Category Archives: English Literature

Walking Between Worlds

Practice-based research in writing Fantasy Fiction

 (presented at Performing Fantastika, 28 April 2017)

 

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‘Roots in two worlds’, Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring 2014

 

Firstly, to qualify the validity of practice-based research as a core methodology in my discipline, creative writing:

‘original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’  (‘Creative Writing & Research, 4.6 QAA Benchmark Statement, 2015)

‘Research in or through creative practice can provide a way to bridge these two worlds: to result in an output that undeniably adds knowledge, while also producing a satisfying work of literature.’ (Webb, 2015: 20)

My creative practice extends beyond the page but feeds back into it …

Creative Practice

As a storyteller, performance poet, host of spoken word events and fledgling folk-singer, I have used my creative practice to inform my prose fiction, field-testing material to live audiences.  In 2002 I co-created and performed in a commissioned storytelling show for the Bath Literature Festival called ‘Voices of the Past’. In that I performed a monologue as Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister’ of Aberfoyle. Little did I know then I was to undertake a PhD with him as a major focus, or that this kind of method-writing was to become a central practice of mine.

An Otter’s Eye View

In his 2005 article on nature writing, ‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane describes the approach of Henry Williamson:

 ‘Williamson’s research was obsessive-compulsive – writing as method acting. He returned repeatedly to the scenes of Tarka’s story as it developed. He crawled on hands and knees, squinting out sightlines, peering at close-up textures, working out what an otter’s-eye view of Weest Gully or Dark Hams Wood or Horsey Marsh would be. So it is that the landscape in Tarka is always seen from a few inches’ height: water bubbles “as large as apples”, the spines of “blackened thistles”, reeds in ice like wire in clear flex. The prose of the book has little interest in panoramas – in the sweeps and long horizons which are given to eyes carried at five feet.’

‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane, 2005

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33

As a keen walker, my experiential research seeks to experience the equivalent of Williamsons’ ‘otter’s-eye view’: to immerse myself in a landscape, to fully experience it in an embodied way that inhabits me and informs my writing and reveals countless telling details in the process.

As part of my ‘way into’ the world of my novel I have walked long-distance footpaths: Hadrian’s Wall (2014), West Highland Way (2015), Offa’s Dyke (2016), Southern Uplands Way (2017) …  walks exploring borders and debatable lands, And I have discovered my enjoyment of singing in the process … While walking WHW solo I started to pick a song each day to keep me going. For the Offa’s Dyke I created a deliberate songbook. These walks gave me an embodied sense of geography, of psychogeography, and plenty of time to think about Borders. Outcomes include a poetry collection, Lost Border; a performance at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, ‘Across the Lost Border’; a ballad and tale show; and of course, the novel itself.

Spoken/Written

In particular the two worlds of the ‘spoken’ and ‘written’ forms have cross-fertilized most of all in my creative practice and published works (a selection of which are seen here). Since I first started to write poetry, back in 1991, I have straddled these worlds – discovering that the performance of my words (initially at ‘open mic’ nights) was just as important as the writing of them, as a way of ‘getting them out there’, connecting with an audience, gleaning a response, starting a discussion. I soon realized that do so successfully required practise and sometimes a tailoring of the text for performance, focusing on its orality/aurality and factoring in mnemonic devices. I have made a study of these aspects and techniques (and the traditions that inform them) ever since. I collected my field-tested research in The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, published by Gothic Image 2006. In my folk tales collections for The History Press I rendered into prose fiction a mixture of folklore, folktale and ballad – culminating in the anthology I’ve edited, Ballad Tales. These, in turn, have been restored to orality in subsequent launch events – through either straight reading, extempore performance or song. In storytelling, the ‘performative text’ – not a verbatim transcript but the cluster of phrases, gestures, plot points and tropes the performer holds in their memory (Honko, 2002) can result in a different telling each time. There are many paths through the forest of the narrative, modulated by the feedback loop of performance, audience, performance space, regionality and topicality (‘The Gate’, Manwaring; Gersie, 2012).

The Novel

In my novel I have attempted to dramatize the creative process of cross-fertilization that occurs when song- and tale-cultures are taken to new lands, and sometimes back again: ‘diasporic translocation’. The focus of my research at the University of Leicester, (p/t since September 2014) has been: Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. After extensive time in key research libraries, the Scottish Borders and North Carolina, I have created the following story: Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American musician descended from a long line of gifted but troubled women. She lives near Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave, until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century minister obsessed with Fairy Lore. Assailed by supernatural forces, she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lay to rest the ghost of Kirk and to accept the double-edged gift she has inherited, the gift of Second Sight: the Knowing. Janey, as my performer-protagonist, is the ideal vehicle for exploring notions of world-walking. She is of mixed heritage, being half-Scottish, half-Cherokee – a Meti hybrid, the blood of the Old and New Worlds run in her veins. She is a semi-pro rock musician who becomes, as a result of reconciling herself to her inheritance, a professional folk musician. Her down-to-earth sassiness counterbalances the otherworldly elements she encounters. She is kick-ass but also fallible, gifted but self-sabotaging. A hedonist who needs to learn to reconcile herself to a supernatural reality. Within her she contains the dialectical discourse of my narrative, though if you told her that she’d punch you on the nose.

Digital Performance

Through digital formats, my PhD project explores ways in which the reader ‘performs the text’ in their interaction with hypertextuality. The heteroglossia of my narrative (the voices of Janey’s ancestors, the supporting characters, the antagonist) suggested to me a different way of navigating the text could be more effective than a conventional linear one, and so in creating the ebook version of The Knowing, I tackled the various technical challenges of creating an interactive multi-linear narrative. This involved learning new software and grappling with coding. I created a series of motifs symbolizing the different characters. As metonymic representation was intrinsic to the narrative (the 9 McEttrick Women are connected to through their respective heirloom). Epitomizing the characters with motifs seemed satisfyingly apt and something as an artist I enjoy doing. Embedding these within the text, the reader clicks on the motif if they wish to discover the ‘hidden voice’. Rather than disrupt the flow of the main narrative with these subplots – either through inserted sections, chapters, or footnotes – a small hyperlinked motif enables the reader to choose, thus bestowing upon them the same agency as my protagonists who are all driven by their desire to know in some way. This chimes with the conceptual underpinning of my novel as an epistemological enquiry: what do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge valued above other kinds? Can we ever know another, or even ourselves, fully? Can any knowledge be ‘solid state’ in certainty, or does objective truth disappear into contradictory details the closer it is examined? In a ‘Post-Truth’ age of Trumpian fake news, such questions seem timely (although I suspect they are perennial – such questions have been haunting critical thinkers for a long time). But to return to the notion of reader-performer: any readers ‘performs their text’, in reading of a line, the turning of a page, and the transforming of marks into meaningful narrative, but in an ebook with multiple pathways that performance seems more explicit (though paradoxically less physical). I liked the idea that each of my links is a kind of portal (a digital wardrobe to Narnia or a rabbit hole to Wonderland) taking the reader to another paradigm. The ebook makes the reading experience an acting out of the classic ‘Portal Quest’ Fantasy (Mendelhson 1999), although in truth any book can provide a trapdoor in reality. Recent works such as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (2016) augment those portals with apps and websites, but any reader with sufficient imagination can provide their own – whether through daydreaming, drawing, fan fiction, cos-play, gaming and so on. Initial Reader-Reception of the ebook has so far been encouraging:

