Tuesday 27 January 2015

Written in Stone

Like most children’s authors, I make occasional school visits where I talk about ‘where ideas come from’ and tell some of the stories behind the historically based fantasies such as Troll Fell and Dark Angels which represent most of my output so far.   Usually at the end of each visit the children ask me questions, and though some require a certain amount of patience to answer (such as: ‘What made you start writing?’ when I’ve just spent forty-five minutes explaining that very thing), the majority are intelligent and thoughtful - even insightful.  The best question ever put to me was from a boy of 13 or so who asked, ‘If you could go back to anywhere in the past, where would you go?’

No one had asked me that before. No one has asked it since. I had to stop and think. Where would I go?  There’s a short story – could it be by Ray Bradbury? – about time-trippers who go back to the beginning of the First Century to try and witness the Crucifixion. It all goes wrong for them.  I thought about that; it didn’t seem appropriate: and suddenly I knew just where I'd want to go. ‘Stonehenge,’ I said. ‘I’d love to go back to when they were building Stonehenge, and find out what they were really doing there.’ The boy nodded seriously.  To him, too, it seemed a good time and place to visit.

We're gradually learning more and more about Stonehenge and its landscape: the story, whatever it is, is becoming ever more fascinating. But we’ll still never really know what they were doing there, will we?  Not for sure, even if we can speculate. Has any trace of what they believed come down to us?  What were their myths and legends? What hero stories did they tell?  

The archaeologist Francis Pryor, in his book ‘Britain BC’, writes of the Northern Irish Bronze and Iron Age site known as Navan Fort (County Armagh):

The Cattle Raid of Cooley describes how the mythical hero Cรบ Chulainn helps Conchobar, king of Ulster, based at his capital Emain Macha (pronounced Owain Maha) exact retribution for a cattle raid carried out by warriors of the rival power of Connacht, to the south.  Scholars are agreed that The Cattle Raid of Cooley refers to events in pre-Christian Ireland.  There can be no doubt that Emain Macha was the capital of the Ulster kings.  And it just so happens that it is also the Irish name for Navan Fort.

Navan Fort, Co Armagh (wikimedia)

In the early Iron Age a series of nine roundhouses were built at Navan Fort; but in the first century 100 BC these were replaced by a massive wooden structure of over 250 tall posts arranged in concentric rings. Shortly afterwards, it was filled with boulders and burned to the ground. From the air, the open excavation shows a regular, segmented, pizza-like appearance.  Pryor adds:
... Chris Lynn has made a special study of the symbolism and imagery surrounding Navan.  He considers that the huge, post-built structure that was erected in 94 BC was a bruidne, or magic hostelry; these have been likened to an Iron Age Valhalla.  According to the Irish epics the heroes were lavishly feasted in the bruidne, then at the end of the meal it was burned down around them and they were immolated where they sat.

Navan Fort, excavation

Here, perhaps, is a tiny glimpse of the significance of a prehistoric monument, preserved - as they say - in legend and in song. You can read about just such an immolation in part of the Ulster cycle, The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel  ("Da Derga" means "Red God"). Da Derga's Hostel, or inn, was in Leinster and as far as I know has no modern presence, but its story suggests possibilities for the burned structure at Emain Macha. 'Seven doorways there are in it, and seven sleeping rooms between every two doorways'.  in which Conaire Mor, High King of Ireland, dies, having breached the conditions of several geasa laid on him at birth.  Conaire is a heroic Iron Age figure:

The colour of his hair was like the shining of purified gold; the cloak about him was like the mist of a May morning, changing from colour to colour; a wheel brooch of gold reaching from his chin to his waist; his golden-hilted sword within his reach.

But he and his company are attacked by outlaws, the Three Red Hounds of Cualu and their ally Ingcel the One-Eyed:

...three times the Inn was set on fire and three times it was put out again... and at last there was none left in the Inn with Conaire but Conall, and Sencha, and Dubthach.  Now from the rage that was on Conaire, and the greatness of the fight he had fought, a great drought came on him, and such a fever of thirst, and no drink to get, that he died of it.

It’s exciting, stirring, it gives me goosebumps, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. What were the stories told by the builders of Stonehenge? We have none earlier than the medieval conjectures of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who thought Merlin built it with the help of Irish giants.

It’s not just Stonehenge though. Over 1000 stone circles can still be seen in the British Isles, even if many are small and insignificant. I once took my husband and children to try and rediscover a little one on the moors above Malham in the Yorkshire Dales, where I used to live. It’s marked on the Ordnance Survey map, and I’d visited it by myself years before: a rough group of a few knee-high boulders leaning out of the moor-grass. We couldn’t find it, and not only that, there was an inexplicable, lowering, heavy gloom about the day which sapped our spirits. The children whined, we felt depressed: we gave up and returned home to discover, later, an eclipse of the sun had been happening during our walk. Not a total eclipse, but enough to explain the failure of the light, the doomy sense of pointlessness we’d felt. And whoever built that little circle, thousands of years ago – what would they have made of our experience?

In the Lakes last summer, driving back over Black Combe from the coast at Ravenglass, I spotted the tiny symbol of a stone circle marked on the route map. It took a bit of finding, diving up the tiny twisting roads and finally squishing the car into a hedge and tramping up a mile and a quarter of rough trackway towards a distant farm.  I wasn’t expecting much.  I thought it would be like the Malham circle, a small set of minor stones poking out of the turf.  As we drew nearer to the farmhouse, we saw this:

And getting closer, this:

This was no minor stone circle. It is Sunkenkirk, or Swinside Stone Circle, on the north-east side of Black Combe, and it's almost complete, containing 55 stones. (I made it 58, but that included some broken bits.)  We tied the dog to the gate, as there were sheep and cattle in the field, and went in.


Once inside, I tried to photograph it in quadrants. The circle lies - like Castlerigg - on a high, flattish plateau surrounded on all sides by a horizon of noble hills. It feels like a dancing floor or a theatre.

It even has a sort of  ceremonial porch on the southeastern side, a set of double stones flanking the entrance.

It was a beautiful, serene afternoon. The worn stones glowed in the late sunshine.  The circle was so complete, it felt as though the people who built and used it had only just gone away, instead of being dust for 5000 years.

But who were they?  Why did they build it and what did it mean to them?  We have only the name Sunkenkirk, and a tale - for we will always tell tales - that it was built by the Devil, who busied himself at night in pulling down and removing the stones of a church which was being built in the day.  That's a new, young story, perhaps a hundred years old. We will never know what stories were told about this circle immediately after it was built, or through most of the rest of its long, long history.

In an essay called 'Burning Bushes' (from 'In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination', Virago 2011), Margaret Atwood speculates on the value of art to early societies: that those who possessed

... such abilities as singing, dancing and – for our purposes – the telling of stories – would have had a better chance of survival than those without them. That makes a certain sense: if you could tell your children about the time your grandfather was eaten by a crocodile, right there at the bend of the river, they would be more likely to avoid the same fate. If, that is, they were listening.

Language and narrative are inextricable one from another.  Every sentence we speak lays a narrative template over experience and alters our perceptions.  In the beginning was the Word: we create our own worlds in our own images. If you can tell a ‘true’ story about the crocodile at the bend of the river, fiction and myth spring at once into existence.  Because you can tell another story, about how bravely your grandfather fought the crocodile (even if you weren't there yourself): and that leads almost inevitably to the question of where he is now - surely not mere crocodile food, but a hero in the world of ancestors, who passes his wisdom down to you and maybe speaks to you in dreams.

Some years ago I visited this grassy barrow.  There it is the in the middle of the photograph, looking just like so many I've seen in England: but we know who lies there, and who buried them, and when, and why.  It's the burial place of the Plataean forces who fought alongside the Athenians commanded by Miltiades, against the Persians under Darius, at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.  We know, because the story was written down. And knowing it sent prickles down my spine.

The battle of Marathon was written as history (though maybe not history as we conceive of it today) not too long after the events themselves.   'The Cattle Raid of Cooley' was only written down centuries after the events it purports to describe, after the oral tradition and mythification process, the business of turning fact into fiction, had got well under way.  Yet as in the tales of Troy and Knossos, some truths were preserved in the storytelling, like flies in amber.  But there are no such stories for Stonehenge, no hero tales from Sunkenkirk. And that's why, if I could travel back in time I'd still go to the the third millenium BC and visit them.

Because I want to know their story.

Picture credits
All photos copyright Katherine Langrish except the photo of Navan Fort which I found at Navan Fort Archives Digital Key
and the photo of Marathon: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday 12 January 2015

Why The Owl Service isn’t as easy as a computer thinks it is.

My friend and fellow children's writer Cecilia Busby commented in a recent blog post for the 'Awfully Big Blog Adventure' on a computer-run reading scheme used in schools, Accelerated Reader. Developed as a guide for teachers and parents, the scheme assesses and grades books for young readers. It awards each title a number on a scale ranging from easy (around 3) to difficult (11 or 12), and encourages children to read by awarding collectable points for each title and providing quizzes to test their understanding. The scheme is popular and widely used, but Cecilia discovered some anomalies in its grading system. For example, Accelerated Reader grades Alan Garner’s 1967 book The Owl Service as easier for young readers than his debut novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Anyone who’s actually read the books will know that this is bonkers.  Intrigued, I took a closer look to try to find out how such a mistake could have been made.

