Monday, 24 December 2012

The Angels Dancing in the Sun

Happy Christmas, happy holidays to all of you.   May the next year bring you all good things.  To celebrate the season, here's an extract from my medieval fantasy 'Dark Angels', in which the young hero Wolf fulfills a promise to meet his friend Nest, daughter of a Norman lord and a Welsh princess, at the top of the watch tower of the castle La Motte Rouge at daybreak on Christmas morning, in the hope of seeing angels dancing in the sunrise.  Wolf has bad news for Nest, and danger is all about them - but - it's still Christmas...

FAR across the snow-filled valley the sky was changing from blue to the palest apricot.  Wolf hurried, slipping and stumbling.  When he reached the door at the bottom of the tower, it was ajar, and clods of snow had been stamped off on the dark floor just inside.  The ladder ran up into the gloom.  He climbed steadily, rung after rung, till his head and shoulders emerged into the chilly little room at the top of the tower.  Snow had gusted through the open windows and doorway, and coated the boards with white powder.

"Look out," said Nest quietly.  "It's slippery."
"You remembered!"
"So did you!"
They beamed at each other.
 "I wasn't sure you would, " said Nest, "but I came in case."
 ... She picked up a cloth bundle tied with knots. "Here - this is for you. Take it!"

Mystified, Wolf untied the knots.  Out fell a long-sleeved tunic.  A linen shirt.  Warm, tight-fitting hose for his legs.  And a fine woollen cloak lined with rabbit-fur.  They were new.  Nest must have been making them for weeks.  He looked up at her, speechless.

"Merry Christmas," she said gruffly.
"I can't believe you did this," he said in a hoarse voice.  "Thank you."  He looked at the clothes again, fingering the cloth.  "Nest - I came to tell you -"

A gleam of pink light touched her face. "No!" she pleaded.  "Don't tell me yet.  Remember why we came? Look, the sun's nearly up!"

Wolf swept snow from the rail.  They leaned on it, looking east.  Every moment, the colour in the sky grew stronger.  A vast cloud stood high over Crow Moor.  It flushed rose and peach and gold and began to brighten beyond colour, into pure light.  Out of nowhere a small wind ruffled their faces.

Christus natus est!  Christ is born! Far below their feet a cock crowed, wild and shrill.  A goblet of fire too bright to look at rose over the rim of the world. Fields and woods leaped to life. Rays of light struck across the valley, and the snow-crusted edge of the rail where they leaned turned all to diamonds.

A lump came into Wolf's throat.  Poised here on the tower, high above the world, his hard decisions and troubles seemed tiny and unimportant.

Nest grabbed his hand.  "Oh Wolf," she breathed.  "Look."

Above the joyful blazing disc of the sun, the sky was hammered silver.  White sparks appeared in it, like morning stars.  Wolf squinted between the bars of his fingers.  Far, far away, leaving streaks and curls of fire, the angels danced like a flock of birds before the sun, their immeasurably distant wings flashing.

Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish, HarperCollins

US edition: The Shadow Hunt, HarperCollins

Happy Christmas to you all!

Picture credits:  

Sunrise over Boldron fields  by Andy Waddington, Wikimedia Commons
Angels dancing in the sun by Giovanni di Paolo (Musee Conde), Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 21 December 2012

Folklore Snippets: Stealing Cream

Stealing Cream for Butter
From Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie 1896

Here’s a Norse version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in which we learn about theft, greed, and the power of multiplication, and in which a young person learns to follow instructions carefully or rue the consequences…

There was once a woman in Stödov on Helge-neas, who practised witchcraft.  She had the custom, when she was about to make butter, of saying, “A spoonful of cream from every one in the county”; and in this way she always got her churn quite full of cream.  One day it happened that she had an errand into town, just when they were about to churn, and said to the maid, “You can churn when I am away, but before you begin you must say, ‘A spoonful of cream form every one in the county’; I shall take care then that plenty of cream will come to you.”  She then went away, and the maid began to churn but when she came to say the words that the witch had taught her, she thought that a spoonful from every one was so very little, so she said, “a pint of cream from every one in the county.”

