On the Walking Dead

One of the big archaeological mysteries in Orkney is what was the Neolithic peoples’ relationship with their dead. Inside the mounded tombs, nineteenth-century archaeologists found only bones decoratively laid out, what they call disarticulated skeletal remains. Did they practice sky burial, in which the dead were laid outside on stone slabs and the birds and animals first picked them clean? Or did they visit their dead frequently and move them around, perhaps even bring them outside of the tomb on occasion like that culture in modern day Indonesia where corpses remain part of the family for many years? 

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On Neolithic Orkney

As you may have noticed, I have an overdeveloped interest in islands, particularly northerly ones, all the better if they are mist-shrouded and desolate and have ancient stone circles and old Norse feasting halls on them. I suppose that is what brought me here, to the Orkney Islands. 

Orkney is one of the densest collections of ancient monuments in all of Britain, and the oldest. The Stones of Sternness predate Stonehenge by almost a thousand years, and Skara Brae is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village. It’s called the Scottish Pompeii. I try to stay away from tours, but I booked one this time, led by two archaeologists. There is a dig going on at a 5,000 year old temple complex called the Ness of Brodgar and it’s otherwise closed to tourists. 

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On Ambiguity

Todorov writes that the fantastic occupies the duration of time in which there is uncertainty. It’s “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the realm of the fantastic for another genre. It is in ambiguity that the fantastic resides.

So I have been thinking a lot about ambiguity lately and wondering why I love ambiguity in art but am profoundly uncomfortable with it in real life. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Who doesn’t find the moment when Fred pulls off the mask and Wilma explains the monster was really Old Man Wilson to be the most disappointing part of a Scooby Doo episode? I mean really. It’s almost vulgar. And I can’t be alone in my discomfort with ambiguity either. Isn’t it this discomfort that is at the root of all religion? We want to know. We want to be certain. We all hate ambiguity in politics, too; it’s enraging when politicians say things that can mean both one thing and its opposite. Uncertainty in our relationships is even more unsettling.

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On Melancholy and the Fantastic

As the days get shorter (no thanks to Daylight savings), those of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder start to become nervous. Trees are becoming bare. Temperatures are dropping. Birds are getting the hell out of here. Winter is coming.

But I take comfort in the fantastic.

The fantastic has been frequently called upon to describe experiences that are otherwise difficult to describe, such as depression. There is the black dog, first used by Churchill. (Nick Drake wrote about the “Black Eyed Dog” that called at the door, that called out for more. It’s one of the saddest songs ever.) In Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, depression-like symptoms are the result of faerie enchantment. Lady Pole lapses into “a lassitude” of which no doctor can cure her because every night she is stolen away to a ball in the Faerie Kingdom of Lost Hope, where she is forced to dance all night long. Depression is often referred to as a demon or a haunt. But there is one monster of the fantastic that is not usually linked with depression that should be. The vampire.

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On the Summer of Nothing, the Return of English Magic, and Making Dandelion Wine

Back in June, my thirteen-year old daughter told me she and her friends had hatched a plan. They'd just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbirdand they decided that this summer would be the "summer of nothing", meaning there would be no plans, no camps, no pre-arranged playdates. They were going to do the "old-fashiony go to each others' house without calling first" and just "do nothing", like it was Maycomb County in the 1930s. She told me it was all going to be very "Instagram-worthy".  I told her I was pretty sure Scout and Jem didn't have Instagram.

So now, on these last days of summer, I would like to reflect on the "summer of nothing". As far as the girls are concerned, it was a surprising success. It was, to quote my daughter, "the summer of everything". There was a lot of bike riding to each others' houses and hanging out, and very little calling first. (Instead they InstaMessaged.) As for me, maybe it was just my choice of summer reading, which always seems to serve as the soundtrack to summer, but I must say, this summer has been pretty magical. I started the summer reading the 1006 page tome, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a masterpiece of the fantastic that I could write extensively about, but I will say only this now. Read It. Or, if for some unfathomable reason you don't want to inhabit a world where magic is real for 1006 pages, then you can watch it too. It was made into a single-season BBC series that aired this summer. I recommend the book. It takes longer. Finishing this book felt like losing a friend.  

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In Defense of the Fantastic

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy of Literature (the organization that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature), gave an interview in which he said, “Europe is still the center of the literary world;” not the United States. He said American writers are “too isolated, too insular . . . too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture . . . (we) don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue in literature.” There are probably other reasons American writers are somewhat underrepresented (because we are so overrepresented in everything else), but looking at the writers who have won in recent years (especially Tomas Tranströmer, whose poems often veered toward surrealism, and Mo Yan, whose work has been described as hallucinatory realism) there seems to be truth in Engdahl’s suggestion that it is in large part because Americans tend to stick to the conventions of narrative realism and shy away from the devices of myth, fable, and allegory.

For a long time, literary fiction in the U.S. has been synonymous with realism (Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Salinger). Stories that take flight from observed reality are most often cast out into the margins of Science Fiction or Fantasy. Over the years a few strays have made it in the club, writers like Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison. Maybe it's not so surprising, in light of Engdahl's comment, that Morrison was the last American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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On the Lost Kingdom of Norumbega

In the 16th century, a story circulated that somewhere on the coast of what is now New England there was a rich and glorious city. It was known by the name Norumbega. Like the lost city of El Dorado, explorers sought it for over a century, but it was never found. 

No one knows exactly how the legend got started, but not long after the European “discovery” of the Americas, the word Norumbega (with varied spellings) began to appear on maps. It's first appearance was on the 1529 map of Verranzano, as simply a place on the New England coast. Ten years later, an anonymous narrative appeared describing Norumbega as a vast and opulent region. In 1541, it appeared on Mercantor’s map, then on Gastaldi’s; and though no one knew exactly where or what it was, everyone believed there was something there.

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On Neil Gaiman's Sandman Series

I once read about a man (John Lloyd) who cured his depression by getting interested in things. He started collecting facts about frogs and the mating rituals of puffer fish; he discovered Pythagoras. I think there is something to be said for this kind of curiosity. Life is pretty fun and interesting when you’re a kid, and then you grow up into a teenager and everything becomes boring. And really, it’s no wonder; growing up is a series of pretty disappointing discoveries. There’s no toy making shop at the North Pole, no faeries, no ghosts, no time travel. 

For me, the turning point in all this teenage boringness was discovering Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. These were not your every day goth comics, these were history lessons. There was plenty of black eyeliner, and sex and violence (a lot of violence), but the main characters were immortal, essentially personifications of Jungian archetypes.

Darling, let me introduce you to my uncles and aunts, says the groom in "The Song of Orpheus." They are Teleute, Aponia, Mania, Epithumia, Olethros, and Potmos; their names mean End, Inaction, Madness, Desire, Destruction, and Destiny.

They are known as the Endless and they traveled through time. As a reader, you might find yourself in Paris during the Reign of Terror following Robespierre, or in Medieval Baghdad with the caliph Haroun al Raschid (who appears in many of the Arabian Nights), or in Ancient Greece at the temple of Apollo. And anyone could show up — Caesar Augustus, Marco Polo, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton. The stories referenced myths and gnostic mysticism and made you go to libraries to look things up. (This was before the days of internet.) I specifically remember in Fables and Reflections, discovering the Talmundic story about the two Eve prototypes that came before the real Eve was created — the first was Lilith and the second had no skin at first — and I was like, “My God! Why does nobody else know about this?!” 

Neil Gaiman got me interested in things. And I soon discovered the world is actually not that boring. Maybe everyone has a writer like this, or an artist, or musician, or a person, or experience — something that hits you at that crucial moment and sets you on a path forever. (I remember what Jonathan Lethem said of Philip K. Dick, that reading his work was "as formative an influence as marijuana or punk rock — as equally responsible for beautifully fucking up my life, for bending it irreversibly along a course I still travel.") 

As for Neil Gaiman, I think one thing that characterizes his work is all his collecting. He mines through history, folklore, and out-of-print books for the forgotten ore. Frank Cottrell Boyce in his review of Gaiman’s latest book, Trigger Warning, writes, “Reading this collection feels like looking over the shoulder of someone whose browser has a thousand and one tabs open. . . . But all these clicks and hits are linked to one place – a good story.” I can't remember whose advice it was to young writers to "steal everything", but that is exactly what Gaiman is doing. (His novel The Graveyard Book is a straight-up retelling of The Jungle Book.) But the stories never feel stolen; in fact, most of the time they're so original and inventive they're almost weird. I mean this in the best way possible. Like the Lord of Dreams says himself, "Any view of things that is not strange is false." Gaiman is a myth maker, and myths are always weird.

He has published 37 books since concluding the Sandman series, the first being American Gods, a novel which Joe Hill writes, "was a kind of uncorking and a flood of fever dreams poured forth afterward." And thank goodness for that, because a) he is one of the few American writers pulling fantasy out of the margins, and b) his writing is like a drug and I never want to run out. 

On the Green Man

Green Man of Poitiers Cathedral

I first came upon the Green Man in the statuary section of a garden store. It was a statue of the face of a man with leaves growing out of his nose, mouth, and ears, meant for the garden. It struck me as being a little grotesque, but ever since, I have been somewhat obsessed with it. 

Art from Green Man Brewery's Rambler Spring Ale

Art from Green Man Brewery's Rambler Spring Ale

The Green Man seemed familiar enough, some character from pagan folklore — a spirit of nature, a wild man of the wood, like John Barleycorn or Dionysus — but he also seemed very strange. Why did he have vines growing out of his mouth, or into his mouth? It’s so dark and specific. Is he eating the foliage or being eaten by it? Or perhaps it comes from him. You figure there must be a story behind it. It’s so odd. The trouble is, there isn’t one, at least one that is known. If there ever was a story associated with the Green Man it was lost at the end of the Middle Ages. Because of this, his image is up for grabs, and he has come to represent many different things. To environmentalists he is a symbol of the wilderness, to Neo-Pagans and Wiccans he is a deity, to beer enthusiasts he is the man-in-the-hops or the Dionysus of ale. But I can't help wonder, who is he really? 

I took some time to do research about it (and as usual, I got a little carried away), but what I found out surprised me. I'd always assumed he was an ancient Celtic deity, but, oddly, his image dates back to ancient Mesopotamia.

Byzantine Era mosaic in Istanbul, (c. 5th century CE)

Byzantine Era mosaic in Istanbul, (c. 5th century CE)

Green Man from Hatra, Iraq (c. 300 BCE)

In the first century AD, a tradition developed in Rome of portraying people hiding among leaves, turning into leaves, or actually being formed out of them. They were seen on temple friezes and capitals throughout the Roman Empire from Turkey to the Rhine. These foliated faces bare a strong resemblance to carvings found in ancient Mesopotamia. 

It is speculated that this leaf-faced man carving found in Iraq (below) represents Humbaba, the ancient Sumerian guardian of the Cedar Forest. If this is true, it would mean the Green Man has his roots in a character from the oldest story ever written. (In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero kills Humbaba, thereby "taming the wilderness". 

Silvanus, Abbey at St-Denis, France (c. 13th century CE)

So why did this pagan character become so popular with Medieval Christians? This is the real mystery. Most of all the Green Men appearing in art are found in medieval cathedrals; but we have no idea why, or what his image meant to them. There are no stories about him. He is virtually nameless. "Green Man" was a name given to him in the early 20th century. The only leaf-faced man inscribed with a name in a medieval church is in the Abbey at St-Denis. It's inscribed with the name “Silvanus”, the Roman god of the woods. This makes his presence even stranger. Silvanus is a god associated with Pan and forest nymphs. Nature, to medieval Christians, was associated with this world, with the flesh, and with the sins of the flesh. So why would they portray him so venerably? 

Some think he might have been a grotesque (a representation of evil meant to ward it off at the same time), like gargoyles, hunkypunks, and sheela-na-gigs. But if the Green Man represented nature and what was carnal or pagan, he should have been portrayed as a devil, as some other pagan images were. Instead, he is more often carved looking dignified and somber, sometimes even Christ-like. 

St. James’ Church, Sutton Benger, Wiltshire, England, (c. 14th century CE)

St. James’ Church, Sutton Benger, Wiltshire, England, (c. 14th century CE)

Maybe medieval Christians were just, in their hearts, too pagan to associate green growing things with sin. They never stopped erecting maypoles on the day of what was once the pagan holiday of Beltane, for instance. Maybe to them, the green growing leaves symbolized what mystic Hildegarde of Bingen called ‘the greening of the soul”. And perhaps the sadness carved into these faces reflects the knowledge that all that lives must also die, that flesh is like grass and we wither like the flowers of the field.  

This association with the cycle of life, especially the death and decay part, became really pronounced in the years following the Black Plague, when Green Men with branches sprouting from their eyes and nose started to appear. 

Church of Ottery St Mary, Devon, England

Church of Ottery St Mary, Devon, England

By the late Middle Ages, there is rarely a Green Man carved as wise and venerable anymore. They become visions of death, decay, and old age. Leaves originate from the forehead like wrinkles and are bunched up under the eyes like bags. The leafy vines are like worms that push out of a corpse’s eyes, like nature is reclaiming the face from the inside out. Sometimes these images are horrific and sometimes they are serene. Because there are so many variations, it is easy to imagine that the portrayal of the Green Man is simply a reflection of the carver's feelings about being caught in this endless cycle of life and death. 

But this is all just speculation. After all this research, the Green Man still remains a mystery. But one thing seems worth mentioning. Though we might not know exactly what he represented, it's pretty clear it had something to do with nature, so the way he's represented seems to say a lot about that culture's relationship to nature, specifically the forest. 

Take the Rochester Green Man. The woods in medieval times were dangerous places and nature wasn’t always something there to look pretty and write poems about. There were wild animals. The feeling of being watched in the wood or a face glimpsed among the leaves was most likely a robber or a rapist, not a benevolent forest spirit. Even forest spirits in those days had a taste for seduction and violence. It’s easy to see how a carver with this view of the woods might portray the Green Man as threatening.

Rochester Cathedral in Kent

Rochester Cathedral in Kent

If we did extend this notion of the Green Man as a representation of society’s feelings about nature and the woods, why then the sudden popularity of the Green Man in medieval England? Could it be explained by the fact (surprising to me to learn) that there was hardly any forest left? We have this image of medieval England as having deep, endless forests filled with fairy tales but in reality, the population of England had so expanded (prior to the Plague), that there were fewer trees than there are in modern day France. 

Maybe it’s similar to how the British Romantics, American Transcendentalists, and Hudson River School painters (all big nature enthusiasts) emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Artists begin portraying nature more in art when it is being lost in reality. This would explain the revival of the Green Man today.

So, back to the garden statuary store and the feeling of uncanny. There I was, looking at the face of a thing I’d never seen before — a man's face, hidden in the leaves, or made of leaves, or being overtaken by leaves (it was hard to say) — and yet I knew it. It's that curious combination of the strange and the familiar that does weird things to a person. Anyway, I think it was familiar because it is an archetypal image. The Green Man is an expression of that experience — one that I think we all share, no matter what culture or time period — of being alone in the woods and feeling like you are not alone, that hidden in the trees there is something — or someone — aware of your presence, though you can not see it, that there is some invisible intelligence alive in the wood. And sometimes this presence feels threatening, but mostly it's just watchful, though a little wary of you. It feels old and wise, and perhaps a little bit sad, but for reasons you'll never really understand.