Thursday 3 November 2016

How did Arthur pull the sword from the stone?

The books I am picking up these days are not entirely different to the ones I would reach for before, but they certainly have more of an environmental or eco-spiritual bent to them; which is why I was so surprised to be confronted with a new theory about King Arthur in a book about hunter-gatherers!

Ffyona Campbell’s small but beautiful book, The Hunter-Gather Way is part memoir, part anthropological investigation, part thought-experiment and part field guide. It is a quick read but an absolute treasure, with more to take away than in many books ten times its size.

Campbell reached the subject of King Arthur after first considering the purpose of Stonehenge, which led her on to Druids. Although discovering the Druids wouldn’t have had anything to do with the construction of Stonehenge, she did find out that they first learned how to extract iron out of iron-ore at the headwaters of the Danube, the land of the Celts. She tried to imagine demonstrations of the process to a new observer, and how much it would look like a fiery magic that resulted in drawing blood out of a stone!

And then…
“This led me to thinking about King Arthur.
King Arthur lived much later, just after the fall of Rome, when England was about to be invaded by all and sundry and so it needed defending. The call went out for: ‘whoever can pull the sword out of the stone will be the next King of England.’ I realised they didn’t mean, ‘whoever can pull this sword that’s sticking up out of this stone,’ they meant, ‘whoever can get iron out of iron-ore to make swords and so defend England will be the next King.’
And why would Arthur have been able to do this as opposed to anyone else? Because Arthur’s teacher was Merlin, and Merlin was an old Druid.
It makes sense too that Excalibur was found in the lake because the Celts, all those years before, had thrown beautiful iron items into the lakes and rivers to give thanks for where they had worked out the technology at the head waters of the Danube.”
Possible? I’m not sure. But a wonderful idea nevertheless on a subject I will never grow bored of!

You can visit Ffyona Campbell’s website here.

Related King Arthur posts:

Monday 19 September 2016

Into the Forest

It has begun. I have stepped off the beaten track and away from everything familiar. I heard my name called in the sound of the wind rushing through leaves, shaking branches, whispering to me spirit to spirit. It has been coming for a while, and despite the months of anticipation and preparation, the first step was still a hesitant one.

Into the Forest | A.L. Loveday
'A road. For so long in my mind it had been an unquestioned symbol of travel, adventure and escape, but in reality it’s a lousy metaphor. A road is a tunnel that traps you in linear places, linear concepts and linear time. It provides ease and convenience, but cheats you of everything you might learn if you only had the time and curiosity to leave it.'
- From The Idle Traveller, by Dan Kieran -

I needed to leave, I knew, in order to find something I have long been searching for. I'd been unfurling tentative feelers for the past six years, both outward and inward, and the time had come to try and answer some questions and explore ideas that had captured my imagination.

Into the Forest | A.L. Loveday
'T.H. White's Arthur is sent to the forest to seek his identity; many children find woodlands the right place to go to talk to themselves, to dream themselves into a different being, to effect their changeling masquerades away from the eyes of adults. For under the gaze of others, a child can be forced to hold one form, to keep a single identity, but in woodshade and tree-shadow, a child's spirit can stretch, alter and change; it is always easier to change yourself in the dark.'

I am here to learn, to explore, and also to heal. I am here to work and to play. I am here to be alone with myself and engage in community. 

Into the Forest | A.L. Loveday
‘To know the woods and to love the woods is to embrace it all, the light and the dark -- the sun dappled glens and the rank, damp hollows; beech trees and bluebells and also the deadly fungi and poison oak. The dark of the woods represents the moon side of life: traumas and trials, failures and secrets, illness and other calamities. The things that change us, temper us, shape us; that if we're not careful defeat or destroy us...but if we pass through that dark place bravely, stubbornly, wisely, turn us all into heroes. ‘

And yet, despite all the fairy tale warnings, sometimes we're compelled to run to the dark of the woods, away from all that is safe and familiar -- driven by desperation, perhaps, or the lure of danger, or the need for change. Young heroes stray from the safe, well-trodden path through foolishness or despair...but perhaps also by canny premeditation, knowing that venturing into the great unknown is how lives are tranformed… 

Sara Maitland compares the transformational magic in fairy tales to the everyday magic that turns caterpillars into butterflies. "[S]omething very dreadful and frightening happens inside the chrysalis," she points out. "We use the word 'cocoon' now to mean a place of safety and escape, but in fact the caterpillar, having constructed its own grave, does not develop smoothly, growing wings onto its first body, but disintegrates entirely, breaking down into organic slime which then regenerates in a completely new form. It goes as a child into the dark place and is lost; it emerges as the princess, or proven hero. The forest is full of such magic, in reality and in the stories."'

