“They are still after it. I don’t know who they are, except for the Rider and the Walker. I don’t know you either only I know you are against them. You and Mr. Dawson and John Wayland Smith.”
“Go on,” said the deep voice.
“Wayland?” Will said, perplexed, “That’s an odd name. That’s not part of John’s name. What made me say that?”
– The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.
So many emotions have been stirred up for me in the last few days, so much so that I have been finding it increasingly hard to write about. This post has taken two days to write and I have gone over literally hundreds of edits as I try to grapple with exactly what it is I want to say; I have so much to say …
All because The Dark is Rising reading group over on twitter has been discussing many of the things I have worked so hard to recognise and integrate into my life over the last twenty years. I spent that time reading everything I could get my hands on (and writing) about the power of words and language, the power of nature and our connection to the wild, the names and maps we follow throughout the land, British legends, folklore, storytelling and spells (esp. the magic of the spoken word). I have taken myself through Robert Macfarlane, David Abram, Martin Shaw, Robert Bringhurst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Sharon Blackie, Sylvia Lindstead, Robert Bly, Lorca, Nan Shepherd, Walt Whitman, Rebecca Solnit, Jay Griffiths, Richard Louv, Paul Kingsnorth, Ted Hughes, Alice Oswald, Robert Campbell and of course Susan Cooper, to name but a few. Similarly, I have taken myself over every nook and cranny, stream and ledge, wood and rock of this mountainous landscape I call my home and still, I keep wandering and wondering at it all.
Maybe it has become my life’s work.
All these authors, poets and thinkers; I reel them off as if they are a handful of sparkling jewels. They have become almost mythic in my mind’s eye, as if just to name them is to summon their powers, absorb them into my own DNA. They mean so much to me, as do the books they have written and to name them out loud is like an incantation. Yes, I have been thinking a lot about the power of naming; of giving voice to those people we hold in such awe.
And because of Susan Cooper, I have been thinking about one name in particular. That name: ‘Wayland’.
Will Stanton calls the man by his full name in the quotation above and he knows not where the name came from or why he said it. But I think I know why. Wayland was a Norse quasi-god and master blacksmith who was said to have forged Beowulf’s chain-mail shirt. He is associated with Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic burial site near to the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire and the legend goes that whoever leaves a unshod horse and a silver coin next to the tomb will return the next day to find the horse shod and the penny gone. Sounds familiar?
That name sent shock waves through me when I read it; the ‘knowing’ it evoked in me. For one thing, the name Wayland crops up in a book I recently read, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth; a post-apocalyptic novel set in 11th century England, where he features as the main character’s guiding inspiration in his fight against French oppressors (under the rule of William the Conqueror). Wayland was, in this instance, a shadowy partisan figure who had retreated into the woods of SE England, plotting to replace William ‘the Bastard’ with a rightful Anglo-Saxon ruler. And another thing; Wayland the Smith may have also been a prototype of the Robin Hood Legend; representing all those people repressed by the current regime, all those on the margins and the edges of life, all those resting, waiting to rise up and retake the land for themselves; Green Men, the last vestiges of wild Britain we have lost and yearn to return to.
So for me, the name Wayland has come to signify the hidden story of Britain, rather like an archaeological dig reveals layer upon layer of our own metaphysical explorations and although nowadays, we tend to rely on maps to orient ourselves upon the landscape, I feel that names of people and places such as Wayland, (or even Macfarlane or Hughes) can be the real key to understanding our history and divining our true place in it.
I am now reminded of the poem That the Science of Cartography is Limited by Eavan Bolan, in which the poet recounts in a fragment
–and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragments of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,
is what I wish to prove.
When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.
Look down you said: this was once a famine road.
I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in
1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.
Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still when I take down
the map of this island,
What things the land has seen, what sadness it has witnessed! All indigenous people understand the power of place names and the stories woven into their locations, be it the Songlines of aborigine Australia or the magical ley lines (old ways) of Britain, they all hold powers that we can connect with and need to rediscover if we are to fully ‘walk’ the land again.
I have been feeling a deep yearning for something very ancient whilst reading the Dark is Rising, just Will feels “a strange aching longing, a sense of something waiting far off, that [he] could not understand” not only because it had such an influence on me when I was young, not only because it takes me back to a time before mobile phones and emails (and constant connectivity and accountability) but also because it stirs up a most primitive feeling; the feeling of wanting to belong, of returning to that which is rightfully mine, of feeling the land under my feet and knowing it’s story. I yearn to discover more of this language, these places, this ancient knowing. And books such as those by the authors listed above and especially by Cooper herself, have become for me like a set of maps; a way I can delve into the unfolding layers of geography and myth and a way I can orient myself deeper within the psyche of Britain.
The Men of the Greenwood lie hidden; oppressed, banished, like the body of knowledge that also lies obscured in these books, there in plain view yet totally missed unless we use those names, those places as clues in the puzzle of mythic Britain. I remember the first time I heard Dr. Martin Shaw mention the word ‘chthonic’ – referring to something that inhabits the underworld and that is what I think we are dealing with here, so perfectly encapsulated in the world of fiction, especially children’s fiction, where inroads to the truth lie buried in every passing scene.
None of this has been lost on me – the irony of it I mean – as I myself am in fact, an exile in another land, moved to the mountains of France twelve years ago. I find I am able to only lightly skim the places here, named as they are in a foreign tongue I find hard to decipher, with histories I find hard to immerse myself in. No, I am not of this land for sure, although it holds me and I walk well upon it, there will always be a part of me that is Britain and Britain will always be inside of me. Perhaps it is because I am just too far invested in the myths of Wayland, Robin Hood, King Arthur to forget to rolling Wealds and downlands where I was born and lived my formative years and although I know that there are many equivalent French myths I can adopt as my own here, it will never be the same.
We are – all of us, no matter where we call home – no matter what ‘union’ we align ourselves with, still caught up in the age-old struggle to return to our roots, to our own land; to localise, to de-centralize, to fight the ‘oppressors’. We can make a movement towards re-rooting, re-finding, re-membering, re-claiming our stories for ourselves through reading these kind of deep and ancient books, by which we re-discover our ancestors, re-trace the Pathways of Old. Those paths come to unearth our real histories and although my thoughts are a little muddled today as I get ready to return to the book I loved so much as a child, I know in my heart that I am going in the right direction.