Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Embracing the Rain

Late at night
I drift away
I can hear you calling,
and my name
is in the rain,
leaves on trees whispering,
deep blue sea's mysteries. - Enya It's in the Rain
Who can resist the call of the wind and rain?
As I have written before, I feel a wildness within me in moments of elemental potency. In a previous blogpost "Singing into the Wind", I spoke of the intensity and grandeur of the wind, and my urge to add my melody to its eternal song.  Last night the wind called me again - but this time its beguiling song was more tempestuous, with a martial rhythm provided by the primal drumming of the rain. How could I not go out and commune with it once more?

This time the hour was late - or rather early - 2am and I had not slept for eighteen hours. The rest of the house was utterly dark - my entire family slumbering peacefully. To them the sound of the rain was soothing; a lullaby. Not so for me. Despite the hour - the weather invigorated me and set my heart pounding. 

A rain-drenched, roofed balcony, similar to my own except mine stands alone save for a tree beside it... 

My bedroom has two doors - the first a portal to the rest of my safe and carpeted home. The second (less used but more romantic) opens onto a roofed balcony overlooking the harbour. Barefoot and wearing a sleeveless summer dress, I closed the one and stepped out of the other - onto the wooden floor of the balcony, now glassed by the rain to become a mirror of the sky.

Instantly I was caught in the soft, coiling embrace of the wind. I was surprised to discover it felt almost warm, despite the storm. The lancing drops of rain blown into the balcony however felt chill against my arms and back. Within seconds I felt my dress grow heavy with moisture, and briefly worried about it becoming soaked if I did not go back indoors immediately. Then I laughed. Throwing my arms wide to the wind and rain, I walked forward to the edge of the balcony and rejoiced in letting myself get drenched and buffeted by the storm.

I fling my arms out to the rain...
In the midst of my joy, a small part of myself questioned what I had done. Am I going to regret  this? I could catch a cold. I could get my bed wet if my hair stays like this and then it might get moldy. If I get wet I might not be able to sleep at all tonight and then won't function tomorrow... What am I doing really? What's the reward? A part of me feared: Have I been a fool?

My elated, couragous self laughed again and replied: This is my life and this is who I am: a mortal being who responds to the call of the storm and acts upon it - a woman unafraid to join the wind in song - a woman who embraces the rain. The timid voice was silenced. I smiled fiercely.

Storm Witch by merriya on Deviantart
Suddenly I felt like a weather witch. Leaning out on the balcony railing I smelled the magical, elusive scent of petrichor. Within moments I was gauntleted by the rain. In my hands I held a notebook - for I knew this would be a time of many thoughts and strange feelings - spells that could be quickly caught and written down. My pencil was my witch-wand, and I wielded it sightlessly (for there was not enough light to read my words) on paper that became quickly bubbled with the rain.

A hazy harbour in the mist and rain.

Water roared from the gutters and all the windows were rattled by the wind. Beyond the balcony the air was mist-laden and further curtained with rain. Everytthing was partially obscured by the haze of moisture - which strangely dimmed all lights while making the darkness less dense and more nebulous.

At times like these, the borders of reality become blurred...
I felt like I stood at the merging of reality and possibility - the "otherlands" I dream of seemed at once almost close enough to touch. My head was light and my thoughts swirled as though taken by the wind, out onto the bay. Out there - water and air became indistinguishable and the far-lights of the towns across the harbour seemed to float like hazy stars in a grey sky, or a faery shore unreachable by mortal boat... 

The shores of Valinor, Ultima Thule or the island at the world's end? 

I don't know how long I stood there on the balcony. Inevitably I knew I must return to my room and sleep like the rest of the city, enveloped by the rain. But I wished I could do more - to wander free all night and alone in the wet streets, until every part on me was drenched in glorious rain...

When I did go back inside I sat for a while beside my window. On dry nights I sometimes keep it open, and the wind enters my room and haunts my dreams. But tonight the humidity would ruin the paint and breed mold on my shoes and clothes. So the window was shut and so I sat behind the barred leadlight glass, and the wind battered vainly against the panes. I felt a bit bereft.

But I looked down at myself and saw the sheen of water on my skin, and laid my notebook with my slippery pencil on my darkened desk. Although I had left the storm outside - I carried some of it with me, on my skin and in my book in the form of words imperishable. And part of my spirit - my wild and gleeful spirit - remains outside, cavorting in the wind and rain. 

Slowly I changed out of my wet dress into pyjamas - but I did not dry my skin completely. In the depths of the night I lay in bed and yet - my spirit wandered with the wind on waves lanced by the rain -  towards the lights glimmering faintly on the unseen shore.

Communing with the rain and wind...

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Snow Queen: Visions of Female Strength

The imperiously beautiful Snow Queen covers the town with a carpet of white 

Hans Christian Anderson's fairy stories have a peculiar, thought-provoking quality - a certain kind of magic that the better-known tales of the Brothers Grimm do not possess. Perhaps it is that his visions do not conform to the archetypes that pervade other fairy stories, or that they cannot be easily categorised. Some are more akin to myth; others are allegorical. Some are darkly funny, and yet others are pretty fancies full of charm but not much substance. While several of his stories are well known and appreciated today (the Little Mermaid, Little Thumb (Thumbelina), and the Steadfast Tin Soldier among others) - some of his lesser known works are uniquely powerful, such as the evocative The Bell, the patriotic Holger Danske and the strangely humorous Galoshes of Fortune. 

His best stories are those which are both mythic and allegorical - yet suffused with emotion and undeniable loveliness. Of all his tales The Snow Queen is my very favourite, for many reasons. I love the sheer glory and vibrant colour of the vision and its epic scope - with the window boxes; the robber cave; the garden of flowers and each flower's vision; the hanging beds like lilies in the palace the shadowy, galloping dreams; the flickering aurora hanging like curtains of light - and of course the  Snow Queen with her pristine and terrible beauty. I love the humorous touches - like the Raven couple and the wise woman writing words on a piece of dried fish. I love how the story of Gerda's journey seems to intersect with other, equally epic stories - like that of the princess and the robber girl. Most of all, I love the strong female characters, out of whom each have different agendas and competing powers - yet none of whom end the tale defeated. Alone among all fairy stories - this tale is one in which the female occupies almost all the heroic parts.

Here follows a description of these awesome female characters.


Gerda and little Kay
Art by Arthur Rackham 
Gerda is the main heroine of the tale, and she undergoes a remarkable development through the story - gaining strength and courage through her adventures, while retaining her essential core of love and honesty.

In the beginning of the story, Gerda is an innocent little girl, who feels glee and simple pleasure in play and stories. When Kay becomes nasty and reductionist due to the splinter of enchanted glass in his eye and in his heart, she remains loyal to their friendship - and when he is thought dead, having tied his sled to the Snow Queen's chariot and disappeared, she nevertheless goes to seek him. At the start of her quest, Gerda behaves like any child would be expected in these circumstances - easily frightened and confused; trusting and gullible. Thus she is delayed (possibly for many years) by a witch and her garden - but in being reminded of her quest by the reappearance of roses, she makes the difficult choice to leave the comfort of the witch's abode where she "slept and dreamed as delightfully as any queen".

The door was locked; but she pressed heavily against the rusty hinges, and it sprang open, when out she ran in her bare feet, into the wide world... When she could run no long she... saw that the summer was gone; it was late in the autumn... How grey and depressing it was in the wide world!

Soon after this interlude, Gerda is befriended by a Raven, having learned bitterly "how much there lay in that one word "alone"" and despite hearing that Kay has supposedly married a princess of surpassing cleverness and beauty, she feels neither crippled by jealousy nor inferiority but with the help of the Raven's sweetheart creeps into the palace to the royal chambers. Here she is disappointed - for the new prince is not little Kay, but she does not lose hope. Resisting for the second time the lure of a pleasant life, this time in the palace, Gerda begs instead for the means to "go out again into the wide world" on her quest. She is given a golden coach.

They drove through the dark forest, but the carriage gave light like a torch, which affected the robbers' eyes so that they could not bear it. "That is gold! That is gold!" they cried, and rushing forward seized the horses...
Artwork by Arthur Rackham
Captured by a band of violent robbers, Gerda narrowly escapes death through the whim of the robber-girl, yet still does not give up on her quest, enlisting the aid of the robber girl and her animals. She is finally given a reindeer and set free, to continue her journey into the forbidding winter wilderness.

And the Reindeer flew as fast as possible through the great forest, and over heaths and marshes... "There are my old friends the northern lights," the Reindeer said; "see how they shine!" It ran day and night.
Artwork by PJ Lynch
From the frozen home of the wise "Lapland woman"  Gerda and the Reindeer journey to the strange hot-house of the "Finland woman". Here the Reindeer asks for Gerda to be given "the strength of twelve men, so that she may vanquish the Snow Queen". But the Finland woman knows better - scoffing at the suggestion: "that would help her a great deal!" Instead she recognises Gerda's inner strength, derived from her good and loving heart, and from her childlike belief in universal goodness.

"I cannot give her greater power than she already possesses, and do you not see how great that is? Do you not see that men and beasts must serve her and how, barefooted as she is, she has got on so well in the world? She cannot receive her power from us, that is in her own heart..."
Unlike the majority of fairytale heroes, who are endowed with magical gifts or otherworldly assistance, Gerda is now left "without boots and without gloves, in the middle of that fearfully cold Finland".  Undaunted, she continues alone, only to be met by a horde of icy monsters - the guards of the Snow Queen. But the words of the Finland Woman hold true - for Gerda's very breath solidifies into a host of golden warriors who "thrust their spears into the frightful snowflakes, breaking them into hundreds of pieces", and removing the chill from Gerda's hands and feet.

Gerda's breath becomes an army of golden angel-warriors who utterly rout the snow-monsters.
Artwork by PJ Lynch
 Thus she is able to enter the palace of the Snow Queen, and through her love and "bitter, burning tears" she rescues Kay and redeems him, washing the splinter of glass from his heart and thawing the ice.

Kay and Gerda reunited.
Artwork by PJ Lynch

Together then, the quest achieved, they turn homewards through a "beautiful, warm summer". Gerda has grown in that she has endured hardship and terror, and realised her inner strength. Yet she has also retained her child-like simplicity and empathy. Thus she (and through her, Kay) are "grown up and yet children" at the conclusion of the tale.

It is interesting to compare Gerda's journey and development with that of male archetypal heroes in fairytales - those who begin their quest to gain some prize (a golden apple or a throne or a king's daughter) or to slay some enemy\; who overcome their opponents through force or cunning, and often with magical aid, and whose reward is inevitably personal power and a lovely maiden to wife. Gerda is full as heroic as these characters - yet in comparison her motivations are less selfish, her methods less confrontational and her triumph more personal. If only there were more fairytales with such strong and positive female protagonists!

Grown up and yet children...
Artwork by PJ Lynch

The Princess

The princess is a supplementary character who only appears in one of the chapters of the Snow Queen story - but she is nonetheless an admirable and inspirational female character, whose story hints at a much longer and grander untold narrative.

According to the Raven:

"In this kingdom in which we are now sitting, lives a Princess, who is so immoderately clever; but then she has read all the newspapers that are in the world, read and forgotten them again, so clever is she. Lately she was sitting on her throne, when she began to sing, and the theme of her song was "Why should I not marry?" "Well there is something in that, she said, and so she determined to get married; but she must have a husband who knew how to answer when spoken to, not one who could only stand there and look grand, for that is too stupid."

