Saturday, May 29, 2021

Northern Earth

Northern Earth, edited by John Billingsley, is one of the longest-running independent journals devoted to ancient mysteries (or 'earth mysteries' as they were called in the 1970s and 80s). It is interested in 'megalthic sites, alignments, sacred landscapes, psychogeography and deep topography, folklore and tradition, esoteric traditions, strange phenomena . . .' and more.

The latest issue , no 164, celebrates the moment coming up to one hundred years ago, on June 30 1921, when the Herefordshire antiquarian Alfred Watkins had his vision of a network of ancient trackways which he called 'leys':  'a fairy chain stretched from mountain to mountain peak.'

Watkins' idea was rediscovered and revitalised in the counter-culture of the 1960s as part of an upsurge of interest in ancient sacred sites and a new curiosity about landscape and its associated folklore, in a similar spirit to that which had inspired the work of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Mary Butts and others.

The Ley Hunter magazine was launched in April 1965 by Philip Heselton, then still a schoolboy: it was part of a Ley Hunters' Club he had launched with school-friend Jimmy Goddard. Both are still active in similar circles: Philip has researched and written widely on the origins of modern paganism, while Jimmy edits a newsletter, Touchstone

Three former editors of The Ley Hunter have written articles for Northern Earth 164 about their involvement – Philip Heselton and his successors, Paul Screeton and Paul Devereux. All three essays are reflective about those times but not merely nostalgic: they also discuss the development of their thinking since. 

Also included is my essay 'A Landscape Detective of the 1930s'. This is a piece of literary archaeology about Donald Maxwell, a writer and artist who compiled a series of books, illustrated with his own sketches, about his wanderings looking into ancient monuments and folklore. These are highly evocative of their time, full of his engaging enthusiasm, and sometimes even redolent of John Buchan as he and his companions dash off through the countryside in search of clues to the various mysteries he is investigating.

I discovered Maxwell's work when visiting the quayside second-hand bookshop at Gloucester. There was an album-sized book in faded blue called Adventures Among Churches, perhaps an unlikely-sounding title. But I noticed it in particular because it was published by The Faith Press, who also issued Arthur Machen's Holy Grail novel The Great Return. And indeed Maxwell's book, though non-fiction, has something of the same spirit, with enticing chapter titles such as 'The Chapel of the Green Lagoons' and 'The Black Belfry of Brookland'.  

Maxwell was one of the first writers outside Watkins' Herefordshire circle to take his ley theory seriously and in two of his books he introduces it and is at once off off in hot pursuit, developing his own ideas and refinements on the way.  His approach is open-minded and exploratory, sharing his discoveries whether they support the theory or not, and with much fascinating incidental detail.

Northern Earth 164 (or a subscription) can be obtained direct from John Billingsley: editor[at]northernearth[dot]co[dot]uk, replacing the word in brackets with symbols. 

(Mark Valentine)


Sunday, May 23, 2021

New Issues with Following Blogs by email

Most blogs I'm involved with have a "Follow by email" option. The "Follow by email" function worked (fine) via Google's Feedburner since I started using it.  Google is eliminating Feedburner in July, which means I have had to find an alternate source. 

Over the next week I will be transferring this following-by-email function ON THIS BLOG to I already have seen anomalies (with other blogs), and hope they won't be numerous. In theory I should be able to migrate those already following this blog over to the new service, but I'll believe it works smoothly when it's done. Meanwhile, I'll try to fix errors if they are reported to me.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Hy Brasil - Margaret Elphinstone

Hy Brasil is an island in the Atlantic, somewhere over the horizon from Ireland, Iceland and the Azores, that has been sighted several times since the Middle Ages and has given rise to many legends. Said to have towns with towers of gold, thought to be often shrouded in mist, it has been identified with the Fortunate Isles that the Celts believed lay in the sunset regions to the West, and with the fierce, fair and free lands that Viking voyagers discovered.

It continued on nautical maps and atlases into the late 19th century, but was eventually removed, along with other islands that had once been seen and plotted but now cannot be found. This is a very beguiling subject and there are a small number of books on the theme, including Raymond Ramsay's No Longer On the Map (1972), Henry Stommel's Lost Islands: The Story of Islands That Have Vanished from Nautical Charts (1984) and Donald S Johnson's Phantom Islands of the Atlantic (1994). Who could resist such alluring titles?  

Scottish author Margaret Elphinstone published one of the best modern novels with an island setting in her splendidly-imagined novel set on Hy Brasil and its smaller sister islands. In her Hy Brasil (2002), she creates a many-dimensioned version of the realm, with its mixed heritage from all the lands of the North Atlantic littoral, its obscure, half-mythic origins, its colonial pride yet independent spirit, and its modern dilemmas as a new nation.

A skillful story-teller, she brings in many relishable themes; spying, smuggling, conspiracy, a volcano, rebellion, exile, roads taken and not taken. Through the travel notes of a self-aware, but still learning, young woman, the charmingly-named Sidony Redruth, we discover the eminently convincing history, legends and culture of the island: but we are also drawn to understand the human qualities and foibles of the island characters.

This is indeed a highly plausible Hy Brasil that might have been. The author also slyly includes enjoyable references to other literary islands and seafarers. On her website she says: ‘My island of Hy Brasil is also Caliban’s, Robinson Crusoe’s, Gulliver’s, Long John Silver’s, Peter Pan’s, Ralph’s, and a host of other more or less fictional characters.’

Most deftly of all, she invites us to think about the nature of imagined worlds and their relationship to lived experience.  She describes her book as: ‘a game about islands, and representations of islands.’ A work in which a fantastical premise is given fine substance, it will linger with the reader long after.

 With the author's permission, I issued a stamp based on her Hy Brasil in my Strange Stamps series. It was designed by SF artist Colin Langeveld and depicts the discovery of the island by Viking voyagers (it is now out of print). 

At Ringwood Publishing there is an interview with Margaret Elphinstone by Beth Whitelaw about the author's fascination with islands and with the Viking age, as well as on her writing. 

(Mark Valentine)

Monday, May 17, 2021

Jessie Douglas Kerruish's First Three Books

Jessie Douglas Kerruish (1884-1949) is probably best remembered for her weird novel The Undying Monster (1922), which was filmed in 1943. It was her third novel, following Miss Haroun Al-Raschid (1917)  and The Girl from Kurdistan (1918). It was in turn followed by only two more books, the first, being another novel, The Hull of Coins (1928), and her final volume, an odd fix-up of stories old and new, Babylonian Nights' Entertainments (1934). But before all of these, Kerruish published three booklets as parts of W.T. Stead's "Books for the Bairns" series. The booklets are each around sixty pages.

The first was The Gambler Prince and How He Was Saved by His Wife: An Old Story from India, published in December 1909 (no. 217 of the series). It contains three stories. The title story is about how Prince Nala overcomes his gambling problem. "The Boy Who Heard the Silence Speak" is about young Pavo of Scandinavia, who is a deaf and dumb, and who prays to God on Christmas Day to be able to hear. An Angel tells him he will hear the silence speak, and he hears the morning stars sing. The final story, "The Merciful Are Rich," tells of two children who share cakes and milk with a wolf and a bear on Christmas Eve. As animals show up outside, the cakes never lessen and the milk never diminishes. The rich, however, refuse to share, so the wolves and bears devour their livestock. This booklet is illustrated by Brinsley Le Fanu, the son of J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

The Raksha Rajah;  or, The King of the Ogres: A Wonderful Story from our Empire in the East. Also the story of The Princess Who Went Out and Begged,
published in February 1912 (no. 194), contains two stories. The title story tells of Ravenna, an ogre and evil magician, who long ago did Brahma a favor, and as a reward he has protection against fairies and spirits, but not against man. In "The Princess Who Went Out and Begged," the Rajah of Madras has only a daughter, and thus no heir, for his daughter may not become a ruler. She goes on a pilgrimage and falls in love with the son of an exiled Rajah, upon whom there is a prophecy that he will be dead within a year.  On the fateful day, the Princess appeals for his life. The illustrations are uncredited but many are by Brinsley Le Fanu.

The final of the three books is perhaps the most interesting, for it deals with the Tales and Legends of the Isle of Man. It was published in August 1913 (no. 214). Kerruish was herself born in Hartlepool, but her father and his family were from the Isle of Man. The booklet contains three stories, the first comprising most of the booklet, being six chapters in length. "The Sword Without an Equal" is set in the days when witches and warlocks were still found in the world. It tells of the sword Macabuin, made by a warlock Loan Maclibhuin, the seventh son of a King of Norway.  The other two tales are "Robin-the-Fiddler"--a musician who is hired by a disguised fairy and warned to play only psalm tunes or be lost; and "The Story of Ivor the Knight," in which Ivor asks the bad King of the Manx for permission to marry his betrothed, but the King refuses, after falling in love with her at first sight. Ivor escapes to Ireland where he plots with the Bishop to regain his lost love.  As with the second booklet, the illustrations uncredited but most are by Brinsley Le Fanu, and some are by George Hobbs. 

These tales show Kerruish in a different mode from that by which she is otherwise known.