Friday, 27 August 2010

Witches (3): Witch Queens and Crones

The witches from children’s fiction who appeared in my last post were all wicked. But their authors wrote with humour, and a relish for the sheer range of social possibilities open to a character possessing magical powers and zero scruples. Miss Smith, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer and Madam Mim are most unlovable, yet we can thoroughly enjoy their subversive wickedness (in complete assurance that all will be well in the end). Their appeal is the evergreen appeal of seeing someone behave appallingly badly in a way you’ve always secretly longed to do yourself, but have never had the nerve.

This time though, I’m thinking about some much darker witches, whose authors take them – and expect us to take them – very seriously.  Let me say from the outset that all the examples in this post are from books which I've been reading and rereading for years, and deeply admire. These witches are quite diverse, but two things are constant: they are all bad characters, and we are not expected to feel any secret sympathy for them.

And you can forget about the old crone with nutcracker nose and chin, wearing a pointed hat and riding on a broomstick. Instead, we meet a range of variants on the ‘witch queen’ theme, plus a scatter of adherents to black magic including a scholar, a postmistress and a little girl.

We should begin with the witch queen, I think (probably best not to relegate her). This is a stereotype as old as the hills, coming down to us from many an ancient goddess, Ishtar, Astarte, Diana Queen of the Night, whose worship was suppressed. This picture of Medea by the Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Sandys suggests the type. Patriarchal monotheism doesn’t go in for powerful females. They’re difficult to keep out, as the cult of the Madonna shows – but the Madonna personifies male-approved feminine qualities of tenderness, mercy, beauty and maternal love. Patriarchal systems save the tougher qualities of justice, wrath, vengeance etc, for the male deity. The Madonna never said ‘Vengeance is mine’. But Diana had Acteon torn to pieces by his own hounds.

Descended from disapproved goddesses, it’s usual for fictional witch queens to be beautiful, sexual women of great power, selfishness and cruelty. Check out T.H. White’s Morgause, Queen of Orkney, busy – on the first occasion we meet her – boiling a cat alive, and all for nothing: nearing the end of the spell, Morgause can’t be bothered to continue. She’s the mother from hell. Adored by her sons, she alternately neglects, torments and smothers them. She uses everyone she meets and is the ruin of most of them. The title of the book in which she appears, "The Queen of Air and Darkness", comes from a well known poem by  A.E. Housman, worth quoting in full:

Her strong enchantments failing,
Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
And the knife at her neck

The Queen of air and darkness
Begins to shrill and cry,
'O young man, O my slayer.
Tomorrow you shall die.'

O Queen of air and darkness,
I think 'tis truth you say,
And I shall die tomorrow,
But you shall die today.

It's an extraordinary conjuration of fear and violence, and antagonism not only between the sexes but possibly between the generations.  There is no sympathy, no possibility of mercy towards this Queen.  She is to be destroyed as one might kill a snake.

T.H. White was a man tormented by his own sexuality and suppressed sado-masochistic tendencies. He had a terrible relationship with his own mother, and once wrote to his friend David Garnett (asking him to call on her), “She is a witch, so look out, if you go.” In Elisabeth Brewer’s critical work, ‘T.H. White’s The Once and Future King’, 1993, White is quoted as describing Morgause thus:

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 and power (and racism): White is clearly very frightened of this woman, who both fascinates and repels him. He didn’t find his Morgause in Malory. Malory’s Queen Morgawse isn’t even an enchantress like her half-sister Morgan Le Fay. ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ presents her as a great lady whose sins are adulterous rather than sorcerous. No: White created his Morgause out of his own fears and loathings.

Whether or not ‘The Once and Future King’ is really a book for children – I first read it as a young teen – the Narnia books certainly are, and contain two excellent examples of the Witch Queen: Jadis of ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, who reappears as the White Witch in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’; and the Green Witch of ‘The Silver Chair’, who shares many characteristics with fairy queens of the Unseelie Court. (But let’s stick to witches for now.) Jadis is proud, cruel, ruthless and ambitious, and as the White Witch and usurper of Narnia, actually sacrifices Aslan the Lion. She is said to descend from Lilith and – in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ – is seen stealing the apples of Life in a scene echoing the transgression of Eve. The comedy of the chapter in which she riots through London, balancing on top of a hansom cab as if it were a chariot, does suggest a certain wicked delight on the part of the author – mostly perhaps because of slimy Uncle Andrew’s complete discomfiture. Jadis has style and magnificence. But we are not to approve of her. The Green Lady, by contrast, is softly spoken, charming, ‘feminine’ – and sly, dangerous and deceitful. Women, Lewis clearly feels, should be neither domineering nor manipulative, but he darkly suspects they may be both…

Celtic legends have provided the attributes of many a witch-queen of modern times. The foremost is Alan Garner’s ‘the Morrigan’, a name borrowed from Irish legend and originally probably that of a war goddess. The name is variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen. At any rate, in Garner’s two books ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, she appears as the death or crone aspect of the triple Moon Goddess: the roles of maiden and mother being taken respectively by the young heroine Susan, and the Lady of the Lake Angharad Goldenhand. Dividing up the feminine in this way allows the author to approve maiden and mother (on the time-honoured Madonna pattern) while disapproving the crone. The Morrigan isn’t all that old, but she seems so to Susan, and is physically unattractive:

She looked about forty-five years old, was powerfully built (“fat” was the word Susan used to describe her), and her head rested firmly upon her shoulders without appearing to have much of a neck at all. Two deep lines ran from wither side of her nose to the corners of her wide, thin-lipped mouth, and her eyes were rather too small for her broad head. Strangely enough her legs were long and spindly, so that in outline she resembled a well-fed sparrow, but again that was Susan’s description… Her eyes rolled upwards and the lids came down till only an unpleasant white line showed; and then she began to whisper to herself.

('But again that was Susan's description' - this is oddly arch, for Garner.  It's as if he's disassociating himself from Susan's opinion:  the subtext is that you might not want to believe her - but why?  Because Susan might be jealous?  Because you can't ever wholly trust what one female says about another?)

Anyway.  Frightening, powerful, ruthless, the Morrigan wastes no time in trying to conjure the children into her car so that she can take the ‘Bridestone’ from Susan. Later, in the second book, ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, the Morrigan is revealed in her true strength. In a chapter which still makes my spine prickle after years of re-reading, Susan faces the Morrigan outside the ruined house which is only ‘there’ in the moonlight:

Now Susan felt the true weight of her danger, when she looked into eyes that were as luminous as an owl’s with blackness swirling in their depths. The moon charged the Morrigan with such power that when she lifted her hand even the voice of the stream died, and the air was sweet with fear.

Susan and the Morrigan vie with one another, black and silver lances of power jetting from their mirror-opposite bracelets, and when at last Susan wins by blowing the horn of Angharad Goldenhand, it’s an all-female victory by which the world is unsettlingly changed: Susan’s brother Colin hears a sound ‘so beautiful he never found rest again’, and ‘the Old Magic was free for ever, and the moon was new.’ Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Garner’s answer appears to be that it’s an unavoidable natural force, and each individual will have to come to his or her own terms with it.

Powerful, magical, beautiful as the books are, Garner is forced into an awkward distinction between the Black Magic supposedly practised by the Morrigan, and the Old Magic of the elemental Wild Hunt and the moon maidens Susan and Angharad. It seems a little illogical to brand the Old Moon as evil while the New and Full Moons are good… I’m not sure quite where the Morrigan’s evil really resides, and I think LeGuin would say that we need to accept the darkness as well as the light. But the books are brilliant, and the Morrigan is another unforgettable witch-queen.

Moving on from the Celtic goddesses, we come to some witches of more mundane appearance. First, Emma Cobley of Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘Linnets and Valerians’. Goudge was a spiritual, religious writer: also an intelligent, questioning one, and there are some moving passages in her adult books about the trials of mental illness. She was conscious of goodness as a great force, and of evil as a force almost as strong. In this book, Emma Cobley is an elderly postmistress of humble background; as a young, vivid girl she was in love with Hugo Valerian, the squire; and when he married the doctor’s daughter Alicia, in jealous hatred she cast spells on him and his wife and child. Spells for ‘binding the tongue’, for causing loss of memory, for ‘a coolness to come between a man and a woman’: little images carved of mandrake root with pins piercing the tongue or heart. Emma keeps the village shop, full of tempting sweets like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel, and owns a black cat which can change size. The wickedness in the book is an expression of the capacity of the human soul to cling to destructive passions.

As is the acquisitiveness of the next witch: Dr Melanie D. Powers, of Lucy Boston’s ‘An Enemy at Green Knowe’. (For those who don’t know the Green Knowe series, it’s a set of gentle but eerie ghost stories set in Lucy Boston’s own wonderful 11th century manor house, and I can’t praise it too highly.) The grandson of the house, Tolly, and his friend Ping, pit themselves against his grandmother’s new neighbour, a prying, malicious woman, a Cambridge don and scholar of the occult, who has – we slowly realise – struck a Faustian bargain with the devil. She has got wind of an ancient occult manuscript to be found in the manor house, and will stop at nothing to get hold of it. Miss Powers (who has an unaccountable dislike of passing in front of a mirror) invites herself to tea at the manor, and makes ultra-sweet conversation with such ominous lines as:

“One can sense that yours is a very happy family. Happy families are not so frequent as people make out. And unfortunately they are easily broken up. Very easily.”

She refuses to take a small cake:

“Grown-ups do better without extra luxuries like that. It is enough for me to look at them.”

In fact, it seemed to Tolly that she could not take her eyes off them… About half an hour later when tea was over… Mrs Oldknowe offered to lead the way upstairs to see the rest of the house. Miss Powers was standing with her back to the table, her hands clasped behind her, lingering to look at the picture over the fireplace, when Tolly… saw one of the little French cakes move, jerkily, as if a mouse were pulling it. Then it slid over the edge of the plate… and into the twiddling fingers held ready for it behind Miss Powers’ back.

And this tells us everything we need to know about Miss Powers. Petty, deceitful, covetous, full of malice, she is a truly evil person. The damage she causes is real: the boys’ beloved grandmother, Mrs Oldknowe, is nearly defeated by her; and the triumph of good over evil – the grand climax when, in the midst of a total eclipse of the sun, her demon is finally driven out of her – is only precariously achieved.

Pettiness and selfish ambition are qualities lavishly displayed by Gwendolen Chant, of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘Charmed Life’. Wynne Jones writes even-handedly about good and evil witches, warlocks and wizards, but Gwendolen is one of the worst of the bunch. What Wynne Jones despises above all is exploitation of others and betrayal of trust. Gwendolen, a pretty girl with blue eyes and golden hair, exploits and betrays her younger brother Cat to the extent of actually causing his death on several occasions – since Cat, as she knows and he doesn’t, is a nine-lifed enchanter. Gwendolen uses his extra lives to enhance her own powers of witchcraft. Like some of the witches I wrote about last week, Gwendolen has no problem with the sort of anti-social behaviour which can be entertaining to behold – as Cat says, ‘I quite liked some of the things she did’ – but we are left in no doubt that she has gone too far when she conjures up what we later discover to be the apparitions of Cat’s lost lives:

The first was like a baby that was too small to walk – except that it was walking, with its big head wobbling. The next was a cripple, so twisted and cramped upon itself that it could barely hobble. The third was… pitiful, wrinkled and draggled. The last had its white skin barred with blue stripes. All were weak and white and horrible.

So there’s the range of seriously presented evil witches in children’s fiction, from glamorous witch queens to extremely nasty little girls. The witch queens I could call to mind all happen to have been created by men; the women writers have created more domestic and less obviously dramatic characters. I leave you to decide what the different examples say, individually, about the authors’ attitudes to women. Next post will be about the sympathetic presentation of witches – children’s books where witches are given an altogether more positive aspect.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Witches (2) Witches in Children's Literature

Macbeth:  How now, you secret, black and midnight hags?  What is’t you do?
Witches: A deed without a name.

“Witch” is not a neutral word. You can have good wizards or bad wizards, it seems, and when you encounter a fictional wizard you cannot be certain what leanings he may have.  (Gandalf is good, Saruman is bad.) But the default option for a fictional witch is that she will be wicked, unless the qualifying adjective ‘white’ is used. The gender-based difference here is one of the things we were talking about last week. 

