Tag Archives: Tolkien

A Wilderness of Dragons

In the eponymous essay, reprinted in The Monsters and The Critics (2006), Tolkien cited the Beowulfian critic Professor Chambers’ phrase ‘a wilderness of dragons’ 298. Tolkien, punctilious as ever when it comes to language, queries the ‘Shylockian plural’, and yet it is clear he would prefer such a hazardous place to the bleak territory of the unimaginative critic. It clearly stuck in his mind, and perhaps acted as grit in the oyster for his creation of the ‘desolation of Smaug’, in the map for The Hobbit (1937) – a blasted wasteland on the edge of the cosy world of the hobbits.

This is a deliberate striking out into unchartered zones.

On the borders of medieval maps, where human knowledge ran out and reason slept, monsters stirred: ‘Here Be Dragons’ the legend read. This is the direct descendant of the primal fear which lurked outside the circle of firelight for our most ancient ancestors. Of course, some fears were very real, when ferocious predators roamed the world with early man. And the fear sometimes remains even when the threat has gone – or wasn’t even there in the first place – the glass ceilings of the mind that keep us prisoners.

A map is a snapshot of available knowledge. It says ‘this is where we are’, ‘this is how much we know’. It is a circle in the sand with man at the centre. This cartographical solipsism has continued well into the 21st Century, with OS postcode-centred personalised maps; and, on a larger scale, world maps which manipulate the landmass, showing the continents of the Northern Hemisphere far bigger than they should be: the classic North/South divide. A Peters projection depicts the landmasses in correct proportion to the surface of the Earth, and consequently Africa, South America and South East Asia dominate. Other maps depict our ‘Antipodes’, Australia, as the centre of the world, the Pacific Rim, or one of the Poles – a healthy shifting of perspective. Indeed there is no reason why North should be ‘up’ on our maps – we are living on a sphere after all, which doesn’t say This Way Up on it. But we feel, especially in the West, the world revolves around us.

There is nothing new in this.

The miraculously preserved 12th Century ‘Mappa Mundi’ (‘Map of the World’) in Hereford Cathedral, rendered on vellum with its hand-drawn detail looks, to modern eyes, like something out of a Fantasy novel that Tolkien & Sons might have fashioned. The world as we know it is virtually unrecognisable. Like many maps of the Middle Ages, it depicted the Holy Lands at the centre, and Jerusalem at the centre of those. This was and still is for many, the axis mundi of the human universe. The map depicted the whole of Christendom – then, the most successful of religious franchises – what lay outside that belonged to the Devil, that greatest of serpents. In Norse mythology it is the World Serpent who encircles Midgard, the Middle World, biting its own tail like Ouroboros. The dragon dwells where the known becomes unknown: the edge of the conscious world. It is the ultimate threshold guardian – often guarding untold riches, as in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, or in Sigurd and Fafnir, where the monstrous worm – once a covetous brother cursed for slaying his kin – guards a great treasure, Glitaheid: the glittering heath.

Seigfried and Fafnir

Tolkien had this to say on the subject:: ‘I find ‘dragons’ a fascinating product of the imagination. But I don’t think the Beowulf one is frightfully good. But the whole problem of the intrusion of the ‘dragon’ into northern imagination and its transformation there is one I do not know enough about. Fāfnir in the late Norse version of the Sigurd story is better; and Smaug and his conversation obviously is in debt there.’ 299

Dragons have haunted the human imagination for centuries – resolutely defying all probability of their existence. They are the kundalini serpent of the Collective Unconscious; our suppressed desires, lurking in the shadows of the Id; the Smaug Within, grafted to our own reptilian brain. We can no more banish the dragon than we can shake off the coils of our DNA.

These ancient and canny beasts loomed large in Tolkien’s febrile imagination, yet they seem hard-wired into the British psyche – certainly the Welsh and English soul – appearing on the Cymric flag and starring in many folk tales and legends (60 recorded in England300). The most well known, George and the Dragon, about England’s national saint, is only the wing-tip of these, and to this exotic import we shall return, but first let us consider his native cousins.

