The race of tree-like beings known as Ents are one of J R R Tolkien’s most original and beloved creations. When first he appears in The Two Towers, the lord of the Ents, Treebeard, is described as “a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck”. Treebeard himself describes his people thus: “Ent the earthborn, old as mountains”. Elvish histories tell of how in the Elder Days the Ents awoke in the great forests at the same time as the stars were rekindled. They came from the thoughts of Yavanna, Mother of the Earth, and were her shepherds of the trees, created to protect the forests from those who would despoil them. In one sense the creation of the Ents can be seen as a form of wish-fulfillment by Tolkien, who had a deeply personal love of trees and green things, as well as a horror of the industrial world. The Ents are also Tolkien’s riposte to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which he “disliked cordially”, remembering especially the “bitter disappointment and disgust… with the shabby use made… of the coming of ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill’”. Thus the ‘march of the trees’ motif is re-worked brilliantly in the stirring last march of the Ents on Isengard. Today, with the natural world disappearing around us in the face of the relentless march of technology, the concept of the trees waking to battle those who would despoil the green earth is an undeniably potent one, perhaps more so than ever before.
“If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?” (from An Unearthly Child).
Today marks fifty years since we first entered the TARDIS, fifty years since we first met a strange old man who whisked us off into space and time, fifty years since terrifying creatures drove us to hide behind the sofa… and fifty years since the birth of a TV legend. For five decades Doctor Who has enthralled millions of children and adults throughout the world, whether they watched in the monochrome days of the 1960s, or during the colourful 1970s and 1980s, or discovered the Doctor on CD or in print during his hiatus during the 1990s, or even encountered him for the first time only since the series’ revival in the 21st century. Doctor Who was first broadcast on British television on 23 November 1963 (just a few hours after the assassination of President John F Kennedy) and was intended originally to appeal to a family audience. As such, in its early days it was mainly an educational programme, using time travel as a means to explore scientific ideas and famous moments in history. The success of such stories as The Daleks (which introduced the Doctor’s most iconic and enduring foes) ensured that it became much more and as a result the series had an original 26-year unbroken run of episodes, which saw it explore the furthest reaches of space and time. Whilst it was cancelled in 1989, its dedicated fanbase ensured that Doctor Who never really went away – surviving initially in a popular series of paperback novels before a brief movie revival in 1996. The Doctor enjoyed a far more lasting return in 2005 and now, in its fiftieth anniversary year, appears more popular than ever. Let’s explore the mystery of Time’s Champion.
When George Lucas first brought Star Wars to the screen way back in 1977 it was for most of us only the first tiny glimpse into a universe which has, since then, only continued to expand. Nearly every scene in all six Star Wars films hints at a wealth of background detail. Heroes and villains ride in starships (both gleaming and grimy), aliens wield uniquely crafted weapons, and the histories of various cultures are indicated by distinctive architecture on numerous worlds. Although many background characters, devices, vehicles and structures were not identified by name on screen, most have acquired names and back-stories by way of the ‘Expanded Universe’ of Star Wars novels, reference books, comics, toys and games. Much has transpired to illuminate the various nooks and crannies of that far away galaxy that Lucas first revealed back in 1977. The much-loved classic Star Wars trilogy introduces an unlikely hero in the form of the ‘farmboy’ Luke Skywalker, who has never left his sleepy desert home planet of Tatooine. He has grown up in a dark time in a galaxy gripped in the iron fist of Emperor Palpatine and his foremost disciple, Darth Vader. In contrast, the much-maligned prequel trilogy travels back to the beginning of the Skywalker family saga, when the Old Republic still stands. This is a time populated with new characters, whose worlds are replete with gleaming spacecraft, intricate clothing, and exotic-looking robots. With the forthcoming release of a new sequel trilogy, the universe of Star Wars promises to expand still further, so who knows what the future holds for the franchise?
