Category Archives: Legends

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/

 

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.

 

Walking the Talk: Practice-Based Research

Chantelle Smith and Kevan Manwaring - The Bonnie Road. Photograph by Simon Fairbourn, 2014

Chantelle Smith and Kevan Manwaring – The Bonnie Road. Photograph by Simon Fairbourn, 2014

As part of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester – a novel-based project dramatizing the diasporic translocation of folk traditions from the Scottish Lowlands to the Southern Appalachians – I have explored various forms of practice-based research. Chief among these is of course the writing of the novel itself. A recent QAA Benchmark Statement on Creative Writing[1] validates the notion of writing-as-research, when it states: ‘Original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’ (4.6). Of course, research may also explore the critical discourses around the subject, the reader experience, creative process, publishing, performance and multi-media platforms. In the first of a series of three seminars hosted by the Open University’s research group, ‘Contemporary Cultures of Writing’ at Senate House, London (which I attended on Tuesday, 3rd November) research students and staff explore issues around ‘Creative Writing Research’[2]  What constitutes research and how it can be validated within the rigours of a PhD continue to be explored and expanded by those working within academe. The pressure of having a thesis rubber-stamped and passing one’s viva means institutional validation of ‘proper’ research is all too critical, and maybe constraining the often instinctive, protean and multifarious methodologies of writers. Often we ‘do it anyway’, writing blind, in the white heat of the moment, following hunches, gut feelings, flashes of inspiration, synaptic tight-rope walks, and tangential cat-a-loops … then back-extrapolate the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ afterwards, trying to sound intelligent and conscious in our creative processes.

Nevertheless, some activity is informed and intentional. As part of my novel project, I decided that a spoken word performance dramatizing some of the Border Ballads would be an interesting way to bring alive my research, widen its accessibility, and get diverse audience responses. And it would also be great fun. And so with my partner Chantelle Smith, a folk-singer, we devised a show based upon our trips to the Scottish Borders – in the summer of 2014 we walked Hadrian’s Wall from coast to coast, then pushed beyond the current Border, visiting ballad sites. Drawing upon this shared experience we devised ‘The Bonnie Road: tales and ballads of the Borders’, a storytelling and acoustic music show bringing alive the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – whose thematic symmetry I find fascinating. Initially last forty minutes we premiered it at the SEED Festival, Hawkwood College, in July 2015; and have performed it at three other events since, expanding it to a full hour with extra songs and an additional folk tale. The response has been favourable. One audience member commented afterwards: ‘Loved the interplay of word, music, choreography, and the unexpected humorous asides – and also the landscape of folkloric detail.’[3] I have also performed a solo version of the show in the States, on a recent field trip. The show’s strength, however, is in the dynamic created between my partner and I on stage, and the alternation between modes of narrative: primarily storytelling (myself) and ballad (Chantelle). Harp, shruti box, bodhran and bells are also used to create ambience and weave the spell. The shift in register between my (spoken) voice and my partner’s (sung) voice modulates the aural experience and demands of the listener. We shift in and out of character, not fully acting, not fully ourselves, but inhabiting a third space, and breaking the fourth on occasion with the odd humorous aside, responding to the actuality of the performance space – noises off, a mobile phone, a passing siren, etc. The show inhabits a liminal space – in terms of its location/s (the Scottish Borders; Elfhame); its gender politics; the creative tension between the magical and the mundane; the cross-fertilisation of art-forms; the chancy terrain of national identity (Anglo-Scottish fault-lines); and in its rich symbolism. In many ways liminality is the key note of both ballads – both physical (hillside; tree; stream; crossroads; well) and temporal (twilight; midnight; Halloween) motifs crop up, often echoed in each ballad. In ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ it is the male protagonist who is our ‘Everyman’ – it is he who undergoes initiation, gaining the gift of prophecy (‘the Tongue that Cannot Lie’) and the appellation of ‘True Thomas’. In ‘Tam Lin’ it is Janet of Carterhaugh who facilitates listener identification – it is her Third Person Limited Omniscient perspective that we follow – as she undergoes her own rite-of-passage into woman-hood and self-actualisation. Both Thomas and Janet experience a change of status, brought about by what RJ Stewart has termed the ‘Underworld Initiation’. The Queen of Elfland is the catalyst behind both – more directly in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ Morgana Le Fay-way in ‘Tam Lin’. She is ostensibly the same queen but seems very different in each ballad: in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ she appears as the Muse figure, a Gravesian ‘white goddess’ on her white horse, with her bells and spells. In ‘Tam Lin’ she is a Kali-figure, goddess of vengeance, cursing Tam Lin for his ‘faithlessness’ – terrifying and implacable. As the male performer in the show, I naturally channel Thomas and Tam Lin; my partner similarly channels the light-and-dark queens and the feisty Janet. The experience is visceral and deepens our understanding – and compassion – for all aspects. They seem part of a spectrum. I have devised, based upon this practice-led insight, a workshop and accompanying diagram I call ‘The Wheel of Transformation’, which I field-tested at both a pagan camp in Britain and in America. In both cases I was impressed and surprised by the results. Participants role-played scenes from the ballads – and, without much prompting, took on characters of different genders, ages and backgrounds to their own. It seemed liberating to all involve – that we could move around the ‘wheel’ and inhabit any of the roles, fith-fathing like Tam Lin in Janet’s arms. All participants managed to find something to relate in the ballads – there are universal patterns being played out in them; akin to the Orphic (Orpheus and Eurydice ) or Eleusinian (Demeter and Persephone) Mysteries, in terms of their ritual and archetypal. It would seem the ‘Fair Maiden’ (the anima; or untainted soul seeking the grit of experience) is perennially being lured to the Underworld by some dark, charismatic Lord – where the chymical wedding occurs, and the nigredo of the soul’s dark night leads to the gold of transformational rebirth. For self-knowledge to be achieved, the Underworld journey must be taken and the Shadow embraced.

And so the journey begins. The wheel of transformation keeps turning and these pliant ballads are re-invented in new forms with each performer, each performance. The fith-fath does not threaten their integrity, only strengthens it. Their mutability is part of their resilience, their enduring appeal. This practice-based research has deepened my understanding of them – and consequently some of the core themes underlying my novel, underpinning its mythic resonance. It gives the creative/critical endeavour of my research a breadth and groundedness, making it feel less abstract, more embodied and owned. I walk my talk, and the material becomes a living reality.

Kevan Manwaring 7 November 2015

https://taleandsong.wordpress.com/

http://www.chantellesmith.co.uk/

[1] http://www.qaa.ac.uk/publications/information-and-guidance/publication/?PubID=2986#.Vj4rmbfhDnB

[2] http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/contemporary-cultures-of-writing/events/creative-writing-research-investigation

[3] Anthony Nanson, SEED Festival, 2015

Riding the Wall to Wester Ross

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass - a windy spot!

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass – a windy spot!

I’ve just come back from an epic three-week trip around the north of Britain – some of it was R&R and some of it was field research for my new novel…

Hadrians Wall copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 1 I walked Hadrian’s Wall (112AD) with my partner Chantelle, an archaeologist (and folk-singer) who works for English Heritage. It was on her ‘bucket list’ to do before her birthday – and so, all kitted up, off we set. I rode up to Newcastle on my Triumph Legend motorbike and met her off the train. We stored the bike at a storyteller’s garage and began our walk – 84 miles over 6 days from coast to coast, going east to west from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle). We stopped at hostels and used a courier service to get our larger luggage from place to place – carrying just a daysac with essentials in (ie waterproofs!). It was the butt end of Hurricane Bertha and we had to walk into driving wind and rain for the first two or three days, but the weather mercifully improved towards the end of the week. The middle section from Chesters to Birdoswald was stunning. Although the wall wasn’t always visible (turned into roads, railways or cannibalised for building) the way was clearly-marked with white acorns (this being a National Trail). Every roman mile (just short of a mile) there was a mile-castle, inbetween, two turrets, and now and then a substantial fort (eg Housesteads being the most impressive) or garrison town (eg Vindolanda, famous for its amazingly preserved ‘tablets’ recording the minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants). The trail passes through the Northumberland National Park – bleak and beautiful. It was very poignant walking this remarkable piece of Roman ingenuity – the Roman Empire on my left, the untamed wilds of the Picts on my right – aware of how it was the first division of this country into north and south. This ‘divide and rule’ policy is worth being in mind in the light of the looming Referendum.

