Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Wandering Court

Friends - if you enjoy what you read on the blog, then please consider doing us the great courtesy of sharing/liking/sending smoke signals for the news of the tenth anniversary of the year programme. Ideally have a look at our temporary, and none too grand facebook page - soon there will be much more in a vivid tapestry of image on our re-booted website. Link here:

Ten Years of the Programme

Places strictly limited to 20 students. No concessions.


£200 per weekend - email for sign up.

A migration through the grandeur of language, mythos and place.

In the old bardic schools, home was less a building of stone, more a grand lintle of speech overhead, a flint-spark of sound, dry in the hand. They rested in the hut of themselves.

When the bards travelled, this wandering court would stand at dusk outside the nights dwelling and pass a poem down the line of their merry pack, stanza by stanza, to demonstrate their agile and storied tongue. In this manner they arrived with a feast.

To celebrate our tenth year of work we will travel also and take a rambling but purposeful route across the stories of Ireland, Siberia, the Caucasus Mountains, Scandinavia, and return, finally, to bed down in our beloved green seat of Dartmoor. Myth is our currency, our study, our passion - mythtelling the most effective vehicle for communicating its genius.

The business of stories
Is not enchantment.

The business of stories
Is not escape.

The business of stories
Is waking up.

April 25-27th
Beginnings - oral culture, the bardic schools of Ireland, myths insistence on daemonic vocation. We hoof the vast acres of Gaelic and Welsh culture, beginning with a telling of the life of Finn Mac Coll, and a reading of the Vita Merlina.

Rather than endless choice, is there a chthonic compulsion to become something quite specific?

June 13-15th
Paradox and the art of growing down into the mud and smoke of life - the movement from the pastoral to the prophetic - experiencing the tempering of consequence. We trail the nomad stories of the Yakut and the Romanian Gypsies.
We will wrap our speech round the un-lettered language of sheep-herders and horse thieves, locate sounds not corralled into dictionaries.

What is the difference between shelter and comfort?

August 1-3rd
Stories from the north. The forging of language from landscape - the primary mnemonic. Wintering out in the longhouse - repetition and the storytellers range. Encountering the occult animal. Anchoring discipline and craft to the longing for epiphany.

What are the stories the West tells itself in private?

Oct 3-5th
Is Camelot Scythian in origin? The move to nobility and service, as the old tales disclose. Speech as wealth, inflation as necessity. How story creates a den for our grandeur, and transmutes it to a gift.

How does true generosity reveal its hand?

Dec 5th - 7th
Apprenticing to a five mile radius of story, land, herb and song. The labour of becoming a cultural historian of place. Myths that migrate, stories of slow ground. Facing the luminous ordinary as mythic territory.

How does a tired road become a song-line?

Bard-Come-A-Fire: Vita Merlina

On the first weekend we will be working through a new translation i have been making of the Vita Merlina - so here's a few lines as a teaser.


Unflinching with truth.
Ordering a firm house in the roar of court.

Son of an incubus -

he still claims residence
to some inner animal.

And he is friend
to the Old-Man-in-the-Fur-Coat - the bear.

He has gathered red berries by the cold stream,
He has pressed his mind
through gorse and hemlock.

To the men his outer-being is calm :
but inside it rattles with knowing,
a ripping hail, a speech-blizzard carving up
the skull of his woken-ness.

Double-tongued is he:
faithful enquirer to
the wolf’s epiphany
and the politics of the long-house.


Merlin awild.

He swims out past the bay of human affection.

Now no summering lament .
He enters wood with vigor,

drives his body to a blue shape sculpted by wind.
Survives on crusts of frozen moss.

He does not miss the law-court,
or the jokes of the marketplace.

One night, death-bringing cold sweeps away all cloud.

A good hawk, Merlin perches in his nest,
observing all the courses of the stars.

They remind him of his old life he has given up.

He was married once, then abandoned her:
Gwendolen, the long suffering,

when he took the forest for his home;
for this life sharpened on the sparks of muddy ecstasy.

It was the way the planets glittered that told him
of his wife’s new love.

This night, that old story has a new chapter.

Venus - I read your frosted message in the dark;
As faithfully you follow down your consort sun.
My beak snaps at your heels with wonder.

“I see another ray, that arcs from you,
The ray that splits lovers:
Gwendolen has bed-knowledge of another.

And the stars tell me of a wedding.”

The man gazes up
at the yellow breast of the moon
and remembers.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

looking back - a years highlight: having fun with Coleman Barks

Time Teams Dig Village: Dunster

Dig Village/ A Birthday/ Scythian Speculation

One of my new translations (with Tony Hoagland)- to commemorate reaching the ancient peaks of 42 years this coming Thursday.

The Turn in the Road
Welsh, From traditional verse; seventeenth century

Past forty,
a man can carry

the flush
of a tree in leaf,

and shoulder a
quiver of speech.

He can laugh quietly
over his scars

as he strides
the years.

But the sound of
a vault being opened,

Lets the
crow settle

on the soft acres
of his face.


I finally have a moment in what is proving a heinously busy month to get into my study and scrawl down a few thoughts. Just had a great weekend with a new project from the Time Team folk - Dig Village. (Time Time is massively influential British TV show on archeology). Dig Village - the clues is in the name really.

They go digging for archeology - i go digging for story. There was great fellowship/beer/mud/wild speculation/a chilly and magnificent church/ and proper finds emerging from the soil - with a tithe-barn of local folk to hear the story of their place told back to them on the Sunday night. This was the moment i gathered the fragments of folk-lore and straight out fact from around the small town of Dunster (a grateful nod to the wonderful Helen Geake for providing some historical anchor points). High stakes poker really - when relatives of characters in the stories could well have been beadily eyeing me in the candle-lit gloom of an autumn night. Many of the stories details only landed in my lap in the hours leading up to the telling.

This all felt like a little triumph for the oral tradition - rescuing the stories from documents and getting them spoken out into the resonating air of the place itself. Imagine if every village in the country had their storytellers (who used to be cultural and speculative historians of a sort) rescuing their stories and folk-lore back out of the records and hearing them settle back into the hearts of the local folk? Get to it! What a great way to elegantly deepen the current revival of storytelling. More on that thought as it develops.

Later that night i stood out in the rain and gave a little single-malt to the grasses by the open test pits. Gazing down into those crow-dark underworld holes, and then up at the resolute and moon-brooding Dunster castle, history had slyly crept into my shoulder-bag of stories.

It was great also to meet some amazingly resilient diggers putting in the hours. My little daughter only has respect for the ones clutching trowels on the TV show. Stories she hears everyday round the woodburner. They were like something from the old tales themselves...

So in honour of where history/archeology/folklore bang into each other - here is a repeat of a post i think i out up last year.

A Scythian Camelot

C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor (2000), two scholars of folklore and anthropology, have made the case that the core of the Arthurian tradition is not Celtic, but Iranian.

Scythia was the western segment of the vast “sea of grass” that extended all the way from the Altai Mountains to the Hungarian Steppes. Everyone in this region spoke a variant of north-eastern Iranian. The academic view is that the changes in dialect were minimal, and that tribal groups were bound in a common culture. They were fierce; unlike the Celts, who were still utilising horse-drawn chariots, they were on horse back, fighting with bow, lance and sword. In a show of equality, women fought alongside. In fact, it was said that there was a marriage law that forbade a girl to marry until she had killed an enemy in battle. Wow.

This was the nomad culture of the ancient steppes: the Scythians, the Sarmatians, and then later the Alans of classical times. They adored art engraved with animals, often with great curling manes of gold, and were often blue-eyed and blond-haired. These steppe Iranians were visually different from how a typical Persian may look.

Part of the theory of Littleton and Malcor is that, as this culture (now almost forgotten), followed migrational patterns to France and England, they carried a kernel of stories with them – their myths.

In the year 175, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurealius sent a contingent of 5,500 Sarmartian cavalry to Britain. They were posted in groups of five hundred along Hadrian’s wall. When their fighting time was done, instead of returning overseas, they settled in a vicus, or veteran’s colony. The post was very near the modern day village of Ribchester, up in Lancashire. Their commander – practically hero worshipped – was named Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of the VI legion Victrix, who was charged with the defence of northern Britain. There were numerous occasions for the Steppe Iranians to have contact with Europeans during late antiquity, and to permeate the stories that eventually became the fuller, medieval picture.

The theory is that certain key motifs and characters in Scythian mythology fit unusually well with the Arthurian canon. There is a magical cup called the Nartamongae, a grail-like vessel that never runs out of food and drink, and appears at feasts to the most worthy. It is not in the running as the chalice of the last supper (a later add on), but certainly fits with earlier Welsh and wider Celtic images of a cauldron or stone.

There is also Arthur having Excalibur thrown back into a lake by faithful Sir Bedivere; the great Scythian mythical hero Batraz, when stricken with guilt over much destruction, orders his sword also to be thrown into water – this time, the sea. Both henchmen fail to accomplish the task several times, and both heroes know that their servants are lying because they are aware of magical occurrences that will take place when they do. For Arthur, it is the hand of the lady of the lake reaching out, for Batraz, it is the waters turning wild and blood red.

Even the beginning of Arthur’s work life – the drawing of the sword from the stone – bears resemblance to the old Scythian motif of a great warrior drawing a sword from the soil. Even the name Lancelot – never perceived as British in the first place - is suggested to be a derivative of Alan of Lot – the Alans being another well travelled Scythian group. It’s intriguing at least.

Nomads Breed Nomads

The Alans arrive several hundred years later, in the fifth century, and marry into families in France. The Alans are serious business, they carry quite a reputation with them. They love fighting, adore their wagons, and regard it as an embarrassment to ever be caught on foot. Although they carry their heritage proudly, they assimilate well. Ageing was not encouraged, and killing your parents was seen as quite reasonable behaviour if you needed to spread your wings a little.

The Alans enjoyed all sorts of privileges, continually intermarrying into the next invading force to the point where, when William the Conqueror takes over England, many of the French afforded English estates were in fact Alans – feudal and deadly lords over the conquered English. It is partially these very knights who commissioned the medieval Arthurian romances that then fed back into France, and had such an impact on Troubadour culture and the courtly love ideal. Could it be such a stretch of the imagination that these lordly enthusiasms of the stories were partially a recognition of ancient images surfacing again in their new home?

It is ironic that those very Lords of William helped create a new nomadic culture – not of the steppes, but of the Greenwood – as a reaction against the brutality of their own regime change. As we will see in a later chapter, the image of these invaders forged a strong, marginal consciousness in the relegated, on-the-run lords, minstrels and wolfs-heads, who took to the forest to form inventive retaliatory strikes against the “Norman yoke” Funny how it all comes around. Up sprung Eadric the Wild, Brumannus, and Brave Hereward the Wake, to combat the most recent set of invaders and ignite the oppressed imaginations. Doomed of course - but we all love a hopeless cause.

In their lairs in the woods and waste places…they laid a thousand secret ambushes and traps for the Normans.
Flowers of History, thirteenth century chronicle

The arrival of William was a great class leveller – everyone was in trouble. Even twenty years after his arrival, there was a trail of decimated villages and homesteads in the line marking his march to London. Soon there were only two English names in the Domesday survey as tenants-in-chief of the King. There was Ailric of Marsh Gibbon, gripping his land ‘at rent, heavily and wretchedly’, and Warwickshire Hereward, now in service to the charming sounding Ogier the Breton. It was an unbelievably brutal period, England was a trembling bell in the wake of the Normans.

So we have this theory that the roots of the Arthurian canon (stories seen as the embodiment of the best of English mythology), derives from ancient folktales of the foreign conquerors, from way back when.

The Greenwood rebellion it invokes, although never a revolution, instates what I later (in essay) call a 'leaf bowed morality’, something that I believe that Arthur and the whole courtly system have been greatly sympathetic to; that the margins hold a clarity of ethics that call account to the indulgences and atrophies of the centre. Where else is it that the Knights of the Round Table ride again and again, for spiritual and ethical refreshment? The two strands of Arthurian and Hood are in no way opposed, but mystically entwined in western mythology. So, it could be argued, that Scythian culture is behind the two most vibrant threads of English story!

Scythia holds some of the most powerful myths that we in the west have encountered. It is right and probable that research should be done to investigate the mythic migratory routes, and that this canon of Arthurian stories and the Iranian images be amongst them. This is an exciting development. Or at least it will be, until they figure out that the Scythian stories originate in Africa, or North Korea, and then it all begins again.

A story's origins is not its end. It rolls around like a sow in mud, and picks up fragrant lumps of cultured soil and toddles on, drunk and frisky.

We find Russian fairy tales in New Mexico, or is it the other way around? The Arthurian romances, Nart sagas, Peublo love stories, keep unfolding, every time we gather round a fire and the mythteller begins.

This healthy tugging at what we presume is established facts has a tricksterish goodness to it – this emerging Scythian Camelot illustrates the collective commons perfectly. Who owns the story? The people of the Caucasus mountains? The medieval scholar? The dreamy child in love with the romances? Where did it begin, where does it end, and where do we stamp copyright? Such it is with empire thinking.

If we go all the way back to the ancient world, to the old bardic and prophetic traditions, what we find is that men and women are not thought to be authors so much as vessels through which other forces act and speak.
Lewis Hyde (Hyde 2010 :19)

To an exclusively written society, the long reach of the Arthurian stories can seem bewildering if one is trying to anchor a living tradition down to the authorship of specific individuals. Of course there are beloved signposts; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram Von Ecshenbach, Malory. But to nail it down seems tricky, when the origination and destination points of the story are wonderfully shrouded in the mysterious. Everyone is working out of someone else. And who’s to say that the story is not ‘working’ them?

This is not always a popular idea for a modern society focused on the notion of the entirely original, brilliant summoner of new ideas. And, in the old way of thinking, even if there was no historical precedent, then it is likely the ‘new’ notion is a divine wind emerging rather than thrashed out in the mind, entirely without supernatural assistance. That would be seen as a very unsophisticated idea.

Hyde, a man who has worked deeply into thoughts around originality and ownership, reminds us of this quote from Goethe.

Everything I have seen, heard, and observed I have collected and exploited. My works have been nourished by countless different individuals, by innocent and wise ones, peoples of intelligence and dunces…I have often reaped what others have sowed. My work is the work of a collective being that bears the name of Goethe.
(Hyde 2010 177-78)

So where is the copyright? Are we to be like Benjamin Franklin, refusing a patent on his wood stove as he understood it to be a collective, the bringing to fruition of many individual's ideas; or more contemporary - battling it out in the law courts for the merest shred of personal innovation? Of course, part of the genius of both Goethe and Franklin is the assembling of these others ideas into a cohesive whole; that alone blows open the distinction between ‘I’ and the ‘many’. Both points of view are served within one individual, and make art.

Within the storytelling traditions, a certain sense of handed downess is actually a sign of authenticity, it is to be admired, sought after, it indicates roots. It could be that in the second half of an individual’s life, a natural balancing between influence and instinct arises and contributes to a convincing sense of mythtelling. But I wouldn’t be too eager to point out where that dividing line is: it pulses in and out like a heartbeart.

The Arthurian story is too big, too well travelled, too deep, too robust, to have irate steppe Iranians claiming it back for the Caucasus. Elvis has long since left the building. And in the same way, Celtic scholars will have to suck on that same lemon as long atrophied ideas about the tradition’s routes suddenly leap thousands of miles to the east. This is a commons of the imagination. The claims of diffusion through Europe, or even Jung’s rather exhausted collective unconscious are but milky teats hanging on the magical belly of the stories as they amble through the known and unknown worlds.

It is difficult to begin without borrowing.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


dear friends from the Minnesotan backwoods

laphroaig quarter cask: a marvel

grand tents and bare shoulders: the gypsies


April 25-27th
June 13th-15th
Aug 1-3rd
Oct 3-5th
Dec 5-7th

Contact Tina at today for the details of what will be our most inventive and wildest dive/year course yet. We also have just a few places left for the right-about-to happen PARZIVAL weekend too - a telling that takes two and a half days, and embossed with troubadour, Islamic, and medieval english history arising as we saddlebag our trusty Andalusian ponies up the dark ridged and blue-snowed heaven that is this story. C'mon, reach for the kitbag and join us. Last ever telling before the book comes out, and this little secret we have been brewing in the distillery of our imagination for half-a-decade becomes a secret no more.

some slight teaser from the upcoming Snowy Tower (Parzival) book - as the land turns to waste...

Hounds call from the lonely copse,
The old womans hair is frail under the silver comb.
The gravediggers spade is bright with use,
no beards are wet with ale.

The wattle-hut is cold,
and broken open to the roaming candles of the stars.
All dream of honey-bread, a hearth fire,
a ploughing harvest of fish and corn.
The rain is grey and steady.

And the arrival of Parzival's beloved, Condwiramurs...

Ah, the moon.
A gold-scattered track in the young mans den.
He a shivering lamb
at the warm stable of her becoming.

But she wants a Lion.

Breast tight with desire,
Lusty peaks, not yet
for the quiet sucking
of a child.

In this place of bone-light
and sickle-fire, our
Lady of the Waves
harps her music, snow-naked
with power
into the boys ear.

And the final arrival at the Grail Castle...

Praise to the bright girdle of the land,
its seal-proud coast,
and cold blue crest of stars,
zodiac dazzling.

Pull close to the shepherds milky dreaming,
his grove a-hum, dingle-hot,
with the woodlarks wanton speech.

Buckle our knees to the glinting pool
and to dusky light, to beehives,
and cairns of badgers,
delirious with sleep.

Praise to the Maymed Kynge,
Praise to the Healed King,
Praise to the Holy Maker
of all things.

And this week something on west country gypsies.

The People of the Roads

It was 1505 when a genuine nomadic consciousness arrived in Britain in the shape of “exotically attired Egyptians” (Simpson 1865). Any brief fascination with the gypsies turned cold when Edward VI ordered all gypsies living in Britain to be rounded up and branded with a V for ‘vagabond’ on their chest, and then thrown into slavery for two years. Children were seized at an Englishman’s discretion and put into service to save them from an environment of ‘rogues and beggars’. For a culture that had travelled through Byzantium and Greece, through the Ukraine and Spain, from Persia and Transylvania, this was a savage but not entirely unfamiliar welcome to a certain type of English temperament.

The gypsies brought plenty of spook with them. The reading of hands, the sallow skin, narrow headed lurchers, the wagons, the rouged cheek and dark plait, the bare-knuckle etiquette, not to mention “tigress eyes”, according to Henry Williamson in his Life in a Devon Village. Gypsies soon became the largest migratory group of travellers in the west country.

They became kings and queens of fairs and revels: Stow, Bampton and Bridgewater all had fairs that featured the grand tents and wild fiddle tunes of the travelling Roma. For the men, coats were long and black, with plush, brightly coloured waistcoats, velvet knee-breeches and brogues. Come the evening, the women turned the volume up still further, with amber feathers tucked into turbans, white satin dresses, bare shoulders covered by multi-coloured shawls. Bottles were uncorked, howls thrown at the moon, and the gutsy dancing ached the feet but thrilled the soul.

As long as the gypsies remained as travelling exotics, as symbols of a kind of freedom that many secretly covet, then they enjoyed an uneasy peace. Problems would deepen with a kind of quasi-settling on the edges of town – due to agricultural depression from the 1880s – which meant it was more efficient to stay put in desperate times. The glamour fades a little when the occasional chicken gets stolen, or wallet relieved of its bragging owner. You start to notice the tattered edges on the edge of those grand tents. Everyone loves a scapegoat, and who better than those dark-eyed, strange-tongued travellers at the edge of town?

To be gypsy was to watch your myths travel ahead five paces of you wherever you want. A strong look. It could fill the tent on a Saturday night's dancing, get young women paying over the odds to have their cards read on matters of love, but it could also have you picking your teeth out of the cobbles, it could have your children pulled right from your grasp. The open road was like a plump vein to them, a trail full of nourishing blood, but also a duende vocation, carrying sorrow and pride alongside, a mottled, magpied glory of hard earned eloquence. Maps were not used, rather a nomadic homing instinct, looking for the old resting places, Dannal’s Basin in the Mendips, or Ember Pond further west. To the locals it was hard to make out a pattern to the wandering, but they had their own kind of song-lines, their own way of getting where they needed to get to. Much of the movement was seasonal, and to do with hop picking, fruit picking, and onto the horse fairs.

The language is delicious, an honour to have it spoken in England or enjoyed on the page:

Wusto-mengresky tem Wrestler’s country, Devonshire
Lil-engresky gav Book fellows' town, Oxford
Rokrengreskey gav Talking fellows' town, Norwich
Mi-develskey gav My God’s town, Canterbury

I spent the latter half of my twenties fairly frequently around travelling people. My tent was originally situated near a stopping off point for travellers coming down from areas of Wales and into England. This could be as simple as a horse drawn cart arriving, almost silently, at dusk, or waking up to find a vast array of trucks, children and hastily erected benders filling the lane in the early dawn light. Within hours the music would begin, the relentless thump of techno rather than the lilt of the fiddle, and frequently a kind of chaos that was not edifying. This was nothing to do with “back to the land” it was a kind of truck life, an occasionally nightmarish mirror to the very straight laced environment of the Cotwolds they saw stretched out in front of them. They kind of suited each other. With each hot headed police clash, both sides lumbered out for battle, each needing the other in some way. This was not Roma culture, not Irish traveller, but a kind of dilapidated council estate on wheels.

That sounds harsh, but anyone who has been in close contact with this element of the travelling community knows the truth of what I’m writing.

For every quiet and reasonably sober traveller that came through, these occasional terror-hoards were the ones who would amp up the locals, pitch up for battle and leave a bad atmosphere for years to come.

When a society rejects something, it invites it to turn ugly. If the concept of people living under canvas, or on the road, is utterly unacceptable, then myth tells us it will regress - what was once beautifully wild turns savage. This is what I am describing. Any culture worthy of the name positions initiations, fayres, art, music, as conduits between the margins and the centre. This is an old truth. It is a way of handling and being edified by wildness, but keeping the kids safe and healthy. It is mediation of the spontaneous, the unexpected, the liminal, back into the place of the village. Living in a time like this, is it any surprise we get the viking masses at the Roman gates ready to play out this scene again and again?

It is too easy to label the earlier descriptions of Roma as nostalgia. It is more than that. It is a recognition. It is a longing. They are beset by just as many issues as the English, but they have been emblematic, mythically tuned to represent a certain kind of openness to un-shackled freedom.

The gypsies came to this country at an auspicious time, partially to remind us of something that we were in danger of losing. This kind of grotesque mimic that I have just described makes me wonder whether it has now gone. Gypsies have been a vivid mirror of otherness in this country for over four hundred years, and our resolute failure to engage reasonably with them has helped create this cartoon-junkie on wheels caricature that this small, but noisy set of travellers represent. They’re us, we made them.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013