This extraordinary piece of sculpture by Andy Scott, called The Kelpies, near Falkirk, is nearing completion. It commemorates the horse-powered industry of Scotland. Kelpies are creatures from Scottish and Irish mythology, strange horses who live in water:
The Witch, 1498-1502, copper engraving by Albrecht Dürer
When I started writing my book, The Witch of Glenaster, I immediately felt uneasy about having as my main villain a woman. Mindful of the association of witchcraft with misogyny and our fear of those different from us, I decided that my witch’s nemesis must also be female, not only to deflect any potential accusations that I was just another male writer visiting virtual punishment on women through fiction, but also because I felt the dynamic of two women – or a woman and a girl – squaring up to each other was more interesting than a man and a woman. My story was about revenge, and loss, and what it can do to us (with added monsters), and I was anxious to try and avoid any subtext that might distract from this.
Whether or not I succeeded is for my readers to judge; but, whatever the results, I remain fascinated by witches, and so, it seems, does everybody else, if popular culture is any guide: American Horror Story, Witches of East End, the upcoming film version of Into the Woods – it seems we can’t get enough of witches, who these days are more likely to be seen, here in the West at least, as figures of female empowerment, rather than the evil hags of yore.
Of course, we rightly look with horror at the attitudes of our forebears towards women, a good number of whom – lonely, eccentric, or just a little bit too sexually confident for their times – suffered and died, along with not a few men, during the period of the witch hunts of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth centuries. In some parts of the world, they suffer still – and not just adults, but children too, condemned, beaten and murdered in parts of Africa, and in Europe, also.
Our desire to find scapegoats for our ills has cost the lives of many innocents over the centuries, and this is far more shocking than anything in a book or TV show. There is a scene in The Witch of Glenaster where the people of a village sacrifice a young woman to appease their god, and it is sobering to think that this kind of thing still goes on, now, in the 21st Century. We should never become inured to such things; they ought to shock us.
Dragons never seem to vanish from popular culture.
Whether they are used to describe supposedly fearsome venture capitalists in Dragons’ Den, or are reinvented on film and television (Game of Thrones, The Hobbit), they retain a stubborn hold on our imaginations.
The Enlightenment, and subsequent industrialization, didn’t quite manage to eliminate such creatures from the darker recesses of our minds. Indeed, for some, they became synonymous with them.
In George Cruikshank‘s cartoon “The Railway Dragon”, a family are disturbed at Christmas dinner by a terrifying steam train, which intones:
I come to dine, I come to sup;
I come, I come, to eat you up!
This specifically refers to the collapse of the railway stock market bubble in 1845-46, but leading Nineteenth Century figures such as William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and Charles Dickens, saw the railway as a destructive force, causing social and environmental harm.
Growing up on the edge of Birmingham, J.R.R. Tolkien witnessed the city gradually encroaching upon the rural Worcestershire of his childhood, and it was this, as well as his experience of the mass mechanized slaughter of the First World War, which informed The Lord of the Rings as much as Beowulf or Norse mythology.
For all the apparent wealth and security of the Western world – even in these straitened times – we still fear those things we cannot explain, which are many, whilst, paradoxically, enjoying the vicarious thrill of seeing the fearsome creatures of our worst imaginings wreak havoc (before, ultimately, being vanquished) in the world of literature or film. We feel better for it. And so the defeated dragon is continually reborn for our benefit, its power both attracting and repelling us, as our own terrible power to desecrate and destroy the world does. We conjure the dragon into existence because we need it, and probably always will. For all our advances, our scientific achievements, our great civilizations, we know that catastrophe is always lurking there, somewhere; that all that we have is as fragile as tissue-paper. We keep such fears at bay with stories, and if the stories are good ones, we are ennobled by them, and they give us courage. The dragons of our imagination can be strong and even noble, but we know that in a moment they can turn, and burn all to ashes.
- Dragons vs Wyverns: The Question of Smaug (atolkienistperspective.wordpress.com)
Here’s a review of a new show by the National Theatre of Scotland, about a bereaved young boy who starts seeing dragons. It sounds fantastic:
OK, OK, I know it’s over now (although strictly speaking the Christian festival of Hallowmas lasts until tomorrow, All Souls’ Day), but here’s an interesting article about the history of Hallowe’en by Candida Moss: