This is a speedy repost of my September 6th item on autumn, in view of Lory’s Witch Week celebration on her Emerald City Book Review blog; this starts today, October 30th, with a preview. Amongst other goodies there’ll be reviews of Diana Wynne Jones novels such as Fire and Hemlock, Power of Three, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Spellcoats and, on November 4th, a discussion by me of Deep Secret.
As autumn stutters into being with a stop-start easing-off of summer I thought it might be a good moment to look forward to a magical time that truly marks out autumn in the British consciousness — that period between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night.
This “very witching time” of year is one of the periods between the two Old English ‘seasons’, summer and winter. October is the equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon lunar month Winterfilleð or ‘Winterfilleth’ which, as the Venerable Bede wrote, was a name composed of “winter” and “full Moon”, since the heathen winter began on the first full moon of that month. The following lunar month of November was called Blotmonað or month of blood sacrifices. Bede called ‘Blodmonath’ the “month of immolations” because this was when slaughtered cattle were consecrated to the gods. The practical reason for cattle being slaughtered was of course because any unlikely to survive winter could and would be killed for their meat.
More famous, of course, is the festival celebrated in Celtic nations at the end of October which fulfils a similar function, Samhain in Gaelic. As the year dies and the dark nights take over from prolonged daylight thoughts turn to the propitiation of dead ancestors — with drink and food such as ‘soul cakes’ — in case they return as stalking spirits. This pagan period gradually became Christianised following the example of the 8th-century Pope Gregory III, with All Saints or Hallowmas celebrated on November 1st. The day after was then dedicated to All Souls, especially those who had not been canonised, and the day before called Halloween (“the evening before Hallowmas”).
You can appreciate how such a mix of traditions resulted in what ostensibly were solemnised feasts being transformed into excuses for mayhem. The departed souls being appeased by ales and cakes by the family graves were transformed into neighbourhood children in spooky disguise visiting your house; any lack of appeasement (‘treats’) was rewarded by retaliatory ‘tricks’; self-imposed curfews for the many became an excuse for Mischief Nights by the few.
As time marched on historical events were added to the cultural mix. News of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament on November 5th resulted in effigies being burnt on bonfires. One of the conspirators was eventually represented by a ridiculous stuffed figure marched around in a pushchair by urchins demanding a ‘penny for the guy’. But the guy was further appropriated, later, by protestors wearing the more scary V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks popularised by graphic novelist Alan Moore.
The Great War, which began a hundred years ago, is also commemorated — along with subsequent conflicts — around this period, its impact deepened by the traditional associations going back to pagan times. The armistice to end hostilities between the Allies and Germany took effect at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. This Armistice Day is marked in many countries as Veterans Day and in Britain and the Commonwealth as Remembrance Day. The summer poppy, the colour of blood, became the symbol of the dead largely due to the influence of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, published in 1915. Plastic poppies are now a familiar if unseasonal sight on British lapels and in buttonholes at the end of October and into November, a more sobering reminder of the time of year than cattle or cakes, mischief or masks.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead.
We have come a long way since pagan times, accompanied at different points on our journey by an historian, a pope, a conspirator, a graphic novelist and a major who was also an army surgeon and a poet. But now it is time to look ahead to a series of literary blogs commemorating the late fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones. This series will take place between October 31st and November 6th on the Emerald City Book Review blog and entitled, appropriately, Witch Week, after one of Diana’s Chrestomanci books. This novel features as its premise an alternate world where witchcraft is punishable by death but where magic undeniably exists; in it the action takes place over a week, beginning with Halloween.
Lory, who hosts the Seattle-based blog, writes
This year the focus will be on the incomparable Diana Wynne Jones, author of so many fantastic books and (as far as I know) the originator of the term “Witch Week.” As we learn from her novel of that name, starting on Halloween we enter a special time “when there is so much magic about in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen,” and when stories carry a particular power. What better time to celebrate and share the magic of reading? Our “official” read-along book will be Witch Week (naturally), with a discussion on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. Don’t know what Guy Fawkes Day is? Read the book, and you’ll find out!
On other days there will be a post focusing on a particular book, chosen from among my personal favorites but also representing the range and variety of this remarkably versatile author’s work. These particular books share a running theme of the power of words, language, and story, which seems quite appropriate. You might want to read one or more of my choices and join the conversation in the comments, but please feel free to read and discuss whatever you wish. There will be an opportunity for bloggers to link up their own posts for further interaction.
Diana Wynne Jones’ autobiography was called Reflections on the Magic of Writing. As winter approaches, what better time — as Lory says — to celebrate and share the magic of reading?