The V & A revisited: Tobias, Sara and the dog

I posted yesterday about my recent visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with old friends (one of whom reacted indignantly at being called ‘old’), and the image painted on glass of St Mary of Egypt.

Another that took my fancy was this one, of Tobias and Sara on their wedding night.  It was made (probably) in Germany c. 1520; is clear and coloured glass with printed details and silver stain. It’s in the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery, Room 64: The Wolfson Gallery.

This is the story on the V&A website [with additions of my own]:

The Book of Tobias recounts the story of the pious aged Tobit and how his son, Tobias, with the aid of the archangel Raphael, was able to restore his father’s health and wealth. The archangel Raphael, in disguise, leads Tobias to the lands of his kinsman Raguel. Raguel gives his daughter Sara in marriage to Tobias but warns him that Sara’s seven previous husbands had all been devoured by demons on the wedding night. (Wikipedia adds that ‘the demon of lust, Asmodeus, “the worst of demons” [which implies some of them are really quite nice] abducts and kills every man whom Sarah [spelt with an H] marries, on their wedding night before the marriage can be consummated.

With Raphael’s aid, Tobias prepares a potion, the smell of which drives the demons out. He and Sara are able then to successfully consummate their marriage.

The dog sleeping on their bed belonged to Tobias and accompanied him and Raphael on their journey. In this context he may also symbolise marital love and fidelity.

Wikipedia adds [edited]:

‘Along the way [on his journey to Media], whilst [Tobias] washes his feet in the river Tigris, a fish tries to swallow his foot. By the angel’s order, he captures it and removes its heart, liver and gall bladder.

Upon arriving in Media, Raphael tells Tobias of the beautiful Sarah, whom Tobias has the right to marry because he is her cousin and closest relative. The angel instructs the young man to burn the fish’s liver and heart to drive away the demon when he attacks on the wedding night.

The two marry, and the fumes of the burning organs drive the demon to Upper Egypt, where Raphael follows and binds him. Sarah’s father has been digging a grave to secretly bury Tobias (whom he assumed would die). Surprised to find his son-in-law alive and well, he orders a double-length wedding feast and has the grave secretly filled…After the feast, Tobias and Sarah return to Nineveh. There, Raphael tells the youth to use the fish’s gall to cure his father’s blindness. Raphael then reveals his identity and returns to heaven, and Tobit sings a hymn of praise…’

Sadly, the dog that is said to accompany Tobias and the angel on his journeys disappears from the story – though this glass panel clearly shows him curled up asleep on the newlyweds’ bed (another nice domestic touch is the slippers left beside the bed – a visual reminder, perhaps, that domestic/marital order has been restored with the banishing of the demon).

Michael Gilmour has a small piece in The Huffington Post Blog, suggesting the dog is in fact an angel, too. I find this unlikely. Look at him, snugly snoring on the duvet. Not very angelic, is he?

When my old friends and I looked at this image, we were puzzled by the matter-of-fact way Tobias agrees to marry and sleep with a woman whose previous seven bridegrooms hadn’t survived the night. OK, Raphael had given him the smelly fish potion, but that wouldn’t have put my mind at rest in Tobias’s position. It’s a charming image, nonetheless. It looks strangely familiar: I’ve seen it somewhere before, but can’t recall where. A Penguin book cover? A postcard I once had?

I recall writing in a notebook many years ago a line from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit: mercifully ordain that we may become aged together (Bk 8.8) I’ve a vague feeling it has a DH Lawrence connection, but an online search turned up nothing. I’d be grateful if anyone knows of his having used the line anywhere; maybe I’m just imagining it.

Mary of Egypt

Nothing particularly literary about this brief post. Just wanted to share my excitement at coming across this image a couple of weekends ago. I was with two of my oldest friends, who live in Chiswick, West London, and we went up to the Victoria and Albert Museum in S. Kensington. I don’t think I’ve ever been there before.

It holds a weird pot-pourri of randomly collected objects, loosely arranged into galleries that seem ostensibly to have a logical connection, but don’t.

After a while we found ourselves passing through a hall filled with stained glass images. Out of habit, I checked a few for my saint, Mary of Egypt, the one whose medieval English lives I’d researched as a postgrad so many years ago, when I was a hagiographer. What were the chances…and there she was, as I looked at a random sequence of panels.

Dating from 1670, made in Cologne, the panels depict the penitent saint kneeling before the Virgin and child. It seems to have been made to celebrate the marriage of Anna Geilsbach. Here’s what the V&A say about it on their website (though I’d be happy to update their cursory summary of her legend):

This painted oval panel was probably commissioned by Anna Geilsbach as a marriage panel. It may have been in her home originally, or donated to her local church.

In the middle of the 16th century, new techniques for producing decorated glass were introduced. Glass paints known as ‘enamels’ were used to paint directly onto the glass, similar to painting onto a canvas. To produce the colours, metallic oxides were added to a glass frit mixture. The resulting colour range included delicate blues and greens, as we see here in this panel.

The V&A is one of the strangest, most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited. It’s as if benefactors across the years and continents have said to the directors: I have all this eclectic stuff, would you like it? And they’re like, yeah, please. And they stick it all into galleries.

And it’s all free. Wonderful. Here’s another nice image from another irrelevant room: it’s St Jerome, but I neglected to make a note of who made it, or when. But it’s rather splendid – even without his usual attribute (as a hermit) of a mournful lion:

 

Asides: ex-votos, curse tablets and voces mysticae

I was given a copy of the Complete Stories of Elizabeth Taylor for Christmas, and was hoping to post about them today. I’m about 3/4 through (it’s over 600 pp) and would prefer to wait until I’ve finished, so this will be an interim post.

Defoe, Tour of BritainI’ve been reading a lot of material for a course I’m teaching about literature and sense of place. My elderly copy of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the whole island of Great Britain (1727), in its ‘Suggestions for further reading’, cites an essay on the text by Edmund Blunden in Votive Tablets (1931) – which I’ve not managed to find a copy of yet. It’s a collection of his unsigned pieces on English authors published in the TLS, where he was assistant editor in the late 40s.

I vaguely knew what ‘votive tablets’ were, but looked up the term to be sure. Wikipedia defines thus:

votive deposit or votive offering is one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes.

These ‘ex-votos’, as they’re also known, are made in the anticipation or hope of supernatural assistance, such as cure of an illness, or as an offering of thanks when such a wish has been fulfilled. In the Catholic church (and many Anglican ones) the practice of lighting votive candles serves a similar purpose. There are also votive paintings, statues, crowns and so on.

I remember seeing near Paphos in Cyprus a tree by a sacred site that was festooned with ribbons and handkerchiefs left as votive offerings. I used to live near Holywell in N. Wales, and the eponymous well was surrounded by votive offerings, often in the shape of body parts that afflicted the supplicant, or items symbolic of affliction, such as crutches. It was a mini Lourdes.

A related object is the defixio or curse tablet. These were common in the Graeco-Roman world. They were usually tin sheets on which an inscription was scratched wishing misfortune on someone. They could also be used in the hope of restoring stolen property or punishing a thief, as a means of facilitating litigation favourably, or as love spells to speed erotic ambitions. (It’s worth checking the related term ‘anathema’, if you’re interested.)

In pagan use they were addressed to infernal or liminal gods like Hecate, Charon or Pluto.

Voces Mysticae were often found on curse tablets. These were meaningless words from no known language, like Bazagra, Bescu, or Berebescu, seemingly in order to lend them a kind of supernatural efficacy. They came from no known language, and were thought to be the language that only demons could understand. Wikipedia again:

Scholars from antiquity, like Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), believed that human language was not appropriate for addressing the gods. Therefore, some of the inscriptions of these curse tablets are not easily translatable, because they were “invocations and secret names” which would only be understood by the spirits themselves. Another possibility is that curse tablets were produced by professionals who wished to lend their art a degree of mystique through the use of an apparently secret language that only they could understand.

This was thought to be a way to control the natural world.

The very early Ephesia Grammata were similar magic formulae or mantras, possibly originally inscribed on cult images of Artemis at Ephesus.

Their power was believed to reside in their sound rather than meaning. If uttered by people possessed by demons, it was believed they would be exorcised.

Spells, invocations, prayers: the magic power of language. Who says ‘words will never hurt’ like sticks and stones?

Some time ago I posted on apotropaic magic – not verbal, but visual.

Asides: marrying upwards

Some years ago I read Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Faber, 2004). His argument was that ‘small talk’ or gossip plays a similarly important role in human social groups as grooming does in those of primates: it facilitates social cohesion and mitigates conflict.

Because we came to live in larger groups – up to 150 – than apes and monkeys, grooming became an impossibly time-consuming task for that social function. For this reason social talk evolved. Far from being trivial, it therefore fulfils a vital role in human interaction; it’s what linguists call phatic talk. People who are no good at it are often seen as outcast or sociopathic.

While leafing through Dunbar’s book again recently I came across a word I’d highlighted: HYPERGAMY. Here’s the OED online definition:

Cultural Anthropol.

 A term first used by W. Coldstream, to denote the custom which forbids the marriage of a woman into a group of lower standing than her own; also transf., of any marriage with a partner of higher social standing.

It derives from the Greek elements ‘hyper-‘ (over, beyond or above) + ‘gamy’ – pertaining to marriage. In Byzantine Greek the word signified ‘a late marriage’.

In social groups it’s therefore a key concept. Novels, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries, are full of marriages of this kind; the first that I recall is one I wrote about here last summer: George Gissing’s New Grub Street. Emma Bovary is maybe another case, although she is perhaps more of an aspiring or thwarted hypergamist.

Much of the plot element in Jane Austen’s work involves the pressure on women to marry in an upwardly social sense.

A related term is ISOGAMY: marrying one’s social equal.

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode, scene 1: Settlement

William Hogarth’s celebrated sequence of six paintings made 1743-45, ‘Marriage à la Mode’, satirically represents the disastrous arranged marriage between the bankrupt Earl of Squanderfield’s son and the daughter of a wealthy but miserly city merchant. Here’s the Wikipedia account of the narrative in this first scene:

 

Construction on the Earl’s new mansion, visible through the window, has stopped and a usurer negotiates payment for further construction at the center table. The gouty Earl proudly points to a picture of his family tree, rising from William, Duke of Normandy. The son views himself in the mirror, showing where his interests in the matter lie. The distraught merchant’s daughter is consoled by the lawyer Silvertongue while polishing her wedding ring. Even the faces on the walls appear to have misgivings. Two dogs chained to each other in the corner mirror the situation of the young couple.

Not surprisingly, the marriage fails from the start. The young husband is serially adulterous and catches syphilis from his consorting with prostitutes. His wife is as disenchanted with him as he is with her, and has affairs of her own. After the Earl’s death this son, the new Earl, catches his wife in flagrante, and is fatally wounded by her lover, the lawyer. The husband dies, the lawyer is hanged for his murder, and the wife poisons herself.

That’s hypergamy for you.

Poe and Marginalia

I intended posting today about the book I recently finished, Patrick Kavanagh’s autobiographical The Green Fool, but I’ve been busy on other tasks, such as preparing classes on the Romantics and nature, doing the laundry, supervising the gasman (boiler service) and keeping tabs on delayed trains for my homecoming spouse.

Instead, so that the end of November doesn’t slip quietly into oblivion on Tredynas Days, here’s a little something that I hope will be of interest: the Marginalia of Edgar Allan Poe.

‘In the United States Gazette and Democratic Review of November 1844, volume XV, pages 484-94, Poe published the first of the seventeen installments of the Marginalia, a word that he invented for this collection of observations and brief essays…they took shape as a “farrago”… of remembered bons mots, puns, excerpts from his past reviews, and new observations on matters of literature, social events, personalities, psychology, and the arts in general. Many might be shown to contain the germ of his own creative efforts and sometimes those of his readers, such as Baudelaire and Valéry…The allure of the “form” of the Marginalia for Poe must have been the “abandonnement” as he terms it…, or the relaxed ease of the short discursive essay, so different from the neat and predetermined construction that he had always demanded for the tale and the poem.’ (from the online introduction to his 1985 edition by Burton R. Pollin).

