Monday, 19 December 2011


Well, it's proper cold now. The car is at the garage, clothes are getting shoved into suitcases, bottle of Jura lovingly bought for the visiting of old friends - in a few hours la fam Shaw takes to the high road and a migrational route of London, Norfolk and Lincolnshire for Christmas revels, before arriving back in the mother county Devon for New Year's Eve. I have some one off events for Jan/Feb.

LONDON: 12th January.
At Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 - i along with other performers will be telling a story whilst accompanied utterly in the moment (i.e. absolutely no rehearsal -that's the point). The event is called Tongue Fu and i'm sure can be googled for opening time and door fee.

TOTNES: 26th January.
Liminal Culture: The Genius of the Margins in Story and Initiation.
How Do we Bring the Jewel Back From The Otherworld?
An evening of stories and ideas from 'A Branch From The Lightning Tree', as part of the Consciousness Cafe series. 7.30 door.

DARTINGTON: 4th February
Wood Sisters Storytelling Festival, Steiner School, Dartington.
As part of the third School of Myth year course weekend we will be descending on this wonderful little festival to hear the likes of Katrice Horsley, Veronica Conboy, Clive Fairweather, Chris Salisbury and others. I will be telling 'The Handless Maiden' on the Saturday night. Again, google for details.

So, something on bards, imagination and flat out fakery this week. It's part of a much longer piece in a new book i'm working on - so it begins rather suddenly. It's a brief look at Irish then Welsh Bardic practice (most i am not including in this excerpt). Again it is calling for a kind of re-visioning of the word Bard, and a healthy move of the word between sexes and not just for beardy boys with a penchant for cloaks.

So, wishing you a very lovely, warm, occasionally boozy, always sweet-tempered, broody but not despairy kind of Christmas from all of us at the School of Myth. I will try and sneak one last blog in for 2011 but i may be too busy under the mistletoe or cooking an enormous goose for our Norfolk Christmas day. HO HO HO!


The school was not so much about a geography or grand house (often a hut or home) but focused around the charisma and knowledge of the Ollamh, the big man, chief-poet. Their influence radiated out in all four directions, and when they circuited Ireland amongst kings and nobles, the school, for all intents and purposes, went too. They were intellectually fierce, opinionated and full of the pomp their status conferred. On visiting a dignitary it was not unheard of for an Ollamh to remind their host of their own standing as being like a kind of King or Bishop (Corkery 1998 :32). The word bard was actually used for a lower rank of untrained poet, the word they all aspired to was to be a Fili. A bard in Ireland was more raggle-taggle; a wandering jongleur, teller of tales, maybe, heaven forbid, a singer of songs. There were heavy fines incurred for trained students tarting their gifts in such a way. This naughty underbelly of performing rogues became known as ‘bad fellows’ when they wandered England, or Filous in France.

However, payment for the more noble strand could prove difficult too, even with the amount of praise they rained down on their employees head. If they arrived en masse they brought with them an enormous cauldron entitled ‘The Pot of Avarice’. With this they grandly emphasised the need for payment in gold and silver, or, at the very least, food. This cauldron was made of pure silver, and supported on the points of nine spears. There they would stand at the entrance to the compound. We can see them now, dusk settling, chill in the air, the great cauldron glowing silver in the gloom, the line of poets standing in the mist. They would pass a poem down the line, man by man, stanza by stanza, to demonstrate their recall and honed poetic tongue. A heavy encouragement for praise, a bed, payment.

Over in Wales – a culture less harried by the phrase bard, and preserved or rediscovered or well, made up, by Iolo Morgannwg (or Edward Williams as his birth name, Welsh antiquarian and occasional forger of mystical texts – 1747-1826), we hear of a bardic astronomy: constellations of stars with names like:

The Circle of Gwydion
The Grove of Blodeuwedd
The Hen Eagle’s Nest
The White Fork
The Woodland Boar
The Conjunction of a Hundred Circles

This is all thrilling material, especially when aligned with Morgannwg’s revealing of the bardic dividing of the seasons, ancient chronologies and descriptions of poetic trials. It is less thrilling when we realise that The Barddas, from where this language arises, is certainly a forgery, a fake, either by Morgannwg or texts he studied that were themselves bogus. It is less thrilling when we realise that he was actually doing jail time in a Welsh prison when he started to gather the fragmentary materials from which his fevered imaginings created the above and far, far more.

This is far from just a calculated and unpleasant attempt to deceive, indeed he and another forger, James Macpherson (the ‘Ossian’ poems), did more to preserve some notion of the bards than anyone since possibly the middle ages. Who knows what was going on in the heads when they wrote this down, certainly much creativity and imagination. The mistake is when the artist tries to place the effervescent results of their producing into a space and time that is not authentic. No matter how much we hunger for union and fullness of exploration in these old fragments, a devised ‘whole’ such as Iolo attempts to provide, tends to a fictitious atmosphere – for obvious reasons. So there is a mixed motivation happening. So is this just straight fakery or are they actually reaching to some resource of imagination that is the well of all mystical image, 'fakey' or otherwise?

These days both men would probably have happy careers as great writers of fantasy, or even regarded as ‘channellers’, and scrape a living that way. When something intensely beautiful has been lost but a residual consciousness remains, we will accept even a mimic of that beauty. What makes the work of Iolo really complicated is that he did copy some authentic documents that are now lost, which means, like any great lie, there are hidden fragments of the real within it.

So much of the New Age follows similar lines to the above, and understandably offers much irritation to the scholar and genuine enthusiast. At the same moment, much these kind of fabrications have intelligence and yearning at their core, they have imagination, what they lack is something rooted in difficult personal ground. The truth of a visceral psychic opening. That experience can be far less whimsical, far rawer and hesitant then the easy prose of armchair-mysticism, but we immediately feel its compulsion. I have sat with 14 year old girls around a fire after their first wilderness fast and heard more genuinely bardic utterances than in many glossy books on spiritual matters. I would suggest this is the primary field rather than comfortable 'studied' language - a secondary, but important resource.

The land has things to whisper before we just start charging out our imaginings. When this is in place we sense heavy dark roots behind the words of the poet or teller.

Get dreamt before we think of dreaming.

I wonder if what many of us long for in the figure of the bard is not the courtly reciter of the post-Norman world but the older, more mystical, nature-connected figure of the primordial earth, a world that by its very nature is, as Robin Williamson says, made of the ‘quality of mist and starlight’, something profoundly druidic, magical, but also hard to access in modernity. This very figure was already being promoted rather clumsily by fourteenth and fifteenth century bards in an attempt to stop a steady decline in interest of the form. Some academics insist that their speculation is the root of what we now regard as ‘fact’ about this earlier stage.

For anyone interested in orality, literature and the wildness inherent in both, the later bardic world is problematic. One, for its frozen quality – wildness and creativity grow steadily more absent after it chief concern becomes the history of court and nobles. We get far less of some ecstatic nature poetry pouring through the compositions (this why we get so excited about Taliesin, although he is another figure underneath fierce debate), and more stodgy praise of dignitaries whilst shaking the money tin for another round of drinks. Poetry is rarely vital when tenured.

Secondly, their diminishing of local dialect in favour of a unified, unwavering elevated tongue is absolutely at loggerheads with the bio-regional flavour of this book. We need more burrs and rasps distinctive in language, not less. It may have been necessary at the time to create a clear Gaelic art form that was internationally recognised, but that time is not this time. The regional voice reveals trails back to the soil. We need to go down and specific – to dirt, twigs, streams, family roots, geographic understanding, the spontaneous and natural, than up and general – honouring wealth, status, stilted poetry, the status quo.

We need to take our praise back to the natural world, not offering it to the ‘land’ owner.

We have been cut from our home ground so many times we eventually find ourselves ‘out of our mind’ – our mind, our wild psyche, extending into lakes, hills and dandelions – not just caught in the skull.

Whilst we honour the early stories of reciting by memory 60,000 lines of verse, the practice of darkness as way towards luminous awakening, the love of language and also it’s use as dark speech – a form of verbal combat, it may be appropriate to return to an original source of the bardic inspiration, the land. When we get caught up entirely in the recreation of flowing robes, badly played harps, and forged histories it all starts to feel like a clumsy theatre, surely we are missing the point. And yet still the word bard has vitality to it, it is still animate, is still charged, and so could respond to a re-visioning with the move back to forest consciousness, moor consciousness, ocean consciousness at its centre.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2011

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