Monday, May 23, 2011

Letter from a pagan place, by Kim Wilkins

One of the perks of being a writer is tax deductible field work. For the last three years, I have been working on a 140 000 word novel, the first in a series (I also published a novella in the series in 2010) that draws its inspiration from Anglo-Saxon English history, literature, and culture. The novel is historical fantasy, so as well as the facts about daily life, I have been gathering vast amounts of material about the pagan and magical beliefs of England. The story, whose working title is "The Garden of the Mad King", is set over one spring in the middle of the eighth century in an alternate version of England called Thyrsland. I've spent a lot of time in England during autumn and winter, but none at all in spring since I was a very young child. So I organised a quick research trip over Easter and May day, to soak up some of the feel of England as it bursts back to life after the long winter sleep. My goal was to seek out things that were earthy and pagan, places that were marked by what Jimmy Page once called "power, mystery, and the hammer of the gods".

My travelling companion and I drove into the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas on a warm spring afternoon. My feet were out the window of the car, sun on my soles, wind between my toes. It felt a suitably pagan way to start my research. Wildflowers bloomed everywhere. I soon learned all their names: meadowsweet and monkshood, cowslips and soapwort. The hawthorne hedges were covered in snowy flowers, and the chestnut trees were bristling with creamy catkins. The narrow B roads resembled tunnels of green: sycamore and ash and chestnut and oaks just budding. Cerne Abbas is probably best known for the giant chalk figure carved on the hillside above the village, with an enormous club and an enormous doodle at full tumescence. Some think he's a pagan fertility figure, some think he's a much more recent prank, but he certainly is impressive. I climbed to the top of the hill that he's carved on, and breathed in the incredible views of fields and woodlands. White fluffy seeds floated on the air, and bumble bees buzzed about. The next day I drove to nearby Glastonbury Tor and made the steep climb to the top.

The stories go that Glastonbury is Avalon: only a thin membrane separates the two. I lay in the sunshine for two hours seeing if I could feel the ancient hum of the magic that's supposed to be in the earth there. Another time I took a morning to make my way out to Breamore, to see the pre-conquest Saxon church there, and contemplate in awe the enormous ancient yew tree in the graveyard. I made daisy chains in the spring sunshine, walked through the woods on Beltane eve, and was woken on May day by a procession of Morris dancers that Herne the great hunter was leading down the street below my B&B window. My imagination was full of robins and blackbirds, horse gods and green men; my blood beat with the rhythm of the changing season. To be in England in spring is to understand how the numinous possibilities of magic, and the mundane realities of agriculture have always been understood together. I went through my manuscript and marked over one hundred annotations for the next draft so I can infuse it with that sweet ache of pagan woodlandsy magic. So when I'm longing to be back in the English springtime again, I can simply open up my story and be there once again. Only with swords and dragons.

Yew Tree

Kim Wilkins has published numerous novels of gothic, romance and YA fiction. She lectures at the University of Queensland.