What a fantastic introduction to a character! And what a refreshing change from the fairytale standard of princesses being first and foremost beautiful! The Princess decides on her own that she wants to get married, and she then goes on to specify what kind of a husband she is looking for - one who is intelligent, unabashed by royalty, unafraid of her power and one who "feels at home' with her.

The Raven then goes on to describe the meeting of the princess and her husband-to-be:

"He was gay and well behaved, but had not come at all to pay court to the Princess, but only to hear how clever she was. He had every reason to be satisfied with her, and she no less so with him."

Again, what a refreshing subversion of the princess trope! The princess' chosen husband is bright-eyed and merry; a poorly dressed "little person" - a wanderer with creaking boots and a knapsack on his back. No dragonslayer he - but one who can match the princess' intellect, rather than impress her with feats of arms.
Gerda sees the princess sleeping in a bed like a great lily suspended from a golden branch...
Artwork by PJ Lynch

As well as being clever, the Princess is later shown to be generous and sympathetic, willing to help Gerda into her new golden carriage herself without formality. Though her part is small in the overall story, and she and the Prince go away to "live in foreign places", one feels sure that such a great character must be the heroine of her own legend.

The Robber Girl

This character is my favourite in the whole story! A spoilt and wilful child, "so wild and wicked nothing could be done with her" - the robber girl is a flawed yet extremely likeable character. The daughter of another strong (and terrifying) female character, the head of the robber-gang, the robber-girl shows herself capable of managing her mother (jumping on her back and biting her ear). Through her wild behaviour, she nevertheless saves Gerda from being killed by the robbers - instead saying "They shall not kill you, if even I am angry with you; I'll do it myself then." She keeps a hundred pigeons and a pet reindeer, and sleeps with a knife in her hand, for "one can never tell what may happen".

The robber girl sets Gerda and the reindeer free
Artwork by PJ Lynch
Despite her (apparent) selfishness and cruelty, the robber-girl is full of unashamed exuberence and honesty - and she responds with sympathy to Gerda's story. Here Hans Christian Anderson again hints at an untold story - the robber girl's "melancholy eyes" are at odds with her fierce and wild behaviour - and her sudden generosity towards Gerda and her freeing of the reindeer are both rather startling given her previous behaviour... That is - until the end of the story, where she reappears.

This was the robber girl with a red cap on her head, and pistols in her belt. She had had enough of home, and was now travelling towards the north to take another direction later, if that did not please her.
Artwork by PJ Lynch
The robber girl evidently had been dissatisfied by her life in the robbers' den, and so had struck out alone and independent, choosing limitless freedom over her pampered life as a robber. The reunion with Gerda occurs with "great rejoicing" - and the robber girl proceeds to question Kay as to whether he deserved all Gerda's efforts on his behalf. (A question I ask myself sometimes...)

After exchanging stories with Gerda, the robber girl promises to visit her if she should ever pass through the town - then - (and this ending always thrills me) - she rode on into the wide world.

That is the last we, as readers hear of her. But oh - how inspiring! How unlike any other female character from myth, legend or fairytale! The "happy ending" for the robber girl is complete freedom.

The Snow Queen

A more lovely and intelligent face he never saw... 
Art by PJ Lynch

Of course, the most mysterious and powerful force in the story is the ubiquitous Snow Queen. Her beguiling of little Kay sets the quest in motion - yet I never think of her as a villain, and she is certainly not evil. In fact, the only evil in the story comes from the splinter of mirror-glass in Kay's heart and eyes, which causes him to have a distorted view of the world, and that was created by a sorcerer many years before, who desired to warp all beauty and goodness in the world. The Snow Queen does not want that. In fact, we never quite know what her motivations are. She is inscrutable as a blizzard, and as capricious as a winter wind that whirls the snow in strange wild patterns. She paints frost-patterns on the windows of the town, and covers all she passes in a blanket of pure, cold white.

Some flakes of snow were falling, and one amongst them, the very largest, remained lying on the rim of the flower box. It increased more and more, till at last it became a woman, dressed in the finest white crape, as if formed by millions of star-like flakes. She was so beautiful - but of ice - dazzling, glistening ice; and yet she was alive, Her eyes sparkled like two bright stars, but they were restless and unsteady. She nodded toward the window and beckoned with her finger...

The Snow Queen casts her mantle over the town...
Artwork by PJ Lynch

Why does the Snow Queen steal little Kay? Perhaps it was a whim - a way for her to fill the "cold, empty splendour" of her palace. She is a being of vast intelligence, and she appreciates Kay's "good mind". And I always think there is something undeniably beautiful about what she gives to Kay - the chance to fly with her in a sleigh drawn by white birds "high, high onto the black cloud"; the ability to hear "old songs" in the voice of the howling wind, and a chance to travel "over forests and lakes, over seas and continents". And she lets him play "the ice game of understanding" on the "mirror of reason", without feeling cold.

The Snow Queen sits in state in her ice palace while Kay plays on the floor beside her
Art by PJ Lynch

No, I do not think the Snow Queen is a villain. In fact - she seems to be outside the moral concerns of mortal beings altogether. When Gerda rescues Kay, she is not even there - rather "peeping into the black cauldrons" of the volcanoes. The Snow Queen is not defeated, though Kay is freed - because the task she set him is complete - the formation of the word "Eternity" out of pieces of ice.

In fact, the more I think about it - perhaps it was best for Kay that the Snow Queen took him - and that it was her snow that froze his heart before the mirror-glass could wholly taint it.

The Strange Old Lady

The strange old lady combs Gerda's hair and feeds her cherries.
Artwork by PJ Lynch 
A very interesting and powerful female character is that of the old witch with the flowery hat and enchanted garden of eternal summer. She delays Gerda, and tries to keep her within her garden - but she is not a villain, nor evil - rather she is well meaning but selfish, wanting to keep Gerda for her own as she had wanted a little girl. She is never fully explained in this story - but I would surely love to know how she got her power, and why her flowers have such strange and beautiful "stories" to tell.

The Lapland Woman

The Lapland Woman cooks fish over an oil lamp
Artwork by PJ Lynch 
Although this character is unable to give Gerda the advice she needs (sending her along to her sister in Finland) - she is intriguing because she is clearly a wise-woman of repute (the Reindeer knows to go to her first) and also because she writes on a piece of dried fish!

The Finland Woman

She read it three times, when she knew it by heart, so put the fish in the soup-pot, for it was good to eat, and she never wasted anything.
Artwork by PJ Lynch
Wiser and more powerful than the Lapland woman, the Finland woman is so clever that she can "bind all the winds of the world together with one piece of string" and concoct potions that will give the drinker the strength of twelve men. In yet another subversion of fairytale stereotypes, this "wise woman" is little and dirty and dripping with sweat in her steaming hot house. Yet without being told she knows the details of Gerda's quest, the secret of the mirror-glass and the hidden strength within Gerda herself.

In conclusion - the Snow Queen offers a refreshing, fascinating and inspiring array of strong female characters that go beyond traditional fairytale roles. Some are heroic, others mysterious. None are stereotypical. Could this be the first true feminist fairytale?

The Snow Queen flies in her great white sleigh, while beneath "the cold wind whistles and the wolves howl..."
Artwork by PJ Lynch

Friday, 18 January 2013

Singing Into the Wind

I am the voice in the wind and the pouring rain... - Celtic Woman, The Voice 
What would the spirit of the wind look like to mortal eyes, I wonder? 
Wind is everywhere tonight. As cool relief after a parching hot day, we welcomed it into our house - flinging open windows and letting it sweep down the stairs and slam the doors like an exuberant and invisible guest. Its first approach was tentative and hesitant, but its forces increased and it became insistent and loud; rattling the windows - stronger and still more insistent as time passed. 

All day the weather had been extreme. The temperatures rose to a record 45.8 C and when the cool change arrived we blessed it. Yet as the winds increased in power the trees bent and strained, and the sea, which all day had been a smooth and brilliant sapphire, churned white and storm-cloud grey. As the yachts rocked wildly in clusters near the shore, their furled sails snapping and weights clanging against their masts, we were warned - "dangerous winds" were forecasted.

Cloud and tree and churning sea are but playthings and instruments of the wind... 
The guest had turned wild. The windows were firmly shut and bolted. Safe inside a solid house the members of my family relaxed - reading or playing according to their whims and natures. 

My nature drove me elsewhere.

I could not resist the call of the wind. Though barred from entering the house it sang and whistled all the louder, playing the branches of the tossing trees like a skilled and powerful bard. Suddenly I felt a great desire to join it.

I climbed the stairs to the top of the house, where a turret stands overlooking the city and the sea. Here I shut the door on domesticity behind me, and in darkness communed with my friend the wind, alone. It welcomed me out into its realm - singing to me of power and of freedom limitless. I planted my feet and flung out my arms to it, and it surrounded me, surging in currents and eddies like rapid river water around a rock. My skirts and sleeves rose and escaped my control, swirling in all directions, until I felt myself a being of flickering light and shadows; an elemental, kin to the wind, and a part of its song. 

For in simply being out in the night I became another instrument for the wind to play upon - and as I swayed before it I felt my sinews strum, and internally I vibrated to the terrible and beautiful chords. But I would not let myself simply be an instrument. I wanted to add my voice in harmony to the wind - to sing of themes that I felt. 

The song of the wind is ethereal and eldritch...
I sang the elf-songs Aniron and Elbereth - because at this time I felt a deep joy in the power and beauty of the world, and because I felt the ethereal language was suited to the profound and eldritch language of the wind. In a similar vein I sang Into the West - gazing across the sea beyond the sparkling city, toward the dark horizon, and I imagined the sailor Earendil  and Elwing journeying on waters stirred by this wind. Awe came upon me - at the power and the timelessness of wind/- and I became aware of its unending song that continues through the lives of small, audacious humans until the final consuming of the Earth in flame, when the sun expands, a fate billions of years hence... 

Though the storm is strong and vast and I am small - still I stand... 
Yet with my awe, and understanding of the immensity of the wind, came a surge of joy and fierce elation. I knew suddenly that while my life is small and frail beside the age and power of the wind - still I stood before it, and sang and added to it, and I felt wonderfully alive. Now I sang The Old Ways - of human connection with the elements through the passing of time. I stood over the city and felt like a sorceress - a goddess, with the city and the sea  and all the roiling air within the span of my arms. Finally I sang The Voice - my own voice swelling with the roar of the wind - and the words were of past and future, history and permanence. And with this last song I felt a great triumph - for I felt my voice had become a part of the immortal melody, and would be carried within it forever - and I was glad.

I am the voice in the wind and the pouring rain
I am the voice of your hunger and pain
I am the voice that always is calling you
I am the voice
I will remain
I am the voice of the past that will always be
I am the voice of your hunger and pain
I am the voice of the future
I am the voice
The pounding waves/ Are calling me home/ Home to you... - The Old Ways, Loreena McKennitt 

Monday, 14 January 2013

Laus Veneris - Burne-Jones and the Splendid States of Love

Her beds are full of perfume and sad sound,
Her doors are made with music, and barred round
With sighing and with laughter and with tears,
With tears whereby strong souls of men are bound. 

- Algernon Charles Swinbourne, Laus Veneris 
Laus Veneris (1873-75)
oil on canvas
Edward Burne-Jones
In this blog I have written a great deal about the strange and wonderful worlds found within books and movies; evoked by music or by poetry... This time I wish to journey within a land lit "by a light better than any light that ever shone - in a land no one can define or remember, only desire", that is, I wish to enter the personal, mythic and altogether splendid dream-world of Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian painter, and of all artists my best beloved. 

Burne-Jones' pictures are full of strange, fantastic beauty and seethe with emotions, expressed not in the faces, but the attitudes of the figures; and the symbolism and context of his paintings. Often the subject matter was drawn from myth or medieval romance, but the pictures always from his private inner world, wherein story, symbol and ideal combine with the artist's turbulent emotions to form highly complex pictures of depth and meaning as well as aesthetic loveliness.

Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus) is an exploration of love as a force through which the world, as perceived by the lover, is transmuted into something altogether grander and more vibrant (but potentially more desolate) than the world of the mundane. Yet through close examination of the painting, we discover that love itself is be something paradoxical - a force to be worshiped and feared, that can both transform and destroy; unite and divide.

Details from Laus Veneris (I - VI):

I. The Queen

II. The Musicians

III. The Impatient Musician

IV. She who looks without...

Looking at the painting is like looking into multiple worlds - and each is representative of one of the states of love. The queen and her attendants occupy the foreground, and flame in brilliant colours; garbed in robes as tinted bright and hot as the anticipation of passion. They exist in a state of heightened reality inspired by love, wherein the subject sees all things brighter and more vividly because of love. But the women are also in a state of unrelieved tension - though the queen reclines in a languid posture, her air is one of a lover frustrated by long waiting; her gaze is introspective and her mien dissatisfied. The queen's attendants are watchful and expectant, their instruments poised as though they had just left off playing, and even now await the signal to resume. The two nearest to the queen appear to be sharing a glance - perhaps one of sympathy for the queen, or sharing the grief of their own long waiting. One lady, directly opposite the queen and garbed in crimson, sits toying with her instrument, her hands betraying the impatience that her tranquil face belies. But it is the fourth of the ladies that holds our gaze - seemingly staring out of the canvas, straight into the viewer's eyes. Through her  eyes we are drawn into the painting - and she transcends it. The borders between the dream-world and reality waver - and in trying to solve the enigma in her stare, we become aware of the second, sorrowful state of love.

V. The Knights
For outside the beautiful, vivid room where the ladies sit lies a cold land - bare and bleak as love that is forsaken.  Here can be seen five restless knights on horses white as driven clouds of snow, or wild sea-foam. These knights, we assume, are the lovers of the ladies - but for some reason they cannot enter and though some look inside the warm room and seem to grieve, the women appear unaware of their presence. This puzzling state of affairs leads the viewer to look around the painting to find clues to solve the mystery - and we see that on the wall hangs a sumptuous tapestry, portraying Venus the goddess of love in a chariot drawn by doves and surrounded with worshipers who offer their hearts to her and  her flame-winged son.

VI. The Tapestry: the Chariot of Venus
Thus Burne-Jones represents the ideal of love - the grandeur of passion and the worship of love itself. This third state - the world-within-a-world of the tapestry, hung between the knights and the ladies - provides the clue for which we have been searching. Perhaps it is the worship of love itself that separates them. The ladies are enclosed in an ideal of love, which blinds them to their lonely knights outside, yet they can perceive our world, the world outside the realm of love. The knights are held without because they too worship the ideal, but one looks through the painting even as does the green lady, joined to her and us through a shared gaze. And perhaps through them we are also linked to Burne-Jones himself, for it was he who said:

"I've lived inside the pictures, and from within looked out on a world less real than they".

But of course, Burne-Jones would never reveal plainly the secrets of his dream world, for if he did he would lose the chief power of his work; its mystery. So the painting Laus Veneris is glorious and ambiguous, and open to many interpretations. At the end of the journey I are left wondering: perhaps this explains the title of the painting, Laus Veneris; that both the knights and ladies have given their hearts to Venus and hence have none to give each-other

Friday, 11 January 2013

"I'm Going on an Adventure!"

The world is not in your maps and books - it is out there... Gandalf, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I met Gandalf the other day, and he asked me to go on an adventure. And I said yes. Here’s how it came about.

I watched The Hobbit movie recently. Actually I saw it twice. It’s a beautiful movie, full of the magic and depth, great acting and integrity we’ve come to expect and love from Peter Jackson. As expected, it took me on an immersive journey through Tolkien’s marvellous world and filled me with many conflicting emotions. I felt joy, and a great wonder at the beautiful places I saw, and I was moved both to laughter and tears; heroic admiration and absolute loathing; pity and envy. But it was the envy that inspired a chain of thought that led to Gandalf knocking at my door.

It began with “Good morning!” As soon as Bilbo set his eyes on the wandering wizard I felt instant envy and exasperation. How on Middle Earth did Bilbo fail to recognise Gandalf as being somehow special? I think – my feelings not entirely rational, and surely clouded by my being privy, as someone familiar with the lore of Middle Earth, to the innumerable instances of Gandalf’s extraordinary nature… But anyway – such was my instinctive thought that it led to a fellow thought, as surely as Balin follows Dwalin. As soon as Gandalf spoke the words “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure,” this thought makes its presence known. Pick me! Pick me! I want an adventure! Why does Bilbo hesitate? Wait -what is he saying? “Nasty unpleasant things”? What a fool! Gandalf – leave that idiot and pick me! I would jump at the chance! And this feeling persists all through the Unexpected Party. I thrill at the unfurling of the map of Erebor, and share the dwarves’ enthusiasm for the quest. Although my rational mind understands Bilbo’s demurral, I can’t help but feel that were I given the same opportunity, Gandalf would not have to ask twice.

"...laceration, evisceration - incineration?!" 
Surely the longing for adventure is an integral part of humanity? Do we not all have a part of us that longs to escape the ordinary? In history I can find many examples – too many to list – of humanity’s audacity and the glorious results of their adventures. It was in the spirit of adventure that, thousands of years ago, people paddled in tiny coracles across vast and unmapped oceans to settle in the islands of Polynesia. It was in the spirit of adventure and discovery that the wonders of the natural world and science were revealed, that we discovered how to harness electricity – that we set foot on the Moon and plumbed the crushing depths of the sea. And in story, song and legend – the inspirational tales are always of adventures… of people who go beyond the average and who dare greatly and win glory.

I have grown up on tales of adventure. I hunger for it. I dream of heroism and of discovery. Surely therefore I would not hesitate, like Bilbo, to take the opportunity – I would never be left alone in a spotless house wondering what would have happened if I had gone with the Company to the Lonely Mountain! Or would I?
The Map of the Lonely Mountain

Suddenly I considered my life and reviewed it – were there any times that I could have gone on an adventure and chose the safe option? Were there opportunities that I let slip away because of laziness… or fear? In that moment I realised – that Gandalf appears in many guises and adventures take many forms. And he comes to all of us, and many times. And I realised that all the greatest experiences and achievements in my life so far have come when I have said “yes” to the offer of an adventure. The adventure could be starting a new creative project, learning a language, travelling, starting a new job, developing a personal relationship – anything that has the potential to lift life out of the ordinary. Each adventure comes with dangers and hardships to face – risks of failure and no promise of return.

Gandalf: You'll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.
Bilbo Baggins: Can you promise that I will come back?
Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same. 

What then is the reward of adventure? I think it is a new horizon, the satisfaction of striving and of testing yourself, of discovery and – perhaps – glory and renown. At the end. If you are lucky there might also be treasure. But most important is the moving and the personal growth. Bilbo discovers bravery and cleverness, resourcefulness and hardiness within himself, and a wanderlust – qualities that he would never have known if he had not stirred from his comfortable armchair. Adventures teach us to ignore and defeat doubt, and to step outside the comfort of our hobbit-hole and to move beyond the expectations of our peers - to discover the forests and mountains, the beauty of Rivendell and the splendour of the Eyrie; to face that which we fear and face ourselves.

This was the wisdom I learned from The Hobbit, and straightaway began an adventure – starting my own creative business. Who knows what I will discover, and how it will change me, and what new horizons I will see... 

I'm going on an adventure!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Music of Middle Earth (Part 1): Elves

The elvish folk were passing bowls from hand to hand and across the fires, and some were harping and many were singing.. Loud and clear and fair were those songs... - J R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Ever since rewatching The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit  I have been haunted by the images of elves and the beautiful world of Middle Earth, and I have been deliciously tormented by an incredible longing for this most beautiful of fantasy worlds. The feeling is akin to unrequited love - painful and sweet, and sorrowful - and yet life without it lacks a vibrancy and colour, and because of it, themes of music surround me and I thrill, rejoice and am sad...

For my re-awakened love of Middle Earth has inspired me to seek out the music of the Elves - and my virtual quest led me not just the music of the "Official Soundtrack" (which I already had), but the "Complete Recordings" - themes of music that pervade every second of the movies without always the viewer's conscious awareness, and which have such a great impact upon the "magic" of the world. 

And in Youtube I found themes that both satisfied my longing, and inflamed it. They now form a constant, repeating background melody in my mind; and are behind my every thought and movement. And though I speak and walk on Earth, my thoughts are filled with the music of the Quendi...

Furthermore, I discovered a wonderful website, A Magpie's Nest which contains a record and analysis of every single melody of the Lord of the Rings movies, whether it appears in the CDs or not, and lyrics to the songs also. And reading the lyrics I came to an even greater understanding of just how marvelous the  Lord of the Rings movies were - the incredible integrity connecting the music with the story, the world and the very words of Tolkien. For oft-times in the background to some scene there would be choral singing, and to the listener the words are incomprehensible, for they are in Sindarin or Quenya, the language of the elves. But the lyrics are taken from Tolkien's writing, and they are all significant, even if they are not understood. But they add integrity to the movie, and finding the lyrics was to me like discovering treasure...

Go forth friends, and journey with me through a landscape of magic evoked by the music of the Elves 

The Passing of the Elves (A Elbereth Gilthoniel)

This piece most perfectly expresses the sadness I feel - for it is the song of the elves as they pass from Middle Earth to Valinor, never to return. In it is the beauty and magic and mystery of the elves, and their voices are sorrowful for they love Middle Earth, and although they are leaving it for a land still more fair and deathless, they mourn as they depart. But their sorrow at leaving Middle Earth surely cannot be compared to our sorrow - for to me the thought of a world without elves is immeasurably sad (although the "Lingerers" supposedly remain, invisible as the muses of the arts, inspiring humankind to the creation of all beautiful things...)

The lyrics are from one of the many Elven hymns to Elbereth Gilthoniel, the Queen of the Valar and Starkindler as she was named, of all the Valar most beloved of Elves, for her stars were the first things that they saw when they awoke in Middle Earth. The hymn is sung in Sindarin.

Fanuilos heryn aglar
(Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!)
Rîn athar annún-aearath,
(O Queen beyond the Western Seas!)
Calad ammen i reniar
(O Light to us that wander there)
Mi 'aladhremmin ennorath!
(Amid the world of woven trees!)

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
(Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!)
I chîn a thûl lin míriel
(Clear are thy eyes and bright is breath,)
Fanuilos le linnathon
(Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee)
Ne ndor haer thar i aearon.
(In a far land beyond the Sea!)

A elin na gaim eglerib
(O Stars that in the Sunless Year)
Ned în ben-anor trerennin
(With shining hand by thee were sown,)
Si silivrin ne pherth 'waewib
(In windy fields now bright and clear)
Cenim lyth thílyn thuiennin.
(We see your silver blossom blown!)

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
(O Elbereth Gilthoniel!)
Men echenim sí derthiel
(We still remember, we who dwell)
Ne chaered hen nu 'aladhath
(In this far land beneath the trees,)
Ngilith or annún-aearath.
(Thy starlight on the Western Seas.)

Rivendell (Many Meetings) - Hymn to Elbereth

When I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring, that night I lay awake for hours with this theme resounding in my mind. It is the most recurring and recognisable Elven theme in the Lord of the Rings movies, and it returns in The Hobbit.

While the lyrics to the song are, like "The Passing of the Elves", taken from a hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel, this song has none of the former's sorrow, for it is not a lament, but full of deep joy and a worshiping of beauty.

Nef Elbereth Gilthoniel 
(O Elbereth Star-kindler) 
Silivren penna míriel 
(There slants down like shining jewels) 
Elbereth Gil...

Give up the Halfling

This piece of music is stirring and heroic, emphasising the courage inherent in the elves. Although I know some Tolkien purists disliked that in the Fellowship Arwen faces down the Black Riders, I personally always shiver with admiration and inspiration when she raises her sword and calls "If you want him, come and claim him!" then invokes the waters to gallop down and wash the enemies away.

The lyrics are in three languages, Sindarin, Adûnaic (the language of the Men of Numenor) and English.

The woman's voice sings from the Lay of Luthien Tinuviel, and her words are:

Tinuviel elvanui 
(Tinuuviel the elven-fair) 
Elleth alfirin 
(Immortal maiden)

The chanting of the Ringwraiths are:
Nêbâbîtham Magânanê
(We renounce our Maker)
Nêtabdam dâur-ad
(We cleave to the darkness)
Nêpâm nêd abârat-aglar
(We take unto ourselves the power and glory)
îdô Nidir nênâkham
(Behold! We are the Nine)
Bârî’n Katharâd
(Lords of Unending Life)

Then in English Arwen sings to Frodo:

What grace is given me
Let it pass into him
Let him be spared
Mighty Valar
Save him

Enya - Aniron

This is the most enchanting and ethereal love-song ever written, worthy of the tale of a love such as that of Arwen and Aragorn, immortal elf and mortal man. The lyrics are exquisite - and yet the "desire" for of Aragorn for Arwen Undomiel is like the impossible desire of a man for a star, so beautiful and out of reach. Well is she named "The Evenstar" - the star that shines like hope in the darkness of Aragorn's lonely road, a light beyond the fires of battle and above the evil and death - but, as he fears she could also represent the star that glimmers unobtainable above. Yet in this scene she gives him the Elfstone - her star-like pledge. Without her free choice, the man could never reach the star - but if she chose, she could give it to him. And so she does, forsaking of free will her immortality.

O môr henion i dhu: 
(From darkness I understand the night) 
Ely siriar, êl síla 
(dreams flow, a star shines.) 
Ai! Aníron Undómiel 
(Ah! I desire Evenstar.)

El eria e môr 
(Look! A star rises out of the darkness.) 
I 'lir en êl luitha 'uren 
(The song of the star enchants my heart). 
Ai! Aníron... 
(Ah! I desire...)

The Diminishment of the Elves (Gilraen's Memorial)

This song contains the theme of "The Diminishment of the Elves" (yet another Hymn to Elbereth sung sorrowfully), but also deals with the concept of destiny for Aragorn and Arwen. Gilraen was Aragorn's mother, and she named him "Estel" or Hope, after his father was killed and she feared that evil would take her son before he was grown. So the young Aragorn was raised in Rivendell, and there he fell in love with Arwen, Elrond's daughter. The first two verses of the song are heard when Aragorn kneels by the statue of his mother, and deal with her love and care and fear for her son, but as though the words were singing through his mind and in his memory (hence the male singer). The second and third verses are sung concurrently, by two different choirs, one continuing Gilraen's song and the other beginning "The Diminishment of the Elves" -  as if one choir sings of Aragorn's destiny as his "father's son" (the king of Gondor), and the other of Arwen's inevitable "diminishment" if she does not go to the West - the two fates that bode to promise hardship and sorrow on them both, and doom upon the union of elf and mortal man...

From the doleful vocals the instrumentals after the singing become hopeful, and eventually build to a glorious, confident and heroic theme - the binding of the Fellowship.

Estel (Hope.)   Le iôn adar lín (You are your father's son.) U iôn naneth lín  (Not your mother's child,) A ché neg a ion neg (Little boy, little one.)

 Tolo na rengyne thei lien (Come into my arms.Slaying demons in the shadows) Dan na si fuin  (Night is falling).

 ... ilos lelin na thon (...white, I sing to you) Nefaer sí nefaearon (Beyond the sea, here beyond the great sea.)
Aragorn at the memorial of Gilraen, his mother

Arwen's Song

Unusually for the Elven songs, this one is sung in English rather than Quenya or Sindarin, yet the melody is haunting and ethereal and very Elven sounding. Arwen sings this as Aragorn leaves her for Rohan, and she sings of the inevitability of his destiny, the approaching darkness; of her bleakness and loneliness, and the fading of the glory of the elves. For she cannot wait for him forever - she must go to Valinor or if she remains, the shadow of Mordor may kill her, unless Aragorn embraces his kingship.  But as yet he refuses to do so...

With a sigh you turn away
With a deepening heart
No more words to say
You will find that the world
Has changed forever
And the trees are now turning
From green to gold
And the sun is now fading
I wish I could hold you closer

Arwen's Fate (The Grace of the Valar)

This song is another Elven song of mortality - it is heard as Arwen revives Aragorn in the river, by the "grace of the Valar", but it warns of the inevitability of death for Men, reminding that though Aragorn's life can be spared by miraculous means once, his death is an inescapable doom, and the decision that Arwen must make is whether or not to share his doom. The song is sung in Sindarin.

Immen dúath caeda
(Shadow lies between us)
Sui tollech, tami gwannathach omen
(as you came, so you shall leave from us)
Lû ah alagos gwinnatha bain
(time and storm shall scatter all things)
Boe naer gwannathach, annant uich ben-estel
(Sorrowing you must go, and yet you are not without hope)
An uich gwennen na ringyrn e-mbar han
(For you are not bound to the circles of this world.)
Uich gwennen na 'wanath ah na dhín.
(You are not bound to loss and silence.)

Boe naid bain gwannathar, 
(All things must pass away) 
Boe cuil ban firitha. 
(All life is doomed to fade…)
Arwen revives Aragorn

The lyrics of the song are ambiguous - they could refer to Arwen's difficult choice (for she is not bound to mortality and has the chance to depart Middle Earth for Valinor), or it could refer to Illuvatar's "gift" of mortality to humanity- of the souls of Men being able to depart the world entirely and go beyond the Houses of Mandos (where the souls of elves go before being reborn), for places unknown.

This second meaning is supported by one of Tolkien's Appendices to the Lord of the Rings where Aragorn, after a long and happy life chooses to "give up his life" before he becomes a dotard and incapable. Arwen tries to persuade him not to do this, but he tells her that his time is come and that she should now leave him and go to the West.

"Nay, dear lord," she said, "that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear the hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.
"So it seems," he said. "But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!" 
Arwen at the deathbed of Aragorn

The Grace of Undomiel

This song is a foreboding - a revelation of what would follow should Arwen decide to leave for Valinor with the rest of the Elves;  the consequences of what thus "would never be" ; of her regret and pining, and her immortal life without Aragorn. In this scene, Arwen has a vision of the son she would have if she stayed, she suddenly realises that though her father's prophecy of her future desolation when Aragorn eventually succumbs to his mortality is true, the sorrow would be worth it if she had a love-filled life and a child. The music that stirs when she makes her momentous decision to turn back is spine-tingling and triumphant.

Ngîl cennin eriel vi aduial
(I saw a star rise high in the sky)
Glingant sui mîr
(It hung like a jewel)
Síliel mae.
(Softly shining.)
Ngîl cennin firiel vi aduial,
(I saw a star fade in the sky)
Dúr, dúr i fuin
(The dark was too deep and so light died)
Naenol mae.
(Softly pining)
An i ú nathant
(For what might have been)
An i naun ului
(For what never was)
A chuil, anann cuiannen
(For a life, long lived)
A meleth, perónen
(For a love half given)

Arwen's vision

Lament for Gandalf

In the moonlit, echoing forest the Elves of Lothlorien mourn the death of Gandalf, and in their lament call upon him by his older names, Olorin the maiar, and Mithrandir. The first verse is sung in Quenya, and the second in Sindarin - both Elven languages - a combination which implies a universal lament on behalf of all the Quendi, for the fallen Gandalf.

A Olórin i yáresse
(O Olórin whom in time past)
Mentaner i Númeherui
(The West-lords sent)
Tírien i Rómenori
(To guard the East-lands)
Maiaron i oiosaila
(Of Maiar, the Ever-wise)
Manan elye etevanne
(What drove you to leave)
Nórie i malanelye?
(That which you loved?

Mithrandir, Mithrandir!
A Randir Vithren!
(O Pilgrim Grey)
(You will not wander)
 amar galen
(the green earth)
I reniad lín ne môr, nuithannen
(Your journey in darkness, ended.)
In gwidh ristennin,
(The bonds cut,)
i fae narchannen
(the spirit rent)
I Lach Anor
(The Flame of Anor)
ed ardhon gwannen
(From earth departed)
Calad veleg, ethuiannen.
(A great light, blown out.)

And then the chorus deals with the passing of the elves... It is sung in Quenya.

Melmelma nóren sina
(Our love for this land)
Núra lá earo núri
(Is deeper than the deeps of the sea)
Ilfirin nairelma
(Our regret is undying)
Ar ullume nucuvalme
(Rather than submit)
Nauva i nauva.
(What should be shall be.)


The Host of the Eldar

This song appears as a herald of relief for the beleagured mortal forces of the Rohan, led by King Theoden, and as they march to honour the ancient allegience between human and elf, they chant powerfully of the fall of the forces of evil. Yet the second verse belies their confidence, and reveals their sacrifice, although the mortals do not understand their song (for it is in Quenya). The elves were not bound to help the Rohirrim, and they could have left for the Grey Havens and thus passed to safety without loss of life. As they are ageless, so their love for life increases - and their love for the land. Thus they fight, but their "regret is undying" for whether they die in battle or leave for the Grey Havens after victory, they must leave Middle Earth forever... This second verse is a repeat of the chorus of the "Lament for Gandalf", thus presaging sorrow and loss...

Man ammen toltha i dann hen morn  
(Who brings to us this token of darkness)  
Si dannatha  
(Will fall)

Melmemma nóren sina   
(Our love for this land)  
Núra lá earo  
(Is deeper than the deeps)  
Núr(i). Il(firin) nair(elma)  
(Of the sea. Our regret is undying)

The Elves at Helms Deep