What’s New for the 25th of December: A new novel from Peter S. Beagle, Kage Baker’s fav Tolkien work, geographies, roots of the Oysterband and other possibly seasonal matters…

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink unto thee.

First stanza of the ‘Gloucestershire Wassail’
carol, which dates back to the Middle Ages

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Aren’t you glad that you’re inside while a rather nasty snowstorm’s going on?  It looks lovely from inside the Pub but Gus’s groundskeeping staff have been cursing fluently in whatever language they prefer – including ancient Celtic in the case of Finch, one of my Pub staff who’s lending a hand – as the snow’s a wet, heavy one that needs taking off fruit trees and such. They come in every so often to get more coffee and something to eat before heading back out.

So I’m in our Pub, iPad in hand, asking Cat, Denise, Gary and Robert what they’ve got for this edition, so I can figure what else should go in it. Mind, none of us are working at it very hard as the Neverending Session is playing Swedish trad music, the fire’s roaring and Reynard’s giving generous pours of our favorite libations…

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Geographies, both those in the mundane world and the imaginary ones as well, have something within them that fascinates readers. Cat starts us off with a look at Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings: ‘Now we have a really detailed look at the role of fantasy maps and the settings they help create in fantasy literature. (Though weirdly enough, Here Be Dragons has only three such maps in it suggesting the author either had trouble getting permission to use more such maps or the use of them was deemed too costly.) It is not the usual collection of edited articles but appears an actual cohesive look at this fascinating subject.’

Speaking of imaginary geographies, it’s appropriate that Ryhope Wood, the setting of Robert Holdstock’s series of the same name gets a book of scholarly papers largely devoted to it. Richard looks at Donald E. Morese and Kalman Matolcsy’s The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock: Critical Essays on the Fiction: ‘The myth-infested landscape of Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood would seem to be fertile ground, not only for walking legends and “mythagos”, but also for literary criticism. After all, in the sequence Holdstock tackles not the structures of mythic fiction – dark lords, questing heroes, magical macguffins and so forth – but rather the concept of myth itself, and how the same core stories have echoed down through the millennia, amplified and distorted and reflected by centuries of human experience. The books start in a critical space, with scientist-protagonists attempting to unravel the nature of the wood and all it contains and it only dives deeper from there, familiarizing characters and readers alike with the tropes and concepts of discussion of myth.’

And what about geographies that are not imaginary? Robert has some thoughts on a book that may very well throw the distinction between real and imaginary out the window, namely, Denis Wood and John Fels’ The Natures of Maps: ‘You may wonder why the pages of Green Man Review, a ‘zine devoted to the roots of arts and culture, which purview most often results in insightful and intelligent studies of music, speculative fiction, and film, should play host to a discussion of a book on maps. Well, the subtitle of The Natures of Maps may give you a hint: the book is about “Cartographic Constructions of the Natural World.”‘

Steampunk set in the Victorian Era is quite the rage these days (even if much of it is shite),  so it’s apt that Kelly has a review of  the following work: ‘To the casual reader or observer, it sometimes may seem that the twentieth century was the time of real blossoming in terms of the Fantastic in literature: after all, that’s when science fiction really came into its own, and when a certain Don of Oxford penned a tale about hobbits and gold rings. But the more rigorous student of the Fantastic knows that Fantasy, as well as those tropes that eventually spun away to become science fiction, are far older than just a hundred years. The literature of the fantastic stretches back as far as Homer, after all, and likely even before that. The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, a long-gestating labor of love by Jess Nevins, focuses on the Fantastic of the Victorian era.’

Kim has an appraisal of Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community: ‘Anyone who has ever read of the legendary group of writers called the Inklings, about their friendship and lives as Oxford academics, has likely wondered about the nature of this long standing group. Its two most commercially successful authors, Tolkien and Lewis, at times seemed to play down the idea that the group, which existed for some three decades, had influenced them in their writing, as did other members of the group. Yet something was clearly going on in these weekly meetings in pubs and Dons’ quarters as the members read and dissected one another’s work. Tolkien, in particular, was adamant that the group had not “influenced” him, although it does not seem to make sense that a group that was admittedly quite meaningful to its members did not have some impact on them. So what was going on?’

A treat for the Winter Holidays comes in the guise of a new short novel from Peter S. Beagle and Richard says ‘one can look at the book as a companion piece to Beagle’s Summerlong, a bookend to the story that one tells. If Summerlong tells the story of a mature romance torn apart by the intrusion of the supernatural, In Calabria is a tale of a May-September romance that happens precisely because of the intrusion of the supernatural into everyday life. One door closes, another one opens, and the cycle goes on.’

A book of criticism begs begs a question from Richard: ‘What, then, are we to make of Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, a collection of critical essays of wildly varying quality which focus primarily on the Discworld writings? After all, Pratchett himself has made his opinion of literary criticism none-too-gently known in an oft-quoted (especially within this book; I lost track of the number of references) passage from Guards! Guards!: “He waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them small slim volumes of literary criticism.”‘

For fans — or perhaps we should say ‘students’  — of science fiction, Robert has a look at a couple of books ideal for whiling away those long winter evenings. First, this work: ‘You know that science fiction has arrived at some sort of respectability when you are confronted by something like The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction.’

Next, from editors James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria, comes Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction: ‘There are at least two obvious responses to the statement that Speculations on Speculation, a group of essays on science fiction criticism, is one of the two or three most exciting books, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read recently: first, I’ve lost my mind, which, given that I have at one point or another lost track of nearly everything else, is a distinct possibility; second, this book must be very stimulating indeed, which I happen to think is the correct answer.’

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A letter from Reynard to his wife Ingrid details a unique elevenses: ‘So Mrs. Ware is planning an elaborate elevenses the morning after we get back, figuring we won’t be up too early — oatmeal with whole milk and maple syrup, plump peppered pork sausages sizzling with fat, thick slices of crisped bacon, smoked Scottish salmon, scrambled free range eggs, molasses bread thick with butter and gooseberry jam, blackberry scones, a Quebec traditional pork pie, lobscouse, lapsang sousong tea and Turkish coffee…’

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If all you’ve listened to is the present day Oysterband on such albums such as The Shouting End of Life with cuts like the title track that condemn Thatcher and her politics (here from a concert in Bremen, Germany), you might be surprised to discover that they started out some forty years as a really traditional folk band, to wit The Whitstable Oyster Co. Ceilidh Band, though their name kept changing. For that story, read Ed’s review of those early albums, Oyster Ceilidh Band’s Jack’s Alive, Oyster Band’s English Rock ‘N Roll: the Early Years (1800-1850) and Lie Back and Think of England. Some of the material from these albums is re-released on Before The Flood.

Evenings by the fire with a tankard of ale always get Gary thinking about great English folk-rock, in particular Bert Jansch’s Moonshine, which he says is his all-time favorite of the genre.

He also looks at a British folk album: ‘Ryley Walker’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is a logical follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2015 album Primrose Green. The earlier release was noted for its almost spookily faithful homage to 1960s English folk-rock, particularly early Van Morrison. While Golden Sings finds Walker drinking from the same well, it’s notably less derivative. (From the cover art I almost expected yacht rock. Thankfully … no.)’

It’s the time of year when we look back at what happened. It’s perhaps not so surprising that in earlier days, music about the year was very popular, as witness Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Robert looks at a recording of this very popular piece by Red Priest, who also managed to include Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto into the mix: ‘Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which, although actually four concerti grossi is invariably performed as a single work, was one of the most popular works in the baroque canon in the years after its creation in 1723, and after Vivaldi’s reinstatement in the twentieth century as a composer of distinction has once again taken its place as a favorite.’

In a slightly later time, no less than Joseph Haydn tackled the same subject, this time as an oratorio: ‘I’m always delighted and amused by what the eighteenth century — one of the most mannered and formal periods in Western history — considered “lacking in artifice.” However, whatever my personal opinion (coming, as it does, from a casual and fairly spontaneous contemporary American Midwesterner), that was one of the major points of praise by his contemporaries for Joseph Haydn’s oratorio, The Seasons.’

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Our What Not is this time the question of what is some ones’ favourite Tolkien and Kage had an interesting choice: ‘I’m going for heresy and saying ‘Farmer Giles of Ham’. Especially with the original illustrations by Pauline Diana Baynes. It’s a perfect witty fable, a little gem of storytelling. Tolkien didn’t write much short fiction, and it’s a pity — he was perhaps more accomplished in the short form. He didn’t write much comedic material, either, which is also a pity, because he was good at it. Heroic seriousness and tragic declines of kingdoms and the suffering of hobbit protagonists suit tastes more refined than mine, I’m afraid; myself, I’m one of the groundlings. I like it when the man in the funny mask steps onstage.’

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I think a bit of lively music in the form of ‘Red Barn Stomp’ to show us out this edition will do nicely.  Recorded sometime in June of 1990 in Minneapolis by the Oysterband (with June Tabor there as well) as  they were on tour in support of their Little Rock to Leipzig album where you can find another version of this tune.  Ian Tefler, a band member, tells me that the name was chosen to sound trad. It featured John Tefler calling the tune and very neatly incorporates the actually trad tune, ‘The Cornish Six-Hand Reel’ in it as well.

About Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.
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