I will be delivering the 4th Annual Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford University this Thursday at 6:30 pm. The Pembroke Fantasy lecture series "explores the history and current state of fantasy literature, in honour of JRR Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and much of The Lord of the Rings during his twenty years at the college." The lecture I'll be giving is Tolkien's Long Shadow: Reflections on Fantasy Literature in the Post-Tolkien Era. Admission is free, but you need to register for a ticket and space is limited. Go here for further details.
I am taking a short break from Myth & Moor this coming week to deal with other pressing matters, and to prepare for Oxford. May 30th is a holiday here in Britain, so the Hound and I will be back on Tuesday, May 31st.
May 30th is also the date of the annual Two Hills Race here in Chagford, a gruelling route up and down two steep hills, with brambles and a bog in between. Our nine-year-old friend Fynn has decided to run this year to raise money to support wounded veterans. If you can spare a few pennies to pledge to this young man's heart-felt cause, it would encourage him greatly (and make those of us who care for him very happy too). The site takes Paypal and credit cards in any currancy, and even very small amounts are welcome. More info here.
"I think that in my heart I have always believed in fairies," writes Elizabeth Goudge in her autobiography, The Joy of Snow; "not fairies as seen in the picture books but nature spirits whose life is part of the wind and the flowers and the trees. Born in the West Country, and returning to it in middle life, how could I do anything else? But alas, I have never seen them.
"William Blake saw fairies, but he was a unique person, and so was a Dartmoor friend of mine who used to see them, and how I envied her! But if I did not see them I could feel how magic ran in the earth and branched in one's veins when one sat down. The stories that some of my Dartmoor friends told me would be laughed at by most people, but they were sensible persons and they did not laugh. I think that probably the one among my friends who experienced most was the one who said the least about it, Adelaide Phillpotts, Eden Phillpotts' daughter. She lived for years upon the moor and she loved it so deeply that she was not afraid to spend whole nights alone on the tors; but she is a mystic and mystics seem always unafraid. Her book The Lodestar is full of the wild spirit of the moor.
"The friend who saw fairies, when she first went to live in her cottage on the moor, was visited early in the morning by a little old woman, wearing a bonnet, who walked quietly into the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast. Friendly and smiling the old woman refused breakfast but sat down to chat. She wanted to know exactly what my friend intended to do in the garden. What flowers would she have? What vegetables? She had very bright eyes and nodded her head in approval as they talked. She seemed a happy old woman, very much at home in the kitchen, but when my friend turned away for a moment she found on looking around again that her visitor had left her. She was never seen again and when the neighbors were questioned they denied ever having seen such an old woman in the village.
"Another friend was driving back to her home on the moor one summer evening when she found herself in the most beautiful wood. She had no sense of strangeness but drove through it entranced by the loveliness of the evening light shining through the trees. Coming out of the wood she found herself at home, put the car away and went about the normal business of the evening, and only gradually did she remember that her road home lay through an open stretch of moorland. There was no wood there; not now. The next day she went to see an old man who had lived all his life on the moor and told him what had happened. He nodded his head. 'I know the wood, ma'am,' he told her. 'I've been there myself. But only once. You'll not see it again. It's only once in a lifetime.' "
Although Goudge never saw fairies herself, she did have a mystical experience in Devon:
"My mother and I had a cottage in an apple orchard at the edge of a village," she explains, "and behind the cottage, between the orchard and the village, there was a steep hill. To the right, Dartmoor was visible, but otherwise the place was a little valley in the hills that had a magic of its own. There were a few other small dwellings besides our own, an old house behind a high wall, a farm and some cottages, and so strictly speaking the place was not a lonely one, and yet, because of its particular magic, it was. Especially in the early morning and especially after a snow-fall. There is something very lonely about a deep snow-fall and Devon snow, because the average rainfall is high, is almost always deep. One is walled in and cut off. The world seems very far away and the heart rejoices.
"In spring, in Devon, there is often a sudden late snow-fall taking one entirely by surprise. I remember once seeing irises and tulips with their bright heads lifted above a deep counterpane of snow, and boughs of apple blossoms sprinkled with sparkling silver. But the snowfall [on this occasion] was earlier in the year. There were only the low-growing flowers in bloom in the garden and they were all buried out of sight. There had been no wind in the night, no suggestion that the last snow of the year was falling, and when I drew the curtains early in the morning I was astonished to see the white world. And what a world! I had never seen a snow-fall so beautiful and I was out in the garden at the first possible moment. The snowclouds had dropped their whole treasure in the night and were gone. The huge empty sky was deep blue, the air sparkling and clear. The sun was rising and the tree shadows lay blue across the sparkling whiteness. The whole world was pure blue and white and it seemed that the sun had lit every crystal to a point of fire. There was a silence so absolute it seemed a living presence. And then came the singing.
"It was a solo voice, ringing out joy and praise. One would have said it was a woman's voice, only could any woman sing like that, with such simplicity and beauty? It lasted for some minutes, and then ceased, and the deep silence came back once more.
"I stayed where I was, as rooted in the snow as the trees, but there was no return of the singing and so I went back to the cottage and mechanically began the first task of the day, raking out the ashes of the dead fire and lighting a new one. The light of the flames helped me to think. None of us, in the little group of dwellings in the valley had a voice much above a sparrow's chirp. No one in the village that I knew had a voice like that. It was war-time and visitors from the outside world seldom came. Even if by some extraordinary chance some great singer had descended upon us, what would she be doing struggling down the steep lane from the village in deep snow at this hour of a cold morning? And wouldn't I have seen her? I could see both lanes from the little terrace outside the cottage and had seen no one. There were only two explanations. Either I was mad or I had heard a seraph singing. Later when I took my mother her breakfast I told her of the singing. She looked at me and, as usual, made no comment whatsoever.
"And so, for some years, I inclined to the former view and told no one else about the singing. And then, one day after the war had ended, a very sensitive and sympathetic cousin came to visit us and told me about a holiday he had had in the wilds of Argyll. He had always wanted, he said, to talk to someone who had heard the singing and at last he come upon an old crofter who could tell him about it. The old man had been alone in the hills when he heard a clear voice, unearthly and very beautiful, singing in the silence. He could see no one, he could distinguish no words in the singing and the song was one he did not know. He tried to hum the air and my cousin tried to write it down, but they neither of them made much of a job of it. 'You never heard it again?' my cousin asked and the old man said, like the old countryman who was in the wood only once, 'No, never again.'
"My cousin told this tale so beautifully that I was too awed and shy to tell him, then, about my own experience. Besides, the great paean of praise I had heard in the snow seemed at that moment a little theatrical in comparison with the soft unearthly singing in the hills of Argyll. But, some years later, I did tell him. He was very kind, and he did not doubt my sincerity, but somehow I seemed to see at the back of his mind the figure of a stout opera singer from Covent Garden who had somehow, even in war-time and deep snow, got herself hidden behind the fir trees at the corner of our Devon garden.
'It does not matter. I remember that singing every morning of my life and I greet every sunrise with the memory. The birds, who had been singing so riotously, had been chilled to silence by that snowstorm. I have decided now that she, whoever she was, sang their dawn-song for them."
Words: The passage by Elizabeth Goudge is fromThe Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974); the poem in the picture captions is from Marrow of Flame by Dorothy Walters (Poetry Chaikhana, 2015); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: "King & Queen of the Faery Hill" by Alan Lee, "Cowslip Faery" by Brian Froud, and three fairy pictures by Arthur Rackham. The books in the last photograph are Linnets and Valerians,The Little White Horse, andIsland Magic by Elizabeth Goudge; the quilt was made by Karen Meisner. Related posts on Devon folklore: Tales of a Half-Tamed Land, The Wild Hunt, and Following the Hare.
I'm embarrassed to confess that it's only this year that I've finally read the English author Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984), whose Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians are now two of my favorite children's books of all time. (Oh, how I wish I'd read them as a child!)
I'm still making my way through her long list of books for adults, having paused between The White Witch and The Rosemary Tree to read her charming autobiography, The Joy of Snow. A number of her novels are set in Devon, so I shouldn't have been surprised to discover that she'd lived not far from here for a time -- in Marldon, on the other side of the moor. Close by Compton Castle, the inspiration for Moonacre Manor in The Little White Horse.
In her autobiography, Goudge describes Devon in the 1940s as "an unearthly place. The round green hills where the sheep grazed, the wooded valleys and the lanes full of wildflowers, the farms and apple orchards were all full of magic, and the birds sang in that long-ago Devon as I have never heard them singing anywhere else in the world; in the spring we used to say it sounded as though the earth itself was singing.
"The villages folded in the hills still had their white witches with their ancient wisdom," she recalls, "and even black witches were not unknown. I have never had dealings with a witch either black or white, though Francis, our village chimney-sweep, a most gentle and courteous man, was I think half-way to being a white warlock. He was skillful at protecting his pigs from being overlooked. He placed pails of water on the kitchen floor to drown the Evil Eye and nothing ever went wrong with his pigs before their inevitable and intended end.
"Black magic is a thing to vile to speak of, but many of the white witches and warlocks were wonderful people, dedicated to their work of healing. I knew the daughter of a Dartmoor white witch and she told how her mother never failed to answer a call for help. Fortified by prayer and a dram of whiskey she would go out on the coldest winter night, carrying her lantern, and tramp for miles across the moor to bring help to someone ill at a lonely farm. And she brought real help. She must have had the true charismatic gift, and perhaps too knowledge of the healing herbs.
"The father of one of my friends had a white witch in his parish in the valley of the Dart. She was growing old and she came to him one evening and asked if she might teach him her spells before she died. They must always, she said, be handed on secretly from woman to man, or from man to woman, never to a member of the witch's or warlock's own sex. 'And you, sir,' she told him, 'are the best man I know. It is to you I want to give my knowledge.'
"Patiently he tried to explain why it is best that an Anglican priest should not also be a warlock, but it was hard for her to understand. 'But they are good spells,' she kept telling him. 'I know they are,' he said, 'but I cannot use them.' She was convinced at last but she went away weeping."
"The most overtly magical of Goudge’s adult books is probably The White Witch, which is set against the early years of the English Civil War. The protagonist Froniga is, as the title suggests, a working witch, the daughter of a settled father and a Romani mother, and she possesses both the power to heal and the power to see the future. Yet while both are important to the plot, the book is not about her powers, but about her selfhood and character and her effect on those around her. A lesser writer would probably have taken this theme in the direction of witch trials and melodrama. Goudge uses it to examine the effects of divided politics on families and communities and the ways in which our beliefs affect others outside ourselves.
"Her characters do bad things, sometimes, and those have consequences, but she rarely writes bad people -- I can think of only one, the greedy and self-obsessed school-owner Mrs. Belling in The Rosemary Tree. Goudge was concerned not with judging others but with understanding them with compassion. In her case, that compassion is linked to her sense of otherness -- the most profound experiences of liminality her characters experience are often when they are most concerned with others than themselves."
The passage by Elizabeth Goudge is fromThe Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974). The passage by Kari Sperring is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal" (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors or their estate. A related post (discussing white or healing magic): In the Story Made of Dawn: on magic and magicians.
"I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: than an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.
"For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it's true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that's precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.
"So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy -- they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that's more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: 'Unicorns aren't real.' And that fact is one that never got anyone anywhere (except in the story 'The Unicorn in the Garden,' by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin.) It is by such statements as, 'Once upon a time there was a dragon,' or 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at truth."
Words: The passage above is from "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, which first appeared in PNLA Quarterly 38 (1974), and can also be found in her essay collection The Language of the Night (GP Putnams, 1979). Drawings: The two dragon drawings are by Alan Lee, and the unicorn drawing by Alan Lee & John Howe. Photographs: A quiet Friday morning the studio. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.
"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "
J.M Barrie falls into this catagory, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended abruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.
The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.
In Friday's post, and yesterday's, we've been talking about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things impact creative work. Today I'd like to come at the subject from a slightly different direction, with the idea that loss of home can be as powerful a creative spur as the finding of the heart's home, or the love of a long-established one.
Loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots.
In her essay collection Language and Longing,Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby town of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.
Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."
A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."
Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.
The beautiful art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:
"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."
Moore worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.
The passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators.
Between the setting of the sun and the black of night, dusk is a potent, magical time, for in its eerie half-light (according to folklore found around the globe) one can cross the borders dividing our mundane world from supernatural realms.
When I was a child, I longed to discover a doorway into Faerieland or a wardrobe leading to Narnia...and I actually attempted to find one, in the twilight hour of a midsummer's eve. I remember it still: sitting huddled in the shadows, escaping the chaos of a troubled home, determined to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. I failed, of course. But like many children hungry for a deeper connection with the spirit-filled unknown, what I couldn't find in New Jersey that night I discovered in the pages of fantasy books...and, later, in the study of folklore and a life-time of wandering the landscape of myth.
My younger self may have been in the wrong place, but I'd instinctively managed to chose the right time, for twilight, according to British and other folk tales, contains powerful magic.
"Anytime that is 'betwixt and between' or transitional is the faeries' favorite time," says painter and mythographer Brian Froud. "They inhabit transitional spaces: the bottom of the garden, existing in the place between man-made cultivation and wilderness. Look for them in the space between nurture and nature, they are to be found at all boarders and boundaries, or on the edges of water where it is neither land nor lake, neither path nor pond. They come when we are half-asleep. They come at moments when we least expect them; when our rational mind balances with the fluid irrational."
In myth, it is rarely easy to cross from the human world to the Otherlands, whatever those Otherlands may be: Faerie, Tir-na-nog, the Spirit World, the Underworld and the Realm of the Dead. Gods and guardians of the threshold are the border guards who will either stamp your passport or block your way -- such as Janus, the god of doorways, gateways, passages, beginnings and endings in Roman mythology; or Cardea, with whom he is often paired, the goddess of door-hinges, domestic thresholds, passageways of the body, and liminal states. According to Robert Graves' mad and brilliant book, The White Goddess, Cardea was propitiated at weddings by lighting torches of hawthorne, her sacred tree, for she had the power "to open what is shut; and shut what is open." (She was thus associated with virginity, virginity's end, and, consequently, with childbirth.)
A wide variety of guardian figures around the world (gods, faeries, supernatural spirits) regulate passage through mystic thresholds and access to sacred groves, glens, springs and wells. Some of them guard whole forests and mountains, while others protect individual trees, hills, stones, bridges, crossings, and crossroads. Myth and folklore tells us these guardians can be appeased, tricked, outwitted, even slain -- but usually at a price which is somewhat higher than one wants to pay.
Sometimes it is the land itself preventing casual passage across mythic boundaries. In the Scottish ballad "Thomas the Rhymer," a river of human blood stands between Faerieland and the mortal world, and Thomas must pay the price of seven years servitude to make that crossing. In the German fairy tale "Brother and Sister," an enchanted stream must be crossed three times in the siblings' flight through the deep, dark woods. They are sternly warned not to stop and drink -- but the brother breaks this magical taboo and is transformed into a deer. In other tales, one princess must climb seven iron mountains to reach the land where her love is imprisoned; another must trick the winds into carrying her where her feet cannot. A magical hedge of thorns is the boundary between Sleeping Beauty's castle and the everyday world, and it cannot be penetrated until time, blood, and prophesy all stand aligned.
Trickster is a rare mythic figure who crosses borders and boundaries with ease. In his various guises around the globe (Hermes, Mercury, Loki, Legba, Maui, Monkey, Anansi, Coyote, Raven, Manabozho, Br'er Rabbit, Puck, etc.) he moves back and forth between the realms carrying messages, stealing fire and cattle, making mischief on both sides of the border, dancing in the borderlands between, and (in his role of Psychopomp) leading the dead in their journey to the Underworld or the Spirit Lands.
Tricksters, Lewis Hyde points out, "are the lords of in-between. A trickster does not live near the hearth; he does not live in the halls of justice, the soldier's tent, the shaman's hut, the monastery. He passes through each of these when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief, but he is not their guiding spirit. He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town (the one where a little market springs up). He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. There are strangers on that road, and thieves, and in the underbrush a sly beast whose stomach has not heard about your letters of safe passage....
"Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns," Hyde continues, "each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of the stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty, and to the intelligence needed to negotiate them. Hitchhikers who make it safely home have somewhere paid homage to Hermes."
Many fantasy novels grow from the desire to go beyond the fields we know or to find the hidden door in the hedge. Unlike Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Le Guin's Earthsea books, set entirely in invented landscapes, the protagonists of these tales cross over a border, or through a magical portal, traveling from our world to a strange Otherland. This device was used most famously in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and his other Narnia books), but also in Andre Norton's Witchworld series, Pamela Dean's Secret Country books, Joyce Ballou Gregorian's Tredana trilogy, Charles de Lint's Moonheart, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials (although Lyra's Oxford, or Will's, aren't exactly our own), and numerous others. There are also tales in which movement across the border goes in the opposite direction, spilling magic from the Otherworld into our own, such as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood series, Patricia McKillp's Solstice Wood, and William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderlands (1908). In his classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), the great Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany focused on the borderland itself: the tricksy, shifting landscape squeezed between the mortal and magical realms...a device that was then irreverently updated by Bordertown, one of the earliest series in the "urban fantasy" genre, with its motorcycle-riding and rave-dancing elves, humans, and halflings in a crumbling city at the edge-lands of Faerie.
Magical Realist works on the mainstream shelves also make use of border-crossing themes. Rick Collignon's The Journal of Antonio Montoya, Pat Mora's House of Houses, Alfredo Vea Jr.'s La Maravilla, Kathleen Alcala's Spirits of the Ordinary, and Susan Power's The Grass Dancer are all extraordinary books where the membrane between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin and torn; as is Leslie Marmon Silko's wide-ranging refutation of borders, The Almanac of the Dead. In Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water, Trickster crosses easily from the mythic to modern world; while in Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich these worlds are stitched together in the intricate patterns of Indian beadwork.
As myth, folklore, and fairy tales remind us, the border between any two things is a traditional place of enchantment: a bridge between two banks of a river; the silvery light between night and day; the liminal moment between dreaming and waking; the motion of shape-shifting transformation; and all those interstitial realms where cultures, myths, landscapes, languages, art forms, and genres meet.
We cross the border every time we step from the mundane world to the lands of myth; from mainstream culture to the pages of a mythological study or a magical tale. As a folklorist and fantasist, I cannot resist an unknown road or an open gate. I'm still that child on a midsummer's eve, willing magic into existence.
Words: The quote by Brian Froud is from a conversation I noted down when I was editing his book Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (Simon & Schuster, 1998). The quote by Lewis Hyde is from his excellent book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, & Art (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998). Pictures: Art credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the text and imagery above is reserved by their respective creators. Related posts:At the Death of the Year andThe Madness of Art.
