Monday, December 31, 2007

Books that deserve to be rediscovered: Part Five

Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael Coney’s haunting novel of bittersweet love, civil war and catastrophic climate change on an alien world, was first published in England in 1975, and reprinted in Canada in 1990 as Pallahaxi Tide. When Mike learned in 2005 that he was suffering from terminal lung cancer, he made Hello Summer, Goodbye and its previously unpublished sequel, I Remember Pallahaxi, available for free download on his website. Now, as a fitting tribute to this immensely talented writer, PS Publishing has brought out both titles as limited edition, slipcased hardcovers.

Mike said of Pallahaxi Tide, “This is a love story, and a science-fiction story, and more besides.” It’s that “more besides” that has continued to captivate readers fortunate enough to discover this beautifully written and wonderfully engaging book.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Wrong Granny: a Christmas story

The week before Christmas my very elderly mother-in-law Esther reported that Bad Men from Alberta were attempting to kidnap her from her seniors' home, and that Russian spies had taken over their newsletter. However, she assured us, everything was under control -- an undercover policewoman had been assigned to the case.

"Don't worry, Grandma," we said. "We're coming to pick you up on Christmas morning, and we'll sort it all out then."

On Christmas Eve it snowed, a lot. On the morning of the 25th, all attempts failed to get my rear-wheel drive Chevette up the slope from the house to the street. Taxis were in short supply, but we finally got through to one. They promised to collect Esther and deliver her to our house. We phoned the seniors' home. "Please have Esther waiting at the door with her hat and coat on at 12 o'clock," we said.

The taxi arrived, on schedule. We all rushed out to greet Grandma.

There in the passenger seat, glaring ferociously, sat an irate old lady. We had never seen her before in our lives.

"Oh dear," we told the taxi-driver. "That's not our Grandma.”

"Yes, yes," the taxi driver assured us. "Right house, right lady." He showed us our address, clipped to the dashboard.

"She must be somebody else's granny," said my daughter. "And some other family must have ours."

However, the old lady, clearly believing she had been kidnapped, maintained a tight-lipped silence, refusing to supply name, rank, serial number, or any other information.

"She's probably annoyed," said daughter Sue, "because she thought she was going to a nicer house."

Leaving Sue to calm the increasingly agitated taxi driver, I phoned the seniors' home.

"You've sent us the wrong granny," I said.

There was a long horrified silence. Then the woman at the other end said, "That's not possible."

"I'm afraid it is," I told her. "This may be somebody's granny, but she isn't ours."

"Well, "said the woman, "then it's obvious that the taxi company made a mistake. I'll lodge a complaint."

"Please don't do that," I said, imagining repercussions for the hapless taxi driver. "It's not their fault. You've mixed up the grannies. Could you send us ours, please, and tell us where this lady belongs?"

"I'll have to call you back," the woman said.

Meanwhile, our oldest son and his wife were developing elaborate conspiracy theories involving Russian spies and Bad Men from Alberta.

"Why would anyone want to steal our Grandma?" we wanted to know.

"Maybe they think she's rich," said our daughter. "Should we call the police?"

"No point," said my husband. "Remember, there's already an undercover policewoman on the case."

The seniors' home called back. Our Granny had been located in her room, and was being put in a taxi even as we spoke. Apparently when the first taxi had driven up with Esther nowhere in sight, it had been commandeered by the irate old lady, who was president of the Resident's Association and clearly a force to be reckoned with. A forwarding address was obtained, and we sent the perspiring taxi driver and the Wrong Granny on their way.

In due course another taxi arrived with the Right Granny, hatless, gloveless and equally irate, after being press-ganged from her room by panic-stricken staff, stuffed into a taxi and inexplicably driven off through the snow to some unknown destination.

Surrounded by familiar faces, Esther soon regained her usual good humour. Still, we decided, the whole caper had the unmistakable modus operandi of the Bad Men from Alberta.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Sarsen Witch reissued

The new edition of my historical fantasy The Sarsen Witch, set in early bronze-age Britain, has just been released by the Juno Books imprint of Wildside Press. You can order it from,, or other online bookstores, or directly from Juno Books. Brick & mortar shops can order from Ingram, or from Juno Books. You can read a review at Alternative Worlds.

