While most of us have some passing familiarity with the myths of ancient Egypt, Scandinavia and the Classical world, more obscure are the gods and monsters of the Far East. The great world religions founded in West and Central Asia all influenced the indigenous beliefs of East and South-east Asia. However, the host countries tended to make the encroaching deities their own, embracing them within their own mythologies by a process of adaptation and assimilation. China, the so-called ‘Mother Civilisation of the East’, did not view the incoming gods and goddesses as a threat. The immensely stable structure of Chinese society meant that, rather than feeling threatened by outside beliefs, the Chinese were able to modify and absorb outside influences while maintaining their own culture. Elements of Chinese mythology and philosophy have made it into the mainstream consciousness in fragmentary form through films like Big Trouble in Little China and television series like Kung Fu. Most people have heard of the 14th century novel, Journey to the West, which tells how the Monkey King went up to heaven, where he stole the peaches of immortality and incurred the wrath of the gods. What is perhaps less well known is the complex structure underpinning all of these various fables, myths and legends.
Anyone who has read and loved C S Lewis’ Narnia books may have encountered what is usually referred to in literary circles today as ‘the problem of Susan’. Susan was the only one of the four Pevensie siblings who survived the train wreck (because she was not on the train or at the station) on Earth which sent the others to Narnia after The Last Battle. In that final book of the series, Susan is conspicuous by her absence. Why? Because, as Peter says, she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” and she is described, perhaps rather uncharitably, by Jill Pole as “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. Several people who are otherwise fans of the Narnia books have a big problem with Susan’s fate. Notably, Harry Potter author J K Rowling once commented: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that”. In his Companion to Narnia, Paul F Ford writes at the end of the entry for Susan Pevensie that “Susan’s is one of the most important Unfinished Tales of The Chronicles of Narnia”. In his short story The Problem of Susan, Neil Gaiman creates a fix that attempts to highlight the issue of Susan’s exile within the world of The Chronicles and within the ‘real world’. Since the publication of Gaiman’s story, ‘the problem of Susan’ has become used more widely as a catchphrase for the literary and feminist investigation into Susan’s treatment.
In The Hobbit, the character of Beorn is described as a huge, black-bearded man who wears a coarse wool tunic and is armed with a woodsman’s axe. His peculiar gift is that he is a ‘skin changer': that is, he can assume the appearance of a great black bear when the mood takes him. Whilst, shape-shifting tendencies aside, Beorn appears at first to be a relatively straightforward character from a children’s novel, he exemplifies a mass of complexities and tensions typical of much of Tolkien’s creative output. In naming his character, Tolkien used beorn, an Old English word for bear, which later came to mean man and warrior (with implications of freeman and nobleman in Anglo-Saxon society). It is related to the Scandinavian names Björn (Swedish and Icelandic) and Bjørn (Norwegian and Danish), meaning bear (the word baron is indirectly related to beorn). Beorn also one of many characters in Middle-Earth who are capable of devoting themselves to a just cause when the time is right, while preserving an aura of danger, self-sufficiency and freedom of choice. Other examples of this Tolkien archetype are Tom Bombadil, Treebeard, Radagast and even, to some extent, Aragorn. Like Beorn, these individuals are all stewards or guardians, who seem to prefer seclusion in isolated hills or homes and who live or travel apart from the other forces of good, while belonging to the same side. What differentiates Beorn is that, as a skin-changer, he belongs to the specifically pagan world of Norse mythology.
Paul Kearney is an author who is perhaps best known today for his Monarchies of God series, a fairly standard epic of sword and sorcery that will be familiar to many readers of the genre. However, back at the start of the 1990’s he wrote a far more intriguing set of novels, each stand-alone but linked thematically – A Different Kingdom, Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. The most notable common thread in this ‘Different Kingdoms’ series was Kearney’s use of a hero from our world who journeys into a fantastical one. Despite strong reviews, these books had commercially disappointing sales, and Kearney was asked to consider a more traditional fantasy epic, hence the Monarchies of God was born. Although I can completely understand the decision of Kearney, his publishers and his agent from a commercial perspective, for me it is most unfortunate that the author was not allowed to pursue his original vision – after all his concept, known as the ‘portal quest’ theme in fantasy literature, has a venerable history.
Click to get the January 2015 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly and read my short story The Inn at the Edge of the World.
The dragon Smaug is in many ways the centrepiece of both The Hobbit book and film series – no other character more often dominates covers, calendars and promotional art related to the story. It is no accident that a dragon plays such a prominent role in one of J R R Tolkien’s very first works of fiction – he did, after all, once famously say: “I desired dragons with a profound desire”. For Tolkien’s taste, however, there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three – the Miðgarðsorm or ‘Worm of Middle-earth’ which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse; the dragon which the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd. There are elements of all three of these mythological dragons in Smaug, as well as some entirely of Tolkien’s own making, such as the dragon’s name. Tolkien once noted that Smaug bore as a name the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smúgan (to squeeze through a hole) – “a low philological jest”, as Tolkien himself put it, from an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Norse.
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.