‘… and the Old Magic was free for ever and the moon was new.’

October 16, 2012

The children’s novels of Alan Garner, books like Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath – which I read hard on the heels of the Narnia books in the 1970s – first tuned me into the idea of ‘the Old Magic’, especially The Moon of Gomrath. This book introduced me both to Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track – which sparked an enduring interest in ‘the power of place’ – and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. An element of this attunement to the magical themes given free rein within and beyond these stories is the perception of meaningful coincidence in the most disparate of seemingly unrelated things – in art, literature and ‘real life’.

Recently, I’ve been very preoccupied with a place associated with the legendary figure of Kitty Nocks, whose ghost is reputed to ride on a white horse at midnight of the full moon around a disappeared pond – in which she had drowned herself – on the top of Kitnocks Hill in Curdridge, Hampshire. Part of the preoccupation is borne of a wish to prevent a housing development on the site – which is also said to be Kitty Nocks’ burial place – as well as a fascination with the legend itself and its correlation with other landscape legends around the world, from Britain to Siberia. As Caroline Humphrey observed, in many stories the tracks made by the female protagonists of these legends-of-place are homologous with the movement of women between male social groups, a movement which often fails in one way or another (through ill-treatment, divorce, and flight of the wife with nowhere to go). This creates “a hiatus of abandonment, from which asocial place the female spirit wreaks her revenge” (see here).

A view across the Triangle towards Kitnocks House on 31.1.12, the eve of St Bridget’s Day (Candlemas). Kitnocks House was the home of E.H.Liddell Esq., the brother of Alice Liddell, immortalised by Lewis Carroll as Alice. The darker tufts of vegetation in the middle distance are rushes, the waterlogged ground where they grow being the likely site of the vanished pond (a natural ‘looking glass’) around which Kitty Nocks rides (Picture: Simon Crook).

In another post on this blog, about a moated site at Cranbourne off the Stockbridge Road (A30) north of Sutton Scotney, I explored the theme of the footprints of ‘the departed’ leading down to the otherworld of watery places, a feature of footprint carvings found in Bronze Age Scandinavian rock art (see here).  I remarked that this moated site was reminiscent to me of Angharad Goldenhand’s floating island on Redesmere, the refuge of Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.  Granted, this small stream-fed pool surrounding the site of a mediaeval manor and chapel is not remotely as large as Redesmere, but the analogy seemed ‘right’.  The Cranbourne, which rises a few hundred yards to the east of the moat also evokes in its name the Crane, a long-legged water bird significant in much traditional cosmology and lore around the world, such as those depicted in the Anatolian shepherd’s bag illustrated below.

Woven by nomadic tribespeople of central Anatolia in modern Turkey, this shepherd’s bag from Kayseri/Tomarza village displays a horizontal ‘V’ pattern which represents the return flight of migratory cranes, symbolic of good news, while the cross-hatched symbols are the nests of ‘holy birds’. (Picture: Simon Crook. I’m grateful to Mr Bilal Olgun for explaining the symbolism woven into this bag).

In a further post (here) I drew an explicit connection between Kitnocks Hill and the moated site at Cranbourne, based on similar geographical patterning – both watery places, both on a bend in the road, one a hill-top site, the other in a depression – and wondered whether any narratives of supernatural women revolved around Cranbourne which would amplify such tentative parallels. In an oblique way there is a compelling narrative which ties Cranbourne and Kitnocks, but it  relies on my personal identification of the atmosphere of Cranbourne with Alan Garner’s literary evocation of the mystique of Redesmere. This compelling narrative is Garner’s new novel, Boneland, published in August and written to complete a trilogy with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

Boneland intertwines the stories of Colin – one of the original protagonists of the first two books in the series – and ‘the Watcher’, both of them living in the same area of Cheshire, but thousands of years apart. The Watcher is a shaman of the Palaeolithic who carves images in a cave at Ludcruck (modern Ludchurch) and sings and dances to keep his world and the cosmos in balance. With the leg bone of a crane he faced ‘the wall of the bird spirits’ in the cave, putting the bone to his lips to play the cranes from their sleep, joining them in their flight on his spirit wings amidst ‘the gale of feathers’. It is a world created by a primal being, Crane, who separates the earth and sky with its wings; a being identified with the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan). The shaman sings Crane round “from its lowmost up to its height to bring the day.” The Watcher is in quest of a woman who will bear the child to whom he can pass on the wisdom upon which all life depends. In the present of the novel Colin appears to have taken on this shamanic mantle, as an astrophysicist engaged in research at the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank. He too is in quest of a missing woman, his twin sister Susan, who we last read of in The Moon of Gomrath when she rides across the sky with the Wild Hunt. While Colin remembers everything from the age of thirteen, he has barely any memory of his life before that or what happened to his sister.

It is Colin’s attempt to trace Susan, with the help of his psychotherapist, Meg, which illuminates connections between places – like the ‘lowmost’ of the moat at Cranbourne and the ‘height’ of Kitnocks Hill – which reach beyond Garner’s fiction.  Colin has had three flashbacks in which he has seen his sister riding a horse into the Pleiades, a cluster of stars also known as the Seven Sisters. He confesses to Meg that he has used the radio telescope to try and find her, ‘using an object to trace a metaphor’. To Meg’s question, ‘why the Pleiades?’ Colin answers that since the dispersal of the first humans from Africa this asterism has been seen as the refuge of women and maidens: the Pleiades are a band of women or maidens escaping pursuit. Susan’s departure is lent an earthly dimension when Meg presents an old newspaper report about her disappearance on the night of November 21st/22nd. She had ridden off on a grey Shire horse which is later located on an island in Redesmere after its hoofprints had been found to end at the water’s edge. A fingertip search of the bed of the mere is undertaken, based on the assumption that Susan may have drowned but ‘no one had left the mere, and nothing was found’. At this, Colin excitedly exclaims that on this night the Pleiades would have reached the highest point on the meridian of the year, so that by the time Susan reached Redesmere they were reflected in the water: “She made it!”

It may seem odd to draw on a work of fiction to make connections between places ‘outside the text’, so that Redesmere=Cranbourne=Kitnocks Hill=Redesmere. This circular logic certainly doesn’t constitute ‘evidence’ within an objective framework but, subjectively, it rings true.

I finished Boneland last night. Having slept on my first reading of the book I awoke to muse on the themes of aquatic birds – cranes, swans – and the novel’s ‘earthing’ of cosmic patterns such as the integrating within it of Seven Sisters Road, which actually runs close to Jodrell Bank.  In the book this road leads to the house where Colin meets the enigmatic psychotherapist, Meg Massey, implying that Meg herself resides among the Pleiades.  This morning I couldn’t help being reminded of a short story I wrote for English homework when I was about twelve. Betraying the influence of what I’d read – Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Garner – it told of a young man undergoing a series of trials in a complex of caves until he succeeds in reaching a central chamber where a green, stone egg sits on a tripod.  Within its matrix are suspended the souls of seven captive swans, who are then released to fly away to freedom in their evanescent forms. Even here ‘mundane’ reality informed this fantasy. Onyx eggs were very fashionable ornaments in the early 1970s, my parents had a collection of them in a bowl. The green one with white veins was my favourite. Here’s a black one I’ve picked up along the way…

Addendum (20/10/12): I must mention an online resource dedicated to all things connected to Alan Garner, an unofficial website with a wealth of material through which you can while away the hours, here


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