If I have learnt anything from fairy tales, it is that you get nowhere in life without straying off the path, at least for a little while. The woods are there for you to lose yourself in, but, and this is the important thing, they are where we find ourselves again. We need the woods to become more than what we were.

Into the Forest | A.L. Loveday
‘We need the woods—the metaphor and symbol of the woods, the mythology of the woods. But all stories begin in a real place—as breath and movement in a physical space—and soak up the colour and texture of that place. When the woods are gone, the metaphors lose their power, the stories cease speaking from the silence of the trees.’
- Via Unsettling Wonder -  
We need our woods, but once again, they are under threat. The Forest of Dean, my home for the next few months, had not escaped the attention of gas-hungry predators; luckily, in the last couple of days, it has emerged that the companies in question have decided not to explore for gas. This is a huge relief. Our green spaces are sacred resources simply for being green, and the benefits they bring to us as they are should never be undervalued. 

I don't quite know what changes will occur, or what magic will happen here amongst the trees. But there's only one way to find out...

Sunday 11 September 2016

Terri Windling's Tolkien Lecture

After my last post I thought it would be a good time to share Terri Windling's incredible talk for the fourth annual Tolkien lecture - although I'm sure many of you will have seen it already! 

She delivered her lecture at Pembroke college earlier this year and used the platform to discuss the state of fantasy literature today, focussing in particular on the lack of connection modern works, and modern people, forge with the land. Her words deeply resonated with me; the books I sought out as a child, the ones I seek out now and much of the writing I produce “behind the scenes”, if not in public, seeks this essence of connection to place. I could try to explain further, but I’m sure you would much prefer to hear Terri’s incredible lecture yourselves:

Please don't forget to treat yourselves with a visit to Terri's blog, Myth & Moor!

Friday 9 September 2016

The Surge in Nature Writing: Reconnecting Body and Soul

In her exploration of the 2016 Wainwright Prize for nature writing for The Guardian, Alison Flood noted that more and more people are turning to this genre as 'a balm for the woes of modern life'. The article explains how the genre has evolved and subdivided and reached a popular new sub-genre, in which nature writing is used as a tool for reflection and deep personal healing. Despite a shortlist containing nature writing in a variety of styles, the judges unanimously voted for The Outrun to win, in which author Amy Liptrot returns to her home in Orkney in order to recover after a traumatising time living in London.

Dame Fiona Reynolds - chair of judges - said of the books: “[They show us that] there’s more to life than the economy, or foreign policy – these writers are articulating beautifully the ways in which the human spirit needs to connect with the world around us, and to respect the world around us.”

The Surge in Nature Writing | A.L. Loveday | 2016

Are we collectively beginning to remember something buried deep within us? Times are changing, souls are stirring, beliefs are shifting; and these books, this award, is the most mainstream recognition of this that I have come across.

As humans, we were never meant to be at war with Nature, as if She were an enemy to conquer. And yet this is exactly what we have done; we have denied that we are a part of Her, out of fear for Her power, unpredictability and for Her destructive potential. How ironic that in the process of trying to suppress and tame these qualities in our outer world we have exaggerated them within ourselves. How ironic that in trying to create outward order we have thrown our souls into chaos. For centuries we have systematically severed an integral part of ourselves, and gradually we are opening our eyes to the need to draw it back together.

The Surge in Nature Writing | A.L. Loveday | 2016

The journey contained in the pages of these types of books is a holistic one, where the mind, spirit and body are healed by reuniting them again. I am well aware that at this point there is a temptation to roll your eyes and think of those Instagram posts of slim white women on a yoga calendar and juice detox - and I believe that there is a place for that type of healing journey, it is totally valid, but also that this branding (yes, we are self-branding our lives here on social media!) of the journey does not resonate with a vast majority of us, our bodies, our experiences, and we need to see it mirrored in different ways in order for it to strike that all important chord.

And yet most of us will have felt that deep sense of peace after a day in the garden or allotment, digging or planting, hands at work in the earth. Or that inner smile when we've treated our bodies right, by feeding it nutritious food or simply by allowing it to relax and not pushing it too hard. Whether in a book jacket, an Instagram post, or a bowl of porridge instead of bacon for breakfast, we are exploring this reconnection. The trick now, as we hear the call and the pull from a variety of places both in the outer world and from little nagging inner parts, is to listen and act.

The Surge in Nature Writing | A.L. Loveday | 2016

I'm a Reiki healer, and I could talk your ear off about energy layers and the interconnectedness of everything. I'm a reader and writer and I could bang on and on about these books and why you should read them. But above and beyond everything I say or believe I am, I am a human being, and you are too, and so I know that I don't need to say anything else. Because I know that if you choose to take some time to go into the wild, into Nature - and I mean really do it, not just look at it through a car window - and you get your clothes a bit muddy or your skin a bit scratched and your hair knotted in the wind and you inhale won't need to read any books or any blog posts to understand exactly what they are saying and understand the inherent truth beyond the words.

Saturday 27 August 2016

The Mists of Avalon

I’m late to the party for this book. In some ways it’s unsurprising - it was published before I was born... - but considering how much I love to absorb anything with even the merest hint of Arthurian legend about it, I can’t believe I didn’t pick it up sooner.

But everything in its time, and in its place. I had to read the series chronologically after accidentally starting with The Forests of Avalon two years ago. This is where my OCD twinges come into play: once I knew what I had started, there was no way I could read the final book before the second! Ultimately, however, I think this served me well.

The Forests of Avalon depicts life in Pagan Britain at the start of Roman rule, and we see how the line of Once and Future Kings came to be, through the union of a Roman soldier and a High Priestess. Lady of Avalon follows the descendants of this union, the royal line of Avalon, hurtling through time as Roman rule takes hold and the threat of the Saxons grows. Crucially, in preparation for Mists, we see the divisions growing between Paganism and Druidry, and the emerging powers of Christianity. I will never know if I would have enjoyed The Mists of Avalon quite so much without both these books as the foundations for it.

When I do a quick search of the title I can see straight away that people have had a lot to say, and it has obviously had a lasting impact in the 30-odd years since it was first published. I believe the reason for its enduring popularity is due to its modern views on religion, sexuality and gender roles, even within a medieval setting. 

'Morgaine le fey', by Liliane

This is what a feminist looks like

It could be argued that one of the main issues addressed in the novel is of a woman’s status within the court (workplace), including what work it is possible and expected of her to do, and the advancement she is able to achieve - contemporary issues of “glass ceiling” feminist thought prevalent in the 1980s, when this book was published. 

Sadly, this is still an ongoing battle today. The Fawcett Society states that the overall gender pay gap for full time workers is 13.9% due mostly to discrimination, unequal caring responsibilities, a divided labour market, and men holding a majority of the highest paid and most senior roles. The plight of the women in the novel is still one that women today can easily relate to.

Multiple Morgans: a variety of actresses who've portrayed Morgaine/Morgana/Morgan Le Fay. Source.
There is a thorny tangling amongst the apparent dichotomy of Avalon/Camelot, Paganism/Christianity, Matriarchy/Patriarchy; such complicated relationships would have been misrepresented if their treatment in the book had been anything but murky, ping-ponging back and forth. It was at times tempting to idealise Viviane’s matriarchal society in Avalon, especially as we saw the devastating and violent effects patriarchal Christianity had on Gwenhwyfar; but it was in no way romanticised or glorified as perfect. If anything, Viviane would be considered one of the more ‘villainous' characters of the book.

And yet, there was no place for these women of Avalon in the new Christian-led world:

Yet all of the main female characters in the text who reject their expected female roles are rejected by the world of Camelot: Viviane, Lady of the Lake, and later Morgaine, are seen by society as devil-worshiping sinners for their refusal to be silent in social and political arenas. Morgause, sister to Morgaine and Queen of Orkney, is similarly shunned by society for expressing her sexual freedom, speaking out against patriarchal reign, and ruling the kingdom of Orkney equally by her husband's side. Significantly, all of these women also reject Christianity and God in favor of paganism and the Mother Goddess. 
~ source: an online analysis of social concerns within the novel.
For all that this book champions female sexuality and a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body, there is one choice that is never questioned: the choice to have children. Childbearing and rearing is the default normality for women in the novel, which is a shame. Considering the progressive narratives throughout the series regarding homosexuality (particularly with regards to Caillean in Forests and Lancelet in Mists), this could easily have been another arena to explore.

Source: Pinterest

All Gods are one God

There is a continuous argument in the hearts and minds of Morgaine and others, such as Lancelet, raised in Avalon: if all gods are one and the same, how can the Christian god have such a detrimental attitude towards women, when the reverse is true of their Goddess-centred worship? It takes some time for Morgaine to realise that the fault is not in the God, but in the men who speak on His behalf to solidify a patriarchal system that oppresses women.

This torment is most clearly illustrated through Gwenhwyfar, who accepts whole heartedly the concept of original sin and her innate ‘evilness’. I was routinely annoyed by her sanctimonious preaching, but had to catch myself at moments of feeling real anger towards the character - it is misplaced anger that should be directed towards the systems that manipulated her. Gwenhwyfar is unable to reconcile her desires with her beliefs: she wants sex for pleasure, not just for procreation; she blames her ’sinfulness' for her barrenness; and her mind is in turmoil as her instincts rebel against the Christian dogma.

Bradley herself wrote an essay on the issue:

One of the main problems I had, in writing the Arthurian novel, was the fear that Christians would feel I was attacking the basics of Christianity, rather than the enormous bigotry and anti-feminism that have become grafted on to Christianity. I don't think they have any part in Christianity itself, or in the teachings of Christ. 
For me the key to "female personality development" in my revisionist, or better, reconstructionist version, is simply this. Modern women have been reared on myths/legends/hero tales in which the men do the important things and the women stand by and watch and admire but keep their hands off. Restoring Morgan and the Lady of the Lake to real, integral movers in the drama is, I think, of supreme importance in the religious and psychological development of women in our day. 
I think it's overwhelmingly important to remember that it is not an attempt to supplant "God," presumably the "real God" fundamentalists talk about, with "a lot of pagan Goddesses and idols." What we are seeking is the female aspect of Divinity itself; Goddess as an extra dimension of God, rather than "replacing God with Goddess." The Divine is. It's very important to remember one of the tragically few public utterances of the shortest-lived of the Popes, John Paul I; he said (I paraphrase, but I think I am close to quoting exactly): 
"It is important to remember that God is our Father; but it is equally or more important to remember that God is our loving Mother." Even when we think of God as The Goddess, it is no different than the difference between seeing God as "Fount of Eternal Love" or "Giver of Justice" or "Provider of Daily Bread" or "King of Kings." We are not, by those names, worshipping four different Gods, but four names for the ultimate Divine. (I don't think the so-called worshippers of "Pagan Gods and Goddesses" were, either; they were seeing the outpourings of the Divine in different lights, which they called Zeus and Apollo and Artemis and Isis and so forth.)

I’ve quoted a fair bit, but the entire essay isn’t too long and well worth a read for those of you who are interested: Thoughts on Avalon.

Painting by Wendy Andrew

Heroes, heroines, and a whole lot of villains

One of the joys of this book, for me, was the depiction of the infinite shades of grey within each character. Unlike the male-oriented epic hero versions of these tales, the novel focusses on the internal lives moreso than the outer deeds (case in point: the grail quest is  not followed at all; the fate of the companions is mentioned but the focus is on the emotional and spiritual reactions to the events). 

This allows us to explore the inner worlds of the characters in much greater depth, which is especially important for female characters who, particularly when not inhabiting major roles, are so often reduced to stereotypes who perform little more than a function. This fact in itself is alluded to in the book, when Gwenhwyfar is considering whether she can be more than either the Madonna or the Whore.

They are all heroes, they are all fallible, and they are all the villains in their own lives too, just as the Goddess has many faces: the maiden, mother or crone, bringer of life or death, creative or destructive. She is all things at all times - good, bad, and neither, for She is what She is. “I have called on the Goddess and found her within myself," says Morgaine - and that is probably my biggest take away from this incredibly thought-provoking fantasy.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's own essay, Thoughts on Avalon
Book covers were sourced via a Google search
The final illustration was sourced via Sur La Lune; the artwork is by Elenore Abbott.


Sunday 14 August 2016

The Poet Laureate at the Edinburgh Fringe

A storm erupted shortly after I sat my English GCSE back in 2008: the examining board AQA had decided to remove a poem by Carol Ann Duffy because one exam invigilator thought it would incite knife crime amongst youths. 

On learning this, the first thing I did was pick up my AQA text book and turn to the poetry section we hadn’t had to study, and I read the offending poem. My immediate thought was ‘I wish we could have studied this group of poems instead of the other group’, soon followed by, ‘that’s such a surface reading, even I can see that’s not the point’. 

‘Surely,’ I thought, with all the smugness of a 16 year old who had just attained a decent grade in my GCSE, ’surely if the invigilator had sat the exam, they would have failed.’

Carol Ann Duffy
The offending poem, as it appeared in the AQA text book
On Wednesday, sitting in a small theatre in Edinburgh, I was transported back to that moment when I read Carol Ann Duffy’s work for the first time. But on that afternoon I had the privilege of hearing the Poet Laureate read her work aloud, including her scathing response to that absurd move by AQA.

After discovering her writing that day I continued to read Duffy’s poetry, and it was especially wonderful to hear her read two of my favourites from her World’s Wife collection, Mrs Aesop and Mrs Faust.

She was a captivating speaker, accompanied by John Sampson with musical interludes that neatly segmented the performance and underscored various poems (Danny Boy softly played underneath Carol Ann’s reading of Premonitions very nearly reduced me to tears). 

This poem is from her collection, The Bees. Sometimes the synchronicity in my life astounds me.

If you missed Carol Ann Duffy’s show in the Fringe, you can still see her at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where she is appearing with Jackie Kay on the 17th and Gillian Clarke on the 18th. (The book festival is amazing and I highly recommend it! I had the good fortune to see Marina Warner speak last year!)

Monday 8 August 2016

Literary Synaesthesia: The Honey Month

I have recently finished reading The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar, and I am ashamed to say it has been on my To Be Read list ever since it was first published…six years ago. Well, I can hand on heart say that if it has been sitting in your wish list, TBR list, whatever-you-want-to-call-it list, this is the book you need to jump straight to the top and pick up next.

They say
she likes to suck peaches. Not eat them, suck them,
tilt her head back and let the juice drip
sticky down her chin, before licking, sucking,
swallowing the sunshine of it down… 
From Day 2 ~ Peach Creamed Honey

Early followers of my blog will recall it used to go by a different name: the honey coloured view. At the time I never went into too much detail as to why I called it this, but suffice it to say it was a nod to my intrigue of and deep respect for the great pollinators of the world and the truly magical product of their work. 

My aunt is a beekeeper, as was her father, my grandfather, and although I never did learn the ins and outs of the practical work involved, I still seemed to learn something of the bees' magic from the very way she spoke about them, their lives, the drama in her hives. And when we tasted her honey…it was like tasting the stories she had told in a sweet, crystalline form. 

We are not the closest of families - growing up, and even now, an entire year or more can go by without seeing aunts and uncles and cousins - and yet, somehow, when I think of bees and honey it calls up a nostalgic sense of family to me. Whether that is a family I know, or one I imagine, I do not know.

When [the bees] surround her, she breathes in the vibration of their bodies, exhales music, breathes it in again. They crown and armour her, they hide her while she dissolves into a joy too keen for eyes that come in simple pairs, eyes that could not possibly appreciate the peace, the thrill, the trembling, the way those thousand bodies do. They sing her aching silence out, they chime their wings like champagne flutes, they pat her cheeks and lashes with more love than is commonly thought to be possible… 
From Day 24 ~ Apricot Creamed Honey

And I sense the same feeling radiating off the pages of The Honey Month; the words both scream and whisper of the complexity of relationships and a deep sense of longing. El-Mohtar enlivens all the senses in her short stories and poems after sharing her practical, sensory evaluation of the honey she is sampling; taste, smell, texture. There isn't a single word in this book that isn't deeply evocative and stirs you at your core.

Amal El-Mohtar/Papaveria Press

The morning, she would say, always tastes of spring, no matter what the season. The winter sun tastes of wet bark and sticky buds when it first rises; at noon it tastes of spun sugar, at evening it tastes of bay leaves and soup. The fall morning tastes of wet grass remembering the sun, the summer morning tastes of lilacs and the waking of bees. And spring mornings taste of honeydew honey, and spring. 
From Day 19 ~ Honeydew Honey 

The Honey Month is published by Papaveria Press and available to buy online from various stores.