Category Archives: folklore

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/

A Sassenach in Auld Reekie

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Edinburgh in the time of Robert Kirk. Wenceslas Hollar 1670

I returned to the handsome capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, to spend a week in the archives at the National Library of Scotland. I had received a small grant from the University of Leicester to support my time there, transcribing a rare 17th manuscript I had discovered in their Special Collections last December. Over the following week I laboured away in there from opening time until mid-to-late afternoon. Special Collections is such a pleasant place to work in – high up in the NLS, its floor to ceiling windows afford a fantastic view over the Hogwartsian rooftops of the city, towards Arthur’s Seat, the volcanic summit, and the Salisbury Crags, which dominate the skyline of this dramatic city – the backdrop to myriad dramas, intrigues, conspiracies, plots and sub-plots, tragedies and love stories over the centuries.

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Special Collections, National Library of Scotland. K. Manwaring

 

I stayed at the central SYHA hostel – a large, busy, but clean and convenient, base, brimming with Italian and German students, making breakfast a lively affair.

After my daily transcribing I would check out the city’s attractions, which are numerous and impressive. I caught the tail end of the Fringe on my first full day, so I took in a cross-section of shows (one about a lost Nick Drake recording; an adaptation The Master and Margarita) and enjoyed the festive ambience on the Royal Mile, where talented buskers were milking the madding crowds for all their worth. In the evening I caught the festival finale fireworks, exploding in time to a classical concert over the castle. It was a spectacular end to what must have been an exhausting month. One day was quite enough for me, and I was happy to knuckle down for the rest of the week. However, I still found time at the end of my stay to be a tourist again, and took in a couple of walking tours – one of the Royal Mile; and a Ghost Walk one. Both were free on delivery and you just paid what you thought it was worth at the end, an equitable arrangement, which was clearly worthwhile for the guides, with groups of twenty plus each time, often several times a day. Being a part-time tour-guide myself (a handy bit of summer income) I watched how the tours were delivered with interest. I was impressed by the level of detail and the projection above the noisy traffic and hustle and bustle. Both guides could more than hold their own, and hold a crowd’s attention for a couple of hours. I rounded off my stay with a visit to the Whiski Bar, where I enjoyed a couple of fine malts (a peaty one; a sherried one) while listening to a great Scottish folk band, a trio who belted Scottish and Irish classics with gusto and skill. The next day I walked off my hangover going up Arthur’s Seat – it was inevitably quite busy, but it still was great to escape the pellmell of the Royal Mile. It did the trick, blowing away the cobwebs, and helping me to get a perspective on the week.

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Edinburgh’s wealth is in its vast reserve of time, which it sells in diverse configurations, from history tours to single malts. Everything celebrates the past, glutting upon its depthless history. It is as though it is built upon a time-reservoir, akin to its volcanic roots – a chrono-thermal resource which fuels the city. Visitors come from far and wide to bathe in these time-springs, to receive their special ancientness, returning home refreshed, their wallets and purses lighter. We hope some of the ‘authenticity’ and sense of belonging and identity rubs off on us. We leave, walking a little taller, channelling our own inner Wallace or Bruce. We might besport embarrassing tartan tat, Outlanders dancing a caper. Somehow it feels okay. There is a wealth of fascinating history there – and it is a fine-looking city, darkly handsome, with its Piranesian levels of wynds, bridges, teetering tenements, gothic towers, dungeons, dives, courts, penthouses and promenades. Exploring it is like stumbling around the torturous catacombs of a novelist’s brain. For a while we are all characters in search of a plot, playing our roles – tourist, punter, mark, local, rake, beggar, laird.

Long live Auld Reekie!

Behind the Mask

Border Morris, a radical tradition

by Kevan Manwaring

 

STYX FIRST DANCE OUT PF WESSEX 9 APRIL 2016

Styx of Stroud, PF Wessex, 9 April 2016 by Paul Horton

Border Morris is an evolving tradition, which has its roots in the Welsh Marches and the counties where it was originally identified (Herefordshire; Worcestershire; Shropshire) by E.C. Cawte in an influential 1963 article[1]. Cawte was the first to define this distinctive form of Morris, proposing the term ‘Welsh Border Morris’. The prefix has been dropped over the years and now ‘Border Morris’ denotes any Morris-style dance performed with sticks (never handkerchiefs) by predominantly black-faced dancers dressed in ‘tatter-coats’, with a simply-stepped, repetitive choreography, and delivered with much whooping and gusto. Although it is predominantly a tradition of the Welsh Borders/Cotswold Edge there is evidence of such dancing farther east: ‘In 1850 Northamptonshire morris team sometimes danced with sticks, ‘flourishing and brandishing them about’, and dancing round the sticks laid on the ground. This was called Bedlam Morris. Possibly this took place somewhere near Brackley. The source is not clear.’[2] As a Northamptonshire lad now living in Gloucestershire, I feel heartened by this – it makes me feel I am connecting to my roots by dancing in a Border Morris fashion.

 

The presence of Border Morris in Gloucestershire has been questioned by some (although there is an unconfirmed account of the young Gustav Holst watching Border Morris, with blackened faces, dancing outside his Cheltenham home), but I feel that it is essentially a movable feast, and to bind it to a particular place or style is a mistake, missing the point entirely. The very idea of ‘borders’ is the epitome of liminality – a threshold place betwixt and between: a place of peril and transformation. Border Morris must retain its edge if it is to stay true to its defining spirit.

The great innovator, John Kirkpatrick, was inspired in part by Northamptonshire’s Bedlam Morris to start his own influential side in Shropshire in the early 70s. And this is the style which as ‘gone viral’ to use a modern term – and is the style I now dance with Styx of Stroud, the Border side I belong to – so full circle (or ‘Brackley Roundabout’)!

It’s worth looking at Kirkpatrick’s approach in more detail The Border Morris style which Cawte identified was given a contemporary spin by John Kirkpatrick with his Bedlam Morris (an approach articulated with provocative wit in his 1979 article, ‘Bordering on the Insane’[3]), who advocated a looser, more eclectic magpie-ish approach: taking what they fancied from existing dancers and customizing them to suit their tastes. This was tantamount to heresy in the conservative circles of the Morris Federation and Morris Ring. Kirkpatrick’s iconoclastic, ‘punkish’ approach was perhaps indicative of the time (the mid-to-late 70s). The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ could not seem further from the bucolic idyll perpetuated by the jingle of bells, squeezebox and fiddle and clack of sticks on a summer’s day outside a pleasant country pub, but Bedlam Morris’ (Kirkpatrick’s group) radical approach to dancing turned Border into the punk of Morris: emphasizing speed and energy, phallic-dancing pushing the bounds of taste, jeans and trainers worn beneath the more ‘traditional’ Morris regalia to blend the traditional and modern (‘the fusion of new and old that I was searching for’, JK), the hollering and lusty clash of staves an antidote to what he memorably described, in contrast to traditional Morris, as:  ‘far more ferocious and flamboyant than this mincing middle-aged antiquated eye-wash.’

To Kirkpatrick’s initial discomfort, Border Morris sides began to pop up adopting his general approach, but customizing it to their tastes. Yet this is the spirit of Border Morris and the reason why it continues to flourish whereas many traditional Morris sides are sadly dying out. Alot of the more traditional sides have ageing members and a problem with recruitment, although the age issue has apparently never been a problem for Border, if the report of a super-annuated side is to be credited: an account of a side in Hereford from 1609 which reports the members being between 96-120 years old, with an average age of 103!

Certainly many of the sides in the ‘mainstream’ Morris scene do look geriatric, but when you see them jigging about in a vigorous manner with broad grins and cheeky twinkles in their eyes you realise that Morris-dancing is the perfect way to stay lithe of limb and spirit. Most of all it evokes an ageless joie-de-vivre, which beyond all intellectualising, academic hair-splitting, and politically-correct hand-wringing is the over-riding impression one gets from watching it and, even more, from joining in. It is damned good fun and, in a boringly sensible and norm-core modern age, wildly impractical, uncommercial, and slightly bonkers.

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Styx of Stroud dancing at the Chepstow Wassail 2016, K. Manwaring

With Border Morris there is a frisson of the wild – a pagan, chthonic energy bursting forth in broad daylight. The blackened faces, outlandish costumes, swirl of rags and tatters, mock battles, shrieks and hollers, boom of the drum, relentless tune earworming its way into your mind, convey something of a dream or nightmare, our collective Shadow brought out into the light.

In terms of my own research (which currently is focused on the Scottish Borders) there is an overlap of motifs, in terms of the longing, liminality and transgression I see recur in the ballads and tales of the Lowlands (and the Southern Appalachians, where many of the songs and stories were taken). Certainly in the latter two are tangible in any Border Morris dance: liminality, in terms of watching something from the Borders, often at ‘liminal’ times of the year most importantly May Day, bordering on good/bad taste, in/sanity, and ancient/modern; transgressive, in terms of the possibility of sex and violence which lie beneath the dances – which take that energy and transforms it. The transgression for some would also be in the apparent appearance of racism, a controversy which lingers around Border Morris like an elephant’s fart in a room – which I will address below.

In brief, then. The blackened faces associated with Morris has been associated with the notion that Morris dancing was actually a bastardisation of ‘Moorish dancing’ (The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century; but the earliest references to its etymological ancestor, Morisk dance,moreys daunce, morisse daunce, start to appear in the mid-15th Century, when there was a fashion for ‘Moorish spectactle’). There is a tantalising possibility that such dances were just called ‘Moorish’ simply because they seem wild and pagan, something ‘exotic’ or ‘other’, and that was merely a contemporary analogy, like saying one film reminds you of another – but with the important caveat that: these dances were probably more ancient that, but were only defined as such at that point. The point at which something gets written  down does not necessarily fix in stone the point at which it came into being. Convention demands that we are bound by the paper trail, but can make educated guesses about what isn’t there. We are, after all, pattern-makers by nature. Another theory suggests it is to do with disguise: because begging was made illegal (Vagrancy Act of 1824). In lean times out of work farmworkers and itinerants would would ‘guise up’ – using the easily available materials of soot and grease – an effective way to keep ‘mum’, to anonymise oneself (a strategy deployed by the Mummers Plays, which usually involve outlandish disguises). A third, rather dubious, theory is that the blackened faces are directly related to the Music Hall traditions which culminated in the notorious ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’. This last one has been vehemently defended by the likes of Chloe Metcalfe, but the fact is there is too much evidence of disguises being used centuries before any such phenomenon to accept that is the reason. The first two factors seem most likely to have influenced Border Morris over the centuries; the third seems a trendy theory wheeled out by academics wanting to make a name for themselves (akin to the tubthumping Marxist critique of the Folk Tradition, Fakelore (Harker, 1979), which Georgina Boyes took up the cause for in her influential treatise, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival, 2010). Yet no one can categorically say there is a single ‘smoking gun’.

As with any tradition there is an element of syncretism – a jackdaw creed which will shamelessly filch anything if it’s fit-for-purpose. This includes modern pop culture such as Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, which features Morris (Guards, Guards; Reaper Man; Lords and Ladies, etc), and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle (which has inspired a morris side, and even a type of bells). It has spawned what has been called ‘Dark Morris’, which is more amusing than it sounds, basically adopting a satirical, Pythonesque approach to the whole thing. This has given rise to sides inspired by Biker culture (Hells Angels Morris), Neopaganism (Vixen and Wolfshead Morris), Fantasy (Mythago Morris), and Steampunk (Steampunk Morris). Border Morris has become a meme – one that is continually absorbing cultural influences: a modern ‘Celtic’, if you will. With no official set of parameters beyond the bare essentials (sticks, rags, blackened faces) each side customizes, and each individual member tailors, adding their idiosyncratic accretions to their costume (e.g. fairy lights adorning top hats at Chepstow Wassail, January 2016).  This is part of the appeal – personal creative expression within a group, and subculture where, critically, idiosyncratic quirkiness is accepted. Border Morris is very much in affinity with a Bowie-esque ‘kookiness’, a broad church where difference is celebrated. Critics of Border Morris’ ‘unPC-ness’ need to realise this. The vast range of iterations as witnessed at any large-scale Morris event (Hastings Jack-in-the-Green; Upton-on-Severn Folk Festival; Chippenham Folk Festival, etc). is a celebration of diversity, of local distinctiveness as championed by the environmental N.G.O. Common Ground.

Any association between black faces and people of colour (a term so bland as to be meaningless – unless you live in a black-and-white movie we are all people of colour) is in the eye of the beholder – it is certainly not in the consciousness of the performer. There is an important difference between the colour black and shades of brown/diverse flesh tone. If anyone has problem telling the difference then they  probably need their eyes (or shaky beliefs) testing. Black has a symbolic value, as seen in diverse, indigenous cultures around the world e.g. the Kanak tribe of New Caledonia (Nanson). It often denotes the Underworld, death, night, the ancestors, and many other things. Across many of the First Nations tribes of North America black face paint denotes ‘victory and strength’, and as warpaint ‘power, aggression and strength’.[4]

The fact that the word ‘black’ has come to mean people of colour and rarely the actual colour black is an example of what is called semantic bleaching. Now, when we see black it is perhaps inevitable, though incorrect, through cultural conditioning, to associate the colour black with people of colour, but this link within the individual’s mind, and is not one that dancers are responsible for. Tags are prescriptive, often prejudiced, and limiting – hence the resistance by many within the intended demographic against the controversial B.A.M.E. (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) acronym. The same with ‘L.G.B.T.X.’. Who does not wish to be seen and accepted as an individual, not a type? Labels make people lazy. They stop you looking or thinking. The designated is mentally pigeon-holed. They stop being perceived as the unique human being they are. Self-definition is the only safe and acceptable option. So let’s not get signs mixed up with signifiers. Let the sign point where it wants to. N.B. in Border Morris sticks are directed at fellow stick-wielders, nobody else! We are only play-fighting amongst ourselves. Mock-combats transform antagonistic energies, as in the dance popularly known as ‘Feud’.

The fact of the matter is that many Border Morris wear the black because it gives them a degree of anonymity when dancing in public, and it’s as simple and as innocent as that. People can project whatever they want onto Border Morris – who become Rorschach inkblot tests to the onlooker’s subconscious. The overwhelming consensus is that ‘people of colour’ do not seem offended by Border Morris, indeed delight in it (and a fair few dance in Morris and Mummers themselves[5]). It would seem, from numerous anecdotes within the Border Morris community, to be only white people who seem bothered and wishing to complain. Who then, pray tell, is the liberal academic complaining on the behalf of? Of course, any form of prejudice needs challenging – but what often is just a form of Postcolonial posturing is just another form of ‘othering’, of imperialist patronisation (the unelected spokesperson speaking on behalf of an imagined wronged minority). Let’s hear it from horse’s (or Mari Lwyd’s) mouth.

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Mari Lwyd, Chepstow Wassail, Jan 2016. K. Manwaring

Dancing in a Border Morris side one feels inside a tradition. One might feel nervous, excited, preoccupied with the technicalities of the dance, the practicalities of the performance space, the next beer or bowl of chips, the friendly faces in the crowd, and a plethora of other concerns – but never about the colour of the face-paint you are wearing. Because, as the performer, you cannot see that – you’re on the inside looking out. Even facing a fellow dancer you are more likely to be concerned with the position of the sticks than anything. What seems extraordinary to onlookers has become normalised to those within the group. And for those dancing it feels joyous – a selfless public act. This is the spirit in which Border Morris is danced: light-hearted anarchy offering, briefly, a shattering of the status quo. For those who question its validity or rationale, all I can say is: have a go. Come and clack sticks and let’s have a beer afterwards. We’ll see how you feel about it then, once you’re on the other side of the mask.

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Our awesome drummer Dave, at Chepstow Wassail 2016, K. Manwaring

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 12.04.2016

 

Styx of Stroud: https://styxofstroud.com/

 

Key Sources:

  1. C. Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire,’ Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1963), pp. 197-212.

John Kirkpatrick, ‘Bordering on the Insane’, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979 (cited on http://www.johnkirkpatrick.co.uk/mo_BorderInsane.asp)

Chloe Metcalfe, ‘To Black Up or Not to Black Up: A Personal Journey’, The Morris Federation, Winter newsletter 2013, https://www.academia.edu/5468139/To_Black_up_Or_Not_to_Black_Up_A_Personal_Journey

‘Morris Dancing’, Pepys Diary website: http://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/6217/

 

 

[1] EC Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire’, 1963.

[2] ibid, 1963: p197.

[3] Bordering on the Insane, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, By John Kirkpatrick, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979.

[4] http://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-symbols/color-meanings-symbolism.htm

[5] And I have seem Mummers actually change the usual ‘Saracen or Turkish knight’ to something less obviously charged, such as ‘Bold Slasher’, to avoid any obvious Islamophobia. This shows a sensitivity and cultural reciprocity which Morris and Mummers are rarely credited with.

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/