Monthly Archives: June 2014

Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy


If I say “Wizard” what is the picture that comes to mind? A thin man with grey hair and beard hanging down over his long robes whose eyes twinkle with kindly mischief and deep wisdom while he gently leans on his simple staff? How about sorcerer? Although the beard and robe probably remain I expect the image you have is of a much darker, less benevolent man. I’m also fairly sure that the word “witch” will conjure visions of an ugly crone in a pointy hat whose intentions are largely evil. A wizard who practices his art to cause harm is denoted with the adjective “dark”, otherwise it is generally assumed he is a good guy. Witches on the other hand have to have “white” added before one can be sure they are on the side of good and although “wicked” is often employed for the baddies it tends to be just for emphasis.

The popularity of tales such as Hansel and Gretel is probably part of the problem. A greater familiarity with a broader range of folk tale shows that witches are just as likely as wizards to use their power for the benefit of the ordinary people, and where there is a wicked witch there is usually a wise woman who knows enough about magic to counteract their spells, which surely makes them a witch too, doesn’t it?

Now this is interesting because the term “Wizard” was originally “wise-art” and could refer to any gender. It was applied to those who had a knack for predicting events, or seeing in to the future and only later came to include workers of magic and enchantment. “Witch”, also originally an androgynous term, started its journey in the verb “wiccian”, meaning to use spells, and apparently travelled the other way, incorporating foresight, until the two words achieved parallel meaning in the late fifteen hundreds when Reginald Scot wrote that “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

So what went wrong? Whilst it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the medieval church and its witch hunts of the sixteen hundreds, our Saxon and Viking ancestors both held a belief in the value of physical skills in swordplay and sheer brute strength. This gave them a deeply ingrained distrust of magic users who were seen as somehow cheating, it might be acceptable to slip on a shirt one had enchanted to deflect spears but a true warrior wouldn’t be seen taking a sorcerer into battle with them; rather like the nineties attitude that “nerds” were fine when people wanted their computer fixed but generally considered a bit too weird to invite down the pub after work. The religious persecutions of the middle ages, although a hideous abuse of power to eliminate the competition, were also merely an inverted popularity contest playing on the deeply rooted prejudices of the populace.

How wizards survived the propaganda is, I believe, down to a story: the myth of a strong, skilled, honourable king who gathered a band of knights, each with great prowess of arms, and fought for fairness. Through many re-writes the story was progressively christianised which helped it keep its popularity over several centuries and avoid censure from the church. It is a story which would not work without a key character, king Arthur’s friend and adviser, the wizard Merlin, who set the template for all the great wizards who have come since.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

 

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Roots


I remember coming to Devon on holiday as a child. The journey took all day. I remember once, winding slowly up Porlock hill, passing overheated cars in every lay-by and some in between while my father worried that we might join them. I remember being amazed by the steep banks and narrow lanes and the vast openness of the fence-less moor. Even though I grew up in Hampshire’s countryside, Devon was like a magical other world. Now even a cheap car can handle the steepest hill without fear and the same journey is over in an afternoon with time for a cream tea.


As you read this I have just returned from a tour that took me across the country for 16 public gigs, three private parties, three days of schools workshops and a wedding as I made my way to Cambridgeshire, London and Kent, back to Devon for one day and a gig at the London Inn and off again to end the tour in Norfolk (so much for logistics!). All facilitated by a car and uncountable acres of tarmac.


We live in a very different world to the one I grew up in and an even more different world than the one in which the stories I tell are set. Only a tiny percentage of the characters from my repertoire would recognise a steam train and none would know what a car is. They lived in a world where rising at dawn to milk the cows was the norm, where they and almost everyone they knew worked on the land to the tune of the turning seasons. How many of us now experienced life without mechanisation, electricity, central heating or water coming into our homes at the turn of a tap?

The world of folk and fairy tale, always in some hazy undefined long ago, is moving further from us. Where once Jack could leave the familiar farm to go on his amazing adventures, now the farm itself is a place to be imagined, the plough a baffling wonder, the goat a mythical creature. Well, maybe not for the denizens of Morchard Bishop but there are an ever increasing number of people whose daily journey from double glazed house to air conditioned office only includes six paces of outdoors between front door and car door. On TV we often see stories of adoptees seeking out their original parents and people of all stripes going in search of their cultural roots. Our past is an important part of who we are, without it we feel disconnected, unsure. As more and more people live in cities and never see a cow, as a society we are becoming disconnected with our past, with the seasons and with the land.

Through successive waves of invasion and cultural change, from the Romans to the Normans and the rise of Christianity, the old gods of the land have been preserved in tales of ever diminishing fairies. As they diminish another step under the ongoing estrangement of the industrial and technological revolutions the stories also gain a new importance, keeping the world of our grandparents alive in our memories, keeping us connected to our recent agrarian past and through that to our bronze age roots in the landscape and the soil.

Devon is no longer an otherworld to me since I moved here six years ago, still something of the magic remains. I am glad of the improved automotive transport of the modern age and the wonders of the microchip but I feel very strongly the need to speak the corpus of our past, to tell the tales that are slipping away from us, to keep connected. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our stories are who we are. Come and get them.

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