Old stories made new

Harriet and the Matches by Vanessa Garwood

P.L. Travers (the creator of Mary Poppins) once said: "I shall never know which good fairy it was who, at my own christening, gave me the everlasting gift, spotless amid all spotted joys, of love for the fairy tale. It began in me quite early, before there was any separation between myself and the world. Eve's apple had not yet been eaten; every bird had an emperor to sing to and any passing beetle or ant might be a prince in disguise....Perhaps we are born knowing the tales, for our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run about in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first hear them is not of surprise but of recognition. Things long unknowingly known have suddenly been remembered. Later, like streams, they run underground. For a while they disappear and we lose them. We are busy, instead, with our personal myth in which the real is turned to dream and the dream becomes the real. Sifting this is a long process. It may perhaps take a lifetime and the few who come around to the tales again are those who are in luck."

Molly Whuppie by Vanessa Garwood

"Fairy stories are related to dreams," muses A.S. Byatt, "...and dreams are maybe most people's first experience of unreal narrative, and to myths. Realism is related to explanations and orderings -- the tale of the man in the bar who tells you the story of his life, the historian who explains the decisions of generals and the decline of economies. Great novels, I believe, always draw on both ways of telling, both ways of seeing. But because realism is agnostic and sceptical, human and reasonable, I have always felt it was what I ought to do. And yet my impulse to write came, and I know it, from years of reading myths and fairytales under the bedclothes, from the delights and freedoms and terrors of worlds and creatures that never existed."

Fitcher's Bird by Vanessa Garwood

"Raised as I was on the darkest, grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales," writes Joanne Harris, "I’ve always been very much aware of the dual nature of the world depicted in folklore and story. For every happy ending, there is an equally tragic one; children left to die in the woods; lovers parted forever; villains with their eyes pecked out by crows, or burnt alive; or hanged. Fairytale is a world away from the comfortable assurances of the Disney franchise – and surely that was the purpose of those original fairy tales, devised as they were for an audience comprising mostly of adults; often very poor; people whose lives were cruel and harsh, and who would never -- even in fiction ---have accepted to believe in a world in which the shadows did not at least occasionally rival the light."

"Fairy Tales were the refuge of my troubled childhood, " says author and activist bell hooks. "Despite all the messages contained in them about being a dutiful daughter, a good girl, which I internalized to some extent, I was most obsessed with the idea of justice, the insistence in most tales that the righteous would prevail."

Griselda by Vanessa Garwood

"The great archetypal stories," Jane Yolen notes, "provide a framework or model for an individual's belief system. They are, in Isak Dinesen's marvelous expression, 'a serious statement of our existence.' The stories and tales handed down to us from the cultures that proceded us were the most serious, succinct expressions of the accumulated wisdom of those cultures. They were created in a symbolic, metaphoric story language and then honed by centuries of tongue-polishing to a crystalline perfection. And if we deny our children their cultural, historic heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is the most important part of the human condition."

"Magic happens," Maria Tatar observes, "when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt, touches a spindle and turns it into gold, or taps a trunk and makes it fly. By drawing on a syntax of enchantment that conjures fluidity, ethereality, flimsiness, and transparency, writers turn solidity into resplendent airy lightness to produce miracles of linguistic transubstantiation. What is the effect of that beauty? How do readers respond to words that create that beauty? In a world that has discredited that particular attribute and banished it from high art, beauty has nonetheless held on to its enlivening power in children's books. It draws readers in, then draws them to understand the fictional worlds it lights up."

King Robin by Vanessa Garwood

Philip Pullman gives this advice to writers and artists working with fairy tales today: "I’d say to anyone who wants to tell these tales, don’t be afraid to be superstitious. If you have a lucky pen, use it. If you speak with more force and wit when wearing one red sock and one blue one, dress like that. When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.' "

Why is it so important to re-fashion these stories for each new generation? I'll give Maria Tatar the last word here:

Because, she says, “it is through beauty, poetry and visionary power that the world will be renewed.”

Anansi the Spider by Vanessa Garwood

The wonderful paintings today are by Vanessa Garwood. Born in Israel in 1982, Garwood trained in painting and sculpture in Florence, followed by further studies elsewhere in Europe, Africa, and South America. She is currently based in London.

These paintings are from an exhibition inspired by Garwood's childhood love of illustrated storybooks: And is it true? It is not true. "The series," she says, "expresses a concern for the future of books in a time where their impact is being diminished by an ever increasingly virtual world. For books -- and also paintings -- as lasting physical objects passed down from generation to generation."

Go here to view more of the paintings, and to read the artist's notes on them.

The Tailor of Gloucester by Vanessa Garwood

Words: The Tavers quote is from her collection About the Sleeping Beauty (McGraw-Hill, 1975); the Byatt quote is from her collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (Chatto & Windus, 1994); the Harris quote is from the "Fairytale Reflections" series on Katherine Langerish's Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog (July 2011); the hooks quote is from Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Expanded Edition: Anchor Books, 2003); the Yolen quote is from her collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981);the Tatar quotes are from Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood (WW Norton, 2009); and the Pullman quote is from his introduction to Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Viking, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The paintings above are Harriet and the Matches, Molly Whuppie, Fitcher's Bird, Griselda, King Robin, Ananse the Trickster Spider, and The Tailor of Gloucester. All rights reserved by the artist. Many thanks to Helen Mason for introducting me to Vanessa Garwood's work.


A parliament of owls

Detail from The Falling Star by Catherine Hyde

Studio 1

At this time of year the mornings are dark, so I climb the hill to my studio on a pathway lit by moonlight and stars. I unlock the cabin, light the lamps, and Tilly settles sleepily on the couch. Behind us, the oak and ash of the woods are silhouettes cut out of black paper; below, the village lies in a bowl of darkness, the outline of the moor on its rim. I can hear water in the stream close by, and owls calling from the woodland beyond. The sun rises late, the days are short, and the owls are a regular presence.

In the myths and lore of the West Country, the owl is a messenger from the Underworld, and a symbol of death, initiation, dark wisdom. She is an uncanny bird, a companion to hedgewitches, sorcerers, and the Triple Goddess in her crone aspect. There are owls in the woods all year long, of course, but winter is when I know them best: as I climb through the dark guided by a small torch, and my dog, and the owls' parliament.

Studio 2

In her essay "Owls," Mary Oliver writes of her search for the birds in the woods near her home -- describing her quest, and the passage from winter to spring, in prose that takes my breath away:

The Wild Night Ascending by Catherine Hyde"Finally the earth grows softer, and the buds on the trees swell, and the afternoon becomes a wider room to roam in, as the earth moves back from the south and the light grows stronger. The bluebirds come back, and the robins, and the song sparrows, and great robust flocks of blackbirds, and in the fields blackberry hoops put on a soft plum color, a restitution; the ice on the ponds begins to thunder, and between the slices is seen the strokes of its breaking up, a stutter of dark lightning. And then the winter is over, and again I have not found the great horned owl's nest.

"But the owls themselves are not hard to find, silent and on the wing, with their ear tufts flat against their heads as they fly and their huge wings alternately gliding and flapping as they maneuver through the trees. Athena's owl of wisdom and Merlin's companion, Archimedes, were screech owls surely, not this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.

"When the great horned is in the trees its razor-tipped toes rasp the limb, flakes of bark fall through the air and land on my shoulders while I look up at it and listen to the heavy, crisp, breathy snapping of its hooked beak. The screech owl I can imagine on my wrist, also the delicate saw-whet that flies like a big soft moth down by Great Pond. And I can imagine sitting quietly before that luminous wanderer the snowy owl, and learning, from the white gleam of its feathers, something about the Arctic. But the great horned I can't imagine in any such proximity -- if one of those should touch me, it would be the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world. They are swift and merciless upon the backs of rabbits, mice, voles, snakes, even skunks, even cats sitting in dusky yards, thinking peaceful thoughts. I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and bluejays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the head only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains. I have walked with prudent caution down paths at twilight when the dogs were puppies. I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world.

Studio 3

"In the night," writes Oliver, "when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness, and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life -- as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I too live. There is only one world."

Studio 4

Sleepy Tilly

Like Oliver, I strive to create and inhabit a "becalmed, intelligent, sunny" life -- fashioned from ink and paint, old storybooks, and rambles through the hills with the hound -- but darkness, mortality, and mystery are the flip side of that coin. I remember this during the winter months, on the dark path up to my studio. I remember it when my body fails and death glides by on a horned owl's wings; it does not come to my wrist, not yet, thank god, but some day it must, and it will. I remember it when the dark daily news intrudes on my studio solitude, demanding response, outrage, activism. I resist the dark. My life has known too much dark and I want no more of it. I'm a creature of dawn...but the nightworld is our world too. There is only one world.

"Most people are afraid of the dark," writes Rebecca Solnit (in a beautiful essay on Virginia Woof). "Literally, when it comes to children; while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.

The Soft Hush of Night by Catherine Hyde

"As I began writing this essay," Solnit continues, "I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: 'The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.' His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, 'Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see. It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.' "

That is indeed our job. So I climb through the dark, and open myself to its beauty, its terrors. And I sit down to write.

The Running of the Deer by Catherine Hyde

The art today is by Catherine Hyde, an extraordinary painter based in Cornwall. Catherine trained at Central School of Art in London, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries in London, Cornwall, and father afield for over thirty years. In 2008 she was asked to interpret Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s fairytale The Princess’ Blankets, which won the English Association’s Best Illustrated Book for Key Stage 2 in 2009. Her second book, Firebird written by Saviour Pirotta,  was awarded an Aesop Accolade by the American Folklore Society in 2010. Her third book, Little Evie in the Wild Wood written by Jackie Morris, is a twist on the Red Riding Hood fairy tale. She both wrote and illustrated The Star Tree, which has been nominated for the 2017 Kate Greenaway Award and shortlisted for the 2017 Cambridgeshire Children’s Picture Book Award. I recommend all four books highly.

Regarding her work process, she says: "I am constantly exploring the places between definable moments: the meeting points between land and water, earth and sky, dusk and dawn in order to capture the landscape in a state of suspension drawing the viewer to the liminal spaces that lie between dream and consciousness.”

Please visit Catherine's website, blog, and online shop to see more of her art.

The Golden Path by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine HydeThe passage by Mary Oliver is from "Owls" (Orion Magazine, 1996). The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from "Virginia Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable"  (The New Yorker, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 1992). All right reserved by the authors. The paintings by Catherine Hyde are: a detail from The Falling Sar, The Wild Night Ascending, The Soft Hush of Night, The Running of the Deer, The Golden Path, and The Sleeping Earth. All rights reserved by the artist.


Candle trolls and seasonal tales

Candle Trolls by Wendy Froud

Happy Halloween, everyone!

To get the day started off right, I recommend "Samhain, Death and The Cailleach," a wise and lovely post by my friend & neighbor Suzi Crockford.

If you're in the mood for spooky folklore, you'll find some in these previous posts: The Wild Hunt, Following the Hare, and The Dark Forest ... plus in the two pieces I posted last week: At the Death of the Year and Death in Folk & Fairy Tales.

For music to play by the Samhain fire, try these two terrific podcasts from Tamsin Rosewell's Folk Show on Radio Warwickshire: "Phantasmagoria: folk songs of ghosts, spirits, and hauntings" and "The Old Stories: magic, ritual, and pre-Christian belief."

And for a taste of the living folklore tradition here in the West Country, visit Beltane Border Morris's FB page for videos of the Samhain procession, Obby Oss, and lots of earthy Border Morris dancing in Boscastle, Cornwall.

Troll Witch & Faery Godmother With Goblin Child by Wendy Froud

The photographs above and below are of sculptures made by another friend & neighbor, Wendy Froud. "I feel that my work is a sign post to the half forgotten world that we all carry inside of us," she says. "When people look at my work, I want them to think , 'Oh, now I remember.' If they do that, then I know that my artwork has been successful."

Faery Family by Wendy Froud

Tilly and WendyWendy on a "writing day" in my studio (we sometimes work together), while Tilly looks on.


The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

For National Poetry Day,* I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by the Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). This is a classic "animal bride" figure, similar to seal maidens, swan maidens, crane wives and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin sor cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing her back into wild....

[* Edited to add: It's National Poetry Day next Thursday. Doh. My apologies!]

Otter Sculpture by Ian EdwardsThe Otter Woman
by Mary O'Malley

He never asked why she always walked
By the shore, what she craved
Why she never cried when every wave
Crescendoed like an orchestra of bones.
She stood again on the low bridge
The night of the full moon.

One sweet, deep breath and she slipped in
Where the river fills the sea.
She saw him clearly in the street light -- his puzzlement.
Rid of him she let out one low, strange cry. . .

Otter photograph by Mark Hamblin

The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based here in the West Country. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The otter photograph above is by Mark Hamblin, a fine nature photographer based in Scotland. The photograph below comes from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited.

If you'd like to know more about "animal bride" legends go here. For more about shape-shifting otters go here. And for more about Mary O'Malley's beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup"The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley first appeared in The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). O'Malley's poetry collections include A Consideration of Silk, Where the Rocks Float, The Knife in the Wave, Asylum Road, The Boning Hall, A Perfect V, and Valparaiso; highly recommended. All rights to the text & imagery above reserved by the author and artists.


Darkness and light

Paige Bradley

Re-posted from 2014, with additional text and art...

From Linda Hogan's painful, honest, beautiful memoir, The Woman Who Watches Over the World:

"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen. They throw down a certain slant of light across the floor each morning, and they throw down also its shadow."

Rune Guneriussen

Rune Guneriussen

"As time has passed, things in me have been burned away and I see my life more clearly, more cleanly, than I had ever seen it before. And in that vision of my past, my history, my body, I also saw that there was something inside me that had survived and not merely survived but had done so whole and nearly intact. The hurt child raises itself and doesn't just walk but swims and flies. This child sees that life may never be easy but may be beautiful...

"Fire, like pain, like love, is a power we do not know. Yet from the ashes of each, something will grow. No one knows if it will be something beautiful and strong. But in our lives it is sometimes the broken vessel, as writer Andre Dubus calls it, that spills the light."

Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro

''How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence," asks Barry Lopez, "when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse.

''There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.''

Bruce Munro

Bruce MunroWords: The passages above are from The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir by Linda Hogan (WW Norton, 2001) and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (Scribner's, 1986); all rights reserved by the authors.
Art: "Expansion, New York City" by Paige Bradley
(U.S.) and light installations by Rune Guneriussen (Norway) and Bruce Munro (U.K.).
A related post: "The beauty of brokeness." And I recommend "The Jagged, Gilded Script of Scars' by Alice Driver.


The fairies are back....

Cottington fairies

Sometime in early 1990s, my friend and village neighbor Brian Froud unearthed the Victorian diary of Lady Angelica Cottington and made a startling discovery. Whereas other gentlewoman of her time pressed flowers between their diary pages, the young Lady Angelica pressed fairies. Or rather, she caught and pressed the psychic impressions of fairies, who delighted in leaping into her book, imprinting images of themselves (often rude in nature), and then leaping out again unharmed.

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

This diary was subsequently published as Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book, followed by two more volumes (Lady Cottington's Fairy Album and Lady Cottington's Fairy Letters), as well as the "fairy research" of Angelica's peculiar twin brother, Quentin, in Strange Staines and Mysterious Smells.

Brian, looking for fairies"It has often been my onerous task," writes Brian, "as the recipient of so much Cottingtonalia, to examine, scrutinize, and verify the often distasteful squashings and odiferous smears [of the pressed fairies], but I continue to do it with a noble sense of scientific inquiry, for I have long abandoned all hope of financial reward or knighthood (or an open sardine tin). All I can realistically hope for is a third-rate rest home near the gasworks in the less salubrious sector of Budleigh Salterton.

"The series of Cottington books may have provoked outrage or indifference from the discerning reader, however, some scholars of the esoteric -- notably a group in Oxford known as the 'Stinklings' -- gather weekly in the Dingly Arms, a rather down-at-the-heels public house. Here, over hot, buttered crumpets and pints of Bishop's Finger, they conduct fierce, philosophical debates about the various fairy phenomena appearing in my books."

Now we have a have a brand new piece of the puzzle: The Pressed Cottington Journal of Madeline Cottington, a volume that documents the strange history of Cottington Hall, the family's fairy-infested manor in Devon. Brian calls it the most astonishing book of them all, and I'm inclined to agree.

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The story is told by Madeline Cottington, the most recent descendant of this odd British family. Traveling to the ruins of the Cottington estate, she finds an odd jumble of junk and treasures: letters, drawings, diagrams, photographs, books, clothes, peculiar contraptions. Compelled to uncover her family history, and unaware of the dangers the Hall still holds, Maddi finds that she too is part of the story. And that the fairies are very real...

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

Above, Madeline Cottington, fairy hunter in the making.

