Who the Hell is Jan Karon? Books and the Temporality of value

Jan-KaronLike many bibliophiles I’m well acquainted with all the nooks and crannies by which one might come across used books at a bargain. Indeed, my house is well insulated with walls of books mostly found at jumble shops, thrift stores, garage sales, used bookshop bargain bins, library blow-outs and even the odd car boot sale. I frequent all the local grottos and scour boxes or shelves for the odd treasure, much of the time returning home empty-handed for all my craning and sifting. And I’ll be damned that in every single instance, without fail, I not only find one book by a certain Jan Karon – but a veritable slew of them. Who the hell is Jan Karon – and how bad must she be to have all these numerous tomes gumming up the used-book works?

To be fair there is also usually a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love somewhere in the mix, or a few bricks of Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code propping up the shelves. And you can bet your mortgage that something by Janet Evanovich, Annie Rice or Dean Koontz will be loitering, dog-eared, in the corners. With such ubiquity you could be excused for thinking that there is something deficient with these (albeit rather famous) writers for being in every discard/resale bin and perhaps in some cases you’d be right. A quick googling of the ever-present Jan Karon, however, tells me that she is a New York Times best-seller and Virginia’s Literary Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Just maybe she is preciously absent from the bargain bins of Virginia then (one can hope!). But I think this phenomenon has more to do with how the commercial fiction publishing operates with its frenzied print-runs and viral marketing ploys.

booksfillthescreenTemporality is now more than ever the name of the game. Everything from your washing machine to your toaster to your car is manufactured to short-term specifications – and commercial book publishers have adopted the same ethos. We know that, of the above examples, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was a top, top seller, literally churned out into the market place in 2003. It was then translated into 52 languages and garnered some hundred million sales within a couple of years, generating a little cottage industry of spin-offs and rebuttals along the way. This is the sort of ‘success’ that writers crave and yet it seems than many of his buyers decided to dump their copies, which are now vermin to resale shops. Of course, this is no skin off Mr. Brown’s nose as he’s already amassed a tidy fortune from the first-go-round sales. It’s fun to imagine that his readers, upon reading this mystery-spinner, found themselves agreeing with Stephen Fry’s damning edict that his writing is “arse-gravy of the worst kind” – but the truth is probably more mundane. Books, and particularly commercial novels, are now marketed toward a short-term explosion of interest followed by an abrupt death and discarding. They are designed to excite fever-pitch fervor – generate the quick-fire sale – but then end up in the same donation box as the failing toaster.

It is a pleasure, then, to be involved with a press that aims for the long-term, the slow and steady selling book that remains viable and relevant. This is not to disparage the Jan Karons of the world – but to elevate the author beyond the lurid state of temporal commodity value. ‘Shelf-life’ should be a literary determination not some corporate remaindering principle normally assigned to household appliances.


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Gareth Knight’s ‘Son of Hermes’


Beginning in November 2015, Gareth Knight posted a series of blogs under the heading  ‘Son of Hermes.’ Part one is reprinted below and you can read the following instalments at the Gareth Knight Blogspot page. Skylight Press has published various new editions of Gareth Knight’s older work, as well as a few completely new titles.  We will be publishing his translation of Théophile Briant’s ‘Testament of Merlin’ in the coming weeks.  

Back in the closing years of the last millennium, when I was approaching 70 years of age and thinking I might be reaching the end of my useful time, I found myself called to the colours again with an invitation to rejoin the Society of the Inner Light, where I had learned my trade back in the 1950’s.  What I have found useful – and printable – to say about all that I glossed in my esoteric memoirs I Called It Magic having reached 80, when I thought that might have come to the effective end of the line as far as this incarnation goes. However, here I am, another half decade  on, and somewhat awed by my impending approach towards ninety. Shall I make it that far? And in the meantime however – what to do?

I am not sure that I am up to writing another book. Assuming there is any kind of hunger out there for yet another one. Nonetheless I have had one at the back of my mind that has been nagging away with increasing insistence, and stems from some time I spent in France back in those pre-millennium days. There had been over the years a small French publisher, (Ediru) , now alas defunct, who translated and published some of my books: A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism, A History of White Magic, The Rose Cross and the Goddess, The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend which led to me undertake some lecture trips around France to help along sales between 1984 and 1999.

