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.
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…