Tunes for a Monday Morning

May blossom

May Day Procession, Chagford 2022

On a quiet green morning in the last days of May....

Above: "As I Roved Out" performed by Northern Irish singer Cara Dillon, with her husband Sam Lakeman on guitar. The song appeared on her recent album Live at Cooper Hall (2021). 

Below: "May Morning Dew" performed by Scottish singer Siobhan Miller (with Innes White, Charlie Stewart, and Euan Burton) in Glasgow. The song appeared on her album All is Not Forgotten (2020).

Above: "Searching for Lambs" performed by English singer/songwriter Nancy Kerr with her husband James Fagan, at the Bath Folk Festival in 2013. The song can be found on their joint album Steely Water (2016).

Below: "Maying Song" (the English version of a Flemish song) performed by singer/songwriter Bella Hardy, from Derbyshire. It appeared on her first album, Night Visiting (2007), as well as on Pockets & Postcards (2019).

 

Above: "May Song" performed by singer/songwriter Lisa Knapp, from south London. The song appeared on her EP Hunting the Hare: A Branch of May (2012). I also recommend her 2017 album Till April is Dead, a collection of English folk songs of ritual, fertility, and celebration of the month of May.

Below: "Hail! Hail" the First of May" performed by English singer and fiddle player Jackie Oates. The song appeared on her album he Spyglass & The Herringbone (2015).

Winter time has gone and past-o,
Summer time has come at last-o.
We shall sing and dance the day
And follow the Obby Oss that brings the May.

The pictures above: 1. May flowers - the blossom of the hawthorn tree - are a symbol of spring's fertility, regeneration, hope, and the healing of hearts. 2. The Storyteller (folklorist Lisa Schneidau), the Jack-in-the-Green (naturalist Tony Whitehead), the Obby Oss (Howard) and the Oss-minder (me) at our recent Jack-in-Green Procession here in Chagford. (Photographer: Carol Amos.) 

Below: The Obby Oss prancing across Ore Hill, with Jack just behind him. (Oss costume & mask: Nomi McLeod. Oss performer: Howard Gayton. Photographer: Andy Letcher.) I'm gathering more pictures from our May celebration and hope to post them this week. 

Chagford's Obby Oss.

All rights to the Jack and Oss photographs reserved by the photographers; used with permission.


Where the wild things are

Charles Vess

This week's Saturday Post from the Myth & Moor archives was chosen with Patricia A. McKillip in mind, for her body of work is shining example of how to re-wild the stories we tell, on the page and to each other.

From "Turning Our Fairy Tales Feral Again" by Sylvia V. Linsteadt:

"Humans are storytelling creatures. We need story, we need deep mythic happenings, as much as we need food and sun: to set us in our place in the family of things, in a world that lives and breathes and throws us wild tests, to show us the wildernesses and the lakes, the transforming swans, of our own minds. These minds of ours, after all, are themselves wild, shaped directly by our long legacy as hunters, as readers of wind, fir-tip, animal trail, paw-mark in mud. We are made for narrative, because narrative is what once led us to food, be it elk, salmonberry or hare; to that sacred communion of one body being eaten by another, literally transformed, and afterward sung to.

The Winter King by Charles Vess

"The narratives we read, and watch, and tell ourselves about the relationship between humans and nature have cut out the voices of all wild things. They’ve cut out the breathing world and made us think we are alone and above. If these narratives don’t change -- if the elk and the fogs don’t again take their places and speak -- all manner of policies, conservation efforts and recycling bins won’t be worth a damn. We live in a world where, despite our best intentions, the stories we read -- literary, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, poetry -- are almost wholly human-centric. Wild places and animals and weather patterns are stage sets, the backdrop, like something carved from plywood and painted in. They have no voice, no subjective truth. In our dominant narratives, we are not one of many peoples -- grass people, frog people, fox people -- as the Hupa Indians of the Klamath River region say. We are the only people.

Charles Vess

"This makes sense on one level, as we live in a world in which we believe the only things that are truly and wholly animate are ourselves. Mostly all of what we have been taught is predicated on this assumption. On another level, this is complete lunacy, complete insanity. At what point did we loose the sense of stories and myths actually arising from the world around us, its heartbeats, its bloodflows, its bat-eared songs?"

''Charles Vess

"At some point, one asks, 'Toward what end is my life lived?'" writes Diane Ackerman (in The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds). "A great freedom comes from being able to answer that question. A sleeper can be decoyed out of bed by the sheer beauty of dawn on the open seas. Part of my job, as I see it, is to allow that to happen. Sleepers like me need at some point to rise and take their turn on morning watch for the sake of the planet, but also for their own sake, for the enrichment of their lives. From the deserts of Namibia to the razor-backed Himalayas, there are wonderful creatures that have roamed the Earth much longer than we, creatures that not only are worthy of our respect but could teach us about ourselves.”

Charles Vess

"Storytellers ought not to be too tame,"  Ben Okri advises in his inspiring essay collection A Way of Being Free. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Charles Vess

"When we walk, holding stories in us, do they touch the ground through our footprints?" asks Sylvia Linsteadt. "What is this power of metaphor, by which we liken a thing we see to a thing we imagine or have seen before -- the granite crag to an old crystalline heart -- changing its form, allowing animation to suffuse the world via inference? Metaphor, perhaps, is the tame, the civilised, version of shamanic shapeshifting, word-magic, the recognition of stories as toothed messengers from the wilds. What if we turned the old nursery rhymes and fairytales we all know into feral creatures once again, set them loose in new lands to root through the acorn fall of oak trees? What else is there to do, if we want to keep any of the wildness of the world, and of ourselves?"

Charles Vess

"The word 'feral' has a kind of magical potency," said T. H. White (in a letter to a friend, 1937).

And it does indeed.

Charles Vess

The gloriously wild art here is by Charles Vess, of course -- one of the great storytellers and mythic artists of our age. Charles and I grew up together in the fantasy field in New York City in the 1980s; he now lives and works beside a river winding through Virginia. I particularly recommend his extraordinary illustrations for the complete edition of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press, 2018) and Drawing Down the Moon: The Art of Charles Vess (Dark Horse Books, 2009), and his various collaborations with Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman, in addition to all his other gorgeous books and comics.

I still remember these words from an interview with Charles published in 2006, which seem even more germane today: "What I get mostly from the news," he said, "is that nobody wants to pay attention to what anyone else believes or thinks, everyone wants to think that they know the only true story. The world seems to be getting very violent about 'I'm right and you're wrong, and you're going to go to hell if you don't believe what I believe.' To me, that is probably the biggest problem in our contemporary world. I think that using fantasy and mythology you can show that there are thousands of different stories and all of them are true. If you can get someone to accept that, then it's an easy step for them to accept others who are totally different, with a totally different mythology, with a totally different set of stories. They come to see that others' stories are just as valid as their own."

Please visit Charles' website to see more his art, and read his posts on the Muddy Colors illustration blog to learn more about the thoughts behind it.

The Books of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, illustrated by Charles Vess

Books illustrated by Charles Vess

Old friends (photo by Howard)

Words: The passage above are from "Turning Our Fairy Tales Feral Again" by Sylvia V. Lindsteadt (written for The Dark Mountain Project, reprinted in Resilience, March 2103); Rarest of the Rare by Diane Ackerman (Random House, 1995); and A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998). The T.H. White quote is from White's Letters to a Friend (Putnams, 1982). The Charles Vess quote is from an interview with the artist in the International Conference for the Arts Journal (2006). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: (1) She Came Out of the Forest Like a Ghost. (2 ) A sketch for The Winter King. (3) A sketch for The King of the Summer Country and His Bride of Flowers. (4 & 5) Illustrations for Medicine Road by Charles de Lint.  (6 & 7) Illustrations for The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint. All rights reserved by the artist.

Photographs: (1) The splendid new edition of The Books of Earthsea, Saga Press, 2018. (2) The hound contemplating Drawing Down the Moon, Instructions, A Circle of Cats, and The Cats of Tanglewood Forest. (3) Charles and me on the Isle of Skye, June 2017.


Patricia McKillip on writing magic

Bluebell path

In 2002, Philip Martin published The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature, containing writing advice from the likes of Peter Beagle, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, Gregory Maguire, Donna Jo Napoli, Midori Snyder, Jane Yolen, and others. Patricia McKillip also appeared in the volume, in the section on High Fantasy. Her advice for creating magic in fiction is both charming and wise.

"If you put a mage, sorceress, wizard, warlock, witch, or necromancer into fantasy," she wrote, "it's more than likely that, sooner or later, they will want to work some magic. Creating a spell can be as simple or as difficult as you want. You can write, 'Mpyxl made a love potion. Hormel drank it and fell in love." Or you can do research into herb lore and medieval recipes for spells and write: 'Mpyxl stirred five bay leaves, an owl's eye, a parsnip, six of Hormel's fingernails, and some powdered mugwort into some leftover barley soup. Hormel ate it and fell in love.'

Bluebells 5

"Or you can consider love itself, and how Mpyxl must desire Hormel, how frustrated and rejected she must feel to be obliged to cast a spell over him, what in Hormel generates such overpowering emotions, why he refuses to fall in love with Mpyxl the usual way, and what causes people to fall in love with each other in the first place. Then you will find that Mpyxl herself is under a spell cast by Hormel, and that she must change before his eyes from someone he doesn't want to someone he desires beyond reason.

Bluebells 3

"The language of such a spell would be far different from fingernails and barley soup. The Magic exists only in the language; the spell exists only in the reader's mind. The words themselves must create something out of nothing. To invent a convincing love potion you must, for a moment, make even the reader fall in love."

The Magic exists only in the language. This is true. But as Pat would have been the first to tell you, the spells cast by words in black ink on the page are powerful enchantments indeed.

Bluebells

For more insights into the magic of language and stories, I recommend the following posts: Briana Saussy on the art of making magic, David Abram on magic and magicians, N. Scott Momaday on the ancient magic of language, Jeanette Winterson on the magic of words, Robert Macfarlane on the magic of names, and Ben Okri on reclaiming the fire and sorcery. (For the full archive of posts that touch upon magic, go here.)

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 6

Words: The passage above comes from  The Writers Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books, 2002); all rights reserved The quotes tucked into the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them) are from Patricia McKillip's novels The Alphabet of Thorn (2004), Od Magic (2005), The Book of Atrix Wolfe (1995), Winter Rose (1996), The Riddlemaster of Hed Trilogy (1979-1983), and Ombria in Shadow (2002).   

Pictures: The photographs were taken on our hill this week. It is faerieland here during the bluebell season, with a piskies' path that runs from the Dartmoor hills to the Catskill Mountains. 


On writing fantasy

An illustration for The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

Today I've gathered a selection of quotes on writing by Patricia A. McKillip, capturing the magic of her creative process but also the frustrations and the plain hard graft, and the manner in which she alchemized daily life into mythopoeic fiction. Her work has a rich vein of Romanticism (in the classic sense of that word), so let's start with this delightfully unromantic description of the Writing Life:

"I usually don’t think of 'writing' and 'joy; in the same sentence. Nalo Hopkinson once said something along the lines of 'writing a novel is like wrestling with a mattress.' I thought that was a bull’s eye description of the process.

"A novel is bigger than you are, it’s bulky, it’s hard to grasp, it threatens to fall over on you, it doesn’t go where you want it without shoves, prods, kicks and swearing. The joy might come when you’ve finally got the unwieldy thing where you want it. Or it might come much later, when you finally realize how close actually you came to doing what you set out to do. Most of the time, for me, it comes with the idea -- the wonderful vision in my head, the moment of falling in love with the possibility of what I can create. After that it’s pretty much uphill all the way to the end, when I’m never quite certain I’ve actually gotten there, except that I don’t have anything left to say."

