The force of destiny

Fantasy is a Marmite®™* genre for many readers: though there is often a middle ground of those who can take or leave it, there are plenty for whom it is anathema and others who regard it as the only true reflection of their hopes, dreams and, occasionally, nightmares. I myself enjoy many manifestations of the genre but not all appeal to me, by any means.

I often wonder what the sticking point might be for those who are anti-fantasy. Not enough realism? Magic too arbitrary or illogical? Aimed mainly at children or the childish? Too full of clichés? Or is there a deeper root that irks the sceptical?

Much of so-called Epic or High Fantasy is predicated on a sense of Fate or Destiny, with prophecies about someone (a Chosen One, if you like) who will bring about changes to a world order. The term Chosen One was used humorously of Harry Potter, but Lyra’s prophesied role in the worlds of His Dark Materials was specifically hidden from her.

But the whole notion of Fate is a controversial one involving whether free will truly exists, or if there is a Being who has their hands on the controls. I don’t intend to get into the philosophy behind the arguments — it’s beyond my wit, let alone my remit here — except to say that bloody wars have been fought over this very issue.

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Myths and therapy

Morgan le Fay

Brendan McMahon:
The Princess Who Ate People:
the Psychology of Celtic Myths
Heart of Albion Press 2006

First, I have to say this is a wonderful title for a book, encouraging the reader to delve inside the covers. The author here looks primarily at Irish and Welsh mythical narratives with his psychotherapist’s eye, seeking for ways in which these old tales can help modern patients make sense of their own dilemmas and help restore integrity and identity.

Though Irish tales dominate his study, native British stories put in an appearance, including some Welsh Arthurian narratives. The commentary is critical of aspects of classic Freudian analysis, and here I wish McMahon’s concluding chapter, which encapsulates his approach, had begun the book.

Some stimulating ideas are here, therefore, even for those unsympathetic with Freudian theory, so I will only mention a couple of niggles. First up are the typos – I can’t believe that there wasn’t time to proofread the text before publishing – and secondly, I was disappointed that the striking cover by Ian Brown was not really as representative of Mis, the Irish princess of the title, as I expected.

The final word must go to the author: “The fact is that the psychological complexity of the tales, with their rich interplay between the internal, interpersonal and social worlds, debars any simple reductionist interpretation, Freudian or otherwise.” Amen to that, I say.


Repost of a review first published online 25th March 2013, and before that in the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in 2006

Motifs, emotions and myth

Winter on the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire

Jenny Nimmo’s haunting children’s fantasy The Snow Spider was first published in 1986.

Nine-year-old Gwyn, son of a Welsh hill farming family still reeling from the loss of his older sister, is charged with taking up his role as descendent of the ancient magicians of the Mabinogi, the collection of Welsh myths and legends.

Through his growing understanding of his magical powers, and with the guidance of his grandmother, the eponymous Snow Spider, and a mysterious girl who joins the family, Gwyn becomes involved in the beauty and danger of a world normally just beyond mortal grasp, and has to confront rage and pain from centuries ago.

In a short series of posts fellow blogger Nick Swarbrick and I will be conversing on a range of topics which will have occurred to us while reading The Snow Spider; I then plan to follow them with a spoiler-free review. Here, to start, are some initial thoughts in response to Nick’s first post here, which I found insightful and thought-provoking.

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Guide to Lyra’s worlds

Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting
Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

Laurie Frost:
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide
Scholastic 2007 (2006)

Pullman’s wonderful trio of novels inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared around the same time as the Harry Potter books, but Pottermanes looking for more of the same were in the main disappointed. The feisty heroine Lyra, her universe of externalised souls called daemons, armoured polar bears and a mysterious phenomenon called Dust, not to mention criticism of an organised religious institution, confused and even angered many.

Sadly, the controversies often disguised Pullman’s accomplishments in world-building, complex plotting and character creation, all of which have contributed towards a work already acclaimed as a classic and which, true to its universal appeal, appeared in both adult and young adult editions. All that was needed was an Ariadne to take the reader through the labyrinthine ways of the multi-layered fantasy, as Martin Gardner did in The Annotated Alice.

Containing all you ever wanted to know about His Dark Materials, catalogued in encyclopaedic detail by superfan Laurie Frost, this hefty guide is teeming with maps, photos and drawings which enliven the text.

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A ‘novel’ novel

rocks
West Wales beach, looking west towards a mythical Gwales (personal photo)

Review first published 19th February 2015, then reposted 21st October when Tim Burton’s film of the same name was on general release. Reappearing again as part of Dewithon19, this is the last of my reposts of reviews for this event.


Ransom Riggs:
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Quirk Books 2013 (2011)

There is a technique storytellers use whereby cues — words, phrases, scenes, characters suggested by audience members — are randomly inserted into an improvised narrative. Italo Calvino built up his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies upon a sequence of Tarot cards, using the images to suggest not only a possible narrative but also to link to other classic narratives. These processes are similar to the ways in which Ransom Riggs constructs 16-year-old Jacob Portman’s journey from suburban Florida to a wet and windy island off the coast of Wales. Authentic ‘found’ vintage photographs of sometimes strange individuals placed in enigmatic positions or curious scenarios — these are the bones on which the author constructs his fantasy of children (with, shall we say, unusual talents) and the dangers they potentially face. For the reader the inclusion of these photos at appropriate points in the text is not only an added bonus but an integral and highly effective facet of the tale.

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Finding the story

Snow scene in the Preseli Hills

Terry Pratchett: Wintersmith
Corgi 2017 (2006)

Find the story, Granny Weatherwax always said. She believed that the world was full of story shapes. If you let them, they controlled you. But if you studied them, if you found out about them . . . you could use them, you could change them . . .

We’ve met Tiffany Aching before, in The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, and know that she is a young witch on the Discworld’s Chalk, the uplands where the principal occupation is shepherding. In Wintersmith she is on the cusp of her teens but has already ratcheted up an impressive CV, having defeated the Fairy Queen and overcome a crisis of identity in the form of the Hiver.

Here, however, she has a rather more challenging antagonist in the form of the embodiment (if that’s the right word for a disembodied being) of the coldest season of the year. To stop the Wintersmith’s personal interest in her and the prospect of the land permanently locked in snow and ice she has to understand the power of story.

And for us to fully appreciate Wintersmith I too believe, like Granny Weatherwax, that we have to find and study story shapes to comprehend how Pratchett uses them to control, in ever so satisfyingly a fashion, his narrative.

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A remarkable narrator

gwenllian

Andrew Breeze:
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009

Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.

The premise of this book is easily told.

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Patronising

Durer’s St George and the Dragon. The crowned princess is lurking behind a rock. With a pig.

St George fought the dragon and killed it — or did he? Such doubt could make patriots go weak and quite giddy. Did he rescue a maiden and liberate a city like Perseus, it’s said, in ancient antiquity? Or is it a myth, a tale for the gullible from powerful leaders who claim they’re infallible?

The truth is that George has a past that is murky: perhaps Cappadocia (that’s now part of Turkey) or Palestine claims him. Yes, Christian martyr — but slayer of dragons? Well, that‘s a non-starter.

He’s patron of England, the Knights of the Garter, Teutonic Knights, Reichenau, Gozo and Malta. He’s chief saint of Portugal and also of Genoa, of Moscow and Beirut and, yes, Catalonia. God help us if they all decide to go fight, for how will George know who is wrong and who’s right?

Yet it’s the far right who often invoke him, their claims of supremacy based on pure hokum. For they would now see saintly George as outsider, a migrant or refugee, maybe Al-Qaida. To persecute him would elicit no qualms, and he’d not be received with wide open arms.


A post in rhyming couplets to mark April 23rd, St George’s Day

“Very great and most tragic”

Kullervo, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)
Kullervo, statue by C E Sjöstrand, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)

J R R Tolkien The Story of Kullervo
Edited by Verlyn Flieger
HarperCollins 2015 (2010)

Tolkien’s reputation rests on two parallel streams of his work. First, and the more renowned of the two, is his creative work, his fiction, much of it founded on his secondary world of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and so on. The second stream is what was his day job, so to speak, his work as a scholar, the academic who specialised in languages and literatures and was well regarded by his peers and students.

Less well known, except to a host of die-cast fans and Tolkien scholars, is his work in which those two streams — the creative and the academic — co-mingle. His fascination with mythologies and folktales and legends led him to recast disparate ancient materials into what he must have hoped were coherent wholes, though none of it was published in his lifetime. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) was his reconfiguring of the Northern myths that were to famously inspire Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, while The Fall of Arthur (2013) dealt with the Matter of Britain, tidying up plot inconsistencies through his own verses inspired by Old English alliterative verse. The latest Tolkien re-envisioning (ironically one of the first he attempted) is The Story of Kullervo, which first appeared in Tolkien Studies VII in 2010, and then in an expanded form by HarperCollins in 2015.

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Danger: water!

usk1
The River Usk looking upriver from Crickhowell bridge, Powys

Wandering among Words No 1: Water

Water. It’s something most of us take for granted — for drinking, for cooking, for washing, for cleaning, for rituals. It drops out of the sky, wells out of the earth, erodes our coasts and scours the earth. Without it we would cease to be, in fact wouldn’t have come into being at all. Is it surprising that so many stories and associations and legends are attached to this sustainer of life?

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Richly resonant

Holman Hunt Scapegoat Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (Wikipedia Commons)

Robert Silverberg Kingdoms of the Wall Grafton 1993

This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, who has been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall, who has seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, who has grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and of death.

So begins this richly resonant novel, set on some distant planet — well, all planets are distant, aren’t they? — in a part of that world which is dominated by a inconceivably vast mountain called the Wall. From a community which is made up of distinct villages surrounding the Wall forty youngsters are chosen periodically to attempt the scaling of the mountain. Despite the honour accruing to the chosen ones, few of them ever return, and those that do seem unable to give a coherent narrative. Poilar is determined to be the one who not only achieves the ascent but to return and give an account. Despite the very first sentence providing the most monumental spoiler ever, Silverberg’s novel maintains a very palpable will-he-won’t-he tension throughout: Poilar’s nickname, Crookleg, is just one of the most obvious obstacles to him ever making his dream a reality. Continue reading “Richly resonant”

Stonehenge’s mythic history

Early print of Stonehenge: the bluestones are the smaller pillars surrounded by the trilithons

Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age

Greencroft Books 2008

Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.

Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.

One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality. Continue reading “Stonehenge’s mythic history”

A tale with a heart

snowscape

Neil Gaiman Odd and the Frost Giants Bloomsbury 2008

Published for World Book Day in April 2008, Odd and the Frost Giants was designed with youngsters in mind but can be enjoyed by oldsters as well. Part fable, part fairytale, with a dash of mythology, it features the resourceful Odd, son of a Norwegian Viking and a Scottish mother. Lamed when a tree trunk falls on his leg he is bullied — particularly, after the death of his own father, by his new stepfather. So in the midst of a prolonged winter which shows no sign of ending he heads off to the lone cabin in the woods where his woodcutter father stayed when he was out chopping down trees. And it is then that he is plunged into an adventure which begins to uncover the explanation of Winter’s continued grip.

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Filled with the marvellous

Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer
Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer

Fairy tales was the next genre to be discussed in the creative writing class, though I have to say that, following the precedent of ‘folktale’, I prefer the single-word form fairytale since fairies aren’t always the litmus test for this category. As usual this post will incorporate notes from the class with comments of my own.

Stith Thompson (editor of the Aarne–Thompson tale type index) suggested in The Folktale (1977) that fairytales are “of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes”. Further defining features include “an unreal world without definite locality or definite characters and […] filled with the marvellous”. In this Never Never Land “humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses”.

So much for the traditional fairytale: does that still hold true for its modern descendants?
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