Friday, 27 May 2011

On Water

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.  It’s a metaphor for time. 

It 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.  It could be another you, living in another world.  Maybe in The Other World. After all, you can’t breathe water...

You can drink it, wash in it, water your fields with it.  It turns your mill wheel to grind your corn, but it can also drown you or your children and sweep you away.  Homely, treacherous, necessary, strange, elemental, no wonder that we populated it with spirits. Goddesses like Sabrina, or loreleis, ondines, naiads, nixies: sly, beautiful, impulsive but cold-hearted nymphs whose white arms pull you down to drown.  To say nothing of kelpies, in whom the brute force and treacherous nature of water gets its true personification...

I’ve always loved the well known ‘Overheard on a Salt Marsh’ by Harold Monro, a dialogue between a goblin and a water nymph.

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin.  Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
        No.
Give them me, give them me.
                No.
Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.
Goblin, why do you love them so?...



It’s a poem which can be found in Lucy Boston’s lyrical short book ‘Nothing Said', Faber 1971 – in which the heroine Libby finds a green glass bead in a stream – and is one of many fairytale and literary references in Delia Sherman’s witty and delightful ‘The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen’,Viking 2009: the heroine Neef (the Official Changeling of New York’s Central Park) hears of a clue to the whereabouts of the magic mirror she is searching for:

“It’s in Riverside Park… This goblin’s been howling.  Everybody’s heard it that lives on Riverside Drive.  …Howl, howl, howl all night, every night.  Nobody’s got any sleep…”

Then again, rivers can be gods, like 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…



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 barge over to 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 brings himself (on the third attempt) to throw 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.”


It’s as though only once the return of the sword has been accomplished can Arthur set off for Avalon in the barge full of queens and ladies clad in black.  We know that the Celts made many offerings of swords and weaponry to rivers, as these Bronze Age examples show.  What the significance was, we can only guess, but even today people throw coins into fountains and ‘wishing wells’.




In Frederick de la Motte Fouqué’s ‘Undine’ (1807), a knight marries a river spirit, Undine, 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 – and especially with her terrifying uncle Kuhlborn, the mountain torrent  – with fear and disgust.  He repudiates his union with Undine and prepares to marry Bertalda instead.  There is a genuinely spine-tingling climax, as the well in the castle 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.  And what follows isn’t a fanciful poem at all.  It’s a tribute to the volunteers of Clapham Cave Rescue Organisation up in Yorkshire, who spend a good part of every year pulling people, dead or alive, out of rivers and water-filled potholes.


Cave Rescue Workers at Ingleton Falls

As the wet rescuers come stumbling out of
the greedy water, gasping from their dive,
“Christ,” they say, spitting, pushing up their masks,
“it took us all our time to stay alive.”

Somewhere below that creaming soapy surface
the drowned man is rolling, arms flung out:
thrown against rocks, knocked, tumbled and abraded,
kissing the water with his open mouth.

The weary divers huddle on the pathway
now black and slippery with the driving rain.
“We’ll find him further down.”
They know he’s dead.
They lug the gear downstream to try again. 







Poem: 'Cave Rescue Workers at Ingleton Falls' copyright Katherine Langrish 2011
Image:  'Ingleton Falls in Flood' copyright Bob Jenkins
Detail from 'Hylas and the Nymphs' by John Waterhouse

Friday, 20 May 2011

Lost to the Faeries

How much do you know about faeryland?  If you’ve spent as much time as I have reading the (many of them wonderful) modern YA fantasy novels about faeries, you may think you’ve got it pat.  Many of them involve doomed but brilliant young men in thrall to a beautiful, capricious and often cruel faerie queen.  Often it’s the heroine’s role to try and rescue the young man, who would be her boyfriend or lover if only he were free.  Examples are Holly Black’s fantastic ‘Tithe’ and its sequels, and Gillian Philip’s equally fantastic ‘Firebrand’. 

