The best teller of tales

Nick Swarbrick’s recent survey has established that young Gwyn Griffiths, in Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, follows the model of young wizards and witches in children’s fantasy getting a call — a vocation — setting them on the path of a magical career and gradual maturation.

Remember, Nick reminds us, Hagrid’s revelation: “Yer a wizard, Harry.” And it’s Gwyn’s turn, on his ninth birthday, to be told by his grandmother (in the novel’s opening pages) that he is fated to be a magician. The reason this is his destiny is because he is directly descended from Gwydion, the legendary Welsh wizard out of time immemorial.

In this, my latest post, anticipating the eventual penning of a review, I want to explore the mythic background of Gwyn’s assumption of the magician’s mantle; it may take us into some quite psychologically dark yet enchanted realms.

Continue reading “The best teller of tales”

Master of mischief

Diana Wynne Jones:
Eight Days of Luke
Illustrated by David Wyatt
Collins 2000 (1975)

Feeling grateful. Feeling guilty. Feeling angry when you’re wrongly accused. Feeling frustrated when your wishes are thwarted. Being a child under the charge of adults gives rise to so many emotions, some negative, many persisting into adulthood. For orphan David Allard, whom if we had to guess is about ten or so, emotions are running particularly high: the relatives he is now living with are unsympathetic to the point of unfairness and he is just about to explode.

Retreating to the end of the garden he expresses his anger in a torrent of gibberish words. Somehow this ‘spell’ coincides with what appears to be a mini earthquake, which causes the garden wall to tumble down and venomous snakes to appear. And from nowhere up pops a boy with reddish hair, who calls himself Luke.

After the initial shock David is of course very confused, but the personable Luke seems promising as a new companion for the luckless lad so they strike up a friendship, with Luke expressing sincere gratitude at being freed from his prison. But this odd occurrence is merely a prelude to a week of strange occurrences in which new acquaintances are made and the master of mischief himself is unmasked.

Continue reading “Master of mischief”

Fantasy subgenres

April is proving to be a Month of Random Reading. Which is good, I think. Especially as May will be a month of fantasy reads under the Wyrd & Wonder banner.

There are eight fantasy subgenres offered for consideration, and in this anticipatory post I shall be looking at them in a little more detail, seeing what I’ve already read that falls in each category (links are to my reviews or discussions) and ruminating on what I might choose to read in the merry month of May. Though I may change my mind at the last moment.

It’s possible I shall read one example of each subgenre in the space of four weeks, perfectly achievable at the rate of two a week, but I’m making no promises!

Continue reading “Fantasy subgenres”

The Island of the Mighty

Harlech Castle: Four Square to All the Winds That Blow (1898) by Henry Clarence White (National Museum of Wales)

W J Gruffydd:
Folklore and Myth in The Mabinogion
University of Wales Press 1958

This slim booklet (with a little under 30 pages of text) reproduces a lecture given at the National Museum of Wales in 1950. However, despite a slightly misleading title discussion ranges a little more widely than it implies: it doesn’t deal exclusively with the several native Welsh tales in the collection commonly called the Mabinogion, nor is it limited to folklore and myth — fairytale is also involved (sometimes argued as a subgenre of folklore, other times as distinct), and literature too of course, the texts having come to us in written form with evidence of substantial editing.

In fact, a large part of the lecture is taken up with discussion of the nature of fairies in Welsh traditions; but I’m leaping ahead, as poet and academic William John Gruffydd begins with an attempt at defining what ‘folklore’ actually is.

Continue reading “The Island of the Mighty”

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.

Continue reading “A ‘novel’ novel”

Passant on a green and white field

winged
Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) by Edward Topsell
Welsh
Flag of Wales (credit: wallpapertree.com)

Carl Lofmark (G A Wells, editor):
A History of the Red Dragon
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch (No 4 Welsh Heritage Series)

In 1959 the Queen sanctioned the flying of the now familiar Welsh flag on Government buildings in Wales and in London, whenever “appropriate”, officially recognising a national symbol that has had a long but mixed history. In this booklet by the late Carl Lofmark the convoluted story of its origins, use and development is traced to the point where the dragon and the colour red is ubiquitous on March 1st, the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales. Why a dragon? And why is it red?

Continue reading “Passant on a green and white field”

Remember my name

Clay mask of Huwawa/Humbaba depicted as a coiled intestine: British Museum, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

The Epic of Gilgamesh
English version by N K Sandars
Penguin Classics 1971 (1960)

It’s extraordinary and rather humbling that the core of a story over four thousand years old, large parts of which have miraculously survived in the form of sunbaked tablets, can still be deciphered by scholars and translated into modern language for the edification and enlightenment of all.

The fact that it tells the kind of story we’re familiar with from our own fairytales, novels and film is both surprising and yet reassuring, surprising given its age and reassuring because human frailties and virtues clearly haven’t changed much over three or four millennia.

Continue reading “Remember my name”

Multi-layered page-turner

Brian Aldiss, Helliconia:
Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter

Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010

The Helliconian trilogy is a multi-layered composition, as long and as rich as The Lord of the Rings, as colourful as a medieval tapestry and as polemical as an eco-warrior’s handbook. Aldiss is a prolific author in various genres, not just in science fiction; but SF at its best can itself include a great many genres, and this trilogy therefore has aspects of romance, epic, fantasy, prose poetry and science writing all flourishing in symbiosis with each other. And, like any great narrative, it is not only a great page-turner but has you caring about its characters. Continue reading “Multi-layered page-turner”

“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.

Continue reading ““Very great and most tragic””

Wanderer in lands remote

raven sutton hoo
Raven, from the Anglo-Saxon shield found at Sutton Hoo

Neil Gaiman American Gods:
the Author’s Preferred Text

Headline Review 2005 (2004/2001)

“Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile, who far and wide
A Wand’rer, after Ilium overthrown,
Discover’d various cities, and the mind
And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote.
He num’rous woes on Ocean toss’d, endured,
Anxious to save himself, and to conduct
His followers to their home.” — William Cowper (1791)

Contrary to popular opinion the new millennium actually began at the start of 2001. This was the date celebrated by director Stanley Kubrick in the Arthur C Clarke inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey and with good reason — not only did this narrate a new beginning for humankind but it referenced the voyages of wily Odysseus after the sack of Troy. 2001 was also when the first and original version of Gaiman’s American Gods appeared and this too treated with new beginnings allied to wanderings, this time around the United States.

What’s it about? “It’s about the soul of America, really,” the author tells us. “What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.” It’s also about a wanderer called Shadow who, in Cowper’s words about Odysseus, discovers “various cities, and the mind | And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote”. Of course we can tell from the title that it’s about faith and belief: when we believe in gods do they have a kind of physical existence in this world? And if we then cease to believe in those gods do they cease to exist?

The novel begins realistically. Shadow (a Jungian name, if ever I saw one) is nearing the end of his jail sentence, imposed for an uncharacteristic act of violence. Looking forward to returning home and seeing his wife Laura, he is surprised to be released early. Shocked by the news he receives he heads home, only to be offered a job by a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr Wednesday. Things then take a strange turn and his odyssey zigzagging around North America begins.

Continue reading “Wanderer in lands remote”

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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Nothing new under the sun

athena

H A Guerber The Myths of Greece and Rome
Introduction W M S Russell
Wordsworth Editions 2000

The late W M S Russell, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Reading, was a modern-day polymath: classicist, sociologist, biologist (he helped formulate the principle of the three Rs of humane animal experimentation: Reduction, Replacement and Refinement), folklorist (former President and Secretary of the Folklore Society), radio quiz panellist (a sometime stalwart of Round Britain Quiz), raconteur, singer, novelist… Well, you get the picture. I was privileged to be a longtime correspondent of his, and while I never had the opportunity to meet up with him in person I knew him from phone conversations to be knowledgeable, personable and friendly. His premature death was a great sadness to me personally and a loss to his many friends and acquaintances generally.

Bill Russell provided a new introduction to this re-issue, Continue reading “Nothing new under the sun”

A magisterial and elegant summary

Rubin vase illusion http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png
Rubin vase illusion
http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png

Juliette Wood Eternal Chalice:
the Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail

I B Tauris Publishers 2008

As a journalistic metaphor for the ultimate or the unattainable, the Holy Grail is, well, the holy grail of metaphors. For the general public there may be a sense of it being the object of a quest, usually the cup of the Last Supper, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For New Agers and pseudohistorians, it is a ineffable object with mystical powers, for academics a keyword for research into literature, art and cultural history, for scientists maybe an acronym for investigating the moon’s gravity. In other words, it is all things to all people, and therefore any attempt to pin it down could well be doomed to failure. But that hasn’t stopped the plethora of titles being published year on year. Continue reading “A magisterial and elegant summary”

No place

yucatan2
The Yucatan peninsula: More’s model for Utopia?

Lorainne G Stobbart Utopia, Fact or Fiction?
The Evidence from the Americas  Sutton Publishing Ltd 1992

It is 1492, when Columbus sails the ocean blue. Though it is that tipping point when the European consciousness is suddenly expanded by the knowledge that it has genuinely discovered a New World, it takes Columbus until 1498, when on his third expedition, to realise that he has touched on the mainland of ‘a very great continent, until today unknown.’ He explores the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad and the shores of Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama before his death in 1506.

But he is not the only explorer. Continue reading “No place”

Celts, cults and comprehensiveness

Newport church, Pembrokeshire http://wp.me/s36La9-celtic
Newport church, Pembrokeshire http://wp.me/s36La9-celtic

James MacKillop Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Oxford University Press 1998

The tag “Celtic” is one of those catch-all but often meaningless labels that are a lazy shorthand for anything mystical, fey or even implicitly racial. Too often it is used by those profoundly unaware of its scholarly origins in linguistics or cultural history, so it is refreshing to have this Dictionary written by a specialist displaying his undoubted expertise in linguistics, literature, archaeology, history and comparative religion. Continue reading “Celts, cults and comprehensiveness”