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A Tale Of Fate: From Astrology To Astronomy

Nov 10, 2012
Originally published on November 12, 2012 12:44 pm

When Katherine Marsh was a young girl, she was mesmerized by the dwarfs of Diego Velazquez's paintings. Years later, that obsession inspired Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, her latest novel for young adults.

Marsh joins NPR's Guy Raz to discuss her book, which is rooted in history, yet speckled with fantasy. It carries her readers to the Spanish Netherlands in the late 16th century to tell the coming-of-age story of Jepp of Astraveld.


Interview Highlights

On Jepp's story

"He is a dwarf and when we meet him he lives ... with his mother who runs an inn. And one day a stranger comes to the inn and asks him if he wants to go to court and become a court dwarf, and this opens up all sorts of possibilities for Jepp. By court, I mean the Palace of Coudenberg [in Brussels], which is where the Infanta Isabella lives, and he decides that he wants to do this. He feels that there may be possibilities for him there that he can't find in his small town. He has some reservations. He is a little nervous about leaving home, but this is his chance to see the world."

On the history of court dwarfs

"There is an amazing history of court dwarfs, which is something that I learned. They go back to the ancient Egyptians, Chinese emperors — all of them had court dwarfs. And they were very popular in Europe, as well, amongst the monarchs. The job really was multifaceted. Oftentimes they were jesters. They were there to amuse the royals, and sometimes they were treated as friends or companions, but most of the time they were treated more as possessions and playthings. ... There are a number of these incidents where court dwarfs were asked to do things that were particularly demeaning, for example, jumping out of cakes, donning animal costumes, doing acrobatics, doing mock weddings.

"I was really drawn to these characters because on the one level they were insiders, they got to see the inner sanctums of these powerful courts, and on the other hand, they were outsiders because they were treated as entertainment, as freaks."

On what it means for Jepp to defy the stars

"Basically he decides that he wants to realize his own self worth, and there are opportunities at the court to develop himself intellectually, and he decides that he wants to actually control his own fate.

"What's interesting about the time ... is that most people are intensely religious and they also have this very strong sense of fate, and the strong sense that the stars will control their destiny. And yet, there is just the beginning of this sense of possibility that comes from the emergence of science, that there can be free will and you can shape your own destiny."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

When Katherine Marsh was a young girl, she was absolutely mesmerized by the dwarfs in the paintings by Diego Velazquez. Years later, that obsession became the inspiration for her latest young adult novel. It's called "Jepp, Who Defied the Stars." And it's a story rooted in actual events that takes readers on a journey through 16th century Spain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, all through the eyes of Jepp of Astraveld.

KATHERINE MARSH: He is a dwarf. And when we meet him, he was - lives there with his mother who runs an inn. And one day, a stranger comes to the inn and asks him if he wants to go to court and become a court dwarf. And this opens up all sorts of possibilities for Jepp.

RAZ: And by court you mean...

MARSH: By court I mean the Palace of Coudenberg, which is where the infanta Isabella lives. And he decides that he wants to do this. He feels that there may be possibilities for him there that he can't find in his small town. He has some reservations. He's a little nervous about leaving home, but this is his chance to see the world.

RAZ: Katherine, before we get deeper into the plot here, I should mention that there were such things as court dwarfs. Like, this really existed in the 15th, 16th, even the 17th century. There are paintings by Velasquez and other artists of these court dwarfs.

MARSH: There is an amazing history of court dwarfs, which is something that I learned. They go back to the ancient Egyptians, Chinese emperors. All of them had court dwarfs. And they were very popular in Europe, as well, amongst the monarchs. And the job, really, was multifaceted. Oftentimes, they were jesters.

RAZ: They were there to amuse the...

MARSH: They were there to amuse the royals. And, you know, sometimes they were treated as friends or companions, but most of the time they were treated more as possessions and playthings.

RAZ: And so Jepp shows up at the court of Isabella, and it turns out that he is forced to endure a series of humiliations.

MARSH: That's correct. And I base those humiliations on real historical record. And there are a number of these incidences where court dwarfs were asked to do things that were particularly demeaning...

RAZ: (Unintelligible) jump out of cakes.

MARSH: ...for example, jumping out of cakes, donning animal costumes, doing acrobatics, doing mock weddings. And I was really drawn to these characters because on the one level, they were insiders. They got to see the inner sanctum of these powerful courts. And on the other hand, they were outsiders because they were treated as entertainment, as freaks. And that dual role, for me, was a really interesting one.

RAZ: In the book, Jepp very rapidly becomes depressed and distressed at his - at finding himself at this situation. And something happens.

MARSH: Yes. Basically, he decides that he wants to realize his own self-worth, and there are opportunities at the court to develop himself intellectually. And he decides that he wants to actually control his own fate.

RAZ: Now, this is a very complicated book. I mean, complicated in the sense that it's very layered, but it's a great story. And, sort of, the backdrop to all this is the transition at that time - 16th century - from astrology, which was seen as a science, to astronomy. And this is where we start to begin to understand what Jepp is after, because at the time, my understanding is that your horoscope was your fate and people assumed that that's really what was going to happen to you.

MARSH: That's right. And what's interesting about the time and what attracted me about this time is that most people are intensely religious, and they also have this very strong sense of fate, and the strong sense that the stars will control their destiny. And yet, there's just the beginning of this sense of possibility that comes from the emergence of science, that there can be freewill and that you can shape your own destiny.

RAZ: Eventually, he manages to cross paths with a very important real-life astrologer/astronomer named Tycho Brahe who really lived in the 16th century. Tell me about him and about the fictional encounter between Brahe and Jepp.

MARSH: Tycho Brahe was a naked eye astronomer, which meant that he worked before the age of the telescope. And he was one of the best of his day. He gathered an amazing amount of data about the stars and planets.

RAZ: Before Kepler, before Galileo.

MARSH: Yes, yes, yes. And his data was actually used by Kepler later.

RAZ: And there he really becomes a scholar. I mean, he really begins to study under the guidance of this incredible astronomer.

MARSH: That's correct. The book is really a story about going from innocence to experience. And when he gets there, he feels a lot of self-doubt. He feels he's made a lot of mistakes in his life, he feels no sense of self-worth. And it's only really when he gets there and sees what's going on that he starts to become inspired to ask for things in life.

RAZ: I understand that after you wrote the first draft of this book, you actually gave it to somebody who is a little person to proofread it for accuracy.

MARSH: I did do that. I felt that it was really important to make sure that as an author, I was putting myself in this character's shoes. And the reader who read it was really helpful in terms of making sure that the book was as accurate as possible from that perspective. And he really liked the book. And actually, of all the people who read it, that praise meant the most to me.

RAZ: That's Katherine Marsh. Her new novel for young adults is called "Jepp, Who Defied the Stars." Katherine, thank you so much for coming by.

MARSH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.