On Neil Gaiman

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Well folks, I think it’s time I expressed my gratitude and indebtedness to the great Neil Gaiman. Without Neil Gaiman there would be no Chronicles of Dan Lee O’ Brien and no Bhikku’s Tale.

If you are unfamiliar with Gaiman’s work you really don’t know what you are missing. Gaiman writes fiction with a dark cast to it. It isn’t pure fantasy as it is rooted in the real world, not unlike the work of fellow Brit, Clive Barker, to whom I am also deeply indebted. Many people have said my work is original and fresh. This may be the case in the world of Irish fiction but it’s time I made it known that Neil Gaiman has been doing it for decades for millions of readers around the world.

So, what exactly is it that Gaiman does?

Well, a lot of it is playing around with mythology and legend, often putting them into a modern context. His is an inclusive, pluralist vision of not just the gods but society in general. The word postmodernism has been associated with him a lot and rightly so. Someone once described him as a mad chef putting all kinds of different ingredients into the cake mix.

My favourite work of his is the Sandman. An epic, ground breaking adult comic that ran to 75 issues in the 90s. What do I love about it? Many, many things but above all, its wisdom. The author Aldous Huxley once said that when he took LSD he got the feeling that all is well with the universe. There is no need to take acid to feel this: just read the Sandman.

There is such intelligence and perceptiveness in what Neil Gaiman does. His style is spare and deceptively simple and direct. Behind it there is a high calibre, very well read mind at work. Gaiman is obsessed with stories, and mythology offers a treasure trove of them. Whether it is Greek, Norse, Irish, Slavic or African Gaiman will find a use for it.

So, is there much Irish mythology in his work? There is a scene in American Gods where Shadow, the protagonist, gets into a fist fight with a Sidhe (Irish faery) named Sweeney. Gaiman makes the Sidhe very tall and thin, completely bypassing the conventional notion of the ‘little people’. I thought this was such a good idea that I made the Sidhe in the Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien predominantly tall and thin. There is another great scene in the book where Sweeney, after dying, comes back to life in the morgue and, speaking at his own wake, tells Shadow the histories of the Tuatha De Danann and other waves of settlers in Ireland as they are recorded in the Old Irish manuscript, The Book of Invasions. I was happy to learn that Gaiman had written a substantial portion of the book in Kinsale, Ireland.

Although there is much darkness and creepiness in much of what he writes, Neil Gaiman has a sweet voice as a writer – he just comes across as a very nice, decent human being. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that. Many of his books are short and sweet. Many of his stories end happily but some don’t. The end of Stardust comes to mind immediately but I’ll say no more. Don’t want to spoil it for you.

Neil Gaiman has had a stellar career as a writer, going from strength to strength and picking up many awards and much praise and acclaim along the way. He deserves it all.

I just wanted to say thanks, Neil: it’s great having you in my life.

Irish Mythology and W.B. Yeats

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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

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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.

Writing The Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien

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The Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien was written over a period of four to five months in 2015. It is fair to say that it flowed out of me. Reading it now I’d say the best quality is the dialogue. It seems to capture the rhythms of speech successfully as well as facilitating the discussion of ideas. One of my favourite creators is the film maker Quentin Tarantino. His dialogue is, above all, lucid and intelligent and I’ve tried to emulate that in the Chronicles. However, the writer I am most indebted to is undoubtedly Neil Gaiman. The whole idea of putting gods into a modern context comes from him, especially the Sandman comic and his novel, American Gods.

When writing the book my overall aim was to play with the Irish myths. To make them more fun and accessible. I also wanted to use them to talk about the power of the imagination which is, perhaps, the dominant theme of the stories. I tried to keep the stories clever and humorous and ensure they have a broad appeal. My favourite story is probably Gungnir, as the concept of the story is clever but it also has a strong autobiographical element, so it is close to me.

The character Dan Lee O’Brien came about as I wanted to create a protagonist or anti-hero who was both old fashioned and cool: a pipe smoking, bike riding old man who is a magician and investigator of the supernatural. He is like an older, more laid back John Constantine. I also tried to put in strong female characters, both goddesses and humans. This seems to have paid off as most of the positive feedback I have gotten has come from women.

I also wanted to give people things to think about e.g. the need for imagination to bring about social change, the power of music and the idea of being haunted by ghosts of the past. I tried to put a lot of ideas into the mix to create something complex and multi-faceted.

All books are a journey. I hope those who choose to take the journey with me will find it both entertaining and stimulating.

 

Reflections on the Imagination

For this writer the hardest part of creating is coming up with ideas. Imaginative ideas. It takes up so much mental energy that I have little left for the writing part. But when my energy is restored I find that putting words on paper and giving shape to my thoughts and ideas is a lot easier than that initial imagining. I usually lie down on my bed for the initial imagining stage and it is by far the hardest work you can do whilst lying down on your back. A line from Yeats’ Adam’s Curse comes to mind:

…and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisey set

Of bankers, school masters and clergy men.

The ancient myth about the birth of Athena is typical Greek brilliance, an insight into the nature of the imagination. The myth goes that Athena just popped out of Zeus’ head, suddenly, from out of nowhere. The imagination comes, seemingly, from out of nowhere and therefore it is a mystery on a par with music and wine. That the myth refers to the imagination is perhaps confirmed by the role given to Athena in Homer’s Odyssey. She gives Odysseus ideas for getting out of trouble and getting back to his home on Ithaca. She is like a personification of the imagination. In the poem she is often referred to as ‘the goddess of the flashing eyes’. What could be a better metaphor for the imagination, for the inner eye?

So the imagination is hard work and it is mysterious. All I can add to this is that it is stressful. It seems to come about by mental chafing in the same way that fire is started by rubbing wood against wood. We can bring in another myth here. The myth of Prometheus, who gave the gift of fire to man and was punished for it. Is fire another metaphor for the imagination? For the imagination in all its power and mystery must be the greatest gift that man possesses. All original thought comes from the initial spark of the imagination. Every invention, every great work of art is the offspring of the imagination. All civilisation and progress owes a debt to the imagination.

So the next time you are dreaming with your eyes open, remember that you are not an idler. Or if you are an idler then it is an important idleness. You are partaking in an activity which has lifted humanity to its very summits. You are partaking in something divine. For the writer who must come up with an original idea it is hard work but once it happens and the words begin to cascade and flow no writer will deny that it is worth it.