My battered, much-loved childhood copy

It seems the AR programme judges books by length, complexity of syntax and difficulty of vocabulary – including proper nouns. Although The Owl Service contains a number of ancient Welsh names such as Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw, it can’t compare with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’s whole bunch of unusual polysyllabic names such as Durathror, Fenodyree, Angharad, Llyn-dhu, Fundindelve, Cadellin, Atlendor, and of course the eponymous Weirdstone itself.  Moreover, a glance at any page of The Owl Service will show a high proportion of dialogue – and consequently shorter, snappier sentences and simpler syntax – compared with the many long narrative paragraphs of The Weirdstone. So the dutiful AR computer has awarded The Owl Service a lowish 3.7 and banded it MY (Middle Years) for children aged 9-13, while The Weirdstone has been pushed right up to 6.3 and banded UY (Upper Years) for readers of 14 and over.

The Owl Service is a far more advanced, difficult and sophisticated book than The Weirdstone, but the computer does not know this, because it literally cannot read between the lines. All the most interesting stuff in The Owl Service goes on in the spaces and silences and misunderstandings between the characters. And that’s the trouble. Reading isn’t just about understanding what words say. It’s also about understanding what they imply.

Here is the elliptically brilliant opening page of The Owl Service:

‘How’s the bellyache, then?’
            Gwyn stuck his head round the door. Alison sat in the iron bed with brass knobs. Porcelain columns showed the Infant Bacchus and there was a lump of slate under one leg because the floor dipped.
            ‘A bore,’ said Alison. ‘And I’m too hot.’
            ‘Tough,’ said Gwyn. ‘I couldn’t find any books, so I’ve brought one I had from school. I’m supposed to be reading it for Literature, but you’re welcome: it looks deadly.’
            ‘Thanks anyway,’ said Alison.
            ‘Roger’s gone for a swim. You wanting company, are you?’
            ‘Don’t put yourself out for me,’ said Alison.
            ‘Right,’ said Gwyn. ‘Cheerio.’
            He rode sideways down the banisters on his arms to the first floor landing.
            ‘Yes?  What’s the matter? You OK?’
            ‘What’s the matter?  You going to throw up, are you?’
He ran back. Alison was kneeling on the bed.
‘Listen,’ she said. ‘Can you hear that?’
‘That what?’
‘That noise in the ceiling. Listen.’
The house was quiet.  Mostyn Lewis-Jones was calling after the sheep on the mountain: and something was scratching in the ceiling above the bed.

This apparently effortless piece of text provides immense density of information: but it takes time to unpack. We learn – if we are really thinking while we read – that the scene is set in a bedroom on the top floor of an old Welsh house (the uneven floor and the old brass bed); we learn that the weather is hot, probably summer; we learn that the house is situated among mountains where sheep are reared. We are introduced to three main characters by name, and we see that while the unseen Roger has gone swimming, Gwyn is interested in Alison. He brings her a book and asks how her tummy-ache is (perhaps she has period pain; they must be teenagers) and, pseudo-casually, asks if she wants his company. When she reacts ungraciously, he pretends not to care – only to speed back upstairs to her side as soon as she calls him, to listen to something scratching up in the ceiling.

No inexperienced reader is going to ‘get’ all this – or any of it – or be especially interested if they did.  Imagine a younger child deciphering ‘what happens on the first page’ without understanding the subtext. ‘A girl is sick in bed. I don’t know what all the stuff about porcelain columns and Bacchus is supposed to mean. A boy brings the girl a book which he says is boring. They talk a bit. Then he goes downstairs and then she calls for him and he thinks she’s going to be sick, and then she tells him to listen to a scratching noise. On the surface, little is happening. It could seem disjointed, confusing, dull.

Like the very grown-up tale from the Mabinogion which inspired it, The Owl Service is about nothing if it is not about relationships, and Garner expects the reader to work at the implications of his prose. He rarely tells us what anyone thinks or feels, or what they look like. But it’s all there.

Compare the much more conventional first page of The Weirdstone (not counting the prologue, The Legend of Alderley):

The guard knocked on the door of the compartment as he went past. “Wilmslow fifteen minutes!”
            “Thankyou!” shouted Colin.
            Susan began to clear away the debris of the journey – apple cores, orange peel, food wrappings, magazines, while Colin pulled down their luggage from the rack. And within three minutes they were both poised on the edge of their seats, case in hand and mackintosh over one arm, caught, like every traveller before or since, in that limbo of journey’s end, when there is nothing to do and no time to relax. Those last miles were the longest of all.
            The platform of Wilmslow station was thick with people and more spilled off the train, but Colin and Susan had no difficulty in recognising Gowther Mossock among those waiting. As the tide of passengers broke round him and surged through the gates, leaving the children lonely at the far end of the platform, he waved his hand and came striding towards them.  He was an oak of a man: not over tall, but solid as a crag, and barrelled with flesh, bone and muscle.  His face was round and polished; blue eyes crinkled to the humour of his mouth. A tweed jacket strained across his back, and his legs, curved like the timbers of an old house, were clad in breeches, which tucked into thick woollen stockings just above the swelling calves. A felt hat, old and formless, was on his head, and hob-nailed boots struck sparks from the platform as he walked.

Fifty-five years after it was written, these long sentences might strike a modern child as a bit slow, but they present few challenges and there is a reassuring sense of direction: when they get off the train, very soon, an adventure will begin. True, the train isn’t quite like a modern train, and children might not now (did they ever?) divide tasks quite so readily into ‘girl clears up the litter and boy lifts down the cases’ – and ‘limbo’ and ‘mackintosh’ might conceivably puzzle some young readers. Still, the first half-page is a straightforward narrative, while the second half is an equally easy-to-follow description of Gowther Mossock – perhaps a little lengthy, but Gowther’s solid dependability renders him an important emotional anchor in the adventures that lie ahead. For The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is of course not about relationships. Though there are few signs of it in that conventional opening, the book is a fiery, frosty fantasy which burst upon my twelve year-old consciousness like a firework of marvels, magic and excitement. In those days even children expected a book to start in a leisurely manner and to gather momentum as it went along, but it is still a far more accessible story for a young reader than The Owl Service can ever be.

For a writer to progress from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to The Owl Service in seven short years (1960 – 1967) was to display extraordinary talent. Alan Garner is one of our greatest living writers.  But I need to confess in this context, that as a young reader, I couldn’t keep up. And I was a really good reader, a child who read all day, every day. I devoured at least ten books a week. I was probably ten or eleven when I first read The Weirdstone, and over the next few years I read it and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath (1963), and Garner’s third children’s book Elidor (1965) multiple times, and secretly began writing Garner-inspired fiction of my own. But I wasn’t progressing as a reader at the same speed that Alan Garner was progressing as a writer.  He was accelerating away from me, and with Red Shift in 1973 seemed in fact blue-shifting from children’s into adult fiction. When I first read The Owl Service at the age of 13 or so I found it dry and spare and difficult. I looked in vain for the colour and richness of the earlier books, and its pared-down dialogue was wasted on me. If The Owl Service had been the first book I’d read by Alan Garner, I doubt if I would ever have tried his others. And that would have been a great shame.

But the computer goes by rule-of-thumb. The computer looks at syntax and vocabulary. The computer thinks The Owl Service is for children of 9 to 13 and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is for teenagers of 14 plus. I’m not mocking. Friends assure me that the AR programme really does encourage schoolchildren to read, that many of them like the element of competition and enjoy amassing points for the titles they read. So long as they are also enjoying the books themselves, that’s good. But parents and teachers should know that the system isn’t foolproof. The computer which assesses and grades these titles cannot actually read – in a human sense – at all.

A computer can never replace an experienced librarian.

Stuck together with Sellotape, my 1965 edition of The Weirdstone with my name written inside

Monday 5 January 2015

January Tales

Look carefully; the countryside is full of goblins.

Out with my dog one foggy morning a few days back I fell in with my neighbour Colin walking his elderly spaniel. Colin’s a shrewd countryman with plenty of tales to tell, who was born in a damp, thatched Dartmoor cottage over seventy years ago, one of a large family of practical hard-headed country people. We strolled along the lane together chatting about how though thatched cottages look so pretty, they’re usually very dark inside. We were just passing one, and Colin gazed at the thatch. ‘Riddled with rat-runs ours used to be, full of rats and mice; they didn’t cover ‘em with netting then, the way they do now. And leaky! – we had to set buckets and basins out to catch the drips. And fleas? It’s a wonder we didn’t all die, the way my mother used to sprinkle the beds with DDT.’ He shook his head. ‘Like sugar out of a sugar shaker.’

We turned past the cottages into the field, full of low-hanging grey mist. A few years ago one misty morning I’d been coming along the hedge here and looked up to see an impossibly tall giant approaching out of the foggy brightness. Seconds later I saw it was a tree, superimposed on another tree – a crooked elbow, a shoulder, a shaggy head – yet the shock lingered.  I told Colin.

‘When I was a boy,’ he said, ‘I went to work for a hunting stable, and in the winter I had to come home late along this deep dark lane, and every night there’d be someone standing on the bank watching me. He wouldn’t move and he wouldn’t speak, and he was never there in the day. Well the way I’d handle it, I’d walk on the other side, and when I got close to him I’d start to run, and I’d yell out, “Good night sir!” and run past as fast as I could. “Good night, sir!” I’d shout, and I’d run. Well, my mother could see something was scaring me, and in the end she got it out of me, and she said,  “We’ll see about that,” she says, and she come down the lane with me in the dark. And when we get there, “You silly old fool,” she says, “it’s only an old tree stump after all.”’