance to that number of years?

OD: I think I settled on that particular spelling when I came across an Old Welsh word that was spelled that way. Yes, there is a particular reason that it requires twelve long years of study to become a maol. Somewhere along the line I had read that in ancient Britain it took a bard (druid) twelve years’ study to fully become a bard. I’m pretty sure this is why I decided to have it take twelve years to become a fully fledged maol.   And, of course, as with any ‘secret society’ or brotherhood, there have to be Initiations. Cael must undergo five Initiations in the course of his study at Moolstery.

Again, the five books are designed so that each one features one of the Initiations (except in Book One I think two Initiations take place). Having set up the parameter of twelve years’ study at Moolstery I had to make certain that I can cover those twelve years in five books.   Book One will cover only ONE year because Cael has to much to learn as does the reader about this mysterious island world. Book Two covers the next two years; Book Three covers the following three years; Book Four covers the next three years; and Book Five covers the final three years of his study at Moolstery.

Cael is twelve years old at the start of Book One and he is twenty-four years old at the end of Book Five.   To me, as a writer, twenty-four is the magical age in a young man’s life where he really makes his mark and understands his place in the world. And this is exactly what Cael does.

Part Six: Conversation with Eric Hemmers — Where Did the Idea come from for ‘The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son’?


Part 6:  This conversation is in ten parts.

EH: It sounds like your mythology really did spring from your discovery of all these interesting old words.   Is that an accurate assessment of your creative process?

OD: Absolutely! You might even go so far as to say that LOME began as an unorganized collection of words. In time it became obvious that I was going to have to start organizing these words or I would never be able to remember how and when I came up with what words and why. And then the next logical thing to do was to start writing a story that used these wonderful words.

EH: So, if your mythology began with collecting odd words, when did you start writing the actual story?

OD: Ah, now we come to the really gnarly and gritty part of the writing process when it comes to describing how LOME came to be in the form you read today.

Again, it all started in 1973 when I first read Tolkien and then became more focused in 1978 when I first went to Scotland. But, it was not until the mid-1980s that the actual structure for the narrative began to solidify in my mind—as a children’s book. So, I thought that my main character, the protagonist, would be a young boy.

EH: LOME started out as a children’s book?

OD: I think so. But, as my pile of research notes grew the story became more complex and layered, more akin to Middle Earth and Tolkien’s expansive writing than a simple children’s book.   I quickly figured out that I was going to need more than one book to tell all the stories and adventures that I felt had to be part of the story.

Remember, I first ventured to New York City to try to break into children’s book publishing in 1979. I didn’t even mention LOME to any of the editors and art directors I met. The project was only in its beginning stage of ideas and concepts. I was offered my first set of contracts in 1982. Three different publishes offered me a total of seven book contracts before I had had anything published at all! It was incredible!   My first book was published in 1983—Eddy B, Pigboy, by Margaret K. McElderry at Atheneum. Eddy B was my first book published but it wasn’t the first book that I wrote. The first book that I wrote was Ravena, shortly after I had returned from Scotland in 1978.   The original title was No One Will Come to Dinner and was published in 1984 as Ravena.

Eddy B is based on my childhood experiences growing up around farm animals. But, it was Ravena that first introduced characters that would become a big part of my thinking about my own mythical world.   In Ravena you will first come across characters that are, to this day, part of LOME: bog-trotters, trow-wifes, Elmog, cairns, banshees, standing stones, and Muckle Heog for example.

I am a compulsive mapmaker and have kept drawing maps of my world so that I would know exactly where any one particular picture book is set. With Moel Eyris clearly in my mind I went on to write picture books that are what I call “folk tales” in the larger mythology. Books such as The Trow-Wife’s Treasure; Bear Noel; Mogwogs on the March!; Hanne’s Quest; A Christmas Tree for Pyn and even Old Bear and His Cub.

Each of these books makes reference to a specific geographical location in the mythology or characters.   As I wrote each picture book I was very aware of the importance in keeping the chronology consistent as well as geographic locales.

By drawing maps I was able to see how one island’s location would affect characters on another island.   The best example is The Trow-Wife’s Treasure.

