Year of Fun Reading: A Book About Books or Reading

June marks halfway through the year (!) and so I’m also halfway through my Year of Fun Reading Challenge. This month I was to read “a book about books or reading.” So in keeping with my take on this challenge, which is, as much as possible, to read books in each category that are speculative fiction, this month I read Ink and Bone: The Great Library #1, by Rachel Caine.

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One of the great sorrows in the world is that the great library compiled in Alexandria, Egypt, founded in 3 BC by Ptolemy I, the successor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed by fire either in 48 AD by Julius Caesar or sometime in the third century AD  by the Roman Emperor Aurelian. The remaining books (in the form of scrolls, of course) were moved to a secondary site called the Serapeum (a temple) that was destroyed either in the fourth century or the seventh century, depending on what narrative you believe. But no matter when it happened, at some point all the accumulated wisdom from centuries past that had been collected in the Great Library was lost, except for copies that had survived in other places. There is great speculation about what could have been housed there in its vast collection (some say up to half a million scrolls!) but no one knows for sure, as the index of the scrolls stored there was also destroyed along with the library.

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One artist’s conception of what the Great Library might have looked like. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo. It attracted the great teachers of the classic era, such as Euclid and Archimedes. Image from crystalinks.com

When I heard that the premise of Ink and Bone was of an alternate history where the Great Library had not been destroyed, I was immediately excited to read this book. It’s about books, and reading, so how could I go wrong?

The story opens in a sort of steam-punky London. The main character, seventeen-year-old Jess Brightwell, comes from a family of book smugglers, which steal originals of books and sell them to the highest bidders. This is necessary because the Great Library of Alexandria has grown to be the repository of all books, and ownership of original books is only possible for the very wealthy and privileged few.  Alchemy allows the Great Library to deliver copies of books to anyone, but not every book.

This is a fun take on the real history of the Library. It is said that as soon as any ship docked in Alexandria, they were searched, and any scrolls found on them were taken to the Great Library, where copies were made. The copies were delivered back to the ships and the Library kept the originals.

The books in this story are not papyri, but instead what is called “blanks”, which are very like an e-book. No one has the original paper books or parchment scrolls, except for the Library.

Jess is sent by his father as a sort of spy to the training school for students who wish to be employees of the Great Library. The Library is the enemy of the book smugglers, and so he wants his son to find out all he can about how the Library works and the various raids that might be coming up against book smugglers. Jess manages to pass the entrance exam and is sent to Alexandria, Egypt, the site of the Great Library, to begin his training. His fellow students come from around the world, and they all are in competition for the six spots that are open to them. They have to go through various tests set out for them their exacting teacher and mentor, Wolfe, in order to keep advancing towards their goal.

This is a YA novel (drat, I wish I had known that before I started it!) and there are several elements in it familiar to others. You have students in a school (Harry Potter), competition against each other to gain what they desire (Hunger Games) and a slightly dystopian setting (like so very many of the YA speculative fiction novels these days).

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But although in general I am not a big fan of YA fiction, I will say I did enjoy this book for the most part. Jess is an interesting character, and although there is a romance in the book it’s not quite as annoying as I find many of the love story elements of other YA books which have a female protagonist. In fact it was refreshing to have a male protagonist for a change!

There are definite twists and turns to the plot, which kept it interesting, and the interaction between the students and seeing them come together into a united group by the end was enjoyable to read.

But what I like most about this book is the setting. The whole concept of the survival of the Great Library and translating that into a more modern-day setting was intriguing. The big questions that book asks about censorship, and the power of knowledge, and the value of free access to knowledge as opposed to only knowing what “they” want you to know, added some thought-provoking elements to an otherwise standard YA novel.

There are other books in this series, but I’m not sure I will read them (YA is just not my thing, as I explained here. But this one was a fun ride with deeper themes than most, all about the importance of books and the lengths taken to preserve them.  I give kudos to the author for indulging my fantasy of having access to the Great Library of Alexandria, but seeing as the Library in the book is a sinister entity, perhaps the lesson is that getting what you want is not always a good thing!

My rating: Three stars

 

 

 

Fiction Feature: More

More

Matt was just getting off the subway when he saw her. It was rush hour, the people jostling and frantic, ejecting from the car like so much human vomit. And that was just about how Matt felt at the end of the work week.

His briefcase snagged on the door, slowing him down, and he looked back, to see what had happened. But instead, his eyes lit on her, way past the surging crowd, almost swallowed up in the dark of the tunnel beyond.

She knelt with her hands caught in the fur of a shaggy dog’s neck, and it was something about the way that dog was looking at her that caught his eye, or maybe it was the way she was looking at it? Matt couldn’t explain the sensation that pricked at him with a thousand tiny fingers.

He froze, seeing her golden hair that shouldn’t be shining so in the darkness, wonder unfurling like a blossom, and then he was jostled, snapped back into the human stream. When he looked again, she was gone.

A split second of inattention, that’s all it took.

He glimpsed the dog, though, weaving through the crowds, heading out the exit with the rest.

The tingle faded. A harsh curse in his ear made him realize he was standing still, got him moving again.

He forgot her in the bustle of life, the wearisome numbness of work and deadlines and pressure, until three days later, when he saw her again.

The weekend this time, walking home from the grocery store with bags dangling from his hands, no more thought in his head but to get home, put his feet up, watch the game.

The setting sun bathed the city with its last luminescence, everything aglow with the fading of day.

And there she was, just ahead. He knew it from her hair, from the golden strands that held the fading light. She walked slowly, with measured grace, and with his first glimpse his pace quickened, like his body knew before his mind that he had to catch up.

But he couldn’t. The people on the sidewalk, families and hipsters and geeks, became obstacles that blocked and delayed and harried his steps.

Just before she faded into the crowd, she turned back and looked at him, right at him and through him, and he felt that tingle again, stronger and deeper than before; everything ripe with possibilities and charged with meaning.

He heard something, too; a song, bells? Faint, and chiming. Her eyes were the green of mossy woods, and he felt the weight of them, just for a second, and then she turned, and was gone.

A word wafted through his mind.

More.

He saw her again, two days later, and again, a week after that. Brief glimpses. It was driving him crazy. Especially because every time, he forgot about her right after, until his eyes snagged on her and it all came back, the ache of it, and then she would turn a corner, or the bus he was on would whiz past. Or, maddeningly, the elevator door closed in his face just as he glimpsed her walking by, her head turning to look at him.

That time, though, he clenched his fists and fixed her in his mind, and he held on to her for a few seconds. Then the elevator door opened, his boss walked in, and just like that she was gone from his mind as thoroughly as she had disappeared from his sight.

Later, he sat on his balcony in the warm summer night, listening to the sounds of the city murmur around him, a cold drink in his hand. He felt restless, unmoored, aching for something he couldn’t even define. Then he heard it, ghosting above the traffic and the sirens and the heat.

More.

He stood up, looking down, and saw that golden hair, saw her, standing below, looking up at him.

Everything shifted around him, that tingle pricking at him, and he shouted, desperate. “Wait!”

He looked at her in agony for a moment, knowing that as soon as he straightened up, ran down there, the reason for doing so would likely leave him the moment she left his sight. “Stay there! Please!”

He sucked in a breath and ran through his apartment, out the door and down the three flights, tearing the door open, holding her firmly in his mind – don’t forget, don’t forget – and when he burst out onto the sidewalk and found it empty, he could have wept.

Except – there –  she was walking around the corner and he followed, into the Park, under the trees, the muggy heat cooling there, the whizzing sounds of the cars fading into a low murmur, his heart pounding loud as she stopped under the spreading oak and turned back to him.

“So. Will you come?”

Matt stopped short. “I’m here.”

“Yes. Here. Will you come?”

“Where?”

She smiled as slow as the sun going down. “It cannot be undone.”

Matt felt the truth of it. A door was opening. Once he crossed, he couldn’t come back. “But where—“

“Not where. You will be here. The same, you’ll see. But not. A world within the world. Where the edges are different. Where your word is true.  Deeper danger and stronger joys. The stakes are higher.” Her head tilted. “Your choice. Come, or no.”

She stood serene, her hand out.

The song was filling him to the edges, softening his thundering heart, opening his shuttered eyes.

More.

Matt stepped forward, the door closing behind him, and took her hand.

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This Girl, by Fio Karr, on unsplash

 


Featured photo: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

Seeds: What’s Next?

It’s springtime here in Alberta, and that means planting. I have been doing my part to make the earth fruitful, in my small little plot of land that is my yard. Some bedding plants, some perennials, and a few tomatoes and an couple of pumpkins. That’s as far as I got.

In previous years I have had a more extensive garden, including carrots, and peas, and potatoes, and other various vegetables which generally meant a whole lot of work without not much yield, due to the craziness of trying to grow vegetables when there is a possibility of snow or freezing pretty much any month of the year here. Hence my lack of enthusiasm this year!

It’s always fun to plant the seeds, though, and watch the garden grow. This year I may not have planted any physical seeds, but there are a few seeds rattling around in my brain all the same; seeds of book plans, future blog posts, and  future writing endeavours.

I thought I would share these here, just to help keep myself accountable!

  1. THE BOOK/S (1? 2? 3?)

a) Revisions

I spent some time doing some planning the other day, and mapped out how many more chapters of revision I have to do and made myself a time-line, just so I have something to shoot at. Turns out if I can do about 6 chapters a week, I should be finished revision by the end of August, even with the holidays we have planned over the summer.

I am hoping to get the revised MS to beta readers in September. If any of you are interested in being a beta reader, I would be happy to take you up on it. And for those of you who have read the earlier draft and want to see the more polished version, I’d love to get your feedback as well. It will be the whole kit and caboodle, as they say, not just the first of the trilogy that you have read before, just to sweeten the deal.

b) Next steps?

