Category Archives: Legends

Between Worlds

 

WP_20171230_026

”And see ye not yon bonny road
  That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
  Where thou and I this night maun gae.” Sign outside Between World’s exhibition, K. Manwaring 30 Dec. 2017

This small but stimulating exhibition at the Palace Green Library in Durham, overlooked by the magnificent cathedral and castle, explores the Fairy and Folk Traditions of Northern Britain (including the Scottish Borders) – my main locus of interest in my current PhD research at the University of Leicester. It seeks to deconstruct the popular image of the ‘Tinkerbell’ type fairy derived from Peter Pan and other sentimental Victoriana (the byproduct of a high infant mortality and ‘cult of Childhood’). It focuses on the following: the supernatural ballad of  ‘Thomas the Rhymer’; Reverend Robert Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; the Myth of Middridge; Lady Ragnall/The Loathly Lady; The Cauld Lad of Hylton (and the Lambton Worm); and Mother Shipton. These were laid out in a rectangular ‘circuit’, with cases displaying mostly rare manuscripts or editions (this being a library-based exhibition). Low lighting (no doubt to protect the MSS) and an atmospheric  (owls, distant bells, horse hooves, rough weather) soundtrack helped to create a suitable ambience.

 

For me, the highlight was seeing the ‘other’ Kirk MS, the only one I hadn’t seen in person (only on microfilm in the University of Edinburgh Special Collections library).  Unfortunately only one page of the small bound copy was on display in its hermetically-sealed case. As it is one of EUL’s icons it is extremely rare and valuable. Still, it was good to see it, as I was able to gauge the differences from the other versions (handwriting; phrasing of title; ordering of epigraphs; date) so familiar have I become with them.

The other highlight was beholding the first handwritten version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ (written down from an oral performance). It is so familiar, one forgets it was written down somewhere by somebody and sometime, and, before that, composed orally and kept alive through the oral tradition (apparently passed down through the female line). The handwriting was legible and it was reassuring to see that the wording was pretty much as I knew it. I had created an Anglicized version a long time back for performance purposes, but this wasn’t that dissimilar.

Many of the tales featured exist in ballad form too – there is a clear overlap between the two. There were headphones playing some on a loop, but perhaps more could have been made of this (I am thinking of the excellent multi-media exhibition at The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayr, which really celebrates the oral culture of his work).

One thing that was lacking from the exhibition was a sense of interrogation about the forces that influenced the remarkable proliferation of folk and fairy traditions in the north of England and the Scottish Borders – something I have written about in my paper on Borderlands (presented at ‘Haunted Landscapes’, a 2014 Falmouth Symposium).

Clearly, the curators were restricted by the space – too much would have ‘crowded’ the exhibition. They had to make it accessible, and appealing to all backgrounds and ages (they had ‘fairy doors’ at child hood running around the walls and a ‘Fairy Investigators Guide’ for spotting the different residents). Overall, ‘Between Worlds’ offers a good introduction to the supernatural heritage of the region, tempting visitors to look further by visiting the actual sites or by looking up the source texts.

WP_20171230_017.jpg

A recreation of the ‘Minister’s Pine’, Doon Hill, Aberfoyle, where you could leave a wish or a prayer. ‘Between Worlds’, K. Manwaring, 30 Dec. 2017

 

‘Between Worlds’ runs until 25 February 2018 at Palace Green Library, University of Durham https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/

Advertisements

The Taliesin Soliloquies: Greyhound

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ll teach that young upstart,

this new dog’s got old tricks –

the fith-fath he fled with.

Long dog now am I,

deadly Sirius,

death at his heels,

snapping, slavering –

a knife thrust, forever forward,

fangs bared in tight death grin,

eyes on fire,

I shall never blink,

never lose sight of my prey.

As swift as a wisht-hound

running through the sky,

the night, my road,

harrowing souls who stray

into the wild-wood.

There is nowhere you can hide,

little hare,

no hollow or shadow.

No leverage, leveret.

Your scent leaves a ribbon of bright noise

my nose follows with ease.

I am drawing near,

I taste your fur

on my long tongue.

Little Gwion, you’ll make a toothsome morsel,

replace the potion you have stolen,

the awen usurped

from my son.

 

Hare-thief, there’s no taboo

that will stop me eating you,

the darkness to devour you

in one gigantic

gulp.

 

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

way of awen by me

From ‘The Taliesin Soliloquies’, originally published in The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, O Books 2010; to be included in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring, Awen, 2017 https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Hare

The Taliesin Soliloquies: Hare

AbyssinianHare

Crazy-eyed,

I high-tail it

away from Ceridwen’s lair,

jink-jinking to

avoid my pursuer

snapping at my heels –

relentless as death,

inescapable as my shadow.

Heart beating its tattoo of flight,

legs thrum, a drummer boy’s sticks.

Through cwm, over bryn, cefn, coed,

the gaps between the awkward spaces,

through a hedge backwards, this-way-that –

a mad man’s mind.

Method to my erratic path,

yet always, her hot breath at my back.

Driven by the fire in my

stream-lined head, an arrow of fur,

Long ears swept back,

best paws forward. Rabbit foot, bring me luck.

Ablaze with awen,

The world transformed

into a landscape of scent and sound,

predator and prey. Forage, territory and fate.

Moon-boxer,

I must turn and face my foe –

run through the fire and be transformed.

Let the fith-fath change me.

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

way of awen by me

From ‘The Taliesin Soliloquies’, originally published in The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, O Books 2010; to be included in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring, Awen, 2017 https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Walking with a King

It is a dream I have…

(Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)

WP_20170901_013

Tintagel at dusk, K. Manwaring, 1 September 2017

I have just returned from undertaking a 60-odd mile walk in Cornwall on the trail of King Arthur. As I sit here nursing my blisters and aching bones (carrying a full pack – camping along the way – can be punishing) I reflect upon why I embarked upon such an apparently foolhardy quest… At times it certainly felt so as I traipsed along B-roads in the rain, facing oncoming traffic when I was left with no other choice than to take the metalled backlanes. I experienced the worst rain ever on one of my long distance walks – beating even the Highlands – a day of perpetual heavy deluge that left everything soaked and my spirits sapped. And I had to negotiate the ridiculous fastnesses of large estates with ‘private roads’ which on the OS map look just like farm tracks (in Scotland the access laws are far more lenient).

Yet despite all of that there were breaks in the cloud – glorious mornings overlooking dramatic coves, the light sublime on silver and pewter seas, sun-dappled hollow lanes and secret paths, charming villages and harbours, and of course the legend-soaked landmarks. And yet even that may not have warranted such exertion – I had visited most of the ‘Arthur’ sites before (Tintagel; Castle Dore; Tristan stone) and there are certainly easier ways of getting to them, but that would have been missing the point – for my intent was to create a kind of ‘pilgrimage’ route. And as any pilgrim knows, the greater the effort, the greater the effect – the epiphany is direct relation to the ardour of the journey. To rock up on an air-con coach to a site, alight, take a few selfies, buy a bit of tourist tat, shove an ice-cream in your face and wobble on board again – bucket list item ticked, but not truly seen, heard, felt or savoured – is not the same experience as someone who has arrived at the site either on foot, on push-bike or on horse-back. Yes, there’s a place for all kinds of visitor – not everyone is mobile and these places are for all (as long as the tourism doesn’t destroy them).

But I know which one I prefer.

As an example, I have visited Avebury stone circle many times, but the instance that was most impactful was when I had walked there over 4 days along the Ridgeway – arriving with something analogous to the consciousness of a Neolithic pilgrim. The effect was euphoric (I’m sure those who have undertaken the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu feel the same). So, I’ve visited most of the sites on this trip recently (some this year) but this was qualitatively different. I was going it alone, under my own steam, working out the route as I went (rather than following an established trail). I like the creative challenge of finding links between places. There is a narrative there in the landscape waiting for us to notice it.

Yet, why King Arthur?

I was obsessed with all things Arthurian in my early twenties – and that compelled to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend. And in my early thirties I co-created and performed in a 2 hour show called ‘Arthur’s Dream’ with Fire Springs. And in my early forties I wrote my Arthurian novel, a dystopian vision of an alternative Britain (This Fearful Tempest). But these waves of Arthurian fever are often followed by Arthurian fatigue. My reference books lay on their shelves neglected.

And now … all of that seems so remote, belonging to a more innocent time (remember the ‘New Age’ and the optimism that built up towards the Millennium?). Now we live in times which are far more overtly cynical, dangerous and wilfully antagonistic to intellectual discourse, liberal values, religious and ethnic tolerance, gender equality and human rights. Don’t we have a duty to engage with that, rather than running off physically or mentally, creating castles in the air, losing ourselves in fantasy or the nostalgia of the past? Perhaps, but burn out reduces the capacity to be effective in any capacity, so breaks, holidays, retreats, etc, are essential. Also, we are most effective when using our strengths and talents – in my case, and in the case of many of my friends, that’s creatively. The ‘war’ we’re embroiled – whether we like it or not – is a war of ideas that takes place in hearts and minds. That is where toxic or beneficial concepts flower or whither, take root, prosper or die.

Ideas, as they say, are bullet-proof.

One idea that has survived the centuries is that of Camelot (e.g. JFK’s use of it in the early 60s). I am not personally interested in whether King Arthur actually existed or not – trying to prove that he was this or that person, lived here or there … I think that’s missing the point.  If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads). Lorna Smithers listing of his ‘war-crimes’ (see her provocative poem, ‘Wanted’, on her blog Signposts in the Mists) is a sobering counter-spell to the Medieval glamour which has lingered ever since, the fairy dust that will not fade – but is perhaps one extreme of a spectrum, with the numerous awful movie versions at the other end (John Boorman’s Excalibur being the shining exception) ‘truth’ being somewhere in the middle.

Yet there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.

For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.

But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.

My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route (and this is only the very earliest stages of  long-term project) is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all  genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream will require inspired leadership. But for now – I’ve had the vision, taken the first step (in fact quite a few) and I’ve had a taste of what it feels like to walk along the mythways of Arthur.

 

WP_20170905_006.jpg

Coast to Coast: walking from North to South Cornwall. The view near Polperro, 5 September 2017

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 7 September 2017

 

Wild Things

Wild Thing, you make my heart sing …

urisk-by-kevan-manwaring-march-2017

An Urisk. Illustration by Kevan Manwaring 2017

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

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

 

coire-nan-uriskin

Coire-nan-Uriskin, from JP MacLean, 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extract from ‘Lob’, Edward Thomas

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

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

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

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

Watch ‘The Return of Pan’:

Read ‘A Musical Instrument’:

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

Read ‘Wodwo’ in full:

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

Read ‘Lob’ in full:

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

A great blog on Urisks:

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

 

 

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