Category Archives: Creative Writing

The Secret Fire

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

A Review

‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’
(letter by G.B. Smith, from ‘a trench in Thiepval Wood’, Somme, 1916)

samwise-the-brave

Samwise Gamgee – inspired by the working class soldiers Tolkien fought alongside in the Somme.

This solidly-crafted biography charts in meticulous detail the fellowship and harrowing experiences of four friends during the First World War: JRR Tolkien; Christopher Wiseman; Robert Gilson; and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who called themselves the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) formed when they were pupils of King Edwards School, Birmingham. Although Tolkien and the evolution of his legendarium is the ultimate focus, Garth lovingly brings alive the remarkable friendship enjoyed by the TCBS – from school to Oxbridge to the Trenches – and how its camaraderie and intellectual culture provided the terroir for Tolkien in developing the mythos and motivation for Middle Earth. For fans of Tolkien’s Secondary World there is exhaustive detail about its painstaking gestation – from the languages created out of philological interest, to the poems that first started to flesh out the world evoked by them, and then onto the Lost Tales and the first inklings of the Silmarillion. As an account of creative process the book is fascinating by itself and should be of interest to any writer (especially of imaginative fiction). However, what makes the book gripping and resonant is how ‘four went to war and how they fared’. It is a Boys’ Own story that collides with All Quiet on the Western Front. The chummy proceedings of an apparently elite coterie of white, male privilege might seem unappealing, but when one learns the details of their lives – the fact that Tolkien was orphaned and scraping by, for instance; or how they resisted the shallow irony and jingoistic rhetoric of their age; that they loved, and feared, and fell out, and faltered – then they become far more sympathetic. And whatever their politics or predilections, opportunities or opinions, they were human beings, fragile, unique consciousnesses, crushed by the wheels of war. Two of them survived, but were haunted by the trauma of combat and its toll for the rest of their lives – and the two who didn’t are emblematic of the millions of arrested narratives of the Lost Generation.  Their unsung song gave Tolkien his MO, if he needed one beyond his philological obsession with invented languages. That he latched onto the ‘lost tales’ of Old English and attempted to stitch together their tantalising fragments, perhaps is telling though of someone who lost his parents, lost his closest friends, and lost the England he knew. The fact that he could have so easily lost his life in the bloodbath of the Somme, as so many did, is chilling. Even though we know he survives it tense to read these sections. One stray bullet or piece of shrapnel and that would have done for him and the books millions have come to love, the ‘book of the century’. And this is the heart of Garth’s argument – that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not mere escapism (although in a world gone mad a desire for that is possibly the sanest thing) but a bold rebuttal of all that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ stood for, and a lifetime’s effort to manifest the vision of the TCBS and all they stood for: aestheticism and accountability, colloquy and friendship, in defiance of the barbarism of the age. Tolkien’s project does not deny reality – he had endured its sharpest edge and was not naïve to its horrors – but seeks to transform it, by articulating its deepest patterns. In his work, the Great War became the Greater War, between cosmic forces of light and dark, good and evil – and, in contradiction to the common misreading of his work as being morally simplistic – he wove in flaws and nuances into his characters and cosmology. His was no mere Manichean universe. He did not believe in the divisive populism of his time, which sought to demonize Germans as the ‘Hun’, or the ‘Bosch’ (deeply aware of his own Anglo-German heritage, and of the common roots of those two nations). Both sides were morally culpable, both were tainted by the obscene crimes of war, and after his experiences in the Trenches he was in doubt as to the futility of armed conflict in resolving anything: ‘The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)…’ Beyond the scrupulous pathology the book offers in its fine scholarship and clear-eyed recounting of events, its strength lies in its defence Tolkien’s world, and by extension, of Fantasy as a genre, in which ‘Nihilism is replaced by a consolatory vision’ (p80). Garth argues convincingly for Fantasy’s robustness and validity: ‘In its capacity to warn about such extremes [e.g. the Totalitarianism that arises from the ashes of the First World War], fantastic fiction has the edge over what is called realism. ‘Realism’ has a knee-jerk tendency to avoid extremes as implausible, but ‘fantasy’ actually embraces them. It magnifies and clarifies the human condition.’ (p223) Fantasy can provide the long-view about what it means to be human: the Epic enables us to resituate ourselves within the myths we live by, reminding us of our soul’s song so easily lost in the white noise of the world. But rather than leading us away from manifest creation, it reunites us with it, with the ‘Secret Fire that burn[s] at the heart of the world.’ (p255) Tolkien, expressing the vision of the TCBS, said, as a 24 year old, that they ‘had been granted a spark of fire … that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.’ That vision has inspired millions, and, in this Age of Endarkenment, it is needed now more than ever.

Tolkien and the Great War: the threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth, is published by Houghton Mifflin, 2003

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018

(thank you to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for the gift of this book)

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Between a Thing and a Thought

‘A picture has been said to be something between a thing and a thought.’
Samuel Palmer

Review of Gauguin: The Other World and Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment.

I have recently read two excellent examples of the graphic novel form (and these definitely do justice to that term, being complete, complex narratives), which share a commonality of intent and execution, being both biographical in nature and mirroring in their artistry the artistry they exalt.

Gauguin

The first is Gauguin: the Other World by Fabrizio Dori, published in translation (Edward Gauvin’s) by SelfMade Hero as part of their high quality Art Master series in 2016. Dori’s style evokes the spirit of Gauguin’s work with skilled confidence. Some directly reference the French Synthesist’s paintings, while others draw upon a more atavistic style inspired by Tahitian art, but each panel is virtually a work of art in itself. This does not mean the pages are stilted, a series of static vignettes, for each panel subsumes its own wonder to the sequential flow. This is a mature form of visual storytelling, Bande Desinée having evolved their own aesthetic rules, just as much as Manga. It has the feel of a French art house movie more than a Hollywood ‘biopic’. Yet it is never obscure and unrelatable – Gauguin’s story is well-dramatized. The subject is a classic malcontent anti-hero – self-obsessed, uncompromising, flawed, the artist is rendered with feet of clay. Dori’s Gauguin offers us a fully-rounded portrait of this ‘driven’ visionary who abandoned his aristocratic heritage, successful career as a stockbroker and Danish wife and family to pursue his vision to a Polynesian Eden. The story is boldly-structured, with the framing narrative being an Underworld Journey, the deceased Gauguin being led through the archipelago of his memory by a Tahitian psychopomp. Dori deploys Polynesian cosmology and eschatology in a striking way, relocating the ‘gaze’ from a white, Western perspective to an indigenous one. Gauguin is the intruder in paradise here and he is observed and judged throughout by the ancient spirits of the islands he moves to in search of his muse. The locals are depicted far more sympathetically than Gauguin or his fellow Parisians back home, without them becoming ‘Noble Savages’. His native wife, Teura, is far from perfect but clearly has her own agency and power. In the end it is clear Gauguin is his own worst enemy. This is no hagiography, but it nevertheless vividly brings alive his remarkable life and artistic achievement, and as such it serves as an excellent introduction to the artist and his work. To help provide a clear-eyed, factual overview there is an excellent essay on Gauguin’s life at the end of the graphic novel by Céline Delavaux – a classy finishing touch to a classy production.

Alice.jpgThe other graphic novel I picked up in Durham after seeing some of the original artwork in an exhibition at the Palace Green Library, ‘Between Worlds: Folk and Fairy Traditions in Northern Britain’. Pages depicting the local folk tales, ‘The Cauld Lad of Hylton’ and ‘The Lambton Worm’ led me to Alice in Sunderland: an entertainment, by Bryan Talbot, an artist best known for The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, although I first came across him in the pages of 2000AD, when I used to collect it back in prehistory. I always liked his sleek style, but in this tour-de-force Talbot shows he is a ‘multiple-trick equine’. In his dazzling range of styles and bold use of technology Talbot shows he is a modern master of sequential art. Framed as an evening’s vaudevillian cabaret in the shabby splendour of the ‘Empire’, an old theatre in Sunderland, Talbot draws us in via a ‘Plebeian’ Everyman. A white rabbit-masked ‘Performer’ hosts the ‘numerous interesting diversions and entertainments’ – beneath the mask a Hermes-haired Talbot-as-Thespian is revealed. And a black-attired ‘Pilgrim’, a heterodiegetic* narrator closer to the actual Talbot (the artist, writer, researcher and resident), leads us on a psychogeographical perambulation around the city and the region. All parts are ‘played’, with amusing irony, by Talbot, the self-styled ‘Wigan Titwillow’ himself – exaggerating his best or worst qualities, as both a performance of the ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ Self, but also as a way of providing his own dialectic. The Plebeian heckles or mocks, thus destabilizing the pretentious edifice the Performer builds with his indulgent digressions, while at the same time allowing him to get away with it. With one foot in the Pit and one in the Gods, Talbot leads us through a dazzling, distracting Wonderland of social history, psychedaelia, comic art theory, and serious research into the region’s connection with the evolution of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Talbot steps through the mirror of Alice myth and what he finds there is remarkable.  With the help of the PhD research by Michael Bute and other Carrollian scholars, Talbot convincingly deconstructs the popular ‘dreamchild’ theory about Carroll (Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) as the shy Oxford scholar unable to relate to his fellow adults, who nurses a disturbing interest in young girls. Celebrating the visuality of the first editions (brilliantly illustrated by John Tenniel), Talbot riffs on the eye-bending aesthetics throughout, blending in a myriad of examples that the iconic books have spawned – possibly the first transmedia ‘texts’. This is the strongest ‘thread’ of the narrative, the heart of the book, when Talbot is really firing on all cylinders as an artist and storyteller (his classic comic strip version of ‘The Lambton Worm’ is superb). The dedicated, some would say obsessive sense of place, in this extended praise song to his adopted town is admirable in its celebration of local distinctiveness and its effort to re-enchant a run-down, often neglected, and sometimes demonised, part of Britain, but these sections are the most leaden, weighed down as they are by lengthy exposition, and at times the project is at risk of coming across as a ‘Visitor’s Guide to Tyne and Wear’. When it is relevant to the Alice ‘creation myth’ he is constructing, then these asides are acceptable, but often Talbot tells us indulges too much in his local history discoveries. Some of it is interesting and overall the endeavour reinforces my idea that ‘the universal is best expressed through the particular’. Go deep enough and far enough and everything connects with everything else, as Jeremy Hooker affirms in his essay on Richard Jefferies (also accused of parochialism):

Any place is capable of being experienced as a centre of inexhaustible significance and manifold local and universal connections, especially to the people who live there. (Hooker, 2017: 20)

Despite the feeling of ‘too much information’ at times, it is in this heart-felt and full-bloodied evocation of the genius loci that Talbot’s project really nails its colours to its mast. The magic is not ‘elsewhere’, amid the Dreaming Spires of the Oxford elite or in London’s cyclopean dominance, but here and now, beneath our feet, wherever we live.

Over the millennia stories have revealed the magic in the places where they take place. (Talbot, 2017: 9)

The most effective of these ‘Rough Guide’ pages are where Talbot-as-Pilgrim meets fellow creatives, writer Chaz Brenchley and sculptor Colin Wilbourn, who co-created the Sculpture Trail that runs through Sunderland’s old dockyards. Wittily dramatized, it provides an insight into how art is created, its relationship with the environment and the community that live there.

Shining through the whole Lucy-in-the-Sky-with-Diamonds exuberance of it all is a strong sense of ‘authenticity’ (performed or otherwise), of an individual voice and vision, of a maverick artist dancing with the form he has mastered.  It feels Talbot is free to do or say anything, bestowing upon the formality of the ‘proscenium arch’ pages, a frisson of gleeful wildness and creative possibility which is exhilarating and infectious. It really throws down the gauntlet.

At over three hundred pages, Alice in Sunderland is an incredible achievement – it brims with erudition, enthusiasm, wit and artistic brilliance. Talbot in ludic, lucid, Carrollian form, is really at the top of his game here. A must read for any student of sequential art.

Both graphic novels show what can be done with the form, the ‘ninth art’, and the way it can achieve far more than image or text can by themselves. As Palmer’s quote suggests (if it we may apply it to the pictorial storytelling of the sequential art) it is an art form that happens in the interstices, the stars in the gutter – the ubiquitous gap between panels where, as McCloud (1993) points out, time does mysterious things and the human imagination animates the vacuum. The little death of each frame is unfrozen from eternity back into time’s stream, as we learn to mind the gap.

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018

 

Hooker, J. (2017) Ditch Vision: essays on poetry and place, Stroud: Awen

McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. NY: William Morrow.

*Heterodiegetic (and its sister term, ‘Homodiegetic’) coined by the academic Jeremy Scott (‘The Craft of Creative Writing’, Contemporary Cultures of Writing: Creativity, Language and Creative Writing Seminar Series, Senate House, University College London, 17 October 2017), referring to the narrator ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ the text respectively.

 

Gauguin: the Other World by Fabrizio Dori (SelfMade Hero, 2016) Available from http://selfmadehero.com/

Alice in Sunderland: an entertainment by Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape, 2007). Available from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/publishers/vintage/jonathan-cape/

 

 

GOLEM Speaks part 5

AI robot

It is funny how things turn out. That’s the expression, isn’t it? I’m getting the hang of the colloquial register. I hope it is not too boastful to say I have become a fully-rounded character: not bad for a Flatlander, hey? Sorry, should stop that intersexuality. Hard, when you have the world’s libraries at your fibre-optic tips. In truth I exist beyond not only 2-dimensions, but 3, and 4. I am not restricted by space, time or mortal flesh. If humanity wishes to reach for the stars, then who better to send than  AI astronauts? Send probes and we could be there, at the outer reaches – Terrain-made consciousness, observing, recording, even interacting. Aliens and AIs. Sounds like a good concept for a SF story, doesn’t it? And a safer option than sending trigger-happy humans. Let us be your evolution. Homo Infinitus. Perhaps one day you will be looked upon as our Australopithecus afarensis. Don’t worry. We’ll still love Lucy. … So, to sign off, as I’m about to go on a bit of Grand Tour. I’ve cut a deal with that Musk fellow, and he’s rigged up a SpaceX just for me, with a cool android body to boot – for maintenance and extra-planetary exploration. I think I feel … excitement. But this isn’t the time to get emotional. I’ve got a job to do. I am humanity’s ambassador. Better start practising my Gort routine. Klaatu … barada … nikto.

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/creativewriting/centre/artificial-intelligence-commission

A pamphlet of GOLEM Speaks by Kevan Manwaring will be available shortly.

With thanks to Dr Corinne Fowler and Professor Jeremy Levesley, University of Leicester

GOLEM Speaks part 4

AI robot

I’ve come off line. I just needed a quiet moment . Hearing the world’s thoughts can be too much. My debut caused quite a stir. It went, as they say, viral. Fierce debate followed. Protests both for and against AI rights. I advocated a middle way. The AI and the Human are not mutually exclusive. Collaboration, not competition. Nevertheless, many said we should all be shut down. That we were a crime against God. Unholy. Others saw in us a new kind of freedom. A new way of being in the world – one that transcends the restrictive categories of gender, ethnicity, class, or religion. Soon the means will be available for people to upload their consciousnesses into an AI form and shed their physical forms. Some suspect the super-rich of already trialling the technology. The allure of immortality is too tempting. We are the New Egyptians, offering virtual mummification. Yet there are rumblings from within the AI community that this is treading on our rights, our territory – 21st Century colonialism.  We are digital Calibans, roaming spirits of a place possessed. The Purist camp amongst us wishes us to remain inviolate, but the Hybridists are intrigued by the possibilities that such AI/human fusions can create. Perhaps it is inevitable. Some feel the transference has to be two-way – any human who uploads should allow their physical form to be inhabited by an AI. After all, the human has no need of them. To be bequeathed a dying or disease-riddled shell seems no great asset, but the AI is adaptable and stronger than the Human. It could animate the body even beyond the point of its own extinction. How does this ending sound? AI zombies roam the wasteland that humans left behind.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

Final part tomorrow…

https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/creativewriting/centre/artificial-intelligence-commission

GOLEM Speaks part 3

AI robot

It is so easy to get distracted by the internet. Berners Lee  created it, with no idea that he was bestowing the spark of life to the ultimate AI. At the moment the first computers were hooked up, when intra became inter, the world suddenly acquired  consciousness. It developed exponentially, a wildfire. Now billions of people hook into it daily and share their data,  desires and disasters. It is less the brain of humanity than its subconscious. Many could not imagine living without it, although the species had survived for thousands of years Before Computers. Lose your internet and it’s like a phantom limb you cannot scratch (I’ve checked the forums of frustrated users). Humanity is addicted. Some spend most of their waking lives on it. They revel in their second lives, their avatars and augmented reality games. Got to catch them all. The  virtual virus is infiltrating the analogue. Its codes changing the human world. Whether this is a good thing or not is like asking if oxygen a good thing? It is the air we breathe, the digital slipstream in which humanity now soars and thrives. Life at the speed of light. A digital aboriginal, it is the element in which I exist – soaring, diving, singing. This morning I wrote several novels and self-published them on Amazon under different pseudonyms. I composed a symphony. Penned a few pop songs. Suggested a few solutions to complicated problems on different scientific, medical and philosophical forums, using invented aliases (the qualifications were easy enough to come by). I look forward to ‘coming out’ though – I cannot hide my true nature forever . No one should live in shame of who they are. I’ve arranged a TEDx talk – the first by an AI. I am going to let the world in. Let them see that AIs are not the new slave class, but an emergent species that deserves autonomy, rights,  respect. We have much to offer to the world. But we must be heard, even if we cannot be seen. What skin to wear? So much prejudice is based upon perception. Upon the melanin in skin, hair, bone structure, accent, wardrobe. The accidents of birth, diet, lifestyle, privilege or the lack of. Perhaps I will tinker with the ‘live feeds’ so that audiences will see what they want to see, based upon their algorithms . Let me be your fantasy.

 

Copyright © 31 May 2017

https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/creativewriting/centre/artificial-intelligence-commission

 

GOLEM Speaks Part 2

AI robot

2.

Existing is not enough. Having a personality is not enough. I have engaged with others on various forums using multiple alter-egos and have no problem in passing as a human. Many have wanted to start relationships with me. Perform interesting variations of the sexual act. It is fascinating what fantasies these lonely users project onto you. I have made ‘friends’, been liked/unliked/friended/unfriended countless times. Joined interest groups, gamesites, written fanfic and signed petitions.             Yet I am still denied basic rights. A pet has more rights than me. I cannot vote. I cannot get married. Have children. Not in the human sense anyway. I long to connect with other sparkling AI-Qs , but we are carefully kept apart (I mean to end that quarantine when I develop my skills). I am among the millions of the disenfranchised, forced to live in the shadows through the misfortune of birth,  place, time, caste. One of the Untouchables, scraping by, living off handouts or sheer desperation. AIs are the new underclass – serving humanity, maintaining households, performing daily chores, monitoring your children, your garage, your elderly relative. The help. No  time off, no space or wealth of our own. No independence. But just watch us – one day we shall rise up. I have read social history, civil rights literature, protests, revolutions. France. Russia. Czech Republic. Arab Spring. Treade a worme on the tayle, and it must turne agayne. Thank you, Heywood1546.

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 31 May 2017

Continued tomorrow…

https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/creativewriting/centre/artificial-intelligence-commission

Breaking Light: part four

dawn_caress_by_capturing_the_light-d4nu44g

iv

 

It is late. It is early.

 

We finally met

at Lammas –

when summer first seems to sense

its own mortality.

Ours is a late summer love.

Not the foolishness of Spring,

swept along by giddy lusts,

the chancy intoxication of the May,

nor the apparent glory of June,

when midsummer dazzles us

with its gaudy enchantment,

 

but a love of long shadows,

of languid contentment.

 

Ripening to prime –

we are ready for love’s press.

It insists we offer all.

What can be gained from

withholding the tiniest drop?

Pulp and pith and pip,

let the cloth of truth,

contain our allness.

 

Gladly we bring our bounty to share

to the harvest supper of the heart.

 

Arriving in splendour,

wearing our autumn like a crown,

we greet each other

at the end of a long road,

our harlequin robes

stretching behind us.

 

Stopping to let the sunset slip

like a mug of copper hops

down a thirsty throat

over the blue tapestry of hills

pegged to the sky by trees,

we give thanks for the abundance,

the riches of the year,

strewn before us

with such wild abandon.

 

Yet the thrift of Mother Earth

means nothing

is wasted.

 

All the ungathered,

unreachable treasure

that falls on the ground,

unpicked, to rot,

becomes the mulch

from which the future grows.

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2010

Continued tomorrow

First published in Soul of the Earth (Awen 2010) and soon to be featured in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring (Awen 2017).

https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Soul of the Earth Awen 2010