Longing for a better world

Tilly on the hill

From an interview with Lev Grossman (author of The Magician trilogy), in which he is asked for his definition of fantasy literature:

"My working definition? Any book with magic in it. It’s crude but effective. It helps if you take the long view, historically speaking, because it’s not like J.R.R. Tolkien invented fantasy with The Hobbit. Take a giant step back and you can’t help but notice that the greater part of all human literature is fantasy, in the sense that it has monsters and magic and things like that in it. Shakespeare is infested with ghosts and spirits and witches. Look at Spenser. Look at Dante. Look at Ovid, or Homer. Go back past the 18th century and practically everything could be called fantasy.

"It’s only relatively recently, at the start of the 18th century, that you see the arrival and dizzying ascent of what we might broadly call realism. Suddenly, around about Robinson Crusoe or so, Western culture was seized by this powerful idea that literature was supposed to resemble real life, and fictional worlds were supposed to behave like the real world, as it was coming to be understood by scientists, and anything that didn’t do so wasn’t literature. Magic and the supernatural were exiled to other, lesser categories: Gothic fiction, fairy tales, ghost stories, children’s books, fantasy. A lot of people still think it belongs there."

Wait, what's this?

Big beasts of the hill

"There is a specific modern tradition of fantasy fiction," he clarifies, "that starts in the 1920s and 1930s in England and America with writers like Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees, and which really takes off with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as T.H. White and Robert E. Howard....That generation -- the ones who were writing in the 1920s and '30s -- had been the victim of a historical trauma: They bore witness to a period of catastrophic social and technological change. The Victorian world of their childhood was shattered and swept away by the 'advances' of the early 20th century -- the electrification of cities, the rise of mass media, the replacement of horses by cars, the rise of psychoanalysis, the invention of mechanised warfare. As a result, the world that they found themselves in as adults was virtually unrecognisable to them.

"Some of those writers responded to this cataclysm by creating strange, fragmented masterpieces that we now know as literary modernism: Joyce, Hemingway, Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner and so on. Gertrude Stein famously called them the Lost Generation, and she wasn’t wrong. But other writers -- like Lewis and Tolkien, who were both veterans of the Somme -- wrote fantasy instead. They used it as a way to express their sense of longing for a lost world, an idyllic, more grounded, more organic, more connected world that they would never see again. They were part of the Lost Generation too."

Cows in the bracken 1

Cows in the bracken 2

Returning to these ideas in his essay "What is Fantasy About?," Lev notes that "longing" is a prominent theme in fantasy: the longing for a lost world, or a better one.

"Lewis and Tolkien were virtuosos of longing," he writes. "They had, after all, lost a world, the world of their Victorian childhoods....They lived through, if not a singularity, then a pretty serious historical inflection point, and they longed for that pre-inflected world. (Laura Miller writes about this really compellingly, albeit somewhat differently, in The Magician’s Book, her excellent book about Narnia. She quotes Lewis on his special notion of Joy: 'an unsatisfied desire that is itself more desirable than another satisfaction.')

"We too have lived through an inflection point: a great deal of technological and social change. We can lay claim to a certain amount of longing.

"Longing for what exactly? A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense -- not logical sense, but psychological sense. We’re surrounded by objects that we don’t understand. Like iPods -- they’re typical. They’re gorgeous, but they’re also really alienating. You can’t open them. You can’t hack them. You don’t even really know how they work, or how they’re made, or who made them. Their form is abstractly beautiful, but it has nothing to do with their function. We really like them, but it’s somehow not a liking that makes us feel especially good.

Cows in the bracken 3

Cows in the bracken 3

"The worlds that fantasy depicts are very different from that. They tend to be rural and low-tech. The people in a fantasy world tend to be connected to it -- they understand it, they belong in it. People in Narnia don’t long for some other world (except when they long for Aslan’s Land, which I always found unsettling). They’re in sync with it....To be sure, fantasy worlds are often animated by weird mysterious forces -- like magic -- but even those forces on some level come from inside us. They’re not made in China. They express deep human wishes and primal emotions. Likewise the worlds of fantasy are inhabited by demons and monsters, but only because we’re inhabited by monsters, the ones that live in our subconsciouses (subconsci?) Those monsters are grotesque and not-human, and sometimes they even destroy us, but we recognize them instinctively.

"This longing for a world to which we’re connected -- and not connected Zuckerberg-style, but really connected, like a dryad with its tree – surfaces in a lot of places these days, not just in fantasy. You see it in the whole crafting movement – the Etsy/Makerfaire movement. You see it in the artisanal food movement. And it you see it in fantasy."

Cows in the bracken 3

For more of Lev Grossman's thoughts on the evolution of fantasy, I recommend "Fear and Loathing in Aslan's Land," the third annual J.R.R Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College (Tolkien's college), Oxford, in 2015.

The watcher 1

Cows in the bracken 4

The Watcher 2

Words: The passages above are from "Lev Grossman on Fantasy" ( on Five Books.com)   and "What is Fantasy About?" on Lev Grossman's blog (November, 2011). The Lisel Mueller poem in the picture captions was first published in The New Yorker (November, 1967) and also appears in her book Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1996), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The hound has a surprise encounter on Meldon Hill.


On writing fantasy

Meldon Hill

From an interview with Lev Grossman, author of The Magician trilogy:

"I’m not a political writer, particularly, or even at all, but I cannot overstate how much what is happening in this country politically right now has affected what I do as a storyteller. What we all do. The grotesque, violently mendacious way that Trump uses language -- when I write now, I am writing against that. I am watching him trash the tools I use for my art -- words --and I have to take that into account, and work with the damage.

"And this affects fantasy in specific ways. By its nature fantasy focuses on power relationships a lot, whether that power is political or military or magical in nature. You get a lot of monarchies, with the usual abuses. It also deals with outsiders a lot, and the question of who is human and who isn’t, who matters and who doesn’t. These issues have always been important, but right now in this country they are urgent and central."

Meldon Hill and the Kestor Valley

When asked the usual question about writing in a genre often disregarded by literary critics, Lev responds:

"Literature is truly jurassic in the way that it handles issues of genre and high and low. It’s not just visual media. When your medium is getting lapped by ballet and opera and poetry, you know you are not in the vanguard anymore.

"Why should that be? Fantasy cuts against a lot of the literary values we inherited from the modernists (whom I love). Fantasy is traditionally less about psychological interiority and more about externalizing inner conflicts in symbolic forms. Fantasy is plotty, it runs on heavy narrative rails, whereas the modernists were vigorous critics and disassemblers of narrative architecture.

"Fantasy is also, in its way, quite anti-establishment. It announces its priorities up front: the reality with which we are going to be concerning ourselves is not the reality of your job, or your school, or your government. We are going to be talking about something else. It’s in a lot of people’s interests to marginalize or trivialize that reality."

The Kestor Valley

"I think our project, collectively, as fantasy writers, is to question fantasy’s basic assumptions," he reminds us. "We need to find its blind spots and attack everything that’s sacred to it. The coming of age story. The fatherly mentor. The faithful comic sidekick. The easy moral choices. The more we chip away at the foundations the genre rests on, the stronger it will become. There’s no end to where we can take it. Fantasy may have limitations as a genre, but whenever I’ve thought I’ve found them in the past, somebody has always come along and blown right past them."

Meldon Hill and the Kestor Valley 4

Oak leaves

Words: The passages above are from interviews on LitHub (January, 2017) and Tor.com (November, 2011). The quotes in the picture captions are from "Why Fantasy Isn't Just for Kids" (The Wall Street Journal, July, 2011). Pictures: A contemplative moment in a field near the studio. Tilly is wearing her shaggy winter coat as the days grow colder.


Finding the colors again

Autumn leaves 1

"We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices, and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamed that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever, somewhere south of Oz, and north of Shangri-La."  - George R.R. Martin

Autumn leaves 2

"Current cant equates fantasy with escapism, and current fashion would have it that fantasy is both easy to read and to write. It isn't. When it is done honestly, by a skillful writer, fantasy takes us far enough beyond our daily perceptions to open us to the essential realities beneath it. This is the true goal of all art." - Ellen Kushner

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"All art, by definition of the word, is fantasy in the broadest sense. The most uncompromisingly (should I say sordidly?) naturalistic novel is still a manipulation of reality. Fantasy, too is a manipulation, a reshaping of reality. There is no essential conflict or contradiction between literary realism and literary fantasy, any more than between science and humanism. Technical details aside, most of the things you  can say about fantasy also apply to realism. I suppose you might define realism as fantasy pretending to be true; and fantasy as reality pretending to be a dream."  - Lloyd Alexander

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"The world of reality has no room for wistful backward-looking; and even if it had, there are no more than a few people who actively retain the desire for [the sense of wonder] known in childhood or have the capacity to evoke it at will. These few, moreover, soon become strangers to their fellows, for they are the incomprehensible ones--the dreamers who take the sky for their skull, the ribs of mountains for their bones, who sense always the faculties of the primitive, and see always with the wondering eye of the child.

