I'm afraid that Howard and I have gone down yet again with a persistent bug that he brought back from Spain in February. (It's probably not Covid-19, but yes, we're pursuing testing to be sure. Whatever it is, it's very hard to get rid of.) With luck, this relapse will be mild and swift, and I'll be back to Myth & Moor very soon. Thank you for your patience.
I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, which I highly recommend seeking out. In the following passage, Marsden is en route from the northern tip of Ireland to the wild west coast of Scotland. He writes:
"The north and west of Ireland and the west of Scotland share a similar history, language, and ethnicity....Comparable too is the geology. The 'Dalradian Supergroup' is not a Glaswegian rock band but a band of rock, 'a metasedimentary and igneous rock succession that was deposited on the eastern margin of Laurentia between the late Neoproterozoic and Early Cambrian'. Right. It makes up a large part of the defining features of both Ireland and western Scotland, the same mountains, the same high sea-cliffs, the same curiosities (Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Fingal's Cave off Mull), the same peaks and open moor, the same islets and reefs, the same sense of a primal clash between rock and ocean. And it is that backdrop -- the gritty topography, the fractured shoreline, that has helped sustain the coastline's metaphysics, helped generate the wilder projections of outsiders and inhabitants alike, phantom islands from beyond its headlands, otherworlds from beneath its turf.
"In Ireland, they are sídhe, in Scotland, sìth -- each is pronounced the same: 'shee'. The fairy population share a folk DNA, as the human ones do. The definition of the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell covers them both: 'The Fairies, according to the Scoto-Celtic belief, are a race of beings, the counterparts of mankind in person, occupations and pleasures, but unsubstantial and unreal, ordinarily invisible, noiseless in their motions, and having their dwellings underground, in hills and green mounds of rock or earth.'
"In a piece published in the Scots Observer in 1899, W.B. Yeats noted how prevalent the 'fairy belief' remained in both countries. Over the years, though, the sídhe and the sìth had diverged. The Irish once, he claimed, were much better, or at least rather nicer: 'For their gay and graceful doings you must go to Ireland, for their deeds of terror to Scotland.' He cited the Scottish tale of a child cutting turf. The child is struggling, until a hand is pushed up out of the bog with a sharp knife. The child's brothers respond by slicing off the hand with the knife. Yeats claimed that would never happen in Ireland, where 'there is something of timid affection between men and spirits'. In Scotland, he claimed, an innate mistrust existed of that unseen world: 'You have made the Darkness your enemy...you have discovered the fairies to be pagan and wicked. You would like to have them all before the magistrate.'
"As for the islands, the western coast of Scotland frays into many more actual islands than that of Ireland, but fewer imaginary ones. One tale that is found, though, in several versions in the Hebrides begins with a man in boat, lost in a fog. He comes across an unknown island, and landing on it, he meets a woman. He stays with her, they have children. After many years on the island, he goes back to his former life. One day when he is old and blind, the man is brought a fish that no one can identify. Fingering it, he recognizes its shape. He asks to be taken out to the waters where it was caught, and there is the island. He is put ashore, and he and the island disappear.
"It is a simple and beautiful story, and one that challenge's Yeats's partisan point. Many aspects of fairy belief do not stand up to any kind of literal scrutiny: little people living in holes in the ground, stealing the substance of people, or changing them into animals. But behind them lies a more persistent thought -- common not just to the closely related fairies of Ireland and Scotland but to belief worldwide: that other versions of our own life exist. They could be in the past, in the future, or in the never-never. They might be over the horizon, or on an imaginary island. But at one time or another, we will go looking for them. Perhaps we're always looking. "
The art today is by my friend and village neighbour Alan Lee, recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration, the Academy Award for film design, and many other honours. Some of the images above are from his classic book Faeries (with Brian Froud); other drawings are from Alan's private collection. To learn more about the wider range of his exquisite work, go here.
Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019). The artwork is by Alan Lee. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.
I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, so here's a second passage from this wonderful book. The following section takes place on the unihabited island of Inishdooey, off Ireland's Donegal coast. Marsden writes:
"Long ago, when magic was still on tap for the righteous, Saint Dubhthach and Saint Columba had a competition. They both wanted the challenge of ministering to Tory Island, so they stood beside each other on the mainland, and each saint swung his crozier with huge force. Columba's landed on Tory, some five miles off. Dubhthach could only manage a couple of miles and his reached here, on Inishdooey.
"The walls of Dubhthach's monastery were still discernible. I stepped inside, with an immediate awareness of hallowed ground. Lumps of quartzite dotted the stonework. Above the east window, the stones of the lintel fanned out like a sunrise. The opening itself was little wider than a slit, designed to celebrate the daily wonder of light returning, by capturing so little of it. [...]
"Out on the high cliff, I lay face down to look over the rim. A pool was spread out far below, enclosed in an almost complete circle of sheer rock. The circle was perforated at sea level by several low arches, and the sun shone through these arches, filling the sea inside with a brilliant green translucence. Rays of light penetrated the top layer of water, flickering beneath it like fish backs. It was a minor miracle, an everyday occurrence that went on happening even though there was no one to see it; the sort of prospect that once invited those solitaries living in such places to write:
Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle
On the crest of a rock
That I may look there on the manifold
face of the sea.
"From across the golden centuries of Irish letters, few lines now have the raw impact of the verses known as the early 'nature poems'. What survives of them -- a fraction, probably -- suggests a tradition that began in its written form in about the eighth century. They were unlike anything else in medieval literature. What their authors drew on was what was normally sublimated to the collective or the divine, something that out here on the rocky fringes of the world was often in full flight: the individual sensibility. Their subject was the natural world -- so familiar, so quotidian, it was rarely considered worth writing about. But the verses' ease and confidence suggest that it had been expressed for a long time.
" 'Comparing these poems with the medieval European lyric,' wrote the scholar K.H. Jackson, who anthologized them, 'is like comparing the emotions of an imaginative adolescent who has just grown to realize the beauty of nature with those of an old man who has been familiar with it for a lifetime.' Seamus Heaney sensed in them the 'tang and clarity of a pristine world full of woods and water and birdsong'. He marvelled at the 'little jabs of delight in the elemental' noting that, in their distinctiveness, they make 'a spring-water music out of certain feelings in a way unmatched in any other European language.'
"The poems were the work of Irish monks, part-Christian in spirit and part-pagan, who pursued their devotions in the remotest of places, like here on Inishdooey. Some of the works were formal, or merged into longer cycles of story -- in Buile Suibhne or Immram Brain. Others were more direct -- simple observations, for instance, of the sounds heard outside a hermit's hut:
Or of summer:
The smooth sea flows,
Season when the ocean falls asleep;
Flowers cover the world.
Or of a cherish island:
Gleaning of purple lichen on its rocks,
Grass without blemish on its slopes,
A sheltering cloak over its crags;
Gambolling of fawns, trout leaping.
From the late nineteenth century onward, the nature poems were rediscovered, translated and celebrated by Celticists, along with every other surviving word of early Irish. In 1911, Kuno Meyer defined them by their modest intent: 'To seek out and watch and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest.' And he was not shy in declaring their significance: 'these poems occupy a unique position in the history of the world'.
"Like Japanese haiku and tanka, the Irish poems achieve their effect through immediacy. The act of recording what makes up a particular moment -- birdsong, trees, sun and clouds -- is more than just an assembling of scenic elements. It's a way of saying something timeless and urgent: do away with the not-here, this is what there is, the simple intensity of being alive:
The woodland thicket overtops me,
the blackbird sings me a lay, praise I will not conceal:
above my lined little book
the trilling of birds sings to me.
"Plain statement gives the verse the crisp purity of snow. 'Its makers', thought another of its scholarly advocates, Gerald Murphy, 'possessed a secret of keeping the reader's mind alert and happy, which they seem to have learnt from the story-tellers of the Old Irish period. It consisted in never saying more than was necessary, in passing rapidly over the abstract and discursive.'
"Similar nature poems, of the same period, are found in Welsh. But one thing that distinguished the Irish ones is their treatment of the sea -- a 'genuine delight mingled with terror'. It is the view of people for whom the sea was a part of everyday life, a coastal or island view of what brought pilgrims and supplies, storms and raiding Norsemen, and which offered the physical backdrop to prayer and contemplation. 'The ocean is full, the sea is in flood / Lovely is the home of ships.'
The same focused attention can be found in the marginalia of the period. While the monks dutifully transcribed Latin texts from one manuscript to another, they often jotted down their thoughts, in Irish, on the edge of the page. In themselves they are hardly revelations, but in the context of their time, their confessional tone is remarkable. On one manuscript from the early ninth century -- Cassiodorus's commentary on the Psalms -- is a series of scribblings that offer an almost filmic view of the scribe, a sentient individual. He complains about the vellum. One folio is too 'hairy', another too 'bald'. He is feeling slow: 'My brain is heavy today. I don't know what is the matter with me.' The scriptorium he works in is chilly and gloomy: 'It's cold today. It's only natural. It's winter.' 'Welcome to us is the season coming next. We won't hide what it is -- it is summer.'
"The changing seasons produced some of the most powerful of the Irish nature poems. To celebrate the hinge-points of the year were the two great annual festivals -- Bealtaine and Samhain. At the beginning of November, Samhain marked the moment when the harvest was all done, the fruits gathered and the meat ready for salting. But the Irish winter poems go far beyond the practical. In their unadorned details, they manage to suggest not only deep threat but also the sensation of the coming season, in all its wild beauty. It's hard to read such lines without shivering:
My tidings for you: the stag bellows,
Winter snows, summer has gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone -
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds,
Season of ice - these are my tidings.
"I looked north across the water, towards Scotland. The evenings were growing longer, the early mornings chillier. There was still a long way to go before the Summer Isles, and autumn was now waiting at the days' edges."
Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: The paintings are by Derek Hill (1916-2000), an English portraitist and landscape painter who spent many years working from a hut on Tory Island, near Inishdooey. The early Irish manuscripts pictured are The Book of Dimma (8th century) and details from The Book of Kells (9th century). To learn more about them, visit the online "Early Irish Manuscripts Project" from the Library of Trinity College Dublin.
A related post from earlier this year, on the Celtic monks of Ireland & Scotland: "Self-isolation and the peregrini."
I'm very pleased to announce that we're dipping our toes into the water of publishing with the establishment of Bumblehill Press. To begin with, the press will be focused on bringing some of my backlist of short stories and mythic essays out in ebook editions...but once we get the hang of this, who knows where it might lead?
The first publication is "The Color of Angels," a short story about a London artist who flees to the myth-haunted hills of Dartmoor as her life and her health start to crumble around her. The tale is loosely connected to my desert novel The Wood Wife (the protagonists of each, Tat Ludvik and Maggie Black, have been close friends since their university days), but can be easily read on its own. It was first published in The Horns of Elfland, a lovely anthology of magical stories about music edited by Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and Donald Keller back in 1997, and now sadly out of print. In a review of the book at the time, Charles de Lint kindly had this to say:
" 'The Color of Angels' deals with the creative impulse and the complexities of human relationships, but here the focus is on printmaker Tatiana Ludvik, who is undergoing a crisis of faith. That, combined with the frustration of how multiple sclerosis is steadily weakening her body, sends Tat from her London studio to a small chapel in the Devon countryside that she had renovated in the days when she was stronger....The Devon countryside becomes as much a character here as the Sonoran desert did in The Wood Wife, while Windling's narrative skills seem to only grow stronger, particularly in how she balances her lyrical passages with those more firmly rooted in the grittiness of everyday life."
For those who don't want to buy from the Evil Empire, we're at work on an ebook edition from the ethical publishing platform Hummingbird, and we'll let you know just as soon as that's available. Right now, Hummingbird publications are only available to readers in the U.S., so we're looking for a similarly ethical company covering the UK and the rest of the world.
Lunar Hine (my editorial assistant) and I are still learning how to make this all work, but as we do, we plan to bring you more publications in an increasingly efficient manner. I want to mention that this project has been made possible entirely by the kindness of Patreon supporters, whose generosity helps to fund Lunar's time as managing editor of Bumblehill Press.
I'm so used to promoting the works of other writers and artists here on Myth & Moor that I admit I'm feeling a little shy about promoting these new publications of my own. But I do hope you like "The Color of Angels," and looking forward to cooking up more mythic works for you in this format.
Many thanks to Ellen Kushner and Holly Black, who have been urging me to do this, and to Alan Lee, who has provided behind-the-scenes help. Many thanks and much love to all three of them for their friendship and support.
Art above: The "Winged Deer" image is from Les Cerfs Ailes, a 15th century French tapestry. The drawings are by Walter Crane (1845-1915).
As I'm sure you all know by now, I love recommending books here on Myth & Moor, sharing my appreciation for authors whose work has fired my imagination or touched my heart, and might do the same for you. Every once in a while, though, I read a book that I love so much that I don't know how to talk about it; every description seems inadequate. The Summer Isles: A Voyage of Imagination by Philip Marsden is such a book: it's simply one of the best that I've ever read.
The basic premise of the text is this: Mardsen sails from his home in Cornwall (on the south-west tip of England) to the the Summer Isles (on the far north coast of Scotland), taking in the remote islands of western Ireland and the Scottish Hebrides along the way. He makes the long journey alone in an old wooden sloop -- and while re-counting this thrilling, harrowing adventure he also meditates on the myths, literature, language, and history of Britain and Ireland's western coasts, and the imaginative hold islands have had on us from antiquity to the present.
Here's a taste of Marsden's prose, from the opening of The Summer Isles:
"Long ago -- when the saints had not yet reached these western shores, and heroes were still in possession of superhuman strength, and poets could cut down kings with a single satire, and music could put even the most fearsome warrior to sleep -- another region of the earth existed, another layer to the earth's surface. The Celtic, or Brythonic, otherworld was a magical place where there was no sin or labour, no old age. It was a place of beauty and joy and shimmering palaces, where they trees hung heavy with fruit and blossom, fountains burst with cool water, and cauldrons remained full, however much was drawn from them.
"In the manuscripts of medieval Irish literature are a group of stories known as echtrai -- 'outings' or journeys to the otherworld. Only a few have survived, but what they reveal is the extraordinary hold that the otherworld exerts on the imagination. Magical apples, pure love and strange beasts all feature. In Echtrae Chonnlai, Connlae, son of Conn, is invited by a woman to visit the otherworld, and her description of it is so enticing that he is overcome by longing (éolchaire). He disappears with her in a glass ship, and is never seen again. Cormac was the nephew of Conn, and he too was taken to the otherworld, but returned. He told of two forts surrounded by bronze walls and thatched with wings of white birds, and a golden cup that shattered if an untruth was ever uttered.
"A good deal of scholarly work has been carried out to try and pinpoint the otherworld from literary sources, to unpick Christian elements that may or may not overlay pagan origins, to trace recurring features and examine possible outside influences. But when dealing with such a subject, conclusions have a habit of sliding like sand between your fingers. Reading the stories, letting the images take shape, is a much better way to understand their significance. They grew from the imagination, and it is the imagination that links us to them across the ages. The otherworld might not be the term we still use, but the ability to believe in places that are invisible, to build stories around them and inhabit them, remains the defining attribute of our species. The great Celtic scholar John Carey, who has studied early Irish history as rigorously as anyone, concludes: 'I would suggest the Irish Otherworld's characteristics are, by and large, those of the imagination itself -- more specifically, of the imagination as expressed in narrative.'
"Natural mounds and hillocks, old castles, ancient burial sites, misty hollows or lakes -- these are the sort of places where the passing traveller might encounter the otherworld. But nowhere is more closely associated with its fantastic features than offshore islands. The risk of a sea passage add a certain allure to anywhere across the water, while the coast itself tends to throw up its own visual ambiguities -- refractive tricks of the light, land-like fog banks. Add to that the boundlessness of the ocean, the colourful tales of returning sailors, and it is no wonder that the western sea became such a bountiful playground of imaginary places.
"In those days, when navigation was little more than cosmic speculation, the waters to this side of Britain and Ireland has many more islands -- Tír na nÓg ('and of the young'), Tír na mBeo ('land of the living'), Tír Tairngire ('land of promise'), Emain Ablach, Avalon, Kilstapheen, Imaire Buidhe, Lyonesse, Heather-Bleather. There were islands that appeared once every seven years, islands that drifted around like giant plankton, populated islands beneath the sea. There were enchanted islands like Inishbofin, and longed-for islands like Hinba and the Green Islands of Hebridean lore. There were islands that turned out not to be islands but great sea monsters when the crews of St. Brendan and Máel Dúin lit fires on their scaly shores."
Islands reflect our inner wishes and beliefs, as much now as in the past. He writes:
"We may have purged our charts of the imaginary, but that doesn't mean we do not long for mythical places. Our lives are still shaped not by reason but by hope and fear, by narrative, by projection. We seek to give form to such abstractions by attaching them to the shape of the world: hope is a hill, memory a house, fear is a cliff, disappointment an empty field. For all the pinpointing of every ruckle and molehill on the earth's surface, satellite imagery does not even begin to show the planet as we see it. Our maps may tell us where places are, and what they are, but they do nothing to reveal what they mean. Mircea Eliade suggested that mythical geography is 'the only geography man could never be without'. Oscar Wilde put it rather more graphically: 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail'.
"The islands of Britain and Ireland were themselves once regarded by Rome as an alter orbis -- semi-mythical places detached from the three great continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. That they should make their own satellite islands into otherworlds is hardly surprising. 'It would seem that the notion of the otherworld have a very particular resonance for writers in the North Atlantic archipelago,' writes medievalist Aisling Byrne. 'National landscape shapes national literature, as the multifarious Greek islands gave episodic shape to the Odyssey, the unbounded reaches of the North Atlantic informed fantasies of insular travel and discovery'.
"The otherworld is more than just a fantasy island, full of strange creatures, magical trees and time-warps. It is all those places that we imagine, that we long for, that sustain our brief span on this earth. Out here in the far west, along the fractured coastline of Britain and Ireland, lies Europe's dreaming frontier, its open horizon, where the solid becomes fluid, the fixed wobbles a little and the cliffs and seas grow their own elaborate mythology. It has always occupied a certain place in the collective consciousness, and drawn a certain type to its shore."
During this time of global uncertainty, when physical travel is now difficult (and for some of us impossible), I highly recommend this armchair journey through islands real and imaginary....and those shifting, tricksy, liminal places that are neither one nor the other.
This book is pure enchantment.
Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: Illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, illustrations for "The Sea King's Daughter" and "The Children of Lir" by Gennady Spirin, two more illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, "The Enchanter" by Alan Lee, "The Argonauts" by Edmund Dulac, "Becuma of the White Skin" (from Irish Fairy Tales) by Arthur Rackham, and "The Sea King's Realm" by Gennady Spirin. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.