In the course of those trips and getting to know a number of French occultists I began to realise what a huge gap there was between the English and the French when it came to the development, aims and attitude toward the esoteric. The English Channel might just as well have been a Cosmic Abyss.

I thought not a lot more of this at the time although I was conscious, on one or two occasions when invited to sit in on some practical workings with the French, that something was happening on an inner level of which I ought to take notice – although at the time I could not think what it might be. One just had to ‘bear it in mind’ for possible future use.

It seems as if the time for this possible further use is upon me. I have been prodded by some very sharp elbows on the inner planes to do something about it, and as a result in the last few months have gradually amassed about a couple of yards of books in French that weigh heavy on my mind and my bookshelves. I also realise why it was, when I retired from fulltime work, that I was obsessed into spending the next eight years at the University of London acquiring an external BA in French language and literature.

The hour has now struck. Or as one of my French friends said in relation to the Tarot card of the Magician, that they call Le Bateleur – it is Le Bat á l’Heure!  Or in good old plain English: “Get on with it!”

The trouble is that, being a highly Aries kind of person, I am not good at being patient about things. If I am going to do something I need to have done  it yesterday – not tomorrow! And at the age of 85, how many tomorrows have I got to look forward to?  I don’t intend to ask the Tarot or anyone else. Sufficient unto the day is the labour thereof. However I cannot bring myself to embark on what might turn out to be a lengthy task that I might not be able to finish. So a formal kind of book I find out of the question.

After a deal of pushing and shoving between the planes a compromise has come to me that I can live with, which is to deal with it all in a piecemeal episodic manner. As a series of separate articles or chapters that feature in each case a particularly important character or issue on the French occult scene during its heyday at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

At the time when the London occult scene was dominated by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the characters that went with it, Paris had its equivalent organisations and colourful characters. Some of these I would like to take a good look at, one by one, as Sons of Hermes, as they liked to regard themselves.

Very little has made it across the English Channel apart from A.E.Waite’s rather stodgy translations of Eliphas Levi (History of Magic and Transcendental Magic)  and a grotesquely inaccurate ‘professional’ translation of Papus’ Tarot of the Bohemians, where they even got the title wrong! Over a period of fifty years these were the only serious occult books translated from French into English after the 1890’s, until a highly imaginative History of Magic by Paul Christian.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to acquaint themselves with a little of the material ahead, in the form of the French interest in ‘animal magnetism’ during the 19th century, from Anton Mesmer onward, they could do worse than peruse a copy of The Circuit of Force, subtitled Occult Dynamics of the Etheric Vehicle. 

This was written by Dion Fortune as a series of fifteen articles between February 1939 and August 1940, published by Thoth Publications in 1998, with commentary by me. My commentary is largely based on a strange book, Théories et procédés du Magnétisme by Hector Durville, that I picked up from a bouquinist’s bin on the quays of the Seine. This was a subject that greatly interested Dion Fortune in the late 1930’s and in her private library I came across, amongst others, Private Instructions in the Science and Art of Organic Magnetism by Miss Chandos Leigh Hunt, privately published in 1884 in a lockable binding of gold velvet. Style as well as substance in those days!

This caused some fluttering in the esoteric dovecots, then and in later years. So much so that with the publication of a collection of her articles, Applied Magic, in 1962, the alleged inclusion of The Circuit of Force was reduced to the first and last chapters. The other thirteen chapters were missing! A very frugal sandwich! Which no doubt led to Ernest Butler’s fondness, in relation to occult groups, for quoting the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass – “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today!”  A rule that, I must say, has never appealed to me.

