Friday, 30 March 2012


Scribble City Central's fifth Fantabulous Friday comes to us from Gillian Philip, author of the Rebel Angels series (and wrangler of badboy faeries Seth and Conal MacGregor, who have appeared elsewhere in these pages), as well as of The Opposite of Amber, Bad Faith and Crossing the Line.  She knows a thing or two about Scottish myths, does Gillian, and it's always a pleasure to have her here. 

The Blue Men are particular favourites of mine, having written about them in my own mythical journey round the tales of Britain, Coll the Storyteller's Tales of Enchantment.  This is how I described them:
"There were Great Ones of pure light who danced in the lands above the sky. Time did not pass for them, for there was no time.  Distance did not matter to them, for there was no distance...but one day Others appeared in their lands and began to dance too.  Instead of pure light, they were made of something different, and as their dancing grew stronger, their whirling forms began to cover the pure white skirts of the Great Ones with patterns of colour.  And the colour was blue..."
I'm always fascinated to see how other authors see the mythic beings I love, and Gillian's beautifully informative piece taught me a thing or two I didn't know. So without further ado, I shall hand you over to her.

B for Blue Men of the Minch
The Nimble Dancers of the Waves

GP: Water monsters are my absolute favourites, from kelpies to selkies (and I know selkies aren’t traditionally ‘monsters’, but mine are), so when Lucy asked me to write about the Blue Men of the Minch, who had been a little under my sonar till now, I rushed to my copy of John Gregorson Campbell’s The Gaelic Otherworld to investigate.

They’re very particular to a location, the Blue Men - na Fir Ghorma - living only in a strait between the island of Lewis and the Shiants, Sruth nam Fear Gorma - the stream of the Blue Men, aka the Current of Destruction. It’s here they lurk in the waters, looking to capsize boats for no other reason than mischief and pride (at least, unlike the more famous kelpies or water horses, they don’t have any plans to eat you). According to one tale, the only way to outwit them is to be better at rhyming couplets, as proved by a certain captain of a ship with snow-white sails, pursued by na Fear Ghorma:

Man of the black cap, what do you say
As your proud ship cleaves the brine?’

‘My speedy ship takes the shortest way
And I’ll follow you line by line.’

‘My men are eager, my men are ready
To drag you beneath the waves.’

‘My ship is speedy, my ship is steady,
If it sank it would wreck your caves.’
The Blue Men of the Minch, iPad illustration copyright (c) Lucy Coats

On hearing this, says the tale, the Blue chieftain gave up in disgust, realising he could never defeat a man with such aptitude for off-the-cuff doggerel.

It’s easy to see why the legend of the Blue Men arose. There are many treacherous waters in the Minch, but the channel where the Blue Men are said to lurk can be wild and vicious even when the rest of the sea is calm. They take the appearance of blue figures with streaming white hair who rise from the water, clutching at boats and dragging them down.

I took the title for my Rebel Angels series from an old Highland myth. The fallen angels, driven out of Paradise, scattered in three directions: some fell on the land and became the faeries, some fell into the sea to become selkies, and the rest were caught in the sky and remain there as the Northern Lights. But the myth has many variations, and of course in the north Hebrides the sea-bound angels became the Blue Men. Fair play to the north Hebrides.

Now, even a scheming fallen angel has to take a break sometimes, and there’s a popular story about one who was caught basking on the waves on an unusually calm day in the Minch. A boat passing by took the chance to capture one of the feared Blue Men; pulling him aboard, still asleep, they bound him tightly from head to foot. Two of his comrades, however, raced to save him. One called out, ‘Duncan will be one man’, and the other replied ‘Farquhar will be two.’ Their voices woke the captive, who shouted ‘Iain Mhor has no need of help!’ Leaping to his feet, he broke his bonds like a spider web and dived back into the water, leaving the fishermen with nothing but broken rope and the knowledge that Blue Men have perfectly ordinary names.

Unlike the Blue Men, I’m captivated. They will without doubt be making an appearance in a future book - thank you, Lucy - because I’m sure they’re well known both to my kelpies and to my Selkyr. And I can’t imagine my Sithe - Seth and Conal and the rest - would pass up a chance for a lively confrontation.

Not if I have anything to do with it...

There’s a poem about na Fear Ghorma that sums up their moods. Anyone who’s seen the Hebrides will recognise that the seas around them share their temper. It’s by Donald A. Mackenzie and I can’t resist reproducing it here:
When the tide is turning and the wind is fast asleep,
And not a wave is curling on the wide, blue deep,
Oh, the waters will be churning in the stream that never smiles,
Where the Blue Men are splashing round the Shiant Isles!
As the summer wind goes droning o’er the sun-bright seas,
And the Minch is all a-dazzle to the Hebrides,
They will skim along like salmon - you can see their shoulders gleam,
And the flashing of their fingers in the Blue Men’s stream.

But when the blast is raving and the wild tide races,
The Blue Men are breast-high with foam-grey faces;
They’ll plunge along with fury while they sweep the sea behind;
Oh, they’ll bellow o’er the billows and wail upon the wind.
And if my boat be storm-tossed and beating for the bay,
They’ll be howling and be growling as they drench it with their spray; -
For they’d like to heel it over to their laughter when it lists,
Or crack the keel behind them, or stave it with their fists.

Oh, weary on the Blue Men, their anger and their wiles!
The whole day long, the whole night long, they’re splashing round the isles;
They’ll follow every fisher - ah! They’ll haunt the fisher’s dream -
When billows toss, oh! Who would cross the Blue Men’s stream?

SCC: Who indeed?  Thank you so much, Gillian - that was a poem I didn't know, and I'm so glad to be introduced to it, as it sums up the Blue Men and their wild, storm-tossed natures exactly.

Next week: Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles (SCC's Book of the Year for 2011) talks about C for Centaurs

Friday, 23 March 2012


Scribble City Central's fourth #FantabFri A-Z comes to us from Tony Bradman, author of the bestselling Dilly the Dinosaur series.  I first met Tony in the early 1980s, when he was working on his very first book, A Kiss on the Nose.  Since then, he's been a judge for the Smarties and Teenage Booktrust prizes and has reviewed a myriad children's books (as well as written a myriad more).  This year he has several titles coming out, two of which (the very topical Sam and Ruby’s Olympic Adventure and Titanic: Death on the Water) were written with his son Tom. He's also edited Under the Weather, an anthology of stories about climate change which has just come out in paperback.

However, the thing I am really excited about is that Tony's first-ever novel is coming from Walker.  Viking Boy (which I haven't yet managed to get my hands on) will appear in September, and from the description it sounds like a feast of non-stop adventure, (and I can't wait to meet the mythical flying wolves).  This will definitely be one to look out for.

Talking of wolves, one of the things Tony has been involved with (and which he mentions below) is the Happy Ever After series, in which he imagines what might happen after the fairytale ends.  Mr Wolf Bounces Back turns the traditional image of the Big Bad Wolf carefully on its head, and I wish it was still in print, because it's simply brilliant.  I'm absolutely delighted that Tony has agreed to do B for Big Bad Wolf for SCC - the BBW is such an archetypal fairytale figure, and lurks in all our subconsciousnesses, even if we don't always realise it.  Over to you, Tony - scare us all silly!
B for Big Bad Wolf
The First Scary Monster

TB:  Like most of us, I probably first met the Big Bad Wolf in fairy tales, particularly the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. In the originals, the wolf would have been a figure of terror, a predator who pounced on the weak and vulnerable. But a long process of bowdlerisation had turned him into a figure of fun, a fool who thinks he’s clever but who is defeated by the young.

Later on, when I began to read proper novels, I discovered an altogether different kind of wolf. After my Tolkien phase (between the ages of 11-13) I moved on to the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece, in which wolves often featured. These were real wolves, though, the kind of lean, dark killers who howled in the woods and hunted in packs, who took sheep and left blood behind. The kind of animals who scarily stared with their cold green eyes at humans from the edge of the forest, the place Rosemary Sutcliff described in one of my all-time favourite phrases, ‘the wood-shore’. There’s a whole Rosemary Sutcliff novel that centres on wolves, the amazing Warrior Scarlet. The book’s hero is Drem, a Bronze Age Celtic boy who was born with a withered arm. But in his tribe each boy must kill a wolf to prove himself a man, and Drem fails at his first attempt. The plot is gripping, the writing extraordinary, but it’s the wolves that will stay in your mind.

From there I moved on to another great writer of wolf stories, Jack London. I was (and still am) a big fan of Call of the Wild and White Fang. I have no idea if they’re accurate depictions of the life and habits of wolves in North America, but they’re great action/adventure stories. Above all, they leave you feeling that to be a wolf would be very cool indeed. I mean, wolves look cool and they seem to do cool stuff. No wonder we talk admiringly about men who are lone wolves.

So how did all this affect my own work? Well, in my early career I did several re-tellings of fairy tales, including Look Out, he’s Behind You! (Frances Lincoln, brilliantly illustrated by the excellent Margaret Chamberlain) a lift-the-flap- version of Little Red Riding Hood with the wolf hiding behind the flaps inside. It was first published in 1987, and has been one of my bestsellers. I still read it (or rather, I perform it!) on school visits. Kids love looking for the comical wolf who gets his comeuppance – although not before I drag the ending out, telling them that the Big Bad Wolf might jump out of the book and eat... a teacher or two. They know I’m joking, but there are always some nervous expressions in the room – and not just from the children, either.

I’ve also written a whole series of fairy tale sequels, the Happy Ever After books (Orchard, illustrated by Sarah Warburton) in one of which – Mr Wolf Bounces Back – the Big Bad Wolf has to admit (after failing to catch Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs) that he can’t bring home the bacon like he used to. So to feed his own little wolf cubs, he has to get a job – and ends up as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ acting as a security guard for... the Three Little Pigs. But then who else would know just what kind of threats they might face?

Last but not least, there’s a part of me that still takes wolves very seriously indeed. I’ve written a Viking story that will be published in September this year. Viking Boy (Walker Books) is the story of Gunnar, a boy whose father is killed in a raid on their steading, and whose body is then taken to Valhalla – the home of all Viking warriors who die with a sword in their hand – by Odin’s Valkyries, the ‘Chooser of the Fallen’ (Valhalla itself means ‘Hall of the Fallen’). In my early drafts of the story, I felt unhappy about the way I’d portrayed the Valkyries – I’d simply adopted the Wagnerian image of big girls with pig-tails and horned helmets. So I did some more research and discovered that in the original stories the Valkyries were described as wearing black chainmail and helmets... and they rode giant winged wolves through the sky. Now how cool is that? So of course that’s what my Valkyries do now. Part of me would love to have a winged wolf to ride on. Scary, but incredibly exciting at the same time – which is what wolves have always been, and always will be.

SCC: Thank you so much, Tony - informative and illuminating as ever, and I hope everyone who hasn't read the wonderful Warrior Scarlet will now be encouraged to do so.  You've also taught me something I didn't know before - I had no idea about those Valkyries and their wolfy links. 

Next week: Gillian Philip, author of the Rebel Angels series (and wrangler of my favourite faerie boy, Seth MacGregor) talks about B for Blue Men of the Minch.

Friday, 16 March 2012


Scribble City Central's third #FantabFri A -Z is brought to you by Inbali Iserles, author of The Tygrine Cat and its thrilling sequel, The Tygrine Cat on the Run.

Generally, I'm more of a dog than a cat person, but Inbali's brilliant evocation of the feline world around Cressida Lock won me over immediately. She somehow gets deep into the cat mindset, so that as a reader I could feel what it was like to sense, smell and live as a cat.  Mati - last catling of the Tygrine clan - is both an endearing and inspiring character, and I was delighted when the second of his adventures came out.  This is a slightly darker, more thoughtful, more mystical book than the first, where Mati walks the paths of the feline spirit world, as well as those of the real one, trying to find a path to safety for himself and his kin.  I very much liked the way Inbali weaves Mati's physical journey in with his spiritual one - it gives a real added depth and dimension to the book - and the wicked Suzerain of the Sa tribe is right up there with the best of the villains. The cat myths she writes about are well-crafted and convincing, so it is no surprise that she chose B for Bastet - cat goddess extraordinaire - to write about for SCC.  So, here is Inbali to tell you something about the journey that led her to Bastet - and about the cat goddess herself. 

B for Bastet
Feline Goddess Extraordinaire

Inbali: When I was eleven my family upped sticks and moved from East Anglia to Tucson, Arizona. I hadn’t grown up surrounded by wildlife – in Cambridge, you were lucky to spot a robin or the occasional squirrel. Tucson was different, a city in the dunes, where sun-soaked adventures revealed poisonous lizards, scarlet birds and snakes hunkered down behind rocks. It was in this arid climate that I read about another desert far away, and long ago, and the burnished city of Bubastis in the Nile Delta where cats were worshipped as gods.

​Or one cat at least.

​Her name was Bastet, the beautiful daughter of the sun god, Ra. While earlier representations saw her glaring at humans through the implacable eyes of a lioness, the more peaceable cat-goddess held no threat to her devotees. A natural mother with great tenderness towards her kittens, she seemed the epitome of maternal love. Statues portrayed her with a regal, wedge-shaped face, large patient eyes and pointed ears. Jewels adorned her alongside symbols of protection such as the tearful Eye of Horus and the resilient dung beetle. Sometimes depicted with the body of a woman, Bastet’s hand clasped an ankh as her feline face looked on benevolently. Love me and I will shield you, she seemed to say: hurt my friends and I will strike you down with sharp, extended claws.

Who could fail to be charmed by her enchanting gaze?

​Was this the original cat, I wondered, the one from whom all modern moggies descended? Instructed to pursue individual history projects – a joy all too rare amid curriculum-obsessed agendas – I wrote about Bastet. Others focused on projects as diverse as Gettysburgh, JFK and 1960s fashion. I lost myself in the world of the Nile peoples, thrilled in the knowledge that in Ancient Egypt it was a crime to kill a cat – a crime punishable by death. I pondered my tortoishell-and-white, back home in Cambridge under the charge of a family friend. What relationship did that garrulous pirruper have with the cats of the ancient world? True, my moggy was stout and idle, but I had seen what became of the neighbour’s dog when he’d strayed into our garden: in the twitch of a tail, in a hiss and a pounce, her rebellious spirit endured.

​Years later I returned to Bastet and the Nile Delta. Imbued with an identity, with her own back-story of unutterable tragedy, this mother-goddess came to represent the first cat in The Tygrine Cat and The Tygrine Cat: On the Run. I named her Te Bubas to allude to the Bastet cult in the city of Bubastis, but to indicate that in this, as in everything else, humans had grasped only half the story.  Here was where Egyptian legend ended and the feline myth began (for Bastet is the goddess as humans understand her, and the Tygrine Cat stories explore the way in which cats might see themselves).

"The Creators drew light from the universe, as pure and hard as any diamond. They crushed it underfoot and scattered it onto a young earth as tiny grains of sand, forging a desert without beginning or end.”

So Te Bubas explains the birth of world to a shy young catling who has strayed into the feline spirit realm.​The catling listens, bewildered. He does not understand how he fits in to the land that she describes. He knows nothing about the proud and ancient felines who stalked the deserts of the world long before he was born. Yet Mati is the last prince in line to the Tygrine throne, a cat with extraordinary powers and more enemies than he can imagine, and his adventures are only just beginning.

SCC: Thank you, Inbali.  Indeed, who could fail to be charmed by the lovely B for Bastet? Definitely a shining star of the feline pantheon.

Next week: B for Big Bad Wolf (scary monster of every child's nightmares) with Tony Bradman, author of Dilly the Dinosaur, journalist and reviewer

Friday, 9 March 2012


Scribble City Central's second #FantabFri A-Z is brought to you by #UKYA fantasy novelist N.M.Browne.  I stumbled across Nicky's first novel, Warriors of Alavna some years ago, when it was just published, and was happily reminded of a favourite childhood book of mine, Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth, both by the impressive quality of the writing and by the very real feel she had for the Celtic period. 
I've gone on admiring Nicky's writing ever since, and am looking forward to reading her recently-published further foray into the Celtic world, Wolf Blood, (Bloomsbury 2011) about which I'm hearing some very good things. 

Today, however, is all about B for Basilisk, a creature about which Nicky is eminently qualified to write, having produced an excellent novel of the same name. The late, great Douglas Hill said that Basilisk 'ranked with the best in modern fantasy', and I definitely don't disagree with him.  It certainly hooked me by the back teeth and held me till the very last page.  Its richly lush language is a pleasure to read, and the world of Above and Below Nicky has created here is both compellingly convincing and scarily bloody enough to satisfy those who like their YA fantasy with a dark edge.

Here's Nicky to tell you some fascinating facts about this scary monster...and a little about her book too. 
B for Basilisk
Creature of Nightmare

NMB: Writers in the medieval world thought that the basilisk had the upper body and head of a rooster and the bottom half of a snake. It is sometimes called a cockatrice.

I think this image is more funny than scary. The Romans thought of the basilisk as a kind of highly poisonous serpent, the king of snakes that could kill with its breath. That is definitely scarier - only it is described as being only thirty centimeters long! It is still very powerful though and in some accounts its indirect glance could turn a man to stone. I imagine the basilisk as more like a cross between a dinosaur and a serpent, massive and terrifying and much closer to the Harry Potter version.

Basilisks were once seen as desert creatures but over time were believed to live everywhere. Britain was once full of them! They are mentioned in the Bible and in Shakespeare and are generally seen as an embodiment of evil, a symbol of the devil. Unlike dragons they are never presented as being good or beautiful - they are the ultimate baddies!
I think I came across the word and the idea of the Basilisk before I saw any pictures. I like the sound of the word - it makes me think of stone perhaps because of basalt (a type of rock) though in fact the word itself means ‘little king.’

The poet Shelley writes:
"Be thou like the imperial basilisk, Killing thy foe with unapparent wounds!"
and Shakespeare mentions basilisks three times, each time in association with certain death.
"I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall; I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk (from Henry VI Part 3);  "Would they were basilisks, to strike thee dead!" (from Richard III) and "It is a basilisk unto mine eye, Kills me to look on't." (from Cymbeline). 
All very sinister!

I like the basilisk because every good story needs a villain and the basilisk is the ultimate villain! The basilisk sounds so very powerful and a little mysterious. There are far fewer images of basilisks than there are of dragons, though both are serpent like and deadly and often winged. As a writer I can use the idea of the basilisk and all its mythic associations but there is still room for me to use my own imagination.

In my book Basilisk I made up my own myth of the basilisk.The story is set in an imaginary city called Lunnzia and the citizens worship a god called Arche who is both creator and destroyer of the universe. In her guise as a creator she appears as a beautiful dragon, and as destroyer she is a basilisk. Lunnzia is at war and a couple of crazed inventors build a machine, ‘the Basilisk Contrivance’ to harness the power of nightmares. My poor heroine, Donna who used to dream of dragons, is forced to dream of the basilisk and when she is hooked up to the ‘contrivance’ her dream is amplified and projected into the minds of everyone in Lunnzia and they experience her dream basilisk as if it were real.
This is what it looks like:
"...filling the vast space was the gargantuan figure of the dark basilisk...The wings that gave it elegance and a certain malevolent beauty were constricted, half-folded like a crumpled fan.The thick vanes that stretched the leathery membrane of the wings stood out like cords of vein on an old man’s hand; they had the same blueish tinge. Rej was careful to avoid the basilisk’s eyes- it was said that the coal-black eyes of basilisk brought death in its stare... Somehow the basilisk elongated its slick, slug dark tail and, using it for balance, partially fanned its wings so that the jet of flames that issued from its mouth burned hotter and more brilliantly. Rej watched in horror as five or six men fell from the cliffs on to the stone beneath. The flame licked at their hair and clothing, the blazing fire illumined their open mouthed terror as they fell, and only the roaring and the the piss-freezing hissing of the creature drowned out their screams and the sound of the impact of their fall."
From Basilisk by NM Browne
You may be pleased to know the basilisk is defeated in the end by the positive power of love and the dragon.

SCC: Thank you for visiting, Nicky - B for Basilisk is certainly a brilliant and worthy addition to Scribble City Central's alphabet of mythical creatures. 

Next week: B for Bastet (Cat Goddess Extraordinaire) with Inbali Iserles, author of The Tygrine Cat

Friday, 2 March 2012

Fantabulous Fridays A-Z: A FOR AIRAVATA with Sita Brahmachari

Scribble City Central's brand-new mythic alphabet series kicks off in style with prize-winning author Sita Brahmachari giving us the lowdown on a legendary beast from Indian mythology - A for Airavata, the celestial elephant created by Brahma for Indra, Lord of Heaven. 

Sita's first novel, Artichoke Hearts, won the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize last year, and is currently on the Carnegie 2012 longlist. When I read it, I was struck not only by its tender but unflinching depiction of the relationship between a dying grandmother and her grandaughter, but also by the vivid and unique voice of its narrator, Mira Levenson (then 12 years old). 

I was therefore delighted to meet Mira again in Sita's new book, Jasmine Skies, which I've been lucky enough to get my hands on early (it's out at the end of this month).  Mira - now two years older - travels to Kolkata to meet her grandfather's family for the first time. But there's a mystery.  Why haven't her mother and her mother's cousin spoken for so many years? What happened to estrange them all that time ago?  Why won't anyone talk to her about it?  Stolen letters throw up questions whose answers seem to lie in the tumbledown family house on Doctor's Lane - where she's not allowed to go.... 

Sometimes second books can be disappointing.  This one most certainly isn't.  In fact, I think it's even better than the first.  Sita's skill lies in making her reader really feel that intimate tug and pull of family relationships as well as the confusing ups and downs of teenage love, and in this book she also shows us facets of India not often seen in children's books.  I don't want to put up any plot spoilers, but I loved small touches like the practical solution the Kolkata mums find to the smelly loos at the dancing gala, which give this book the stamp of true insider realism. Mira is as tenacious and endearing as ever, and the tantalising ending promises what would be (for me) a welcome third volume in the series.  

Anyway, that's quite enough from me.  Here's Sita to give us some insights into her new book and to tell you all about that wondrous white elephant...

The Celestial Elephant Of The Clouds

SB: The name Airavata comes from the word ‘Iravat’ which means ‘one produced from water.’ As a child I used to remember the elephant’s name by thinking of the component parts ‘air’ and ‘water’ ( the ‘v’ is pronounced with a soft almost ‘w’ sound) . As you will see… the two elements of air and water are central to this elephant’s story.

Like most children, I was fascinated by the animal world and particularly large animals that could not easily be seen, except in zoos or wildlife parks. My youngest daughter is following in my footsteps. Not content with all her small cute cuddly toys, last year she asked Father Christmas for ‘life size cuddly animals’. I tried to persuade her that there might not be much room for these giant beasts to roam freely in our house, but she was not for turning and on Christmas morning Father Christmas dutifully delivered a giraffe (‘Jo’) and an elephant (‘Ellie’) with which she now happily jostles for space in her tiny bedroom. While squeezing around Ellie into her room one evening I asked her what it is about these enormous animals that she loves so much – ‘It’s because they’re bigger than me and you and everyone, but they’re still our friends!’ she answered simply and went on playing.

She’s right. I think it’s the disparity between their size and ours that made me first think of elephants as God-like creatures. In Jasmine Skies fourteen year-old Mira Levenson goes to India. She travels alone and is forced to step out of her family cocoon and experience a much wider world. As she faces challenging situations she finds it comforting to think back to when she was much younger. As a small child Mira remembers looking over her grandfather’s shoulders as he translated stories from the great Hindu tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Mira explains that as he read to her she only half heard his voice because her artist’s imagination was too busy conjuring images in her mind’s eye. In Jasmine Skies I don’t describe which pictures Mira is captivated by but I can tell you about the one that most inspired me as a child – it was the beautiful white elephant of the clouds, Airavata, with his five heads, tusks like a mountain range, and many trunks.

To explain to you why Airavata continues to live in my imagination I should start by sharing a few of my own childhood and adult meetings with elephants… though none of the elephants I’ve come across have ever been white!

An early childhood memory of a family holiday in India is of walking down a road alongside an elephant bedecked in garlands, painted and bejeweled, with a carriage on its back carrying a bride and groom to their wedding ceremony. They were accompanied by a procession of musicians, dancers and wedding guests. Romantic or what?!

As an adult I visited an elephant sanctuary in Sri-Lanka and was moved by the close relationship between the elephant keepers – the Mahouts – as they cared for, washed, bathed and splashed in the water with their ‘own’ special elephants. It was not until I saw a family of elephants playing in their natural element – water – that I began to really appreciate what noble and extraordinary creatures they are. Seeing how tiny their keepers are, some of them as young as thirteen, made me realise that it is the elephants who decide to be gentle with their human keepers. They are in charge.

Some years after visiting the elephant sanctuary I had a call from the parents of a school friend to say that she had been on a safari in Africa and had been trampled by a rogue elephant. She survived but the way she spoke about the experience afterwards was as if she had collided with an ancient God-like force. It is rare for an elephant to attack a human in this way, but I think that our fascination with elephants in life and mythology is because of this combination of potential power and gentleness (despite the enormous size of their feet, an elephant’s footfall can hardly be heard).

Because of these experiences the story of Airavata in all his power seems to speak to me today even more strongly than it did when I was a child. I’ll try to re-tell this story in the way that it was told to me. I’m not sure how much is drawn from memory of childhood tales, or illustrations, and what I might have added along the way, but I think that’s the power of all great myths; that they can live with us from childhood into adulthood and feed our imagination. I hope this myth fills your mind with pictures as it has mine… and Mira’s!

Even Gods need friends…
The day came when the noble Indra, the Lord of Heaven, needed a powerful animal to help him fight his battles, to create rain in drought and well … to be his friend! Even Gods need friends. So Indra journeyed to the great creator Brahma and asked if he could dream up such an animal. Brahma churned the milk oceans and after stirring the sea he lifted from the waves an enormous egg. Imagine this! When the shell cracked open it was not birds that emerged but a herd of baby elephants with wings! Among their number was only one bright white elephant and that was Airavata. As they grew, the elephants spent their time careering through the sky and sometimes small birds would even take lifts on their grey mounded backs. One day, while messing around, the herd crash-landed into a tree – as teenage elephants tend to do – and nearly flattened a holy man who was sitting cross-legged praying in the shade of the branches. The holy man lost his rag, cursed the wayward elephants and stripped them of their wings. From that day on the poor elephants never flew again. Just imagine how different the skies would look if elephants could fly!
No matter how much Airavata loved to hang out with the herd he knew that one day he was destined for greatness. So it was that when Airavata was fully grown he became the most loyal companion and protector of Lord Indra. According to the Mahabharata, in the battle field Airavata ‘showered weapons on enemies like lightening charged clouds driven by the winds.’ But Indra knew in his heart that Airavata was more than a war elephant. He was so gentle and playful, especially when bathing in the rivers. When Indra looked into Airavata’s great dark eyes, he glimpsed the deep wisdom that lay within his powerful friend.

The dry weather came, as it always did, and it felt like the rain would never fall on the earth again. If you have not experienced life without water, never walked for miles to a well in the scorching heat of the sun, then you cannot know how terrible is the suffering that comes with drought. So it was that Indra looked on his people with great sorrow. The earth was parched, mouths were parched, and nothing grew on the land. Soon Indra knew that bellies would be empty, a sight that he could not stand to see and this is why wise Indra had asked Brahma for a companion that could be so much more than a beast of war.

The day came when the beautiful Airavata, walking in his majestic lilting step, arrived at his favourite place by the river to bathe, but he found it dry – dry as dust, dry as bone. Then Airavara raised his huge trunk to the sky and roared, a roar so full of sadness it is said that his master, Indra, the Lord of Heaven himself, was brought to tears. These tears spurred Indra to bring the suffering of his people to an end. So it was that Indra called on Airavata to reach his trunks deep into the bowels of the earth and draw up water from the ancient underground springs. When Airavata’s heads finally re-emerged Indra ordered him to trumpet the water up into the sky to form rain clouds. Thick elephant bellied clouds gathered in the sky as Airavata sent up a deafening triumphant roar that ricoched through the universe. The great elephant reared up on his hind legs and pierced the clouds with his forceful tusks. Celestial rain poured down upon the earth and the rivers filled once more with water.

Born of an egg, with the strength and power to fight, befriend mankind and make rain in times of drought, it is no surprise that the beautiful Airavata is one of the most sacred elephants in world mythology. He truly deserves his place of honour resting on the points of the Earth’s compass, supporting the deities who carry the weight of the entire world on their shoulders.

In Jasmine Skies Mira is often moved to tears by the poverty she sees around her. The poverty and suffering caused through drought and flood in many places in the world, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Africa, is appalling. If I were to tell a story written in a landscape of drought or flood Airavata would definitely make an appearance because his presence would always bring hope.

I wonder if Terry Pratchett drew some of his inspiration from the mythology around Airavata when he wrote the amazing Discworld series. The image of the elephants holding up the disc-shaped world, with the waterfall flowing over the edges, is such a potent one.

There are moments in Jasmine Skies when Mira realizes how small and insignificant she is in the vast universe. Mythology is a way that humans have always attempted to make sense of our world. Many myths are born from the human search to understand the wonders of nature, in all its power, frightening force and unpredictability. For me, the epic scale of nature’s wonders is celebrated in Airavata – the beautiful celestial elephant of the clouds who is, as my daughter said, ‘bigger than you, me and everyone.’

SCC: That was fascinating, Sita, and I've learned such a lot I didn't know.  What a wonderful story - thank you so much for getting the Fantabulous Fridays A-Z off to such a great start. My Lovely Blog Readers can join in the discussion about this post on Twitter, using our special #FantabFri hashtag.  Sita and I would love to hear from you!

Next week: B for Basilisk with N. M. Browne, author of Wolf Blood.
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