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

The electronic text contains almost 300 ‘articles’ and many more ‘instalments’. In an old notebook of my own such ‘marginalia’ I found this item, published in the online Works of Poe in the Introduction to his own jottings; the symmetry of sentiment with which I like to make such jottings chimed pleasingly with Poe’s cheerful words:

IN getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. “Ce que je mets sur papier,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l’oublie;” — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered…

just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.

I’ve posted before on ‘obiter dicta’ and other such random notes. It’s long been my habit to make such jottings and marginalia, for reasons very like Poe’s stated above. What he whimsically calls their ‘helter-skelter-iness’ is also what appeals to me.

Do you do this? If so, what form do your marginalia or jottings take? Do you revisit them, or, as Poe suggests, do they slip quietly out of mind, never to be revisited? And do you commit the ultimate horror of annotating books in INK not pencil? (let alone glueing in slips of paper, as Poe confesses. I’m reminded of reading about a visitor’s horror at the sight of Wordsworth cutting pages of newly delivered books with a greasy butterknife at the breakfast table.)

 

 

Demonifuge

Asides

OED online sent me a while back this ‘word of the day’:

demonifuge, n.

Etymology: classical Latin daemōn demon n. + i- connective + -fuge comb. form used in nonce-words to signify ‘driving away’, from Latin fugere ‘flee (from)’ – a nice example of folk etymology paying scant heed to semantics. It means the opposite of ‘driving away’. Here’s the OED online definition:

A substance or medicine used to exorcize a demon; (also more generally) anything thought to give protection against evil spirits.

The citations that follow this definition include incense and holy water as examples.

Cf ‘demonagogue’: A medicine used to exorcize a demon (the entry adds).

Lamia

The daemon Lamia, as painted by Herbert Draper, 1909 (Wikipedia image)

Must try to slip this into conversation soon.

When I googled the word I discovered it’s also a name of a character in a lurid sequence of graphic novels, which seem in turn to be spin-offs of online ‘ultragothic’ games, set in the ‘Warhammer 40,000’ future world, in which the ‘Adepta Sororitas’ called splendidly Ephrael Stern, a sort of witchy superheroine, so far as I can tell, goes back to planet Parnis to rediscover her past, which she seems to have forgotten. She was once ‘a seraphim’, though I’d always thought that was a plural noun.

They’re a strange lot, these gamers. No stranger, I suppose, than football fanatics or people who watch dramas about the English (ie German-Greek) royal family, as in the newly released Netflix series (here in the UK) ‘The Crown’.

My wife will shoot me for this, but I hate this type of thing. Downton Abbey is in a similar category, for me: that soap-opera formula which encourages – invites –  a deferential reverence for the privileged classes among those of us from the proletariat. They’re just like us, really. Of course.

 

 

Tilling and sowing: the Très Riches Heures in October

It’s the first day of the month, and I intended writing about the last book I read: another Barbara Comyns novel – Sisters by a River. I wrote about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in a post in January. But I find I don’t have much to say about it right now. Might come back to it shortly, if I feel inspiration.

So as I did for April and May, I’m turning to the beautifully illuminated pages of the calendar in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted mostly by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s, although this page might be by a later artist who completed the work after the Limbourgs and their patron died (probably of the plague) in 1416.

A book of hours was a book of private prayers and devotions based on the church liturgical pattern. The kalendarium in medieval texts was originally a checklist of saints’ festivals for each month. Over time the tradition evolved so that illustrated versions included, by the 15C, scenes of the occupations associated with each month.

The Limbourgs painted landscapes from different scenes for most months – places owned by their noble patron, or which he’d visited, as here.

October in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

via Wikimedia Commons

In the background of the October sowing and tilling scene is the Louvre Palace, owned at that time by the Duc’s elder brother the king of France. Originally built in the 12C as a fortress, the Louvre was converted into the main royal residence late in the 16C. When Louis XIV made Versailles his main palace in 1782, the Louvre became largely a repository for the royal collection of artworks. This in turn was taken over as a public museum after the Revolution.

Its name perhaps derives from its origins as a wolf-hunting den (Latin ‘lupus’, wolf), according to Wikipedia, but this seems unlikely to me. OED cites a dance named in English from the French palace, but says the origin is obscure, and possibly derived from Latin and Icelandic terms for chimney.

Between the three towers on the palace’s outer wall are two bretèches (anglicised as ‘brattice’). These are small machicolated balconies. Machicolated? This means an opening between the projecting supports or corbels of a fortification’s wall through which missiles, boiling water or cooking oil, etc., could be dropped on to attackers beneath the walls. The word probably derives from OF ‘mâcher’, ‘crush’ + ‘col’, ‘neck’ (OED online).

On the terrace outside the palace walls can be seen people walking and chatting (presumably not peasants, and therefore they don’t have to labour in the fields). Several dogs prance and pose. At the bottom of riparian steps women appear to be doing their laundry in the water of the Seine, which flows in front of the palace. A boatman is embarking or arriving at a mooring.

It’s in the foreground that the main ‘labour of the month’ scene is depicted. A red-clad peasant whips on a horse pulling a harrow, weighted down with a rock to make the prongs dig deeper into the soil and thus bury the sown seeds. Nearer to us another lugubrious looking peasant sows seed by hand from a pouch. Behind him greedy crows and magpies gobble up what he’s sown.

The artist shows a nice eye for detail: we can see the footprints left in the freshly-turned earth by the sower.

The field behind has already been sown. It’s guarded by a scarecrow in the guise of a bowman, and a network of strings threaded with white feathers or rags.

Overhead there’s the usual solar chariot crossing the gorgeous blue of the arch of the starry heavens. There are the usual astrological and lunar cycle symbols around the outer arches.

Asides: words, spiders, etc.

It’s the day after the autumn equinox, and the weather is performing on cue – strong winds and grey skies. So here’s an eclectic post about words, mostly. Warning: spider image looming.

My subscription to OED’s ‘word of the day’ service turned up this beauty recently:

latebricole, adj.

[‘ Of an animal, esp. a spider: living concealed in a hole.’] OED online (source of all the lexical data here)

Etymology: <  French latébricole, adjective (1870 or earlier designating insects; also as noun denoting a group of spiders…<  classical Latin latebricola person who skulks in concealment <  latebra (see latebra n.)

Latebra?

[< classical Latin latebra hiding place, hidden place, recess < latēre to be hidden (see latent adj.) + -bra, feminine form corresponding to -brum, suffix forming instrumental nouns + -cola < classical Latin -cola inhabitant, < colere to inhabit (see cult n.)

A hiding place; a place of refuge or concealment. In natural history: a winter refuge, a hibernaculum, a pupal cell, etc. Now rare.

There follows this rather verbose citation for its use:

1652   J. Jones Lawyers Unmask’d 35:  The second Statute..granted a Capias to ferret out such Latitants out of such Latebras.

Now that’s just showing off your recondite vocabulary. Let’s look at some of it:

latitant, adj. (and n.)

That lies concealed or hid; lurking; latent; (of an animal) hibernating.

Citations include:

1646   Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica iii. xxi. 163   Lizards, Snails, and divers other insects latitant many moneths in the yeare. [Sir Thomas Browne was a great coiner of new words; he’s no. 71 in the league table of sources for citations in the OED, with 4155 in total, of which 776 represented the first evidence of the word. I wrote a piece about his Religio Medici and Urne-buriall a couple of years ago. He also popped up in my ‘Disiecta Membra’ post (also about words) the year before as the source for that useful term sarcophagy.]

Back to ‘latitant’:

One who is in hiding. (Cf. latitat n.)

Next from that Jones 1652 citation: capias

Latin capias ‘thou mayest take’.

Law.

A writ or process commanding the officer to take the body of the person named in it, that is, to arrest him; also called writ of capias.

The term Capias includes writs of various kinds; capias ad respondendum, to enforce attendance at court; capias ad satisfaciendum, after judgement, to imprison the defendant, until the plaintiff’s claim is satisfied; capias utlagatum, to arrest an outlawed person; capias in Withernam, to seize the cattle or goods of any one who has made an unlawful distraint

That last item, Withernam takes us to this entry in OED online:

  1. In an action of replevin, the reprisal of other goods in lieu of those taken by a first distress and eloigned; also, the writ (called capias in withernam) commanding the sheriff to take the reprisal.

Etymology: Law French (in Britton wythernam ), presumably < Old Norse viðrnám recorded only in the sense ‘resistance’ (but compare early Danish vedernam pledge)…The etymological meaning is ‘reprisal’.

  1. A process of distress (or arrest) for debt, formerly current in the Cinque Ports (and other towns).

This is like Russian dolls: each entry generates another search –

Replevin

The restoration to or recovery by a person of goods or chattels distrained or confiscated, upon giving a surety to have the matter tried in a court of justice and to return the goods if the case is lost. Now U.S. (chiefly hist.). Derived from Anglo-Norman legalese.

Back again to that show-offy Jones 1652 citation: there latebra is just a synonym for where we started: LATEBRICOLE – definition above. Citations include:

1912 N.E.D. at Theraphose, Of or pertaining to the Theraphosæ, a division of latebricole spiders, as the mygalids and trap-door spiders.

Note: mygalids include the bird-eating spider (American tarantula). Wouldn’t want one of those in the bathtub…Back to citations; I liked this one:

2009  W. Penn Love in Time of Flowers viii. 497 He was at no other place than the very one I deducted he’d be.., a lair within a hole though not as latebricole as a mole.

See the Phrontistery website, a repository of obscure words and meanings, for a list of more rarities beginning with L.

Phrontistery, btw, means ‘a thinking place’, from the Greek phrontisterion, from phrontistes, a thinker, from phroneein, to think.

California trapdoor spider

California trapdoor spider

This trapdoor spider image is a still from a 1-minute YouTube video by cinead 84; if you’re not arachnophobic it’s worth a look – a man and a woman try to coax the little critter out of his hole with endearments. Spider remains unimpressed.

 

PS this image of Sir Thomas Browne and his wife Dorothy (via Wikipedia) was painted by

Sir Thomas Browne and wifeJoan Carlile (around 1641-50). She was one of the first women to make a professional living as an artist. She and her husband, one of Charles I’s courtiers, lived at Petersham, on the edge of Richmond Park, SW of London.

Coincidentally I lodged for some months with the then vicar of Petersham when I was training to teach in Roehampton – didn’t know at the time that this illustrious painter (and husband) are buried in the churchyard beside the vicarage where I was living. Occasionally Desmond Tutu’s son Trevor, who was studying at Imperial College, London at the time, visited the vicar, a friend of his father’s. We had a beer together several times, and a rather strange party at which he cooked mussels. The vicar was away at the time.

A Google search turned up stories that suggest he’s had a troubled life since those heady student days in London in the 70s.

 

Rogue Theatre’s Wild Woodland Summer Ball

‘Take your imagination for a dance’

Wild Wood

Wild Wood poster (from the Rogue website)

We’ve taken two grandchildren, accompanied by two of their Cornish friends and their grandparents, to Rogue Theatre’s ‘summer ball’ productions every summer for some four years now. They’re held in the beautiful Tehidy Woods, part of a 250-acre estate managed as a country park by Cornwall Council, near the cliffs on the north coast above Portreath.

IMG_4678From the carpark you’re greeted at a box office (it’s a real box) by members of the company in costume who send the audience in batches along a magical trail through the woods. Along the way the trees are festooned with strange web-like hangings, decorated mirrors, framed paintings, distressed books, and all kinds of other paraphernalia, from clocks to lampshades. It’s a place where you could encounter anything.

CakesAt intervals among the trees members of the cast sing and dance, or beckon the unwary into their world. Signs with enigmatic messages hint at the twilight zone into which you’re headed.

King of the Wild Wood

King of the Wild Wood

The path ends in a bosky grotto where you’re greeted by the wild, bearded, dreadlocked figure of the King of the Woods, whose long cloak, kohl-ringed eyes and curly horns lend him an other-worldly but regal, piratical air. He’s part ogre, part woodland spirit, but the twinkle in his eye, and his kind repartee with the transfixed children in our group, belie the scary aspect.

Every entrant into his grotto is challenged: Do you believe in the power of story? Do you want to pass through the door into his woodland kingdom? We each have our own story and are part of many more.

The basic premise is that we were leaving behind the everyday world Pathof mundane reality, and entering the Wild Wood. The company’s website sums it up like this:

Hundreds of eager feet, from this world and the other, animal, human and faerie (and half way between), patter along the path in time with the beat of the wings of butterflies and birds.

Even the breeze dances, as it makes its way through trees, carrying stories and shimmering magic to the heart of the woods.

This is musical theatre in a similar mode to that of the Kneehigh company, about whose recent production about the love-life of the artist Chagall I wrote here recently. Rogue have their own special brand of high-energy, open-air entertainment. It’s based on music, dance and acrobatics rather than dialogue – though the story-telling also makes powerful use of prose and verse. The co-founder’s training with Commedia dell’Arte and in the circus is apparent in the company’s visual, physical approach to story-telling that doesn’t just engage the audience: it challenges and enthralls them.

This year there were four separate fairytale-type stories of enchantment. Like all such tales, they’re a challenging blend of magic and carnival and the biggest human issues: love and loss, separation and reconciliation, transformation, and life’s rites of passage, ending in the most comprehensive: death. Our eight-year-old granddaughter was spellbound throughout. Her brother, our ten-year-old grandson, sustained a cool veneer, but he secretly loved it.

Moon

Moon

As always the King of the Wild Wood greeted us and introduced his co-narrator, the Moon, who was winched high into the trees on a silver trapeze-seat, from where she beamed smilingly down on the proceedings, and joined in with the tale-telling from time to time. The company began each section of the show with their now-familiar dance, and maddeningly catchy ‘Moon Song’ – a homage to her powers.

There was one tale about a pop-up curiosity shop, whose proprietor displayed a mysterious lack of zeal for selling any of her bizarre stock of pickled pets and alarming oddments. An even more enigmatic customer intrigues her.

Faeries

Can you spot the bearded fairy?

CatsThe stand-out item for me was the story involving a brilliant chorus of cool rapping cats. Second best was the troupe of white-clad, bewinged faeries, all glamorous, elegant girls, except for one with a bald pate and full gingery beard…He was having a whale of a time.

We all were.

There was face-painting and wand-making with the cast in the interval. I spotted several unashamed adults among the eager youngsters waiting their turn for the glitter and paint.

The small company has an astonishing capacity to play multiple roles, and all are multi-talented dancers, singers and actors. Minimal costume changes convincingly transform each player, and at times it’s hard to recall what part they played in the previous tale, so completely do they inhabit each character.

The musicians are equally talented and versatile. The music ranges from contemporary pop genres (I’ve mentioned the rapping felines) to folk and traditional, with occasional rocking anthems for which the Woodland King sits at the drum kit and beats seven bells out of it.

Wild WoodThis year the rain didn’t dampen the spirits of the cast or audience. We were seated on hay-bales under a protective awning; the actors, real troupers, performed fully exposed to the downpour. Their infectious energy and commitment were a credit to them, and we all had a great time.

It was with some reluctance that we retraced our steps through the woodland that was transformed into something magical by this brilliant Cornish-based company’s imagination. They tap into and release the inner child in all of us.

 

 

Cornish ramblings: Tremenheere, St Michael’s Mount and Way

Our Cornish ramblings continue, but work resumed this week, so they’ll probably subside now. We went on Monday to Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, near Penzance.

The name derives from the Cornish tre-menhir, ‘standing (or long-)-stone farm (or place)’.  Another site near St Keverne on the Lizard peninsula on Cornwall’s south coast has an actual surviving menhir; I can find no record of such a stone at the site of the current gardens – though there are many of them across the moors of Penwith in west Cornwall.

Before 1290 the lands were owned by the monks of St Michael’s Mount, in the bay below. My guess is that the Tremenheere family, who owned the estate where the gardens now stand, originated from the Lizard area and moved north, and bought the land from the monks. In the 15C it was the monastery’s vineyard.

Tremenheere

Tremenheere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tremenheere

Tremenheere

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minotaur

Minotaur by Tim Shaw

Black Mound

Black Mound by David Nash

The beautiful 20-acre site is planted with a wide range of mature trees, shrubs and flowers, with a network of winding paths connecting the sculptures by some noted figures, intended to blend with or comment on the landscape they stand in. The views at various points across the bay to the Mount are amazing – possibly the finest in Cornwall. For more on the origin and purpose of the gardens, see the website, which states that it’s intended as an ‘arcadian space blending the elements of landscape, planting and art to create a place for contemplation and wonder.’

 

Restless Temple

Restless Temple by Penny Saunders

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope my pictures convey something of this quality. Information on the sculptures is also to be found at the garden website.

St Michael's Way exhibition

Flyer for the exhibition

Forthcoming events:

Exhibition ‘On St Michael’s Way’

St Michael’s Way is a 12.5-mile trail starting at the church of St Uny in Lelant, nr St Ives, passing through the gardens and ending at St Michael’s Mount, Marazion, next to Penzance. Because of its historical significance as part of the network of pilgrim routes that lead to the cathedral shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, this is the only footpath in Britain designated part of the European Cultural Route.

More information on the official website.

It’s of very ancient, pre-Christian origins, but in the 5C became the preferred route for missionaries and pilgrims arriving by boat on the N. coast of Cornwall from Ireland (I wrote about St Piran, Cornwall’s unofficial patron saint, recently HERE) or Wales and heading for the holy site of the Mount.

A few decades ago the route was reinstated with the aid of Bredereth Sen Jago, the Cornish Pilgrims of St James, and other bodies.

Archangel Michael is popularly known as the ‘saint of high places’, hence the dedication of Christian sites on mounts and hilltops (like Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy). Miracles were said to have taken place at St Michael’s Mount in the middle ages, reinforcing its reputation as a spiritually significant location, standing as it does at the intersection of various ancient ley lines.

According to a 5C legend St Michael appeared to fishermen (he’s their patron saint) at this Cornish site, warning them of danger. Local Celtic legends state that the mount itself was constructed by the giant Cormoran, who tyrannised and pillaged the locality, and was killed by a local Marazion lad named Jack – source of the Jack the Giant Killer fairytale.

This giant’s cousin was called Trencrom. In local legends they are said to have hurled rocks at each other across huge distances, thus accounting for the many outcrops and boulders across west Cornwall. Trencrom Hill, above the Hayle estuary, is the site of a Neolithic hill fort, and has many such boulders.

St Michael’s Mount (Karrek Loos yn Koos in Cornish, meaning ‘grey rock in woodland’) is connected to the mainland by a man-made causeway of granite setts, making the island accessible on foot at low tide. In prehistoric times it may have operated as a tin-exporting port. More useful information at its official website.

It was probably the site of a monastery from the 8C, and a popular pilgrim site in the medieval period. The original 12C monastic church buildings were rebuilt in the 14C.

In 1659 it came into the possession of the St Aubyn family, who still own it in joint patronage with the National Trust, through whom most of the site is open to the public. The author Edward St Aubyn is a cousin of Lord St Levan, descendant of the Mount’s St Aubyns.

The chapel of St Michael is a 15C construction on the mount, while the castle houses a fascinating array of historical artefacts.

 

 

Skyspace

Tewlwolow Kernow by James Turrell

Another forthcoming event at Tremenheere Gardens, 9 September: special Skyspace evening (Tewlwolow Kernow) – James Turrell’s ‘Skyspace’ installation, with its extraordinary egg-like interior, has an elliptical space in the roof which forms a natural frame for some gorgeous skyscapes. Subtle lighting will enhance these unpredictable natural ‘pictures’ as dusk falls.

Camborne

By way of contrast, here’s an engine house seen on the edge of Camborne on our way home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS: Local place names and church dedications reflect the activity of Irish and Welsh missionary saints in Cornwall from the 5C. Uny (or Euny) of Lelant, and Herygh or Erc (patron of St Erth village), were Irish brothers of St Ia (Cornish for ‘St Ives’ is Porth Ia) who all landed in the Hayle estuary. I posted recently about St Piran, whose legend relates how he floated miraculously across the sea from Ireland on a millstone (intended to drown him by irate local pagan kings); Ia is said to have crossed on an equally unconventional vessel: a leaf (or, in some versions, a millstone – probably indluenced by Piran’s legend – a typical hagiographical cross-fertilization).

PPS There’s a great spot at Marazion marshes, opposite the Mount, to see a huge range of birds (including the rare Cetti’s warbler), mammals and other fauna and flora: it’s a RSPB site – more HERE on their website.