Category Archives: Fairy

Sounding the Rift

The Agency of Place in Fantasy Fiction

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Hadrian’s Wall, Kevan Manwaring 2014

In classic Fantasy novels places often seem like characters in their own right – think of the grotesque decrepitude of Gormenghast; the prelapsarian loveliness of Lothlorien and the Industrial nightmare of Mordor; the donnish eccentricity of Narnia; the heterogeneous archipelago of EarthSea; the Mooreefoccian Jordan College and the rugged fastness of the Svalbard Peninsula in His Dark Materials; the chrono-labyrinths of Ryhope Wood; the TARDIS-house of Little, Big . Agency in Place has be there from the earliest forays into Fantasy, in the monstrous uncivilisation that threatens Babylon in Gilgamesh, in the drear fen of Beowulf and the doom-laden fells of Gawain and the Green Knight. And it is to be found in modern cartographies of such liminal zones, in, for example, Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time (a helter skelter through the epochs hidden within a rainforest) and Tom and Nimue Brown’s Hopeless, Maine (an island in limbo from which no one can ever leave).

In my contemporary fantasy novel The Knowing setting plays a key role. In some ways the narrative emerged as a conversation between places: between the Scottish Lowlands and the Southern Appalachians primarily, but also between cities (Asheville and Glasgow), between the rural and urban, the wild and the tamed, as well as between worlds: the worlds of the Sidhe and the human – the Silver and the Iron, as one of my favourite characters puts it. Sideway Branelly is a Wayfarer, a trader between the worlds with an uncanny ability to find the hollers and low roads that link them. Although freer than many characters he is associated with the location in my novel I am most proud of and intrigued by: The Rift. This is an ever-widening gulf between the worlds …. a chancy No Man’s Land caused by the Sundering – a catastrophic sealing of the Borders between the worlds. This ultimate Debatable Land was part inspired by the psychogeography of the Scottish Borders – its long, bloody history of Border Reivers, blackmail, skirmishes, land grabs, cannibals, and uncanny goings on – and by Hadrian’s Wall, which I walked the 84 mile length of in 2014 with my partner folksinger Chantelle Smith*. The latter is an impressive if ultimately futile feat of engineering and hubris which seems eerily resonant – following the dramatic line of crags that rise between Newcastle and Carlisle, a natural line of defense augmented by mile-castles, vallum (parallel ditches), auxillary towns, and a twelve foot high wall, the Wall seems, in its derelict state (masonry stolen for local buildings) particularly Ozymandian. If it was designed to keep the ‘other’ out (i.e. the wild Pictish tribes to the north – the ‘Kong’ of our Skull Island) it failed – but it is possible it was used to control trade as much as anything, and demarcate the northernmost extremity of the Roman Empire (when the Antonine Wall was abandoned farther north). It was clearly a power statement saying, among others things: look what the might of the Roman Empire can achieve; and, the savage north is ungovernable and thus economically useless. What we cannot control we disown, casting out beyond the pale of our ‘civilisation’. Of course, the Picts might have seen it conversely – that the Wall marked the end of freedom, and the beginning of control. What makes Hadrian’s Wall more than just some impressive military archaeology is the glimpse it affords us into the beliefs and lifestyles of those that worked and lived upon it – the temples to Mithras; the shrines to other, obscurer deities (such as Mars-Nodentis, or the Cucullati); the graffiti from bored, homesick Centurions; the bath-houses, store-rooms, stables, barracks; the service towns that grew up on its flanks; the whole economy the presence of Rome created. Walking the Wall gave me a lot of the time to ponder on the creative tensions of such a place. And the museums my partner insisted we visited all helped to enrich my imagination.

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Sycamore Gap, Kevan Manwaring 2014

The one place that particularly fired my imagination though was a natural wonder – an amazingly situated sycamore tree whose roots grew on both sides. Made famous by its appearance in various films (e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), it inspired a poem (‘Sycamore Gap’) and the idea of a Rift Oak, which grows between the worlds, demarcating the edges of both – the ultimate border oak. I liked the idea of the natural subverting man-made borders. Of course, birds of prey, foxes, badger, deer, mice… all ignore the wall. Nature cocks a snook at man. And what if I had a character like that – who broke the rules? Who crossed a Border that was meant to be sealed? Who smuggled things – contraband, journals, people – across. And so Sideways Brannelly was born. I needed someone who would smuggle something pivotal out of the Silver, back to the Iron. And Brannelly, a reluctant hero (driven mainly by a desire for personal gain, petty revenge, and a contrarian mindset) got the job. And the Rift was forged – in the Sundering of worlds, a cataclysmic plot event which now seems eerily prescient. The Knowing’s  first draft was written against the backdrop of the first Scottish national referendum in 2014 (my initial field visits haunted by a countryside divided into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ flags, banners and signs) – little did I know then there would be (most likely) a sequel to that, Brexit (Theresa May announcing the date of the triggering of Article 50 on the day my ebook was released), and Trump’s victory, isolationism, ‘Muslim ban’ and Mexican Border wall plans (America as Skull Island). Not that I equate a bid for Scottish independence with Brexit or Trump – this time I think it is an entirely sane and justified thing to do – but they are all taking place in the same increasingly sundered world. The European refugee crisis that has played out in the last couple of years is real humanitarian disaster, but in some small way, the ‘backstory’ of my novel seems to echo it, with what befalls the victims of the Sundering in my story-world – as Ironbloods and Silver find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Rift. The results of this schism has turned this fault-line between the worlds into an increasingly perilous terroir – a chancy wasteland where a chancer like Brannelly can flourish … if he chooses to.