Croft life -  with Chantelle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Croft life –
with Chantelle.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 2 we rode up (Chantelle pillion) to a friend’s croft on the coast of Wester Ross, right up near Ullapool, overlooking the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides. It was an epic 375 mile ride through the most spectacular scenery – Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Glen Shiels…but the storm made it hard going, even dangerous as I battled against high winds and poor visibility. We stopped a night at Glen Coe – soggy as drowned rats but still smiling – before making the final push to the croft where we holed up for a week with provisions, reading and writing material and a bottle of good malt. After a week of motion it was blissful to have a week of stillness, giving our blisters a chance to heal. It was here I celebrated my 45th birthday. My partner treated me to a lovely meal in a local inn – a kind of ‘Valhalla of vinyl’ where we played pool and listened to old classics.

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the 'Highlander' castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the ‘Highlander’ castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

At the end of this week we rode south 225 miles to the Castle of the Muses in Argyl and Bute – an extraordinary edifice inhabited by Peace Druid Dr Thomas Daffern, 9 muses, and his library of 20,000 volumes. It was here we celebrated our first anniversary with a performance of our show ‘The Snake and the Rose’ in the main hall. Although the audience was small it was still a special way to mark the day. My friend Paul Francis was also present – he’s known by many names including Dr Space Toad, the Troubadour from the 4th Dimension, Jean Paul Dionysus… He’s a great singer-songwriter. After our show we gathered around the hearth and shared poems and songs. The next day Chantelle had to catch a train back home (work etc) but I stayed on for a meeting about forming a ‘circle of Bardic Chairs’. Although it was a small affair we took minutes and a seed was sown. The plan is to have a larger meeting (open to all bards, bardic chair holders, gorseddau, etc) in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of The Bard (William Shakespeare) on his birth/death-day, 23rd April, next year. Watch this space!

In the 3rd week I explored the Lowlands and Borders on my bike – riding solo. On Monday I went to Aberfoyle, home of the Reverend Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies). It was thrilling to visit the grove on Doon Hill where he was said to have disappeared. A Scots Pine grows on the spot, surrounded by oak trees – all are festooned with clouties, rags, and sparkly offerings of every kind. A magical place. That night I stayed with a musician, Tom, whose croft we’d been staying in. He kindly put me up and we shared a poem or song over a dram.

climbing Schiehallion - the fairy mountain

climbing Schiehallion – the fairy mountain

On Tuesday I decided to climb Schiehallion – the mountain of the Sidhe, right up in the Highlands, so I blatted north past Gleneagles and made an ascent, ‘bagging’ myself a Munro (over 3000ft) though that wasn’t my reason for doing it. Afterwards I visited the Fortingall Yew – the oldest living tree in Britain, possibly 5000 years old. It’s decrepit but still impressive.

Bardmobile in the Rhymer's Glen - Eildon Hills in the background

Bardmobile in the Rhymer’s Glen – Eildon Hills in the background

On Wednesday I visited the Eildon Hills and the Rhymer’s Stone, before going onto Abbotsford, the impressive home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Minstelsy of the Scottish Borders among many others). I ended up at New Lanark, a World Heritage Site – a well-preserved mill-town created by social reformer, Robert Owen, to house, feed, educate and uplift his workers, near the Falls of the Clyde, made famous by Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth and co. On Thursday I headed Southwest to Ayrshire and the home of Rabbie Burns, Scotlands’ ‘national poet’. The visitor’s centre had an excellent exhibition bringing alive his poems, but I was most thrilled to visit the Brig o’ Doon and the Auld Kirk – immortalised in his classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Then I headed down the west coast to the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and founded the first church north of the Wall. This seemed like a fitting terminus of my Scottish meanderings – from here you are said to see five kingdoms (England, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Heaven) yet there was one day left.

Further south - Isle of Whithorn

Further south – Isle of Whithorn

On Friday I explored the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and found Carterhaugh near their confluence – the site of Tam Lin. The meeting of their respective rivers was more impressive – a swirling pool called ‘The Meetings’ near a gigantic salmon weir. It was a very wet day though and my energy was starting to wane. I gratefully made it to a fellow storyteller’s place who had just moved over the Border, not far from Coldstream. Despite having literally just moved in (that day!) her and her husband kindly put me up in the spare room amid the boxes. We didn’t spend long catching up– a quick cuppa – before whizzing north to Edinburgh for the Guid Crack Club. This meets in the upstairs of the Waverley Inn, just off the Royal Mile. I was very tired but happy to watch the high calibre of performance. I wasn’t planning to do anything but in the need I did offer my Northamptonshire Folk Tale, Dionysia the Female Knight, which seemed to go down well. We ate out at a new Greek place and got back late, sharing a glass of wine by the fire. Dog-tired I slept in til 10.30 the next day – then had to ride 250 miles south to Rockingham, near Corby in the Midlands.

Holy Island copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Holy Island
copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

I stopped at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as I crossed the Border – worth visiting for the ride across the tidal causeway if nothing else, although it felt a ‘thin place’ and calming, despite the tourist hordes. Then it was time to hit the road – and I roared down the A1 (and A19) back south to my old home county. Here I was warmly welcomed by Jim and Janet. I had performed at their solstice bash earlier in the summer and now they were treating me like an old friend. We had a good catchup over dinner and around the fire.

In the morning I made my final pit-stop, at the Bardic Picnic in Delapre Abbey, Northampton – my old neck of the woods. Here I would walk my dog every day. Here 7 years ago a small group of us (6!) held hands and did an awen to announce the beginning of this event which has blossomed, thanks to my friends hard work into a small festival. The sun put his hat on and the crowds came out. Although I was road-weary and unable to take in much of the bardism, I did stick around for the Chairing of the Bard before hitting the road – and the final push across the Cotswolds to home in Stroud.

After 2500 miles and 23 days I finally made it home and I was glad to be back. If only I could have stayed…(the next morning I had to get to Bath for 9am to run an 11-hour tour to Glastonbury, Salisbury and Avebury with 4 Americans – it’s a Bard’s life!).

Watch out for poetry inspired by my trip on the poetry page…

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]

This Fearful Tempest

His noble kinsman: most degenerate king!
But, lords, we hear this fearful tempest sing,
Yet seek no shelter to avoid the storm;
We see the wind sit sore upon our sails,
And yet we strike not, but securely perish.

The Tragedy of King Richard II

William Shakespeare

 

The terrible storms that have hammered Britain today are perhaps a physical manifestation of the Kali-esque tides of this time of year – as we lead up to Samhain, All Hallows and the Day of the Dead. These festivals of death (and, sometimes, rebirth) teach us to not only honour our dead, but also to let go of what we need to (our physical forms, our possessions, and materiality in general) – to practice the Art of Dying. It is a time to take stock, cull what no longer serves us (with compassion) and move, metaphorically, to our ‘winter pasture’. Wintering means cutting the wheat from the chaff, quitting fooling, and being prepared. It is also a delicious time of tending the hearth, warm gatherings, feasting, storytelling, and the inward spiral – as we turn our energies inwards in readiness for the deep dreaming of winter and the wisdom it will bring us – if we work with (rather than run away) from its winnowing tide.

This time last year I was preparing for the launch of ‘This Fearful Tempest’ – the last in my five-volume fantasy series, The Windsmith Elegy. I launched it at Samhain (Oct 31st, the Celtic Festival of the Ancestors) – this seemed appropriate as the bulk of the series is set in the ‘Afterlands’ and seeks to honour the Lost of History, as I call them – the arrested narratives of various figures from myth and history.  The day I launched it, there was a massive storm in America, and, a year on – Britain is hit by a similar one… So it seemed appropriate to share the tempestuous opening here…

This Fearful Tempest by Kevan Manwaring - front cover by Steve Hambidge

This Fearful Tempest by Kevan Manwaring – front cover by Steve Hambidge

Prologue

Through the torn skein of mist and shadow the ghostly threshold appears: a sheer wall of white rising from the furious sea. The grey waves break into light as they dash themselves against its fastness – jagged flanks of chalk. An x-ray of a land. The white cliffs loom closer and closer, filling the field of vision. A head-on collision threatens at any moment. A tide, irresistible, meeting an object, immovable. Then, from over the cliff’s edge trickles one red line. Deep red. A horse-tail of crimson. Then another pours. Another, like liquid bars. Until, the red tide breaks over the cliffs, obliterating the white. Cliffs of blood. And a scream that pierces the land in two.

Chapter One

Landfall

Go by God’s road to the Tower of Cronus
Where the Airs, daughters of Ocean
Blow round the Island of the Blest.

Pindar’s Odes, Pythean Odes, X, II

Kerne struggled to control Llyr as the winds howled around it. He could hardly see – the rain lashed into his face. Amelia was a blurry figure at the helm, bound to the wheel. The windsmith was exhausted beyond any limit he might have thought possible. He had been windsinging for hours, days now it seemed, sustaining their airship aloft by the power of his summoning. A combination of the east and south wind had served them well. The combined forces of Eurus and Notus had propelled them at high speed from the land beyond the south wind towards their destination, which now, presumably, stretched out below – Hyperborea, the Land beyond the North Wind. Albion. Britain, as it appears in the Afterlands of Shadow World.

One step removed from home.

So close, yet so far.

Although it was the wrong side of death Kerne could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of excitement, of relief, of homecoming, in every fibre of his being. He had circumnavigated Shadow World in his quest to master the secrets of the Four Winds and his goal was nearly in sight. If he could learn the mysteries of the North Wind, Boreas, he would have the keys he needed to get home: the windlass that would open the Angel Gates for him. That cursed enchantress, Aveldra, had brought him and Madoc here – alive in the land of the dead, until one of them had to die – but he would cross back by his own cunning art. His white shadow clung to him like a wet ghost, a smudge of chalk against the grey blur of mist.

‘We’re going home, my friend,’ Kerne communicated to his constant companion since Ashalantë, beneath the overtones of his windsinging. His other companion from that doomed city carried her own scars of guilt – stripped of her gramarye for breaking her priestess vow, Amelia had lost her own co-traveller, Noonan. Together they carried the burden of its destruction – the deserts of Hypernotus should have burnt it away, but had only served to increase the pain. A burning glass which had singed them to the quick.

His wind-dogs howled around him, as Llyr creaked and groaned in the maelstrom. She’s barely holding together, thought Kerne. A moth to a flame. It reminded him of his flight in the BE-2 across the battlefield of Mons with Madoc, that fateful morning – the dawn of the Great War. He had not expected to return home in such fashion, on a flying ship that resembled a giant mandolin, powered by his own gramarye. A windsmith of three winds.

Suddenly the airship snagged something and one of the wings snapped off. The craft span around, a stricken bird, and hit another cable suspended in the sky. This time a large bloated object came into sight – revealed momentarily amid the clashing dreadnoughts of clouds by a sigil of lightning – a giant balloon-like creature, its saggy folds of transparent skin half-inflated with luminescent gases swirling within. From it snaked swaying tendrils, barbed and deadly – crackling with a strange light.