Below, Angelica and Quentin Cottington, photographed early in the 2oth century. (Poor Quentin was driven mad by the war...or perhaps by other mysterious things?)

If these three happen to resemble Lillian Todd-Jones, Virginia Lee, and my husband, Howard, well, surely that's just a trick of the fairies.

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian & Wendy Froud contains a wonderful story, magical art, and is a pure delight from start to finish. It just came out from Abrams Publishers (New York). Please don't miss it.

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud


The English Magic Tarot

The English Magic Tarot

I'd like to wish Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley, and Andy Letcher a very happy Publication Day for The English Magic Tarot. As the publisher, Weiser Books, describes it:

"This captivating new tarot deck draws us into the vibrant but often hidden world of English magic, evoking a golden age of mysticism when John Dee was Queen Elizabeth’s Court Astrologer, antiquarian John Aubrey rediscovered ancient sacred sites, and the great physicist Isaac Newton studied alchemy. The English Magic Tarot places the cards in the colorful yet turbulent period of English history that stretches from the time of Henry VIII to the Restoration. During this time of upheaval archetypal forces were very much at play, making this a perfect setting for the cards."

The deck comes with a 160-page book, providing an in-depth guide to its use. It's beautifully produced, fascinating to peruse (and to use), and I highly recommend it. 

The English Magic Tarot

This is a project that I have been following closely not only because it's magical and unique -- blending an erudite approach to the history of Western magic with comics-inflected art and a sly, smart humor -- but also because it's a thoroughly Chagfordian enterprise, involving many of my village friends and neighbors:

The deck's roots (as long-time Myth & Moor readers know) go back to John Barleycorn Must Die, a graphic novel by Rex and my husband Howard. The main character of the novel, a mysterious English magician, used a tarot deck of this very sort, full of English magic and history; and the esoteric traditions behind it were further explored on their weekly Barleycorn blog. Rex was first inspired to turn Barleycorn's fictional tarot into reality (a number of those early designs can be found in the Barleycorn blog archives)...and then over time, the project evolved and broadened to become The English Magic Tarot. The deck's art was pencilled and inked by Rex, and painted by illustrator Steve Dooley. Andy Letcher joined the team to write the deck's accompanying book, drawing on his long history as a folklorist and scholar of Western magical traditions.

Creators of the English Magic Tarot

More Chagford folk can be found in the deck itself, including the mischievous characters below: Steve as the Ace of Coins, Andy as the Fool, jewelry designer Jason of England as the Devil, baker extraordinaire Ruth Olley as Strength, and Rima Staines of Hedgespoken as the gypsy of the Fortune card. (I've spotted other familiar faces in the Major Arcana, but I haven't yet found them all....)

Steve Dooley, Andy Letcher, Jason of England & Ruth Olley as Major Arcana

Rima Staines, with the Fortune card

The English Magic Tarot uses symbols derived from the heyday of the English magical tradition, a period that lies between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Early Modern. As Andy explains in the book's introduction:

"English magic is a distinctive, local branch of natural magic. It has evolved through many iterations, from prehistoric times to the present day, and freely bends high and low magic. One constant is that it regards the cosmos as animate, and our place in the world as significant. It calls us to rediscover a magical connection with the land upon which we happen to live, whether that be England or elsewhere. It supposes that through practice or study (not least, of the tarot!) we can attain a greater understanding of the disparate parts of the self, and the magical connections that permeate the universe. Through English magic we can attain a state of gnosis  and true knowledge of the world....

Draft sketch for The Emperor"A trip to a good anthropological museum (like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, which is absolutely stuffed full of magical objects, charms, and spells) shows that magic is universal. English magic is simply the English dialect of a language that's shared by all human cultures. It is our particular, regional way of doing it. It stands to reason that if magic is natural, then it will be shaped by the land it belongs to and the language and culture of the people living there.

"No one really knows why, but this small country named England has produced a great many magicans. The foundations of English magic go right back to the earliest days, to the architects who aligned Stonehenge to the midwinter sun, to the Druids with their ogham tree-lore, and to the early Anglo-Saxons with their runes. The traces of our ancestors' magical practices lie etched across and buried within the English landscape, and if you look carefully you'll see those traces in The English Magic Tarot cards too."

For further information, visit the English Magic Tarot blog and Twitter page, or read an interview with the deck's three creators. You can see more of Rex's art on his Facebook page, more of Steve's art on his painting & illustration site; and read more of Andy's deeply folkloric writing on his Wyrdlore blog.

English Magic Tarot

I also recommend Howard & Rex's original Barleycorn blog, where it all began: in particular, their discussion of magic with Andy Letcher, and tarot with Amal El-Mohtar,  plus conversations around our kitchen table with Iain McCaig, Alan Lee, Brian & Wendy Froud, Rima Staines, David Wyatt, Didier Graffet, Yoann Lossel, and other good folks.

Rex Van Ryn, Howard Gayton, Steve Dooley

Draft sketch for the Fool


Not silence but many voices

Sculpture by Girolamo Ciulla

I've posted the following passages before, but they seem well worth a re-visit this week....

From "Art Objects" by Jeanette Winterson:

"I had better come clean now and say that I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society. That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls 'the ecstasy of the privileged moment. Art, all art, as insight, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it."

Sculpture by Girolamo Ciulla

"We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector's item. Art objects.

"The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that is pointless and mean. The message colored through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die."

Kouros by Girolamo Ciulla

Sculptures by Girolamo Ciulla

"Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us."

The Philosopher by Girolamo Ciulla

"Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating, exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art.

"If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question 'What has happened to our lives?' "

A good question indeed.

Sculptures by Girolamo Ciulla

Demeter by Girolamo Ciulla

Sculpture by Girolamo Ciulla

The art today is mythic imagery in marble by Sicilian scuptor Girolamo Ciulla. Born and raised in Caltanisetta, western Sicily, he's now based in Pietrasanta, northern Tuscany, which has been an important center for sculptors working in marble for many centuries.

Sicily, a sun-baked island off Italy's southern coast, has its own language, culture, and ancient tradition of myth, folklore, and fairy tales. This heritage informs every aspect of Ciulla's work, says art historian Beatrice Buscaroli, representing "a continuity with a world that reaches us from the cradle of Mediterranean civilization...to which he adds the magic of the Etruscan land of Pietrasanta."

Figure with Ram's Head & Cele with Crocodile by Girolamo Ciulla

Ciulla's sculptures, as Buscaroli describes them, are "made of thousand-year-old certainties, of fruit, of sunlight, of wheat and stone, rain and wind. Of generous and vindictive gods, of women and warriors, billy goats and tortoises, of donkeys and fish.... Ciulla's sculpture is a sculpture that lasts, still anchored today to a thousand-year-old wilfullness dedicated to simplicity and beauty, a sculpture that sparks feelings of lightness and familiarity, faith in faces, in animals, in fruits and objects, because they belong to  everyday life, and at the same time, to a parallel world, evocative and reassuring, and worthy of being remembered."

Sculptures by Girolamo Ciulla

Girolamo Ciulla in his studioThe four passages of text by Jeanette Winterson above are from "Art Objects," published in her essay collection of the same name (Jonathan Cape, 1995). The quote by Beatrice Buscaroli is from "Girolamo Cuilla: Being, Lasting" in Girolamo Ciculla (Albermarle Gallery, London, 2007); the photograph of the artist in his studio is from the same publication. All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the authors and artist.


The magic within

Transience by Chie Yoshii

Ben Okri has this to say about poetry; and I think it applies to those of us working in Mythic Arts too, in various mediums and forms -- particularly now, during troubled times, when the world seems so fractured, the future uncertain, and art seems so small a voice raised against the chorus of anger that is everywhere:

"The world in which the poet lives," Okri writes, "does not necessarily yield up the poetic. In the hands of the poet, the world is resistant. It is only with the searching and the moulding that the unyielding world becomes transformed in a new medium of song and metaphor.

"It is not surprising therefore that poets seem to be set against the world. The poet needs to be up at night when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the undersides of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don't care to look, and they need to do this because if they don't they can't sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives."

Dragon by Chie Yoshii

Whisper by Chie Yoshii

"The acknowledged legislators of the world take the world as given. They dislike mysteries, because mysteries cannot be coded, or legislated, and wonder cannot be made into law. And so these legislators police the accepted frontiers of things. Politicians, heads of state, kings, religious leaders, the rich and powerful -- they all fancy themselves the masters of this earthly kingdom. They speak to us of facts, policies, statistics, programs, abstract and severe moralities. But the dreams of the people are beyond them, and would trouble them. The harder realities of the people would alarm them. It is they who have curbed the poets' vision of reality. It is they who invoke the infamous 'poetic license' whenever they do not want to face the inescapable tragedy contained in, for example, Okibo's words, ' I have lived the oracle dry on the cradle of a new generation.' It is they who demand that poetry be partisan, that it take sides, usually their side; that it rises on the backs of causes and issues, their causes, their issues, whoever they may be.

Saṃsāra by Chie Yoshii

Sleep by Chi Yoshii

"Our lives have become narrow enough. Our dreams strain to widen them, to bring our waking consciousness the awareness of greater discoveries that lie just beyond the limits of our sight. We must not force our poets to limit the world any further. That is a crime against life itself. If a poet begins to speak only of narrow things, of things we can effortlessly digest and recognize, of things that do not disturb, frighten, stir, or annoy us, or make us restless for more, make us cry for greater justice, make us want to set sail and explore inklings murdered in our youths, if the poet sings only of our restricted angels and in restricted terms and in restricted language, then what hope is there for any of us in this world?"

Emancipation by Chie Yoshii

Okri also offers this note of hope:

"The antagonists of poetry cannot win," he insists. "The world seems resistant but carries within it for ever the desire to be transformed into something higher. The world may seem unyielding but, like invisible forces in the air, it merely waits imagination and will to unloosen the magic within itself."

Liberation by Chie Yoshii

Dionysis by Chie Yoshii

The magical art today, which plays with allusions to Renaissance painting and classical myth, is by Chie Yoshii, who was born and raised in Kochi, Japan. She moved to the US in 2000 to earn a BFA at Massachusetts College of Art, then studied with portraitist Adrian Gottlieb for six years. Now she lives and works in Los Angeles, and her paintings are exhibited worldwide.

Her work, Yoshii says, "is inspired by the relationship between human psychology and mythical archetypes. The enduring themes are woven into surrealities filled with symbols and visual narratives. The enigmatic images embody contradicting elements such as novelty and nostalgia, innocence and sensuality, and strength and fragility, mirroring the complexity of our psyche."

The Guardian by Chie YoshiiThe passages above by Ben Okri are from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (Phoenix, 1998). All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist.


Children, reading, and Tough Magic

Seymour Joseph Guy

From Touch Magic: Fantasy, Folklore and Faerie in the Literature of Childhood by  Jane Yolen:

"The great archetypal stories provide a framework or model for an individual's belief system. They are, in Isak Dinesen's marvelous expression, 'a serious statement of our existence.' The stories and tales handed down to us from the cultures that proceded us were the most serious, succinct expressions of the accumulated wisdom of those cultures. They were created in a symbolic, metaphoric story language and then hones by centuries of tongue-polishing to a crystalline perfection....

"And if we deny our children their cultural, historic heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is the most important part of the human condition."

Walter Firle

Eastman Johnson &Michael Peter Ancher

Emile Vernon

Izsák Perlmutter & Knud Eric Larsen

"In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons."

Carl Larsson

Florence Fuller

 "A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Boy Reading by Thomas Benjamin Kennington & Charlotte J. Weeks

Boys reading, vintage photograph

Clark Kelley Price

Gilbert Young

Dorothea Lange

"Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

Tatiana Deriy

Tatiana Deriy

Honor C. Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

John Weiss

Children’s books change lives. Stories pour into the hearts of children and help make them what they become.Denise Holly Ulinskas

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always suprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed.

Rebecca Kinkead

Adelaide Claxton

"Why do so many fantasies shy away from Tough Magic? Why do they offer sweet fairy dances in the moonlight without the fear of the cold dawn that comes after? Because writing about Tough Magic takes courage on the author's part as well. To bring up all the dark, unknown, frightening images that live within each of us and try to make some sense of them on the page is a task that takes courage indeed. It is not an impersonal courage. Only by taking great risks can the tale succeed. Ursula Le Guin has written:

"The artist who goes into himself most deeply -- and it is a painful journey -- is the artist who touches us most closely, speaks to us most clearly.' "

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Words: The quotes above are from Jane Yolen's influential book Touch Magic (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000), which I highly recommend. This text has also appeared in a previous post: "Breathing in the world," August 15, 2013. All right reserved by the author.

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions.