Wednesday, 23 August 2017

What's In A World by Steve Gladwin?

I really feel sorry for people when they say that they either don’t enjoy reading, or find it painful. As someone who has loved reading like the very blood or breath of life for as long as I can remember, the idea of not having it would be a torment. I have been thinking recently about which of three loves – TV and film, music and reading – I could least give up and the answer is obvious. Yes I’d miss music, but I’d always have it in my head, whereas without reading I’d have to create the stories for myself. So OK, as both a writer and a storyteller I should be able to do this, but despite my own recent attempts within the fantasy genre, I could never be Tolkien or Lewis, Susan Cooper or Catherine Fisher, Guy Gavriel Kay or William Horwood. Nor could I write like Philip Pullman, and it is my recent decision to re-read the His Dark Materials books that has led to this blog.

Like most books, a good fantasy can be experienced either through discovering it retrospectively – responding to a recommendation or just not wanting to be left out - or as a brand new sparkling entity. The two feelings you get are similarly thrilling, even if they are at one remove from each other. In the first you can barely contain your enthusiasm at being party to all the secrets and thrills that everyone else has told you about. You might almost call this theit’s all true’ factor. In the second it’s more likely to be a ‘oh this is so wonderful and I have to tell everyone about it.’ I’ve met a number of those in fantasy in my life, of which more in a minute.

Back to the Gladwin household in the early seventies, and much to everyone’s surprise, my father took himself into our front room for three weeks running, stuck on the gas fire and meticulously ploughed through all 1076 pages of The Lord of the Rings. I remember him saying how much he enjoyed it too.

The book  club edition my dad read

What was maybe more unusual was that I decided to read it straight after him, and I was only maybe thirteen. OK, I had read the Hobbit, but apart from that my only experience of fantasy must have been the Narnia books and Alan Garner. I too enjoyed it, and also remember meticulously copying out the entire map of middle earth which was in the above edition. It would however be many years before I repeated the experience.

A couple of years later I tried to write my own fantasy novel which I called ‘The Chronicles of Action’ (pronounced ac-tee-on). It wasn’t a bad premise, the discovery after a dust storm that a desert race had once been a great civilisation. I wrote quite a bit of it, but is was usual with these things soon gave it up as hard work. What I did realise years later was that it was partly a rip-off of an absolutely wonderful series called The Trigan Empire which my sister and I used to read in a children’s magazine called ‘Look and Learn’. My sister Chris and I were riveted by this intergalactic story of men in loin cloths fighting over an empire and couldn’t wait for the next installment. I’ve just checked and apparently you can get the whole thing now as a free download, which is a good job as you should see the prices of the originals on Amazon!

But the LOTR experience must have triggered something, because it was in  my teens that I completely embraced fantasy writing and what was then called Sword and Sorcery in particular. For a good few years my bookshelf was crammed with Corum and Conan, Dorian Hawkmoon and Fafhyd and the Gray Mouser, The Witch World and The Worm Ouroborus, Thongor and Elric. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Just recently I re-read Michael Moorcock’s second series about Corum, his Celtic myth inspired hero. It must have been a series I had at the time, but didn’t read, but boy had I missed out! With twenty odd years of Celtic myth loving behind me I now positively reveled in this particular world.

My fantasy reading after that splurge was patchy at best, but I’ll always remember the series of books which reignited it and has remained my favourite set of books of any genre. It was in my early twenties that I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay’s magisterial and haunting trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry.

I’ve talked about it in previous blogs of course, but for me the series had all the things which no other fantasy novel I have read before or since has quite had. Not the least of these is that it has the sort of depth that less empathetic writers like Robert E. Howard - who created Conan the Barbarian, but who was after all paid to write magazine pulp fiction in the same way Conan Doyle was - or Michael Moorcock, who dreams so well ,but doesn’t always seem to care very much about his characters, can only aspire to. After a rather clunky beginning involving our five heroes and heroines actually getting to Fionavar, the world building itself, its geography, myths and customs, is both carefully and lovingly done.

Guy Gavriel Kay had spent a year helping Christopher Tolkien to prepare The Silmarillion, so it’s hardly surprising that some of this rubbed off so beautifully. In the series Celtic and Norse mix effortlessly, but unlike say CS Lewis, who seemed to take shiny bits of myth from here and there like some out of control literary magpie, (and much to the frustration of his more meticulous friend Tolkien), the mix works and adds to the depth of the whole.

Flash forward a good few years and a friend tells me about this set of children’s books which really aren’t like children’s books at all. I order The Dark Is Rising sequence on his recommendation alone and halfway through Over Sea, Under Stone I am roundly cursing him for getting me to read something which seems so juvenile and with such irritating kids in it. Still I’m nearly forty and maybe they’re not meant for me.

Then I read the second book, The Dark is Rising itself and the whole world changes. It changes so much that I wonder if some other writer hasn’t elbowed the writer of the first book out of the way, and is showing her what she really wanted to write.

In The Dark is Rising in particular there is a sense of the ancient and often uncompromising that seems to permeate the whole book with an ominous foreshadowing which just gets darker and darker as the forces of the Dark themselves close in. In the chapter on children’s writing in his recent wonderful book ‘Landscapes’, Robert Macfarlane calls The Dark is Rising the most eerie book he has ever read and I have to agree, for never before had I felt such a sense of what I can only call book claustrophobia. It seems to be not just the walls that are closing in around the reader, but the whole world.

The sequence which Robert Macfarlane regards as the most memorable is Will’s awakening to his inheritance as an Old One on solstice morning. Here he realises that he has been transported deep into the past where everything is older and more intense and the snowbound landscape far more threatening.. Susan Cooper is expert at taking us in and out of Will’s familiar world and almost dipping us into another one, so that, like a wandering pen nib, we pick up some of the story’s mythic ink and add it to our knowledge. Unlike Lewis, where the story passes back to our own many narnian years later, or Tolkien, where there is no passing into other worlds or tricks with time, Susan Cooper renders time fluid, which has the result of making it all the more unsettling.

Again I could spend a whole blog talking just about that series of books, but I have to move on. My most recent discovery is the Hyddenworld books of William Horwood and like The Dark Is Rising, His Dark Materials and The Fionavar Tapestry, they have had an effect on me as a writer as well as an intermittent reader of fantasy.

In Hyddenworld the smaller race called the Hydden live alongside - and for the most part unnoticed - our own, in much the same way as the Muggles co-exist with the magic folk in Harry Potter. The centre of their version of Englalond is Birmingham which is re-christened Brum and it is that area where the myth that underpins the four books, the smith Beornamund and his making of the gems for his lost love, takes place. But like Middle Earth and Fionavar, the southern counties and Wales of Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising series and the adjusted version of our world in His Dark Materials, William Horwood’s books are about landscape and traveling, as much as anyone else. And as in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, the journey to get there and the reason for going is everything.

Robert E Howard’s great warrior barbarian Conan too bestrode the glittering and always deadly world of the Hyborian age, fighting and wenching and rescuing, overturning plots by a combination of brute force and native cunning and by making the right alliances. Conan is no milk sop of a hero folks. When in the story A Witch Shall be Born, he is crucified by his enemies, he bites the head off the first vulture to dare to go for his eyes, before he is rescued by a former ally. One of the many great disservices done to fantasy by modern cinema was that Big Arnie’s versions made him into little more than a one dimensional pile of muscles. The real Conan has a great deal more to him over and above the muscles and head lopping. He gets to be King of Aquilonia after all, and despite all the usual plots, a good and successful one who holds his throne.

I set out in this blog to try and understand what makes a great fantasy novel for both adults and children. I soon became aware however that all I could write about was the fantasy I myself had loved and experienced.