And it wasn’t alone.

The sky was mined with them.

They had flown straight into this aerial shoal. If a better defense could have been devised to protect the skies of Hyperborea it would be hard to imagine. They had done their job. One whipcrack of a tendril and they were done.

Winged, their craft was going into a tailspin. They were flung about, screaming out for each other – hands straining in the maelstrom. There was a howling chaos all about them. Through the rags of cloud details of the land below began to appear. It looked like some kind of cove. Cliffs, suddenly white in the arc-light of the storm, loomed up.

Kerne strained with all his awen to soften the craft’s landing with a blast of air. It felt like giant hands caught the stricken vessel, but then drop it at the last minute as the ship smashed into the rocks.

The rain drummed against the broken fuselage, which lay twisted and jagged around them, a toy guitar smashed to pieces by a petulant child. Kerne had been thrown clear and awoke in a stunned heap, half embedded in a dune. He spat wet sand from his lips. His whole body ached. Sometimes he wished he was dead – to avoid the pain of being alive. With a cry of agony and rage he pulled himself from his bunker, and slowly got up, relieved to find his limbs working, although they protested with every movement as he staggered to his feet.

Swaying he looked around him, his head still spinning. Cliffs loomed up, running with water. Waves crashed in, cold and relentless. And the broken craft that had carried them around Shadow World lay in a smouldering heap – its splintered shell hissing with rain.

The first thought that came to him, more of an anguish cry of realisation, was: Amelia.

He stumbled towards the wreckage, slipping on the sand and shingle, and broken bits of craft. His heart drummed louder than the rain.

They had come so far…

Like a mad man Kerne scrambled about the detritus, heedless of his own safety. ‘Amelia!’ he cried out, voice ragged, drowned by the rain.

In his frantic search, his wind dogs scattered the looser wreckage hither and thither.

Suddenly he heard a muffled cry, the one human sound against the dead noise.

Kerne pulled away another part of the airship and was greeted by the sight he had not dared hope for – Amelia alive, protected by a wishbone of fallen masts.

‘Amelia, are you…?’

A cough, then a voice, faint against the squall. ‘I’m alright, I think. Shaken. I’m glad to see you! I feared you were dead!’

Kerne and Earhart embraced, overwhelmed with relief.

‘This bird is well and truly cracked.’

‘Come on, let’s get you out of there.’

Kerne gently helped Amelia up and, suddenly, she nearly collapsed. The aviatrix cried out in pain.

‘Sit here,’ Kerne commanded. He examined the ankle, gently moving it. ‘Can you feel your toes? Wriggle them. Good.’

‘Good!?’

‘They’re still moving. It looks like a bad sprain. We need to find some shelter.’ Kerne looked up at the cliffs, sheer and unscaleable from this angle. ‘There has to be some way up.’ He cast a glance at the angry waves. ‘We can’t stay here, the tide is coming in.’ He pursed his lips. Rest here a mo out of the rain, and I’ll salvage what I can … ‘ Kerne cast an eye over the crash-site and sighed. ‘Don’t worry, darling. We’ve been in worse scrapes and survived, haven’t we?’

Amelia nodded, smiling bravely.

The contents of Llyr were scattered and ruined. He looked in despair. Ollav Fola’s beautiful work, ruined. Yet it had served them well. Kerne set up scavenging what he could – and filled a pack with rations, water, blanket, a change of clothes. Then, just as he turned to go, he spotted his journal, which he gratefully snapped up and placed within the pack, wrapped in its waxy skin.

‘Not much, but it’ll do for now – we could maybe come back for more, once I’ve found us some shelter. Come on. I’ve found you a crutch.’

Kerne helped his companion up, who winced a little. With one arm over his shoulders supporting the majority of her weight, she was able to hobble, using the stick he’d found – a bit of the ship – as leverage.

‘What a pair we make,’ Amelia joked painfully. ‘Behold, Albion, your saviours are here!’

They laughed at this, blinking in the rain, as they slowly picked their way out of the wreckage.

‘Look, there’s a way up there. Some steps.’ Next to a rivulet which cascaded into the cove, they could make out some crude steps hewn into the rock. ‘Do you think you can manage it?’

‘This bird hasn’t given up yet, mister.’

‘Good. We’ll take it at your pace, okay – as you would say?’

‘A-OK.’ Amelia tried to give the thumbs up and failed, making them both laugh.

‘This reminds me of when I made landfall on my first solo Atlantic crossing. I was heading for England, ended up off the coast of Ireland. What strange accents you Brits have, I thought to myself! They probably thought the same. We couldn’t understand each other at first, as I called out to the watchers on the shore. I must have seemed like from another planet. But, boy, was I glad to see them! I was rowed ashore and given the best cup of tea of my life!’

‘Ah, a cup of tea,’ grunted Kerne, helping her up the steps, ‘now you’re talking.’

Up and up they ascended, in slow, painful movements, catching breath and girding loins between each push. At the top, breathless, they looked back at the broken craft below, now being licked by the greedy waves.

‘At least I’m in better shape than your old bird. I don’t think you’ll get her airborne again.’

Kerne glanced down. ‘Sometimes you have to shed your skin. Let go.’

‘Come on, Plato. We’ve got to get out of this infernal weather!’

The new arrivals struggled on upwards, over the lip of the cove, into the rain-darkened land.

 Extract from This Fearful Tempest by Kevan Manwaring Copyright 2013

www.windsmithelegy.com

On Thursday Awen Publications Celebrates its 10th Anniversary in Stroud with a showcase of some of its many talented authors –

Black Book Cafe, 7.15pm. Come and join us!

 

Oxford Folk Weekend

Kevan, Wayland and Dave perform at the Eagle and Child - drawing by Merlin Porter

Kevan, Wayland and Dave perform at the Eagle and Child – drawing by Merlin Porter

This weekend I rode across the Cotswolds to Oxford to perform some of my Oxfordshire Folk Tales with my old bardic buddy, Wayland. We teamed up with a talented young harpist and singer called Dave Tomlison on Friday night for a very special evening in the Snug Bar of the Eagle and Child – the Rabbit Room where the Inklings used to meet for 23 years, on a Tuesday lunchtime, to share the words of wonder. To perform in the very same room as those legends of literature, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and others, was a lifetime’s dream come true. Kerry the landlady was most obliging – making us feel welcome and plying us with pints. Dave wove his magic with his harp, which helped to win over the noisy Friday night clientele. He did a couple of lovely ballads – and then I introduced the evening. We started our set with a shared version of the Rollright Stones – then alternated material. By the beginning of the second half we had a good sized audience who listened in enthralled. The awen truly flowed and it felt like we conjured up something special with tales of doomed love, white horses, vengeful smiths and rabbit holes. We left on a high, talking about possibly setting up a regular night there. The chemistry worked between our three voices and styles – a good mix. Afterwards, we had a well-earned pint in the Fir Tree on Iffley Road. We clinked glasses to a successful night!

Wayland and Dave in the Rabbit Room

Wayland and Dave in the Rabbit Room

The next day, a little bit groggy, we ventured into town – making the most of the glorious sun – along Iffley Road, passing scores of runners, following in the footsteps of Roger Bannister, who broke the four minute barrier there. It took us slightly longer to wend our way to the centre, we came upon Border Morris clacking sticks on Broad Street by a craft market. The Oxford Folk Weekend had begun and the colourful Morris sides were out. We made our way to the Old Fire Station – the centre of the folk fest, where we performed later that day. It felt great to be part of such a lively weekend of bardic excellence. With our artist’s wristbands we enjoyed some great music – including Jackie Oates’ fabulous  concert that evening. By then I was ready to nod off – it had been a full weekend, and a worthwhile one. Here’s to next year!

A Bard Day's Night at the Rabbit Room

A Bard Day’s Night at the Rabbit Room