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The Curve of the Land: Review by Kevan Manwaring

The Curve of the Land: Diana Durham – a review

By Kevan Manwaring

CurveoftheLand300This thin novel by American-based British writer Diana Durham is weighty with ideas – like narrow uprights supporting the monumental capstone of a cromlech. It charts a contemporary megalithic odyssey of Britain, with many prehistoric sites featured, and as such should appeal to anyone of the pagan persuasion. The framing narrative is a group tour of sacred sites led by the charismatic ‘leading authority’ on such places, Richard Lamb. He is a guru with feet of clay, as Jessica discovers – the viewpoint character whose journey we follow. An environmental campaigner suffering from burn-out, she finds her life imploding – chiefly the relationship with her eco-photographer boyfriend, Paul, who bears the brunt of her perpetual disgruntlement. On the verge of splitting up, she jumps aboard Richard’s ‘magical mystery tour’, in hope of some kind of spiritual experience involving earth-lights – the anti-venom to her partner Paul’s apparent ‘rationalism’. Their conflict provides the dialectic of the narrative: the ecological vs the spiritual; the mundane vs the magical world; ‘Martian’ men vs ‘Venusian’ women – all of which prove to be false dichotomies. Yet there are many bumpy roads to go before then. Durham convincingly captures the tour-group dynamic with a sharply-observed cast of (mainly) New Age seekers. A couple of sceptical journalists are thrown in for good measure.

Durham is particularly good at capturing the pervasive credulity, snobbery and brinkmanship endemic in such circles. The women (and the demographic is mainly female aboard this Earth Mysteries tour) vie for the attention of the unlikely Alpha male, Lamb, who turns out to be seedier than his refined façade. As perhaps inevitably happens in such situations, the group’s Shadow emerges as the earth-light seekers find themselves experiencing lust, jealousy, anger and despair. Each site catalyses the escalating situation – providing a mirror for their projections and expectations, fears and concerns. Durham evokes the genius loci of each site vividly and Lamb’s commentary provides an expositional device for weaving in the archaeology, folklore, and John Michel-like mystical speculation. What keeps the narrative grounded is an ecological awareness, which provides the background ‘threat’ throughout the story – this is epitomised in the threat to a grove of ancient oaks in Cornwall by a supermarket development. The plot-lines converge on this crunch-point, in a rather condensed and melodramatic denouement. Jessica, who proves to be a querulous, contrary and – dare I say it – irrational protagonist, experiences an epiphany which motivates her to act. Yet this is too little, too late – for the majority of the novel she comes across as a rather solipsistic, unsympathetic character. Paul, who is ostensibly, the ‘enemy’, (a man, and therefore, by default, insensitive, gadget-obsessed and controlling it would appear) turns out to be more sympathetic.

Fortunately, most of the female characters are flawed too and nobody really ‘wins’ in this war of the sexes. In a way, the humans’ behaviour could be seen as the fey flickering of earthlights caused by the stress the Earth is being placed under – acting out the pain of Mother Earth. This underlying ecological suffering, and the helplessness it inculcates, is the book’s most serious message, which redeems it from being a mere New Age holiday read. Yet it has much to satisfy the lovers of esoteric fiction – being redolent of the novels of Dion Fortune, and, indeed, my own novel, The Long Woman (Awen, 2004). It shows a deep familiarity and love of the ancient Isles of Britain, and makes for an engaging read – especially in situ. Recommended.


Published by Skylight Press 2015


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Videos by Skylight Authors (Part I)

Here is a smattering of reading and interview videos from our literary authors.  Happy browsing….

Iain Sinclair

Rikki Ducornet

Will Alexander

Pierre Joris

Garry Craig Powell

Basil King

Diana Durham

Richard Froude

Margaret Randall

Hugh Fox

Dee Sunshine







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Letters of Light: The Magical Letters of William G. Gray to Alan Richardson

LettersofLight300“When it comes to that curmudgeonly mage William G. Gray, put aside what you may have plucked from a less-than-accurate, holier-than-thou, insufferably superior but dried-up grapevine. Whatever his faults – and he had many – he never stinted on passing on his knowledge to genuine enquirers. In many ways, through his correspondence, I saw the very best of the man

I was 17 when I first wrote to him: omniscient, quietly obnoxious. I knew everything; I knew nothing. I really needed putting in my place. And I couldn’t have picked anyone better to do this than Bill Gray.

Some of you out there may think that your own magical teachings came from the temples of Greece or Khem, from the vaults of the Rosicrucians, the lodges of the Golden Dawn, or the pagan-haunted glades of the ancient Wildwood. They did not. They came from 14 Bennington Street, Cheltenham…”

This is how Alan Richardson summarises this new book, a compilation of letters from William G. Gray to an aspiring acolyte. Rather surprisingly, it works on a number of levels depending on the approach a particular reader might take. It’s a post-modern Bildungsroman (and Bill certainly flings dung in places) where the reader constructs a narrative plot from various fragments – not having the younger man’s replies to work with. Of course, the letters also provides a riveting and provocative treatise for those interested in ceremonial magic and group dynamics. Also a fascinating social study, Gray continually prods an insecure youth towards the value of solitary practice and the DIY ethic.

As an “omniscient and obnoxious” teenager in 1969, Richardson first wrote to the occult author and teacher in pursuit of instant magical enlightenment. While he didn’t quite get that, it was the beginning of a correspondence lasting many years in which Gray generously shared his magical knowledge and experience. Gray’s letters, witty, acerbic and blunt, contain a wealth of hints and tips on working with Qabalah, his views on Dion Fortune, sex magic, initiation, joining magical groups, and how to stay on the straight and true path to Light regardless of what life flings at you.

The topicality of the letters provides an incredible range and depth, with commentary to continually delight, chafe or probe. How does free-will relate to Destiny? Why do many great Adepts behave like idiots if they’re in contact with Higher Powers? Is sex incompatible with a spiritual path? He addresses the questions which weigh on the mind of every magical seeker – always with the proviso that true wisdom can only be reached from within oneself. The letters are a delight to read and show the humour and understanding which shine through Gray’s famously unsentimental character. The highly personable nature of the book will help to cast the oft-maligned Gray in a new light – as the reader becomes very conscious of the growing warmth and care the old Magus develops for his pupil. The lessons contained within the letters be of direct practical value to anyone pursuing a magical path of any kind, Qabalistic or otherwise, and his advice to his young apprentice is every bit as pertinent today as it was back then.

Skylight Press, also of Cheltenham, is thrilled to offer this valuable and enlightening collection to the world for the first time. We are committed to the legacy of William G. Gray and look forward to publishing many more of his works.

Letters of Light: The Magical Letters of W.G. Gray to Alan Richardson is now available from various retail outlets such as Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk or direct from the Skylight Press website.

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The Fairy Realm by Ronan Coghlan

FairyRealm300“…Some folklorists contend that even in pagan times a fairy host was believed in alongside the gods and, when Christianity became prevalent, their numbers were buttressed by an influx of gods; but they were always believed to be there. An alternative explanation is that there may once have been, and possibly still are, powerful psychic entities of whom science knows nothing, but who were assumed to be gods by our remote ancestors, and fairies by our more proximate ones…”

While examining various belief traditions across Europe and the United States, The Fairy Realm consults an assemblage of anecdotal evidence as to the existence of fairies and other creatures that appear in fairy tales – giants, ogres, trolls, mermaids, brownies, wildmen, kelpie, puca and other mythological beings. Ronan Coghlan, provides yet another encyclopaedic gem after such works as Dictionary of Irish Myth and Legend, Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends, The Robin Hood Companion, Dictionary of Cryptozoology, and Companion to Atlantis and Other Mystery Lands. In this new broad-ranging compendium Coghlan examines an array of alleged fairy sightings in a bold endeavour to find where fairies fit into the modern scientific concepts of the universe. Unlike myriad books churned out on ghosts and extraterrestrials, this book rigorously tackles the possibility of fairy existence, and in doing so dares to approach all manner of sceptical argument and ‘borderline science.’

Keen to get to the root of fey existence on earth, Coghlan explores the various origins of Fairy and the Faery realm. He begins with accounts from ancient history, various mythic and folkloric sources, as well as fascinating and bold connections to the pre-monotheist pantheons of fallen gods. More surprising perhaps is his impressive catalogue of modern sightings, from the famous Cottingley photographs to the very recent Mothman and Sasquatch phenomena. Unlike other such books, each sighting is sourced with searchable references and the author takes great care in considering the creditability of every eyewitness account. The book then provides a thorough classification of fairies by type and genus, ranging from the more conventional fairies of literature and folklore to an impressive collection of crossover creatures and cryptids that could possibly qualify as being part of the fairy realm. Coghlan discusses their traits and personalities, their possible functions, and whether they exist on the physical or ethereal planes. The work concludes with a marvellous glossary, which will be of great value to explorers of the fey kingdom.

Far from sensationalist, this is the work of a seasoned scholar and experienced academic. Skylight Press is thrilled to publish The Fairy Realm as a serious and genuine primer for all those interested in the world of Fairy.

 The Fairy Realm is now available from various retail outlets such as Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk or direct from the Skylight Press website.

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A Writer’s Day: Working on the Lost Book of the Grail (Part VII)

Skylight Press will be publishing The Lost Book of the Grail: Restoring the Voices of the Wells, Gareth Knight’s new translation of the 13th century Elucidation of the Grail with commentary by much respected Arthurian scholars and teachers, Caitlín Matthews and John Matthews. The Elucidation is a 13th century French poem that has lain virtually forgotten since its discovery in the mid19th century. It contains some of the most powerful and revealing clues to the nature of the Grail to be found in any of the many texts relating to this most mysterious of sacred objects.  While working on the book Caitlin decided to keep a diary of her thoughts and impressions, which we will present in weekly sections on this blog.  This is a new idea and we hope you enjoy her fresh insights on preparing an ancient manuscript for publication.  You can find out more about the Matthews’ work here.  


By Caitlín Matthews


A writer’s day 43  on Lost Book of the Grail 

International Women’s Day is later this week. The pages of newspapers are full of items about both casual and premeditated violence to women. Unfortunately, neither is a new phenomenon, if the medieval texts were anything to go by.  The Arthurian legends are full of black-hearted knights who imprison ladies for their pleasure or pull maidens by their hair along the ground, fathers who slap their daughters bloody, partners who make their wives run around in a tatty frock and refuse to speak to them, and brothers who sleep with their sisters –  because it isn’t just archetypally nasty black knights who do all these things, but family members too!  A woman was always someone’s responsibility in medieval history: she was her father’s daughter, her brother’s sister, her husband’s wife or widow but never her own person, unless she was able to retain her dower and not get remarried off by another male relative desirous of getting his hands on her property by retiring her into a monastery. Being either an independent widow or an abbess was probably the most powerful thing to be.

In Chrétien’s Perceval, we are told that the safeguarding of women was a point of honour, ‘in King Arthur’s land girls are protected; the king has given them a safeguard, and watches over them and ensures their safe conduct.’ Indeed, it was the measure of a civilization in medieval times that a woman could travel the whole country from end to end with treasure about her person and not be molested.

I already see that this fact doesn’t impress many women, who would probably lump King Arthur’s Britain in with UAE and its anti-feminist stance.  At best it seems paternalistic and at worst manipulative. But stop! Who was reading or hearing these stories?  The Arthurian legends were the pulp fiction of their day. Women were at least half of the audience and, though the art of chivalry is well represented with tournaments for the sports-mad men of the day (Malory’s Book of Tristan is entirely full of what T.H.White called ‘the batting averages’ of more jousts that an entire month of sporting Saturdays could yield), the other half of the stories were about love and the deeds we do or suffer for love. 

The measure of civilization is still the same today: that anyone should be able to travel the length and breadth of the land without being attacked, raped or robbed.  But we are wiser today in knowing that violence starts and continues in the home, the place where women and children should feel safest. 

It is not all bad news, there are also those who are aware of the problem. As one of the many nameless hermits advizes the headstrong Perceval, ‘A man without gentleness and kindness in his heart cannot last long.’ He is speaking to a man who, inadvertently, kills his own mother, for she falls down dead with grief at losing him at the outset of the quest. It changes Perceval’s outlook. 

The Arthurian legends played their part in revealing the notion that, casual or premeditated, violence to women was unacceptable.  In 1371 Geoffrey de la Tour Landry wrote a book for his three motherless daughters, being fully aware that ‘ther be suche felawes now or worse, and there be still men’ of violence and lords who ‘wolde have a gentil-woman, bi faire or be force, for to do his foule lust with her.’ Caxton printed a copy of this book in June 1483, the month that Richard III was crowned, but it was a popular book throughout Europe for a century before that.  As Geoffrey wrote, ‘it is a good, noble and a faire thinge for a man or a woman to see and beholde hemself in the mirror of stories, the which hath been written by oure aunsetters forto they give us good ensaumples that they dide, to live and to eschewe the evil.’  As it says in Gerbert de Montreuil’s Grail Continuation: ‘Blessed be the man who cares for his wife or  his sweetheart, and loves her dearly, and can call himself a loyal friend; blessed be that kind of loving.’ 


A writer’s day  44 on Lost Book of the Grail 

Is there such a thing as Grail magic? Well, the only instance I have come across that might merit the definition is an incident in one of the Continuations where Perceval is beset up a series of demonic happenings.  The usual and standard method of clearing the atmosphere is to sign oneself with the cross in the Grail legends which causes castles to melt, beautiful maidens to dissolve into nasty hags and phantom horses to revert to vapour.  Perceval resorts just the once to a magic circle before sleeping. He draws a circle in the ground with his sword around where he and his horse have encamped, whereon he lies down, fearing nothing and sleeps securely till dawn.

All Perceval has done here is create a proper boundary and reinforce it with prayer.  The breaking of boundaries is what most people suffer from: that or their neglect of boundaries that should be kept firm. If I could have a five pound note for everyone who’s told me that they are ‘under psychic attack,’ I would be a rich woman.  When I first started to see clients in my shamanic healing practice, I was initially cautious about endorsing such fearful diagnoses lest I be encouraging paranoia, for the people who complained of psychic attack would be in a state bordering panic when they phoned me. Over time, I’ve learned that what most people call ‘psychic attack’ is actually psychic disruption: the disturbance of the soul. * Psychic disruption is the displacement or loss of soul or else an invasion taking place in the soul. We experience a sense of abnormality in which something is either missing from our being, or something alien has become part of it. Something essential has gone or something unwelcome has come. This may be accompanied by feelings of intense unease, self-doubt, fear or panic.  Psychic disruption is about change or confusion in the soul: it may originate from without or from within ourselves.  

Our world needs a whole new look at spiritual health for, unless we look after our souls as much as we look after our bodies, we will be ruled by fear and suspicion rather than living with confidence and strength.  Being clear with our boundaries for ourselves and for others is the best preventative, as Perceval clearly realises.

(*My book, Psychic Protection Handbook (Little Brown) looks at how we can bring our lives into better array from the point of prevention – how we cause it – as well as defence – how we suffer from it.  It’s no 53 on this list if you want a copy.


A writer’s day  45 on Lost Book of the Grail

I ask this question as someone who’s tried to be gluten free in periods over the last few months. The thing that never works, try as we might look for it, is bread. I’ve been keeping up a campaign around the major supermarkets for in-store bakeries to make fresh gluten-free bread, because I think they would clean up – so many people have wheat allergy or other problems which are probably not unrelated to the amount of insecticide and other nasty things that get sprayed on grain these days.  Nothing is like bread but real bread, sorry! It seems I am not the only one who complains.

When Perceval comes to stay at a hermitage where a reserve* of hermits live very frugally, they cut the loaf made for dinner into thirteen pieces, but we are told that the bread isn’t made of wheat. Perceval joins them but eats little, ‘for he had nothing to his liking and didn’t relish the bread.’ When you’re on quest some food is better than no food, I would agree, but you cannot substitute anything for real bread.  

Now very poor people make bread out of all kinds of substances: during a famine, acorn flour is highly esteemed, for example. For the people of besieged Leningrad, a siege lasted for a total of 900 days  from September 8 1941 until January 27 1944, anything and everything became edible, including bread made of boiled up book pages or scrapings of furniture, or things we don’t want to imagine here.

Three millennia of grain production have rendered us partial to a good loaf, but what passes for bread isn’t always real bread, in my book: the packet, sliced loaf isn’t really bread, is it?  A few years ago, I was interviewed ahead of a writer’s conference so that the answers might be printed in the conference brochure; among the many amusing and hypothetical questions, one of which was ‘what would be your first act on becoming prime minister?’ No contest for me, ‘A loaf of freshly baked bread delivered  everyone’s doorstep,’ to remind people what bread really was.  (They would have to obtain their own circuses, mind you!) My sympathies are entirely with Perceval.  

(* What do  you call a collection of hermits? A reserve of hermits is my suggestion, but do add your own!)

