Adventures in Words: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

A literary sensation when it came out, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan was not quite what I expected. Yes, it shares some of the lurid prose as well as the tendency to drop off writing and add ellipses (…) when things start getting especially lurid of much other Victorian melodrama but then the stuff Machen is alluding to probably is better elided rather than spelled out. What I had not expected was the complexity of the narrative, with the point of view, time span and even the prose shifting during the course of the book. Perhaps I should have expected that – after all, Stevenson plays with points of view in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – but for some reason I had not. As such, the book requires a bit more thought and concentration than usual but it will repay the effort: this story really did push horror into the 20th century.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 2: the Normans

Mont Saint-Michel by Antoine Lamielle

When the founder of the Norman dynasty, Rollo, was given Normandy by the king of France, Mont Saint-Michel was not originally part of the package. But Rollo’s son, William Longsword, won the monastery from the Dukes of Brittany and the Dukes of Normandy became enthusiastic patrons of the monastery.

By this time, Mont St-Michel had already been a place of pilgrimage for two hundred years. Pilgrimage was the great passion of the Middle Ages, bringing together every class of society in a shared pursuit that accommodated the sacred and the profane. To imagine the gusto with which people embraced pilgrimage, think of the trackways and roads of Europe thronging with people off to see their favourite football team play, taking their summer holiday, trawling the information channels of the internet for gossip and searching for healing of body and soul. Pilgrimage encompassed all these human needs and desires, and more. As Chaucer wrote in the 14th century of another group of pilgrims setting off after a long winter:

Then longen folk to gon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken strange strondes.

Far from keeping to their manors from birth to death, medieval men and women, no less than those today, were keen to seek out strange strands and new worlds. Mont St-Michel, which by its physical and spiritual geography united sea and sky, and heaven and earth, was a major stop on the developing network of pilgrimage routes.

But for the monks on their once lonely mount, the influx of pilgrims brought spiritual dangers, for wealth flowed in the wake of the wanderers. Rollo, full of zeal for his new religion, repaired the damage caused to the buildings during the vicissitudes of the Viking incursions and his son, William Longsword, endowed the abbey further. The rich and powerful, no less than the poor, enjoyed going on pilgrimage, but they expected to be received with proper pomp and the monks of Mont St-Michel began to accommodate their behaviour to that of their rich guests, rather than the other way round.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 1: Foundation

Mont Saint-Michel by Arnold Prentl

‘La Merveille’ – the Marvel.

That’s what they call Mont Saint-Michel. Approaching it across the polders and salt marshes, with the sea melting into the sky, you’ll see the truth: it is a marvel. Looking at the walls rising to heaven, you’ll think such a creation impossible without the aid of Hollywood CGI (indeed, should it appear strangely familiar, the design of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings films was inspired by Mont Saint-Michel). But this is real, the work of men’s hands. And, mostly, it was the work of men who lived a long, long time ago.

La Merveille began, appropriately enough, as miracle. In 708, according to tradition, the Archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, bishop of Avranches, and ordered him to build a shrine, dedicated to the angel, on the rocky outcrop in the middle of the vast shallow bay where the River Couesnon drains into the Channel. The bay, now named after its most famous landmark, has the widest tidal range in Europe: at low tide, the mud flats stretch for miles out from the shore, the highest tides see the water level rise 16 metres and the mount upon which the abbey stands transformed into an island.

Bishop Aubert, faced with the order to build an oratory in such an unpromising place, prevaricated. Michael, not to be put off, appeared again in dream, and a third time, when still the bishop hesitated. This time, to drive home his point, the archangel repeatedly poked his forefinger at Aubert’s head. According to tradition, the angel’s touch burned a hole in Aubert’s skull; the relic is on show today, at the Basilica of St Gervais in Avranches, with a hole clearly visible (sceptics maintain the hole is evidence of prehistoric trepanation rather than medieval angelology).

Michael, the leader of the army of heaven, would prove an apt patron for the men who were to become lords of the mainland near the angel’s mount.