I think this particular theme has its source in the 16th century ballads ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ – especially the former: Janet saves her lover Tam Lin from the worst possible fate by her bravery and single-mindedness.  She goes to Miles Cross at midnight and waits for the Seelie Court to go riding by, seizes Tam Lin from his horse and holds on to him while he is transformed into a number of horrifying shapes.  At last he appears in his own shape, a naked man, and Janet casts her cloak around him and claims him as her own true love, while the furious fairy queen can only threaten and rage.

And the story, in which a woman rescues a man, is popular today partly because we got tired of the stereotype of ‘man rescues woman’.  We want strong women, and in this legend we get double offerings: staunch Janet, and the powerful Queen of Fays.  I was looking for a good picture to illustrate the modern notion of a fairy queen - vengeful, beautiful, dangerous - and came across this electrifying photo of Maria Callas as Medea, taken in Dallas, Texas, 1958.  (And yes, Medea is a witch queen rather than a faery queen, but same difference.)



Naturally we don’t want weak male characters either. Tam Lin in the ballad is far from effeminate – the very first verse warns maidens to keep away from him, and he rapidly gets Janet pregnant – but let’s face it, there’s something sexy about a handsome young man in bondage to a cruel queen, and sexy goes down well in YA fiction… and so we’ve all got used to it: Faeryland is ruled by a dangerous queen.  And the idea of the tithe to hell, the sacrifice of the young man, meshes with the figure of the dying Corn King or Year King made familiar by Sir James Fraser’s ‘The Golden Bough’, and Jessie Weston’s ‘From Ritual to Romance’.  (I wouldn’t expect many teenagers to have heard of either, and apparently modern anthropologists have their doubts that Corn Kings were ever sacrificed in fact – but the idea is there in the back of a lot of fantasy writers’ minds, I'm sure.)

Anyway, all this is something of a preamble: I want to point out that fairyland hasn’t always been this way.  In fact I’m not at all sure that the all-powerful Faery Queen even existed in the popular imagination before the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I was lauded by Edmund Spenser as Gloriana, the Faerie Queen herself.   

Prior to that, Fairyland was ruled by kings.  The Welsh Annwn was ruled by King Arawn.  In the early medieval metrical romance ‘Sir Orfeo’ where Celtic and English fairy lore blends with the Greek myth of Orpheus, the fairy king is clearly Pluto, lord of the dead – but is not named.  In the Irish tale, ‘The Wooing of Etain’, the beautifu Etain is stolen away by a fairy king called Midir.  And in a legend related by the 12th century courtier Walter Map, a British King called Herla is invited to a wedding by an unnamed, goat-footed pigmy king who rules underground halls of unutterable splendour. Also pigmy-sized is the Fairy King in the French fairy romance ‘Huon of Bordeaux’: Auberon, a dwarf with the face of beautiful child – whose name resurfaces in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Oberon.

These early fairy kings rule over lands which are usually underground, and there is a pervading sense of loss that hangs about them.  When Herla visits the pigmy king’s halls, he loses his own time: like Oisin returning from the Land of Youth, he finds himself hundreds of years in the future.  He cannot dismount from his horse without crumbling to dust, and therefore still rides the Welsh border hills at the head of his troop of knights.  In a tale called ‘The Sons of the Dead Woman’, Walter Map tells of a Breton knight who buried his wife and then saw her one evening dancing in a gloomy valley, in a ring of maidens. When the fairy king steals Orfeo’s wife, she is mourned as dead. And yet, tantalisingly, the dead may not be quite dead, but stolen away into some other dimension, some fairy realm of half-existence. This is the fantasy of grief. And of course, time runs differently there: if you visit, you risk losing yourself forever.





