Friday, 26 October 2012


Scribble City Central's thirty-fifth Fantabulous Friday A-Z comes from Philip Womack, ace journalist, reviewer, blogger, Classicist and writer of two excellent novels for children. The second of these - The Liberators - brings the Dionysian cult of the maenads (or Bacchae if you're talking Roman gods) into a modern day London. 

Maenads have appeared in children's literature before - C.S.Lewis features a sanitised version in Prince Caspian, and, more recently Rick Riordan has them partying in The Demigod Diaries - but Philip's version of them goes back to the raw, dark, savage originals visualised by Euripides in The Bacchae. While I've never been the maenads greatest fan - objecting to the intemperate way they tore poor Orpheus apart - The Liberators is a book which I enjoyed immensely, not least because it's good to find another author who is as much of a Greek myth buff as I am.  It's hardly surprising that Philip really knows his myths, given that he has a Classics degree from Oxford, and I'm hoping there'll be more myth-based children's books from him in due course, because he can really write.  He's also an excellent person to give you the full lowdown on the party animals that are:

S for Satyrs
Sons of Silenus

PW: If you go to the Royal Academy whilst its fabulous Bronze exhibition is in place, you’ll see, dredged up from the bottom of the sea, a satyr, a member of the sacred band of Dionysus, the god of wine, dancing in abandon. He’s rather good-looking, and well-proportioned, for a satyr – you wouldn’t think he was one, were it not for the hole where his tail ought to be.
They’re a strange bunch, satyrs, flitting about the woodland, immortal and lascivious. Their father is the drunkard Silenus, whose fat figure can be seen in the background of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, propped up on a donkey. Now there’s a man who knows how to have fun.

His  offspring are equally vivacious. They weren’t always goatish; they used to have horse-tails; and they were sometimes called Silens; but what is constant about them, if such a thing can be so, is their ambivalence. They are convivial, and accompany the mysterious god Dionysus; but they are also loutish and base. They are animals; and yet they are capable of making beautiful music. They prance and caper about; and yet they are repositories of wisdom. If you trap a satyr, or a faun (their close cousins) in your garden, he will tell you that the best thing for man is not to have been born; the second best thing is to die quickly. King Midas did it, and that’s what he learned.

It is thanks to satyrs that we have tragedy at all – the first Greek plays had choruses of the creatures. Their lusty, louche presence rounded off every performance of a tragedy in Athens, as they had their own genre – the satyr play, a burlesque in which heroes would be made to look a little less heroic. They sit on the sidelines of the world, grinning, mocking, fierce.

Satyrs are the first beings to taste the wonders of wine, to sing to the lyre of Orpheus, to pipe ghostly music in the moonlight.

My second book, The Liberators, features the Titian painting of Bacchus and Ariadne. The Luther-Ross brothers find the staff of Bacchus and use it to remove people’s consciences: they create their own band of glamorous but deadly satyrs. Of course they have nothing of the true, joyous Bacchic spirit, so they are overcome. Bacchus would not accept the Luther-Ross brothers in his band.
Satyrs are wisdom and wildness and wine. They remind us of our animal natures, and yet they show us that we can be more than that. They are us, and not us; they are the raging id; they enchant us with their frenzied music, but they can also destroy us. They embody the mystery and glory of Bacchus / Dionysus.
If you met that handsome dancing satyr in the middle of his ecstasy, he would no doubt tear you to pieces. But I’d still recommend going to see him, trapped as he is in bronze centuries old, and you’ll be able to feel the touch of the god in his eyes. Ask him a question. He might just answer.

Philip's blog is HERE and he is also on Tumblr 

SCC: Thank you, Philip - I shall certainly go and see the Bronze exhibition and ask that satyr a question.  It's good to be reminded of that strange dichotomy of the cult of Dionysus as both a glorious jolly party and a madly savage riot. I'm pretty sure that the god is hovering at the edges whenever there's a present day rave in a field - his satyrs would fit right in with the technobeat.  

If you like the sound of The Liberators, you can buy it HERE.

NEXT WEEK: I'm hoping the wonderful Michelle Lovric will be here to talk about S for Sirene, but if not, it will be me with a Spooky S for Surprise instead. 

Friday, 19 October 2012


Scribble City Central's thirty-fourth Fantabulous Friday comes from Sarwat Chadda, author of two bestselling YA novels about kickass Knight Templar girl Billi SanGreal, and also of the recently published Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, which I've just read and loved.

None of Sarwat's novels are for the squeamish. There's plenty of guts and gore - and other deeply scary stuff like the Carnival of Flesh, which has me hugging the duvet and jumping at creaky floorboards (but then I'm a complete wuss).  I liked Billi very much indeed, but Ash is of a different order altogether, and I think a lot of teenage readers will relate to him.  We've all come across the slightly overweight boy in the playground, prey to the bullies, not tough enough to stand up for himself, not confident enough to approach the girl he likes. That's Ash in a nutshell - but, of course, there's far more to him.  Sarwat makes the arc of his transformation into ace kicker of demon butt completely believable - his bravery is motivated by love of his little sister - and I'm really looking forward to seeing more of him, Lucky and the delightfully cool and funny rakshasa Parvati in the next book, Ash Mistry and the City of Death.  I only disagree with Sarwat on one thing - the off-road capabilities of the Ambassador car.  Having gone over the Himalaya in one (on an unmade dirt road), I reckon they can tackle just about anything!

What this book also made me realise is that I really really need to delve deeper into the Ramayana and Mahabharata to further my shockingly scant knowledge of Hindu mythology.  The terrifying Ravana plays a large part in the former, and here's Sarwat to tell you all about him.

R for Ravana
Big Bad Demon King

SC:  Ravana, the demon king, is the BIG BAD of Indian Mythology. By a long way. Immortal, master of sorcery and the greatest warrior alive he cannot be killed by god or demon. He even once conquered Heaven and enslaved the gods. So wise that he wrote religious texts himself.

So we’re talking about brains, brawns and mystical powers.

He’s described as having ten heads (symbolic of his great learning) and twenty arms (equally symbolic of his awesome strength and fighting ability) and his body is marked by scars from his wars with the gods.

What I love about Ravana is that, even though he’s a villain, he’s honourable and his people love him. His city Lanka, is a blessed kingdom. One of the legends has him conquering the whole earth and bringing all the kings to his palace in chains to bow down before him.

But, like all villains, he has his weaknesses. Ravana had but two. Women and arrogance. When granted invulnerability he listed out all the things that could not hurt him. Gods, demons, beasts and titans. He didn’t bother to mention man, thinking humans too puny to ever be a threat to him. Big mistake.

Then he fell in love with Sita, wife of Prince Rama. He kidnapped her and snuck off to Lanka, hoping to persuade her to marry him. Big mistake Number Two. Rama just happened to be the greatest hero on earth and destined to be Ravana’s nemesis. As a human he bypassed Ravana’s shield of invulnerability and he was an avatar, a god in mortal flesh, which is just a bit special.

The tale of Rama and Ravana is recounted in the Ramayana, one of the two great myth epics of the Indian World. It’s got magic, mayhem and battles galore. Rama recruits an army of monkeys and the conquest of Lanka involves a war of unimaginable scale with Ravana wrecking havoc against Rama’s dwindling but heroic force. The book is about honour and above all guts. Standing up to Ravana. His army of demons, called rakshasas in Indian mythology, are not just a mindless horde. They are great characters themselves. Ravana’s brother, Vibeeshana, is good, and tries to persuade Ravana to hand Sita back, but even though he knows his brother is in the wrong he stays by his side to the bitter end, family loyalty exceeding all other duties and bounds.

I would compare it to the Iliad, both in scope and in humanity. Through the prism of Rama and Ravana we see the good and the bad overlap with all that is human, both the best and the worst. They are agents of destiny, like Achilles and Hector, but, in my mind, better matched. Hector’s doom is proclaimed loud and often and there is no doubt over Achilles’s superiority. There is no such certainly with Ravana. He is powerful. He is great. He is the perfect enemy, as wise, as heroic, as cunning as Rama.

SCC:  Thank you, Sarwat.  As I said above, there are now so many things I want to learn about and explore after reading both this and Ravana's starring role in Ash's story, and I hope others will as well.  All the great epics - whether Greek, Norse or Hindu - are not only wonderful stories of bravery, heroism and the triumphs and failures of both human and godlike natures, but also treasure mines for the writer's imagination to dig in.

You can buy all Sarwat's books, including The Ash Mistry Chronicles HERE 

Next week: Philip Womack chases after S for Satyr.  I expect there'll be wine and merriment.

Friday, 12 October 2012


Scribble City Central's thirty-third Fantabulous Friday comes from the marvellous Mary Hoffman, author of the bestselling Amazing Grace picture-books, and also of one of my favourite YA historical fantasy series - Stravaganza.  I've followed Luciano and Arianna's story since the beginning, and found it immeasurably satisfying to have lots of ends tied up in the latest (and, sadly, possibly last) book, City of Swords.  Mary has created the Talian world of the Stravaganti (time-travellers to a parallel Italy) with loving care, and her passion for Italy shows in the small but meticulous details hidden within her writing, not only in these books, but also in her excellent eponymous novel about Michelangelo's David.  What I particularly liked, not only in City of Swords, but in all the other books in the series, is the way Mary deftly interweaves the historical derring-do with some very modern teenage problems.  In City of Swords, it's self-harm, something I've seen addressed in a few YA books lately. Mary tackles it head-on, but in a sensitive way which, I hope, would encourage teenagers to talk about this very real problem. I think it's important that YA literature can sometimes act as a sort of catalyst in this way.

As far as I am concerned, Mary is the fount of all knowledge, being the person I would ask for answers about any esoteric question - especially about anything to do with Arthurian matters.  I often turn to her  story collection Women of Camelot for knotty problems of reference vis a vis the ladies of Arthur's Court.  The Arthurian beastie she writes about here is one I love, though I first came across its fewmets in TH White's Once and Future King rather than Malory.  It appears as the comical dwarf-steed Gladysant in my own Hootcat Hill, but its roots lie far back in literary history.  So, over to Mary to tell you all about:

Q for Questing Beast
Hound-bellied Glatyssaunte
Photo credit: Jess Barber

MH:   Here is a range of definitions from the Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend by Alan Lupack (OUP 2005):
“a snow white beast, smaller than a fox, and which is terrified by the yelping of a packs of twelve dogs in her belly”
“a devil born to the daughter of King Hipomenes, who had intercourse with a devil” after her brother rejected her incestuous advances.
“the head of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the buttocks of a lion, and the feet of a hart.”
The source for the first descriptions is Perlesvaus, also known as The High History of the Grail, written in the early 13th century in France. The second, from the Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal, dates from roughly the same date and place but is much more about a spiritual quest than it is an adventure story.

The third is from Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and is where I first met the Beast (see below). It is from a century and a half later than the earlier sources and for me this is where the Questing Beast comes into her (or his) own.

In my first year of studying English at Cambridge, my Tutor for Medieval Literature set me an essay topic: “Malory, the least intelligent author ever to become a classic.” That was the way they rolled back in the ‘60s. I bought my precious copy of The Works of Thomas Malory, in the Vinaver edition, for twenty-five shillings, at a time when I had only thirty shillings a week to live on, and it rapidly became my Desert Island Book, the one I’d save first if my house was on fire.
The Vinaver Edition of Malory

I now have three other editions, including the beautiful Aubrey Beardsley facsimile, but it’s my chubby little green Vinaver with Roy Morgan’s woodcut on the front that I reach for first when I need a Malory fix. You see that essay didn’t quite work out as Professor Spearing thought it would. Instead of finding Malory “unintelligent” or in any way overrated by posterity, I fell deeply in love.

Not the place here to count the ways, but I stumbled upon the Questing Beast in Book 1, chapter  19:
“And as [Arthur] sat so, him thought he heard a noise of hounds, to the sum of thirty. And with that the king saw coming toward him the strangest beast that ever he saw or heard of; so the beast went to the well and drank, and the noise was in the beast's belly like unto the questing of thirty couple hounds; but all the while the beast drank there was no noise in the beast's belly: and therewith the beast departed with a great noise, whereof the king had great marvel. And so he was in a great thought, and therewith he fell asleep.
Right so there came a knight afoot unto Arthur and said, Knight full of thought and sleepy, tell me if thou sawest a strange beast pass this way. Such one saw I, said King Arthur, that is past two mile; what would ye with the beast? said Arthur. Sir, I have followed that beast long time, and killed mine horse, so would God I had another to follow my quest. Right so came one with the king's horse, and when the knight saw the horse, he prayed the king to give him the horse: for I have followed this quest this twelvemonth, and either I shall achieve him, or bleed of the best blood of my body. Pellinore, that time king, followed the Questing Beast, and after his death Sir Palamides followed it.” [Caxton text]

This is very early in the story, before Excalibur,  before  Guinevere, before the Round Table and the Company of Knights at Camelot. Thereafter it recurs like a glinting thread in a tapestry, leading first King Pellinore and then Sir Palomides a merry dance.
The Beardsley Beast
The Beast has a name, in various spellings of which my favourite is Glatyssaunte. It comes from an Old French word for “barking”, which is what the “questing” also means: the noise that hounds make when they scent their prey. So it could have featured under G, but I thought Lucy might be short of Qs in her bestiary.

So it is a beast both “questing” and the object of Pellinore’s and Palomides’ Quest. For me it represents the “idée fixe,” the object that cannot be resisted. And all writers of fiction are familiar with that idea! Maybe that’s why the Beast crops up in so many later versions too? (In Spenser’s Faerie Queene it is the Blatant Beast, but that’s not a comment on its immodesty, merely another version of the “glatisant” or “questing’ noise in its belly).

He, she or it (for the Beast is as elusive as to its gender as it is in appearance) crops up in many more recent stories, from  William Morris’s poem Palomydes' Quest of 1855 to Alasteir Crowley’s The High History of Good Sir Palamedes the Saracen Knight and of His Following of the Questing Beast of 1911 and T.H. White’s Once and Future King (1958).

When I told my husband that I was writing about the Questing Beast, he mentioned casually that he had cited it in a paper he had written about Charles Williams for the Anglo-American Literary Review, Vll. Duly impressed, I looked it up and it is in Vol 20 (2003) Metaphysical and Romantic in the Taliessin Poems by Stephen Barber.

Williams wrote a poem “The Coming of Palomides,” in Taliessin Through Logres (OUP 1938) at the end of which, when the knight has been smitten by the sight of Iseult, come the lines:
“I heard the squeak of the questing beast,
where it scratched itself in the blank between
the queen’s substance and the queen.”

Isn’t that fabulous? The very definition of an “idée fixe” is in that “blank between/ the queen’s substance and the queen.” (And the very definition of unrequited love, another mythical beast, to be filed under U).

The commentator (a.k.a. my husband) says “Williams makes Palomides’s endless futile quest for this beast, a standard theme in Arthurian writing, embody his obsessive and futile passion for Iseult.”

Some have speculated that the Beast coming where it does in Malory and trailing its associations of incestuous love, after Arthur has unwittingly slept with his half-sister Morgause and fathered the fatal Sir Mordred, symbolises forbidden combinations. I like that idea: that our most obsessive quests might be for the Thing that Should not be.

But actually I just rather love the Questing Beast (which for me is female). I love the idea of the prey which is constantly quested after and may not be caught, the idea that the bond between hunter and hunted remains pure only when not consummated.

Lucy asked whether I might write about her one day. Well, now that she has cropped up in the TV Merlin, (which Lucy enjoys but I cannot bring myself to watch), I’m not so sure! But I love the idea of writing about Broceliande, the enchanted forest and I’m sure that Glatyssaunte would lurk somewhere in its depths.

SCC: Thank you so much, Mary.  As always, I am in awe of your erudition.  I'm now reminded of how to spell Glatyssaunte properly, and you've inspired me to go and dig out my own Malory and have a browse through the forest of Broceliande.

You can find out more about Mary in the following places:
Mary is also  on Facebook at: Mary Hoffman Author Page; Official Stravaganza Page; History Girls Page and Luciano and Arianna Page.

If you'd like to buy any of Mary's books mentioned in this piece, you can do so HERE

Next Week: Sarwat Chadda goes head to head with the fearsome R for Ravana.  Swords at the ready, people!

Friday, 5 October 2012


Scribble City Central's thirty-second Fantabulous Friday comes from Celia Rees, one of Britain's best writers for teenagers. This is not Celia's first visit to SCC. In February I interviewed her about her latest wonderful (and gritty) novel, This is Not Forgiveness.  You can read that interview HERE.

This time round, Celia moves to different territory - the territory of Shakespeare's Dream, the dells and wild places where confused lovers trip over deliberately placed briars, where men are made asses, where the world is girdled in thirty minutes.  This untamed forest is (partly) the setting for one of my very favourite of Celia's books, The Fool's Girl, an eerily compelling take on Twelfth Night. I found Celia's depiction of the Forest of Arden one of the most lyrically beautiful pieces of writing I've read for a long time.  It is an exquisite woodland place within a timeless bubble, but make no mistake, its beauty is of the brooding sort underneath the dappled sunlight.  It has thorns, and dark things hiding behind ancient trees, ready to rip and tear.  Celia is therefore the perfect person to plumb the mysteries of Shakespeare's most recognisable fairy - the ever-michievous:

P for Puck
Oldest Old Thing in England

CR: I first met Puck as a ‘small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face.’ The Puck of  Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.  My father read the stories to me as a child and my love of myth and of history may well go back to those readings. Puck appears to Dan and Una, upon the eponymous Pook’s Hill and, sustained by Bath Oliver biscuits, he tells them stories about the history of Britain. The stories are not exactly historically accurate but what child cares about that?  They are exciting and more than a little uncanny and speak of a continuity of place, a record in the landscape of times gone by.  An idea that I found as intriguing now as I did then.
And see you marks that show and fade,
Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made,
To guard their wondrous towns!
Kipling’s Puck describes himself as ‘the oldest Old Thing in England’.
 ‘The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go.’ 
Puck, Puca in Old English, the wild spirit of the woods, is both ancient and enduring and appears in many guises as Puck or Robin Goodfellow in England, as the brownie in Scotland, bucca in Cornwall, pùca in Ireland and pwca in Wales.

What conjures him in Puck of Pook’s Hill is a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare was writing before loss of belief drove the People of the Hills from the land.  In Elizabethan England belief in the supernatural was still strong and people would have believed in fairies, elves, supernatural creatures of all kinds and where better for them still to dwell than in the great Forest of Arden that still dominated much of Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire? Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to an active folklore and folk belief. It was there for him to draw upon as part of his lexicon of inspiration.  As far as I am concerned, this gives the lie to his plays being written by anyone other than a provincial commoner still close to the soil.  Puck serves Oberon, King of the Fairies. Oberon was the name for the King of the Breton Fairies.  Interestingly, the Queen of the Fairies has no name, so Shakespeare named her Titania.  Puck is playful, a trickster, but is also very powerful. He, like the other fairies, is profoundly ‘Other’, not human at all.

 I have always found this idea fascinating and a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford had a direct influence on the writing of The Fool’s Girl.  I took my main inspiration from Twelfth Night but I wanted to allude to other plays too, as if they were all swirling around in Shakespeare’s head, and I had to take him to the Forest of Arden so that my characters could encounter the folk who lived there. The Lord and Lady of the Wood are not quite Oberon and Titania but there is something uncanny about them and their servant, Robin.
‘There was a rustle in the branches above them and a boy dropped down from a tree to land at their feet. At least he appeared at first glance to be a boy … His stare expressed mild interest, mixed with amusement that could easily tip into malice. Despite his slight stature, he was no boy. His brown mossy hair was braided and wound with threads of different colours, hung with beads and shells. He wore necklaces made from beads of bone, tiny skulls, rough dark stones like petrified skulls.’ 
I wanted Shakespeare’s Arden to be place where magic still existed but there is precious little of it left now. Google will take you straight to a golf course.  The People of the Hills certainly left long ago, but I like to think that Puck is still there somewhere, lurking in the rough, playing tricks on the golfers, ruining their swing, hiding their golf balls.

SCC: Thank you, Celia.  I like to think the People of the Hills are maybe not completely gone, as Puck says, but only sleeping till their time comes again.  And sometimes, in certain woods, I hear things which make me think they are not very far away at all.

You can buy the books mentioned in this post HERE

Next week: Mary Hoffman, author of the brilliant Stravaganza series, hunts for Q for Questing Beast.  Be prepared for fewmets!

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