Think of English folk music today and what comes to mind is Seth Lakeman, Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons, perhaps even Noah and the Whale or the Bombay Bicycle Club. The seeds of the English folk music revival were, however, sown much earlier, by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, over a century ago. He was the central figure in the English musical renaissance of the first half of the twentieth century. His interest in folk-song, the tradition of amateur music making and the works of Byrd and Purcell enabled him to escape from the European romantic inheritance of his predecessors and create a new and personal style, which created the conditions in which others could do the same. Although he was born in Gloucestershire, Vaughan Williams had Welsh blood in his veins, and this strong Celtic heritage is perhaps what first attracted him to the body of British myth and folklore in which he retained an abiding interest throughout his life. He even makes a fictionalized cameo appearance in perhaps the finest British fantasy novel of the last quarter of a century, Robert Holdstock’s Lavondyss. Here he encounters the young protagonist Tallis Keeton during her formative years and appears in typical song-collecting mode. Such an episode would have been very much in character for the real Vaughan Williams, who was an inveterate raconteur and collector of songs as stories throughout his life. In this sense Vaughan Williams has made as much of a contribution to the rediscovery and preservation of the English folk tradition as Holdstock, Tolkien or any other prose artist that this land has ever produced.
In the writings of Tolkien it is said that in the Elder days, within the deepest pits of Utumno, the first dark lord Morgoth committed his greatest act of blasphemy. For in that time he captured many of the newly risen race of Elves and took them to his dungeons where, with hideous acts of torture, he made ruined and terrible forms of life. From these he bred a goblin race of slaves, who were as loathsome as Elves were fair. These were the Orcs, a multitude brought forth in shapes twisted by pain and hate. The only joy of these creatures was in the pain of others, for the blood that flowed within Orcs was both black and cold. Their stunted form was hideous: bent, bow-legged and squat. Their arms were long and strong as those of an ape, and their skin was black as wood that has been charred by flame. The jagged fangs in their wide mouths were yellow, their tongues red and thick, and their nostrils and faces were broad and flat. Their eyes were crimson gashes, like narrow slits in black iron grates behind which hot coals burn. Tolkien’s Orcs have been copied many times in fantasy media – debased, changed and even made humorous. But nothing that has been published since the Lord of the Rings has truly done justice to this, one of Tolkien’s most original and fearsome creations: the brood of Morgoth, spawned from the deepest, foulest pits of Utumno.
The festival centered upon the summer solstice – known as Midsummer Day or Litha – was an auspicious time for ancient peoples. It was at Midsummer that the Holly King, God of the Waning Year, was believed to encounter and vanquish the Oak King, thereby succeeding in usurping the reign of the year. In Celtic mythology the lord of summer ruled the light half of the year and was a young God, fresh and child-like in many ways. He was often depicted much like the Green Man or the Lord of the Forest, covered in greenery and made to look as though the top of his head was an oak tree, hence giving rise to his alternative moniker of the Oak King. The Oak King represented fertility, life, growth and opportunity and is thus linked with several legendary figures associated with nature and rebirth, such as Robin Hood, the Norse god Balder, the Greek god Dionysus and Herne the Hunter. There are many more myths and legends surrounding the festival of Midsummer, which has been one of the important solar events throughout the history of mankind. According to folklore it is the time that the fairies and nature spirits cross back and forth between our realm and theirs to play tricks on unsuspecting mortals. Midsummer is especially important in the cultures of Scandinavia, Estonia and Latvia, where it is the most celebrated holiday apart from Christmas. On the other side of the world, an old Maori proverb states that if you turn your face to the sun at Midsummer, the shadows will fall behind you. Perhaps most famously, William Shakespeare himself utilised the many mythological and fairytale associations of this time of year in penning his comedy romance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With Midsummer almost upon us, there is no better time to reflect upon the festival’s roots in superstition, myth and legend in so many nations.
Britain has produced its fair share of fantasy authors over the years, including David Gemmell, T H White, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and countless others. Many of these writers hail from all corners of the British Isles but there is one city in particular that seems to have produced a disproportionate number of fantasy authors – Oxford. J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Alan Garner’s Wild Magic series, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and, most recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, all have one thing in common – not only did their authors attend the city’s famous university, the inspiration for their novels often came from the time they spent in Oxford. Even J K Rowling is rolled up in the Oxford mythos, as the Potter films use many Oxonian locations. What is it about Oxford that has proved so inspirational for so many of the greatest authors ever to write in the fantasy genre? One explanation may lay in the fact that, while Oxford is probably most famous for its ancient university, its royal associations and its modern car production factories, this historic city is also full of strange accounts of fantastical happenings, ghostly manifestations, and related supernatural phenomena. Perhaps this should come as no great surprise: if any place in Britain is going to be haunted then it is Oxford, cruel to kings, malignant to monks and redolent with scandal. But Oxford has also been described as the home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties – in the words of Matthew Arnold – the sweet city of dreaming spires.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my abiding interest in the primeval woodlands of the world and their mythological associations. There are few forests in legend or literature that are as replete with such connotations as Broceliande, a mythical wood reputedly located in France’s very own Celtic heartland, Brittany. Broceliande is a notable place of legend because of its uncertain location, unusual weather, and its ties with Arthurian Romance, in particular a magical fountain and the tomb of the legendary figure Merlin. Broceliande is first named as a legendary forest in literature in 1160, in the Roman de Rou, a verse chronicle written by Wace, a Norman poet. In modern times, Broceliande is most commonly considered to be Paimpont forest in Brittany, although most serious scholars think that Broceliande is a purely mythological place that never existed at all. However, the notion of Broceliande cannot be dismissed entirely – an ancient and immense forest did, after all, cover the entire centre of Brittany until the High Middle Ages. Certainly this mystical forest, whether real or imagined, has figured prominently in fiction from the time of Wace right up to the present day – most recently in Robert Holdstock’s mesmerizing fantasy novel, Merlin’s Wood.