Grail 6


A writer’s day 46 on Lost Book of the Grail

While driving today, I caught the announcement of the BBC’s ‘Get Creative’ challenge, to get people using their creative skills: this is in the face of the many governmental cut-backs that are happening all over the country, as funding for the arts is withdrawn and basic survival takes over.  The impoverishment that faces those who run opera houses and art galleries is truly frightening, but what the local drama groups, outreach centres and small arts projects suffer is just as awful. On the radio they were asking, ‘what have the arts done for you? The immediate answer for me is ‘nourish my soul,’ without doubt. 

 I was immediately remembering the Irish text, Cormac’s Adventures in the Otherworld where King Cormac, in search of his lost family, enters the otherworld and sees many wondrous things, including:

in the enclosure a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it, and the hosts in turn drinking the water. Nine hazels of Búan grew over the well. The purple hazels dropped their nuts into the fountain and sent their husks floating down the streams. Now the sound of the falling of those streams was more melodious than any music that men sing

Later on, he is told the meaning of these are ‘the five streams of the senses,’ by which inspiration flows out into the world. They are also the five senses by which we understand and appreciate inspiration which can be woven into many forms: the textures of plastic arts, the taste and smell of the edible arts, the sound of the oral arts and  the sight of their appearance and shape.  There is no art that does not partake of these.  Our five senses take inspiration into every pore.

So who is the Búan of the nine hazels of Búan? Búan in Old Irish means ‘lasting, enduring, constant, firm, persevering,’ which is how the arts appear to us. This ancient figure is beyond mythology, so ancient we have no deeds. She is known as  the mother of Baile Binnbérlach, a name which means ‘vision of the clear voice.’  When Baile died, a yew tree grew from his grave and poets and seers cut slips of the tree to make tablets for writing.  If you live in the country, you know that hazel is a renewal resource, however many times you cut it down for coppicing withies, it grows back, and this is what we all hope will be so with the arts in this country.

As someone whose Grail dreams are scrambling in through every possible gap, I hardly need to be challenged right now. From 2-7am, I am getting solutions to the wasteland on all channels, which is wonderful, but hardly conducive to deep sleep, as it’s too exciting.  But as long as the inspirational waters flow, I will be listening.


A writer’s day  47 on Lost Book of the Grail

Listening the other day to the novelist, *Kazuo Ishiguro,  I was heartened to hear him speak quite normally about stories that we set aside when we’re writing them, because we cannot find solutions to the dilemmas and scenarios that  the characters are in at the present time.  Writers often set stories aside for years, well,  I know I do.  A window opens, you take notes, you research the background and observe how characters seem to arrive, then suddenly, when everything gets into motion, you find the next bit isn’t there, like being in a department store where the escalators suddenly stop and there is no way to get to the floor you wish to visit: no stairs, no lift, nothing.

This is a process that we see at work throughout the Grail Continuations which, if you remember, continue where another writer left off – each obviously marooned in a place where the story had stuck.  The Third Continuation is the one that has least plotting and most explanation, where we get to hear the solutions to the mysterious parts of the legend that previous authors couldn’t quite reach.  Rather like the dénouement of a detective novel, where the Inspector corrals the inhabitants and guests at big country house, we hear the back story of why the sword was broken, how the chapel came to be so perilous, why the Fisher King is in a bad way and a host of other unravellings.  In fact, the Third Continuation is like the last act of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which has the longest unravelling of any of his plays.

I have lots of novels in development and novel-stubs that have been set aside for the same reason. I cannot yet see the way through to plotting difficulties and I know that these will resolve another time. If it takes a few years, so be it. This will stagger non-writers and those who work out plots ahead of time, but I am listening to the characters when I plot and they know what needs to happen, not I.  In the early Grail legends, I believe that this is why the plotting is episodically loose, because the main Grail seeker is Perceval, an unformed, uneducated and so tabula rasa youth who meanders through his quest without much forethought. Leaving things be and returning periodically to them is the state of play. When we have lived a little more life, we can return via a different approach and see what, a few years earlier was impossible to discern. It just takes an accepting patience.

*Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, is set in an Arthurian world. John is currently finishing it and finding it awfully odd, suggesting that it should have been set aside a while longer, perhaps?


A writer’s day  48 on Lost Book of the Grail

In Chrétien’s Perceval, we hear how Perceval, failing to ask the Grail Question, meets with a young woman who rigorously puts him through a catechism of what he saw and remembered from the Grail procession. The results, like those of a spot test at school, are unpromising. The young woman finally asks him his name. On this point, Perceval is so flummoxed, he can barely get it out: ‘Perceval the Welshman.’ The young woman immediately proclaims angrily, ‘Well, your name is changed!’ ‘What to?’ he asks. ‘Perceval the wretched, luckless Perceval!’  She then proceeds to tell him that, had he had his wits about him, he would have healed the wounded king and what else is wrong with him while she is about it.  Up till this point, he has just been plain Perceval, but now?

(In another later Grail texts, Perceval will become known as Perlesvaux or ‘He who loses the Valley,’ but that’s a story for another time.)

We all remember how our name can become a term of reproof – it is one of the reasons lots of people hate their birth name, as it was used throughout their childhood in this way.  Others are simply called bad names that become reflections of a reputation they are supposed to possess. Some people can stand it no longer or, on adulthood, change their names by deed poll, so that their new identity expunges that reproof.  Recognising who we each really are is a skill, just as naming a child appropriately to their nature.  We all know people whom we repeatedly call by the wrong name because they ‘look like’ a name. I know a Paul who is definitely a Peter in demeanour, for example. No matter how many years I’ve known him, the other name still comes to my lips.

Changing your name is a perilous occupation because it has to recognize who you really are.  It must be said that there are some aspirational name-changings that are frankly embarrassing: how do we deal with a friend called Laura who decides that she is now going to be known as ‘Daisy Moon-Flower,’ for example? Hope that it is just a phase she is going through and that this, too, will change?

Perceval’s name change to ‘Perceval the wretch’ is likewise not a permanent one. Although it remains the thing everyone remembers about him for quite a bit, at the other end of the Grail Continuations, someone recognizes Perceval in quite another way. The ugliest woman in the world, an unnamed hag who seems quite deformed and loathsome to Perceval, knows immediately who is: ‘Your name is Perceval.’ She also reminds him of his undone task of asking the right questions about the Grail procession and then, because he has discovered the secret balm that she carries in two casks, says.’ You are rightly called Perceval, for you have pierced the vale and plundered the place where the balm is kept.’  She also swears never to reveal one piece of information about the Grail to him, ever.

But this literal rendition of Perceval as ‘Pierce-the-vale’ does him justice; it truly discerns who he really is. And when someone sees who you are, it can have another result: for you are now someone who can achieve something everyone said you wouldn’t.  Which is precisely what happens. 


A writer’s day 49 on Lost Book of the Grail

In the course of writing a book, one’s mind continually seeks the support of other books that nourish that journey. Like the clothes we put on in the morning, these books proclaim our mood on that trek. Of course, there are some books that become us better than others.  On this journey most of the books are in French, although one or two are Welsh: all medieval. We travel well together.

‘Becoming the book’ has another resonance for me, brought sharply into focus by certain images in the news. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 presented a world where all books were banned, and so subversives had to ‘become the book’ they loved best by memorising it. When together, the book memorizers would introduce themselves as ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’. If that time came again, as is even now happening in Syria and places where ISIL are confiscating and burning the books (as well as people), which book would you choose to be? I would be happy to be the Elucidation, personally, and maybe The Eagle of the Ninth or Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff, which are books I read again and again. 

A writer becomes the book she is writing, imperceptibly at first and then more and more obviously: you see it in the turns of speech, the mode of approach, the steadily growing obsession with all things to do with its topic.  In the past, especially with fiction, I’ve found that this obsession becomes distilled by the characters who dictate the book: like an actor taking on a part, I find that the main or guiding character leads the way and I am subsumed in him or her. I start wearing garments that he or she wears, and the mannerisms and turns of speech also subtly elide with mine. With non-fiction it is not so obvious, perhaps, but nevertheless there.   

I’ve been teaching or with clients for the last few days and so I now happily re-assume the colouration of Lost Book of the Grail, back in the battered garments that belong to questing, alert once again to the signs that take me along the way.  I can become this book in uninterrupted mode for the rest of the month now.

many blessings

Caitlín Matthews
Courses, books and events: www.hallowquest.org.uk
Divination blog: http://caitlin-matthews.blogspot.co.uk/

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