Of Dust and Dragons

The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume TwoImage result for john gardner grendel

A double review of The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman and Grendel by John Gardner

I really wanted to like Pullman’s latest addition to his Book of Dust trilogy (the follow-up series to ‘His Dark Materials’), because I love the original series, and I really enjoyed La Belle Sauvage. In that book we had tantalising glimpses of a magical counterworld to the one of Jordan College – itself a parallel or pocket-universe, similar to our world but with fascinating differences, not least the presence of daemons. Every human has one, and to be separated from one’s own is normally fatal. This new book pivots upon the premise that there are exceptions to this rule: Lyra, primarily, but others – as she discovers. These ‘untouchables’ are one of several kinds of ‘secret commonwealth’ in the book, but disappointingly, there is a telling absence of the magical reality glimpses in the first Book of Dust, apart from the odd fleeting glimpse of a will o’ the wisp. Witches are mentioned, but do not make a direct appearance. And the covetous fairy and the river-giant whose presence created an impressive shift of register (what I call ‘perilous amplification’) and mythic resonance, are sadly lacking. Considering Pullman has used the term coined by the Reverend Robert Kirk, and made famous in his 1691 monograph, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies’, there is little actual fairy folklore here, and no crossing over into this para-dimension hinted at previously. Frustratingly, at the very moment when a crossing of the threshold might occur, Pullman pulls the plug – ending the 2nd volume in a deeply unsatisfying place. The failure to deliver what the title clearly promises feels like a real missed opportunity. Instead, Pullman explores different kinds of secrets – which certainly provide numerous McGuffins for the characters to pursue – but it feels like the author has been reading too many spy novels, and this ‘Fantasy’ novel (which is how the series is marketed) works better on that level – albeit as ‘John Le Carré-lite’. Pullman is a craftsman and the prose rattles along – but it feels like the whole protracted nature of the project’s evolution (the author took over a decade to write it, famously vowing not to cut his hair until it was done) has led to tone seepage, with rather too much geopolitics and current affairs slipping (the migrant crisis in particular). It is admirable that Pullman wants to address these issues, but it feels like an incongruous direction for the sequence to go in. In the same way that he has felt behoven to include names of real people who have lost their lives in tragic ways – most notably a victim of the Grenfell Fire tragedy – this accretion of topicality and worthiness threatens to sabotage the whole project. There is a strong sense that Pullman is saving all of his best fireworks for the third and final volume – a big reunion with Will Parry and other characters from the first series perhaps? Unfortunately this feels suffers as a result. It seems to be mainly concerned with getting the key players from A to Z. Despite Pullman’s elegant prose, it suffers from mid-series bloat, and feels like an ageing Hrothgar, somewhat resting on his laurels as he reminisces about his glory days.

In comparison, John Gardner’s classic 1971 retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel, feels like the virile Geat-lander himself – swaggering into Heorot to set matters right in a world turn flabby and complacent. Eschewing the cliché of the doorstep Fantasy novel, it is far more Fantastic than many books that claim to be written within the genre. It shows a depth of imagination, and a delight of language which is often lacking in much modern writing. Gardner inhabitants the subaltern consciousness of the ultimate disenfranchised outsider with jaw-dropping briot. It is worth reading for the ‘performance’ of that extra-ordinary voice alone. Yet with fathomless invention Gardner cleverly weaves together a ‘prequel’ to the relatively familiar plot of Beowulf, taking us to same strange spaces – most memorably, to an encounter with the dragon which appears later in the classic poem. Gardner’s dragon is a worthy addition to the elite company of worms, dragons and serpents – pontificating philosophically like an old professor. Gardner plays with form – weaving in verse fit for the meadhall, script, parenthetical asides that break the fourth wall, and more. It is a tour-de-force of writing which is both playfully experimental and readable. Like the best kind of writing it feels transgressive – refusing to play it safe at any juncture. Like the eponymous anti-hero it tears down smug convention and challenges every false truth and cosily consoling fiction.

Clearly, Pullman is engaged in a very different project to Gardner – the latter is sui generis; the former part of an epic, and truly ambitious, Fantasy sequence (one that refuses to dumb down to its younger readers, or conform to its ostensible publishing pigeon-hole). Both aim high, and perhaps both succeed on their own terms: Gardner’s as a black swan one-off, and Pullman’s as part of the long-haul of his massive project. I am hopeful that the concluding volume of The Book of Dust instaurates the enchantment and vision of the earlier books, and that Pullman demonstrates the ‘fourfold vision’ of Blake he so eloquently talks about. Meanwhile, Kirk’s secret commonwealth awaits bolder explorers.

