Wednesday 23 June 2021

The Silver Apples of the Moon, the Golden Apples of the Sun

This was our apple tree last September, so laden with fruit that branches actually cracked and broke off under the weight, as though taking Keats’ lines from Ode to Autumn far too literally –

To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core… 

The lawn was almost ankle deep in windfalls.

What is it about apples? Why are they so evocative? Why was the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – not actually named in the Bible – assumed to be an apple? Why did the Firebird, in Russian folklore, steal golden apples from the garden of the Czar? Why did golden apples of immortality grow in the Garden of the Hesperides, why was the Norse goddess Idun the keeper of golden apples which preserved the youth of the gods? Why was the Apple of Discord – with its inscription To the Fairest – an apple, and why were three golden apples so irresistible to Atalanta that she paused to pick them up and lost her race? (Mind you, that dress she's wearing wouldn't help.) 

The apple as the fruit of immortality, or perhaps equally of death, appears as a symbol in Celtic mythology too. Heralds from the Land of Youth might bear a silver apple branch, with silver blossom and golden fruit whose tinkling music lulled the hearers to sleep – perhaps to everlasting sleep. Arthur, after his final battle, went to the island of Avalon, the island of apples, to be healed of his mortal wound. Then of course there’s the apple given by the wicked Queen to Snow-White, one bite of which sends the little princess into a death-like sleep.    

Apples are tokens of love and promises of eternity. In Yeat’s ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, the lovelorn Aengus seeks forever the beautiful girl from the hazel wood.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
I find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

But such an eternity is probably also the land beyond death. 

Where do apples even come from, why are they so ubiquitous? Why, even today, are so many varieties available even in supermarkets, usually the home of homogeneity? I went into our local Sainsburys the other day and counted eleven different named varieties of apple all on sale at once: Empire, Royal Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Russets, Granny Smiths, Pink Ladies, Jazz, Braeburns and Bramleys. By contrast, there were only four named varieties of pears, and everything else was generic – bananas, strawberries, oranges, etc. 

Apples are related to roses, I’m delighted to tell you.  According to a rather lovely book called ‘Apples: the story of the fruit of temptation’, by Frank Browning (Penguin 1998):

‘In the beginning there were roses.  Small flowers of five white petals opened on low, thorny stems, scattered across the earth in the pastures of the dinosaurs, about eighty million years ago. …These bitter-fruited bushes, among the first flowering plants on earth, emerged as the vast Rosaceae family and from them came most of the fruits human beings eat today: apples, pears, plums, quinces, even peaches, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

‘The apple [paleobotanists believe]… was the unlikely child of an extra-conjugal affair between a primitive plum from the rose family and a wayward flower with white and yellow blossoms of the Spirea family, called meadowsweet.’ 

Isn’t that wonderful? Apples as we know them today developed in Europe and Asia. The Pharoahs grew them. The Greeks and Romans grew them. And they keep. You can store apples overwinter, eat them months after you’ve picked them: fresh fruit in hard cold weather when there’s nothing growing outside. So perhaps you would think of them as life-giving, immortal fruit. They smell fragrant. They feel good too: hard-fleshed, smooth, a cool weight in the hand.  

The medieval lyric 'Adam lay y-bounden' provocatively celebrates the Fall of Man when Adam ate the forbidden fruit:

And all was for an appil
An appil that he toke
As clerkes finden
Written in her boke.

It ends on the mischievously subversive thought that if Adam had not eaten the apple, Our Lady would never have become the Heavenly Queen:

Blessed be the time
That appil take was!
Therefore we maun singen:
Deo gratias.

Here is a poem by John Drinkwater (surely the most poetically-named poet ever!) which captures some of those mystical coincidences of apples, eternity, sleep, moonlight, magic and death. 


At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams
And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
On moon-washed apples of wonder.

Picture credits:

Apple tree: Author's garden
Atalanta racing Hippomenes: Willen van Herp, c1650
Silver Apples: Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh
Adam and Eve: Lucas Cranach, 1537
Apple Tree: Arthur Rackham


Friday 18 June 2021

A Fine Song of Love


The past is another country and it may take a lot of research and imagination to recreate its multilayered richness of sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. Visiting the Chiltern Open Air Museum a few years ago, I found myself shouting to be heard over the almost unbearable thunder of iron-rimmed cartwheels rolling over cobbles. I’d had no idea carts made so much noise – and that was a single, large, four-wheeled wagon pulled by a single horse.  Hard to imagine the din around the warehouses of London Docks in the 1880s.  

Music goes beyond natural sound, however. Music is a cultural construct, full of meaning: it reflects, interprets and to a large extent creates the manners and desires of its own time. It's natural to refer to music as we construct history. Swing-time, jazz, rock and roll, punk, reggae, hip-hop, grime – all tell something about the decades in which they flourish. Impossible to imagine the sixties without the Beatles or the Kinks. The same must be true for the deeper past. I once thrilled to a British Museum reconstruction of a Roman trumpet call, and what about the prehistoric bone flutes that were played in caves like Lascaux? (And why were they played, and for whose attention? The dead? Earth spirits?)

My children’s novel Dark Angels (HarperCollins) is set on the Welsh borders in the 1190s, and features a flawed heroic figure, Lord Hugo de La Motte Rouge, Norman warlord and ex-crusader who believes his dead wife may – just may – not be dead after all even though seven years have passed since he buried her. She may have been spirited away by the elf-folk and taken into the tunnels under the hill. In which case, there is a chance he could rescue her.

There are a quite a few 12th century legends on this mysterious subject, the idea of a lost lover re-encountered in some fairy land of the dead. Walter Map, a courtier at the court of Henry II, tells the story of a Breton knight who rescued his dead-and-buried wife when, months later, he saw her whirling in a fairy dance. And Sir Orfeo, the 13th century retelling of the Orpheus myth, most likely ultimately dates from this time, translated from a Breton lai into Middle English  and it has a happy ending.

So there I was with the idea that my knight Lord Hugo would be a sort of Orpheus figure. Therefore he needed to be musical. Now the Breton lais are lengthy stories in verse: they were performed by minstrels who probably chanted them with a musical prelude and interludes. And of course the 12th and 13th centuries were also the time of the troubadours of southern France whose songs were primarily songs of fin’ amour – of romantic love in high society.

Garden of Pleasure, Harley 4425, 15th C. 
It’s been suggested that the notion, even the emotion of romantic love was created by the troubadours: a product of the hot-house urges of often very young noblemen and noblewomen living in close proximity in small castles, with nothing much to do spending time together every day, with sex strictly off-limits, since marriage was a formal affair of property and alliances arranged by their elders. And this new music arose, a music of youth, full of expressions of forbidden desire: subversive, exciting, dangerous, fashionable.

Many troubadours were high-born men and women, whose songs were usually performed for them by a joglar or jongleur, a professional singer. Still, it seemed to me possible that my own Lord Hugo might on occasion be prevailed upon to sing his own songs – especially if he thought that doing so might help him win back his wife from the dead land.   

So I listened to troubadour songs. Here's an anonymous 13th century song performed by Arnaud Lachambre; it's known by its first line: 'Voulez vous que je vous chante?' I made a free translation of it to get myself in the mood for writing songs for Lord Hugo.

Volez vous que je vous chante             Would you like me to sing to you
Un son d’amours avenant?                 A fine song of love?                          
Vilain nel fist mie,                                By no peasant was it made,               
Ainz le fist un chevalier                       But a gentle knight who lay
Sous l’ombre d’un olivier                    With his sweetheart in his arms
Entre les bras s’amie.                          In an olive tree’s shade.

Chemisete avoit de lin                         She wore a linen chemise,
Et blanc peliçon hermin                       A pelisse of white ermine –
Et bliaut de soie                                   Of silk was her dress,
Chauces ot de jaglolai                         Her stockings were of iris leaves
Et solers de flours de mai                    And slippers of mayflowers
Estroitement chauçade                         Her feet to caress.

Ceinturete avoit de feuille                   Her girdle was of leaves
Que verdist quant li tens meuille,       Which grow green when it rains,
D’or est boutonade                             Her buttons of gold so fine,
L’aumosniere estoit d’amour              Her purse was a gift of love
Li pendant furent de flours                  And it hung from flowery chains
Par amours fu donade.                       As it were a lovers’ shrine.

Et chevauchoit une mule                     And she rode on a mule,
D’argent ert la ferruere                       The saddle was of gold,
La sele ert dorade;                              All silver were its shoes.
Sus la croupe par derriers                  To provide her with shade, 
Avoit plante trois rosiers                     On the crupper behind her
Pour faire li ombrage.                         Three rose-bushes grew.

Si s’en va aval la pree                         As she passed through the fields
Chevaliers l’ont encontree                  She met gentle knights
Beau l’on saluade:                              Who demanded courteously:
“Belle, dont estes vous nee?”             “Fair one, where were you born?”
“De France sui la louee,                     “From France am I come,
De plus haut parage.”                         And of high family.”

“Li rossignol est mon pere                 “The nightingale is my father
Qui chant sor la ramee                       Who sings from the branches
El plus haut boscage.                          Of the forest’s highest tree.
La seraine est mon mere                     The mermaid is my mother
Qui chante en la mer sale                   Who sings her sweet notes
Li plus haut rivage.”                           By the banks of the salt sea.”

“Belle, bon fussiez vous nee!              “Fair one, well were you born!          
Bien estes emparentee                         Well fathered, well mothered
Et de haut parage.                               And of high family.
Pleüst á Dieu nostre pere                    Now would God only grant
Que vous ne fussiez donee                   That you might be given
A femme esposade.”                            In marriage to me!”

Could a song be more sensual, the object of desire more dangerous? The lady in this chanson is a headily-erotic blend of wildwood flowers, songs and the fairy world, and that purse which hangs from her girdle on flowery chains ‘like a lover’s shrine’ is certainly a symbol Freud would have recognised. No wonder the young knights acknowledge her ‘high degree’ and long for her hand in marriage. It’s enough to turn their parents’ hair grey.  

Lady out riding, 16th C, by Gerard Horenbout  
Troubadour songs often use images such as the coming of the green leaves in spring and the song of the nightingale, to express the pain and delight and longing of love. Here’s Guillem de Peiteus, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, comparing love to a hawthorn branch:

As for our love, you must know how
Love goes – it’s like the hawthorn bough
That on the living tree stands, shaking
All night beneath the freezing rain
Till next day, when the warm sun, waking,
Spreads through green leaves and boughs again.

(Tr. W. D. Snodgrass.)

In the end I wrote this for Hugo to sing of his love:

When all the spring is bursting and blossoming,
And the hedges 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.”

It’s Hugo’s love and pain that drives the plot of Dark Angels and I needed the plangent, beautiful music of the 13th century to get it right.


Monday 7 June 2021



Aged nine and passionate about Narnia, I wrote a set of my own stories about that magical country, a far-off labour of love which resulted in the publication this year (2021) of my book about Narnia: 'From Spare Oom to War Drobe'. So great is the power of childhood reading to reverberate down the years! Now my friend and fellow author Elizabeth Kay has sent me a poem she wrote about her own experience of reading the Chronicles of Narnia when she was a child of ten. It’s so lovely I’ve asked her to let me share it with you: and this is her introduction.


For me, aged ten, the Chronicles of Narnia produced one of those lightbulb moments. I can remember sitting up in bed and thinking, ‘hang on – died and came back to life three days later? Where have I heard that before?’ It was my discovery of subtext, and the moment I made the connection, decoding the rest of the books became an obsession.

            Vera Rich, poetry translator extraordinaire who died ten years ago, knew all sorts of people and told me that Tolkien had tackled Lewis as to why everyone in Narnia spoke English. The Magician’s Nephew was written retrospectively to explain this, as well as being a convenient parallel for Genesis.

            My French teacher at school, a Dr Moore, lived with her elderly father who had been an Oxford don and a friend of all the Inklings. How I wish I’d asked a few more questions! But those books left such a lasting impression that when I wrote my own fantasy, The Divide, I wanted to recapture some of that feeling of exploring another world peopled with all the mythical beings of my childhood. It also led to my poem The Threshold, which was, incidentally, published by Vera Rich in her magazine Manifold.




When I was ten I found a door.

I turned the key; there was a catch,

Once opened, there were many more.


I’d always wanted to explore -

To cure that itch I couldn’t scratch.

When I was ten I found a door.


I heard a paper lion roar;

I watched a magic molehill hatch -

Once opened, there were many more.


I learnt about an ancient law,

And how the empress met her match;

When I was ten I found a door.


I thought about it, and I saw

The worlds that I could now unlatch;

Once opened, there were many more.


I put the book down on the floor

(I’d only read the briefest snatch)

When I was ten I found a door,

Once opened, there were many more.


 © Elizabeth Kay: Manifold Magazine, Spring 1998 




Picture credits:

Lucy enters the wardrobe: Pauline Baynes illustration to the deluxe edition of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (HarperCollins 1998) 

The wardrobe: Pauline Baynes illustration, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Geoffrey Bles, 1950