The Koldun’s Daughter

Today, I am posting something different: an enigmatic short story which appears in my novel, Trinity: The False Prince(Pan Macmillan, 2015). The Koldun’s Daughter is a story-within-a-story, supposedly  written by ‘A.I.Denisov’ an aspiring writer who had been killed many years before, and whose death is one of the mysteries investigated by my character, ex-policeman Maxim. I wrote it like a fairytale, against what appears to be a timeless background but which in fact subtly gestures to the very early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. It functions in my novel as both a real clue and a red herring, but it also works quite well as a story in its own right, so I thought readers might enjoy it as is!

And of course, if it whets your appetite for the novel itself, and its predecessor, that’s a bonus 🙂

(A ‘koldun’ by the way, is traditionally in Russia a sorcerer, or male witch. You can read a bit about the background to that here.)

The Koldun’s Daughter

There was once a young woman named Nadia who lived alone in a small cottage in a deep forest. The forest had been her home for as long as she could remember, though she had not been born there. Nadia’s mother had brought her there when she was just a baby, for safety.

Nadia’s father had died even before she was born. She did not know his name, for her mother said it was too dangerous to say it, but she knew he had been a famous koldun. ‘He was a great and kind man but he had deadly enemies,’ her mother said, ‘and the worst of them all was Lord Winter, who had vowed to destroy him.’

Even though the girl had never seen her father or known his name, she always felt close to him. Her mother had brought with her from that other place, far away, a small leather bag, finely tooled.

In it was a tooth, and a piece of bone, and a fragment of a wooden cross. They had all once belonged to the koldun. Nadia’s mother herself had gathered the relics one terrible night, when Lord Winter and his men had finally hunted down Nadia’s father, killed him, and burned his body to ashes. ‘They thought they would destroy his very soul,’ said her mother. ‘But it lives on in us, and especially in you. Never forget that, Nadia.’

The leather bag with its precious relics was kept in a metal box, buried near an old rose bush that grew at the cottage door, for the koldun had loved roses. In that special spot were also placed other things, such as birds’ eggs, and feathers, and the bones of certain animals, for extra protection. Nadia would sit there often, by the rose bush, and the spirit of her father, the great koldun, was with her then, by her side.

The koldun’s greatest gifts had been in healing and prophecy, and the girl’s gifts were close to that. She could heal a sore just by touching it, and her skills at bone-setting were second to none, as she showed by her work on injured birds and animals of the forest. But despite this she was not really a healer, and her path did not lie in prophecy either, though she sometimes caught flashes of things happening in the wide world beyond, things she could not really understand, for she had only ever lived in the forest. But her mother knew what it meant, and it made her believe even more that they must never leave the forest, for terrible things were happening in the world, and rivers of blood swept through the land. The koldun had predicted it all, she told Nadia, and it was all coming to pass, just as he’d said.

Nadia only saw those flashes because of her own special gift. Mostly, she heard those whose tongues were silent; she saw those whose presences were fleeting. In short, she saw and heard the dead. And so she never felt lonely, in that quiet place. It was not only her father whose presence she knew, but other people, who had once lived in that cottage, and in the great forest beyond. But Nadia did not just know human phantoms; she could also sense the long-gone animal ghosts of the forest, and the animals who lived there now sensed that too, so she could walk unmolested among wolves and bears as easily as among deer and rabbits.

Though her mother often spoke of the koldun, she never spoke of her own past, at least not the past before she had met Nadia’s father. ‘My true life began that day,’ she said. She had fallen in love and left her parents, her prospects, everything to follow the koldun. But their joy had not lasted long, for only a few short weeks after, he was dead. And Nadia’s mother, carrying Nadia in her belly, had fled far from her old home and come to the forest, for she knew that otherwise the koldun’s enemies would hunt them down too. She had come on the cottage, not long empty, and in that place had made a cozy home for herself and her child, trapping small animals, growing vegetables, gathering wood, cooking good food and teaching her daughter many beautiful songs, for music was Nadia’s mother’s special gift. And there they had stayed for sixteen long years.

But then one morning, not long before Nadia’s sixteenth birthday, her mother did not wake up. Her heart had suddenly given out in the night and she had gone to rejoin her beloved koldun. Nadia was now all alone. She buried her mother close to the rose bush and tried to live as before. It was what her mother wanted, she knew that, because she could see and hear her mother now in the ghost-world, just as with the others.

And for a time she managed it. She was a strong and clever girl, and a good hunter. She knew all the ways of the forest and to her it was like a larder might be to a city girl. And she still had the company of her ghosts.

But after a time, strange dreams began to come to her. Dreams filled with new things, new people, new places. And in many of them, the same two figures appeared. Two young men. One, a soldier called Philip. The other, a painter named Yannik. These names were strange to Nadia, and she did not know where they had come from, she only knew the names were on her lips when she awoke. Both young men were handsome, each in his own way – Philip dark and delicate of feature, Yannik blond and strong of face. In each dream, Nadia’s name was called by one or other of them, but while Philip called to her in a voice soft as sorrow, Yannik’s voice was a summons like the ringing of a bell.

Presently Nadia began to feel that these men were not just in her dreams but were real people, somewhere. It was not just in her own mind she thought this; her father the great koldun told her so. She who heard the voices of the dead was now hearing also the voices of her future, his spirit whispered to her, and she must answer those voices before it was too late. So the day of her seventeenth birthday, she made ready to leave the place that had been her home for as long as she could remember. She packed food and clothes and her old hunting rifle. She dug under the rose bush and took out the box. Gently removing the leather bag containing the precious relics, she wrapped it in soft cloth and placed it in her bodice, next to her heart. Around her neck she slipped the only thing her mother had kept from her old life: a small enamel locket, with a miniature painting of a house in its heart. And so Nadia’s mother and father would stay close and travel with her, wherever she went. She would never be alone in the big world beyond.

Before she left, she said goodbye to all the ghosts of the forest, and blessed their memory. She did not know if she would be back. She did not know what the future might hold. That was not her particular gift. She only knew that she must go on this path.

Leaving the cottage behind her, she walked and walked. After two days, she came to another lonely cottage and there met an old hunter who lived there with only his equally old dog for company. The hunter gave her some more food and told her that she should not try and leave the forest, for he had heard that many bad things were going on in the world outside. But Nadia did not trust the old hunter; there was a look in his eye that reminded her of an outcast lone wolf. Such creatures could be dangerous. So she bade a polite good day to him and kept on her way.

She passed a few more cottages on her way, but none of them had people in them. At last, three days later, Nadia emerged from the forest into a large village. The people who lived there were not a friendly lot, and neither were the ghosts who clustered around the living like sticky shadows. At first, the villagers would not answer Nadia’s questions about where she might find a soldier called Philip or a painter named Yannik; indeed, they looked at her as though she was mad. They were pinched-faced people with eyes that seemed made of stone and mouths of cold steel. But Nadia was not put off – she could sense the fear in them, and the pain, and she knew that they did not really wish her harm. She had no idea about money because she had never seen any but she knew that people might expect something for their answers. So she thought they might like a song in exchange; but when she started singing, their eyes grew round as the full moon and the fear was in them worse than before. ‘You must not sing such songs, someone might hear you,’ one of them whispered, at last.

‘You had better leave,’ added a woman, ‘or you will bring misfortune on us.’

And then a third person, a young boy, said, ‘We should tell him, we should, you know that!’

Nadia did not know who ‘him’ was but from the expressions on their faces, she knew she probably did not want to find out. So she took to her heels and fled from that mad village and she did not stop till she had left it far, far behind. She did not understand what she had seen and heard and for once her ghosts were not of use to her. Even her father, the koldun, did not speak or make himself known in any way, and the leather bag which contained his precious relics felt cold against her breast, as did her mother’s medal locket.

But as she went along the road that led far away from the village, a little cat came out of the bushes and joined her. At first, she did not take much notice of it, for it slipped like grey smoke in and out of the shadows behind her. But then she turned around and looked at it and the cat looked back. As their eyes met, she began to see them, all around them. Ghosts and more ghosts, more than she’d thought might exist in the whole world. They were streaming past her with their eyes vague and their mouths open, but they did not speak and neither did they look at her. It was as though she were the ghost, and not they. And she knew then that the cat had been sent to show her. Sent to her by the koldun, her father.

She whispered kind words to the cat, and it came fearlessly to her and weaved around her legs. She said to it, ‘Show me the way,’ and it did, stalking in front of her with its tail in the air. So on they went and on until they reached a town. To Nadia’s eyes, it seemed huge, though in truth it was just a small town, bigger than the village, but not by much. But that was not what struck her most. For in that town was a place that Nadia recognized from a story told by her mother. ‘It’s a citadel,’ she told the cat, ‘where great men lived a long time ago, and it is surely a sign, like you.’

The walls of this citadel were white, its domes were silver and in one tower there was a large bell. As Nadia and the cat came closer, the bell began to toll, and at once she thought she heard, in the sound of the bell, the voice of Yannik, the golden-haired man from her dream. ‘He is there, he and Philip,’ she told herself, and marched on.

They came to a stone archway, alive with figures that loomed like golden shadows beneath a veil of new white paint. Another eye but Nadia’s would not have seen the figures beneath the white paint, but her gift was to see ghosts, even those of hidden art. Standing in the archway were two men that she knew at once were like the old hunter, only worse, much worse, for around them swirled black-clad ghosts in long robes, weeping tears of blood. These guards had big moustaches and ugly uniforms and large rifles in their hands. They did not look at all welcoming. But she would not turn back, not now. Her father’s relics against her breast were warm again, the cat was at her heels like grey smoke, and she knew she was in the right place.

She had to find a way to get past the men at the gates. And she could not ask the ghosts to help. Not the ghosts of the people anyway, for the old world that they had lived in before they’d been killed was gone, and fear and confusion had trapped them in a place of endless mourning so they could neither hear nor see her. But the cat whispered in her mind that the animal ghosts were a different matter. They sensed her, as did the living ones, and it was them she called to distract the guards so she might slip through.

So that is what she did, and in through the gates she went then, with the cat still at her heels, while the guards, their attention taken by the sudden howl of a wolf, seemingly close by, and the skittering of dozens of small feet, seemingly all around them, swung wildly here and there, trying to get a fix on the sudden invasion of unseen animals. Later, they would tell each other, fearfully, that they had heard and seen nothing, and would never speak of it to any other living soul.

Nadia ran through the courtyard beyond the gate, heading for the most magnificent building she could see, with shining silver domes against the blue, blue sky. All around, she could see signs of devastation; barns with doors ripped open; great gouges in the earth; meadows strewn with bits of cloth and fragments of stone. Still she ran, till she came at last to what had once been a garden, now overgrown with weeds. In the midst of this wilderness was a man standing at an easel, and the sunlight glinted on his hair, which was golden as straw. ‘Yannik!’ called out Nadia, and the man turned and looked at her. His eyes were blue-grey, soft as mist.

But before he could say anything, another man came walking across the garden. Though he was tall, and dressed like an officer, with a peaked cap, his features were delicate under jet-black hair, and Nadia knew him at once, too. ‘Philip!’ she cried, and he stopped, and looked at her with eyes as blue-green as the sea.

Faintly, she heard her father’s ghost, saying in her heart, ‘It is as it should be, my daughter, and soon you will be with child. A great koldun, that child will become.’ But he did not say which man to choose, which would be the father. She looked for the cat, but it had vanished as suddenly as it had come.

Yet now she found she could look at the two men with the eyes of her gift, and she called out the ghosts from their pasts. And then she knew, and came towards them, smiling. ‘I am the koldun’s daughter,’ she said, ‘and I have come from the past so the future may live.’

Copyright Sophie Masson

 

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Pitch Independent a fantastic success!

As one of the three co-ordinators for the New England Writers’ Centre’s big Pitch Independent program, I am happy to report that it was a brilliant success! The prep day two weeks ago went really well, with lots of people getting advice and practising their pitches in front of local publishing professionals. And last weekend, we hosted a fantastic lineup of some of Australia’s best small and independent book publishers and literary magazine editors, who participated in a lively and engaging symposium, heard lots of one-on-one pitches from writers in all genres as well as illustrators, and generally gave generously, and warmly, of their time, knowledge and expertise.

It was an inspiring, creative and fun weekend, and we are so grateful to all who participated–publishers, editors, pitchers, presenters, attendees, and University of New England staff and students. All of our participating publishers and editors came from a long way away, in some cases a very long way, from Western Australia, South Australia, and Victoria as well as various locations in NSW, and we are so very appreciative that they were willing to travel to our region. Thanks very much to all the people who supported Pitch Independent by attending the symposium, and/or pitching their work–we know it takes courage and we salute you for it, hope you felt encouraged, and wish you the very best for your work, whatever the outcome of your pitch. Big thanks goes to UNE for their generous and major support of the event, financially, promotionally and with venues; to the Small Press Network for its kind support and encouragement–and to SPN Chair Michael Webster for making the long trek from Melbourne to speak at the Symposium–and to the Armidale Bowling Club for sponsoring the great  venue for Saturday’s big pitch day. And of course huge thanks to the New England Writers’ Centre and all my fellow Board members who supported the creation of this event in so many ways. And to my fellow co-ordinators, John C.Ryan and Catherine Wright–hurrah! We made it! And it worked so well, worth all the hard work and all that midnight oil we burned 🙂

Pitch Independent was a unique event–nothing like it, with its focus on bringing creators and small and independent press and literary magazines together–has ever, to or knowledge, been held in Australia before. And the response has been amazing, from all, publishers, editors, pitchers, and attendees alike. It was a massive amount of work, but I am so proud to have been involved in initiating an event that we think people will be speaking about for a long time, and which will have a significant impact. We intend to continue building on the fantastic momentum created by Pitch Independent–watch this space!

Such fun in poetry creation workshops for children!

Recently I ran two poetry workshops for children 6-12 years old in my hometown public library. They were sequential workshops: in the first one, I talked about writing poetry, based on the gorgeous book A Boat of Stars, in which I have 7 poems–and talked about how  ideas from poetry can come from anywhere, then we orally created a (rather silly!) poem together, and then everyone chose their own subject and wrote their own poem. In the second workshop, I talked about how you can illustrate and decorate a poem to create an artwork out of it in all kinds of ways(again, that was inspired by A Boat of Stars!) And then the kids set to and created their own poem artwork, based on the poem they had written the previous week. The library had provided lots of coloured pencils and pens, stickers, magazine pictures to cut out, coloured shapes and paper and more. Everyone had a lot of fun and there were some amazing creations–have a look at the photo gallery!

 

 

Becoming a writer: three mini-essays

Today, I’m republishing three mini-essays which give glimpses into how I became a writer–a process that I was hardly aware of as a young person and which even now still seems mysterious, in the big picture sense anyway. It’s only in these little glimpses that you begin to get a feel for it–at least, that’s so for me. Hope you enjoy!

In Sydney, aged about 7 (in front, on the left, with long hair: sister Beatrice next to me and Dad behind us.)

Becoming a writer: three mini-essays by Sophie Masson

One: ‘Write about what you know’

As an eager scribbling kid, being given that classic bit of advice,  ‘write about what you know’,  I felt like this was one of those rules that adults invent to keep children in their place. I certainly didn’t want to write about school and squabbles with brothers and sisters and trying to avoid parents’ washing-up rosters. I didn’t even want to write about flying across the world to visit our family back in Europe; didn’t want to write about family secrets. Nobody else would be interested, I figured. Heck, I wasn’t interested myself. I wanted to write about princesses and curses, criminal masterminds and dashing young musketeers, magic wands and priceless jewels handed down through royal generations. I wanted to write about the world in my head, the enchanted, exciting world of my voracious reading,  that made dull routine disappear and the limitations of being a child vanish in a puff of fairy dust.

So I did just that. I ignored the advice, and my writing went at its own pace and my writing worlds passed through childhood fairyland and adventure to teenage love tragedy and myth, hoovering up every influence going, from Russian novels to Tintin, Celtic love poetry to Norse saga,. Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, Moomintroll to Bilbo Baggins, The Affair of the Diamond Necklace to Great Expectations, along with just about everything else I could pick up as I wrote reams of poetry, short stories, comics, songs, and embarked finally at the age of 17 on a major undertaking—a huge fantasy novel which would take in as many of the world’s mythologies as possible, and feature characters who came from the four corners of the world. I filled two exercise books and then ran dry unable to finish,but nothing daunted went on with many more, and at last finished one. And then two. And then three, and finally I was taking the plunge and sending my darlings out into the wild seas of publishing, trying to find safe harbour..which eventually appeared on the horizon.

But this is really about the gradual realisation over the years that ‘write about what you know’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean write about your everyday life. ‘What you know’ can mean what you know in terms of your family history, the rich freight of story and event, of comedy and tragedy, carries in the wake of its life down the generations. It can mean what you know in terms of your reading, just as I’d first instinctively deduced as a kid; it can mean ‘what you know’ from observation and plain old nosiness. But most of all it means ‘what you know’ from the inside. Your emotional life. The song of your heart. Of your soul. The emotions you share with every other human on the planet—and the ones you don’t. ‘Write about what you know’ was about that emotional heart without which every literary work, in whatever genre and however elegantly written, means nothing. It was about being true to the heart—because only then could you reach other people. Only then could your characters really live and breathe. It didn’t matter if you were writing about broken marriages or broken kingdoms; about office bullies or Dark Lords; that was merely a choice, an inclination. But the emotions had to ring true, whatever world your characters came from. You and your readers might never live the life of a young prince unexpectedly elevated to the throne; but all of us understand what it’s like to be suddenly thrust in a situation we weren’t expecting. All of us can sympathise with the nerves and doubts and excitement. All of us can feel what it’s like on the inside, even if we don’t all reach the same conclusions about it. Even if we feel differently about these things. It still feels real, and that’s what counts.

No, ‘write about what you know’ wasn’t a restriction; it wasn’t a hobbling, as I’d thought it had been as a rebellious child—but I still had to reach that conclusion in my own pace, at my own time, and the way I’d got there had been enriching in itself.

So that’s what I know now—that ‘write about what you know’ is indeed good advice. It is, indeed, true. But just as the best writing is understood with the heart as much as the head, then that’s how that classic little aphorism should be understood. Don’t restrict yourself—let your imagination soar. But write about what you know—from the inside.

 

Two:

A love song to libraries

I love libraries. Not only readers are nurtured there—but writers, too. This is a hymn of praise to those libraries, private and public, that have been instrumental in my own development.

The first library I remember was my father’s, in our beautiful old house deep in the countryside of south-western France. This was a hallowed place, a place of light and shadows, cool in summer, warm in winter. There was a fireplace and a large winged chair beside it, a desk made of fragrant Indonesian wood, quills and silver inkstand and leather-bound blotter at the ready; blue toile de Jouy curtains featuring scenes of 18th century country life; a Persian carpet decorated with birds alighting in trees; and of course, books. Books in large wide open shelves of beechwood, built by a local artisan; books in a large antique bookcase with doors that were like fretted screens, so that the books behind them looked as if they were in a kind of beautiful prison; books behind glass and in sandalwood chests. You weren’t allowed in on your own; but sometimes Dad would call you in, sit you on his knee and read from some old collection of Perrault’s stories, or the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, illustrated by Gustave Dore. Other times, he would take down the huge volume of reproductions of Hieronymus Bosch’s art, and point out to his quaking offspring the hellish consequences of misbehaving, or else, driven by another mood, pull out from the sandalwood chests bound copies of 19th century magazines and read out ancient faits divers, or human interest stories.

We children had our own ‘library’ of books elsewhere in the house, shelves crammed with the pink-backed children’s classic hardbacks of the Bibliothèque Rose, and the green backs of the more modern Bibliothèque Verte; dogeared paperback collections of traditional stories from all over the world, and magnificent illustrated editions of mythology; well-thumbed copies of Tintin and Asterix, and, later huge 19th century novels: by Balzac, Hugo, Feval, Gautier. On those shelves were journeys and escapes and spells; but they weren’t what we called the library. That word, spoken in rather overawed and excited tones, was reserved for Dad’s library. In that room was all the mystery and strangeness and ordered beauty of another world; a world you had to earn a place in, through patience and the gaining of wisdom, a world that beckoned, whose enchantment made time stand still. It is an image that stayed with me, and every time we went back to France as children – which was at last every two or three years – after having rushed around to rediscover toys and bedrooms, it was always the threshold of the library that drew me, to stand dreaming and hesitant looking in at the books, waiting for permission to be invited in.

In Australia, Dad had a room full of crowded bookcases, but it was not the same. The books were much less glamorous, there was no atmosphere in the room itself, and besides, I’d discovered another enchanted place. For the other world that drew me in Australia was our local public library. The children’s section was probably not very big, really, but in my memory it was huge, an enchanted kingdom, far away from the dull routine of school. At the rather modest Catholic parish primary school I went to, the only ‘library’ was a couple of sets of glass-fronted bookcases in the senior primary room. Insatiable reader that I was, I’d soon have dessicated from the need to imbibe stories if we had not discovered the local library. That was my real education in English, the library; left alone by Maman to make my own pathways through English-language children’s books, I made wonderful discoveries, but also missed out on some marvellous things. Magic and fairies and giants and trolls and other worlds and mysteries always attracted me; anything that smelt of mundane routine I cast aside, and thus it that was I met, and loved dearly, Tove Jannsson and CS Lewis and Alan Garner and Patricia Wrightson and Leon Garfield and James Thurber and a host of others; but missed out as a child on Laura Ingalls Wilder because I was sure a book with ‘house’ in the title must be about housework! (though I read the books as an adult, to my kids, and both they and I loved them).

I loved my high school library too. It was new, bright, sunny, airy, and the librarian was a very keen reader who did a lot to extend my reading range. Because in an earlier high school, I’d been severely bullied, I’d also taken to the library as a refuge from harshness and cruelty.  Libraries had always been associated with pleasure for me; now they also became islands of calm in the turbulent seas of

Aged about 16, in fantasy finery with my sister Camille, aged 14 (she is on the right, in the hat)

adolescence.

The first novel I ever wrote – for I had written lots of poetry, short stories, plays and illustrated tales before, but not novels, thinking I could never finish one – was started thus, at the age of 16, in the library. It was a vast fantasy novel – I’d discovered Tolkien and his ilk by then – in which I tried to incorporate as many of the mythologies of the world as I could manage! I never finished it, but I still have it, and I still remember those afternoons in the school library, bent over my notebook, lost in another world.

When I finished school, I left home after one too many arguments with my fiery father, and struggled in poverty for quite a while. I was trying both to meet the requirements of a tough university degree specialising in Middle Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, medieval romances, and Icelandic sagas, and to keep food in my mouth by doing all kinds of odd jobs, from folding clothes in a laundromat (where once a customer, seeing me read in a quiet moment, said to me, What! You work in a laundrette, and you read a book!) to delivering junk mail to looking after kids to trying to clean flats (me, the least domestically adept person ever!) to working in cafes and restaurants and in a candy factory. None of these jobs ever earnt more than a pitiful amount, and I was really quite poor. But I never felt poor in our local public library, which I had joined as soon as I could. There were many days when I felt very much like giving up the struggle and crawling back to Papa; but the library always put new heart into me. Not only was it free entertainment; but it also provided information on all kinds of literary possibilities. I entered many competitions advertised on its noticeboards, and spent many happy hours continuing on with my various enthusiasms. The library reminded me that there was a world beyond flat wallets and gritty pavements and people who thought laundry assistants must be illiterate. It gave me heart, too, by reminding me that somewhere, sometime, people had cared enough about literature and about their destinies as writers to struggle through even the most difficult periods of their lives. No way did I want to follow the safe and dull careers of routine that had been proposed for me; in the reckless way of youth, I wanted to do what I felt I was born to do – and the library, so quiet and demure in appearance, but with such a multi-chambered, raging heart of tumult and vision and destiny and heartbreak and magic and joy, gave me the courage to continue, and not to lose hope.

Since that time, libraries have continued to be amongst my favourite places. These days, I am a regular of the public library in our high cold university town in northern NSW, and I have a large and messy library scattered in all of the rooms in our house. I also love trawling through the vast virtual libraries that one may find on the Internet. I continue to follow overgrown, wild, exciting pathways through magical lands and undiscovered countries; many of my novels have started from something seen by chance in a library book. I have had a great deal of very pleasant interactions with librarians, and admire their great dedication, erudition and kindness to me who is often a rather disordered and awestruck traveller in their domains. Though I still love magic and mystery, I have come to understand, as I’ve grown up, fallen and stayed in love and had children; built a house of our own with my husband and cherished the garden we have made, that the world within the world incorporates all those things, that the flesh and the spirit are tightly woven together, and that the spell cast by the library, the spell that seems to stop time, is the spell not of old paper or old magical formulae, but of imagination, that greatest of all qualities, which makes us both fully human, fully mortal, yet immortal too. The library is the record, the garden, the house of souls; but it is also the place where the soul is helped to emerge from its chrysalis, to spread its wings and be truly free. And there is no price that can be put on that.

 Three: Other people’s books

Enjoying a good book in a perfect setting!

You sometimes hear writers say they never read the work of other authors, especially writing in the same genre as they are, and especially if they’re currently in the process of writing a book themselves. The reason given is usually that they are afraid of being influenced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by the other writer’s work. There’s a kind of fear that originality may be somehow diminished, and that your pristine work may be contaminated, as it were, by foreign authorial bacteria, or that a kind of helpless plagiarism may happen, which will then destroy your own literary integrity. Underlying this is a deeper fear: that you may discover that those other writers’ books are actually vastly better than yours, leading to a major paralysis in imagination and the feeling that as they’ve said it all anyway, why bother?

It’s a fear that is common in modern times—writers in Elizabethan times, for instance, rarely seemed to harbour such insecurities. And I understand those feelings—the writing life is quite often competitive, stressful, and prey to many fancies and fears–but I don’t share them. Partly, it’s because of the way I write: a process of complete and utter immersion. When I’m writing, I’m completely in the story, nothing else figures or intrudes, I’m away with the fairies. It quite blanks out anything going on around me–to the great frustration—and delight– of my children when they were growing up. My daughter says she could have asked for a huge rise in pocket money when I was in the middle of writing and I’d have said, Yes, dear, whatever you want, vaguely; and my youngest musician son loves to tell the story of the day he’d spent an entire morning practising drums loudly upstairs, and when he came down for lunch, and I emerged blinking from my work, I asked him brightly what he’d been doing all morning! Equally, though, it seems to blank out what I’ve been reading—perhaps because writing is such a different process to reading, perhaps because that’s the ‘safety switch’ that clicks on in my mind when I start to write.

But it’s only partly my experience of writing itself which makes me feel that those common writers’ fears are not only unfounded, but actually dangerous. Because how on earth can a writer not be a reader too? Though they are so different, the two things go together. Wide and frequent reading of other people’s work leads to the enrichment of a writer’s mental furniture, the deepening of their emotional range, the texturing of their intellectual potential. Whether that be classic authors or  modern ones, reading what other people have written, thinking about it, engaging with it, makes all the difference to the strength and power of your own writing. An author without ”influence”–if such a mythical beast can truly exist– would write merely hollow, navel-gazing books which would most likely fail to click with readers.

I can’t begin to estimate just how important other writers’ influence has been, and is, to me. From the very beginning, when as a non-English-speaking migrant child newly arrived in Australia, I was introduced to English-language children’s books, I was off and away on an extraordinary journey through the world of literature. I devoured books as fast as I could get them off the library shelves. I read in both English and in my native language, French, racing through CS Lewis, Hergé(Tintin books) ,Tove Jannsson, Leon Garfield, Alexandre Dumas, Roger Lancelyn Green, Jean de Brunhoff(Babar), Patricia Wrightson, Philippa Pearce, Louise May Alcott, Jules Verne, Enid Blyton, and lots lots lots more. From early on, I wanted to emulate my favourite writers, and wrote little comic strips a la Tintin, fairy stories, school stories, all sorts of bits and pieces, totally influenced by what I read. Later, when, as a teenager, I got into poetry and plays, I also tried my hand at writing in the styles and forms of those poets and playwrights I loved best: Shakespeare,  Yeats, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Tennessee Williams, William Blake, Robert Browning, and so on and on.  I counted sonnet lines and tried my hand at shoe-horning verse into ancient bardic forms, tried to write snappy dialogue and tragic scenes. I devoured Russian novels and Gothic novels and swashbuckling French novels and tried to create characters in their mould. And my writing was  highly influenced, highly coloured by what I’d read. But not only was I enriching my mental furniture by reading, I don’t think I could have found a better way of practising to become a writer. Challenging and extending myself, not staying within the narrow world of home-school-home that  I lived in as a kid but roaming the wide worlds of my, and other people’s imaginations.

And so, unconsciously, as I grew up, I came to understand a very important and liberating thing, which has stood me in good stead all my writing life. And it’s this. Voice, which is really where a writer’s originality lies, does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, like Nature, it abhors a vacuum. Instead, it comes straight out of that rich mix of individuality and influence.

Interview with Louisa John-Krol

Today I’m delighted to feature an interview with multi-talented composer, musician, writer and fairy tale aficionado, Louisa John-Krol.

Louisa, you have had an amazing career writing and performing music and words over a long period of time. Can you share some of your journey? How did you start, and how did your work develop?

 Thanks, Sophie. It began with a hum. Singing plants and poems into melody, and believing in dryads, I made a garden with a wetland, frog pond and flowering vines, ripe for solitude. Fantasy chronicles of Earthsea, Middleearth and Narnia inspired me, as did Faeries co-written by Alan Lee (who went on to design sets for Tolkien films) and Brian Froud (who later made a music clip ‘Muse’ for my music). Life hasn’t felt like a linear journey. More a kaleidoscope with jumbled swirls that sometimes form patterns, hint at echoes, or slide into oblivion. Foreign indie labels released most of my music from the age of 30 onward. I got to perform, compose or record with brilliant eccentrics here and overseas; just as well, for I was never a virtuoso. Less a prodigy than a pixie. (Funny how in some circles it’s a contest as to how early one masters an instrument. Infancy, anyone?) The cliche of singing before we can talk, of dancing before we can walk, of surmounting setbacks, haunts Romantic notions. In some underground neo-medieval/ baroque/ classical/ gothic modern-primitive tribes I’ve inhabited, it’s customary to bemoan corruption. Perhaps I still revel in Voltaire’s ironic ‘best of all worlds’. But being a paid artist was no more admirable than other jobs. It all meant being present with a vast cross-section of humanity. Whether fairy storytelling at carnivals, teaching at disadvantaged schools, writing press releases for parliamentarians, liaising with ecologists, singing at festivals, or tapping royalties from boutique recording labels, I learned to respect time. Not sure I overcame bullying or disappointment, which abounds in corporations or bureaucracies. Whatever lands on a page, or screen, or reel, or disc, is stardust floating long after explosions that elude comprehension. A couple of years ago I signed off my record deal and ceased all employment. I’ve been volunteering, reading, rescuing cats, grooming manuscripts, listening tomusic and educating myself on fairy lore.

You have performed your work across the world, including with other artists. What have been some of your favourite experiences?

In France 2003 I performed at La Loco in the red district of Paris, the stomping ground of legendary cult bands like The Velvet Underground. Adjacent was the Moulin Rouge, to which we found a peep-hole while drinking beer backstage on red crimson sofas with our Swedish headliners, Arcana. Afterwards we went out with writers including Alyz Tale, then Editor of Elegy Magazine, who published her story entitled ‘Louisa’ about my song ‘Blackbird’, in her collection Mon dernier thé. I also cherish memories of Clisson, the medieval town of my record label Prikosnovénie, by the river Sèvre.

In Belgium at Trolls et Legendes festival 2009, meeting the British illustrator Brian Froud was a highlight. We presented a video Muse that he and his son made for my song ‘Which of these Worlds?’ with Robert Gould of Imaginosis who flew me to Oregon, USA, that same year to perform with the band Woodland at Faerieworlds, where the Frouds were guests again.It was moving to receive a message from José Géal of le Royal Théâtre de Toone, which is as old as Bruxelles itself, thanking me for my song ‘Poppet Plum’ being dedicated to his puppetry that I’d experienced six years earlier.

In Italy, on the borders of Umbria, Lazia and Tuscona, I stayed in a medieval castle overlooking the medieval town of Orte, belonging to the ambient artist Oophoi (Gianluigi Gasparetti), haunted by ghost and a white owl. Gigi later died of a rare blood disease, bereaving a loving wife, but the sonic alchemist’s legacy remains strong on the web, as in his masterpiece The Spirals of Time and our collaboration I hear the Water Dreaming.

There were wonderful experiences in other enchanting places, such as in Greece and Germany, but if I cover them all we’ll be here awhile!

 The interplay between music, poetry, folklore and fairy tales is very strong in your work.  Can you expand on that?

Let’s start with poetry. I love how the subconscious resonance of metaphors, layered in iconography over time, allows the imagination room to move, like a muse engaging in dalliance, in diaphanous gowns of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’. Language can be musical, as with assonance or alliteration. How words ring together sometimes pivots on selection of synonyms, or arrangement. Just as a composer might let a melody leap from one player to another, so writers with an ear for melody recognise when a phrase sends a shiver down the spine. (A challenge in translation!) In folklore and fairy tales, as in poetry, I love economy of language: these modes are tightly packed seeds, full of symbols that leap across centuries and cultures with efficiency of memes. Hence the mother of Memory is the mother of Muses: Mnemosyne.

What’s coming up next for you, in terms of new work created and released?

A magic-realist novella and other manuscripts are bubbling, but my aim is to groom the Elderbrook Chronicles: a series of fantasy volumes. Musically, having recently released two productions after a long hiatus – Torlan (a compilation of water music from our various albums) and Elderbrook (a double-album soundtrack for my aforementioned chronicles), I’m preparing to reprint our discography that sold out on French, German and American companies: an opportunity to revisit mixes, add bonus tracks, include more illustrations and try new eco-friendly packaging.

As a lover of fairy tales, why do you think they still appeal to people? And do you have you any favourites? If so, which–and why?

Fairy tales do more than soothe worldly worries; paradoxically, they offer perennial wisdom for facing them. Wrongly, some view them as escapist, whereas on the contrary I regard fairy tales as a way to delve deeper into life. For me they’re about re-enchantment, of falling in love with the world. As Marina Warner asserts, fairy stories have ‘staying power’, for ‘the meanings they generate are themselves magical shape-shifters, dancing to the needs of their audience’ (From the Beast to the Blonde), a point that Athena Bellas revisits in her article ‘Contemporary fairy tales: Prohibition, transgression, transformation’ in the catalogue of an exhibition All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed that she directed at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne. The title-essay by its curator Samantha Comte also cites Warner, further emphasising the adaptability of fairy tales; their fluidity, amorphousness and responsiveness to social context. My favourite tales are open-ended or layered. They emit a diffused lunar light, rather than a laser beam. I’ve often claimed to have a more poetic than polemic approach. That doesn’t mean I shy away from politics, it’s just that I won’t let didactic messages dominate. I’m partial to Wilde, d’Aulnoy, Dunsany, Byatt and Calvino. As to contemporary Australians: I particularly enjoy your writing, Sophie.

You are closely involved with the Australian Fairy Tale Society. Tell us about it and its work.

As a founding member and President of this national charity, I cherish our inclusive spirit. Our members are writers, researchers, educators, storytellers, illustrators, puppeteers and other fey folk. One of our committee members is a glass artist, Spike Deane, based at Canberra Glassworks. We’ve attracted such internationally acclaimed fairy tale authors as Kate Forsyth, Carmel Bird and you; I’ll never forget your launch of the thrilling Snow White re-spin Hunter’s Moon at an AFTS conference, flying away with a signed copy and reading it during a recording session at Pilgrim Arts studio while visiting South Australia; I later bought a copy for the producer Brett Taylor’s daughter. I’ve since reviewed more of your novels. A lot of fairy tale people in Australia are nourishing each other’s knowledge. We discuss sensitivities around colonisation, immigration and ways of seeking mutual ground, respectfully acknowledging differences while fostering intercultural collaboration. We are interested in exploring definitions of the very term ‘Australian fairy tale’ itself. I recommend Dr Rebecca-Anne’s spiel on this at our website: We are delighted that you have accepted our invitation to contribute to our forthcoming fairy tale Anthology, which we’ll have more to say about publicly soon. Meanwhile, we’ve already produced six editions of an illustrated Ezine, available exclusively to members. Thanks for all you do, Sophie.

Explore more of Louisa’s work:

Homepage of ethereal music & faerielore: http://louisajohnkrol.com/

Welcome portal to unfolding Elderbrook Chronicles: http://www.elderbrook.com.au/

Fairy record label in France: http://www.prikosnovenie.com/inde.shtml

Froud/Louisa ‘Muse’ video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahBe3Znj8lY

Fairy Blog: http://victorianfairytalering.blogspot.com.au/

Australian Fairy Tale Society: https://australianfairytalesociety.wordpress.com/

Connect with Louisa on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/louisa.johnkrol

Word of Mouth TV: an interview with Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills

Today I’m delighted to bring you a great interview I recently conducted with writers–and now TV presenters!–Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills, who very recently launched a book show with a difference. The Word of Mouth TV concept combines some of Kate’s and Sarah’s favourite things: food, books and friendship, to create lively, engaging TV, delicious in terms both of body and mind! The first episode, with authors and husband and wife writing team Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, was most enjoyable, featuring great conversation, yummy food, and great literary–and cooking!-insights. I loved it, and am looking forward very much to the next episode. But while I’m waiting, I thought it would be great to talk to Kate and Sarah about why and how they’ve put together this excellent show with film-maker Claire Absolum. Enjoy! (And subscribe to Word of Mouth TV You Tube channel and website–it’s free!)

Photograph of Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills by Claire Absolum.

Kate and Sarah, congratulations on the launch of Word of Mouth TV and the show’s first episode! It’s a fabulous concept–innovative and appealing, with so much scope for fun and warmth, and a great title too! How did you first come up with the idea?

Sarah: It was one of those ideas that took a long time to manifest. The idea struck me about six years ago when I was in one of my aimless dreaming phases. The idea kept revisiting me and I asked Kate about three years ago if she would be interested in doing it. We agreed it was something that the book industry desperately needed because there is so little good news and content serving this industry.

Kate: I thought it was such a brilliant idea, but I didn’t know how we would ever find the time to do it when we had such busy schedules. But we kept talking about it and tossing ideas around. We agreed we wanted it to have really good production values but we didn’t know how we would achieve that when we had no skills or experience in that area. Slowly the idea took hold of our imaginations, though. Once we had our title, it really seemed to come to life.

Sarah: We decided upon Word of Mouth as the title because the Sound Bites that accompany the show involve authors recommending the best books they’ve read lately and their favourite cookbooks – so viewers get their reading tips straight from the author’s mouth.

 Coming up with a great idea is one thing of course: bringing it to fruition quite another!  There must have been a lot of work involved in getting to the launch of the show. How did you get from concept to reality?

Sarah: Yes, well, the idea lay nascent for years because we were both writers and neither of us had camera or video-editing skills. Then former SBS and ABC producer Claire Absolum moved into my neighbourhood and we met through mutual friends. Claire was sitting with me on the day I called Kate: “Remember that idea we were talking about a few years ago about interviewing and cooking with authors? Are you still interested?” And to our relief, she said yes.

Kate: It was complete madness! I had such an intense workload and had sworn I would take on no new projects. But Sarah finding Claire just seemed like a sign from the universe. And I’d actually been thinking about how sad it was that there was no great book chat show anymore.

 Sarah: From there it was just a matter of putting everything together. We all have very complimentary skill sets. Claire obviously has the video production skills, I have creative direction and website production skills (I was a journalist for decades at Fairfax), and public relations, branding and marketing skills, and Kate had the contacts within the industry and styling skills from her time freelancing on magazines. And we are all reasonable cooks. We really liked the idea of three women working together to create the show – there is something magic about the number three. Perhaps we’ll be “Charmed”.

Kate: It just seemed to come together so well – I feel that we’ve found the sweet spot between people who love to watch cooking and lifestyle shows, and people who love to read. We’ve certainly had a great early reception!

The show has very high production values and works really well within its time frame. Not surprising, as you have such a skilled and experienced producer as Claire Absolum on board! Tell us what it’s like actually filming the show.

 Sarah: It’s fun and very tiring. It is only a 10-minute Youtube show but so much ends up on the cutting room floor. Particularly for the first episodes because we were a bit nervous and if it wasn’t one of us making bloopers, it was the other. Or the dog would start whining, or the neighbour would start up with a drill. It seemed a process of endless takes. We are still trying to hone the process.

Kate: We are really learning on the job, aren’t we, Sarah? It took us a while to work out a template for the show, and a balance between the cooking, the eating and the talking. We’ve learnt a huge amount in just a few months.

Sarah: It is also difficult because we all live so far away from each other (about two hours) and we are trying to shoot Word of Mouth TV in our spare time. On the upside, the food is divine and we are collecting recipes for a cookbook at the end of the year. And the champagne … it speaks for itself!

How do you go about choosing books, writers–and recipes? 

Sarah: Kate is plugged into the writing industry so this is her task. We try to interview a mix of authors from all different genres and levels of experience, and Kate is the best positioned to know who are likely to be producing good books.

Kate:  It helps that I have so many friends in the industry, and that I read so much anyway. It means I have a good general knowledge of who is launching new books and whether or not our audience is likely to be interested in it.

Sarah: If we don’t personally like the book, we don’t feature it because we have to review it and we want to be kind in our reviews – we are, after all, authors ourselves. We understand how much heart and soul goes into the production of a novel.

Kate: Our aim is to celebrate books and reading and writing, and to encourage people to read outside their comfort zone. This is after all, one of the great benefits of belonging to a book club.

Sarah: I occasionally suggest books that I think will fit the show too. We also recommend cookbooks on every episode. That process is pretty simple. We both have some well-used and well-loved cookbooks. Then we ask the authors to recommend their favourite books read lately and their favourite cookbooks.

Your motto is ‘food, books and friends’hip: it’s the perfect nurturing combination. What are you hoping viewers will get from it? And what’s the response been so far?

 Sarah: So far everyone who likes books has been really encouraging. We are steadily building a subscription base to the Youtube channel, the website, and to social media feeds such as Twitter and Facebook. The authors have been incredibly supportive as well. Mind you it is fun to be wined and dined and have the opportunity to talk about your book, and the subject of books generally, all at once.

 Kate: We hope to become an integral part of the Australian literary scene, a show that bookworms will love and recommend to their friends to watch. The show comes out every fortnight, so that means we are recommending books twice a month – our hope is that Book Clubs will start watching it together, or using it to help them choose books to read, or simply enjoy what we do on a regular basis.

How many episodes are you hoping to make in the series? 

Sarah: The first season will be 12 episodes, seven of which have already been filmed and the remaining five of which have already been scheduled. Hopefully, by the end of that time, we will have a big enough audience, and sponsorship, to continue filming. We really hope this happens as we’ve had more authors asking to be on the show and they are all so fantastic that we want to interview them all.

Kate: We hope there’ll be many more seasons to come!

 Anything else you’d like to add?

Sarah: Well, towards the end of the season, if we don’t get corporate sponsorship, we might run a crowd-funding campaign. In the meantime, it would be great if readers could subscribe to our Youtube channel www.youtube.com/wordofmouthTV000 because we need 1,000 subscriptions under Youtube’s new rules to be able to earn money from the site. If readers want to hear all the latest news, views and reviews, then they can also subscribe to our website at www.wordofmouthtv.com.au We also have a Facebook and Twitter page that we are having a bit of fun with.

Kate: Every fortnight we give away huge piles of books to our subscribers who help spread the word about the show. We want to foster an atmosphere of joy and excitement about the act of reading, and to support as many other authors as we can.

The Mirror of Honour and Love: a woman’s view of chivalry

I’ve always been interested in the Middle Ages, especially the chivalric period between the 12th and 15th centuries, and wrote this essay some years ago, after the publication of my historical fantasy trilogy, The Lay Lines Trilogy,  released in an omnibus edition as Forest of Dreams. The trilogy was inspired by the shadowy life and extraordinary work of 12th century writer Marie de France, one of the writers mentioned in this essay. I’m republishing the essay today and hope readers find it interesting–and with some relevance to our times as well!

THE MIRROR OF HONOUR AND LOVE:
a woman’s view of chivalry

by Sophie Masson

 

Chivalry. Isn’t that a bloke’s thing? Isn’t it do with being a man-at-arms, with strapping on armour, and sallying forth into the wildwood on your horse, your lady’s token on your arm, to right wrongs and do great deeds? Isn’t the only role of the woman in chivalry to be the inspirer, the Muse of a paragon of the knightly virtues? Well, yes–and no. Chivalry was much more than that. And its ideals encompassed both sexes, actively.

As the French-derived term chivalry indicates–it is originally from chevalerie, meaning horsemanship, literally–it came about as a means of codifying and disciplining a mounted order of military types. Mounted men-at-arms–knights, in the English word, which by the way derives from the same root as knife, referring to weapons–could be a damn nuisance in the early and later Middle Ages. The way they were regarded by many people is perhaps best summed up in the German proverb, Er will Ritter an mir werden; ie, he wants to play the knight over me, ride roughshod over me. That is, these mounted men were regarded as tyrannical bullies, delinquents and pests. That they were more often than not is indisputable; a combination of young man’s energy, a lack of efficiently centralised civic or moral teaching(the State did not really exist, and the Church struggled mightily to tame the warriors for centuries), and the fact that on a horse you could quickly get away from the scene of your crimes, mixed with a kind of carte blanche, a blind eye turned to your hi-jinks by the man–or woman–who paid your wages when you were at war with their rivals or enemies(but cut you loose when they didn’t need you, leaving you to fend for yourself), made for quite a potent little cocktail of public nuisance. The Middle Ages was a young person’s period; though many people did live on into old age, the average age of death for a woman was thirty-three; for a man, especially a knight, it was under thirty. The often wild energy, idealism and exaltation that characterises medieval culture comes from that demographic fact. This was real youth culture.

But as time went on, and the disorder of the post-Roman period, the invasions, and the Norman adventures receded, and prosperity and peace descended in Europe, due to some kind of balance being precariously achieved, more attention was being paid to the fact that the youth had not only to be kept in line, but also to be given a channel for their energies which would make them both more productive, and more disciplined. Added to that was the change in peacetime culture, particularly in England and France, with women becoming more prominent again, able to provide a guiding hand. Modern people all too often view the Middle Ages through distorting mirrors; and one of the most distorting is the idea of medieval women’s position. In fact, it is probably true to say that women in the Middle Ages, especially after about the eleventh and up to the fifteenth centuries, enjoyed a level of relative freedom not equalled until the twentieth. The fall of Rome had also made many of her laws recede into the distance, slowly; Roman statute law was notably more misogynist than the customary law of the tribal groups the Empire had conquered. Celtic and Germanic women enjoyed a degree of freedom that scandalised the Romans: perhaps the greatest and most serious of the rebellions against Rome in Britain occurred when an arrogant Roman governor flouted the realpolitik of his masters and cut across British customary law by refusing to ratify the awarding of the chieftainship of the Iceni to the widowed Queen Boudicca, or Boadicea.

Now as the Middle Ages advanced and people forgot about Roman law, or cheerfully ignored it, opting instead for a mixture of old and new in their customary law, so the position of women improved. Please don’t think I’m talking modern feminism here. Medieval society, like pre-Roman society, was one of kinship and hierarchy(which is NOT the same as class, by the way). If you were related to the right people, if you were part of the clan, you had a right to exercise the rights given to you on that basis, no matter what your sex. So women in the Middle Ages, as in the Celtic and Germanic worlds, could openly be chiefs, could command armies, run huge estates and businesses, inherit and so forth, in a way that women in Roman times and women in the Renaissance–which rediscovered Roman law and reinstated many of the old ways, including the institutionalised repression of women–could not, or only do through subterfuge. The thing was that medieval people recognised custom, and its pre-eminence; kinship, and its inextricable centrality; hierarchy which meant that everyone had a place but that people could move between them, in case of great personal merit (eg there were quite a number of serfs who became knights).

What we now think of as chivalry came out of that world. It began, as a codified idea, in the twelfth century, in the courts of two famous and talented and powerful women of the time: the extraordinary Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter, Marie of Champagne. Eleanor was a force of nature, a brilliant figure whose true stature is only now being rediscovered. Sole heir to the vast lands of Aquitaine, the teenaged Eleanor married the pious, shy Louis VII of France, who was no match for her wilfulness and talents. She went along with him on Crusade, as an important person in her own right, had several children with him, including Marie, then tiring of him and his font-frog ways, and infatuated with the younger, sexy Henri Plantagenet d’Anjou, a.k.a. Henry II of England, she concocted an excuse to get rid of Louis. She even managed to persuade the Pope to grant her a annulment on the basis of too-close kinship to her former husband, and so, despite having had several children with Louis, was able to enter into legal marriage with Henry.

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine on her tomb in Fontrevaud Abbey in France.

She and Henry were a match for each other, but too much so in many ways; though they had six more children, and for a long time had a strong relationship, Henry’s roving eye and bad temper, and Eleanor’s sometimes arrogant pride proved the undoing of a partnership that had had all Europe enthralled. During the happy times, she ran her own court separately in Poitiers, and was the patron of artists, poets, musicians and philosophers. It was at this court, and at her daughter Marie’s in Champagne that the codes of chivalry and of courtly love were established, in close contact with the great ladies, and a flourishing literary and social culture was born. Eleanor and Marie were aware not only of the delinquent tendencies of knights, but also of the boredom of ladies–and of the many sexual adventures that went on. They would encourage the concept of a new form of chivalry, which would not only emphasise prowess in arms and great deeds, as had been the case in the past, but also the great adventure of love, the way that it helped in the journey to self-knowledge and integration. It would mean that women would have a central part in the culture, as muses and inspirers certainly, but also as honourable beings in their own right.

Secular Woman in Romance, and Sacred Woman, the Madonna, dominated medieval culture from the twelfth century, in the process turning a rather rough and ready culture to a most beautiful, subtle and richly patterned one. As well, contact with the East meant that philosophy, astrology and astronomy, and the natural sciences in general, flourished.

So, what were the distinguishing elements of chivalry? I have devised a list of the Seven Qualities of Honour, gleaned from various medieval books, qualities which were firmly to be sought after by both men and women. These are:

Franchise, or frankness(ie openness of mind and honesty); Pitié, or Compassion; Courage; Courtoisie, or Courtesy; Sagesse, or Wisdom; Largesse, or Generosity; and Temperance, or Moderation. As is obvious, these were not sex-limited characteristics. Within those seven qualities, we can get a sense of the characteristics admired by twelfth century medieval culture. Hotheadedness was to be restrained; greed and avarice, always pet hates of the times(and major problems)cast into the darkness; ignorant yobbo behaviour firmly rejected. Respect for the other, and for oneself as a growing soul is iabsolutely ntrinsic to the chivalric tradition. It is intended to carry through into all aspects of one’s life; at its best it is truly impressive. It is pointless to keep saying, as some modern writers do, that the ideal wasn’t always lived up to; what ideal ever is? The fact is that this ideal genuinely changed a whole society, and laid the groundwork for many other social developments in the future.

Writers like Chrétien de Troyes and André le Chapelain–or Andreas Capellanus, as he’s often known–wrote books demonstrating and portraying the new ways of being and relating between the sexes: incidentally also changing the face of literature(the romance being the true ancestor not only of the novel in general but of fantasy!) As time went on, more and more writers, inspired by the beauty and depth of the ideas embodied within the notions of chivalry, explored it in ever greater depth. Many of these (in the main) male writers saw Woman as Muse: whether spiritually as well as romantically, like Ramon Llull, for instance, or practically and realistically, like Godefroi de Charny (both men wrote books on chivalry which are still in print today). Of course, there were also those who fought hard against the new works and their implicit validation of women as real human beings, worthy of respect,

a manuscript of Le Roman de Renart, held in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

true love, and even adoration. Such a one was Jean de Meung, writer of Le Roman de la Rose, or Romance of the Rose, which especially in its second part is an anti-woman diatribe, and the mostly anonymous authors of the cynical, savagely amusing and often obscene Roman de Renart, or The Romance of Reynard the Fox, an extraordinary anthromorphic ‘novel ‘ in many episodes, which in many ways could be seen as the anti-romance. (Mind you the Roman de Renart is something of an equal-opportunity offender, satirising both men and women)

Between idealism and misogyny, though, there were also those who saw women as equal partners in the great journey of life, and of the quest for honour, and the development of the soul that chivalry represented. At least two of those writers were women: the twelfth century writer Marie de France (not the same person as Marie de Champagne, incidentally!)and the early fifteenth century Christine de Pisan. Marie wrote fiction: lais, or lays, narrative poems, romances based on Celtic motifs, full of love, magic, humour and adventure. But Christine was a non-fiction writer, who wrote hugely popular and influential books on the achievements and behaviour of women. Some of these were intended as self-help guides; others as witty and fierce ripostes to anti-woman propagandists. Two of her books, La Cité des dames, or City of Ladies, and its sequel, The Treasury of the City of Ladies, examine at length about the ways in which women achieve honour and respect, and the ways in which the chivalric code can be applied to everyday life.

Let’s have a look at some of the things these women writers said. Marie, who has a rather salty tongue and sardonic eye and ear for the way people behave, is particularly preoccupied with love and the different ways in which lovers act. She firmly tells her audience that chivalry and courtliness are about real things, including sexual things, and that hypocrites and coy flittergibbets are without honour:

The professional beauty will mince

and preen her feathers, and wince

At showing she favours a man,

unless it’s all for her gain.

But a worthy lady of wisdom and valour

will not be too proud to show her favour

and enjoy the love of her man

in every way that she can.

(this quote is from Marie’s poem Guigemar–the translation is my own, you can find it in Forest of Dreams).

Marie’s outlook is that of an upper-class medieval woman, fluent in several languages, moving easily around Europe, sure of her place and independent within it. She roundly chastises those snooty critics from her time who say that what she writes about is not serious literature, or that it is immodest, or ‘untrue’, because it has magic in it. (Such wet blanket critics still exist in our time of course!) She is very concerned with female honour, and makes it quite clear that women must show as much courage, courtesy, generosity, etc, as men. She has several examples of female characters who run a love affair from beginning to end, fight, travel, and so on; just as she has a female character, werewolf knight Bisclavret’s merciless wife, who is punished severely–not for being a woman but for being faithless. This savage justice is equally meted out to men who transgress the code.

Women really did live by this code; there are numerous examples of women left in charge of large estates who faithfully and bravely mounted the defence of those estates against the enemies of their house, and were praised for it by chroniclers of the time. Medieval people had a horror of treachery and cowardice; the two were often felt to go hand in hand. The fact you were a woman did not absolve you from keeping to the ideals of chivalry, in times of crisis and in your ordinary life. And in her fiction, Marie demonstrates clearly both the complex realities of medieval life, and what was considered honourable for both sexes.

From the twelfth to the early fifteenth is quite a jump. We come here to the tail-end of the code of chivalry–we have been through the culture-shaking hideousness of the Black Death, and are close to the shift in thinking represented by humanism and the Reformation. In this climate, propaganda against women was growing, though some of the old chivalric spirit remained and indeed never went away altogether. Women of all backgrounds were still very much in evidence in ordinary life, in all kinds of ways; the cruel Roman-derived statutes, which wiped out many customary rights of inheritance and divorce and so on, had not yet been applied.

Christine de Pisan presenting her work, from a painting of the time

Christine de Pisan, a prolific and indefatigable writer who proselytised tirelessly for the recognition of the talents, achievements and potential of women, gave her advice and insights in the form of allegory and exposition. She was enormously influential and popular; her own life story is an inspiration. Left a widow at a young age, with small children to support, Italian-born Christine launched into a professional career as a writer in early fifteenth-century Paris. She was not one to bite her tongue, but took part vigorously in many of the intellectual debates of the day, her sharp intelligence, comprehensive education and refusal to be beaten thrilling her fans and infuriating her enemies. She launched into a lively denunciation of the anti-woman Romance of the Rose, pointing out tartly the many faults in its logic and its humanity, and La Cité des dames was conceived as a direct riposte to Jean de Meung’s jeremiads(The Romance of the Rose still being popular in her time. ) In the book, she used the device of three allegorical figures: Dame Reason, with her mirror of self-knowledge, the ‘mirror held up to nature’, as she called it; Dame Rectitude, with her rod of peace; and Dame Justice, with her cup from whence she pours out stability and equilibrium, to frame a discourse in which a ‘City of Ladies’ can be constructed, which allows women to fully develop their talents and potential. In so doing, she refuted many of the criticisms of women made by contemporary writers, and highlighted the achievements of women in many areas. The sequel, The Treasury of the City of Ladies (republished a few years ago, in English, as The Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honour), was more of a self-help and advice book, tailored not only to aristocratic women but to women of all social backgrounds, from rich merchants to poor cottage women. The thrust of her argument is that, in order to act honourably, women do not need to fight against nature, but to follow selectively and intelligently the dictates of their truest selves. Real self-knowledge and respect for others, so central to chivalry, is also the centre of Christine’s words to her readers, the armour she advises them to put on to sally forth into the great adventure of life. From it grow all those qualities of honour, from courage and generosity to openness of mind and temperance, compassion and courtesy–and the result is true wisdom. For that was the aim of chivalry:  a way of reaching one’s own fullest potential as a human being, but always tied in to the presence, the needs, and the worth of other people too. Chivalry, both male and female, recognised that each of us is, indeed, our brother’s or sister’s keeper–but also courageously responsible for our own actions. It is an ideal which is of increasing and urgent relevance in the world we live in today.