A Month of Ireland: Long Ago, But Still Speaking

In this last post about lovely Irish things, I’d like to look at things from the past that still matter so much to those who see them now.

The exciting thing about Irish literature and history is that we are not only still discovering things today, but we are also rediscovering some of the gems of Irish history.  What has been discovered?  Not many weeks ago, there was an article posted about the restoration of a beautiful Celtic cross from the island of Iona.

st oran's crossIona is part of Scotland, but was the home of many Irish monks seeking holy refuge from the world.  St. Oran’s cross is a massive, stunning piece of stonework engraved all over with beautiful Celtic designs reminiscent of the glorious book that was also supposedly created on that island not long after: The Book of Kells.

The cross is over fourteen feet high and weighs a literal ton, a massive project to begin with and just as massive to restore.  The restoration was timed to be completed for the 1,450 year anniversary of Saint Colomba’s arrival on Iona.  Go ahead and just ponder that number for a moment.  Yes, that many years.  And yet, that cross is still here and there are still people willing to spend exhaustive hours lovingly restoring it to its former glory.

The magic of such artefacts is in their ability to travel across centuries and profoundly impact people a millenium and a half later.  They are part of history and part of the present, stories without words.

On the other hand, some of these pieces of old magic are filled with words.  Not long after St Oran’s cross was constructed, a book was composed.  Containing the four Gospels, The Book of Kells has been honored for centuries, treasured and preserved.  And now to the intense delight of many who are unable to turn the actual pages, the entire book has been scanned and uploaded.

The Book of Kells, like the cross of St Oran, has abided centuries of change and development.  Because of the willingness of generations of scholars, archaeologists, historians, and enthusiasts to put the time and effort into guarding it, and then into updating its availability for a new generation, The Book of Kells belongs to anyone who cares to read it, as the Gospels were always meant to.

I am not a historian, but I am a lover of stories, and the stories tucked away into the corners of history are the ones I find most interesting.  It is all the better when those stories are tangible, visible, and knowable, revealed in a beautiful medium that allows them to speak for themselves.

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A Month of Ireland: The Faeriescape

It’s March, St Patrick’s month, so why not do a few posts on Ireland to celebrate?  I personally have a heavy dose of Northern Irish on my mother’s side (as I discovered when I found her maiden name on nearly every tombstone of a church in Portadown).

And of course, there’s the fact that I am very, very fond of early Irish literature. So was the poet William Butler Yeats, who, aside from poetry, wrote a book called Celtic Twilight, which explores the existence of faeries (Yeats was a believer) and their connection to Ireland.  Yeats’s fascination with Irish magic came through into his poetry as well. I’ve always enjoyed one in particular, haunting and mysterious, about a child being lured away by the faeries.  When I was in Ireland, I was amazed at the enchanted landscapes that we passed through.  It was much easier to see why Yeats was so convinced that faeries lived in the forests.

So, to start the month of Ireland off right, a poem about faeries and some lovely pictures.

(And for a real treat, listen to Loreena McKennit’s version of this poem set to music!)

misty mountains ireland

“The Stolen Child”

WHERE dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

pond portadown ireland

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

tree tunnel northern ireland

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

mountain of mist northern ireland

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

~ William Butler Yeats

Forests A Little More Enchanted

I explored light last week, one form of which was the light that filters through trees in the woods. I love woods.  I like the illusion (just the illusion, mind you) of getting lost in the woods.

A forest is a perfect setting for a scene or even a whole book.  A tree is a place or a creature or a character.  How many times does a scene begin with a character lost, running, creeping, hiding, exploring in the woods?  And now, as the trees begin to change color with the new season, I’m sure we’re all noticing them a little more.

What do the woods mean to a story?  I’ll let others explain for me (I’m lazy like that).

“[Treebeard] led the way in under the huge branches of the trees. Old beyond guessing, they seemed. Great trailing beards of lichen hung from them, blowing and swaying in the breeze. Out of the shadows, the hobbits peeped, gazing back down the slope: little furtive figures that in the dim light looked like elf-children in the deeps of time peering out of the Wild Wood in wonder at their first Dawn.” ~ Tolkien, Two Towers

‘When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf, 
      and sap is in the bough; 
When light is on the wild-wood stream, 
      and wind is on the brow; 

When stride is long, and breath is deep, 
      and keen on the mountain-air, 
Come back to me! come back to me, 
      and say my land is fair!’

~ Song to the Lost Entwives

“Awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Magician’s Nephew

“She stepped out from among their shifting confusion of lovely lights and shadows. A circle of grass, smooth as a lawn, met her eyes, with dark trees dancing all around it. And then –Oh Joy! For he was there: the huge Lion, shining white in the moonlight, with his huge black shadow underneath him.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

“The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders of the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in the motionless rivers of light.”  ~ George MacDonald, Phantastes

The trees grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky. All the light was green light that came through the leaves: but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. ~ C.S. Lewis, Magician’s Nephew

“Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a piece of the Forest that was left out by mistake.” ~ A A Milne 

“She looked at a silver birch: it would have a soft, showery voice and would look like a slender girl, with hair blown all about her face and fond of dancing. She looked at the oak: he would be a wizened, but hearty, old man with a frizzled beard and warts on his fact and hands, with hair growing out of the warts. She looked at the beech under which she was standing. Ah! –she would be the best of all. She would be a gracious goddess, smooth and stately, the Lady of the Wood.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” ~ Milne, Winnie the Pooh

“Great stems rose about me, uplifting a thick multitudinous roof above me of branches, and twigs, and leaves– the bird and insect world uplifted over mine, with its own landscapes, its own thickets, and paths, and glades, and dwellings; its own bird-ways and insect-delights. Great boughs crossed my path; great roots based the tree-columns, and mightily clasped the earth, strong to lift and strong to uphold. It seemed an old, old forest, perfect in forest ways and pleasure.” ~ MacDonald Phantastes

“[The fairy tale] stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” —C. S. Lewis, in Of Other Worlds”

I know I’ve read so many more quotes about forests and trees and woods, but now that I’m trying to come up with them, they elude me.  Perhaps you have one that you are attached to and would like to share?

For now, I will leave you with one last quote about a magical forest… of a slightly different mien:

“Be grateful you’re not in the forest in France
Where the average young person just hasn’t a chance

To escape from the perilous pants eating plants
But your pants are safe, you’re a fortunate guy
You ought to be shouting how lucky am I” ~ Dr. Seuss

Many Wondrous Kinds of Light

We looked through doorways, we ambled along beautiful, mysterious paths.  Now, I’d like to talk about atmosphere.  What makes any place feel more magical is just the right quality of light.

I think I brought up sunrise and sunset in my post on doorways – the time between times.  Photographers love it because the quality of light is both soft and rich, quiet and striking.  

Different kinds of light take you different places.  Those warm, perfect sunsets (I’ll be honest, I can’t really tell you much about sunrises as I am rarely awake enough of in the early mornings to appreciate them) are breathtaking.  It’s hard to look away from the sky when the sun, normally too bright to see, is swathed in a hundred layers of brilliant color as it falls into seas or mountains.  Half the world goes dark as shadows creep up from underneath, but the top layer holds onto that glorious golden color until the last lights fade.

But the time between times isn’t the only beautiful kind of light.  A noonday sun that casts rays directly down can burn and blind, but on a good day, when the light is filtered through the right amount of cloud, the world is bright and dim at once.  The sky has texture.

Or takes on a new color entirely.

And then there is the bright light that we find coming through a layer of multi-colored greens in a forest.  This is one of my favorites.  Gaps in the wood allow arrows of brightness to find the forest floor.  Thin, pale green leaves are like stained glass aglow as the sun hits them from above.  The forest floor is dappled, like the stones of a cathedral across from a green-themed window.

The thing about the sun is, we don’t love it for itself, exactly, but for what its light and warmth do to our world, especially after long, gray days of sunlessness.  I think of Puddleglum under the earth as the witch tries to drive all memory and belief of the Overworld and its sun from their minds.  But Puddleglum, one of the saddest but truest of all heroes, says,

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” (Silver Chair, CS Lewis)

Days without the sun certainly drove me to doubt whether I’d ever see it again, but when the light finally did touch grass and tree and stone, it was as though the whole world had been born again.

We are such light-loving creatures that we seek it long into the night.  The soft, silent kind of light that we find in the moon provides an eery imitation of the sun.

Whenever I think about moonlight, I always hear the sound of Loreena McKennitt singing “The Highwayman” where “the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” and “the road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moors.”  That is what I feel when I see a moon like the one I saw behind St Giles in this photo.

Firelight, starlight, moonlight – we are certainly drawn to light after the sun disappears.

When the natural world is too dark, we capture our own light – torches and candles, silmarils and lamp posts, we bring small flames with us into the darkness and make our own suns and stars.

I always notice the lamp posts that I pass in a street or a park.  They seem so lonely, secretive, and (of course) a little magical as well.  We know whose fault that is.

Photography is light-writing, and how light touches and transforms the world is an endless study.  Take a moment to notice how light touches, colors, and translates what you see into something better than it otherwise might be.

The Never-Ending Road: Hidden Paths that Run

Last week I wandered through doorways and thought about the neither-here-nor-there magic of doors.  But going through the door is only the first step.  Then comes the actual journey.  I love finding secret paths.  I love walking on a road and realizing that I’m all alone – the road is mine, for the moment.  I love seeing a bend in the road ahead and pretending that something exciting will happen as soon as I turn the corner.  This is nothing new, of course, to the imaginative soul, but I think we could all benefit from appreciating a good, winding road every now and again.

Looking through my photographs over the past year or so, I realized how many pictures I have of roads, leading somewhere or nowhere in particular, that stretch out in front of me.  

I cannot be more profound than Tolkien, of course, when it comes to the winding road, so may his words and my pictures take you on a sitting-down journey and perhaps inspire you to go out and enjoy the walking kind.

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Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;

.

.

Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains of the moon.

.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.

Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,

.

Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!

Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run…

West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

*For another song about journeys, listen to Loreena McKennitt’s restful, yet searching piece “Never-Ending Road.”*