Volume IV: Excom to Hermosil
This volume’s theme seems to be magic, mystery, and the exotic… so let’s see where it takes us…
The article defines a fairy as a “supernatural being who could become invisible, change shape or size, skilled in magic and able to bewitch human beings – described in 1691 by a Scotsman named Robert Kirk as “of a middle nature betwixt Angel and Man.”
They are “longer lived than men”, apparently – although tales that I have read seem to have a fairly loose definition about time when it comes to the fae so I am not certain how this is being measured. Are their ‘years’ truly the same as ours? Do they even HAVE a concept of years? How on earth do you figure out how old a fairy actually is? But they are, apparently, mortal in the end, it seems because (being, by a certain definition, “soulless”) they are said to be “extinguished at death.” Which presupposes that they do die. Causes of fairy death have been left mysterious.
Once the fairy folk were feared as dangerous and powerful, so much so that naming them could bring disaster upon your head – so they were seldom named directly, referred to instead as ‘the gentle people’ or ‘the good neighbors’ when you had to talk about them at all. To name them was to invoke them, and then you were theirs. They might do anything – you couldn’t know, and you couldn’t defend against it – they might take a fancy to you and take you home to visit and you might return mad, or centuries later to find all you have loved dead or changed. There are LOTS of stories about that (try Tam Lin, or some of the Irish tales…) And then there is the whole idea of changelings – taking a human baby and substituting it for fairy children. This was serious bad mojo. You didn’t tick off a fairy, because you could be called to account, and the price could be a lot higher than you were ever willing to pay.
There were many kinds of fairy. Some were actually pretty nice, on the whole, and minded their own business most of the time – they were agriculturalists, cattle keepers, weavers, woodworkers -- they worked at stuff just like us humans did with the added dimension of a dose of fairy magic loaded in there. Others, like brownies, reputedly attached themselves to human beings or households as helpers, under certain rules. Fairies, despite having their own ways and means and being attached to their rules and kind of ornery if you broke them, seemed, on the whole, to be pretty decent hardworking folk when attention was being paid to the nitty-gritty of their working lives. There were, of course, the free spirits – the nature fairies who haunted woods moorlands and rivers – trolls, dryads, and water spirits – and those didn’t seem to be so attached to a good day’s work if they could obtain the same gain by trickery and deception or intimidation. But hey. That wasn’t much different from us humankind.
They began by looking rather like us (except perhaps more eerily beautiful) – human sized or larger, a serious, often dangerous, and frequently sinister kind of being. But then something happened… and it was “Honey, I shrunk the fairies.” All of a sudden you got the pretty pretty flitty diaphanously bewinged Thumbelina-sized flower fairies with which children’s stories were illustrated – tiny, and shrunken, and rendered harmless. The difference between, the Cobweb and Peaseblossom of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Tolkien’s Elves.
Honestly? The pretty fairies at the bottom of the garden have never held much of an appeal for me. If I wanted something translucent and flying and sparkly, I’ll have a dragonfly on a summer afternoon, thank you very much. If I ever were to actually meet one of the Fair Folk, I would prefer it to be the older and the more dangerous – the more REAL – kind, despite the perils which they bring with them. I would go West with Tolkien’s Elves any day. I don’t think I would happily spend my days skipping around the heads of dandelions in the meadow at the end of the lane. The pretty-pretty fairies have no PURPOSE, other than being a pretty illustration, really. And purposeless things have never been attractive to me. Give me a Fae who knows what they are, where they came from, what they want and where they are going – and this is a creature I would happily share a world with. And yes, there is no light without shadow. I know that these are dangerous. And I revel in that.
2. Fiordland :
A region and a national park (the nation’s largest) in southwest New Zealand, stretching from Milford Sound to Preservation Inlet. It was so named after coastal inlets or fjords excavated by glaciers and flooded by the sea to a distance of 10-20 miles inland, the only true fjords outside of Norway (the world’s geography is truly strange. Remember where Norway is with respect to New Zealand. How did the fjords know where to go?) The fjord inlets are characterized by steep rock walls which plunge vertically below the waterline to reach great depths – to the point that cruise ships, actual full-size ocean-going cruise ships (think about the water depth required to support the magnitude of those ships’ keels), have been known to come right into a fjord inlet and can come within a stone’s throw of the shore.
On the nearby highlands, densely forested by temperate rainforest and ferns which grow lush and thick in a climate which has some of the highest annual rainfall figures on record, the glaciers which are responsible for the fjords also carved out large inland valleys – which eventually became dammed by moraines and formed lakes. The best known of those are Te Anau, Poteriteri, and Manapouri. This last has a claim to fame which is actually extraordinary. The lake is MUCH HIGHER than sea-level, which creates a drop between the lake level and ocean level… and they used this to build a huge power station which takes advantage of this natural gravity-assisted drop to produce electricity. The power station is ENTIRELY UNDERGROUND, you can visit it, and the throb of the powerful turbines within the caverns that house them is not so much heard as experienced as a hum that pervades the rocks around you and sets your teeth vibrating in sympathetic rhythm. A New Zealand friend and I once co-wrote an entire fantasy novel centered on the Manapouri Dam – a novel that involved selkies, and taniwha (Maori spirits), and fallen angels, oh my. Some day I should dig that out and revisit it. The story wasn’t half bad, actually. Maybe we could do something with it. (You game, mmy_me? Or are you willing to cede your share of the thing to me (full credit given as co-world-creator!) and I can see if something can be done with this…?)
3. Flying Dutchman:
The ghostly ship of popular legend, believed to haunt the waters around the Cape of Good Hope and appearing as a sign of imminent disaster. There are many variations of the story which produced this particular spectral vessel, but in the most common version of the legend a Captain Vanderdecken gambles the eternal salvation of his soul on a rash pledge to round the Cape during a storm. He fails of course and the Devil is a bad entity to wager with – he ALWAYS takes his winnings – and so the poor sod is condemned to round the Cape forever and ever and ever in those howling winds that always blow there.
I visited the Cape a number of times, and I can vouch for the winds – but I have never seen the ship, alas. More’s the pity. It might have been AWESOME to have observed that plunging, pitching, bucking ship under full old-fashioned sail crossing the line where two of the world’s great oceans meet.
4. Grail, Holy:
Best known, I suppose, as the famous quest object in Arthurian legends – where the term was used to denote a wide-mouthed or shallow cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and used afterwards by Joseph of Arimathea (who WAS this dude, anyway? I don’t think I’ve EVER heard of him outside the Arthur story…) to collect the blood of Christ at His crucifixion. The quest was achievable… by the Right and Just Knight, by virtue of his, well, virtue. But the identity of that knight changed, as the focus of the retellings of the Arthurian mythos changed.
In the beginning, the Grail Knight was Sir Perceval, whose outstanding qualification for the job was his innocence. In Chretien de Troyes’s seminal account, boy-knight Perceval leaves home in order to pursue being knighted at Arthur’s court (um, I’m not QUITE sure as to why, given the idea of knighting that later developed in chivalric lore – just why was Perceval so goshdurned entitled to a knighthood here, anyway?) After this is accomplished, anyway, he goes off a-wandering, and at some point in his peregrinations he comes across a lame fisherman who instructs him to go to nearby Castle Carbonek for lodging. Perceval obligingly follows directions, and in the castle he discovers the man who is supposed to be his host lying wounded upon a couch – and then, just, you know, BECAUSE – he witnesses a strange procession which appears to be remarkable only in the fact that it is seemingly so unremarkable to the wounded guy on the couch . First, a squire carrying a lance dripping blood; then a couple of other young men carrying ten-branched candlesticks (not sure if there is a significance to this – why ten?); then a damsel carrying a great cup that gives off a great light. This happens several times during the course of the evening he spends at the place – but our hero Perceval, having been raised with the stricture that asking too many questions is impolite, does not remark upon these strange goings on at all and asks not a single question about this occurrence.
In the morning, Perceval finds the castle deserted (and it is also sometimes described as “in ruins”, too) around him, and is informed that his host had been the Fisher King, wounded by having a lance thrust through both thighs, who would have been healed had Percival actually asked about the procession. Not quite sure how asking the question then translates into action, but apparently Perceval then sets off on a fruitless quest for the grail – and then Chretien De Troyes goes off at a tangent, describing Sir Gawain’s parallel quest for the bleeding lance… although just how HE got into this particular story at this point and how he knew about the lance and what HE hopes to accomplish is… well. Onwards.
But the story was never finished – we never find out if Gawain got the lance, or Perceval returned (with or without the cup) to ask the proper questions.
Later versions of the legend produced a new hero, the pure knight Sir Galahad (son of Lancelot and Elaine of Astolat) and the quest for the grail became something wholly (holy?) pious, a search for mystical union with god – knights such as Gawain, who did not seek the help of divine grace in the quest, failed utterly; Lancelot, because of the stigma of his adulterous love for Guinevere, could only glimpse the grail in a dream; Perceval (remember him?) returns as a more worthy candidate but only gets as far as receiving a higher class of revelation (innocence alone is now longer enough, apparently…) – but Galahad was able to look directly into the grail and was granted a vision of divine mysteries which cannot and may not be described by human tongue. In the last branch of the Vulgate cycle, the final disasters were linked by the withdrawal of the grail, symbol of god’s grace, never to be seen or achieved again.
Of course, in later incarnations, the Grail became Mary Magdalene and the whole story was thrust into bestsellerdom by the likes of Dan Brown. Oh, how far we have come from Perceval who was too polite to ask the right questions. In those early versions the mere whiff of, you know, sex, and the Grail was just gone (not for you, you bad boy, you dallied with GIRLS…) but it then transformed INTO a girl, and is achieved not by abstaining from carnal knowledge of woman but indeed by indulging in it to the point of producing progeny…
There are volumes to be written on this one alone. The grail – vision, prophetic revelation, real cup with magic powers, real cup which was just a cup and no more, or body of the Magdalen? Pick your version. Have fun. I don’t think there is a right answer.
“Gypsy” is a generic term for a nomadic people without true nationality, found on every continent on Earth but mostly in Europe, traditionally travelling by horse-drawn or motorized caravan. In Europe they go by many names - to the French they are “Bohemians”, to the Spanish “Flemish” or Gitanos (or Egyptians),to the Swedes, Tatars. To the Germans, who have never minced words about things, they are simply “heathens.” Which, in a sense that rigidly applies to what you might construct as a German definition of the pure apostolic faith, they were.
But they are fascinating heathens.
Their history and spoken language (Romany) can in fact be traced back to India, where they probably originated. They got around right from their early beginnings, and by 1000 AD they were In Persia – and then, after that, they split into two branches, one going south and west through Egypt and North Africa and the other taking the northern route into Europe and reaching northwestern Europe by 15th/16th century. They refer to themselves as Rom – meaning Man – and to everyone else as “gadje” which boils down to “Barbarians”, (well, if you call them heathens they’re entitled to name-call back, don’tcha know).
It is part of the mystique of these people that they are so absolutely free-spirited. No single authority has ever been accepted over all gypsies – international congresses have been held, and even “kings” crowned, but these tended to be concentrated in specific groupings or Tribes and have never been widely respected or recognized in the community as a whole. Several different and geographically delineated Tribes are in fact known to exist, but they are not strictly defining as a social descriptor. At the local level of social organization, Gypsies are known to be organized into bands of anything from ten to a few hundred households under the leadership of a chieftain or “voivode” elected for life from amongst the outstanding families. He acts as treasurer for the band, determines methods and routes of migration, and is the group’s spokesman to the local municipal authorities where necessary. He governs, loosely speaking, through a circle of elders – which includes a mysterious entity known as the “phuri dai”, a senior woman in the band.
Strongest amongst the gypsy institutions of social control is the Romany “kris”, the body of customary law and values of justice as well as the ritual and formation of the tribunal of the band. Basic to the Gypsy code are concepts of fidelity, cohesiveness, and reciprocity within the recognized political unit.
Oh, the stories that lie glittering amongst these customs, these mysterious words and concepts, this secret world which the “gadje” may have the barest skeleton of facts about but which must be so much deeper when one is embedded deep into the heart of it all…
Their looks and lifestyle have long made them convenient scapegoats and pariahs for all kinds of social ills, often used as an excuse for outright official and legal persecution. A tragedy lost in the greater numbers of the Jewish Holocaust, almost half a million of them were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. They were resolutely non-agrarian – even semi-settled Gypsies never became peasants, however long they were settled on any land. They were always artisans or craftsmen. Their occupations tended to be part-time, sporadic, or seasonal (in line with their preferred nomadic existence) or else at circuses or travelling fairs.
Being social pariahs anyway, they were also known to indulge in occupations which the local settled populations disdained – undertakers in Romania, hangmen in Bulgaria, and such. Gypsy men often exercised their talents as smiths, musicians and horse dealers, and they were a presence in the village streets back in the land where I was born, crying out their specialties, back in the day when things were FIXED AND REUSED rather than thrown away as soon as they became damaged. The men wandered the dusty streets hollering about fixing broken umbrellas, or patching holed cooking pots (as I understand it, with solder, which probably wasn’t all that healthy, but those were the days when such things didn’t loom quite so huge – a patched pot was one that could have a new lease on life and everything else is secondary.
The women tended to more exotic stuff – fortune tellers, entertainers, dancers, always portrayed as ravishingly beautiful and passionate when young, all curly black hair and long bare brown legs flashing from underneath bright skirts around bonfires and nimbly seducing lavish tips as they danced to the wild violins played by their menfolk. But that was the Gypsy of the song and the story, the beautiful Esmeralda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the vivid life force of it all. In the real world, they were often outright beggars. In my own early childhood, I remember women dressed in rags sitting on street corners, with filthy urchin toddlers crouching barefoot and wide-eyed beside them, and the eager, earnest, hungry expressions on the narrow brown faces underneath colorful headscarves. In line with the scapegoat reputations of the Gypsies as villains, children who behaved badly were sometimes told that if they didn’t mend their ways the Gypsies would take them away – and they were sufficiently different, sufficiently alien, sufficiently not-one-of-us, that the mere threat of that, of the possibility of leaving one’s warm bed and the comfortable settled existence which one so took for granted, was enough to quell the young into at least a semblance of decorum.
They have a long history, and a bitter past, and probably a hard-scrabble present and a future that doesn’t always promise a lot. But the very fact that they clung to what they were, that they preserved an identity and a way of life and then made themselves into a living legend in a world where legends are hard to make bloom… that’s something. The legend of the colorful caravans pulled by great placid horses with unkempt manes and huge Shire-horse feet is probably long vanished in the Europe of today -- there is no room for this any more in the kind of world that we have made. Although the legend itself may be long vanished into the mists of history – still – it doesn’t take much for it to rise resurgent. If you, like me, come from somewhere in Old Europe, all that is necessary to conjure up the Gypsy spirit is the faintest distant sound of a melody, plaintive lament or wild dance, coaxed from the strings of a Gypsy violin…