Now she got cream, and that in plenty.  The churn was filled, and the cream still continued to come, till at last the kitchen was half full of cream. When the woman returned home, the girl stood bailing the cream out at the kitchen door, and the witch was very angry that the maid had gone beyond her orders and asked for a pint instead of a spoonful, for now every one could easily see that cream had been stolen from them.  After this the girl never got leave to make the butter by herself.

Picture credit: Study for Woman Churning Butter, Jean-Francois Millet, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 14 December 2012

Rich and Poor

The Rich and the Poor

A tale of Peig Mhóron from the Great Blasket
 Taken from ‘The Western Island’ by Robin Flower, Clarendon Press 1944

I said, “Some say… if all the money in the world were divided up among all the people, all could live easily and there would be neither rich nor poor.”

“Don’t believe them, Bláheen; for that plan was tried once, and we all know what came of it. 

It was this way. There was a good king once.  The people liked him well, but they liked the queen, his wife, even better.  For all she wished at all times was to keep the poor people up. And she was always complaining, asking why it was that the poor people didn’t get fair play to lift them out of their poverty.  One day she spoke to the king, “I hope, O king,” she said, “that you will do something for me and give the poor people fair play.”  “Very well, my queen,” said he, “you shall have your desire.” She was very pleased then but perhaps she wasn’t so pleased afterwards.  The king made proclamation that certain things should be done, that everyone should be put in a good way and be able to manage for himself.

It wasn’t long till the poor people were getting in a good way, and in a few years they wouldn’t be at the trouble to buy or sell anything.  And one day it came to pass that there wasn’t a potato to be bought in the market. When it was dinner time, and they sat to table, the queen saw no potatoes coming. “What’s this?” she said.  “Isn’t there a potato for my dinner today?”  “Well if you haven’t got a potato,” said the king, “you have your will.  You wouldn’t be satisfied till the poor got fair play, and now, when they have their own way, they don’t trouble to do anything for you and me. You ought to be satisfied.”  “O if that’s the way of it,” said the queen, “You’ll have to put a stop to this work.  I must have potatoes for my dinner.”  So the king had to rein in the poor again, and bring them under subjection.  And then the queen was satisfied.”

Peig rose from her stool on the floor and, “Well Bláheen,” she said, “We’ve been a long time talking, and people will be saying of me that I do nothing but sit and tell tales, and it’s time you were going home to your dinner.

“It is,” I answered, and we went to the door and looked out.  The sun was going down into the western sea, and its rays struck across on to the mainland.  Away up on the side of Sliabh an Iolair, above Dunquin, a cataract could be seen flashing white in the light of the evening sun.

“Do you see that fall?” she said. “It was in a house below that fall I lived when I was a girl, till it was time for me to go into service. And I was married at seventeen.  You wouldn’t see anywhere a merrier girl than I was till that time, for it is youth that has the light foot and the happy heart.  But since the time I was married I have never known a day that I was entirely happy.  My husband was a sick man most of his days, and then he died and left me, and I brought up my children to read and write, and there never were children with cleverer heads for their books; but there was no place for them in Ireland, and they have all gone to America but one, and soon he too will be gone, and I shall be alone in the end of my life.  But it is God’s will and the way of the world, and we must not complain.” And she threw her shawl over her head and turned back into the darkening house.

Picture credit: Sliabh an Iolair (Mount Eagle) from the Great Blasket Island, by gerrym  26 Mar 2010, courtesy of the website Mountain Views

Friday, 7 December 2012

Anyone for Stew?

In 'The Tough Guide to Fantasyland', Diana Wynne Jones warns travellers through that magical land that the only thing they'll ever be offered to eat on their Quest - whether in a Tavern, Alehouse, or Camp - is stew.  Unless of course they are being entertained by an Enchantress who intends to seduce them, in which case "jellies soother than the creamy curd,/And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon" will be the least of it.

Stew.  She's right, of course. During the effort of creating a coherent fantasy world, authors sometimes just get tired.  All the stuff we have to provide for our characters to carry around with them, in order to make it over the mountains, through the forest, and across the desert!  Backpacks, ponies, sacks of flour! Do we have to do the cooking for them, too? And so it's easier to picture a cooking pot slung over the flames, with some indeterminate mess bubbling away inside - and throw in a couple of references to snaring rabbits, digging for roots, and hunting. "What the heck, after all," we think, "can you cook in the open air, over an open fire, except stew?  Or possibly porridge?" 

There's a scene in the movie of the Fellowship of the Ring where Aragorn returns to camp with a dead deer slung over his shoulders.  Interesting. Except they'd be moving on next day. You try cutting up a dead deer and sticking it into a cooking pot small enough to hang over a campfire. Or else carting raw meat around with you on a hike. No wonder Tolkien's elves invented lembas - light, portable, nutritious and apparently vegetarian -  the culinary equivalent of that useful phosphorescent stuff that appears on the end of wizards' wands (or simply clings to the walls) to light up otherwise lightless caves.  

I must hold my hand up here, I think I've occasionally given my own characters stew (and mysterious glowing lights), but I try nowadays to come up with other ideas.  In 'Dark Angels', set in the late 12th century, it was fun to reference real medieval dishes, such as blancmange - minced chicken with pounded almonds - for the meals at the high table of La Motte Rouge, Lord Hugo's motte and bailey castle. One character in the book is a highly food-centered house-hob:

The hob yawned, showing a lot of yellow teeth. "What's for supper tonight?  Roast pork and crackling?"
"It's Friday," said Nest, wiping her eyes. 
"Is it?"  The hob's face fell. "No meat," it grumbled.  "Fasting on Friday.  Who thought that one up?  What's the point?"
Nest sat up. "Fasting brings us closer to the angels," she said coldly.  "Angels never eat.  They spend all their time praising God."
"Only cos they ain't got stummicks," the hob muttered.  "Go on then, what's for supper?  Herbert's not the worst cook I've ever known.  We won't starve. Fish, I s'pose?  A nice bit of carp, or trout?" 

And in the end, the meal turns out to consist of fish in batter with a sharp sauce, followed by a sweet omelette. 

Of course it's easier if you're writing the sort of fantasy which isn't affected - indeed, may even be enhanced - by the mention of anachronistic or otherwise out-of-place types of food. In Hobbiton, the affectionately 'English' area of Middle Earth, no reader is going to mind references to potatoes, fish and chips, buttered toast, birthday cake, et cetera.  In 'The Hobbit', Gandalf and the dwarves demand all kinds of food from poor Bilbo, all of it either English, or, like coffee, at least readily available in England:

"Tea? [said Gandalf] No thankyou!  A little red wine, I think for me."
"And for me," said Thorin.
"And raspberry jam and apple tart," said Bifur.
"And mince pies and cheese," said Bofur.
"And pork-pie and salad," said Bombur.
"And more cakes - and ale - and coffee, if you don't mind," called the other dwarves through the door. 
... "Put on a few eggs, there's a good fellow," Gandalf called... "And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!"  

Much of 'The Hobbit' has a lighter, more frivolous tone than 'The Lord of the Rings'  ( and I disliked it as a child; I preferred serious fantasy) - so this stodgy 20th century English menu works well as comedy. But it's impossible, I think, to imagine coffee or tea being offered to guests anywhere in Minas Tirith or Edoras.  Even Sam's throwaway remark about fish and chips, to Gollum in Ithilien (in the chapter entitled 'Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit'), has always made me feel uneasy. Chips? Where have the potatoes come from? Middle Earth is so clearly Early European in its culture/s, that I just feel there shouldn't be potatoes. I can cope with pipe-weed, because Tolkien has (thinly) disguised it. It might not be nicotiana. People smoke all kinds of things. But potatoes? What is Middle Earth's geographical  relationship to the Americas? 

I'm more comfortable with the frivolous tone in Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows'.  Here, for example, the Water Rat (a charming Oxbridge type of fellow) packs this magnificent picnic into a 'fat wicker luncheon basket':

"What's inside it?" asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
"There's cold chicken inside it," replied the Rat briefly, "coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater -"
"Oh stop, stop," cried the Mole in ecstasies: "This is too much!"
"Do you really think so?" inquired the Rat seriously.  "It's only what I always take on these little excursions, and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast, and cut it very fine."
Kenneth Grahame's animals are so anthropomorphised that even their size is indeterminate - the Toad can drive a car and pass himself off in human society as a washerwoman - so it's perfectly all right for them to eat human food too.  Even bubble and squeak - a peculiarly English concoction of fried potato and cabbage - makes its appearance in “The Wind In The Willows”.  And the jailer’s daughter, pitying the poor imprisoned Toad, brings him:

“…a tray, with a cup of hot tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb.  The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad…”

As well it might. Mmmmmm... Comfort food.   And speaking of comfort food, I read John Masefield’s classic “The Box of Delights” to both my daughters when they were small.  There’s a point when the hero, Kay, despairs of ever managing to explain to the warm-hearted but slow Police Inspector that the villainous wizard Abner Brown is masquerading as the principal of a nearby religious college. The Inspector attempts to reassure him:

‘You get that good guardian of yours to see you take a strong posset every night.  But you young folks in this generation, you don’t know what a posset is. Well, a posset,’ said the Inspector, ‘is a jorum of hot milk; and in that hot milk, Master Kay, you put a hegg, and you put a spoonful of treacle, and you put a grating of nutmeg, and you stir ‘em well up and then you take ‘em down hot.  And a posset like that, taken overnight, will make a new man of you, Master Kay, while now you’re all worn down with learning.’

Both daughters immediately insisted that I make it.  I did: and it’s delicious: and they had it often over the years of their ‘school learning’…  Try it yourselves!  For treacle, I’ve always used cane syrup, what in England is termed ‘Golden Syrup’, not molasses.

The Beavers, in The Lion and The Witch and The Wardrobe, eat impossibly English food.  Yes, they cook fish, which Mr Beaver has caught. But how do they manage 'a jug of creamy milk for all the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table, from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes'?  Where are the cows?  In the middle of a hundred-years winter, what do they eat?  And the meal ends with 'a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot,' and cups of tea.  But it doesn't matter, any more than the appearance of Father Christmas matters. This is a book like the Wind in The Willows.  To demand consistency in this book would be to demand an entirely different book.

All the same, in ‘Prince Caspian’, in which Lewis wishes to emphasise how badly things have gone wrong in Narnia (in many ways, Narnia under King Miraz is in a worse state than Narnia under the White Witch) the children have to eat whatever they can find.  This starts off being only apples, from the wild orchard that has sprung up around the ruins of abandoned Cair Paravel; but later they add bear steaks, from a bear (not a talking Bear) which they have shot:

“Each apple was wrapped up in bear’s meat … and spiked on a sharp stick and then roasted.  And the juice of the apple worked all through the meat, like apple sauce with roast pork…”

Although in many ways this is more convincing than stew (the children have no cooking pot), I think C.S. Lewis is being overly optimistic about the success of this recipe. I think it would have been extremely tough and messy.  Lewis actually manages to make the earth, which the trees eat at the banquet in the same book, sound much more delicious:

“They began with a rich brown loam that looked almost exactly like chocolate…When the rich loam had taken the edge off their hunger, the trees turned to earth of the kind you see in Somerset, which is almost pink.  They said it was lighter and sweeter.  At the cheese stage they had a chalky soil and then went on to delicate confections of the finest gravels powdered with choice silver sand.”

I was with him through most of that, but he lost me at the gravels.  So -  if you could choose, which fictional banquet would you most like to be invited to share? 

Picture credits:
Cooking pot: Wikimedia Commons
Fish 'n chips Wikimedia Commons, by Steven Lilley 
Feast - by Pauline Baynes, illustration from 'Prince Caspian'