Kevan Manwaring, 10 December 2019



The Way of the Windsmith


The Windsmith Elegy (2004-2012), cover art by Steve Hambidge

In the Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell’s imperfect, but still very useful mythic structure) there is a moment early in the first act when the protagonist receives the Call to Adventure – their invitation beyond the threshold of the familiar to the Special World where they will be tested, encounter allies and enemies, venture into the inmost cave, face the monster/their shadow/the big bad nasty, and, if all goes well, win the boon that will heal the Fisher King/restore the wasteland/make the sun shine again, etc. Well, recently I received a writerly ‘call to adventure’ – a publishing contract to write an interactive novel with an impressive looking West Coast start up. I am always firing off applications and proposals, so I had forgotten about this one (so many of them don’t bear fruit that’s it’s not worth holding one’s breath). It was a very pleasant surprise early last Friday. And a blast from the past – for the contract is to write a multi-linear narrative based upon my Windsmith universe. The Windsmith Elegy is my five-volume Fantasy epic, written between 2002 and 2012. I began the first in the series, The Long Woman, as my MA dissertation – a decade later I finally completed the journey of my protagonist, Isambard Kerne, an Edwardian surveyor for the GWR/observer of the Royal Flying Corps, who vanishes through a portal in the opening battle of the First World War into the Afterlands of his Celtic ancestors. To find his way home Kerne has to learn the way of the Windsmith – a master of the air, who uses the woodwords of the Ogham alphabet to summon power. The magical system is based upon my study of the Bardic Tradition, and the novels dramatise an initiation into their Mysteries. I put all my learning at the time into them – and wove in many of my favourite places (sacred sites), people (the ‘lost of history’), and mythological elements (chiefly from the Celtic tradition). And now my challenge is to resurrect this world, and create multiple pathways to allow the reader to navigate it by the choices they make. I certainly have plenty of material to draw upon – a large cast of characters; an extensive network of settings (set over four main lands: HyperEurus; HyperZephyrus; HyperNotus; and HyperBorea); and a quarter of million words of backstory. It is an exciting prospect – to revisit these lands with a fresh perspective, while engaging with a (relatively) new form of storytelling. As a youth I was very fond of the British ‘choose your own adventure’ books, Fighting Fantasy (stand alone adventures), and the Lone Wolf series (which had a ‘series arc’). Last year’s Black Mirror special, Bandersnatch, shows how, with emergent technology, this ergodic form of narrative can be cutting edge – and offer a myriad of narrative possibilities for the modern reader. I look forward to accepting the Call.

The Windsmith Elegy (The Long Woman; Windsmith; The Well Under the Sea; The Burning Path; This Fearful Tempest) is published by Awen.

The Golden Room – Garrie Fletcher


This month’s podcast features a Birmingham-based writer who is carving a name for himself with his quirky, well-observed, and arresting short stories. As well as commissions for a poetry trail and a comic strip, Garrie Fletcher has recently produced site-specific fiction for the apps, Overhear Poetry and Questo. He is a regular tutor for Writing West Midlands, running the Spark Young Writers group; and he contributes to the Birmingham Literature Festival and other events in the city. I caught up with him – an old friend – on a chilly morning in mid-November at the University of Leicester where he had been invited to give a talk to my 3rd Year students – the stories featured are from that event. The music tracks are from Garrie’s old student band, The Sliding Door People, which he played in while studying Fine Art at Bradford in the late 80s.

Find out more on Garrie’s blog: https://fletchski.com/


  1. Intro – Kevan
  2. Living on the Moon – The Sliding Doors People
  3. Interview – Kevan/Garrie
  4. Pretty Thing – The Sliding Doors People
  5. Interview (cont.)
  6. Icon (extract) – Garrie Fletcher
  7. Interview (cont.)
  8. Cuckoo – Garrie Fletcher
  9. Interview (cont.)
  10. Submerged (extract) – Garrie Fletcher
  11. Living on the Moon (reprise)

Listen to the Podcast here:




Flogging a Dead Horse

Mari Lwyd by Mark Lewis

Mari Lwyd, Chepstow, by Mark Lewis

Folk Horror is very much in vogue at the moment – it’s on social media, on the airwaves, on the shelves, at the conferences and festivals, and probably lurking outside your door right now (I write this on Bonfire/Guy Fawkes Night, when penny-for-a-guying used to be a common folk custom).  A few days ago we had ‘Halloween’ – the hand-me-down version of Samhain we celebrate instead of the real thing – and the programmers went into overdrive with Folk Horror content. It was a field day – presumably one with a giant wicker effigy in, awaiting your willing approach. So far, so Pagan. Yet it isn’t. If folklore is Pagan-lite (for the evening class dabblers); then Folk Horror is for the weekenders.* Yet both sell short the true immersive paradigm of a magical reality, what Robert Macfarlane speculatively suggests is the ‘New Animism’, although in truth it is a way of being in the world as old as the oldest indigenous peoples. And even for a modern Pagan practitioner, a so-called ‘Neo-Pagan’ as academics like to pigeon-hole them, it is a more full-bloodied experience than just the odd quaint custom, or the mere glamorous aesthetics of pop culture Folk Horror – it is a holistic perception and ‘lifestyle’ that permeates everything one does.  And it is certainly nothing new (under the sun). That is why it gets my goat (sacrificial, of course) when flavour-of-the-month authors like Andrew Michael Hurley (whose breakthrough The Loney is cited as the crest of the wave) are touted as the pioneers of this ‘new’ publishing phenomenon. Authors like Hurley, Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent), Kate Mosse (The Mistletoe Bride and Other Stories)  and others are sometimes defined as ‘Folk Realism’, but whatever you choose to call them I find them ultimately dissatisfying. They capitalise upon the atmospheric resonance of folklore, spirit of place, and so forth – but then explode the supernaturalism with rational explanations, reifying the status quo after an invigorating brush with the uncanny: it’s the literary equivalent of a ghost train ride. Meanwhile, writers who can conjure true magic on the page are few and far between: the much-missed Graham Joyce was one, with his distinctive, heady blend of the magical and the mundane (what he called ‘Old Peculiar’). The craftsmen and women of true fantasy are often not even called Fantasy writers, yet they quietly work away at forging enchantment on the page. And if I sound bitter and twisted and green with envy, it is because I feel I am one of them. Back in 1992-1994 I wrote my first (still unpublished) novel, The Ghost Tree, about my old home town of Northampton, the ‘dark heart of England’, as I call it – and it had all the tropes of Folk Horror: an ancient tree with a ghost trapped in its roots, sinister rituals, local secrets, witchcraft and dark magic. My second attempt at a novel, The Long Woman, a decade later, was published (Awen, 2004). And again, this homage to the fiction of MR James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Dion Fortune, has all the classic ingredients of this ‘new’ trend. But will it get acknowledged within discussions of the wave? Unlikely. And that is telling of one of the most nefarious of occult cabals: the world of mainstream publishing, with their own priesthood, anointed ones, annual rites, and sacrifices. Let them hawk their shoddy effigies to the masses – and let those who know what true magic is find the hidden gems which sometimes smaller presses discover. For the reader holds the power as to what is given life.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring, 5th November 2019

*Pagans can, of course, be into folklore, Folk Horror, etc, but they crucially not toe-dippers. And even as some may delight in the aesthetic, others may object to seeing versions of their beliefs depicted in negative, alarmist ways.


My Ink-stained Year

This year I didn’t manage Inktober, but did a few sketches now and then – notably of literary figures I find fascinating. It is an important part of my process when bringing them to life in my fiction. Spending time copying an image of them allows me time to not only dwell on their physiognimy (which helps me visualise them within my story) but also to meditate upon their lives and legacy. It is a vital element of my experiential methodology. Over the last few years I have amassed quite a few of these literary sketches – and every author I have sketched feels a little bit more alive to me, as though I’ve met up with them for a cuppa. Combined with reading their works, their diaries and correspondence, they have become friends – allies on my creative path. I am inspired by their endeavour, and especially by their creative fellowships, and feel in some small way part of their society.

Handwriting by Kevan Manwaring

Trees, Poets, & Fairies: Sketchtember 2019

Having started Sketchtember last year (as a kind of prelude to the popular Inktober) I felt duty-bound to have another go this year, although as John Lennon once sang: ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans…’ It’s been a hectic month, and I only got around to a bardic dozen, but for the record – here they are. I enjoyed doing them, and, of course, it’s about process, not product – I find sketching can be relaxing when I’m not too tired. I wish I sketched more often, without any arbitrary goals like this – but, there you go! It helped stop my sketching muscle from completely atrophying. Now all I have to do is keep the practice going all year round…