BookPage Icebreaker is a publisher-sponsored interview.
Bestselling, award-winning Christian romance author Melanie Dickerson returns once again to medieval Germany for the latest installment of her Medieval Fairy Tales series, The Noble Servant. In this retelling of the classic Grimms’ tale “The Goose Girl” (with a bit of “The Prince and the Pauper” mixed in), Lady Magdalen travels to Wolfberg Castle to marry Steffan, the Duke of Wolfberg. But her own maidservant turns on her and forces her to trade places—and meanwhile at Wolfberg Castle, Steffan’s uncle has gone to great lengths to replace the rightful duke with his own son. By working together, Steffan and Magdalen may be able to restore themselves to their rightful places.
Cat: Before we talk about fairy tales and fairy-tale adaptations, I’d love to hear about your fascination with the medieval era. It’s a time when marriage is at the forefront of young women’s lives, and learning to read isn’t always allowed, and violence is commonplace. Why do you love this setting?
Melanie: I think it was the castles and the knights, just the clothing and everything about it. I’ve always loved the medieval times. I spent one summer in Germany in a town, and I modeled my fictional town after that town. Hagenheim is in several of my books in my first series. When I was there, I fell in love with the architecture, because they still have all these medieval buildings, churches. It was really exciting to me to see a part of history that was, you know, from medieval times! When I decided to do a fairy-tale retelling, I knew that I wanted to set it in the same sort of setting as that town that I spent that summer in.
Also, I’m fascinated with the idea of growing up in a time when most people don’t know how to read and don’t have access to the things that we do. Everyone during that time, pretty much everyone believed in God and had a fear of God and a reverence. It was just a different time than now, when people see science as competing with religion, and you know, people take sides. Back then, it was just very different. I wanted to explore just the thought of not knowing how to read or being one of the few people who knows how to read, and how that would affect your life and your views and your faith. Growing up in a time when everyone did believe in God, what would that do to your spiritual life and your faith?
With Magdalen, she does know how to read, which seems to bolster her faith as well as her independence as a young woman. How do you balance an independent female character with the realities of a medieval setting?
It is a challenge to make them independent and self-confident in a time when women were, I guess you could say, [had] a different role than women do now. With Magadalen, she is the daughter of a baron, so she had the benefit of an education. She knows how to read. She’s probably very well read for her time. And I like to bring out the fact that she is interested in things that maybe other people aren’t interested in. She loves rocks and collects rocks, and she’s interested in her dad’s mines, the mining that her people need to make a living. She cares about her people. I tried to bring out different things in her personality that make her strong and show the ways that she is strong.
And that historical setting works really well for a fairy-tale retelling because there are always so many misunderstandings and mistaken identities in Grimms’ tales. It works well when people can’t read. There’s no evidence of who you are.
It does make it more fun! They can’t put your picture on the 5 o’clock news because they didn’t have pictures of most people back then. How does anyone know who you are? How do you prove who you are? You don’t have a driver’s license! That part was really fun. I did try to stay very true to the time period as much as I could, and to the historical setting and the way the characters would have been brought up. But I feel like, even in medieval times, there were plenty of strong women—people who were confident or who asserted themselves for what they believed in. I don’t think that ever changes completely. So I really try to stay true to the time period but also try to make my heroine believably strong.
This is the latest in your Thornbeck series, which are all blendings of fairy tales, not just standard retellings. This is obviously mostly “The Goose Girl,” but there’s an element of “The Prince and the Pauper.” Why did you mix these two tales?
I wanted both the hero and the heroine to have their identities taken away, and they’re having to become servants. For her, it’s “The Goose Girl” retelling. She’s the Goose Girl. But for him, I thought, I could do a play on “The Prince and the Pauper” because he gets his place, his identity taken away, too. I wanted to do something a little different with this series, and so I did take two different fairy tales or legends or popular stories and mix them together.
I read a version of the original “Goose Girl” story, and it’s as strange as any Grimms’ tale you might read. There’s a talking, severed horse head that helps reveal the princess’ identity—it’s bizarre! Obviously that’s not included in your story, but I would love to hear about your process of transforming that totally wacky tale into a Christian romance. What elements did you feel most passionate about keeping? Which areas did you feel most free to veer away from?
I always try to think, if this really happened, what could take the place of, for example, the horse’s head? To take the place of that, I used Lenhart, a secondary character, and he’s mute so he can’t speak. He ends up helping save her at the end because he was able to write down what happened. He was the only eyewitness, and just like the horse at the end tells the truth and tells what really happened, Lenhart ends up doing that. And the only reason he knows how to write is because of Magadalen. She taught him. So in a way she saves herself, but he is a part of what helps them get out of their mess. There were a lot of other things, too, but I thought that was fun. I like to take those outlandish parts of the fairy tales and change them, use something else to represent that.
With the original Grimms’ tale, it’s like the truth can’t be told by one of the real human characters who are wrapped up in the conflict. The truth had to be told by something mythical, above them, outside the realm of understanding. With your story, the truth can be told through the ability to read. The human characters have more agency in your story.
Yeah. I like making it realistic. What would this story have been like if it had actually happened? I try to tell a story that maybe would have morphed into the weird Grimms’ tale.
Yeah, I see that. It could come full circle. Now, in this story, you have two wealthy teens, and they’ve been reduced to servitude. Another question of balance—how did you balance the resentment that would come from losing their status along with their identity? They are very humble, all considering that they were raised in wealth.
With Magdalen, I think, she had been treated badly by her mother all her life, and so even though she is a privileged kind of person and always had everything she needed, she had never been prideful. She had this mother who was constantly pointing out her shortcomings and things like that, so in a way she was already a very humble person. I think she did—there was some anger. In her dialogue, she was talking about how unfair it was.
And Steffan, he had more anger about the situation because he was an independent guy, and he had always been able to deal with whatever problems came up to him. He had always lived a very privileged life and had servants who took care of him and who he could boss around. He naturally had more anger, but essentially, even he felt a lot of responsibility toward his people. He had been taught they were his responsibility, and he should care for them and make sure he made their lives better if he could.
Both are in positions of power, but neither one is interested in squandering or abusing that power. It’s so often that power corrupts, and these two characters are totally good to the bottom of their hearts.
Yeah. I felt like I made the contrast with Lord Hazen. He was the one who was corrupted by the power and the greed for more power, while Steffan was more focused on helping his people. And I think that’s realistic [laughs].
I have to ask, have you spent a lot of time working with geese?
No! I didn’t know anything about geese, and so I started trying to look things up on the internet. This may sound silly, but if I want to know something and I’m not finding it on the internet, I can just ask my Facebook friends! There’s always a bunch of them. There were several who came back and told me things about geese, experiences they’d had because they’d raised geese or were around geese. I learned a lot that way. And also, I called my uncle who had been around geese. He had worked on a farm, and he’d had a chance to observe geese year-round. So I asked him some of my questions, too. I don’t know anything about geese, other than that!
And lastly, are you someone who believes in happily-ever-after?
Yeah, of course! I’m a big romantic person [laughs]. Romance is fun and exciting, and it’s something that I enjoy. I feel like, as a Christian, we get a happily-ever-after, no matter what!