After revisions are done, I will have to take the feedback from the beta readers and look at the whole MS and make some decisions. Will it be one book? Or maybe two? What is the best way forward? Does some of the things I took out need to come back?

I have to get a book launch plan in place, and a cover, and marketing plans, etc. I plan to do this over October and November. I will also do the final edits in October. I’m toying with sending it out again for a professional edit, but I’m not sure. We’ll see.

c) Launch?

Keeping in mind all of the above, and depending on how the revisions and feedback from readers goes, I’m looking at a launch sometime in the first half of the New Year. Which totally terrifies me. Watch this space!

 

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2. FUTURE BLOG POSTS

I am settling into a bit of a rhythm here on the blog, and so far it’s working pretty well for me this year. I don’t know if you have noticed, but generally the months are structured like this:

First week – something about the Dark Ages. Might be a focus on a person from that time, or  something about the culture, or whatever strikes my fancy. As my book is set in this era, I like to keep that focus to hopefully gain interest on my book, both before and after publication.

Second week – something random, maybe a book or movie review, or another Dark Ages post, or an interview with another writer, or whatever. Once in awhile I’ll throw in some writing-related topics, like my recent one on tropes.

Third week – this is where I hope to have my Fiction Feature, where I share original short stories, like last week’s story, and this one I put up a couple of months ago.

Fourth week – my review of the book I read for my Year of Fun Reading.

I”m not exactly tied to this structure with bonds of steel. My first and last posts of the month will generally be as I have outlined here, but I have a little more flexibility with the middle two. Probably I won’t get a story up every month, but I’m aiming to get one up every two months for sure.

At the beginning of the month I try to fill in the topics for each week, just to avoid the weekly panic of what to write about. A little planning goes a long way. (I should remember that, to curb my “pantsing” tendencies…)

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3. FUTURE WRITING ENDEAVOURS

a) Professional market?

The last couple of years I have had a goal to get published in a professional paying short story market. There are two reasons for this, first of all these markets generally pay better, but more importantly, I want to see if I can get accepted into the markets where the big boys play. I’ve had no success so far, but I have had at least one publication tell me to send them something else, so that’s inching forward, at any rate.

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Er, yes. It can take a looonnggg time to hear back…..

It’s hard, though. I’m naturally more of a novel writer than a short story writer. But it’s good practice for me to write shorter pieces, it helps me with my book writing.

So, this is still a goal but I find with being caught up in the book revisions I don’t have as much time to write short stories. That is one of the reasons I decided to put more stories on my blog, it forces me to write them! But then I also have to write some for publication, as generally editors don’t want anything previously published, and having a story on a blog (on any other online venue) is considered previously published. It all comes down to time, and priorities. I have to put the book first, so story-writing often gets pushed aside.

b) Professional development

I hope to schedule more time for growth as a writer. That means more writing, as explained above, but workshops, conferences, etc are good, too. Unfortunately I will miss the wonderful When Words Collide festival in Calgary, I will be out of province then. But there are many opportunities for writers these days, just looking online you can find myriad opportunities for writers who want to work on their craft. And I’ve got lots of “how to” books I can work through as well. So I don’t have any excuse.

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In October I’m treating myself to a marvellous experience called Hutchmoot, in Nashville. This is the brainchild of the folks over at The Rabbit Room, which is pretty much my favourite place on the web. It’s not a writing workshop per se, but it will be a great place for my artistic soul to get refreshed and filled. And I’m hoping to meet some fellow writers and get some encouragement (and give some, too!).

I hope your spring and summer season is full of fruitful seeds, as well. Thank you so much for stopping by here, and reading my words. It is appreciated more than you know.

And if you have any suggestions for what YOU would like to see me do here, please let me know in the comments.

 


Feature image from D Sharon Pruitt, on flickr

St. Brigid of Kildare

There are some really interesting women whose names come down to us through history from the Dark Ages, and Brigid is one of them. Born in 451 AD in the north of Ireland, in County Lough, she,  along with Patrick and Columba, is one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is also known as Brigit or Bride (pronounced more like breed than bride).

As is the case with many of the people whose stories come to us from this period, caveats abound in the recounting of their stories, and in Brigid’s case, there are more caveats than most.

The biggest caveat is that there is some controversy as to whether she even existed at all. She shares a name with an important goddess of the Celtic pagans who lived in what is now known as Ireland. This goddess was associated with healing, smith-craft, and fertility; some of these are also associated with St. Brigid, in terms of the miracles attributed to her. Some suggest that the Celtic god Brigid was Christianized into the Saint we know as Brigid. It is true that the Christian church did appropriate pagan sites for their churches, and superimposed their own religious festivals on top of the existing pagan ones. So it is possible that some of that has gone on in the stories that come down to us about Brigid.

However, I tend to think that she was a real person, and although some of her story might be mixed up with the pagan god Brigid I am going to proceed under the assumption that she did, indeed, exist.

The main details of her life come to us from a few sources, mainly hagiographies*. The earliest of which was written around 625 AD, about a hundred years after Brigid died in 525 AD, by St. Broccan Cloen (said to be the nephew of St. Patrick).  Another was penned in the 8th century by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare. There are a couple of others, referred to in a forward added to Cloen’s biography, by an Irish bishop in the 8th century.

It is worth noting, on the question of whether or not Brigid was a real person, that scholars have found eleven people mentioned in her biographies who are independently verified in other sources. So that lends a little veracity to the story of her life included in her biographies.

Brigid, by all accounts, was born a slave. She was the daughter of the Pict Brocca, a Christian, who was the servant to Brigid’s father, Dubthach, a pagan chieftain of county Leinster. It seems that Dubthach’s wife was not too impressed when Brocca became pregnant, and forced him to sell her (and her unborn child) to a druid. There are various stories of miracles surrounding Brigid as a child, including that she was unable to eat the food provided by the druid (because of its unclean nature, one presumes) and a white cow with red ears appeared to provide for her (in milk and cheese) instead.

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St. Brigid’s Cross. Tradition says that she was tending to a pagan chieftain (perhaps her father) on his deathbed, and she picked up some rushes from the floor and began weaving them into a cross in order to explain the Christian gospel to him. He was so enamoured of her words he accepted the faith and was baptized before he died. Traditionally, every year on the eve of her feast day (Feb. 1) Irish Catholics will weave a cross and put it up on the inside of their house, over the door. Image from Blarney.com

She was returned to her father at around the age of ten as a household servant, and impressed all by her acts of charity. However her father wasn’t too pleased, as being a servant Brigid had no property to speak of, and so the items she gave away to the poor were in fact his. The final straw came when he got fed up and tried to sell her (or in some stories, marry her) to the king of Leinster and while they were negotiating the deal, Brigid tried to give away her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a leper. The king recognized Brigid’s holiness and persuaded her father to grant her freedom, that she might become a nun.

Around 480 AD, when Brigid was around thirty, she built an oratory (place of prayer) at  Kildare. This name is Anglicized from the Celtic, Cill Dara, “church of the oak”. This is because the it was established on the site of an older, Celtic druidic shrine, which featured a large oak tree, sacred to the Celts.

It’s fascinating to see the intersection of pagan and Christian beliefs, and how the  Celtic Christians attempted to not just eradicate the old ways, but to fold them into the new beliefs. It seems that along with the sacred oak, pagan women would tend to an eternal flame at this site, the goddess Brigid being associated with smith craft, which took fire, of course.

Brigid the Abbess did not quench this flame, but instead had a group of her young nuns tend it, after being consecrated to Christ, one assumes (some stories say this started after her death, in honour of her). Amazingly, this flame was kept burning until the 1200s, when it was put out by the Archbishop of Dublin, due to his fears that it fostered superstition.

The small oratory soon expanded. The Celtic Christians were unique in that they allowed for women and men to serve in monasteries together (although in separate buildings) and the monastery at Kildare was the first of these in Ireland, presided over by Brigid as Abbess, who appointed the hermit Conleth to co-rule with her (and presumably take care of the monks). Kildare thus became the first organized centre of spirituality for women in Ireland.

Kildare quickly became an important centre for religion and learning, which drew students not only from Ireland but from all across Europe. Brigid is credited with founding a school of metal-working and art on the site, and although the illuminated manuscript produced there, known as the Book of Kildare, disappeared during the Reformation (grrr) by all accounts it was exceedingly beautiful. The church itself was also said to be very beautiful and lavishly decorated with embroidered tapestries and pictures, and featuring elaborately carved windows and doors.

Brigid did not just rest on her laurels at Kildare, however. She travelled extensively through Ireland, founding many churches. It is said that she had a great friendship with St. Patrick, who was her contemporary.

She died at Kildare in 525 AD. Tradition says she died on February 1st, which became her feast day. That may or may not be true, I’m a little suspicious about that. Simply because February 1st is also Imbolc, the pagan festival celebrating spring. Possibly this is one of those times when the Church added a Saint to a pagan festival to Christianize it.

No matter what the actual date was, it is said that as she lay dying, she was given the last rites by a priest named Ninnidh, and  that afterwards, he encased his hand in metal, so as to never again touch anything with the hand that had touched Brigid, becoming known as “Ninnidh of the Clean Hand.” The patron saint of all those who swear never to wash their hands again after touching someone famous, I suppose!

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This is the cathedral at Kildare today, a restoration of the medieval buildings destroyed during the Reformation. Brigid’s original buildings would of course been made out of wood, or wattle and daub. Image from Wikipedia

Brigid’s remains were interred at the altar of Kildare, with a costly tomb adorned with jewels and precious stones raised over her. But due to the Viking raids, her relics were taken from there and re-buried in the tomb of Patrick and Columba, which shows the high esteem the people of Ireland had for her. Today, she is known as the “Mary of the Gaels.”

There is a prayer purported to be Brigid’s, which I really like. It’s impossible to say whether or not this does actually come from her, but nevertheless it gives you an idea of either her own perspective or how she was seen by others:

I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.

I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.**
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.

From Brigid or not, this definitely belongs to the Early Middle Ages, however. The last couple lines comes straight from the mead hall, evoking the scene of the warriors drinking and celebrating after a battle, with the ale flowing liberally. So if that is how an earthly king’s victories is celebrated, how much more should we celebrate the victories of the King of Kings? With a lake of beer, of course, and drinking throughout eternity!

The Celts had a culture in which there was considerable equality between men and  women, and where women were involved in positions of power, even so far as to going to battle and being judges and Queens. It was a much more matriarchal society than those which came from the Greek and Roman tradition. So it’s not surprising that the Celtic Christians incorporated this into their church structures, allowing for double monasteries, and powerful women church leaders like Brigid and Hild of Whitby.

Brigid, by all accounts, was a strong but humble leader, generous and hard-working, devoted to God. She left an indelible impression on Irish society which remains to this day.


* A hagiography is a biography of a saint. In the rest of this post I will use the word “biography”, as it is the more familiar one. But that word gives us the modern connotation of objectivity. A hagiography most certainly was not.  Generally they were not written with an eye for exact historical details, but rather to extol the virtues of that particular saint, who likely was the founder the monastery to which the author belonged. In other words, you have to take these with a grain of salt. There was a lot of “my saint is better than your saint” involved. They are similar to the stories of the kings and other important people that come down to us from this era and earlier ones, except these try to extol spiritual strength, not worldly.  It was more about proving that your “guy” (or gal) was the best – the strongest, the most heroic, the most virtuous, the most whatever. It’s not to say that these don’t have any nuggets of historical truth in them, though. You just have to sift through some of the flowery details to find them. 🙂

**The three Marys appear in Scripture and in church tradition, referring to the three Marys at the crucifixion and/or the three Marys at the resurrection.  Mary was a common name at the time, and so in Scripture you find Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Madgelene; Mary of Bethany; Mary, mother of James the Less; Mary of Cleopas; Mary, mother of John Mark; and Mary of Rome. Some of these may be the same person.

Featured image is from St. Brigid’s Parish, Gisbourne, and is an icon of Brigid. I like that she is holding the flame!

Fiction Feature: Life for Life

I aim to share more of my writing on the blog, hopefully once a month. We’ll see. Seeing as my novel-in-progress features elves, of a sort, I find that I have quite a few stories floating around in my mind about elves and the mythology surrounding them. The elves in this story are a little more traditional than the ones in my book. It was a fun one to write. I hope you enjoy it, at any rate. Any comments welcome. 


Life for Life

We broke from the trees, the mountain rising before us like a juggernaut, lazy mist swirling around its flanks. I grew cold at the sight. At the base of those rocky slopes I had lost all I held dear, and now I returned, to get it back.

Gruff snarled beside me, and I motioned him to quiet.

His large head swung towards me, lambent yellow eyes glowing, ears twitching.

I let out a breath, which ghosted silver around us. “Not far now.”

He smiled, showing snaggled teeth, the hatred of his kind for the elves sharp in his eyes. “Elf-blood. Soon, Lady, soon.”

I set my jaw. “Perhaps,” I cautioned. “But be wary. Their Charms are powerful, I know it full well. If they use magic we must fight. I will get my child back, or die trying.” My hand fell to the knife at my side and I squinted at the sky. “We must away. I would not fight the Elves at night, with the moon to aid them.”

Gruff nodded, and I gestured him forward, my purpose hardening. I would not fight the Elves at all. That way led to doom. But I kept that from the ogre for reasons of my own. I followed in his wake, the icy ball of fear in my gut growing with every step, no matter my boastful words.

My husband is dead, my family scattered since the Wars. My child is all that was left to me, and I would retrieve him, no matter the dire warnings, the mutterings about the Elves and their trickery. I had thought long, though, and come up with some trickery of my own. I could only pray it would be enough.

Two hours later we came to the riling brook that was the border to Dayladel. We had been watched for some time. I felt their eyes upon me, their mild regard. They had no fear of a human and an ogre, why should they? Their magic shielded them. The same magic that separated me from my babe last year, their songs and enchantments drawing me here, deep into the woods, my son strapped to my back as I stepped across the brook. When I awoke the next day he was gone. They left me with a changeling, a mewling misshapen creature that I brought back, weeks later. When they ignored my plea I left it there to die.

I shook the memory from me. The noonday sun sparkled on the water as I lifted my chin, my hands fisted at my side. “Raleadon!”

My voice was strong enough to startle a bird into flight nearby. The mist swirled among the trees, and beyond the brook I could see but little.

The ogre growled deep in his chest, a low rumbling noise, as a figure appeared through the mists, walking slowly towards us, a high, thin song floating with him.

That song twined around us, the melody elusively complex, carrying with it hints and promises, glimpses of Dayladel, where the dancing Elves wore garments of moonshine and lace, shimmering in a silvery glow….

Beside me, Gruff roared, his foot stamping the ground and my eyes flew open. I staggered as I checked myself–one foot was in the brook. Heart pounding, I leapt back. My cheeks flushed under the cool regard of Raleadon’s violet eyes. So easy it was to be Charmed.

I must act now, or never.

“Gruff!” The word tore out of me and Gruff roared again, lifting his arms and shaking his spear, taking one step towards the Elf.

Suddenly there was a twisting in the air around us. The mist swirled around the ogre, obscuring him from my eyes. Then I blinked, for where Gruff once stood a twisted pine lifted it’s branches to the sky, throwing a spiky shadow.

I swallowed back my surging elation and faced Raleadon. “I’ll have him back. My son is no Elf. My blood has rights on his.”

One thin eyebrow lifted as Raleadon’s eyes flicked over me. “We traded you life for life, and you rejected it. The matter is done. And as you see, we cannot be forced.” He turned, to leave me.

“Nay, it is not. You tried to trick me, thinking my love would blind me to the flaws of the creature you left me with. ‘Twas no true bargain. I want my son back.”

He turned back, his face serene. “But you have nothing to give in exchange.”

I gestured at the pine. “Life for life.” I held my breath, hoping against hope it would be enough. For Gruff I felt but a twinge of regret. He held no claim on me, none at all.

Raleadon’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the tree, and then a wide smile split his face, the cold beauty of it dazzling to my human eyes. “Ah, you prove more interesting than most.” He gestured, and two other figures materialized out of the mist behind him; one wreathed in song, the other, a child.

It took everything I had not to cross the brook. I would not be trapped there again.

The Elves’ magic had done its work; it was no toddler but a young lad that surveyed me with wide eyes. His father’s eyes. With a slight push Raleadon sent him towards me, and he splashed across the water to my open arms.

The Elves turned and faded back into the mist with nary a glance back.

I had won.

A tremor ran through me, and for a moment I placed my hand on the pine’s knobbly trunk. Life for life. It was the deepest magic, the only thing that could sway the Elves. “I won’t forget,” I whispered.

The boy looked up at me with his father’s eyes and my heart swelled. I took his hand, and together we turned our back on the mountain, towards home.

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Image from suwalls

Feature image: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

2017 Reading Challenge: A Book I’ve Already Read

I hummed and hawed about this month’s book for my 2017 Reading Challenge. I couldn’t think of the right book. So many choices, after all. I chose and read one book, but it just wasn’t right, somehow. Then, eureka! I suddenly remembered a book I had downloaded on my Kindle sometime last year, a book I very much wanted to read again.

I discovered The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wanegrin, Jr. soon after it was published in 1978, in the midst of when I was happily reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Lord of the Rings, and was hungry for other books of the same quality. The story intrigued me and I saw it had received a National Book Award, so I figured the writing had to be pretty good.

And if you have followed my series last year, you will know that I am a sucker for books about animals, and seeing as this book featured Chauntecleer the Rooster and various other animals, it was a no-brainer for me to give it a try. And I was very glad I did, for this became one of my favourite books.

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The setting for the book is Earth, but not exactly the Earth we know. The story takes place at a time when the animals can all speak and understand speech, and when the earth is fixed in place, with the sun revolving around it. The animals all live on the surface of the Earth, but unbeknownst to them, a monstrous evil is imprisoned at the heart of the Earth, the great serpent Wyrm, who writhes and roars in utter hatred of both the animals and God, who imprisoned him there (“Sum Wyrm! Sub terra!“).

The animals, however, live an ordered peaceful life in the Coop, deaf to Wrym’s rage. Chauntecleer, as roosters do, crows, but his are no ordinary crows. He has crows for times of celebration and grief, for joy and dance, for alarm and victory. But his best crows are the Crows Canonical. Seven times a day, at dawn, 9 AM, noon, 3 PM, 6 PM, dusk, and bedtime, Chauntecleer marks the passing of time with his crows, giving the animals safety and structure in the midst of their days.

When Chauntecleer crowed his canonical crows, the day wore the right kind of clothes; his hens lived and scratched in peace, happy with what was, and unafraid of what was to be; even wrong things were made right, and the grey things explained. 

Along with Chauntecleer and the Hens, other animals live in the Coop and its nearby lands, among them Mundo Cani Dog, whose mournful cry “Marooned!” gives you a hint as to his Eeyore-type personality,  John Wesley Weasel, whose weasel-y tendencies are softened under the influence of the Crows Canonical, and Wee Widow Mouse, who is loved by John Wesley.

But a disturbance comes to the Coop, a hint of the evil to follow. Ebenezer Rat sneaks into the Coop and steals (and eats) some eggs. And to the east of Chauntecleer’s Coop, across the river, an old rooster listens to the smooth voice in his dreams that promises him glory and births a terrible creature, Cockatrice, who is half Rooster and half snake, and who soon usurps and kills his father and rules in his place through blood and fear.

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The cockatrice is a mythical creature, often used in heraldry. Image from Wikicommons. 

The stage is set for the confrontation between
Chauntecleer and the great Wyrm, who sends Cockatrice and the unnatural rooster’s offspring (the deadly basilisks), to fight against the Keeper in the hopes of getting free.

This book is an animal fable, but it is not a children’s story. There is horror and grief here, and terrible consequences for choices made. Chauntecleer is not a perfect hero by any means, and in fact his jealousy and pride prove to make him unequal for the final task, when it comes. But the Dun Cow, the mysterious being who brings peace and hope to those in greatest need, has chosen another animal who can take up the challenge, if his courage does not wane…

This is a morality tale, like Aesop’s Fables, but not quite as simple as those. And although it has been compared to Animal Farm, the author, in the epilogue, cautions the reader against reading the story as strictly an allegory.

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Interestingly, the name “Book of the Dun Cow”, comes from the oldest collection of Celtic mythology in Ireland, Lebor na hUidre  (The Book of the Dun Cow), from the 12th century. It is so named because of a legend that it was made from the hide of a dun (dull, greyish brown) cow. Image from  brewminate.com

I’m glad he gave us that warning. There’s more to this story than trying to make it fit some pre-conceived “meaning” or allegory.  But there is deep and rich meaning to found in it, all the same.  These animals, of course, are not just animals, they are you and I, whose pride and bitter anger can birth a terrible evil, and whose jealousy and bitter disappointment can make us turn away from those who love us most. And who sometimes are tasked with impossible jobs in the midst of unimaginable sorrow.

I loved The Book of the Dun Cow when I read it first, and I loved it again, all these years later. The book feels a bit unfinished, but that’s because there is a sequel, Lamentations, which I am eager, now, to revisit as well. And I discovered, to my delight, that Wanegrin finished his trilogy in 2003, with Peace at the Last.

More re-reading to come, and the discovery of a new book. This month was a definite winner for me.

My rating: Five stars. 


Other posts in this series:

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

April: A Book Set Somewhere I’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

Bald’s Leechbook: The Doctor is In

I find as I do research on the so-called Dark Ages that time and time again, my preconceived notions about what life must have been like have been proven wrong. It’s hard to fight against the popular culture’s perception of the Early Middle Ages, that perception that people’s lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.” The Roman Empire had collapsed, the barbarian hordes had destroyed civilization as we know it, and the world was plunged into a cultural, scientific, and artistic darkness that would last until the Renaissance.

Some of that is true, up to a point. But the more I read about this time period, the more I find ways in which all of those assumptions are challenged.

Take medicine, for example. How did people treat the various diseases or injuries they suffered? I don’t know about you, but what springs to my mind is a muttering priest praying over a patient or a cackling crone stirring up a brew of some entirely unhelpful mix of ingredients, and administering it, along with a spell or two, to the sick.  Mainly, I imagine that people died of things that are easily cured today, and that people then had no idea of how the human body worked or how to fix anything that might go wrong with it.

Well, the truth is skirting around the edges of those ideas, to be sure, but perhaps, like me, you will be surprised to discover exactly how medicine was practiced in those days.

First of all, I have explained before about how the lack of written material from this era makes it hard for us to understand the customs and people of the day. But surprisingly, there are around five hundred leaves of connected medical texts in Old English that survive from this time period. So when you think about how little written material we have, to have this many medical texts surviving gives you a clue that there must have been a lot of medical texts available at the time.

The most important of these texts, called Bald’s Leechbook, presumably owned or named after a physician named Bald, comes to us from the ninth century, but is a copy of a work from about fifty years before. A leech was another name for a physician, because, yes, they did use leeches to treat some ailments (they are surprisingly effective in reducing swelling and bruising after an injury, because they are great at sucking blood out). It is a compilation of the best of medical knowledge stretching back to the Roman and Greek empires, and ultimately back to the celebrated Roman physician, Galen.

This gives us an important clue that the medical knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was not lost in Dark Ages Britain. From references in Bede’s histories, we see that both laymen and clerics were named physicians. And from looking at the remedies prescribed in the Leechbook and from other sources, we can see that a wide variety of cures and treatments for various maladies and injuries were available to the Anglo-Saxon physicians of the time. Most of these were plant-based herbal remedies, made up of both locally available plants and even some exotic ingredients such as cinnamon, pepper, or ginger, that would have been obtained from the far East through Arabic traders into the Continent, finally reaching Britain.

Some of these ingredients were helpful, some neutral, and some harmful. Others, containing ingredients such as garlic, onion, oxgall and copper salts, are very useful indeed against bacterial infection.

Just how useful was proven in 2015. Microbiology experts at the University of Nottingham recreated a recipe that was meant to be an eye salve, for eye infections. At the time, of course, physicians had no idea of bacteria or viruses, but found this recipe effective against eyes that were inflamed and sore. The university scientists recreated the recipe, consisting of crushed garlic and onion, 25 ml of English wine (which they obtained from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury) and bovine salts dissolved in distilled water. Bovine salts consist of dried bile from a cow’s intestine, in case you were wondering (I had to look it up, too!).

They thought it might have some positive effect, based on the ingredients, and made a large batch, which they tested on one of today’s antibiotic-resistant superbugs named MRSA. To their great astonishment, the mixture wiped out almost 90% of the MRSA bacteria. They cannot completely explain this, for the ingredients, separately, will not have the same effect. So it is the combination of the ingredients mixed together that prove effective, and they cannot, as of yet, explain why or how. Research is continuing.

There is evidence from studying skeletons found from this era, and from treatments prescribed in the Leechbook,  that surgery was also attempted at this time, and in some cases, successfully. Amputations for gangrenous limbs, using silk thread to suture abdominal wounds, and even plastic surgery in terms of suturing cleft palates was practiced.

Even brain surgery. Yes. Some skulls from this period (and even from pre-historic times, believe it or not) show evidence of trepanation. This is the drilling of a hole through the skull to expose the dura mater that covers the brain. This could be done after a head injury, to clean out the bits of bone and blood that collect under the skull and relieve pressure and pain that results. If you have ever drilled a hole in a fingernail to relieve that throbbing pain that results from an injury to a finger where blood is collecting under the nail, you get the idea.*

Even more astonishing than the fact they attempted this is the fact that the patient often survived, as shown by the trepanned holes in the skulls being edged with new bony growth, meaning the person lived for some time after.

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A trepanned skull of a 50 year old woman from 3500 BC (!), France.  Yup, she survived this (see the rounded edges of the bone?). That’s one huge hole….This procedure wasn’t always just for head injuries. Condidtions such as epilepsy or other psycological ailments could have trepanning as a “cure” – to let the “evil spirits” out. Image from wikicommons

There is, however, some “darkness” in Dark Ages medicine. There were certainly things that physicians could treat – mending broken bones, infections resulting from wounds, etc. However, there were maladies that they had no understanding of the causes and therefore had to resort to guessing how to fix it, or to charms. Things such as eczema or allergic reactions, or even the plague, would have been beyond their understanding as they didn’t know about the causes of these and so could not treat them.

Enter the Lacnunga (“Remedies”), a tenth century collection of medical and related materials. It is this collection that has given Dark Ages medicine it’s bad name, so to speak, for here we find the various remedies for ailments that involve charms, incantations, and other odd practices. Often they are a combination of ancient pagan practices with Christian prayers or symbolism. So we have, for example, this charm:

If cysts pain a man at the heart, let a virgin go to a spring which runs straight east, and draw forth one cup full, with [in the direction of?] the current, and sing thereon the Creed and Pater noster, and then pour it into another vessel; and let him/her draw again a second and sing again the Creed and the Pater noster; and do so that you have three [cupfuls]; do this nine days; soon he will be well.

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The first page of the Lacnunga. Image from wyrtig.com

 

Here we see sacred waters (the spring), running east (the direction of the coming Day of the Lord, when Christ will rise in the east), the virgin (note male or female), the number three, the number nine, the Creed (the Apostle’s Creed, the fundamental beliefs of every Christian), the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer). This is a marvellous mixture of both pagan and Christian elements, and it shows in a very elemental way how the culture of the time was being tugged between these two belief systems, just as do Beowulf and the insular art of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

But as a medical treatment for “cysts of the heart” (whatever that may be), it is, of course, useless. Except in the giving of hope, which as we all know, is a powerful kind of medicine all in itself, so it’s not to say that these charms were always ineffective.

So were Dark Ages physicians simply ignorant hacks that killed more patients than they cured, using guesses and folklore to treat their patients?

I believe the evidence says no. As the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England states, 

If we can trust the evidence of the surviving medical literature it appears that Anglo-Saxon medicine was no worse than any other of its day, and that at its best it was probably better than most.

And maybe even better than our own, in treating MRSA, at any rate!


*I never, ever do this. My hubby has done this to himself. I can’t watch. I can’t even imagine doing this to treat a head injury. “Come here, Ecbert. Let me drill into your head with this big drill. It will make you feel better. Honest. “ Yikes. They were made of sterner stuff than I, to be sure.

 

Featured image: a facisimle page from Bald’s Leechbook, from Wikipedia