I’d actually intended most of last week’s post was to be about children’s fiction, but having begun with the witch of Endor, I ended up following a train of thought that took me off exploring the origins of our modern western notions of witches.  My own thoughts unsurprisingly turned out to be very incomplete, and I’m very grateful to all of you who commented and contributed to what turned into a fascinating discussion.  I learned a lot.

In one comment, Leslie Wilson pointed out that African witches can be men. I wonder, though, if there are translation issues here, as there were for the ‘witch’ of Endor.  Who chose ‘witch’ as the correct translation for whatever the African words for these people are?  Why did they pick ‘witch’ rather than ‘sorcerer’ or ‘shaman’?  The name you give to something affects or reflects the way you think about it.  I notice that we in the west tend to refer to African ‘tribes’, which sounds primitive.  When we refer to ourselves we speak of nations – or, on a more familial level, clans.  Was ‘witch-doctor’ a term used in disparagement?  Someone reading this may know.

But in any case, I still think the ‘wicked’ aspect of the witch is linked to male fear of female power.  Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books turned into an almost philosophical exploration of this thought. In the first book, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, wonderful and complex though it is, the usual stereotypes apply, as expressed in a couple of Gontish proverbs: Weak as women’s magic or  wicked as women’s magic.  ‘Good’ women in the book are unlearned and domestic.  The others are either ignorant crones with a few half-understood cantrips and charms, or else powerful, beautiful, ambitious and ruthless.  Reading the Earthsea books through in sequence is to follow LeGuin’s impressive journey from acceptance of this stereotype, to questioning of it, to utter rejection. 

In popular usage, even in this day and age, calling a woman a ‘witch’ is never complimentary – but neither is it entirely without positive implications.  A ‘witch’ is a woman who may be perceived as (illicitly) powerful, throwing her weight about, inspiring fear or envy. (As Cherie Blair and Hilary Clinton were perceived.)  A ‘witch’ is a woman who cannot be ignored.

And in this spirit, a spirit of subversive enjoyment, I think many of the witches of children’s fiction have been conceived.  I’m going to start off with a favourite from my own childhood, out of print now for many years: Beverley Nichols’ fantasy series   for children beginning with ‘The Tree That Sat Down’.  Here we meet the unforgettable Miss Smith.  She looks like a Bright Young Thing, ‘as pretty as a pin-up girl’; she is actually three hundred and eighty-five years old; her familiars are three quite disgusting toads whom she keeps in the refrigerator; she puffs green smoke from her nostrils in moments of stress; she flies a Hoover instead of a broomstick, and she takes an energetic delight in wickedness with which the author clearly had enormous fun.  As Miss Smith walks through the wood (on her way to make trouble for little Judy and her grandmother who keep a shop in the Willow Tree),

… all the evil things in the dark corners knew that she was passing… The snakes felt the poison tingling in their tails and made vows to sting something as soon as possible.  The ragged toadstools oozed with more of their deadly slime… In many dark caves, wicked old spiders, who had long given up hope of catching a fly, began to weave again with tattered pieces of web, muttering to themselves as they mended the knots…

Miss Smith’s fetching exterior allows her to inveigle her way into all sorts of places.  For example, she deals with the evil Sir Percy Pike who preys upon widows and orphans by lending money at extortionate rates.  Miss Smith is ‘also very keen on widows and orphans’, and – driven by professional jealousy – presents herself to Sir Percy in the guise of a beautiful widow, bedizened with diamond rings.

At the sight of these rings Sir Percy began to dribble so hard that he had to take out a handkerchief and hold it over his chin. … No sooner had he shut the door, than she spat in his face, hit him sharply on the chin with the diamond rings, knelt on his chest, and proceeded to tell him exactly what she thought of him. 

You can’t help cheering – even though Miss Smith is just as bad herself.  She comes into all Beverley Nichols’ children’s books: the others are ‘The Stream that Stood Still’, ‘The Mountain of Magic’ and ‘The Wickedest Witch in the World’.  Though she is of course foiled on every occasion, hers is the energy that drives the narrative. 

Next on my list is the witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer in John Masefield’s ‘The Midnight Folk’ (Heinemann, 1927) and – though appearing to a lesser extent – in the sequel, ‘The Box of Delights’.  Little Kay Harker is a lonely, imaginative child: the book is peopled with his imaginary friends, toys, pet cats and ancestors who may or may not be ‘really there’.  His life is ruled by the strict and over-fussy governess Miss Pouncer:

“Don’t answer me back, sir,” she said.  “You’re a very naughty, disobedient little boy, and I have a very good mind not to let you have an egg.  I wouldn’t let you have an egg, only I had to stop your supper last night.  Take off one of those slipper and let me feel it.  Come here.”
Kay went up rather gingerly, having been caught in this way more than once.  He took off one slipper and tended it for inspection.
“Just as I thought,” she said.  “The damp has come right through the lining, and that’s the way your stockings get worn out.”  In a very pouncing way she spanked at his knuckles with the slipper…

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that at night when the Midnight Folk reign in the old house, Miss Pouncer is cast in the role of the chief witch:

There were seven old witches in tall black hats and long scarlet cloaks sitting round the table at a very good supper.  They were very piggy in their eating (picking the bones with their fingers, etc) and they had almost finished the Marsala.  The old witch who sat at the top of the table…had a hooky nose and very bright eyes.
            “Dear Pouncer is going to sing to us,” another witch said.

And Pouncer does, to great effect:

“When the midnight strikes in the belfry dark
And the white goose quakes at the fox’s bark,
We saddle the horse that is hayless, oatless,
Hoofless and pranceless, kickless and coatless,
We canter off for a midnight prowl…”
            All the witches put their heads back to sing the chorus:
“Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl.”

No wonder Nibbins, Kay’s cat, exclaims, “I can’t resist this song.  I never could.” Wicked the witches may be, but once again the author relishes their energy, their subversive delight. 

Another small boy in the clutches of a powerful female is the Wart in the hands of Madam Mim, in T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone”.  This passage was cut from “The Once and Future King” – perhaps White thought it was too burlesque for the soberer, more epic quality of the longer work?  (The witch of “The Once and Future King” is of course the Queen of Air and Darkness, the terrifying Queen of Orkney.)  Madam Mim is a humbler creation, but probably all too familiar to any little boy whose mother or nurse undressed him for an unwanted bath.  Madam Mim forcibly undresses The Wart with an eye to popping him in the pot and cooking him, singing a chicken-plucking song as she does so:

“Pluck the feathers with the skin
Not against the grain-oh.
Pluck the small ones out from in,
The great with might and main-oh.
Even if he wriggles, never mind his squiggles,
For mercifully little boys are quite immune to pain-oh.”

The Scots writer Nicholas Stuart Grey created another memorable witch in ‘Mother Gothel’, the desperately evil witch in “The Stone Cage” (Dobson 1963), his retelling of the fairytale Rapunzel.  Here, the fun and energy of the story belongs to the narrator, Mother Gothel’s cat Tomlyn – whose cynical and laconic style belies the fact that his heart is in the right place.  The witch herself is powerful, terrifying, slovenly, sluttish, but ultimately pathetic and redeemable. 

More wicked witches next week – this time, some of the darker and more serious treatments.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Witches (1) A word about witches

This is going to be the first in a couple of posts about witches. In the next one I’m going to be talking specifically about witches in children’s fiction, but first some thoughts about witches in general.

The earliest witch I can think of is the Witch of Endor in the Bible.  Though she’s never actually called a witch, the inference appears to be that if she has a familiar spirit and can communicate with dead, that’s what she must be. Nowadays she might be called a medium. (The column-header gloss of my 1810 Bible says quite definitely: ‘Saul confulteth a witch’) In spite of having ‘banished from the land all who trafficked with ghosts and spirits,' King Saul visits her secretly, in disguise and asks her to call up the spirit of Samuel. “Tell me my fortunes by consulting the dead,” he demands. The woman reluctantly obliges. It’s not clear from the Bible account that Saul ever sees Samuel at all: the woman does, and describes him: “An old man cometh up, and he is covered with a mantle.” Of course it ends in disaster for Saul, since the displeased Samuel prophesies his death. (1 Samuel 28).

It’s a complex story which may be read as critical of Saul’s hypocrisy in first banning consultations with the dead and then employing them himself. On the other hand, Saul is desperate. “I am in great trouble; the Philistines are pressing me and God has turned away; he no longer answers me through prophets or through dreams, and I have summoned you to tell me what I should do.” This is a clearly a story from a time of great religious conflict when the monotheistic worship of Jehovah was battling it out against the polytheistic religions of the area. Samuel tells Saul that one reason the Lord “has torn the kingdom from your hand and given it… to David”, is that Saul has “not obeyed the Lord, or executed his judgement against the Amalekites”. (Read: not massacred them.)  It’s a tough row to hoe, being king of Israel. But I don’t find the Bible account especially critical of the woman. Saul puts her in an awkward spot and she does what she’s asked, that’s all.

So why, in popular culture, are witches nearly always women? Or to put it another way round, why has women’s wisdom over the past few millennia so often been distrusted as likely to be ungodly in origin – and therefore evil? In one sense it’s obvious. Polytheisms are usually tolerant of rival beliefs, not seeing them as rivals. A monotheistic religion, if it is to remain monotheistic, cannot tolerate diversity of opinion.  This is also why so many monotheistic religions devolve into schisms and splinter groups, and persecute one another. The Christian martyrs suffered because of a head-on collision between a system that asked for recognition of all other gods, including the reigning Emperor, and a system that demanded recognition of none but One.

Monotheisms must control their adherents by strict codes of belief and behaviour. (Saul ought to have destroyed those Amalekites.) These codes are usually administrated by men. Controllers are always jumpy about the possibility of mutiny among the controlled. So a woman is approved as long as she adheres to the codes and the rules. If she steps outside those bounds, for example by living alone with no man to ‘govern’ her, or by performing cures or charms independently of the church’s rules, these will be disapproved. Her knowledge and supposed powers, not being monitored and channelled by the officials of God, must – the logic proceeds – come from the Other Place. Many a widowed or single woman, struggling to support herself in one of the few practical ways available to her in a man’s world, must have crossed this boundary from sheer necessity as much as from choice.

A couple of years ago, some children came to visit us whose parents are delightful born-again Christians. I suggested putting on a Disney video to keep them entertained, and their mother hesitated. Which one did I have in mind? Knowing that anything involving a witch would be disallowed, I did a rapid mental check – not ‘The Little Mermaid’, then, which has the Sea Witch – not ‘Snow White’ –

“The Sword in the Stone?”

She shook her head. “There’s a wizard in it.”

“But – the wizard’s Merlin – he’s a good wizard!”

“But his powers don’t come from Christ,” she said gently.

Well, the children watched “The Incredibles” instead, and I refrained from pointing out that the ‘Incredible’ powers enabling the characters to run like the wind, extend rubbery arms down entire blocks, become invisible, or whatever it is, might just as well be termed magic. It’s all in the name, it seems.

I often wonder how a religion whose founder Christ once said ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’, and who told the parable of the Good Samaritan with the specific message that goodness can come in the shape of the person you are most prejudiced against, has so much trouble with the Harry Potter books. Surely what’s important is to recognise goodness in whatever shape it comes, even if it happens to be wearing a pointed black hat at the time?

Illustration shows William Blake's 'The Witch of Endor' - and do check out this wonderful collection of other witch-related art: Witches and Apparitions at the National Gallery

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Where beth they beforen us weren?

This was something that happened in our village last year, and I talked about it on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure.  (Funnily enough, only a few days later a really huge Anglo Saxon treasure was discovered up in the Midlands.  This was not it.) I make no apology for reposting here what I said then, because no rewritten account could give the sense of immediacy and excitement we felt.  It seems like time for an update, though, as if you click on the link at the bottom of this post you'll find pictures of the excavation, and the amazing Anglo Saxon brooch that was found.  Plus some of the early suppositions (about the sex of the skeleton, for instance) turned out to be wrong. 

I took a brisk walk out this morning to the Anglo-Saxon grave.

It was only discovered yesterday. We were out for an afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, taking a lane that runs out of the village towards the Downs in the distance, when we realised the wide, flat fields were full of widely separated, slowly walking figures (some women, but mostly men) with bowed heads, swinging long metal detectors like oddly shaped proboscises. Every so often one would stop and dig a little hole, pick something up, then wander on. The big farm was running a metal detectors’ rally, proceeds of the camping fees to cancer research.

We started talking to some of the men. One pulled out a wallet and showed us a medieval silver penny. Another had more pennies, Roman and medieval: and belt buckles: and buttons. ‘And over there,’ they all said, pointing towards the furthest field behind a belt of trees – ‘over there, that’s where they’ve found an Anglo Saxon grave!’

Everyone was alight with it. A huge gold brooch had been found, together with some bones. The police had been called immediately and had thrown a cordon around the site. The archeologists were already examining the brooch, which was over in the marquee beside the farm. We headed back to look for ourselves, on the way chatting to a group of three men who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at a Saxon chieftain’s burial. Big lads, with acres of tattoos. One had long black hair, another a shaved head. One wore an enormous plaited gold ring on his thick forefinger.

‘Any luck?’ we asked. They were friendly, shook their heads: ‘Nah. Only rubbish today. Here’s what we got, on this table over here, take a look if you like.’

‘If you want some, have some,’ added the black-haired man. ‘It’s rubbish. It’s all going in the bin otherwise. But have you heard about the gold brooch?’

On the table was a clutter of stuff. Bits of pottery, coins, harness buckles, buttons, crumpled tin and lead. ‘Take it! Take it all!’ exclaimed the black-haired man. He shovelled it all into a plastic container. It was heavy.

‘When you start this game,’ explained the man with the gold ring, ‘you’re really excited about a coin or two, but then you get ambitious. Tell them about that ring you found.’

‘18th century, with seven diamonds,’ said the man with the black hair.

‘We’ve all found rings, one time or another,’ said Gold Ring Man. He laughed. ‘Once you start this game, you get addicted.’

We went on down to the tent. The brooch was there on display. It was the size of a large jam-pot lid, with a white coral boss surrounded by an inlay of flat, square-cut, dark red garnets. Around that, a broad band of bright yellow gold, with four set garnets standing out from it. Then more coral. And around that, a ring of intricate silver filigree, now black and dirty. People pored over it, photographed it, stared at it with awe, excitement, and reverence.

‘There’ll be another one,’ the archaeologist was saying. ‘They always come in pairs.’ And he had a look at the ‘rubbish’ the big guys had let us take away. It included four Roman coins, a bit of a medieval ring brooch, some Roman pottery, a lead musket ball the size of a marble - cold and heavy in the hand - and an 18th century thimble. Just a tiny fraction of what still lies under the dusty ploughlands.

So this morning, as I was saying, I walked out to see the site of the grave. Our village is probably Anglo Saxon in origin. The site was about two miles out from the farm, along a flat and dusty track between the fields, tucked away behind a strip of woodland, with a view of the Downs three miles away. It was marked out with striped tape, like a crime scene, and guarded by police vehicles. One of the archeologists gave me a lift the last quarter mile.

‘We think it’s a high status chieftain,’ she said. ‘Seventh century.  We’ve found bones. We think it’ll be a major excavation.’

I stood there, in the sunshine and the light wind, looking at the place where, thirteen centuries ago, some Saxon warrior was laid to rest, and I had a lump in my throat.

Where beth they beforen us weren,
Houndes ladden and hawkes beren,
And hadden feld and wood?

I keep being told by my editor that there’s no market for historical children’s fiction; that it’s difficult to sell. Well, all I can say is, most of the people I met and talked to out on the fields yesterday were enthralled not merely by the idea of treasure hunting, but by the romance of the past. And well they might be, because this is England and the past is all around us. And surely children feel it too?

Where, asks the anonymous Middle English poet, are they who were here before us, who once led their hounds and carried their hawks and owned both field and wood?

Still here, it seems, is the answer.
They’re still here. 

And here is the link to see more pictures of the brooch, the burial, and the story of the excavation:  Saxon Grave

Thursday, 5 August 2010

"Black Beauty meets Gladiator"

As a little break from more formal posts, I have two things to tell you.  The first is odd: I woke up this morning dreaming that the London Times leader was all about the NEXT BIG THING in children's publishing: a book called 'Willoughby and the Time Watch', and a comic strip book about Tony Blair and the Iraq war; presumably highly metaphorical since the illustration showed a large purple dragon chewing ivy off a ruined turret.  Make what you can of that. 