SIDEWAYS BRANNELLY

Sideways Brannelly’s bone-pipe – his favourite way of pondering. K. Manwaring 2017

The Knowing – A Fantasy is published as an eBook by Goldendark on 20th March and is available on Amazon Kindle

*Last year I walked another border – Offa’s Dyke, a long-distance footpath which runs 177 miles, the length of Wales from the north coast at Prestatyn to the Wye (another hubristic gesture, this time by the 8th Century King of Mercia, Offa). And this year I intend to walk the Southern Uplands Way (212). I must have Borders in my blood…

Wild Things

Wild Thing, you make my heart sing …

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An Urisk. Illustration by Kevan Manwaring 2017

I must confess a fondness for fauns. And for their shaggier cousins, especially the Urisk – described as a ‘rough hairy spirit’ it is thought to prefer the solitude of wild, mountainous places. Folklorists were careful to differentiate these from the more domestic Brownie. One cannot imagine an Urisk performing any household chores – they are as to Brownies as the Lynx is the domesticated cat. They are believed to gather once in a blue moon at the ‘Corrie of the Urisks’ in the Trossachs, as evoked in this poem by Sir Walter Scott:

By many a bard, in Celtic tongue,
Has Coire-nan-Uriskin been sung;
A softer name the Saxons gave,
And call’d the grot the Goblin-cave,
 
Gray Superstition’s whisper dread
Debarr’d the spot to vulgar tread;
For there, she said, did fays resort,
And satyrs hold their sylvan court.

 

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Coire-nan-Uriskin, from JP MacLean, 1900

Yet apart from this one mad Highland fling, when presumably vigorous moonlit capering and rutting takes place (the crack of horns, tang of musk, and primal howls thick in the air), they are solitary by nature, and perhaps even a mickle melancholic.

It is tempting to draw comparisons with the wild men of myth and legend who, driven mad by massacres, war and other madnesses of humankind, retreat to the wild. Merlin himself was said to have experienced such a dark night of the soul – fleeing to the woods of Caledon and becoming for a while, Myrddin Wyllt, ‘Merlin the Wild’. There he conversed with a pig, as recorded in gnomic verse (a resonant choice, as swine were thought to be creatures from the Underworld, being a gift from Arawn, Lord of Annwn, according to Y Mabinogi). It was not until Gawain came to find him that he was ‘talked back’ into his wits and back to Camelot. When Llew Llaw Gyffes was turned into an eagle by the betrayal of Blodeuwedd it took his wily uncle Gwydion to track him down (again, a swine guides – this time to foot of an oak tree where putrefying flesh reveals the location of the bedraggled eagle-man) and to sing his soul back home, via bardic utterances. In the Irish legend of ‘Mad Sweeney’, Buile Shuibhne, already a loose cannon, is driven mad by the Battle of Mag Rath, and flees in the form of a bird – cursed by Bishop Ronan for his disrespect – wandering Erin and beyond for many many years, before finding sanctuary in the House of Moling (another saint-in-waiting). Here he receives the milk of human kindness and the Word of the Lord, having paid for his crimes with his dilated suffering. In all these cases the ‘wild man’ seems to be suffering a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Interestingly, Robert Macfarlane describes a real life example in The Wild Places – the Leopard Man of Lewis, who roams the heath and peat naked, except for a body covered in the tattooed markings of his totem. His identity remains a mystery but there is some speculation that he is an ex-soldier acting out his PTSD.

Of course ‘green men’ have haunted the folk consciousness for centuries, if not longer. Their wild eyes and foliating mouths and nostrils convey a feeling of being overwhelmed – the irruption of chthonic longings, the inside turned out. The sheer boskiness of such fellows (and they are commonly adult males, although green women and children do crop up) is best expressed in Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘Wodwo’:

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air?

Yet the Green Man is also brilliantly evoked in other masterful poems, especially ‘The Green Man’s Last Will and Testament’ by John Heath-Stubbs, and ‘Lob’ by Edward Thomas – based upon a character Thomas met on his restless peregrinations, ‘Lob’ evokes the genius loci of the Chalk Downs:

At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling
In search of something chance would never bring,
An old man’s face, by life and weather cut
And coloured, – rough, brown, sweet as any nut,
A land face, sea-blue-eyed, – hung in my mind
When I had left him many a mile behind.

Extract from ‘Lob’, Edward Thomas

It is interesting to note how ‘wild men’ seem to haunt the wilder fringes of the world – both in poetry (Grendel in Beowulf) and folklore (the Wendigo, Sasquatch, Big Foot and Yeti…). It is as though we must give wilderness a ‘human’ face – personify it to make it vaguely relatable. There is little scarier than the nameless unknown, the disinterested void that shakes our anthropocentric solipsism. We want to turn it into something cosy – a bescarfed and pleasant Mr Tumnus in Narnia; or hauntingly beautiful, such as the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in The Wind in the Willows. And yet it is good to remember that the ‘pan-ic’ we can feel in nature – that frisson of fear at the prospect of being benighted or lost – is thanks to Pan, and that satyrs are little more than priapic rapists, lusting after an passing nymph.

And yet these creatures of the wild – perhaps uncomfortably like us except for the ‘grace of God’, the ultimate hobo fallen on hard times – can sometimes bestow an adrenalin shot of wildness into tame lives, bestow wild gifts – though at a price (as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘A Musical Instrument’), and drive us into maenaedic raptures with their devilish music (listen to The Waterboy’s ‘Return of Pan’ and see what I mean).

I speak from experience, having had an Urisk jump into my latest novel, The Knowing. He certainly livened things up! I enjoyed spending time in his feral company, as did, I think, the Reverend Robert Kirk – author of the monograph, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’ – a respectable Episcopalian minister in his parish of Aberfoyle (in the Uriskish Trossachs) until his field-work got out of hand…

The Knowing – A Fantasy by Kevan Manwaring is released for preview as an ebook on 20th March.

Watch ‘The Return of Pan’:

Read ‘A Musical Instrument’:

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-musical-instrument/

Read ‘Wodwo’ in full:

https://allpoetry.com/poem/8495307-Wodwo-by-Ted-Hughes

Read ‘Lob’ in full:

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/lob/

A great blog on Urisks:

http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/corrie-of-urisks-trossachs.html

 

 

The Curious Journal of Robert Kirk

Recently a curious journal in an antiquated hand came into my possession…

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It appears to be from Robert Kirk, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister who is best known for being the author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, (1691). He is said to have stepped into a fairy-ring and disappeared. Folklore has coalesced around his parish ever since.

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Offerings on the grave of Robert Kirk, Aberfoyle (K. Manwaring, 2014). When it was opened it was discovered the coffin was full of stones.  In local belief Kirk had been taken by the Sluagh Sith, the People of Peace, punished for revealing their secrets, and is a prisoner there still. Only a living descendant can free him…          

The journal bore Kirk’s distinctive initials…

 

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Kirk’s name, inscribed into the binding of the journal. K. Manwaring, 2015

Kirk’s hand is virtually illegible at times, but here is what I have managed to transcribe so far…(the spelling has been modernized).

MS RB.013. 91 TRANSCRIPT (EXTRACT)

I sit in the near-dark of my chamber, gazing at the black mirrors which surrounded my bureau. They seem to catch the available light, gradations of black-upon-black, like Dr Dee’s scrying glass. I might as well be a necromancer, for do I not dabble with fallen angels, with invisible spirits and occult powers? Within my own parish I would have been burnt as a witch, were such a thing still common. The terrible executions stopped half a century ago, but the crime of witchcraft is still a capital offense. I doubt most would look mercifully upon my research into the secret commonwealth. In my defence I would argue that the existence of the Subterraneans, and of esoteric communications between mortals, is proof of the celestial hierarchy and God’s glory. All my efforts have been to this one aim in this, in a secular and corrupt age.            

My time being in this world but short, I took most pains in those languages and parts of learning which were deemed useful for that place of the world which God designed for me and man called me to, as my post. I applied myself to my studies as a young man in Edinburgh and St. Andrews; and as Clerk of the Presbytery I have laboured at the great work, to bring the Light of the Word to the Gaelic North – first in my metrical psalters and later in Bishop Bedel’s Bible, translated into the Hibernian tongue.            

And it was the printing of the latter which took me to London — three thousand were to be printed and distributed amongst the parishes of the Tramontaines: surely a Godly endeavour in that English Sodom? And while I oversaw this great labour, marvelling at the infernal engines of the rolling presses, the workers black as devils in the colours of their trade, that I steeped myself in the spirit of the age, the Glorious Revolution. I attended churches of every hue and persuasion – Anglican to Roman Catholic to Quaker. In my pocket-book I recorded sermons and observations, my mind awhirl at the diverse exegeses. The capital is a veritable Babel of voices, of opinions, and arguments.            

I feared that if I remained there much longer I would be as the figure from the Gypsy-teller’s cards, falling from the lightning-riven tower. After my day’s toil, I wandered those lychnobious streets, horrified at the depravity I beheld – a demi-monde of poverty and disease, harlotry and opium dens, thievery and murder. With every day a deep longing for the uncorrupted hills of my parish, for the untainted mountains and minds of the Highlands, ached in my breast.

In such a precipitous state it was perhaps inevitable I would stumble.

*****

There the journal entry becomes almost indecipherable, but further study may enable me to decode more of this remarkable account. What we are to make of it I shall leave you, dear reader, to deliberate…

 

 

 

 

An extract from The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring 2017, advance e-book version available from 20 March. Watch this space…

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

Writing The Knowing

Practice-based r

 

esearch in the creation of a novel

 

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A writer’s retreat. View across Gairloch Bay, Wester Ross. K. Manwaring 2016

 

In the creation of my contemporary fantasy novel, The Knowing, the main focus of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester, I have undertaken extensive experiential research as part of the practice-based research of writing the novel itself. It has to be emphasised that the writing of the novel is the research, for it is as much a scrutinization of the creative process as a dramatisation of that process through the characters, setting and plot.  The PhD began as an examination of the ‘Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians’ (as my initial research question framed), at least when it became ‘conscious’ – in September 2014  when I began my part-time research degree – yet creative aquifers had been at work long before that.

I have long been interested in the folklore, tales and songs of the Scottish Borders, but things crystallized the day that Janey McEttrick, my main protagonist, walked into my head with her mane of red hair, steel-string guitar and second sight. She wanted her story told, and she wouldn’t let me go until I told it. She’s the kind of woman that you simply cannot turn down. And, besides, I fancied spending time in her company, having been hanging out with an Edwardian aviator and the lost of history for over a decade (in the writing of my 5-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy). I felt the need for a change of register, to write something set (mostly) in the present day, and from a different perspective – looking back at the Old World from the perspective of the New.

A Scottish-Native American folksinger, hanging out near Asheville, North Carolina, Janey’s story dramatizes the diasporic translocation I was interested in. Descended (on her mother’s side) from a long line of singer-seers, she epitomizes the cross-fertilisation that took place when waves of Scottish and Scots-Irish migrants upped sticks – through force or choice – and undertook the perilous crossing to the Americas, settling all the way from the taiga of Canada to the swamps of the South, but in particular, in the Appalachians where the mountainous terrain made them feel at home. They brought their songs and tales and folklore with them, in many instances preserving and customizing in fascinating ways. When I heard how Elizabethan ballads were discovered being sung by the early song collectors I was intrigued, and wondered what else might be preserved in these polders – what traces of the Old World could be found in the New? How had they adapted and mutated? And how the so-called Celtic Fringes had extended their borders into the West – to the point that the plaid of the clans became the classic checked shirt of the cowboy, and in a million other peculiar ways Celticity reinvents itself, a restless global meme: a way of seeing and a way of being that transcends genealogy.