Merlin, Myrddin Emrys, famously beheld a red and white dragon locked in combat beneath Vortigern’s Tower: he explained that the former were the British, the white, the Saxon – and while they fought no peace would be in the land. Merlin gave his name to the British Isles: Clas Myrddin, Merlin’s Enclosure – he is our tutelary guardian.

In another tale, ‘Ludd and Llevelys’, from the 13th Century Welsh cycle of ancient British oral tales, Y Mabinogi, a terrible scream is heard over the land every May Eve, which blights cattle, causes mares to drop their foals early, women to miscarry and milk to curdle. Llevelys tells Lludd, his brother, how to dispatch them: measure the land, and in its exact centre (which they decide is Oxford – X marking the spot) dig a pit and fill it with mead, covered with silk. This will lure the dragons down, they will drink, get drunk, fall asleep, wrapped in the silk. Then he needs to gather them up, (as they are now in the form of sticky pigs), lock them in a stone chest, and bury them in a hill near Snowdon called Dinas Emrys – where Vortigern’s tower was said to have been and Merlin beheld his two feuding dragons. Thus the stories overlap, biting each others’ tails.

The Lambton Worm and other similar folk tales seem to be morality tales, regardless of their claims to authenticity. There are often local features which ‘prove’ the veracity of the story, as in Worm Rock in Lambton. Beneath the highly stylised chalk figure in Oxfordshire, the White Horse of Uffington, which some interpret as a dragon, there is a conical shaped hill called Dragon’s Hill. It is claimed that the bare patches of earth found upon it were caused by the slain dragon’s blood – highly toxic, like that of the serpentesque Alien in Ridley Scott’s 1982 tech-noir film, which is essential a dragon-in-space horror movie with the message: we take our demons with us.

These, and many others, seem to create a British Dreamtime, with the equivalent of the windings of the Rainbow Serpent – as with the topographical narratives of Aboriginal Australia. Perhaps the large-scale legacy of glaciers in the British Isles suggested this, as they gouged out the valleys and shaped the rocks that stick out like the skeleton of a great land behemoth. With the last glacial period known as Wurm, it is tempting to link this to the being old English for serpent: ‘wyrm’.

Our most famous dragon culture tale is Saint George and the Dragon of course – the ‘pin ups’ of many eponymous pubs, which bear his sign. The dragon had, by this time come to represent the chthonic forces of the unChristian, be they Pagan, Muslim or heretic. The irony is Saint George seems to have started off as a pork butcher from Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey. His grave is situated in Lydda, Palestine – near the area where the story of Perseus, Andromeda and the great Kraken played itself out. Our Saint George similarly rescued a damsel in distress who was going to be fed to the local dragon. Yet lately he gets martyred: forced to walk in red hot iron shoes, broken on a wheel, and immersed in quick lime by none other than Gevya Garsa, the ‘Serpent King’. Saint George’s grave was discovered by Crusaders who adopted him in their campaigns against the Saracen. He was brought home and his Feast Day was chosen as April 23rd, and this eventually became England’s national day of celebration, a reassertion of collective identity. In recent years the English flag – the very same colours the Templar Knights wore – has been re-appropriated as a positive image, out of the hands of the hooligans.

Tolkien’s folk hero ‘Farmer Giles of Ham’ – another kind of ‘pork butcher’ – shows how the chaos-dragon can be subdued by good old English commonsense and stubbornness. In essence, the dragon is any disruption to the status quo. For a full decade from 9/11 the world’s modern Grendel or Chrystophylax was Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda: a useful amorphous bugbear, with countless splinter cells. Like the Hydra of Leda which Herakles fights in one of his Twelve Labours – cut one head off and two more grow in its place: thus, a regenerating supervillain to keep the world’s Stars-and-Stripes-spandexed ‘Superpower’ and his weedy sidekick (e.g. his ‘special friend’, Britain) busy, and feeding the Culture of Fear, for as long as people swallow it. In this way ‘dragons’ can stop the populace from straying too far the white-picketed enclosure and for justifying draconian measures. We live in the Age of the Dragon it seems.

Emblematic of their genre (once used in libraries as a symbol to designate that category) in their overused unlikeliness, dragons have been a staple of Fantasy fiction since the earliest stories, and it looks like there’s no diminishing their popularity: Tolkien relaunched them in modern fiction and they haven’t gone away since – what with the endless Tolkien pastiches (even the anti-Tolkienian, ultra gritty, brutal, and massively popular series ‘Song of Ice and Fire’, by George RR Martin, has them – a whole dragon dynasty). The roleplaying system from TSR, Dungeons and Dragons, have allowed participants to bait dragons in their lairs, and even play them: they come in all shapes, sizes, colours and elements: earth, air, fire and water, bronze, silver and gold dragons. Some have portrayed dragons more positively. German author Michael Ende, in his Fantasy classic The Never-Ending Story (translated into English in 1983) has a luck-dragon (similar to the oriental species – long-necked and whiskered) help the boy hero. American author Anne McCaffrey has made them the key novum of her long-running Dragonriders of Pern series (initiated in 1967, and comprising 22 novels in 2011); a new kid on the block – mega-hyped wünderkind Christopher Paolini – has resurrected them yet again with Eragon, 2003 (first of the Inheritance Cycle): joining the long list of its movie cousins on the big screen: Fritz Lang’s silent double-bill Die Nibelungen (1924); Disney’s Pete and the Dragon (1973); and Dragonslayer (Robbins, 1981); Dragonheart (Cohen, 1996); Shrek (Adamson/Jenson, 2001) and its sequels; Reign of Fire (Bowman, 2002); Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005); the How to Train a Dragon animation (Deblois, 2010); and the Merlin BBC TV series (2008-2012). The second part of Peter Jackson’s extended Hobbit ‘trilogy’, The Desolation of Smaug (2013) is the latest to flap its wings and breathe fire over the heads of movie-goers. 

No doubt more will be on the wing.

It seems many people still desire dragons. We simply cannot take our eyes off of them…

The Spell of the Dragon

A dragon’s gaze was said to be mesmeric – once we fell under it, we were hypnotised and at its mercy. Those who ‘desire dragons’ had better watch out! Dracophilia can become an all-consuming passion, a burning obsession, which can cloud our judgement and drive us to extremes. Tolkien, who knew this fever more than most, describes the hero of The Children of Hurin (2007), falling under the spell of the Fāfnir-like fire-drake, Glaurung:

Then Turin sprang about, and strode against him, and fire was in his eyes, and the edges of Gurthang shone as with flame. But Glaurung withheld his blast, and opened wide his serpent-eyes and gazed upon Turin. Without fear Turin looked in those eyes as he raised up his sword: and straightway he fell under the dreadful spell of the dragon, and was as one turned to stone.’ 301

Dragons could be interpreted as symbols of the chthonic forces of the subconscious, which we should bait in their lairs. It is far healthier to assimilate the Shadow than deny it. Jung, who wrote extensively on the Shadow, referred to it as: ‘the thing a person has no wish to be’ 302. Jung defined the Shadow as: ‘…that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of the animal ancestors…’ 303. Failure to recognise, acknowledge and deal with it led, in Jung’s mind, to problems in the individual, in groups, and organisations. Yet the influential psychoanalysist believed it had positive spin-offs: ‘If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.’ 304By embracing the energy of our ‘animal ancestors’ we can tap into deep springs of creativity.

The classic images of a knight struggling in the coils of a serpent seem to represent the armoured identity of the Ego fighting for dominion over the Lower Self: this crops up time and time again in world myths, e.g. Apollo and Python. The serpent is often depicted as being impaled by a spear or lance – in geomantic terms this is the ‘fixing the spot’ of the earth dragon energy. This seems to have been done quite deliberately within Christian temples on pagan sites (the prevalence of St Michael – the dragonslayer – churches on hilltops has been noted by the likes of John Michel, Paul Broadhurst, etc). St Patrick was said to have cast out all the serpents in Ireland from the top of Croagh-Patrick, a mountain on the West coast originally named after Crom-Croagh, the bent-backed one, a chthonic deity vanquished by the usurper priests. The lance, the standing stone, the cross or the spire acts like an acupuncture needle and channels the telluric currents. It is a way of conducting chaos.

There is a sense in which a writer does this every time he picks up a pen, or a musician his violin bow. We tap into the field of potential, give voice to it, craft it. This lateral approach has proved to be very effective, from the Dadaist automatic drawings and writing, to popular self-help books on creativity such as Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards, 1983) and The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron, 1992). It is a rich repository of creativity.

Similarly, the serpent can be seen as the libido, which can be channelled positively – as in the Tantric practice of raising the Kundalini, the serpent energy which dwells in the lowest chakra and snakes up the spine during lovemaking. In the East, the dragon is seen as a positive force, in the human body, in the land. It is worked with in acupuncture and in feng-shui. The Imperial Dragon in Chinese dynasties, and the presence of it in Oriental astrology (as one of the 12 zodiacal signs) shows a qualitatively different status than in the west.

Ophialatry, the worship of serpent deities is prevalent in several ancient cultures. In India the serpent is especially important in Hindu and Buddhist mythology – in the form of the snake god, Nāga; in Voudou the serpent is very important also. Serpent Magic seems to be regaining popularity in the occult circles. As with any sacred knowledge, however, it can be misappropriated, e.g. the Nibelungen Hall (built in 1913), an astonishing serpent temple at Konigswinter, North-Rhine-Westfalia, at the foot of the Seibengebirge range – the seven hills said to have been created by the thrashings of Fāfnir’s tail – depicts a giant serpent interwoven with a pentacle on the floor of a dark shrine to the myth of Seigfried and Fāfnir (the temple is built near the ‘Drachenfels’ – Dragon Rock, the site of a former castle associated with the legend – where Siegfried was said to have slain the dragon and bathed in its blood). Made world famous (and notorious) by Wagner, it was used by the Nazis in the Second World War – a perverted symbol of national pride. These days, it has become a creepy tourist attraction with a reptile zoo, and a ‘Dragon’s Lair’, complete with a long stone serpent, built in 1993 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Wagner’s death.

Generally in the West the idea of the serpent being the Evil One, the seducer, the tempter, is hard-wired into us from an early age. Many people have unnecessary phobias of snakes – exploited by such low-grade schlock as Snakes on a Plane! (Ellis, 2006); and Q, the 1982 monster flick directed by Larry Cohen – a spurious spin on the ancient icon of the Winged Serpent (the Meso-American Feathered Serpent, Quetzcoatl, transposed improbably to New York, in King Kong-like fashion). Yet fear and desire are often closely linked, and what is forbidden often becomes more appealing. The much maligned dragon has gained new fans over the years, and some feel protective towards such unlikely creatures as though they were endangered species. Their very ‘existence’ challenges the consensus reality. And a world which can accommodate dragons can also accommodate heroes, heroines, villains and a whole cast of magical beings. Suddenly the world seems less lonely. The mysterious is possible, and not everything is explained away or tidied up.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his preface to The Book of Imaginary Beasts (1967) calls dragons ‘a necessary monster’: ‘We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that fits man’s imagination, and this accounts for the dragon’s appearance in different places and periods.’ 305 The Mappa Mundi is like a retinal scan – around its periphery strange creatures flicker, as in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle (1984-2009). Monsters and wonders await at the edge of consciousness, at the edge of knowledge, at the edge of the known.British Fantasy author Alan Garner, argues that it is intrinsic to our nature to explore these littoral zones: ‘Man is an animal that tests boundaries. He is a ‘mearcstapa’, ‘boundarystrider’, and the nature of myth is to help him to understand the boundaries, to cross them and to comprehend the new; so that, whenever Man reaches out, it is myth that supports him with a truth that is constant, although names and shapes may change.’ 306 Garner dramatises this concept most directly in his extraordinary 1996 novel Strandloper.

Author Moyra Caldecott, in her memoir, A Multi-Dimensional Life (2007) describes this process: ‘In writing a novel one can play with ideas and concepts that hover on the edge of one’s belief and, while doing so, consider seriously one’s attitude to them.’ 307

This is the liminal territory the Fantasy writer explores. The twilight threshold, where humanity meets the unknown, the Fey, the divine or diabolic – a place we travel to every night in our dreams. Yet the Fantasy writer must be fully awake in this world of dreams, so as not to miss anything. He or she is the lucid dreamer, a Neo of The Matrix (Wachowski Bros, 1999), the one-who-is-awake. In his haunting classic Voyage to Arcturus (1920) David Lindsay has his protagonist Maskull say: ‘I dream with open eyes … and others see my dreams, that is all’.308

In his robust defence of dragons in his influential essay on ‘Beowulf’, Tolkien wrote: ‘A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.’309

The dragon is, if nothing else, a potent symbol of the human imagination. The glittering treasure that it hoards could be seen to be the treasures of the subconscious, waiting to be unearthed. By tapping into our own creativity, we are disturbing our own dragon from its slumber. Something old and noble inside us is stirred. Something that has the memory of the Earth and fire in its belly.

DESIRING DRAGONS - COMPASS BOOKS FRONT COVER

Extract from Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest by Kevan Manwaring, published by Compass Books 2014. Available direct from their website here

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 Fascination of the Worm

Dracophilia...  My latest book - due from Compass Books soon!

Dracophilia…
My latest book – due from Compass Books soon!

Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’ JRR Tolkien6

 

Twentieth Century Professor of English and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who perhaps more than any other single author has brought alive worlds of Fantasy in his vast Middle Earth sequence of stories, as a child ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’:

 

Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.’7

 

If we read this as a yearning for Fantasy, (that is, the experience of such, as opposed to the genre – although we will dignify both with the capital in the hope that one will encourage the other) then I do not think he is alone in this, as the huge popularity of Fantasy in books, films and computer games prove. There seems to be an endless appetite for it: The Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, TheTwilight Saga, Avengers Assemble, and no doubt more ‘franchises’ await to hit the big or little screen. Despite a distinctive post-9/11 trend for ‘real life stories’, gritty realism, and tales of hard luck and ‘winning through adversity’ (spawning shelves of ‘misery lit’; or ‘trauma memoir’) the world, it seems, is hungry for Story, especially of the fantastical kind.

Why is it so many seem to ‘desire dragons’, as Tolkien did? What purpose, if any, is there to Fantasy? Is it just make-believe for grown ups, or does it serve a more profound function? This brief excursion into Fantasyland endeavours to explore, if not answer, these questions, and perhaps the very act of asking questions – curiosity, or the quest for knowledge – is at the root of all this ultimately. The desire to know has led humankind from the cave to the moon. Wishing to know what lay over the next hill, and the next, beyond the borders of the familiar, over the sea, over the horizon – following the journey of the sun, our constant companion of consciousness, throughout the day, into the unconscious of night – this has driven humanity on, and fuelled most of its fantasies. The unknown provides a vacuum for the subconscious, for the Shadow, the Id, the other. We populate the night with our own.

And we probe the shadows with a thrill of fear and a desire to know.

Tolkien, in a witty reply to a letter in The Observer (16 January, 1938) signed by someone calling themselves ‘Habit’, requesting more background about ‘the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book’, (The Hobbit, published 21 September1937) responded thus:

 

Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.’8

 

Despite Tolkien’s claiming not to ‘remember anything about the name and inception of the hero’, he gave a typically conscientious and erudite reply. His letters show the fathomless quality of his learning (his scholar’s mind akin to the Mines of Moria) and provide a plethora of portals to explore – enough for a lifetime, and thus he has not robbed research students of their existence, but thrown a gauntlet down to ‘curious Hobbits’, who are intrigued by the mysterious origins of such wonders, in what smithies were they forged, and whether the alchemical secrets of the wordsmiths trade can be gleaned, used, and passed on.

I must disclose my own interest in this realm of the imagination – with my five-volume epic, The Windsmith Elegy9, I could be categorised as an author of Fantasy, although I prefer the term ‘Mythic Reality’ (for that is how it feels to me – more of which we will discuss later). As a writer of ‘Fantastical Fiction’ (as it once used to called) the genre, as a whole, holds an obvious appeal to me, but more so the mysterious impulse that drives us to write and read it, and beyond that, the act of creation itself.

The central thesis I would like to forward here is that the roots of Fantasy go deeper than sometimes the genre suggest – that there is more to it than mere ‘Sword and Sorcery’, and the endless rehashing of Tolkienesque tropes. What if Fantasy is not merely a form of escapism (although that in itself is not ‘wrong’), but a way of exploring imaginative possibilities?

In the purest expression of Fantasy, something more fundamental is at work. Could Imagination serve as a gateway to other realms, other possibilities – a kind of ‘Quantum TV’ – with different bandwidths showing glimpses of ‘that which does not exist, but could’, and sometimes does, in our imagination?

Many beginner writers who attempt to write Fantasy do not seem to understand the genre. They copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation (as someone who has taught and assessed creative writing since 2003 I can wearily attest to this – although I am occasionally astounded by what my students produce). There is often a gulf between idea and execution, which is frustrating. It feels as though I am receiving a poor signal from a distant land.

The craft provides the Transatlantic cable, but I do not wish to lay it down here – many others have done that. Rather than simply provide a list of techniques, I believe it would be more useful (and better for the writer) to explore the ‘biology’ of Fantasy, and our motives for writing it.

  • Where does the impulse to write Fantasy come from?
  • What takes place in the act of writing, i.e. the creative process – specifically in the creation of works of Fantasy?
  • What benefits are there, if any, for the writer, as well as the reader?

And so I begin this essay with these questions in mind – and a sense of unknowing.

A quester, armed with his question, is a good place to start.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring, 2013

[Extract from Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer’s Quest, published by Compass Books – contact them and order an advance copy now]

Ox Tales and Inklings

24 Feb-10th March

Over the last month I have been performing stories from my History Press collection, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, at venues around the county – on 24th Feb, at the Woodstock Arms (by a lovely crackling fire – much appreciated after a chilly bike ride over the Cotswolds); and on 10th March, at the funky Albion Beatnik Bookstore, in the city of dreaming spires itself. A member of the audience at the latter said of my show:

           ‘Truly magical stories and wonderfully told – really transported me to where the story came from.’

Such responses make it all worthwhile and I am looking forward to returning to the city in April when I am going to be performing more ‘ox-tales’ with my bardic buddy, Wayland – on the 19th April at the Eagle and Child (the pub where JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and others used to meet for a drink and to share work-in-progress) and on Sat 20th April at the Old Fire Station as part of the Oxford Folk Weekend – hurrah!

On Friday 8th March, my play about the Inklings, The Rabbit Room, finally got performed – thanks to John Bassett and his company, Spaniel in the Works. The cast was spot on and the rehearsed reading went down very well with the audience at Mr Twitchett’s cafe bar, the Subscription Rooms. The audiences response confirmed that it ‘worked’ and it was suggested the play would work very well in pubs. A pub tour would be fab – must start that ACE application…(unless a brewery wants to sponsor us…)!

First performance of my play The Rabbit Room, Sub Rooms Stroud, 8th March 2013

First performance of my play The Rabbit Room, Sub Rooms Stroud, 8th March 2013

We hope to perform The Rabbit Room in situ – in the ‘Bird and Baby’ itself (as the Inklings called their local), during the Ox Fringe (24 May-9 June). This would be a dream come true and is guaranteed to be a special night. A recording will be made for posterity – you could be in it (as ‘pub customers’) if you turn up on the night! Watch this space!

Old Hobbits die hard

4th January 2009

Yesterday I decided to hold a birthday party of ‘special magnificence’ in honour of JRR Tolkien, born on Jan 3rd 1892. I invited a select group of ‘elf-friends’ around to join me in raising a glass to the Gandalf of Fantasy, and to test-read my new radio play based upon the Inklings called ‘The Rabbit Room’. This is the only way to gauge whether something works or not – with a live reading. David Metcalfe played ‘Tollers’ (Lewis’ nickname for Tolkien); Anthony Nanson played ‘Jack’ (CS Lewis), Mika Lassander played Owen Barfield and Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson Charles Williams. David’s partner, artist Ione Parkin, was VO – the voice of the Rabbit Room, Anna Dougherty was the BBC announcer, and Maarit – Mika’s wife – the landlord and the Minister of Health (or Elf, as I punned). It was thrilling to hear the play come alive after slaving away on it in solitude since November. To write it I immersed myself in Inklings arcana – and tinkered with it obsessively over the holidays, finishing it just in time for the party, which provided an appropriate deadline.

After providing a vegetarian feast for my guests – piles of good plain English fare, which both Bilbo and Tolkien would have liked – I read out an extract from the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring – about Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday party and disappearing act. For this, I asked my guests to take off their shoes and socks, so we could all be Hobbits together! Bare-footed and waist-coated, I read out the text in a suitably merry fashion. We toasted JRR, and then we attended to the main after dinner entertainment. I assigned roles, handed out scripts and we begun. It took a hundred minutes (perhaps it should have been 111) but it was a cold reading and slower than it would be when rehearsed. Some sections really flowed, others were perhaps inevitably murdered, and some evidently need work – but it was wonderful to hear it out loud. I was filled with feelings of loving warmth for such a lovely fellowship. Truly friendship is one of the most important things of life. Without it, a man is impoverished. But last night I felt ‘wealthy’ from having such beautiful talented souls as my friends.

Tolkien extolled the virtues of simple pleasures (‘fire and lamp and meat and bread, and then to bed, and then to bed’) and Lewis wrote about friendship as one of the Four Loves – and I whole-heartedly agree: there is very little better than gathering around the hearth with good friends, sharing good food, drink and conversation. The home is a sacred thing, and true fellowship is divine – a meeting of hearts, souls and minds – is a piece of heaven on Earth.

Afterwards, there was useful feedback from the group (Svanur is a playwright and director; Anthony fellow creative writing teacher; David fellow performer in Firesprings; Mika religious students research student; Maarit child psychologist and Anna an Oxford English graduate). Tolkien I think would’ve liked hearing the Anglo-Saxon, Finnish and Icelandic spoken that evening in my living room (his three favourite languages, except his own invented ones!) – although he might have corrected some of us on pronunciation (but not the native speakers, of course).

The hour was getting late and David and Ione departed – to relieve their babysitter from her duties. We tucked into some late Xmas pud, and then Anthony shared a sample of Tolkien’s ‘manifesto’ poem – Mythopoeia. There followed a suitably Inklings-ish discussion on a number of subjects (art, politics, popular culture) before the alcohol and awen ran out. Around midnight folk departed, except Anthony who crashed over – saving the drive back to Stroud for the morning. He agreed that we had well and truly celebrated the unique anniversary. I was pleased to have ‘premiered’ my play on Tolkien’s birthday – my way of honouring such a huge inspiration to many. The world is richer for his contribution. His vast imagination and unparalled elven-skill has provided a gateway for us all.

Long may his name and the fellowship live on!

Anthony as 'Jack' - Tolkien's 111th

Anthony as 'Jack' - Tolkien Birthday Party