Friday, September 26, 2014

Mythology, Loch Ailort, Scotland, kelpies


A windy, changeable morning.  Sunlit rays of mist slant across the brooding glens of pyramidical Rois Bheinn.  We've been here at Cooper's Knowe House for most of a week.  A frisky black black horse with a mottled gray companion, frolics, grazes and occasionally, on a whim, rears and neighs in the early mornings.  I don't know his name.  But he's a broad, strong horse and is the perfect image of a kelpie, the Scottish mythological demon that lives deep in the lochs, emerges from the deep in the shape of a black horse to lure human victims to ride on their backs whence they are taken back into the depths and devoured.

On the way here, we stopped in several small towns.  In one not far from Gleneagles where the Ryder Cup Golf tournament is underway we found an immense "wickerman" golfer statue.  It was early morning and the village seemed deserted which gave the cheery, wry monument an ominous cast.  I imagined a cheerful old Scot inviting us to stay a day or two to be the "honoured" guests at their celebration.

Since gale force winds are forecast we're off to Fort William today to see the west Highland museum there which is supposed to have some fine artifacts from the rebellion of '45.  I sense Charles Edward Stuart's reputation is rising again, in spite of the 1700 highlanders that died under his leadership at Culloden on that wet stormy day in April 1746.

Outside of Falkirk are two great steel sculptures of the horseheads of kelpies symbolizing both the mythic past and industrial strength of Scotland.  The night before last, we had dinner in Inverness at Cafe 1.  It was best dinner we've had yet and one of the best I've ever had in the UK.  Between courses I decided to ask the young lady serving us how she'd voted in the referendum.  She was happy to tell us and to say why.  Her explanation was insightful, well-reasoned and demonstrated what one might call formidably clear, critical thinking which is exactly the kind of strength Scotland needs, of course.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In the Western Isles - Roshven, Scotland


The BBC is reporting today that the Scottish National Party, the SNP, has added 17,000 members since it lost the referendum vote on independence a few days ago.  I infer that a lot of people have discovered or rediscovered a national identity.

And I've been re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" since we've been traveling in the Scottish highlands.  The design of the drama of the narrative is so elegant and compelling it's easy to miss that Stevenson's novel functions on several levels, sometimes simultaneously.  For example, the subject of the conversations between David Balfour and Alan Breck Stuart are, often as not, concerned with their dramatic predicament and their strategy for avoiding capture by the government forces or Clan Campbell.  The same conversations also serve to explicate the values, social structure and mores of the highland culture of the time.  Indeed the dramatic or rhetorical turn of those dialogues rest more often on the latter than the former.  It is as a travel novel that I find "Kidnapped" most engaging this time through.  Of course it's time travel,too, and an excellent entree into the 4-dimensionality of the place through which we're moving physically.

One of the central, unspoken issues at the heart of the novel is national identity.  Scotland was diverse and complicated in the 1100s, the 1200s, the 1700s and now.  Whether or not its future leads to independence from the UK or not, it has just done something very remarkable.  It has considered and made a decision about the independence of the country peacefully.  To these grim eyes it seems rather heroic.

Yesterday, we spent a fine day walking around and photographing Tioram Castle.  Today we walked the desolate beach where "Local Hero" was filmed.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland.  In a small, cottage at the back of Stirling Castle in Sterling, a twenty million pound project to recreate the complete set of the Unicorn Tapestries that once adorned the royal palaces in the castle is underway.  Those that are finished and already hanging capture the brilliance of the originals when they were first created.  Nothing, even imagination, prepares you for the immediacy of them.

Yesterday, Lynn, Robert and I went hawking.  A long afternoon walking rugged fields and some woods with two Goshawks and two master falconers yielded just two rabbits and a partridge.  But I learned and experienced more of the natural world and its order than I have in years.  Since, one important early chapter of my novel is concerned with medieval falconry based on literary sources and much less personal experience years ago, I must admit to not a little trepidation about how I'd feel about the book after.  The good news was that my imagination did good service.  There's very little I would change now.

That said,  I don't know that anyone has ever captured the immediacy and suspense of that experience.

Imagination is always a work in progress.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Unnamed Knight


Mark Twain blamed Chivalry for the American Civil War.  He thought that southern gentlemanly values had its roots in Sir Walter Scott,

“But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner-- or Southron, according to Sir Walter`s starchier way of phrasing it-- would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.”

Really?  Were Ivanhoe, the Waverly novels and Sir Walter Scott’s fictive conception of Chivalry responsible the socio-economic structure of the south and the religious institutions that rationalized and supported it?

In any case, there can be no doubt that there’s a strong current of anti-chivalric sentiment in English and American letters from the mid-nineteen century onwards.  The lost generation found the sentiment particularly appealing.  The irony, of course, is that American letters, even Twain and later Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Mamet never eschewed chivalry they just portrayed it (unnamed but rightly) as something that can exist independent of class, caste, ethnicity or sex.  (That’s also not new, Thomas Malory portrayed Sir Palomides as an African after all.)  And even Huck Finn as well as Bayard Sartoris were guilty of behavior that can only be called chivalrous.

I bring this up in the context of the horrific murders of the two journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, at the hands of the of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State.”  The black ninja-dressed executioner was of British origin and apparently there are numerous benighted Americans among their ranks as well.  We wonder why.  Perhaps, partly, it is a grotesquely corrupted but natural urge to serve a greater good in the absence of any humane “chivalric” values that could serve to direct that will to power to more virtuous ends.

Picasso loved knights, the symbolism, the ironies, the allusions.

"Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath.  Rise a knight."  - William Monahan ("Kingdom of Heaven")

Sunday, September 7, 2014

As a Black Prince on Bloody Fields


One of my novels, “As a Black Prince on Bloody Fields,” is seeing the light of day.  I’ll let the words on the back cover speak for it.

"An uncertain sixteen year-old in black armor steels himself to lead the vanguard of his father’s army on a muddy battlefield.  It is a stormy day in August, 1346.  He is Edward Plantagenet, called “the Black Prince.”  The place is “The Valley of the Clerks,” near the town of Crecy, France. 

This is the story of his youth and adulthood as he tells it, from a childhood among lions in the Tower of London to his love for a woman whose life is as wild and exceptional as his own.  She is Joan, called “the Fair Maid of Kent,” renowned for her beauty.

At 26, after years of vast social and economic change and the desolation of the Black Death, Edward returns to France in another desperate gambit to save his father’s kingdom and discover who he truly is.  Before Henry V and Agincourt there was Edward and Crecy and Poitiers.  And Joan.”

If you’re reading this, hopefully you’re wondering whether you would be interested in reading the novel.  Maybe you’re wondering why I wrote it.

When I was fourteen and first starting to write a lot I wanted to write the kind of books I liked to read.  They were the books of adolescence, the books you live inside, the books for which you grieve when they end, sometimes to the point of tears.  And I devoured them.  I remember reading The Lord of the Rings over two rainy summer days mostly outside.  The snow-tipped mountains visible from our backyard never looked so green.

Later, in graduate school, I wondered if that was sentimentality.

Now, much later, I perceive that response as proportional and proper for anyone at that time and place in life.  The books were creating whom I aspired to be, who I was and who I am now.  They merit tears.  I never would have been able to love and live in War and Peace that first time through if it hadn’t been for reading J. R. R. Tolkien four years before.

What were the books?  I’ve already mentioned Tolkien, (who 41 years after his death amazed me with his translation of Beowulf beautifully assembled by his son Christopher.)  There was T. H. White who may been one of the first since Chaucer and Thomas Mallory to portray the medieval world as intimate, which it was.  There was Mary Renault, whose novels of ancient Greece, particularly the Theseus and Alexander novels, imagined and portrayed sexuality and gender with the breadth and nuance that had escaped even the more literal members of the lost generation.  Then there was Dumas, Hemingway, Faulkner and, surprisingly late at 18, Shakespeare, the greatest love of my literary life.

Quite simply I’ve tried to write a book I would have wanted to read then and would read now.

I have no illusions about belonging in that great company mentioned above but their influence is evident and might be a clue as to whether you’d want read my book.

It concerns the Hundred Years War, the same hundred years of devastation that inspired George R. R. Martin’s “Fire and Ice” fantasy books and the HBO “Game of Thrones” series.  That period of European history has its vast share of dramatic and fictional treatments, from Shakespeare to Bernard Cornwell.  But, to my knowledge there are few, if any, that attempt to imagine the personal experience of the Black Prince, which must have been amazing.

That's why I wrote it.  If you're interested in a review, you can find one on the Kirkus Reviews website:

The wicked cool cover was designed by Carolina Fiandri, CirceCorp Design.  You can purchase the paperback and the Kindle eBook directly from Amazon now.