 ‘this novel has an appealing plot and uses digital media in a clever way to bring other voices into the main narrative.’ Everyboy’s Reviewing [accessed 25.04.17]

‘Like the Fey and the plot, the e-book itself is full of cunning entanglements.’ Amazon.com review [accessed 25.04.2017]

‘The use of links within the ebook text to jump between narratives gives a real sense of the narratives being separate and ongoing outside what is written, while not detracting from the flow of the novel itself. It’s an interesting use of the technology that works really well in what it sets out to do: to give the reader the choice of reading the initially hidden narratives or to allow them to read the main narrative and then the related narratives afterwards. I feel the choice of the reader mirrors Janey’s choice to read Kirk’s Journal or not; it gives the reader a little taste of what Janey herself faces when she receives her ancestor’s contraband form of communication.’ Good Reads review [accessed 25.04.2017]L

Live Lit

One byproduct of my PhD research has been the ‘ballad and tale’ show called ‘The Bonnie Road’, a one-hour blend of storytelling, song, and poetry co-created with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, which draws directly upon the supernatural Border Ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and my research into Scottish folk traditions. This illustrates how it is possible to turn elements of a novel into a ‘live lit’ experience, one that is co-created with the audience in a slightly different form every single time due to the extempore style of delivery. It has been performed at festivals, small theatres, pubs and gatherings. Bringing alive the characters in the two ballads: (Thomas the Rhymer; Tam Lin; Janet; The Queen of Elfland) in some cases acting them, was an effective way of getting under their skin and finding a ‘way in’. Embodied insights which deepen my understanding of them, nuancing my depiction of them in fiction. This was augmented by a workshop I ran called The Wheel of Transformation in the US and UK in which participants role-played those 4, sometimes swapping roles and genders.

Feeding Back into the Novel

All this ‘research through practice’ has enriched my visualisation of the novel and deepened understanding of the characters. The response from the audience, discussion generated and comments garnered have helped create a fertile feedback loop. Furthermore, my archival research has discovered fascinating details (marginalia in the notebooks; poems; diary entries) which have been directly fed back into the novel – in characterisation and plot, which you can read about on my Bardic Academic blog [eg ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’].

Pushing the Boundaries

The Knowing has attempted to push the boundaries of both form and content – finding fertile ground in the creative tension between the Actual and Imaginary, as Nathaniel Hawthorne terms it (‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter). I argue that true Fantastika lies within the negative space of these apparent extremes. I certainly choose to pitch my flag in this liminal zone where the magical and the mundane rub shoulders, finding neither straight realism (so-called mimetic fiction) or high fantasy to my taste. I have dramatized this transitional space as ‘The Rift’ within my novel, a place between the Iron World of humans and the Silver World of the fey – ever-widening after the cataclysm of the Sundering, when the Borders were sealed. Yet in my novel there are irruptions on both sides: characters and contraband slip through; and in the Trickster figure of Sideways Brannelly, a 19th Century Ulster-American who has become a ‘Wayfarer’ – a trader between the worlds – I have someone who acts out the synaptic cross-fire between these hemispheres. He smuggles the lost journal of Robert Kirk out from Elfhame, metaphorically mimicking the production of the actual text itself – the result of my own walking between the worlds. And in my career as a writer-academic I continually straddle the apparent ‘creative-critical’ divide, finding it a place of intense creative generation – a mid-Atlantic ridge for the black fumers of my mind!

Full Circle

My practice-based research continues to inform my writing. And in author events such as book launches (eg Steampunk Market, Chepstow, 22nd April) the ‘performance’ aspect comes full circle, as I sometimes ‘role-play’ characters from my novels (in this case, my Edwardian aviator Isambard Kerne from The Windsmith Elegy) to bring alive the storyworld for the casual browser, enticing future readers to ‘walk between the worlds’.

Notes:

  • Gersie, Alida, et al, Storytelling for a Greener World, Stroud: Hawthorn, 2012
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel, ‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
  • Honko, Lauri (ed.) The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, 2002
  • Macfarlane, Robert, ‘Only Connect’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33 [accessed 25.04.17]
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Bardic Handbook, Glastonbury: Gothic Image, 2006
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2017
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Knowing – A Fantasy, Stroud: Goldendark, 2017
  • Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press, 2008
  • Pears, Iain, Arcadia, London: Faber, 2016
  • QAA Benchmark Statement (draft) 2015
  • Webb, Jen, Researching Creative Writing, Newmarket: Frontinus, 2015

The Illustrated Novelist

lightwomanshadowmanbyKEVANMANWARING 2017

Illustrations based upon Robert Kirk’s 17th Century notebooks by Kevan Manwaring, The Knowing, 2017

 

I have long been an appreciator of illustrated text. Being a writer coming from a Fine Art background, this is perhaps not surprising, as I enjoying doing both – playing with words and images in my stories and drawings – revelling in the incredible freight and flexibility of letters and the infinite potential of the line, the mark.

003 BETHANY.jpg

Motif for ‘Bethany’, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

From Palaeolithic cave art onwards we have illustrated our lives, representing symbolically our fears and dreams, our gods and demons, or simply the miracle of our existence: the handprint that says I am here, I exist, I belong. We have used art to express what is significant to us. For a long time art was used to express the Divine, but also to make sacred narratives relatable: in exquisite illuminated manuscripts, in beautiful Books of Hours, in the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals, in the illustrations of canonical texts. Of course art was also used to convey power and status, in the iconography of heraldry, coats of arms, portraits of the wealthy and what they owned: landscapes were as much about who owned them as what they contained. The frame did not simply delineate the edge of the picture, it implied ownership, the border of privilege, the ha-ha divide between the haves and have-nots.

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Motif for ‘Molly’, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

With the printing press came a new democracy that allowed, ultimately, art and text to be read, shared and owned by all sections of society.  The first illustrated books were still the luxuries of the elite, but as printing presses became more efficient and economical handbills, chapbooks and broadside ballads started to be disseminated from street-corners, often with crude, but thrilling illustrations recycled for different contexts – a new song, the latest scandal, a bloody execution. Penny Dreadfuls and illustrated newspapers fed the public’s appetite for text and image. The comic strip, commonly a syndicated three-panel trick, was born. It developed into the comic book and the so-called graphic novel, now glossy full-colour affairs – largely the flagships of lucrative franchises (with shining exceptions from the smaller presses and up-and-coming artists) – but when I started  reading them, they were black and white weeklies, printed on newsprint quality paper, costing a few pennies and often seen as ‘throw-away’. Fortunately I realised their worth and avidly collected them, building up my own personal library.