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The grave of Robert Kirk, the Fairy Minister, Aberfoyle, K. Manwaring 2014

I have found the most effective way to bring alive the world of my characters is to have analogous experiences. If I cannot go to the actual place where they lived, then I will go to somewhere equivalent and equally as evocative – for it is always in the telling detail, discovered beneath one’s feet, that the location comes alive. And often by walking in the footsteps of your characters – real or imaginary – you gain an insight into them. So I opt for a ‘method-writing’ form of approach, especially as I want to be able channel the voices of my characters (mainly Robert Kirk and 9 generations of McEttrick Women) as convincingly as possible. Note I didn’t say authentically – for authenticity in prose is as much a performance as anything. For genuine authenticity one would only be able to write about oneself, one’s limited world – resulting in mere solipsism – whileas a novelist, with sufficient empathy, research and skill, can and should write about lives for beyond his or her own. To undertake such a creative challenge requires requires an almost fanatical obsession with research. A PhD, in particular, requires nothing less. It is the ultimate anorak. And in the journey of the research one is engaged in a continual feedback loop – gauging one’s ideas against what one finds, discusses, is challenged by, and practices.

And so off I set on my quest, following my wandering star …  Here is a summary of my practice-based research to date:

  • In August 2014, hearing the call of the Borders, I decided to walk Hadrian’s Wall –an 84 mile long path from Newcastle to Carlisle, following the line of the Roman Empire’s northernmost border – with my partner, Chantelle Smith.
  • From here we headed farther north, to the coast of Wester Ross – to a croft I have returned to again and again as a place of inspiration.
  • Heading south I visited key sites associated with the Border Ballads, Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and Tam o’Shanter, as well as climbing Schiehallion, the ‘fairy mountain’ in the Cairngorms.
  • In 2015 I walked the West Highland Way solo, a 100 mile long distance footpath from the Lowlands to the Highlands, camping along the way, and climbing Ben Nevis (4000ft).
  • From these trips emerged my collection of poetry, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015), which I performed at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2016 with Chantelle.
  • In 2015 I also became a Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies, based at the Eccles Centre, the British Library. This year long fellowship enabled me to undertake research in that amazing research library.
  • I also received a Postgraduate Fund which enabled me to spend time at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, Camden – as I delved into the archives, researching the field trips undertaken by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles to Southern Appalachia, 1915-1918.
  • This was augmented by a field trip to North Carolina in late summer 2015, made possible by the generosity and hospitality of my American friend, Debbi McInteer. I joined her and her family on a road trip from Jamestown RI, to Asheville, NC, visiting key locations associated both with Cecil and Maud, and my fictional characters. I got to experience the fabulous music and meet some descendants of tradition-bearer Jane Hicks Gentry and the Ward Family.
  • While in the States I ran a workshop based upon the folkloric motifs of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin (‘The Wheel of Transformation’); try out some wild-writing; and co-host the ‘Crossways Medicine Show’ – a social gathering and sharing of cultural songlines.
  • Out my research into the Scottish Borders, I developed a ballad and tale show with my partner, called ‘The Bonnie Road’ which we performed in 2015 in various venues.
  • I was granted the fantastic opportunity to spend a month at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat in late 2015. Here, in the home of the poet William Drummond, I wrote the second draft of my novel (160,000 words).
  • While at the castle I made several forays into Edinburgh to visit the fabulous archives at the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. In their Special Collections I was able to see first-hand the surviving manuscripts and notebooks of Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Presbyterian Minister, and author of the monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (a key character in my novel).
  • In 2016 I instigated, commissioned and edited Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, to be published by The History Press, June 2017. This features 19 retellings of traditional ballads, pushing the envelope of genre and gender, setting and sexual politics.
  • My practice-based research really began when I first started performing ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ in my early 20s, and visited the Eildon Hills, wild-camping upon them in the hope of inspiration or encounter!
  • And my connection with Kirk began in earnest when i created and performed a monologue in character, with Fire Springs, for ‘Voices of the Past’, Bath Literature Festival 2002.
  • Finally, I really felt I could not write a novel about a musician unless I had some first-hand experience to draw upon, and so my practice-based research has also involved learning the guitar and plunging into ballad-singing. I certainly have found the latter to be something I enjoy both in isolation (e.g. while walking the long-distance footpaths such as Offa’s Dyke) and amongst friends (starting ‘Sunday Song’ with Nimue Brown as a place to share in an informal way). And studying the former has certainly given me more of an insight and appreciation of songcraft.
  • Other activities have included: presenting papers at conferences on aspects of my research; writing a blog (Bardic Academic: crossing the creative/critical divide); tweeting; undertaking commissions which allow me to explore the creative/critical voice in my writing (eg Marginalia; Houdinis of Bewilderland) and entering competitions, eg The Re-imagined Book, winner of the AHRC 10 Essay Prize.

And, until it is all complete, the journey continues…

 

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Field Research. On the road to Applecross, looking towards Skye, K. Manwaring, 2016

 

 

 

 

In Search of the Littoral

On 1st February, the Celtic festival of Imbolc sacred to the Goddess Brighid, I post this account of a journey around Ireland instrumental in the evolution of a new ballad & tales show co-created with folksinger Chantelle Smith inspired by the sites we visited: Brighid’s Flame.

