Something Old, Something New by Dennis Hamley
At my time of life I didn’t expect to find myself accepting a writing challenge utterly new to me. But that’s what has happened and I feel elated and yet, though I’ve made a start and am fairly pleased so far, I still have a nagging fear that it may not turn out well after all.
In my June blog, I told how I had , with some misgivings, accepted Margaret Quon’s invitation to write the copy describing all her products for the website for her new online shop. Copywriting was something I’d never done before. It seemed to me a specific skill which needed a special training (though, looking at what passes for persuasive prose in most advertisements, I didn’t think it could be very good). But I started it, warmed to the task and Margaret was pleased.
Then came another challenge. Looking back, I can’t remember which of us first suggested it. It suddenly stood there, a definite, cut and dried decision to do it. Margaret is starting a project to sell birthstone earrings and I would write a birthstone story for each month.
Garnets for January
Birthstones are ancient . When did the tradition start? Tradition says in India and Tibet. The first reference widely identified is their appearance on Aaron’s breastplate as described in the Old Testament Book of Exodus . Here, the twelve stones stand for the twelve tribes of Israel. Later, they were given astrological significance because they more or less coincided with the signs of the Zodiac. They also appear in a series of medieval poems connected to the Gregorian calendar. At the same time, each individual stone has its own history and, crucially, its own set of qualities and powers.
It was these powers which worried me. I found that the supposed qualities inherent in each stone formed a strong selling point in some websites. Some could bring you good luck, clear thought, the ability to make good decisions. Others were more specific. They could guard you from illness, make you immune to witchcraft and black magic (always useful) and stop you having nightmares. Some were regarded as healing stones.
Well, this is all right if you approach them with a wry smile and a pinch of salt. But it really did seem to me that some selling sites presented them as actual qualities. I even found one which gave a list of common complaints and which stones prevented them, though they did have the grace, in the small print, to say that you should consult your doctor as well.
I’d encountered this in the first product blurbs. I got over it by qualifying every statement with weasel words such as ‘tradition has it’, or ‘it is said’ or ‘our ancestors believed’. But I knew I wouldn't get away with this in a story. The more I thought about it, the more limited the possibilities seemed to become. The centrepiece of each story had to be, surely, the act of giving itself. So the January story could show a husband saying to his wife, ‘It’s your birthday on New Year’s Day so I’m giving you a birthstone garnet. It will ensure friendliness and fidelity.’ On the 7th of January she might come up to him and say. ‘That garnet's good. I’ve been friendly and faithful for a whole week so it must be working.’
Well, no, actually, it wasn’t. This ‘story’ has a beginning and a middle - and then a questionable end which won't shift many earrings. And I couldn’t see any variations on this rather doubtful theme which would keep my audience beyond the middle of February. A problem. What could I do about it?
Aquamarine for March
I had to present the birthstones as objects of mystery and attraction. The central situation of giver and recipient remains because the gifting is the whole point. I had to make the point of the mystical properties inherent in each stone forcefully and find a way of not needing weasel words which would destroy the entire effect. To me, the actual existence of mystical properties in inanimate slices of mineral is a load of unadulterated old cobblers, but I do believe that there is power in their metaphorical and imaginative significance. I understand it in others and share it myself. And there’s the history and mythology of the birthstones which, though vague and misty, indicates an ancient and general provenance. How could I suggest all that weight of tradition?
The answer flashed on me in a mixture of relief and fear. The only answer had to be pure fantasy. I’ve read loads of fantasies, some wonderful, some, to be charitable, not so good. Yet I admire them all because this is a genre I’ve never attempted. Perhaps some who have read them would class the three books in the Hare Trilogy, Hare’s Choice, Badger’s Fate, Hawk’s Vision, as fantasy, but I’ve never thought so. I see them- and intended them – as magic realist. There is, I think, a big difference.
I used the term ‘pure fantasy’. But I don’t quite know what it is. if it exists at all. However, when I reviewed my options, it seemed to me that what I was about to write wasn’t far off. The amorphous nature of the birthstones’ history offered almost limitless possibilities once it was removed from the everyday. I had to find a provenance, a foundation, which gave shape and structure from the outset and yet be part of the fantasy. So, tentatively, I began to write the first story for July. The Ruby.
When I think of birthstones I see in my mind’s eye a round table, at which are seated thirteen women. One sits on a throne. Her face is noble and kind. The Guardian of the Birthstones. The others are misty and vague. I cannot make out their features. But in front of each is a velvet cushion and on it lies a gem of startling colour, each one different – blue, red, green, subtle white and clearest crystal. Their shapes are sharp and hard-edged. It is their Bearers who are indistinct.
