Tag Archives: Mabinogion

The Taliesin Soliloquies: Greyhound

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I’ll teach that young upstart,

this new dog’s got old tricks –

the fith-fath he fled with.

Long dog now am I,

deadly Sirius,

death at his heels,

snapping, slavering –

a knife thrust, forever forward,

fangs bared in tight death grin,

eyes on fire,

I shall never blink,

never lose sight of my prey.

As swift as a wisht-hound

running through the sky,

the night, my road,

harrowing souls who stray

into the wild-wood.

There is nowhere you can hide,

little hare,

no hollow or shadow.

No leverage, leveret.

Your scent leaves a ribbon of bright noise

my nose follows with ease.

I am drawing near,

I taste your fur

on my long tongue.

Little Gwion, you’ll make a toothsome morsel,

replace the potion you have stolen,

the awen usurped

from my son.

 

Hare-thief, there’s no taboo

that will stop me eating you,

the darkness to devour you

in one gigantic

gulp.

 

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

way of awen by me

From ‘The Taliesin Soliloquies’, originally published in The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, O Books 2010; to be included in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring, Awen, 2017 https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Hare

The Taliesin Soliloquies: Hare

AbyssinianHare

Crazy-eyed,

I high-tail it

away from Ceridwen’s lair,

jink-jinking to

avoid my pursuer

snapping at my heels –

relentless as death,

inescapable as my shadow.

Heart beating its tattoo of flight,

legs thrum, a drummer boy’s sticks.

Through cwm, over bryn, cefn, coed,

the gaps between the awkward spaces,

through a hedge backwards, this-way-that –

a mad man’s mind.

Method to my erratic path,

yet always, her hot breath at my back.

Driven by the fire in my

stream-lined head, an arrow of fur,

Long ears swept back,

best paws forward. Rabbit foot, bring me luck.

Ablaze with awen,

The world transformed

into a landscape of scent and sound,

predator and prey. Forage, territory and fate.

Moon-boxer,

I must turn and face my foe –

run through the fire and be transformed.

Let the fith-fath change me.

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

way of awen by me

From ‘The Taliesin Soliloquies’, originally published in The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, O Books 2010; to be included in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring, Awen, 2017 https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Ballads Across Borders

Off by yourself you could sing those songs to bring yourself back.

Gary Snyder, ‘Good, Wild, Sacred’

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Offa’s Dyke Path, descending southwards from the Jubilee Tower, 1821 ft (555 m) .                   K. Manwaring 2016

Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and then off I’d set, sticking in hand and song in my heart.

I felt very much like a pilgrim – a bit crazy and off the beaten track of reality. I was delighted to discover in Thoreau’s iconic essay on walking (slipped in with my other essentials) that the word ‘Sauntering’ is derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense [sic] of going a al Sainte Terre’, to the Holy Land. Apparently children used to call out, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer!’ a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. Thoreau notes that some derive the word from ‘sans terre’, without land or home, ‘which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.’ This, Thoreau suggests, is the secret of successful sauntering, something I bore in mind as I wended my way southwards. Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and then off I’d set, sticking in hand and song in my heart.

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Halfway from nowhere. K. Manwaring 2016

Some of the songs I selected explored and expressed issues to do with land rights and freedom of access, rites of roaming, if you will. This was inspired, in part, by the show ‘Three Acres and a Cow: A History of Land Rights and Protest in Folk Song and Story’, by Robin Gray and friends, which I saw in Stroud, in June. That came with its own songbook and, in the spirit of the ‘creative commons’ philosophy of the show (which encourages other productions through its online wiki), I cannibalised some of it.

My first day was spent singing the Sydney Carter classic, ‘John Ball’, about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This was inspired by Ball’s motto: ‘When Adam delved and Eva span, who then was the gentleman?’ There was no hierarchy or class system in Eden, between humans, at least. Indeed, there seemed to be ‘democracy for all beings’ – human and animal living in harmonious equality. ‘John Ball’ is a great song to sing at the break of day striding out into the world, making one feel as though it is possible to sing creation into existence. As the Venerable Bede says of the poet Caedmon: ‘Sing me Frumsceaft’. The parable is worth relating here in full:

One evening when Caedmon was feasting with his friends he saw the harp being passed towards him around the hearthfire and, feeling shy about his lack of skill in singing, he gave some excuse about having to look after the animals and slipped away. Out there in the barn he fell asleep, and in his dream an Angel came to him and said, “Caedmon, sing something.” He answered and said, “I cannot sing so I left the feasting and came here because I could not.” He who spoke to him again said, “Nevertheless, you can sing to me.” He said, “What shall I sing?” He said, “Sing me the Creation.”

(cited in Sing Me The Creation, Paul Matthews, Hawthorn 1994)

In a way, this mirrors my own experience. Told as a young man I was ‘tone deaf’ and discouraged by my peers at the time, I gave up trying to be musical for many years, until recently when I’ve started to learn the guitar and joined a community choir. I found it a lot easier to sing in a crowd and this bolstered my bruised confidence. However, it’s still hard to sing in front of people. Away in the middle of nowhere, it’s a different matter. I can sing my heart out from the hilltops. And here I was, away from the circle of community like Caedmon, walking the Offa’s Dyke and finding my voice amongst the animals … and over the next few days I had several profound non-anthropocentric encounters which affirmed something ‘Caedmon-ish’ was happening.

On the third day, I sang ‘Brimbledon Fair’ as I hiked from The Griffin Inn where I’d camped back to the acorns (the white acorns which delineated the national trail). I had to pass through a field of cows, frisky young bulls, who rushed over to me, looking like they were intent on stampeding me to death. Quickly, I turned on them and increased the volume of my voice. My singing seemed to stop them dead in their tracks. They huddled around, placid, curious, spellbound. I sang them ‘John Ball’ too, changing the lyric to ‘John Bull’. When I finished they followed me to the edge of the field. I crossed the stile and they lined up at the five-bar gate, watching expectantly, as though waiting for an encore.

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‘Sing John Bull…’ Animal magic on the Offa’s Dyke, K. Manwaring 2016

Another day, setting off after a wet and windy night from a wild-pitch (and a bracing strip-shower by a cold tap) I sang Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as I passed through a flock of black-fleeced sheep. On the Dyke you pass hundreds if not thousands of sheep, and you get used to them panicking as soon as they see you, as though they’ve never seen a human being before – even though their field is on a national trail. They always bolt. But not the ewe and her lambs before me on the path. Mothers with their lambs are especially skittish, but not these three. They seemed to listen even closer as I sang ‘And was the Holy Lamb of God/on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ The ewe came up to me and sniffed me hands. One of the lambs let me give it a scratch behind the ear and run my hands through its soft fleece. They were not afraid.

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‘And was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ The music-appreciating ewe and her lambs. K. Manwaring, 2016

Was something Orphic going on? Who knows, but it would appear not to be a unique phenomenon, as Gary Snyder points out in The Practice of the Wild: ‘All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.’ However it worked, I continued my ‘talking across the species boundaries’, as he put it, in intuitive, unexpected ways.

Another day, I came across a rabbit by the side of the path. I was still and as non-threatening as possible. It gave me an inquisitive glance, then carried on nibbling not a yard from me. A shrew I nearly trod upon reacted in the same way, its tiny pip eye clearly registering no threat. I sang to a donkey that insisted on blocking my way; to a trio of ducks who invaded my tent every half an hour in the hope of crumbs; to horses and their foals; and to the skylarks trilling above the meadows and the birds of prey circling and swooping over the rocks and roots.

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Mind your step! Esglwseg Crags, a friable path on the Offa’s Dyke, K. Manwaring 2016

 

All the while I walked the Offa’s Dyke Path, which at one time delineated the border between England and Wales. Now it wove back and forth like a slippery caduceus. The songs carried me over the border, connecting me with other cultures, countries, or times; and they carried me over the border of species too, and seemed to facilitate inter-species communication. It was a sole/soulful way to travel. As Gary Snyder says: ‘Our ‘soul’ is the dream of the other’. It extends the borders of the self until it connects with all of creation.

On a practical level, the songs I sang really helped to keep me going: they kept my morale up and put a spring in my step. Whenever I sang a song with gusto, fatigue was forgotten, my feet took care of themselves and the miles melted away.WP_20160708_17_00_48_Pro

And it was empowering to sing songs of protest, of commoners’ rights, of victories won by the people (e.g. the Countryside and Right of Way ‘CRoW’ act, which the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the campaigning by the Ramblers’ Association and others finally achieved in 2000 for England and Wales). Could the sharing of ballads be used to help heal division across wounded communities? We need to hear one another’s songs. Listen and share. Nothing breaks down barriers better than a good singalong. If there is an organisation like Médecins Sans Frontières (one of many reasons why the great humanitarian nation of France deserves our respect and support in its difficult time) then why not Songs Sans Frontières? Perhaps there are initiatives out there of a similar spirit already doing good work – if so, I salute them.

The healing or the re-enchanting of the land by song has been happening for a long time.

In Australia, the Songlines demarcating the Dreamtime windings of the Rainbow Serpent, tribal territories, hunting grounds, springs, sacred lands and so forth were and are maintained by Aboriginal elders singing their linear narratives while on ‘walkabout’.

By repurposing Offa’s geomorphic act of hubris as a songline for the Welsh/English border, it can be turned from a military power statement to a conduit of harmony between cultures, communities, and even species.

One day I would love there to be a ‘Mabinogion Way’, connecting all the associated sites across Wales (perhaps along four ‘branches’), enabling one to cross Cambria reciting the tales and poems of its ‘national’ cycle (as conjured into being by Lady Charlotte Guest); but for now, I had cobbled together my own psychomythic songline – the Animals of Albion Amble perhaps.

As if to confirm this, on the last day, when I concluded my walk on the Wye Bridge, Monmouth (having walked the final section to Chepstow several years ago), foot-sore but satisfied with my partner, the folk-singer, Chantelle Smith (who had joined me for the last two days, augmenting my modest repertoire with her extensive song-bag and beautiful voice), I cast into the turbid waters of the Wye a stone I had picked up from Prestatyn beach, at the start of the Offa’s Dyke Path. The noise of passing cars and my partner’s somewhat debilitated state (understandable after thirty plus hard miles in two days…) threatened to diminish what should have felt like a euphoric moment – the goal of eleven days achieved – but then, just as we turned to leave, I noticed a ring of ripples where I had cast my stone. In a flash of sunlight, the most gigantic salmon I’d ever seen leapt out of the water a good three feet, flipping over like Tom Daly in mid-dive, before plunging once more into its liquid mystery.

The Salmon of Llyn Llwyd or not, it felt as though my effort had been acknowledged. That my ‘song line’ was complete.

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Perfect pitch at Pampwnton, K. Manwaring 2016

A Walker’s Songbook compiled by Kevan Manwaring

Day 1. John Ball (Sydney Carter)

Day 2. The Manchester Rambler (Ewan MacColl)

Day 3. Brimbledon Fair, or Young Ramble Away

Day 4. The Wild Rover

Day 5. Jerusalem (William Blake)

Day 6. The Lincolnshire Poacher

Day 7. Spencer the Rover

Day 8. Carrick Fergus

Day 9. John Barleycorn

Day 10. Caledonia (Dougie Maclean)

Day 11. Crazy Man Michael (Thompson/Swarbrick)

 

 

Thank you to the songwriters, the Offa’s Dyke Association for maintaining the path, to the animals, the nice campsite owners, and to my intrepid partner and fellow songwalker Chantelle.

 

 

 

 

 

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).

Tree of Leaf and Flame

On Saturday last (8th Feb) I went to see a fantastic storytelling performance in Postlip Hall, just north of Cheltenham with my partner Chantelle. It was a suitably dark and stormy night when we set off – and the venue added to the atmosphere of the show as well… Negotiating a long rutted, tree-lined track we arrived at a country manor (now a community of shared home-owners). Inside a stone-hewn hall a large fire crackled in a capacious burner. A makeshift bar in the kitchen served very reasonably priced wines and ales, plus a table for CDs and books. The resident cat – a dashing fellow with a white flash on his chest – was doing the ‘meet and greet’. With my pint of Gem we settled down as the show began.

Daniel Morden is one of Britain’s top storytellers – performing with master teller Hugh Lupton in epic retellings of The Odyssey and The Iliad (which I saw in a packed Guildhall in Bath as part of the Literature Festival) as well as with his ‘Devil’s Violin’ troupe (the last time I saw him was performing their eponymous show at the Cadbury’s Factory social club in Keynsham). Tonight he graciously introduced himself and his fellow performers (Oliver Wilson-Dickson on Violin; and Dylan Fowler on Guitar) as a ‘three-headed, six-legged storyteller’, i.e. it was a team effort, and the tales they would weave were to be told as much through the music as through his words. And weave a spell they did – in a mesmerising first half. Daniel’s powerful, punchy delivery related the dark tale of Llew Llaw Gyffes and his flower-bride, Blodeuwedd – a tour-de-force which played well on the merciless symmetries of the material. Every action has its consequence – and the karmic clock kept on ticking throughout the other stories – the main sequence relating the travails of Pwyll and Rhiannon, from their wooing to their woe. This multi-layered story (one of the Four Branches of the ancient collection of tales popularly called the Mabinogion, or Y Mabinogi, in Welsh) was split across the break – allowing the audiences to recharge their glasses, stretch their legs (or wait out in the chilly rain for the gents), and chat (I said hello to Daniel and he remembered me from the ‘chocolate factory’ – ‘Must be a storyteller,’ I quipped. What a memory!).

After the break, the musicians led us back into the magic with a haunting song. Daniel got the audience laughing as the protagonists Pwyll and Pryderi tried their luck in mean-hearted English towns – some welcome comic relief in this dour material. Before the break, a war-torn survivor of a massacre expressed sentiments which echoed down the centuries – especially in the year the First World War centenary commemorations commence. Such stories are universal and timeless and don’t need contemporising to have relevance Daniel and I both agreed afterwards.

When these obscure, ancient stories are told this well they shake off their dust, untangle themselves, and seem lucid and vital. Any good performance of Shakespeare does the same.

Seeing such high quality performances re-energises my belief in the power of the medium, and rekindles my interest in these dark Welsh tales – the very first ones I learnt. It feels like coming home.

 

The Devil’s Violin Co. are touring The Tree of Leaf and Flame – catch it while you

http://www.sfs.org.uk/events/tree-leaf-and-flame-3