Unless anyone out there is actually writing 'Willoughby and the Time Watch'?  In which case - my friend, the omens are good!

The second thing I want to tell you is that the British fantasy writer Katherine Roberts is beginning a series of blog posts about the genesis and writing process of her (extremely good) book 'I Am The Great Horse' - the story of Alexander the Great seen through the eyes of his famous horse Bucephalus.  (She jotted the idea down in her notebook as 'Black Beauty meets Gladiator'!)  Katherine is not only an excellent writer and meticulous reseacher, but has a special affinity with horses as she used to exercise racing horses - professionally.  The series looks set to be a really intriguing behind-the-scenes peek at how a writer works.   Do go and visit her at Reclusive Muse

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Childhood writing

I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. My mother wrote; my grandmother wrote: it always seemed an occupation as natural as breathing. Back in my early schooldays, the emphasis was always on reading and writing. (Arithmetic fell on stony ground.) Fairytales, poems and Bible stories went in, and poems, descriptions and stories flowed out.

 I still have an exercise book from when I was about eight. Remember those lined exercise books, with their supple paper covers in dusty blues, maroons or greys, two staples in the spine? The teachers cut them in half to make two smaller books with one staple each. On each page we wrote what were termed stories, but really they were only a couple of lines long:

I have a little DOG who looks like a big baby her name is Lassie and I play with her and at night wen the gas fire is lit she lies down flat on the floor. 

The moon is rising in the sky wen I look out of the window. It looks just like a silver ball floting jently in the sky

“Floating gently like a silver ball…” I was the same writer then that I am now.

When I was nine I began writing poetry. I’d heard that Shakespeare was the greatest English poet, but he’d died hundreds of years ago. Nobody had written better poetry since then? Look out world, I thought, here I come! I’d need to practise, of course, I knew that: but I reckoned that by the time I was grown up, I would probably be at least as good as Shakespeare. I spent my time reading, writing, and riding ponies. My schoolfriends admired my stories, especially if they were about horses – or later, about ethereal love affairs between lords and ladies ‘as beauteous as the stars’. I was rubbish at all subjects except English and Art, but in those I was sure I was good. Have at look at this epic treatment of thunder: Thor and all...

As you can see, I didn't have the natural lyricism that many child poets have. I think I was already struggling to be 'literary'.  Perhaps I read too much (lots of 19th century poetry from The Children's Encyclopaedia: I remember particularly admiring Byron's heavily overdone 'Mazeppa's Ride').

In order to become the new Shakespeare, of course, I would have to write a play or two. My verse drama career kicked off (and ended) with an adaptation – don’t laugh too hard – of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ in pantomime couplets. I took this very seriously. My group of friends was going to act it out in the apple loft of our barn (we lived in the country); and we spent ages making costumes out of curtains. The script has long since vanished, but I can still remember two lines from the play. Frodo and Sam are struggling across Mordor, and Frodo pauses to exclaim:

“The Dark Tower seems – ah! – just as far away.
We’ll reach it not tomorrow, ne’er mind today!”

Pretty good, huh? See that neat poetical inversion, and the apostrophe? I can’t remember now if the play was ever put on - probably not; I think our parents weren't that supportive - but we got some fun out of the rehearsals. And meantime I was writing a book of short stories about magic. It was springtime: I used to sit outside scribbling, and the sunshine and the celandines somehow found their way into the stories.

“Once there was a golden land, full-filled with mirth and joy
And in that land a lady lived, more beauteous than the stars,
And she took joy in simple things
Like butterflies with coloured wings
And little flowers, and green green grass,
And crickets’ chirp, and birdsong…”

I'm not sure I've ever been happier.  Oh, it’s bad, I know it’s bad! But I didn’t know that then. All I knew then was that I was writing my absolute best: and to this day I don’t know a better feeling.

Soon after that I began a series of discoveries. I discovered Alan Garner, and started writing a long story based on ‘Celtic’ mythology. I discovered Rupert Brooke, and threw myself into sonnets beginning with lines like: Dream-like on the broad river drifting slow… I discovered Mary Renault and tried my hand at historical fiction. And, somewhere along the line, I discovered how to be self-critical…and the gates of the Garden of Eden shut behind me.