Thursday, 25 June 2015

Water Spirits

Water. You can touch it, but you can’t hold it.  It runs between your fingers.  It flows away in streams, in rivers, talking to itself.  ‘Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide.’ In both its transience and its endurance it’s a metaphor for time. Rivers change every moment, but they are old – in some cases literally older than the hills. They were flowing before we were born; they will still be flowing long after we are gone.

Water reflects things – trees, the sky – but upside down, distorted and fluid.  Peer over the brink and your own face peeks up at you: like yet unlike, pale and transparent.  That image could be another you, living in another world.  Maybe in the Other World; after all, you can’t breathe water. So who is that? 

Modern mirrors show perfect reflections. Each one of us knows what we look like (or believe we do: mirrors still pull that sly trick of showing us ourselves in reverse.) But for most of history and prehistory mirrors were rare or non-existent. People saw one another’s faces but not their own. Only the reflecting surface of still water could offer the chance, but how could you be sure that the face looking up was truly yours?  Maybe it was an ancestor’s face, or a spirit’s. Maybe it had a message to give you. (But better not bend too close.)

A clear puddle after rain is a window into the ground. You can look down vertically into a deep underworld.  A far, bright sky flashes below the upside-down trees. Could it be the world of the dead, who are buried in the ground? In the spring or early summer of the year 2049 BCE (it makes me shiver to write that, but we know the precise date from tree-ring dating), at least fifty people with bronze axes gathered on a salt marsh to construct a wooden circle with an upside-down oak stump planted at its centre, roots in the air, crown in the ground. This was the circle now called Seahenge, and surely the inverted tree was intended to grow in the Other World - a real and solid version of the ghostly reflections of trees which can be seen in any pool.

Reflections in water show us three worlds, the sky above us, the surface which is touchable and level with the world we walk upon, and the strange depths beneath. If you plunge a straight stick or rod into water, it appears broken, but you can draw it out again unharmed. We know it's because of the refraction of light; but the effect must have seemed mystical and magical to people down the ages.  Is that what prompted the custom of ritual damage to swords and spears - bending, snapping and breaking them - before they were offered to the underwater world?  As if the water itself was showing what needed to be done?  In her book The Gods of the Celts Dr Miranda Green tells of two Iron Age sacred lakes into which important people threw important offerings: Llyn Fawr in South Glamorgan and Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.

Llyn Fawr is the earlier, the date of deposition of the objects lying around 600BC. Here a hoard was found in a peat-deposit that had once been a natural lake; find include two sheet-bronze cauldrons… socketed axes and sickles. The material [at Llyn Cerrig] ranges in date from the second century BC to the first century AD. The finds come from the edge of a bog at the foot of an eleven foot high sheer rock cliff which provided a good vantage point for throwing offerings. In the Iron Age the lake would have extended to [the foot of the cliff] and the uncorroded condition of the metalwork shows that it sank immediately into the water. The offerings are of a military/aristocratic nature: weapons, slave chains, chariots and harness fittings.

King Arthur’s sword Excalibur comes from under the water.   

They rode till they came to a lake, that was a fair water and broad, and in the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in that hand.

Merlin and Arthur are advised by a ‘damosel’ (the Lady of the Lake) to row a boat towards the arm:

And when they came to the sword that the hand held, Sir Arthur took it up by the handles… and the arm and the hand went under the water.

At the very end of the Morte D’Arthur, at Arthur’s command Sir Bedivere manages (on the third attempt) to hurl Excalibur into the lake again:

And he threw the sword as far into the water as he might; and there came an arm and a hand above the water and met it, and caught it, and shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.  So Sir Bedivere came again to the king and told him what he saw.
“Alas”, said the king, “help me hence, for I dread me I have tarried over-long.”

Only now may Arthur depart for the Isle of Avalon in a barge full of queens and ladies clad in black.  So the sword which conferred upon Arthur a kind of supernaturally-awarded status must be relinquished, returned to its mysterious Otherworldly keeper, before he can commence his journey to the land of death and rebirth in the watery Somerset fens. I wonder if some of those Celtic offerings were also funeral rites?

Water is necessary to life.  It has many practical uses. You  can drink water, wash in it, cook with it, irrigate your fields. It turns your mill wheel to grind your corn, but it can also drown you or your children, or rise up in floods and sweep your house away.  Homely, treacherous, necessary, strange, elemental: no wonder that we populated it with spirits. Goddesses like Sabrina of the Severn, or Sulis of the hot springs in Bath – loreleis, ondines, naiads, nixies – sly, beautiful, impulsive but cold-hearted nymphs whose white arms pull you down to drown.  

Then again, rivers can be gods, such as Father Tiber or TS Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’, the Thames. Or Stevie Smith’s ‘River God’:

I may be smelly and I may be old,
Rough in my pebbles, reedy in my pools,
But where my fish float by I bless their swimming
And I like the people to bathe in me, especially women.
But I can drown the fools
Who bathe too close to the weir, contrary to rules.
And they take a long time drowning
As I throw them up now and then in the spirit of clowning.
Hi yi, yippety-yap, merrily I flow,
Oh I may be an old foul river but I have plenty of go…

Male, female or animal, water spirits are dangerous and tricksy. Scottish kelpies or waterhorses used to linger by the banks of lochs in the gloaming, tempting people to climb upon their backs - upon which they would gallop into the water. The 19th century folklorist William Craigie tells how, in Scandinavia:

The river-horse (bäck-hästen) is very malicious, for not content with leading folk astray and then laughing at them, when he has landed them in thickets and bogs, he, being Necken himself, alters his shape now to one thing and now to another, although he commonly appears as a light-grey horse.

It is certain that the river-horse still exists, for it is no more than a few years back that a man in Fiborna district, who owned a light-grey horse, was coming home late one night and saw, as he thought, the horse standing beside Väla brook. He thought it strange that his man had not taken in Grey-coat, and proceeded to do so himself, but just as he was about to lay hold of it it went off like an arrow and laughed loudly. The man turned his coat so as not to go astray, for he knew now who the horse was.

In Kristianstad there was a well, from which all the girls took drinking water, and where a number of the boys always gathered as well.  One evening the river-horse was standing there, and the boys, thinking it was just an old horse, seated themselves on its back, one after the other, till there was a whole row of them, but the smallest one hung on by the horse’s tail.  When he saw how long it was he cried, “Oh, in Jesus’ name!” whereupon the horse threw all the others into the water. 

Even today people throw coins into fountains and wishing wells – ‘for luck’. In my novel Dark Angels, the 12th century castle La Motte Rouge has a well haunted by a mournful White Lady. I revisited her, and her friend the hearth-hob, in a story called By Fynnon Ddu which I wrote for the Sussex Folklore Centre’s journal Gramarye (Summer 2014, Issue 5). I wanted to contrast the transience of humanity with the deep time in which such creatures live. In this story, the castle is just being built, yet both the hob and the water spirit are already ancient. Here’s an extract.

The hob hugged his tattered rabbitskin around him and peered into the well. It was a long, narrow pool, lined with leaning mossy stones.  At one end a spring bubbled up under a rough rocky arch and trickled out at the other into a little deep-cut brook, and the dark water was full of weeds, cress and frogspawn.  A small frog plopped into the pool and pushed through the skin of the water in a series of fluid kicks. The hob stiffened all over like a hunting cat. He shot out a hairy arm.
There was a swirl and a heave in the depths. The spring gushed up in a burst of fierce bubbles. The frog vanished in a fog of sediment.
“What did you do that for?” yelped the hob.
A face looked up through the brown water-glass, framed in drifting clouds of hair which spread away in filmy tendrils. The eyes were great dark blurs, the pale-lipped smile both shy and wild.
“You doesn’t even eat,” the hob groused on. “You doesn’t know what ‘tis to have an empty belly.”
The water spirit slipped upwards. Her head emerged from the water, glistening. In air and daylight she was difficult to see: a slanting glimmer, like a risen reflection. She propped narrow elbows on the brink and offered him a handful of cress.
“Lenten fare. That an’t going to put hairs on me chest,” said the hob sulkily, but he stuffed it into his mouth and chewed.
A bout of hammering battered the air. The water spirit flinched, and the hob nodded at her. “Yus.  Men.  They’m back again at last.”
She pushed her dripping hair back behind one ear and spoke in a voice soft as a dove cooing in a sleepy noon. “Who?”
The hob snorted, spraying out bits of green. “Who cares who?  S’long as they has fires, and a roof overhead, and stew in the pot –”
“Is it the Cornovii?”
“You allus asks me that.”  The hob glanced at her with wry affection and shook his head. “They’m long gone,” he said gently.  “They don’t come back. Times change and so do men.”
“Was it such a long time?” She was teasing a water-beetle with a tassel of her hair. “I liked the Cornovii. They used to bring me toys.”
“Things to play with.”  She looked up at him through half-shut eyes. “Knives and spearheads, brooches and jewels. Girls and boys. I’ve kept them all.”
“Down at the bottom there? How deep do it go?”  Hackles bristling, but fascinated, the hob craned his neck and tried to peer past his own scrawny reflection.
“Come and see.” She reached out her hands with an innocent smile, but he drew hastily back. “No thanks!”


In Frederick de la Motte Fouqué’s ‘Undine’ (1807), a knight marries Undine, a river spirit, and swears eternal faithfulness to her.  However his previous mistress, Bertalda, sows suspicion of Undine in his mind and he comes to regard her unbreakable bond with the waterspirits – especially her terrifying uncle Kuhlborn, the mountain torrent – with fear and disgust.  He repudiates his union with Undine and prepares to marry Bertalda instead.  In a spine-tingling climax, the castle well bubbles uncontrollably up to release the veiled figure of the Undine, who walks slowly through the castle to the knight’s chamber. In my 1888 translation:

The knight had dismissed his attendants and stood in mournful thought, half-undressed before a great mirror, a torch burnt dimly beside him.  Just then a light, light finger knocked at the door; Undine had often so knocked in loving sportiveness.
            “It is but fancy,” he said to himself; “I must to the wedding chamber.”
            “Yes, thou must, but to a cold one!” he heard a weeping voice say.  And then he saw in the mirror how the door opened slowly, slowly, and the white wanderer entered, and gently closed the door behind her.
            “They have opened the well,” she said softly, “And now I am here and thou must die.”

Ignore the force of water at your peril. 

Picture credits

Nokke (Water spirit) by Theodor Kittelsen

Reflection - Katherine Langrish, personal photo

Seahenge: Norfolk Museum

Sir Bedivere by Aubrey Beardsley University of Rochester

Hylas and the Nymphs by Frederick Waterhouse (detail) 

Nokke as White Horse by Theodor Kittelsen

Cover of Gramarye with Arthur Rackham illustration of the Frog Prince

Undine by Arthur Rackham

The Shipwrecked Man of the Sea by Arthur Rackham

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Naming of Dark Lords (a Difficult Matter)

It isn't just one of your fantasy games...

Aged nine or so, one of my daughters co-wrote a fantasy story with her best friend. By the time they’d finished it ran to sixty or seventy pages, a wonderful joint effort – they’d sit together brainstorming and passing the manuscript to and fro, writing alternate chapters and sometimes even paragraphs. There were two heroines (one for each author) and sharing their adventures was a magical teddybear named Mr Brown who spoke throughout in rhyming couplets. Transported to a magical world on the back of a dove called Time – who provided the neat title for the story: ‘Time Flies’ – the trio find themselves battling a Dark Lord of impeccable evil with the fabulous handle of LORD SHNUBALUT (pronounced: ‘Shnoo-ba-lutt’.)  The two young authors had grasped something crucial about Dark Lords. They need to have mysterious, sonorous, even unpronounceable names.

Imagine you’re writing a High Fantasy. You’ve got your world and you’ve sorted out the culture: medieval in the countryside with its feudal system of small manors and castles; a renaissance feel to the bustling towns with their traders, guilds and scholar-wizards. The forests are the abode of elves. Heroic barbarians follow their horse-herds on the more distant plains. Goblins and dwarfs battle it out in the mountains.

And lo! your Dark Lord ariseth. And he requireth a name.

Let’s take an affectionate look at the names of a few Dark Lords. The first to come to mind is of course Tolkien’s iconic SAURON from The Lord of the Rings.  A name not too difficult to pronounce, you’d think – except that when the films came out I discovered I’d been getting it wrong for years. I’d always assumed the ‘saur’ element should be pronounced as in ‘dinosaur’, and ‘Saw-ron’, with its hint of scaly, cold-blooded menace, still sounds better to me than ‘Sow-ron.’ I was only 13 when I first read The Lord of the Rings, and although I was blown away, and keen enough to wade through some of the Appendices, I never got as far as Appendix E in which Tolkien explains that ‘au’ and ‘aw’ are to be pronounced ‘as in loud, how and not as in laud, haw.’ But who reads the Appendices until they’ve read the entire book? - by which time I’d been getting it wrong for months and my incorrect pronunciation was fixed. Still, there it is. Peter Jackson got it right and I was wrong. 

Not content with one Dark Lord, Tolkien created two - three, if you count the otherwise anonymous Witch-King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul and the scariest of the bunch if you want my opinion.  In The Silmarillion Melkor is given the name MORGOTH after destroying the Two Trees and stealing the Silmarils. In Sindarin the name means ‘Dark Enemy’ or ‘Black Foe’, but Tolkien must have been aware that its second element conjures the 5th century Goths who sacked Rome and that, additionally, the name carries echoes of MORDRED, King Arthur’s illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgan le Fay. Of course Mordred is not a high fantasy Dark Lord, but he’s certainly a force for chaos and darkness. Though the name is actually derived from the Welsh Medraut (and ultimately the Latin Moderatus), to a modern English ear it suggests the French for death, ‘le mort’, along with the English ‘dread’: a pleasing combination for a villain. Mordred and Morgoth are names redolent of fear, death and darkness, and the ‘Mor’ element appears again in Sauron’s realm of ‘Mordor’, the Black Land. 

The name of JK Rowling’s LORD VOLDEMORT is also suggestive of death and borrows some of the dark glamour of Mordred, but the circumlocutory phrase HE-WHO-MUST-NOT-BE-NAMED (used by his enemies for fear of conjuring him up) certainly owes something to H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Interestingly, males become Dark Lords but females are never Dark Ladies – which doesn’t have the same ring at all*. They turn into Dread Queens, such as Galadriel might have become if she had succumbed to temptation and taken the Ring from Frodo:

In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and Lighting! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!

Coming down to us from many an ancient goddess, Dread Queens are usually beautiful, sexual women of great power and cruelty, like T.H. White’s MORGAUSE, Queen of Orkney from The Once And Future King, busy – on the first occasion we meet her – boiling a cat alive. In his notes about her, T.H. White wrote:

She should have all the frightful power and mystery of women.  Yet she should be quite shallow, cruel, selfish…One important thing is her Celtic blood.  Let her be the worst West-of-Ireland type: the one with cunning bred in the bone.  Let her be mealy-mouthed: butter would not melt in it. Yet also she must be full of blood and power.

Blood, power (and racism): White is clearly very frightened of this woman. He didn’t find her character in Le Morte D’Arthur: Malory’s Morgawse is a great lady whose sins are adulterous rather than sorcerous – but her half-sister MORGAN LE FAY is an enchantress whose name is derived from the Old Welsh/Old Breton Morgen, connected with water spirits and meaning ‘Sea-born’. A final example from Celtic legend is Alan Garner’s ‘MORRIGAN’, a name variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen, depending this time on whether the ‘Mor’ element is written with a diacritical or not. Enough already!

