Review: The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ships is the first book in the Tide Child trilogy by R. J. Barker. It follows the story of Joron Twiner, who is introduced as the nineteen-year-old alcoholic shipwife of Tide Child, a ship of the dead, on which all the shipmates have been sentenced to death.

The ships are built from the bones of long-dead sea dragons called Arakeesians. Those belonging to the fleets of the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islanders (who are permanently at war over the dragon bones) are bone white and their life and luck is sustained by corpse lights – the souls of first born children. The death ships are black and their ostracisation is marked by a lack of corpse lights.

The book begins with Joron losing the two-tailed hat marking him as shipwife to Lucky Meas Gilbryn. Meas is the daughter of Thirteenbern Gilbryn, the matriarch who rules the Hundred Isles on account of having birthed thirteen children. Meas is renowned as lucky because she is a first born who escaped sacrifice yet she has been sentenced to a death ship and it seems her luck has run out.

Thus begins a unique and original adventure story centred on the relationship between Joron and Meas. From the beginning Meas wears the boots (although Joron does get his own boots eventually…) and her role is to pull Joron, who she makes deck keeper, and the equally messy crew of sentenced criminals together to hunt the first Arakeesian to be seen in the seas for countless years.

The cast of characters is rich and colourful from the dark-skinned Joron to Meas with her grey red and blue streaked hair to the toothless madwoman Garriya to the gentle voiced courser, Aelerin, who navigates the ship by mysterious symbols and never shows their face from beneath their hood.

From the outset we have the feeling of being firmly embedded in an other world with its own myths and culture. One of the deities is Skearith, the dismembered God-Bird, whose eye is the sun and whose spine forms the mountains. We also have the Maiden, Mother, and Hag. The Sea Hag holds paramount place amongst the sailors who are keenly aware of the threat of entering her arms in the depths. They daub their hands in red and blue paint and daub it on the keel to win her favour before battle. The ‘Hag’s curse’ is the name for sea sickness and ‘Hag’s tits’ is the most popular swear word.

Barker shows an incredible inventiveness with his sea creatures. The beakwyrms, pink intestine-like beings with rows of serrated teeth stretching into the darkness of their throats, surf the foam behind the ships. Having a large following of beakwyrms is sign of a ship’s speed and prestige. Then there are the longthresh who devour anyone who falls over board and the bone-munching boneborers.

One of the most haunting characters for me was the ship’s Guillame, the wind-talker, a bird-mage who controls the winds. According to the legends the Guillame were a gift from Skearith. Yet they are treated badly, taken from their nests, their eyes put out so they remain subordinate to the fleet. Their magic, easily drained, exacts a large toll, and must be recuperated from the wind towers.

Tide Child’s Guillame is curiously insubordinate and wears a mask to cover its eyes. At the outset its white robes are filthy, it is louse-ridden, stinking, losing its white quills of feathers. Yet with Joron’s kindness, bringing it a needle and thread to fix its robes and other items it regains its dignity. Its wind magic is astounding and there is something very visceral and real in Barker’s description of the pressure in Joron’s ears when it enhances the winds to drive the ship or a gallowbow bolt.

The Bone Ships is a beautifully written lyrical hymn to the other based around a cast of othered people in a unique other world. The mythos is deep and I have a feeling that, like the Arakeesian, of whom we only catch a glimpse with its huge flippers and multitude of eyes, in this book we only see the surface. I can’t wait to read the second part of the trilogy, which will be out in November.

Seeing Face to Face

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In Corinthians Paul famously contrasts seeing ‘through a glass, darkly’ with seeing ‘face to face’. In Revelations we find a series of glassy images leading up to the servants of God seeing his face. We are told, before the throne of God, is ‘a sea of glass like unto crystal’. This is later described as ‘a sea of glass mingled with fire’ with those who have gained ‘victory over the beast’ standing upon it with ‘the harps of God’. The harpers play the song of Moses who ‘the Lord knew face to face’.

