Autumn Equinox Commentary

When it came to formulating a tale for Alban Elfed I was stuck. Unlike the Spring Equinox, I had no initial associations and research into the festival failed to throw up any ideas, except that it had to focus on darkness and light. Thankfully, a tale had seeded in my head early in the summer and had been growing ever since.

When I first heard about Gog and Magog I was on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor. A fellow walker told me about the two magnificent Oak trees who stood nearby. Visiting Glastonbury again later in the summer, I walked over the lower slopes of the Tor to find Gog and Magog down a green lane. They are truly magnificent trees, centuries old. Gog died a while ago (and more recently caught fire) although his trunk and branches stand as a ghostly reminder of his presence. Magog is still growing and, when I saw her, was resplendent with leaves. They are the last remnants of an avenue of oak trees which used to lead to the Isle of Avalon, although the others were cut down in the early twentieth century. Could I, I wondered, use these two trees – one dead, one alive, one in darkness, one in light – as the basis for my Alban Elfed tale?

Initial research into the legend of Gog and Magog revealed various tales of two giants (or one giant named Gogmagog) and various legends associated with them, including being chained to the Guildhall in London. I attempted to streamline these myths into a coherent story but the piece seemed to have very little connection to Alban Elfed, other than the sense of darkness and light.

It was Danu Forest’s excellent book The Magical Year which helped me tie the disparate elements together. The book guides the reader through a visualisation with Affallach, an embodiment of the green man who guards the orchard of Avalon, a derivation of “Isle of Apples”. As Alban Elfed marks the fruit harvest, writing about the journey of Gog and Magog to the Isle of Apples suddenly felt like the quintessential tale for this festival.

In terms of narrative style, I chose to write the piece from Magog’s perspective. This gave me the chance to make the narrative more intricate and personal, engaging the reader more definitely with emotional elements of the story. In terms of how I was going to explain the transformation of Gog and Magog from giants to trees, I opted to leave it to the audience’s imagination with just a few pointers in the text.

Of all the pieces, this has the most unsettling ending. When read as an individual story it may seem a little pessimistic; within the broader cycle of the stories it feels more like an acknowledgement of the power of the darkness from which the reader will eventually emerge.

Photograph by Karin Brown at Imbolc Photography (https://brownkcd.wixsite.com/imbolc)

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The Giants of Avalon

We were brought from the lands of hot winds and burning, shifting sands. We were giants, once, and foolishly believed that the human Brute King and his iron clad army were no threat to us. But giants are not as cunning as mankind. We had size and strength on our side but that was all. The men had numbers, malice, trickery and a phrase: “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.”

We fell hard that day. The Brute King fought and won the final battle between mankind and the giants in the most despicable way. As the crimson sun set on the battlefield, he put my brothers and sisters to the sword, staining the sand in their hot red blood. He told us we were the lucky ones. He told us he was saving us, but really the Brute King wanted us as living monuments of his victory to take to his new capital.

My partner was called Gog, and so I am Magog. These may sound like strange names to you, but that is because they are giant’s names from long ago and far away. Your name would sound strange to me if I knew it: but there is little about this world I understand any more. That is because it is the world of men.

Our journey to the Brute King’s capital was a long one. He led us across continents, bound and chained so that we could not escape him. Soon the hot breezes had cold edges and the sun did not warm our skin as it had done in our desert home. We crossed cloud-capped mountains where the Brutish men told us Gods had once lived. We waded through deep, rushing rivers, carrying our captors on our backs so that they weren’t drowned by their iron clothing. We heard the men tell stories of their homeland, of a sacred Isle of Apples each of them longed to visit. We fought through forests so dense, Gog and I were the only ones who could see the way to the other side. We heard the men whisper the name of the isle.

We heard them whisper “Afalon”.

You want to ask me why we did not try to get away from our captors. Already you have forgotten that giants are not cunning like humans; we do not know your tricks. We do not know deception. Besides, I think Afalon was already settling into our hearts. We wanted to know if such a beautiful place really existed.

The Brute King and his people had made their home on a wet island, far to the north of our own homeland. We arrived at the edge of a cold, grey sea while the Brute and his army crammed themselves onto their waiting ships. You’re wondering how they fitted two giants onto their ships, aren’t you? Well, they didn’t. There was no wind that day, so they made Gog and I wade out into the waves and drag their vessels back with our prisoner’s ropes. We saw the milky white cliffs of their homeland as we waded past. We dragged the boats up a long muddy river, into the Brutish capital of Lundien. There, we were chained to the Brute King’s Mead Hall for all to see, living monuments to his deception, or as he saw it, his strength.

