Monday, 8 February 2016

Setting: The Perilous Realm

"Don't you see yon bonny, bonny road
That lies across the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elf-land
Where thou and I this night maun gae"
Thomas the Rhymer, traditional.

Having introduced trolls and shape-shifted humans into the story it seemed to be no great leap to introduce elves. My elves are neither the whimsical creatures of Victorian nursery tales, nor are they the noble, sometimes comical and yet slightly distant beings of Tolkein's Middle Earth and subsequently of much of modern heroic fantasy. I think they are closest to Alan Garner's Lios Alfar, which are drawn from Scandinavian sources and are very distant from humans, who they despise because of pollution. But I too have looked back at the traditions and have drawn my own conclusions.

There are not a great many sources that have much to say about the elves of Anglo-Saxon myth. The poem Beowulf lumps them together with devils and monsters in one line, which does not speak well of the way in which they are seen. The same fear and repugnance can be seen in the semi-magical remedies of Bald's Leechcraft, which includes a spell against Elf-shot, which seems to represent any illness in humans or livestock which strikes out of nowhere rather than a specific malady. Elves were thus seen as being creatures who were pitiless, spreading illness and misfortune. Bertred voices his repugnance the most when they are confronted by Gamol in the hills south of Jeddart. His brothers share the same culture (more or less) but it seems that it is Bert who speaks for them, being very careful with his words, and being incredibly polite, using formal language and nice titles for the other-worldly being.

Gamol is a high elf, lordly and well versed in magic, able to see things from afar, aware of the plight of the brothers, but most importantly only distantly relating to it emotionally. The affairs of men are of little consequence, but his curiosity is piqued and he furthermore has been troubled by some riddles that he has collected - presumably in other moments where his ennui has been overcome by the lure of the interesting. He has no desire to harm the brothers, but nor is he interested in helping them. Indeed, although he offers to give them some help if they can explain his riddles, he also threatens to make things very bad for them if they do not.

I did not want to have the elves to be particularly understandable, nor the land in which they live. Mist seems to have a connection with entering their world, but later in the book a rather minor elf makes his appearance and it seems that he is wholly in the real world; he even has a little local knowledge. When Frith asks his brothers what an elf is after meeting Gamol, they do not give an answer, although Edgar gives a guess. Edgar's guess is derived from the story of the Voyage of St Brendan, where at one point the saint encounters islands of birds who had been among those angels who neither rebelled against God with Lucifer, not aided the loyal angelic host in their struggle against the upstart. When Frith turns the question to the nature of the old gods followed by the Anglo-Saxons, Edgar becomes more defensive and the speculation ends. Edgar is the one who is most close to an understanding of Christianity, having been partly raised by Bishop Paulinus, yet he still does not understand Christianity, he just likes the stories.

Unlike Trolldom, which has a real presence in the world according to the book, Elfland is definitely Other, although it lies closer to the real world at some places than others. Although Gamol's Path is marked on the map, his hall is not. The lines quoted above suggest that the road to Elf-land can be discovered (it is revealed along with a road to Heaven and a road to Hell). Tam Lin is found by Janet at Cartershaugh, Thomas the Rhymer encounters his elven queen near Erceldoune.

So those are my elves: not quite as evil as the Anglo-Saxons seem to have seen them, yet not creatures of nobility and goodness either. They are alien and the concerns of their perilous realm of Elfland eclipse their occasional passing interest in the mortal world. If it suits them they can be helpful to mortals, but they would be just as happy to harm or hinder them. Potentially the equal of angels, they have no joy, no real purpose and the hint of an alliance with, or being in thrall to the lord of Hell. Gamol makes a passing reference to the Teind. This is a feature of Borders' lore that is seen in both Thomas the Rhymer and more urgently in Tam Lin. Both of these characters are enticed into Elfland and they seem to prosper there, but whereas the fairy queen seems to want to protect True Thomas, poor Tam Lin needs the intercession of his mortal lover Janet to save him. The Teind (another word for a tithe) is exacted upon the elves by the devil. They are allowed to make up the numbers with trapped humans - either enticed in as adults like Thomas or exchanged in the cradle for a fairy child (a changeling). If there are not enough humans to fill the Teind then they seem to have to offer up some of their own folk instead. It would seem that the changeling, although it meant the temporary loss of a child, was preferable to them to the permanent loss of the same child in this way.

There are some interesting Northumberland tales of elves who are very unlike the fairy elves of Victorian stories. These elves are fierce, being roused to chase a lad who rides his horse three times widdershins (anticlockwise) around a quarry which they have made their home; they are caring, leaving a child with a poor farmer with instructions to anoint his eyes daily from a pot of eye ointment - which of course he uses on himself to his detriment; they are cruel but loving of games, carrying away children which have to be ransomed back with gifts that are the answers to riddles. These fierce and cruel - yet occasionally noble - creatures are all additional sources of inspiration for the elves that you meet in the Adventures of the Billy Goats Gruff.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Views across Northumberland

In the Adventures of the Billy Goats Gruff I have often dwelt on views, particularly of distant hills. When I have thought about the boys next steps, there has always been one hill in view on their return journey; the Cheviot.
It is an odd feature of the landscape, visible from many places as a distant hump, but as often concealed from view by folds of the land or, as today, by the weather. 
I am sitting in a play park in Prudhoe with an expansive view northwards. There is the sweep of the Tyne Valley towards Hexham to the west and Newcastle upon Tyne in the east. There is the ridge of high ground which separates the Tyne from the other river basins of East Northumberland and also marks the route of General Wade's military road and, of course, Hadrian's Wall. Opposite Prudhoe there is Harlow Hill, a minor hill by most standards, but distinctive. Eastwards is Heddon on the Wall, another notable rise on the ridge, while in the distance westwards the ridge continues into the hazy distance where it forms the southern boundary of the wild lands of western Northumberland - that is Trolldom.
At the edge of sight today there is a further ridge, though I am not sure what they represent - probably the watershed of the Blyth/Wansbeck basin. On clear days the next line of hills would be the Simonsides, a line of northward facing sandstone escarpments south of Rothbury and beyond them the Cheviots, of which only two hills are visible clearly; The Cheviot and Hedgehope Law.
Beyond the Cheviot lies the Till Basin, the ancient land of Din Guaire which was the home of the Grufflings long ago. The Cheviot, glimpsed from afar by the brothers, will call them home.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Goodreads Author

I have at last re-established the fact that I am the author of The Adventures of the Billy Goats Gruff. I was listed as the author for quite a while, but I think when Amazon bought it up, they must have killed the link. It is a simple enough process, and I should really have got round to doing it ages ago, but you know how you look at a set of instructions on how to do something and then you think that it would probably be easier to do something else completely different.

Now that I know what to do, do you think I should claim to write under the pseudonym of J.R.R. Tolkien as well? These things are moderated, so I'm sure that someone might notice.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Paper book availability.

Well, I guess it was inevitable in the current book market that my little book should founder a little in the sea of literature, which is becoming a scene with almost as many contributors as there are consumers. I have been informed that last year I sold less than a hundred copies, and so it will only be available in print for a short time longer. If you have been putting off getting a copy, I strongly recommend that you do so now, and if nothing else, you will be getting your hands on a rarity!

What am I doing about this? Well, I am talking to you, for a start, and more importantly I am doing a quick second edition. Mostly this means having another look at the syntax, having read the book out loud for the first time recently, but I have also picked up a few errors such as referring to Eadmund as Eadwine on several occasions, which I noted has confused one reviewer!

The new edition will be out on Kindle in the near future, and I will of course keep everyone up to date with news here.

P.S.Ласкаво просимо всім моїм шанувальникам в Україні, мені шкода, що я можу використовувати тільки Google Translate би подякувати вам за ваше регулярних відвідувань. Я сподіваюся, що вам сподобалося дізнавшись про "Пригоди козлів Графф". Так благословить вас Бог!
Якщо це нічого не значить для вас, або що ми називаємо по-англійськи "Gobbledegook", будь ласка, коментувати, але майте на увазі, що якщо ви відповідаєте українською, мені доведеться використовувати Google Translate, щоб зрозуміти його, так що відповіді англійською мовою буде оцінили!

Friday, 21 June 2013


Well, that's half of the summer gone, we are at the mid point, so now we can look forward to the nights closing in, the days getting shorter.

Remember the Words of House Stark ...

You have to admire George R Martin for coming up with such a catchy and easily parodied hook for his books. Every time someone Tweets or puts on Facebook, some comment about it soon being cardigan weather, they are advertising the Song of Ice and Fire series, even if they are thinking more of the Game of Thrones TV series. Either way, it's good money coming in to the author.

I'm sure he didn't imagine that these Words would have the impact they have, I would see it as being more of a reflection of the position of House Stark, that in a world where the seasons are unpredictable, it is the ones in the north who will need to remember winter the most through the long summers, for it will hit them hardest when it returns, with or without the White Walkers.

Living in Newcastle upon Tyne, I have often wondered on the use by the TV series of the Yorkshire dialect for the Starks and their allies. I approve, by the way, but it does then rather beg the question ... does that mean that Geordies are the Night's Watch? After all we are far to the north of the "Northerners" and we have a wall running through our fair city. By extension, north of the Wall there are the wildlings of Northumberland  and the Borders, and of course the White Walkers must have Scottish accents.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Sighs: an exhalation of breath or a sign of emotional turmoil?


"What's the matter?"

"Nothing, why?" 

"Ah, well, you just gave a big sigh, that's all." 

 I don't know how many of you are familiar with that little scenario, but I get it all of the time from my wife, in some permutation or other. I really think it is a gender thing, possibly the root cause of so much misunderstanding between the sexes. Obviously I cannot speak for all Malekind, but to me a sigh is just a large exhalation of breath about 80% of the time. Possibly more. Only rarely will I sigh because I feel I am sad or exasperated or whatever other feeling could be expressed by a sigh. I am far more likely to be sighing because I have been breathing shallowly and feel the need for a good oxygenating breath. Or I might sit down suddenly and exhale sharply from the change in position. 

I think that to a woman, a sigh is one of a collection of non verbal modes of communication that they employ consciously to express dissatisfaction, a sense of hopelessness, or just as a way of eliciting an emotional response from their audience, e.g. the above "What's the matter?" If that audience is another woman, fair enough. The response will probably be uttered, and the woman can either make a dramatic denial of there being anything wrong (and thus confirming that there is) or she can pour her heart out to her confidante. If the audience is a man, there is a high chance that the sigh will be misinterpreted as a needful exhalation of breath. 

Some men are naturally more attuned to sighs than others and some men learn to invest time and effort into listening for these verbal clues - especially early in a relationship, when failure to interpret a sigh at a critical juncture can result in withdrawal of privileges, possibly on a permanent basis. Failure to pick up on a well placed sigh has its own set of feedbacks in the female mind, not least of which is a feeling that there is a deliberate refusal to pick up on such an obvious message, such as the "We have been at this party far too long, they are all your friends, the music is rubbish and the food is worse, so make our excuses and let's get out of here." You have to admit that is a lot of message to fit into a simple exhalation of breath.

I think we are back full circle to the female misinterpretation of the sudden exhalation of breath. Here is where the really fertile ground for misunderstanding lies. As the female mind is more sigh conscious, the response at the top is wide open to misinterpretation. Firstly, the denial is in fact an admission that something is wrong and therefore the cue for further investigation, which leads to increasingly vehement denials from the male, who has in fact just made the mistake of breathing out a little too forcefully. The terrain gets worse if the sigh occurs during, or immediately after a conversation. This can mean that the male disapproves of whatever the female said or subsequently did and this is therefore a followed by a more intense cross examination of the hapless and increasingly bewildered male. 

 At this point the male may sigh again. This time it probably does represent an expression of emotion or exasperation.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

A little bit of self-promotion

I've just joined The Independent Author Network. You can see my page at It would seem that in order to succeed as an author, you have to spend more time trawling the internet for new ways to flag the interest of new readers than you do writing. There are any number of platforms out there that I have yet to get to grips with; Tumblr,  Pinterest, Stumbleupon, etc. I see that Reddit has survived from quite a way back, but I'm sure that there used to be a load of other services like it that have gone the way of the dodo. Ah well, it is a fast changing world online. Anyone been on Friends Reunited recently?