Heathens 2 – Christians 0

Today I went in search of a Thor stone, an ancient monument thought to be one of Thor’s thunderbolts, just kind of leaning on somebody’s fence in the tiny village of Taston (which was known as Thorstan, or Thor stone until about the 13th century). You can see from the photograph, that it’s pretty tall (I’m 171cm, for reference). Thor didn’t seem to mind me leaning on it.

 

 

Directly across the road is what’s left of an old stone cross. Local legend has it that the cross was built strictly for the purpose of offsetting the evil heathen energy of the Thor stone. But the cross has fallen off and the Thor stone, which is much much older, is still there.

So. Heathens 1, Christians 0.

Then, later this afternoon, I went for a walk through the village I’m staying in and ended up at the little Norman church at the top of the hill. I was delighted to see some Saxon carvings in the porch. It’s likely that a church of some kind has stood on this spot since late 11th century, because the 1085 Domesday survey of the area records 48 inhabitants, including a priest.

But the real star of this church is the ancient yew tree in the graveyard. The Conservation Foundation has confirmed that it’s around 1300 years old. As you can see from the pictures, it’s an impressive, living monument. Yew trees are often in graveyards because they are symbols of eternal life, and they were very important to heathens. You do the maths. The tree is 1300 years old, the church not quite 1000 years old. That means the tree was already a very old tree when the church was built: it was probably the reason the church was built on the site in the first place. Much easier to convert heathens if you put their prospective new place of worship where the old one is. So, Heathens 2 – Christians 0.*

The old yew tree, wide view

And close up, taken from down near the roots


And then I had an AMAZING idea for the last novella in my collection, “The Lark and the River”. I’m going to go sit under that yew tree with my notebook some time before I leave and write all my ideas down. It’s going to rock.

*Yes, I know that Christians actually won in the long term. Well played, Christianity. Not bad for a woman-hating death cult.

The Year of Ancient Ghosts

I am very very VERY excited to announce that I have just signed up with Ticonderoga Publications to release a collection of novellas in early 2013. The collection will be titled The Year of Ancient Ghosts and will feature a mix of existing and new publications. All of the works are in some way based on or inspired by medieval literature and history. The draft table of contents includes “The Death of Pamela”, first published in 2000 (based on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur); “Crown of Rowan”, first published in 2010 (based on my ongoing OBSESSION with all things Anglo-Saxon); “Wild Dreams of Blood”, forthcoming in an e-journal in 2012 (which does funky things with the Eddas and cage fighting), and two as-yet unwritten novellas tentatively titled “The Year of Ancient Ghosts” and “The Lark and the River”. There will also be a nonfiction essay in the back about researching and writing the medieval.

The Ring of Brodgar: one of the locations in "The Year of Ancient Ghosts"

Kimberley Freeman, my more-popular alter-ego, has kept me very busy the last few years, so it has been a while since I’ve conceptuatlised and written a speculative fiction novel. Working on these novellas is giving me a chance to drink from that well again, and I’m very grateful that Ticonderoga sees value in the project. I love the novella form: it has a similar structure and weight to the novel, but is a quicker and easier write and read. Part of my research trip to the UK next year will be taken up in researching, developing, and writing these works, including a week in a lonely cottage near Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. I feel very blessed to have such great support around me, and that I can spend the next six months or so (once Kimberley Freeman #4 is off in the River Publish) indulging these creative ideas that mean so much to me.

Power, Mystery, and the Hammer of the Gods

I stole this blog title from Jimmy Page, who said these three things were what he always sought in art. I couldn’t agree with him more. I have been much entertained of late, so I’m blogging it.

Sigur Ros: ooh, so mysterious

I recently saw the movie “Inni”, which is a filmed version of a Sigur Ros concert, but so much more than that. Even though I referenced Led Zep in my opening line, and have long considered them the best band in the world, I think I’m having to admit now that it’s actually Sigur Ros who should be crowned lords of all rock music. The movie is a brilliant, spare, elegiac showcase of an incredible band at the height of their powers showing that when music is done right, it’s a kind of sorcery. The dynamics, the intensity, the humanity of this band are all beyond description. I was lucky enough to see Jonsi (who is the genius at the centre of Sigur Ros) on tour last year in Melbourne, and I have come to understand that he is some kind of music god, perhaps sent by the Aesir to Iceland in the hopes that Coldplay would just shut the fuck up. If you don’t know who these people are and would like to know, try here, here, here, or even here.

Don't worry, you can (and I do) play a girl.


But I’ve also been deep, deep, and far away in the province of Skyrim. This week, in a brilliant spot of timing, I tore a couple of ligaments in my left ankle while out walking up the mountain. “Can you stay still with your foot elevated for a few days?” my phsyio asked. Why yes, yes I can. I fired up the PS3 and haven’t really moved since. The game is sublime. The landscape and the music are enough to keep me playing it, but add in the rumbling nightmare of a dragon attack, the immersive thrill of lovingly designed dungeons, and the awesome little medieval towns and… well, why bother doing real life, eh? To paraphrase Ralph Wiggum: “Oh boy, Skyrim! That’s where I’m a viking!”

Art is sometimes seen as only encompassing a few, fairly delimited (and uppity) things. Paintings, opera, maybe poetry. I dunno. But to me, this movie and this game are art. They are incredible expressions of human endeavour, pushing right out there on the boundaries of feeling and technology, to make something that is meaningful and valuable to others. It reminds me that art matters; it always matters. And I am so grateful for it, in good times and in bad.

Fierce

It was my daughter’s fifth birthday this week, and she spent the day of her party running around dressed as a Viking. Astrid is as susceptible as any five-year-old girl to Disney princesses, and has plenty of pink princess outfits, pink high-heels with butterflies on, and pink strings of beads. The pinkalanche started early: she identifies strongly as a girl and is drawn to girly things. Being let loose in my make-up case is her idea of a perfect afternoon.

But it’s always been important to me and to her father to make sure that she’s given alternatives to that girliness. Pink high heels and make-up are fun, but they seem too often to encourage meekness, coquetry, submission, even stagnation (one can’t, after all, run very far in high heels). Early Disney princesses, for example, hope that “Some day my prince will come”; thank Walt for Rapunzel, who spends her movie barefoot and swinging around by her hair like an action hero.

From her earliest days on this planet, Vikings have been important to Astrid. Her name means, after all, “strength of the Aesir” (that’s right: nothing to do with stars; her name is Germanic, not Latin). When I was 33 weeks pregnant and nearly went into premature labour, I was given steroids to ensure her lungs developed quickly. Since birth, Astrid has always been fearsomely strong, making me to wonder on many occasions whether the steroids were responsible, rather like Obelix falling into the magic potion as an infant. Her early interest in Vikings—possibly because Mummy is interested in Vikings and has books lying about—was encouraged strongly. Playing Vikings gives her a way of letting out aggression (as she runs about the house with a plastic sword and a stuffed toy as a “war dog”); it gives her a type of female body to grow into (she’s going to be six feet one day by all estimations); it gives her a reason to see strength as desirable, rather than something to hide under her eyelashes (and, boy, does she have a lot of eyelashes!). Vikings let Astrid be fierce, and I love her fierceness, her brilliance, her fire.

Go out and conquer something for your birthday, my lovely girl. Forget about being a princess: become a queen.

Music and Words

I hath finished “The Garden of the Mad King” after 3 and a half years of thinking, and just over a year of writing. I both love it and hate it, and there is a looooottta work to be done to fix it. But I’m not thinking about that just yet.

I always miss certain aspects of a book when the composition is finished, and in the few days since I finished this one, I’ve been missing my playlist. I always make a playlist of suitable music for every book I write; kind of a shortcut to get me in the mood. I am fiercely missing that music at the moment, or rather I am missing writing with that music on. Hearing any of the songs makes me long for the book. In particular, my three main characters kind of attached themselves to particular songs, and hearing those songs can make me yearn for them the way you might yearn for a lost lover.

Bluebell, the lead character and the oldest sister, is inextricable in my imagination now from The Tea Party’s Sister Awake. Rose, the second sister, who is embroiled in a forbidden love plot, will always be Regina Spektor’s Field Below. And Ash, the third sister, who is struggling with an uncontrollable supernatural ability, will always be The Waterboys’ This is the Sea (sorry, this video doesn’t really go with my book, but it was the only one I could find). There were so many other songs: a bunch of great English folk but especially Led Zeppelin and Nick Drake; some hard-edged dreamy post-rock from Hammock and Sigur Ros; and other random songs that just came to mean something to me over the time I was writing. Hard to acknowledge that it’s all in the past now, the lovely squishy sweet feeling of putting on the music, cracking my knuckles, and creating that world.

Time for me now to get out a new notebook, start thinking about a new Kimberley Freeman now, and collect songs for a new playlist.

Weird, huh?

The Anglo-Saxons had this awesome concept called “wyrd”. So say it like “weird” (cos that’s where the word comes from: Shakespeare adopted it for his witches in Macbeth) but flatten the “e” sound and harden your “r” a little. Wyrd is a heathen concept, and is often translated simply as “fate” but it’s more complicated than that. It comes from the verb “weorthan”, which means both “to become” and “to happen”. And somewhere between those two words (which hint at both personal agency and random-shit-you-can’t-control) lies the meaning. Wyrd refers both to universal destiny: the uncontrollable factors around us that we are caught up in and can’t ever really escape; and personal destiny: the actions we take in every moment to become what we are going to be next. So wyrd is both woven for us and by us.

The best analogy I can think of is this: you’re out at sea on a sailing boat. You have no control over the weather, and there’s no point pleading with the sky not to storm because the sky won’t listen and wouldn’t care anyway. But what you can do is set your sails the best way possible to get through the storm: those actions you take shape what will become of you. Wyrd is the same idea, but applied to Life.

I like this idea so much I had it tattooed on the inside of my left fore-arm yesterday. The lettering is an early medieval scribal form used for Old English manuscripts like Beowulf and The Exeter Book (the “w” looks a bit like a “v” with a tail). It’s my first, and will probably be my only tattoo. I still feel quite giddy that I did it. Fear me!

So, that’s quite a complicated and long-winded explanation and I’m not going to repeat it. If people ask me what it says, I’ll direct them here. Or maybe I’ll just tell them it says “pwnd”.

Thanks to Scott at Wild at Heart for being so kind to this cleanskin n00b. Here are pictures:

Before

During

After

On watching movies

I’ve seen a bunch of movies in the last week or so, and thought I’d blog about the experience. These aren’t reviews as such: a couple of the movies have been out for a very long time. These are just reflections on a medium of storytelling that I feel has incredible potential rarely realised.

The first was the CGI Beowulf (dir. Robert Zemeckis), which I have resisted watching until now. Why resist? Well, the poem has a really special place in my heart and I don’t want to see it sullied. Also, about the time Zemeckis’s version came out, I watched on DVD the little-known Icelandic version Beowulf and Grendel (dir. Sturla Gunnarson) with Gerard Butler as Beowulf and it was really good: sure they dicked with the plot, but it looked stunning. But I slowly came round to the idea of Zemeckis’s adaptation. Neil Gaiman was involved in the screenplay. Anthony Hopkins and a few other good actors were in it. Surely it couldn’t be that bad.

Well, I guess I’ll never know precisely how bad or good it is because I couldn’t watch it for more than 10 minutes. It is officially the movie I have given up on quickest in my life. The CGI was awful, just awful. It looked like a cut scene from a PC game. I will never know if Neil Gaiman’s quirky brilliance saved it, or if Anthony Hopkins made a wonderful Hrothgar because I couldn’t look at it. FFS, if I’d wanted to watch Polar Express I would have rented it.

My second adventure was District 9, which a lot of my friends and family said was Teh Awesome. I’d really been looking forward to this one, but perhaps my head wasn’t in the right place to enjoy it more than “meh”. For one thing, I couldn’t stomach the violence but that says more about me than it says about the movie. I don’t actually mind violence. I like it in books, I love it in computer games. But for some reason movie violence irritates me. I always feel as though I’m being manipulated; it always seems a film-maker’s shortcut to a visceral reaction. Or something. I really don’t know. In any case, I recognise that this movie was a wonderfully original concept, and the aliens looked superb, and the sight of that big ship just sitting up there above Johannesburg was brilliant. But what killed it for me was the lack of a likable character in the first hour. I hated the protagonist (and I’ve forgotten his name, which says something). I didn’t care if he died. I certainly didn’t care if his adequately pretty wife was sad (she looked like she had an illustrious career ahead of her modelling knitware in Kmart catalogues) (seriously, just give the nerdy-looking man a nerdy-looking wife). I got more interested in the alien with the little son and genuinely cared about them, but it was a long time coming. And by then, my disbelief had returned from suspension and I saw ALL the plot holes. And they were huuuuuuuuuuuge. Fatal, even. So my verdict is: great concept, uneven execution.

And then, almost by accident, I watched Ponyo (dir. Hayao Miyazaki). A friend had loaned me a bagful of Miyazaki films to show my kids, and I thought my little girl might be taken by the cute, chubby-faced fish. I expected to do housework while she watched, but from the opening frames I was utterly captivated. So I sat on the couch and watched it all, breathless. It is a work of art. Utterly sublime. Some of the scenes will stay with me forever, especially those that captured to perfection the might and beauty and mystery of the sea.

My final adventure was in an actual movie theatre (gasp!) with 3D glasses on my nose and a squirming three-year-old in and out of my lap. We took the kids to see How to Train your Dragon. I have an interest in medievalism, and particularly in Vikings in popular imagination so I was really looking forward to this one (even though it’s Dreamworks who usually suck and not Pixar who usually rock). Oh my God. It was so amazing. It was beyond brilliant. The story was tight, tight, tight. The characterisation was superb. The CGI was flawless. The settings were incredible. The flying scenes in 3D made the pit of my stomach drop. And the big final scene had me in actual tears (but, okay, I cry easily). A perfect blend of controlled storytelling and real emotional depth. This is the stuff that I always want to see at the movies. Big story, big heart, beautiful to watch. I’d give this one 11 out of 10, and it’s going on the list of my Favourite Movies Evah.

Well, that’s it. Now I’ll go back to watching podcasts of Good Game and re-runs of Friends, and hanging out for The Hobbit. Meanwhile, check out my cat Onyxia: doesn’t she look a lot like Toothless?

I won't bite...

... honest!

A warrior poet

Quick quiz. Look at the two pictures below. Now tell me which one of the men is medieval poet Dante Alghieri, author of La Divina Commedia?

The answer is, of course, both of them. I have been playing Dante’s Inferno on PS3 and got myself so excited I just have to blog. I’ve been interested in this game since I first saw the trailer, with its fabulous “Go to Hell” shoutline. On reflection, Dante’s Hell seems custom made for adaptation to a video game, what with the nine circles and all. Before proceeding, though, I need to acknowledge all those people who are reading this and thinking “but it’s just a re-skin of God of War“. Yes, I understand it is, and there’s a great review article that deals with that issue here. Now, let it go.

My excitement is more about the fact that popular culture has now given Dante a giant weapon (it’s Death’s scythe, if you must know) and eye-popping muscles, and made him so unbelievably b’dass, so mighty to the power of win, so incredibly l33t and awesomezor. He’s a medieval poet, for chrissake! I love seeing elite culture adapted into popular forms at any time, but to reimagine a lily-skinned, soft-fingered poet as an action hero is just so very cool. But that’s not all. Virgil, the Roman poet, also turns up as Dante’s guide, and he too is ripped (though in ghostly form). What’s next? An RPG about Chopin?

I wrote some stuff...

...then I killed some other stuff.

A Great Convergence

Original rood painting/relief at St Mary's, Breamore

I love this stage of a book so much, when isolated ideas start to attract each other like magnets, and the space between them gets churned up with the movement and exposes new and unexpected ideas. Tuesday was almost a perfect day for me. It started with peanut butter on toast and hot tea for breakfast (okay, that’s what I have every day, but still…), then we drove out to West Kennet long barrow and went inside a neolithic tomb, then we went to Avebury and wandered around standing stones, then just as we pulled up back at our cottage it started snowing (zomg!). This was all followed by an afternoon reading, celebrating my son losing his front tooth, and finally a long writing session where a whole bunch of ideas came together beautifully and I surprised myself by completely changing the direction of my narrative with one small detail and oh oh oh I can’t tell you any more than that save to say I’m pretty bloody excited.

Phew.

The 10th-century Exeter Book, open to the first lines of the poem Widsith

Being here in England has been incredibly inspiring. I have been chasing Anglo-Saxon sites all over the south of England, because that’s roughly the time period my story is drawing ideas from. After the British Museum and Sutton Hoo, I went to the recreated Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow and sat in a little wooden hut with an open hearth pit and no chimney and realised just how smoky life was. On the way down to Rye to meet friends, we detoured to Maldon and sneaked down a muddy side road on somebody’s farm to see the site where the famous battle took place in 991. To see the causeway at low tide, and imagine the vikings just over there on Northey Island while Byrthnot and his army waited, blew my mind. Then I heard about a pre-conquest church at Breamore, just south of Salisbury, so we stopped there on the way up to Wiltshire. It was incredible, with original long-and-short brickwork, splayed windows, an original relief of Christ on his rood, and an Old English inscription above the door. Today, we stopped off in Exeter to view the Exeter Book at the cathedral library (“The Wanderer”, my favourite Old English poem, is in it; along with many other very famous works). We found our way into the bowels of the building and some lovely volunteers got out the keys, with all due gravitas, and unlocked what looked like some kind of nuclear-holocaust-resistant cabinet. Under glass, there it was, open to the front page of “Widsith”.

Can you see how hard I'm working? By the picture window in our cottage in Wiltshire.

And all of it, all of it, seeping into my imagination and making things grow madly like they grow in jungles. Vines. Monkeys. The lot. (Note: the monkeys are metaphorical; there are no monkeys in my book).

Thyrsland isn’t England. I know that now. I am writing fantasy, not historical fiction. I’m not researching for facts, I’m researching for inspiration. Many people have drawn inspiration from medieval things for their fantasy, so my ethics of medieval inspiration is as follows: I promise to use Anglo-Saxon ideas carefully, coherently, and lovingly; while always remembering that a story does not exist to keep finnicky purists from writing letters of complaint. A story exists because a writer got passionate-and-crazy-mad for some wild shit and just couldn’t stop herself from writing about it.

Where have you been all my life?

MISTY_MOUNDSFalling in love with a new book is a billion different kinds of magic. I have cracked open that door and got my foot in the world and, even though I’m still suffering through the usual challenges, I have a lovely sense of rightness that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

As you’ve no doubt gathered, I’m basing many of my ideas for this book on Anglo-Saxon England, and one thing I’m really getting caught up in at the moment is the poetry of the time. You must understand, I had my first exposure to Anglo-Saxon poetry (sometimes called Old English poetry) 12 or 13 years ago in my undergraduate medieval studies minor. At the time, my response was “meh”. I mean, I liked Beowulf (there are monsters: what’s not to like?). But in general it seemed a little plain, even mundane. Then, while doing my master’s, I was part of an Anglo-Saxon reading group who spent months translating parts of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and The Battle of Maldon. Again, meh.

So imagine my surprise, on revisiting it this time, to find all the meh gone. Where I thought there was kind of a detached bluntness, I now found a weighty strangeness. The split alliterative line… oh, my! What drama and measure there is in it! Discovering the beauty in it is like having a platonic relationship with someone your whole life, then suddenly looking at them and realising they are made of awesome. And falling hard, hard, hard in love. At the moment, my favourite poem is The Wanderer (click here if you want to hear it read to you in Anglo-Saxon). I must have read it ten times this week alone. Tolkien fans my recognise the adapted lines from it: “Where is the horse and where the rider?” (Aragorn sings it in The Two Towers, Theoden says it in the movie version).

So what is a girl loved up on Anglo-Saxon culture to do? Well, head off to England of course! I am dragging my family off to face a northern winter and investigate various sites and monuments (that’s the Sutton Hoo mounds in the picture). Oh, the kids are going to love it. That was irony.