Tag Archives: Fairy

Missionary Impossible

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng – a review

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There is much to commend in Ng’s ‘novel of the Fae’ about troubled sibling missionaries, Catherine and Laon Helstone, and their strange adventures in Elphane/Arcadia. Ng manages to evoke through her finely-wrought prose the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dense Victorian novel of morality and misadventure; and also the alien, quixotic climate of Faerie. By making her brother and sister protagonists missionaries seeking out to bring the Word of the Lord to the benighted ‘souls’ of this recently revealed Otherworld the novel both aligns with and subverts the colonial project – for the ‘too close’ missionaries are far from without sin, and their mission is futile at worst, at best a metaphysical challenge (do the Fae have souls? what is their place in God’s creation?). Access to the ‘inner lands’ for further proselytising is the main plot McGuffin, but the chief line of desire revolves around Catherine’s unhealthy obsession with her brother – who is a Branwell/Heathcliff/Rochester type. Dark, moody and (to some) irresistible. This is not surprising as Ng clearly riffs upon the Brontë family dynamic and legendarium (which the famous siblings of Haworth created in their younger years). Here, this juvenilia is given the full-bloodied treatment, as Ng feeds it into the mulch of her world-building. The mise-en-scène of each chapter is vividly imagined, but often this seems to be at the expense of narrative traction. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what is happening – many of the scenes have the feverish intensity and illogic of a dream.  And although the minutiae of Elphane, in particular life in Gethsemane, the Pale Queen’s castle, is exquisitely imagined, the broader brushstrokes of this Secondary World are less convincing: the pendulum sun of the title, the fish of the moon swimming in the sky, and sea whales (which seem to be both made of rickety whicker, yet contain a microcosmic ocean). This no doubt is intended to deliberately subvert the verisimilitude and make the otherworldly realm lack naturalism – and such bold imagery may be original and memorable, it threatens to make the whole edifice a leaky vessel, which I could not fully buy into (rather like CS Lewis’ car-boot Narnia).  Another problem for me was reader-identification. Like a lot of modern fiction I find a lack of relatability – I cannot connect with the main characters, finding it difficult to emotionally invest in them. And narrative traction is missing (for me). I turned the pages out of professional curiosity, not out of urgency. Yet unlike a lot of (modern) fantasy, Ng’s prose aspires to a slightly elevated register, which successfully evokes the music of strangeness (‘a catch of the breath’, as Susan Cooper describes it). Ng’s depiction of Faerie is the best I have seen in contemporary fantasy. She lards each chapter with an epigraph, pastiches written wittily in the style of bombastic Victoriana, or stuffy exegeses. These often evoke the texture of an AS Byatt novel (notably Possession) but are convincingly done. Ng’s academic background and interests (MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies/medieval and missionary theology) clearly inform these, but I found them rather laborious after a while (one can always choose whether to read them or not). Perhaps too much salt, and not enough meat for my taste. Nevertheless, Ng’s first novel bodes well. She is evidently a talented writer with a vivid, and original imagination. I look forward to seeing what she conjures up next.

Kevan Manwaring 31 July 2018

The Fairy Pools of Skye

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Fairy Pools, Skye, K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

The Fairy Pools of Skye are a series of cascading cataracts, tumbling down in pellucid pools and falls from the foot of …… a distinctive cone shaped peak. They are a tourist honeyspot, and it can get very busy, but as I was staying nearby at the Glenbrittle hostel I was able to get there early. There was only one other car when I arrived – and about fifty when I left. It was a ‘soft’ morning, the peaks of the surrounding Cuillins obscured by a ghostly mist, and a drizzle was setting in, so I wrapped up in my waterproofs and, grabbing my trusty walking pole (essential for testing the firmness of the footing – which can often turn out to be deep mud; and for stabilizing on uneven ground) and set off. I didn’t see a soul for the first two hours of my walk, which made it all the more enjoyable. Perhaps I was the only one mad enough to be out on the moors in the weather, but it actually brightened up as the walk progress. I first stopped by a handsome waterfall with three streams of white water cascading down – like a living symbol of Awen.

WP_20160915_08_41_24_Pro.jpg I paused here to invite in some inspiration, which wasn’t hard in such an inspiring place. Yet I had to watch my stepping too – it was very muddy and slippy near the edges. Not a good idea to be ‘away with the fairies’ completely! One had to keep one’s mind in one’s feet – a good meditative practice. I pushed up to the ‘Hill of the Gentle Pass’, sweating profusely beneath my many layers. I paused at a cairn to take a sip of water and catch my breath. The view back down the Glen was sublime – in a muted kind of way. None of the glory of the previous evening when the golden sun caught the peaks in a breathtaking way. It was a kind of private day – the glen doing its own thing, not showing off for the tourists. The mountain was washing its hair. Reaching a lochan, I then traversed  the scree which spilled down the mountainside. It was a place of pan-ic – and I imagined an uirisg hopping from boulder to boulder, doing a merry caper, befritting unwary walkers. But maybe my warbling put him off, because I was inclined to sing in the day, doing a medley of the Skye Boat Song, John Ball, and Jerusalem. The latter felt a bit cheeky – singing about ‘England’s mountains green’ seemed rather amusing amid such dramatic peaks. And hoping that the Second Coming would happen in our little land seemed not only hubristic but unlikely. Surely any self-respecting avatar would choose to manifest somewhere more … magnificent, rather than, say, on a roundabout outside Swindon (although the latter would prove interesting).

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The striking red rocks of the Cuillins. K Manwaring Sept. 2016

I came to the head of the glen and turned right, following the frollicking burn downwards as it gambolled with increasing gaiety towards the hordes of tourists marching up to it. It felt right to come to them this way – earning their wonder, rather than going straight to it. It also meant that the falls got bigger as I descended, rather than ‘peaking too soon’ with the whoppers at the bottom. In some ways are nothing special – I’ve come across far more dramatic waterfalls on my perambulations here in the Highlands, unsigned, unannounced, unheralded. Any waterfall is special – and, if it is unpolluted, I believe it would have its attendant ‘fairy’ or elemental. Certainly the Celtic or Pictish ancestors of these isles saw any body of water as being a portal place, a place to commune with the gods and undying ones. I spent time sitting at a particularly picturesque convergence of two streams – which had gouged out a deep trough, over which rowan trees defiantly grew from the rock face. I felt this was certainly the kind of place any hedonistic fairy would choose to come for a dip – and so I left a wee offering … of a fairy cake (taken out of its wrapper, and broken up – offerings were always ‘broken’ to release their spirit).  I felt bathed in a sense of bliss. This was a special moment in a special place. I am glad I stopped and spent a few moments imbibing the genius loci – rather than just traipse, snap and depart. I decided to improvise a poem in response to the place, and found the awen flowed (maybe that waterfall had done the trick). The awenyddion were the inspired ones who could create poetry extempore. Something I’ll definitely being trying again. I then carried on downwards, literally, as I fell over in the mud at one point. There I was, away with the fairies! I washed away the murk further downstream – I didn’t feel inclined to strip off, dive in the freezing water, and pass through the natural rock arch three times as you’re supposed to do (if you are bonkers). I felt I had connected with this special place and it was time to go. I recited WB Yeats as I left…

Come away, O human child,
to the water,
with a fairy hand-in-hand,
for the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

 

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What happens if you don’t leave an offering to the Sith… K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

I was in fact being called back to the mainland, and to loved ones in the south, after three weeks away in Scotland. I am glad I had a taste of Skye, and hope to be back at some point – for there is a lot more to discover. I hope the Good Folk will still be there when I return. The Fairy Pools, and similar places – be they epic or tiny, private places of elemental connection – are good for our well-being and imaginative nutrition. I took heart in the fact that so many people make an effort to visit, even if they can’t always articulate why they are drawn there. We can all bathe in the waters of such fonts, whatever our beliefs. Some of us leave only with photographs, with selfies, but some are touched by the magic – and some pass it on as well.

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The sublime glen of the Fairy Pools.  The real magic is there to be found . K. Manwaring Sept 2016

Riding the Wall to Wester Ross

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass - a windy spot!

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass – a windy spot!

