The Wind In The Willows And The Voice Of Old Gods

Memories are strange.  When I look back on my childhood, I remember scenes from books as potently as the real, mundane things that happened to me, as if I lived them with the characters, walking a few steps behind.  The groves of Middle Earth.  The coal-dusted backstreets of Swadlincote.  I swear they were on the same map, and I wandered in and out of both.  I recall the smell of them both, how things tasted, the quality of the light.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is a book that I now realise had a big, big influence on my life.  It was less the story of Mole, Ratty and Toad, I can see now, and more the world they inhabited.  A rural idyll long-lost to the modern industrial world, a bucolic landscape where it was still possible for the uncanny to exist only a step or two away.

And the key chapter was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, where (and…sigh…spoilers) Pan appears to the animal characters.

‘Oh Mole! the beauty of it!  The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping!  Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!…’

The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed.  ‘I hear nothing myself,’ he said, ‘but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’

As a child, I found that chapter haunting and strange.  Strange because it had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet there it was.  And strange because even though it was a narrative cul-de-sac it affected me so deeply.

Animals had their own gods?

And yet it wasn’t even that oblique revelation.  It was the feeling that magic could intrude on the world I knew.  That it was there, in the woods, under the hedgerows.  A power in nature.  Something very old, and alien, and entrancing, and sometimes frightening.

I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and I enjoy the urban life.  But I still get a frisson when I visit the wild, as I regularly do.  The moors, the coast, the mountains, even the lanes that wind around my home.  Those are my cathedrals.

And clearly I wasn’t the only one to recognise the power in that chapter.  At infant school, when our class read through The Wind in the Willows, we skipped The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  My nine-year-old self was baffled.  I tried to get some sense out of my teacher, a man who loved books and encouraged my wider reading.  He hinted at the reason, but seemed incapable of giving me a full explanation.  Now I realise it was a Church of England school, a state school where the church was allowed some influence in the education.  The Church didn’t want the children reflecting on that chapter at all.  I guess, in their own muddle-headed way, they were right: words have an alchemical  power.

But I do wonder if we hadn’t skipped that chapter, and if it hadn’t been flagged up to me that here was something potentially…dangerous?…the Great God Pan might have stayed with Mole and Ratty.

As it was, those authorities made sure his voice rang through clearly.  And I can still hear the pan-pipes today.

New Worlds, No Maps

Stepping into that strange liminal space of thinking about a new book.  Exciting, certainly.  Scary too.  Strange connections are made as the universe, or the unconscious, recognises what you’re doing, pulling things out of the aether and thrusting them under your nose.  Images, music, places, people, dreams, serendipitous discoveries, all have a part to play.

I might document a few here, without comment.  Will it be possible to see where I’m heading from outside my head?  That would be interesting to know.  Perhaps there really is more clarity from that objective viewpoint.

I have an idea of the *kind* of book I want to write, but that’s about all the restrictions I’m placing on myself.  The general direction.  North by northwest.  But no destination is in mind.  I like the thrill of setting out for the horizon and seeing where I finally roll up.  It has to be new.  I’m not interested in repeating what I’ve done before.  I want to discover things, for myself as well as for the people who read my books.

Reports from the journey may pop up on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest, on Jack of Ravens and Posterous.  Interested parties should look for the tag #oneiroi

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…