It was not long before we managed to free ourselves. Gog was the first to break the chains. As he ripped himself free from the Mead Hall, the building fell with the roar of an injured beast. A great cloud of dust swallowed the Brutish people who had gathered around us; they began to scream, they began to run, afraid of the great power now freed in the middle of their city. And they were right to be afraid. Little men, even ones dressed in iron skins, can be crushed easily beneath a giant’s foot. The few soldiers the Brute King had left to guard us tried and failed to tame us again. We ran from Lundien as fire bloomed in the ruins of the Mead Hall and swept throughout the city. In later times, they tell me, that city would have a “Great Fire”, but it did not burn as hot or spread as fast as that first fire, kindled by giants’ rage.

We ran far. We ran through the day and into the sunset. We ran until we could no longer see the flames of Lundien reddening the night sky. We ran until I could run no more. We found ourselves on a great flat plain, where we could see for miles in every direction. Gog said we should rest there for the night, that we would be safe from men in that place. They could not surprise us there, they could not trick us. He piled up some trees for a fire and stood some high stones around the edge to hold the flame. I slept soundly that night with Gog by my side, visions of Afalon drifting through my dreams. We left our campsite at daybreak. Men have since named our Stone Edge and claimed it as their own, as they do with all things.

The next day Gog said we were to start back across the grey sea to our warm home among the shifting sands. But I did not want to. I told Gog I wanted to go and find the isle of Afalon I had heard the Brutish men talk of so often. Gog told me that he too wanted to find that place, although he somehow feared it would be the end of us. I told him he should not worry, although I secretly knew he was right. Perhaps it was not only Afalon which was filling my head, but also the cunning ways of men.

For many months we searched the shores of Brute’s Kingdom, but could not find the beautiful isle of which the men had spoken. We had searched along every sandy beach, along every cliff face and even the furthest islands to the north, but there was no sign of Afalon. Finally we reached the foggy, brown waters at the mouth of the summer lands. There, the sand we stood on seemed to pull us down, dragging us under the thick, frothy tide. We struggled against the waters, we struggled to keep our heads above the flood; we struggled and crawled and dragged our way through the murk and the mud. Neither of us believed we would find anything beautiful in such a terrible place.

But then, slowly, the fog began to thin.

And the sea around us ran quick and clear.

And there, rising from the misty waters of the summer lands, was the dream; the Isle of Afalon.

We crashed onto its shores, exhausted after months of searching. The very earth of the isle seemed to vibrate with warmth and welcome. We felt as if we had arrived home, that we had been gathered in. We felt like we belonged there. We gazed upon the steep slopes of Afalon’s central hill, and realised that the whole isle was a giant orchard, covered in ripe, full apple trees. Many months had passed since we had broken free from the Brute King’s Mead Hall and now it was harvest time. The setting sun burnished the gleaming apple skins and made our mouths water. We were so hungry, and the apples looked so tasty, that, at the same time, we both reached out to grab an apple tree, to strip it clean and gorge ourselves on the fruit.

But something stopped us.

These were not our apples. These apples belonged to the isle. We couldn’t just take them and eat them, as men would have done. We needed to wait. We needed to ask the isle if we could eat of her harvest. And so, hungry as we were, we settled in to sleep that night on the steep slopes of Afalon. As we slept, the hill seemed to shape itself around us, broadening and flattening so we could sleep comfortably.

As the sunlight woke us from our dreams the next morning, we realised we were no longer alone on the isle. There, on the summit of Afalon’s hill, was a small man, clothed all in green. I’ve named him a man to you because I don’t know what other word could describe him, but he certainly was not of mankind. There was something about him which was not of this realm and yet he seemed more earthly than any other being I have ever met. He was made of the darkness in light, and the light in the darkness. He made us feel both afraid and hopeful. He seemed to stand at the edge of the world.

“My name is Afallach” he said to us. “This is my isle. These are my apples. Tell me, why have you come here?”

Gog began to tell him our story, how we came from the land of shifting sands, how the Brutish men had spoken of this isle on our forced journey away from home, and how we had dreamed of this place.

“You must be hungry after such a journey” Afallach continued. “You could have eaten every apple on this isle, but you haven’t. Why?”

We couldn’t really answer him; we could only say that we felt like we couldn’t take the apples, we needed to wait and ask.

“Who could have stopped two giants from eating every apple on this Island? Could one as small as I have stopped you?” There was nothing small about Afallach, but we didn’t tell him. “Today is the day of balance between the darkness and the light” he said “and I need to bring the apples in before the days grow cold and biting. If you help me, I will let you eat some of the harvest as your payment.”

We agreed, and Gog and me picked every apple from every tree in Afallach’s orchard on that day. Afallach was true to his word and let us eat as many of the beautiful apples as we wished. Gog drank from the red spring on the isle, I drank from the white. While we worked, a very different harvest was taken into our hearts. After all our journeys, our capture and our searching, we had found the place we belonged. We had picked Afalon, and Afalon had picked us.

At sunset, Afallach appeared on the summit of the hill again. He thanked us for harvesting the apples and wished us well on our journey. But neither Gog nor me moved.
“What is the matter?” Afallach asked. “If you are going to go back to your homeland you need to start now, before the days become too dark.” But still we did not move. We couldn’t. The warmth and welcome of Afalon vibrated in our hearts.

“We want to stay” said Gog “We want Afalon to be our home.”

“I am sorry” Afallach began “But this is my isle, these are my slopes, my trees. Only I can live here.”

“But we will help you.” I began “We will serve you however you wish.”

“What use would I have for two giants?” the green man began. “My trees only need harvesting once a year and the isle is too small for you to live here all the time. You would damage it if you stayed.” We knew he was right, although it tore at our hearts to admit it. We knew we would have to leave. But where would feel like home after Afalon?

“Although” Afallach continued “I am concerned about the Brutish men you spoke of. What if they find this isle and decide to take it for their own?”

“We will protect Alfalon” Gog started, full of joy at the thought he may be able to stay. “Let us live here and we will make sure they never take what is yours.”

“I can’t” said Afallach. “I said this isle is too small and you would destroy my orchards if you lived here all the time.” He paused. “However, you could stand beside the causeway which joins my isle to the Brutish lands. I can’t let you stay on Afalon but you will be near it, and you can protect it against the greed of men.” Of course, we agreed.
“We will only let through the respectful, the wise” I told Afallach, “Those who love this isle as much as we do. Those who come to gather the truth in their hearts.”

As so we took up our place beside the causeway, where the harvest of our trials had made us the giant guardians of Afalon. Days passed, months, years, centuries. We stood there so long our feet slowly took root. We stood there so long that the slow, warm magic of Afalon changed us into a pair of giant oak trees. Children fell from my branches as tiny acorns and took root near us. They grew strong and healthy in our shadow until a great avenue of oak trees lined the causeway between the Brutish kingdom and the isle. Men slowly began to find their way to us but no longer recognised us as the giants of their legends. Instead of being afraid of us, they thanked us and worshipped us for our protection. Those were golden days, our days of endless summer.

Oh, the things we saw, our children and us, standing by that causeway! We saw a great King, far greater than the Brute who chained us to his hall, brought to the isle for his final sleep. We saw a man from our homeland, with sand still on his feet, drop a cup into the red spring and plant his staff on the island. We saw the sea recede and a great building rise. And fall. We saw a holy man hung high on the top of Avallach’s hill. We saw orchards full of apples grow and we saw orchards of apples fall. We saw them gathered in before the darkness overtook the light.

But, as winter follows summer, darkness came to us too. We saw our children fall. Men, Brutish, terrible men, hacked them, chopped them and dragged them away, leaving only Gog and me to guard our beloved isle. If we could have wept we would have. Instead, we started to pass into the darkness ourselves. Gog stands by me still but I know he has died, like my children. I no longer feel the warmth of him, as I did on that plain, so many years ago. Although one day he may return to me, for now, he is part of Avallach’s true harvest, and lies beneath the hill. One day I must follow him, so that the harvest will be complete.

And so I stand, with one foot in the darkness, breathing the last of the light.

Photograph by Karin Brown at Imbolc Photography (https://brownkcd.wixsite.com/imbolc)

The Autumn Equinox

Okay, so with only a week until Alban Elfed I have left this a bit late, I know. I apologise for that! However, if you are planning to write a festival tale for this particular festival, it’s time to get planning (and writing!)

In some senses, the Autumn Equinox is the most difficult festival to write for. There is a dearth of specific stories or mythology which you can straightforwardly retell, so it is going to require you to think outside of the box somewhat. However, that isn’t a bad thing because this means it is your chance to get really creative. You have a chance here to strike out and write a piece which is truly unique to you and your understanding of the season, so relish that rather than being afraid of it!

In terms of where to begin, you could start looking for a story or myth which seems to have connections with the equinox which you could retell. You will find some stories which are not specifically connected to Alban Elfed which may fit the tone or themes you are looking to explore.

However, I think the first thing I would suggest you do is think about what is going on in the natural world around you. Go for a walk, find a natural space where you can pause and note down what is going on. What is the weather like? What fruits are ripe and which plants are dying away? Look at what is around you – are the leaves changing? Are there conkers, acorns, hazelnuts? It is so important we reflect the world around us in our work. Maybe you could bring some of your wider concerns in too. This Alban Elfed I am going to be working on the opening of my seasonal ceremony, changing the traditional OBOD quarters of North (Bear), East (Hawk), South (Stag) and West (Salmon) so that they reflect my current concerns about climate crisis and species decline. I will be rewriting the ceremony to use badgers, swifts, bees and whales instead of the traditional elements, and considering how the four elements have been exploited rather than simply celebrating their power. I don’t like focusing on the negative, but as we approach the transition to darkness, this feels appropriate for me.

And darkness is one of the themes of this time of year. The equinox marks the balance between light and dark, but there will now be more hours of darkness. The approach of darkness, of winter, could be a potent theme. However, remember – we are not there yet! It’s still quite warm so don’t jump the gun – look at what is around you!

With the arrival of the darkness, the grain harvest comes to an end. That harvest, which began at Lughnasadh, will now be finished. In traditional farming societies, attention would focus around the final section of corn to be cut. Some societies called this final sheaf “The corn baby” while others referred to it as the “Cailleach” – so it could represent youth or old age, depending on where our focus lies. Are there ideas here that you could extend into a longer piece of writing?

For me the Autumn Equinox represents the arrival of the fruit harvest. With the fields now gathered in, attention turns to the fruit on the trees. Locally, a traditional Tudor farm has an Apple Day at this time of year. It’s great to go along, try some apple juice, apple pies and take part in traditional games. The focus on apples at this time of year may lead us to consider the wider associations of the fruit, for example, the Isle of Avalon, which many believe to be modern day Glastonbury. Avalon’s name means “The Isle of Apples” and Glastonbury Tor is the entrance to the underworld – what a perfect setting for a story set at the time of apple harvests, marking the transition into darkness!

With the sense of the wider, physical harvest, our attention turns to the sense of harvest in our own lives. Many season rituals get us to focus on what we have harvested ourselves this year. That is a great theme to use with a character – someone (or something) at a point when they are reaping a harvest in their life, where their story is reaching a conclusion, drawing to a close, and all of their decisions begin to pay off. This story could be either happy or sad, or maybe you could make it a mix of both. A bitter sweet ending would be perfectly appropriate for an Alban Elfed story; yes, the dark is rising but the wheel will keep turning and spring will not be far behind!

The story I wrote for the Autumn Equinox is the one I am most proud of. Rather than simply retelling an old story, I found an idea which really began to tickle at my brain. For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with it until it became obvious that it was the perfect story for Alban Elfed. I will be sharing it with you in a few days’ time, but before then, relish the feel of this transition and explore what it means to you in your own way, in your own words.

Photograph by Karin Brown at Imbolc Photography (https://brownkcd.wixsite.com/imbolc)

Lughnasadh: Commentary

It’s been a few weeks since Lughnasadh, since I posted my festival tale “The Song of John Barleycorn”. Sorry for the delay! There is the commentary so that you know where the story came from!

With the Harvest stories, the wordcount of each piece begins to wane and I wanted to bring a very different feel to the collection. All the tales I had written to this point had happy endings; as the year shortened I wanted to give the pieces more disquieting conclusions. The first of these was the bittersweet tale of Lughnadsah.

I love the festival of Lughnadsah and have done since I started practicing Druidry. The arrival of the first harvest is a time of real abundance and the God, Lugh, is a powerful figure for me. Despite this, I didn’t end up writing about Lugh as I was being drawn to the story of John Barleycorn; I researched the mythology further and spent a time working with the folk song of the tale. My initial drafts attempted to use the ballad form to develop the tale but, as there was already an existing song, I didn’t want to emulate it too closely. Wanting to integrate the sense of a “song” I decided to leave that element for a while so I could consider it further.

I began writing the tale sitting on a balcony of a guest house in Glastonbury, overlooking a sheep filled apple orchard. It was a beautiful evening and I remember it vividly. I looked around me for inspiration, which led me to reflect on the signs of late summer in the opening paragraph; the swallows, the shadows and the midges dancing in the light. These proved useful thematic elements I could weave through the piece overall.

The next day I went to the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey and wrote the first draft in one sitting. Throughout writing I visualised the setting as broadly Victorian, just on the cusp of the Industrial revolution and after the acts of enclosure. I wanted to emulate the narrative style of a folk tale in my writing; as such the narrator didn’t need to be specifically characterised. It also meant I could use characters as ciphers somewhat. I originally toyed with giving names to Barleycorn’s daughters and the three villainous gentlemen but decided against this, instead trying to create the sense of them as mythical types rather than individuals.

I didn’t feel that the ending of the first draft worked particularly well. It ended with the daughters being sad and the narrative voice panning away to the horizon, repeating the elements mentioned in the opening paragraph. I considered developing the mythical element further and was reminded of the myth of Philomel, who is transformed into a nightingale by her grief. I began re-working the ending, transforming Barleycorn’s daughters into nightingales once they discover their father’s murder. As the song of the nightingale is notoriously beautiful, this successfully addressed the song element I had worked with at the beginning. Going back to the opening paragraph and including a comment about the nightingales’ song made the piece more cohesive.

The next festival is the Autumn Equinox – see you in a few weeks to so we can discuss ideas!

The Song of John Barleycorn

Some years it feels like summer will last forever and some years it feels like summer has just arrived, but every year there is a day when you notice that summer is ending. It seems like only yesterday that the apple tree dripped with blossom and now it is burgeoning with hard, green fruit. Yes, the swallows still dance and dive in deep blue skies, but the shadows they speed over, somehow, seem longer. Midges bob and weave in thick, thermal sunbeams but the breeze which buoys them has a sliver of frost on its edge. When you look out across the landscape, you notice that every shade of green is tinged with gold and brown.

That’s the day you know that summer is coming to an end.

And that’s the day you notice the skylarks’ song has changed.

Yes, the tune still bubbles and rolls as it always does, but there is a quality to it you struggle to describe. The only word which seems to fit is … sadness. It’s as if the skylark’s song has become infused with sorrow and un-cried tears. What is it that makes the skylark’s song so sad? Well, it’s because they are singing the song of John Barleycorn.
Old John Barleycorn’s farm was small but productive. What it lacked in acreage, it more than made up for in quantity. Every year, his fields swirled and swayed with deep golden grain, so that, in the later summer sunshine, it looked like as if a waterfall of molten gold had spilled across his land. Barleycorn was famous not only for the quantity but also for the quality of crop his farm produced, the malty taste of his grains making distinctively wholesome bread and dark, frothy ale. The old farmer was a cheery soul and generous to a fault; if one of his fellow villagers was down on their luck, Barleycorn always found supplies of grain to help them out. He was not a greedy man; he saw no use in riches. In fact, the greatest riches he owned, he freely told everyone, were his three beautiful daughters whose hair was as golden as the crop in his field.

The good news from John Barleycorn’s farmstead spread far and wide until, one warm, rainy evening, it fell upon the ears of three sweaty, avaricious young men in a steamy side-street tavern. The first commented on the surprising quality of the ale which had been slopped into his tankard, and was told by the tavern owner that it came from the grain of old John Barleycorn. The second enquired further about the famous old man and was told about his crop yield and generous nature. The third asked where Barleycorn lived; the tavern owner freely told them the name of the village, and also encouraged them to seek out Barleycorn’s daughters, who were as beautiful as their father was generous. The three men swiftly finished their ale and slunk off into the dank, humid night.

They eventually arrived in the village on the sweltering first day of the harvest and headed straight to the Barleycorn farm. They presented themselves to old John as penniless soldiers, fresh from the battle fields, who needed work and a place to lay their heads at night. The kind old man took the three scoundrels at their word and hired them on the spot to help bring in his fulsome golden harvest. It was hard work in the sun-baked fields, yet still the three men took the opportunity to look around. To their delight, they discovered that the old man’s harvest really was as plentiful as they had been told and, even better, that Barleycorn’s daughters were even more beautiful than the tavern owner had said. And so, as they scythed and baled, as they threshed and winnowed, they formed a terrible plan.

Eventually the fields were cleared and the bumper crop had been safely stowed in the barn. The stubble had been burned and ploughed back into the earth, so that the fields were ready for sowing in springtime, and the Barleycorn family were ready for winter. John had been particularly kind to the three supposed soldiers and kept them employed longer than the other labourers because they had seemed to work so hard. Every night the family had shared food, provided them with a bed and rewarded their effort with coins. But, eventually, as the summer mornings became draped in the dewey cobwebs of autumn, it was time to ask them to go. After supper one night, Barleycorn walked out under a harvest moon with the men, thanked them for their help and told them that they would be welcome to return in springtime to help with planting.

But the three men had no intention of leaving and laughed at his suggestion that it was time to go. They weren’t going to leave, they told him; they were going to take Barleycorn’s farm, and his three beautiful daughters, and use them as their own. At first he thought they were joking, as they idly kicked the clods of earth beneath their feet, but, when the first scoundrel pulled a knife out of his boot, Barleycorn knew they had told him the hideous truth. The old man started back to the house, calling to his daughters for help, and so, quick as a flash, the three men grabbed him, held him and slashed his throat like an animal. The poor old soul slumped to his knees as his blood frothed and fountained from his body, feeding the furrows in the hungry earth. The three blood splattered scoundrels howled with derision as old John Barleycorn breathed his last under the blood red moon. They buried him deep beneath the fields, where the plough would never find him.

Oh, the lies they told his golden haired daughters when they asked where their father had gone! Instead of telling how they had butchered and buried him, the scoundrels announced that, on a whim, old Barleycorn had decided to go travelling. The daughters were frantic with worry.
“When will our father return?” they cried.
“In three harvests’ time” lied the first young man.
“We shall share the work between us, sisters, and await father’s return” the eldest daughter sagely advised.
“Oh no,” the second scoundrel smirked, “Your father said that the farm was to be divided, equally, into three, between us – as a thank you for all our hard work with the harvest.”
“And as a further token of his gratitude,” continued the third “he told us to take one of you, each, to do with as we please.”

That night, Barleycorn’s three beautiful daughters reaped a bitter harvest. The young men treated them as badly as the crop they had threshed and winnowed in the fields. By morning, the daughters were as bruised and broken as the chaff on the dark barn floor. As autumn turned to winter, the scoundrels’ hearts became harder than the frozen ground. To secure their claim to the land, they eventually married the daughters one dark January morning, when no one could see the bruises on their beautiful wives’ faces. Three bitter marriages followed the sad little ceremony, each union more sharp and biting than the hoarfrosts which petrified the wintery hedgerows.

And so, in springtime, the three young men went out into their fields and sowed them, expecting a bumper crop.

But nothing grew. The fields remained barren and winter-like throughout a beautiful spring and a balmy summer. The three men were horrified – these fields had produced bumper crops year after year for old Barleycorn: what had gone so wrong?
And then, on a sultry Lammas morning, the first scoundrel was walking through the empty fields when he saw a small, dense patch of golden barley which had seemingly shot up overnight. He sprung towards it like a striking adder, eager to harvest some form of crop from these fields, no matter how small. But, as he approached, he noticed that the barley was growing in the shape of a man’s body, as if it had fallen on the ground after some terrible accident. With a spike of horror, the young man realised that it was growing on the exact spot where he and his fellow murderers had butchered and buried old John. He raced back to the farm, burning with terror and rage, grabbed a scythe from the barn and stalked back out to the fields. The scoundrel hacked and slashed at the small patch of barley until it lay, utterly destroyed and scattered across the otherwise barren field. But destroying the crop was not enough – he now wanted to destroy the earth from which it had grown. He started hacking and gouging at the loamy soil, as if he would dig down to Barleycorn’s body itself.

And then, during a particularly vicious swipe of the blade, the scoundrel sliced a deep, fatal wound into his own leg. The shin bone splintered, his foot snapped from under him and blood blossomed from the gaping wound. The young man fell to the ground with a howl, cursing the day he had crossed old Barleycorn. As the earth feasted on his blood, darkness took the young scoundrel. By the time his friends found him, he was as cold and dead as the field on which he lay.

A meagre autumn gave way to a ravenous winter. The Barleycorn daughters suffered more under the pair of young men than they had under the three. They were tyrannous with the girls, making them beg and steal scraps from the villagers to sate their guilty hunger. As there was no spare money to employ helpers, in springtime the daughters were forced to join their husbands in the sopping wet fields to sow a new crop, which they desperately needed.

And still the fields remained barren. Despite perfect weather throughout the spring and summer, no crop grew in the Barleycorn fields.

And then, on a thunderous Lammas morning, the second scoundrel was walking the fields when he saw a small, dense patch of barley rippling under the glowering skies. He dived towards it, like a hawk after its prey, joyed by the belief that the crop had sprung up overnight. However, to his horror, he saw that the crop grew in the shape of a man’s body, as if it had been thrown to the ground after a terrible accident. A crack of terror echoed through him as he realised that the barley grew on the exact spot where he and his accomplices had butchered and buried John Barleycorn. As the terror sparked through him, he raced back to the farmhouse, grabbed a scythe from the barn and flew back to the fields to start cutting it down. Remembering what had happened to his friend the year before, the second scoundrel scythed more carefully and soon held a small, bountiful bundle of barley in his bloody, blistered hands. He raced into the village and gave the barley to the brewer who turned it into the most delicious, deep frothy brown ale. The young man raced to the farmstead, where he victoriously slammed the ale keg down in front of the others. As it has been he who had found and cut the barley, he announced, he would be the first to drink a draught of the beautiful brown ale. The others wearily agreed.

And so he started to drink. And drink. And drink. So delicious was the ale that the young scoundrel simply could not stop himself! So deeply did he drink that his stomach burst like a dam in winter. The young man coughed and choked, he tried to gurgle out a curse on John Barleycorn but the others could not understand him. Eyes bulging, red-faced and drowned, he fell down dead.

A wild and wicked winter followed. A cruel easterly wind brought early snow which shrouded the land, almost until it was time to light the Beltane fires. The remaining young man was forced to beg in the frozen streets of the village. He used the name of old Barleycorn to wring generosity from his neighbours, but refused to share his slim picking with the Barleycorn’s starving daughters. When spring arrived, late and waterlogged, the tyrannous young man made the girls seed the field on their own, claiming he was too ravenous, too enfeebled to join them in their task. The daughters’ backs bent and broke from the onerous task, yet they still took care to place every grain in the perfect position, praying that a bumper crop would follow.

But still the fields remained barren.

And then, on a clear Lammas morning, the third scoundrel was walking in the empty fields when he saw a dense patch of barley, blowing in the warm breeze. At once, he span towards it, like a spider towards its prey. But, just like his fellow murderers before him, he found that the golden barley grew in the exact shape of a man’s body, on the very spot where they had butchered and buried old John Barleycorn. He scuttled back to the farm in horror, grabbing a scythe from the barn before carefully cutting down the crop. When it had been gathered in, he ran to the miller who ground the grain into dusty white flour. The young man took the flour to the baker and, shortly after, he was the owner of the largest loaf of bread the village had ever seen. He raced back to the farmstead with his prize but, rather than share it with Barleycorn’s famished daughters, he decided to devour the whole thing himself.

And so he set about ripping the bread into chunks and stuffing handfuls of it into his hungry, salivating jaws. However, soon the bread started to dry out his mouth, his throat and his stomach. He began to choke on the crust and crumb of the malty brown loaf. The young man coughed and choked, he tried to gasp out a curse on John Barleycorn but the words remained unspoken. Before long, pale faced and open mouthed, the third and final scoundrel lay dead on the farmhouse floor.

The daughters wept with happiness, finally free from the tyranny of the three young men who had scourged their farmstead. Although they were alone and frightened, they remembered their father’s apparent promise to return after three harvests and so began to scour the horizon for a sign of his return. Through the darkening windows, the eldest daughter saw signs of movement on the top of the furthest field and so, as the sun began to set, they walked out to see what it was.

In the last golden light of Lammas, as swallows swooped over lengthening shadows and midges danced on the sharp edged breeze, the daughters found themselves standing around a small patch of glorious golden barley, which had grown in the shape of a man.
And slowly they realised that the crop had not just grown in the shape of any man – the barley had grown in the shape of their beloved father. A small trickle of blood seeped from the earth and gathered at their feet.

In an instant the three daughters realised exactly what had happen on that hillside three harvests ago; they saw that their father had been butchered and buried by the three young men who wanted to take everything he had. The girls began to cry, tears of remorse, tears of loss. They cried so much it was as if fresh springs had opened on their cheeks. The tears which the girls cried rained down upon the earth which has been barren for so long. The splashes became puddles, the puddles became streams, the streams became rivers and the rivers became an ocean until, eventually, the whole field had been watered by the tears the daughters cried for their father.

Suddenly, a crop of barley more bounteous and more brilliant than had ever grown in Barleycorn’s fields sprang from the freshly watered earth and swallowed the daughters. For a brief, beautiful second the only sound in the field was that of the harvest rippling and rushing in the breeze. And then, from out of the waving, golden torrent, shot three skylarks. A villager, who passed by shortly after, commented on how beautifully sad the skylark’s song was but was more concerned that he had found the Barleycorn farm empty, apart from the young man’s body. What he failed to realise was that the skylarks were Barleycorn’s three beautiful daughters, transformed by their grief.

And that is why, when you realise that summer is starting to fade, when you see the long shadows and feel the cold edge to the breeze, you will notice that the skylarks have changed their tune and are singing a sadder song over the fields of wheat and barley.

They are singing the song of their father, the song of John Barleycorn.

Photograph by Karin Brown at Imbolc Photography (https://brownkcd.wixsite.com/imbolc)

Lughnasadh

Although it’s still a few weeks away, it’s time to start thinking about Lughnasadh if you want to start writing your festival tale. But what sort of thing could you write about?

Lughnasadh (pronounced loo-na-sa) is celebrated on 1st August and is one of my favourite festivals, although it is my least favourite to spell! It is the last festival of the summer and the first festival of autumn. Like all of the cross-quarter celebrations it marks that point of transition from one season to another. Personally, my autumn and harvest celebrations always kick off at Lughnasadh because I love the season so much; out come the pumpkin decorations and the golden leaves as the first harvest rolls in. But be warned – the hottest days of summer are probably still to come, so be careful!

However, there is a real sense of change to be felt in the air at this time of year. The sun sits slightly lower in the sky and the shadows start to get longer. The nature of the sun’s warmth also feels like it is changing, and some of the sharpness comes out of its heat. Also, the days start to get noticeably shorter and the evenings get just that little bit darker. The summer takes on a sense of maturity and grandeur which is simply beautiful
So, what is Lughnasadh about? Well, its name contains the biggest clue – it’s about the Celtic god Lugh. Lugh is a Celtic warrior, king and sun god and is rather an awesome chap. Although the festival seems to correlate with Lugh’s announcement of a series of games in honour of his mother, ensuring a good harvest as long as the games continue, it’s also worth digging a bit further into his story to find out any tales you feel you can retell. Alternatively, you could write a devotional piece for Lugh. This is the only festival which directly refers to a particular God (with the possibly exception of Imbolc, which mainly focuses around Bridget) so using Lugh as a focus is entirely appropriate. In fact, if you’ve read “The Ritual of Writing”, you will know that this is the perfect festival to attempt a second person narrative in honour of Lugh!
The other name for Lughnasadh is Lammas, which is far easier to spell! The name Lammas comes from the Anglos Saxon festival called “Hlaef Mass”, or “Loaf Mass”, giving a hint as to the other main focus of this festival. Lammas marks the gathering in of the wheat crop and the first of the three harvests (Autumn Equinox marking the fruit harvest and Samhain marking the animal harvest). As such you will start to notice grain crops disappearing from the fields around this time of year. I always go for a walk on or close to Lammas and collect a little bit of grain from the corner of a field to put on my seasonal altar. However, the connotations of this focus are much bigger; as Danu Forest puts it in her excellent book ‘The Magical Year’, Lammas “signals the change from honouring the earth goddess and her gifts of wild foods to revering the ‘masculine’ skills of taming the land with agriculture”.
I also tend to either make or buy a really lovely loaf of bread at Lammas. Too often we take our bread for granted, using it simply in sandwiches or toast, but there is a real joy to be had in eating a good loaf of bread on its own. These days there are so many different foods, so many different tastes, that it can be refreshing to focus on a single staple and really be thankful for it. For our ancestors, a good grain harvest was incredibly important, and there are many traditions surrounding cutting the final stalks in the fields which are worth investigating. I will always fondly remember my school’s harvest festival assembly back in the 1970s. Of course, these were later in the year but I was always struck by the beautiful wheatsheaf loaf that stood at the centre of the display.
As this is the celebration of the corn harvest, one of the most important figures is that of John Barleycorn, the spirit of barley, about whom there are many traditional ballads. In the ballads, the speaker reflects upon the way that barley is treated from sowing to harvesting and being turned into products such as ale. However, as the barley is personified into a human being, it is poor old John who is chopped down, mashed and pulped. This story is a powerful approach to the season, containing the sense of plenty but also the worrying sense that things are coming to an end.
Of course, with this being the change over point between summer and autumn, it is important not to make this festival tale too autumnal! Summer is still in its pomp so begin to think about other forms of harvest in your life. For example, August is a prime time for summer holidays, which is another form of harvest. You’ve worked hard all year for a few days break in the sunshine, enjoying the fruits of your labour – isn’t that the perfect analogy for a time of harvest? Such settings can give stories a more contemporary twist and maybe shift tales away from the more traditional focus. The most important thing when writing your tales is to think “what does this time of the year mean to me”? If that’s not the grain harvest, then begin to think of an equivalent of your own.
For me, Lammas and Lughnasadh has very specific connotations, as you will see in a few weeks’ time when I share my tale. Enjoy the next few weeks, planning what you are going to write about and getting the words down. Take your story out into nature to imbue your tale with the sights, sounds and smells of this time of year – as we head into harvest you will find your senses go into overdrive with the sense of ripeness around you, so see if you can capture it and distil it with your words.
Photograph by Karin Brown at Imbolc Photography (https://brownkcd.wixsite.com/imbolc)

Summer Solstice Commentary

In terms of style, this piece is far more “literary” than the others. One of my first readers said it reminded them of Terry Pratchett, a comparison I am more than happy to accept! My starting point was a mood board of different images representing “Summer”. Among them were those of the Glastonbury Festival. Using a contemporary music festival as a setting gave me the chance to bring the collection up to date. I remembered how Maria Aberg’s 2013 RSC production of As You Like it had shifted the action out of the Forest of Arden and into a festival setting, capturing the sheer heady joy of the text.

The clearest influence on this tale is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Being a Shakespeare scholar, the opportunity to work with elements of the play in a creative way was irresistible. I picked the elements carefully, focusing on the fairies and the tale of the “Rude Mechanicals” rather than on the lovers’ plot, primarily to distinguish it from the Beltane story. I decided to make my protagonist an echo of Bottom, taking his first name (Nick) and his profession (Weaver) to create the headline star of the festival. Similarly, his bandmates Pete, Frankie, Rob, Tom and “Nuggie” share names and traits with Bottom’s friends Quince, Flute, Starveling, Snout and Snug. I used Shakespeare’s Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed as a starting point for own band of fairies, using plants as a focus and literally drawing out characters and costumes from their leaves. The character of Bill the security guard is meant to be the figure of Shakespeare who “protects” his creations and speaks (broadly) in the playwright’s own words – hence why no one can understand him! The better you know Dream, the more references you will find in this tale.

At the time of writing I was walking regularly along a beautiful abandoned railway line near Stratford-upon-Avon called the Greenway. I threaded elements of landscape and flora, along with some jokes about local issues, into the tale to give the piece a greater sense of place.

I wanted to add some obviously pagan elements to the story. Recalling the section in Dream where Bottom has an asses head, I wanted my fairies to pull a similarly mischievous trick. I used the tale of Herne the Hunter, associated with Alban Hefin, with the fairies attaching a stag’s head to Nick’s shoulder, an evocation of the God in the midst of chaos. I also added in a dream section for Nick, based on the story of Talesin; pursued by Ceridwen, Talesin transformed into a series of different beast. In the first draft of this tale, Nick had been the epitome of “sex, drugs and rock and roll”. Aware that I wanted to aim for a broad audience, I began to develop his love of red meat as an alternative. Having a central dream where Nick changes into different beasts seemed an effective way of achieving his transformation.

Photograph by Karin Brown at Imbolc Photography (https://brownkcd.wixsite.com/imbolc)