I’ve just come back from an epic three-week trip around the north of Britain – some of it was R&R and some of it was field research for my new novel…

Hadrians Wall copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 1 I walked Hadrian’s Wall (112AD) with my partner Chantelle, an archaeologist (and folk-singer) who works for English Heritage. It was on her ‘bucket list’ to do before her birthday – and so, all kitted up, off we set. I rode up to Newcastle on my Triumph Legend motorbike and met her off the train. We stored the bike at a storyteller’s garage and began our walk – 84 miles over 6 days from coast to coast, going east to west from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle). We stopped at hostels and used a courier service to get our larger luggage from place to place – carrying just a daysac with essentials in (ie waterproofs!). It was the butt end of Hurricane Bertha and we had to walk into driving wind and rain for the first two or three days, but the weather mercifully improved towards the end of the week. The middle section from Chesters to Birdoswald was stunning. Although the wall wasn’t always visible (turned into roads, railways or cannibalised for building) the way was clearly-marked with white acorns (this being a National Trail). Every roman mile (just short of a mile) there was a mile-castle, inbetween, two turrets, and now and then a substantial fort (eg Housesteads being the most impressive) or garrison town (eg Vindolanda, famous for its amazingly preserved ‘tablets’ recording the minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants). The trail passes through the Northumberland National Park – bleak and beautiful. It was very poignant walking this remarkable piece of Roman ingenuity – the Roman Empire on my left, the untamed wilds of the Picts on my right – aware of how it was the first division of this country into north and south. This ‘divide and rule’ policy is worth being in mind in the light of the looming Referendum.

Croft life -  with Chantelle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Croft life –
with Chantelle.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 2 we rode up (Chantelle pillion) to a friend’s croft on the coast of Wester Ross, right up near Ullapool, overlooking the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides. It was an epic 375 mile ride through the most spectacular scenery – Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Glen Shiels…but the storm made it hard going, even dangerous as I battled against high winds and poor visibility. We stopped a night at Glen Coe – soggy as drowned rats but still smiling – before making the final push to the croft where we holed up for a week with provisions, reading and writing material and a bottle of good malt. After a week of motion it was blissful to have a week of stillness, giving our blisters a chance to heal. It was here I celebrated my 45th birthday. My partner treated me to a lovely meal in a local inn – a kind of ‘Valhalla of vinyl’ where we played pool and listened to old classics.

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the 'Highlander' castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the ‘Highlander’ castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

At the end of this week we rode south 225 miles to the Castle of the Muses in Argyl and Bute – an extraordinary edifice inhabited by Peace Druid Dr Thomas Daffern, 9 muses, and his library of 20,000 volumes. It was here we celebrated our first anniversary with a performance of our show ‘The Snake and the Rose’ in the main hall. Although the audience was small it was still a special way to mark the day. My friend Paul Francis was also present – he’s known by many names including Dr Space Toad, the Troubadour from the 4th Dimension, Jean Paul Dionysus… He’s a great singer-songwriter. After our show we gathered around the hearth and shared poems and songs. The next day Chantelle had to catch a train back home (work etc) but I stayed on for a meeting about forming a ‘circle of Bardic Chairs’. Although it was a small affair we took minutes and a seed was sown. The plan is to have a larger meeting (open to all bards, bardic chair holders, gorseddau, etc) in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of The Bard (William Shakespeare) on his birth/death-day, 23rd April, next year. Watch this space!

In the 3rd week I explored the Lowlands and Borders on my bike – riding solo. On Monday I went to Aberfoyle, home of the Reverend Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies). It was thrilling to visit the grove on Doon Hill where he was said to have disappeared. A Scots Pine grows on the spot, surrounded by oak trees – all are festooned with clouties, rags, and sparkly offerings of every kind. A magical place. That night I stayed with a musician, Tom, whose croft we’d been staying in. He kindly put me up and we shared a poem or song over a dram.

climbing Schiehallion - the fairy mountain

climbing Schiehallion – the fairy mountain

On Tuesday I decided to climb Schiehallion – the mountain of the Sidhe, right up in the Highlands, so I blatted north past Gleneagles and made an ascent, ‘bagging’ myself a Munro (over 3000ft) though that wasn’t my reason for doing it. Afterwards I visited the Fortingall Yew – the oldest living tree in Britain, possibly 5000 years old. It’s decrepit but still impressive.

Bardmobile in the Rhymer's Glen - Eildon Hills in the background

Bardmobile in the Rhymer’s Glen – Eildon Hills in the background

On Wednesday I visited the Eildon Hills and the Rhymer’s Stone, before going onto Abbotsford, the impressive home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Minstelsy of the Scottish Borders among many others). I ended up at New Lanark, a World Heritage Site – a well-preserved mill-town created by social reformer, Robert Owen, to house, feed, educate and uplift his workers, near the Falls of the Clyde, made famous by Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth and co. On Thursday I headed Southwest to Ayrshire and the home of Rabbie Burns, Scotlands’ ‘national poet’. The visitor’s centre had an excellent exhibition bringing alive his poems, but I was most thrilled to visit the Brig o’ Doon and the Auld Kirk – immortalised in his classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Then I headed down the west coast to the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and founded the first church north of the Wall. This seemed like a fitting terminus of my Scottish meanderings – from here you are said to see five kingdoms (England, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Heaven) yet there was one day left.

Further south - Isle of Whithorn

Further south – Isle of Whithorn

On Friday I explored the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and found Carterhaugh near their confluence – the site of Tam Lin. The meeting of their respective rivers was more impressive – a swirling pool called ‘The Meetings’ near a gigantic salmon weir. It was a very wet day though and my energy was starting to wane. I gratefully made it to a fellow storyteller’s place who had just moved over the Border, not far from Coldstream. Despite having literally just moved in (that day!) her and her husband kindly put me up in the spare room amid the boxes. We didn’t spend long catching up– a quick cuppa – before whizzing north to Edinburgh for the Guid Crack Club. This meets in the upstairs of the Waverley Inn, just off the Royal Mile. I was very tired but happy to watch the high calibre of performance. I wasn’t planning to do anything but in the need I did offer my Northamptonshire Folk Tale, Dionysia the Female Knight, which seemed to go down well. We ate out at a new Greek place and got back late, sharing a glass of wine by the fire. Dog-tired I slept in til 10.30 the next day – then had to ride 250 miles south to Rockingham, near Corby in the Midlands.

Holy Island copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Holy Island
copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

I stopped at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as I crossed the Border – worth visiting for the ride across the tidal causeway if nothing else, although it felt a ‘thin place’ and calming, despite the tourist hordes. Then it was time to hit the road – and I roared down the A1 (and A19) back south to my old home county. Here I was warmly welcomed by Jim and Janet. I had performed at their solstice bash earlier in the summer and now they were treating me like an old friend. We had a good catchup over dinner and around the fire.

In the morning I made my final pit-stop, at the Bardic Picnic in Delapre Abbey, Northampton – my old neck of the woods. Here I would walk my dog every day. Here 7 years ago a small group of us (6!) held hands and did an awen to announce the beginning of this event which has blossomed, thanks to my friends hard work into a small festival. The sun put his hat on and the crowds came out. Although I was road-weary and unable to take in much of the bardism, I did stick around for the Chairing of the Bard before hitting the road – and the final push across the Cotswolds to home in Stroud.

After 2500 miles and 23 days I finally made it home and I was glad to be back. If only I could have stayed…(the next morning I had to get to Bath for 9am to run an 11-hour tour to Glastonbury, Salisbury and Avebury with 4 Americans – it’s a Bard’s life!).

Watch out for poetry inspired by my trip on the poetry page…

Vikings and Fairies

21-22 April

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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.

 

 

Isles of the Ever-Living

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Islands of the Ever-Living

Kevan Manwaring

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

No Country for Old Men

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

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born and dies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Odyssey, Homer, IV, 549-643

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

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

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

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

Quote from Ty Carreg visitors information, Bardsey Island.

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

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

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

Pennick continues:

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

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

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

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

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

Thule

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

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

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

Hyperborea

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

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

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

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

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

Massilote Periplus, c500 BCE

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

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

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

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

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

Go by God’s road to the Tower of Cronus

Where the Airs, daughters of Ocean

Blow round the Island of the Blest

Pythean Odes, X, II

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

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

Holdstock, The Broken Kings, p44

Islands in the Time-stream

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

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

The End Of All Our Exploring

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

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

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

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Little Gidding’ (239-242)

***

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

References:

Anon, Kalevala, Athlone Press, 1985

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

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

Holdstock,Robert, The Broken Kings, Gollancz, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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