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Riding the Broomstick

Witchcraft remains a prime source of interest for people intrigued by myth and legend.  Not only does the practice of Wicca tap into ancient archetypes and deities, it also has a huge continuum of its own myths whirling around it.

Many of those were – and are – designed to destroy it as a practising spiritual path.  Myths have always been powerful material for propaganda, utilised by politicians of every stripe down the centuries.  That’s because myths can imprint their message very deeply, on the unconscious, making it hard to shake.  Anti-Semites used mythic archetypes in an infamous and widely-distributed pamphlet – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 20th century.  It purported to be a Jewish manifesto that built up the myths of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world through the media and finance.  A complete pack of lies, it has been discredited as a hoax many times.  Yet many in the Arab world still believe it to be true, and the Protocols are continually referenced even today.

Religions, of course, act in much the same way as politicians; both are involved in a struggle for power, over souls or voters, hearts and minds.  When the Christian church tried to get a foothold in Britain more than a millenium ago, it found a thriving nature-based religion.  The only way the new belief system could establish itself was to discredit the old religion.  And so stories grew up of the old religion’s ‘wise women’ eating babies and ruining crops.

It was very effective and continues up to the present day.  Effective, of course, might not be the best word.  Between 1450 and the mid-18th century anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000 women – branded as witches – were murdered.  Their Christian persecutors accused them of being in league with Satan – even though Satan is a Christian concept and witches do not believe in him.  We like to think that’s all part of an unenlightened past.  But even today we have ignorant head teachers outlawing Halloween and burning Harry Potter for fear its use of magic will lead impressionable young minds on ‘the path to Satanism’.  People still get get fired for being a Wiccan.  And regular scares appear in the media of witches involved in child abuse – the baby-eating myth retooled for a new age.

But Wiccans have also been accused of generating their own myths.  In 1921, Margaret Murray published her seminal work The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, which tried to establish an unbroken tradition from modern witchcraft back to the old, pre-Christian religion.  That was generally derided by many scholars as a way for modern practitioners to legitimise their beliefs.

Most people now believe Wicca to be pretty much a twentieth century revival.  And what’s wrong with that?

However, a new academic work now gives weight to Margaret Murray’s assertion.  Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits – Shamanistic Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic (Sussex Academic Press) compares beliefs from around the world and infers that modern witchcraft is a direct descendant of prehistoric shamanism.  The book is hard-going, but it shows that in the mythosphere – as in everywhere else – the ‘truth’ is hard to come by.

Yes, That Big Box in the Corner

Writers write.  And sometimes when you’re plumbing the dark depths of your head, you have ideas that won’t be confined to one genre or even one medium.  I’ve written fantasy and SF and horror, I’ve written crime and psychological mysteries and contemporary drama.  I’ve recently published a graphic novel in the US, and I’m about to do more comics.

But what many people don’t know is that I also earn a crust as a screenwriter.  Today I’ve just finished the second episode of a new science fiction series I’m developing with the BBC.  It’s still a long way from appearing on your TV screen, and, in fact, may never do so.  It’s a long, exhausting and arduous task to get a series from idea to commission, with numerous, increasingly higher hurdles to jump over.  And even if you’ve finally shaped the best idea in the world, it can still fall at the last because there’s not a free slot in the schedule.

Yet to a novelist, used to toiling away in a lonely room, it’s a fascinating, invigorating process.  You get to work with other committed, creative individuals who take your idea in a surprising direction, and then you get to do the same with their ideas.  (Whether I would enjoy it so much if I didn’t have the singular visions and sole authorship of my novels to fall back on, is a different matter – you can’t beat being in complete control).

I’ve also got another supernatural series in the early stages of development, and a movie project.  And there’s been some initial movie interest in World’s End.

It’s all wait-and-see, but that’s part of the excitement.  You never know what’s going to be around the corner.

Secrets and Lies

If there’s one theme that runs through all my fantasy tales, it’s this: nothing is as it seems on the surface.  A superficial glance suggests the novels deal with Arthurian legend and Celtic mythology in a modern setting.  But the conceit is that those old stories are a secret code for the truth that lies behind them.  Sometimes one character or myth or idea can represent two very different things, which is actually something that runs through the old Celtic legends.  For example, King Arthur is a man (but not ‘King Arthur’) and also a great magical power – and if that sounds complicated, read the books.  It really isn’t.

That’s because we’re dealing here with very powerful archetypes, the secret language of the unconscious.  But that’s another blog entirely…

Our ancestors always hid codes in popular stories, as this well-researched blog shows.

The gods in my books are not quite the gods you find in the old Celtic legends, either.  I won’t go into who or what they are, but from time-to-time I do want to touch on some of the legends behind the major ones appearing in Kingdom of the Serpent.

Niamh is one of the central characters in the myth sequence I’m creating.  In the Celtic legends she’s the wife of Conall Caernach.  She became the mistress of Cuchulainn while she nursed him back to health from war-wounds.  Niamh tried to prevent the great hero returning to battle, but the witch Badb cast a spell on Niamh so that she wandered away into the countryside.  Badb then assumed Niamh’s form and told Cuchulainn that he must return to war.

In my story, Niamh also carries the title Queen of the Waste Lands.  In Arthurian legend, the Queen told Perceval of his mother’s death, and was one of the women on the barge that bore Arthur away after his last battle.

All of that is code for what really happens…

All Hail the New Gods

Everything we learn about myths when we’re kids suggests that they’re set in stone, somewhere in the deep past.  But myths and legends, like fairytales, are mutable.  Try tracking the various iterations of Robin Hood down the years – from nature spirit to anarchist to Royalist and back.

But what are the myths of the 21st century global culture?  That’s not a rhetorical question – I’d be interested to hear.  IN the seventies, Harlan Ellison published one of my favourite collections – Deathbird Stories – in which he examined the gods of the 1970s world:the god of TV, cars etc  It’s an intense collection of stories and had a powerful effect on the young me.  I don’t know if the tales stand the test of time as I haven’t read them in a while, but they certainly shaped my thoughts and my writing.

So where are our current myths taking us?  I think in the mythosphere we’ve certainly got percolating terrorism, the net, of course, and a growing environmentalism which is oddly harking back to prehistoric myths while remaining essentially now.  Serial killers made a brief appearance in the nineties, but they just didn’t have the legs to become truly mythic.

These are the things I ponder when I’m supposed to be writing…

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

The Government doesn’t want us to know the risks of identity cards.  I wonder why…

They can already track us by our mobile phones and credit cards.  They can read our emails and listen to all our phone calls.  And they can watch us on the network of CCTV cameras. You’d think that would be enough…

If you’re happy about giving up your liberties, fine.  If not, many people are asking questions right now…

This may sound completely off-topic, but really it’s not.  The theme of control and who has power over our ability to live the lives we want has run through all my writing since I started getting published.  It’s most clear in Age of Misrule, if you consider the Tuatha de Danann, the Celtic golden-skinned gods, as a symbol.  Their subtle manipulation of humanity for their own ends is almost as destructive as the full-on machinations of the demonic Fomorii.

If we don’t take control of our own existence, somebody else will.

I Have No Title for the Next Book

Titles are a nightmare.  On the bookshelf they always look like they’ve arrived fully-formed, which neatly masks the blood, sweat and tears that sometimes goes into their creation.  They need to be short, powerful, evocative and unique.  You think that’s easy?

I normally sell my books to my publisher on the basis of a synopsis.  For the last six contracted books, none of the titles in the pitch document have ended up on the spine.  The real titles always come during the writing.  The Devil in Green was originally called Slouching Towards Bethlehem for no other reason than I like the quote (besides, Joan Didion got there first).  DiG was the title of the first novel I ever wrote (which has never been seen by anyone and never well), so I cannibalised myself.  But that book has since felt like it could never have been called anything else.

In the pitch document, Jack of Ravens was called The Land of Always Summer, the next book was called The Waste Lands (and then The Great Dominions) and the third and final was Rex Mundi.  The series itself – Kingdom of the Serpent – was The View Across Existence.

I’ve spent all afternoon writing – and baking – in the garden and the title for the next book still hasn’t surfaced from the mire.  When I finally get a hook in it, I’ll let you know.

Cornwall. Best Place in Britain.

Until I start writing about Scotland and Wales. But, look…more prehistoric sites than any other county in the UK, St Michael’s Mount, Tintagel, the Eden Project, moors, beaches and great seas and sunsets.  What more could you want?

Which is why the research trip for Jack of Ravens was about as far from work as you could get.  The most important place I visited was Carn Euny, the remnants of an Iron Age settlement that features heavily in the book.  It’s a nightmare to find, which has its pluses – it’s not swarming with tourists and you can wander around it peacefully.

And if you’re prepared to get hands-on, you can head underground into a mysterious fogou.  These are underground passageways found mainly in south-west Iron Age sites.  Archaeologists aren’t sure what they were for – some say, they’re grain stores, others that they have a ritual use. 

Whatever the answer, there’s a very powerful atmosphere in the fogou.  I spent a good while tucked into a narrow niche at the end of one branching tunnel.  It was strangely spooky and uplifting at the same time.

Fantasy? Okay… but why?

Fantasy is just escapism. A bolt-hole for woolly thinkers unable to live in the modern world. That line of thought pops up as regular as dysentery on an unlicensed Nile cruise. It’s usually either journalists, or science fiction readers (or writers) who like stories about Big Machines with no discernible human dimension.

A history lesson: in the pre-modern world, Plato defined two complementary ways of reaching the truth. Logos – from which we get ‘logic’ – was all about viewing the wider world outside of our bodies. Mythos – from which we get ‘mythology’- was the mapping of the inner world inside our head. SF is the fiction of logos. Fantasy is the fiction of mythos. It was an incisive, neatly-balanced philosophy of everything, that worked perfectly well until the Age of Reason.

In our society, logos is given more weight. Wrongly, I believe. There’s a huge and distasteful arrogance to some of the big voices in science that reminds me of Tory MPs in the eighties when they thought Thatcherism was the only game in town, in perpetuity. Or to flip the political coin, of Arthur Scargill, the old leader of the National Union of Miners who led a self-destructive strike that was instrumental in wrecking the labour movement and damaging leftist politics in the UK for a decade (some would say much, much longer). There was the same look of bafflement on Scargill’s face as the strike imploded that you see on some scientists-spokespeople when they try to comprehend why a big chunk of the world doesn’t buy into the scientific agenda. Scargill – pure ego with a Yorkshire accent – couldn’t understand why a significant proportion of the workforce didn’t follow him when he said jump. He knew the principles of the strike were right, but in his arrogance he thought it unnecessary to win the hearts and minds first before he started trying to march people up and down the hill.

Scientists (and I’m using a useless generic term here) are so secure in the tenets of the Age of Reason and basic scientific principles that they can’t understand why many people don’t buy into it. And so they spit and stamp and flounce, like Richard Dawkins does from time to time, and alienate even more people. And in that arrogance, too many are completely derogatory of the power of mythos even today.

Their position, of course, is in complete defiance of history. (In my more cynical moments, I think this is because history can’t be replicated in a lab. But it seems to me that too many of a scientific bent have a tenuous grasp on, shall we say, the ‘lessons’ of history, as opposed to the nuts and bolts of dates and events.)

For most people, mythos is still just as important as logos. They need to map out their inner world more than they need to know about, say, DNA or how quickly, or not, the universe is expanding. They need to understand their dreams, and those terrible motivations that they can’t control. They need to understand what drives politicians to begin a war that few wanted, or why child abusers do what they do, or why people fall in love, and why that love goes. In short, they need to understand about people.

And for me that’s what fantasy does. It deals with hugely affecting symbols and archetypes that still drive our psyche today. I started writing a fantasy sequence about the return of the Celtic gods to our modern world, because I wanted to see if these archetypes could still affect people today in the same way that they affected our ancestors. Because these gods – these archetypes – are the secret language of our unconscious. Images of them, used in the right way, can move us to tears or laughter or sexual arousal in ways our modern minds can’t grasp because they speak directly to the core programming of our system.

If the mail I get from readers is anything to go by, those archetypes still do affect people just as strongly today – infecting dreams, slipping into the day-to-day world by changing behaviour, and therefore affecting logos. Mythos and logos, then, inextricably linked.

I write fantasy, therefore, because I’m interested in people and how they interact with the world around us, not because I want to run away from that world. But I still can’t get through ten pages of The Silmarillion.

An Introduction, of Sorts

It’s a Sunday morning, it’s sticky hot and unpleasant, and it’s the morning after England crashed out of the World Cup with their usual display of petulance and ineptness (yeah, yeah, I’m making myself an easy target…). I’m thinking of going down the pub, but first I need to do this…

My new novel, Jack of Ravens, is published on July 20. It’s the initial volume of a new sequence, Kingdom of the Serpent. It’s contemporary fantasy. And it’s got lots of stuff in it you wouldn’t expect in a fantasy novel. There. That’s the last of me pimping the damn thing here. Life’s too short, for me and you.

What you will find here, updated several times a week, are ruminations on a whole host of stuff that interests me, the occasional rants, and lots and lots of information on, well, just about anything that catches my fancy. Plus, you’ll find here the ‘special features’ section for the novel – the background research I did (and the novel covers two thousand years of history, so there’s a lot of it), the location photos and extra story information that should make reading the thing a richer experience.

Let’s go.