My Alternative World

“There are many reasons why novelists write, but they all have one thing in common – a need to create an alternative world,” wrote JOHN FOWLES.

I was asked the other day if that was true of me.

I suppose every novelist has created a story, a world, of his own that he already lives in in a very real sense and would give his left arm to visit in reality. That certainly applies to me and the the Mariana de la Mar universe.

The Mar Menor in Spain where Mariana lived as a child in the 1360s (in “The Rose of Sharon”)

You know what they say: If you can’t find the book you want to read, write it yourself. There’s more to it than that. It’s really: Create that world, your world, yourself.

But of course there are other books, other alternative universes, I would love to visit …

Richard Fletcher’s BLOODFEUD (Book Review)

The Anglo-Saxon Period

Northumbria was governed, under the King, Ethelred II, by an earl named Uhtred. He belonged to one of the great magnate families of northern England, had held his office of earl for at least ten years, was famed for his military prowess, and was the lord of extensive acres and many retainers. What is more, he was connected by marriage to the royal family: his third and current wife, in 1016, was a daughter of King Ethelred II. Earl Uhtred was, thus, a figure of immense wealth, power and prestige; quite simply, the most important man in the north of England. It was essential for Canute to secure his submission and gain his loyalty.

[…]

Earl Uhtred came to the meeting accompanied, as a great nobleman should be in a display of status, by an escort of military retainers – forty of them, we are told, and though the figure be both round and biblical we are not required to disbelieve it. As befitted a ritual exchange of peace, and given the guarantee of safe-conduct, weapons and body-armour would have been left with the horses outside, in the care of grooms and servants. Uhtred and his men entered the hall and stood in a body before Canute. If it were one of those brightly sunny days that you sometimes get in northern England in early spring they would have needed time for their eyes to accustom themselves to the gloomy interior.

Treachery was afoot. Another northern magnate, an old enemy of Uhtred’s named Thurbrand, had prepared an ambush with Canute’s connivance. Suddenly, armed and mailed men sprang out from concealment behind the hangings and slaughtered Uhtred and his men, every one. After a desperate and bloody mêlée which lasted perhaps only a few minutes, forty-one corpses lay among the rushes on the floor.

This act of treachery and slaughter set in motion the chain reaction of counter-violence and yet further violence, a bloodfeud that lasted for three generations and almost sixty years, which is the subject of this book.

This book is ostensibly about Earl Uhtred of Northumbria, son in law of King Ethelred II and “most important man in the north of England”, but like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, it is really a history of a place and period made more accessible (more reader-friendly) by focussing like a biography on one key figure. That key figure, Earl Uhtred, was treacherously murdered in 1016, setting in train a bloodfeud that spanned the closing years of Anglo-Saxon England and the early years of Norman rule.

The first chapter explains exactly what a bloodfeud was and was not, setting it in context as something familiar and normal and “right” in an age when “justice” was hard to come by. This is followed by the best brief history of Anglo-Saxon England I have ever read, taking us from the original settlements to Alfred and Wessex and the Danes, the emergence of the Wessex dynasty as Kings of all England, and so to the great King Edgar (excellently depicted, by the way, in Anya Seton’s Avalon).

The focus then switches to the north and the history of Northumbria and the northern context before returning to the south and Edgar’s son Ethelred the Ill-advised (more often known as the Unready, but Ill-advised is a better translation) and Athelstan and Edmund Ironside, and how the situation in which Canute was able to demand the attendance, unarmed, of such a man as Uhtred, came about.

It is not just a story of a bloodfeud, it is a whole history of the period up to the Conquest by one who, again like Barbara Tuchman, is both an entertaining and fluent writer and an historian with an intimate knowledge both of his chosen period and of the man and the sequence of events that in his view best represent and embody that period.

Highly recommended both to those already hooked on the Anglo-Saxon period and to newcomers.

THE WAY OF WYRD by Brian Bates

Medieval Magic and Mystery

  • real Middle-earth, set between the Underworld and the Spirit World
  • Anglo-Saxon sorcery and shamanism
  • Shamanic healings
  • the loss of the soul
  • encounters with spirits, including the three Wyrd Sisters
  • finding one’s guardian spirit (totem animal)

Medieval Outsiders

  • a Saxon sorcerer/shaman
  • a young Christian scribe from Christian Mercia on a mission in pagan Wessex

way-of-wyrdWay back when, The Way of Wyrd opened a whole new world to me and many others: the shamanistic world of pre-Christian (Saxon) England, the world that was in some respects the original of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth.

I have classified it here as Fiction, though (like much of the best HF) it is also a documentary novel – in this case (to quote the Preface) “a report of a major research project into Anglo-Saxon sorcery […] in which each event and detail of the teachings is reconstructed from the Anglo-Saxon evidence.”

The book is divided into two parts, the first tells how a young Christian scribe, Brand (our narrator), meets Wulf, the wolfman, the sorcerer, and is eventually obliged to acknowledge the reality of Wulf’s powers; the second is the story of Brand’s own encounters with “wyrd” and the World of Spirits.

And as Brand comes to understand what “wyrd” means and is, so do we, at least to some extent.

After what is in effect a classical healing narrative (it is a shamanic healing and Wulf the sorcerer is clearly what we now think of as a shaman), we go back to Brand’s arrival on the south coast  where he is part of a mission imposed on the pagan king of what is presumably Sussex (the realm of the South Saxons) by the Christian king of Mercia, Wulfhere, son of Penda, the “most powerful warlord in the land”.

Wulf later explains that and another healing, this time of a horse, in terms of “life force”, and goes on to introduce Brand to runes, carved on a stick as a protective amulet. He explains why people fear him – and why warriors do not fear death. He speaks of the Wyrd Sisters – then suddenly announces that “they have come to loosen your fibres”. Brand is terrified.

In the second part of the book, the point comes where the natural and the supernatural intersect – which is of course what sorcery and witchcraft are all about, as is made abundantly clear in this book, but misunderstood (or totally ignored) in most orthodox religion and science (though the greatest scientists – men such as Newton and Einstein – like the great trailblazers of religion, do not make that mistake): things go together, happen together (co-incidence) but it is not a matter of one causing the other.

By sorcery [Wulf explains], I mean the forces that rule Middle-Earth. I have told you that, for the sorcerer, everything vibrates the web of wyrd, whether it is an act of the gods or the movement of the tiniest insect. Your arrival trembled the web. The flight of the ravens trembled the web. My presence vibrates the web. All our lives are locked together in the shimmering world of wyrd in which all things are enmeshed, and connected to one another by the threads of wyrd.’

I had been impressed by Wulf’s explanation of a web which contained all things, but now that I was supposedly caught within it, the idea seemed sinister and I could not accept it …

Finally, Brand loses his soul, and has to travel to the Underworld to beg the assistance of “the mighty smiths” before he makes the leap into the World of Spirits in a desperate attempt to retrieve it.

Of particular interest to me now (on rereading the book) were Wulf’s explanations of such common symptoms as fever and sweating: so different, yet quite as likely and as reasonable as our explanations, and his remedies at least as effective.

And this: ‘You must draw your spirit to you along your fibres by singing your own song. That way the guardian spirit will find you […] Do not worry about the words, just make the sounds that come to you. The spirits will understand.’ He gripped my arm. ‘You must do it, Brand. You must! If you do not sing, you will see only visions of death. […] I cannot tell you what to sing, or how to sing. It is your guardian spirit we are seeking. It must be your song. […] Float your word-hoard on the waves of wyrd; the power to release your guardian spirit lies within you alone.‘ These might be words for any poet – indeed any writer!

Essential reading for anyone interested in the culture and beliefs of the early Middle Ages – Middle-Earth.

THE KNIGHTS OF THE TEMPLE OF SOLOMON

A brief history of the Knights Templar, who, though they play no active role in these novels (the Order was dissolved before Mariana was born) are very prominent in the background (in The Rose of Sharon) when Ferchard returns from Outremer (the Holy Land) to France then turns south and commences his scouring of Spain in search of his old friend Sir Andrew MacElpin, which results in his finding and joining up with Sir Andrew’s daughter Mariana soon after she is given her freedom by her master, Abderrahman ibn Khaldoun.

knightstemplar

Foundation and Growth

This celebrated order of soldier-monks was founded in Jerusalem at the beginning of the twelfth century by a group of nine French knights led by Hugues de Payen. According to Guillaume de Tyre, the date was AD 1118, but it was probably several years earlier. They were known originally as the Poor Knights of Christ, and their symbol was two knights on one horse.

They were recognised initially by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and King Baudouin (Baldwin) II of “Outremer” – Jerusalem and “overseas”.

One of the nine knights was André de Montbard, uncle of the extremely influential abbot who would later become St Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard supported them in their early years and it was almost certainly he who drew up their Rule in 1129, when they were recognised by the Pope at the Council of Troyes.

arn-dyingThe Order had four groups of members: Knights (of noble birth), Sergeants (who were commoners), Chaplains (only these were priests), and Servants. Of these, only the knights took perpetual vows (of poverty, chastity and obedience).

In 1139, Pope Innocent III (formerly of Clairvaux) declared in a Papal Bull that from now on the Templars would owe allegiance to no one but himself, thus making them independent of kings, governments and Church authorites.

Their fame spread and the numbers joining their ranks grew. As Patten and Mackness point out in Sacred Treasure, Secret Power, “A potent mix of military virtues, such as courage, discipline, fortitude, and strength, together with the spiritual values of self-sacrifice, compassion, charity and chivalry, form a powerful archetype, which may explain something of the Order’s appeal.” And they prospered. Their fortresses made good safe-deposits, and in other ways they acted as bankers: they could convey money securely, and they had money to lend. In the thirteenth century, the Paris preceptory was (in effect) the Royal Treasury.

Downfall

Their downfall was sudden. After the Fall of Acre (1291), the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and Outremer was no more; in the eyes of the world, the Templars had lost their prime purpose, though they themselves set up headquarters on Cyprus and planned a return to Palestine.

In 1307, the new Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, moved the Order’s headquarters to France. There, on Friday 13th October, 1307, Philip IV (the Fair) ordered the arrest of all Templars in France. He already had the papacy in his hands: between 1303 and 1305 he had got rid of two popes (Boniface VIII and Benedict IX) in order to get his own man, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, elected as Clement V.

The arrest of the Templars was not an entire success. They must have been forewarned, for no ships of the Templar fleet were taken – they had all sailed away and were never seen again; nor were most of the knights; nor was most of the “treasure”. This latter may have been because in the Languedoc, Philip’s order to seize the Templars and their Houses was not obeyed, and it was probably there that the treasure was stored.

Philip’s reasons for persecuting the Order are clear. An unpopular king, he had once had the embarrassing experience of having to take refuge in the Templar preceptory in Paris when he was being hunted by the mob. While there, he was able to compare their palace with his own. He then applied for membership of the Order (no doubt intending to become Grand Master and lay his hands on all their wealth and their secrets) but was turned down, no reason given. He owed them vast sums of money (as he had the Lombards and the Jews: he had reneged on his debts to the Lombards and had expelled all Jews from France). Their military might and organisation was vastly superior to his won. They planned to carve out their own independent state in the Occitan (Languedoc) – no doubt de Molay’s reason for the return to France.

de-molayA former member of the order testified that had been covert Muslims for years and had also practised sodomy. Under torture, De  Molay confessed to blasphemy, including denying Christ and spitting on the Cross, and worshipping a devil called Baphomet. Other Templars confessed to prostrating themselves before “a head”. On March 22nd, 1312, the Order was dissolved by the Council of Vienne under Pope Clement V.

De Molay later recanted, and was burned at the stake in front of Notre Dame in Paris in March 1314.

All the kings in Europe were instructed by the Church to follow suit. Not all did.

Edward II of England at first defended them, then under extreme pressure, arrested a few, but these were given light prison sentences which they served in abbeys under generally comfortable conditions. (This may indirectly have led to his deposion and death: his wife, Isabella, was was the sister of Philip IV. On a visit to her brother’s court in France, she met Roger Mortimer, an English nobleman living in exile: it was with him that she later invaded England and deposed her husband.)

Robert Bruce of Scotland had already been excommunicated himself. The Order was never dissolved in Scotland.

The Duke of Lorraine (Lorraine was not part of France then) supported them loyally.

In Portugal they were reborn as the Knights of Christ: both Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were Knights of Christ, and Prince Henry the Navigator was the Grand Master.

In Germany, most Templars joined the Order of Teutonic Knights – who later supported Martin Luther: revenge indeed!

The Mysteries

The first mystery is the founding of the Order. Guillaume de Tyre seems to have many things wrong – including the date, which was probably 1111 or 1112, not 1118. Was the whole story of the nine poor knights either a legend or a cover-up? (For a thorough sifting of all the evidence see pp85-86 in The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, and for a full discussion of its relevance to the “Temple Treasure”, see Sacred Treasure, Secret Power.)

Asrly as 1208, at the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade, Pope Innocent III called them “unChristian” and “necromancers”. Why? Was it true, and known, even then? Or was it because they refused to support the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars? “The Grand Master at the time … made the Order’s position clear when he declared there was only one true Crusade – the Crusade against the Saracens.” (The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail)

Another mystery is how close they really were to the Cathars? Templars and Templar castles, houses and fortresses, were thick on the ground in Languedoc, the heartland of Catharism. They provided refuge for Perfects during the Albigensian Crusade. Many of the noble families of the area who supported Catharism also had Templar knights in the family. Bertrand de Blanchefort, fourth Grand Master of the Templars, came of a Cathar family, and his descendants fought with the Cathars against the Albigensian Crusaders. The Blanchefort lands in the Razès are also mentioned in Sacred Treasure, Secret Power in connection with the Visigoth treasure.

cathars_and_templars_2016

Then there is the question of the accusations against them, especially that of worshipping Baphomet. Was “the head” Baphomet? There does seem to have been a head, but whose? That of Hugues de Payen, the Founder? Or was it believed to be the head of John the Baptist? Were they Mandaeans (a heretical sect who believed that the true Messiah was John the Baptist not Jesus of Nazareth)? There were still Mandaeans in the Jordan area, and the Templars must have come across them. It is possible, but in my opinion unlikely: for a start, it is incompatible with the Templars’ close links with Catharism. Could it have been a copy of the head of the Turin Shroud, which was in the Templars’ possession until 1307? And was the so-called “repudiation of Christ” really only a repudiation of the Cross (which was also abhorrent to the Cathars)?

MAGIC – FACT OR FICTION?

john_william_waterhouse_-_magic_circle

Is magic fact or is it simply something we like to indulge in the concept of, to fantasise about in books such as those I write?

Much will depend on our definition of the word “magic”, our understanding of the mysterious and the miraculous. Is a mystery simply something we do not understand yet? Is a miracle a wonder that goes clear against the laws of nature – or one that merely seems to go against the laws of nature because we do not yet fully understand those laws?

Our Prejudices 

Our answers will be dictated to some extent by our personal preferences. Some people wish to believe, others refuse to, no matter what the evidence. This latter group includes, of course, the kind of doctor who dismisses even homeopathy as absurd because it cannot be explained, only witnessed; the kind of scientist who refused to attend the first flight by a heavier-than-air vehicle, the first demonstration of television. On the other hand, those who wish to believe are only too likely to be taken in by charlatans. We must, then, try to approach the subject with an open mind.

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson did so in The Occult.

occult-cover

In Part One, he introduced the concept of “Faculty X”, “the latent power to reach beyond the present to other realities”. Part Two is a comprehensive history of magic, very relevant to our needs on this site, and in Part Three he has a long section on witchcraft and shape-shifting.

Mysteries cover

In Mysteries, he probed even deeper into the world of the paranormal, dealing with phenomena such as dowsing and divination, and explaining the views of Jung, Ouspensky, William James and Aldous Huxley, as well as those of poet/mystics Blake, Yeats and (a favourite of mine) F.W.H. Myers.

Beyond cover

Finally, twenty years later, in Beyond The Occult, he demonstrated that “the world picture of the modern occultist is as consistent and comprehensive as that of the scientist”.

All three books highly recommended to those seriously interested in investigating the fact behind the fantasy.

Witches and Witchcraft

As we have seen, Wilson discusses witchcraft in The Occult, but for those who wish to go deeper into the subject there is Julio Caro Baroja’s classic work The World of the Witches.

World of the Witches

This book focuses principally on Spain (where “witches were condemned to be burnt as early as AD 943”) but it covers the growth and understanding of witchcraft in the Middle Ages throughout western Europe and gives a fascinating “in-depth account of the crisis of witchcraft in the Basque country at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.”

Among other subjects he discusses is man’s innate fear of the power women have over them (what we see for instance in the myth of Circe), and the mysogyny not only of the Christian world (Eastern at least as much as Western) but also of medieval Judaism: “the authors of the Talmud,” he points out in commenting upon Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), “frequently made statements like ‘Women are naturally inclined to witchcraft’, ‘the more women there are, the more witchcraft there will be’, ‘most women are witches’, and so forth.”

An important and thoughtful book in which every theory of witchcraft is considered.

Another gem is the Cassell Dictionary of Witchcraft, which is especially good on named witches (such as Gowdie, Isobel) and witchcraft in specific places, such as St Osyth. (St Osyth figures largely in Mariana 3, The Undeparted Dead.)

Dictionary cover

Wizards

The Merlin-Gandalf archetype does seem to be a figure of fantasy. Yet how did it come to be an archetype? In prehistoric times, the mage-shaman-wizard, the outsider who understood and moved in the world of the spirits, must have occupied a key place in every society.

Magic for You

The best way of learning about a subect is to practise it. For those interested in exploring the subject for themselves, there is Julie Soskin’s Are You Psychic?

Are you Ps cover

This wonderful – and beautifully illustrated – book contains sections (each with practical exercises) on, for instance, “Exerting Mind over Matter”, “Developing Clairvoyant Vision”, “Could You be a Shaman?” and “Amulets and Talismans”. Superbly produced and highly recommended. I loved it – and learnt more from it than from twenty other books. (Her website address is www.juliesoskin.com if you’d like to find out more.)

 

 

Vampire Burials

Mariana comes face to face with the Undead in THE UNDEPARTED DEAD (Mariana de la Mar 2) – due to be published via Amazon Kindle on 1st April 2017. Here, to get you in the mood is a documentary on Vampire Burials that I spotted on YouTube.