Writing A Bhikku’s Tale

A Bhikku’s Tale is steeped not just in mythology but story. Anyone who enjoys a good tale well told will find it satisfying, I hope.

Every day we encounter many stories: newspaper stories, TV and film stories, stories we hear from family and friends. We need stories to shape and understand both ourselves and the world in which we live. Stories take us on a journey, even if it is just a song heard on the car radio or a joke. Like all good journeys, the getting there is more important than the destination. Those are just some of the reasons why I am a fan of stories and mythology.

In writing A Bhikku’s Tale I wanted to play around with elements of Irish myth and ideas from my own imagination. The notion of play is often associated with the term Postmodernism but I wouldn’t hold it down to just this. In my book, all art comes from play. Always has and always will. There is plenty of work involved too but, essentially, it’s about play. I had such fun writing A Bhikku’s Tale! I hope that the reader will have just as much fun.

Two writers who have had a strong influence on my work are Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Both are master fabulists and both are Brits. I wanted to write a book about fantastic and mythological creatures, putting them into a modern context. A modern Irish context. I am 100% honest when I say that I have never heard of such a book being written in mainstream Irish fiction. Irish mythology is an absolute treasure trove of stories, ideas and characters that appeal to the imagination. Some people might frown on the way I use Irish myth and legend. They might see Irish mythology as sacred and not to be touched in any way. I believe that, like all other mythologies, Irish myth and legends have survived and grown through people retelling and rewriting them. Mythology is something that should be shared by everyone and all artists and writers should be free to use them in any way they want, in order to say what they want to say.

As mentioned earlier, I put quite a few original ideas and characters into the book. I’m a big fan of imagination. I believe that it is important not just for art but also for solving social and environmental problems, amongst others. I strongly believe the imagination can change the world or, at least, change the way we see it. But, getting back to the book, although there is lots of Irish and other mythology in there, you really don’t need to know much about it to enjoy the work. All you need is imagination and a love of story, two things we are all blessed with, even if you don’t know it.

The Wife’s Tale by Seamus Heaney

This is one of my favourite Seamus Heaney poems. It’s from his 1969 seamus_heaney_in_the_studio_with_his_portrait_by_colin_davidsoncollection, Door into the Dark. I think the key to understanding the poem is the Eleusian mysteries practised by the ancient Greeks. The man in the poem is basically giving the role of the corn goddess, Demeter, to the woman, though she doesn’t know it. It’s a measure of how much he loves her but she is mystified.

I think a knowledge of the Classics helps to understand much of Heaney’s poetry.

The Wife’s Tale

By Seamus Heaney

When I had spread it all on linen cloth
Under the hedge, I called them over.
The hum and gulp of the thresher ran down
And the big belt slewed to a standstill, straw
Hanging undelivered in the jaws.
There was such quiet that I heard their boots
Crunching the stubble twenty yards away.

He lay down and said, ‘Give these fellows theirs,
I’m in no hurry,’ plucking grass in handfuls
And tossing it in the air. ‘That looks well.’
(He nodded at my white cloth on the grass.)
‘I declare a woman could lay out a field
Though boys like us have little call for cloths.’
He winked, then watched me as I poured a cup
And buttered the thick slices that he likes.
‘It’s threshing better than I thought, and mid
It’s good clean seed. Away over there and look.’
Always this inspection has to be made
Even when I don’t know what to look for.

But I ran my hand in the half-filled bags
Hooked to the slots. It was hard as shot,
Innumerable and cool. The bags gaped
Where the chutes ran back to the stilled drum
And forks were stuck at angles in the ground
As javelins might mark lost battlefields.
I moved between them back across the stubble.

They lay in the ring of their own crusts and dregs,
Smoking and saying nothing. ‘There’s good yield,
Isn’t there?’ –as proud as if he were the land itself–
‘Enough for crushing and sowing both.’
And that was it. I’d come and he had shown me,
So I belonged no further to the work.
I gathered cups and folded up the cloth
And went. But they still kept their ease,
Spread out, unbuttoned, grateful, under the trees.

Irish Mythology and W.B. Yeats

170px-william_butler_yeats_by_john_butler_yeats_1900

If you are interested in Irish mythology and you haven’t read the early poetry of W.B. Yeats, you really should. Through his early volumes of poetry such as The Rose and The Wind Among The Reeds he re-invented Irish mythology, making it more accessible to anyone who could read.

There is an animism to his early poetry – he brings the natural landscape to life better than any other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poet. There is also danger. His Sidhe or Danann are amoral creatures and there is the suggestion that if you hang out with them too much you run the risk of going insane.

And there is the sheer escapism of his poetry at this stage. Or maybe escapism is the wrong word. Transcendentalism might be more accurate. The early Yeats sees art as separate from reality. It exists in its own transcendent realm and this is reflected strongly in the work. The natural world stirs the imagination and allows us to enter a place where the troubles and toils of daily living can be left behind. This kind of escapism is best demonstrated in the poem, Who Goes With Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,

And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,

And dance upon the level shore?

Young man, lift up your russet brow,

And lift your tender eyelids, maid,

And brood on hopes and fear no more.

 

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love’s bitter mystery;

For Fergus rules the brazen cars,

And rules the shadows of the wood,

And the white breast of the dim sea

And all dishevelled wandering stars.

The early poems are also heavily symbolic and intuitive – they have no precise meaning, which is how all poetry should be. You get the sense that this is a world that exists in the poet’s imagination and not based on experience. The poet William Blake was a huge influence on Yeats, especially in his celebration of the imagination. For both poets, there is more to life than what we take in through the five senses. There is something we all own which is unique to all of us and we can access it through the imagination, something that is ours and nobody else’s. In Yeats’ early work there is a strong sense of a deeply private world been depicted. Because Yeats was so young, he didn’t have much else to draw on except his intuition and imagination, but what a body of work he gave us!

His early work far surpasses the other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets such as Samuel Ferguson and Thomas Moore. You will find no leprechauns and fairies in Yeats’ early poetry. His work harks back to the old, pre-Christian mythology of Ireland. To the Tuatha De Danann and the Book of Invasions. To the hero, Cu Chulainn and his epic, The Tain. Yeats recognised what a treasure trove of imagination the myths are and how they could provide a framework with which to express his own unique vision of Ireland.

Irish and Greek Mythology: Musings

Cuchulainnduncanunknowndate

Here are some musings on the differences between Irish mythology and Greek mythology.

Anyone familiar with James Joyce’s Ulysses will probably know that Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey as a structuring device, hence the title. In doing this, was Joyce proposing a hybrid culture? A kind of Greek and Irish civilisation, if you will? With the Greeks providing the form and the Irish the content? With this in mind, I’d like to compare and contrast Irish and Greek mythology. I will focus on the differences because, well, it wouldn’t be a hybrid culture if there were none. Celt and Greek have a lot to learn from each other.

The first major difference is imagination. Greek mythology possesses a universal imagination whereas Irish mythology is often more particular and local. But let’s bring in Joyce again here and consider what he said about his art: in the particular is contained the universal. Irish mythology bristles with imagination. It is often strange and bizarre. See the description of Cu Chulainn’s warp spasm in the Tain. Some critics characterize the myths as ‘childish’ because of this uninhibited imagination but they are wrong.  This small mindedness is typical of those who don’t know the importance of a healthy imagination no matter what your age is. Greek mythology doesn’t have this unrestrained, liberated character. It doesn’t have the same imaginative and emotional exuberance. What it does have, however, is a tremendous clarity and insight into the human condition. It is easier to decipher the meaning of the Greek myths. Irish mythology is more enigmatic. It doesn’t give up its secrets so easily.

Another major difference is expression of national character. Irish mythology is a national treasure for all Irish people. It speaks with an authentic Irish voice. Reading the Tain or the Book of Invasions is like looking into a mirror. I don’t know of any other literature that expresses what it is to be Irish so well. As for what ‘Irish’ is, that is a question not easily answered. You’ll just have to take my word for it. It is even more hard to say what the character of the Ancient Greeks was but I would guess that it involved clarity of mind and being philosophical.

Greek mythology has a longer history than Irish mythology. Homer’s Iliad was written around 700 BC whereas the earliest version of The Tain we have dates from around the later part of the 11th century AD. Because of this, writers have been writing about the Greek myths for a far longer time then they have the Irish myths. The Classical Tradition is strong but the Irish or Celtic tradition has come on over the last couple of centuries through writers such as Lady Morgan, Synge, Yeats and Heaney. Perhaps the finest examples of the Celtic tradition are found in the early poetry of Yeats, especially his collection, The Wind Among the Reeds. To my mind, the best of these poems are as good as any poems written in the Classical Tradition.

So what of this hybrid of Irish and Greek culture that Joyce seems to be proposing? What of this meeting of Celt and Greek? Well, it is clear that they have a lot to learn from each other and a lot the agree on. So it is a friendship well worth cultivating, I would say.