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June 2021

Myth & Moor (and Tilly) update


I'm afraid there's no post this morning. Tilly is having health problems, so I'm off to the vet again...and then giving her a gentle walk for being such a good brave girl. Please send healing thoughts to our sweet old hound. Myth & Moor will be back tomorrow.

Update on Friday: We're still dealing with tests, etc. with Tilly. She had a difficult night last night, and I admit we're worried. I'll be back as soon as I can be -- and I'll post news when I have it, as I know there's a lot of love for Tilly out there. We all appreciate it very much.

Update on Saturday: Good news. The first batch of Tilly's tests are back and the results are much better than we feared. She does, alas, have at least one new health problem (alongside her other long-term condition), but with medication and care it, too, can be managed. We're awaiting the results of further tests, but feeling real hope of getting Tilly through this. This morning she was able to get up without help, and even managed the jump up to her blanket on the sofa with only a little assistance. That's real progress from yesterday. She's still shaky, and shaken, and wants us close, but she's definitely looking better. 

Update on Sunday: Tilly has regained her sense of humour, which is a very good sign. (That's a chew bone hanging from her mouth like tusk in the photo below.) After days of shivery misery, it so good to see her spirits lifting! What a plucky little soul she is.

Update on Tuesday: She managed a very short walk this morning. She's still wobbly on her feet and tires out pretty quick -- but she was so happy to be in the good green world that she was smiling the entire time.

Thank you again for your good wishes.


Illustration from a book in the Royal Library. Artist unknown.

Art: An illustration from a Victorian-era book in the Royal Library. Artist unlisted.

On fairy tales old and new

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

"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."

- P.L. Travers (About the Sleeping Beauty)

"The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was created by myth. The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which myth had placed upon its chest."

Walter Benjamin ("The Storyteller," Illuminations)

Honeycomb illustrations by Charles Vess

"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 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."

- Jane Yolen (Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood)

"The reason why fairy tales last is because they allow us to gaze at ourselves through a glass that is at once transparent and reflective. They give us a double gaze to see ourselves from the inside out and the outside in, and they exaggerate our roles just enough to bring into focus the little pieces of monster that grow on our hearts."

- Sabrina Orah Mark ("The Evil Stepmother," Paris Review)

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

"Raised as I was on the darkest, grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales, 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."

- Joanne Harris ("Fairy Tale Reflections #27," Seven Miles of Steel Thistles)

"If you read fairy tales carefully, you’ll notice they are mostly about people who aren’t heroes. They don’t have special powers, or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid. They are bullied, beaten up, robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes."

- Amanda Craig (In a Dark Wood)

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

"This is the thing about fairy tales: You have to live through them before you get to happily ever after. That ever after has to be earned, and not everyone makes it that far."

- Kat Howard (Roses and Rot)

"People who’ve never read fairy tales have a harder time coping in life than the people who have. They don’t have access to all the lessons that can be learned from the journeys through the dark woods and the kindness of strangers treated decently, the knowledge that can be gained from the company and example of Donkeyskins and cats wearing boots and steadfast tin soldiers. I’m not talking about in-your-face lessons, but more subtle ones. The kind that seep up from your sub-conscious and give you moral and humane structures for your life. That teach you how to prevail, and trust. And maybe even love."

- Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl)

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

''It’s no coincidence that just at this point in our insight into our mysteriousness as human beings struggling towards compassion, we are also moving into an awakened interest in the language of myth and fairy tale. The language of logical arguments, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate. But the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith.''

- Madeleine L’Engle (A Circle of Quiet)

"It is through beauty, poetry and visionary power that the world will be renewed."

- fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess

The art today is from Honeycomb, an unusual and thoroughly enchanting "mosaic novel" by Joanne Harris, with gorgeous illustrations by Charles Vess. The book, Harris explains, began like this:

Honeycomb illustration by Charles Vess"Ten years ago, I started writing little stories on Twitter. I don't know why I did this, except that Twitter seemed to me to be the right places for stories, and because I felt those stories were for telling, not writing. Some stories take life from the fact that they have an audience right there, ready to comment and react, and Twitter gave me that audience. It also gave a context to some of my stories -- which seemed at first to be fairy tales, but which were also drawn from the world of current events and politics. And as time went by, people began to request more news of their favourite characters, and I began to realize that I was creating something like a new oral tradition: a new medium for folklore. And interlinked series of stories, all set in the same honeycomb universe as The Gospel of Loki and Orfeia, with an overarching storyline about love, magic, the power of story and the request for redemption."

It's a deeply magical honeycomb of stories, an exquisitely beautiful volume, and a fascinating evolution of the fairy tale form.

Honeycomb by Joanne Harris & Charles Vess

The art above, by Charles Vess, consists of full illustrations and painting details for Honeycomb by Joanne Harris (Gollancz UK, 2021). The title of each piece can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to art and text in this post reserved by the artist and authors.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

St Kevin and the Blackbird by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Above: "Là Luain/The Day That Never Comes" by Rachel Walker (from Skippinish), a singer/songwriter based in the Scottish Highlands. Walker collaborated with Gaelic poet Marcas Mac An Tuairneir on the lyrics, and James Graham provides additional vocals. (Full music and animation credits can be found at the end of the video.) The song appears on her most recent solo album, Gaol (2020), which is a beauty.

Below: "Tìr is Sàl/Land and Sea," another songwriting collaboration between Walker and Mac An Tuairneir. It's a Gaelic waulking song, she explains, "about the ties we have to the land and the way working the land is often a love passed from generation to generation." Walker is accompanied by Aaron Jones (of Old Blind Dogs), filmed in Glasgow last autumn.

Above: "Streets of Forbes," an Australian folk song performed by Varo (Lucie Azconaga and Consuelo Nerea Breschi), a French/Italian duo based in Dublin. The song appears on their first album, Varo (2020), which displays a range of influences from Irish and world folk to medieval, baroque, and classical music. It's gorgeous.

Below: "Sovay," a traditional British folk song, also known as "The Female Highwayman." This one, too, can be found on the duo's debut album.

Above: "Three Ravens" (Child Ballad #26), performed by Hannah James & Toby Kuhn. James, an accomplished English folk musician and dancer, has performed with Lady Maisery, Maddy Prior, Songs of Separation and many others in addition to her solo work. Kuhn, a wandering cellist from Burgandy, has performed with Bipolar Bows, The Wild String Trio, Old Salt and Zamee, among others. The video above was recorded in Gent, Belgium in 2020. 

Below: "The Vine Dance," with music by Toby Kuhn and dancing by Hannah James. It is, they explain, "an original tune written in the Turkish spring under a bougainvillea and recorded in the Slovenian autumn under an apple tree" (2021).

One more, to end with....

Below: "Oblique Jig and Miss Heidi Hendy" by the Anglo/French folk-dance band Topette!! (Andy Cutting, James Delarre, Julien Cartonnet, Tania Buisse, and Barnaby Stradling). The song appeared on their second album, Rhododendron (2019); the video was filmed at the Sidmouth Folk Festival that same year, pre-pandemic. (A limited version of the festival is returning this summer, provided no further lockdowns occur.)

The imagery today is by two artists whose work I love beyond measure: "St Kevin and the Blackbird" by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, based in Wales; and "We Are Bird" by Rima Staines, based here on Dartmoor. 

We Are a Bird by Rima Staines

Witchery and Elizabeth Goudge

Little white horse

Here's a second passage from The Joy of Snow, the autobiography of Elizabeth Goudge (author of The Little White HorseLinnets & Valerians and other classics), who lived in a small village on the coast of Devon in the 1940s. It was, she says,

"an unearthly place. The round green hills where the sheep grazed, the wooded valleys and the lanes full of wildflowers, the farms and apple orchards were all full of magic, and the birds sang in that long-ago Devon as I have never heard them singing anywhere else in the world; in the spring we used to say it sounded as though the earth itself was singing.

"The villages folded in the hills still had their white witches with their ancient wisdom, and even black witches were not unknown. I have never had dealings with a witch either black or white, though Francis, our village chimney-sweep, a most gentle and courteous man, was I think half-way to being a white warlock. He was skillful at protecting his pigs from being overlooked. He placed pails of water on the kitchen floor to drown the Evil Eye and nothing ever went wrong with his pigs before their inevitable and intended end.

Village gate

Sheep in a Devon field

EJ's piglet

Queen Ann's Lace

Fresh nettles

"Black magic is a thing to vile to speak of, but many of the white witches and warlocks were wonderful people, dedicated to their work of healing. I knew the daughter of a Dartmoor white witch and she told how her mother never failed to answer a call for help. Fortified by prayer and a dram of whiskey she would go out on the coldest winter night, carrying her lantern, and tramp for miles across the moor to bring help to someone ill at a lonely farm. And she brought real help. She must have had the true charismatic gift, and perhaps too knowledge of the healing herbs.

Lamb by the leat

Cow in the green

"The father of one of my friends had a white witch in his parish in the valley of the Dart. She was growing old and she came to him one evening and asked if she might teach him her spells before she died. They must always, she said, be handed on secretly from woman to man, or from man to woman, never to a member of the witch's or warlock's own sex. 'And you, sir,' she told him, 'are the best man I know. It is to you I want to give my knowledge.' 

"Patiently he tried to explain why it is best that an Anglican priest should not also be a warlock, but it was hard for her to understand. 'But they are good spells,' she kept telling him. 'I know they are,' he said, 'but I cannot use them.' She was convinced at last but she went away weeping."

Dream horse coming

Dream horse going

In her lovely essay "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal," Kari Sperring notes:

"The most overtly magical of Goudge’s adult books is probably The White Witch, which is set against the early years of the English Civil War. The protagonist Froniga is, as the title suggests, a working witch, the daughter of a settled father and a Romani mother, and she possesses both the power to heal and the power to see the future. Yet while both are important to the plot, the book is not about her powers, but about her selfhood and character and her effect on those around her. A lesser writer would probably have taken this theme in the direction of witch trials and melodrama. Goudge uses it to examine the effects of divided politics on families and communities and the ways in which our beliefs affect others outside ourselves.

"Her characters do bad things, sometimes, and those have consequences, but she rarely writes bad people -- I can think of only one, the greedy and self-obsessed school-owner Mrs. Belling in The Rosemary Tree. Goudge was concerned not with judging others but with understanding them with compassion. In her case, that compassion is linked to her sense of otherness -- the most profound experiences of liminality her characters experience are often when they are most concerned with others than themselves."

The Joy of Snow by Elizabeth Goudge

Books by Elizabeth Goudge

Words: The passage by Elizabeth Goudge is from The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974). The passage by Kari Sperring is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal" (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.

Pictures: The daily magic of Devon, and a few of Goudge's fine books. Related posts: Fairies and Elizabeth Goudge and Visiting Moonacre Manor (from The Little White Horse).

Fairies and Elizabeth Goudge

Dartmoor 1

Faery King & Queen by Alan Lee

From The Joy of Snow, an autobiography by Elizabeth Goudge (author of The Little White Horse, Linnets & Valerians and other classics), who lived in Marldon near Dartmoor in the 1940s: 

"I think that in my heart I have always believed in fairies,not fairies as seen in the picture books but nature spirits whose life is part of the wind and the flowers and the trees. Born in the West Country, and returning to it in middle life, how could I do anything else? But alas, I have never seen them.

"William Blake saw fairies, but he was a unique person, and so was a Dartmoor friend of mine who used to see them, and how I envied her! But if I did not see them I could feel how magic ran in the earth and branched in one's veins when one sat down. The stories that some of my Dartmoor friends told me would be laughed at by most people, but they were sensible persons and they did not laugh. I think that probably the one among my friends who experienced most was the one who said the least about it, Adelaide Phillpotts, Eden Phillpotts' daughter. She lived for years upon the moor and she loved it so deeply that she was not afraid to spend whole nights alone on the tors; but she is a mystic and mystics seem always unafraid. Her book The Lodestar is full of the wild spirit of the moor.

Dartmoor 2

Cowslip faery by Brian Froud"The friend who saw fairies, when she first went to live in her cottage on the moor, was visited early in the morning by a little old woman, wearing a bonnet, who walked quietly into the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast. Friendly and smiling the old woman refused breakfast but sat down to chat. She wanted to know exactly what my friend intended to do in the garden. What flowers would she have? What vegetables? She had very bright eyes and nodded her head in approval as they talked. She seemed a happy old woman, very much at home in the kitchen, but when my friend turned away for a moment she found on looking around again that her visitor had left her. She was never seen again and when the neighbors were questioned they denied ever having seen such an old woman in the village.


Dartmoor 3

"Another friend was driving back to her home on the moor one summer evening when she found herself in the most beautiful wood. She had no sense of strangeness but drove through it entranced by the loveliness of the evening light shining through the trees. Coming out of the wood she found herself at home, put the car away and went about the normal business of the evening, and only gradually did she remember that her road home lay through an open stretch of moorland. There was no wood there; not now.

Dartmoor 4

"The next day she went to see an old man who had lived all his life on the moor and told him what had happened. He nodded his head.

"'I know the wood, ma'am,' he told her. 'I've been there myself. But only once. You'll not see it again. It's only once in a lifetime.' "

Fairies by Arthur Rackham

Although Goudge never saw fairies herself, she did have a mystical experience in Devon:

"My mother and I had a cottage in an apple orchard at the edge of a village," she explains, "and behind the cottage, between the orchard and the village, there was  a steep hill. To the right, Dartmoor was visible, but otherwise the place was a little valley in the hills that had a magic of its own. There were a few other small dwellings besides our own, an old house behind a high wall, a farm and some cottages, and so strictly speaking the place was not a lonely one, and yet, because of its particular magic, it was. Especially in the early morning and especially after a snow-fall. There is something very lonely about a deep snow-fall and Devon snow, because the average rainfall is high, is almost always deep. One is walled in and cut off. The world seems very far away and the heart rejoices.

Dartmoor 5

"In spring, in Devon, there is often a sudden late snow-fall taking one entirely by surprise. I remember once seeing irises and tulips with their bright heads lifted above a deep counterpane of snow, and boughs of apple blossoms sprinkled with sparkling silver. But the snowfall [on this occasion] was earlier in the year. There were only the low-growing flowers in bloom in the garden and they were all buried out of sight. There had been no wind in the night, no suggestion that the last snow of the year was falling, and when I drew the curtains early in the morning I was astonished to see the white world. And what a world! I had never seen a snow-fall so beautiful and I was out in the garden at the first possible moment. The snowclouds had dropped their whole treasure in the night and were gone. The huge empty sky was deep blue, the air sparkling and clear. The sun was rising and the tree shadows lay blue across the sparkling whiteness. The whole world was pure blue and white and it seemed that the sun had lit every crystal to a point of fire. There was a silence so absolute it seemed a living presence. And then came the singing.

Dartmoor 6

"It was a solo voice, ringing out joy and praise. One would have said it was a woman's voice, only could any woman sing like that, with such simplicity and beauty? It lasted for some minutes, and then ceased, and the deep silence came back once more.

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

"I stayed where I was, as rooted in the snow as the trees, but there was no return of the singing and so I went back to the cottage and mechanically began the first task of the day, raking out the ashes of the dead fire and lighting a new one. The light of the flames helped me to think. None of us, in the little group of dwellings in the valley had a voice much above a sparrow's chirp. No one in the village that I knew had a voice like that. It was war-time and visitors from the outside world seldom came. Even if by some extraordinary chance some great singer had descended upon us, what would she be doing struggling down the steep lane from the village in deep snow at this hour of a cold morning? And wouldn't I have seen her? I could see both lanes from the little terrace outside the cottage and had seen no one. There were only two explanations. Either I was mad or I had heard a seraph singing. Later when I took my mother her breakfast I told her of the singing. She looked at me and, as usual, made no comment whatsoever.

Dartmoor 7

Dartmoor 8

"And so, for some years, I inclined to the former view and told no one else about the singing. And then, one day after the war had ended, a very sensitive and sympathetic cousin came to visit us and told me about a holiday he had had in the wilds of Argyll. He had always wanted, he said, to talk to someone who had heard the singing and at last he come upon an old crofter who could tell him about it. The old man had been alone in the hills when he heard a clear voice, unearthly and very beautiful, singing in the silence. He could see no one, he could distinguish no words in the singing and the song was one he did not know. He tried to hum the air and my cousin tried to write it down, but they neither of them made much of a job of it. 'You never heard it again?' my cousin asked and the old man said, like the old countryman who was in the wood only once, 'No, never again.'

Dartmoor 9

"My cousin told this tale so beautifully that I was too awed and shy to tell him, then, about my own experience. Besides, the great paean of praise I had heard in the snow seemed at that moment a little theatrical in comparison with the soft unearthly singing in the hills of Argyll. But, some years later, I did tell him. He was very kind, and he did not doubt my sincerity, but somehow I seemed to see at the back of his mind the figure of a stout opera singer from Covent Garden who had somehow, even in war-time and deep snow, got herself hidden behind the fir trees at the corner of our Devon garden.

'It does not matter. I remember that singing every morning of my life and I greet every sunrise with the memory. The birds, who had been singing so riotously, had been chilled to silence by that snowstorm. I have decided now that she, whoever she was, sang their dawn-song for them."

The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds by Arthur Rackham

Three books by Elizabeth Goudge

Words: The passage by Elizabeth Goudge is from The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974). The poem in the picture captions is from Marrow of Flame by Dorothy Walters (Poetry Chaikhana, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: "King & Queen of the Faery Hill" by Alan Lee and"Cowslip Faery" by Brian Froud are from their book Faeries (Abrams, 1978); all rights reserved. The last three fairy pictures are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The Dartmoor photographs were taken by the Scorhill stone circle, near Gidleigh. The beautiful quilt in the last photo was made by Karen Meisner. A related post: Visiting Moonacre Manor (from The Little White Horse).