Tag Archives: Celtic

Art of the Windsmith

The amazing covers by Steve Hambidge for The Windsmith Elegy (vols 1-5) https://www.behance.net/crookedkm/projects

The Windsmith universe is a storyworld I have been developing for nearly twenty years. The first story I wrote for it was in September 2002 – a chapter for a workshop on the MA in Creative Writing I had just started at Cardiff University, and that became the novel, The Long Woman (published by Awen in 2004). This was to become the first of The Windsmith Elegy – a 5 volume fantasy series, written over 10 years (2002-2012). In 2012 I co-created a multimedia show based upon the books, Song of the Windsmith, which I toured with James Hollingsworth and other guest artists. An hour long show, it featured storytelling, poetry, a soaring soundscape and several songs by James, digital puppetry, belly-dancing, and animation. This seemed like the culmination of the project, but then in 2019 an idea came to me to create an interactive novel based upon the Windsmith storyworld: Hyperion was born, and throughout 2020 I worked on it, drafting the 96,000 word story in html – a very new way of working for me, and a steep learning curve (but I like to push myself and I’m interested in emergent narrative forms and platforms). ‘Hyperion’ won me a contract with Fable Labs, a West Coast games company, and at the end of 2020 the pilot episodes (1-3) were beta-tested in their Interactive Fiction ‘book club’. I’ve now completed the first season (1-12) and I’m halfway the second. To help me visualise the characters I like to make sketches. I have a highly visual imagination, having trained in Fine Art. I sketched continually in my youth, and in middle age I’ve picked it up again, as I find it relaxing – a pleasant contrast to working on a computer and using language intensively all week. For the 2nd novel in the series, ‘Windsmith’ (2006) I did drawings of all the panels of the Gundestrup Cauldron – which features prominently in the story; I also designed a logo for the book tour undertaken that year (which made for a nifty t-shirt), and with all the artistic collaboration that has took place, art has been a key part of the Windsmith story. With that in mind, here are some sketches of various characters – intended mainly to help me visualise them, but also for fun.

Artwork copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

The Windsmith Elegy is available from http://www.awenpublications.co.uk

Hyperion will be available from Tales Writer (available as an app on iphones; Android version coming soon): https://taleswriter.com/

Wild Arthur: A Tintagel Conception

r/interestingasfuck - Bronze Sculpture of King Arthur Stands Atop The Tintagel Cliffs in Cornwall, Sculptor Rubin Eynon - [deleted]

Gallos, Rubin Eynon, Tintagel 

 

A Tintagel Conception

Wild Arthur

awaiting to be reborn

here on this rough island.

Storm forged, sea girdled,

palace of choughs and seals,

this, the cracked cauldron of your making,

where you were conceived,

— so the poets sing —

a gleam in the eye of Uther,

using Merlin’s magic to

inveigle his way into Igraine’s

bower, guised as Gorlois.

Good enough for the guards.

But a wife knows.

Did she keep mum,

as her belly bloomed

with another’s child —

a Pendragon pregnancy?

Where you first saw the light

Of day, who can say?

Did Merlin spirit you away,

swaddled in spells,

to raise you a king

in some gramarye-tangled grove?

 

Wild Arthur,

Fortune’s cock-snooker,

bold-undertaker,

who raided Annwn,

who pulled the sword

from the rock;

Arthur of the Celts,

warrior chieftain

who gathered men

to him, a wolf-pack —

no shiny knights of courtly romance

these, but mud-cloaked

dwellers of the wild wood,

fen-hoppers, ridge-runners,

moving swift, striking deep,

inspiring love and loyalty

by deed and word – not

by wealth or birthright.

 

How we need you now –

to put steel to justice,

an edge to truth,

a backbone to the beleaguered.

Hope to the underdog,

healer of a broken kingdom.

Recarve the table round

so all may sit as equals,

so all may partake of the feast,

so all may be heard and seen,

so all may taste of the Grail.

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

A Glint at the Kindling – Robin Williamson at the Drill Hall

Robin Williamson at Poetry on the Border

The Drill Hall, Chepstow, Saturday 18 April

Robin Williamson - Master Bard, at the Drill Hall Chepstow, 18 April 2015, by Kevan Manwaring

Robin Williamson – Master Bard, at the Drill Hall Chepstow, 18 April 2015, by Kevan Manwaring