Would this work? It is out of time, out of space, in another dimension. It has associations with Camelot and the Round Table. Is it too idealised? Will the reader accept it? The Bearers will shoulder the main actions of each story, because they are the givers? Who are they? Who are will receive their stones?
The answer as I saw it was to range over the whole of history and pre-history and insert the birthstones into different ancient societies and mythologies. In this way, perhaps the mystic qualities could be 'givens' without jarring anyone’s sensibilities. Which societies? Which mythologies?
My first effort, for July and the Ruby, would be a simple story and I would visit a pre-Christian, Celtic Ireland, in the time perhaps of Cuchulain. A time of wars between the Tuathas (tribes).
Rubies for July
Sorcha shudders. She knows this is no real crow. This is the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of war, death and bloodshed, who is a shapeshifter and can take any form she wants.
The Morrigan speaks. “Sorcha, your visions are true. Your husband and sons are dead. Your people are destroyed.” Then the goddess in bird’s shape flies away,
In despair, Sorcha almost plunges into the Corrib to be swept out to sea in Galway Bay. But then …
Might this be where Sorcha saw the Morrigan?
“Sorcha?” A new voice, soft but strong. Sorcha looks up.
A woman stands before her. A sweet face, shining black hair, and a coat of many colours. Sorcha sees beauty, grace and strength. “Who are you?” she asks.
“My name is Simha. I am a Bearer of the Birthstones and I bring you a gift.”
“It is too late for gifts. My life is over.”
So the Bearer is Simha, from India. But how can she be from India when the Birthstone round table is outside time and space? Another problem.
Simha presents the ruby.
'This is yours.”
“No!” Sorcha, horrified, cries out. “It is the colour of blood. I have seen too much blood in my dreams.”
“You are wrong, Sorcha. Blood is the colour of life, not death. This ruby brings life.”
“What is life without my husband and sons?”
“Never believe the Morrigan,” says Simha. “She spreads misery. I spread joy.”
So Simha escorts Sorcha back to Gorsia and there they find … Well, whatever they found, this seemed a simple formula which worked. But the operative word is ‘formula’, the kiss of death to a writer. However the project had made a start, the first story, a mere 913 words, was in the can and some problems seemed solved. But I knew this formula, was limited and could not extend over a whole year and keep its interest. I had to find ways to expand.
There were new questions. How could Simha come from India and yet also sit at some table in the sky? Was there a reason for the existence of the Round Table? I decided that the second story would carry on the same formula as the first though be more complex. it might help me sort out some of these answers.
Peridot for August
Once again we are at the Round Table and the Guardian is asking who is the Bearer of the peridot, the August stone. Almost for the first time it occurred to me that the Guardian shouldn’t need to ask. Anyway, the Bearer is Ahyoka, a Native American of the Cherokee tribe. How and why did she get there all the way from Arizona? She is very young and the peridot is a stone of a light, hazy green. An unnamed bearer sneers. ‘’A weak, pallid emerald. And you are a mere weak child.’
What? A dysfunctional bearer? Definitely a theme to be developed. An idea, as hazy as the peridot, is forming. Could this sneerer be a sort of anti-bearer? How has she infiltrated the Table? I think of Odile/Odette, black swan/white swan in Swan Lake. I couldn’t invade the story told in a ballet, surely?
But Ahyoka is now on her way, to Aotearoa, New Zealand as we know it, and into early Maori society. On the shore of Lake Pukaki, under the great snowcapped mountain Aoraki, sits Marika, who has a problem. She has two suitors. Which shall she choose?
Aoraki and Lake Pukaki, where Marika and Ahyoka meet.
Ahyoka offers Marika the green peridot. But Marika refuses it in horror. Her people already have the greenstone. Pounamu is sacred to the Maori and her people, the Ngai Tahu, are its special guardians. To accept another green stone would make her a traitor.
How Ahyoka tries to convince Marika that taking the peridot would not betray her people is the crux of the story and when Marika makes her decision the outcome of her choice of husband and how she makes it are, I hope, true to human nature and understanding. For that to happen, readers must test its truth from their own experience. This to me is the real point of fantasy, just as I think it is the real point of the serious ghost story. Whatever alternative world it takes place in, whatever mythology it tries to enter, what Margery Fisher called ‘a way of imaging some of the deepest and most enigmatic processes of the human heart and will’ remains its deep structure and inner purpose and that is what these stories will try to embody. For this reason I don’t accept the concept of ‘pure fantasy’ and if it does exist I don’t think I’d find it worth reading.
Anyway, that’s my new task. I find it hard work but really fascinating. But time is short and I have to apply serious thought to the next story and discover what new departure will keep the series developing. And when it’s all done, I think I shall turn all twelve into a single book. Strangely, that’s only just occurred to me.
Sorry this has been so long. Next up, Sapphire.