The city of New Jersualem is described as ‘pure gold like unto clear glass’, its street ‘pure gold, as it were transparent glass’ and the river of life, running through it, proceeding from the Throne of God ‘clear as crystal’. We are told the Throne of God is in the city and here, where his servants serve him, ‘they shall see his face’.

These images of glass, no longer dark but crystal clear, are bound up with the process of revelation. Of the revealing of the face of God, which is never described, of which his servants are forbidden to make graven images.

This imagery interests me, as a Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, because in a number of texts his castle is described as being made of glass or crystal and surrounded by water. In The Life of St Collen, Gwyn is depicted seated on a golden throne in ‘the fairest castle’ Collen ‘had ever beheld’ on Glastonbury Tor. Gerald of Wales notes Glastonbury ‘used to be called Ynys Gutrin… the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.’

In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Arthur sails across the sea in his ship, Prydwen, to raid seven otherworldly forts on otherworldy islands. It is my belief they are appearances of the same fort – the abode of Pen Annwn ‘the Head of the Otherworld’ (an older name for the King of Annwn/Faery – Gwyn).

One of the fortresses is named Caer Wydyr ‘the Glass Fort’. The narrator, Taliesin, mocks ‘pathetic men’ (monks) ‘who hadn’t seen Arthur’s feat beyond the Glass Fort’. He tells us ‘six thousand men were standing on its wall; it was hard to communicate with their watchman’. In Nennius’ History of the Britons thirty ships of Spaniards sailing to Ireland find in the midst of the sea ‘a tower of glass, the summit of which was covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer.’

The Fairy King’s castle is described as being made of crystal in Sir Orfeo:

‘Amid the land a castle tall
And rich and proud and wondrous high
Uprose, and all the outmost wall
Shone as crystal to the eye.
A hundred towers lit up the sky,
Of diamond all battled stout;
And buttresses rose up near by
Arched with red gold and broad about.’

In the Biblical and Brythonic traditions the paradisal abodes where the gods are enthroned, the centres of the mysteries where their faces are revealed, are associated with glassy waters and crystal walls.

One wonders whether there are any stories of people meeting the gods of Annwn face to face. In Sir Orfeo we are told he could not look upon the Fairy King or Queen ‘their crowns, their garments, glistened bright… so hot they shone’. This ‘noble sight’ brings him to his knees before the throne. Afterwards he takes up his ‘merry harp’ and sings the lay that wins his wife, Heurodis, back from Fairyland.

This reverent response is echoed in the First Branch of The Mabinogion when Rhiannon, a Queen of Annwn, unveils herself to Pwyll. This does not take place within a crystal castle, but near the fairy mound Gorsedd Arberth. We are told she ‘drew back the part of her headdress that should cover her face, and fixed her gaze upon him’. ‘And then he thought that the face of every maiden and every woman he had ever seen was unattractive compared with her face.’ He immediately falls in love with her and agrees to marry her, choosing her above all other women.

When I first met Gwyn, he did not reveal his face to me in his glass fortress, but beneath the shadows of a leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane in Penwortham. My response was similar. I recognised him as my patron deity, a god who I chose above all gods, who I could not help but love and serve.

In Ethics and Infinity the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas notes that the face to face to encounter draws us into service to the Other. Also ‘the face… signifies: “Do not kill me.”’

In the Welsh myths we find this ordainment repeatedly broken by Arthur and his warriors who commit a panoply of acts of defacing. The heads of the witches of Caer Loyw and Pennant Gofid are split in twain. The beard of Dillus Farfog is plucked out whilst he is still alive before his head is cut off. The giants Diwrnach and Wrnach are beheaded. Most horrifically, before Ysbaddaden Bencawr is beheaded, his face is mutilated – Caw of Prydyn shaves off his beard, ‘flesh and skin to the bone, and both ears completely’.

Because Arthur cannot bear the thought of the head of Brân being beneath White Hill as a threat to his sovereignty over Britain he orders it to be dug up and removed. Interestingly Brân’s head lives after his death for eighty-seven years and only when it starts to decay, when he loses his face, is it buried. It seems that Arthur cannot abide even the distant memory of Brân’s face evoked by his head.

The surrounding stories suggest that either Arthur himself or (Llen)lleog beheaded Pen Annwn with Caledfwlch during his raid on Annwn and this was how he gained his cauldron, the leadership of his hunt, and usurped his role as the warrior-protector of Britain. One might see the beheading of the Head of the Otherworld, ‘Arthur’s feat beyond the glass fort’, as the ultimate crime against the Other and the face of the numinous.

This killing blow, with the thrusting of Lleog’s flashing sword into the cauldron, may be seen to bring about the shattering of the glass fortress, the fragmenting of the mythos of Pen Annwn. We are left only with pieces of the narrative like shards of broken glass, the images within like creatures trapped in amber; seeing through glass darkly as the Dark Age is ushered in.

Yet beyond the glass walls Pen Annwn picks up his head and makes himself whole again.

I see his face and he is laughing.

Review: Your Face is a Forest by Rhyd Wildermuth

Your Face is a ForestRhyd Wildermuth is a writer and social worker based in Seattle. He writes for ‘The Wild Hunt,’ ‘Patheos Pagan’ and ‘Polytheist.com’ and blogs at ‘Paganarch.com.’ He describes himself as ‘a dream-drenched, tea-swilling leftist pagan punk bard.’ He is also a student of Druidry with OBOD. What drew me to his work was his boldness, passion, vision and the fact he proudly and outspokenly ‘worships gods.’

Your Face is a Forest is a collection of essays and prose. Rhyd describes his style as ‘weaving a forest from meaning’. This book’s a tapestry of poetic prose and prose poetry woven from themes that make sense as a whole only in the non-rational way trees make a forest. It’s rough, edgy and raw, and also a little rough around the edges, which adds to its anarchic charm.

Rhyd invites the reader to step into his life and accompany him through the places where he lives into forests behind to meet the faces of ‘the Other’ in ‘tasselled willows’, pines and alders, satyr dances and Dionysian revels. To find the tooth of an elk long dead and buried where cars now drive. A world full of life and another world behind it.

What I love about this book is that Rhyd speaks deeply and richly of both worlds. On pilgrimages to France and Germany he tells of the wonder of waking in a field of rabbits, playing flute with locals on unknown streets, sitting within the pink fur womb of a Berlin bar. He speaks of his despair at social inequality and the continuing repression of homosexuality in Christian colleges. He is a poet of the sacredness of this-worldly life on all levels.

He also shares some of his innermost visions of the gods and otherworlds. These have guided his life and thus form the reader’s guiding threads. Outstanding was a vision of Bran, which deserves quoting in full; ‘When I saw Bran, his great black cloak rippled in an unseen wind, his powerful form straddling a Breton valley between the River of Alder and the sea. But the cloak fled from his body, a myriad of ravens having stripped from his flesh sinew and skin, leaving only great white pillars of bone, the foundation of a temple and a tower. I do not yet know where his head lies.’ On his pilgrimages we find a mysterious tower on a mountain, a stone head in a fountain and a magical cloak. But Rhyd doesn’t give all his secrets away.

Other deities include Arianrhod, Ceridwen, Brighid, Dionysos and the unnamed gods and spirits of the city streets, buried forests and culverted rivers. What I liked most about these sections is that rather than kowtowing to being acceptable, Rhyd speaks his experiences directly and authentically. This was encouraging and inspiring for me and I think will be for other polytheists whose encounters with the gods go beyond known mythology and conventional Pagan text books. There are few modern authors who speak of the mystical aspects of deity and Rhyd does it exceptionally well.

I’d recommend Your Face is a Forest to all Pagans who are looking for real, undoctored insights into nature and the gods. Because it’s not only about Paganism and is written by somebody fully immersed in the beauty and pain of life and the search for love I’d recommend it to non-Pagans too, particularly those interested in spiritual journeys and visionary prose and poetry. Quoting Rhyd’s dedication, to ‘Everyone who’s ever looked into the Abyss / And brought back light for the rest of us.’

Your Face is a Forest is available through Lulu: http://www.lulu.com/shop/rhyd-wildermuth/your-face-is-a-forest/paperback/product-21887986.html