Robin Williamson, legendary multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, former member of The Incredible String Band, and honorary Bard of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, has been a major inspiration to me on my bardic path. He’s been performing longer than I’ve been alive – appearing with his band at Woodstock in ’69; when they split in the early 70s he formed his own Merrie Band; then turned towards Celtic myths and legends and the harp. He honed his skills as a storyteller and a poet (see The Craneskin Bag; Selected Writings), and developed a truly bardic style over the years – blending consummate instrumentalism (harp; guitar; whistle; and many others), song, hilarious storytelling, exquisite poetry, and a way of working the crowd which has everyone singing along or repeating his lines of tale, following his actions and making fools of themselves while having a good craic. I first saw him perform at the Sunnyside Inn, in Northampton, back in the early 90s and was blown away. It was that performance that inspired me to become a bard – something that I never realised still existed in modern day Britain until I saw Robin in action, the awen flowing from him like waves of light. And last night, seeing him perform to a packed Drill Hall, I felt that magic again – and magic is hard to come by in this threadbare age. At one point Robin said, apologising for his flights of fancy, that he ‘took the main route through the Sixties’, being part of the Counter Culture with the String Band, who exuded a Tolkienesque aesthetic, a fellowship of musical hobbits and elves spinning their skeins of enchantment at venues like Gandalf’s Garden. He also reflected poignantly that he knew more people dead than alive – as many of his friends and contemporaries had passed on (most recently John Renbourn whom he made a Grammy-nominated album with, Wheels of Fortune – the title track of which he performed with feeling). A invocation to bring good luck, it seems to be a personal cri-de-coeur. At times, it must feel for Robin – an outlier of the Sixties, and of other centuries and worlds – as though he is Oisin himself, returned from Tir nan Og to find all that he has known and loved turned to dust 300 years past, a lonely traveller in a prosaic age. And yet he managed to summon the magic tonight in an enthralling set which had me rivetted from beginning to end. After being introduced by William Ayot, director of the Centre for the Oral Tradition, who host spoken word events ‘on the borders’ in Chepstow, Robin began with some exquisite harp and one of his masterful poems, ‘Northern Shores’ about the mythscape of his Glaswegian childhood. Then he skilfully segued into one of his classic, ever poignant songs, ‘Political Lies’ – even more resonant now than when he wrote it in the 80s. Then he left the Ordinary World behind, having propitiated it, taking us into the chancy world of Celtic wonder tales, with ‘Blind Rafferty the Poet and the Jealous Hero’ – a hilarious multi-layered story. He ended his first set with the title track of his new album, ‘Trusting in the Rising Light’, which wove mature reflections with bardic utterances. After the break we were treated to his version of Tristan and Isolde, based upon an early Welsh variant. He followed this with a masterful telling of ‘The Bonny Green Bird’ – an epic Scottish wonder tale. Then he ended with, unusually, a Jerry Lee Lewis song, ‘I’ve tried everything except you’, which left us with a spiritual message. Yet Robin is no proselytizer, despite his Christian beliefs – he seeks to entertain, and he really pulled out the stops tonight. I’ve seen him perform many times, but never see him get up and tell stories in such animated fashion, using his whole body. He can be hysterically funny at times, using anachronisms creatively, such as comparing the ‘tune-twig’ in the Bonny Green Bird to an mp3 player and so forth. He manages to straddle the worlds – the mundane and the magical – in this way. He left me brimming with awen, my cauldron refilled. Once again, he has reminded me what a Bard is all about. Once again, he has inspired me to continue on my path.

Robin Williamson site:

http://www.pigswhiskermusic.co.uk/

Poetry on the Border:

http://www.nacot.org.uk/whats_on.html

North of the Wall: Walking to Maia

Day 4 - Sycamore Gap to Holmhead (14)

Hadrian’s Wall – looking east towards Craig Lough. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

WALKING TO MAIA*

‘…pronouncing in silence this long sentence of stone’ Noel Connor

Walking to stillness,

walking to wind through the dry grass,

walking to the gentle lap of the outward tide.

I’m walking to Maia.

Walking away from the bullshit,

walking away from the banks,

walking away from Westminster,

from the politicans’ self-interested dance.

Walking away from the rolling news bombardment,

vomiting violence 24/7,

making us fear the other,

fear our neighbour,

nurture a culture of fear,

and feed the cycle

that sells the news,

sells the guns, sells the bombs,

sells the panic rooms, the state-of-the-art tombs.

I’m walking to Maia,

walking away from the High Street,

everything-must-go-closing-down-forever-two-for-one-75%-discount-sale.

Walking away from Legoland and Lego people.

Walking away from servile stations,

from motorway gridlock,

from toomanycars,

from the littering doggybagshitters in the parks.

From animal sadism

and people masochism,

from zero hours contracts,

and fat cat bonuses.

I’m walking to Maia.

Walking away from Putin and Netinyahu.

Walking away from Isis militia and Ebola.

Walking away from everyday sexism and FGM.

Walking away from childhood hero child abuse

and internet porn – the virtual voyeurism which is the norm.

Walking away from the NSA, from GCHQ and hacking hacks.

I’m walking to Maia,

I’m walking to Maia.

Along my long straight road

following a wall of will,

to the vanishing point,

where I hope the land runs out

before my legs.

Six days of feet jazz,

of sheep bleat and stile hop.

Six days of tracking white acorns

and map origami on windy crags.

Six days of hostel hopping,

of top bunk grabbing,

of soggy sock drying,

of full English (veggie),

of caloriecarbcramming,

of sugar-jamming.

Six days of waterproof-dancing,

of goretex and sunhats,

of tshirts and wax jacks,

of blister-feet and sweaty backs.

I’m walking to Maia,

alone together,

in conversation, in silence,

in solitude, in company,

in high spirits, in doldrums,

in heel-to-toe iambs,

in hiking trance,

in hyper-awareness,

walking awake-asleep,

walking into your body

and into the land.

I’m walking to Maia.

The end of the Wall - Bowness on Solway. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

The end of the Wall – Bowness on Solway. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Arriving to estuary emptiness,

the Solway at low-tide,

a dog licking its wounds –

lazy lap on mud-flats,

skirl of a lonely gull,

tang of salt and seaweed.

A terminal shack interpretation,

no victory pint from the closed pub.

The world returns to

tea-room and bus-stop.

Over the water, Scotland awaits.

The wind whispers

it’s the journey.

Walking to Maia.

Mantra of footstep

And breath. Balancing

Inside the Roman

And the Pict.

* Maia is the name of the last Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Bowness-on-Solway, West of Carlisle, 84 miles from Wallsend, the start, East of Newcastle.

Myths of Nationhood

MYTHS OF NATIONHOOD

by KEVAN MANWARING

(first presented at the Folklore, Ethology and Ethnomusicology Conference, Aberdeen University, July 2014)

Gather round the Story Fire and listen to each teller share a tale from his or her land...

Gather round the Story Fire and listen to each teller share a tale from his or her land…

INTRODUCTION

In this paper I will explore the construction and dissemination of national myths – more precisely, long-established oral narratives — how over the centuries they have been forged at times of perceived crisis, re-asserting a vision of the ‘nation’ which suits the agenda of those advocating or maintaining it, articulating and emphasising certain values deemed timely and intrinsic to national identity.

Y Mabinogi - a national epic for Wales, forged by Lady Charlotte Guest...

Y Mabinogi – a national epic for Wales, forged by Lady Charlotte Guest…

My agenda here is not to challenge the existence of such myths – many of which I hold a deep fondness for as a professional storyteller and novelist. My discipline is creative writing, not history, anthropology, or politics – although there may be times when I inevitably cross the borders of all of these (such is the nature of borders of all kinds – to me they’re like ‘keep off the grass’ signs). My wish is not to dismiss the sovereignty of nations, but to explore their narratives (which often help construct the idea of nationhood). My paper suggests these constructs are fabricated and permeable and should be acknowledged as such. They exist within a global multi-linear meshscape of narratives – never in isolation; part of a dialogue.

So often the trouble comes down to a definition of terms. What is nation? It differs widely, but to cite the Oxford Concise (2001): ‘Nation’ is: ‘a large aggregate of people united by common descent, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.’ Origin ME, via Ofr, from L. natio(n), from nat-, nasci- ‘be born’, from where we get the word ‘nativity’.

As its root word suggests ‘nation’ is an idea that is always coming into being – it is embryonic by nature. To see it in a fluid, rather than a fixed way, would solve a great deal of problems. An analogy might be Wikipedia itself – an evolving, self-editing database, assimilating vast amounts of influence, its definition of itself continually being refined. Nation is a work-in-progress.

THE STORY FIRE

In the beginning there was Story. When our distant ancestors gathered around those first fires they shared stories of their day, their journey to that place, the hunt, dreams, visions and longings. Stories to explain the thunder in the air, or the thunder that shook the ground. Stories to explain the thirsty sun that drank up all the water of the land, the mysterious and beautiful moon, or the weeping cloud bringing its bad news from over the horizon. Stories to explain the origin of things – of how the world came to be,1 how people came to be, and how tribe and clan came to be there.

This instinct has not left us. Now we might codify our Creation Myths or ‘narratives of becoming’ with constitutions (e.g. Declaration of Independence, 4th July); or present them on the big screen with the latest special effects and the biggest name actors (e.g. Noah, Jodorowsky, 2014). We might enshrine them with annual days of national celebration (e.g. 23rd April, St George’s Day – not established until 1222 AD by the Council of Oxford), and re-enact the founding myth in colourful pageants (George and the Dragon – based upon a Christian martyr born in Cappadocia, modern-day Turkey). It can be epitomised by a rough-and-ready Mummers Play – our ‘hero’ St George fighting the Turkish Knight, his own twin brother. This grassroots impulse ensures a long-term resilience beyond the fickle radar of the mainstream.

In countless apparently crude examples of Folk Art across the world national consciousness is celebrated – from Russian dolls, to Czech puppets, Mexican pinatas, African carvings, Welsh love spoons, Scottish shortbread, Bavarian steins, Spanish castanets, Amazonian blowpipes, models of the Eiffel Tower, and so on. The world’s culture, reduced to often tacky souvenirs, gathering dust on the mantelpiece. Yet, all, (in terms of the signified) at one time, had a living vitality to them. All have been fought for, challenged, changed. None are set in stone, although they might seem so (as permanent as the Union Jack – hanging threadbare from its flagpole).

Perhaps if we imagine ourselves back by that primal Story Fire …

It is a dark, chilly night. The sparks of the fire swirl up into the star-strewn sky. The Milky Way lays her glittering trail across the Heavens. For a moment, we are humbled by our tiny presence in this vast cosmos – and so we huddle closer to the fire. We are not alone. Others gather there also. Across the glow of flames, you see faces from different cultures, different times — an Inuit eskimo, an Aboriginal elder, a painted Pict, a fierce Viking warrior, an Iron Age Celt in torc and plaid, a Roman centurion, a Tibetan monk, and a Hindu fakhir, among others. The atmosphere is warm-hearted. You feel a bond with these people. All have travelled far, and tonight you are united in your need for a warm fire, a hot meal and hopefully a soft bed. And fellowship. For the journey is long and often lonely. An ancient, chipped, chalice is past around and you take a sip of its warming fire. One by one, the strange travellers relate their story – at first the words seem exotic, alien to your ear, but whether it is the potent brew or some other magic, but you find yourself suddenly being able to understand. The words click into place. And you hear the tale of each traveller’s country. The story of their homeland.

A nation that knows its story has a sense of identity. Of continuity. Its presence has longevity. Its people know their roots. Story and place are often inseparable. They help cultivate a sense of belonging. In the same way that when we know someone’s story, we can start to understand them, sympathise with them, even respect them; if we know the story of a nation we start to accept its ‘presence’, its right to be. It no longer remains an easily demonisable ‘other’ – the Red Man, the Gook, the Hun, the Bosch, the Kafir. They have a voice. A dignity. A place at the fire.

THE KALEVALA

Kalevala

In Finland, around the same time as The Mabinogion (Y Mabinogi) was being created by William Owen Pughe and Lady Charlotte Guest in Wales (1838-1849), a similar project was taking place — the Finnish ‘national epic’ — the Kalevala was being composed. Yet this is largely the creation of one academic, Elias Lonnrot (1802-84), a doctor of medicine and later Professor of Finnish at the University of Helsinki. It is a prime example of how national epics can be created.

Published in 1849 by the Finnish Literature Society, the Kalevala (’the land of Kaleva’) is a compilation of vast amount of folk poetry collected from the Baltic-Finnish area. Only a fraction of it found its way into those pages and yet it still totals 22,795 lines, and ‘has come to represent for the world the quintessence of Finnish traditional culture.’ (Intro, Kaleva). Geopolitical upheavals seemed to have given extra relevance to the ideas of German thinker JG Herder (1744-1803), ‘who argued the need for a nation to possess a distinctive cultural identity which was founded in the language and oral literature of the ordinary, unlettered people.’ (ibid, xi). Coupled with the ideas of Finnish historian HG Porthan (1739-1804) at a time when the Swedish Province of Finland had recently been annexed by Russia (in 1808-9) and Finland itself had become a Grand Duchy in the Empire, this created a perfect storm for a rise in national consciousness. Folkloric material was sought to feed this as ‘the cultivation of a national identity became a veritable duty for many educated Finns’ (xii). A national epic would help reassert its vulnerable sense of identity at a time of transition.

The one forged by Lonnrot told of how in the near mythical realm of ‘Perm’ (as described in the Russian chronicles: ‘a land inhabited by people of great wealth, speaking neither Norse nor Russian, and whose god Jomali was worshipped in a temple richly ornamented in gold’, xxxiii) the people of the south (Kalevala) fought off the yoke of the people of the north (Pohjola). This project gained blessing from St Petersburg because the authorities saw how ‘an emerging Finnish national consciousness was a sure means of weakening age-old and potentially dangerous links with Sweden.’ (xii) At the heart of this cycle is the culture dominant muscle-bound hero or giant called Kaleva (not dissimilar to the legends of Britain being a land of giants responsible for the great henges, overthrown by Brutus, newly arrived from Troy). Lonnrot took these West Finnish and Estonian folk traditions as evidence of a heroic age, a Hegelian heroenzeit – which fitted his agenda well, for he and his contemporaries believed that ‘without a heroic age there could be no national epic, and without that no real ‘national spirit’.’ (ibid, xxxii) In the forging of the Kalevala, Lonnrot not only collected and transcribed thousands of lines of poetry, he also sequenced them for dramatic effect and even added lines (’hardly more than 600 lines were composed by Lonnrot himself’, xxx). Although this smacks of Macphersonism, Lonnrot would have perhaps argued he was merely adopting a suitable methodology: the poetic technique of his ancestors. In the northern parts of Archangel Karelia heroic epic survived ‘most powerfully’. This was ‘where the great singers customarily combined stories of the traditional heroes to produce long narrative sequences’ (xvii). Using this technique, Lonnrot felt justified in forging a unified epic: ‘He now felt able to mould it for a specific purpose – to reconstruct the heroic age of the Finns’ (xxix). So from the so-called ‘proto-Kalevala’ published in 1835 to the extended edition of 1849, Lonnrot augmented and added to his material. This stitching together was possible largely due to the nature of the material: ‘a body of sung poetry consistent in form and structure and sharing a common stock of motifs and themes.’ (xiii) It was as though it merely waited for someone to come along and tidy it all up. And, lo, a national epic was born: ‘’Lonnrott offered to his countrymen in the Kalevala the chronicle of a heroic age that was to provide for Lonnrot’s contemporaries an essential foundation-stone in the construction of a Finnish national culture and nation-state’ (xxxiii). In doing so Lonnrot’s methods might be challenged, (the great folkloric scholar and fellow countryman, Lauri Honko, argued that the Kalevala was essentially a literary epic) but he was doing no less than Sir Thomas Malory with ‘Morte d’Arthur’, or Lady Charlotte Guest with ‘The Mabinogion’, and perhaps even Homer did with the The Odyssey and the The Iliad.

So often the apparently benign act of the Victorian antiquarian collector, keen to preserve a dying culture, in their acquisition and transcription, provided its death knell. What was organic and evolving now became ‘fixed’, as Albert J Lord describes in The Singer of Tales, discussing the evolution of Homeric epics: ‘…it was the collector and even more those who used his collection for educational, nationalistic, political, or religious propaganda who presented the oral society with a fixed form of its own material.’ (Lord, p138)

The poet or the folklorist compiles a large body of oral material, often polishing it up, and turns it from the spoken to the written form – codifying and enshrining it, from oral epic to literary epic. This is a terminal process – as soon as oral material is set down in print it risks becoming ‘fossilised’ (the written version is seen as definitive and any variation is frowned upon, is seen as inaccurate and non-canonical) and yet at the same time, without the literary masterpieces that we have, many of these ‘national epics’ would have been lost. [10.36]

MISAPPROPRIATION

Seigfried and Fafnir

In Germany, Das Nibelungenlied2 (’Song of the Nibelungs’)- a Middle High German epic poem written about 1200CE by an unknown Austrian from the Danube region – was seized upon and misappropriated by the National Socialists, yet though their association has regrettably tarnished the myth, they were not to be lured by the glitaheid. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: ‘Probably no literary work has given more to Germanic arts than the Nibelungenlied. Many variations and adaptations appeared in later centuries. The most significant modern adaptation is Richard Wagner’s famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–74)’.