"Writing," says Susan Cooper, "is one of the loneliest professions in the world because it has to be practiced in this very separate private world, in here. Not in the mind; in the imagination. And I think it is possible that the writing of fantasy is the loneliest job of the lot, since you have to go further inside. You have to make so close a connection with the the subconscious that the unbiddable door will open and images fly out, like birds. It's not unlike writing poetry.
"It makes you superstitious. Most writers indulge in small private rituals to start themselves writing each day, and I find that when I'm working on a fantasy I'm even more ludicrously twitchy than usual. The very first half hour at the desk has nothing much to do with fantasy or even ritual: it's what J.B. Priestley used to call 'sharpening pencils' -- the business of doing absolutely everything you can think of to put off the moment of starting to work. You make another cup of coffee. You find a telephone call that must be made, a letter that must be answered. You do sharpen pencils. You look at the plant on the windowsill and decide that this is just the time to water it, or fertilize it, or prune it. Maybe it's even time to repot it. You hunt for the houseplant book, and look this up, and it says severely that this kind of plant enjoys being pot-bound and should never be repotted. So you turn to the bowl of paperclips on your desk, and find that safety pins and pennies and buttons have found their way in, so of course you really ought to sort out the paperclips....
"Finally guilt drives you to the manuscript -- and that's when the real ritual begins. (I should go back to the first person, because in this respect everyone is different.) I have to start by reading. I read a lot of what I've already written, maybe two or three chapters, even though I already know it all by heart. I read the notes I made to myself the day before when I stopped writing -- those were the end-of-the-day ritual, to help with the starting of the next. During this process I've picked up one of the toys scattered around my study, and my fingers are half-consciously playing with it: a smooth sea-washed pebble from an island beach, a chunky ceramic owl from Sweden, a little stone wombat from Australia. I read the last chapter again. I wander to a bookshelf and read a page of something vaguely related to my fantasy: Eliot's Quartets, maybe, or de la Mare's notes to Come Hither. I have even been known to blow bubbles, from a little tube that sits on my desk, and to sit staring at the colors that swirl over their brief surfaces. This the moment someone else usually choses to come into the room, and I can become very irritable if they don't appreciate that they are observing a writer seriously at work.
"What I'm doing, of course, is taking myself out of the world I'm in, and trying to find my way back into the world apart. Once I've managed that, I am inside the book that I'm writing, and am seeing it, so vividly that I do not see what I am actually staring at: the wall, or the typewriter, or the tree outside the window. I suppose it is a variety of trance state, though that's a perilous word. It makes one think of poor Coleridge, waking from an opium-induced sleep with two hundred glowing lines of Kubla Khan in his head, being interrupted by a person from Porlock when he'd written down only ten of them, and finding, when the person had gone, that he'd forgotten all the rest. Trance is fragile.
"The world of the imagination is not fragile, not once you've reached it, but because it is set apart, you can never be sure of reaching it. It seems very curious to be standing here in the university which tried to teach me reason, and confessing to uncertainty and superstition of a kind which would have appalled my tutor. Reason, however, is singularly unhelpful to a novelist except in a few specialized situations, like the matter of chosing a publisher, or arguing points of English grammar with a copy editor. The imagination is not reasonable -- or tangible, or visible, or obedient. It's an island out in the ocean, which often seems to retreat as you sail toward it. Sometimes it vanishes altogether, mirage-like, and nothing can be done to bring it back into reach. This produces a bad day during which you write nothing of value and have to wait until tomorrow and start again.
"We cast spells to find our way into the unconscious mind, and the imagination that lives there, because we know it's the only way to get into a place where magic is made."
The art above is by the great Golden Age illustrator and designer Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). Born in Toulouse, France, he moved to London in 1904, and became a naturalized British citizen in 1912.
In the 1970s, while musicians were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of folk music, writers were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of fantasy fiction. The audience for both of these things overlapped, and it’s not hard to understand why. Fantasy writers often work with themes that hark back to the oral tradition -- to folktales, myths, and sagas steeped in the lore of our folk heritage. A number of writers who came to the fantasy field in the late '70s and throughout the '80s -- which is when fantasy solidified as a publishing genre -- were also folk musicians or singers (Ellen Kushner, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Jane Yolen, etc.); and music permeated their books. Charles de Lint’s The Little Country, for example, is set among folk musicians in Cornwall; Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks concerns folk-rock musicians in ’80s-era Minneapolis; Jane Yolen wove original ballads into Sister Light, Sister Dark and its sequels; and Ellen Kushner retold a classic ballad in her novel Thomas the Rhymer, and created an anthology of magical stories about music, The Horns of Elfland. Other writers, too, turned to folk music and ballads for inspiration, fleshing out the bare bones of song narratives to turn them into stories and novels.
One need only dip at random into the pages of Francis James Childs' The English and Scottish Popular Ballads to discover why this material would appeal to writers of magical fiction. There you’ll find stories like “Kemp Owyne,” in which a young woman is turned into a loathsome dragon. Knight after knight comes to slay the beast. The dragon kills them all in turn, with tears of regret on her scaly cheeks. It is only when a knight puts down his sword and kisses her horrible face that the spell is broken and the dragon turns back into a beautiful maiden.
In “The Elfin Knight,” a girl hears fairy music and longs for a supernatural lover. The elf knight appears at her request, but gives her one look and tells her she’s too young. The song becomes a riddling song (similar to “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”) -- though this is a riddling match that is charged with distinctly sexual overtones.
In “Reynardine,” a mysterious man seduces a woman as she walks among the hills. The man is a shapechanger, a were-fox. We don’t know what he will do to her in the castle where he steals her away, but our last image of Reynardine is of his sharp teeth gleaming brightly in the twilight.
In “Clark Sanders,” seven brothers stand over their sleeping sister and her lover, discussing what they should do to this knight who has stained the family honor. Six of them agree that they should leave the couple alone, but the seventh takes out his sword and runs it through the sleeping man’s heart. When the young woman wakes, she finds her love is a bloody corpse beside her. She goes mad with grief, the song ends . . . and then the story is taken up again in another ballad, called “Sweet William’s Ghost.” The spirit of the murdered man returns to the girl’s window. She begs him to kiss her, but he will not: “My mouth it is full cold, Margaret, / It has the smell now of the ground; / And if I kiss thy comely mouth, / Thy days will not be long.”
This idea that the dead may not touch the living is echoed in “The Unquiet Grave.” A maiden sits in a cemetery for twelve months, mourning her lover. Finally the spirit appears and asks, in a rather irritated manner, “Who sits here crying and will not let me sleep?” The maiden begs it for one kiss, but she is refused by the revenant: “O lily, lily are my lips; / My breath comes earthy strong, / If you have one kiss of my clay-cold mouth, / Your time will not be long.”
Not all ballads in the British folk tradition concern magic, Faerie, or the supernatural. Other common themes are love (usually tragic), death (usually gruesome), and family troubles that make the soap operas of our own age pale by comparison: “What is that blood on your sword, my son, what is that blood, my dear-o? It’s the blood of my sister, Mother, who I have killed in the greenwood-o. . . .” (In this song, the brother is trying to avoid discovery of the fact that he’s made his sister pregnant.)
“What I like best about ballads,” says fantasist Delia Sherman, “is that they’re plots with all the motivations left out. Why did Young Randall’s stepmother want to poison him? Why choose eels? Why did Randall eat them (especially if they were green and yellow)? There’s a novel there, or at least a short story. Ballads give you classic human situations, and also some decidedly unclassic ones, exploring relationships between lovers, parents, and children, between friends, masters, and servants. Many of them deal with power and powerlessness, which is one of the central themes of fairy tales, too; but it seems to me that ballads are more pragmatic, more realistic, in their denouements. Not every villain gets his/her just deserts. I can imagine a ballad variant of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in which Beauty comes too late and sings a plaintive last verse over the Beast’s body, about how she will sew him a shroud of the linen fine and sit barefoot in the dark all her days, for the love of him she loved too late.”
Of all of the ballads recounted by Child, “Tam Lin” has captured the imagination of more fiction writers than any other single ballad, perhaps because of its sensual theme and unusual hero: an independent, courageous, stubborn young woman, pregnant with her woodland lover’s child, determined to save him from the Fairy Queen and the unearthly Fairy Court.
Elizabeth Marie Pope’s lovely novel The Perilous Gard places Tam Lin's story in Elizabethan Scotland, while Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin turns the ballad into a remarkable coming-of-age saga unfolding on an American university campus. Alan Garner’s Red Shift -- a subtle, powerful, unforgettable reworking of the ballad’s themes -- roots the tale in Cheshire, England during three historical periods: the Roman era, the Civil War, and the present day. Patricia A. McKillip's “Tam Lin” novel, Winter Rose, is an exquisite adult fairy tale set Once Upon a Time, mixed with elements from a second Scottish fairy ballad: "Thomas the Rhymer." Diana Wynne Jones also combines the two ballads in her brilliant YA novel Fire and Hemlock, about young musicians in modern-day England -- following in the footsteps of Catherine Storr's too-little-known "Tam Lin" novel, Thursday, published in 1972, which was one of the first to bring fairy lore into the modern world. Dahlov Ipcar makes interesting use of "Tam Lin" in her short novel for children, A Dark Horn Blowing; Janet McNauthton takes "Tam Lin" and a second ballad, "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," to 12th century Scotland in An Earthly Knight; and Lucy Sussex weaves the transformational aspects of "Tam Lin" into her deeply enchanting novel Deersnake.
Liz Lochhead’s long, wry poem “Tam Lin’s Lady” (from her collection Dreaming Frankenstein) is well worth seeking out, as are these fine short story renditions: "Tam Lin" by Joan Vinge (from the anthology Imaginary Lands), "Cotillion" by Delia Sherman (from the anthology Firebirds), "Tiend" by Sonya Taaffe (from Strange Horizons magazine, October 2007), "The Lady and the Fox" by Kelly Link (from the anthology My True Love Gave to Me), and Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass by Alice Munro (from her collection Friends of My Youth). I also recommend two lovely picture book versions: Jane Yolen’s Tam Lin, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, and Susan Cooper's Tam Lin, illustrated by Warwick Hutton.
"Thomas the Rhymer" -- the story of a Scottish harper who kisses the Queen of Elfland and then is bound to her service for seven long years -- is another popular tale among fantasy writers and readers. In addition to the Patricia McKillip and Diana Wynne Jones books listed above, the ballad inspired Bruce Glassco’s unusual short story “True Thomas” (from the anthology Black Swan, White Raven), and is splendidly retold in Ellen Kushner’s award-winning novel Thomas the Rhymer.
"I had to do Thomas," Ellen recalls, "because, like every other writer, I knew Thomas was my story. He holds the mythic power of King Arthur in the hearts of poets: the artist who is literally seduced by his muse, comes closer to her than any human should to the source of his art, and is profoundly changed. He can never be at home in this world again, and yet he must continue to live in it. That’s how every writer feels, I think. Many writer friends had talked about writing a Thomas story someday, kind of like an actor playing King Lear: it’s a Great Subject that probably should not be tackled in one’s youth. I still feel a little humble about it. I don’t think I’ve written the definitive Thomas; I’ve just written my Thomas, the Thomas who addressed issues that were upon me in those years. Twenty years from now, I might like to do him again."
Ellen’s Thomas the Rhymer also drew upon the Child ballads “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “The Famous Flower of Serving Men.” The latter is the story of a woman whose husband, a knight, is murdered by her own mother. The heroine dons men’s clothes and goes to court, where the king soon falls in love with her -- while the murdered knight returns as a white dove shedding blood-red tears through the forest. Delia Sherman used this ballad as the basis of her gender-bending novel Through a Brazen Mirror -- a very fine work of adult fantasy that really ought to be much better known.
“I heard Martin Carthy’s version of ‘Famous Flower,’ ” says Delia, “and it haunted me with questions. If a mother so hated her child, why not just kill her and be done? Perhaps there was more to it than simple hatred. Another question prompted by the ballad had to do with the role of cross-dressing in a medieval culture. A third question could be stated as this: In all these ballads with girls dressed as boys, the man falls in love with the boy, not the girl. What would happen if he wasn’t relieved to discover his beloved’s true sex? In short, ‘Famous Flower’ gave me a beautiful, mysterious narrative framework upon which to hang all my favorite concerns: gender confusion, different kinds of love, the single-mindedness of the mad, foundlings and their origins.”
