Special Needs in Strange Worlds | M.D. Lachlan

Wolfsangel is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for quite some time and I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet read it. I can, however, tell you what a wonderful guy M.D. Lachlan is. He’s friendly, genuine and personable,. Those two personality traits make me want to read his book(s) more than anything else.

So, if I haven’t yet read his books, why did I ask him to participate in this event?

After Elspeth Cooper’s post, Lachlan chimed into the discussion on Twitter and said he hadn’t thought about it before, but he had disability in his books as well and then expounded on that a bit. I found his insights really intriguing. At one point he said that he never specifically wrote disabilities into his characters, that’s just how they ended up and what felt right (or something like that – I’m horrible at paraphrasing). That really impressed me. Out of all the discussion on disability that day, Lachlan was one of the only people who actually talked about how his characters ended up with disabilities.

I enjoyed that depth, and that unique perspective and I already really respect Lachlan as an author and a fellow human being, so I was beyond thrilled when he decided to write for this event.

The truth is that Lachlan’s post speaks for itself. His insight truly is intriguing and I hope it sparks the thought and discussion it has for me. So, without further ado, I’ll let Lachlan regale you with his depth and insight.

About the author

M. D. Lachlan is the pen name for the fantasy work  of author and journalist Mark Barrowcliffe.

M.D. Lachlan elaborates…

Last month a post by Elspeth Cooper about disability or physical impairment in fantasy literature set me thinking. I realised I had a number of such characters in my work and began to wonder exactly why.

Physically impaired characters in fantasy are rare, as Elspeth noted, but far from unheard of. Just off the top of my head I can think of Bran in Game of Thrones, Joe Abercrombie’s Glotka, Elric of Melniboné – the albino, anaemic sorcerer prince -and Thomas Covenant the leper.

Is there an agenda behind the use of disabled characters? Speaking for my own work, I’d say not. Writers use disability for very much the reasons they present characters with any difficulties – to reveal character and drive forward the plot. The transformation of Bran from free spirit climbing the walls of Winterfell to a bed-bound, dependent boy who can never fulfil his ambitions elicits sympathy for the character and involves us in his fate. It also forces him to grow and change.

This may sound cynical but it makes for a fascinating character and one that the reader is rooting for. Do writers try to teach us something about disability? The ones I enjoy don’t.  They present us with living characters facing believable dilemmas and let the story reveal as much to them as it does to the readers. That way the disabled character lives as much as any other character in the book rather than becoming simply a motif.

I’m not sure I learned anything about real disability in writing Wolfsangel and Fenrir. I learned more about disability as a dramatic device and, since writing the books, I’ve been able to reflect on my own view of disability and relate to that of earlier stories and myths.

My disabled characters, like any other characters I write, tend to just arrive on the page – I don’t plan them or think ‘what am I trying to achieve with this character?’. It might not be politically correct – as, let’s face it, disabled characters are as likely to be weak, stupid or cowardly as any other – but disability physical impairment in my work very often reveals inner strength. The beautiful slave girl Saitada in Wolfsangel is repeatedly raped by her owner the smith, so she takes a  hot iron to her face so he can never enjoy looking at her again. The god Loki loves her for this, saying: ‘You chose imperfection. What could be more perfect? You saw your imperfection was perfection and therefore remedied it by imposing imperfection on yourself, thereby becoming perfect again. The logic is imperfectly flawless.’

She is also an elective mute, an outer sign of the inner damage she has suffered.

This presents her with many challenges but also makes her quite powerful. Her suffering is a kind of weapon that she uses, ultimately, to bring down her enemies. She is characterised by an inner rage. In my latest book Lord of Slaughter, her scar is described in just those terms – ‘It seemed like the expression of an internal agony, like a blister that had bubbled to the surface from some heart-deep fire.’

The character of Jehan in Fenrir again just arrived on the page but I think he was inspired by a friend of mine, recently dead, who had multiple sclerosis. The challenges she faced were of such a magnitude that I was always in awe of her commitment to getting as much out of life as possible and her ability to remain outwardly cheerful in the face of such adversity.

Jehan has an unspecified wasting disease in Fenrir.  He is blind and quadriplegic, but a monk and a living saint with a limited ability to heal others. He is, however, a spiritual tower of strength, easily the toughest character I’ve ever written. He has an iron will and cannot be daunted by physical difficulties. Spiritual ones, however, are a different matter.

He encounters what is a cliché for disabled characters in fantasy – a magical cure. Although, in this case, the cure involves him entirely abandoning the religion that is the foundation of his personality. He gets to choose  – to an extent – if he wants to accept this cure. Much of the book is involved with the fall out of his decision.

Jehan, like Saitada, is a very angry character. I think anger is a big factor in most people’s experience of disability. The anger I’ve felt on behalf of disabled friends has been rather banal, if heartfelt – why my friend? Why must bad things happen to such good people? In writing the character of Jehan I began to see how that anger, for a disabled person might go beyond that rather obvious, if understandable, response. With Jehan it manifests in many ways – anger at his condition, anger at himself for not living up to his own high standards of spiritual acceptance and anger at the rest of the world for failing to endure what he can endure. He finds it difficult to understand why people who have been tested much less than he can’t pursue a clear moral course. It’s a common mythic trope that the blind man sees clearest. Jehan isn’t quite in that category but he certainly does see the world stripped to its essential choices and has little time for anyone who is caught up in day to day or mundane concerns. He is unflinchingly honest with himself and with others and it is his forced withdrawal from the ordinary world that enables him to be so.

This links to a mythic interpretation of suffering – that as the price we pay for knowledge. Many myths carry this motif – Christ on the cross, Hephaestus the smith of Greek legend with his backwards feet, forging his wonders,  Prometheus on the rock and, appropriately for my writing, Odin giving his eye for knowledge at the well of wisdom. Again, I have several characters who tie directly into this tradition – the self harming Odinists Hugin and Munin in Fenrir and the witch queen in Wolfsangel – a woman whose rituals are so extreme and demanding that she has never gone through puberty.

All their suffering, has compensation and results in a measure of power. I’m not sure that says anything about real disability but I do think it is part of a tradition of how we represent physical difference. In that at least, it’s revealing and I think it’s interesting that that the image of disability presented in myth – and in much fantasy – doesn’t limit the view of the disabled person to being a victim or powerless. So, in that sense at least, I’d say it was a positive thing.


M.D. Lachlan has published Wolfsangel and Fenrir. You can learn more about these books on his website. While you’re digging around for more information about this wonderful author, check out his blog – Rune Carvings. Lachlan can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.





(On a side note, M.D. Lachlan rounds out the authors posting for Special Needs in Strange Worlds. I have a few bloggers and reviewers left and then this wonderful thematic event will be over and you will all be back to reading my droll reviews. I believe my reviews will start rolling again toward the middle of next week, give or take a few days.)

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