Fragments of Annwn – Depths

Fellow blogger, poet, author, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, Lorna Smithers presents through the following fragments her own personal vision of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld housing the dead and the fairies. Haunting, mysterious and melancholic, these fragments of fiction and poetry excel at transporting the reader to a parallel dimension full of strange charm and sublime truths.

From Peneverdant

No-One Knows

the extent of the marshland of Annwn. Some cross it in a day. For others it goes on forever like the mist that obscures the musical birds, the shriekers of the mournful shrieks, the droners of the ancient drone, the players of the carnyxes that gurgle beneath the waters. You never know what is splashing behind on countless feet until it is too late. Sometimes you get lost following the will-o-wisps like lost hopes to where all hope fails. Sometimes you make sacrifices or become the sacrifice see your bog body your ghost flying free like a lonely bird. You become an inspirer or a guide only to bring doom to the unwary. When you think you know the way you slip. When you think you have found the awen you find it escapes words, that the sigh of its name is already escaping your lungs, that breath…

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Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

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Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath

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“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

Thomas Dylan: And Death Shall Have no Dominion

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And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Book Review: Sir Orfeo

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Sir Orfeo is an anonymous middle English narrative poem that retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The earliest Middle English version is found among other tales in the Auchinleck manuscript, which dates from about 1330-1340, Geoffrey Chaucer its possible owner. Sir Orfeo appears to have been written  during the second half of the 13th century, and its chief version consists of 602 short lines of rhyming couplets.

In the poem, the reader is exposed to the romance of King Orfeo, a harp player without equal and his fair wife, Heurodis. At the beginning of May, King Orfeo’s wife falls into a deep sleep under an imp, or grafted, tree and dreams she is abducted by the fairy King, shown his fantastic kingdom, and told that, come tomorrow, she will be kept there forever. To thwart the realization of the dream, Orfeo has hundreds of knights guard Heurodis, but they prove ineffective as the fairy King uses enchantment to take her away effortlessly.

Distraught, Orfeo abandons his kingdom to the charge of his steward and takes to the woods barefoot, his only possessions his cloak and harp. Living off nuts, roots, and bark for more than ten years, Orfeo wanders aimlessly. His only respite from grief comes from playing his harp, which soothes him and enchants all the woodland creatures.  One day, he chances upon his wife among a group of ladies from the fairy kingdom. Although Orfeo’s appearance shows the effect of a decade in the wilderness, and his hair is rough and hangs to his waist, Heurodis recognizes him instantly. Overcome with emotion, neither can speak to the other.

Orfeo follows her through a rock and below ground to the fairy kingdom. He gains permission from the porter to enter the castle and, although the fairy King reproaches him for entering his domain without invitation, he listens to Orfeo as he plays his harp. Impressed by his skills, he offers Orfeo whatever his heart desires. Orfeo demands Heurodis and, although the fairy King hesitates to give her to him because the couple seem so mismatched, he honors his word and relinquishes her. Orfeo returns to his kingdom but does not reveal his identity until he tests his steward’s loyalty. The steward passes the test, Orfeo makes his true identity known, and Orfeo and Heurodis are newly crowned. They live and rule in peace until their deaths, upon which, the steward becomes king.

The story contains a mixture of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with Celtic mythology. However, there are many notable differences between the two tales. In Sir Orfeo the main resolution occurs in Fairyland instead of Hades, and the ending is a happy one. But what truly sets Sir Orfeo apart is the fact that the poem is characterized by the complete abandonment of the ancient Greek spirit and worldview that coloured the original myth. Instead, it is steeped in the Celtic spirit and all its sublime beauty.

The Celtic imagined reality is haunted by the idea of the dreamy Otherworld, a parallel dimension where the fairies and the dead reside. In the poem, proof of that is the presence of the fairies who spirit Heroudis away. The fairy land is conceived as a parallel dimension to the everyday world rather than the Land of the Dead as in the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In contrast to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, the underworld is not a world of the dead, but rather a world of people who have been taken away when on the point of death. In “The Faery World of Sir Orfeo“, Bruce Mitchell views the passage as an interpolation. On the other hand, in the article “The Dead and the Taken” D. Allen points out that the theme of another world of people who are taken at the point of death (while not dead yet) is a well-established element in folklore, and therefore shows the complete folklorisation of the Orpheus story.

Ruth Evans considers the lay of Sir Orfeo not merely a medieval retelling of Orpheus, but  a work heavily influenced by the politics of the time; Orfeo has been criticized as a rex inutilis. The medieval literary motif  of the useless king links Orfeo with several late thirteenth and early fourteenth-century sovereigns, including Edward II. Moreover,  in his role as a harpist, as a type of David, Orfeo becomes the royal figure upon whom many medieval kings modeled themselves.

As an outcast from society, Orfeo presents the figure of the king as an isolated man. He leaves his kingdom in the hands of his steward, upsetting the order of things. Orfeo himself is upset when his wife his taken, and Evans claims in her essay that the poem’s narrative syntax, by doubling social order with the classic romance structure of exile, risk and then reintegration suggests an emotional link to the loss and recovery of a wife with the loss and recovery of a kingdom. Therefore, the figure of the queen stands for political stability and prosperity of the kingdom and the land itself. 

In her essay Sparagmos: Orpheus Among the Christians, Patricia Vicari rejects the idea of the christianization of the myth. In Sir Orfeo the hero is very Celticized, and the fate of Queen Heurodis is similar to the fates of other Celtic heroines. Sir Orfeo remains faithful to a rather pantheistic view, where the fairy king of Celtic literature rules over the Otherworld as a force of nature, neither good nor bad – as opposed to J. Friedman, who argues that Christian undertones relate Heurodis to Eve taken away by Satan in the form of a fairy king. This Christian reading doesn’t hold much merit. The Otherworld is presented as both alluring and menacing and the fairy King is not cast in the role of the villain. What’s more Heurodis is not being punished for any kind of sin or transgression, nor is she necessarily the victim of a targeted attack, but was merely a hapless victim in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But beneath all the symbolism and ambiguity, Sir Orfeo reads as a tale of loyalty and devotion. An exemplary fruit of the Celtic worldview, the poem involves spells and enchantment, a King who loses everything only to regain it after years of suffering, fidelity to spouse and to lord, love, and the all-powerful, magical properties of music.

And so beguiling is the atmosphere that permeates the whole poem, that so many centuries after its composition it still has the ability to mesmerize the reader and invite many more interpretations, as is the case with all fine artistic creations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The King of Thule

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The King of Thule, painting by Pierre Jean Van der Ouderaa

There was a king in Thule,
Was faithful till the grave,
To whom his mistress, dying,
A golden goblet gave.

Nought was to him more precious;
He drained it at every bout;
His eyes with tears ran over,
As oft as he drank thereout.

When came his time of dying,
The towns in his land he told,
Nought else to his heir denying
Except the goblet of gold.

He sat at the royal banquet
With his knights of high degree,
In the lofty hall of his fathers
In the castle by the sea.

There stood the old carouser,
And drank the last life-glow;
And hurled the hallowed goblet
Into the tide below.

He saw it plunging and filling,
And sinking deep in the sea:
Then fell his eyelids for ever,
And never more drank he!

Edgar Allan Poe: A Dream Within A Dream

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Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow–
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand–
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep–while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Conrad Potter Aiken: Red is the Colour of Blood

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Red is the color of blood, and I will seek it:
I have sought it in the grass.
It is the color of steep sun seen through eyelids.

It is hidden under the suave flesh of women—
Flows there, quietly flows.
It mounts from the heart to the temples, the singing mouth—
As cold sap climbs to the rose.
I am confused in webs and knots of scarlet
Spun from the darkness;
Or shuttled from the mouths of thirsty spiders.

Madness for red! I devour the leaves of autumn.
I tire of the green of the world.
I am myself a mouth for blood…

Here, in the golden haze of the late slant sun,
Let us walk, with the light in our eyes,
To a single bench from the outset predetermined.
Look: there are seagulls in these city skies,
Kindled against the blue.
But I do not think of the seagulls, I think of you.

Your eyes, with the late sun in them,
Are like blue pools dazzled with yellow petals.
This pale green suits them well.

Here is your finger, with an emerald on it:
The one I gave you. I say these things politely—
But what I think beneath them, who can tell?

For I think of you, crumpled against a whiteness;
Flayed and torn, with a dulled face.
I think of you, writing, a thing of scarlet,
And myself, rising red from that embrace.

November sun is sunlight poured through honey:
Old things, in such a light, grow subtle and fine.
Bare oaks are like still fire.
Talk to me: now we drink the evening’s wine.
Look, how our shadows creep along the grave!—
And this way, how the gravel begins to shine!

This is the time of day for recollections,
For sentimental regrets, oblique allusions,
Rose-leaves, shrivelled in a musty jar.
Scatter them to the wind! There are tempests coming.
It is dark, with a windy star.

If human mouths were really roses, my dear,—
(Why must we link things so?—)
I would tear yours petal by petal with slow murder.
I would pluck the stamens, the pistils,
The gold and the green,—
Spreading the subtle sweetness that was your breath
On a cold wave of death….

Now let us walk back, slowly, as we came.
We will light the room with candles; they may shine
Like rows of yellow eyes.
Your hair is like spun fire, by candle-flame.
You smile at me—say nothing. You are wise.

For I think of you, flung down brutal darkness;
Crushed and red, with pale face.
I think of you, with your hair disordered and dripping.
And myself, rising red from that embrace.

William Butler Yeats: The Second Coming

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Nebuchadnezzar, William Blake
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?