Category Archives: Scotland

Many Wondrous Kinds of Light

We looked through doorways, we ambled along beautiful, mysterious paths.  Now, I’d like to talk about atmosphere.  What makes any place feel more magical is just the right quality of light.

I think I brought up sunrise and sunset in my post on doorways – the time between times.  Photographers love it because the quality of light is both soft and rich, quiet and striking.  

Different kinds of light take you different places.  Those warm, perfect sunsets (I’ll be honest, I can’t really tell you much about sunrises as I am rarely awake enough of in the early mornings to appreciate them) are breathtaking.  It’s hard to look away from the sky when the sun, normally too bright to see, is swathed in a hundred layers of brilliant color as it falls into seas or mountains.  Half the world goes dark as shadows creep up from underneath, but the top layer holds onto that glorious golden color until the last lights fade.

But the time between times isn’t the only beautiful kind of light.  A noonday sun that casts rays directly down can burn and blind, but on a good day, when the light is filtered through the right amount of cloud, the world is bright and dim at once.  The sky has texture.

Or takes on a new color entirely.

And then there is the bright light that we find coming through a layer of multi-colored greens in a forest.  This is one of my favorites.  Gaps in the wood allow arrows of brightness to find the forest floor.  Thin, pale green leaves are like stained glass aglow as the sun hits them from above.  The forest floor is dappled, like the stones of a cathedral across from a green-themed window.

The thing about the sun is, we don’t love it for itself, exactly, but for what its light and warmth do to our world, especially after long, gray days of sunlessness.  I think of Puddleglum under the earth as the witch tries to drive all memory and belief of the Overworld and its sun from their minds.  But Puddleglum, one of the saddest but truest of all heroes, says,

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” (Silver Chair, CS Lewis)

Days without the sun certainly drove me to doubt whether I’d ever see it again, but when the light finally did touch grass and tree and stone, it was as though the whole world had been born again.

We are such light-loving creatures that we seek it long into the night.  The soft, silent kind of light that we find in the moon provides an eery imitation of the sun.

Whenever I think about moonlight, I always hear the sound of Loreena McKennitt singing “The Highwayman” where “the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” and “the road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moors.”  That is what I feel when I see a moon like the one I saw behind St Giles in this photo.

Firelight, starlight, moonlight – we are certainly drawn to light after the sun disappears.

When the natural world is too dark, we capture our own light – torches and candles, silmarils and lamp posts, we bring small flames with us into the darkness and make our own suns and stars.

I always notice the lamp posts that I pass in a street or a park.  They seem so lonely, secretive, and (of course) a little magical as well.  We know whose fault that is.

Photography is light-writing, and how light touches and transforms the world is an endless study.  Take a moment to notice how light touches, colors, and translates what you see into something better than it otherwise might be.

Fantasy, Dragons, and a Longing This World Cannot Satisfy

I am hiking somewhere on the magical Isle of Skye, so today’s post is about this world and our search for something beyond it.

If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy, also we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I have always loved the idea of being created for another world.  It’s not that this world does not satisfy me.  This world is meant to be satisfying to a degree.  If we spent our days dissatisfied, we would be missing out on what this world has to offer.

A tree stump carved into a dragon in Wales.

But sometimes I think about what makes a fantasy novel so enthralling, at least for me.  I read them and I write them.  I enjoy some film versions as well (though tragically few of any worthWhy are fantasy films often so cheesy?).

I think, too, about why dragons are my favorite animal.  A creature that no one living has seen (who will admit it – I will neither confirm nor deny…) is the one I love the most.  What made me graduate from horses, my childhood favorite, to fire-breathing, flying creatures of fantasy?

I think that it has a lot to do with what Lewis is saying, though his quote goes a lot further and a lot deeper.  Many of us are supremely aware of a world beyond this world, the ultimate satisfaction at the end of this life.  That, of course, is the world he is talking about.

But there are other worlds to pursue in the meantime, worlds that I feel we are meant to pursue and create and explore and enjoy.  This world may not satisfy my love of dragons, mystery, and magic on the surface, but I can fall into the pages of a book or step through the looking glass of my camera lens.  Somewhere between the pages, around a secret corner, after a sunset, that’s where my longing drives me and where I find some measure of otherworldly satisfaction.

Why do I love fantasy?  Because there is a longing that nothing in this world can satisfy.  And while there is a greater world, the ultimate, perfect fantasy, that will someday replace this one, until then, there are also stories.

Why else did the Creator make us sub-creators if not to create worlds of our own?

Songs in Stories and Stories in Songs

I listened to the music discussed in this post as I made my solitary way through the Welsh countryside, so I’ve decided to take you on a mini-tour of some nice parks. Sound good? Okay.

I’ve been talking about travel so far this month, and this one sticks with the theme, though a little different.  One thing that is key to successful travel for me is to have the perfect playlist of songs to accompany me as I go.  I can spend hours going through music and perfecting that playlist to match my wanderings.

I am hard pressed to name a favorite genre of music.  The two that usually come out on top would have to be soundtracks and Celtic.  Both of these genres have to do with stories for me, which is part of why I like them so much.

A Song in a Story…

When I see a movie, I am always listening for good music in the background.  I love movie themes.  I even love that subgenre that not as many people know about called trailer music. Entire CDs are made of intense themes, which films then purchase for their previews.  Immediate Music, Epic Score, X-ray Dog, Two Steps From Hell -  you’ve probably never heard of them, but I guarantee you’ve heard them at the theater watching a preview.  For me, good soundtrack music either evokes images from the movie that it was used in or it inspires me to tell stories of my own that match the music.

Nothing makes a story come to life for me like the perfect song in the background.

Roath Park just outside of Cardiff is a massive park with a lake in the centre. On a sunny day, this place is glorious.

A Story in a Song…

As much as I love movie music, right now Celtic is my music of choice, and not just because Celtic stuff is sort of my thing (I will soon have a legitimate degree in it!)  I love songs with dramatic, dark, sweet, or downright odd themes.  I really enjoy a song that narrates a tale for me, something that many a good Celtic song does.  A story set to music, one that is entirely contained within the few minutes of the song, can be a powerful bit of storytelling.  Some of the ones that come immediately to mind for me are:

Loreena McKennitt is a classic for Celtic/World music lovers.  I like her Celtic music and adore her poems-to-music, such as these:

  • ‘The Highwayman’ – the poem by Alfred Noyes about, surprise surprise, a highwayman whose plans to carry off his love are hindered by the redcoats!
  • ‘Stolen Child’ – a poem by W.B. Yeats about a child being lured away by the fairies.
  • ‘Lady of Shalott’ – Tennyson’s poem is a sad, but lovely story and becomes even sadder and more lovely set to this tune.

Heather Dale does thematic CDs based on Celtic and Arthurian legends.  I find a lot of her music a bit simplistic, but she is definitely a tale-singer and sometimes she hits it dead on.

  • ‘Adrift’ – the Irish story of Fionn’s son Oisin, who goes away to the fairy lands with his immortal bride, but is drawn towards home, much to Niamh’s distress
  • ‘Changeling Child’ – the disturbing tale of a woman who asks the fairies for a baby… and gets what she asks for
  • ‘Mordred’s Lullaby’ – my favorite of Dale’s by far, this song is the creepy lullaby that Morgana sings to Mordred narrating her grievances against King Arthur and her plans for the infant’s future.

This is why I love spring.

Cara Dillon is an incredible, young Irish singer, though not as well known by overseas Celtic fans.  Her voice is amazing and I have yet to dislike anything of hers I’ve heard:

  • ‘Bold Jamie’ – a story of star-crossed lovers standing before a judge, this is a rollicking bit of Irish awesomeness that I will never get tired of listening to.
  • ‘Spencer the Rover’ – a traveler roams far from home before coming home again.
  • ‘Bonny Bonny’ – this mournful soldier’s song is a very haunting, rhythmic, memorable piece.

Blackmore’s Night is not traditionally Celtic music.  They range over everything from Renaissance to New Age to songs I really can’t place:

  • ‘Barbara Allen’ – a pretty stereotypical tragic romance, I still enjoy the sweet tune
  • ‘Hanging Tree’ – a strange story centred around a tree used, you guessed it, for hangings

Take good music, mix it with the sound of a stream, insert into a nice walk, and add an ice cream cone. You will have concocted a perfect afternoon.

‘A Spaceman Came Traveling’ – a seventies song that Celtic Woman has redone, this tune is a rather bizarre but oddly appealing retelling of Christ’s Advent, but with a sci-fi twist.  You have to hear it to understand.  Although the ending implies something that I’m sure is theologically skewed, even in this context, I can’t help enjoying the imaginative lyrics.

These are just the ones I found by skimming through my playlists.  There are plenty more and I’m sure you have one or two you’d love to share with me, whether it be Celtic or otherwise (hint hint). I don’t know what it is about tale-songs, particularly Celtic ones.  They thrill me, give me goosebumps, make me want to get up and go out and somehow justify the existence of such beautiful stories.  How about you?

*For more suggestions regarding these or similar artists, you have but to ask!

Castles and Cakes: Anne of Green Gables Came with me to Caerlaverock

A glorious thing happened last week: my beloved DSLR camera was finally returned to me!  Over Christmas, it malfunctioned and refused to work.  It was still under warranty, but only in the States, so I had to send it to the States where the boyfriend sent it into the Nikon store.  They fixed it at long last, sent it back, and he shipped it to me.

So, of course, a celebratory trip was in order.  I chose Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfries.  Because I was going alone, I was able to take pictures to my heart’s content (without boring or frustrating a companion) and have an audiobook playing for my entire journey.

Did I mention how nicely the weather cooperated for my trip? After a solid week of grey, this is what I got.

I was listening to Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery, the third in the Anne series. And let me tell you: Anne is excellent company on a walk where beauty abounds and a castle lurks on the horizon.  If you know Anne, you know her imagination turns normal things into fantastic and romantic sights.  With her in my head, I expected to explore my castle in a dramatic fashion.  And I was right.  It was great fun.

The serene river running through Dumfries looks like a sky fell into it.

One thing about Anne that I really love is how she struggles, as many of us do, with writing a story that captures her thoughts and ideas but does not go sailing over the moon to somewhere beyond an audience’s interest.  Anne loves drama and rather Gothic romance, and her first stories tended to overflow with fluttering maidens, dastardly villains, and romantic conclusions.

How would Anne have described the beautiful pink buds on this tree? After a long winter, spring is finally showing itself!

She learned, to her sadness, that those stories are a hard sell.  Readers want to connect with the characters and the story and perfect heroines named Averil or souls of nobility named Percival are a bit hard to love (though, in all fairness, I am now listening to The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Percival in that story is definitely lovable).

This was brought forcibly to her understanding when her story ‘Averil’s Atonement’ was repeatedly turned down by magazines as unsuitable for publication.  It was interesting that the advice she was given time and again was to tone it down and make it real.  She changed things here and there, but she didn’t quite get it.

And then came the baking powder incident.  You see, Anne had included a scene in her story involving her heroine baking the hero a cake.  It was, she said, to be a touch of humor in the tale.  Unfortunately for her, it turned into outright farce when the well-meaning Diana took Anne’s story and submitted it to the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Co. for a contest.  It won and Diana was thrilled, but Anne was thoroughly dismayed.

Her lofty, glorious, grand tale had been brought shockingly down to earth and branded with a baking powder label.  Alas, poor Anne!  But she learned a lesson.  Write a story that your reader can connect with.

If I had seen a dragon swooping away over that mountain, I would not have been surprised.

On the other hand, I think we can learn from Anne about the powers of imagination and taking yourself out of the mundane.  She may have had to learn to live and write in the real world, but there was nothing stopping her from seeing a tragic dryad sitting beneath a willow tree or imagining conversations between the flowers in a garden or lovingly crafting stories of wonder and beauty that lifted her surroundings into something grander, even if it was just for a few moments.  Her friends and family recognized her rapture in these imaginative wanderings, but few could join her in it.  Montgomery was kind in allowing her readers the chance to try.

Caerlaverock Castle is a feast for the imagination, complete with odd triangular shape and a full moat around it. Here's a place for a good bit of dramatic storytelling.

Anne’s magic narrated my walk through busy old streets, along sunny riversides, to the wild countryside, and into castle ruins.  I can only appreciate her contribution even as I do keep in mind that very important lesson: If you send your story into soaring, inaccessible heights, it will need to be dragged back down to earth – possibly with baking powder.

For your informationLibrivox.org is a website with downloadable audiobooks (all public domain literature and perfectly legal!), which is where I found Anne, as well as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Be warned, the readers work on a volunteer basis and many of them are…well… not meant to be readers.  But if you hunt around, you may find a book you love with a voice you can listen to and you can enjoy a free storyteller on your next ramble through the countryside.

Also FYI: The rest of the pictures from this lovely outing are on my travel blog So I Went to Scotland Searching for Dragons.  Less literary, but more pictures.

Enter Here for Otherworld: No, Seriously. (This is Why I Love The Mabinogi.)

For the next couple of weeks, I am simultaneously researching for a major essay on Echtra Nera (a super weird, super awesome Irish tale that involves talking corpses, fairy mounds, weird time shifts, and other such delights) and preparing for my twenty minute presentation on Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet and narrative structure for a postgraduate conference here at Edinburgh Uni.

On the road in Northern Ireland, an old shell of a house caught my eye. I love these ghosts of the past. There are stories here.

Needless to say, I’m enjoying myself immensely.  A bit of Irish and a bit of Welsh and my day is set.

Today, I am focusing mainly on Pwyll and my presentation for the coming week.  Pwyll is the first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a group of Welsh tales written in the Middle Ages with roots from a bit earlier, though we aren’t quite sure how early (lots of debate going into that particular subject, but I try to stay out of it).  My favorite thing about the stories are the stories themselves.  Yes, I appreciate the history and the language and everything that influenced the creation of these tales, but I enjoy diving into a good narrative more than I like chopping it up and investigating it in little pieces to prove things about early Welsh myths and culture and such.  I don’t think that literary analysis should be so clinical, I suppose, until you’ve learned to love the story itself.

The other day, my Welsh prof lent me a translation of the Four Branches that I’d never seen before and it took my breath away.  Because this wasn’t just any translation; it was also a picture book!  And who doesn’t like a good picture book?

I haven't yet been to Wales, but the hills in Scotland are certainly inspiring in their own right.

You see, one thing that the Welsh (and the Irish) enjoy doing in their old tales is including place-names.  They put incredible events, epic battles, magical beings right in their own remarkable countryside, very specifically named.  No surprises there.  One look at an Irish landscape and you can almost see Nera joining the band of mysterious warriors as they enter a fairy mound on Samain night…

In Bollard’s translation of the Four Branches, he has pictures by photographer Anthony Griffiths of all the various place-names mentioned in the tales.  Hills and rivers and ancient ruins color the pages.  Instead of a remote story from a distant land, you are transported to somewhere very real.  Pwyll didn’t happen upon Rhiannon on some nonexistent, nondescript hill; it happened on a real hilltop called Arberth and you can go to it today.  Will you see a wonder when you sit atop it?  Only one way to find out!

Not a Welsh Otherworld waterfall, but certainly magical.

Pictures of waterfalls that are said to lead to the Otherworld…. of the castle where Bran watched the incoming Irish fleet whose king would ask for his sister’s hand and thereby begin a series of epic and tragic conflicts… of a sunset at the spot where the seven survivors of Wales would have feasted in timeless merriment for 80 years…

How wonderful to read a story and not just imagine how it would have been, but see where the writers envisioned the tales unfolding!  How fabulous to imagine finding that waterfall that they practically signposted for us and taking a look behind it!

And this is what I am being ‘forced’ to study?  I accept!

I just need to get to the summer so I can take a trip to Wales…

Arawn, king of an Otherworld palace, guided Pwyll through the woods to his court. Pwyll spent a year there, ruling in Arawn's stead, before his battle with Arawn's greatest enemy...