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The Druid King by Norman Spinrad
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The Druid King

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The Druid King by Norman Spinrad
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Aug 10, 2004 | ISBN 9780375724961

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  • Aug 10, 2004 | ISBN 9780375724961

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“Spinrad realisitically portrays both the strengths and weaknesses of Vercingetorix and Ceasar. . . . Lovers of historical fiction . . . should enjoy The Druid King.” –The News & Observer

“Exciting, insightful historical fiction.” —Midwest Book Review

“Powerfully written. . . . The stark and compelling portraits he paints of the Gallic people, of Caesar, are painted with a masterful flourish. . . . A good read, with a lot of meat & substance." —Medieval Times

“Refashion[s] an intriguing legend into an epic piece of historical fiction. . . . Spinrad breathes new life into a mythical figure, reimagining the adventures and motivations of a larger-than-life superhero.” —Booklist

“Spinrad realisitically portrays both the strengths and weaknesses of Vercingetorix and Ceasar…. Lovers of historical fiction, strategy and battle should enjoy The Druid King.” —The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC)

“Powerfully written…The stark and compelling portraits he paints of the Gallic people, of Caesar, are painted with a masterful flourish…. A good read, with a lot of meat & substance." —Medieval Times

“Refashion[s] an intriguing legend into an epic piece of historical fiction…Spinrad breathes new life into a mythical figure, reimagining the adventures and motivations of a larger-than-life superhero.” —Booklist

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Norman Spinrad

Q: The Druid King is a historical tale that you adapted into a novel. What is the actual history behind your novel?

A: THE DRUID KING is the story of Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul from the heroic but ultimately doomed resistance of Vercingetorix, who united the disparate tribes, fought one of the first “People’s Wars,” gained the respect of his adversary, and who by arcane, non-military means, succeeded in turning a straightforward military defeat into a synthesis on a higher level. It moved the center of the Roman Empire westward, Latinized what was to become France, and arguably was instrumental in the creation of what we are now pleased to call “Western Civilization.”

Q: What inspired you to turn this epic story into a novel?

A: How THE DRUID KING came to be written is a long and complex story, but very briefly, it began life as a screenplay called Vercingetorix. I wrote many, many drafts, in both English and French (because the film was to be shot in both languages) in collaboration and argument with the producer-director Jacques Dorfmann, the last of which was done in Bulgaria 4 days before he started shooting.

What was shot was nowhere near what I believed my concept or the full and best version of the story, but I sort of nursed my creative wounds, until my friend Richard Shorr, through whom I had met Jacques in the first place, insisted I should turn my definitive version into a novel. At first, I was reluctant.

At Richie’s insistence, I re-read what I had written. And when I did, I became both sad and angry. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to take on the much more formidable task of turning it into a novel, so I sent it to my agent, Russell Galen, for another opinion. His reaction was enormously positive and infectious, and so I became convinced that I owed it to myself, to the story, and somehow to the characters themselves because they were real historical personages, to do it.

Q: Most everything we know about Vercingetorix comes to us from Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars. Why did you reimagine this story with Vercingetorix as the protagonist?

A: I don’t think of Vercingetorix as the “protagonist” and Caesar as the “antagonist.” Rather each is the protagonist of a very different civilization, a very different mode of consciousness, a very different culture, meaning, of course, that each considers himself the “hero” and the other the “villain.” And what eventually comes out the other end of the clash a long time later is Gallo-Roman culture, arguably the beginnings of what is now known as “Western Civilization.” I’ve tried to make both men, both cultures, sympathetic at least partially, reflecting the real world, the real history.

That virtually nothing except what his adversary reported is known about Vercingetorix may seem restrictive, but it afforded me greater flexibility with the character as a novelist than with Caesar, about whom much is known—except, of course, his intimate internal life, which I have forthrightly extrapolated.

Q: Your previous novels seem to fall into the science fiction category, while The Druid King tends more towards a historical fantasy in the vein of The Mists of Avalon. What inspired this change?

A: As both a novelist and literary critic, I don’t think in those categories. I don’t believe them to be very useful as a critic, and they are quite harmful as a novelist. The Iron Dream, for example, is an historical meditation in the form of a science fiction novel full of fantasy elements that Hitler, the “author” of the internal novel, does not believe are fantastic.

It seems to me that the thematic, psychological, and cultural concerns of a writer are more relevant than whatever literary mode he or she chooses to deal with them in any given novel.

I’ve always been primarily interested in the relationship between the total external surround—the culture, the political matrix, the technology, etc.—and the internal human consciousness. And particularly the clashes and interactions of two or more different cultures, hence two or more different styles of consciousness. Sometimes I’ve dealt with this in extrapolative science fiction, sometimes in the contemporary novel, as in Pictures at 11, sometimes, as in The Iron Dream, in a complex alternative past, and now, in THE DRUID KING, in a real past somewhat transmogrified.

Q: It seems inevitable that The Druid King will be compared to novels such as The Once and Future King. Did you look to this novel for inspiration as a child or even as an adult when you thought about writing? Has historical fiction always been a passion of yours?

A: The Once and Future King is certainly one of my all time favorites and I did read it before I became a novelist. As a child, I did read science fiction, but also, from the very beginnings of my reading for pleasure, I read a lot of non-fictional history, particularly historical biography.

This may be hard to believe, but I couldn’t have been more than 6 years old and maybe less—I was a precocious reader—when an “adopted uncle” handed me a copy of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History and suggested that it would be a good general overview for me to take a look at. I did. It was.

Q: What sort of research did you do for this novel? Was it different than research you had done for previous novels?

A: THE DRUID KING is the first novel I’ve written for which the Internet was a major resource. It was quite different than research for some previous books like Russian Spring, which involved traveling to the places where it was set and traditional book-based reading.

With THE DRUID KING, I could hardly travel to ancient Gaul, and while I did make use of books, Caesar’s in particular, being able to ask very specific questions of the whole wide world about the time, the places, what things looked like, and get back whole hierarchies of answers—not just in prose, but pictures, maps, diagrams—made a big difference.

Even though I had The Conquest of Gaul in book form, I downloaded an electronic version, which made searching for specifics while I was writing much, much quicker. I believe I referred to it much more often than I might have otherwise.

Q: Americans are currently very caught up in the glorification of heroes. Was this a consideration at all when you began work on your novel or do you think that the interest in heroes is universal and withstands current events?

A: No, it wasn’t a consideration because I think the current American glorification of heroes is a post September 11 phenomenon, and I began writing THE DRUID KING long before that event.

I do believe that interest in heroes is universal and eternal. What changes with current events, with the larger mutations of cultures and civilizations, is what we mean by a “hero,” and how we react to such exemplars. El Cid is certainly not Nelson Mandela is not Siddhartha is not Murakami is not John Lennon.

I must admit to being greatly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a masterly cross-cultural study of the “Hero,” which draws deep mystical, psychic, and mythic parallels among the hero figures of many cultures to paint a picture of the Ur-Hero. From this perspective, Vercingetorix and Caesar can both be seen as “heroes” within their own cultural traditions.

Q: One of your novels, Bug Jack Barron, was denounced on the floor of the British Parliament and another, The Iron Dream, was banned in Germany for eight years. Why were these novels so controversial? Do you think that if they were published today, would the reaction to them have been the same?

A: Bug Jack Barron was serialized in the magazine “New Worlds,” which had a British Arts Council grant, which is why the issue came up in Parliament. W.H. Smith, a private company, refused to distribute the magazine with the serialization in it on grounds of “dirty language” and “sexual content.” The Arts Council, a governmental body, defended the novel and the magazine, and was attacked for doing so by right-wing members. I believe the true objection was to the political stance of the novel, which was left of the center in the 1960s, which would have made it even more left today. So while I believe that the explicit language and sex would not raise an eyebrow now, the reaction to the political themes would be even more extreme now.

The Iron Dream is a kind of double alternate history novel, in which Hitler, instead of rising to power in Germany, migrated to the US soon after WWII, became a pulp writer, and, while suffering from tertiary syphilis, wrote the internal novel, Lord of the Swastika, his demented fantasy of a Nazi-like empire as a sword and sorcery fantasy. It was on the index in Germany for eight years because, under German law, any person could complain to a governmental body that a work of any art might be harmful to impressionable youth, whether it was aimed at youth or not, and it would be guilty until found innocent. Interestingly enough, no one really contended it was a pro-Nazi novel at the time. And the novel has published in about 15 countries and widely reviewed without such a charge, so I believe the banning was a peculiarly German phenomenon. It’s hard to say what would happen if the novel were first published there now, since eight years of appeals finally exonerated it in Germany.

Q: You have lived in New York City, Los Angeles, London, San Francisco, and now Paris. How have each of these cities inspired your writing? Did you find yourself more influenced by certain cities?

A: Strangely enough, I’ve tended to write novels set in one city while living in another. Bug Jack Barron and The Children of Hamlin, set in New York, were written in Los Angeles. Pictures at 11, set in Los Angeles, was written in Paris.

There have been exceptions to this of course. Russian Spring, which I deliberately moved to Paris to write, takes place in Paris, Moscow, California, and in orbit. I think living in these different cities has given me a wider and more complex viewpoint.

In particular, living in Paris, in France, in Europe, has tended to cause me to write more “world books,” like Russian Spring and THE DRUID KING. Even Pictures at 11, set entirely in a TV station in Los Angeles captured by international terrorists, is about German reunification, British punk culture, and Japanese anti-Ainu prejudice, among other things.

It’s trite to say that the world has gotten smaller in the age of globalization, but my travels have told me that it’s wrong to think that this means we’ve all gotten more alike or that there is some kind of uniform world culture. Far from it, the world has become more complex as technology and easy travel mixes cultures without homogenizing them.

Q: What other sorts of things have you written besides fiction?

A: I’ve written a great deal of literary criticism, and was a regular film critic in Los Angeles for several years. I’ve written teleplays and screenplays. I’ve written a lot of political essays and have been a political columnist from time to time. I also write songs: lyrics and sometimes the music.

Q: It sounds like you have a pretty literary life. But what would you do if you weren’t a writer?

A: Being who I am now, I might very well be a songwriter and maybe a performer, since this is a kind of minor secondary career, and I hugely enjoy it, though I know damn well I’m an infinitely better novelist than performer.

If I had parallel lives to pursue from the beginning, I would also want one as a painter, I think. I paint some, but I began late, and would take decades for me to be able to achieve the level to do it seriously.

I’ve done a little of teaching, enjoy it, deeply respect the profession. I might also be a chef, as I enjoy not only cooking but creating new dishes.

Q: So what should we expect to see next? Or will you be busy cooking?

A: My next novel, already in the late stages of research and early stages of writing, will be The Feathered Serpent: the story of how Hernando Cortes with 500 men conquered the empire of the Aztecs. Except that is not how he really did it, and this will not be a mimetic retelling of this well-known story. It will, I suppose, be what might be called a kind of Magic Realism. Magic because Mexico was conquered more by manipulation of myth and archetype. Realism because this is the way it really did happen.

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