The cultural heritage of the North American aboriginal peoples includes oral traditions remembered and preserved in myths. Storytellers over thousands of years of Native North American culture have been unconstrained by literary form, which can transform inspiration into rigid canons of belief and practice. They have been free to listen to their own heritage and speak with voices that reflect individual vision and the wisdom of the ages. Personal insight, sought through dreams, vision quests and other forms of inspiration, is a critical aspect of spirituality in most North American aboriginal cultures. It makes the mythology as mutable – and fragile – as the storyteller’s world. Yet, by living in the spoken word, the song and the dance, the spirits of the imagination survive across generations, passing on the essence of what it means to be a human being. Aboriginal thinkers see the earth as a living spiritual realm where supernatural beings still reside and every territory has its sacred places. High mountains and prominent rock formations, caves and crevices, waterfalls and springs are all spirit dwellings. Tribal shamans conduct rituals to obtain the visions and dreams necessary for contact with the manitous in the rocks and waters. To climb a high mountain was a journey into the realms of the spirit world, done carefully and with respect. The spirits of the great plains, whether they were encountered on a vision quest or hidden but ever-watchful, always remain powerful, even dangerous, in their abodes.
Every culture has evolved its own mythology, defining its character and offering a way to understand the world. In this sense myths might almost be said to be magic mirrors, reflecting not just our own hopes and fears, but also those of people from earlier times. Some of the stories are unimaginably old and were almost certainly recounted long before the birth of writing and the dawn of recorded history. Collectively, the tales form the basis of much of the world’s literature, philosophy and religion, and act as a powerful document of the human imagination. From Mesopotamia, the cradle of Western civilization, come legends of which we are able to glimpse only fragments, while the belief systems of other ancient societies, such as the Egyptians and Greeks, are far more readily accessible. The stories that have survived from these ancient civilizations describe gods that have long passed into history. Other deities, such as those of Hinduism and Buddhism, remain at the centre of living faiths, worshipped by millions of present-day devotees. But whether myths belong to current or long-vanished cultures, they continue to exert their influence on the civilizations of the world, as their themes are explored in literature and the visual arts, and the archetypes they present help to deepen our understanding of human psychology.
One of the most stirring aspects of the Arthurian legends are the wondrous lands which those myths tell of. Places like Camelot, Lyonesse and Avalon are inhabited by a mesmerising cast of knights, fair ladies, wizards and mythic beasts of all kinds. Camelot, Arthur’s shining city-castle, drew knights from far and wide to join the Fellowship of the Round Table, inspired by ideals of courage, honour and chivalry. Avalon was another name for the Otherworld, and was the place where Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, as well as being the supposed site of his eventual tomb. Lyonnesse, meanwhile, was a land of strange beauty and romance, site of the tangled love story of Tristan and Iseult. What many people do not realise, however, is that all of these places have definite historical and modern counterparts in the real-life British Isles. One only needs to look to England’s mythical west country to find the likes of Camelot, Lyonnesse and Avalon, while even more obscure places, such as the Grail Castle of Carbonek, Arthur’s birthplace at Tintagel and the grim fortress of Perilous Garde can all also be found. If you look hard enough, the lost realms of King Arthur are not all quite as far away as you might think.
The custom of the Christmas tree as we know it today has its origins in 15-16th century Germanic culture, although it has far more ancient precedents. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common in pagan Europe, even surviving the conversion of much of the continent to Christianity, for example in the form of Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Yuletide. The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day can be traced to festive celebrations in Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany, and they grew only more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the early 19th century, the custom had become popular among the nobility across Europe and had spread to royal courts as far as Russia. The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen famously published a fairy-tale called The Fir-Tree in 1844, recounting the fate of a fir-tree being used as a Christmas tree. In Britain the Christmas tree became fashionable (like most things during the Victorian era) due to its popularity with the royal house of Hanover, and it has been with us ever since. This is a far cry indeed from the Christmas tree’s origins in antiquity, which are symbolized by evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak (though the oak tree is obviously not an evergreen) and the popularized story of Saint Boniface and the conversion of the German pagans.