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall

Lying east of Penzance, in the bight of sea between Land’s End and the Lizard, a rocky tidal island rises from the water. Now crowned with a castle rather than an abbey, St Michael’s Mount is the Cornish cousin of its cousin in Brittany, Mont St Michel. The story of how St Michael’s Mount was given and then lost by Mont St-Michel is fascinatingly twisty.

First, there is the question of whether the monastery on the island predated the Conquest. The monks there claimed it did, citing an ancient charter in which Edward the Confessor granted St Michael’s Mount to the Benedictines many years before William arrived in England. The problem with this claim is that the charter is, historians now agree, almost certainly forged. But, if so, it was forged by Norman monks who came over from Mont St-Michel after the Conquest. So why would Norman monks need to prove to Norman lords that they had long had title to a monastery that they might have expected those same Norman lords to give them?

Two answers have been proposed. Firstly, that by proving their ancient title to the land, the community on St Michael’s Mount would free themselves from the play of great lord politics, with its shifting alliances and occasional spectacular falls. With title to their monastery, the monks of St Michael’s Mount would be able to stand back and watch as spectators the clash of ambitions of powerful lords. The other, related, proposal is that the charter was forged as ammunition during a dispute with the Norman lord, Robert de Mortain.

De Mortain was half brother to William (they shared a mother) and one of his key allies. He was a member of the councils that agreed to William’s plan for invasion, he provided 120 ships and he fought at the Battle of Hastings. In return, De Mortain was given Cornwall. There is a charter, with copies surviving in Exeter and Avranches, which gives St Michael’s Mount to the abbey of Mont St-Michel in De Mortain’s name. A later dispute apparently developed between the monks of St Michael’s Mount and De Mortain over the ownership of the manor of Truthwall, and this may have led the monks to assert their ancient and immemorial rights – even if this required a little finessing of the past.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the Hundred Years’ War broke the connection between the houses on either side of the Channel. Henry V made the definitive break in 1414, giving St Michael’s Mount into the keeping of Syon Abbey. The monastery itself was broken by England’s greatest vandal, Henry VIII, when he appropriated the country’s monastic inheritance and the mount became a coastal fortress. It served as such through the centuries – pillboxes mark its most recent defences during World War II – but it is now one of Cornwall’s main tourist destinations, accessible via causeway at low tide, or by boat the rest of the time.

Adventures in Words: the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

The Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

There’s 12 books in the Alex Verus series and I raced through them, so I must have loved them. Yes?

Well, yes, but with a couple of qualifications. First, let me tell you who Alex Verus is and why I ended up reading 12 books about him over the space of about three months. Alex Verus is a mage, that is to say a wizard. However, he can’t do everything: his particular ability is to be able to sight walk probable futures and to adjust his own actions in light of these probabilities. Basically, he tells the future. Within the context of the nearly non-stop action in the books, this manifests most often as him dodging blasts of magic from other mages, out to get him. Because it turns out that other mages have particular abilities too: elemental mages can manipulate earth, fire, water or air (usually one element per mage), time mages can see into the past, and so on.

The magical world is divided into the mages of Light and Dark, and independents, which does rather suggest that one side is good and the other bad. But it turns out that the Light mages aren’t that much better than the Dark mages but what they do have is a much more highly developed bureaucracy. Because, yes, being able to do magic doesn’t mean that the world becomes a place of wonder: turns out magical society is much like our own but with magic battles, examinations, bureaucrats and thoroughly expendable security men (and even greater isolation and loneliness).

Alex Verus starts off as an independent, trying to mind his own business and his magic shop in Camden. By the end of the series, he’s minded everyone’s business but his own and his shop in Camden has been variously exploded, bombed, attacked and burned down.

For books one to eight, my Alex Verus review runs so: Alex, while apparently minding his own business, is drawn into trying to foil a nefarious plot laid by one or another ruthless faction. Through great ingenuity, he seems on the point of succeeding, only for everything to go pear shaped. Alex and his small group of friends seem to be on the point of painful and terminal failure when another idea allows them to make good on the mission and escape with their lives.

Yes, Benedict Jacka is of the Raymond Chandler school of plotting: when in doubt, have someone come in through the ceiling with a lightning spell.