"They are the ones who never pass a secret  place in the woods without a stare of curiosity; for the mystery implied in all its mounds and hollow, who still turn corners with a lift of expectation at the heart. And to be a writer of fantasy, one must be among those few -- those fortunate few; for, to produce a work that answers all the demands of fantasy, is to suddenly turn the corner which  does at last show something strange and wonderful waiting to be seen, and -- most gloriously -- to know that long-ago sense of yearning at last fulfilled."  - Mollie Hunter

Autumn leaves 5

Autumn leaves 6

Words: The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry Magazine (May 2005). All rights to quotes and poem above reserved by the authors. Pictures: a dream of autumn in the little woodland behind the studio.


Tunes for a Monday Morning: trouble & woe

Saco By by Winslow Homer

Above: "Trouble and Woe" by singer/songwriter Ruth Moody, from Winnipeg, Canada. The song appeared on her third solo album, These Wilder Things (2013).

Below: "Wayfarin' Stranger," an old American gospel song performed by the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra, from Oslo, Norway. The song was released as a single last year. The vocalist is Rebekka Nilsson.

Above: "Last Kind Words," written by the great southern blues musician Geeshie Wiley (1908-1950) and sung by the equally great Rhiannon Giddens, from North Carolina. This performance was filmed for A Prairie Home Companion in 2015.

Below: "A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey" by Leyla McCalla, a Haitian-American singer/songwriter based in New Orleans. It appears on her album of the same name, released last year.

Above: "No Hard Feelings" by The Avett Brothers (Scott and Seth Avett, with Bob Crawford on bass and Joe Kwon on cello), from North Carolina. The song appeared on the band's ninth studio album, True Sadness (2016). This performance was filmed for A Prairie Home Companion in 2017. The fiddler is Tania Elizabeth.

Below: "San Luis" by singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov. The song is from his new album, Evening Machines, recorded on his farm near Boulder, Colorado. The video was shot in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado by conservation photographer Andy Mann, with filmmakers Keith Ladzinski and Chris Alstrin.

Moonlight by Winslow Homer

The art today is by American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910).


Leaning into the light

Paige Bradley

On the day after the U.S. midterm elections, which brought us both good news and bad, we storytellers just have to keep on going, and keep leaning into the light....

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

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

Rune Guneriussen

Rune Guneriussen

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

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

Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro

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

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

Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro

Words: The passages above are from The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir by Linda Hogan (WW Norton, 2001) and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (Scribner's, 1986); all rights reserved by the authors. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2014. A related post: "The beauty of brokeness." 

Pictures: "Expansion, New York City" by Paige Bradley (U.S.), and light installations by Rune Guneriussen (Norway) and Bruce Munro (U.K.). 


Hope and faith

Autumn colour

I had a new post planned for you today, but my work schedule has been waylaid by a family problem (small but time-consuming). Instead, here's one from the archives that I feel is worth re-visiting on a day when we are all holding our breaths over the U.S. midterm elections....

From Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities:

"A friend of mine, Jaime Cortez, tells me I should consider the difference between hope and faith. Hope, he says, can be based on the evidence, on the track record of what might be...but faith endures even when there's no way to imagine winning in the foreseeable future. Faith is more mystical. Jaime sees the American Left as pretty devoid of faith, and connects faith to what it takes to change things in the long term, beyond what you might live to see or benefit from. I argue that what was once the Left is now so full of anomalies -- of indigenous intellectuals and Catholic pacifists and the like -- that maybe we do have faith -- some of us.

"Activism isn't reliable. It isn't fast. It isn't direct either, most of the time, even though the term direct action is used for that confrontation in the streets, those encounters involving law breaking and civil disobedience. It may be because activists move like armies through the streets that people imagine effects as direct as armies. An army assaults the physical world and takes physical possession of it; activists reclaim the streets and occasionally seize a Bastille or swarm a Berlin Wall, but the terrain of their action is usually immaterial, the realm of the symbolic, political discourse, collective imagination. They enter the conversation forcefully, but it remains a conversation. Every act is an act of faith, because you don't know what will happen. You just hope and employ whatever wisdom and experience seems most likely to get you there.

Autumn color 2

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Autumn color 4

Autumn color 4

"I believe all this," Solnit continues, "because I've lived it, and I've lived it because I am a writer. For twenty years I have sat alone at a desk tinkering with sentences and then sending them out, and for most of my literary life, the difference between throwing something in the trash and publishing it was imperceptible, but in the past several years the work has started coming back to me, or the readers have. Musicians and dancers face their audience and visual artists can spy on them, but reading is mostly as private as writing. Writing is lonely. It's an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with readers who may never come to be and who, even if they do read you, will do so weeks, years, decades later. An essay, a book, is one statement in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you're gone and never reach your ears -- if anyone hears you in the first place....

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"You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might rot. In California, some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire, and sometimes the burned landscape blooms most lavishly. In her book Faith, Sharon Salzberg recounts how she put together a collection of teachings by the Buddhist monk U Pandita and consigned the project to the 'minor good-deed category.' Long afterward, she found out that while Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy movement's leader [back in the days when she was a true force for good], was isolated under house arrest by that country's dictators, the book and its instructions in meditation 'became her main source of spiritual support during those intensely difficult years.' Thought becomes action becomes the order of things, but no straight road takes you there.

"Nobody can know the full consequences of their actions, and history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways."

Autumn color 7

''The Bunny Girls say: Vote!'' by Terri Windling

Words: The passage above is from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2004), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from The Crooked Inheritance by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors. This post first appeared in November 2016, not long after the American presidential election.

Pictures: Black dog, golden leaves, and the colourful funghi community in the Devon woods. My "Bunny Girls" drawing at the end goes out to American friends and family, with special thanks to all who are helping voters get to the polls today.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Deer sketch by Daniel Egneus

This week I'm focused on Child Ballads: on old, old songs performed in new ways, along with a couple of other good pieces rooted in traditional folkways.

Above: "The Fair Flower of Northumberland" (Child Ballad #9) performed by Scottish musician Alasdair Roberts, with Amble Skuse and David McGuinness. The song appears on their strange and remarkable new album, What News. The video, filmed at the University of Glasgow, features performance artist Sgàire Wood.

Below: "Cruel Mother" (Child Ballad #20) performed by Scottish singer and cellist Fiona Hunter. The song is from her first solo album, Fiona Hunter (2014), with animation by Gavin C. Robinson.

Above: "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance" performed by Stick in the Wheel, from East London.  The video, containing archival footage from Abbots Bromley, was directed by Ian Carter, with animation by Teresa Elizabeth Lobos. To learn more about the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance go here. To read about deer in folk ritual and myth, go here and here.

Below: "Over Again" performed by Stick in the Wheel.

Both songs are from their terrific new album, Follow Them True.

Above: "Willie's Lady" (Child Ballad #6) performed by the English folk trio Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Hazel Askew, Rowan Rheingans). It's from their lovely first album, Weave & Spin (2011).

Below: "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2) performed by folk legend Norma Waterson, her daughter Eliza Carthy, and the Gift Band. It's from their new album, Anchor, which I highly recommend.

Deer sketch by Daniel Egneus

Oh heck, here's one more:

"Matty Groves"  (Child Ballad 81) performed by the French/American band Moriarty. The song travelled to the New World with early Anglo/Scots settlers, becoming part of the North American traditional songbook too.

Drawing by Daniel Egneus

The art today is by Daniel Egnéus.


Rooted in life

Oak and hill

Oak, bracken, and hound

''I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing (Though I may write about cabmen. That’s no matter.) But warm, eager, living life -- to be rooted in life -- to learn, to desire, to feel, to think, to act. This is what I want. And nothing less.''

- Katherine Mansfield (Letters and Journals: A Selection)

Yes, that's it exactly.

Autumn dog


On the Day of the Dead

  Chagford churchyard 1

November 1st, in Mexican and other folklore traditions, is the Day of the Dead; tomorrow, in the Christian calendar, is All Souls' Day. The beginning of November is a traditional time for the honouring of our ancestors, remembering loved ones who have gone, tending graves and cleaning up cemetaries, and for cherishing life while contemplating its inevitable end.

