Of Vows and Falling Feathers

I’m moulting.

This realisation strikes me on a morning when I’m lying in bed with a hangover without having to think about going to work. One part of me is lying here beneath this 7.5 tog duvet (which is not stuffed with feathers but artificial fibres of polyester) and one part of me is lying in a muddy basin amongst the reeds on a riverbank surrounded by falling feathers.

~

A few weeks back, on a spirit-journey, I came across a dumpy helpless blue and red feathered bird. I hoisted it up onto my winged white mare, holding it tightly like an over-sized baby, carried it to one of the villages on the marshland, to one of the wise women who serves the Lady of the Marsh.

She told me she takes a lot of these birds in at this time because they are moulting and too weak to fly yet, once they are done, once their new feathers have come through, they “fly swiftly as arrows”.

Kingfisher King of Arrows

When I returned I linked the bird to ‘The King of Arrows’ ‘The Kingfisher’ in the Wildwood Tarot. Looking up its natural history I read that its feathers are blue and red and it moults between July and August.

~

I don’t think I’m going to turn into something sleek and blue and streamlined as a kingfisher. Feeling more like Big Bird from the Muppets, I doubt I’ll even be the ugly duckling who becomes a swan.

I’m not quite sure when the bird transformations began. Perhaps when my mare ditched me and I plummeted from the skies, sprouting feathers, but not soon enough to halt my fall. Ceridwen peeled me off the ground and told me I was getting my ‘raven’s wings’. Not that raven, but the Sea Raven, or Cormorant, after whom she named her ugly son, Afagddu.

I’ve been Afagddu. I’ve swallowed stones and dived with cormorants, but I’m not Afagddu anymore. On the night I made my lifelong vows to Gwyn I was the bird in the tree, but I wasn’t Lleu-as-Eagle.

Who and what am I?

~

It’s been eight months since I got shot down from the tree and died and was reborn into life-long service as Gwyn’s awenydd. Having completed my apprenticeship to him, my devotional books, I’ve been flapping about like a fledgling, clumsily attempting to bring scraps of awen back from Annwn.

I had an idea for a book called Porth Annwn that would map the Brythonic Otherworld. Only it didn’t want to be mapped. Places kept disappearing and reappearing elsewhere and getting muddled up. I kept stumbling on things that were not Brythonic – like a great library that seemed more Persian and floating bronze staffs in the forms of snakes which I later learned were Egyptian uraei.

More frustratingly I ended up confronted with places like ‘The Towers of the Wyrms’ (towers without doors or windows in the forms of serpents who seemed to have been turned to stone) and ‘The Village in the Shadows of the Ogres’ (here three ogres had been turned to stone as they crossed the mountains and their shadows, falling across the village as the sun moved from east to west, told the time).

I began to fear I was moving away from myth to fantasy. You might not think that’s a bad thing. Deep down I didn’t either but it seemed bad to me because seven years ago, when I met Gwyn, I agreed to give up my ambition to be a professional fantasy writer in exchange for journeying to Annwn.

~

Strange that I never thought too deeply about the nature of that vow. I’d always assumed it was absolute, lifelong, although, unlike with my primary vows, Gwyn never stated any specific time period.

It wasn’t until three years ago I dared start reading fantasy again and rediscovered the old books that nurtured my soul. I hadn’t read any for a year until I picked up Ed McDonald’s The Raven’s Mark trilogy. It was so mind-blowing and inspiring it gave me the courage to try penning a story about the Magician of the Orme in which the boundaries between history, Brythonic myth, and fantasy blur.

I was terrified I’d experience repercussions. That access to Annwn would be closed off and the awen would dry up. To the contrary I wrote 10,000 words in three days. The story took on a life of its own, twisting, soaring, then like a bird settling down to roost on the final twist of the plot.

Could it be that Gwyn had lifted that condition? Whilst pondering this question, in my morning tarot reading, I pulled ‘The Wheel’ (this pictures an Iron Age loom with a partly-woven garment on it with the feathers of the kingfisher, swan, wren, and hawk on the sleeves) ‘we are the weavers of our own destiny’; ‘Queen of Arrows – Swan’ ‘A state of separation may exist… you may need to break old bonds and find new rivers in which to swim’; ‘Ten of Vessels – Happiness’.

Fantasy Vows Tarot

I received the answer that it’s time to break with this bond, through weaving my own destiny find happiness.

~

Yet it seemed too good to be true. I waited to ask Gwyn directly about it until the beginning of September (Gwynngala in Cornish) when I start to feel his presence in the land more strongly again.

His answers, as expected from a mist-god, were not that direct. He told me I had made the mistake of misinterpreting this vow by thinking he meant that I must focus only on Brythonic mythology and neither read or write fantasy for “myths can be empty shells and fantasies charged with truth”.

His point was that he did not want me to write to fulfil what I perceived to be the tastes of a fantasy audience with the purpose of selling enough books to become a professional author. Conversely, he added, he does not want me to be restricted by my perceptions of what my current readers want either.

So it seems that Gwyn has no problem with me reading or writing fantasy, but that he does not want me to make the mistake of attempting to write works that will sell to a particular audience. Since initially making this vow this has always felt tough as it’s meant having to live with the likelihood I will never make a living from my work and that I will always be doing jobs like shelf-stacking and cleaning.

I’ll admit it’s a vow I’ve bounced against, tested, found that if I’ve put following the awen first, created works of truth, it’s been ok to publish them and to sell them. Gwyn isn’t a hegemon and must know if I didn’t keep some degree of personal ambition alive I wouldn’t make a good awenydd. Perhaps his aim is to make me explore the parameters between what is true to the awen and what is publishable/sellable and maybe, just maybe, something worthwhile will emerge from the creative tension…???

~

One part of me remains bound here, in the real world, living with my parents and working in a supermarket job, whilst the other lies amongst falling feathers feeling the potential for flight.

‘When I became a bird, Lord, nothing could stop me’, Liz Berry writes of her bird transformation, ‘bones hollowing to slender pipes’, ‘shoulder blades tufting down’, ‘fingers jewelling like ten hummingbirds’, ‘feet callusing to knuckly claws’, spreading ‘flight-greedy arms’.

I don’t know if I’ll be that kind of bird or what kind of bird I’ll become or what I’ll sing.

Only that I want it to be boundless and beautiful as the infinite landscapes of the soul gifted to the writers in whose work the distinction between myth and fantasy falls away and all is awen.

Falling Feathers

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7 thoughts on “Of Vows and Falling Feathers

  1. Bogatyr says:

    Quite a few comments I might make on this, but tbh I don’t really know you well enough, so I won’t. One thing, though: I wonder, was Gwyn stopping you from writing until you were ready to write? Speaking from experience, people with a successful academic career can lack humility and a sense of connection with ordinary people – something you have now been gifted through the shelf-stacking… I spent time in similar jobs, and tbh it was something that I needed to experience. It may also be that Gwyn felt you needed to experiment on writing about the local and personal, to let your insights mature, and to practice your craft before tackling big themes and world-making; if you had written earlier, perhaps you would have wasted your ideas because you weren’t yet ready to convey them,..,.

    And I wouldn’t worry too much about being ‘stuck’; many of us have those periods in life, and you are still plenty young enough to achieve extraordinary things yet!

    Just some thoughts…

    • lornasmithers says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I do think there was an element of me not being quite ready to handle world-building (which got out of hand and took the focus away from the main character’s story) with the fantasy novel. And yes, certainly, my apprenticeship to Gwyn has helped me hone my craft writing poetry and short stories based on existing history, lore, and mythology. So it seems my next challenge is writing a long story/novella that borders on myth/history/fantasy and it will be interesting to see how that turns out. I still very much feel like I’m ‘in training’ to meet the big challenge of writing a novel that is authentic and original and speaks in some way of the otherworldly and mystical *and* is publishable! And until that happens it seems my supermarket job is the best way of sustaining myself that doesn’t impact too badly on my creativity…

  2. Nimue Brown says:

    It may be a good time for me to mention that Hopeless is one of the least likely looking, least box-ticking projects I’ve ever been involved with. It wasn’t created with a specific audience in mind, it falls between many stools. And yet… it has turned out to be the thing I’ve been part of that has sold best.

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