Patricia C. Wrede’s “Cruel Sisters” (from her collection Book of Enchantments) and Gregory Frost’s “The Harp That Sang” (from the anthology Swan Sister) are both memorable tales based on “Cruel Sister” (a.k.a. “Twa Sisters”), the ghostly story of a murdered girl and a harp made out of bone. “Alison Gross” by Midori Snyder (from the urban fantasy anthology Life on the Border) is based on the ballad of that title: the story of a man changed into a worm (or wyrm, a dragon) when he spurns the kisses of a witch. A number of works are inspired by “The Grey Selchie,” a poignant ballad of love, seals, and shape-shifting, including Jane Yolen’s “The Grey Selchie” (from her collection Neptune Rising), Laurie J. Marks’s “How the Ocean Loved Margie” (from The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2004), and Paul Brandon’s evocative, music-filled novel Swim the Moon. Sharyn McCrumb's Ghostriders, The Songcatcher, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and If I Never Return Pretty Peggy-o are magical mystery novels steeped in the themes of traditional ballads from the south-eastern mountains of America, as are the "Songkiller" books of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough: Phantom Banjo, Picking the Ballad's Bones, and Strum Again. Greer Ilene Gilman’s Moonwise is a fever-dream of a book brimming with Celtic balladry from every corner of the British Isles; Gilman has an extensive knowledge of the folk tradition and she works with it here to unique effect.
Artist Charles Vess has listened to and loved old ballads for more than thirty-five years. “They are great stories,” he says, “filled with exactly the things I love to draw best: magic, adventure, romance, suspense, historical settings, the lands of Faerie, and supernatural creatures that range from beautiful to hideous.”
In 1994, Charles conceived the idea of illustrating a series of comics based on traditional folk ballads. He spoke with a number of ballad-loving writers who promised him scripts for the new series, which began with a story by Charles de Lint retelling “Sovay.” The series was first published by Green Man Press, and then collected into a beautiful Tor Books edition, along with four additional tales, making thirteen ballad retellings in all -- by Neil Gaiman, Sharyn McCrumb, Midori Snyder, Lee Smith, Elaine Lee, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Jeff Smith, and Emma Bull, plus two retellings by Jane Yolen, and one by Charles Vess himself. The Book of Ballads provides an excellent introduction to traditional ballads for readers not yet familiar with them, and a I highly recommend it.
In an article on Francis James Child published in Sing Out! magazine, Scott Alarik asked folk musician Martin Carthy (one of the greatest modern interpreters of Child ballads) why people should still be singing these ancient ballads today. For the same reasons they sang them long ago, Carthy answers. “Because they’re fabulous stories; because they tell you immense amounts about people and how they treat each other, trick each other, cheat and chisel and love each other. There’s an extraordinary understanding of humanity in them.”
"You do have to sometimes kick the buggers into life," Carthy continues, "find them a tune, give the lyrics a kick here and there. And they can take it; they’re fabulously resilient. I really do believe there’s nothing you can do to these songs that will hurt them—except for not singing them.”
Contemporary folk musicians have been doing a fine job of “kicking the buggers into life,” and so have writers of fantasy fiction for children and adults. I've listed a few of my favorite ballad-inspired novels, stories, and graphic works here. Now, dear readers, I throw the subject over to you: What are some of your favorites?
In the video above, Anais Mitchell and Jeffrey Hamer perform "Tam Lin," Child Ballad No. 39, from theiralbum of Child Ballads (2013). The ballad illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham, from Some British Ballads (1918). The titles are in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.
If you're interested in exploring this subject further, I recommend the following: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. 1 - 5, by Francis James Child; The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads by Betrand Harris Bronson; Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, Ballads and Romances by John W. Hales & Frederick J. Furnivall; Medieval Lyric: Middle English Lyrics, Ballads, and Carols by John C. Hirsh; English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians by Cecil James Sharp; Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Pre-Christian and Pagan Elements in British Songs, Rhymes, and Ballads by Robin Skelton and Margaret Blackwood; Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales As Literary Fictions for Young Adults (which includes sections on fiction derived from "Tam Lin" and "Thomas the Rhymer") & Stories from Songs: Ballads as Literary Fictions for Young Adults by Anna E. Altmann & Gail de Vos; and “Child’s Garden of Verses: The Life Work of Francis James Child” by Scott Alarik (Sing Out! Magazine, Vol. 46, #4). Two good articles available online: "Francis James Child's Ballads in the Modern Age" by Stephen D. Winick; and "Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of 'Tam Lin'" by Charles Butler.
A tale from Scotland's Isle of Skye relates how music first came to those lands. A poor youth found a strange instrument (a triangular harp) floating in the waves. He fished it out, set it upright, and the wind began to play the strings -- an eerie, lovely sound the like of which had never been heard. The boy could not duplicate the sound, although he tried for many long days. So obsessed did he become that his widowed mother ran to a wizard (a dubh-sgoilear) to beg him to give her son the skill to play the instrument -- or else to quell his desire for it. The dubh-sgoilear offered her this choice: he would take away the boy's desire in exchange for the widow's body, or he'd give him the gift of music in exchange for her mortal soul. She chose the later and returned home where she found her son plucking beautiful, heavenly music from the strings of the harp. But the boy was horrified to learn the price his mother had paid for his skill. From that moment on, he began to play music so sad that the birds and the fish stopped to listen. And that, concludes the old Scottish tale, is why the music of the harp sounds poignant to this very day.
From Ireland comes another tale about the earliest harp music: Boand was the wife of the Dagda Mor, a deity of the Tuatha De Danann (the faery race of Ireland). As Boand gave birth to the Dagda's three sons, the Dagda's harper played along to ease the woman's labor. The harp groaned with the intensity of the pain as the woman's first child emerged, and so she named her eldest son Goltrai, the crying music. The music made a merry sound as Boand's second son was born, and so she named the child Gentrai, the laughing music. At last the final infant emerged to music that was soft and sweet. She called the child Suantri, the sleeping (or healing) music. These three strains of music are still found in the repertoire of Celtic musicians -- as echoed by the Scots-English ballad recounting the trials of King Orfeo (a harper in the oldest songs, a fiddler in later variants) who played three strains of music before the king of the faery underworld: the notes of joy, the notes of pain, and the enchanted faery reel.
It is interesting to note that the modern revival of interest in traditional folk music, beginning in the 1970s, paralleled the modern revival of interest in fantasy fiction (and the birth of the fantasy publishing genre in the same decade). It is not surprising that the audiences for folk music and fantasy stories overlap, for both art forms are rooted in the lore and legends of our folk heritage. Today, you'll find quite a number of fantasy novels and stories infused with folk music and traditional ballads. Bards and wandering minstrels have long been staple characters in books set in medieval or imaginary lands, and more often than not, a small, hand-held, Celtic style harp is the instrument they play. The quick-witted Morgan of Hed in Patricia McKillip's "Riddlemaster" books, for example, was one of the first (and remains one of the best) harp-toting protagonists in contemporary fantasy fiction. Patricia C. Wrede (The Harp of Imach Thysell), Morgan Llewelyn (Bard), Charles de Lint (Moonheart) and other writers from early days of the fantasy genre created memorable bardic characters, and Ellen Kushner told the quintessential harper tale in her award-winning, balllad-inspired novel, Thomas the Rhymer.
It's not difficult to see why the harp became the instrument of choice in fantasy literature, for it is one that has always been associated with magic. The earliest harps of western Europe were most often made of willow wood, a tree sacred to the Goddess, associated with the cycles of the moon, fertility, and enchantment. The strings of the harp symbolize the mystic bridge between heaven and earth; mankind stands poised in the middle, striving now toward one and now toward the other as represented by the tension of the strings (portrayed in Bosch's painting "The Garden of Delights," where a man hangs from the strings, crucified). The harp has been associated with early pagan religions, its music called "the voice of the gods," although it was later absorbed into the Christian church and the celestial choir.
It was thought that the harp as we know it today originally came from Ireland, spreading across Scotland and Wales and over the Channel to Europe. But in 1992 the music historians Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird published Tree of Strings: Crann Nan Tued, a thorough, well-written history of the harp, presenting strong archaeological evidence that the earliest instruments came from Scotland. (The harp is found carved onto Picto-Scottish stones at least 200 to 300 years earlier than pictorial representations elsewhere in the world.) According to Sanger & Kinnaird, these large, floor-standing instruments (triangular in frame, probably strung with horsehair) passed to Wales sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries during waves of immigration from the north, while the Irish are likely to have come into contact with the harp through their religious communities established in the west of Scotland. When the Irish brought the instrument home, they altered the shape and gave it metal strings. This is the harp we know today as the Gaelic harp or clarsach.
Sanger & Kinnaird point out that it's not entirely accurate to call the harp a "folk" instrument. For many centuries the harp firmly belonged to the aristocracy; it was not an instrument to be found (like the fiddle and whistle) in a poor man's croft. Harpers were trained and educated; they were esteemed (and esteemed themselves) quite highly compared to other musicians. For common people, the opportunity to hear the music of the harp was rare indeed. In Scandinavia, harps were noble instruments by law; a commoner who dared to play the harp could find himself sentenced to death. This gave the instrument a powerful aura of otherworldliness, surrounding harp music with magical legends and supernatural associations. The ancient Volsunga Saga recounts the death of Gunnar, brother to Sigurd the Dragon-slayer. Thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes by vengeful enemies, Gunnar kept death at bay by playing a mystical song upon his harp, enchanting the serpents to sleep. For an entire day and night he played, but as the dawn broke over the land his tired fingers fumbled and one snake sunk its poison into Gunnar's hand.
We find other magical harps in countless fairy tales, epic poems, and songs. In a Swedish tale, a young hunter saves his wife from the lust of an arrogant prince by invoking the aid of her wolf-relatives to build him a harp -- a magical harp with which to gain her freedom. In a poem from Iceland (also a ballad from Scotland) one sister drowns another in order to steal the drowning girl's fiance. The body eventually floats to land, where a minstrel makes a harp from the girl's breast bone, strung with her golden hair. When he plays for the murderous sister's wedding, the harp speaks with the dead girl's voice and exposes the bride's treachery. The Scottish harper Glenkindie (like the fiddler Jack Orion) could "harp the fish out of the salt sea, or water out of a stone, or milk out of a maiden's breast though baby had she none." He plays a sleeping spell in order to seduce the daughter in a great lord's hall, but his serving man, in pursuit of the same woman, harps Glenkindie to sleep in turn and steals the maiden away for himself. The sinister Elf Knight uses a similar trick to seduce the Lady Isobel -- but she is a quick-witted young woman and escapes the encounter with her maidenhead intact. Thomas the Rhymer is the most famous harper of Scottish balladry. The Queen of Faery (known to have a fancy for handsome mortal musicians) seduces Thomas and steals him away to Faerieland for seven years. When she sends him home again, it is with the gift (or the curse) of "the tongue that cannot lie."
In Arthurian romance, Tristan disguises himself as a wandering harper when he travels from Cornwall to Ireland, seeking the cure for a poisonous wound inflicted by an Irish hero. It is there he encounters the fair Iseult and determines to win her for his Cornish king, never dreaming that he will come to love her himself, and thereby seal his doom.
In Russia, the harp was known as a gusla, the wandering harpist as a guslar. One legend tells of a Tsar who is captured while travelling in the Holy Lands. His brave Tsarita dons men's clothes, takes up her gusla, and follows his path. Playing before the infidel king, she wins her husband's freedom. The guslars of Russia are comparable to the bards to be found in Celtic lands: trained in archaic poetic modes, severe and highly formal, which were performed as sung recitations while accompanied by the harp. In the British Isles, in ancient times, the bards were held in the highest esteem. They were scholars, historians, genealogists, valued advisors to nobles and kings, and believed to possess certain magical powers; their satires could curse, even kill a man, while their poems of praise lifted fortunes. In Ireland, the fili (a hereditary position requiring at least six years of training in one of the poetic colleges) composed poetry but did not perform it; the reacaire would chant or recite with musical accompaniment from a harper. In Scotland, these three separate positions came together in the person of the bard. While not quite as highly trained as the fili, he nonetheless composed poetry himself, performed, and generally played his own harp.
Until the 15th and 16th centuries fili and bard used formal syllabic verse. When "amhran" apppeared (one of the basic meters of folk poetry), it swept across Europe and the British Isles, carried by traveling troubadours. As the strict rules of poetry became more relaxed, the role of fili began to disappear -- sped by the political events undermining the Irish and Highland Scottish social structures. In the early 17th century, the Irish poetic colleges collapsed; in Scotland, the less strict bardic training survived another hundred years. After this, harpers began to take on roles that combined those of the fili and the wandering troubadours. Their status fluctuated, then fell drastically. The British Crown considered traveling harpers to be political subversives; Queen Elisabeth I turned the bards into outlaws, uttering her famous proclamation: "Hang the harpers wherever found." Cromwell joined in by enacted a vicious harp-breaking policy. By the time of the famous 1792 gathering of harpers in Belfast, the proud old profession of bard was virtually extinct; wandering harpers were generally poor men with no alternative means of support -- like the famous blind harper O'Carolan, whose music is still played by harpers today.
In the early 1800s, harp music and its attendant folklore underwent a public revival, aided by the efforts of the Dublin poet-musician Thomas Moore. Moore wrote poems to Irish folk tunes and published them with tremendous success; his popularity rivalled Byron's and Scott's during his day, and his songs are still sung. In 1810, modern mechanization allowed a new type of harp to be patented which permitted musicians to play in all musical keys. This brought the harp back into classical orchestras and unleashed a flood of new music. The harp become a popular parlor instrument -- particularly among genteel young ladies, who, it was claimed, enjoyed the excuse to flash their slim ankles to admirers.
Even in the area of classical music, the harp had an aura of magic and enchantment. The Victorians, with their strong interest in folklore, spiritualism and the Celtic Twilight, embraced the music of the harp with a fervor that is almost hard to imagine today. A wealth of Victorian "fairy music" for the harp was written, published and performed -- music which eventually fell out of fashion along with the mystical medievalism and Arthurianism of the Pre-Raphaelites, the spiritualism and florid fantasies characterizing the age. Despite its great popularity during its day, the existence of this 19th-century fairy music was nearly forgotten altogether until English harp player Elizabeth-Jane Baldry released her lovely CD, "Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain."
Elizabeth-Jane is an old friend and neighbor of mine, living in tiny, magical cottage crowded with harps, books, musical scores and art. As a harp teacher as well as a performer and composer, she is largely responsible for the fact that there are few places one can walk in our village without hearing someone, somewhere, practicing classical or Celtic harp. With her long dark hair and long skirts she might have stepped from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and her breadth of knowledge about Victorian culture, folklore, fairies, and the history of harp music is impressive.
"The fairy music on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain," she says, "is the result of a journey into the Victorian fascination with the transcendental. All the music has lain forgotten in the vast archives of the British Library, and has never before been recorded or even performed in modern times. Its composers, once famous touring virtuosi, are now long dead and forgotten. Most compelling was the discovery that so many elements of the Victorian psyche are distilled in the music: a revolt against Darwinism and the birth of the scientific age, the spectacular rise of the spiritualist movement affecting even the Royal Court, a nostalgia for our rural past as the industrial revolution tightened its hold, and the rise of the middle classes with their demand for accessible music. Furthermore, the Victorian love affair with Scotland contributed to the popularity of the harp, Scotland's oldest national instrument. There was an interest for the first time in our folk heritage. The erotic imagery of fairies was an obvious outlet for the repressed sexuality of the time. Orgiastic paintings of naked frolics became respectable provided the participants had wings! Fairy music for the harp is the essence of Victorian idealism."
Elizabeth-Jane unearthed this cache of Victorian fairy music while doing research at the British Library in London. Amazed by both the quantity and the quality of this music, she swiftly made plans to put together a recording of selections from this work. Her CD was recorded on location in the 19th-century ballroom of Buckland Manor: an eighty-five-room country manor house, virtually empty, rising from the Devon countryside like the house in a gothic romance. "As I played," she recalls, "looking out on a hundred acres of untouched parkland on a golden autumn day, the wind gusting, empty urns filled with blown leaves, I felt goose-shivers down my spine . . . knowing this music hadn't been played in a century. The last time it had been performed, the manor's ballroom had just been built."
As she plucked the rippling notes of "Ondine," a reverie for harp by Georgio Lorenzi (inspired by Baron de la Motte Fouque's tragic story of a knight and a water-spirit), Elizabeth-Jane heard a woman's scream. The recording engineers heard it too and the sound was captured upon the tape. And yet, when investigated, no source for the scream could be found in that empty place. Only later did she discover that a Victorian woman had met her death in that very room, "thrown from the balcony by a husband enraged by her extravagant spending."
The late 20th century revival of interest in harp music was, like the earlier Victorian revival, entwined with an interest in all things folkloric, fantastic and mystical. I was fortunate to be a student in Dublin in the mid-1970s, when the contemporary Celtic music renaissance was first building up its steam -- a thrilling time to see new bands like Clannad adapt the Celtic harp to a new Celtic sound, or to catch sight of The Chieftain's legendary harper Derek Bell in the smokey rooms of an old Dublin pub. The Breton harper Alan Stivell began to build a following about the same time, influencing many of the younger musicians who followed after. Stivell's "Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique" is a CD that tops the list of recommendations for anyone interested in Celtic harp music.
There are so many fine harpists working today that it's impossible to list them all here, but any survey of the field should certainly also include Patrick Ball, Dominig Bouchaud, Robin Huw Bowen, Cécile Corbel, Paul Dooley, Loreena McKennitt, Áine Minogue, Joanna Newsom, Maire Ni Chathsaigh, Nansi Richards, Kim Robertson, Sileas (Patsy Seddon & Mary Macmaster), Savourna Stevenson, and Robin Williamson. (Despite the proponderence of women harpists today, it should be noted that in the past women harpers were rare, often dismissed and slandered as "loose-living" women. In the Dark Ages it was strictly against the law for women to harp.)
"O wake once more," Sir Walter Scott once commanded the ancient harps of Scotland. "If one heart throb higher at its sway, the wizard note has not been touch'd in vain. Then silent be no more! Enchantress, wake again!"
More than two hundred years later, the harps are awake, and still making their magic.
Art credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Tomorrow we'll continue "Harps & Ballads Week" here at Myth & Moor with a look at "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads" published by Francis James Child.
I posted my article "The Enchanted Harp" today in honor of one of the finest of harp novels -- Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner -- which has just been re-published in England as part of the prestigious Fantasy Masterworks series.
Based on a classic Scottish fairy ballad (Child Ballad 37), Ellen's lyrical, sensual, deeply folkloric novel won both The World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award when it was first published in 1990. It's one of my favourite books in the world, and I highly, highly recommend it.
See not ye that bonny road that winds about the fernie brae? That is the road to fair Elfland, where thou and I this night maun gae....
- from the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer
Go here to read Ellen's thoughts on using Celtic material in fantasy fiction, posted on this blog back in May. The cover art above is for the Fantasy Masterworks edition (UK) and the most recent of the American editions (illustration by Kinuko Y. Craft).