I first conceived of The Sarsen Witch as a prehistoric adventure about the intersection of the Neolithic and Bronze Age worlds, and the building of Stonehenge. Later, as the story unfolded, I came to recognize an archetypal pattern. Ricca, the Wessex warrior chieftain, is a flawed and barbaric Arthur; Gwi, the bronze-smith, is his trusted friend; Naeri, my heroine, is the woman they both love; and Daui is the vengeful kinsman who would destroy them all.

In the dramatic cover by Tim Lantz, Naeri appears as she does in the first pages of the book – “chapped lips, windburned face, lean hard-muscled body … a creature spare and strong and hardy as the gorse”.

On a trip to England in 1990 I traveled through Wiltshire, retracing the path of Naeri’s adventures in the megalithic world of Avebury and Stonehenge. You can find some of my experiences on that trip elsewhere in this blog. And if you scroll down you can read an excerpt from The Sarsen Witch.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Books that deserve to be rediscovered: Part Four

In the author’s note to her Arthurian novel Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff writes,”behind all the numinous mist of pagan, early Christian and mediaeval splendours that have gathered about it, there stands the solitary figure of one great man. No knight in shining armour, no Round Table, no many-towered Camelot; but a Romano-British war leader to whom, when the Barbarian darkness came flooding in. the last guttering lights of civilization seemed worth fighting for.”

Sutcliff produced more than fifty works of historical fiction set in pre-Roman and Roman Britain, and the Dark Ages. Though almost all of her books were written for young people, the quality of her writing, the authenticity of her research, and the unflinching realism of her storytelling have gained her legions of devoted adult readers.

Sword at Sunset is one of the few books Sutcliff actually wrote for an adult audience. First published in 1963, it was reissued by TOR books in 1987 as an attractive mass market paperback, and is still widely available from used bookstores. It’s a magnificent piece of storytelling; a persuasive work of historical reconstruction; and a memorable portrait of a man who, while mythologized by centuries of hero tales and romances, may well have been a real historical figure.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Books that deserve to be rediscovered: Part Three

I would like to think that every generation of fantasy readers will have the good luck to discover Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. My first encounter was as a preteen in the early fifties , rumnmaging through the bookshelves of a small town secondhand shop. In a jumbled pile of used paperbacks I came across what must have been been the original 1950 Hillman edition. On the cover was a redhaired woman in a diaphanous gown surrounded by thuggish, blackhooded figures. Inside : “Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet.”

I was entranced. That copy cost me a dime – the cover price was twenty-five cents -- though I believe that first printing of Vance’s first book is worth about a thousand times that on today’s collectors’ market. In the years since, I’ve made many return visits to Vance’s gorgeously decadent world at the end of time.

That first much-read copy was lost in the course of many moves. I’ve since replaced it with the 1977 Pocket Books edition, though no later edition will ever have, for me, quite the charm of the original.

And a footnote: a major anthology of stories set in the Dying Earth universe, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin, will be published by Tor in the US and HarperCollins Voyager in the UK, as well as in limited editions from Subterranean Press. Fellow west coast author Matthew Hughes , who honours the master in his Henghis Hapthorn novels (Black Brillion, Majestrum, The Gist Hunter) will be one of the contributors.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Books that deserve to be rediscovered: Part Two

The Golden Strangers, by Henry Treece (first published 1956)

My 1967 edition of The Golden Strangers, published a year after Henry Treece’s death, was reissued by Hodder and Stoughton in their library of great historical novels chosen by Rosemary Sutcliff. Introducing the novel, Sutcliff writes, “…it remains one of the best as well as one of the strangest historical novels that I have ever met.” The Golden Strangers is set on the English chalk downs in the shadowy world of Stonehenge, as the old Neolithic culture gives way to the early Bronze Age. That Treece’s mid-twentieth century view of prehistory may be somewhat outdated doesn’t alter the essential truth of the story.

Treece was a poet as well as a novelist. His haunting prose is at once lyrical and unflinchingly realistic, as he describes horrific events in a savage world ruled by ritual, superstition and taboo. In M. John Harrison’s words, “Through a stark and unmitigated realism Henry Treece conveys what it must have been like to believe in magic.” And from Rosemary Sutcliff: “(Treece) understood better than any writer I have ever read, the appalling intricacy of life in a primitive society.”

Treece was a prolific writer, producing four volumes of poetry, radio plays and works of criticism, as well as many historical novels set in Britain, Scandinavia and ancient Greece. Among his best work is his Celtic series of novels, which -- along with The Golden Strangers –includes The Dark Island, The Great Captains and Red Queen, White Queen. His last adult novel, The Green Man, set in sixth century northern Europe, is another of my favourites, though definitely not for the squeamish.. You can find a complete list at the Fantastic Fiction site.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Books that deserve to be rediscovered: Part One

Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon & Rumer Godden (first published 1966)

This year, 2007, is the one hundredth anniversary of novelist Rumer Godden’s birth.

At the outbreak of the first world war, seven year old Rumer and her sister Jon left London to join the rest of their family in Narayangunj, East Bengal, (now Bangladesh) where their father worked for a steamship company. This memoir of the years from 1914 to 1919, written in collaboration with her sister Jon, is in their words, “not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone.” Seen through the eyes of two bright, adventurous and perceptive children, it’s an extraordinarily detailed picture of life in an expatriate English family in India, in those early years of the twentieth century.

Rumer Godden’s 1946 novel The River (adapted into a movie by Jean Renoir) is very closely based on the same experiences described in Two Under the Indian Sun.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Forthcoming Fall 2007

The new edition of my Aurora shortlisted bronze age fantasy The Sarsen Witch is scheduled for October 2007 publication by Juno Books.

"In Kernaghan’s hands, as in Joanna Russ and Elizabeth Lynn, women appear alongside men as women complete in themselves, protagonists and heroines in control of their own destinies.” -- Kinesis

"The Sarsen Witch is a dense and gripping novel of the origins of Stonehenge. Full of references to the varied religious rituals of prehistory, including goddess worship and an Atlantis mythos, its complex structure reflects the complexity of the society it represents.” -- The Bookmark

“Kernaghan writes the way people ought to write; her prose has a smooth, poetic flow that draws you irresistibly into her world of horse-tribes and clan-chiefs…The chalk hills and forests, the primitive cultures and tribal wars all complement and lend believability to the tribulations of Naeri as she treads the path to her destiny." -- Michael Coney, in The Reader

Excerpt : Naeri

She had had a name once, and a place in the world – preordained, unquestioned. Naeri, they had called her, the brown lily. A flower name, because she had been a pretty child, smooth-skinned and delicately made. In time, when she grew into full womanhood and wisdom she should have had another, secret name: a name of power.

Remembering those years, she saw circles within circles, like ramparts of banked earth, with herself – warm, loved, secure – inhabiting the center. Tribe, clan, hearth-family – the strong high walls of kinship had sheltered and surrounded her. With time, the faces had grown remote and shadowy, like figures out of Legend. But at night, sometimes, she woke with a hand clutching her heart.

She pushed back the ragged ends of her hair as she knelt beside her supper fire. No flower name would suit me now, she thought with irony. She saw herself in her mind’s eye – chapped lips, windburned face, lean, hard-muscled body. A creature spare and strong and hardy as the gorse. In one terrible hour the horsemen had stripped her of everything – tribe, name, mother, hearthplace – leaving her only her sharp wits and a certain quiescent, unschooled power. And yet they had left her better armed than they knew.

Copyright Eileen Kernaghan 1989 – 2007

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wild women, robber-maids and travelling ladies

Uppity women throughout most of history have had bad press. Recently I picked up a book called Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Victorian writing by women on women. Eliza Lynn Linton, in an 1891 essay called “The Wild Women as Social Insurgents", complains about

…that loud and dictatorial person, insurgent and something more, who suffers no one’s opinion to influence her mind. no venerable law hallowed by time, nor custom consecrated by experience, to control her actions. Mistress of herself, the Wild Woman as social insurgent preaches the ‘lesson of liberty;’ broadened into lawlessness and licence. She exemplifies how beauty can degenerate into ugliness, and shows how the fragrant flower, run to seed, is good for neither food nor ornament. Her ideal of life for herself is absolute personal independence coupled with supreme power over men.

Quite so.

Still, it’s the wild women – the Brontë sisters, Mary Wollstoncraft and Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf and all that uppity sisterhood of writers who continue to fascinate readers; while Eliza Lynn Linton is long forgotten, and rightly so,.

In fairy tale literature, we’re accustomed to reading about princesses and scullery maids, all in dire need of rescuing: we don’t expect to find many wild women. But when Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Snow Queen: in Seven Stories” in three weeks during 1844, he turned the traditional fairy tale on its head.

In the mid-19th century, children's stories were simply didactic tales meant to teach a moral lesson. Be good, be polite, say your prayers and obey your parents if you want to go to Heaven.

Andersen's stories revolutionized the genre. He gave dark, subversive twists to old folktales, and created original stories straight from his own astonishing imagination. In fact, by 1844, Andersen no longer referred to his fairytales as children's stories -- even though we treat them as such today. They may still end, as “The Snow Queen” does, with a moral sentiment. But the stories themselves are strange and thrilling and extraordinary.

In his autobiography The Fairy Tale of my Life Andersen tells us that the Snow Queen story had its beginning when his father pointed to a shape made by frost on the windowpane. It looked like a woman with outstretched arms; and Andersen’s father said, “She is come to fetch me.” From that rather chilling remark came the story of the boy Kai, kidnapped by the Snow Queen and carried away to her frozen palace in the north.

In place of the conventional male hero who sets forth with sword in hand to rescue the princess , Andersen sends the girl hero Gerda, armed only with her goodness and innocence, on an epic journey to rescue Kai. (And perhaps unintentionally raises the question of whether the Kai is actually worth rescuing. )

Brave and determined though she is, Gerda will never be a wild woman. But the Snow Queen herself (reinvented many times by other writers, from C.S. Lewis to Joan Vinge) is a Wild Woman; and so is the Little Robber Maiden – one of the most intriguing characters in fantasy literature. Where else do we find a child character as fierce and rude and anti-social as the Little Robber Maiden? Or a mother-daughter relationship as disfunctional?

The mid-nineteenth century was a turning point in western culture, when (as in 2007) traditional religious belief ran headlong into modern science. This conflict lies at the heart of Andersen's story. Gerda represents simple, unquestioning faith. Kai (and the Snow Queen's ice-puzzle) represents the new spirit of scientific inquiry which threatens that faith. Kai believes that by solving the Snow Queen’s puzzle – The Game of Reason - he would be his own master, and would possess the whole world – as well as a new pair of skates. (We could argue that what Kai was really trying to do was to split the atom – but that’s a whole other line of inquiry. )

In any case, "The Snow Queen" is a fascinating work of the imagination, with vividly described settings, realistic dialogue, well-developed characters and complex layers of symbolism and metaphor. In fact, it's really more a novel than a fairy tale, with a great deal of psychological depth.

I arrived at my own retelling of The Snow Queen story in a round-about way. Years earlier, I had written a poem called "The Robber Maiden's Story"; later I expanded the poem into an adult short story, that focussed on the relationship between Gerda and the robber-chieftain's daughter. But the Snow Queen wouldn’t let me go. Finally, using the Andersen story as a framework, I started work on a young adult novel. The little robber-girl, always my favourite fairy-tale character, gained a name – Ritva – and a much larger role to play. Ritva’s horrible old mother became a Saami shaman, whose powers Ritva was due to inherit.

I’d been researching Tibetan shamanism for my first YA novel, The Dance of the Snow Dragon , and that led me to books on Finnish and Saami shamanism--and then to the Finnish myth cycle, the Kalevala. I thought I could hear echoes, in Andersen's Christian fantasy, of the older, darker mythology of the Kalevala.

Pohjola, the unknown country of Finnish mythology, lies in the northernmost back corner of the world, where earth and day end. The hero’s journey to Pohjola is one of the central themes of the Finnish epic, just as Gerda’s journey to the Snow Queen’s mysterious kingdom is the central narrative of Andersen’s story

I’m fascinated by connections. And now I was hot on the track of a connection between Andersen and Finnish mythology that I don’t think anyone else had made.

In my mind, the Snow Queen became identified with the Kalevala’s Dark Enchantress, the Woman of Pohjola, the drowner of heroes and destroyer of souls. So partway through the book, my story takes a turn away from Andersen, and moves into the world of Finnish mythology, and also the real historical 19th century world, as I send Gerda and Ritva on foot across the treacherous Arctic ice to the Snow Queen’s palace.

If Andersen could subvert the traditional fairy tale by having the girl rescue the boy, then I decided I could subvert it a little further, by letting Gerda realize that it wasn’t domestic bliss with Kai she really wanted. By now, like a lot of other Victorian women, she’d acquired a taste for travel and adventure. And Kai, who has taken up with a shipful of scientists who are mapping the coastline of Spitzbergen, is clearly not interested in romance.

In the original Snow Queen story Kai and Gerda are young children, and Gerda’s love for Kai is entirely innocent. But the story has been endlessly analyzed, and a lot of critics have noted a certain amount of underlying sexual tension. There’s the robber-maiden's sadistic treatment of Gerda, not to mention the Snow Queen's slightly suspect relationship with Kai.

Because I was writing for young adults, I didn't dwell on that aspect, but made it instead a coming of age story about an unlikely friendship between two oddly-matched young women. And I left the story with the suggestion that Gerda, like other Victorian lady travellers, had many adventures still to come.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Mohenjo-daro: a poem

The salt earth is bleached
and brittle as old bone, in winter
on the plain of ghosts.
Shrill and thin down the grey
millennia, the spirit voices
cry on the parched wind.
Language of a dead land--
the wind's riddles:
insistent and insinuating
whisper of pale grasses,
tongueless as corpses the slow
suck and hiss
of the river's mouths
and age-deep in the dust
of empty water-courses
the cryptic dialect
of broken stones.

But on the terraces below the citadel
a flute plays
and ghosts rise in their shining bones
bedecked with jade and lapis lazuli.
Above the luminous pools white birds drift
long-stemmed as water lilies
and terrible in their stripes
behind the broken walls the tigers walk
among the glamorous trees.

(Epigraph to Winter on the Plain of Ghosts: a Novel of Mohenjo-daro)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mohenjo-daro: a puzzle from prehistory

Though writers of historical fiction have a long-standing romance with ancient Egypt and Sumer, surprisingly little has been written about the third great cradle of civilization in the Indus Valley.

The fall of the Indus valley civilization around 1800 BC is one of the great archaeological puzzles. What caused the prehistoric cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa to go into decline? Were they destroyed by climate change? A shift in the course of the Indus River? Invasion? Over-grazing?

Mohenjo-daro (“The Mound of the Dead”) was discovered in 1922 by an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India. Excavations carried out during the 1930’s by Sir John Marshall and in 1945 by Mortimer Wheeler yielded a vast amount of information about the city and its inhabitants -- information still studied by present-day archaeologists. However, no one had successfully deciphered the inscriptions on the mysterious Indus valley seals.

Many years ago in an antique store I stumbled across a small self-published monograph by John Newberry of Victoria BC. It turned out to be the first in an ongoing series: Newberry's exhaustive though little-known efforts to decode these inscriptions. I bought the pamphlet. Here was a world lost in antiquity, and an unsolved mystery. I had the subject for a fantasy novel.

Winter on the Plain of Ghosts: a novel of Mohenjo-daro was published in 2004 by Flying Monkey Press, and is available from . You can read more about it in an interview at the Challenging Destiny site.

Note: Since 1947 Mohenjo-daro has been under the protection of the Government of Pakistan, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Excavations have been banned since the mid-sixties in order to protect the exposed ruins from damage by the elements.

Monday, April 23, 2007

GLASTONBURY: a poem and an excerpt


Murmur of voices, and water moving
softly among stones. A cloistered quiet
lies like sweet-scented shadow
on the evening paths. This is the first,
the unremembered garden: aleph, omphalos,
the moment that contains all other moments,
the still centre of the spinning universe.
In last light, the haunted stairs ascend
between the worlds. Where paths meet,
at the confluence of hidden waters,
these mysteries endure:
the inexhaustible spring, the shining roads
across the summer lands; the green
miraculous light beneath the broken tower.

Excerpt from The Alchemist's Daughter (Thistledown Press, 2004)

Towards evening they came to the desolate ruins of the abbey. Standing knee deep in long rank grass, Sidonie gazed at the crumbling ivy-covered walls and shattered piers.. The holiest place in England, she thought. What wickedness can men achieve, and swear it is God's work.

"Had you but seen it in its glory," said a quiet voice. He had crept up soft-shod behind them -- a tall old man in a battered felt hat and shabby cloak. His face, framed by a tangled thicket of white hair, was wind burnt and deeply lined.

"If you could have seen the abbey as it once was-- the sanctuary all a-glitter with gold and brass, the hangings of brocade and embroidered silk. The light through the windows casting all the colours of the rainbow over the high altars, the pillars of the nave lifting their arches up to heaven. All the Lords and knights and ladies, the solemn procession of monks , the organ that played so sweetly you would swear you could hear flutes and cornets in it, and a river of plainsong winding its way to heaven."

His voice rose and fell in a sombre and familiar rhythm. It is a litany he is chanting, Sidonie thought. A requiem for something precious that is lost forever.

"You were a Brother," said Sidonie.

"Aye, that I was. Until King Henry dispossessed us, and sent Thomas Cromwell and his minions to drive us out, and hanged our good Abbot Whiting from the top of the Tor, and fastened his head to the Abbey gate."

He stood gazing up at the gaunt ruin of the Abbey. A small wind had sprung up, with a hint of autumn in it. It toyed with his beard and blew his long white hair into his eyes. Absently he pushed it back. "I remember," he said softly, "how I polished the golden candlesticks and chalices, and the brass on the tombs, and every stroke of the chamois was an offering to the Lord God in heaven. It fair broke my heart to see our treasures carried off, and the walls crumble, and the winter wind blow between the arches."

"And yet..." said Sidonie, looking around the derelict abbey garden. Steeped in the hazy yellow light of evening, there was was a pleasant kind of melancholy about it, and, it seemed to her, a hint of magic. She could almost imagine voices in the pillaged choir loft singing evensong; and the scent of sundried grass was as sweet as incense. "It seems a peaceful place,"she said.

"Aye, that it is," the old man said. "No one comes here now. I'm left to myself, with only the birds in the trees and the hares in the grass for company. We keep our secrets. Now I am an old man, and will take those secrets to the grave. But I dream sometimes of the Abbey rebuilt and its treasures restored. When that day comes, when the true faith returns to England, then I know that peace and plenty will for a long time endure."

He fell silent at last, as though lost in contemplation. Sidonie bade him a courteous goodnight, and received no answer. At last glance, in the fading light, he was gazing up at the broken tower atop the Tor, rapt and far-seeing as some ancient prophet.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 4

We arrived at Stonehenge at 7 p.m. on a Sunday night, and presented our Special Access letter from English Heritage – a useful document that for a fee allows after hours, inside the rope privileges. “Ah, yes, Mrs. Kernaghan," said the man in charge. "We've been expecting you." Feeling like visiting dignitaries, Kernaghan and party of three headed down the concrete connecting tunnel under the A360.

Stonehenge looms. It broods. It overwhelms. It's managed to survive love-ins, rock festivals, graffiti artists and millions of trampling feet and still retain its ponderous dignity.

As a researcher I knew I should be taking notes; but your instinct, once inside the circle, is simply to gawk. I felt a curious sense of unreality. This was how I had felt when I first saw men walk on the moon. Stonehenge is so familiar an icon, so much a part of everyone's cultural landscape, that it's hard to convince yourself that the stones are real, and not a painted plywood movie set.

I stood on the entrance causeway with my back to the road, watching the sun set between the megaliths in lavish technicolour. I was lost in contemplation of the past. This was Stonehenge as my heroine Naeri must have seen it, on that evening four thousand years ago when the final trilithon was raised....

An indignant voice shouted from behind the roadside fence: "Hey, lady. There's a thousand people out here, all trying to take pictures, and you're standing smack in the way!"

The last colours of the sunset faded, and darkness fell. The crowds of photographers behind the fence put away their equipment and drove off. We decided to wait for moonrise.

Other after-hours visitors have reported noises "as of giant catherine wheels spinning upwards", and flickering lights round the trilithons. Mysterious currents of energy are said to emanate from the stones. Guy Underwood, in The Pattern of the Past, speaks of Stonehenge as a kind of giant condensing battery, a focus of powerful cosmic forces. I'd drawn heavily on his theories when I was writing The Sarsen Witch and was anxious to test them at first hand. I pressed both hands against the lichen-encrusted surface of a trilithon. But on this particular night the generator must have been turned off. All I could feel was the lingering warmth of the September sun.

By nine o'clock it was full dark, and there was no sign of the moon. Black and featureless against the night sky, the stones took on a menacing look. My husband, standing by the Slaughter Stone, theorized on how it got its name. Stop that, Dad," said my daughter, shivering. I felt my own hair stir on the back of my neck. In a place so crowded with ancient ghosts, we were beginning to feel that we’d outstayed our welcome.

When we left there were still people gathered outside the fence. "How is it you got to go inside?" asked one woman. She sounded a little aggrieved.

"Special access," replied my daughter enigmatically.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 3

Ravaged giants rooted in primordial chalk
sleep now in this mild September light.
Where sheep crop the long grass among the stones
old gods, unvanquished, linger at the edge of sight.

The people formed a circle facing the Mother-Stone; the men dressed in the skins of the red deer, crowned with the Horned God's antlers, the women in white robes, their long unplaited hair bound back with bands of silver. Beyond, the mist writhed and billowed, red-stained by torchlight.

That's Avebury as seen by my heroine, circa l880 B.C., when the temple was long past its glory days but still quite possibly used for rites associated with the Mother Goddess.

When John Aubrey discovered Avebury in 1649, he boasted that the temple "did as much excell Stonehenge as a cathedral does a parish church". Hearing this report, King Charles II rushed off to look for himself. Whatever the king may have thought, Avebury is still regarded as the connoisseur's megalithic ruin. Spread out across a shelf of chaIk on the Marlborough Downs, it's older than Stonehenge, dating from about 2600 B.C. and far grander in scale.

Apart from the village of Avebury iself, and a few discreet signs, very little intrudes on this immense, romantic expanse of grass and stone and sky.

Most megalithic ruins inspire awe, but also a certain amount of gloom. One suspects that under one's feet are the bones of men, women and children who came to sudden and violent ends. But on a sunny September evening, with the yellow autumn light falling across the green pastures, and sheep dozing contentedly with their backs against the warm stones, there is nothing oppressive about Avebury. The stones themselves, alternating between pillars and lozenge-shaped stones balanced on a single foot, are like nothing so much as dancers engaged in some vast and stately round dance.

The only sadness one feels is that so much of Avebury has been destroyed. Of the original one hundred sarsen stones of the outer circle, thirty have survived. Only nine stones remain in the two inner circles. William Stukeley, who was one of Avebury's earliest visitors, watched in helpless despair as local farmers topppled and smashed most of the stones to build the village which still sits inside the great circular earth bank. This "stupendous fabric", he wrote, which had endured for thousands of years, and if left to itself would have lasted as long as the globe, "has fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac'd within it."

We followed the trail around the top of the bank, peered down into the ditch, now fifteen feet deep, once twice that depth; and wandered along the Kennet Avenue, with its lines of paired stones, until it ended in a fence and a ploughed field. It was late in the season, and late in the day. We had the place to ourselves.

In this lush green landscape it's tempting to romanticize the past--to think of the builders of Avebury as a peaceful, prosperous folk with lots of time for constructing megalithic monuments and taking part in picturesque rites. Yet the skeletal evidence they've left behind-- fractured arms, shattered skulls, limbs twisted by rickets, spines piercd by arrowheads-- tell quite a different story.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 2

He was in a kind of gallery walled and roofed with blocks of stone.... At intervals along the walls there were openings that led into small rooms filled with bones....

Nhiall, the hero of Journey to Aprilioth, is trapped in West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire's largest and most famous neolithic chambered tomb.. The mound is spectacular-- a vast wedge-shaped hummock stretching nearly three hundred and fifty feet along the crest of the hill, with a seventy-five foot sarsen-stone facade.

The tomb itself occupies only about an eighth of the total length, which raises an obvious question: if they were only going to use the first forty feet, why did they make the mound so long?

Nineteenth century antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare speculated that West Kennet was the mass grave of a slaughtered army. Finding no evidence to support this theory, he threw up his hands in despair, declaring himself "utterly at a loss to determine the purpose of such gigantic mounds of earth".

The underground passage is built of huge up-ended boulders capped with slabs of undressed stone. Modern glass bricks set into the roof provide a little murky light. The two pairs of side chambers were in use as tombs for over a thousand years, and remains of over forty bodies have been recovered. Nearly all the adults had arthritis-- telling us something about the British climate in 2500 B.C.
In one of my English photographs I'm standing outside West Kennet Long Barrow, gazing across a bare field at the vast conical shape of Silbury Hill. My expression is faintly puzzled. Silbury Hill was built somewhere around 2750 B.C.--the largest man-made earth mound in Europe-- and it's been puzzling visitors ever since.

One hundred and thirty feet high and covering more than five acres, it looks as though somebody very important indeed must be buried underneath it. According to local legend it's the tomb of King Sil, who was interred on horseback in golden armour at the centre of the mound. Others maintain that the hill is the site of a magic circle so powerful that it had to be buried--rather like radioactive waste-- under twelve and a half million cubic feet of chalk-rubble. The fact is, that although people have sinking vertical shafts and driving tunnels into Silbury Hill since the mid-l700's, they've have uncovered nothing more revealing than some antler fragments and a Viking bridle bit.

New-age thinking sees the entire British landscape, with its fascinating clutter of tombs and mounds and cumuli and henges, as an enormous image of the earth-goddess. Silbury Hill's splendidly suggestive shape (in aerial photos you can clearly see the nipple on top) lends weight to this argument. But then shouldn't there be two of them? One can only suppose that government funding ran out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones

Megaliths have been in the news lately, with the unearthing of a large Neolithic settlement where the builders of Stonehenge may have lived. For centuries the mysterious Wiltshire monuments have been a source of puzzlement and fascination for tourists, archaeologists and writers, and they figure prominently in my “Grey Isles” Bronze Age trilogy. Some years ago, on a holiday trip to Britain, I mapped out a course that retraced the steps of my characters across the Wessex landscape of four thousand years ago.

The Grey Wethers

Cresting a ridge, Naeri saw beneath her a vast saucer-shaped depression strewn with a multitude of grey sarsen boulders. Half-embedded in turf, they looked from this height like a great flock of grazing sheep. (The Sarsen Witch)

That was my hero’s first sight of the Grey Wethers--and from a distance, thrusting up out of the short dry grass, they do look remarkably like sheep. The indefatigable early Brits who built Stonehenge hauled these massive blocks -- the shattered remains of the chalkland's sandstone cap-- all the way from the downs above Marlborough to their present site on Salisbury Plain.

We took the A4 to Fyfield village, following the guidebook's instuctions to park our car "off the main road by a barn on the side road leading to the church"; and immediately got lost. The local vicar, clearly used to doubling as an information kiosk, put his head out of the vicarage window and steered us along a footpath beside the A4. Just out of town we found an unobtrusive National Trust sign marking the Piggledene valley, which stretches north towards Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve.

Richard Symonds, writing in his diary in 1644, described the area around Fyfield as "a place so full of grey pibble stone of great bignes as is not usually seene." "In this parish," he went on, "they lye so thick as you may go upon them all the way." The locals called these peculiar grey boulders “Saracen Stones" --- Saracen meaning heathen and suspicious.

We climbed over a stile, and wandered along the floor of the valley among scrub trees and thickly scattered stones. Little has changed here in the last four millennia. We were quite alone, apart from a flock of rather surly sheep. The valley of the Grey Wethers is less frequented by tourists than other, more spectacular megalithic sites. The sheep, who seemed irked at our intrusion, surged irritably to and fro.

Of the vast tract of sarsen boulders described by Richard Symonds, only a small protected area remains. Most of the stones were hauled away by nineteenth century masons to make roads and gateposts in the Fyfield area.

I picked up a small curiously shaped stone, just the right size to fit comfortably into my hand. My husband eyed me apprehensively. "I think they have rules against carting off the scenery," he said.

…to be continued

Monday, March 19, 2007

Stonehenge Revisited

My bronze age historical fantasy novel The Sarsen Witch, the third book in the "Grey Isles" series, will be back in print this coming fall. Shortlisted for an Aurora Award in 1990, it's a tale of earth-magic, megaliths and high adventure in the world of the Wessex war-chieftains.

This new edition of The Sarsen Witch will be released by the Juno Books imprint of Wildside Press in September 2007.