The remarkable and eerie Nibelungenhalle

The remarkable and eerie Nibelungenhalle

Despite its negative association with the Nazis, the myth itself is not ‘evil’. It is like the sword displayed in the Nibelungenhalle3 – based upon the one Sigurd was said to have pulled from the anvil. It is ‘neutral’ – it all depends upon who wields it and to what purpose. This museum, on the flanks of the dramatic crag known as the Drachenfels (which, according to the Nibelungen saga, is the place where the young Siegfried is said to have slain the dragon, then bathed in its blood and become invulnerable), is a chilling shrine to a corrupted myth of nationhood. The hall is like a film set of an occult temple, designed for the blackest magic — which it was used for in WW2. Its cold marble floor is dominated by a pentagram, with a giant snake (Fafnir) entangled within it, at the points of the pentagram there are five shrines, each alcove painted with scenes from the Teutonic myth. Originally built as a museum in 1913, to celebrate Wagner, in the Thirties it became popular with Nazi Youth Camps. Attached to it is a run-down reptile house complete with pythons and crocodiles. At its gloomy centre slumbers a giant stone effigy of Fafnir. It is now a curiousity — a creepy reminder of a dark period of Germany’s history.

JRR Tolkien was upset by this misappropriation more than anything. Here he writes to his son Michael, an officer cadet at Sandhurst ‘…I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler… Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved and tried to present in its true light.’ (Letters of JRR Tolkien, p55-56)

Similarly, nationalism in itself in not necessarily a bad thing — it manifests in different forms (civic; cultural), but Ethnic Nationalism (‘Das Volk’, as it was dubbed in Germany) is the most dubious, and the one that most often leads to violence: ‘What gave unity to the nation, what made it a home, a place of passionate attachment, was not the cold contrivance of shared rights, but the people’s pre-existing ethnic characteristics: their language, religion, customs and traditions.’ (Ignatieff, p4)

A.1998.9

Sometimes it is not the stories that get misappropriated, but cultural artefacts. The Elgin Marbles are a classic example of this, a legacy of the British Empire and its avaricious hubris. The Stone of Scone is another well-known example. Aboriginal ‘shields’ have been contentious exhibits, which are claimed to be sacred objects which belong with their people. More recently, the Ghost Shirt,4 once held in Glasgow Museum, illustrates how important these cultural artefacts are. The shirt was used in the ghost dance of Wounded Knee. A long campaign was conducted which eventually led to its return. Countless other artefacts linger in museums across the world – divorced from their settings, relics of other cultures, awaiting repatriation. Whoever controls these, as with universities and literary archives, have power.

DISPOSSESSED

The Tibetan epic of the Gesar of Ling

The Tibetan epic of the Gesar of Ling

The Tibetan epic cycle of King Gesar of Ling, relating the exploits of the culture dominant hero dating from the 12th Century, is performed across Asia (chiefly in what is known as the ‘Gesar belt’ of China). Its Tibetan version along occupies 120 volumes and a million words. It is recited, in hypnotic fashion, in a form known as chantfables over a series of days (BBC radio broadcast, ‘The Gesar of Ling’). A 100 ‘bards’ of this epic are still active in China today, many within minority peoples. The fact this epic has not only survived but is still being performed as part of a continuous oral tradition is remarkable, and has attracted much scholarly attention. A Tibetan scholar has written: ‘Like the outstanding Greek epics, Indian epics and Kalevala, King Gesar is a brilliant pearl in the world’s cultural treasure and is an important contribution made by our country to human civilization.5’ It is indeed a precious jewel, for the Gesar of Ling enshrines endangered beliefs, veering towards the shamanic pole in the continuum of Tibetan culture and religion (Samuels). Perhaps critical to its survival is that the fact that as an oral tradition, a large number of variants have always existed, and no canonical text can be written, yet within its vast and protean corpus a universal myth emerges. Although it is impossible to summarise the many versions, the gist of the epic is as follows:

King Gesar has a miraculous birth, a despised and neglected childhood, and then becomes ruler and wins his (first) wife ’Brug-mo through a series of marvellous feats. In subsequent episodes he defends his people against various external aggressors, human and superhuman. Instead of dying a normal death he departs into a hidden realm from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies.[40]

It is the classic tale of the underdog winning through, with echoes of the Arthuriad: the once and future king returning in the hour of his country’s greatest need. Such a cthonic ‘liberator’ figure manifests across world culture (eg Charlemagne). One can see why such a tale has remained popular in the oppressed realms of the Orient. While Tibet remains annexed by China and its leader, the Dalai Lama, is in exile, and while human rights continued to be abused6 (eg the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners) the epic of King Gesar will continue to live on.

Sometimes, all that dispossessed people have left of their culture – when deprive of their homeland, their rights, their citizenship – is the stories of their country, their culture, which can be a moveable feast, transposed to diverse corners of the globe (in a process of adaptation, Honko categories as either milieu-morphological, functional, or cultural) . From a distance, this can become romanticised, tinged with nostalgia and longing, and set in amber – ossifying in a way it does not back in the mother- or fatherland, where it continues to evolve, impacted by the ongoing challenges and counter-narratives, jockeying for dominance.

When people are forced to move through difficult circumstances where does that leave their sense of nationhood? Does it move with them? So often it seems to increase, rather than diminish a sense of national identity, as Professor Chris Hann points out: ‘It is often precisely the experience of migration and displacement which increases consciousness of belonging to a group and to a place’ (Hann, p30)

Take for example the Boston St Patrick’s Day Parade – 17th March – a huge, brassy, kitsch celebration of Irishness enjoyed not only by Irish-Americans (whose ancestors were displaced by the Potato Famine) but also by a diverse cosmopolitan population and numerous visitors.

This experience of cultural diaspora and ‘islandisation’ has become increasingly common as pressures on resources, employment, etc increase. The nation state has become porous, challenged by historicism: ‘…the large-scale migrations of recent centuries have made it much more difficult to identify the members of a particular nation, or linguistic community, with participation in a shared culture. The assertion of a common culture, however, is increasingly made, despite realities that contradict the usual anthropological understanding of the term.’ (Hann, p31)

This has resulted in the ascendant phenomenon known asTransnationalism’, which ‘involves processes whereby traits originating elsewhere are (gradually) understood in terms of, and adapted to, the local, or whereby a person originating elsewhere gradually comes to terms with and adapts to his/her new locale (and the locale with/to him/her)’. A recent conference in Edinburgh (Imaginaries of home) has explored this. Convenors, Ullrich Kockel and Vitalija Stepusaityte  (Heriot Watt University) articulated this in their call for papers: ‘Home’ is a fluid concept in today’s transnational world.’

For nomadic people, the notion of ‘home’ is perhaps a more porous one, although often it relies upon a certain habitat (eg the Marsh Arabs of Iraq; the Tuareg of North Africa), one which can be annexed, exploited, and controlled. The Dreamtime stories of the Aboriginal culture of Australia have proven remarkably tenacious – evolving and surviving for possibly 176,000 years.7 For these first nation people, the whole of Australia is their patch, one with which they have an intimate knowledge and relationship. As with North America, the arrival of white settlers had a devastating effect, bringing disease, violence, division, and racial intolerance. And yet, against all odds (and deliberate persecution)8 their stories have survived – and, despite the many problems still facing the Aboriginal community, the Dreamtime lives on.

WRITING A NATIONAL EPIC

JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, in the First World War

JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, served in the First World War and survived the Battle of the Somme

A national epic does not arrive fully-formed. It emerges through a long process of oral and written traditions, many of which are anonymous, co-authored, of the ‘folk’. Yet sometimes from one pen within a lifetime. ‘Author of the century’ JRR Tolkien, mourning the lack of a national epic for England, set out to create one in his Middle Earth Secondary World – chiefly in The Lord of the Rings: ‘ [I] set myself a task, the arrogance of which I fully recognized and trembled at: being precisely to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own. ‘ (ibid, p144)

Tolkien vigorously dismissed any suggestion of allegorical dimensions in his writing, and yet it is undeniable that his own ‘myth for England’ emerged from the Trenches of the First World War, as Garth has explored.9 Something of the horrors he faced seem to be mythologised in Middle Earth (e.g. the Dead Marshes). The loss of two dear friends (of a close-knit collegial fraternity of four), the relationship between officer and infantry, the clash of traditional and mechanistic forms of warfare, the nightmarish imagery of the Trenches — all this surely fed his imagination; and indeed haunted him all of his life. The mythos of Middle Earth was born in the blood and mud of Flanders, provided a consoling fiction to its author, and was perhaps driven by survivor’s guilt for decades afterwards.

In 2014 we commemorate the centenary of the First World War, when we saw the devastating cost of maintaining national borders. National consciousness rose to prominence, and all parties involved pulled out the stops to motivate their citizens. Lord Kitchener’s call to arms was only the most obvious nationalistic button-pushing. Hearts and minds were being won over by the Arts – from Music Hall songs to newspaper cartoons. Sometimes the recruitment happened in unlikely guises.

During the summers of 1915-1916, Cecil Sharp collected ‘English folk songs’ in the Southern Appalachians with Maud Karpales (continuing the work of Olive Dame Campbell)10, a project designed, it seemed, to emphasize Anglo-American ties and thus motivate American involvement in the War. Poet and literary critic Edward Thomas was engaged in a similar project back home — commissioned to write books on Englishness.11 In WW2 Dylan Thomas, working for Strand Films who produced work for the Ministry of Information, wrote scripts for several documentaries.12 Initially these were blatantly propagandist — casting the enemy in a negative light, but this turned to films that focused on positive elements of home life, e.g. life in the Welsh valleys13; and homecoming veterans seeing their homeland in a new light.

A PLACE CALLED ENGLAND

'Isles of Wonder' The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, London 2012

‘Isles of Wonder’ The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, London 2012

Myths of nationhood are still being forged — sometimes to overwhelmingly positive effect. In 2012, Academy-Award winning director Danny Boyle devised a bold Opening Ceremony for the London Olympics, entitled ‘Isles of Wonder’, and in doing so created a modern narrative for the host country (written by Frank Cottrel Boyce, and with the help of thousands of volunteers, artists and technical crew). Watched by an estimated global TV audience of 900 million.14 It became the 2nd most popular TV event after the 1969 Apollo moon landings.15 Reaction was overwhelmingly positive in Britain and around the world, with only the odd right-wing politician deriding it (’lefty multicultural crap’).16 The dramatic volteface it created on public perception of the London Olympics, and the feel-good effect it had on the country is summed up Q magazine’s end of year review: “It could all have been so different. As the London 2012 Summer Olympics approached, the tide of scepticism seemed almost irreversible. There was the heavy-handed sponsorship, the draconian security, the ticketing problems, the ballooning budget, and the lurking fear that the Opening Ceremony might be, in director Danny Boyle’s pungent description, ‘shite’. It took less than four hours on the night of Friday 27 July to turn the whole country around. Not only was the ceremony demonstrably not shite, it was the most surprising, moving, spectacular cultural event this country had ever seen…modern Britain, in all its berserk, multi-faceted glory.”[18]

This ceremony, depicting the transformation of Britain from bucolic idyll, to Industrialised Empire, to post-colonial melting pot, cradle of the NHS and the WWW, shows the power of narrative — how a positive ‘myth of nationhood’ can connect to hearts and minds, and, for a while at least, provide a healing salve to ‘broken Britain’.