The Golden Root by Warwick Goble

"Bards of Bone Plain was an exhausting book to write. It took a long time and very hard work, over the course of about four years. The original idea for it didn’t involve the kind of mirror imaging I ended up using. The central theme was simply to explore the idea that yes, things fantastical matter: fairy tales matter, symbols matter; they speak to us in very intimate ways, and if we need them they are there. That was the whole point of writing the poem about the 'Three Trials' and all that.‘

"I had envisioned a totally different kind of character, a bleaker character who really deserved the fate that he had. But he wouldn’t come out; I couldn’t make him do it. It’s like Connie Willis says: I can’t do that much darkness. Then I had an idea of moving through three different sections of background: the early one where they built the school, and then the building of the city (which would be kind of medieval), and then the modern city. At one point it stretched into three different books, and I thought, 'Nobody’s going to sit through all this to get to the modern city.' Still, it’s an idea I couldn’t give up easily. It was stubborn.

"The rewrite was deadly. At that point I had no faith in the novel whatsoever, but I was trying to do the rewriting just to make it an inch better than it was. There were so many problems! When I had 80 pages of it done, I handed it to my husband to read and he said, 'This is boring.' He was right; I thought it was boring too, but I wanted a second opinion. So I just started all over again, and finally I had this breakthrough.

And illustration for The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

"I was reading Martin Amis’s memoir about his relationship with his father, Kingsley Amis, and I thought, 'This is so modern! I want to do something like that.’ I think that’s where the modern plotline came from. Somehow, this poor guy who got skewered by this symbol, this poem -- for not taking it seriously, for not understanding fully, for not understanding how much it could mean to him -- he was punished. And he was the character who sort of wrapped all the details up for me, from the very beginning of the school to the sort of modern period, which lacked the distinct postwar signature of our 1920s and wasn’t quite modern (because then I’d have to deal with computers).

"My alternative timelines came out of desperation! I’d written the early chapter of the 'modern' story first, and then I thought, 'Well, what if I just fill in the gap to the past with this one main character who’s kind of the leitmotif of all the chapters?' (He ties all the other points of view together.) It finally started working at that point. It wasn’t the book that I had envisioned. But it’s the one that came out, and I love various details about it."

Brother and Sister by Warwick Goble

“Maybe a lot of the faerie in Atrix Wolf and Winter Rose comes from my move east [from San Franciso to the Catskills in upstate New York]. Instead of being surrounded by the landscapes in California -- vast distances and mountains and everything else – I’m surrounded by these little woods, and they’re definitely ‘fairytale’ woods, especially when you look at them in certain casts of light and can’t quite see what’s in them. That’s where the story begins, when you start wondering about what lies in these woods. Exploring that aspect of faerie is a consequence of living where I live." 

The Golden Ball by Warwick Gable

"Winter Rose was an enormously difficult novel, because I was trying to write about obsessive love, but it turned into a love story -- though I was fighting it all the way! I made the mistake of framing it around the 'Tam Lin' story, which of course is a love story. I didn’t realize it quick enough, so I spent the next year making it a love story. Faerieland in there was a very dangerous place to be. The characters there were out of the Wild Hunt, really not very nice people. It’s the wicked queen, who doesn’t really have any motivation, except that she wants to be wicked. One of the reasons I wanted to do the 'Tam Lin' story was that I did want to change the myth a bit. It’s a transformation tale, but it’s always the male who gets transformed. Janet has her child, and that’s her transformation. She’s very brave and courageous, but I wanted to write a story about a woman who had to transform herself, rather than rescue somebody else by his transformation. Instead of having a child, she bears herself in a certain way."

Hunting the White Hind by Warwick Goble

"The idea of faerieland fascinates me because it's one of those things, like mermaids and dragons, that doesn't really exist, but everyone knows about it anyway. Faerieland lies only in the eye of the beholder who is usually a fabricator of fantasy. So what good is it, this enchanted, fickle land which in some tales bodes little good to humans and, in others, is the land of peace and perpetual summer where everyone longs to be? Perhaps it's just a glimpse of our deepest wishes and greatest fears, the farthest boundaries of our imaginations. We go there because we can; we come back because we must. What we see there becomes our tales."

The Prince and Filadoro with the Snails

An illustration for The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

"In a crying need to get out of [the Catskill] mountains for a bit, I registered for a music class offered at Julliard [in New York City] to the community at large. To this day I wonder if Julliard realized that the Catskills were part of its local community. The subject was World Music, which I didn't know much about. It was held every Thursday evening from seven to nine, late September to early December. To get to it, I would drive for an hour and a quarter out of the Catskills, across the Hudson River, to another tiny town called Rhinecliff, which boasted a little train station with two tracks. I would board an Amtrak train there. After an hour and forty minutes, the train would pull into Grand Central Station, and I would step into an entirely different planet. The huge buildings, the noise, the smells, the languages, the music, as varied as the languages, offered at every street corner were mind-boggling, intoxicating. By day, I explored the city; in the evening I sat in a classroom listening to weird instruments, exotic music. Afterwards, I would reverse the journey, moving farther and farther out of the enormous, intense hothouse of civilization until the roads became narrow and solitary, mountains hid the river and the city lights, and I reached the strange point in my drive home where I felt I had somehow traveled so far that I had left the real world, real time behind. I had passed into the realm of Sleepy Hollow, the Otherworld, which was just a little farther than anyone should go. 

"The final class was held in the Indonesian Consulate so that we could learn about the Gamelan. I had also learned, on those Thursday explorations, enough about the subway system to find my way there and back again, which gave me no end of satisfaction. Later, I would put that journey from one tiny world into a huge, complex and noisy world, those details of bar and classroom and my amateur efforts at music, into a fantasy novel: Song for the Basilisk."

An illustration from The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble 6

"Winter Rose and Songs for the Basilisk have definite springs in real life, and yet for some reason they insist on being fantasy novels, instead of contemporary novels. That’s something even I don’t quite understand. The hardest thing of all is writing a contemporary novel with the power of a fantasy. That’s what I’d really like to do, but I don’t quite know how. Maybe I have to make them fantasies because I have a big imagination, and it won’t shut up."

The Knight and the Dragon by Warwick Goble

"I write fantasy because it's there. I have no other excuse for sitting down for several hours a day indulging my imagination. Daydreaming. Thinking up imaginary people, impossible places. Imagination is a golden-eyed monster that never sleeps. It must be fed; it cannot be ignored. Making it tell the same tale over and over again makes it thin and whining; its scales begin to fall of; its fiery breath becomes a trickle of smoke. It is best fed by reality, an odd diet for something nonexistent; there are few details of daily life and its broad range of emotional context that can't be transformed into food for the imagination. It must be visited constantly, or else it begins to emit strange bellows at embarrassing moments; ignoring it only makes it grow larger and noisier. Content, it dreams awake, and spins the fabric of tales. There is nothing really to be done with such imagery except to use it: in writing, in art. Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those of us who do have no choice."

An illustration for The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

The quotes above come from "An Interview Witb Patricia A. McKillip" by Deborah J. Brannon (A Green Man Review, October 2008); "Patricia A. McKillip: Fairy Tales Matter" (Locus Magazine, January, 2011); "Patricia A. McKillip: Springing Surprises" (Locus Magazine, July, 1996); Firebirds Rising, edited by Sharyn November (Firebird, 2006);  "What Inspires Me," Patricia McKillip's Guest of Honor speech, Wiscon 28, 2004; and The Faces of Fantasy by Patti Perret (Tor Books, 1996). All rights reserved.

The art above is by Warwick Goble (1862-1943), a prolific book artist during Britain's Golden Age of Illustration.