Dipping from the Cauldron of Story

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was the author of The Chronicles of Prydain, The Westmark Trilogy and other myth-laced novels for readers young and old, widely acknowledged as classics of our field. In this passage from "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance," he looks at the roots of fantasy literature, gives advice to writers today, and talks about his own experience of writing The Black Cauldron and The Book of Three:

"While its full meaning remains tantalizingly unknown, we can trace mythology's historical growth into an art form: through epic poetry, the chansons de geste, the Icelandic sagas, the medi­eval romances and works of prose in the Romance languages. Its family tree includes Beowulf, the Eddas, The Song of Roland, Amadís de Gaule, the Perceval of Chretien de Troyes, and The Faerie Queene. In modern literature, one form that draws most directly from the fountainhead of mythology, and does it consciously and deliberately, is the heroic romance, which is a form of high fantasy. The world of heroic romance is, as Professor Northrop Frye defines the whole world of literature in The Educated Imagination, 'the world of heroes and gods and titans..., a world of powers and passions and moments of ecstasy far greater than anything we meet outside the imagination.'

"If anyone can be credited with inventing the heroic romance as we know it today -- that is, in the form of a novel using epic, saga, and chanson de geste as some of its raw materials -- it must be William Morris, in such books as The Wood Beyond the World and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Certainly Morris showed the tremendous strength and potential of the heroic romance as an artistic vehicle, which was later to be used by Lord Dunsany, Eric Eddison, James Branch Cabell; by C. S. Lewis and T. H. White. Of course, heroic romance is the basis of the superb achievements of J. R.R. Tolkien.

The Mabionogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"Writers of heroic romance, who work directly in the tradition and within the conventions of an earlier body of literature and legend, draw from a common source: the 'Pot of Soup,' as Tol­kien calls it, the 'Cauldron of Story,' which has been simmering away since time immemorial. The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any­ thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history -- spiced­ and spliced -- with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee"Among the most nourishing bits and pieces we can scoop out of the pot are whole assortments of characters, events, and situa­tions that occur again and again in one form or another through­ out much of the world's mythology: heroes and villains, fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers, princesses and pig-keepers, prisoners and rescuers; ordeals and temptations, the quest for the magical object, the set of tasks to be accomplished. And a whole arsenal of cognominal swords, enchanted weapons; a wardrobe of cloaks of invisibility, seven-league boots; a whole zoo of dragons, helpful animals, birds, and fish.

"But -- in accordance with one of fantasy's own conventions -- nothing is given for nothing. Although we are free and welcome to ladle up whatever suits our taste, and fill ourselves with any mixture we please, nevertheless, we have to digest it, assimilate it as thoroughly as we assimilate the objective experiences of real life. As conscious artists, we have to process it on the most per­sonal levels; let it work on our personalities and, above all, let our personalities work on it. Otherwise we have what the com­puter people delicately call GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Because these conventional characters -- these personae of myth and fairy tale, though gorgeously costumed and capari­soned -- are faceless, the writer must fill in their expressions. Colorful figures in a pantomime, the writer must give them a voice.

The Mabionogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"Since I have been talking about the 'Cauldron of Story,' I am now reminded of the Crochan, the Black Cauldron that figured in one of the books of Prydain. Now, cauldrons of one sort or another are common household appliances in the realm of fan­tasy. Sometimes they appear, very practically, as inexhaustible sources of food, or, on a more symbolic level, as a lifegiving source or as a means of regeneration. Some cauldrons bestow wisdom on the one who tastes their brew. In Celtic mythology, there is a cauldron of poetic knowledge guarded by nine maidens, counterparts of the nine Greek muses.

"There is also a cauldron to bring slain warriors back to life. The scholarly interpretation --  the mythographic meaning --  is a fascinating one that links together all the other meanings. Im­mersion in the cauldron represented initiation into certain re­ligious mysteries involving death and rebirth. The initiates, being figuratively -- and perhaps literally -- steeped in the cult mys­teries, emerged reborn as adepts. In legend, those who came out of the cauldron had gained new life but had lost the power of speech. Scholars interpret this loss of speech as representing an oath of secrecy.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"One branch of The Mabinogion, the basic collection of Welsh mythology, and one of my own prime research sources, tells of such a cauldron of regeneration, and how it ended up in the hands of the Irish. And, in the tale of Branwen, the Welsh princess rescued from the Irish by King Bran, a great number of slain Irish warriors came back to life. Naturally, this cauldron posed an uncomfortable problem for the Welshmen, who were constantly finding themselves outnumbered; until one of the Welsh soldiers sacrificed his life by leaping into the cauldron and shattering it. This incident gave me the external shape of the climax of The Black Cauldron. Though changed and manipulated con­siderably, the nub of the story is located in the myth -- except for one detail of characterization: the essential internal nature of the cauldron, its inner meaning and significance beyond its being an unbeatable item of weaponry.

An illustration for the Mabiongion by Alan Lee

"And so I tried to develop my own conception of the cauldron. Despite its regenerative powers, it seemed to me more sinister than otherwise. The muteness of the warriors created the horror I associated with the cauldron. Somehow, I felt that these voice­less men, already slain, revived only to fight again, deprived even of the oblivion of the grave, were less beneficiaries than victims. As the idea grew, I began to sense the cauldron as a kind of ultimately evil device. My 'Cauldron-Born,' then, were not only mute but enslaved to another's will. If they had lost their power of speech, they had also lost their memory of themselves as living beings -- without recollection of joy or sorrow, tears or laughter. They had, in effect, been deprived of their humanity: a fate, in my opinion, considerably worse than death. The risk of dehumanization -- of individuals being manipulated as objects in­ stead of being valued as living people -- is, unfortunately, not confined to the realm of fantasy.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

2

"Another example of the same kind of creative invention on the part of a writer has to do with the birth of a character; and in this case a most difficult delivery. Writing The Book of Three, the first of the Prydain chronicles, I was groping my way through the early chapters with that queasy sensation of desper­ate insecurity that comes when you do not know what is going to happen next. I knew vaguely what should happen, but I could not figure out how to get at it. The story, at this point, needed another character: Whether friend or foe, minor or major, comic or sinister, I could not decide. I only knew that I needed him, and he refused to appear.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee"The work came to a screaming halt: the screams being those of the author. Day after day, for better than a week, I stumbled into my work room and sat there, feeling my brain turn to con­crete. I had been reading a very curious book, an eighteenth-cen­tury account of the various characters in Celtic mythology. One of them stuck in my mind -- a one-line description of a creature half-human, half-animal. The account was interesting, but it was not doing much to solve my problem. I was convinced, by now, that I had suffered severe brain damage; that I would never write again; the mortgage would be foreclosed; my wife carried off to the Drexel Hill poor-farm; and I -- quivering and gibbering, moaning and groaning -- I did not even dare to imagine what would become of me. The would-be author of a hero-tale had begun to show his innate cowardice, and I was feeling tremendously sorry for myself.

"At four o'clock one morning, I had gone to my work room for what had become a routine session of sniveling and hand-wring­ing. I had decided, one way or another, to use this hint of a half­ animal, half-human creature. The eighteenth-century text had given him a name -- Gurgi. It seemed to fit, but he still refused to enter the scene. I could see him, a little; but I could not hear him. If I could only make him talk, half the battle would be over. But he would not talk. And so I sat there, expecting to pass the morning as usual, crying and sighing. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason what­ ever, I heard a voice in the back of my mind, plaintive, whining, self-pitying. It said: 'Crunchings and munchings?' And there, right at that moment, there he was. Part of him, certainly, came from research. The rest of him -- I have a pretty good idea where it came from.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"My point, in these examples, is simply this: A writer of fan­tasy, like any writer, must find the essential content of his work within himself, in his own personality, in his own attitude and commitment to real life. Whatever form we work in -- fantasy or realism, books for children or for adults -- I believe that the fundamental creative process is the same. In his work, the author may be very heavily disguised, or altogether anonymous. I do not think he is ever totally absent.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"On the contrary, his presence is required; not as a stage man­ager who can be seen busily shifting the cardboard scenery, but as the primary source of tonality and viewpoint. Without this viewpoint, the work becomes more and more abstract, a play of the intellect that can move us only intellectually. It may be tech­nically brilliant, but it becomes sleight of hand instead of true magic. If art -- as Plato defined it -- is a dream for awakened minds, it should be, at the same time, a dream that quickens the heart.

"High fantasy indeed quickens the heart and reaches levels of emotion, areas of feeling that no other form touches in quite the same way. Some books we can enjoy, some we can admire, and some we can love. And among those books that we love as chil­dren, that we remember best as adults, fantasy is by no means least."

***

The Mabiongion illustrated by Alan Lee

The art today is from The Mabinogion, magnificently illustrated by Alan Lee. The paintings first appeared in an edition published by Dragon's Dream in 1982 (translated by Gwyn Thomas and Thomas Jones, 1949), and can now be found in a volume published by HarperVoyager in 2000 (translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1838-1845). The Easton Press published a sumptuous limited edition (with the Guest translation) in 2015.

More of Alan's artwork, including other Mabinogion paintings, can be found in this post from last week.

An illustration for the Mabiongion by Alan Lee

The passage above is from "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance" by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Books, Dec. 16, 1971). You can read the full essay here. All rights reserved by the author's estate. The paintings above first appeared in The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones, illustrated by Alan Lee (Dragon's Dream/JM Dent & Sons Ltd, 1982). All rights reserved by the artist.


The end of summer

Earth and Water by Brian Froud

Here in the UK, it's the last day of a long holiday weekend marking the end of summer, and already there is a chill in the air, a presage of the turning seasons. Wherever in the world you are -- whether it's the end of summer or the end of winter -- and whether the movement through nature's cycles makes for dramatic or subtle change -- we stand on the threshold "betwixt and between," poised between the old season and the new.

Go West by Brian Froud

The old hedge-witches of the Devon countryside would tell you that this is a time for letting go of old troubles, old animosities, and out-dated ideas that no longer serve; it's also a time of renewal, revitalization, and travelling new paths in the days ahead. Carry acorns in your pocket for luck; yarrow for resilience; rosemary for protection of the spirit. Give the first blackberries back to the land, the first splash of cider to the apple trees. Leave milk out for the Good Folk, or a dram of whiskey, or a plate of beans. As we begin new jobs, new terms at school, new works of art or any other endeavors, we are counselled to take a moment on the threshold, pausing between the old and new to honour the magic of the in-between. Leave flowers or feathers, a poem or a prayer....

And then keep on walking.

Nattadon Commons gate

The art above is by my friend and neighbour Brian Froud. All rights reserved by the artist.


Tell all the truth but tell it slant

Heard II by Adrian Arleo

From "The Value of Fantasy and Mythical Thinking" by Katherine Langrish:

"Karen Armstrong claims that religion is an art, and I agree with her. In her book A Short History of Myth she examines the modern expectation that all truths shall be factually based. This is what religious fundamentalists and scientists like Richard Dawkins have, oddly, in common. A religious fundamentalist refuses to accept the theory of evolution because it appears to him or her to disprove the truth of Genesis, when what Genesis actually offers is not a factual but an emotional truth: a way of accounting for the existence of the world and the place of people in it with all their griefs and joys and sorrows. It’s – in other words – a story, a fantasy, a myth. It’s not trying to explain the world, like a scientist. It’s trying to reconcile us with the world. Early people were not naïve. The truth that you get from a story is different from the truth of a proven scientific fact.

Heard I by Adrian Arleo

Sirens of Rutino & Artemis/Diana II by Adrian Arleo

"Any work of art is a symbolic act. Any work of fiction is per se, a fantasy. In the broadest sense, you can see this must be so. They are all make-belief. Tolstoy’s Prince André and Tolkien’s Aragorn are equal in their non-existence. Realism in fiction is an illusion -- just as representational art is a sleight of hand (and of the mind) that tricks us into believing lines and splashes of colour are ‘really’ horses or people or landscapes.

"The question shouldn’t be ‘Is it true?’, because no story provides truth in the narrow factual sense. The questions to ask about any work of art should be like these: ‘Does it move me? Does it express something I always felt but didn’t know how to say? Has it given me something I never even knew I needed?’ As Karen Armstrong says, 'Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever.' If that happens, you will know it. It makes no sense at all to ask, ‘Is it true?’

Night by Adrian Arleo

Apparition by Adrian Arleo"Fantasy still deserves to be taken seriously -- read and written seriously -- because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols. Here’s the last verse of Bob Dylan’s song ‘The Gates of Eden’ (from Bringing it All Back Home):

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true:
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.

Consider by Adrian Arleo

The mythic imagery today is by Adrian Arleo, an American ceramic artist who lives and works outside Missoula, Montana. She studied Art and Anthropology at Pitzer College, received an M.F.A. in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design, and has been Artist in Residence at Oregon College of Art and Craft and the Sitka Center For Art and Ecology. Her work is exhibited and collected around the world. 

"For over thirty years, my sculpture has combined human, animal and natural imagery to create a kind of emotional and poetic power," she writes. "Often there's a suggestion of a vital interconnection between the human and non-human realms; the imagery arises from associations, concerns and obsessions that are at once intimate and universal. The work frequently references mythology and archetypes in addressing our vulnerability amid changing personal, environmental and political realities. By focussing on older, more mysterious ways of seeing the world, edges of consciousness and deeper levels of awareness suggest themselves."

Please visit the artist's website to see more of her wonderful work.

Earth/Horse Teapot with Dog Lid by Adrian Arleo

Glade and Dormant Honey Comb Woman by Adrian Arleo

Matrimony by Adrian Arleo

Words: The Katherine Langrish passage quoted above is from"The Value of Fantasy and Mythical Thinking" (An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, October 17, 2009); all rights reserved by the author. You can read the full piece here. I also recommend Kath's excellent essays on folklore, fairy tales, and fantasy literature, which you can find on her blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, and in her book of the same name. The title of today's post, of course, is from an Emily Dickinson poem.

Pictures: Adrian Arleo's ceramic works above are Heard II, Heard I, Sirens of Rutino & Artemis/Diana II, Night, Apparition, Consider, Earth/Horse Teapot with Dog Lid, Glade & Dormant Honey Comb Woman, and Matrimony. All rights reserved by the artist.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Notebook sketch by Jackie Morrie

As many of you know, I spent much of 2018 - 2019 happily immersed in the Modern Fairies project, an arts and research initiative which brought folk musicians, artists, writers, folklorists and filmmakers together to create works exploring what Britian's folklore tradition means to us in the modern world. After twelve months of research and collaboration, the project ended with a concert and multi-media presentation at the Sage Theatre in Gateshead/Newcastle (Spring 2019), but my MF colleagues are continuing to develop this material in a number of interesting ways -- the most recent of which is Wrackline, a gorgeous, deeply magical new album by the distinguished folksinger, songwriter, and music scholar Fay Hield. (It comes out in September, but is available for pre-orders now.)

Moonstruck hare by Jackie MorrisIn the run-up to Wrackline's release next month, Fay is publishing posts highlighting the album's six folklore themes -- beginning with tales of witches (and other women) who cast themselves into the shapes of hares.

Above: A short video in which Fay introduces the concept of the new album.

Below: "Hare Spell," from Wrackline. As Fay explains:

"In exploring the mythical supernatural on the Modern Fairies project I became excited by the question of real magic and belief, and spent some time looking at magical acts themselves, rather than the stories about them. Inge Thomson and I chatted about the nature of spells and where the magic lay. Words are commonly seen to hold power, but as musicians, we wondered how we could draw this out through sound. We toyed with the relationship of music to language noticing that pitches are conveniently given letter names. That evening at the very first meeting of the Modern Fairies [at Oxford University, Summer 2018], we mused about how music could come out of the words themselves.

"I needed a spell, a real one that held magic. Jackie Morris gave me some words about a hare and a little digging showed that it comes from Isobel Gowdie, the wife of John Gilbert, likely a cottar in Auldearn, near Inverness. Isobel was tried in 1662 during the witchcraft trials and her confession gives a clear account, seemingly uncoerced, into her activities with the devil and visiting the king of the fairie. She includes several spells and chants used to conduct her own magic, including this spell to turn the utterer into a hare to do the devil’s work."

Photograph by Fay Hield

Below: "When She Comes," a second hare song which grew from a collaboration between Fay and poet Sarah Hesketh. Sarah writes:

"As I sat and listened to Fay transform her reading about Isobel Gowdie into song, I found myself really drawn into the story she was beginning to tell through the music. Here were two characters -- a woman and a hare -- with an incredibly strange and intimate relationship. Fay's song 'Hare Spell' was a glimpse into that relationship from Isobel's point of view; but what, I wondered, did the hare have to say about it all? How did he feel about having his body appropriated for her eldritch purposes? Was this a kind of hi-jacking or was there something more complex and consensual going on between the two of them? I wanted to explore the idea that the hare might be more than just a passive vessel for Isobel's adventures, and how it might feel for him to have to say goodbye as she decided to return to her own body."

The words are by Sarah and the music by Fay, with underlying chordal structures created by Ben Nicholls and Inge Thomson for Modern Fairies project, then further developed by Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron for Wrackline. This is the Modern Fairies version, recorded at The Sage performance in April 2019. It was one my favourite songs from the show, bringing a lump to my throat every time I heard Fay sing it. (Sarah's exquisite lyrics  are here.) 

Three hares by Jackie Morris

There are more shape-shifiting hares to come: Fay, Inge, Sarah and I are working with the good folks of the Alternative Stories podcast to create an audio drama on the subject; we'll let you when the broadcast date is set. And keep an eye on Fay's blog in the weeks ahead if you'd like to know more about the other songs on Wrackline (including one based on my poem "The Night Journey," which is an honour indeed).

Selkie art by Natalie Reid

Another thread of work that emerged from the Modern Fairies project was inspired by selkie (seal people) lore -- including songs created by Lucy Farrell, Inge Thompson, Barney Morse-Brown and Fay, presented in the final Modern Fairies show with art by Natalie Reid

In the Autumn 2019, four of us from the project (Lucy, Fay, Barney, and me) reunited to present The Secrets of the Selkies: an evening of song and story at the Being Human Festival in Sheffield. During the week leading to festival, as the others ordered and rehearsed their music, my job as a writer/editor was to weave poems and monologues between the songs to join them into a common narrative, examining classic "selkie bride" folk tales from several characters' point of view. I don't know what the evening was like from the audience, but from the stage it felt like pure magic ... ending with choral singing of the selkie's call by everyone in the hall. 

Above: A screen projection produced by Lucy -- with Natalie's art, Lucy's music, and selkie encounters described by Inge (who grew up on Fair Isle) and others.

Below: A little video by Tim James capturing a collage of moments from The Secrets of the Selkies.

The Secrets of the Selkies - me  Fay  Lucy  and Barney

Art above: Hares by Jackie Morris, and a selkie by Natalie Reid.  The photograph of Fay's banjo is by Elly Lucas. All rights to the music and art above reserved by the musicians and artists.

To read previous posts on the Modern Fairies project, go here.


Another selkie tale

''Dancing Seals,'' North Carolina, from The Telegraph, photographer unknown

Grey seal, Farne Island, photographed by Dan Kitwood


From "A Taste of the Sea" by essayist & novelist Scott Russell Sanders:

"A selkie takes a great risk in changing from a seal to a man, for he may not be able to change back again. No matter how carefully he hides his pelt, someone may find it. A child playing along the shore may take it for a plaything, a beachcomber may take it for a rug, a fisherman may sell it to the fur dealer, a woman intent on keeping him in her arms may lock it in a chest. Without that pelt, a selkie cannot return to the sea. Nor can he return if he has fallen in love with the woman who called him ashore to father her child.

"It is said that male selkies are the seducers, charming female humans with our fathomless dark eyes and our muscles sculpted from swimming. Although that may be true for others, it is not so for me. I did not choose to shed my skin and walk on two legs away from the ocean, any more than salmon choose to abandon saltwater for spawning and death in their native streams. I was summoned from the water by a maiden who wept seven tears into the cove where I floated, asleep and dreaming....

To read the rest of Sanders' short, evocative story, please go here. His new collection, The Way of the Imagination, is coming out this month from Counterpoint Press.  

(Previous selkie posts here.)

Grey Seal, Farne Islands, photographed by Jason Neilus

''Dancing in the rays,'' photographed by Dmitry Starorstenov

Seal family, Hopkins Isle, photographed by Peter Verhoog

Words: The text quoted above is from "A Taste of the Sea" by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, May 19, 2020); the poem in the picture captions is "The Fisherman's Farevwell" by Scottish poet Robin Robertson (Poetry, January 2013); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Jason Neilus, Dmitry Starorstenov, and Peter Verhoog; all rights reserved by the photographers.


A selkie tale

July Fields by Joan Eardley

In Salt on Your Tongue: Women and Sea, Charlotte Runcie wanders the coast of Scotland reflecting on the ways that sea has been depicted in literature, folklore, and myth -- but in contrast to David Thompson's People of Sea, discussed yesterday, Runcie's text is a more internal one: part literary meditation and part memoir, as the author progresses through months of pregnancy towards the birth of her first child. What the two writers have in common is an obsession with the sea that dates to childhood, and a compulsion to collect its stories like collecting sea glass along the shore.

Here is one such tale related in Runcie's book, a story reminiscent of the "Twa Sisters" ballad but with some interesting differences. She writes:

Salt on Your Tongue"There is a legend in the west coast of Scotland about two sisters who lived on an island. One of the sisters was very fair, and one of them very dark, and both were beautiful. Their father was a fisherman who had been lost during a storm, and they were brought up by their mother.

"When the girls were teenagers, they both fell in love with the same local boy who also worked as a fisherman. The fisherman spent lots of time away at sea, but when he came to shore, he made it clear that he was madly in love with the fair-haired daughter. And she loved him too, even though her dark-haired younger sister was obsessed with him. He was a good-looking lad. And though he was always kind to the younger girl, he paid much more attention to the older sister, which, of course, made the younger one jealous.

Field of Barley by the Sea by Joan Eardley

"Until one summer day, when the dark-haired sister picked her way along the stony beach, which was wreathed in tendrils of delicious edible seaweed, towards a house. There lived a wise old woman who was an herbalist (though some of the children whispered to one another that she was a witch, as children in small villages tend to do).

"I want you to teach me a song," said the girl.

"What kind of a song?" said the old woman.

"A song that will enchant whoever hears it, and make them fall asleep," said the girl. So the old woman taught her an old Gaelic song, which she practiced until she knew it by heart.

Rough Sea by Joan Eardley

"One day the girl asked her fair older sister to walk with her down on the seaweed-strewn beach. Her older sister was thrilled that the younger wanted to be friends again, and they went down to the rocks together, where the tide was out. They sat down on a rock, and the younger one took out a brush and began to comb it through her big sister's hair. And as she brushed her sister's shining blonde hair, she sang the song she had learned. Soon the older sister's eyes began to close, and she fell fast asleep.

"The younger one started to weaver her older sister's hair into intricately patterned plaits and braids. As she worked, the braids became more and more ornate, all twisting and knotting into one another. She began to weave the hair into the seaweed on the rocks.

"The tide began to turn, and then wash slowly in. The younger girl waited until all of her sister's hair was woven into seaweed, and the tide was lapping around her ankles. And then she ran up onto the cliffs and watched as the warm summer sea swirled around her sister's sleeping body.

The Sea No. 6 by Joan Eardley

"Just as the water was about to close over her sister's unconscious nose and mouth, she saw a grey shape moving quickly through the sea to the shore.

"It was a seal. When it reached the place where the sister, who was by this point completely submerged, had been, the seal dived under the surface. And then -- the younger sister couldn't believe her eyes at this -- two seals bobbed their heads up from the water. For a moment, both seals looked at the girl standing open-mouthed on the cliffs. She tried to speak, but couldn't. The seals turned, and swam out to sea together. And the girl -- as girls at the end of folk tales tend to do -- threw herself off the cliff.

Seascape by Joan Eardley

"As she fell, the wind caught her woolen cape, and lifted her up. And as she floated in the sky, she became a cormorant, the ugliest bird of the sea, whose cry sounds like someone saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!'

"The two seals were long gone. To this day you can hear the cormorant saying sorry to the seals, and whenever it gets too close you can see the seals snapping at the cormorant to keep it away. And the delicious seaweed on the beach is never eaten anymore by the locals who live on the island. They call it fair maid's tresses.

"The oldest stories of the sea involve songs and sounds, and the magical power that comes from combining the sea with human music. From Scottish legends to Biblical psalms, we've always understood the sea by singing about it. The legend also warns us of the power and danger of music when it comes to the sea. The song the youngest daughter sings in the story enchants her sister, but it's overpowered by the far greater enchantment of the persistent Scottish sea-myth of magic: selkies who can turn into seals and live their lives half in water, and half on land, whose existence takes the shape of water above and below, this life and the next. Their disappearance into the water is the end of one life, and the beginning of a new one."

Wild Sea by Joan Eardley

The imagery today is by Scottish painter Joan Eardley (1921-1963), an artist whose extraordinary body of work has only recently been reappraised and given the attention it deserves. Though Eardley was born in Sussex, her family moved to Glasgow when she was a teenager; she studied at the Glasgow School of Art and spent most of the rest of her life in Scotland. Eardley's oil paintings and pastel drawings are divided into two very different strands. In her Glasgow studio she created portraits of children from the city's poorest neighbourhoods, producing a record of mid-century poverity that is poignant and painful, but also aesthetically powerful. In the small fishing village of Catterline (near Aberdeen) she worked outdoors painting the land, the sea, and the elemental forces of nature.

Little Girl in Glasgow Back Court by Joan Eardley"If Eardley had worked in London, lived long and been male, she would now be as esteemed as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff for her expressive, luminous figurative paintings," writes Jackie Wullschlager. "Like them, she launched a career in the 1940s-50s, working exclusively from life on a few motifs she cared passionately about. Like them, from a frugal, secluded studio, she dug deep into her subjects to bring a whole world into existence through the material handling of pigment as a transforming, living substance.

"Catterline, where Eardley bought a cottage with earth floors and no electricity or running water, is half that world. Its urban mirror is Glasgow’s slums, where, in a tenement building in Townhead, a troop of young siblings climbed the steep staircase to a candlelit studio, to be paid in threepences for being depicted in what turned out to be the 20th century’s most memorable British child portraits. Taken together, the two parts of Eardley’s oeuvre declare a singular vision of close-knit communities under extreme pressure from harsh conditions; one is emptying out, the other is overcrowded, and nothing is still, the instability of weather and waves paralleled by restless children who twist, fidget and grow up fast. Eardley was painting against obsolescence: by 1963, when she died aged 42 of cancer, Townhead had been razed; soon afterwards the last fishing boat left Catterline."

To see more of Eardley's work, and to watch a short film about her life by the sea, go here

Catterline Cottages by Joan Eardley

Joan Eardley at work in Glasgow and Catterline

Seascape by Joan Eardley

The Charlotte Runcie passage quoted above is from her book Salt on Your Tongue (Canongate, 2019). The Jackie Wullschlager passage is from "Joan Eardley at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art" ( The Financial Times, December 16, 2016). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.


Following the seals

3

People of the Sea by writer, naturalist, folklorist and radio producer David Thompson (1914-1988) is one of the best sources we have for the selkie (or selchie) tales of Ireland and Scotland. Thomson's obsession with the seal folk started as a child, but it was not until the 1940s, after the war, that he began to wander the western coast and isles in search of their stories. People of the Sea, published in 1954, contains the lore he coaxed out of farmers and fishing folk, along with vivid portraits of the storytellers themselves and the wild landscape that formed them. The legends range from enchanting to brutal, reflecting the harsh realities of life lived on the ocean's edge.

Fellow-folklorist Stewart Sanderson describes this classic book beautifully:

People of the Sea"On one level it is a masterpiece of literary craftsman ship, the product of a disciplined literary intellect. At other levels, it reflects the author's singularly imaginative engagement with his subject, and his sympathetic rapport with the men, women and children encountered on his travels in quest of seal legends and traditions. 

"David Thompson's curiosity about the seals seems to have been aroused at a very early age through overhearing, and only half understanding, largely frivolous gossip in his grandmother's drawing room in Nairn [a Scottish coastal town]. But it was starkly reinforced a year or two later when, playing truant froma children's party and wandering the shore at dusk, he came to a remote salmon fisher's bothy. Torn between curiosity and fear, since he was trespassing where he had no business to be, he let himself in, and panicked on stumbling across something moving on the bothy floor in the dark. It was something wet but warm; he could hear heavy breathing; suddenly he felt an old man's hairy head pressing against his bear ankle. He was rescued from his terrors by the return of a Gaelic-speaking fisherman, who violently despatched a seal which had been stunned and left for dead by the rest of the bothy crew, and who got the young boy to help him drag the body to the midden. When this gruesome task was done and the bothy cleaned up, the fisherman brewed mugs of tea and talked about the selchies.

15

2


"Killing a selchie, he said, was an unlucky thing to do. His grandfather, however, had earned his living in the old days as a seal hunter; and he showed David Thompson the old man's tobacco pouch made of a seal's paw, telling him how the hair on the skin would sometimes lie smooth and sometimes stand on end, as if it were still alive. He also told a story about another seal hunter who wounded an old seal which escaped. A stranger came to the seal hunter's door and carried him off to a land beneath the sea where he was led to the wounded seal. He was asked to heal the wound by drawing its edges together with his hand. On promising never to maim or kill a seal again, he was returned safely to his own door and rewarded with a purse of fairy gold."

9

1

Although Thompson's family was of the professional class, a childhood accident had harmed his eyesight, causing the boy to be withdrawn from school and sent off to live with his grandmother in a fishing port east of Inverness. There, writes Sanderson,

"he became acutely aware of the social constraints which both bound together and separated his family and their servants, and which divided him from the farm workers, tradesmen and their children amongst whom he spent much of his time, helping with the horses and the harvest on a nearby farm and driving the milk cart on its daily round. Genuine friendships were of course built across the dividing gulf; but still the gulf remained, separating people whose habits and assumptions were often remarkably different from each other. This was particularly true of the inhabitants of the fisherrow, whom townsfolk and farmers in those days generally thought of as almost an alien race.

Seal"Though no doubt Thomson often felt embarrassed, not to say isolated, by these perceptions as an adolescent, the effect on his imagination and ability to empathise with all sorts and conditions of people were to prove an asset later. Folklorists need sensitive antennae if they are to win the trust, and be admitted to the confidences, of those amongst whom they work; and though sadly all too many of the people who figure in The People of the Sea -- fisherman, crofters, ferrymen and folklorists -- are, like David Thomson himself, no longer with us, he is remembered affectionately by the survivors and their families as a man who was always keen to hear stories of the seals and, in the words of Tadgh the South Kerry schoolmaster, to gather up the bits he could about them....

"The rich harvest of folklore in The People of the Sea is fascinating in itself, with its tales of seal maidens and sea views, ancient kings of Ireland and Norway, families who are descended from marriage with seals, melodies learnt from the singing of the seals while fishing in the dangerous waters round the Atlantic cliffs and skerries. But readers will be equally fascinated by David Thompson's vivid recreation of the settings in which this harvest was gathered, of the people who welcomed him to their hearths, of those who gently prompted reminiscences and stories, and of the storytellers own thoughts about the things they told him."

David Thomson's People of the Sea is an old-fashioned book, in all the best ways, and full of the sound, the scent, the magic of sea. I recommend it highly.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

P1120608

People of the Sea

Words: The passage above is from Stewart Sanderson's Afterward to People of the Sea by David Thomson (Cannongate Classics reprint edition, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Jane Yolen's poetry collection The Last Selchie Child (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Last week's post on selkies, in case you missed it, is here.

Pictures: Although we've not far from the north and south coasts of Devon, we haven't been to the sea since the UK's pandemic lockdown began and must make due with fresh water here on Dartmoor. This waterfall at the edge of our hill roars with life during the winter rains, but slows to a trickle at this time of year. It's an beautiful place nonetheless to sit and dream of selkies.


The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

Last week we were looking at "animal bride" figures: selkies, swan maidens, crane wives, and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin or cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing the enchanted spouse back into wild....

Today, I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). 

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

Mary 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. For more about her beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup

Words: "The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley is from The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based in the English south-west. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The first otter photograph is by Mark Hamblin,  based in Scotland. The second is from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited. All rights reserved by the artists.

 


The sídhe and the sìth

Looking into the Fairy Hill by Alan Lee

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.'

Fairies by Alan Lee

"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.'

Fairy Woman by Alan Lee"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 Scribe by Alan Lee

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.

The Fairy Court by Alan Lee

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

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.

Further reading: For more information on fairy lore, "Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature" and "Tales of Fairy Changelings."


Wild empathy

Walking with Tilly

In yesterday's post, Scott Russell Sanders discussed the act of empathy with animals, and others unlike ourselves, in relation to shamanic shape-shifting: as a means of "reaching out in imagination to a fellow creatures."  Reflecting on this has led me back to Jay Griffith's essay "Forests of the Mind" (2012), on the power of metaphor in shamanism and art. She writes:

"[Shape-shifting] is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats’s 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time. It did not hold literal truth, quite obviously, but had a 'slanted, metaphoric truth' ....

"Shape-shifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment, of a self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond.

Walking 2

Walking 3

"Ted Hughes once said that the secret of writing poetry is to 'imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it ... Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it.' One writing exercise Hughes suggested for students was titled: 'I am the Amazon.' We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

Walking 4

Walking 5

"Shape-shifting involves a willingness to make mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, 'Swan,' French dancers performed and swam with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists’ ability to lose themselves in order to mirror something beyond.

Walking 6

Walking 7

Walking 8

"'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we/breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in 'The Second Elegy.'

"In making art, the artist expires, breathing herself out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shape-shifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream."

Walking 9

Meadow flowers

Walking 10

I recommend reading Griffith's essay in full, as well as her splendid book Wild: An Elemental Journey -- an exploration of "wildness" and "wilderness" in nature, culture, myth, and art.

Walking 11

Words: The quoted passage by Jay Griffiths above is from "Forests of the Mind" (Aeon Magazine, 12 October, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Dark Sweet: New & Selected Poems by Linda Hogan (Coffeehouse Press, 2014). All rights reserved by the authors. 

Pictures: An afternoon walk and a visit with some of our neighbours in the Devon hills.