This 12th century fairyland, the mysterious underground kingdom, is the fairyland I wrote about in my book ‘Dark Angels’ (The Shadow Hunt’ in the USA).  One of the characters, the troubadour knight Lord Hugo, lost his wife seven years before the book opens:

“The night she died – it was New Year’s Eve, and the candles burned so low and blue, and we heard over and over again the sound of thunder.  That was the Mesnie Furieuse – the Wild Host – riding over the valleys.  Between the old year and the new, between life and death – don’t you think, when the soul is loosening from the body, the elves can steal it?”

But, this month, I’ve been promising you poems.  Here is one I love.  It’s by Rudyard Kipling, from ‘Rewards and Fairies’.  It’s written in a Sussex dialect, and speaks poignantly and tenderly of loss and longing.


BROOKLAND ROAD

I was very well pleased with what I knowed,
I reckoned myself no fool –
Till I met with a maid on the Brookland Road
That turned me back to school.

Low down – low down!
Where the liddle green lanterns shine –
Oh! maids, I’ve done with ’ee all but one,
And she can never be mine!


‘Twas right in the middest of a hot June night,
With thunder duntin’ round,
And I seed her face by the fairy light
That beats from off the ground.

She only smiled and she never spoke,
She smiled and went away;
But when she’d gone my heart was broke,
And my wits was clean astray.


Oh! Stop your ringing and let me be –
Let be, O Brookland bells!
You’ll ring Old Goodman out of the sea,
Before I wed one else!

Old Goodman’s farm is rank sea sand
And was this thousand year;
But it shall turn to rich ploughland
Before I change my dear!

Oh! Fairfield Church is water-bound
From Autumn to the Spring,
But it shall turn to high hill ground
Before my bells do ring!

Oh! leave me walk on the Brookland Road
In the thunder and warm rain –
Oh! leave me look where my love goed,
And p’raps I’ll see her again!

Low down – low down!
Where the liddle green lanterns shine –
Oh! maids, I’ve done with ’ee all but one,
And she can never be mine!











Picture credits: Maria Callas as Medea, 1958, Dallas, Texas
Orpheus and Euridice by Christian Kratzastein-Stub, 1783 - 1816
Orpheus leading Euridice from the Underworld by Camille Corot

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Silver Apples of the Moon, the Golden Apples of the Sun

Here is Hercules, on an Athenian vase.  Eros, standing on his shoulder, offers him one of the golden apples of immortality from the Garden of the Hesperides.  The female figures are the Hesperides themselves - the Daughters of Evening or Western Maidens, designations all apparently tied to their imagined location in the distant west. (Hesperis is the personification of the evening: Hesperus is Venus as evening star.)

But what is it about apples?  Why are they so evocative?  Why was the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – not named in the Bible – assumed to be an apple?  Not only did golden apples of immortality grow in the Garden of the Hesperides, but the goddess Idun was the keeper of golden apples which preserved the youth of the Norse gods. Why was the Apple of Discord – with its inscription To the Fairest - an apple at all, and why were three golden apples so irresistible to Atalanta that she paused to pick them up and lost her race?

The apple as the fruit of immortality, or perhaps equally of death, appears as a symbol in Celtic mythology too.  Heralds from the Land of Youth would bear a silver apple branch, with silver blossom and golden fruit, whose tinkling music lulled the hearers to sleep – perhaps to everlasting sleep…  And Arthur, after his final battle, went to the island of Avalon, the island of apples, to be healed of his mortal wound.  And of course there’s the apple Snow-White’s stepmother gave her, of which one poisoned bite sent her into a death-like sleep.   


Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love... Apples are tokens of love and promises of eternity.  In Yeats' ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, the lovelorn Aengus seeks forever for the beautiful girl from the hazel wood.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.


But such an eternity is probably also the land beyond death. 

Where do apples even come from, why are they so ubiquitous?  Why are there, even today, so many varieties available even in supermarkets, usually the home of homogeneity? I went into our local Sainsburies the other day and counted eleven different named varieties of apple all on sale at once:  Empire, Royal Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Russets, Granny Smiths, Pink Ladies, Jazz, Braeburns and Bramleys.  (In comparison, there were four named varieties of pears, and everything else was generic – bananas, strawberries, oranges, etc.)


