Druids and Bards
Kevan turns the wheel through the seasons
'Bard on a bike' Kevan Manwaring (pictured) donned leathers and 'got his motor running' for a trip around the UK to find out how people mark the cycle of the seasons with customs old and new – riding, significantly enough, a Triumph Legend.
In Turning the Wheel: In Search of Seasonal Britain on Two Wheels (O-Books, UK £15.99 / US $26.95), a chapter for each month takes us back and forth across the country, from Iona to Snowdonia, from the Isle of Wight to Fingal's Cave, from Guy Fawkes Night in Bath and May Day at Padstow, Cornwall, to cheese-rolling in Gloucestershire and the cutting of the Glastonbury Thorn.
The book also turns out to be a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life and thoughts of a successful writer and storyteller, a diary celebrating a year of 'sacred time' as he turns 40. More than anything, Manwaring reminds us to cherish our own 'sacred time'. For this is more than a simple folkloric travelogue around the Celtic calendar; it's also a critique of contemporary living made through the medium of a poet's odyssey.
Manwaring's openness to experience brings generous rewards, and he is enriched by our magical and mythical heritage. Yet part of the 'specialness' of the events he attended was their very transience, and coming home was often as important as going away. 'While we have bodies we should enjoy them, enjoy the realm of the senses,' he says. 'To do otherwise. to deny life, is an insult to creation. We should savour, then move on.'
He cuts a romantic and often seemingly lonely figure, despite the social round and biker bravado. His poet's sensitivity, and even possibly his vulnerability, to meaningful changes of scene, atmosphere and relationships is quietly revealed as the pages turn. This vulnerability which one detects – there's a sense of loss with a 'tough few years' being ended symbolically – does not detract from the reading experience but actually enhances it for it enlarges the artist's receptivity and so his expressiveness also.
About contemporary Druidry, Manwaring, a former Bard of Bath, is refreshingly down-to-earth. He raises an eyebrow at some of the excesses of Druidic events he attends, and is not afraid to query motives and validity, his justification being that he is probably the only writer today following the authentic bardic tradition.
Winds blowing from other worlds
Isambard Kerne, the Windsmith, the central character in Kevan Manwaring’s epic Windsmith Elegy, is the author’s metaphor for a bard, and Kevan sees the projected five novels in the series, of which the third, The Well Under the Sea, is now out, as his “bardic novels”.
“They are a lament for the lost of history – those fallen in the first and second world wars primarily,” said Kevan (pictured), storyteller, poet and creative writing teacher, “but also all taken before their time across the ages, from around the world, famous and obscure.
“I have focused on aviators especially – ‘windsmiths’ – my fictional Royal Flying Corps observer Isambard, 1930s ‘queen of the skies’ Amelia Earhart, and Antoine de St-Exupery, poet, pilot and author of The Little Prince.
“Also, during the main writing of it, over the last five years, I lost five loved ones, and so the series came out of the ashes of that grief, that loss, trying to make sense of it all, attempting to understand what all these ‘arrested narratives’ meant – and wondering what if they continue in some way.”
A windsmith is someone who “sculpts the air” with his words, his music, his awen (a word from the Welsh meaning inspiration, particularly the poetic variety) – and the series places this leitmotif firmly at its centre. The books draw on Kevan’s familiarity with myth and legend, and ten years’ experience as a professional storyteller.
“I’ve been told there are motifs in the books that ring true with various teachings, but I approach such material in a very intuitive way, going for what ‘feels right’ and ‘works’ in the story. However, like AE, the Irish mystic George Russell, author of The Candle of Vision, I see imagination as providing a gateway to other worlds – what I ‘see’ seems to have an autonomous existence. I just describe what I behold in my inner journeyings. It feels very real to me and that is why I deem my books not ‘fantasy’ novels, but mythic reality.”
The first book in the Windsmith series, The Long Woman (2004) was a kind of prequel, as well as a stand-alone book, in perhaps the way The Hobbit was to The Lord of the Rings – you don’t need to read the former to enjoy the latter, but it will ultimately enhance your experience.
Isambard, who finds himself alive in the Lands of the Dead after being shot down in battle, goes on, in the second volume Windsmith, to fight with the Chalklanders against the forces of darkness with magic as his weapon and Merlin as his mentor. In The Well Under the Sea, the level of tension, pace and incident goes up a notch as Isambard harnesses the power of the winds to take him to the island of Ashalante, Kevan’s vision of Avalon, the name being a composite of Atlantis, Ys and Shangri-La.
He says he sees his role as “someone whose job it is to tell a rattling good yarn – the storyteller’s role – in a way that nurtures the imagination, asks questions, celebrates the wonder and beauty of this world and others, and inspires the reader to go on quests of their own”.
Regarding himself as having “one foot in this world, one foot in the other”, he is aware of what is going on in the world, but sees it all in mythic terms, the quintessence of things, rather than their superficial appearances.
He continued: “In a way, the novels are my way of trying to understand the present situation, albeit through a glass darkly. I started off looking at Britain a hundred years ago as a tangential way of looking at the turn of this century, similarly steeped in blood. The books have been written against the contemporary backdrop of global conflict and catastrophe – by focusing on the impact of one death on one life, in the aftermath of the First World War, I found it easier to comprehend the vast tragedy of it all, and see a redemptive vision beyond the despair.
“I want to leave my readers with a realistic sense of hope – that there is something deeper to life than the mainstream wishes us to perceive, a way out that circumvents the entropy of a ‘closed system’ – what this is, is ultimately up to each person to discover for themselves.”
The next volumes of the Windsmith Elegy will be published in 2010 and 2011, continuing under the imprint of Kevan’s small publishing company Awen which, since 2003, has provided a platform for high-quality writing that may not be highly commercial but deserves to find a readership.
To me, it seems that Kevan’s richly imaginative story-spinning is in the process of developing a tour de force. We need more such visionary literature today to counter the endemic defeatism of our times, and portray the mythic, the heroic potential of humankind.
See Resources page for links.
What is a Bard?
A Bard is a poet, songwriter or wordsmith in the Celtic tradition. The best known expression of this is probably the Welsh National Eisteddfod (of which the Queen and the current Archbishop of Canterbury are members), and closer to home, the Cornish Bards - Gorseth Kernow.
It has its roots in the Druid orders and societies which were popular in the 18th century, and who claimed to be a revival of a much older movement dating back to the original Druids of the Iron Age and who themselves may just have been a continuation of an even older shamanic order contemporary with megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge.
Recent revival of previously vacant "Bardic Chairs", as the locations are sometimes known, was initiated by modern-day Druids, most notably the late Tim Sebastian, who lived at Bath, but the Bardic movement transcends any one spiritual or even non-spiritual belief system and is open to anyone who wants to be involved.
The most successful of the revived "Chairs" are Bath (Caer Badon) and Glastonbury (Caer Ynis Witrin), though more are being brought back to life each year.
Exeter was reclaimed in 2003 by Mark Lindsey-Earley, a former Bard of Bath who is now responsible for setting up a competition to elect a Bard of Exeter to preside for a year and a day before hosting a competition to elect his or her successor.
Mark is busy raising awareness about the Chair and is forming a Gorsedd - an informal group of supporters who will meet to share in the expression of poetry and the arts and who attend gatherings and ceremonies and support the annual competition.
* Mark Lindsey-Earley, Grand Bard of Exeter, can be contacted on 01803 812631 or emailed at email@example.com and he would be delighted to talk to anyone interested in any aspect of the movement, and especially anyone who would like to join the Gorsedd or compete to be the next Bard of the city.
FAQs about Bardic Chairs and Bardic Gorseddau
Q: Do you have to be a Druid to join, or to compete to be Bard?
A: No but it’s important that you are at least comfortable with and willing to accommodate some aspects of the symbolism, customs and ceremony of this movement’s colourful heritage. It’s also important that we are all tolerant and respectful of our differences in belief, faith, race, culture and so on.
Q: What exactly is a Druid? Are Druids pagans? And what's a pagan anyway?
A: Ask 20 Druids and you will probably get 20 different answers! Some would say it’s a religion, more often it’s referred to as a spiritual path. There is no specific creed or dogma; it’s more of an approach to life and the divine through an affinity with nature, the land and our ancestors. It’s essentially drawing on our Celtic history and culture, though not exclusively so, and without attempting to recreate the past, it incorporates certain ceremonies, prayers, practices, robes and paraphernalia inherited from the Druids of centuries past and "re-imagined" in more ancient times. Winston Churchill, William Blake and W B Yeats were all Druids. The way some see it, if you consider yourself to be a Druid, then you are one, though there are various Druid orders you can join.
Today, most Druids would consider themselves to be pagans, though there are Druids from every major (and minor) world faith, including a number of Christian ministers. Indeed, some Druids are atheists, and enjoy Druidry as a fascinating ancient tradition with strong emphasis on creativity and the arts or as a way of celebrating culture and ancestry (for example in the Welsh and Cornish Gorseddau).
"Paganism" is a broader term that encompasses many different beliefs, practices and pathways, gods and goddesses, all with the same strong emphasis on nature and often, incorporating ecological and feminist values, and the use of witchcraft and magic. The latter isn’t as spooky at it might sound, and is conducted with love and reverence. It is not the same as "devil worship", despite what we are often led to believe which, while it might borrow pagan imagery, is really a reaction against Christianity. By and large, pagans don’t even recognise of have any interest in the concept of Satan and follow what is often called the "old religion".
All aspects of Druidry and paganism are becoming very popular, reflecting a very urgent need for humanity to get back into balance with the ecology of the planet, an emphasis on finding "personal truth" as opposed to didactic religious education, a healthy, responsible but liberated attitude to sexuality, a sense of celebrating life and recognising the sacred in everyone and everything and an ethical, rather than oppressively moralistic code of behaviour.
* Thanks to Mark Lindsey-Earley for supplying the FAQ.
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