CONCLUSION

Utopia ('nowhere') - a nation that does not exist...

Utopia (‘nowhere’) – a nation that does not exist…

Myths of nationhood are never set in stone. They are a fabricated cultural artefact — sometimes created over centuries by many people, sometimes created by one person over a life-time. Even the idea of ‘nation’ itself is not sacrosanct. What we might mistakenly feel are stable entities, are in fact vulnerable, as we are seeing with the United Kingdom, these narratives of a nation can be challenged. The Irish Troubles are an extreme critique on the UK’s ‘Grand Narrative’, and despite the iconic Good Friday Peace Agreement17, the faultlines are still there, and sectarian violence continues to simmer away, fired up by the Orange Marches, the Real IRA, and scandals over political skeletons in the cupboard. In the case of the Scottish Referendum that narrative can be redacted by the will of the people. The story of the 1707 Act of Union can be rewritten, for better or worse.18

The Matter of Britain

The Matter of Britain

Now, more than ever, myths of nationhood are turning out to be very permeable constructions indeed. And yet, I argue, they still have a validity — not as justifications for violence, but as tools of understanding. A story is not a weapon, it is a window into someone else’s world.

The natural way of storytelling is the most powerful spiritual way to reach people, open their hearts, and sow the seeds of truth.’ (Francis Firebrace, Aboriginal storyteller, STCTE, p5)

Gather round the Story Fire and listen to each teller share a tale from his or her land...

Gather round the Story Fire and listen to each teller share a tale from his or her land…

The storytellers finish their tales and the fire dies down. All have spoken, although only a few of their tales have been heard here. What comes across loud and clear to me is that — firstly, all of these tales must be respected and the rights of the people they represent upheld; secondly, that these tales are part of a conversation — they belong in a complex web of narratives and are continually evolving. As any storyteller knows, you do not use a tale in a dogmatic way. You tell it and let it works its own magic. You allow the listener to make up their own mind about any messages, meanings, or symbols. You send it into the night and let it have a life of its own, to be retold by others. Happily Ever After is only the beginning. The real gift of these tales is in including the imagination in the important business of living, in negotiating one’s space on this planet. By telling such tales, we are able to entertain the possibility that other worlds are possible. By listening, we develop empathy and respect for other peoples, other ways of being. And that is surely a worthy myth to live by.

'We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men' The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
‘We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men’
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blood and Belonging: journeys into the new nationalism, Ignatieff, Michael, Chatto & Windus: London, 1993

Celtic Cornwall: nation, tradition, invention, Kent, Alan M, Halsgrove: London, 2012

Peoples, nations and cultures: an A-Z of the peoples of the world, past and present, MacKenzie, John M. John MacDonald 2005

Social Anthropology, Hann, C. M, London : Teach Yourself 2000

Stories That Crafted the World, Beckingham, Adrian, Gothic Image: Glastonbury, 2005

The Letters of JRR Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Harper Collins, 1995

The Mabinogion, trans. Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin, 1976

The Scottish Nation: a modern history, TM Devine, Penguin, 2012

The Singer of Tales, Albert B. Lord, Atheneum: NY, 1976

The Story of Scotland, Neil Oliver, Phoenix, 2010

The theory of culture of folklorist Lauri Honko, 1932-2002 : the ecology of tradition / Matti Kamppinen, Pekka Hakamies, Lewiston, NY : Edwin Mellen Press, 2013

ARTICLES

Kuutma, K. ‘The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, JOURNAL OF AMERICAN FOLKLORE; 2006, 119(472):245-246, Database: British Library Document Supply Centre Inside Serials & Conference Proceedings

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 12-25 June 2014

1 Stories that Crafted the Earth, Beckingham, Gothic Image, 2005

2 Nibelungenlied, ( German: “Song of the Nibelungs”) Middle High German epic poem written about 1200 by an unknown Austrian from the Danube region. It is preserved in three main 13th-century manuscripts, A (now in Munich), B (St. Gall), and C (Donaueschingen); modern scholarship regards B as the most trustworthy. An early Middle High German title of the work is Der Nibelunge Not (“The Nibelung Distress”), from the last line of the poem. The superscription on one of the manuscripts from the early 14th century is “The Book of Kriemhild.”

4 This shirt is a replica of an original Ghost Dance shirt given back to the Lakota people of South Dakota by Glasgow City Council in August 1999. It was formally presented to Glasgow at a public hearing in November 1998 attended by the Lakota descendents of survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee in December 1890.

In 1892, the City Industrial Museum obtained a number of items from George C. Crager, interpreter for the Lakota performers at the Buffalo Bull Wild West Show in Dennistoun. Crager claimed that these objects had been taken from the battlefield of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 29th December 1890 including a Lakota Ghost Dance shirt. In 1999 this shirt was returned to the Lakota following Glasgow City Council’s approval of a repatriation request from the Wounded Knee Survivors Association. Marcella le Beau, a descendent of Rain in the Face, a noted Lakota warrior, was involved in the negotiations. In honour of Glasgow’s work she made and presented Glasgow City Council with a replica Ghost Dance shirt She decorated it with a buffalo hide strip and red clay from the Cheyenne River Reservation and ring-necked pheasant feathers,

Marcella le Beau, a descendent of Rain in the Face, a Lakota warrior who survived the massacre was Secretary of the Wounded Knee Survivors Association and was involved in the negotiations. In honour of Glasgow’s work she made presented Glasgow City Council with this replica Ghost Dance shirt Made of dyed calico, it is decorated with ring-necked pheasant feathers from the South Dakota Plains and a buffalo hide strip and red clay from the Cheyenne River Reservation.

http://collections.glasgowmuseums.com/starobject.html?oid=185741

7 Francis Firebrace, aboriginal storyteller,

Stories that crafted the Earth, Adrian Beckingham, Gothic Image, 2005, p5

8 ‘We weren’t allowed to practise our language, our culture, tell the stories…’ Francis Firebrace, Stories that crafted the Earth, p3

9 Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, John Garth, Harper Collins, 2011

10 English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell, 1917

11 SELECTED PROSE OF EDWARD THOMAS:
The Heart of England
, Dutton, 1906.

The South Country, Dutton, 1906 (reissued by Tuttle, 1993).

Rest and Unrest, Dutton, 1910.

Light and Twilight, Duckworth, 1911.

The Icknield Way, Constable, 1913.

13 These are the Men, Balloon Site 568, Wales – Green Mountain, Black Mountain, New Towns for Old, The Battle for Freedom, CEMA, A City Reborn and A Soldier Comes Home.

14 Ormsby, Avril (7 August 2012). “London 2012 opening ceremony draws 900 million viewers”. Retuers. Retrieved 13 March 2013.

15 A British public survey by Samsung voted it the second most inspiring television moment of all time, second only to the 1969 moon landing.[204]

16 “MP attacks ‘leftie Ceremony'”. ITV News. 27 July 2012. Retrieved 28 July 2012.

18 The UK may yet end up in a rUK (GB-lite, or GBlit, for short).

Vikings and Fairies

21-22 April

Image

Last weekend (20-21 April) took the Great Road North (well, rail – enduring the so-called ‘quiet carriage’) to visit charmingYork (all cobbles and cream teas), where I gave a talk on my book Turning the Wheel on Saturday at PF NE, alongside my fellow Awenaut, Karola Renard. We went up on the Friday and met up – doing the tourist thing and visiting the Jorvik Centre to get a whiff of life in York (literally) in the Viking Age. The faint aroma of a Viking midden assailed our nostrils as we entered – all part of the experience! The exhibition felt a bit virtual at first – all computer screens and a ‘discotheque’ perspex floor revealing the level of the city in the Viking Age (showing the foundations of a house from that period – well, a reconstruction of one excavated on the site). Fortunately live interpreters were on hand to stop it getting all too cyberspacey – and they knew their stuff. We were ushered onto a kind of ghost train by a cunning woman – and taken around a Viking village, inhabited by lifelike hairy folk in their respective domiciles. Pretty impressive, if surreal.

Later, we hooked up with some of the delegates in the authentic Fifteenth Century Inn, The Black Swan – complete with ‘drunken’ stairs and resident ghost (nothing unusual in York – which has created a tourist industry from its spooks). The pagans seemed friendly enough – especially after a couple of local ales (Brainsplitter, or some such). Ola and I were kindly put up by respective hosts and met again in the morning at the conference in Priory Street. We were on straight away – something of a strain after a lively night and lack of breakfast. I managed to grab a coffee and a pastry – which I munched as audience filtered in. Couldn’t get the projector to work – but I didn’t need it. I can waffle for Britain on any of my books.

Afterwards, I browsed the stalls and chatted to some creative folk, including FAE artist Tamara Newman.

I couldn’t stick around for the end of the day – my pumpkin carriage awaited – to ‘whisk’ my back to Stroud (four hours later…)

It was interesting to visit York – a fascinating picturesque city – which features in of my yet-to-be-published novel, Thunder Road – a contemporary fantasy about Vikings, Bikers and the end of the world.

The next day I did a big rideout – all around Oxfordshire – visiting sites connected with my collection of Folk Tales (commissioned by The History Press, and due out in November). I recorded half a dozen stories in situ – which was very resonant. It was an effective way to commune with the genius loci and ‘give something back’ – returning the art to the source of its inspiration. It was definitely a sense of ‘full circle’ – as I circumnavigated the county over eight hours – hitting a monsoon-like downpour on the way back (perhaps Thor was making his presence felt…).Yet, despite the soaking it was worth it – I had visited the original ‘rabbit hole’ (Binsey’s treacle well); the birthplace of the Otmoor Uprising; Garsington; Clifton Hampden and Wittenham Clumps – the latter, the location for one of the stories I performed the following night with my fellow Fire Springs members at Hawkwood College for our Spirits of Place show. It was powerful to tell the story of the Raven of Sinodun Hill there, on the Clumps – especially when a large raven circled over me just as I departed.

There seems to be an ‘ecology’ connecting ‘fairies’ and spirits of place – indeed they seem to be one and the same in some traditions. In Hellenic Mythology every stream, spring, cave, tree and mountain had its resident spirit or spirits: undines, naiads, sylphs, etc. These  elemental nymphs become the fairies of the Celtic Tradition – residing in ‘Fairy Thorns’, sacred wells and so on. When Nature is littered, polluted,  exploited or tamed – they whither, leave or die.

The ‘fairies’ of York are well looked after by the supernatural tourist industry there – the ghosts are fed by the energy of the hordes of visitors and the oxygen of the stories. They love to hear about themselves. I hope the spirits of place of Oxfordshire will be kept happy by my efforts.