Friday 27 May 2011

On 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.
Give them me, give them me.
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


Many a wonderful YA fantasy of the last decade tells of doomed but brilliant young men in thrall to a beautiful, capricious and often cruel faerie queen. Often it’s the heroine’s role to attempt the rescue of 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’. 

This is a theme found 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 come 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 for her 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 grew tired of the stereotype of ‘man rescues woman’. We want strong women, and in this legend we get double helpings: 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 1958.  (And yes, Medea is a witch queen rather than a faery queen: but same difference.) 

This doesn't mean the male characters are weak. Tam Lin of 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 got used to the idea that Faeryland is ruled by a dangerous queen. And 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’. Though modern anthropologists have their doubts that such kings were ever sacrificed in reality, the idea is there in the back of a lot of fantasy writers’ minds, I'm sure. It's too dramatic to waste.

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, whom Pwyll Prince of Dyfed meets in the Mabinogion. Annwn is the underworld: the kingdoms of death and faery are closely blended throughout the early medieval period and on into later centuries. After an incident out stag-hunting when the mortal prince Pwyll mistakenly chases off Arawn’s white-coated, red-eared hounds in favour of his own pack, he offers Arawn recompense and friendship. In a bargain reminiscent of Gawain’s with the Green Knight, King Arawn suggests an identity swap:  Pwyll is to take Arawn’s place in his kingdom, and at the end of the year must face and fight Arawn’s enemy King Hafgan.

‘I will set thee in Annwn in my stead, and the fairest lady thou didst ever see I will set to sleep with thee each night, and my form and semblance upon thee, so that [no man] shall know that thou art not I.  And that,’ said he, ‘till the end of a year from tomorrow, and our tryst then in this very place.’
‘Aye,’ [Pwyll] replied, ‘though I be there till the end of the year, what guidance shall I have to find the man thou tellest of?’
‘A year from tonight,’ said he, ‘there is a tryst between him and me, at the ford. And be thou there in my likeness,’ said he. ‘And one blow only thou art to give him; he will not survive it. And though he ask thee to give him another, give it not, however he entreat thee.’
The Mabinogion, trans. Gwyn Jones, Thomas Jones

Like Gawain, Pwyll is courteous and canny enough to refrain from sexual intercourse with the beautiful lady, who is of course Arawn’s wife: ‘the moment they got into bed, he turned his face to the bedside and his back towards her… not a single night to the year’s end was different from what that first night was.’ At the end of the year he rides to the ford, meets King Hafgan and strikes the single blow that fells him ‘with a mortal wound’.  These proofs of faith impress Arawn, and thenceforth he and Pwyll are constant friends.

In the medieval metrical romance ‘Sir Orfeo’ which blends Celtic and English fairy lore with the Greek myth of Orpheus, the fairy king is clearly Pluto, lord of the dead – though he is not named.  In the very early Irish tale, ‘The Wooing of Etain’, the beautiful 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 pygmy king who rules underground halls of unutterable splendour:

[They] entered a cave in a high cliff, and after an interval of darkness, passed, in a light which seemed to proceed not from sun or moon, but from a multitude of lamps, to the mansion of the pigmy. Here the wedding was celebrated … and when leave was granted, Herla departed laden with gifts and presents of horses, dogs [and] hawks… The pigmy then escorted them as far as the place where darkness began, and then presented the king with a small blood-hound to carry, strictly enjoining him that on no account must any of his train dismount until that dog leapt from the arms of his bearer… Within a short space Herla arrived once more at the light of the sun and at his kingdom, where he accosted an old shepherd and asked for news of his Queen, naming her. The shepherd gazed at him in astonishment and said: ‘Sir, I can hardly understand your speech, for you are a Briton and I a Saxon, but they say… that long ago, there was a Queen of that name over the very ancient Britons, who was the wife of King Herla; and he, the story says, disappeared in company with a pigmy at this very cliff, and was never seen on earth again…’

The king, who thought he had made a stay of but three days, could scarce sit his horse for amazement. Some of his company, forgetting the pigmy’s orders, dismounted before the dog had alighted, and in a moment fell into dust. Whereupon the king… warned the rest under pain of a like fate not to touch the earth before the alighting of the dog.  The dog has not yet alighted. And the story says that this King Herla still holds on his mad course with his band in eternal wanderings, without stop or stay.

                Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, trans. MR James


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. In deep grief and hoping against hope he may somehow find her again, he says:

“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?”

Here's a poem I love. It’s by Rudyard Kipling, from ‘Rewards and Fairies’; it’s written in a Sussex dialect, and it speaks poignantly and tenderly of loss and longing.


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: 

Riders of the Sidhe, 1911, John Duncan

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 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