Cryptic inscriptions

The Catamanus Stone, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)
Detail from the Catamanus Stone, Llangadwaladr, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)

Living in Wales means living in a landscape where the past is never too far away — eloquent place names, ancient monuments, local legends and folklore. A particular class of monuments are those so-called Dark Age memorial stones inscribed with words, runes, pictograms and abstract patterns that litter the countryside, not just here in Wales but around the north and west of Britain. This repost of a review (it first appeared online in May 2014) looks at one man’s interpretation of what some of these enigmatic inscriptions might mean.

Charles Thomas
Christian Celts: Messages & Images
Tempus Publishing 1998

This is a book that is worth persevering with. Despite its often complex arguments it is shot through with Thomas’ dry wit and apposite asides, and — coming as it does from an acknowledged expert in the field of church history and archaeology — it is also worth taking seriously. He introduces the historical, educative and commemorative contexts that post-Roman inscriptions fitted into; he discusses the insular background in the Celtic-speaking regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall; and he also delves into the religious implications of some of the texts. But he does more than just give an overview of these enigmatic messages.

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Wonder women

Lifesize (?) dragon sculpture outside a bedroom window, Miskin Manor, Cardiff

Jessica Yates editor
Dragons and Warrior Daughters:
fantasy stories by women writers

Lions Tracks 1989

This is a pleasing collection of eight short stories by seven female fantasy writers, featuring pieces which mostly appeared in the 70s and 80s with the earliest first published in the 1930s. Here are big names such as Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee and Robin McKinley, with a couple of doyennes like Vera Chapman and C L Moore, plus one author I know really well — Diana Wynne Jones — and another whom I’d not previously come across — Pat McIntosh. The title gives an inkling of what’s in store: yes, there are dragons (three tales with these), and there are female warriors (three in total), but the collection ranges a little more widely than is implied. Most have settings which feel medieval, but a couple are less constrained, either deliberately located in some parallel universe or involving a descent into nightmare and horror.

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Do you love libraries?


“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

I’m sure you’ve seen this quote all over social media, supposedly by the classical writer Cicero. However, I’d never seen the source given, leading me to suppose that this was one of those fake quotations that the internet is awash with, aimed at those who would be in sympathy with the views expressed.

Nevertheless, searching for the Latin translation seemed to offer some sort of resolution, and so it proved. The sentence is from a letter Cicero wrote to his friend Terence (found in Epistulae ad familiares Book IX, Epistle 4):

si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.

The literal translation is something like “If you have a garden in your library, nothing will be amiss.” The implication being that if you create a kind of bibliophile’s paradise — an oasis of calm perhaps — in your private library, where you can meet and discuss matters with your friends, all will be fine. You can see that the slightly inaccurate ‘quote’ usually given resonates rather more with modern feelings about public (as opposed to private) libraries.

I don’t need to tell you that in these straitened times — when we’re all told to tighten our belts even more, when all the fat has been sliced off public purses until the bone is reached — much of local government in the UK is trying their best to circumvent the admirable provisions of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 in an attempt to fit in with government austerity diktats. And, equally, some of the public is trying to say “hands off” in every which way it can.

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A reader’s dozen

books cardiff

It’s been a busy week or so for me, what with rehearsals for concerts and music examinations, homework for writing class, and the usual everyday stuff that throws up extras that you weren’t quite expecting. As a result, a couple of reviews in preparation have had to stay in that state as Life takes charge. So, I offer instead a return to a Goodwill Librarian‘s 2016 Reading Challenge I encountered earlier in the year on Facebook, a challenge that I’m happy to say I’ve virtually completed. Twelve specific categories were listed — a far cry from the 50-plus I attempted in 2015 — and I think I’ve covered them all bar one …

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Snail’s creep

book collection

We’re nearly halfway through November, and the end of the year is within touching distance. It’s nearly time to start taking stock of how my 2016 goals are progressing (as I’ve already done, back in July). Taking my author alphabet challenge I find I’m just five short of completion, with O, Q, U, X and Y yet to come. The good news is that I’ve lined up some books to cover three of these — Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition and some short stories edited by Jessica Yates — though I’ve yet to decide on who to choose for U or Q.

Authors read in 2016 (L: library copy and indicates recycled)

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From grin to grimace

dc-comicsBrandon T Snider
DC Comics: the Ultimate Character Guide
Dorling Kindersley 2012 (2011)

They say the world of comics nerdism is divided between fans of Marvel Comics and aficionados of DC Comics. (OK, I may have made that up, but I’m pretty sure it’s what ‘they’ say.) Me, I was as a kid brought up mostly on a diet of Batman, Superman and the Justice League and tended to stick to what I knew, not that I had anything against Spiderman, Hulk or the Fantastic Four. But I also read Classics Illustrated, and the cartoons in the papers, so I guess I was not too particular. My first experience of superheroes was cycling to comic stalls in Hong Kong, where the stallholder mostly turned a blind eye on my freebie reading so long as I bought a copy now and again.

But then time moves on. Come the 70s a rather camp Batman (exaggerated by the popular TV series) had morphed into a sombre Dark Knight; his toothpaste smile having gone from grin to grimace was a change I very much approved; similar things were happening to other stalwarts in the DC universe — convoluted backstories, new origins, even grown-up boy wonders. And now as a long-time absentee from comics I just don’t know where anything stands. Maybe this Dorling Kindersley publication would elucidate?

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Totus Orbis Terrarum


E R Eddison The Worm Ouroboros HarperCollins 2014 (1922)

The author has been lauded by Tolkien (“the greatest and most convincing writer of invented worlds”) and by Ursula Le Guin (“unequalled in the vigour, the vividness, the passionate intensity of his imagining”), so it’s unsurprising that Eddison’s early fantasy — despite being written nearly a century ago — is a tour de force which continues to amaze through the sheer brilliance of its author’s conception. Magic, wars, heroic feats, splendid scenery, the titanic battle between Good and Evil: all are commonplaces of epic fantasy but Eddison invests his world with unique features and finishing touches.

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