Tag Archives: genius loci

Wild Things

Wild Thing, you make my heart sing …

urisk-by-kevan-manwaring-march-2017

An Urisk. Illustration by Kevan Manwaring 2017

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

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

 

coire-nan-uriskin

Coire-nan-Uriskin, from JP MacLean, 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extract from ‘Lob’, Edward Thomas

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

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

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

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

Watch ‘The Return of Pan’:

Read ‘A Musical Instrument’:

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

Read ‘Wodwo’ in full:

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

Read ‘Lob’ in full:

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

A great blog on Urisks:

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

 

 

A Praise Song for Albion

In 2004 I was commissioned to write a choreo-poem by the artist Beth Townley. The actual performance didn’t take place, but the poem ‘Dragon Dance’ was completed. Here is a youtube clip of me performing it from memory. It is in five main sections – each section honouring one of the corners of the British Isles and Ireland: Logres (England); Kernow (Cornwall); Erin (Ireland); Alba (Scotland); Cambria (Wales). This is not to see them as political units, and nothing of that sort is implied by their association here. I see them as geological facts – ‘a small clusters rocks brought together by fate’, and by celebrating their differences, I hope to encourage a holistic vision of their shared journey. In short, Unity. I have attempted to honour the genius loci – the spirit of place – as she manifests in each part of these remarkable islands. Over the last few years I have started to perform it in each part of the land – in the Fens, in Cornwall, in Wales, in Scotland…(Erin next!) I have found it very powerful to recite in situ. It is my way of giving something back, of saying thank you to that place for its inspiration, ancient monuments, stored ancestral wisdom and legacy. It has been performed en masse at the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge as a liturgy by the Cotswold Pagan Society during a private access ceremony – a proud moment! If the poem inspires you to visit the locations mentioned, do let me know. I’ll be delighted.

Dragon Lines

6-13 April

Over the Easter break Jenni and I spent a week staying in a yurt on an organic smallholding on the Roseland Peninsula, South Cornwall. Cotna, just down from the sleepy village of Gorran Churchtown, is nestled in an L-shaped valley which gave it its original name ‘Crookcorner’. Dave and Sara, the owners, moved in five years ago and have transformed the 14 acres – which now boast a wind-turbine, polytunnels full of leafy veg, free-range chickens, woodland, solar panels, compost loos and a rather lovely straw-bale house. We were first visitors to stay in their yurt, sitting in its own field – separated by its twin by a stream and a line of recently planted willow. With a log burner and lots of homely touches, it was cosy in the evenings. We ate outside alot and enjoyed sunsets, a vast field of stars, a full moon, dawn choruses, and deep peace. At night, the only disturbance was the conversation of owls and the odd visit from Ziggy – the dribbling long-haired cat.

In the daytime we enjoyed some excellent coastal walks (the coastal path could be reached along a charming winding path – 2 miles to Porthmellon). Amid the pasties, pints and piskies, one of the highlights was a walk around the headlands of St Antony and Dodman Point – the latter possibly deriving its name from an old word for dowser or geomancer (a ‘dodman’ was a country name for a snail – it’s horns like the siting poles of the surveyor – perhaps glimpsed in the staves of the Long Man of Wilmington).  In the late Eighties, local ‘dodmen’ Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller discover the Michael and Mary Line – a substantial energy ‘pathway’ running up the southwest peninsula diagonally across England – the two alternating streams weaving in and out like a vast landscape caduceus… or the Rainbow Serpent of Albion. They recorded their findings in their New Age classic, The Sun and the Serpent – which even spawned a TV show, so media-trendy all that stuff was at the time. The fickle gaze of fashion moves on – and last year’s ‘cat’s pyjamas’ are sloughed like snake skin.

Yet the old leys and ways remain – just below the surface – waiting for the curious seeker to stumble upon them, like an ancient sword half-buried in a peat-bog. In Cornwall, this ancient magic feels close to the surface still. I’ve felt it every time I’ve visited – and books like The Little Country, an enchanting novel by the bardically-inclined Canadian author Charles de Lint – conjure it up for me from afar.

I dowse these ‘dragon lines’ in my own way, with the dowsing rod of my pen and my imagination – tuning into the genius loci wherever I visit and letting the awen come through me. In 2004 I was commissioned to write a poem for a dance piece by artist Beth Townley – this became my epic praise-song to Albion, Dragon Dance. I have been performing this in situ at locations around the country – north, south, east and west – as my way of giving thanks back to the land that has born and nurtured me. On the last day of our trip (an auspicious Friday 13th) we stopped off at the Hurlers stone circle on a suitably mist-erious Bodmin Moor – here I recited the Cornwall section of the poem: quite a challenge in lashing, freezing rain! We endured this in good humour, before returning gratefully to the shelter of the car.

Here it is…

Kernow

In the heat of the day,
in the eye of light,
in the land of noon,
where the sea is night.

A land of glittering granite,
sun beat-beating down,
a blacksmith’s hammer on anvil,
melting us with furnace heat.

The silent longevity of fogou and quoit
marking time. Neolithic sundials –
follow their shadow over moor and shore…
Tintagel to Men-an-Tol,
rag-tree temple, Madron’s well.
St Michael’s Mount to St Nectan’s Glen
Zennor to Lamorna, this narrow peninsula –

Twrch Trwyth’s road,
where legend disappeared beneath the waves,
comb and scissors gleaming between bristles,
like church pew mermaid with comb and mirror.
Ageless Mabon snatching success
from the ears of defeat,
before vanishing too … like Arthur …  into the mist.

The dying sun journeying beyond, to the sunken land.
Lyonesse of the endless waves, the Fortunate Isles,
of beacon towers,  inkdust sand, the semaphor of sails.
Deadly Sillina, adorned with the riches of shipwrecks,
the prayers of fishermen, the tears of fishwives.

Passion fire, soul flame yearning,
in the cauldron love is burning.
The spark on the kindling,
the flint and the tinder,
fire friend, stolen power,
seize the spear of the sun,
Long as the day, shadowbright,
give us your light,
give us your light.
give us your light,
so we may do what is right.

Between the earth and the air,
between the fire and the water,
the spirit waits at the centre,
the spirit waits at the centre.

Dance the dragon,
let the dragon dance me.
Biting the tail of infinity.

from Dragon Dance – Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2004

On Monday, 23rd April – which is of course St George’s Day (as well as The Bard’s birth-and-death day) – I’ll be performing in a show with my fellow members of Fire Springs entitled ‘Spirits of Place’ at the enchanting Hawkwood College (which has its own share of genius loci) on the outskirts of Stroud. We’ll be sharing a selection of stories from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire – taken from our new collections published by The History Press. Mine isn’t due out until the end of the year, but while in Cornwall I was editing the manuscript and rehearsing the tales – so it felt like I had a little bit of the county with me. It has it’s fair share of dragon tales…

Whatever you think of St George (England’s patron saint – all the way from Cappadocia, Turkey…) why not raise a glass to the dragons of Albion on Monday – may they continue to live on, in legend at least.