In the words of Emily Dickinson: “A little madness in the spring be wholesome even for the king” and, indeed, all over the world this season seems to be perpetually associated with madness, magic and mysticism. In the western world, spring is associated with two festivals in particular: May Day and Beltane. Traditionally an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations, the pagan festival of May Day lost its religious character when much of Europe became Christianized. However, it still remained a national holiday in many countries and in the 20th and 21st centuries many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again. Also revived in recent years was the Celtic festival of Beltane (or ‘Bel’s fire’, named in honour of the deity Belenus), when fires were lit to signal the beginning of summer. However, spring festivals are by no means limited to Europe – in India the season sees the celebration of the raucous festival of colours known as Holi; Akitu was the spring festival in ancient Mesopotamia; and in Vietnam the celebration of Tet in February marks both the New Year and the beginning of spring. After a winter that (at least on this side of the pond) seems to have gone on forever, now seems the perfect time to celebrate the rites of spring.
From the beginning of time the subject of angels has inspired mankind. An angel is usually understood to be a supernatural being or spirit, usually humanoid in form, found in various religions and mythologies all over the world. They are intermediaries between God and mankind and it is chiefly as divine messengers (the word ‘angel’ actually comes from the Greek for ‘messenger’) that angels appear in the religious stories of Christians, Muslims, Jews and a number of other faiths. Another of the tasks of angels is said to be the care of human beings, each of whom is supposed to have a ‘guardian angel’ to help to protect them from evil. For some reason music always seems to be intrinsically associated with angels – poets and others have imagined them as a vast choir in the heavens. Whilst angels are supposed to be invisible to human beings, except on special occasions, artists and writers have imagined them as having human form and they are often represented with wings. There are said to be nine different types of angels: they are seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, virtues, archangels and, lastly, angels. The malicious nephilim, meanwhile, are the half-breed offspring of angels and humans. Angels have inspired artists, musicians and writers over the ages to create poems, songs, paintings and fantasy novels. Angels, both good and bad, appear in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the TV series Supernatural and Daniella Trussoni’s bestselling novel Angelology. What has caused so many to surrender to the lure of angels and follow them into the most haunting reaches of the imagination?
For the Celts and ancient Britons, most features of the landscape were imbued with significance. Fires caused by lightning were sacred, bogs were evil, and there was not a mountain, tree, river or spring that did not have its own spirit. Amid such numinous surroundings it was unwise to tread carelessly, for fear of offending the gods, and respect was shown by the making of offerings. The Celtic deities of the natural world were often synonymous with the places themselves. Trees in particular were revered as symbols of seasonal death and rebirth, and they also formed a bridge between the earth and the heavens. The greatest tree of all was the oak, from which pagan priests collected their sacred mistletoe. Oak trees feature strongly in Welsh myth, where they are often associated with magic. In the story of Lleu, oak blossom was one of the flowers used to conjure up the fair maiden Blodeuwedd. Among the holiest of all sacred places were oak groves, and the word nemeton (‘grove’ or ‘sanctuary’) is found in numerous ancient Celtic place-names, such as Nemetobriga (“Exalted Grove”) in Spain, Drunemeton (“Oak Grove”) in Galatia, and in present-day Nymet and Nympton in Devon. But the respect afforded to trees may well have been tinged with a healthy degree of fear, for there was also a dark side to the veneration of the ancient oakwoods. Anglesey’s sacred groves, for instance, may also have been the scene of ritual human sacrifice, if Roman sources are to be believed. The wisdom of the trees, it seems, was often bought at a steep price.
When pagan gods are mentioned, it’s fair to say that some pantheons are rather better known than others. Most people in the western world are fairly familiar with the likes of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades from the Greek pantheon; Odin, Thor and Loki from the Norse Aesir; and the Egyptian deities Ra, Isis and Set. However, few can name even one of the pagan gods of the Chinese, the Japanese or the native tribes of North and South America, Australasia or Africa. The Loa, for instance, are West African deities, transplanted through slavery to the Caribbean and the New World in the 17th century. They are best known as the gods of the Voodoo or Voudon religion, called upon to raise zombies by black magic practitioners in any number of horror B-movies. Both the Loa and Voudon in general are, however, at best misunderstood and at worst misrepresented by the mainstream – largely because so little is known about it in comparison to other faiths. Also, make no mistake, Voudon is very much a living, breathing religion in many parts of the world and the Loa are regarded by those who follow this faith as all too real. So be careful when you speak of the Loa, lest you call down their attention upon you…
A fast-moving ship appears on the horizon – she flies a skull and crossbones flag! The ship draws alongside and hordes of bearded ruffians with gold rings in their ears and daggers between their teeth swarm on board. They plunder the hold for booty, make the crew walk the plank and send the ship to the bottom of the sea, returning to their desert island to bury their stolen treasure in a chest under the sand… This is the traditional image of the pirate, gained from adventure stories like Treasure Island and countless Hollywood motion pictures. A fantastical element has been added by creations such as J M Barrie’s Captain Hook in Peter Pan, the Corsairs of Umbar in The Lord of the Rings and the Pirate Lord Kennit, villain (and some time anti-hero) of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. Of course, say the word ‘pirate’ these days, post-Pirates of the Caribbean, and the image that immediately comes to most people’s minds is that of the irrepressible, cocksure Jack Sparrow, memorably played by Johnny Depp in the Disney films based on the theme park ride. Featuring ghost ships, sea monsters, zombie pirates, Blackbeard and even Davy Jones himself, the Pirates of the Caribbean films amply demonstrate that a vast body of supernatural lore and larger-than-life myths have over the years attached themselves to the reavers who sailed the seven seas. However, the real-life pirates who historically plagued the lives of sea-goers, while often equally as colourful as their fictional counterparts, were often a great deal more cruel and ruthless.
Carnivàle was a little-watched, little-remembered TV gem from the early part of the last decade. It was set in the American Dust Bowl during the Great Depression and concerned two disparate groups, one of them a travelling troupe of performing ‘freaks and geeks’ – hence the name of the series – the other centred around the at first benevolent-seeming preacher Justin. Varying hugely in tone and content, the episodes covered a wide range of themes and featured both superb, cinematic acting and groundbreaking storytelling. On one level Carnivàle could simply be viewed as a historical piece (in much the same way as Boardwalk Empire is today). However, what really made it stand out was the fact that its overarching story also depicted the battle between good and evil and the struggle between free will and destiny. A complex, layered tale, the full story of Carnivàle and in particular its many undercurrents were never really explained on screen. In some ways the show suffered for treating its audience as intelligent adults and making them figure things out for themselves - Carnivàle was cancelled after just two 13-episode seasons and never got anywhere near completing its creators’ intended 6 year story arc. Even many of the show’s most ardent viewers are surprised today to hear that its storyline mixed Christian theology with gnosticism and Masonic lore, particularly that of the Knights Templar. However, as I hope to demonstrate, plenty of hints as to the true nature of the ‘hidden’ story of Carnivàle were dropped in the course of its two-year run.
One seemingly inescapable fact about fantasy novels is that, if you’re going to write one, then you will almost certainly have to, at some stage, put a castle, fortress, palace, tower or fortification of some type in it. This is hardly surprising given that so many ‘fantasy’ worlds are actually based on a fairly narrow period in our own history when castles were of supreme importance as seats of power, symbols of prestige and, in many cases, bastions of civilization in an ever dangerous world. What I remember best about some of my favourite fantasy novels are the places as much as the characters. A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, has dozens of wildly different citadels which are home to the series’ various warring families. The Starks of the north live in the brooding stronghold of Winterfell, while the powerful Lannisters are based in the gold-rich fortress of Casterley Rock. The severe island citadel of Dragonstone, the mountain fortress called The Eyrie and bustling King’s Landing, seat of the rulers of all the Seven Kingdoms, are some of the other memorable locations in George R R Martin’s saga, all brought vividly to life in the HBO adaptation. In creating these castles Martin is carrying on the fine tradition of the many fantasy authors who went before him. J R R Tolkien named the second book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy after the opposing towers of Minas Tirith, last rallying point of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth in the War of the Ring, and the Barad-dur, stronghold of the Dark Lord Sauron. Mervyn Peake created one of the most iconic castles in all of literature in the form of the vast, crumbling ruin of Gormenghast, seat of the Groan dynasty in the trilogy of the same name. But what were the real world inspirations behind these fantastic creations?
Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas Learmont and True Thomas, may or may not have been a Scottish poet and prophet who lived between 1220 and 1297. I say ‘may’ because in many ways Thomas is as much myth as man. He is mentioned in the chartulary (1294) of the Trinity House of Soltra as having inherited lands in Erceldoune, a Berwickshire village now known as Earlston. He is said to have predicted the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and the battle of Bannockburn, as well as being the traditional source of many (fabricated) oracles, one of which ‘foretold’ the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. He is also the reputed author of the poem Tristrem, based on the romance of Tristan and Isolde, which no less an authority than Sir Walter Scott considered genuine (it probably in fact emanated from a French source). What Thomas is best known for, however, is the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, included by Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), which tells of his visit to the land of faerie and his imprisonment there by a fey enchantress. In popular lore he was often coupled with Merlin and other British seers. An elusive, inspiring figure, Thomas the Rhymer slipped in and out of the Otherworld, creating new myths and legends that have only grown in the telling in the many centuries since his seeming ‘death’. He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin.
In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte and his French troops conquered Egypt. They were the latest in a succession of foreign forces to dominate in the wake of the pharaohs. The expedition’s reports of countless temples, tombs and monuments lining the banks of the Nile – the remains of an ancient yet sophisticated civilisation – helped to spark a new interest in the region that has never abated. The power of ancient Egypt, at its zenith in circa 1450 BC, extended from the border with Libya in the west to the river Euphrates in the east, and from the Nubian deserts in the south to Syria in the north. The heart of the empire lay along the Nile, a haven from the surrounding deserts in which the Egyptians could nourish their own unique vision of the world. A stark duality – harsh desert versus fertile river margins – was woven deeply into Egyptian thought. Myths were expressed in Egyptian iconography, hieroglyphics and ritual, but no one version of a story was held to be authoritative. Egyptian religion was a cult of the pharaohs’ ancestors, with the attendant rituals conducted in temples open only to priests and the pharaohs themselves. Indeed, so pervasive was the presence of the gods and goddesses in every aspect of life that there was no separate word to denote religion. The gods, the world and the planets were all part of the same cosmic order, known as ma’at, which humans sought to maintain.
When readers of The Two Towers first encounter the Riders of Rohan there immediately seems to be something vaguely familiar about them. Their names, mode of speech and manner of dress all recall those ancient inhabitants of the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons. Although this is a culture that, even more than that of the Celts, has been in so many ways lost to history, Tolkien, as an Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, as well as a gifted storyteller, was perhaps better qualified than almost anyone to bring them to life in fiction. Interestingly, however, Tolkien seemed at great pains to distance himself from the notion that he was doing any such thing. In a footnote to Appendix F (II) of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien insisted that the fact that he had ‘translated’ all Rider-names into Old English did not mean that Riders and Anglo-Saxons were any more than generally similar. But this process of ‘translation’ – beginning with the Riders’ own name for their land, ‘The Mark’ – runs very deep. Among historians the central kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England is invariably known as ‘Mercia’. This is however a Latinization of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Mearc’. It takes no great leap of logic to link this Anglo-Saxon word with the Rohirrim term ‘Mark’, as translated by Tolkien. As for the white horse that is the emblem of the Mark, this is present in the form of the White Horse of Uffington, cut into the chalk a short stroll from the great Stone Age barrow of Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, one of the counties which, along with Worcestershire, Warwickshire and others made up Mercia. All the names given to the Riders, their horses and weapons are pure Anglo-Saxon. The names of their kings, Théoden, Thengel, Fengel, Folcwine, etc., are all simply Anglo-Saxon words or epithets for ‘king’, except, significantly, the first: Eorl, the name of the ancestor of the royal line, just means ‘earl’, or in very Old English, ‘warrior’. It dates back to a time before kings were invented.