The Cthulhu Mythos was a term coined by August Derleth to describe the collective work of several writers, among them Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) and, most famously, H P Lovecraft. Architect of a universe without symmetry or sanity, Lovecraft challenged the preconceptions of his readers through his tales, in which mankind is alone and helpless in a reality as cruel and mysterious as it is vast. Lovecraft and his circle remade the horror genre in the early 20th century, discarding ghosts and witches and instead writing about malignant entities from beyond the stars. A number of plot devices were utilized by those writing about the Cthulhu Mythos in order to convey the essentials of Lovecraft’s cosmic philosophy. These devices included a wide array of extraterrestrial creatures (deemed ‘gods’ by their human followers), such as the cosmic entity in The Call of Cthulhu, the fungi from Yuggoth in The Whisperer in Darkness, and the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness. Then there is the veritable library of mythical books containing the forbidden truth about these ‘gods’, such as the Necronomicon, a blasphemous grimoire containing all manner of satanic rituals, apocalyptic prophecies and black magic spells, written circa 700 AD by the mad Arab Abdul al-Hazred. Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the fictionalized New England landscape which was to be such an influence on later horror writers. As Stephen King once said, when as a child he found in his attic a dusty copy of Lovecraft’s The Lurker in the Shadows that once belonged to his father, “I knew that I’d found home”.
A R Lloyd’s saga of Kine is a little known but utterly bewitching trilogy of animal fantasy novels, written very much in the epic, heartwarming and unforgettable tradition of Watership Down and Duncton Wood. The word ‘Kine’ comes from an Old English word for weasel and Lloyd’s books chronicle the life of a wild least weasel named Kine. One of the smallest predators in the world the least weasel is, despite its size, a fierce hunter, capable of killing fully-grown rabbits, as well as larger prey 5-10 times its own weight. As such, Lloyd’s story is not in any way cute or fluffy – the weasel is realistically depicted as a solitary predator, the natural world around him red in tooth and claw. This is perhaps unsurprising given Lloyd’s background growing up in rural Kent with the largely unspoilt English countryside all around him, complete with all its wild creatures. Indeed, the countryside is as much a character in the Kine saga as the eponymous weasel himself. Lloyd depicts a hidden world, where solitary creatures prowl secret paths and hedgerows, and whiskered legions gather for battle. This is the lost realm of the least weasel – enter it at your peril…
As September fades towards its dying embers, it is almost impossible to escape the thought that summer is but a memory and that the autumn season is upon us. This is a cause of sorrow for many and, accordingly, in art autumn is a season that is traditionally associated with melancholy. In Keats’ poem To Autumn, for example, he describes the season as a time of “mellow fruitfulness”; while the autumn-themed poetry of W B Yeats and the French poet Paul Verlaine is similarly characterised by a strong sense of sorrow. In contrast, I for one always look forward to the beginning of October as being, in my eyes at least, the official start of autumn in this country. Summer wanes and the year slouches on towards winter, green things fade and twilight comes earlier, but I don’t see this as any reason for despair. On the contrary, with the promise of Halloween and Bonfire Night casting their long and delicious shadows over the season, for me it is a time to revel in the still cold night and the falling leaves which echo the fall of the year. If you listen closely, you can already hear the steady beat of the drums of autumn.
Cantre’r Gwaelod is a legendary ancient sunken kingdom said to have occupied a tract of fertile land lying between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales. It has been described as a ‘Welsh Atlantis’ and has featured in folklore, literature and song. Many versions of the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend exist; having been passed down from generation to generation. There was a time when, if you looked out towards Ireland from the Dyfi Estuary, you would see fertile lands stretching out some 20 miles into what is now Cardigan Bay. Until the 17th Century, this lost land was called Maes Gwyddno (the land of Gwyddno) ruled as part of the Kingdom of Meirionnydd by King Gwyddno Garanhir (Longshanks), who was born circa 520 AD. But the legend which is known and told today, calls the land Cantre’r Gwaelod (the Lowland Hundred). This early legend has it that the land was drowned when the priestess of a fairy well allowed the water to overflow. Even today, it is said in the nearby town of Aberdyfi that if you listen closely you can hear the bells of the lost city ringing out from under the sea, especially on quiet Sunday mornings…
Stonehenge stands on the bare, windswept downs of Wiltshire, about 13 kilometres north of Salisbury in South West England. Although it is often described as a stone circle, it actually consists of the remains of several circles put up at different times, probably between 2,500 and 2,000 BC, until eventually it became what it is today: the most impressive Bronze Age monument in northwestern Europe. The reason why this ancient monument was constructed in the first place has been a matter of conjecture for centuries. Human remains found at the site, including bones identified to be almost 3,000 years old through carbon dating, indicate that Stonehenge could have been a burial ground from its earliest beginnings. It is often said that Stonehenge was built by the druids, who were the priests of the Celtic people before the Romans invaded Britain. However, Stonehenge in its final form was completed over a thousand years before the druids appeared in Britain at all. From the earliest times Stonehenge seems to have been planned so that the sun on midsummer morning is seen to rise behind the tip of one of the stones, known as the Heel Stone. It seems possible, therefore that the monument helped to keep a kind of annual calendar. Other stones seem to be lined up in such a way that they could be used to foretell astronomical events such as eclipses. If this is so, the people of that time had far more knowledge of mathematics and astronomy than prehistorians ever imagined. Who knows what secrets are hidden by the stones?
Although like everyone else I’m very much looking forward to The Desolation of Smaug, the first part of Peter Jackson’s cinematic Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, left me a little cold. It was overlong, self-indulgent and sorely lacking the absorbing quality which made its predecessor trilogy such a delight. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that for me the stand-out scene in the first Hobbit film involved one of the most triumphant elements of the Lord of the Rings movies – the character of Gollum, realized onscreen. In truth, though, I’ve always had a soft spot for Gollum, ever since I encountered him on the page when I first read The Hobbit years and years ago. The chapter Riddles in the Dark works on so many levels – a superb two-handed character study of both Bilbo and Gollum, an ingenious riddle contest, a prelude of sorts to The Lord of the Rings, and a moral lesson concerning the importance of pity. As the years went on and I began to study seriously the fabulous world of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Finnish legend from which Tolkien drew much of his inspiration, my appreciation for Riddles in the Dark only grew. It became clear to me that Tolkien was not simply making this stuff up – he was drawing upon the tradition of ancient and aristocratic literature of Northern Europe where the whole idea of testing by riddles came from. Gollum asks five riddles and Bilbo four – of these nine, several have definite and ancient sources. As Bilbo (and Tolkien himself) knew: “the riddle game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it”.
The Titans were gigantic beings who, according to Greek mythology, created the universe and ruled it until the time of the Olympian gods. They were the children of Oranos, lord of the heavens, and Gaia, mother of the earth. The Titans came to power after Cronos emasculated his tyrannical father Oranos with a sickle provided by his long-suffering mother Gaia. This theme of parent-child conflict was a recurrent one for the Titans. Cronos in his turn swallowed all his children, except Zeus, who was raised in secrecy after his mother Rhea presented a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to Cronos instead of the infant god (the Titans weren’t known for their intelligence). The eventual battle between the two races of gods, the Titans led by Cronos and the Olympians led by Zeus, lasted ten years and shook the universe like no other conflict. Afterwards, the victorious Zeus threw down the Titans who had opposed him and imprisoned them in the depths of Tartarus, deep beneath the underworld. For all we know today, that is where the Titans remain, although their names and feats are remembered with dread and awe. Apart from Oranos, Cronos and Gaia, other famous Titans included Prometheus, the changer; Oceanus, the mariner; Leto, the deceiver; Hyperion, the watcher; Theia, the seer; Helios, the sun; Hekate, the witch queen; and Atlas, upon whose broad shoulders the world itself rests.