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The Knowing

This is a fabulous reflection on my novel by a gifted singer and natural philosopher.

Druid Life

The things that get passed down through our family lines, the stories, and demons, the things that are part of us because we’re playing out historical dramas, have been a fascination of mine for a long time. How we break free from all that, or work with it, or make peace with it… There’s a modern tendency to see ourselves as self-made people, products of now, of our immediate environments and education, and not to go poking into how generations of experience might have had a hand in shaping us. Yet here in the UK, land ownership still owes a lot to the Norman invasion. Inequality has deep roots.

Stories pass down family lines. Obvious ones are anecdotal or about descent and history. Less obvious ones just say things like ‘that’s not for the likes of us.’ In singing families, songs pass down through generations as well, and tradition bearers…

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Sounding the Rift

The Agency of Place in Fantasy Fiction

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Hadrian’s Wall, Kevan Manwaring 2014

In classic Fantasy novels places often seem like characters in their own right – think of the grotesque decrepitude of Gormenghast; the prelapsarian loveliness of Lothlorien and the Industrial nightmare of Mordor; the donnish eccentricity of Narnia; the heterogeneous archipelago of EarthSea; the Mooreefoccian Jordan College and the rugged fastness of the Svalbard Peninsula in His Dark Materials; the chrono-labyrinths of Ryhope Wood; the TARDIS-house of Little, Big . Agency in Place has be there from the earliest forays into Fantasy, in the monstrous uncivilisation that threatens Babylon in Gilgamesh, in the drear fen of Beowulf and the doom-laden fells of Gawain and the Green Knight. And it is to be found in modern cartographies of such liminal zones, in, for example, Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time (a helter skelter through the epochs hidden within a rainforest) and Tom and Nimue Brown’s Hopeless, Maine (an island in limbo from which no one can ever leave).

In my contemporary fantasy novel The Knowing setting plays a key role. In some ways the narrative emerged as a conversation between places: between the Scottish Lowlands and the Southern Appalachians primarily, but also between cities (Asheville and Glasgow), between the rural and urban, the wild and the tamed, as well as between worlds: the worlds of the Sidhe and the human – the Silver and the Iron, as one of my favourite characters puts it. Sideway Branelly is a Wayfarer, a trader between the worlds with an uncanny ability to find the hollers and low roads that link them. Although freer than many characters he is associated with the location in my novel I am most proud of and intrigued by: The Rift. This is an ever-widening gulf between the worlds …. a chancy No Man’s Land caused by the Sundering – a catastrophic sealing of the Borders between the worlds. This ultimate Debatable Land was part inspired by the psychogeography of the Scottish Borders – its long, bloody history of Border Reivers, blackmail, skirmishes, land grabs, cannibals, and uncanny goings on – and by Hadrian’s Wall, which I walked the 84 mile length of in 2014 with my partner folksinger Chantelle Smith*. The latter is an impressive if ultimately futile feat of engineering and hubris which seems eerily resonant – following the dramatic line of crags that rise between Newcastle and Carlisle, a natural line of defense augmented by mile-castles, vallum (parallel ditches), auxillary towns, and a twelve foot high wall, the Wall seems, in its derelict state (masonry stolen for local buildings) particularly Ozymandian. If it was designed to keep the ‘other’ out (i.e. the wild Pictish tribes to the north – the ‘Kong’ of our Skull Island) it failed – but it is possible it was used to control trade as much as anything, and demarcate the northernmost extremity of the Roman Empire (when the Antonine Wall was abandoned farther north). It was clearly a power statement saying, among others things: look what the might of the Roman Empire can achieve; and, the savage north is ungovernable and thus economically useless. What we cannot control we disown, casting out beyond the pale of our ‘civilisation’. Of course, the Picts might have seen it conversely – that the Wall marked the end of freedom, and the beginning of control. What makes Hadrian’s Wall more than just some impressive military archaeology is the glimpse it affords us into the beliefs and lifestyles of those that worked and lived upon it – the temples to Mithras; the shrines to other, obscurer deities (such as Mars-Nodentis, or the Cucullati); the graffiti from bored, homesick Centurions; the bath-houses, store-rooms, stables, barracks; the service towns that grew up on its flanks; the whole economy the presence of Rome created. Walking the Wall gave me a lot of the time to ponder on the creative tensions of such a place. And the museums my partner insisted we visited all helped to enrich my imagination.

Day 4 - Sycamore Gap to Holmhead (12)

Sycamore Gap, Kevan Manwaring 2014

The one place that particularly fired my imagination though was a natural wonder – an amazingly situated sycamore tree whose roots grew on both sides. Made famous by its appearance in various films (e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), it inspired a poem (‘Sycamore Gap’) and the idea of a Rift Oak, which grows between the worlds, demarcating the edges of both – the ultimate border oak. I liked the idea of the natural subverting man-made borders. Of course, birds of prey, foxes, badger, deer, mice… all ignore the wall. Nature cocks a snook at man. And what if I had a character like that – who broke the rules? Who crossed a Border that was meant to be sealed? Who smuggled things – contraband, journals, people – across. And so Sideways Brannelly was born. I needed someone who would smuggle something pivotal out of the Silver, back to the Iron. And Brannelly, a reluctant hero (driven mainly by a desire for personal gain, petty revenge, and a contrarian mindset) got the job. And the Rift was forged – in the Sundering of worlds, a cataclysmic plot event which now seems eerily prescient. The Knowing’s  first draft was written against the backdrop of the first Scottish national referendum in 2014 (my initial field visits haunted by a countryside divided into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ flags, banners and signs) – little did I know then there would be (most likely) a sequel to that, Brexit (Theresa May announcing the date of the triggering of Article 50 on the day my ebook was released), and Trump’s victory, isolationism, ‘Muslim ban’ and Mexican Border wall plans (America as Skull Island). Not that I equate a bid for Scottish independence with Brexit or Trump – this time I think it is an entirely sane and justified thing to do – but they are all taking place in the same increasingly sundered world. The European refugee crisis that has played out in the last couple of years is real humanitarian disaster, but in some small way, the ‘backstory’ of my novel seems to echo it, with what befalls the victims of the Sundering in my story-world – as Ironbloods and Silver find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Rift. The results of this schism has turned this fault-line between the worlds into an increasingly perilous terroir – a chancy wasteland where a chancer like Brannelly can flourish … if he chooses to.

SIDEWAYS BRANNELLY

Sideways Brannelly’s bone-pipe – his favourite way of pondering. K. Manwaring 2017

The Knowing – A Fantasy is published as an eBook by Goldendark on 20th March and is available on Amazon Kindle

*Last year I walked another border – Offa’s Dyke, a long-distance footpath which runs 177 miles, the length of Wales from the north coast at Prestatyn to the Wye (another hubristic gesture, this time by the 8th Century King of Mercia, Offa). And this year I intend to walk the Southern Uplands Way (212). I must have Borders in my blood…

Ways Through the Wood

Hypertextuality in Fiction

new-version-knowing-cover-large

In writing my novel The Knowing – A Fantasy, a book which explores borders of different kinds, I have attempted to push the boundaries of not only genre, but also of form. Being more interested in the creative tension between – whether that is between the ‘Actual and Imaginary’ (as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it), the magical and the mundane, the secular and the sacred, the fictional and factual, Fantasy and Realism; or between cultures, countries, people, species… – I have fashioned a story that walks between worlds in myriad ways. To accommodate this porousness I have decided that the optimum way for the reader to interface with this – with the multiple paradigms I offer – is to create, for now, an e-book which allows the reader to interact with the text, to choose whether they wish to know about a particular character or subplot, or to stick with the main narrative (rather than swamp the text with footnotes).

I was mindful to avoid the fascinating, but overwhelming modernism of Ulysses, or the atomised postmodernism of House of Leaves (although I would nick a leaf or two from both of those books*) – that kind of level of experimentation comes at a cost to the narrative, and wasn’t right for my project. Similarly, at the other pole of culture, I didn’t want to evoke the flavour of those ‘Choose Your Path’ books which flourished for a while in my youth (e.g. Fighting Fantasy; or my favourite, Lone Wolf). However fond I was of those back then, that approach wasn’t fit-for-purpose either. This project wasn’t about the ‘deciding the outcome of the story’. I did not want to give away complete authorial control.

However old-fashioned, I still believe in the power of storytelling, and the craft and responsibility of the storyteller. I have a penchant for prose stylists, but also have a weakness for a decent storyline, well-wrought characters, snappy dialogue, and emotional engagement. I want to be swept along by a story.

So, a rattling yarn, but one told with elan and a substructure of complexity – with a depth of ideas and research underpinning the (hopefully) purring prose.

And so I have used hypertextuality to allow for multiple narrative threads to co-exist. I like the idea of each link being a kind of portal to a pocket universe, to another modality or mindset. It bestows upon the reader agency – one that is intrinsic to the novel, for The Knowing, is, on one level, an epistemological enquiry: in plain English – What do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge perceived as more valid than others? I, as the writer, was driven by my epistemological hunger (following the idea of ‘write what you want to know’, and developing ‘archive fever’ in my PhD research). The characters are driven by their desire to know. Janey in particular is ‘gifted’ with the ‘knowing’ (Second Sight), which allows her to discover things beyond her experience or 5 senses. She uses this to access the memories of her ancestors, the McEttrick Women, via the heirlooms kept within her mother’s old biscuit tin. Deploying metonymic representation, each ancestor is symbolized by an object. When Janey holds them in her hand, she receives a download of memory. This psychometry I wished to suggest in the way the reader taps on the image in the e-book – which allows them to access that ‘voice’.

Critically, the choice to do this is driven by the reader’s desire to know.

I also like creating visual furniture within the novel – paratextuality – being fond of marginalia, and having discovered, within Robert Kirk’s journals and manuscripts many fascinating and revealing examples. For me, a book is an aesthetic experience as much as a narrative one – this may seem at odds to some with the concept of an ‘e-book’, but even within that format it is still possible to enjoy stunning cover art, fine font, illustrations, and so forth. And so I have delighted in creating motifs for each of the characters, and labouring endlessly over the minutiae of formatting and text navigation.

Also, I do not find the use of an e-reader antithetical to this aesthetic consideration, but intrinsic – for it captures the tension I revel in, between the ancient and the modern. To read the voice (sometimes actual, sometimes fictionalised) of a 17th Century Scottish minister in such a state-of-the-art form makes it more poignant – the ghost in the machine. And the hidden magic of the e-reader echoes the journal that Janey receives from Kirk – written on ‘Janus paper’, which allows a reader to view what the writer is scribing upon its twin, wherever in this world or another they are, attuning to the consciousness of that reader and translating accordingly.

This allows for a ‘hybrid’ voice, somewhere between Kirk’s 17th Century idiom, and Janey’s own – a deliberate choice, for I decided that coherency and fluency was more important to the narrative effect than strict accuracy to Kirk’s idiolect and ecolect. Of course, I have tried to evoke it – and having transcribed his monograph, and poured through his notebooks, I am deeply familiar with it – but have tempered its more obscure eccentricities (erratic spelling; idiosyncratic rendering of Gaelic; obscure references) in favour of clarity.

Still, I hope his, and the other voices I have ‘channelled’ come across convincingly – they certainly felt real to me as I wrote them. Time and time again, it feels like one is merely the amanuensis, taking down the character’s dictation – in the way that Robert Campbell, Kirk’s cousin, took down the minister’s words as he lay upon his sickbed, the words that would become The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies – a lost version of which I would go onto discover in the archives, but that is another story…

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an ebook on 20th March and will be available via Amazon’s Kindle store.

*Joyce’s heteroglossia; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘leaves’ motif – fragments of text, of experience – symbolized by Janey’s heirloom wunderkammer, her box of leaves.

Wild Things

Wild Thing, you make my heart sing …

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An Urisk. Illustration by Kevan Manwaring 2017

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

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

 

coire-nan-uriskin

Coire-nan-Uriskin, from JP MacLean, 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extract from ‘Lob’, Edward Thomas

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

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

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

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

Watch ‘The Return of Pan’:

Read ‘A Musical Instrument’:

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

Read ‘Wodwo’ in full:

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

Read ‘Lob’ in full:

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

A great blog on Urisks:

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