Category Archives: Myths

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/

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Walking the Southern Upland Way: Days 10-12

 

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The ‘dappled vale of Heaven…’ The sublime Loch of the Lowes, K. Manwaring 10 July 2017

Day 10: Tibbie Shiels Inn to Traquair

A mercifully shorter walk today. Just as well as I was starting to feel the culminative effects of fatigue – forcing every mile out of my legs and poor, battered feet. After a pleasant drive along the Yarrow valley to St Mary’s Loch, I was dropped off by my balladeer and went to pay my respects at the James Hogg memorial, a handsome statue overlooking Tibbie Shiels Inn and the two lochs, which looked sublime in the soft morning light, mirroring the epitaph beneath Hogg’s feet:

Oft had he viewed as morning rose
the bosom of the lonely Lowes:
oft thrilled his heart at close of even
to see the dappled vales of heaven,
with many a mountain moon and tree
asleep upon saint Mary.

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The handsome James Hogg memorial, K. Manwaring, 10 July 2017

The midges were out in force at the Hogg memorial, making it hard to linger, but I did stop at the loch side to savour the view – which inspired me to have a go at some watercolours when I got home.  It was soothing to be in a purely visual space. After an academic year of teaching, marking and PhD research my brain needed a reboot. Walking long-distances makes me drop down into a zen-like state, my ‘mind in my feet’. I focus upon my breath, on my temperature, my dryness or wetness, energy levels and mood. I have a clear goal for the day – the tangible reward for my efforts – a hill, a view, a landmark. If I get hungry, I eat. If I thirst, I drink. If I tire, I stop. Simple core needs, very little stress, and a whole sky of head-space. Blessed solitude (which makes it possible for me to appreciate people when I see them). Today, as I crossed Blake Muir, I stopped to savour the silence – a peace so deep, so profound, that it was almost a presence. I tried to capture it in my poem, ‘Deep Peace’:

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Deep Peace, by Kevan Manwaring 10 July 2017

It made me realize how content I could be, living somewhere rural and remote, far away from the chattering world – dropping down into a place of spiritual quietude, finding my centre and hearing clearly the inner voice that would guide my pen, the inner vision that would guide my brush. Perhaps one day. For now, I was simply content to be walking in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle, who visited Hogg (fêted for a while by Edinburgh society, whose fripperies he rejected, for ‘He held worldly pomp in high derision’) at the isolated farm of Blackhouse, with its ruinous 14th Century Reivers tower. The Shepherd Ettrick dwelled here between 1790 and 1800, and I can imagine it being conducive to his muse, as it was to mine.

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Blackhouse Tower, former residence of James Hogg, K. Manwaring, 10 July 2017

Day 11: Traquair to Melrose (17.3)

A tiring day. I did pretty fine up to Yair Bridge, the 10 mile point, but seemed to hit a wall after then – slogging up Gala hill and down into the town. I certainly didn’t appreciate the SUW’s reroute into the urban nastiness of Galashiels, a shock to the senses after days and miles of rural quietude. The walk planners clearly wanted us to savour it’s, ahem, delights, but I’d wish they’d given it a wide berth – for those needing facilities and accommodation, lovely Melrose was only a couple of miles up the river. Signs were vandalised, making it unpleasant to navigate through. Losing my patience, I just headed to the Tweed and followed it along. Crazily though, the SUW insists you walk along the side of a housing estate at one point, instead of the sparkling waters of the Tweed. Nevertheless, the last stretch into Melrose along its bonny banks was lovely. The highlight of the day was coming across the Three Brethren cairns (1522 ft), expertly made in a dry-stone wall way (another Goldsworthy?), rhyming with the Trimontium of the Eildon Hills, which now excitingly swing into view: Thomas the Rhymer country! Mythopoetically, I felt like I was coming home – the distinctive three peaks of the Eildons (the remains of a volcanic activity) was the first place I made pilgrimage to, as a young poet, visiting Scotland for the first time back in the early 90s. I had spent a night on them, hoping to meet the Queen of Elfland – instead, my tent nearly blew away. Perhaps she was giving me the brush-off. Today, by the Brethrens I thought of my brothers though – my male friends, who I was beginning to miss. Whenever I spend time in cis-gendered company (male or female) I find I end up craving the opposite after a while. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have bi/trans/fill-in-the-blanks-yourself company then that shouldn’t be a problem!

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The Three Brethren with the 3 peaks of the Eildon Hills in the distance, K. Manwaring 11 July 2017

Day 12: Melrose to Lauder (10)

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‘The Meetings’ – confluence of the Yarrow and the Ettrick, K. Manwaring 12 July 2017

A mercifully short walk today – a morning’s ramble really. I was able to walk straight from the campsite (one of those ‘Camping & Caravanning Club’ type places, where campers are marginalized – in a sports field, furthest away from the toilet block), crossing over the Chain Bridge, where, the previous night I had sung ‘Both Sides o’ Tweed’, Dick Gaughan’s classic song calling for equality:

Let the love of the lands sacred rites
to the love of the people succeed,
let honour and friendship unite,
and flourish on both sides o’ Tweed.

I had learnt this from my friend Marko Gallaidhe, and I singing it makes me think of that man you don’t meet every day!

For the first time on the SUW today, I bumped into a (day) walker, whom I ended up walking and chatting with for a pleasant half hour – a retired northerner, now living in the Borders, the chap was agreeable company. Perhaps the Three Brethren had heard me after all. I also found time to stop and write an eco-poem, inspired by the news that a massive part of the Carson C ice-shelf had split off. It might seem strange to be composing a poem about climate change in such an idyllic spot, but of course such apparent environmental harmony is an illusion – the world is out of kilter.

 

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Tam Lane’s Well, K. Manwaring, 12 July 2017

Meeting up with Chantelle after lunch, we enjoyed an afternoon of ‘folkloring’. We drove to the Rhymer’s Stone, at the foot of the Eildons, where I performed my version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’. Then I guided us onto The Meetings, the confluence of the Yarrow and the Ettrick – where a small river island is thought to have been the site of Carterhaugh, dwelling of Tam Lin. Here, at this numinous spot I had first discovered in 2014, I recorded an extract of my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, my PhD novel based upon my research into the folk traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. It was special to read out a relevant section in situ. The next day, Chantelle returned to record herself singing the ballad of ‘Tam Lin’ – all 40 verses of it by heart! We then went on to find ‘Tam Lane’s Well’ by Carterhaugh Farm. Here I had set a picnic scene, which I read out before the camera died. A couple of years ago we had created a show inspired by the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – ‘The Bonnie Road’, so it felt special to be experiencing this inspiring, ensouled landscape together.

Where wild waters weave
their plaid of shade and light
and ballads tangles in the brier,
two worlds meet, of clay and fey
and passion collides with desire.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2017

 

Lighting Bríghíd’s Flame

 

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In the Old Chapel, St Briavel’s, Midsummer 2017. Photography by 2017

The inspiration for our new show – Bríghd’s Flame (we pronounce it ‘breed’) – came when Chantelle and I explored Ireland back in the summer of 2015. Our 2500 mile road trip (much of it on the back of my Triumph Legend motorcycle) took us to many places associated with Irish myths and legends: Croagh-patrick, Tara, Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Uisneach, Newgrange and Kildare. The latter inspired the spark of our show – to visit a site associated with the blacksmith goddess Brighid and the sacred flame of St Brigid was thrilling. As was the extra-ordinary ‘Cave of the Cat’, accessed via a small hole beneath a hawthorn tree, this intense, visceral place is associated with the Morrighan and boasts an ogham inscription in its lintel stone claiming it to be the burial place of the son of Medb, the great queen who haunted WB Yeats and whose mighty mound can be found dominating the coastline of his beloved Sligo. By the time we left Ireland we knew we’d create one of our distinctive ‘ballad and tale’ shows around the sites and their mythos. It would take a couple of years and alot of effort (far more than perhaps some realize), but we finally achieved this dream – on Saturday 24th June with the premiere of our show at ‘Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder’, a launch event organised by Inkubus Sukkubus for their new album, Belas Knapp, as the atmospheric setting of St Briavel’s, a haunted Norman castle deep in the Forest of Dean.  We started seriously discussing the show around Samhain, but it was at Yuletide that I came up with the post-apocalyptic framing narrative that would provide the ‘spine’ of the show, with its 4 main tales (Finn and the Salmon of Wisdom; Cuchullain and the Warrior Women; Oisín and Niamh; the Children of Lir – told uniquely in my way, with my words); 5 beautiful new songs and arrangements by Chantelle; new poems by yours truly; and incidental music on harp, bodhran and shruti box (once again by the talented Ms Smith). Both of us really pulled out the stops, creatively. Then there were the rehearsals, the costumes, the poster, the promotional copy … and the logistics of getting bookings and so forth. If it was all for one event it would have been too much really – insanity, even – but we have a small tour lined up and hopefully other dates that will materialize. St Briavel’s was the start – but what a start! It was great to finally share the show – and with such a well-informed, attentive, and appreciative audience. The Old Chapel looked fantastic – low lighting, candles, fairy lights draped from ancient beams … Atmosphere like that does half the work in a performance. But midsummer day was hot and there was no real seating in the hall until I gently insisted on some. Benches were brought in from the banquet room, but still it was standing room only for some. Yet the amazing Inkie audience stuck with us (and perhaps literally to each other)! Afterwards we got lots of great comments – such as ‘utterly amazing’; and ‘thank you – your stories unlocked the symbolism and wisdom for me’ – people had clearly ‘got’ the show and lapped up its magickal imagery, music, narrative and verse. We look forward to bringing Bríghíd’s Flame to more audience this summer and beyond.

 

***Thank you to Candia and Tony McKormack of Inkubus Sukkubus & our fellow Fire Springs Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for providing support & a space to glow***

 

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Chantelle ready for action, St Briavel’s Midsummer 2017. Photo by K. Manwaring 2017

 

BRIGHIDS FLAME POSTER new

Forthcoming dates:

  • Druid Camp 27-29 July
  • New Forest Fairy Fest, 12-13 August
  • Everybody’s Reading Festival, Leicester, 30 September
  • Dorset Earth Mysteries, 7 December

For updates, see website: http://brighidsflame.co.uk/

 

Writing The Knowing

Practice-based research 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

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