stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Woodland Revolution, read

In which the author reads from the opening of his book Woodland Revolution

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“Sir”

I’ve long thought that Labour is finished as a credible force, and now it’s clear that’s true. “Sir” Keir Starmer? Oh, dear. They had the chance to elect somebody relevant… and who did they choose? Not only a white man, but a white man so blinkered he’s accepted an “honour” from the very right-wing establishment he claims to oppose. There is no political opposition now, except in the minds of liberals, greens and humanists.

RIP Labour.

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Woodland Revolution out today

UK

US & elsewhere

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Woodland Revolution trailer

A short video trailer for tomorrow’s publication of Woodland Revolution.

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Woodland Revolution full art

This is the full cover art for Woodland Revolution.

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Mythos Week, Day 5

What are myths? The great author on religion Karen Armstrong said that (i) they’re concerned with death, (ii) they’re accompanied by ritual, (iii) they’re concerned with extreme experiences and the unknown, (iv) they tell us how to behave ethically, and (v) they’re concerned with non-earthly realms. In Mythos Week – preparing for the publication of Woodland Revolution on 31st March – I’m going to write about these five aspects.

*

Non-earthly realms is always a tricky one for atheists. I remember, many years ago now, Waterstones (whom I used to work for) publishing a magazine called Insight, and we booksellers were asked to frame questions for Philip Pullman, who at the time was promoting The Amber Spyglass. My question – which was published – was along the lines of: As an atheist, do you think using the tropes and images of religion and spirituality in your work taints atheism? Summarised, his reply was: Interesting question, but, on balance, no.

I respectfully disagree with the excellent Mr Pullman. I think using such metaphors and ideas does damage the cause of atheism and humanism. Why? Because, at whatever subliminal level it might be, if we pretend there are spirits and souls travelling to an afterlife we accede to the prophets of narcissism and Dualism: narcissism because the notion of spirit is a triumph of conjecture over evidence (not to mention Darwinian common sense), and Dualism because Descartes’ idea simply made no sense when in due course it was examined.

Therefore, in Woodland Revolution, when Wolfy and Houndie come to the first climax of their epic journey the environment they encounter, while appearing to be a spiritual realm, is presented as a hallucination. As regular readers of my blog will know, the evolution of human consciousness is a topic of particular interest to me, so in Woodland Revolution, although Karen Armstrong’s exceptional A Short History Of Myth was a prime influence, I was also influenced by David Lewis-Smith’s description of experiences inside Palaeolithic caves. His marvellous book The Mind Inside The Cave hypothesises that ancient human beings experienced stone walls as a kind of liminal barrier, behind which they believed existed all sorts of non-earthly realms. But in Woodland Revolution, such thoughts are presented as hallucination.

I don’t think this reduces the impact of the section at all. The wonder of cave art, as described by the brilliant Jean Clottes for instance, or as depicted in Werner Herzog’s remarkable film Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, is a human thing not a spiritual thing. Such wonder speaks of sensitivity to the natural environment, of visual creativity, of a profound link to the land which most of us modern people have lost. I took great care with my caves, and with the underworld environment which followed…

Five thousand years ago the world began to change, from cultures infused with mythos to those of logos. At the same time, male thought, along with men themselves, began to dominate. Religious tracts lauded the value of the word, placing it at the beginning of their ideas of creation.

The Ancient Greeks considered visual, emotional knowledge inferior to that of the rational word because they deemed the word able to describe deeper concepts and philosophies. But their bias was illusory. In embracing logos and losing mythos, human culture took a step into facts, technical practice, pragmatism and efficiency. Was this a gain or a loss?

Critics of atheism complain that removing gods and the supernatural from our lives cheapens it by divesting it of transcendent meaning. But human life and human consciousness are already radiant with meaning – our own meaning, rooted in an understanding of consciousness and the human condition. We can and should devise our own new myths, based on understanding, not on trite and spurious invention.

We lost mythos in gaining the modern world. We lost a lot of the meaning of life in our search for pragmatism, efficiency, and doctrine based on the word. Yet, it is also true to say that facts are essential for meaningful life.

So we need to weave again a mythos of humanity. This time, however, it has to be based in understanding, not invention.

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Mythos Week, Day 4

What are myths? The great author on religion Karen Armstrong said that (i) they’re concerned with death, (ii) they’re accompanied by ritual, (iii) they’re concerned with extreme experiences and the unknown, (iv) they tell us how to behave ethically, and (v) they’re concerned with non-earthly realms. In Mythos Week – preparing for the publication of Woodland Revolution on 31st March – I’m going to write about these five aspects.

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How should we behave?

The myths of prehistoric hunter gatherer societies, some of which are tantalisingly preserved in our earliest written tales – the Garden Of Eden for instance – were not only oral histories and cultural meaning frameworks, they were depictions of ethical behaviour. These days, we use the word myth to mean something untrue, but that’s a modern interpretation. As Karen Armstrong pointed out, a myth is simultaneously something which is related as happening once, yet which is perpetually important and relevant to a community or society. Myths, in the past, were templates for living.

Our view of history is linear and chronological; we’ve forgotten what is timeless and universal about the human condition. The pre-logos world was more concerned with what an event meant rather than what actually occurred.

When I was a teenager, I, like so many teenagers, read Lord Of The Rings. I sympathised with the characters, I adored the vast landscapes, I was enthralled by the epic tale, and I loved the naturalistic detail Tolkien put into his masterpiece. But although I treasured the book for those things, there was one tiny detail which remained in my mind as the decades passed by. It was a short section in one of the appendices, describing the life of Aragorn, King of Gondor and Arnor after the destruction of the One Ring.

In just a few lines Tolkien gave us an extraordinary glimpse into his own thinking about death. Having had the inspirational notion of making Elves immortal and Men mortal, he described how Aragorn and Arwen approach the final part of Aragorn’s life. Aragorn – a man of Numenor – is allowed to “lay down his life” at the end rather than die of natural causes or illness. This extraordinary phrase resonated with me like little else in Lord Of The Rings, and it has stayed with me ever since. Having had a wonderful life, Aragorn is lucky enough to be able to take his own life into his hands for the purpose of ending it – deliberately, thoughtfully, lovingly, a deed of living though it is simultaneously a deed of dying. Then again, death is part of life; so why not?

We have more recent courageous deeds to inspire us into new ways of thinking. Terry Pratchett, so admired and loved for his Discworld novels, was also a deep thinker in the matter of death. His assisted dying documentary Choosing To Die, which focused on the final hours of the 71-year-old motor neuron disease sufferer Peter Smedley, was a truly extraordinary piece of work, a film I watched, often with tears in my eyes, recognising both the bravery of Smedley’s stance and the brilliance with which Pratchett communicated his message. For all that millions have enjoyed the Discworld novels, I can’t help thinking that Pratchett’s Dignitas documentary and his attitude to end-of-life matters will be remembered as his true legacy.

Christian groups and other deluded persons criticised Choosing To Die as “biased,” and much more besides. Well, they would. They needed to keep believing their fantasies. But Pratchett himself said he was “appalled at the current situation,” and that “it should be possible for someone stricken with a serious and ultimately fatal illness to choose to die peacefully with medical help, rather than suffer.” Indeed, it should be possible. That’s the true humanity, which religion cares nothing about.

Woodland Revolution is a myth.

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Mythos Week, Day 3

What are myths? The great author on religion Karen Armstrong said that (i) they’re concerned with death, (ii) they’re accompanied by ritual, (iii) they’re concerned with extreme experiences and the unknown, (iv) they tell us how to behave ethically, and (v) they’re concerned with non-earthly realms. In Mythos Week – preparing for the publication of Woodland Revolution on 31st March – I’m going to write about these five aspects.

*

Extreme experiences aren’t part of our day-to-day lives, so they require a special approach in story-telling. Great deeds like Prometheus stealing fire count as such experiences, or Gilgamesh killing the Bull Of Heaven. We all wonder about the extremes of our world: the edge of the universe, the beginning of time, the origin of the oceans, the surface of the sun. The same applies to our own lives. Gilgamesh became aware of his mortality through mythic adventure – and death is a major topic of myth.

In most cases, we presume a spirit or soul, and then an afterlife for such a thing to exist in. These are understandable inventions, answering questions which, 40,000 years ago, maybe even 100,000 years ago, demanded a reply. Such questioning led to the imaginative answer.

Extreme experiences often lead to the most extraordinary stories – that of Orpheus for instance, or Persephone. In Woodland Revolution there are two such extremes: the Sky-hill and the depthless Lake. Wolfy and Houndie have not only to find the Sky-hill (which they do by questioning Ancients in caves – creatures of the Ice Age), but to enter it and find Death too. Later, a similar, yet wholly different experience awaits them beneath the depthless Lake…

These places are special; mandated, spelated.
They are unique in the Wood.
That making entrance into them is difficult becomes part of their meaning.
They are real and imaginary in the same moment. Their damp, cold, crystal-covered
walls are both hard and permeable. A wall is a surface, and a region below.
These tunnels are long, with sharp extrusions. Stalactites and stalagmites form
obstacles invisible in the dark.
Calcite coverings deposited over tens of thousands of years are cold to the touch,
sucking away blood heat from paws.
But not all is dark.
From riven rocks above, no wider than a root, some small light descends.
On a smooth, tall, pale and curvaceous wall they see an image in black and red.
It is a Woolly Mammoth.
The image has been created in harmony with the curves of the wall, its trunk wrapped
around a bump, its rear quarters set so that it seems to emerge from a shallow fold in
the rock. It is at once of the surface and of the deeper rock. It sits on the boundary
between the two, as does a sign between worlds.

Just as Palaeolithic people in David Lewis-Williams’ brilliant book The Mind In The Cave experience cave walls acting as a liminal environment, so Wolfy and Houndie take their hallucinatory journey into a cave wall, to hear what the Woolly Mammoth has to say about Death and the Sky-hill.

But what would a Woolly Mammoth say…?

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Mythos Week, Day 2

What are myths? The great author on religion Karen Armstrong said that (i) they’re concerned with death, (ii) they’re accompanied by ritual, (iii) they’re concerned with extreme experiences and the unknown, (iv) they tell us how to behave ethically, and (v) they’re concerned with non-earthly realms. In Mythos Week – preparing for the publication of Woodland Revolution on 31st March – I’m going to write about these five aspects.

*

Ritual is a diminishing feature of modern life, except for those who follow a religion. But in secular life, ritual is as good as gone. Is that a bad thing?

Ritual and myth are inseparable. Ritual formalises and displays community beliefs, often tied to the passing of the year – the Eight Stations in many European traditions for instance. Rituals are also enactments, required for the cohesion and continuance of the community. Seeing ritual brings a kind of permanence, essential for social long life. Doing is an even stronger version of the same thing.

Rituals also have the same summative function as myth, in that they symbolise modes of thinking and living. The May rituals of Cornwall for example codify an ancient agricultural way of life – perhaps not essential now as it was in earlier centuries, yet, in a world with vast inequality and expanding population, perhaps something that people could be thinking more about. (Dependence on huge, impersonal, international food corporations is hardly the best way to be doing things.)

So ritual plays a role in Woodland Revolution. Part way through the work, Houndie – a dog, i.e. descended from noble Wolf heritage – has to face a ritual of passage if he is to accompany Wolfy on their initial quest. His dog status – defiled by contact with human beings – means he must take the rite of “mental reorganisation” in order to unleash his inner wolf. He does this, but with unexpected consequences.

I also used ritual for two human characters, but I used it in a particular way. Many years ago I was a guest at a genre event at Exeter University, where amongst other things I saw Simon Ings perform a lengthy monologue entirely from memory. I remember asking him about how he managed such a feat, and he told me there were a few tricks of the trade which he had used.

Ancient storytellers used such tricks all the time. They memorised a vast amount of material – material essential for the survival of their community, since it represented the meaning framework in which everybody lived – but they did it by acting it out: physical components and emotional components, that is, ritual components which structured and codified what they were saying, and allowed them to remember it all.

My two human characters use such mythic rituals to remember the geography of the Wood. Australian Aboriginal mythologies are many things: meaningful fragments of a creed, a kind of oral manual of spirituality, a geography and a history “textbook” – also a manual of cosmography. All these vital components are remembered via the over-arching Dreamtime myths. In Woodland Revolution, my two forest-dwelling humans (feral, as we might say) have to recall and sing songs in order to know in which direction to lead Wolfy and Houndie.

We’ll stay here for three more days. We’ll feed ourselves up before making the long journey. We have thoughts to gather and memories to recapture, far-off memories of the time we took fire from the ashen land of the tall smoking flames. Those memories lie deep inside our minds, and only song and dance in the cold of the night will allow them to resurface. Ritual must be made to find the way.

And…

Most paths are invisible to Wolfy and Houndie, composed of abstract patterns laid out in the geometry of the stars. Wolfy is attuned to the stars, but she has no star song; not one. But their guides can sing a whole evening of such songs.

We miss so much of the deeper human life in our modern world. We can access online maps and use GPS to find our way, but, although that brings accuracy and efficiency, it means much of the meaning of movement has been lost. I think we need to recover that meaning in order to find a sane, humane future.

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Mythos Week, Day 1

What are myths? The great author on religion Karen Armstrong said that (i) they’re concerned with death, (ii) they’re accompanied by ritual, (iii) they’re concerned with extreme experiences and the unknown, (iv) they tell us how to behave ethically, and (v) they’re concerned with non-earthly realms. In Mythos Week – preparing for the publication of Woodland Revolution on 31st March – I’m going to write about these five aspects.

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As J.R.R. Tolkien observed, all human stories are about one thing – death. In my forthcoming prose poem Woodland Revolution I wanted to tackle the theme from the mythic point of view, partly because that form – mythos, as the Ancient Greeks called it – interests me, but also because in turning to the word, logos, five thousand years ago, humanity lost an awful lot.

In my 2017 blog post ‘You’d Better Free Your Mind Instead’ I wrote:

(I) was inspired by seeing a dead fox on the side of the road on my way to work one morning. The fox had been hit by a car: roadkill. Half of its body was mangled and flattened, but the other half, brilliant orange-red in the morning light, remained pristine. This tiny event had an enormous impact upon me. It led to the title of my tenth novel No Grave For A Fox – a phrase which dropped into my mind seconds after driving past the fox – but it also led to the gelling in my mind of a work I’d wanted to write about animals, life and death, and revolution…

In Woodland Revolution, a wolf and a dog see wolf roadkill at the side of a road. The wolf discoverer is very young and has no grasp of the meaning of death (for this section Sylvia Anthony’s book The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After was useful), whereas the dog, a little older, does grasp the basic meaning. Through the work, which uses a mythic structure over the notional duration of the wolf’s life (and through one notional year), a couple of “revolutions” occur, one from an ancient social system and one from the new system to one newer still.

I’ve only been to two funerals, my grandfather’s and my grandmother’s some decades ago. But more recently I’ve lost a treasured pet, so, all in all, I do know what grief is. Ancient cultures though did not live with my atheism. They were convinced that there was a spirit or soul, and they believed in an afterlife and/or spiritual realms – and some even believed in a pre-life. But believing in such things, whilst helpful to early societies, and an entirely understandable cultural institution, is only helpful if you’re not prepared to face reality: there’s only one life and nobody has a spirit or soul.

Of course, it’s more difficult to act as we speak, so some may accuse me of hypocrisy here. Nevertheless, the meaning framework of Woodland Revolution is a mythic structure in which the nonexistence of spirit and the lack of an afterlife is the truth. As Penny Spikins wrote for the final line of her brilliant book How Compassion Made Us Human: ‘Perhaps now is the time for a new story.’

Death is everywhere in the Wood, as it is in our lives: the roadkill of cars, attacks by carnivores on herbivores or on other carnivores, a suicide. We all, in the end, have to come to our own conclusion about the problem of death. Do we embrace fantasy and pretend we’re going to live on, or do we embrace humanity and accept that, though we’re mortal, that mortality does provide fuel for some of our most incredible achievements as a species? It was J.R.R. Tolkien – that brilliant author of alternate myth – who had the mortality of Men described as a gift, not as a burden.

Some of the cheapness of human life as envisaged by patriarchal organised religion devolves from their insistence that there is an afterlife – that life itself is a preparation for what follows. But that is an egregious lie, created by the juvenile few, exploited by the narcissistic and violent for their own selfish ends. The ease with which such men end the lives of so many is a testament to the lie they believe, though that lie is forced into them by their own cultures.

In Woodland Revolution, Wolfy comes to her own conclusion at the end of her life, which she promulgates to all the animals of the Wood. What will that conclusion be?

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