Category Archives: Myths

Writing The Knowing

Practice-based r

 

esearch in the creation of a novel

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Crazy Horses: Mari Lwyd

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Crazy Horses! The Battle on the Bridge Chepstow Wassail 2016 by Kevan Manwaring

Out of the mist comes the jagged silhouette of the horse-skull, teeth perpetually bared, bone-clack of jaw, death-rattle of stiff-wooden tongue, draped in a spectral sheet, swaying to the doom-doom beat and the wassailers make their groggy way up the milk-bottle street. It is New Year’s Day in Glamorgan. In the villages and towns of the coal-black valleys the newly ancient custom of the Mari Lwyd is being enacted. It is led by the ostler by umbilical rein:  accompanying him are outlandish characters, Christmas cast-offs, Father Christmas or one of his misbegottens, green men, white ladies, following the Y Fari Lwyd, the Grey Mare, or Grey Mary to some, as it dips and jinks to the threshold. A sharp rap-rapping at the door, a rude awakening. The cold slaps you like a hangover. Curtain-twitch curiousity. The gummy-eyed REM of the street’s dreaming, axe-picking at the coal-faces of their chthonic longings in bedroom blanketed snugness, is disturbed. Which reality is this? Which year? Old year or new? Get up! Grey Mary’s here! And she’s wanting to come in for tea and brith like Lady Muck! Grab a dressing gown. Gather your wits. Pull up your knickers. Speak the pwnco. Call-and-response. Banter for your life. Death must be invited in. Given food and drink. Cold meats and warm cider. And then you’re off the hook, possibly. The Reaper might pass your home by with his big black book, a bony digit scrolling down the lists of surnames. Death’s lotto. It could be you. The fatal thunderball. The terminal jackpot. When your numbers come up, the surprise will kill you. But the guizers stagger groggily onwards to the next house, their next victims. The wild has been let in with its muddy boots, its lack of manners. Lustful intrusions. Rubbing up the girls. A frisky mortis. Dancing our shadow, unbound by the corset of rules and codes which constrict and protect us the rest of the year. But for one day, reality bends, and the Grey Mary arrives like Rhiannon to rock our worlds on her cock-horse, jangling her hells bells. She carries us over the borders, between the worlds, between the years, and we must placate her to survive. And all before bloody breakfast.

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‘Smile’. Mari Lwyd at the Chepstow Wassail. K. Manwaring 2016

This is the New Year custom of the Mari Lwyd which can still be spotted in South Wales, most authentically in Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, but also throughout the Llantrisant area. In Chepstow this custom has reached its apogee with a conscious ‘revival’, which has grown over the last decade from a small number of dedicated wassailers to hundreds of morris, public and this year 9 Mari Lwyds. The Chepstow Wassail takes place on the Saturday nearest to Old Twelfth Night (17th January), the traditional end of Yuletide (in the Julian calendar). The day begins with Morris dancing outside the Three Tuns, each side taking a turn. Then there is a procession, led by the Maris to the new orchard planted at the foot of the castle. There the usual wassail custom takes place: the singing of the Wassail song, the ‘toasting’ of the tree (with triangles of toast) and the scaring away of bad spirits with party poppers (as opposed to shotguns – a concession to health-and-safety). The gathered process three times around the apple trees, singing the wassail song. The Maris linger among the orchard – seeing several together is strange and eerie sight on a chilly winters day, but also wonderfully delightful and eccentric. Suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore, or Glamorganshire for that matter. It is like being in an episode of Dr Who, one where the monsters get together to have a bit of a knees-up – Daleks and Cybermen getting tipsy at the works do. Children look up at the Maris in awe. Yet the horse-skulls are beautifully decorated with all kinds of foofaraw, outdoing each other in their folk-bling. They prance and preen like glamour queens – a queasy mix of the camp and gothic. This is the Folky Horror Show. The procession rambles back to the pub and everyone tries to squeeze into the Tuns for a singalong. For a while its sardines. Then a space clears and a black-faced pirate burst into chanty, and us land-lubbers chant along. There’s more morris – they breed ‘em round here: Border Morris that is, figures in black clacking sticks lustily, bellowing out like rutting stags. Later, the English make their way to the Gloucestershire side of the Wye to be given hospitality at a friendly natives place overlooking the river. More wassailing takes place, then a rocket is fired and the English contingent process to the bridge pulling a cart with an apple tree on it. On the bridge there is a ‘folk-off’ between the Welsh and the English. But instead of fisticuffs, there are handshakes, Happy New Years and dancing. St George and St David flags are exchanged. The Maris ‘rave’ on the bridge, engaging in a bit of horse-play, and the atmosphere is one of a very British Saturnalia. The English are welcomed in, and everyone makes their way to the museum for more wassailing. Later on there’s a ceilidh and drunken singing late into the evening. This is the folk tradition alive and well on the Borders – blood and cider flowing in its veins. Where else could such a custom take place? Except here at the fringes. There is nothing quite like the Chepstow Wassail.

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 17 January 2016

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!

 

Dragon Lines

6-13 April

Over the Easter break Jenni and I spent a week staying in a yurt on an organic smallholding on the Roseland Peninsula, South Cornwall. Cotna, just down from the sleepy village of Gorran Churchtown, is nestled in an L-shaped valley which gave it its original name ‘Crookcorner’. Dave and Sara, the owners, moved in five years ago and have transformed the 14 acres – which now boast a wind-turbine, polytunnels full of leafy veg, free-range chickens, woodland, solar panels, compost loos and a rather lovely straw-bale house. We were first visitors to stay in their yurt, sitting in its own field – separated by its twin by a stream and a line of recently planted willow. With a log burner and lots of homely touches, it was cosy in the evenings. We ate outside alot and enjoyed sunsets, a vast field of stars, a full moon, dawn choruses, and deep peace. At night, the only disturbance was the conversation of owls and the odd visit from Ziggy – the dribbling long-haired cat.

In the daytime we enjoyed some excellent coastal walks (the coastal path could be reached along a charming winding path – 2 miles to Porthmellon). Amid the pasties, pints and piskies, one of the highlights was a walk around the headlands of St Antony and Dodman Point – the latter possibly deriving its name from an old word for dowser or geomancer (a ‘dodman’ was a country name for a snail – it’s horns like the siting poles of the surveyor – perhaps glimpsed in the staves of the Long Man of Wilmington).  In the late Eighties, local ‘dodmen’ Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller discover the Michael and Mary Line – a substantial energy ‘pathway’ running up the southwest peninsula diagonally across England – the two alternating streams weaving in and out like a vast landscape caduceus… or the Rainbow Serpent of Albion. They recorded their findings in their New Age classic, The Sun and the Serpent – which even spawned a TV show, so media-trendy all that stuff was at the time. The fickle gaze of fashion moves on – and last year’s ‘cat’s pyjamas’ are sloughed like snake skin.

Yet the old leys and ways remain – just below the surface – waiting for the curious seeker to stumble upon them, like an ancient sword half-buried in a peat-bog. In Cornwall, this ancient magic feels close to the surface still. I’ve felt it every time I’ve visited – and books like The Little Country, an enchanting novel by the bardically-inclined Canadian author Charles de Lint – conjure it up for me from afar.

I dowse these ‘dragon lines’ in my own way, with the dowsing rod of my pen and my imagination – tuning into the genius loci wherever I visit and letting the awen come through me. In 2004 I was commissioned to write a poem for a dance piece by artist Beth Townley – this became my epic praise-song to Albion, Dragon Dance. I have been performing this in situ at locations around the country – north, south, east and west – as my way of giving thanks back to the land that has born and nurtured me. On the last day of our trip (an auspicious Friday 13th) we stopped off at the Hurlers stone circle on a suitably mist-erious Bodmin Moor – here I recited the Cornwall section of the poem: quite a challenge in lashing, freezing rain! We endured this in good humour, before returning gratefully to the shelter of the car.

Here it is…

Kernow

In the heat of the day,
in the eye of light,
in the land of noon,
where the sea is night.

A land of glittering granite,
sun beat-beating down,
a blacksmith’s hammer on anvil,
melting us with furnace heat.