FBI AGENT

FBI motif, K. Manwaring, The Knowing, 2017

My obsession with comics lasted for a couple of decades, and for a while I had ambitions to become a writer or illustrator of them, but I developed a taste for more sophisticated texts, while not losing my enjoyment of illustration. My own idiosyncratic exploration of this form has led to personal favourites: the luminous ‘songs’ of William Blake; Aubrey Beardsley’s La More D’Arthur; Gustav Doré’s Paradise Lost, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Don Quixote; illustrated Fairy Tales, especially the work of Arthur Rackham; John Tenniel’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; the magnificent editions produced by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press; and later, the Hogarth Press – John Stanton Ward’s Cider with Rosie. The simple charm of Antoine de St-Exupery’s The Little Prince; Mervyn Peake’s fabulously grotesque Gormenghast trilogy; Tolkien’s self-illustrated The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Then, as my tastes developed I fell in love with the watercolours of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (Paper Tiger); the nightmarish art of Dave McKean (who as well as providing the cover art for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, also collaborated with Iain Sinclair of tomes such as Slow Chocolate Autopsy); Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would not be the cult classic it is without the wild art of Ralph Steadman; Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls for me will always be the defined by the art of Jim Kay; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, by the intricate motifs which emulate those of Lyra’s golden compass, the Alethiometer. When I read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, it was Charles Vess’ illustrations which enchanted me as much as the story. It created a certain aesthetic, evocative of Victorian classics, as did Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, a homage to the adventure novels of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. Visual ‘furniture’ has been deployed in fiction since experiments in the novel form began – it is there in Laurence Sterne’s 1759 Tristram Shandy with its blacked out pages, in Daniel Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), and can be found in books as recent as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (which uses an app with visual representations of narrative pathways) and Naomi Alderman’s The Power (both 2016). I knew I would always revel in these paratextual elements.

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Motif of ‘Clarence & Constance’, The Knowing 2017

And so it is small wonder that I decided to incorporate them into my PhD novel project, The Knowing – A Fantasy. This decision was influenced by not only my lifelong ‘guilty pleasure’ but by archival research. Upon examining the primary source material of Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister of Aberfoyle’, I discovered within his notebooks remarkable illustrations (see my blog on ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’). Kirk also owned an exquisitely illustrated Book of Hours. Discovering the fact that the young Kirk was prone to doodling not only ‘humanised’ him, it also revealed the workings of his subconscious – a gift to a novelist attempting to bring him alive. He became more than just a formidable minister of the Presbytery, he became flesh and blood. By copying his artwork, mark by mark, I felt as though I was slipping into his skin.

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Motif of ‘Margaret’, Robert Kirk’s 2nd wife, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

And so, inspired by this, and by creative decisions around how to best present a multi-linear narrative, I decided to create a series of motifs to represent the different ‘voices’ within the text. These will provide signposts for the reader, to help them navigate around it. In the e-book version, by clicking on the embedded motif you can be taken to the ‘side-text’ (if you wish); then, when you’re done, you can return to the main text by clicking on the plectrum (which represents my main character, the musician Janey McEttrick). On our computers and phones we are used to using similar icons in the form of apps and tiles on our desktop. An unobtrusive motif can adorn a block of text like an illuminated capital in a manuscript, and it is up to the reader whether to explore or not. This feels like a more elegant solution than footnotes (which threatened to overwhelm the otherwise marvellous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel), and I liked the idea of hypertext links being akin to faerie portals, taking the reader-traveller to a different reality. In the end I created about 20 motifs for The Knowing, enjoying the process of selecting a suitable motif to epitomize each key character. This chimed deeply with a central plot device I deploy (a series of heirlooms which allow my protagonist to connect vicariously to her ancestors). I also created a frontispiece and an ‘eye’ motif, based upon one of Kirk’s drawings. The latter also adorns the cover and sums up the insight and illumination of those with the ‘knowing’ of the title – Second Sight.

KIRK EYE R

Kirk’s eye of illumination, based upon an original in his 17th C. notebooks, by K. Manwaring 2017

So, with the book complete, I can add The Knowing to a list of my books I have illustrated: Spring Fall (1998); Green Fire (2004); The Bardic Handbook (2006); Oxfordshire Folk Tales (2012); Northamptonshire Folk Tales (2014) and Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (2017), as well as a continuing series of literary walks for the Cotswold Life magazine. My love affair with text and image looks likely to continue as I continue to discover new and wonderful examples and practitioners, and I hope in the future to collaborate with other artists and writers.

kirk grave detail

Detail from the grave of Robert Kirk, by K. Manwaring 2017

Kevan Manwaring Copyright ©2017

 

The Characters are in Charge

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One day a tall red-head with striking eyes and a steel string guitar walked into my head. Her name was Janey McEttrick and she demanded to have her story told. She lived in an airstream trailer in the backcountry near Asheville, North Carolina. She was of Scottish descent (on her mother’s side) and had inherited more than just the red hair from her Celtic ancestors. The gleam in her eye suggested she knew more than her hedonistic ‘trailer-trash’ lifestyle suggested – far more.

When a character barges into your imagination like this you know you have no choice but to listen, to take notes, to do what you’re told. They are a gift. If a character is rebellious, subverting your carefully structured plot and all the nice plans you’ve laid out for them, then you know they have a pulse. It has been said that a novel is a war between characters versus plot. In that tension the narrative is forged. Too much of either and you’ll either end up with a rambling, indulgent mess – a series of character studies in search of a story;  or a soul-less checklist of plot-points populated with flat characters.

But I have often found that characters appear first and generate story. If they have a strong line of desire, hampered by doubts, fears and other attendant demons, then you can pretty much set them off and see where they take you. The parameters of your story world are usually limited by what you’re interested in, can be bothered to research, to ‘fill in’. The further away from that locus of interest, the hazier it becomes. The edges of that world are often unconvincingly blurry. Your writer’s imagination is unable to render it in sufficient detail. The character runs into a blank wall.

So, your protagonist – the one that gatecrashed your head (it’s normally them I find who are the culprits, rather than the minor characters) needs to meet other characters, to come alive, to be challenged, tempted, tormented, helped and harried. If you have a ‘mouthpiece’ characters that represents your world-view, then you need others who diametrically oppose and challenge that paradigm; you need foils; you need allies and enemies. Your protagonist needs friends, perhaps a lover or companion, and some kind of family. Suddenly your novel is starting to look crowded. Your lovely writer’s mansion has been squatted by a colourful rabble , who throw parties at all hours, graffiti the walls, and do unspeakable things with your objet d’art and upholstery. At some point you will have to put your foot down and put your house in order. The ‘creative’ mess will need tidying up, but it’s often only from that fecund chaos that the good stuff emerges. Too much control too soon can be fatal. Writers who impose martial law on their imagination – making characters toe the line – will create arid scenes empty of organic warmth. A little bit of anarchy is good for a story, if you want it to surprise and delight you. And if it doesn’t surprise and delight you, it’s unlikely to do that for the reader.

Where these characters come from is often a mysterious process – some kind of alchemy perhaps between people you know, people you wish you knew or had known, parts of yourself, the wunderkammer of your memories, your subconscious, your higher self, shadow, ancestors – even ones you’re not aware of… smushed with books, movies, music, art, places, people-watching, day-dreams and fantasies. Unless you’re doing a Creative Writing course of some kind, you normally don’t have to do an autopsy. All that matters is they live and breathe, that they speak and act, feel and think in accordance with their character – that’s the prime directive for any novelist. Yes, you can play God – but once you’ve created your world, don’t be a Jehovah. Let your characters get on with their lives. You have to let them make mistakes, fuck up, get themselves up the spout or bumped off. They need to learn in the school of hard knocks you’ve created for them – even if at times you wish you could give them a message, a helpful hint. But even if you do, most would ignore it or notice it. It is enough of a miracle that they exist at all. And we pass by signs and wonders every day.

 

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an e-book on 20th March. If you would like to reserve a copy or review it, please get in touch.

Houdinis of Bewilderland

Creative Escapology in the Age of Austerity

by Kevan Manwaring

This article was written as a commission for the Doggerland journal –  to make it more web-friendly, I will serialize it here in digestible extracts. It’s initial title was ‘Prepping for the Art-apocalypse: creative survival in the Age of Austerity’ but I decided that just fed into the current Neoliberalist, survival-of-the-fittest, paradigm and its predilection for ‘disaster-porn’. I want to offer a more  positive approach, although the question I started it with still stands:

In an era of philistine-funding cuts in the arts, corporate-controlled channels of consumerism, and a fear-fuelled conservatism in commissioning and programming, what strategies are available to us to foster artistic survival?

houdini_photo_20

Part One

Welcome to the Smeuse-House

The whole is made up of holes. We stitch together our rags and tatters and make something out of nothing. Slowly the picture emerges. Metonymically, to the arrhythmia of the new fin de siècle. Fragments are offered. And we make of them what we will, piecing together a narrative of (all)sorts. The future archivist looks back and sees the crumb-trail, the pioneering projects, the unseen visionaries, the coteries and communities, the salvage-culture sculptors, apocalypso bands, escape artists of an imploding neoliberalism. Those who have found the gap in the hedge and wriggled through. Houdinis of Bewilderland, the artists and poets who wander amongst the ruins of the failed project of civilisation and etch broken songs onto singed codices.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2016

Next: Rhizomes with a View

This article was commissioned by Doggerland. An alternative version is available in print form in their latest issue, along with other thought-provoking contributions.  Check it out. Available from:  http://www.doggerland.info/doggershop

Keep in touch with Doggerland – an inspiring initiative by & for radical artists and writers.

http://www.doggerland.info/

 

 

Defining Goldendark

Extract of a paper ‘From Grimdark to Goldendark: approaching a new aesthetics of Fantasy’, presented at the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture, Cardiff University, 23 May, 2016

As a recusant Fantasy author, I am often disappointed by what is labelled as such – certainly in most bookstores and libraries. I often have to go further afield – across genre – to find work of true imagination, vision and literary merit. In my current creative writing PhD project, a contemporary fantasy novel, I am seeking to redress this modern impoverishment of a long and fine literary tradition. This paper is an attempt to define my own aesthetic as much as anything and, as such, is a work-in-progress. It is not meant to be prescriptive, but speculative. The beginning of a conversation. Pull a chair by the fire. Tankards are optional, but please – no foaming.

 

It’s Grim Up North of the Wall

Grim Dark’ is a term first used in association with the Warhammer 40,000 RPG as a marketing tag (refer to screen shot: In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war’). It has now come to denote a certain tone of imaginative fiction, and is sometimes called ‘dark fantasy’. It is characterised by markedly dystopian or amoral scenarios, with particularly violent or grittily realistic elements. Emerging initially as a subgenre through fan fiction, some of which has proven popular amongst its own demographic, it has come to be an identifying characteristic of 21st Century fantasy writers such as Adam Roberts, Genevieve Valentine, Joe Abercrombie, and George RR Martin (GRRM!), who, more than any single author, epitomizes this style with his anti-Tolkienian epic fantasy. However reactive and iconoclastic Grimdark might have initially been in deconstructing the tropes and cosy medieval tone of earlier fantasy, it has become depressingly pervasive (pumped out not only by authors, but by films, TV, computer games, pop videos, etc.) along with the prevailing paradigm which it pretends to mirror: the present day with all its geopolitical conflict and complexity. With its emphasis on gratuitous violence, misogynistic warrior-culture, mercenary and rapacious economies, casual cruelty and villainous victories it hammers home that ‘there is only war’. It has become, for its fans, another kind of consoling fiction.

 

From Prog-Rock to Punk Fantasy

It has to be acknowledged that,  as with any tradition of longevity, Fantasy had become bloated and complacent – the worst examples of the genre rehashed the hand-me-down tropes of the innovative visionaries, a formulaic schtick – and in many ways deserved to be beheaded. After the excesses and indulgences of the ‘prog-rock’ phase of fantasy (the psychedelic excesses and embarrassing ‘concept albums’ of endless series), the ‘punk’ phase had to happen.

It was time to kick against the pricks.

Joe Abercrombie (aka ‘Lord Grimdark’) argues in a provocative, but insightful way in ‘The Value of Grit’, for Grimdark as a healthy response to the tired conventions of genre, and to the moral complexity and infinite cruelty of the world. He defines it as follows:

  1. Tight focus on character
  2. Moral ambiguity
  3. Honesty
  4. Sometimes life really is that shit
  5. Modernity
  6. Shock value
  7. Range

‘So, yeah, shitty gritty books are no better than shitty shiny books.  But I proudly and unapologetically assert that there’s a great deal more to grit than a capacity to shock and titillate.  Although I must equally proudly and unapologetically assert that I do sometimes quite enjoy being shocked and titillated.’ (Abercrombie, The Value of Grit).

Yet Liz Bourke considered grimdark’s defining characteristic to be “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action (…) as either impossible or futile”. This, according to her, has the effect of absolving the protagonists as well as the reader from moral responsibility.  (from Strange Horizons review, The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan)

…But the phlegm and snot and attitude only takes you so far (as we can see with Punk, 40 years on: it didn’t change anything, just sold records). Anger is a monotone and imaginatively impotent response.

Much of Grimdark could be seen as merely pissing in the Brandywine – shiteing on the Shire. As an adolescent reaction against the status quo – sticking it to the Man (‘Up yours, JRR!’) – Grimdark would be pretty harmless by itself.

Except for one critical caveat…

 

Grimdark – a Neoliberalist Rhetoric?

I would argue that Grimdark (its rhetoric as a subgenre, not necessarily individual authors) is just another expression of a Neoliberal consensus reality (‘The Zombie Doctrine’, George Monbiot, Guardian, 16 April 2016), a pervasive influence so permeated into modern life it has become virtually invisible, like a 21st Century Sauron. As Monbiot observes: ‘What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?’

Well, the demon has been named:

Neoliberalism: ‘Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.’ (Monbiot).

The lazy acceptance of this as the ‘new normal’, as every survival-of-the-fittest novel, film, TV show and computer game underpins (‘it’s tough out there, so lets fight off the zombie masses and hoard our resources for ourselves, the one per cent against the many’) helps to perpetuate the ethos, an ethos which, ironically, closes libraries. It has to be named, shamed, and met with a strong, well-crafted rebuttal.

‘A coherent alternative has to be proposed…’ (Monbiot)

The conscious writer, reader or consumer should seek to break free of the cycle of Grimdark schlock. Consider alternatives, and if none are available, create them.

That is where Goldendark comes in.

Cometh the Hour

In Goldendark there is acknowledgment of the ‘lateness of the hour’ (i.e. the ‘grim reality of things’) but also a gleam of hope – the best analogy for it is a sunset on an overcast day, when suddenly in a gap in the clouds low on the horizon, the sun gleams through. It is the sunrise of the winter solstice – the rebirth of light in the dead of winter. It is seen in the final battle of Camlann in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1982)

The Final Battle, Excalibur, John Boorman (1982)

when King Arthur confronts the fruit of his incestuous union with his half-sister Morgana Le Fay, Mordred, on the battle field. All around his finest knights lay slaughtered. The dream of the Round Table has been shattered by the human frailty of Camelot. Mordred hunts down his father in the mist, spear in hand – like the centurion about to impale Christ on the Cross. Then Lancelot appears, Arthur’s greatest knight. Old wrongs are forgiven, as side-by-side, the brothers-in-arms fight til the bloody end. Against a blood red sun glaring like an angry god over the apocalyptic battlefield, the end of an age, the end of an empire, father and son embrace with sword and spear. There is death and destruction, but there is also a sense of transcendence or redemption. It hasn’t all been a waste – as in many Grimdark scenarios where the good characters get killed with predictable relentlessness and you’re left feeling: What was the point? Why care for any of them if they’re all going to die? And: well, what exactly has that bloodfest left me with? There is a sense of something greater trying to break through. An immanence. If it does, if becomes too literal, the numinous is lost. We become beholden to one person’s belief system – eg CS Lewis’s cringeworthy Christianity – rather than experiencing our own sense of ineffable mystery. The closest anyone has come to it is Tolkien in his concept of ‘eucatastrophe’:

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).”

― JRR Tolkien, Letter 89

Stripping away the Christian (specifically Catholic in Tolkien’s case) contextualising, and you have something very close to Goldendark, but rather than being the ‘sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears’ (a wonderful thing in itself), Goldendark evokes a certain mood which ‘gilds’ the dark with some sense of hope or beauty, without necessarily resulting in a happy ending. Tonally it is less like a fairy tale and more like a myth or legend – in which sex and death occurs, but everything is imbued with a sense of magic, of significance. Unlike in Grimdark, which is essentially a Nihilistic genre, Goldendark articulates a paradigm where there is some meaning to life, where the plot means something and leads somewhere, where virtue has value and not all good deeds come to naught. Where truth and beauty – however tenuous – can exist. As indeed it can even in this messed up world. The media would have us believe that it is all bad everywhere, that every stranger is a terrorist, that every neighbour is a murderer. But we know that it is not true. Their job is to sell their rags and bones – so they use thrilling narrative to do so. Like so many Ratatosks, the worst of journalists love to spread dissent. The talk shows are rigged for contention. Conflict sells. Peace reads white. We can be aware of the countless tragedies, the geopolitical nightmare of the present, but still cherish simple things, value the sanctity of life and nature, community and imagination. Goldendark, in this respect, is more radical than the moral and intellectual laziness of Grimdark. It requires more effort. More imagination. More vision. If it is Romantic, so be it. Grimdark is nothing more than the new Gothic (Fantasy’s pale-faced sibling). The two meet in the idea of the Sublime, but whileas Grimdark dwells in the ‘shock’ of horror, Goldendark revels in the ‘awe’ of terror. There is an important difference. In the former, the mask slips and the ugly truth is revealed (usually brain matter), in the latter, the mask remains intact, and we are forced to use our imagination. It is a more sophisticated rhetoric and aesthetic. It is the Venice carnival with the sinister and exquisite masks, or Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. The darkness is acknowledged, death is danced with, but critically, it is transcended or at least transformed into art.

I propose a reimagining of possibilities within the spectrum of imaginative/non-mimetic fiction, one that does not merely mirror the ‘state of the world’, but instead boldly seeks to transform. This new approach I term ‘Goldendark’, an aesthetic which daringly engages with the ethical without descending into didacticism. While acknowledging the bleak reality of things it seeks to offer a glimmer of hope – a last gleam of the sun before it sets. This ‘gleam’ could be manifest in the arresting quality of the prose, the originality of the imagery, the freshness of the characterisation, or in redemptive plots.

 What Goldendark is not

Just for optimists, idealists or Romantics. Blatantly & blandly Christian/Pagan/New Age fiction. Inspirational fiction. Thinly-veiled self-help books. Naïve consoling fictions with no sense of the challenges facing us in the modern age (eg Climate Chaos; resource wars, etc). A sparkly counterspell to Grimdark. Puppy-food, sad or rabid.

Goldendark – suggested criteria.

  • Chiaroscuro.
  • An interrogative sense of realism.
  • Transformation of reality.
  • Ambiguity.
  • A healthy cross-section of morality.
  • A heightened awareness of the power and magical qualities of language.
  • Redemptive plot … possibly.
  • A lingering sense of hope or life-affirmation.

(K. Manwaring, 2016)

Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro is an Italian painting term referring to the dramatic effect of tonal contrast (it literally means ‘light-dark’), a technique mastered by Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio. Both artists were aware of the emotional impact of this light-in-darkness. In Goldendark, tonal contrast is essential. It is not all dark, dark, dark. But it’s not all sweetness and light either. One sets off the other creating a bittersweet atonality, a ying-yangness to the writing. The magical is seen in the mundane, the mundane in the magical. Hope is found in the bleakest of circumstances, and every happy moment has a fly in the ointment. The effect was captured brilliantly in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014), in which a group of four scientists explore a perilously ‘rewilded’ Area X:

‘The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.’

If Goldendark was to be summed up in three words it would be: ‘beauty in desolation.’

An interrogative sense of realism.

Goldendark seeks to not merely mirror ‘reality’, either with apparent authenticity as in mimetic fiction; or with a gratuitous exaggeration of its worst aspects, as in Grimdark. Through its plots, depiction of character and subtext it seeks to question consensual realities and perceptions of what is real. It seeks to undermine both genre expectations and lazy assumptions about ‘the way things are’. The texture of reality is manifest through close attention to detail, and yet there is a sense that the tectonic plates of the world could shudder and crack at any point.

Transformation of reality.

Goldendark seeks to be not just a mirror of reality, but a window through which other worlds, other ways of being can be glimpsed. It seeks to take the lead of reality and transform it into gold – through the alchemy of the imagination. This act takes greater courage, greater vision than a mere regurgitation of ‘what is’. The world is Goldendark has a metaphoric quality – yet it is not ‘just’ an allegory. Critically, it is within the qualia of its actuality that the potent charge exists for metamorphosis – as though by looking at something hard enough it will, at any moment, break its shell and become ‘other’.

Immanence.

Goldendark escapes the entropy of a clockwork universe by conjuring a tone of immanence, where it feels as though something could break through at any moment from a spiritual plane. Although not denying a monotheistic paradigm, GD could be just as easily a pantheistic one. The manifest universe is sacred and is revealed through the numinous world. The prose is a prism through which the one light splits into the spectrum, or is reunited. There is something almost animistic about the Goldendark novel – life is charged with a luminescence, even a sentience. The natural world is not necessarily benign, but it is aware. The walls of reality can crumble at any point, but critically, a definitive exegesis is deferred…

Ambiguity.

In the Goldendark novel a ‘final reading’ of events is impossible, or at least open to the reader’s interpretation. Uncanny or supernatural events are framed in such a way as to make psychological readings possible. The magical or mystical is never taken as a ‘given’ but just as one possible reading of reality. Scenarios are left to ‘speak for themselves’. Endings are open. And characters’ actions are seldom straightforward – sometimes motives are unclear even to themselves. We know what we are, but not what we may be.

A healthy cross-section of morality.

Goldendark presents a more balanced cross-section of morality than the skewed world of Grimdark, with its emphasis on the darker side of human behaviour. There is an acknowledgement of the depths to which humankind is capable, and an often unflinching gaze when it comes to the unspeakable horrors and tragedies which occur, but this is balanced by positive actions and acts of kindness, tenderness and trust. Human nature isn’t as unrelentingly bleak as the daily news might wish us to believe. Good exists. Virtue is occasionally rewarded. Simple goodness and pleasure is celebrated for its own sake.

A heightened awareness of the power and magical qualities of language.

Goldendark begins its project in the very fabric of the prose. It treats language with the same respect it does the natural world and humankind. There is an effort to create works of beauty – not in an overt lyricism but in the use of imagery, the crafting of each sentence and paragraph, the skilful attention to names, to dialogue, to the multifarious possibilities of language and the delights of the printed word. It takes seriously the responsibility of the storyteller and the duty of care they have to their audience – what they choose to focus on and bring into the world.

Redemptive plot … possibly.

Goldendark moves beyond the hopeful Christian discourse of Eucatastrophe (a sudden joyous turn) or its antithesis in Grimdark’s dyscatastrophe (sorrow or failure) into a liminal state of quantum possibility. The redemption it offers is in its breaking free of such dualism, or smug moral defaults. Further, Goldendark novels might refuse the comforts of closure. Robert Holdstock is the prime purveyor of this refusal of completion – things cannot be put in their box, the lives of the protagonists will be changed utterly – yet even the master of no return provided a sense of healing circularity in his last novel, Avilion, though it took us 25 years to get there. In Goldendark there is a sense that no matter how bad things get, there will be at some point an upturn towards something more positive. This is to do with a moral responsibility to the reader. We do not wish to leave them in despair, but inspired, motivated, moved and enthused with a renewed sense of life’s importance. This will, ideally, lead to …

A lingering sense of hope or life-affirmation.

When a reader puts down a Goldendark novel, they are left, ideally, with a renewed hope – not only for the possibilities of the human condition but the possibilities of language, the power of the imagination to inspire positive change in the world. The moral causality of our actions has been restored. We have agency, and what we do in this world, how we act, and interact with others, means something. In the gathering gloom we notice the last gleam of light more – we cherish its evanescence even as we let it go. Goldendark seeks to realign us to the natural cycle of things – day and night; spring, summer, autumn, winter; life and death. Through it we make peace with the universe and our place within it. The gold and the dark reminds us that every moment is laced with such qualities. We see the world in a new light.

 

‘Dark they were and golden-eyed’ 

 Goldendark Authors

  • Angela Carter
  • Lindsay Clarke
  • Philip Pullman
  • Elizabeth Hand
  • Robert Holdstock
  • Margaret Elphinstone
  • Graham Joyce
  • Ben Okri
  • Kevan Manwaring
  • Anthony Nanson
  • Lindsay Clarke
  • Christopher Priest
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Jeff VanderMeer

(this list is by no means comprehensive – it will continue to grow, and could include artists, musicians, storytellers, poets…see below for additions…)

  • Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen

Niggles and Quibbles

Is Goldendark a valid category?

  • I discern Goldendark qualities in the writers I have cited as examplars, but I acknowledge that no obvious subgenre exists at present. It is a deliberate Atterbery-esque ‘fuzzy set’, or what Mendlesohn might term ‘The Irregulars’. Their defining characteristic might be their lack of one, like the utterly alien word-crawler in Annihilation, oozing strange and beautiful words in the dark of its negative light-house. Word-spores that ‘Gleam… darkly golden.’ And, infesting us, transform our perception. Annihilation, p65

How does it differ from pre-Grimdark fantasy?

  • We cannot go back to a pre-9/11 world. To write in the style or morality of a mid-20th century fantasy authors would be redundant even if it were possible. So, was Grimdark necessary in some way? (Darwinian, even?) Gal Cohen describes Grimdark as: ‘an ‘Evolution of the fantasy genre.’ And yet Grimdark is just as formulaic and escapist in its own way. Goldendark differs from Tolkienian fantasy in the ways I have listed. There is an absence or deconstruction of Grand Narrative, a refusal of simplistic dualism, an engagement with the world and its complexity, an embracing of ambiguity and an attempt at psychological realism. Female characters are strong, and a meaningful diversity offered. Representations of the ‘other’ are handled sensitively.

Do we need Goldendark?

  • I would argue that Goldendark is a necessary correlative to the Neoliberalist rhetoric of Grimdark. As George Monbiot wrote in The Zombie Doctrine: ‘A coherent alternative has to be proposed.’ Although he was imagining an economic paradigm-shift, I’m imagining an aesthetic one. For this is a war won in the hearts and minds of people with the power of story. We have a choice: the buy into the consensus reality – the schlock factory of Grimdark – or create alternatives. It is shamelessly interventionist, not by being didactic and proselytising, but by being better written than anything else out there. By standing head and shoulders above the rest, it offers a positive choice. You are what you read. One can read the equivalent of junk food, or one can read well.

Is Goldendark diametrically opposed to Grimdark?

  • No. There is room for all on the bookshelves. The very act of reading a book is a redemptive one in itself (see my AHRC Essay, The (Re)Imagined Book), so the more, the merrier. I believe, to repurpose the Zapatista slogan: ‘El mundo que queremos es uno donde quepan mucho mundos’, the world I want is one where many worlds fit. It is only the pervasiveness of Neoliberalism (which Grimdark is but one iteration of) in real life, as the ‘new normal’, that is problematic. If we are only fed grim schlock then that is all we’ll see or expect. We have become habituated to it. And at the risk of being the heretic, the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes, I suggest a perceptual shift is required. It takes  a significant mental effort to see beyond what they want you to see: to ‘pierce-the-veil’, as Perceval/Parsifal achieved. The Grail awaits for those who do.

In his recent acceptance speech upon winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, British director Ken Loach said: ‘The world we live in is a at a dangerous point right now. We are in the grip of a dangerous project of austerity driven by ideas that we call neo-liberalism that have brought us to near catastrophe.’

What greater call to arms do we need?