In this story a kind-hearted farmer comes to the aid of a trow-wife who has lost her baby. He succeeds in helping her get her baby back and she gives him a reward. The reward is a hen that lays golden eggs. It’s interesting that I use this same idea, many years later in Hanne’s Quest, of a hen that lays golden eggs.

So, here’s the logical premise that I must adhere to as a writer: For a human farmer to come into contact with a trow-wife the most lost setting for the story is on Noord Eyris, which is the small island that lies closest to Skrael (Trow Eyris). It makes the most sense that this would be where the two characters could meet and interact.

By the way, Noord Eyr(is) is inspired by North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands. North Ronaldsay is famous for its sheep dyke that encompasses the entire island to keep the sheep off the fragile land. Noord Eyr(is) has its own sheep dyke that serves the same purpose. Again, you can see how my field research and knowledge of the Orkney Islands has influenced my own mythology.

Oh, and Skara Brae is a name I desperately wanted to use in the mythology. Naturally, I didn’t want to use Skara Brae as it is known so I modified the words to: Skara Bree and then most recently decided that I should take one more step farther away from the original words and I have had Skara Bree become Skarbree or Skarbry. This is a really good example as to how I change and modify words to suit my own needs.

And, of course, you can see the problems I encounter when writing LOME. Skara Bree has already been introduced in Hanne’s Quest. So, the question is can it become Skarbree or Skarbry in LOME as the narrative for Cael’s story is told?

Part Five: Conversation with Eric Hemmers — Where Did the Idea come from for ‘The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son’?


Part 5:  This conversation is in ten parts.

EH: I see. So, your writing career pretty much started with children’s books. When did LOME come into your mind as a story then?

OD: The genesis for LOME began in 1978, I would say. Everything I saw and experienced began to shape ideas, characters, beliefs, histories, etc.   I began drawing maps, writing stories, all loosely connected but not completely formulated as a mythology yet, and amassing a huge amount of research notes. I think I must have more than two thousand pages of notes, if not more.   It would take me about ten years to really create the world of Moel Eyris.   Like Tolkien I wanted every detail to be correct and exacting, from the flora and fauna right down to the architecture and characters that would inhabit my mythical world of Moel Eyris.

EH: Then would you say that you have been working on LOME since 1978? Or 1988?

OD: I would say that 1978 started the creative process. It was that first trip to Scotland, the Orkney Islands, the Outer Hebrides that shaped my ideas and concepts.   Over the course of the next thirty years I kept returning to Scotland, kept doing research, kept discovering more and more about archaeology and folk beliefs that really began to take shape in my mind and how I might use this information to create my own mythology, my own epic saga.

EH:   Would you say then that it was Tolkien’s books and your trips to Scotland that shaped your writing of the story?   Was there anything else that inspired your ideas?

OD: Definitely. Tolkien’s books were the springboard for my wanting to learn more about philology, languages, Norse mythology, Celtic mythology and so on. But I would have to add that the Arthurian legend was another tremendous influence on me as a writer. I think I have read every version of the Arthur story that you could think of.

EH: You mean Disney’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’ type of Arthur story?

OD: [laughing and shaking his finger at me] No! No, no, NO! Absolutely not! Most people seem to only have seen that Disney film and think that is the true version of the Arthur story. The books I mean include my favorites such as The Once and Future King by T. H. White; ‘The Merlin’ trilogy [The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment] by Mary Stewart; Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliffe; and my most favorite retelling of the Arthur story Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. But, I also read the early medieval versions as well, starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum BritanniaeHistory of the Kings of Britain written sometime in the 1130s.

I’ve always loved the story of King Arthur. But, it wasn’t the chivalrous knights that appealed to me most. It was the ‘dark skinned wild men’ and Merlin. The Arthur story propelled me down the path of reading and researching anything I could find on Medieval Romance, druids, and Celtic mythology.

EH: How in the world do you remember all these books and so much history?

OD: Eric, when you are passionate about something it’s not hard to remember. These are simply some of my favorite books that I have read and reread many times in the course of my lifetime. But, it was still Tolkien and his books that really made me want to write my own stories, create my own mythical world. Like most of Tolkien’s fans I have my favorite characters in the stories and my favorite chapters that I go back and reread fairly often.

EH: Can you tell me what a few of them are?

OD: Sure! Beorn is my most favorite character and was my introduction to the concept of shape-shifting.   Of course, I had to look up to see what Beorn meant because it made me think of Beowulf. In researching folk motifs in literature of came across the bear’s son cycle and motif and this had a profound impact on my thinking in regard to my main character, Caelean Faolán, whose father is bear that could shape-shift into a man.   This naturally led to learning about the taboo of the beast marriage and began to shape my idea for who Cael’s parents were and why he was so special.

One of my most favorite chapters was the one when Frodo and his companions arrive at Bree. You have to remember that this was many years before the movies came out.   And my interpretation of Bree was not nearly as dark and sinister as Peter Jackson presented it in the movies.

For me, traveling by train in the old-fashioned first class compartments or staying in a snug inn like the Prancing Pony is what appeals to me as a writer. I like cozy and snug, what can I say?

Having learned that Tolkien studied Old English, or Anglo-Saxon prompted me to buy a number of Anglo-Saxon dictionaries and begin my own adaptation of some of the words.

Languages fascinate me, and one thing led to another.   For example, in the Orkney Islands there is a now defunct dialect called Norn. I first came across this fact while doing research in the Kirkwall library in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.   I began to look at other languages such as Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Old Norse, Old Dutch, and Old Welsh for example. I took copious notes on words that interested me and that I thought I could use in my mythology. Some words I kept the definitions, others I completely made up my own meanings.

EH: Is that where the word ‘moel’ comes from?

OD: Not exactly.   The word ‘moel’ has a much simpler explanation and history.   I was trying to type the word ‘mole’ and I simply made a typo and when I saw ‘moel’ instead of ‘mole’ I loved it! And I made it my own.

I then went on to create an entire history for the word ‘moel’—in its most archaic form you have ‘mool’ or ‘maol’.   The islands where I set my mythology and stories became Moel Eyris. Eyris is my word for ‘island’ but it has become problematical because I came to the conclusion that ‘eyris’ is actually the plural form of ‘eyr’. And then I went on to come up with ‘ey’ for an islet, a very small island. A rock, really. ‘Ey’, of course, is completely inspired from the Norse.

Once I had the word ‘moel’ the entire mythology really did begin to take shape. That one word inspired place names, characters, history and so much more for my stories. I can’t explain how this one word propelled me to create my own mythology. But, it did.

Eric, I have to tell you that I had once read a historical novel titled The Camerons, set in Scotland, in the 17th or 18th, possibly 19th century, and had come across the word ‘moudiewart’. I had no idea what this word meant and, once again, I turned to my trusty OED and looked up it. I was thrilled to discover that moudiewart was the archaic Scottish word for mole! And in 1989 my book Deep Down Underground was published that features one “wee moudiewart, digging, digging, deep down underground.”

Just real quickly I should tell you that, just as I discovered when I looked up ‘barrow-wight,’ having looked up the word ‘moudiewart’ led me to learn other words that were used for moles: moudiewart, moudiewort, mouldiwart, and the most archaic: moldo warpo, which literally translates as ‘earth thrower’. You can’t get any more descriptive when describing a mole than earth thrower!

If you study the Myvyrrian Map [the detailed map of Moel Eyris] you will see how the variations on the word ‘moel’ have been used in numerous place names or geographic features and specific regions (skeelings): mool dykes, Mowdie, Moudiewart, Moel Terre, Moel Weorpe, Moel Breeks, Moel Faulds, Moolland, Moelfree, Moel Gearde, Moolstery — these are the best examples as to how one word inspired an entire island world.

Part Four: Conversation with Eric Hemmers — Where Did the Idea come from for ‘The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son’?


Part 4: This conversation is in ten parts.

EH: It does sound like 1978 was the turning point in your life. Don’t laugh, but it’s how I felt about meeting you.   Meeting you changed my life and really made me want to travel and be a writer—just like you.

OD: Eric, those are potent words. I never thought of myself affecting someone so intensely. But, it happened to me and I can see how it must have happened to you. Funny, isn’t it, how when you least expect it you meet someone and your entire life can be changed. Hopefully, for the better!

EH: So, did you head to the Orkney Islands after meeting those two French archaeologists?

OD: Not right away. Remember, I had promised Fairley that I would visit her elderly relatives in Scourie. So, once I reached Thurso, instead of heading to John O’Groats to take the ferry to the southern Orkney Islands, I headed west to Scourie.   I have to tell you that this stretch of the northern coast of Scotland is breathtakingly beautiful. At least it was to me.

EH: Did you find the relatives in Scourie?

OD: I did. I took the mail bus from Thurso to Scourie. I had bought them a couple small gifts in Thurso so that I wouldn’t arrive empty handed.   The mail bus dropped me off in the village and I asked how to find the people I was looking for. I counted on everyone knowing everyone else in the village. Fairley had told me that the village was very small.   And, of course, everyone knew who I wanted to find and I had no difficulty finding their small cottage perched not too far from the North Sea.

EH: How in the world did you go about introducing yourself?

OD: Easy! I walked up to the front door, knocked, and when an elderly woman, Fairley’s aunt, opened the door I simply introduced myself and said that I was a friend of their niece and they welcomed me with open arms!   The world was a lot less suspicious in 1978 than it is today, believe me. Fairley’s aunt and uncle were in their early nineties. I ended up spending about five days with them and helped out with the heavy chores around the croft in exchange for room and board. I loved listening to their stories of the ‘old days’.   They were happy to have a young person be so interested in their lives and their stories. Remember, they had been born in the late 19th century and I wanted to hear all about life in Scotland before it became modern. And, of course, they wanted to hear all about Fairley and her life in Philadelphia. They had a large wedding portrait of Fairley hanging on the wall and she was one of the most beautiful brides I’ve ever seen. The entire arrangement worked out perfectly for all of us.

Again, meeting these two generous and hardworking elderly people was one of the highlights of my first trip to Scotland. I can’t even begin to tell you the things I learned from them. It was their stories about the superstitions associated with ancient burial mounts and standing stones that I was most interested in. This was probably the beginning of putting my interest in archaeology and prehistory together with folk beliefs associated with ancient sites.

Bit by bit, my interests were starting to take tangible shape. After spending a wonderful time with them, and listening to their stories, they told me that I didn’t have to go all the way back to Thurso and John O’Groats to reach the Orkney Islands. There was a smaller, more interesting ferry that left from Portskerra, not too far from Scourie, that would take me right to the town of Stromness on the Mainland.   Stromness is one of the most picturesque fishing villages in the islands. And this ferry goes right past the Old Man of Hoy, a four hundred foot high rock stac rising out of the North Sea right off the coast of Hoy.

And that’s what I did. My first trip to the Orkney Islands was by way of Portskerra.

EH: And was it everything you had hoped it would be? How long did you stay there?

OD: I was everything and more! I had no expectations except that I wanted to see as many prehistoric sites as I could. It was in Stromness and Kirkwall that I bought the first of my extensive collection of books on prehistoric Scotland. I still have a very small model of a traditional straw-back Orkney chair in my studio that I bought that year. Luckily, there is no shortage of sites to see on the Mainland as well as Hoy and Rousay—these are the two next larger islands that lie close to the Mainland and are easy to get to.

EH: Mainland Scotland?

OD: No, the main island in the archipelago is called the Mainland. Kirkwall is the largest town and that’s where the magnificent St. Magnus cathedral stands.   I only spent a week in the Orkney Islands that first visit. I had only just began my long twenty years of research at this time.   It was in 1978 that I first visited Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, Rennibister Earthhouse, Gurness Broch, Taversoe Tuick, Midhowe Broch, and other well known prehistoric sites.

I was beside myself with everything that I saw and experienced. It was another world, vastly different from anything I had ever seen or heard or smelt before.

EH: How did you get around the islands? Or the Mainland? Did you rent a car?

OD: No, I didn’t rent a car. I wasn’t that brave. I rented a bicycle and cycled all over the Mainland.   There are ferries that go to the other islands and on Rousay and Hoy I hiked everywhere.   It’s difficult and would take too much time to try to explain the eerie emptiness of these islands, the absolute otherworldliness of them, and the sense of magic that permeates everything you see and do.

Sitting alone in a dark earthhouse underground or inside an ancient burial mound is beyond description. It’s the feeling that you experience in these ancient silent places.

Skara Brae was nothing short of stunning!   As I walked around the site by myself I tried to imagine what life must have really been like living in those snug little stone houses. It was all the ancient stonework that I saw that fired my imagination the most.

I have to tell you that it was when I was on Rousay and discovered the round cairn called Taversoe Tuick that really started my mind working.

EH: Howso? What was it about this particular cairn that made it so special and different from the others?

OD: Cairns and barrows were built in different styles. There are long barrows, round barrows, stalled cairns, chambered cairns, horned barrows, for example. What made Taversoe Tuick so special was the fact that it is one of the rare ‘two story’ cairns. This cairn looks like a rough, tussocky hillock and you enter it from the top through a metal hatch. You climb down an iron ladder into the top level and then can climb down a smaller, narrower ladder to the lower level. The cairn is small, cramped, and dark. Enough light came in from the open hatch that allowed me to actually get some pretty good photos of the interior and I even managed a self-portrait of me sitting in the cairn.

I spent a long time sitting quietly in Taversoe Tuick. I wanted to memorize the stonework from the inside so that I would have a better understanding as to how it was built. And it was at this moment in time that I began to imagine who would live in a cairn like this.   You have to keep in mind that I knew it was a burial mound but my research had revealed that in the 18th and 19th centuries cairns were believed to be ‘fairy houses’.   It was this bit of folklore that I latched onto and was most interested in thinking about.

Eric, you have to remember that as I was seeking out ancient sites at the same time I was collecting, and reading, books that described the sites in great detail and had detailed drawings and diagrams showing how they looked in plan and section.

EH: Wow! So, this was the beginning of LOME? It all started with your exploring ancient burial mounds and standing stone circles.

OD: Almost. This was my first venture to Scotland and my first time actually seeing and exploring ancient sites.   That visit to Taversoe Tuick actually inspired my first picture book that is titled Ravena. I wrote the story shortly after returning home. But, it wasn’t until the next year that I actually showed it in New York City in hopes that an editor or art director would want to publish it.

Part Three: Conversation with Eric Hemmers — Where Did the Idea come from for ‘The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son’?


Part 3: This conversation is in ten parts.

EH: So what happened while you were in Inverness? Anything special?

OD: I don’t remember much about my time in Inverness to be honest. It was just a very grey city.  The only definite plans I had were to continue north and see where it led me. I don’t think I was very fair to Inverness because I really wanted to be in the countryside and not in a city.

EH: You really had this trip planned out in detail, didn’t you?

OD: Sort of.  But, I never knew exactly where I was going to end up.  I just followed my instincts and got my money’s worth with my BritRail pass.

Wait a minute! Now I remember why I was heading north. I had worked for a wonderful architectural firm in Philadelphia called Baker Rothschild Horn and Blyth in 1977. One of the partners, Cecil Baker, had a beautiful wife named Fairley. Fairley was Canadian but her family originally came from Scotland and she had relatives in a small village called Scourie right on the north coast of Scotland.   So, I was making my way to Scourie, which is west of Thurso. Thurso is the largest town in the far northeast of Scotland.

EH: Did you know all these towns before you went to Scotland?

OD: Of course not! I only knew that Fairley had elderly relatives in Scourie and I had told her that I would look them up.   She said that they would be happy to meet me and spend time with me. I was young and fearless and didn’t think it was odd that I would stop in to meet someone’s elderly relatives.   And I had lots of maps so that I could find my way.

EH: You are brave! And how did it all work out?

OD: Well, from Inverness I decided to take the train to Thurso. The train stopped in a small town on the northeast coast called Helmsdale. I got off the train with my backpack and looked around the town. It was interesting to me for some reason, but I don’t remember why. With my BritRail pass I could get on and off trains as often as I liked without restriction.  My approach to traveling was that if I didn’t like a town I could hop on the next train and keep traveling.

I never made advance reservations. I am the eternal optimist and never worried that I wouldn’t find someplace to spend the night—even if it was in a train station or on the train platform. In Helmsdale I missed the last train to Thurso so I ended up staying in the youth hostel there for the night.  I do remember that the weather was nasty—cold and rainy.   After looking around the town I spent the evening studying my guidebooks and Ordnance Survey maps in order to plot out my route to Scourie. It was the next morning that I overheard two young French archaeology grad students having a lively discussion and poring over their own Ordnance Survey maps planning their day of exploration on the moors looking for something called “souterrains”. Back then my French was still pretty good and I could understand most of what they were saying.

I introduced myself and asked them what exactly they were looking going out to look for. They explained all about souterrains, or earth-houses, to me and that this was part of their graduate thesis project. They were looking for lesser known, unexplored earthhouses and were going to take measurements, do map plotting, etc. I thought this sounded fascinating and asked them if I could come along. They said that I could and I could help carry the measuring equipment. In other words, I served as their pack mule. That day, out on the empty moors in northern Scotland was magical. There’s no other way to describe it.

At one point we had settled onto a small mound and were having a bite to eat when we heard bagpipes somewhere off in the distance. We never saw who was playing the bagpipes but it was one of the strangest and most magical music I had ever heard. I didn’t realize that hiking across rough moorland with no landmarks was going to be such an arduous thing to do. At one point the two grad students stopped and consulted their map. They kept looking around and said that the souterrain they were looking for had to be somewhere nearby. We spread out and searched for it. I thought it would be a well-marked site and I really had no clear idea what it was supposed to look like.

Suddenly, one of the grad students yelled out that she had found it. The other grad student and I ran over and all that there was to see was a small, squarish hole in the ground. I was amazed that this is what they were looking for. They had brought flashlights and we had to get down on our stomachs and slither into the tight, narrow, dark stone-lined passage that led down to a corbeled stone chamber. Very small.   The three of us could barely fit into it.

This was the very first time I had ever experienced anything like this. We were in an undocumented prehistoric structure and I was thrilled! We found and documented a number of souterrains on the moors.   I found it all absolutely thrilling and exciting.   When we returned to the youth hostel at the end of the day wet, cold, and tired, all I could talk about was what we had seen and done. Over our simple dinner we made for ourselves at the youth hostel they told me that if I found this little bit of archaeology exciting I should visit the Grey Cairns of Camster a bit farther north and then take the ferry over to the Orkney Islands where there was a treasure trove of archaeological sites.

EH: That’s great! So meeting these two graduate archaeology students from France made you want to see more. Did you visit these cairns?

OD: I did! From Helmsdale I continued north to Wick, right on the east coast. From Wick I had to take a bus in order to get to the Grey Cairns of Camster. For me the most memorable event was when I visited the Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness. These were the first prehistoric burial mounds that I visited. I had never seen anything like it before and my imagination was set on fire!

My plan was to continue traveling north. I still planned to find Scourie, get to John O’Groats, take the ferry over to the Orkney Island and then hitchhike across the north coast of Scotland to Cape Wrath and down the west coast to Ullapool. And from Ullapool I would take the ferry out to the Outer Hebrides.

Meeting those two young grad students literally changed my life and gave me purpose for the rest of my stay in Scotland. I now had to find and visit some very specific prehistoric sites. EH: I remember your book Skara Brae: The Story of a Prehistoric Village! Did you write and illustrate that book because of your having gone to the Orkney Islands that year? OD:   I did. But, that book didn’t happen right away. I didn’t work on that particular book until 1985, and it was published in 1986. At this point in time I hadn’t even gone to New York City yet to try and get published. I didn’t venture to New York City until 1979.

In 1978 I was at the beginning of my love affair with Scotland and all things prehistoric.   The magic and mystery of Scotland and its isles had captured my heart as well as my imagination.

EH: How do you remember all this in the order that it happened?   I mean, it seems like you did a lot during that first trip to Scotland in 1978.

OD: [laughs] Eric, I know that to you 1978 must seem like a long, long time ago. But, to me, 1978 was the year that literally changed my life and gave me a sense of direction. Focus, if you will.

My theory is that when you experience a life changing experience you remember it in great detail. It’s like remembering your first kiss or the first real love of your life. I have always said that people come into our lives for a reason. And leave our lives for a reason. Fate meant for me to meet those two young women. I don’t think they had any idea as to how much our meeting changed my life so drastically.

Part Two: Conversation with Eric Hemmers — Where Did the Idea come from for ‘The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son’?


Part 2:  This conversation is divided into ten parts.

EH: I see. Makes sense to me.   So, you first read Tolkien’s books in 1972 or 1973 and the books made an impression on you. How old were you then?

OD: I was born in September 1953 so I had just turned nineteen.   A bit old to be discovering Tolkien’s books for the first time, but thank the bees and trees for Dr. Taylor requiring us to read those books. They changed my life forever.

EH: Howso?

OD: Well, I’d never really read fantasy before. And, I suppose if I was going to read fantasy I was lucky that I my first experience was reading one of the best fantasy writers that ever lived.   Like all of Tolkien’s fans I was immediately sucked into the world of Middle Earth and its inhabitants. Every minute detail of the Shire fascinated me. I was completely obsessed with the architecture of Hobbiton. But, what really intrigued me was some of the words that I had never come across before.

EH: Which words? I’m curious to know.

OD: The word “barrow-wight” is the first that comes to mind. I had no idea what either of these words meant. Naturally, I grabbed the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, and looked it up. The definition for ‘barrow’ to led me to look up other words and I began writing them down in a notebook.   For example: Barrow is a burial mound; a prehistoric burial mound. At the end of the OED definition the citation said “See also ‘tumulus’, ‘cairn,’ ‘souterrain’.   Of course, I had to look those words up too and I was thrilled to learn that these were ancient burial structures that are found throughout the British Isles.

EH: And so these words prompted you to write your own mythology? Create your own Middle Earth?

OD: More or less. Probably more.   I really do love words, odd words, unusual words. And the more I read about Tolkien’s life and work the more intrigued I became with Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology.

In the summer of 1974 I worked as the drama counselor in a summer camp in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. It was there that I met a guy from Scotland who became one of my best friends. I graduated from college in 1975 and went on to graduate school on the west coast. I left grad school and moved to San Francisco for a very brief time and then found my way to Philadelphia.   I met my first partner in July 1976 and finally being in a stable, secure relationship gave me the confidence to settle down and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.   I was twenty-two years old. My greatest fear in life was that IF I didn’t get my big break by the time I was thirty it was never going to happen. The clock was ticking!

EH: Interesting chronology. So, how did all this affect your writing?

OD: It was my first partner, Ed, who encouraged me to do watercolours and keep drawing. Then in 1978 I flew to Scotland to visit my friend and his new wife and new baby in Glasgow. I spend six magical weeks in Scotland. By this time I had amassed quite a bit of knowledge about prehistoric structures in Britain, especially Scotland, and I decided that I wanted to see barrows, cairns, brochs, duns, earthhouses, crannogs, etc. for myself so that I could more fully appreciate Tolkien’s books.

EH: And did you see all these structures during that first trip to Scotland?

OD: Yes, I did! Quite a few, in fact. I ended up returning to Scotland year after year from 1978 to 1998 doing what I called my field research.   I had bought a BritRail pass in 1978 and my friend in Glasgow urged me to travel to the Highlands, see Inverness, Skye, and so on. He and his wife drove me to Pitlochry and found a nice little B&B for me to stay at when I began my six week tour of Scotland. Pitlochry was my first real introduction to begin exploring the Scottish countryside.   From Pitlochry I took the train to Inverness. I stayed in Inverness for a few days.

Over the course of the twenty year research period I was most interested in the Highlands and northern Scotland, the more remote areas of the country. And also the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, and the mysterious St. Kilda, far off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides.

EH: Wow! So you really did want to get to know the country and the prehistory quite well in order to write about it and use the research in creating LOME? Did you go to Loch Ness and Urquhart castle?  Did you see the Loch Ness monster?

OD: Of course I went to Loch Ness! But, no I didn’t see Nessie. And believe me, I spent an entire day walking around the castle and constantly looking out across the loch hoping to catch a glimpse, just a tiny glimpse, of Nessie.

EH: Do you believe that Nessie is real? Or is it just another legend to get tourists to Loch Ness?

OD: I honestly believe that Nessie is real. Or, at least I want her to be real. There has to be unexplained mysteries in life in order to keep us interested.