The silent longevity of fogou and quoit
marking time. Neolithic sundials –
follow their shadow over moor and shore…
Tintagel to Men-an-Tol,
rag-tree temple, Madron’s well.
St Michael’s Mount to St Nectan’s Glen
Zennor to Lamorna, this narrow peninsula –

Twrch Trwyth’s road,
where legend disappeared beneath the waves,
comb and scissors gleaming between bristles,
like church pew mermaid with comb and mirror.
Ageless Mabon snatching success
from the ears of defeat,
before vanishing too … like Arthur …  into the mist.

The dying sun journeying beyond, to the sunken land.
Lyonesse of the endless waves, the Fortunate Isles,
of beacon towers,  inkdust sand, the semaphor of sails.
Deadly Sillina, adorned with the riches of shipwrecks,
the prayers of fishermen, the tears of fishwives.

Passion fire, soul flame yearning,
in the cauldron love is burning.
The spark on the kindling,
the flint and the tinder,
fire friend, stolen power,
seize the spear of the sun,
Long as the day, shadowbright,
give us your light,
give us your light.
give us your light,
so we may do what is right.

Between the earth and the air,
between the fire and the water,
the spirit waits at the centre,
the spirit waits at the centre.

Dance the dragon,
let the dragon dance me.
Biting the tail of infinity.

from Dragon Dance – Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2004

On Monday, 23rd April – which is of course St George’s Day (as well as The Bard’s birth-and-death day) – I’ll be performing in a show with my fellow members of Fire Springs entitled ‘Spirits of Place’ at the enchanting Hawkwood College (which has its own share of genius loci) on the outskirts of Stroud. We’ll be sharing a selection of stories from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire – taken from our new collections published by The History Press. Mine isn’t due out until the end of the year, but while in Cornwall I was editing the manuscript and rehearsing the tales – so it felt like I had a little bit of the county with me. It has it’s fair share of dragon tales…

Whatever you think of St George (England’s patron saint – all the way from Cappadocia, Turkey…) why not raise a glass to the dragons of Albion on Monday – may they continue to live on, in legend at least.

Isles of the Ever-Living

Image

Islands of the Ever-Living

Kevan Manwaring

(the second part of a two-part article. Last time we looked at Isle of the Dead)

No Country for Old Men

Isles of the Dead often blur into Islands of the Ever-Living – in the mythic imagination it is hard to see the join – but the latter are completely in the Otherworld (despite claims that Avalon can be found in Somerset). Ever culture has them – consoling fictions to the reality of death perhaps. Ireland has one of the most famous, Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-young. WB Yeats visited it many times in his immortal poetry, as in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born and dies.

The American novelist Cormac Mccarthy probably had that last line more in his head when he wrote the novel that was turned into the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men (USA, 2007) – a paradigm away from the fey afterlife depicted in Irish myth, although the state of California seems to do its best at being a modern analogue for Tir nan Og, with its Tinsel-town fairy glamour and cult of the young and beautiful, in reality ‘youth without youth’ – perpetuated by plastic surgery ad nauseam. In science fiction, the tropes of myth, legend and fantasy have been transplanted into future utopias. In the Seventies’ Sci-Fi film Logan’s Run there is no old age – because everyone is culled when they turn thirty. This is akin to the cult of dead celebrities – of film stars (James Dean and Marilyn Monroe) and pop stars (Buddy Holly; Richie Valance; the ’27 Club’ of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain, Curtis, Hutchence, etc) forever young, forever beautiful.

In the ‘grey havens’ of the ageing West, where people are living longer, it seems few allow themselves to grow old gracefully – no one is willing to open the ‘strong door’ to let in reality, as in the tale from The Mabinogion. Bran’s company – the classic seven survivors – spend eighty years on a timeless island called Gwales, off the coast of south Wales (possibly Grassholm) in the enchanting presence of their decapitated leader, whose severed head – like Orpheus’s – began to sing. His potent presence dilated time – a cryogenic Face of Bo with the charisma of Captain Jack Harkness and John Barrowman’s vocal talents!

In the Celtic Tradition the Otherworld overlaps with our own and can be accessed via a spring, a grove, a cave, at dawn, twilight, at the cross-quarters (‘The Immortal Hour is always now’ Kathleen Raine). Tir nan Og can be visited through certain lakes, e.g. Lough Corrib, Lough Gur and Lough Neagh. Both Oisín and the warrior O’Donoghue entered Tir nan Og, according to some traditions, through the waters of Lake Killarney…Indeed, almost any body of water could serve this purpose, as it acts as a mirror for the subconscious and soporific effects extends brainwaves from Alpha to Theta, allowing greater synaptic leaps and more lateral connections.

Music and song can create this effect too – in another Irish legend, ‘Midhir’s Invitation to the Earthly Paradise’ is not only a classic description of the Ever-living Lands (‘‘the young do not die there before the old.’) it provides a sonic portal, altering the consciousness of the listener.

Timelessness and its unfortunate consequence, time displacement, are common traits of the Ever-living Lands – a day in Otherworld becomes a year here, or vice versa. The most haunting example of this Oisín’s three hundred year ‘honeymoon’ on Tir nan Og with Niamh of the Golden Hair.

Other Celtic heroes spend time enchanted in the form of animals – hawks, boars, stags, wolves, birds, even insects – their human selves in a kind of chronological stasis, surviving for sometimes millennia until finally released, fully cognisant of their time in animal form but physically unaged. The anamorphic poetry of Amergin and Taliesin (‘I am stag of the seven tines…’ etc) is possibly an example of druidic metempsychosis – the transmigration of the soul into different life-forms: reincarnational evolution and past life memory. The dream of other lives the awakened human soul remembers.

Sleeping by a fairy mound or tree is always a risky gambit – as Rip Van Winkle discovered. And stepping into a fairy ring can be even deadlier – seventeenth century Scottish minister, Robert Kirk, did just that and reputedly vanished from God’s Earth – leaving behind his ‘rough guide’ to Faerie: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, a MS of which can still be viewed in the National Library of Scotland.

Bardsey Island boasts ‘the time-eating goblins of Ynys Enlli’, at least the ferry over does on its behalf. The medieval monks spin-doctors claimed there is no death there, and ‘no one dies except of extreme old age’ – the rhetoric of a medieval version of a holiday brochure, a health farm for the soul?

Yet the monks of Mount Athos, belonging to a community of Greek Orthodox monks, are said to be the world’s healthiest people. The great and the good have gone there to be purged of the ills of Western civilisation.

Giraldus Cambrensis talks of Insula Viventum, an island whose inhabitants knew no death, reputedly ‘Inish na mBeo’, the ‘Isle of the Living’, in Lough Cre, east of Roscrea, County Tipperary.

In his novel Spiritwalk, (1992) Charles de Lint has a Djibwe elder, a First Nations tribe medicine man mention Epangishimuk: ‘the spirit land in the west where Nambush ruled and the spirits travelled after death’, (Spiritwalk, p120). The Path of Souls that spirits of the dead travel to reach the west is called ‘meekunnaug’. (ibid p144)

In the Finnish epic the Kalevala, the heroes LemminKainen and Ilmarinen makes various sorties into an otherworldly realm called ‘Pohjola’, that is The North Country, defined as ‘A dark and dismal country to the north of Kalevala, sometimes identified with Lapland itself.’ There the inhabitants lived free from care because they posses the Sampo, a magic corn, salt and coin-mill; the Scandinavian equivalent of the ‘land of milk and honey’.

Dunbavin, in his book Atlantis of the West suggests: ‘the Elysian Fields may indeed be held to be the ultimate source of the Atlantis myth’, (p282-3) albeit in a circuitous way, as he tries to prove they are in the Irish Sea.

In The Odyssey, that ultimate quest back home, to Ithaka (which to the hero, becomes a kind of paradise) blind Homer describes the Elysian Fields:

The Deathless Ones will waft you instead to the world’s end, the Elysian Fields, where yellow-haired Rhadamanthus is. There indeed men live unlaborious days. Snow and tempest and thunderstorms never enter there, but for men’s refreshments Ocean sends out continually the high-singing breezes of the west.

The Odyssey, Homer, IV, 549-643

Tied in with these geographical ‘lost’ islands in history, folklore, folk tales, place memory and genius loci – what currently is called psychogeography. These are more than rocks in the sea – they carry ‘freight’, the weight of our expectations, projections and participation with them over the years.

Celtic tradition and beliefs are expressed spiritually through the land: the landscape is filled with places where spirit is present. Every time we experience it, this presence encourages us to make an imaginative act that personifies the place to us. Then we perceive its qualities personally. This is the anima loci, the place-soul. When this is acknowledged and honoured, ensouled sacred places come into being.’ Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscape, p13

It is no coincidence that a plethora of sacred islands can be found like rosary beads around the shores of the British Isles – not only did the Celts migrate West via the water, but the monks and hermits would ‘island hop’ in the hope of more remoteness more solitude, so they could be closer to God (after the Synod of Whitby in 600 AD Celtic monks headed west to slip the yoke of Rome). These are ‘thin places’, as Ynys Enlli, Bardsey Island, is known as:

the membrane between Heaven and Earth seems to be less dense…nothing comes between: there is total transparency’

Quote from Ty Carreg visitors information, Bardsey Island.

One could say the same for any liminal place: spring, pool, cave, hill, mountain, wood, stream, bridge (e.g. Fairy Bridge, Isle of Mann). To the Celtic peoples all of these would have been places where the ‘veil was thin’ – and at certain times of year, even more so, e.g. Beltane, Samhain – the beginning and end of summer, respectively, when the Good Folk, the Sidhe, where abroad. Yet islands are especially sacred:

According to traditional thinking islands are inherently sacred, being places cut off by water from unwanted physical and psychic influences.’ Pennick (ibid, p105)

They offer a refugium – a place cut-off from the world where it is perhaps possible to survive hazardous times. These ‘arks’ are often more vulnerable than they wish – for no man is an island. Every Shangri-La is destined to be discovered, desecrated, lost.

Pennick continues:

Sacred places come into being when humans recognise and acknowledge them. They are ensouled locations where we can experience elevated consciousness, receive religious inspiration and accept healing.’ ibid, p14

Bob Trubshaw echoes this when he says: ‘the significance of a place has less to do with the physical landscape than with the meanings we give to the location.’ (Sacred Places, p3)

When people perform acts at a place that are in harmony with its inner qualities’, Pennick suggests, ‘then these qualities are enhanced and increased.’ This is what he calls Spiritual Gardening, akin to the work of the geomancer, who enhances the feng shui of a place – the flow of the earth dragon – through placing of objects, running water, etc.

In Iceland these ‘dragons’ are called landvaettir – landwights or earth spirits ‘where certain areas and landholdings were kept sacred’.

Mag Mell, ‘plain of joy’ is another Elysium…It is dealt with extensively in Maculloch’s article in The Druid’s Voice. We will instead venture further North.

Thule

It is easy to see why a dramatic country on the edge of the Arctic Circle is known as the land of ice and fire: Iceland. There is a strong Icelandic storytelling tradition, no doubt born out of the very long dark nights. Its corpus of legends and folktales – imported mainly from Scandinavia when it was settled a thousand years ago – have been enhanced by the dramatic landscape. Iceland is associated with the legendary island of Thule (pronounced Thoolay) and seems to fit later descriptions of it. Ancient European descriptions and maps located it either in the far north, often northern Great Britain, possibly the Orkneys or Shetland Islands, or Scandinavia, but by the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance Thule had drifted further out, into the west and north, often Iceland or Greenland – perhaps as a result of the pushing back of the boundaries of the known world. Ultima Thule, as it was also known in medieval geographies seems to denote any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world.” Some people use Ultima Thule as the Latin name for Greenland when Thule is used for Iceland. Iceland certainly is on the borders of known world – of both the American and Eurasian plates. It is one of the two places on Earth where it is possible to see this pulling apart of continent, and its ancient parliament, the Alþingi (All-Thing, as in the Manx Tynwald, Thing-Vollr: field of the parliament, with its own equivalent of Tynwald Hill, Law Rock) was held here, dramatically situated in its cleft like something out of Middle Earth. Here democracy was forged, but the justice it meted out was a keen-edged sword. Nearby is the ‘island of duels’, an island of sand formed in a manmade lake, created by a diverted river. Two men in dispute would go to it, only one could return – and the matter was settled. The trial-by-combat was viewed by judges, and not a few spectators one imagines! Holmganga is the Norse word for formalised single combat, meaning literally ‘going on an island’.

Fortunate Isles 
In the Fortunate Isles, also called the Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed (μακαρων νησοι makarôn nêsoi), heroes and other favored mortals in Greek mythology and Celtic mythology were received by the gods into a blissful paradise. These islands were thought to lie in the Western Ocean near the encircling River Oceanus; the Madeira and the Canary Islands have sometimes been cited as possible matches. Flavius Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana (book v.2) discussing these elusive islands, postulates:
the Islands of the Blessed are to be fixed by the limits of Libya where they rise towards the uninhabited promontory.’

The last phrase is a telling one – almost any ‘uninhabited promontory’ becomes susceptible to such speculative geography. Nature is not the only thing that abhors a vacuum. Mankind as populated the edges of the known with his imagination since the dawn of time.

Hyperborea

In ancient times Great Britain was famed as the island of the druid colleges, where trainee druids would come for instruction. Blake said:

All things begin and end on Albion’s ancient druid rocky shore.

Hyperborea, the Land Beyond the North Wind, is thought to refer to Britain: this is how it seemed to the Greeks – the back of beyond, dark, damp and primitive, the Antipodes of their zenith civilisation (from their perspective – that’s not to say there wasn’t civilisation below their radar in backwater Britain).

The earliest reference to the British Isles is as the ‘Tin Islands’ (Cassiterides, or Oestrymnides):

But from here it is two days journey by ship to the sacred island, as the ancients called it. This spreads its broad fields amongst the waves and far and wide the race of the Hierni inhabit it. Near it again lies the island of the Albiones

Massilote Periplus, c500 BCE

The ‘Hierni’ could well be the Hibernians, another name for the Irish, and the ‘island of the Albiones’ must surely be mainland Britain: Albion, inhabited by ‘the white ones’ – Caucasians. In my novel Windsmith, (awen 2006). I call these topographical ancestors The Chalk Folk. It is perhaps not surprising that ancient seafarers, presented with the white cliffs of Dover, called Britain the White Isle, however colourful its inhabitants – a home of migrant populations.

The classical myth is that Albion was a land formerly occupied by giants – cousins of the Tuatha de Danaan, the Irish aboriginal aristocracy diminised to ‘Little People’. These had conveniently vanished, justifying colonisation, although they had left their legacy in enigmatic stone temples.

Geoffrey of Monmouth compounded this creation myth in his History of the Kings of Britain, claiming Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, reached Britain, landing at Totnes in Devon, and dividing the land between his sons, Locrine, Camber and Alba (Logres; Cambria and Albion). This is a dindsenchas, a place-story, on a national scale.

It was thought by the Ancient Greeks that the god Apollo visited Hyperborea once in a course of nineteen years, a cycle known as the Great Year (‘in which period the stars complete their revolutions’ Hecateus). The ‘Temple of Apollo’ often alluded to could have been a reference to that great stone calendar Stonehenge. Britain was clearly a place was time itself was trapped in stone – as the myth that Cronus himself was chained beneath Hyperborea’s soil. Plutarch, in ‘The Decline of the Oracles’ recounts ‘the travels of Demetrius of Tarsus, an explorer sent out from Rome to survey the islands to the West of Britain. Demetrius describes a number of islands scattered in the sea. He met a few holy men who told him of a nearby isle where Cronus lay eternally imprisoned, watched over as he slept by the hundred-handed Briareus. Around about him were many daemons who acted as his servants.’

In Pindar’s Odes, we hear of such a place, guarded by fierce elementals:

Go by God’s road to the Tower of Cronus

Where the Airs, daughters of Ocean

Blow round the Island of the Blest

Pythean Odes, X, II

Long have wild seas and high winds kept all but the intrepid away from Britain’s coast, perhaps adding to its mystique. There is a Breton tradition that fishermen would ‘drop off’ the deceased on these haunted shores and it said they hear their names being called out. Author Robert Holdstock’s Merlin Codex depicts Britain as the Ghost Isle:

We were content on our island, the Island at the Edge of Dawn. Good plains for the wild hunt; good forests for the tangled hunt. Good valleys and hills. Good water. Groves where the vision of magic was comforting and sometimes enthralling.

Holdstock, The Broken Kings, p44

Islands in the Time-stream

Forbidden islands are common and the unwary traveller breaks the taboos of an otherworldly island at their peril. The immrama of the Celitc saints describe an archipelago of such Edenic places, each with their forbidden fruits – perhaps fantasized by ascetic monks, deprived of such pleasures. Ile de Sein, in the Atlantic off Cap-Sizun, ‘was once reputed to support a retinue of nine priestesses.’ This seems a common trope: the Cauldron of Plenty, held in Annwn, was ‘warmed by the breath of nine muses. This was held on Caer Wydyr (possibly Ynys Witryn) – the water-girdled fortress of crystal where nine maidens dwelt in an otherworldly place of seer-ship, itself echoing Merlin’s tower of seventy-seven windows, built for him by his sister, Ganeida – said to be located on Bardsey, with its square lighthouse, or more likely to be a kind of TARDIS, tucked into unlikely places, while the Arthurian timelord, ageing in reverse, tinkers with time.

My Mythic Reality novel The Well Under the Sea (RJ Stewart, 2009) is set on an island at the crossroads of time called Ashalantë, an amalgamation of the legends of Atlantis, Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod. It is governed by The Nine, based upon the nine priestesses of Avalon, and contains all the classic elements of a paradisal island – orchards, fair weather, deathlessness, beautiful women, legendary heroes… At its heart is a well (based upon the mythical Well of Segais in terms of imagery, if not function) where its inhabitants, when bored of their life of Elysium can return to Earth – stripped of their ‘bodies’ and returned to their primal essence, to be reborn again.

The End Of All Our Exploring

As Oisín finds, however pleasant paradise – in his case, Tir nan Og – there’s no place like home. And this becomes literally true for him – he returns to find three hundred years have passed and all those he once loved and knew turned to dust. The centuries catch up with him in a flash when he accidentally touches the ground, and he finds himself an old, old man – a man out of his time, a lost hero from another era, a ghost in his own land. His home is ‘no place’ – utopia – and perhaps that is the nature of all such places, a state of mind, always elsewhere, always unattainable. They slip out of our grasp as we reach them, or, if we hold onto them we pay a price, as one of Maeldun’s men found on their immram – each time they tried to leave the Isle of Women, its queen would cast out a sticky thread to haul them back, until finally the man cut off his hand and they passed on.

Setting out for these places is not as difficult as returning – the perilous Road Home on the Hero’s Journey – to return with something tangible is not easy (as the Babylonian king Gilgamesh found – having quested for the flower of life, he falls asleep on the way back, exhausted by his ordeal, and a snake eats it). Perhaps the best we hope for is to accept their temptation, their transience, learn from them and let them go… Blake said ‘he who kisses a joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise’.

It is part of the pleasure of our immram that we perceive our own lands with a fresh perspective – strangers in an estranged land, the native returning from a long voyage of many years. In Four Quartets, TS Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Little Gidding’ (239-242)

***

Expanded extract from Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden by Kevan Manwaring, published by Heart of Ablion Press, 2008 (www.hoap.co.uk)

References:

Anon, Kalevala, Athlone Press, 1985

Eliot, TS, The Four Quartets, Faber & Faber, 1943

Haeberlin, Herman K., ‘Trails to the Ghost Lands’, Sacred Hoop #57, 2007

Holdstock,Robert, The Broken Kings, Gollancz, 2007

Macculloch, JA, ‘The Celtic Elysium’, The Druid’s Voice, #18, 2008

Pemberton, Cintra, Soulfaring: Celtic Pilgrimage, Then and Now, SPCK 1999

Pennick, Nigel, Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Thames & Hudson, 1996

Trubshaw, Bob, Sacred Places: prehistory and popular imagination, Heart of Albion Press, 2005

Kevan Manwaring is a writer and storyteller who lives in Stroud. He is the author of over a dozen titles including Lost Islands, The Bardic Handbook, The Way of Awen, Turning the Wheel and The Windsmith Elegy.

Author website: http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk