Thursday 28 April 2016

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: the book

"There are seven miles of hill on fire for you to cross, and there are seven miles of steel thistles and seven miles of sea."

The quotation is from an Irish fairy tale, 'The King Who Had Twelve Sons': the hero has to ride his pony over three-times-seven miles of punishing obstacles to reach the islanded castle where lives 'the daughter of a king of the eastern world, with a pearl of gold on every rib of her hair'.  When I first read it, years ago, it seemed to me a metaphor not only for the creative effort and difficulty of writing a book, which was what I was currently engaged on, but of life and its struggles in general. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. And so this is what I named my blog, and now here is a book.

‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ is a collection of my essays on fairy tales and folklore, published by the Greystones Press.  Many of the essays began life as blog posts, but since blog posts tend to be ephemeral things, often written in haste, I went back to each and every one to revise and rewrite them. So at least half of the material here is new.  You'll find me talking about fairy brides, Japanese fox-spirits, selkies and White Ladies - taking a new look at Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty and other fairy-tale heroines - following the fortunes of the Lost Kings of Fairyland - finding what happened when William Butler Yeats successfully summoned the Queen of the Fairies, and wondering why and in what circumstances people actually believe in fairies.  

On a personal note, the last year has been a difficult one. Much of my time has been taken up with caring for my increasingly-frail and much-loved mother; those of you who are dealing with similar situations will know what this means.  Time has been scarce either to write or to update this blog, yet here it is, coming back to life, like the thin blades of green thrusting up through the sooty dust on the scorched hills. 

Seven miles of hill on fire and seven miles of steel thistles and seven miles of sea to cross, and yet:

'He gave his face to the way, and he would overtake the wind of March that was before him, and the wind of March that was after would not overtake him.'

‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ is available from Amazon in both print
and e-book formats

Saturday 16 April 2016

Dreams and Ghosts

I do love old books.  They don't make them like that any more. I love the smell, the thick silky quality of the paper, the rough-cut, uneven edges, the gilt-embossed covers, the blackness of the print, and the tactile sense of so many other hands which have held it and turned the pages...  A few years ago, wandering the labyrinthine passageways of our local second hand bookshop, I came across this 1899 edition of Andrew Lang’s The Book of Dreams and Ghosts.  Even if I’d never heard of Andrew Lang I couldn’t have resisted that title. I bought it for a couple of pounds. 

What it is, is pretty much what it says on the cover.  A collection of supernatural or ghostly anecdotes taken from all kinds of sources: the key element being that none of them were originally offered as fiction.  They are all, for what it’s worth, ‘true stories’. Many are contemporary accounts sent to Andrew Lang by various friends. Some are historical, but even the ones from old Icelandic sagas were intended to be read as factual accounts. 

Lang was interested in recording and investigating what might loosely be termed supernatural phenomena, and in 1911 he was President of the Society for Psychical Research, but he was neither a believer nor a sceptic; of course his other interests lay in folklore, anthropology and fairy tales. 

The author has frequently been asked, both publicly and privately: “Do you believe in ghosts?”  One can only answer: “How do you define a ghost?”  I do believe, with all students of human nature, in hallucinations of one, or of several, or even of all the senses.  But as to whether such hallucinations, among the sane, are ever caused by psychical influences from the minds of others, alive or dead, not communicated through the ordinary channels of sense, my mind is in a balance of doubt.  It is a question of evidence.

There is a great difference between a supposedly ‘true’ ghost story and a fictional one.  I once lived in a small Yorkshire village full of very old houses (the one I myself lived in dated in part from the late seventeenth century).  Our neighbours in the even older whitewashed farmhouse down by the beck had a Red Lady who sometimes looked out of one of the small upstairs windows.  And they were used to hearing footsteps cross the floor overhead, when no one should be there.  But that was it: there was no story attached.  Further down the road there was a ford across the beck, and a medieval ‘clapper bridge’ made of two huge stone slabs known as ‘Monks Bridge’, probably because Fountains Abbey used to own much of the land. The cottage nearby was said to be haunted.  Coming on foot up the unlit road one dark chilly night at about two o’clock in the morning, I was disconcerted to see someone lingering near the bridge, wearing a hooded garment which I took to be a cagoule. As I passed, the hooded person – whoever it was – slowly and very silently moved away from me down towards the ford and the rushing water. I didn’t think ‘ghost’, I thought ‘oddball’ and hurried on.  Later, I wondered…  And my own aunt was well known in the family for seeing the dead, including her husband, who once – pipe in hand – politely drew back to allow her to pass through a door in her Leeds Victorian terrace, some months after he had died. 

The point about these stories is that there is no point.  They have no real beginning, no middle, no end, no structure.  They aren’t stories at all – just anecdotes. You hear them, you are impatient or fascinated according to your nature – and then you shrug, because there is no way to take them any further.  People love explanations, of course, so sometimes there is an attempt to provide some kind of Gothic rationale involving hidden treasure, wicked lords, seduced nuns, suicides and murders. These are rarely convincing. ‘Real’ ghost stories (and nearly everybody knows one) are open-ended oddities, and quite frequently the person involved does not realise anything strange is happening until afterwards.

Here’s an example from Lang’s book:

The brother of a friend of my own, a man of letters and wide erudition, was, as a boy, employed in a shop. The overseer was a dark, rather hectic-looking man, who died.  Some months afterwards the boy was sent on an errand. He did his business, but, like a boy, returned by a longer and more interesting route.  He stopped at a bookseller’s shop to stare at the books and pictures, and while doing so felt a kind of mental vagueness.  It was just before his dinner hour and he may have been hungry.  On resuming his way, he looked up and found the dead overseer beside him.  He had no sense of surprise, and walked for some distance, conversing on ordinary topics with the appearance.  He happened to notice such a minute detail as that the spectre’s boots were laced in an unusual way.  At a crossing, something in the street attracted his attention; he looked away from his companion, and, on turning to resume their talk, saw no more of him.

Here a number of details (the ‘dark and hectic’ features of the dead man; the curiously-laced boots), are presented as corroborative evidence. If the boy could describe the boots so minutely – well, he must have seen something! This sort of ghost story is very much alive and well in the oral tradition.  ‘A funny thing happened…’  ‘A friend of mine told me…’  We enjoy listening; at least I do – but the teller is excused the structure of the literary ghost story.  Because what happened is ‘real’, no other framework is necessary.  M.R. James is very, very good at convincing his readers that his ghosts are real, and one of the ways he does it is to build in these inconsequential details ("the red cloth just by his left elbow") that underwrite the supernatural invasion.  Here his scholarly hero Dennistoun is murmuring peacefully (for the moment) to himself, as he studies Canon Alberic's scrapbook:

“Dear me! I wish that landlady would learn to laugh in a more cheering manner; it makes one feel as if there was someone dead in the house. Half a pipe more, did you say? I think perhaps you are right.  I wonder what that crucifix is that the young woman insisted on giving me?  Last century, I suppose. Yes, probably.  It is rather a nuisance of a thing to have round one’s neck – just too heavy. ...I think I might give it a clean up before I put it away.”

He had taken the crucifix off and laid it on the table, when his attention was caught by an object lying on the red cloth just by his left elbow.  Two or three ideas of what it might be flitted though his brain with their own incalculable quickness. 

“A penwiper?  No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too black. A large spider? I trust to goodness not – no. Good God!  a hand like the hand in that picture!”

Few ‘true’ ghost stories are as good as the strange tale of Margaret Richard, reported in a book called ‘The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales’ by Edmund Jones, an eighteenth century Welsh minister who compiled narratives of supernatural encounters in an attempt to prove the existence of both God and the Devil. Margaret’s sweetheart got her pregnant and then jilted her at the altar, sending word he was too sick to come.  Furious, Margaret fell on her knees and prayed he should have no rest in this world or the next. He must really have been sick, though, for shortly afterwards he died and his ghost kept appearing to Margaret until finally she took his hand and forgave him.  He vanished and never troubled her again, but here’s the creepy bit: ‘His hand did not feel like the hand of a man, but like moist moss.’

No one could have made that up! is the first reaction to this kind of thing.  But of course the ability to do just that is one of the prerequisites for writing a successful fictional ghost story. If Edmund Jones had not been a minister, he had the imaginative and descriptive power to have become an excellent ghost story writer.  Here he lies half-awake in a dank Monmouthshire bedroom ‘partly underground and known to be an unfriendly place’, being assailed by Satan:

After I had slept some time and awaked, the enemy violently came upon me. I heard him say in my ear: ‘Here the devil comes in his strength.’ (And that was true.) He made a noise by my face, such as is made when a man opens his mouth wide and draws in his breath, as if he would swallow something. He also made a sound over me like that of dry leather and, by my left ear, a sound something like the squeaking of a pig. The clothes moved under me and my flesh trembled, and the terror was so great that I sweated under the great diabolical influence.

He must at least, if you will excuse me, have been one hell of a preacher.

The least strained of traditional explanations for hauntings is that the troubled spirit cannot rest until some wrong it did or suffered in life has been put right.  Here’s another account from Andrew Lang’s book, verbatim from a seventeenth century pamphlet with the pleasing title: Pandaemonium, or the Devil’s Cloister Opened.  Notice again the use of incidental details to lend verisimilitude:

About the month of November in the year 1682, in the parish of Spraiton, in the county of Devon, one Francis Fey (servant to Mr Philip Furze) being in a field near the dwelling place of his said master, there appeared to him the resemblance of an aged gentleman like his master’s father, with a pole or staff in his hand, resembling that he was wont to carry when living to kill the moles withal… The spectrum…bid him not to be afraid of him, but tell his master that several legacies which by his testament he had bequeathed were unpaid, naming ten shillings to one and ten shillings to another…

This restless spirit was considered of dubious origin – suspicions soon gratified by events.  The ghost was joined by that of his second wife, after which the neighbourhood was plagued with poltergeist activities which nowadays might point to the aptly named Francis Fey himself as the source of the problems:

Divers times the feet and legs of the young man have been so entangled about his neck that he has been loosed with great difficulty: sometimes they have been so twisted about the frames of chairs and stools that they have hardly been set at liberty. 

Hmm. However, Fey’s master and neighbours pitied him as a victim of the simple malevolence of the devil, so no further explanation seemed to be required.

Lang’s book touches upon all kinds of occult anecdotes, from premonitory dreams (“mental telegraphy”) to the full blown and richly detailed ghost story of the ‘Hauntings At Fródá’ from Eyrbyggja Saga.  Too long to retell here, the tale follows the disastrous series of events following the death of the strange Hebridean woman Thorgunna at the farm of Fródá on Snaefellness, when her hostess Thurid refuses to honour a deathbed promise to burn Thorgunna’s sumptuous bed-hangings, which Thurid had long coveted.  It has to be one of the best and most matter-of-fact accounts ever of ghost-as-reanimated-corpse – a phenomen which Iceland does particularly well – and ends on another splendidly Icelandic note when the hosts of the dead are finally driven away by a legal decision in a court of law. Though obviously ‘written up’ by the author of the saga, this retains much of the loose-ended mystery of the oral tradition.  We never find out any more about Thorgunna, or quite why the violation of the taboo laid on her bed-hangings should have had such drastic consequences.

For me, the very best literary ghost stories are those which manage to combine the best of both worlds – enough of a structure to provide a balanced, causal feel to the story, enough open-ended mystery to fascinate.  A ghost story which is tied off too tightly is never entirely satisfying. They are very hard things to write, especially if you want to avoid Victorian pastiche. I recommend Alison Lurie's collection of short stories 'Women and Ghosts', Robert Westall's 'The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral' (Westall was very good at ghosts), Candy Gourlay's 'Shine', and Michelle Paver's brilliant and chilling novella 'Dark Matter'. To end with, here’s a ‘true’ ghost story told to me in the good old classic fashion by a friend, some years ago when I lived in France. 

My friend was an American woman married to a Frenchman.  They lived in a modern house in Fontainebleau, but her husband had elderly aunts who owned a little chateau – no doubt one of those elegant small eighteenth century houses with shuttered windows and walled grounds that are scattered around the French countryside.  This one was somewhere north of Paris, and the family would descend upon it for get-togethers at Christmas and Easter. 

The bedrooms all had names, a charming custom – the Chambre Rouge, the Chambre Jaune, etc – but, said my friend, there was one bedroom everyone hoped they wouldn’t get, which latecomers would unavoidably be stuck with – the Chambre des Mouches: ‘The Bedroom of the Flies.’

It wasn’t just, my friend said, that there always seemed to be a number of flies in the room – big, sleepy, buzzy flies, crawling on the windows.  One of the windows had been walled up, which was a little creepy.  And there was a small powder room off the main chamber, which might once have used as a nursery.  But, mainly, you never got a good night’s sleep there.  You lay awake listening to noises.  As if something was shuffling about, or dragging something across the floor.  That was all.  But she didn’t like it. 

And so when an American friend called Meredith came visiting from the States and a visit to the chateau was proposed and she was given the Chambre des Mouches, no one in the family said anything.  Because the house was full and no other bedroom was available, and really, the whole thing was probably nonsense… but there was a certain interest around the breakfast table next morning when Meredith came downstairs.

“How did you sleep?” they asked. Meredith hesitated.  “Oh, I was comfortable enough – but I didn’t sleep too well because of that darned cuckoo clock. It went off every hour, bing bong, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, and kept waking me up.”

“But Meredith,” said my friend, as an indrawn breath went around the table, “there isn’t any cuckoo clock.”

Picture credits

Book of Dreams and Ghosts - Katherine Langrish
Illustration from Canon Alberic's Scrapbook - James McBride
Housefly -

Wednesday 6 April 2016

Folklore snippets: The River-Man

‘A Strömkarl sings…’ One of the many strange creatures in Alan Garner's wonderful children's fantasy 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen'  is the strömkarl which the children and the dwarfs hear playing on the Goldenstone as they emerge from the constrictive darkness of the Earldelving:

He was less than three feet high; his skin lustrous as a pearl; his hair rippling to his waist in green sea-waves. And the sad melody ran beneath his fingers like the song of water over pebbles.

Of course I didn't know, when I first read that as a child, that 'strömkarl' simply means 'river man'. He is one of the river-spirits of Scandinavia, who are as numerous and varied as the rivers themselves.  Strömkarls and Neckans often sing beautifully, or play on harps, and the latter is sometimes heard grieving that he will never have eternal life. The Neckan or Nökken has a tendency to call to people and lure them into the water. The River-horse or Bäck-hästen is similar to the Scottish kelpie: once you mount on his back, he will dash into the water and try to drown you. 

Fittingly, all these creatures are fluid: they shape-change. The Nök sometimes takes River-horse form, or may appear in the shape of a little, bearded man: the Strömkarl may assume the likeness of your lover or friend.

The River-Man (the Strömkarl or Neckan)

Like the trolls and the wood-fairies, the river-man belongs to the fallen angels, and like these he also desires to play wicked pranks on mankind, so he changes his shape at pleasure. A story is told of a young girl who engaged herself to an agreeable young man, and the two were in the habit of meeting beside a stream.  The river-man took advantage of this, put on the shape of her betrothed, and met the girl several times.  She found, however, that he behaved differently from his usual conduct, and complained to her parents.  These suspected mischief, and told her that the next time she met him, she should pretend to be very friendly with him, and so get out of him the way to protect herself against the river-man.  She took their advice, and he was foolish enough to say to her, that whoever carried on their person, ‘wall-stone, sausage-bone, and the white under ground,’ would be safe from him.  The girl then searched for a stone from a clay-covered house wall, a bone-splinter from a meat-sausage, and a garlic-root; these she carried about with her, and so put an end to his tricks.

The river-man plays music in the rivers and streams. His music is wondrously beautiful to hear, but dangerous to listen to, for one can lose their senses by standing and hearing the dance to the end. Many village musicians have been known,who have learned from him to play this elf-dance, and have sometimes played the first parts of it at Christmas parties and elsewhere. This might be done without any danger to themselves or to the dancers, but if the player had not sense enough to stop at the end of the third part, but began the fourth and last , then it was too late. At the third part both old and young danced like mad, but now the musician and tables and benches dances as well, and could not stop so long as life was in the people, unless someone from outside entered the room and cut all the strings of the violin across with a knife.

Scandinavian Folk-Lore, ed. William Craigie, 1896

In one of the most famous stories, the river-man is rebuked by a passing priest who jeers at him, 'How can you play such music, knowing you have no soul? Sooner shall this stick of mine burst into flower than the Neckan receive God's mercy and eternal life.'  Weeping bitterly, the poor Neckan throws his harp aside: within a few paces, however, the priest's staff  bursts into sudden blossom and, shamed by the miracle, the priest confesses that God's mercy extends to all his creatures.  In this poem the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold (who seems to have loved Scandinavian folklore) imagines the Neckan's response. (Turning this particular Neckan into a Sea King who has married a mortal woman, Arnold has blended it with the ballad of Agnete and the Merman which inspired his long poem 'The Forsaken Merman'.) 

In summer, on the headlands,
The Baltic Sea along,
Sits Neckan with his harp of gold,
And sings his plaintive song.

Green rolls beneath the headlands,
Green rolls the Baltic Sea;
And there, below the Neckan’s feet,
His wife and children be.

He sings not of the ocean,
Its shells and roses pale;
Of earth, of earth the Neckan sings,
He hath no other tale.

He sits upon the headlands,
And sings a mournful stave
Of all he saw and felt on earth
Far from the kind sea-wave.

Sings how, a knight, he wander’d
By castle, field, and town—
But earthly knights have harder hearts
Than the sea-children own.

Sings of his earthly bridal—
Priest, knights, and ladies gay.
“—And who art thou,” the priest began,
“Sir Knight, who wedd’st to-day?”—

“—I am no knight,” he answered;
“From the sea-waves I come.”—
The knights drew sword, the ladies scream’d,
The surpliced priest stood dumb.

He sings how from the chapel
He vanish’d with his bride,
And bore her down to the sea-halls,
Beneath the salt sea-tide.

He sings how she sits weeping
‘Mid shells that round her lie.
“—False Neckan shares my bed,” she weeps;
“No Christian mate have I.”—

He sings how through the billows
He rose to earth again,
And sought a priest to sign the cross,
That Neckan Heaven might gain.

He sings how, on an evening,
Beneath the birch-trees cool,
He sate and play’d his harp of gold,
Beside the river-pool.

Beside the pool sate Neckan—
Tears fill’d his mild blue eye.
On his white mule, across the bridge,
A cassock’d priest rode by.

“—Why sitt’st thou there, O Neckan,
And play’st thy harp of gold?
Sooner shall this my staff bear leaves,
Than thou shalt Heaven behold.”—

But, lo, the staff, it budded!
It green’d, it branch’d, it waved.
“—O ruth of God,” the priest cried out,
“This lost sea-creature saved!”

The cassock’d priest rode onwards,
And vanished with his mule;
But Neckan in the twilight grey
Wept by the river-pool.

He wept: “The earth hath kindness,
The sea, the starry poles;
Earth, sea, and sky, and God above—
But, ah, not human souls!”

In summer, on the headlands,
The Baltic Sea along,
Sits Neckan with his harp of gold,
And sings this plaintive song.

 Picture credits:

The Noekken or Nix by Theodor Kittelsen, Wikimedia Commons

Boy on White Horse, by Theodor Kittelsen, Wikimedia Commons

Agnete and the Sea King, John Bauer

A Crowned Merman, by Arthur Rackham, private collection, Wikimedia Commons