The Elements – Fire

OK, so I’ve come to the second of my posts on element-themed folklore, and so we’ve reached… fire.

That, of course, can only mean one thing – dragons!

(Well. not just dragons – but dragons are always a good place to start).

The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf gives us a solid template for the popular image of dragons in the Western imagination:

“He lived on a cliff, kept watch over a hoard

in a high stone barrow…”

When a slave wanders into the dragon’s lair and steals some of his treasure, he takes his revenge:

“Then the dragon began to breathe forth fire,

to burn fine buildings; flame tongues flickered,

terrifying men…

He had girdled the Geats with fire,

with ravening flames…”

Beowulf, no longer the young warrior of the first part of the poem, but now an aged king, goes into battle one last time to protect his people, and time and time again is beaten back by the dragon’s fiery breath (“he who had ruled a nation suffered agony, surrounded by flame”). But one of his companions, Wiglaf, runs to his aid, and drives his sword into the dragon’s belly, and Beowulf is then able to finish it off with his knife. But he is mortally wounded by the dragon’s venomous bite, and the mourning Geats build a pyre for him on the headland:

“And there on Whaleness, the heroes kindled

the most mighty of pyres; the dark wood-smoke

Soared over the fire, the roaring flames

mingled with weeping – the winds’ tumult subsided –

until the body became ash, consumed even

to its core.”

(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World).

In vernacular British folklore, dragons tend to be less like the dragon of Beowulf, and more like snakes, who often live in the sea or in marshland, and kill their victims by wrapping themselves around them and crushing them. But still, a story like The Dragon of Wantley tells of a dragon who “…ate trees and cattle, and once he ate three young children at one meal. Fire breathed from his nostrils, and for long no man dared come near him.” (Katharine Briggs, British Folk-Tales and Legends).

The Dragon of Wantley.

Of course fire is not just a destroyer, but a creator also, and the Titan Prometheus is punished for stealing it from the gods and giving it to mankind by being chained to a mountainside and having his liver pecked out each day by an eagle, whereupon it regrows each night, and the torment is repeated.

There are other versions of this story beyond Greek mythology – in Polynesian myth, the hero Maui challenges the guardian of fire, Mahu-ika, to a contest, in which each shall compete to throw the other as high as possible in the air. But when it is Maui’s turn to throw Mahu-ika, he cheats him:

“Mahu-ika turned over and over in the air and commenced to fall back; and when he had nearly reached the ground Maui called out these magic words: ‘That man up there – may he fall right on his head!’

Mahu-ika fell down; his neck was completely telescoped together, and so Mahu-ika died. At once the hero Maui took hold of the giant Mahu-ika’s head and cut it off, then he possessed himself of the treasure of the flame, which he bestowed upon the world.”

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces).

The idea that the world will one day be consumed by flame, and a new one reborn, is common across different cultures and mythologies – the Aztecs believed that flames would end the aeon of fire (our present aeon), and the Stoics believed in “cyclic conflagration”, i.e. that fire will destroy all, before the universe and everything in it is reborn, exactly as it was, and we all get to live our lives all over again.

The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo

In Norse mythology, this idea finds its fullest expression in Ragnarok, when Loki’s wolf, Fenrir, will be free from his bonds (“Flames will dance in [his] eyes and leap from his nostrils”) and Jormungand, the snake that encircles Midgard, will “spew venom”. The giant Surt, who was there at the beginning of creation, will “…fling fire in every direction. Asgard and Midgard and Jotunheim and Niflheim will become furnaces – places of raging flame, swirling smoke, ashes, only ashes. The nine worlds will burn and the gods will die.”

Out of this great conflagration, however, a new world will emerge: “The earth will rise again out of the water, fair and green… There will be life and new life, life everywhere on earth.”

(Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths).

 

“The Worm Ouroboros” by E.R. Eddison – review

I was introduced to this book by the writer Clive S. Johnson, and as new editions of this and the other novels in Eddison’s Zimiamvia series were published in the UK last summer, it seemed like a good opportunity to investigate one of the key writers of Twentieth Century fantasy.

E.R. Eddison was a civil servant at the British Board of Trade when he published what Ursula Le Guin calls his “eccentric masterpiece” in 1922. Inspired by the Icelandic sagas, Homer, and Jacobean drama, The Worm Ouroboros tells the story of the epic battle between two fantastical realms, Witchland and Demonland, for lordship of the earth. It is dark, violent, and many of its characters are essentially two-dimensional – traits often found in fantasy fiction – yet it is written in a florid, over-the-top style which carries the reader along, and seems to delight in its own ridiculousness:

Five nights and five days the Demons and Mivarsh dwelt in Morna Moruna, inured to portents till they marked them as little as men mark swallows at their window. In the still night were flames seen, and flying forms dim in the moonlit air; and in moonless nights unstarred, moans heard and gibbering accents: prodigies beside their beds, and ridings in the sky, and fleshless fingers plucking at Juss unseen when he went forth to make question of the night.

Tolkien greatly admired Eddison’s prose, though he was put off by his politics – there is more than a whiff of the übermensch about the Demonlords, Juss, Spitfire, Brandoch Daha, and Goldry Bluszco – and they’re meant to be the heroes. The villains – the Witches – are arguably more interesting and complex, especially Lord Gro, who betrays his own people, the Goblins, and serves the sorcerer King Gorice XII:

Now the King poured forth wine, speaking a charm over the cup, and when the bright wine had revived Lord Gro, the King spake saying, ‘It is well, O Gro, that thou hast shown thyself a philosopher indeed, and of heart intrepid. Yet even as no blade is utterly tried until one try it in very battle, where if it snap woe and doom wait on the hand that wields it, so must thou in this midnight suffer a yet fiercer furnace-heat of terror…’

In his foreword, Douglas E. Winter writes that, “like a vintage wine a taste for Eddison’s prose is expensively acquired”, but it’s nevertheless well worth imbibing, and when the story is this exciting – heroic feats, mighty battles, hidden kingdoms, beautiful, unearthly women – any qualms the reader may have about the structure of the narrative (especially Eddison’s awkward device of introducing his tale through the time-traveller Edward Lessingham, who may or may not be out of his mind on opium) can be put aside. It is, above all, enormous fun.

Looking into the dark

St John the Baptist, Carhampton

Hello again.

This time last week I’d just arrived in Somerset for some well-earned r’n’r, and the chance to catch up with some dear friends I see all too rarely these days. Two of them very kindly let me have the use of their converted barn for a few days, and so I spent a happy time shuttling backwards and forwards on the bus, and a few cadged lifts, to see as many folk as I could in the time available.

The clocks went back here in the UK last Sunday, and so the evenings, already getting darker, are now creeping in well before 5 o’clock. As I lay awake listening to the wind rattling the casements of the barn, and to the chimes of the church clock, I started thinking about the history of the local area.

One of the places I visited was the small village of Carhampton, a few miles east of Minehead. Today it is home to around 800 or so people, and is a lovely place to live but no longer of great importance. Historically, however, it gave its name to the local hundred – an administrative division of roughly a hundred hides, or households (a hide being the amount of land needed to sustain a household), dating from the Anglo-Saxon period. It was the site of two major battles against the Vikings, in 833 and 840, both of which, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings won (“…great slaughter was made there, and the Danish had possession of the place of slaughter”), and, as a royal estate, was later left by Alfred the Great to his son Edward in his will.

It also plays a small role in the Arthurian legends – when St Carantoc came to Somerset from Wales, so the story goes, he lost a magical altar which had been sent to him from Heaven, and asked Arthur if it had been found washed ashore. It had, but to reclaim it he first had to defeat a dangerous serpent (or possibly dragon – the two are often interchangeable in folklore) living on Ker Moor, between Carhampton and Dunster. This he achieved by placing his stole (the scarf-like vestment worn by priests) around its neck, thus rendering it harmless. He was rewarded by the return of his altar, and built a chapel in Carhampton to house it, though, if such a place ever existed, it has long since disappeared – the present parish church (see photo above) has no connection with either the saint or the story associated with him.

A custom that is still continued in the village today, however, is that of apple-wassailing, which happens every January 17th (Old Twelfth Night), and involves placing toast or cake soaked in cider into the branches of the best tree (for the robins), and pouring cider around its roots. Then, when the assembled company have drunk a toast to the tree and sung the wassailing song, in hopes of a healthy crop for the next autumn, shotguns are fired into the air, to ward off evil spirits.

Apple tree, apple tree we wassail thee,

To bear and to bow,

This year and another year,

Hatsfuls, capsfuls and three corner sacksful

And a little heap under the stairs.

So holler boys, holler boys,

Hip hip hooray!

Dragons Part Three

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 Part Two

I remember, aged about nine or ten, seeing the film “Dragonslayer”, with its splendidly named dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative. I’ve been fascinated by these mythical creatures ever since. The origins of the dragon myth are often unclear – in medieval England, it’s not difficult to see how dinosaur fossils and other natural phenomena, like comets, could be misinterpreted:

“Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: there were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air…”

This entry from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, for 793, appears to presage the coming of the Vikings later that year, and all the havoc they would wreak on the English.

Nowadays we don’t tend to believe in dragons as literal creatures – yet there is literal truth and symbolic truth, and many of our great dragon stories, like much of folklore, tell us deeper truths about ourselves without being “true” in the strictest sense.

The standard of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex is of a wyvern (a type of dragon with only one pair of legs) on a red background, and the flag of Somerset, my home county, and once part of Wessex, also bears the image of a dragon. Interestingly, in Wales, in the Mabinogion, the Historia Brittonum, and The History of the Kings of Britain, the red dragon of the Welsh fights and finally defeats the white dragon of the invading Saxons.

Why do dragons still hold an important role for us in the post-Enlightenment age? And how has that role changed over the years? These are questions I want to explore further in Part Three.

Dragons Part One

The word “dragon” comes from the Latin, draco, itself derived from the Greek, drakon, a word describing any kind of large snake, real or imagined.

In Greek mythology, there are several such creatures, many of them the progeny of Typhon (or Typhoeus) and Echidna, the “mother and father of all monsters”: Ladon, who lived in the Garden of the Hesperides; Hydra, who guarded the underworld; and the Colchian Dragon, an unsleeping serpent who guarded the Golden Fleece, which Jason managed to steal thanks to Medea, who sang spells to the dragon.

In the West, dragons are often seen as evil and dangerous, but some writers, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, show a more nuanced side in their fiction. I want to explore, over coming weeks, the relationship between humans and dragons, where they came from, and why they matter.