But if you look here, you'll find names and pictures of many more, older varieties with names like poems.  Adam's Pearmain.  Foxwhelps. D'Arcy Spice. Marriage-Maker. St Ailred.  Sops-in-Wine.  And Ribston's Pippin, of which Hilaire Belloc wrote:

I said to Heart: "How goes it?"
Heart replied, 
"Right as a Ribston Pippin!"
But it lied.

Apples are related to roses, I’m delighted to tell you.  According to a rather lovely book called ‘Apples: the story of the fruit of temptation’, by Frank Browning (Penguin 1998):

‘In the beginning there were roses.  Small flowers of five white petals opened on low, thorny stems, scattered across the earth in the pastures of the dinosaurs, about eighty million years ago. …These bitter-fruited bushes, among the first flowering plants on earth, emerged as the vast Rosaceae family and from them came most of the fruits human beings eat today: apples, pears, plums, quinces, even peaches, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

‘The apple [paleobotanists believe]… was the unlikely child of an extra-conjugal affair between a primitive plum from the rose family and a wayward flower with white and yellow blossoms of the Spirea family, called meadowsweet.’ 


Isn’t that wonderful? Apples as we know them today developed in Europe and Asia.  The Pharoahs grew them.  The Greeks and Romans grew them. And they keep. You can store apples overwinter, eat them months after you’ve picked them: fresh fruit in hard cold weather when there’s nothing growing outside.  So perhaps you would think of them as life-giving, immortal fruit.  They smell fragrant.  They feel good too: hard-fleshed, smooth, a cool weight in the hand.



The medieval lyric Adam lay y-bounden provocatively celebrates the Fall of Man when Adam ate the forbidden fruit:

And all was for an appil
An appil that he toke
As clerkes finden
Written in her boke
.

…by ending with the mischievously happy thought that, if Adam had not eaten the apple, Our Lady would never have become the Heavenly Queen:

Blessed be the time
That appil take was!
Therefore we maun singen:
Deo gratias.



Here is a poem by John Drinkwater (surely the most poetically-named poet ever) which consciously or unconsciously captures some of those mystical coincidences of apples, eternity, sleep, moonlight, magic and death. 

MOONLIT APPLES

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green.  There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams
And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
On moon-washed apples of wonder.


Picture credits: 
Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides:  Red-Figured hydra made in Athens circa 370-360 BCE.
The Golden Apple Tree and the Nine Peahens:  Arthur Rackham
Adam and Eve:  Lucas Cranach

Friday, 6 May 2011

Now is the month of Maying...



We drove up to Yorkshire last weekend, partly to take my daughter back to university, partly to visit old friends in the Dales.  My mother came along with us, and was exclaiming all the way up the M1 about the masses of hawthorn blossoming everywhere.  I love hawthorn – its curds-and-cream, compact, sweet-scented flowers are like ornate jewellery when you get up close.  The blackthorn which comes out earlier in the year is whiter, more delicate and elfin, more poetic.  But hawthorn is as sturdy and lavish and sure of itself as a Tudor rose. 

When I was writing ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’, if you are in the US), which is set in the 12th century, I wanted to get in some of that feeling for spring, that explosion of joyful delight in the beginning of the warm months and the escape from the dearth and pain of winter, which is so obvious in medieval lyrics like ‘Lenten is come with love to town’, or  ‘Bitwene Merch and Averil/when spray beginneth to spring’, or simply ‘Sumer is i-cumen in’.  If you know you might easily not survive winter, the phrase glad to be alive means so much more…

Since one of the main characters in the book, Hugo, is a troubadour knight (with a tragic past) I tried my hand at some faux-medieval verse for him.  First of all, though, I looked at some genuine troubadour songs (written, naturally, in early French).  Here is one – the poet is anonymous, which is by no means always the case – with my own somewhat approximate translation beneath each verse: 

Voulez vous que je vous chante
Un son d’amours avenant?
Vilain nel fist mie,
Ainz le fist un chevalier
Sous l’ombre d’un olivier
Entre les bras s’amie.


