Tag Archives: First World War

The Secret Fire

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

A Review

‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’
(letter by G.B. Smith, from ‘a trench in Thiepval Wood’, Somme, 1916)

samwise-the-brave

Samwise Gamgee – inspired by the working class soldiers Tolkien fought alongside in the Somme.

This solidly-crafted biography charts in meticulous detail the fellowship and harrowing experiences of four friends during the First World War: JRR Tolkien; Christopher Wiseman; Robert Gilson; and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who called themselves the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) formed when they were pupils of King Edwards School, Birmingham. Although Tolkien and the evolution of his legendarium is the ultimate focus, Garth lovingly brings alive the remarkable friendship enjoyed by the TCBS – from school to Oxbridge to the Trenches – and how its camaraderie and intellectual culture provided the terroir for Tolkien in developing the mythos and motivation for Middle Earth. For fans of Tolkien’s Secondary World there is exhaustive detail about its painstaking gestation – from the languages created out of philological interest, to the poems that first started to flesh out the world evoked by them, and then onto the Lost Tales and the first inklings of the Silmarillion. As an account of creative process the book is fascinating by itself and should be of interest to any writer (especially of imaginative fiction). However, what makes the book gripping and resonant is how ‘four went to war and how they fared’. It is a Boys’ Own story that collides with All Quiet on the Western Front. The chummy proceedings of an apparently elite coterie of white, male privilege might seem unappealing, but when one learns the details of their lives – the fact that Tolkien was orphaned and scraping by, for instance; or how they resisted the shallow irony and jingoistic rhetoric of their age; that they loved, and feared, and fell out, and faltered – then they become far more sympathetic. And whatever their politics or predilections, opportunities or opinions, they were human beings, fragile, unique consciousnesses, crushed by the wheels of war. Two of them survived, but were haunted by the trauma of combat and its toll for the rest of their lives – and the two who didn’t are emblematic of the millions of arrested narratives of the Lost Generation.  Their unsung song gave Tolkien his MO, if he needed one beyond his philological obsession with invented languages. That he latched onto the ‘lost tales’ of Old English and attempted to stitch together their tantalising fragments, perhaps is telling though of someone who lost his parents, lost his closest friends, and lost the England he knew. The fact that he could have so easily lost his life in the bloodbath of the Somme, as so many did, is chilling. Even though we know he survives it tense to read these sections. One stray bullet or piece of shrapnel and that would have done for him and the books millions have come to love, the ‘book of the century’. And this is the heart of Garth’s argument – that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not mere escapism (although in a world gone mad a desire for that is possibly the sanest thing) but a bold rebuttal of all that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ stood for, and a lifetime’s effort to manifest the vision of the TCBS and all they stood for: aestheticism and accountability, colloquy and friendship, in defiance of the barbarism of the age. Tolkien’s project does not deny reality – he had endured its sharpest edge and was not naïve to its horrors – but seeks to transform it, by articulating its deepest patterns. In his work, the Great War became the Greater War, between cosmic forces of light and dark, good and evil – and, in contradiction to the common misreading of his work as being morally simplistic – he wove in flaws and nuances into his characters and cosmology. His was no mere Manichean universe. He did not believe in the divisive populism of his time, which sought to demonize Germans as the ‘Hun’, or the ‘Bosch’ (deeply aware of his own Anglo-German heritage, and of the common roots of those two nations). Both sides were morally culpable, both were tainted by the obscene crimes of war, and after his experiences in the Trenches he was in doubt as to the futility of armed conflict in resolving anything: ‘The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)…’ Beyond the scrupulous pathology the book offers in its fine scholarship and clear-eyed recounting of events, its strength lies in its defence Tolkien’s world, and by extension, of Fantasy as a genre, in which ‘Nihilism is replaced by a consolatory vision’ (p80). Garth argues convincingly for Fantasy’s robustness and validity: ‘In its capacity to warn about such extremes [e.g. the Totalitarianism that arises from the ashes of the First World War], fantastic fiction has the edge over what is called realism. ‘Realism’ has a knee-jerk tendency to avoid extremes as implausible, but ‘fantasy’ actually embraces them. It magnifies and clarifies the human condition.’ (p223) Fantasy can provide the long-view about what it means to be human: the Epic enables us to resituate ourselves within the myths we live by, reminding us of our soul’s song so easily lost in the white noise of the world. But rather than leading us away from manifest creation, it reunites us with it, with the ‘Secret Fire that burn[s] at the heart of the world.’ (p255) Tolkien, expressing the vision of the TCBS, said, as a 24 year old, that they ‘had been granted a spark of fire … that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.’ That vision has inspired millions, and, in this Age of Endarkenment, it is needed now more than ever.

Tolkien and the Great War: the threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth, is published by Houghton Mifflin, 2003

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018

(thank you to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for the gift of this book)

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The Death and Rebirth of Rupert Brooke

As the Gallipoli centenary commemorations get under way today (24 April) it is a poignant time to remember the passing of English poet, Rupert Brooke, who died on the way to the conflict aboard a Royal Navy vessel in the Aegean on 23rd April, 1915. He contracted septicaemia during a stopover in Egypt. Weakened by this, a mosquito tipped the balance and he died aboard, aged only 27. Unusually he was buried on the southern island of Skyros in an olive grave, where later a memorial was erected by his mother and friends. Brooke, born in Tahiti, educated at Rugby and Cambridge, moved in the elite literary circle of the Bloomsbury Set, but also was one of the Dymock Poets (a coterie of poetic friends who ensconced themselves in a village in rural Gloucestershire: they comprised Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. Together they went on long walks, drank cider, wrote poetry, reviews, and criticism, and produced New Numbers, which although it only ran to 4 issues published the iconic poem of Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ for the first time).

However tragic Brooke’s death – and of course he was only one of many who lost their lives in the Great War, the timing of his passing could not be more iconic. April 23rd, St George’s day (patron Saint of England, curiously enough born in Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey), plus Shakespeare’s birth and death-day. This all fed into the legend. His death attained an almost mythic quality – the death of ‘the most handsomest man in England’, with the looks of an Adonis, on a Greek isle, on the way to fight for his country, as though he was some kind of James Frazer-ish solar hero who must perish for the vitality of the land (The Golden Bough and all that). In a similar way to Saint George, martyred in the Middle East, who was adopted by the Crusaders as a Christian icon, and later promoted to patron saint of England in 1222, Brooke’s Mediterranean demise was taken up as a symbol of patriotic sacrifice for King and Country, a PR boost to a dubious war – as the gungho Bosch-bashing of the early days gave way to the grim realities and heavy toll of industrialised warfare.

Brooke’s funeral was almost a state occasion – buried in St Paul’s with an eulogy by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many of the great and the good in attendance,  his passing was marked by a letter to The Times (April 26, 1915) by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, sounded a note that was to swell over the months and years that followed:

The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward into this, the hardest, cruellest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.

His dashing photographic portraits helped to secure his place in the heart of the nation – the bloom of England cruelly cut down. Published by friend Edward Marsh (who wrote a memoir of the poet’s life in the months following his death), his Selected Poems sold in the thousands, and Brooke became the ‘poetry idol’ of his day. ‘The Soldier’ was co-opted as a patriotic cri-de-coeur, used in countless funerals ever since. Brooke was a mercurial, almost quixotic figure – as many of his earlier poems attest (eg ‘Heaven’) — a young brilliant mind who had ambivalent feelings about the War. Flippant remarks such as ‘Come and die, it’ll be great fun’, need to be read with awareness of the whimsical irony with which he laced much of his writing. Typical of a young mind, he played with ideas, with voices, with ‘attitudes’ – never to mature into a consistent authentic voice. What he would have made of his post-humous recruitment as the War Office’s poster-boy, we can only imagine. And yet, his death bequeathed him a kind of Valhalla-like status, and his legend lives on to this day.

If Your Memory Serves You Well…

Poetry By Heart

MC Kevan Manwaring and Joy-Amy Wigman, poet and workshop leader at Poetry by Heart Gloucestershire Finals, 29 Jan 2015

MC Kevan Manwaring and Joy-Amy Wigman, poet and workshop leader at Poetry by Heart Gloucestershire Finals, 29 Jan 2015

Last night I had the pleasure and privilege of MCing the Gloucestershire finals of the Poetry by Heart competition. This is a national initiative set up by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. It is a poetry recital competition for 14-18 year olds. The contestants must choose 2 poems from the fat anthology containing a timeline of verse from Beowulf to 21st Century poetry: a pre-1914 and post-1914. And this year they were asked to select a third poem, from a First World War anthology. With these three poems committed to memory they must first compete within their schools, in front of class mates; and then the school winners must compete with their county. The winners of these heats get to go to Cambridge in March to perform in the regional and national finals.

The learning of poetry by heart is a great way to build confidence and self-esteem, improve public speaking skills, and foster a deeper understanding of language – transferable skills that can help in many ways; and the poems can become wise friends for the reciter – guiding through life. And you’re never short of a party-piece!

The essence of the contest is very bardic and similar to the Eisteddfod system of which I am very familiar – having entered, won and judged several Bardic Chair contests (the latest being the Bard of Hawkwood which I set up last year). Any initiative that encourages the Bardic Tradition is good by me and this is a particularly well thought out one.

To warm the audience up I offered my comic poem, ‘Phone Tree’, and later on, a couple of my favourite poems, ‘A Musical Instrument’ by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, and ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by WB Yeats.

I was relieved not to be judging last night – always a tricky thing to undertake, especially when the quality is so high. And it certainly was in the Gloucester Guildhall. The five contestants (all girls, sadly, as the only boy dropped out at the last minute – but well done to the girls for being so brave!) were all of a very high standard. I was deeply impressed by all of them – bringing alive some of my favourite poetry (Kubla Khan; Dover Beach; Lights Out; Journey of the Magi).

There were three judges – all experienced in poetry and drama. We had a guest poem from artist-scientist, the Purple Poet; and a set from Joy-Amy Wigman, the ‘red haired pixie of doom’, who entertained the audience whilst the judges deliberated.

The Guildhall is a great venue – a classy old building which is now an arts centre, with cinema, bar, hall and workshop rooms. It looked like alot was going on.

The judges returned and the winner was announced – Sophia Smout – who will go onto Cambridge. Prizes were handed out – and all those who took part achieved alot by just stepping up the mark. They deserve our respect. As do their parents and teachers for supporting them.

Tim Shortis, from Poetry by Heart, said after that I ‘…did a great job as MC, soothing and encouraging and generally wafting people towards the light.’

I’m a good wafter!

Whatever age you are – it is always worth learning a poem: a friend for life.

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/

Hedd Wyn and the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood

The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood - an original Eisteddfod Chair from 1882

The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod Chair from 1882

Hedd Wyn & The Bardic Chair at Hawkwood 9 November 2014

 A review by Katie Lloyd-Nunn

Kevan Manwaring, Cotswold Word Centre volunteer co-ordinator and former Bard of Bath (1998-1999), introduced the evening. His intention in organizing the event was to honour Remembrance Sunday and to generate interest in the new competition for the Bard of Hawkwood. This was launched at Hawkwood Open Day on Monday 5 May 2014 and this evening is almost exactly half way through the year which will culminate in the competition and adjudication on Monday 4 May 2015 at Hawkwood Open Day. The theme of the competition is FLOOD and competitors must be “within a day’s walk of the Chair” i.e. and inhabitant of GL5 or GL6 postcode, as winning the Chair includes responsibilities related to the Chair and its location in GL6 at Hawkwood. Each applicant is to perform an original poem, song or story of less than 10 minutes duration.

Richard Maisey, Holder of the Bardic Chair, talked about the Chair, saying how it has been in his family in South Wales near Neath for a long time. The plaque reads Eisteddfod Denbighshire 1882, but no name is assigned (as no Chair was awarded that year). It’s tremendous that now this unclaimed Chair will have the opportunity to be won by a local talented wordsmith.

Kevan explained how the current revival of Bardic Chairs came about. The eccentric antiquarian Edward Williams (Iolo Morgannwg) ‘found’ a list of 30 English Chairs, several of which have now been revived including Bath, Exeter and Glastonbury thanks chiefly to the vision and initiative of the late Tim Sebastian, who started the Bath Eisteddfod in 1996. New Chairs are being created, eg Northampton. What is a Bard? The Bard kept remembrances and genealogy of the tribe and shared stories of wooing, wedding and funerals. They were not Druids, though.

[Katie adds: In 1998 I met Donald McDonald, the Bard of South Uist. He wrote poems about all sorts of events, between thatching his own roof aged late 70s, including Camilla’s marriage to Prince Charles. It was huge privilege to meet him!]

A Laureate is appointed by the Queen and has officialdom attached to him/her. In contrast Bard is elected by their community, and needs to able to perform and connect to an audience, not to be just a “page poet”, e.g. performance poet, singer, storyteller.

The Cotswold Word Centre honours all the word activities in the local area.

The Chair, as its living symbol, will foster community arts engagement. It will support local creativity as each Bard represents a particular locality.

We then watched Hedd Wyn film, a 1992 Welsh-language film. Its title is taken from the bardic name of Ellis Humphrey Evans, who won the Bardic Chair of Birkenhead of 1917 posthumously, having being killed at the Battle of Passchendaele. ‘Hedd Wyn’ means ‘Blessed Peace’.

(see separate notes)

 13. Hedd Wyn

After the film, John Xavian, Bard of May Hill spoke:

“I am a Celt and this film upheld all the Bardic Traditions and we need to look ahead and get working on it [the 2015 competition for the Bard of Hawkwood] now! We want to see young people writing. We need to get into the schools. Spread the word from this gathering! We needpeople to respond. This is a live heritage. Everyone is capable of creation. Like painting, we can write with the Pen – we have the English Language full of shades and colours, tones, depth. Artistic creation is within everyone. Recognise what’s in your heart. People need galvanizing. By freeing the Spirit in each of us, the stupidity of war can be challenged. When the Spirit is bound, the Human is led by aggressive acquisition and short-term gain. Let us remember that music and art meet in poetry.

We want to see a Bard at Hawkwood and we want to see people who want to be the Bard at Hawkwood. The Chair is the symbol for the Spirit unbound in creativity.

Kevan added the tragedy in this film was the silencing of all the voices. The Ellis chair is known as the Black Chair and the 1917 Birkenhead festival is now referred to as “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu” (“The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair”). A powerful symbol of all those silenced voices. Winston Churchill was asked about cutting arts budget and he said: ‘Then what are we fighting for?’

Josie Felce: It was an honour to work for 20 years in the peninsulas of Wales; to help to stimulate people who are not used to expressing themselves is inspiring. The Bard has the job of inspiring others for one year. There should be performance skills offered.

Kevan: Anyone can perform at the contest at Open Day on Monday 4 May 2015, they don’t have to compete. They will still be part of the ‘Gorsedd’ (the Circle for all those who wish to be involved in supporting the Chair).

Ways to hone performance skills:

Last Friday of the month – Black Books Café Story Supper (next 28 Nov).

Green Words – 10 week Tuesday evening writing course at Hawkwood, starting in January.

Late January – Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, an ideal way to savour the “Awen” spirit of inspiration.

Bardic Boot Camp – 28 March, 2015.

Further reflections on the film by Richard Maisey: In the Valleys if you went into the non-conformist chapel, it was to sing. Fewer chapels and no singing now, so singing at Rugby matches is no good – has no “Hywll” no heart / soul / heat/ passion. I wonder if the wood of this chair might have some resonance? Has it soaked up some of those voices?

****The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood is going to Malvern Writers Circle to be blessed by Gillian Clarke, national poet of Wales.****

£44.50 was raised for the Peace Pledge Union from donations.

HEDD WYN – THE FILM

It was the Best Foreign Language Film in 1992 (in Welsh with English subltitles). Also won several BAFTA Wales awards.

Kevan chose to show this film on 9 November on Remembrance Sunday

  1. Set at the beginning of WWI. Ellis Humphrey Evans entered the Eisteddfod under the nom de plume Fleur de Lys. We are showing this film to honour those who have been impacted by war in whatever way.
  1. Also, it’s about a Bard. It’s one of the things that made me [Kevan] want to be a Bard. It’s not just about the Celts ~ it’s about what we do now to celebrate being alive.

Katie’s review:

It is a relatively simple story of a young man wedded to his Muse who sadly dies in action in the early months of WWI. Driven by his need to write and leading a relatively undemanding farming life, Ellis Humphrey Evans is shown writing in the landscape and getting help from a more educated friend in polishing his work for submission to local Eisteddfod competitions. His poems evoke the beauty of his native land and are infused with unspecified feeling, perhaps hinting at and matched by the sensuality of the Welsh landscape and his own susceptibility to the charms of womankind.

The pace of the film is unhurried and could possibly do with cutting by 20 minutes or so – I didn’t feel the relationship with older woman Lizzie really added to the plot. The disturbing reality of the War gradually oozes into the life of Ellis and his family in parallel with his growing ambition to win the national Eisteddfod. As Kevan says, “The film illustrates the complexity, the forces bearing down on the individuals and the community portrayed.” The anguish and confusion of the mother is well portrayed and echoed by the new young school teacher who urges Ellis to write about this, saying,” Ellis we are all affected by this war.”

The camera plays upon actor Huw Garmon’s handsome sensitive features, his beauty enhanced by the fact that most of the other Welsh-speaking actors seemed to have unusually wobbly Celtic faces.

After months of inertia and avoidance, despite a visit by a War Office official, he is finally brought before a tribunal and deemed fit for war. His tendency towards being a bit of a slacker (according to younger brother Bob) and womanizer is now redeemed by his set-jawed decision to go to war instead of 18 year-old Bob in an act of maturity and honour.

He is then flung into the violent, de-humanising war machine yet still manages to make friends with his fellow Welsh tommies, write letters home and to submit his poem Armageddon to the Bardic competition.

His fatal injury occurs fairly early in the film and the clever use of flashbacks brings a subtle poignancy to the narrative. The staging and direction is beautifully done and though grueling is never gross. The mystical Celtic soul shines through in the lush green landscape and full flowing rivers paralleled by the occasional appearance of a shadowy figure representing love, conscience, Nature or perhaps Arianrhod the once-virginal moon goddess whose boat carried the dead into the afterlife.

Is there Peace?

The Arch-Druids calls out “A oes Heddwch” - Is there Peace?

The Arch-Druids calls out “A oes Heddwch” – Is there Peace?

As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War there is a hyper-abundance of media-attention and a plethora of TV dramas, documentaries, plays, albums, shows, and so forth, flogging a dead war horse… One could be forgiven for a certain fatigue – and we’ve got four more years of it to go! Yet there are some stories that break open the heart.

An especially resonant one for me is that of Hedd Wyn.

hedd-wynn

‘Hedd Wyn’ was the bardic name of Ellis Humphreys Evans, a Welsh farmer-poet, who won the 1917 Bardic Chair of Birkenhead posthumously (a prize given in an Eisteddfod, the original ‘Game of Thrones’ if you will). Having had some success in previous eisteddfodau (but not the National Welsh one – the most prestigious) Ellis enlisted, having resisted the Call Up for three years. He was not opposed to War, he said, but didn’t relish the thought of killing a man. Because his parents had four sons of age, it was decided by the War Office that one of them must be sent to the Front. Although Ellis, the eldest, did not want to go, he couldn’t bear his younger brother going in his stead. Ellis felt it his duty, as big brother, to step up. Tragically, he was slain in action, but not before he had submitted a long poem to the National Eisteddfod. Fortunately the censors let it pass (though it was initially suspected of being written in code and revealing sensitive information – in fact it was a cri-de-coeur against the inhumanity of all war). The adjudicators decided that it was the best poem, and awarded the Chair – a beautiful carved ‘throne’, to the poet known only under his pseudonym, ‘Hedd Wyn’. He was killed in action before he was able to claim his Chair, but it was awarded post-humously in his honour and became known as the Black Chair.

In 1992 a moving film was released of his story – Hedd Wyn — and it went on to be Oscar-nominated for the Best Foreign-language Drama (it is in Welsh, with English subtitles), as well as winning a BAFTA for Best Picture, and a string of other awards.

Hedd Wyn film poster

Last night, a special Remembrance Sunday screening was held at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire. The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood was present – an original Eisteddfod Chair from the 1882 contest in Denbighshire. This has been in the family of Richard Maisey for decades, and he has kindly lent it to Hawkwood for the contest, which is to be held at the Open Day, May Day Bank Holiday Monday 2015. The theme is ‘Flood’ and any original poem, song or story by a GL5 or GL6 resident is eligible. Richard said a few words about the Chair, and I introduced the film. Afterwards we had a discussion about some of the issues raised by the heart-rending drama. Considering the countless voices that were silenced by the vast tragedy of the Great War – all those who didn’t make it back from the Trenches, or were injured beyond repair mentally or physically – it was felt that our opportunity to express ourselves creatively is a ‘sacred gift’ that shouldn’t be squandered. Many good men and women have died so we can have that freedom. Peace always comes at a price – and this time of Remembrance is a poignant moment to reflect upon that. To pray for peace. Watching Hedd Wyn I once again felt how could we possibly have let this happen again? Such an exercise in futility as the ‘War to End All Wars’ was, the obscenity of war should not be allowed by civilized people to ever happen again – and yet it has, again and again. By telling these true stories I hope we can make people say No! to all acts of aggression, to the Arms Trade, and the whole industry of aggrandizing War and those who fight in it. Violence is never the solution. There is always another way.

And if we forsake our creativity in the face of conflict then we have forsaken our humanity.

y-gadair-ddu

Observe the 2 minutes’ silence at the anniversary of the Armistice, 11th November, 11am GMT, and remember all victims of war. Make a donation to the Peace Pledge Union to support the ongoing campaign for peace.

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).

The Golden Room

Contributors to The Golden Room gather on the steps of the Stroud Subscription Rooms, 26 July 2014 by Ray Cranham

Contributors to The Golden Room gather on the steps of the Stroud Subscription Rooms, 26 July 2014 by Ray Cranham

On the 24th June, 1914, two days before the birth of Laurie Lee, a famous literary gathering took place in Gloucestershire. Just outside the village of Dymock, a group of friends met at The Old Nail Shop – the home of Wilfrid Gibson and his wife. Also present were fellow writers Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. There they shared their poetry, their words, their wit and wisdom and dreams. They went on to inspire each other to write some of the best-loved poems in the English language (‘Adlestrop’, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘The Soldier’ among others), many of which first saw light in their self-published anthology, New Numbers. They became known, years later, as The Dymock Poets. That first night was immortalised by Gibson in his poem ‘The Golden Room’ and on Saturday modern writers (many of them from Stroud and Gloucestershire) gathered in the Subscription Rooms to celebrate their legacy.

The day was co-organised by Stroud-based poets Kevan Manwaring and Jay Ramsay, with the former arranging the daytime programme of speakers and presentations, and the latter, the evening showcase of poetry and music.

The day started with a keynote speech from Chair of the Friends of the Dymock Poets, Jeff Cooper, who had come all the way down from his native Lancashire to introduce the Dymocks. As he is the grandson of their founder, Lascelles Abercrombie, this was especially resonant.

Next we had Anglophile American Linda Harte (a long-term resident of Malvern), the author of Once They Lived in Gloucestershire, to give a more detailed survey of the Dymocks, focusing on her fellow compatriot Robert Frost. She brought with her rare editions of Georgian Poetry (the movement-defining anthology of the era) and a complete set of New Numbers.

After the break we had the first of two short films by Scott Anthony and Geoff Poole – evocative interpretations of the works of Edward Thomas in music and image, and a welcome break to overheating left-brains.

There followed an engaging presentation on editor and critic Edward Garnett by Anthony Nanson, related to Garnett through his grandmother Barbara Newstead-Garnett. This once key figure, who mentored major literary figures of the early Twentieth Century (DH Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, HE Bates, WH Hudson, and Edward Thomas among others) was justly brought into the limelight at last. Nanson emphasised not only Garnett’s perspicacity as a critic, but also his conviction that literary worth should be the chief criteria for publication, not commercial potential. This, and his championing of writing with environmental sensibilities, makes him an avant-garde and topical figure.

After lunch we were shown a film about composer and First World War poet, Ivor Gurney, entitled ‘Severn and Somme’, named after his iconic collection. This was made by Bristol-based film-maker Diana Taylor, who showed up just in time to answer questions about her self-funded, and moving portrait of the impact and tragedy of war.

Richard Carder, a composer and poet from Bath (Chair of the English Song and Poetry Society) followed this up with a presentation on Gurney and his music, giving several examples of his pieces – settings of the works of Thomas, himself and others – some of which Carder himself plays on in the recordings selected. Musicality and awareness of musical genres (folk, classical, music hall) run through much of the Dymocks’ work so this was a welcome addition to the day.

The final paper of the day was by Kirsty Hartsiotis, Curator of Decorative arts and Designated Collections at the Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. She talked to us about ‘Cotswold Characters’ – focusing on Dymock poet John Drinkwater and his connection with the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds in a fascinating and well-illustrated presentation which unearthed many treasures – some of which can be found in the Wilson!

The daytime programme concluded with a plenary discussion about the themes of the day. Creative fellowship is the main thread that underpins not only the Dymock Poets story, but also the very special Stroud scene, which this was largely the fruit of (and which the evening showcase especially illustrated). An environmental sensiblity (what Nanson, Manwaring, Hartsiotis & Metcalfe term ‘ecobardic’) and a strong anti-war sentiment were also perennial themes that the works of the Dymock poets convey to us across the century, making their legacy more relevant than ever.

The evening showcase, hosted gracefully by Jay Ramsay, kicked off with the hypnotic sound of the HangHang Duo – Barry Mason and Lina Lotto playing the Swiss hang drum. There followed an exemplary succession of strong Stroud voices: Adam Horovitz, Marion Fawlk, Steve Morris, Gabriel Millar, Jay himself, followed after the break by Rick Vick, Jehanne Mehta, Karen Eberhardt-Shelton, Polly Howell, and Anna Saunders (from Cheltenham Poetry Festival). Each poet took at least one of the poems of the Dymocks and responded to it in their own way – conducting a conversation across a hundred years. These creative responses critically brought the focus of the event into the present day – for these are (some of) the Gloucestershire writers living and working in the county today, and, each in their way, carry on the work of the Dymock Poets, especially through the spirit of creative fellowship which pervades in this remarkable town.

This long, hot day of poetry and colloquy celebrated a special gathering and in doing so created its own ‘golden room’ – and whenever kindred spirits and creative souls gather together and share their awen, that golden room lives on.

Soundbites:

For Kevan Manwaring, co-writer (with Terence James) of the Dymock Poets screenplay, The Road Not Taken, this event was the culmination of several years’ interest. His ‘Dymock fever’ brought him to the county and he hopes that he and his fellow contributors managed to pass it on to the audience by the end of the day!

 
‘I feel inspired by the ethos and imaginative vision of the night and feel Stroud has a lot to teach Cheltenham. I’ve written two new poems since the event and feel that many of the poems I heard, have now influenced my own aesthetics.’ Anna Saunders, Director, Cheltenham Poetry Festival