The last four books are basically one continuous story arc, bearing every sign of a series that the writer was rather surprised would get so far but who then decides to finish off by throwing everything into the plot, stirring it vigorously and seeing who survives.

It’s all tremendous fun although perhaps, if the pace wasn’t so wonderfully brisk, one might see a few holes opening up in the world building and the plot. But it all moves along so quickly that the reader is swept along in the magical tide of events, right through to the conclusion.

So if you like fast-paced storytelling with wands substituting for guns and a personable hero who tries not to kill people despite accumulating a body count to match Harold Shipman then this is the series for you.

The History of Lindisfarne part 5: the Vikings attack

Guests from Overseas by Nicholas Roerich (1901)

Sited on an island, with defences consisting of a ditch and bank, Lindisfarne must have seemed like a help-yourself buffet to the scouts for the first Viking attack. They duly helped themselves, reaping a harvest of the precious vessels and books (for the jewelled covers, they weren’t interested in the contents), and people, to sell at the Viking slave markets. It was 793 and the Viking Age had begun. The shock of the sacking of Lindisfarne, the most holy site in Britain, reverberated through Europe among the diaspora of scholarly Northumbrians who were spreading the fruits of a century of scholarship through the kingdoms of north-west Europe.

Alcuin, who was helping kickstart the Carolingian Renaissance at the court of Charlemagne, wrote of his shock and horror: “Pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar; laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of saints like dung in the streets.”

Further attacks led the monks to abandon Holy Island. They moved to Norham on the River Tweed around 830 before finally abandoning any thought of returning to Lindisfarne in 875. The monks of the community, carrying their holy relics – in particular the remains of St Cuthbert – settled first at Chester-le-Street before finally moving to Durham.

Still conscious of the link with their first foundation, the monks at Durham set about re-establishing themselves on Lindisfarne when it was safe, in the early 12th century. The church, whose remains we see today, was completed around 1150. Monks were seconded to Lindisfarne from Durham for two or three years but, with the outbreak of continuing, intermittent war between England and Scotland after 1296, the monastery had to be fortified, although the monks don’t seem to have held much of an armoury: just three lances, one helmet, one breastplate and one pair of iron gloves in 1362. With income from monastic estates declining because of the unrest, the monastery declined, so that just two or three monks lived there.

When Henry VIII declared himself head of the church in England, the cash-strapped monarch suppressed the country’s monasteries in a land grab only equalled, in English history, by William the Conqueror. Lindisfarne was closed in 1537. The building was not dismantled at once, but when the lead was taken from its roof around 1613, the church quickly fell into the romantic but ruinous state of today.

But stand there, when the daytrippers have crossed back over the causeway and the island is an island once more, and you will hear the silence of the centuries and the whisper of the sacred past.

The History of Lindisfarne part 4: After Aidan

King Ecgfrith attempting to persuade St Cuthbert to leave his hermitage and become a hermit.

Aidan died on 31 August 651. With his death, the simmering controversy over when to celebrate Easter came to a head. Developing in relative isolation, the Irish church had come to calculate the date of Easter differently from the rest of the church, with the result that King Oswiu (Oswald’s brother, who reigned after him) might be fasting while his queen, who followed the Roman method, was celebrating.

Such disunity in the royal household could not continue and, at a synod held in Whitby in 664, Oswiu decided for Rome. Those monks at Lindisfarne who would not accept the changes returned to Iona. But to ease the Northumbrian church into these new ways, Oswiu installed Cuthbert as prior of Lindisfarne.

With the backing and protection of the kings of Northumbria, the monks of Lindisfarne seeded daughter monasteries through the north east: Whitby, Melrose, Jarrow and Wearmouth, Ripon. Although the political strength of Northumbria lessened in the 8th century, the Northumbrian church entered a cultural golden age, producing extraordinary works such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the vernacular poetry of Cædmon, not to mention Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, without which our knowledge of the era would be bare indeed.

It was from Lindisfarne that Christianity spread. Faced with a choice between the religion of the people they had defeated and their own ancestral paganism, the Anglo-Saxons, through the 7th century, freely chose Christianity. The example and teaching of men like Aidan and Cuthbert, and women like Hild, abbess of Whitby, was crucial in this conversion.

The History of Lindisfarne part 3: Aidan

St Aidan of Lindisfarne

Christianity in Ireland had developed in a land never conquered by the Roman Empire, a country entirely without the towns that provided bases for bishops elsewhere. In response, Irish Christianity established itself around monasteries, with bishops often also acting as abbots. Aidan himself was both abbot and bishop, but he arrived in Northumbria with a significant disadvantage: he didn’t speak the language. While he learned it, Oswald acted as his interpreter. One imagines that, having the king act as translator, must have aided Aidan’s initial missionary effort considerably.

But an early Medieval king was peripatetic, travelling with his court to royal estates throughout his kingdom, doling out justice and consuming the food renders that were the chief forms of taxation. With Oswald so often away, it was down to Aidan to spread the new word.

He did this through a mixture of stringent self-discipline and humility, coupled with open-handed generosity. As a member of the nobility, Aidan was entitled to ride a horse – indeed, having a horse would have made his job much easier, enabling him to ride between the widely-scattered settlements of Northumbria. But, when he was given a fine and expensive horse by the king, he promptly gave it away to the first poor man he passed. When remonstrated with, Aidan pointed out that any son of Adam, however poor, was worth more than any son of a mare, no matter how valuable.

The self-discipline was evident in the monastery Aidan built on Lindisfarne. Surrounded by a ditch and bank, Aidan’s monastery constituted only those buildings strictly necessary for the daily round of prayer and labour that was the great work of monks. There was a church, made of wood and thatched, a cemetery, the most basic accommodation for the monks, and the workshops and sheds necessary for the other great work of early Medieval monasteries: book production. That was it. Even royal guests had to rough it.

The History of Lindisfarne part 2: End of Empire

The reconstruction of a currach: seaworthy but scary in high seas.

After the Romans left, Britain split into many small kingdoms as the native Britons (Christian, literate and heirs, in their minds at least, to Roman civilisation) slowly retreated before the advance of the incoming Anglo-Saxons (pagan, illiterate and never subject to the Empire). This was a slow-motion conquest, taking centuries, and Oswald’s ancestor, Ida, had launched the northern line of attack when he took the stronghold of Bamburgh in the middle of the 6th century.

Oswald’s father, King Æthelfrith, had hugely expanded the kingdom of Northumbria’s power at the start of the 7th century, only to be killed in battle. By his brother-in-law. Politics was a bloody family business then. With Oswald’s Uncle Edwin in charge, Oswald’s mother thought it better to go into exile to the sea-spanning kingdom of Dal Riada (present-day Argyll and County Antrim).

Oswald grew up amid the sea lochs and islands of the north west, becoming fluent in Old Irish. Most importantly, for the future of England, he sailed a currach (traditional boat with animal hides stetched over a wooden frame) to Iona. Here, Colm Cille had founded a monastery and it was here that Oswald embraced the religion of the people his ancestors had displaced: Christianity.

The History of Lindisfarne part 1: How the Irish came to England

Two castles in one photo: Lindisfarne and, on the horizon, Bamburgh.

Kneeling, a young man held the wooden cross upright while the armed men around him backfilled the earth around the cross and made it fast. The man was an exiled prince named Oswald and tomorrow he would fight for his kingdom. But on the eve of the battle, he called down God’s blessing on his small warband.

Oswald received it. The next day, at the Battle of Heavenfield (633/4), he defeated and killed Cadwallon of Gwynedd and reclaimed the realm his father had lost. The king had returned.

Now ruler, Oswald lost no time in sending back to Iona for priests and monks to bring his people to faith in the God who had brought him victory. But, first time round, it didn’t work out so well: Bishop Corman returned, disgruntled, to Iona, complaining that the English were ungovernable and of barbarous temperament.     

Rather than give up – these Irish monks, given to mortifying penances and setting off to sea with neither sails nor oars, didn’t give up easily – Iona sent a new man, Aidan, to Oswald, and the king gave Aidan a base for his mission: Lindisfarne.