In his wise and beautiful book Anam Cara, the late Irish poet-philosopher John O'Donohue wrote:

Crow"One of the lovely things about the Irish tradition is its great hospitality to death. When someone in the village dies, everyone goes to the funeral. First everyone comes to the house to sympathize. All the neighbours gather round to support the family and to help them. It is a lovely gift. When you are really desperate and lonely, you need neighbours to help you, support you and bring you through that broken time. In Ireland there was a tradition known as caoineadh. These were people, women mainly, who came in and keened the deceased. It was a kind of high-pitched wailing cry full of incredible loneliness. The narrative of the caoineadh was actually the history of this person's life as the women had known him. A sad liturgy, beautifully woven of narrative was gradually put into the place of the person's new absence from the world. The caoineadh gathered all the key events of his life. It was certainly heartbreakingly lonely, but it made a hospitable, ritual space for the mourning and sadness of the bereaved family. The caoineadh helped people to let the emotion of loneliness and grief flow in a natural way.

Chagford churchyard 2

"We have a tradition in Ireland known as the wake," O'Donohue continued. "This ensures that the person who has died is not left on their own on the night after death. Neighbours, family members and friends accompany the body through the early hours of its eternal change. Some drinks and tobacco are usually provided. Again, the conversation of the friends weaves a narrative of rememberance from the different elements of that person's life.

Chagford churchyard 3

"It takes a good while to really die. For some people it can be quick, yet the way the soul leaves the body is different for each individual. For some people it may take a couple of days before the final withdrawal of the soul is completed. There is a lovely anecdote from the Munster region, about a man who had died. As the soul left the body, it went to the door of the house to begin its journey back to the eternal place. But the soul looked back at the now empty body and lingered at the door. Then, it went back and kissed the body and talked to it. The soul thanked the body for being such a hospitable place for its life journey and remembered the kindnesses the body had shown it during life.

Chagford churchyard 4

"In the Celtic tradition there is a great sense that the dead do not live far away. In Ireland there are always places, fields and old ruins where the ghosts of people were seen. That kind of folk memory recognizes that people who have lived in a place, even when they move to an invisible form, somehow still remain in that place. There is also the tradition of the coiste bodhar, or the dead coach. Living in a little village on the side of a mountain, my aunt as a young woman heard that coach late one night. This was a small village of houses all close together. She was at home on her own, and she heard what sounded like barrels crashing against each other. This fairy coach came right down along the street beside her house and continued along a mountain path. All the dogs in the village heard the noise and followed the coach. The story suggests that the invisible world has secret pathways where funerals travel.

Chagford churchyard 5

"In the Irish tradition, there is also a very interesting figure called the Bean Si. Si is another word for fairies and the Bean Si is a fairy woman. This is a spirit who cries for someone who is about to die. My father heard her crying one evening. Two days later a neighbour, from a family for whom the Bean Si always cried, died. In this, the Celtic Irish tradition recognizes that the eternal and the transient worlds are woven in and through each other.

"Very often at death, the inhabitants of the eternal world come out towards the visible world. It can take a person hours or days to die, and preceding the moment of death they might see their deceased mother, grandmother, grandfather or some relation, husband, wife, or friend. When a person is close to death, the veil between this world and the eternal world is very thin. In some cases, the veil is actually removed for a moment, so that you can indeed be given a glimpse into the eternal world. Your friends who now live in the eternal world come to greet you, to bring you home. Usually, for people who are dying, to see their own friends gives them great strength, support and encouragement.

"This elevated perception shows the incredible energy that surrounds the moment of death. The Irish tradition shows great hospitality to the possibilities of this moment. When a person dies, holy water is sprinkled in a circle around them. This helps to keep dark forces away and to keep the presence of light with the newly dead as they go on their final journey."

Chagford churchyard 6

If you'd like more reading for the Day of the Day, I suggest:

"Imagined Afterlives: Death in Classic Fantasy" by Katherine Langrish; "Tuscon's All Souls Procession" by Stu Jenks; and own essay on "Death in Folk & Fairy Tales."

Chagford churchyard 7

Chagford churchyard 8

Words: The passage above is from Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World by John O'Donohue (Bantam, 1997). Raised in a Gaelic-speaking family in the west of Ireland, O'Donohue was a Catholic priest before devoting himself to writing and scholarship, creating works rooted in the mystical place where pagan and Christian philosophies meet. The poem in the picture captions is from American Primitive by Mary Oliver (Little, Brown, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs were taken last week in the graveyard of our village church here in Chagford. The building dates back to 1261, but there was probably a much older church on the same spot before it, and a pagan holy site before that. The current vicar welcomes everyone into the church, including the pagan community. We have come a long way from the days of witch burning, and that is a blessed thing.