‘Come, father, let us embrace…’                                                   Mordred, Excalibur, John Boorman (1982)

Final Thoughts

Goldendark is a speculative category, but one I hope will coalesce into a distinctive subgenre – yet not one too rigidly prescriptive or formulaic, for that will be the death of it. While it remains embryonic it has the frisson of possibility about it, it is a new frontier awaiting to be explored, a new world to be discovered. Another world is possible, and it takes a true act of the imagination to envision that.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2016

View the accompanying PREZI here

 

FROM GRIMDARK TO GOLDENDARK

References/Works cited:

  1. Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things, London: Allen Lane, 2000, p305.
  2. Grimdark magazine submission guidelines https://grimdarkmagazine.com/pages/submission-guidelines-for-grimdark-magazine
  3. http://www.joeabercrombie.com/2013/02/25/the-value-of-grit/
  4. Roberts, Adam (2014). Get Started in: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Hachette UK. p. 42. ISBN9781444795660.
  5. Valentine, Genevieve (25 January 2015). “For A Taste Of Grimdark, Visit The ‘Land Fit For Heroes'”NPR Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  6. Shurin, Jared (28 January 2015). “NEW RELEASES: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR BY KATHERINE ADDISON”Pornokitsch. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  7. Bourke, Liz (17 April 2015). “The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan”Strange Horizons. Retrieved 19 April 2015.
  8. Walter, Damien (1 January 2016). “Science fiction and fantasy look ahead to a diverse 2016”. The Guardian. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  9. ‘The Survivors’, extract The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie, 2006.
  10. The Walking Dead, HBO, 2010-2016. The Walking Dead is an American horror drama television series developed by Frank Darabont, based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard.
  11. George Monbiot, ‘The Zombie Doctrine’, Guardian, 16 April 2016.
  12. Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press; First edition. edition (30 April 2008)
  13. John Clute/John Grant, (eds). Encyclopedia of Fantasy,  Orbit, 1997/1999.
  14. David Sandner, Fantastic Literature: a critical reader, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
  15. ‘Eucatastrophe’; & ‘Dyscatastrophe: sorrow & failure: ‘the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.’ JRR Tolkien, Letter 89.
  16. Joshua Rothman, The Weird Thoreau, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/weird-thoreau-jeff-vandermeer-southern-reach
  17. ‘Gleamed darkly golden…’ Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation, p65
  18. Lindsay Clarke, The Water Theatre, Alma, 201o.

 

Kevan Manwaring

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture, Cardiff 23 May 2016.

 

Bard of Hawkwood 2016

20160502_142809

The winner of the Bard of Hawkwood contest 2016, Anthony Hentschel, sits on the Bardic Chair. Behind stand fellow contestants & judges (from left to right): Katie Lloyd-Nunn, Anthony Nanson, Chantelle Smith, Dominic James, Steve Wheeler, Richard Maisey.

Founded by Kevan Manwaring in 2014, the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood is part of a modern bardic tradition stretching across Britain and beyond. The Bardic Chair belongs to its community, the winner is its steward, and the gorsedd (i.e. the bardic circle which supports it) its guardians. It is a celebration of local distinctiveness, and a platform for creative expression. 

The 2nd Bard of Hawkwood contest took place on May Day bank holiday Monday at Hawkwood College’s lovely annual Open Day. The dark clouds gathered but didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. However, we wisely chose to hold the contest inside, as opposed to the front lawn where it has been held (and in 2014, announced) in previous years. This was a smart move as we had a full house in the Sitting Room as everyone piled in out of the rain! The judges this year were outgoing bard, Dominic James, folksinger Chantelle Smith, and our ‘chairman’ Richard Maisey (who kindly lent his original Eisteddfod chair from 1882 for the contest, kickstarting the whole thing off). They each took a turn, showing they know their stuff – with Chantelle getting everyone to singalong – then the contestants were introduced and took turns to perform, according to lots. I conjured up some awen with an excerpt from my poem ‘Dragondance’, then the bardic gloves were off. First up was storyteller, Anthony Nanson (author of Gloucestershire Folk Tales and co-author of Gloucestershire Ghost Tales with Kirsty Hartsiotis), who performed a gripping tale from New Caledonia with great gusto, voices, and gestures. The expressions of the younger members of the audience were priceless! Next up was creative powerhouse Katie Lloyd-Nunn, who shared a lovely song with a heartfelt introduction and accompanying statement. Katie was followed with dignity by Peter Adams, well-known local homeopath, activist and poet, who shared his wise owl poem complete with night-sounds! The penultimate performer was wordsmith Steve Wheeler, with a very engaging and amusing story about his childhood home and that yearning is shared through the generations. Finally, we had Ruskin Mill’s own Anthony Hentschel, who performed a barnstormer poem on the theme (The Way Home). From toddlers to senior citizens, the audience were mesmerized throughout. The judges left to deliberate and I MCed some impromptu floor spots. We had an impressive green man praise song from our resident jack-of-the-woods, Paul; a punchy poem from Jehanne Mehta; a bold contribution from Gill; and I shared my ‘Robin Hood’ poem, Heartwood. Then the judges summed up, praising each of the contestants in turn, before announcing the winner with a drum roll from me: Anthony Hentschel, who had impressed them all with his tour-de-force. The awen had been clearly with him, and the choice seemed to be popular.

Bardic Chair of Hawkwood 1882The new bard was robed, and holding the silver branch of office, sat in the Bardic Chair while everyone blessed him with three awens – and so we ended on a note of harmony. Anthony Hentschel offered a Shakespearean sonnet as his winning piece, and the spirit of The Bard was very much with us (along with the shade of Blake). Anthony will now serve as the Bard of Hawkwood for a year and a day, honouring his bardic statement, and choosing the theme for next year, when the contest will be once more held at Hawkwood’s Open Day. Anyone who lives in the Five Valleys around Stroud can enter an original poem, song or story on the theme. Details will be announced by October 31st. The Hawkwood College website will post information. An anthology will be produced of the contest. All contestants and judges from this contest and previous years are invited to be part of an ongoing bardic circle. Anybody else who wishes to be involved are asked to get in touch.

Finally, the winner of the Bard of Hawkwood 2016, Anthony Hentschel, gave the following statement:

I believe, as John Cowper Powys put it, that “Man should be capable of believing Everything and Nothing.” Thus the rational insights of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens and the mystical insights of Rumi or Llewelyn Powys are to be equally applauded. The title Bard of Hawkwood will hopefully furnish me with the confidence to carry the living Word of Poetry into local schools, prisons and Retirement Homes. If anyone out there would like to invite me, and perhaps some of my friends, to such institutions, please get in touch via my email: anthonyhentschel@hotmail.com.

Awen for All

/|\

Founder & Grand Bard of Hawkwood, Kevan Manwaring 2nd May 2016

http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/

The Bardic Handbook: complete manual for the 21st Century bard 

by Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image, 2006

http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk/the-bardic-handbook.html

 

The Bard and the Bardic Tradition

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

As we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Swan of Avon, William Shakespeare, who died on his 52nd birthday, April 23rd, 1616, it is timely to consider his other epithet: The Bard. For many people this is probably their only association with the term. It originally denoted one of a tripartite caste in ‘Celtic’ Iron Age Britain: the druid (priest/ess; philosopher; lawmaker); ovate (Seer; healer); and bard. The latter became associated with the Welsh oral and literary tradition (and as Fili, in the Irish) where they lived on, preserving many of their original functions: genealogist/historian; storyteller; poet; wisdom-bearer; magician of words; and remembrancer. I would like to consider these in detail here and see if Shakespeare and his ‘complete works’ (chiefly the 37 plays penned by him in brief, astonishingly creative life) fulfill any of these.

Genealogist/Historian: The Iron Age Bard would relate the genealogies of the tribe – the ancestral bloodlines, stretching back through the generations, validating the claims of chieftainship, of a tribe’s association with the land it lives on. Shakespeare continued this aspect of the bard, drawing upon the pseudo-lineage created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 13th Century History of the Kings of Britain, for lives of the Romano-British Cymbeline and the mythical King Lear (the son of King Bladud of Bath, who is also mention by Geoffrey, but is not honoured with the Shakespeare treatment). Throughout his plays he raids the ‘myth-kitty’ for magical, folkloric elements (Herne the Hunter; Robin Goodfellow; Puck; Ariel; Caliban; the 3 witches; spells, prophecies, curses and customs) – the smoke and mirrors of theatre offering a sympathetic magic for depictions and deconstructions of enchantment. Yet much of Shakespeare’s uncanny shenanigans are framed by ostensibly historical settings, giving them verisimilitude. The uncanny and the actual jostle on stage as we are spell-bound by bloody history.

