Thursday 25 June 2015

Water Spirits

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.  ‘Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide.’ In both its transience and its endurance it’s a metaphor for time. Rivers change every moment, but they are old – in some cases literally older than the hills. They were flowing before we were born; they will still be flowing long after we are gone.

Water 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.  That image could be another you, living in another world.  Maybe in the Other World; after all, you can’t breathe water. So who is that? 

Modern mirrors show perfect reflections. Each one of us knows what we look like (or believe we do: mirrors still pull that sly trick of showing us ourselves in reverse.) But for most of history and prehistory mirrors were rare or non-existent. People saw one another’s faces but not their own. Only the reflecting surface of still water could offer the chance, but how could you be sure that the face looking up was truly yours?  Maybe it was an ancestor’s face, or a spirit’s. Maybe it had a message to give you. (But better not bend too close.)

A clear puddle after rain is a window into the ground. You can look down vertically into a deep underworld.  A far, bright sky flashes below the upside-down trees. Could it be the world of the dead, who are buried in the ground? In the spring or early summer of the year 2049 BCE (it makes me shiver to write that, but we know the precise date from tree-ring dating), at least fifty people with bronze axes gathered on a salt marsh to construct a wooden circle with an upside-down oak stump planted at its centre, roots in the air, crown in the ground. This was the circle now called Seahenge, and surely the inverted tree was intended to grow in the Other World - a real and solid version of the ghostly reflections of trees which can be seen in any pool.

Reflections in water show us three worlds, the sky above us, the surface which is touchable and level with the world we walk upon, and the strange depths beneath. If you plunge a straight stick or rod into water, it appears broken, but you can draw it out again unharmed. We know it's because of the refraction of light; but the effect must have seemed mystical and magical to people down the ages.  Is that what prompted the custom of ritual damage to swords and spears - bending, snapping and breaking them - before they were offered to the underwater world?  As if the water itself was showing what needed to be done?  In her book The Gods of the Celts Dr Miranda Green tells of two Iron Age sacred lakes into which important people threw important offerings: Llyn Fawr in South Glamorgan and Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.

Llyn Fawr is the earlier, the date of deposition of the objects lying around 600BC. Here a hoard was found in a peat-deposit that had once been a natural lake; find include two sheet-bronze cauldrons… socketed axes and sickles. The material [at Llyn Cerrig] ranges in date from the second century BC to the first century AD. The finds come from the edge of a bog at the foot of an eleven foot high sheer rock cliff which provided a good vantage point for throwing offerings. In the Iron Age the lake would have extended to [the foot of the cliff] and the uncorroded condition of the metalwork shows that it sank immediately into the water. The offerings are of a military/aristocratic nature: weapons, slave chains, chariots and harness fittings.

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 boat towards 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 manages (on the third attempt) to hurl 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.”

Only now may Arthur depart for the Isle of Avalon in a barge full of queens and ladies clad in black.  So the sword which conferred upon Arthur a kind of supernaturally-awarded status must be relinquished, returned to its mysterious Otherworldly keeper, before he can commence his journey to the land of death and rebirth in the watery Somerset fens. I wonder if some of those Celtic offerings were also funeral rites?

Water is necessary to life.  It has many practical uses. You  can drink water, wash in it, cook with it, irrigate your fields. It turns your mill wheel to grind your corn, but it can also drown you or your children, or rise up in floods and sweep your house away.  Homely, treacherous, necessary, strange, elemental: no wonder that we populated it with spirits. Goddesses like Sabrina of the Severn, or Sulis of the hot springs in Bath – loreleis, ondines, naiads, nixies – sly, beautiful, impulsive but cold-hearted nymphs whose white arms pull you down to drown.  

Then again, rivers can be gods, such as Father Tiber or 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…

Male, female or animal, water spirits are dangerous and tricksy. Scottish kelpies or waterhorses used to linger by the banks of lochs in the gloaming, tempting people to climb upon their backs - upon which they would gallop into the water. The 19th century folklorist William Craigie tells how, in Scandinavia:

The river-horse (bäck-hästen) is very malicious, for not content with leading folk astray and then laughing at them, when he has landed them in thickets and bogs, he, being Necken himself, alters his shape now to one thing and now to another, although he commonly appears as a light-grey horse.

It is certain that the river-horse still exists, for it is no more than a few years back that a man in Fiborna district, who owned a light-grey horse, was coming home late one night and saw, as he thought, the horse standing beside Väla brook. He thought it strange that his man had not taken in Grey-coat, and proceeded to do so himself, but just as he was about to lay hold of it it went off like an arrow and laughed loudly. The man turned his coat so as not to go astray, for he knew now who the horse was.

In Kristianstad there was a well, from which all the girls took drinking water, and where a number of the boys always gathered as well.  One evening the river-horse was standing there, and the boys, thinking it was just an old horse, seated themselves on its back, one after the other, till there was a whole row of them, but the smallest one hung on by the horse’s tail.  When he saw how long it was he cried, “Oh, in Jesus’ name!” whereupon the horse threw all the others into the water. 

Even today people throw coins into fountains and wishing wells – ‘for luck’. In my novel Dark Angels, the 12th century castle La Motte Rouge has a well haunted by a mournful White Lady. I revisited her, and her friend the hearth-hob, in a story called By Fynnon Ddu which I wrote for the Sussex Folklore Centre’s journal Gramarye (Summer 2014, Issue 5): you can read the whole story here. I wanted to contrast the transience of humanity with the deep time in which such creatures live. In this story, the castle is just being built, yet both the hob and the water spirit are already ancient. Here’s an extract.

The hob hugged his tattered rabbitskin around him and peered into the well. It was a long, narrow pool, lined with leaning mossy stones. At one end a spring bubbled up under a rough rocky arch and trickled out at the other into a little deep-cut brook, and the dark water was full of weeds, cress and frogspawn. A small frog plopped into the pool and pushed through the skin of the water in a series of fluid kicks. The hob stiffened all over like a hunting cat. He shot out a hairy arm.
There was a swirl and a heave in the depths. The spring gushed up in a burst of fierce bubbles. The frog vanished in a fog of sediment.
“What did you do that for?” yelped the hob.
A face looked up through the brown water-glass, framed in drifting clouds of hair which spread away in filmy tendrils. The eyes were great dark blurs, the pale-lipped smile both shy and wild.
“You doesn’t even eat,” the hob groused on. “You doesn’t know what ‘tis to have an empty belly.”
The water spirit slipped upwards. Her head emerged from the water, glistening. In air and daylight she was difficult to see: a slanting glimmer, like a risen reflection. She propped narrow elbows on the brink and offered him a handful of cress.
“Lenten fare. That an’t going to put hairs on me chest,” said the hob sulkily, but he stuffed it into his mouth and chewed.
A bout of hammering battered the air. The water spirit flinched, and the hob nodded at her. “Yus. Men. They’m back again at last.”
She pushed her dripping hair back behind one ear and spoke in a voice soft as a dove cooing in a sleepy noon. “Who?”
The hob snorted, spraying out bits of green. “Who cares who?  S’long as they has fires, and a roof overhead, and stew in the pot –”
“Is it the Cornovii?”
“You allus asks me that.” The hob glanced at her with wry affection and shook his head. “They’m long gone,” he said gently. “They don’t come back. Times change and so do men.”
“Was it such a long time?” She was teasing a water-beetle with a tassel of her hair. “I liked the Cornovii. They used to bring me toys.”
“Things to play with.”  She looked up at him through half-shut eyes. “Knives and spearheads, brooches and jewels. Girls and boys. I’ve kept them all.”
“Down at the bottom there? How deep do it go?” Hackles bristling, but fascinated, the hob craned his neck and tried to peer past his own scrawny reflection.
“Come and see.” She reached out her hands with an innocent smile, but he drew hastily back.   

In Frederick de la Motte Fouqué’s ‘Undine’ (1807), a knight marries Undine, a river spirit, 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 – especially her terrifying uncle Kuhlborn, the mountain torrent – with fear and disgust.  He repudiates his union with Undine and prepares to marry Bertalda instead.  In a spine-tingling climax, the castle well 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. 

Picture credits:

Nokke (Water spirit) by Theodor Kittelsen

Reflection - Katherine Langrish, personal photo

Seahenge: Norfolk Museum

Sir Bedivere by Aubrey Beardsley University of Rochester

Hylas and the Nymphs by Frederick Waterhouse (detail) 

Nokke as White Horse by Theodor Kittelsen

Undine by Arthur Rackham

The Shipwrecked Man of the Sea by Arthur Rackham

Tuesday 16 June 2015

The Naming of Dark Lords (a Difficult Matter)

It isn't just one of your fantasy games...

Aged nine or so, one of my daughters co-wrote a fantasy story with her best friend. By the time they’d finished it ran to sixty or seventy pages, a wonderful joint effort – they’d sit together brainstorming and passing the manuscript to and fro, writing alternate chapters and sometimes even paragraphs. There were two heroines (one for each author) and sharing their adventures was a magical teddybear named Mr Brown who spoke throughout in rhyming couplets. Transported to a magical world on the back of a dove called Time – who provided the neat title for the story: ‘Time Flies’ – the trio find themselves battling a Dark Lord of impeccable evil with the fabulous handle of LORD SHNUBALUT (pronounced: ‘Shnoo-ba-lutt’.)  The two young authors had grasped something crucial about Dark Lords. They need to have mysterious, sonorous, even unpronounceable names.

Imagine you’re writing a High Fantasy. You’ve got your world and you’ve sorted out the culture: medieval in the countryside with its feudal system of small manors and castles; a renaissance feel to the bustling towns with their traders, guilds and scholar-wizards. The forests are the abode of elves. Heroic barbarians follow their horse-herds on the more distant plains. Goblins and dwarfs battle it out in the mountains.

And lo! your Dark Lord ariseth. And he requireth a name.

Let’s take an affectionate look at the names of a few Dark Lords. The first to come to mind is of course Tolkien’s iconic SAURON from The Lord of the Rings.  A name not too difficult to pronounce, you’d think – except that when the films came out I discovered I’d been getting it wrong for years. I’d always assumed the ‘saur’ element should be pronounced as in ‘dinosaur’, and ‘Saw-ron’, with its hint of scaly, cold-blooded menace, still sounds better to me than ‘Sow-ron.’ I was only 13 when I first read The Lord of the Rings, and although I was blown away, and keen enough to wade through some of the Appendices, I never got as far as Appendix E in which Tolkien explains that ‘au’ and ‘aw’ are to be pronounced ‘as in loud, how and not as in laud, haw.’ But who reads the Appendices until they’ve read the entire book? - by which time I’d been getting it wrong for months and my incorrect pronunciation was fixed. Still, there it is. Peter Jackson got it right and I was wrong. 

Not content with one Dark Lord, Tolkien created two - three, if you count the otherwise anonymous Witch-King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul and the scariest of the bunch if you want my opinion.  In The Silmarillion Melkor is given the name MORGOTH after destroying the Two Trees and stealing the Silmarils. In Sindarin the name means ‘Dark Enemy’ or ‘Black Foe’, but Tolkien must have been aware that its second element conjures the 5th century Goths who sacked Rome and that, additionally, the name carries echoes of MORDRED, King Arthur’s illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgan le Fay. Of course Mordred is not a high fantasy Dark Lord, but he’s certainly a force for chaos and darkness. Though the name is actually derived from the Welsh Medraut (and ultimately the Latin Moderatus), to a modern English ear it suggests the French for death, ‘le mort’, along with the English ‘dread’: a pleasing combination for a villain. Mordred and Morgoth are names redolent of fear, death and darkness, and the ‘Mor’ element appears again in Sauron’s realm of ‘Mordor’, the Black Land. 

The name of JK Rowling’s LORD VOLDEMORT is also suggestive of death and borrows some of the dark glamour of Mordred, but the circumlocutory phrase HE-WHO-MUST-NOT-BE-NAMED (used by his enemies for fear of conjuring him up) certainly owes something to H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Interestingly, males become Dark Lords but females are never Dark Ladies – which doesn’t have the same ring at all*. They turn into Dread Queens, such as Galadriel might have become if she had succumbed to temptation and taken the Ring from Frodo:

In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and Lighting! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!

Coming down to us from many an ancient goddess, Dread Queens are usually beautiful, sexual women of great power and cruelty, like T.H. White’s MORGAUSE, Queen of Orkney from The Once And Future King, busy – on the first occasion we meet her – boiling a cat alive. In his notes about her, T.H. White wrote:

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, power (and racism): White is clearly very frightened of this woman. He didn’t find her character in Le Morte D’Arthur: Malory’s Morgawse is a great lady whose sins are adulterous rather than sorcerous – but her half-sister MORGAN LE FAY is an enchantress whose name is derived from the Old Welsh/Old Breton Morgen, connected with water spirits and meaning ‘Sea-born’. A final example from Celtic legend is Alan Garner’s ‘MORRIGAN’, a name variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen, depending this time on whether the ‘Mor’ element is written with a diacritical or not. Enough already!

Not every Dark Lord’s name works as well as Sauron and Voldemort. I’m underwhelmed by Stephen Donaldson’s ‘LORD FOUL THE DESPISER’ from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever. Donaldson seems jumpily aware of the long shadow of Tolkien. He struggles to produce convincing names (for example the Cavewight ‘Drool Rockworm’ whose name to my mind belongs not in the Land, but in the Discworld). I've always thought that to call a Dark Lord ‘Lord Foul’ is barely trying, and tagging ‘the Despiser’ on to it doesn’t help. (‘He’s foul, I'm telling you! He’s really foul! I’ll prove it – he despises things too!’) Tacking an adjective or adverb on to a fantasy name often only weakens it, as in the case of the orc-lord AZOG THE DEFILER whom Peter Jackson introduced to the film version of The Hobbit. Azog is to be found in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien writes in laconic prose modelled on the Icelandic sagas, of how Azog killed Thrór, hewed off his head and cut his name on the forehead (thus indeed defiling the corpse).

Then Nár turned the head and saw branded on it in Dwarf-runes so that he could read it the name AZOG. That name was branded in his heart and in the hearts of all the Dwarves afterwards.

Just ‘Azog’, you see? The name on its own is quite enough.

Donaldson is trying to emulate Tolkien’s linguistic density, in which proper names from different languages pile up into accumulated richness like leafmould: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, Nanduhirion. But we cannot all be philologists. Lord Foul’s various sobriquets, which include ‘The Gray Slayer’, ‘Fangthane the Render’, ‘Corruption’, and ‘a-Jeroth of the Seven Hells’, only suggest to me an author having a number of stabs at something he knows in his heart he isn’t quite getting right. ‘Fangthane’?  A word which means ‘sharp tooth’ attached to a word which means ‘a man who holds land from his overlord and owes him allegiance’? It could work for a Gríma Wormtongue, but not for a Dark Lord. 

Dark Lords are a strange clan. Why anyone over the age of eighteen would wish to dress entirely in black and live at the top of a draughty tower in the midst of a poisoned wasteland is something of a mystery, unless perhaps Dark Lords are younger than we think. If they’re actually no older than Vyvyan from The Young Ones, it could totally explain their continuously bad temper, their desire to impress, their attacks on mild mannered, law-abiding citizens (aka parents), their taste in architecture (painting the bedroom black and decorating it with heavy metal posters) and their penchant for logos incorporating spiderwebs, fiery eyes, skulls, etc.

It probably also explains their peculiar names. Most teenage boys at some point reject the names their parents picked for them and go in for inexplicable nicknames like Fish, Grazz, or Bazzer… Anyway, the all-out winner of the Dark Lord Weird Name competition has got to be Patricia McKillip, whose beautiful fantasies are written in prose as delicate and strong as steel snowflakes (Ombria In Shadow is one of my all-time favourites). But the Dark Lord in her early trilogy The Riddle-Master rejoices in (or is cursed with) the altogether unpronounceable and eye-boggling GHISTELWCHLOHM. He wins hands down. Lord Schnubalut, eat your heart out.

*The pun was unintentional.

Picture credits:

Cover detail from The Fellowship of the Ring, George Allen and Unwin (author's possession)

Melkor, Wikimedia commons,

Morgan le Fay  by Frederick Sandys (1864)

Adrian Edmonson as Vyvyan Basterd from The Young Ones