In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at some of the key influences in the creation of the novel.
No author writes in a vacuum. Every book, film, work of art and piece of music we experience influences our creativity. In this post I want to explore some of the works, from various mediums, that have influenced the writing of This Sacred Isle - and quite an eclectic bunch it is too!
The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
My first glimpse, my first awareness, of Tolkien's work was watching Ralph Bakshi's ill-fated animated version of The Lord of the Rings. Although flawed, Bakshi's film opened a new imaginative world to me - and when I finally read the books it was with an intensity I've rarely read since. The scale and depth of The Lord of the Rings was overwhelming: the myriad characters, races, lands and mythology. There was endless detail to consider, to get lost in, and without question, this was the work that first planted the idea within me that I wanted to write.
The way the story was rooted in the landscape has influenced me endlessly, and echoed throughout my writing of This Sacred Isle (though I would never claim to have anywhere near matched Tolkien's level of skill and achievement). Despite the fantasy elements (monsters, wizards and magic), Middle-Earth feels real, as do the physical ordeals of the characters - Frodo and Sam for example suffer exhaustion, hunger and thirst, they do not travel through an idealised fantasy realm. The harsh rules of nature still apply in Middle-Earth, and these serve to underpin and heighten the more fantastical parts of the story.
Although I re-read The Lord of the Rings several times during childhood and early adulthood, I haven't read it again for fifteen years, perhaps more. Does it still have a hold on me? Yes, without question, it is a key creative touchstone in my life. I do not consider it a perfect book, nor should Tolkien be read to the exclusion of the wider pantheon of literature. But it irritates me that Tolkien is often considered reactionary and cosy - his life experiences, for example being orphaned, serving in the trenches during WW1, do not sound cosy to me and his suffering is echoed within the story.
I'd argue The Lord of the Rings, taken on its own merits, is a bold work of literature and those who ignore or decry it do so at their own loss.
Robin of Sherwood (TV series)
This show, first broadcast on UK television between 1984 - 86, dug itself deep into my childhood (and later adult!) imagination. A bold reimagining of the Robin Hood legend, it was unlike anything I had seen before and left a lasting impression. Having seen it again more recently on DVD, I found it no less powerful. Yes, there are some clunky moments and some frankly alarming 80s hairstyles but what captured me was the powerful mix of mythical elements (e.g. Herne the Hunter, the Swords of Wayland) with a gritty medieval world, a world with truly 'dirt under the fingernails.' This was definitely the balance I tried to achieve with This Sacred Isle. There is magic and heroism aplenty with Robin of Sherwood, but there is also poverty, suffering and injustice.
And I contend that the series reflects the time in which it was created: could not the sneering, venal, cruel Sheriff of Nottingham (played with glorious relish by Nickolas Grace) and the snobbish, cunning Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie) be drawn from the ranks of the 80s Conservative elite? In the same way, I believe elements of the real world influenced me, unconsciously or otherwise, when writing This Sacred Isle, and my own concerns around the dangers of nationalism and xenophobia, and of the warped misuse of history by demagogues, shaped the themes of the novel. It is not my intention as an author to force my political opinions on anyone, but This Sacred Isle appeared in a world buffeted by war in the Middle East, Brexit, the refugee crisis and a brutally divisive US election campaign, and I think it's inevitable that (in its own small way) my book will echo aspects of these anxieties, just as Robin of Sherwood did in its own time.
Robin of Sherwood still has a loyal following and once experienced, this daring series will leave a mark - nothing's forgotten, nothing's ever forgotten...
Pan's Labyrinth (Film)
From the moment I first saw Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece, it has influenced my writing. Set in post civil-war Spain, it is a fairy tale, brutally told. The fantastical elements never detract from the real world setting, in fact they enhance it, by bringing new textures and levels of understanding: the cruelty of the fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the Francoist state and a complicit Catholic Church are all embodied within the Pale Man - as horrifying an image as ever witnessed on screen. Like the powers in Francoist Spain, the Pale Man devours the young, endlessly, piteously, a nightmarish vision of madness and lust. Although monstrous, the Pale Man reflects very human evil.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) 'triumphs' because she disobeys authority - she disrespects crude, vicious power. She is small, she is young, but Ofelia is so much stronger than the adults who threaten her. This greatly inspired me when developing the character of Morcar, for although he is often awed and frightened by the authority figures around him, he is brave enough to follow his conscience, to act contrary to what his society expects.
Paul Nash (artist)
I am fascinated by art and have spent many happy hours in various galleries such as the National Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, The Courtauld Gallery and Fitzwilliam Museum. Some of the paintings and sculptures I have been lucky to see have influenced imagery within This Sacred Isle, for example Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon, Apollo and Python by JMW Turner, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, Mammon by George Frederic Watts and The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake. And there are many, many more.
But one artist, perhaps above all, has inspired my writing and development as an author, and that is Paul Nash. Nash's symbolic landscapes were always in my mind when describing the world in which This Sacred Isle takes place. I very much wanted to present the landscape as liminal, where there are forces and influences beyond what is normally visible. To use Paul Nash's far more eloquent words:
"The landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibily, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived."
Country Life, May 1938
I wanted the landscape of This Sacred Isle to effectively be a character in its own right, and to hint at its age and that it showed traces of the human (and non-human) history it had witnessed and sustained. Paul Nash had a profound sense of landscape, with a powerful emotional attachment to certain places such as Avebury and Dymchurch, places which possessed a quality he called the genius loci.
This sense of places having a 'character' or 'spirit' was something I tried to create within the novel and, I hope, both supported and shaped the story. A clear example of Nash's influence on This Sacred Isle is the scene in which Morcar meets the Stag Lord, a scene that plays out in a dreamlike, symbol-laden landscape. A quote from Paul Nash encapsulates what I was reaching for:
"The divisions we may hold between night and day - waking world and that of dream, reality and the other thing, do not hold. They are penetrable, they are porous, translucent, transparent; in a word they are not there."
'Dreams', undated typescript, Tate Archive
I was recently fortunate enough to visit the Paul Nash exhibition at the Tate Britain, and I found it a moving experience to see how Nash's art developed and changed through his life, and despite many changes in style (especially incorporating aspects of Surrealism), he continued his obsession with symbolic landscapes up until his death, with his final paintings a true flowering of his artistic genius. I could never hope to come even close to matching Nash's creative achievements, but his work will remain an ongoing inspiration. And if I could finish with beautiful lines from a poem written by Nash (which I saw quoted in the Tate Britain exhibition):
"O Dreaming trees,
sunk in a swoon of sleep
What have ye seen in these
Paul Nash - 1934.
What has influenced your writing and creativity? Post a comment and join the conversation.