A sad tale’s best for winter… or so they say. I thought I’d round off the year with a post about one of my favourite seasonal fantasy novels, and the one that I almost invariably read at this time of year, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. In case you wondered, yes, this is the same story that was adapted into a film starring Colin Farrell a couple of years ago but the movie really does have very little to do with this unforgettable book. Helprin’s novel has a variety of inspirations, not least among them William Shakespeare’s 1623 play of the same name. Mostly set in a kind of mythical New York City, the story covers so many characters and interwoven tales that a plot summary is nearly impossible. Although ostensibly set at the turn of the last century, in reality the setting of Winter’s Tale bears little resemblance to any time or place that our world has ever known. Magical horses, roguish heroes and enchantment abound in this, the perfect fantasy tale for the festive season.
Puck, the mischievous imp of English folklore, also known as Robin Goodfellow, was immortalized in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The origins of this merry trickster figure are, however, far older and darker. The Old English puca – from which the name Puck is derived – is a kind of half-tamed woodland spirit, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in night-time woodlands. The Welsh called him Pwca, which is pronounced the same as his Irish incarnation Phouka, Pooka or Puca but these are far from his only names. Parallel words exist in many ancient languages – Puki in Old Norse, Pukis in the Baltic region and Bucca in Cornish – mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. Indeed, Pouk was a typical medieval term for the devil and the Phouka was sometimes pictured as a frightening creature with the head of an ass. Even the jolly-sounding moniker of Robin Goodfellow alludes to this creature’s more sinister side – Robin itself was a medieval nickname for the devil. How then did such a demonic spirit evolve into the merry sprite of Shakespeare’s most famous comedy?
Since ancient times the sea has been full to the brim with mythological connotations. The boundless ocean and its tributaries that run clear and lively throughout our realm also nurture the realm of Faerie. Water symbolizes primal beginnings, possibility and deep consciousness. Unfathomable, ever-changing, teeming with creatures both unseen and enormous, the seas of Faerie ripple with life, sweet to the taste and tingling with promises. Pure and chilly, this enchanted water rises into mortal lands through sacred springs and whirlpool tides. In its wake it sometimes drags magical beings into our realm… or takes mortals into Faerie’s depths. But while the currents of enchanted waters often hold many dangers – Krakens, serpents, strong tides and tempests – for all its treacheries the seas of Faerie provides a bounty: unequalled beauty and fertile sustenance. Water – in symbol and in nature – is life. Stories of life beneath the waves have been told for aeons – usually warning tales of merfolk and sirens who lure unsuspecting mortals to a watery death. There are legends of selkies who transform into the shapes of women to take mortal men as their husbands, coral cities and entire kingdoms on the ocean floor. One common thread appears to be that, though alluring, life beneath the sea is often perilous and the Lords – and Ladies – of the deep are not to be trifled with.
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.