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The beach where Finn mac Cumhaill was said to have defeated the King of the World, Dingle, Ireland, by K. Manwaring 2015

In a poem written by WB Yeats during his time running the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, he expressed his exasperation with life’s complexities, while simultaneously encapsulating what has defined him: ‘The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart.’ He uses the pegasus as the symbol of creative inspiration, but ‘There’s something ails our colt’. The difficulties of creative (and nationalist) endeavour make it seem to: ‘Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt/As though it dragged road metal.’  Yeats vows to emancipate it in the final line: ‘I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt’. And yet, despite this defiant affirmation Yeats spent much of his adult life in the thrall of the ‘difficult’, in obscure esoterica and the complex magical systems and rituals of the Golden Dawn and his own occult order, but chiefly in the form of Maud Gonne, the nationalist figurehead whose unrequited love possessed him for decades. Even her name suggests an alluring evanescence, an unattainability. She was his ‘glimmering girl’, which he searched for like wandering Aengus, in the eponymous poem:

‘Though I am old with wandering,

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone…’

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Wild and delicious! K. Manwaring 2015

In August 2015 I headed into the west, to Ireland to search for the littoral. I wanted to ride the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW), which stretches from Old Head, Kinsale, south of Cork, to Malin Head in Donegal. At 2500km/1553 miles it is the longest continuous coastal route in the world, so the marketing claims. I had been meaning to tour Ireland on my Triumph Legend 900cc motorbike for sometime, and this new route, created in 2013, was the thing that clinched it. I set off with my partner, Chantelle Smith, an archaeologist and folksinger. We were keen to visit prehistoric sites, as well as literary and musical hotspots. We booked off two weeks’ holiday and camped along the way. We were to experience the littoral in many ways over the next fortnight: physically, mentally, and metaphysically – the ‘shores’ of our comfort and consciousness.

Initially it was literally in the crossing from Wales to Ireland – from the prosaic ferry terminal of Pembroke Dock, waiting in the queue to board the ferry at 2 o’clock in the morning, rain glistening on the cold tarmac; to arriving at Rosslare at dawn in the clean sunlight.

Once on the N-4, roaring west, the mundane world of the entreport was soon left behind as we headed to our first destination – Blarney, where we had booked a campsite which would be our base for the next three days’ as we worked our way along the southern stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way. My partner insisted we did the tourist thing and kiss the blarney stone. Even this corniest of Irish clichés had an element of the ‘littoral’ – hanging upside down, 100 feet in the air. The moment proved elusive to capture on camera, so I ended up doing it three times. So, according to the folklore, I should be blessed with especial eloquence!

The castle and grounds proved to be far more attractive than I was expecting – the first of many pleasant surprises – this was no Hirstian Dismal-land. Even Ireland’s clichés are beautiful. They have just been so overly packaged and exported (almost literally in the case of the famous stone) that it is easy to be weary and wary of them, but in actuality they are often satisfyingly charming. The effort of reaching the source of the meme is often reciprocated, although beyond that phenomenological experience, there is often something deeper that draws us to these attractions – a yearning, a glimmer of beauty, a feeling … which slips through our fingers the more we grasp for it.

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The sublime majesty of Glendalough which no photo can do justice to. K. Manwaring 2015

Rainer Maria Rilke captured it perfectly when he advised: ‘go to the limits of your longing.’ He might have written his challenge while walking the cliffs above Duino Castle, near Trieste (where I have too walked), but he could have penned it about the west of Ireland. And this line of desire drove us farther on. The fact that the route was packaged and well signposted with distinctive blue wavy lines, (echoing the initials, waves, and the pictographic chevrons of burial tombs like Newgrange), made it no less beautiful and dramatic – indeed, without the signs pointing the way, I doubt we would have alighted upon so many obscure coves and dramatic, cliff-top roads. I use the term ‘roads’ euphemistically, for many were little more than gravel tracks, pot-holed and very bumpy. The contrast with the N-roads was dramatic – and the two became the twin-notes of our journey, the straight and the winding dancing in tandem up the westerly coast like a 1500 mile long caduceus. Off the main route there were many opportunities to take even longer detours to headlands, coves, beaches, and attractions – but we soon learnt to do attempt all would have been too exhausting, time-consuming and unnecessary. The WAW offers multiple possibilities. There is fixed route beyond the main one. As with the famously festooned signposts along the way, there are a myriad of possibilities. The route is a melody to riff around. One creates ones’ own version of it, depending on your whim, the weather, and mode of transport.

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Hazel Wood (as in the WB Yeats poem) looking across to Lough Gill, K. Manwaring 2015

Having recently performed our show, ‘The Bonnie Road’- tales and ballads of the Border (Scottish) we found ourselves feeling like Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland confronted by three roads – the narrow, the broad and the bonnie – as we traversed hair-raising mountain passes again and again. Roads seemed to lead into the middle of nowhere, and it was often a leap of faith to keep going, and hope the road will rejoin the main route eventually.

 

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On the Tain Trail, C. Smith 2015

After the first couple of epic days – when we averaged 200 miles of touring, arriving home about 10pm, exhausted and famished – we quickly learned to curtail our ambitions and faithfulness to every little nook and cranny. Following the coast north, we would pick and choose our itinerary according to our interest and energy levels. Nevertheless, we spent most of two weeks riding up the coast. Our days settled into a rhythm of stillness and motion, sea and land, sunshine and rain, night and day, camping, packing, moving, camping. On the long rides I would slip into a non-verbal space – one where thoughts would drift in and out of my head without trying to think about anything in particular. It became a meditation in serenity – in focus and surrender (Carr-Gomm, 2015). To stay alive on the motorbike requires absolute focus – you have to fully present. But, at the same time, because much of driving is about muscle memory and ‘motor functions’ one can slip into a rather Zen-like state of mind. One had to learn to trust in the Way – (I rarely use sat-nav on the bike, preferring to work it out on the atlas in advance). It’s a dream-like experience, not quite knowing where you are … between somewhere and … somewhere. That sense of being ‘meaningfully lost’ is delicious. There’s no rush to get anywhere in particular. No deadlines. So it doesn’t matter if one wanders a little, takes the long way round, improvising a route as one goes along. There is a sense of being self-created, like a character in a Creation Myth, forging the land before them. And it was to this mythic level we soon found ourselves becoming immersed in…

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Medb’s Grave, Knocknarea, K. Manwaring 2015

We visited a lot of prehistoric sites – all interesting in their own way, but the ones that really captivated me had mythic associations, chiefly connected to The Tain (Táin Bó Cúailnge). It was thrilling to visit sites connected with this early oral epic – an Irish Dreamtime sequence, mythologizing the landscape – Cruachan; Emain Macha; Tara; the Cooley Peninsula. The most jaw-dropping was Knocknarea, site of Medb’s Cairn (an impressive mound of stones situated on a hill overlooking Sligo’s coast and surrounded by equally stunning sites – the megalithic cemeteries of Carrowkeel and Carrowmore to name two). Even though it is unlikely Queen Medb is buried there, if she ever existed, it seems the fitting monument to such a mighty queen. WB Yeats, whose childhood family home was situated in county Sligo, waxed lyrical about her, perhaps projecting his own idealised warrior queen, Maud Gonne, into her shoes. In such places, where the mythic and historical overlap, literature and archaeology, the past and the present, I feel an electrifying frisson. They are charge-points for poets like me, where I feel plugged into the grid of creativity.

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Ireland is very much embroiled with my own ‘creation myth’ as a writer. In the early Nineties I had hitchhiked across it in my gap year. My primary goal was Croagh-Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, which I had glimpsed on Frank Delaney’s TV series, ‘The Celts’. Every year on the first Sunday in August (‘Reek Sunday’) thousands of Catholics climb it, some bare foot, in penance. Being not of that persuasion (or at least an unrepentant young man) I climbed it in my walking boots. For me it had significance because of its association with a chthonic deity, Crom Craugh, and the fact the annual pilgrimage seems to be a Christianisation of a Lughnasadh custom (Celtic fire festival falling on 1st August). Many of these sites straddle the worlds between the pagan and the Christian and that is often what makes them so numinous. In Celtic Christianity there seems to be a lack of conflict between such paradigms. In these thin places, the differences fall away – and we are just left with a sense of the sublime. The feeling of immanence increased the further west we went – the land thins out until one is left just staring at the vast horizon of the sea. This happens in other directions – each coast has its beauty and mystery – but so hard-wired into our cortex is the symbolism of the setting sun and its apparent death and rebirth, that the ‘west is the best’. Over its hazy horizon we fling our longing, project islands of immortality, lands of milk and honey, Americas of the imagination. And one can see why, standing on the top of Croagh-Patrick – on a rare clear day you can behold the plentiful Arran Isles, shoals of possibilities awaiting to be explored.

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Near the summit of Croagh-Patrick – as clear as it got this time. K. Manwaring 2015

From this formative epiphany I had descended, and headed south to Gort – ostensibly to call in on my father’s best man. He hadn’t met me before but with typical Irish hospitality he welcomed me in and showed me around, taking me to Thoor Ballylee, where Yeats created a summer sheiling; and Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s bohemian demesne, a gathering place for poets, painters, and mystics. Here, in 1991, I contracted the poetry virus and haven’t stopped since. The themes that grabbed me then still haven’t let me go, a sentiment Yeats echoes: ‘I am persuaded that our intellects at twenty contain all the truths we shall ever find…’ (Four Years). I passed through on this trip, returning like Yeats himself, not 19 years later, but 24. I parked in Gort marketplace, remembering the young man who had rocked up there on a wing and a prayer. This time I had arrived from the southwest, from the dramatic Cliffs of Moher and the awe-inspiring moonscape of the Burren. I felt an astronaut returning to an Earth beyond recognition – a space-age Oisín on my silver steed.

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A Bard in Bodhran Town, Connemara, C. Smith, 2015

Before I turned to dust I wended my way further west, past Galway into Connemara’s epic landscape. My destination was picturesque Clifden, home of the Marconi towers, where aviation pioneers Alcock and Brown first made landfall after successfully crossing the Atlantic for the first time by powered flight. Here, I cooled my engine, enjoying a jar in a local bar where a merry session was taking place. My partner pitched in a couple of songs, and we felt part of the narrative.was in Swansea last year for his centenary). Riding past the roadside banners it was moving to finally make it to his modest grave in Drumcliffe graveyard, where his father had delivered sermons from the pulpit. And then onto Glencar, the beautiful waterfall that inspired ‘The Stolen Child’ (and our own writing as we sat in earshot of its soft thunder). This ‘pink noise’ is most conducive to creativity – affecting the brainwaves from alpha to theta, making the synapses leap like Irish dancers.

 

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Where the wandering water gushes/From the hills above Glen-Car’, Glencarr Waterfall, Sligo, K. Manwaring 2015

Most thrilling of all for me was the visit to Lough Gill, the site of the ‘lake isle of Innisfree’. Here Yeats played as a child, but it was in London, on Fleet Street, that he was inspired to write the poem of longing, after the sound of a fountain reminded him of the  ‘lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore’. Also in the cauldron of his imagination at the time was Thoreau’s Walden, which describes the American’s attempt to live a ‘life in the woods’ for a year, building his own cabin. And when ‘Innisfree’ is read in this context, it echoes across the Atlantic, from Sligo to Massachusetts, where Thoreau built his small cabin and lived alone (except for visits from his mother who lived close by) in a ‘bee loud glade’. That dream of independence, however realistic, resonates with many of us who find ourselves like Rilke, ‘alone in the world, and yet not alone enough/to make every moment holy.’ The shore-line presents the possibility of escape from a world that places its demands upon us; and it can appear in unexpected places. Yeats stumbled upon the littoral in the middle of a busy London street. It can occur in any place, at any time, and is ultimately a state of mind, a moveable feast. Such routes as the Wild Atlantic Way provide a tangible visual analogue for this quality – but the littoral can be experienced wherever you are. All we have to do is, in the words of supertramp poet, WH Davies, ‘stand and stare’ and notice what novelist Colum McCann phrased: ‘the miracle of the actual’.

 

Kevan Manwaring ©2015

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Our Claddagh rings and handfasting bracelets by Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin, K. Manwaring 2015

References:

‘Leisure’, WH Davies http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/leisure/ [accessed 11/09/15]

Carr-Gom, Philip, Talk at Druid Camp, Glos., August 2015

Clements, Paul, Rough Guide to Ireland, Rough Guide: London, 2015

McCann, Colum, TransAtlantic, Bloomsbury: London, 2014

National Library of Ireland, Dublin, The Life and Works of WB Yeats: http://www.nli.ie/en/intro/exhibitions.aspx

Rilke, Rainer Maria, The Selected Poems of, Picador: London, 1987

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, Wordsworth Poetry Library: Ware, 1994/2000

The Tain, trans. Thomas Kinsella, Oxford Paperbacks, 2002

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, or A Life in the Woods, 1845

Wild Atlantic Way http://www.wildatlanticway.com/

Yeats Society/WB Yeats Memorial Building, Hyde Bridge, Sligo, Ireland: http://www.yeatssociety.com/

brighidsflamelogocolour2

Bríghid’s Flame (Kevan Manwaring & Chantelle Smith) are specialists in bardic tales and song who have been performing their unique blend of storytelling, ballad-singing, poetry and music (harp, guitar, shruti box, bodhran, bones) since 2014. Their love of mythology, folklore and prehistory informs their performances.

http://brighidsflame.co.uk/

 

Wild Honey for the Empty House of the Stare

Appalachian Wonder Tales

Loughborough University

17 November 2016

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Professor Joseph Sobol performs Jack and the Least Girl, Loughborough University, November 2016, by Kevan Manwaring

In these bleak, mean-spirited times it is good to be reminded of our common humanity, and of the great, bubbling cauldron of tradition which we can all draw nourishment from – that heady gumbo of story, song, poetry, joke and riddle.

Let the stranger be welcome by the hearth, gather round and hear their story. They might not be so different from you after all.

I travelled to Loughborough Uni for the first time to see a visiting American professor, Joseph Sobol, from East Tennessee State University, who was performing his Appalachian Wonder Tales show, Jack and the Least Girl. This was an impressive medley of songs and Jack Tales. I was impressed by how much musicality he wove into the show, using singing and cittern playing to animate, engage and punctuate. He used call-and-response to encourage audience participation. He used a lot of topical reference about benefit ‘checks’, social security numbers, IRS and so on. He began with a movingly resonant rendition of WB Yeats poem set to music, a cri-de-coeur expressing the current zeitgeist in the States. Then he offered a ‘warm up tale’ about Jack trying to find gainful employment in hard times. Jack had no specific skills so could ‘turn his hands to anything’. He’s our classic Everyman. Then Joseph did this tour-de-force medley of Jack nursery rhymes, songs and references, all woven into the same meta-song, which he got us to join in with. Then, after these epistemological preliminaries, we got down to the stories proper – three fully realised tales: one of Jack the fool; one of Jack the giant-killer; and one of the Least Girl – Jack’s counterpart and more-than-match. He wove these narratives together in lively, unexpected ways, in the spirit of Sondheim’s Into the Woods – fairy tale characters bumping into one another in the story forest and having ‘unofficial’ conversations, commenting upon one another’s story or performance (number of giants’ heads being a good indicator!) in a meta-narrative way. The professor used sing-song refrains, in different registers (or keys) throughout. At one point he shook my hand as ‘Mr King’. Throughout his performance he worked the audience, making sure they were on board. He did exceptionally well, despite the aisle breaking the ‘energy field’ of the audience down the middle, and the frequent interruptions (late comers; a Shakespearean ‘rude mechanical’ janitor coming in to ask when he would be finished so he could lock up; my early exit).None of these noises off derailed him as he responded in a spontaneous way. Overall, the performance was funny, kinetic and acoustic, resonant and timeless.

I had to dash early but got to ask him a question about the musicality and topicality – I was interested to know if it was his ‘USP’ was endemic to the culture of the region (eg there’s a well-established Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro). He answered that there are 2 traditions: the traditional tradition, where tellers tell ‘em straight; and the contemporary personal anecdote tradition. Professor Sobol does them both and also changes his style according to the audience, as any good storyteller does, eg telling them in a traditional manner for school-kids, and making the style more complex, multi-layered and politically aware (NB not ‘correct’) to adult audiences. I felt I was given a fascinating insight into the Appalachian storytelling tradition; and made some useful connections, especially the research cluster of Arts in the Public Sphere at the Uni, which includes storytelling, poetry, and other forms of live lit, as well sculpture, murals, etc. I asked to be kept in the loop. Professor Sobol will return in the early Spring, and I look forward to hearing the second half of the show after hearing ‘the trailer’, as he jokingly described his adventures in long-form storytelling.

Storyteller, music-maker, folklorist, and author Joseph Daniel Sobol is an artist and scholar of wide-ranging accomplishments.  An artist-in-residence for many years in North and South Carolina, he received a Masters in Folklore from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. In 2000, he was appointed coordinator of the graduate program in storytelling at East Tennessee State University, where he is a tenured professor in the Department of Communication and Performance. He tours internationally as a storyteller, lecturer, teacher, composer, and virtuoso musician on cittern, guitar, and various fretted instruments (visit http://www.josephsobol.com).

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

 The bees build in the crevices
 Of loosening masonry, and there
 The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
 My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 We are closed in, and the key is turned
 On our uncertainty; somewhere
 A man is killed, or a house burned.
 Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 A barricade of stone or of wood;
 Some fourteen days of civil war:
 Last night they trundled down the road
 That dead young soldier in his blood:
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 We had fed the heart on fantasies,
 The heart's grown brutal from the fare,
 More substance in our enmities
 Than in our love; O honey-bees,
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

— William Butler Yeats

FFI: http://www.josephsobol.com/http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/aed/

The Fairy Pools of Skye

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Fairy Pools, Skye, K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

The Fairy Pools of Skye are a series of cascading cataracts, tumbling down in pellucid pools and falls from the foot of …… a distinctive cone shaped peak. They are a tourist honeyspot, and it can get very busy, but as I was staying nearby at the Glenbrittle hostel I was able to get there early. There was only one other car when I arrived – and about fifty when I left. It was a ‘soft’ morning, the peaks of the surrounding Cuillins obscured by a ghostly mist, and a drizzle was setting in, so I wrapped up in my waterproofs and, grabbing my trusty walking pole (essential for testing the firmness of the footing – which can often turn out to be deep mud; and for stabilizing on uneven ground) and set off. I didn’t see a soul for the first two hours of my walk, which made it all the more enjoyable. Perhaps I was the only one mad enough to be out on the moors in the weather, but it actually brightened up as the walk progress. I first stopped by a handsome waterfall with three streams of white water cascading down – like a living symbol of Awen.

WP_20160915_08_41_24_Pro.jpg I paused here to invite in some inspiration, which wasn’t hard in such an inspiring place. Yet I had to watch my stepping too – it was very muddy and slippy near the edges. Not a good idea to be ‘away with the fairies’ completely! One had to keep one’s mind in one’s feet – a good meditative practice. I pushed up to the ‘Hill of the Gentle Pass’, sweating profusely beneath my many layers. I paused at a cairn to take a sip of water and catch my breath. The view back down the Glen was sublime – in a muted kind of way. None of the glory of the previous evening when the golden sun caught the peaks in a breathtaking way. It was a kind of private day – the glen doing its own thing, not showing off for the tourists. The mountain was washing its hair. Reaching a lochan, I then traversed  the scree which spilled down the mountainside. It was a place of pan-ic – and I imagined an uirisg hopping from boulder to boulder, doing a merry caper, befritting unwary walkers. But maybe my warbling put him off, because I was inclined to sing in the day, doing a medley of the Skye Boat Song, John Ball, and Jerusalem. The latter felt a bit cheeky – singing about ‘England’s mountains green’ seemed rather amusing amid such dramatic peaks. And hoping that the Second Coming would happen in our little land seemed not only hubristic but unlikely. Surely any self-respecting avatar would choose to manifest somewhere more … magnificent, rather than, say, on a roundabout outside Swindon (although the latter would prove interesting).

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The striking red rocks of the Cuillins. K Manwaring Sept. 2016

I came to the head of the glen and turned right, following the frollicking burn downwards as it gambolled with increasing gaiety towards the hordes of tourists marching up to it. It felt right to come to them this way – earning their wonder, rather than going straight to it. It also meant that the falls got bigger as I descended, rather than ‘peaking too soon’ with the whoppers at the bottom. In some ways are nothing special – I’ve come across far more dramatic waterfalls on my perambulations here in the Highlands, unsigned, unannounced, unheralded. Any waterfall is special – and, if it is unpolluted, I believe it would have its attendant ‘fairy’ or elemental. Certainly the Celtic or Pictish ancestors of these isles saw any body of water as being a portal place, a place to commune with the gods and undying ones. I spent time sitting at a particularly picturesque convergence of two streams – which had gouged out a deep trough, over which rowan trees defiantly grew from the rock face. I felt this was certainly the kind of place any hedonistic fairy would choose to come for a dip – and so I left a wee offering … of a fairy cake (taken out of its wrapper, and broken up – offerings were always ‘broken’ to release their spirit).  I felt bathed in a sense of bliss. This was a special moment in a special place. I am glad I stopped and spent a few moments imbibing the genius loci – rather than just traipse, snap and depart. I decided to improvise a poem in response to the place, and found the awen flowed (maybe that waterfall had done the trick). The awenyddion were the inspired ones who could create poetry extempore. Something I’ll definitely being trying again. I then carried on downwards, literally, as I fell over in the mud at one point. There I was, away with the fairies! I washed away the murk further downstream – I didn’t feel inclined to strip off, dive in the freezing water, and pass through the natural rock arch three times as you’re supposed to do (if you are bonkers). I felt I had connected with this special place and it was time to go. I recited WB Yeats as I left…

Come away, O human child,
to the water,
with a fairy hand-in-hand,
for the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

 

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What happens if you don’t leave an offering to the Sith… K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

I was in fact being called back to the mainland, and to loved ones in the south, after three weeks away in Scotland. I am glad I had a taste of Skye, and hope to be back at some point – for there is a lot more to discover. I hope the Good Folk will still be there when I return. The Fairy Pools, and similar places – be they epic or tiny, private places of elemental connection – are good for our well-being and imaginative nutrition. I took heart in the fact that so many people make an effort to visit, even if they can’t always articulate why they are drawn there. We can all bathe in the waters of such fonts, whatever our beliefs. Some of us leave only with photographs, with selfies, but some are touched by the magic – and some pass it on as well.

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The sublime glen of the Fairy Pools.  The real magic is there to be found . K. Manwaring Sept 2016