Not every Dark Lord’s name works as well as Sauron and Voldemort. I’m underwhelmed by Stephen Donaldson’s ‘LORD FOUL THE DESPISER’ from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever. Donaldson seems jumpily aware of the long shadow of Tolkien. He struggles to produce convincing names (for example the Cavewight ‘Drool Rockworm’ whose name to my mind belongs not in the Land, but in the Discworld). I've always thought that to call a Dark Lord ‘Lord Foul’ is barely trying, and tagging ‘the Despiser’ on to it doesn’t help. (‘He’s foul, I'm telling you! He’s really foul! I’ll prove it – he despises things too!’) Tacking an adjective or adverb on to a fantasy name often only weakens it, as in the case of the orc-lord AZOG THE DEFILER whom Peter Jackson introduced to the film version of The Hobbit. Azog is to be found in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien writes in laconic prose modelled on the Icelandic sagas, of how Azog killed Thrór, hewed off his head and cut his name on the forehead (thus indeed defiling the corpse).

Then Nár turned the head and saw branded on it in Dwarf-runes so that he could read it the name AZOG. That name was branded in his heart and in the hearts of all the Dwarves afterwards.

Just ‘Azog’, you see? The name on its own is quite enough.

Donaldson is trying to emulate Tolkien’s linguistic density, in which proper names from different languages pile up into accumulated richness like leafmould: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, Nanduhirion. But we cannot all be philologists. Lord Foul’s various sobriquets, which include ‘The Gray Slayer’, ‘Fangthane the Render’, ‘Corruption’, and ‘a-Jeroth of the Seven Hells’, only suggest to me an author having a number of stabs at something he knows in his heart he isn’t quite getting right. ‘Fangthane’?  A word which means ‘sharp tooth’ attached to a word which means ‘a man who holds land from his overlord and owes him allegiance’? It could work for a Gríma Wormtongue, but not for a Dark Lord. 

Dark Lords are a strange clan. Why anyone over the age of eighteen would wish to dress entirely in black and live at the top of a draughty tower in the midst of a poisoned wasteland is something of a mystery, unless perhaps Dark Lords are younger than we think. If they’re actually no older than Vyvyan from The Young Ones, it could totally explain their continuously bad temper, their desire to impress, their attacks on mild mannered, law-abiding citizens (aka parents), their taste in architecture (painting the bedroom black and decorating it with heavy metal posters) and their penchant for logos incorporating spiderwebs, fiery eyes, skulls, etc.

It probably also explains their peculiar names. Most teenage boys at some point reject the names their parents picked for them and go in for inexplicable nicknames like Fish, Grazz, or Bazzer… Anyway, the all-out winner of the Dark Lord Weird Name competition has got to be Patricia McKillip, whose beautiful fantasies are written in prose as delicate and strong as steel snowflakes (Ombria In Shadow is one of my all-time favourites). But the Dark Lord in her early trilogy The Riddle-Master rejoices in (or is cursed with) the altogether unpronounceable and eye-boggling GHISTELWCHLOHM. He wins hands down. Lord Schnubalut, eat your heart out.

*The pun was unintentional.

Picture credits:

Cover detail from The Fellowship of the Ring, George Allen and Unwin (author's possession)

Melkor, Wikimedia commons,

Morgan le Fay  by Frederick Sandys (1864)

Adrian Edmonson as Vyvyan Basterd from The Young Ones

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Last Train From Kummersdorf - and the Bremen Town Musicians

Some time ago I was talking about fairytales with my friend Leslie Wilson, whose two books for teenagers are realistic fiction set in Nazi Germany, and was struck when she remarked, ‘There are fairytale motifs in my books, too, you know.’ Realising it was true, I immediately asked if she would write a post about the fairytale elements in her YA novel, Last Train from Kummersdorf – which has been released in a new edition today.

‘Last Train From Kummersdorf’ was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize, and much of the emotional truth of the narrative stems from the
traumatic wartime experiences of Leslie's own mother. On the run from the advancing Russian army in 1945, two young people, Effi and Hanno, join forces on the road, teaming up to defend and help each other from the dangers they meet along the way. In this extract, Russian planes have strafed a column of refugees, killing the horses who’ve been pulling the wagons.
…Ida looked at the horses. They were both dead now, but for the life of her she couldn’t face chopping them up for meat. She scolded herself for weakness. Anyway, Magda was going to do it. But when Magda got to the horses she hesitated, wondering how to start. Then Herr Hungerland walked over to stand beside her, putting out his hand for the knife. ‘Let me,’ he said, ‘I have some knowledge of physiology. I am a doctor.’

That a doctor - whose skills are for healing - should find his main utility in this situation the ability to butcher a dead horse, makes a terrible and ironic point about the nature of war.

Here’s  Leslie herself, talking about the fairytale analogue to ‘Last Train From Kummerdorf’:


When my novel Last Train from Kummersdorf  was published, my brother read it and then said to me: ‘It’s not at all a realistic novel, is it?’ And indeed, it isn’t, though I’m not sure how many people have noticed.

It is a novel very much in the German tradition: and at first glance it is close to other German novels and short stories about the Second World War and ‘Die Flucht’ – which means ‘The Flight’, meaning the escape from the advancing Russian army. Most of these are realist. But as I wrote it I knew I was in the German romantic/gothic tradition, like Storm’s Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse), or Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. Less unequivocally so, perhaps, than Grass’s Tin Drum. (A novel which made it hard, at first, to write Kummersdorf, because Grass seemed to have said it all so brilliantly.) But then I began to see that I had things to say that hadn’t already been said, and dared to go forward.

That tradition is deeply rooted in folklore, and so am I. I spent years of my childhood reading folktales from all over the world. But it was when I was doing my degree in German that I read the whole way through the three-volume 1900 jubilee edition of Grimm that I was lucky enough to be given in childhood – and found my mind going clicketty-clack, categorising the stories, seeing that certain basic plots came up over and over again, with variations – and once a motif from the Nibelungenlied, the medieval Lay of the Nibelungs, in The Two Brothers: the sword put between a man masquerading as his twin brother and his sister-in-law when they have to sleep together. Siegfried puts a sword between himself and Brünhilde when he beds her in the guise of his brother-in-law-to be, Gunther. Maybe the Nibelungenlied draws from popular folklore, maybe the folk story has picked up part of the epic. In any case, it was deeply important to me to read the collection then, one of those things that one knows one has to do, even if one doesn’t know why. What it taught me is what others have said before me: there are only a limited amount of plots. The other realisation was also important: that stories are interdependent and feed each other. When – many years later - I started to write Kummersdorf, I quickly realised the influence, in my story, of The Bremen Town Musicians. 

The Brothers Grimm were undoubtedly motivated by a desire to establish an authentic ‘German’ voice; a project rooted in the dubious one of German unification by force, rather than through the liberal impulse of revolution. That hope was dashed in 1948. As for the ‘authentic German voice’, that was a stupid idea. Folktales are international; carried along trade routes, they flit from country to country. Some of the Grimm stories came from Perrault. Maybe nursemaids picked them up in the houses of the francophile German aristocracy and middle class, and took them back into their own humble homes to tell to their own children. At that point other motifs infiltrated them, which is why Aschenputtel is different from Cendrillon. The other thing that the Grimm brothers did was to edit the stories – but I am quite certain that they still retain much of the authentic vernacular voice. 

I think the value of myth and fairy stories is that they mitigate the dreadful things that happen to human beings. Stories of heroes, of magical rescues, of the world turned upside down, give us courage to face a harsh world. The savagery of the revenge sometimes taken expresses people’s deep inner anger; an anger too often bitten back in a world where injustice and callous exploitation were – and still are - rife.  The Bremen Town Musicians is about old animals, worked-out, threatened with various brutal ends because they’re no use to their masters any longer. They find a robbers’ house in the forest and frighten the robbers away from it and their booty simply by making their various noises – music, according to them – so then they are able to live at their ease for the rest of their lives. I think the story reflects the reality of the lives of story-telling grandparents, who were similarly regarded as useless – except to keep the children quiet. It’s a story about Grey Power. Or just about the powerless who manage – just for once – to turn the tables. And, significantly, when the robber comes back to see if the band can repossess their house, the voice that finally terrorises him is that of the cockerel who he interprets as a judge’s voice, calling out: ‘Bring the rogue to me!’

Last Train from Kummersdorf is about civilians, and civilians who end up facing the incoming army. As a child, I always noticed the value that’s placed in wartime on soldiers’ lives over those of civilians. I resented it, because from an early age I’d heard from my mother just what defeat means. When the soldiers are dead, it’s the old people, the youngsters and children who are in the front line. Many of the Russian soldiers entering Germany in 1945 behaved the way conquering soldiers have always done. They behaved that way even in the Slav countries they came to first, so it wasn’t, as many people have said, just a revenge-taking for the dreadful things the German soldiers had done in Russia. Members of the Red Army raped, tortured, murdered and looted, with Stalin’s blessing. The innocent suffered along with the guilty. ‘Deutsche Frau ist deutsche Frau,’ a Russian soldier said when it was pointed out to him that the woman he was about to rape was Jewish. ‘German woman is German woman.’ My mother got away from a Russian by the skin of her teeth, ran away into the forest and the mountains and almost died there. That, along with the expulsion of many of her family from their homes in Silesia, is the ‘core narrative’ I was working with.

If you sleep rough, it very quickly starts to do things to your perception of reality: dossers and refugees live a different kind of reality from ours, in our houses, where we can shut the door on danger. I think when you’re in constant danger of your life, then some fundamental, mythic perceptions probably kick in. My mother, wandering the mountains in April, was living out a fundamental folkloric story of pursuit, only it was Russian soldiers, rather than enraged witches, she was escaping from. Hanno and Effi, in Kummersdorf,  are trying to escape from the Russians too, but they have a Quest, too: to get to the West, where the boy Hanno’s mother is, and where the girl Effi is firmly convinced she’ll find her father. The teenagers pick up other people, rag-tag refugees; it was at that point that I said to myself: ‘This story is like The Bremen Town Musicians!’

But my refugees don’t find the baddies in a house: the baddies are on the run, too, and the kids pick some of them up and have to schlepp them along willy-nilly; the old crazy doctor who’s murdered disabled children in the ‘euthanasia’ programme; the rabid Nazi police officer who nurses a strange hatred for the boy Hanno. But there’s someone else: the little man Sperling (which means sparrow) with his dog Cornelius and his magic cart which he makes over to the kids after a Russian air attack kills him. When the kids play a game with the railway tickets in the cart, when Effi teases the adults with the fantasy they’ve cooked up – when suddenly the other refugees start believing the alluring fantasy of a train that can carry them out of danger – this is story taking people over, altering their perceptions of reality. And the train itself, when it half-magically appears, becomes a location where the truth comes out about the refugees’ pasts. Though it’s no means of escape for them, so the story doesn’t end there.

My novel, like so many fairy-tales, and especially the Musicians, takes place in the German ‘Wald’, the forest, the location where so many German folk tales play off. I knew the German forest from an early age, though not the Brandenburg forest of the novel. My grandfather had a house on the eastern shore of the Rhine. My brother and I used to go off into the Wald­ and explore it, but it felt dangerous; full of wild boar for one thing, who might attack us in the breeding season. Once, when I was a baby, my mother was on her own in the house at night – my grandparents had gone out together – and she heard a snuffling and thumping against the door, a huge animal apparently trying to break in. She was terrified. In the morning, there was blood on the grass outside, and the adults realised it must have been a wounded boar. It wasn’t really a danger to us, of course, but the story of that inchoate menace in the night coming out of the Wald  stayed with me. When the stags were rutting, the clash of their antlers echoed and filled the valley in front of the house; they were almost as loud as thunderclaps.

The road from Opa’s house led to a little clearing in the woods where a flame flickered, day and night. I was told that a child had been lost out there once, and its desperate mother promised the Virgin Mary that if her child was found, she’d set a flame there to burn to help other travellers who might be lost. The flame marked the place where the child was safely found. I don’t know if it’s still there. I can picture it now, at a place where two paths met, in a part of the forest planted with conifers; the dusty path scattered with needle-mess and resinous cones, and the dimness among the trees. Mirkwood. The forest went on and on, it seemed enormous. I knew the witches and wolves and robbers were in there; you only had to go far enough. And so it became part of my psyche and so I had to write about it.