Category Archives: Fantasy

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

 

 

 

 

Seeing Double

Faerie Tale & The Stolen Child

A Double Review

I read these books in quick succession and they are interesting looking at in tandem for their affinities and differences. The first (in order of reading, and also in publication date) was Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale (1988) which I’d known about for a few years but only got round to reading recently. I sort of expected it to be a bit of a guilty pleasure kind of a book rather than anything too high-brow, and I wasn’t mistaken. It was like watching something on Netflix – with the usual contemporary quota of sex, violence and special FX. Feist transposed fairy folklore motifs to New York State in a similar way to De Lint’s fictionalised Canadian town. A ‘perfect’ family – a successful writer father, beautiful and intelligent mother, young scampish twin brothers, and a step-daughter from a former marriage – move into a ‘characterful’ old place once belonging to an eccentric German emigrant. You just know things are going to go weird. The fun here is seeing what an American author does with European fairy and folk motifs. It’s an uneven mix – in some instances, Feist gives them a darker edge, for examples, a shape-changing Puck-type who rapes the daughter; in other ways, the cutesy corny iconography of little beings with wings remains. There is the Wild Hunt, vividly imagined, especially by Geoff Taylor’s masterful cover (fans of Robert Holdstock will recognise the cover artist’s style – and I suspect Taylor was chosen to win over fans of the recently published Mythago Wood (1984) and Lavondyss (1986), with this coming out in 1988 originally), given an almost Terminator 2-ish makeover, glistening with silver fire. But then Feist unconvincingly adopts a pseudo-Shakespearean register in some of the later scenes, a slippage of tone which threatens to undermine the narrative – gripping in other ways as it reaches it denouement. As a page-turner, and a pot-boiler, it is fit-for-purpose, a schlocky bit of comfort reading. The boys are resilient and their intimate sibling world is well-evoked, as is that of the annoying teenage ‘princess’, heiress to a fabulous fortune. Old Barney, an Irish-American living close by, is the stuff of stereotype but has a certain charm about him – an Old World evocation of the Fairy Faith. The occult author, Blackman, is in many ways less likeable and convincing – he seems little more than an expositional device for info-dump research into the narrative. The whole artifice of the novels feels a bit flimsy, as though Feist is playing dressing up with these tropes – a bit of a literary tourism – rather than writing about them in an embodied, felt and authentic way. It is a curiousity more than a work of any lasting literary values – but it probably paid the bills. And for any creative following their bliss that’s an achievement not to be sniffed at.

In contrast, Keith Donohue’s debut novel, The Stolen Child (2006), is literary fantasy of real quality. You can tell from the exquisitely crafted prose that this was a labour of love about a subject the author clearly had an obsession with – indeed it feels at times as though it is semi-autobiographical in part. It relates the story of a Henry Day, a malcontent pianist languishing in small-town mid-America, who turns out to be not Henry Day at all but a changeling, that is a fairy who has stolen the identity of the original Henry, while the human child has been lured away to the ‘waters and the wild’, as in WB Yeats’ classic poem. The drama is primarily created by the tribulations of this ‘cuckoo’ and his attempt to fit in to the Day ‘nest’. His father intuits something is awry and suffers as a consequence, haunted by the gnawing uncertainty that the child is not his own for years. Donohue deftly alternates this life in the ‘daylight’ with the demi-monde world of the changelings, which the author as imagined as a kind of tribe of ‘lost boys’ (and girls), living an anarchic, feral existence on the fringes of the human world. These fairies are charmingly human – albeit with the odd supernatural ability (e.g. shape-changing). They are also doomed to remain the same age they were when abducted – on the outside, at least, resulting in an uneasy collision of adult foibles and desires in a child’s body. Many of them look on with envy at the human world – its range of cuisine, clothing and literature. It drives some of them to make a den beneath the public library – and indeed the changelings seem bound the human world, rather than dwelling in another world, which doesn’t seem to exist. None of the usual pantheon from the Fairy Tradition seems to exist beyond these rather sad strays. It’s a lonely, impoverished life which makes the changelings adult-children pitiful, more than fearful. The human imposter, ‘Henry Day’, is far more sinister, yet even this unlikable anti-hero becomes redeemed somewhat by a girlfriend, and by his music. Through the latter he attempts to make amends, by creating a symphony which gives voice to the dis-enfranchised stolen children. In some ways, the novel’s dramatic arc is one depicting the creative process. From the creative tension and cross-fertilisation of worlds, art is born. But not without cost. Donohue’s ecosystem is closed one of ruthless reciprocity. Everything comes at a price. The tighter focus of The Stolen Child makes it claustrophobic, but more effective and convincing. The writing is more finely-crafted than Feist’s – sentences not just being utilitarian, relentlessly driving the plot forward like script slug-lines, but actually an aesthetic pleasure to read. This is an author with an eye for detail – the minutiae of both worlds. The uncanny is framed within a sharply rendered American setting. The tone is one of realism, not fey whimsy. And there is successful inter-textuality. Here, Donohue delightfully has the changelings glutting on Shakespeare and other poets, revelling in any writing that references them, that makes it feel as though they exist. Art gives them voice, even agency. They can have an existence beyond the narrow confines of their world. Donohue has clearly done his research, but here weaves it in with elfish skill. The only slip is in the strangely clunky beginning – when he info-dumps unnecessary etymologies on us. There is a sense of a fledgling author finding his feet, or voice – but when he does, the prose takes flight. I look forward to more from this promising and clearly highly-accomplished author.

 

Kevan Manwaring 23 July 2016

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.

 

No Place Like Home

 

The Gnomist is a short award-winning documentary by filmmaker Sharon Liese, supported by CNN Films. Released within hours of the 13th November attacks in Paris last year, it relates the real-life story of ‘Firefly Forest’, a fairy village established covertly in Overland Park, Kansas. Overnight fairy doors started to appear in the boles and roots of trees; then more elaborate structures including fully-decorated fairy houses, theatres, and signs, designating the neighbourhood ’12 Hollow Tree Lane’ and conveying messages of hopeful magic. What resulted is a fascinating account of modern folklore in the making, deeply moving in the way it responds to our need for consolation in the face of loss.

Watch the video – and keep the Kleenex handy…

Deep in the forest of Overland Park, Kan., little gnomes made a home. But how did they get there? This is the story of paying it forward, one little house at a time. A Great Big collaboration with filmmaker Sharon Liese and our friends at CNN Films.

On one level it shows how traditions are started. Under the cover of night the ‘gnomist’ of the title would install new fairy structures. In the day it would seem they had magically appeared, emphasizing the sense of wonder and surprise. Their presence was enthralling to local children, who would relish the beautifully-crafted details of the Little People’s domiciles with squeals of delight. For them it was a confirmation of a still-magical paradigm not yet dispelled by reality. Against a backdrop of terrorist attacks, the innocent enchantment of Firefly Forest is made even more poignant, and I would say, necessary. As TS Eliot wrote in ‘The Four Quartets’:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Within the same poem, Eliot says: ‘Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.’ (Burnt Norton). It has been said (by John Clute, Encyclopedia of Fantasy, 1999), that Fantasy ultimately leads to the Pastoral, a prelapsarian state in which evil is banished and we can once more live in benign relationship with nature, both inner and outer. However, once the Pastoral is reached, tension evaporates in a narrative and the story is over. Tolkien famously resisted the convention to finish at this point, but lingered on the homecoming (or its impossibility for some) in The Shire. In the novels, harmony is only achieved after the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ when evil is rooted out from the realm of the hobbits (i.e. us). Peter Jackson’s film trilogy dispensed with this chapter, but ends symbolically with the closing of the round door: the full circle creating the reassurance of a ‘closed ending’. What began having a negative value (the One Ring – the catalyst for the whole strife-filled Third Age) ends with a positive value (the round door, with its metonymic signification of wholeness, closure, domestic bliss, the circle of life, the separation of the private and public realm, and so on.). That final shot in ‘The Return of the King’ became, in a sense, the jumping-off point for the ‘Gnomist’. Although the secret architect was inspired by a walk in woods in Raleigh, North Carolina (coming across a hollow tree, she thought: ‘That tree could use a door’), on a mythopoetic level, her endeavour resumes Tolkien’s/Jackson’s dialogic. Thus began some guerrilla folklore.

It reminds me of the time I created a midsummer fairy picnic in the pocket park opposite my house in Stroud. My study eavesdropped upon the popular play area – and the sounds of children playing and laughing would waft up to me as I worked. Wanting to do something magical for the community, I posted up ‘An invitation to a Midsummer Fairy Picnic’, courtesy of Lord Oberon and Lady Titania. I deliberately left off any real name or contact number. I encouraged folk to dress up, and bring fairy cakes, stories, music and games to share. On the day I turned up in costume and was delighted to see families in fancy dress gathered there. No one knew who had placed the invite. We shared our fairy-dust sprinkled fare and had a jolly good time. I have since moved away from that area but I understand the midsummer picnic still continues.

Most poignantly, a wishing tree became the focus of many heartfelt messages, including from one mother who had suffered the terrible loss of her three-year old daughter, Allie, nicknamed ‘Little Owl’. She wrote a note in remembrance. A few days later a fairy door appeared named after her daughter. This act of selfless compassion deeply touched the family, who found some symbolic solace in this public ‘shrine’. Knowing somebody out there knew of their loss and was willing to articulate their empathy in such a tangible way was incredibly validating. For them, the magic was real.

The mysterious development of ‘Firefly Forest’ prompted much local speculation and its presence was featured in news bulletins. The municipal park authorities grew anxious at this unplanned incursion into their domain, and a fairy house was removed. This prompted the ‘gnomist’ to dismantle the fairy village, all except the house dedicated to ‘Little Owl’.

The film finally reveals the identity of the secret architect and another poignant layer is revealed: for the fairy village was created by a family forced to move every year. They had recently moved to the area and wanted to feel part of the community. But on another level each fairy house the mother-and-sons team built seemed to symbolise their own frustrated desires, or hiraeth, for a home. The magic they created for people by their act of gift was reciprocated as they took pleasure in the pleasure they gave, visiting their handiwork in the daytime, incognito. One blogger self-identified herself as the ‘watcher*’ of this phenomenon, photographing and writing about it. The film was made (with the participation of the ‘gnomist’ and her family), connecting the lives of three women (the mother, the watcher, the film-maker).

And then, in a heart-breaking coda, the fairy architects are forced to move on, leaving the state for Utah. Their act of enchantment failed to ultimately work its magic in their own life, beyond the feel-good of their selfless act. Alas, they weren’t in Kansas anymore, and for them, there was no place like home.

Yet the transience of ‘Firefly Forest’ seemed nominatively-determined from the outset. Its mysterious arrival and unexpected disappearance was all part of its myth – echoing countless ‘Brigadoon’ type narratives. A more academic taxonomy would be that Firefly Forest was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, to use Hakim Bey’s term.   It was a powerful contemporary example of how people are more than willing to ‘buy into’ a folkloric paradigm – complicitly suspending their disbelief, wanting it to be true. And, in the participation – the writing of wishes and notes of remembrance, the leaving of offerings, and the co-creation of the accompanying matrix of folk-belief – the community collectively facilitate the re-enchantment of their own neighbourhood.

This inspiring community art project/act of kindness shows what can be done with a sprinkling of imagination, initiative and daring. It is a call to all of us to create some magic on our doorstep: you never know, you might touch someone’s life, make their day, or simply make them wonder… It leaves the door of what is possible open. Imagination is a spiritual vitamin and we are all enriched for coming into contact with it. The ‘gnomist’, the watcher, the filmmaker and her crew, and even CNN, should all be praised for sharing this magic.

 

*https://fireflyforestwatcher.wordpress.com/tag/overland-park/

 

The film-makers: http://www.thegnomistfilm.com/

Media coverage: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/13/living/gnomist-film-kansas-utah/

The Puzzle of the Wood

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?

Ted Hughes, Wodwo

There is something about walking in a wood which stirs something within us. The dappled sun filtering through the canopy, the twisty roots and gnarled boughs, the dripping moss, ferns and fungi, the green silence. It gets the imagination going. We start to see things, or daydream – as though the wood draws out our dreams and give them form.

20160228_121110

This was the late, great novelist Robert Holdstock’s flash of genius – one that came to him in a writing workshop in Milford-on-Sea in 1979, which resulted in an award-winning short story (1981), which led to a multiple prize-winning novel, Mythago Wood (1984), and spawned a series seven connected of novels over the ensuing 25 years. If Holdstock never visited Puzzle Wood in the Forest of Dean (he tragically died of an e-coli infection aged 61, in 2009) then it feels like it visited him – as though it had sprung from his fecund mind.

20160228_120531

The 14 acre stretch of ancient woodland deep in the heart of the Forest of Dean is riddled with pathways which snake their ways amid the rocky outcrops, tangle of trees, creepers, ferns and roots. The result of a collapsed cave system which was mined by the Romans for iron – the mineral yew trees love, as is evidenced by the many mature specimens there, rising from the rock they both cling to and shatter with their tensile roots and long bow limbs. For centuries this curious sylvan labyrinth has drawn visitors to wander and wonder at its origins and denizens. It is easy to imagine it being frequented by all manner of elves, gnomes, goblins, dryads and dwarves. Some believe Tolkien visited it and found inspiration (in fact he visited the nearby Lydney Park, which boasts similar workings – known as ‘Scowles’ – cheek-by-jowl to the ancient temple to Nodens – being surveyed at the time by the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. There, hearing of the ‘Lord of the Mines’, as Nodens was called, and seeing the legend-soaked ruins gave him some serious material to conjure with). Yet the magical associations with Puzzle Wood have lingered, enhanced in an interesting way by the many recent TV and film productions shot there: Merlin; Atlantis; Wizards vs Aliens, Dr Who, Jack the Giant Slayer and the latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise: The Force Awakens. Walking amongst the weird tree-scape of Puzzlewood the ‘mythagos’ (to use Holdstock’s term for archetypal forms generated by a human imagination interacting with the wood’s ‘consciousness’) conjured are drawn from the very same pool of myth as his cast (Merlin; King Arthur; Morgana le Fay; time-travelling wizards; Jack the folk hero; dark lords with fiery blades and Force-full maidens) but it is one fed to us from movies and TV series, rather than the oral tradition or literary folk tale. A similar process is occurring as perhaps might have transpired in the Middle Ages, when villagers ventured into the wood, all too aware of the perils to be found there to their souls: demons and witches, wodwoses and wyverns, the Good Folk and Old Scrat himself, evoked by thunderous sermons and stained glass windows – the cinema of its day. The green men and gargoyles that linger in the corners of church architecture were always there to pounce upon the wayward soul.

puzzlewood_82_by_ladyxboleyn-d6cp4ko

Today, a walk in the woods is a lot safer – certainly at the family-friendly Puzzlewood (which offers cute animals, treasure trails, café, picnic areas, and other attractions). But even in such a ‘managed experience’ there is magic to be found. All you have to do is pause and spend a while soaking in the ambience and let your imagination soar. Such a place brings out our natural storyteller, and we start to populate it with our own fanciful musings (for example, a troll beneath a billygoat bridge, as I heard one adult whimsy). A milder form of Holdstock’s mythago-generation occurs. The wood mirrors what we bring into it, but also transforms it – it takes the carbon of our mundane lives and turns it into the oxygen of ideas.

One of the wood’s charming characteristics is the way it has different levels – one moment you are looking down on a Pan’s labyrinth, next thing you know, you’re squeezing through a mossy cleft into a hidden dell. The collapse of the cavern system and the Roman quarry have, in effect, brought the ‘unconscious’ of the landscape into the light. What was hidden in the dark has now been revealed. I think this why it feels so numinous – it feels like a slippage of the waking world into the realm of dream. Suddenly, we’re in the stuff that tales are made of. To explore it is to create your own narrative thread – albeit one that inevitably gets tangled as we get lost, cross the paths of others, double-back, and basically get into a bit of a muddle. Getting lost in a wood, even in a semi-conscious way, makes us all, for a moment, Hansel and Gretel. Yet, the visitor centre is not far away, and the madding world is noisily nearby. It is impossible to forget yourself or your century entirely, but for a little while we almost can. The puzzle is not that it is there, but that we bother to come back at all. For a spell, we can pretend to be babes in the wood, until the cold drives us to the cafe!

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http://www.puzzlewood.net/index.php/puzzlewood-facilties/about-the-wood

Puzzle Wood reminded me of another woodland nearby (Rocks East Woodland, on the borders of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset). Rocks East has it’s own ‘valley of the rocks’ (also probably a Roman quarry), grotto, sculpture trail, turf maze, and peculiar magic. It is a place I have a special connection with – a decade’s worth of stories: http://www.rockseast.org.uk/

The Fascination of the Worm

Dracophilia...  My latest book - due from Compass Books soon!

Dracophilia…
My latest book – due from Compass Books soon!

Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’ JRR Tolkien6

 

Twentieth Century Professor of English and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who perhaps more than any other single author has brought alive worlds of Fantasy in his vast Middle Earth sequence of stories, as a child ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’:

 

Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.’7

 

If we read this as a yearning for Fantasy, (that is, the experience of such, as opposed to the genre – although we will dignify both with the capital in the hope that one will encourage the other) then I do not think he is alone in this, as the huge popularity of Fantasy in books, films and computer games prove. There seems to be an endless appetite for it: The Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, TheTwilight Saga, Avengers Assemble, and no doubt more ‘franchises’ await to hit the big or little screen. Despite a distinctive post-9/11 trend for ‘real life stories’, gritty realism, and tales of hard luck and ‘winning through adversity’ (spawning shelves of ‘misery lit’; or ‘trauma memoir’) the world, it seems, is hungry for Story, especially of the fantastical kind.

Why is it so many seem to ‘desire dragons’, as Tolkien did? What purpose, if any, is there to Fantasy? Is it just make-believe for grown ups, or does it serve a more profound function? This brief excursion into Fantasyland endeavours to explore, if not answer, these questions, and perhaps the very act of asking questions – curiosity, or the quest for knowledge – is at the root of all this ultimately. The desire to know has led humankind from the cave to the moon. Wishing to know what lay over the next hill, and the next, beyond the borders of the familiar, over the sea, over the horizon – following the journey of the sun, our constant companion of consciousness, throughout the day, into the unconscious of night – this has driven humanity on, and fuelled most of its fantasies. The unknown provides a vacuum for the subconscious, for the Shadow, the Id, the other. We populate the night with our own.

And we probe the shadows with a thrill of fear and a desire to know.

Tolkien, in a witty reply to a letter in The Observer (16 January, 1938) signed by someone calling themselves ‘Habit’, requesting more background about ‘the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book’, (The Hobbit, published 21 September1937) responded thus:

 

Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.’8

 

Despite Tolkien’s claiming not to ‘remember anything about the name and inception of the hero’, he gave a typically conscientious and erudite reply. His letters show the fathomless quality of his learning (his scholar’s mind akin to the Mines of Moria) and provide a plethora of portals to explore – enough for a lifetime, and thus he has not robbed research students of their existence, but thrown a gauntlet down to ‘curious Hobbits’, who are intrigued by the mysterious origins of such wonders, in what smithies were they forged, and whether the alchemical secrets of the wordsmiths trade can be gleaned, used, and passed on.

I must disclose my own interest in this realm of the imagination – with my five-volume epic, The Windsmith Elegy9, I could be categorised as an author of Fantasy, although I prefer the term ‘Mythic Reality’ (for that is how it feels to me – more of which we will discuss later). As a writer of ‘Fantastical Fiction’ (as it once used to called) the genre, as a whole, holds an obvious appeal to me, but more so the mysterious impulse that drives us to write and read it, and beyond that, the act of creation itself.

The central thesis I would like to forward here is that the roots of Fantasy go deeper than sometimes the genre suggest – that there is more to it than mere ‘Sword and Sorcery’, and the endless rehashing of Tolkienesque tropes. What if Fantasy is not merely a form of escapism (although that in itself is not ‘wrong’), but a way of exploring imaginative possibilities?

In the purest expression of Fantasy, something more fundamental is at work. Could Imagination serve as a gateway to other realms, other possibilities – a kind of ‘Quantum TV’ – with different bandwidths showing glimpses of ‘that which does not exist, but could’, and sometimes does, in our imagination?

Many beginner writers who attempt to write Fantasy do not seem to understand the genre. They copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation (as someone who has taught and assessed creative writing since 2003 I can wearily attest to this – although I am occasionally astounded by what my students produce). There is often a gulf between idea and execution, which is frustrating. It feels as though I am receiving a poor signal from a distant land.

The craft provides the Transatlantic cable, but I do not wish to lay it down here – many others have done that. Rather than simply provide a list of techniques, I believe it would be more useful (and better for the writer) to explore the ‘biology’ of Fantasy, and our motives for writing it.

  • Where does the impulse to write Fantasy come from?
  • What takes place in the act of writing, i.e. the creative process – specifically in the creation of works of Fantasy?
  • What benefits are there, if any, for the writer, as well as the reader?

And so I begin this essay with these questions in mind – and a sense of unknowing.

A quester, armed with his question, is a good place to start.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring, 2013

[Extract from Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer’s Quest, published by Compass Books – contact them and order an advance copy now]