Through his History Plays[1], Shakespeare is, for many, their first introduction to the infinite complexity of English history. In his dramas, relating the rise and fall of the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland, we see recurring themes of hubris, madness, revenge, fateful misunderstanding, fatal flaw, nobility and infamy. The good, the bad and the ugly. He engages our hearts and minds more than any history book could – bringing alive other centuries in an immersive, full-bloodied way. Before hit TV shows and movies, before historical novels, this was the only way to time travel in Elizabethan England: The Globe was Shakespeare’s TARDIS. We visit it not for historical accuracy, but for emotional accuracy, for escapism, a ‘mirror to our times’ and a visceral experience.

Storyteller: Shakespeare is a consummate storyteller in both his plotting and characterisation. We would not remember his histories if not for the storytelling. For the way he brings these dusty figures from the past alive, gives them immortal lines that will live on in the English language long after we have forgotten who spoke them. Through his comedies[2] and tragedies[3] (some of which slip between the two) he reveals all the foibles of the human condition: the cruelty and kindness, pettiness and greatness, hilarity and horror – the whole gamut of emotion. He tells, through the particular, archetypal stories which have been adapted into virtually every medium and translated into almost every major living language – for they express something universal.  As though he plays the three strains of the harp – the bard’s classic instrument – Shakespeare can make us weep (Goltai), laugh (Geantrai) or soothe us into a peaceful sleep (Suantrai). So well-crafted are Shakespeare’s plots that they have been cannibalised by countless writers and directors either directly (e.g. the legion of adaptations of the plays in ballet, opera, TV, film, computer game, prose fiction or manga form) or indirectly (e.g. West Side Story; Kiss Me Kate; Kurosawa’s Ran or Throne of Blood; Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books). Even just a quote from a Shakespeare play can provide a drama or novel with imported gravitas and thematic coherence. Shakespeare oeuvre has become the DNA of drama, its coding interlacing with the genetic material of the author’s own imagination, creating endless mutant variations. The ‘Swan of Avon’ virus has permeated every aspect of culture.

Poet: Every line of his plays fizzes and crackles with poetry, to the point that it is almost pointless to select any examples. One simply has to read a page at random from his Complete Works. Metaphor. Simile. Alliteration. Assonance. Consonance. Metre. Shakespeare’s English shows what can be done with the language – it is multi-layered and exquisite to the ear. It takes a moment to attune to but when we do, we realize what a watered down version of our mother tongue we get these days. To drink deep from Shakespeare is to drink from the source.

So many of Shakespeare’s lines have entered the English language and imagination to the point that they have become as familiar and loved to our linguistic landscape as daffodils, chalk figures, Stonehenge, the village green, and ruinous castles by winding rivers have become icons of this ‘sceptred isle’. Here are only a smattering of examples:

“Can one desire too much of a good thing?” (As You Like It, Act IV, Scene I).

“Off with his head!” – (King Richard III, Act III, Scene IV).

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. – (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II).

“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see”. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 6).

“Why, then the world ‘s mine oyster” – (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene II).

“What ‘s done is done”.- (Macbeth, Act III, Scene II).

“‘T’is neither here nor there.” – (Othello, Act IV, Scene III).

“I have not slept one wink.”. – (Cymbeline, Act III, Scene III).

We spout Shakespeare in our daily conversation but do not realize it, and we turn to Shakespeare – to his plays, to his sonnets – to help us fathom and articulate every permutation of the human heart, of which he is our most eloquent ambassador.

Wisdom-bearer: What distinguishes a bard from a mere minstrel is the deeper understanding of the symbols and meaning behind the words, the stories. Bards do not simply repeat ‘classics’, like a pub singer doing hoary covers. They have connected to the living reality of the story or song or poem, inhabited it, lived and breathed it, and embodied it in their daily lives. They are able to impart the underlying wisdom behind reality and offer an insight into the human condition. This is what separates them from the average wordsmith – the hack journalist, potboiler novelist, copywriter, political speech-writer – who push words around their screens like so many fridge-magnets, never going beneath the surface, the veneer they are creating. The bard conveys wisdom, not simply knowledge – a hard-won wisdom tested by life’s ‘slings and arrows’, by solitude and deep journeying. Shakespeare, whose life was struck by hardship and tragedy (e.g. the loss of his son Hamnet, aged eleven) does this time and time again. His plays dredge the depths of humanity and reaches to its heights. Even in the darkest scenes of his plays there is a sense of majesty – that is, in the sheer creative effort of learning lines, acting, choreography, set design, lighting, costume, music, directing, and active listening, one is glimpsing what humans are capable of when we transcend our differences and collaborate.

Magician of words: The classic bard channelled the awen (Welsh, f. noun, ‘inspiration’) the creative force behind existence, through their words and music. Shakespeare in his plays, in his poetry, provides evidence of this gramarye. He re-enchants language, gives it a spell-binding, incantatory, talismanic quality – one that could conjure worlds, draw tears and laughter from the audience, make us look into the recesses of our own souls and the fabric of our lives. In Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, we have, in the character of Prospero, an alter-ego for the playwright himself, adept at conjuring and dispelling worlds with his words:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot 2055
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice 2060
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder 2065
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth 2070
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 2075
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.   (The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1)

Remembrancer 

Finally, I would add to the list of Shakespeare’s bardic credentials that of Remembrancer. Traditionally, bards had to learn an impressive repertoire of 350 tales, as well as grammar, glosses, oghams, orations and poems, over a 12 year training period. Before literacy was commonplace bards were the walking libraries of the tribe. They had stories for every occasion: wooings and weddings, births, battles and funerals. Shakespeare, as an actor, had to line a large and adaptable repertoire. His own company, The King Chamberlain’s Men, had to master many of his plays, his long poems, and other popular pieces of the time. As Polonius says, such as they are:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men.

And, finally, with his incredible legacy, Shakespeare has inspired countless actors – from schoolchildren to veterans of the stage – to memorize and master his exquisite words. Whenever Shakespeare is performed live we experience the power of memory combined with the beauty of language. In this regard, the Shakespearean tradition is in effect a bardic one, a global bardic college which specializes in the development and dissemination of the bardic arts: word, memory and wisdom.

And so I would conclude that William Shakespeare, a priest in the Chapel of Memory. does indeed live up to the epithet of ‘The Bard’. And I do not think the definite article here is too presumptuous – for as an actor and a writer who skilfully straddled the worlds of the stage and the page Shakespeare showed he could ‘walk his talk’, and his incredible legacy – both prolific and of the highest calibre – qualifies him in my and many people’s eyes as the greatest bard that ever lived and wrote in the English language. And if his epithet makes the curious look closer at the origins of the word, and the tradition it denotes, then that is a many-splendoured thing too.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 25 April 2016

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

 

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.