Would you like me to sing you
A fine song of love?
By no peasant was it made:
But a gentle knight who lay
With his true love in his arms
In an olive tree’s shade.

Chemisete avoit de lin
Et blanc peliçon hermin
Et bliaut de soie
Chauces ot de jaglolai
Et solers de flours de mai
Estroitement chauçade


Her chemise was of linen
And her white pelisse of ermine
Of silk was her dress.
Her stockings were of iris leaves
And her slippers of mayflowers
Her feet to caress.

Ceinturete avoit de feuille
Que verdist quant li tens meuille,
D’or est boutonade
L’aumosniere estoit d’amour
Li pendant furent de flours
Par amours fu donade.


Her belt was of leaves
Which grow green when it rains,
Her buttons of gold so fine.
Her purse was a gift of love,
And it hung from flowery chains
As it were a lovers’ shrine.

Et chevauchoit une mule
D’argent ert la ferruere
La sele ert dorade;
Sus la croupe par derriers
Avoit plante trois rosiers
Pour faire li ombrage.


And she rode on a mule
The saddle was of gold,
All silver were its shoes:
Behind her on the crupper
To provide her with shade
Three rose bushes grew.

Si s’en va aval la pree
Chevaliers l’ont encontree
Beau l’on saluade:
“Belle, dont estes vous nee?”
“De France sui la louee,
De plus haut parage.”


As she passed through the fields
She met gentle knights
Who demanded courteously:
“Fair one, where were you born?”
“From France am I come,
And of high family.

“Li rossignol est mon pere
Qui chant sor la ramee
El plus haut boscage.
La seraine est mon mere
Qui chante en la mer sale
Li plus haut rivage.”


“The nightingale is my father
Who sings from the branches
Of the forest’s highest tree.
The mermaid is my mother
Who sings her sweet chant
On the banks of the salt sea.”

“Belle, bon fussiez vous nee!
Bien estes emparentee
Et de haut parage.
Pleüst á Dieu nostre pere
Que vous ne fussiez donee
A femme esposade.”


“Fair one, well were you born!
Well fathered, well mothered,
And of high family.
If God would only grant
That you might be given
In marriage to me!”


You can hear it sung here:


I just love that – I love the almost physical delight in the natural world, the celebration of springtime, and of the lady as a kind of fairy queen both of whose parents are the sweetest possible singers: the nightingale, and the ‘sirene’ or mermaid. 

Here is the song I made for Hugo, whose wife is dead:

When all the spring is breaking and blossoming
And the hedge is white with blossom like a breaking wave,
That’s when my heart is bursting with love-longing
For the girl who pierced it, for that sweet wound she gave.

And I hear the nightingale singing in the forest,
Singing for love in the forest, ‘Come to me, I am alone –’
Better to suffer love’s pain for a single kiss
Than live for a hundred years with a heart of stone.


And just to show that the subject of spring, hawthorn blossoms, and heartache isn’t restricted to the Middle Ages, here’s another lovely poem, from Edward Marsh’s anthology ‘Georgian Poetry 1916-1917’ : it’s by John Drinkwater, and it’s called ‘Birthright’.


Lord Rameses of Egypt sighed
Because a summer evening passed;
And little Ariadne cried
That summer fancy fell at last
To dust; and young Verona died
When beauty’s hour was overcast.

Theirs was the bitterness we know
Because the clouds of hawthorn keep
So short a state, and kisses go
To tombs unfathomably deep,
While Rameses and Romeo
And little Ariadne sleep.






Picture credits: Hawthorn copyright http://www.strickley.co.uk/flowers.htm