Then something clicked, and for the first time I was able to see why I have loved most of the fantasy books and series I have read in my life and what they had in common. For there is something that unites Will Stanton, Will Parry and Lyra Belaqua, Conan and Corum, Jack, Catherine and Bedwyn Stort in Hyddenworld, The Fellowship of the Ring on their long road to Mordor, the four Pevensea children in the Narnia Books and the five travelers in the Fionavar Tapestry. I will try to pace out what it is.

Clearly all of them have a destiny, which they are both at first unaware of. and later refuse to accept. Having finally given into that destiny, they gather companions for their quest and they set out through various trials and disappointments, taking and rejecting advice and friendship as they go, until they enter the belly of the beast, fight their battles, suffer their dreadful losses, win - but often at a cost both personal and spiritual - until in the time to come they must decide whether they can live with those memories or not. Having made that decision they may then either symbolically die, or leave the world in which they have journeyed for somewhere calmer.

In other words they are all of them undergoing the Hero’s Journey, as related by Joseph Campbell in his seminal book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. So far so predictable I suppose, because one presumes we authors had that in our DNA long before it became someone’s life's work.

But in my case one of the things my favourites have in common is landscape. Now I love landscape, but I can't pretend to have walked a great deal of it, with the exception of a 49 mile pilgrimage walk on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. However it does seem that what the fantasy books I have read and loved - from Conan to Corum, Will Stanton to Will Parry, and Bedwyn Stort to the little hobbitses and never forgetting Kim, Jennifer, Dave, Paul and Kevin - have in common is not just the journey, (or more often journeys) themselves, but the lands in which they travel. Whether it be Middle Earth or Brum, the Hyborian Age or Citigazze, the lands and spaces always have thrills and experiences to offer in their own right independent of the characters themselves.

As I was finishing this blog, my partner and I were reflecting on the last, for the most part, very difficult year when an idea lit up like a flame in my mind. 
It is the tradition in a fairy or folk tale to end a story with the phrase 'and they all lived happily ever after'. It's a nice, neat, sealing off device isn't it and we come to expect it. For the most part and even after such horrendous events in something like say The Juniper Tree, with all its child abuse, dismemberment and cannibalism, all can become well just like that.

Of course it can't, because how on earth could a family live with the legacy of those circumstances outside of a fairy tale? There are far too many other examples to mention, but to take just one how, in the story of Tam Lin, after Janet has rescued her husband to be from the Queen of Elf Land, do they then go about living together - the man who has been under enchantment in an enchanted land for seven years and a day and this spoiled if now wiser daughter of an earl who is pregnant with his child. One is after all recovering from years of potential trauma and the other from third degree burns!

Of course the easy answer may be just to say that these are all just fairy stories and therefore make-believe, so how can we expect them to make sense? But equally that isn't good enough.

Surely the people who told these tales - which were after all traditional tales, handed down from mouth to mouth before they were ever collected, published or filmed - were canny enough to understand that some things can never be got over and - as a late friend of mine so wisely said - can only be come to terms with, Perhaps then that neat little ending is in many cases little better than a ' coming to terms'.

'So the little boy, (who had been killed, eaten, resurrected as a magical avenging bird and then brought back to life as himself again), and their father, went back into the their sweet little cottage under the Juniper Tree leaving the smashed corpse of their awful stepmother under the giant mill wheel and they all --- somehow learned to come to terms with it.   

It doesn't quite have the same neat little bow ring to it, does it?

And so in conclusion it's no surprise for me to find that apart from the hero's journey, the landscape and the quest element and the rest of it, the vast majority of the books I've mentioned have a sense of profound loss at the end of them and little choice but for the characters to have to come to terms with all they have endured. Friends, innocence and sometimes a whole way of life have gone, and Jack and Catherine, Will and Lyra, Frodo and Sam, and Kim and Dave now have to adjust to a different kind of life, where memory will always be bitter sweet and the pain of those things they have lost a mere heartbeat away.

Is this why we read these books then, knowing that they will offer us something more mature and searching than fairy stories, knowing as we do that life very rarely is all 'happy ever after'?   

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Philosophers and Entertainers

[This Chapter,]‘Saying everything’, argues that contemporary fiction matters because it is how we work out who we are now, today. The novel is the best way of doing this. Of all the arts, the novel is the most thoughtful, the closest, and the most personal. It can be about anything, and can take any form or forms it chooses. The novel, like the human species, is now global and the form is still coming to terms with this deep and recent change.
I had cause to read the first chapter of this terrific series recently and the above passage started me thinking: Why do I write novels?

I don't think that when I write I am consciously trying to work out who I am, and it sure ain't for the glamour. I write to entertain; mostly myself, but also the audience, the readers. I want someone to have the experience I have had when reading - staying up past 1am to finish a book, falling slowing in love with the characters, and mourning them when the book is over.

So perhaps there are two schools of writers: the ones who work out 'who we are' and the people who write for the kicks. I call them the Philosophers and the Entertainers.

Philosophers: These authors write from the heart and their raison d'etre is to find out something about the characters, themselves, or the human race in general. Their primary focus is on finding the 'truth' in a novel. They are content in an unhappy/unsatisfactory event in a story as long as it is 'true'.

Entertainers: These are the raconteurs, the old storytellers who would retell a tale by the campfire, driven on by the reactions of their audience. Their primary goal is to elicit thrills, empathy, romance or rage in their readers, depending on their chosen genre.

Which are you? Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

'Tis the Season by Joan Lennon

Here in Scotland the children are heading back to school and the first big spider has decided it's time to come indoors.  And I am feeling that combination of heart lift and loin girding that means it's a new year.  January 1st?  Just a date.  This is the real thing.

Of course this is because, like many of us, I've been tied one way or another to the school year for most of my life.  Though I write year round, this is the time when other commitments begin to rev up again.  School visits, Patron of Reading, RLF Fellow, festivals - the calendar is filling up.  Will I be complaining before you know it of too much to do?  Oh yes.  But am I looking forward to it all as well?


Happy New Year! 

P.S. I've hedged my seasonal bets this month, in relation to blogging, by putting up a post on The History Girls about that summer heat wave jazz classic 'Tain't No Sin to Take Off Your Skin and Dance Around in Your Bones.  So if you're more of a summer bunny than an autumn enthusiast, that one's for you.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Down in the Woods by Lu Hersey

 Much of the action in my latest book takes place in a woodland grove. Without giving too many plot spoilers, the grove turns out to be a point of contact between here and otherworld. I didn’t just make this idea up – it’s my contemporary take on ancient folklore.

Roman records tell us that the Celts didn't worship their gods and goddesses in temples, but outdoors, in sacred woodland groves. Which makes perfect sense, as their deities were strongly connected to the land and their environment. 

(from the Gundestrup cauldron) 

The Celts probably weren’t the first, either. Forests provide the setting for so many myths and fairytales, it seems they've been stuffed with ghosts, nature spirits, gods, goddesses and demons (not to mention big bad wolves) since primordial times. There’s something mysterious and magical about woodland and forests, and our stories and legends reflect this.

Arthur Rackham illustration (from Mother Goose)

Britain was once covered in woodland, but we’ve been cutting it down to create farmland, and coppicing and managing most of what’s left, for thousands of years. But there are still some pockets of ancient woodland scattered here and there, and they're well worth exploring.

An article published in the Guardian a few years ago listed Britain's top 10 legendary woods. Legends associated with these woods include stories of giants, ghost animals, dragons, magical white harts, mysterious black dogs, phantom coaches and a headless woman. 

The closest one to where I live is Shervage Forest, set high in the Quantock hills in Somerset. This oak woodland is famed for its Gurt Wurm, the dragon who once lived there and went about ravaging the land and creating havoc. Before it was slain, the wurm laid an egg, which no one has ever found...
Dragons were known as wyrms and were depicted as huge serpents with wings right up until medieval times - they only grew legs and became fire breathers more recently. So the legend of the Gurt Wurm, like Shervage Forest itself, is probably very old.

The Gurt Wurm (illustration by fountainsflowing)

Not included in the Guardian's list, but a personal favourite, is Wistman's Wood on Dartmoor. Legend has it that this dwarf oak woodland was once the site of a ancient druid grove, and it's reputed to be haunted. When no one else is around, the gnarled, twisted branches of the old lichen covered oaks and the strange shapes of the granite boulders can send chills down the spine. My parents used to take me there when they went bilberry picking, and I saw some very strange things – but only ever when my parents had disappeared out of sight...

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

I went to Canada this year, and for the first time in my life got to see what totally uninhabited, untouched, virgin (non-tropical) rainforest is like. It's extraordinary. I've never experienced anything like it, as there’s nothing here that's so primordial, untamed - or so BIG. 

Forest in British Columbia

Somehow, it explained everything. It took me straight back to a time when woods were full of scary creatures, nature spirits and ghostly mists, and were deeply magical, spine tingling places.

And it reminded me why a woodland grove was the perfect setting for my story.

Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites
Blog: Lu Writes
Deep Water, published by Usborne, out now

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Reading Stories Aloud! by Margaret Bateson-Hill

I fell into writing quite by accident. My real interest lay in performance - with my background in drama, singing and dance I wanted to be a musical theatre star. Instead, two-children-who-didn’t-like-sleeping later, I found a perfect job as an under-fives storyteller for Lambeth Libraries (when councils did things like that). I cut my teeth on interpreting other people’s picture books - not only reading the text, but using the illustrations to help unpack the subtext and of course by adding comments, rhymes, songs and questions of my own.

I love unpacking books! It takes me about twenty minutes to tell the brilliant Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell by the time I’ve been the postman, attempted to push the elephant inside my house, lost numerous fingers to the lion, and have you tried putting that jumpy frog back in the box?

I’m also very accomplished at making all sorts of munching sounds, from eating cloud fluff mash potato (I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato by Lauren Child) to gingerbread- hungry foxes, and don’t get me started on how to eat a plate of sandwiches in one big mouthful! Owp!’ (The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr).

Of course I don’t get it right first time, I need to read and tell a story numerous times before I start to discover all that’s been packed away inside.

I also work as an oral storyteller – telling stories with no book- where no telling is ever quite the same as the one that went before.

What fascinates me with stories read/ told aloud is how they change from one telling to the next; even with a similar group of children, the group dynamic can be so different.  The story ‘happens’ in the space between the storyteller and the story listener.  Of course the age, number of the audience, adults in support, formality of setting, purpose of telling, inform you on what type of interaction is effective. Size of room, volume of voice, pitch, pace, movement, position in relation to audience all need considering.

Some tales need small quiet spaces, whilst for another; a large hall and a good strong voice are what are required. I was using ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear’ by Bill Martin Jr in a drop in under fives museum setting. As the session went on the group got larger and larger, until it had grown from 30 to 70. My gestures and voice grew in proportion to my audience until I was nearly dancing the story – and the story held its own, like all good stories do!

Audiences change the telling by their reactions, bringing out humour, or giving a new importance to an action, which previously seemed unimportant.
I love this fluidity and the reinventing of the story, keeping it fresh and alive and full of surprises.

Even though I am now a published author I still like to keep certain fluidity around my texts in my school visits – certainly around my picture books.

I ‘tell’ rather than ‘read’ my folktales, Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain and Masha and the Firebird. Although I know them well, I’m still (consciously) not word perfect. In fact as I have told them over the years I have changed details, even the order in which things happen – partly because written text and spoken text work differently and partly because simple things like my memory have changed the details over the years. Before I start I explain that to children, asking them if they can spot any differences if they already know the story, or to look out for them when they come to read the book themselves.

I have also been able to add back in details that I liked in an earlier draft and that have been cut in various edits.

Recently those two folktales have returned to their original editor and have been reissued by Alanna Books. I took the opportunity to tweak the text, and make some of those changes that have evolved through my various ‘tellings.’

Do other authors ever have an opportunity to revisit a book and change things? Do they want to? I wish I could revisit all my texts now that I’ve worked with them over the years. I would cut large chunks and rewrite so many passages. There is nothing like reading a text out loud to find its imperfections!  Perhaps publishers should be building in opportunities for rewrites every five years or before a reprint?

Some of my favourite read aloud books...

Margaret Bateson-Hill is both an author and a storyteller. Having grown up in Blackpool, studied English and Drama at Hull University, she now lives in Brixton, South London, one of the crossroads of the world and an ideal place from which to journey into the world of story. She has published both picture and fiction books. Her books have been translated into many languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Catalan, Korean and Polish. Find out more at

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Secret Message in All Stories – Heather Dyer

According to Joseph Campbell, all stories contain certain elements – or archetypal motifs – in common. He designed a universal story structure or ‘mythic archetype’ that he called The Hero’s Journey.

Typically, the hero (whom Campbell is careful to say can be masculine or feminine) faces various challenges and meets archetypal characters who perform specific roles. The hero confronts a dragon or the equivalent, and either dies or appears to die in order to be resurrected. Only then does he receive a boon, or gift, which he takes back to the known world to benefit humanity.

The mythic archetype fits nicely into the other recognized ‘story structures’ such as the 3-act structure, the 5-act structure, and the 8-point plot arc. Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, recognized the pattern of The Hero's Journey in contemporary literature and film, and interpreted Campbell’s structure for use by Hollywood screenwriters. The Hero’s Journey, says Vogler, represents ‘the pattern that lies behind every story ever told’.

But if all stories adhere to this archetype – more or less – might there be an underlying message contained within this pattern, which remains consistent despite the content or theme of a story?

I am studying the mythic archetype for my doctoral thesis at the moment, and it occurs to me that The Hero’s Journey is in fact a metaphor for the creative process itself.

The Creative Journey

Look at the five-step process of creativity as described by people like Milhay Csikszentmihalyi:

1. a period of preparation, of ‘becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues’
2. … followed by a period of incubation, during which ‘ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness
3. … which leads to one or more insights
4. … followed by a period of evaluation during which the person ‘must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing’
5. … and finally, elaboration, which consists of applying the insight or doing the work.

When Vogler studied The Hero's Journey, he said, ‘I came looking for the design principles of storytelling, but on the road I found something more; a set of principles for living’. I conclude that the principle for living is: ‘live creatively’.

In both the creative and mythic journeys, the hero or creative individual must first experience a sort of dissatisfaction with the way things are (often translated into a desire for something specific, which is often not what’s needed!). This desire motivates the hero or creative individual to leave the familiar behind, step off the familiar tracks, and venture into the unknown.

After a series of challenges and trials during which the tensions between opposites increase and the hero or creative individual gathers information and experience, there follows a period of incubation, in which the hero or creative person must defeat his or her own ego, since self-annihilation – or a deconstruction of the old self (or a letting-go of old ideas) is necessary in order to assimilate new knowledge. Once the gift of insight has been received, the creative hero must then bring the story full circle by returning to the known world and applying the new insight to benefit themselves and the world at large.

So, to live creatively like the hero we need to leave our assumptions and certainties behind, go bravely into that state of ‘not-knowing’, tolerate uncertainty and rise above our egoic fears and conditioned thinking in order to acquire new insights and expand our consciousness.

If we don’t do this, we end up enslaved by our conditioned thinking, defensive and insecure, stuck in our ruts, and intolerant of change. We can see this happening in the world around us now, and we have a choice: to grow, or die.

Only by adopting this creative mindset can we become the creative heroes of our own lives and of the world in general – which has been the message implicit in the archetypal structure of our stories all along...

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow