1 - Pagan Arts
I doubt that these observations are especially original (although they may well be controversial), but it struck me the other day that the ‘pagan arts’ are decidedly peculiar and must give non-pagans a distorted view of what pagans are. This revelation came when looking at the covers of books in a shop. You know the shelves I mean. Four hundred yards of teenage witch, half a shelf on things vaguely Celtic, two of which have Druid in the title, neither of which would know a Druid if one bit them in the ankle.
With very few exceptions, these books had covers that were identical in style to those found on the books in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section. The exceptions are coy pictures of the author trying to look attractive, spiritual, and profound at the same time – and failing.
Not only that, the designs were uniform in their use of graphics, colour, and the depiction of the human form. Non-pagans could be forgiven for thinking that paganism is either a kind of soft pornography or that only superficially attractive young women need apply. Sorry, young women with pointed ears. And wings. And those damned clothes that just will not stay on.
This propensity for perfection and nudity particularly afflicts pagan magazines. In some, it is unremitting, page after page. And the only time there is any relief from this almost fascistic delight in the body beautiful is with pictures of strange creatures or wimpy looking wizards who bear a striking resemblance to Terry Pratchett (he whose name must not be besmirched).
Now, I enjoy well-produced pictures on pagan themes. The wallpaper on my computer is John Duncan’s ‘Riding of the Sidhe’, I have a print of Richard Dadd’s ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ on my wall. I have always gone weak at the knees for a William Morris & Co Arthurian tapestry or stained glass window. However, I fail to see what the romping sprites of ‘pagan art’ have to do with paganism, let alone the faeries they are presumably meant to depict. Perhaps it’s a deficiency on my part – I’m quite willing to concede that – but my being Druid has nothing to do with fantasy, no more than the Faerie folk I have been privileged to encounter look anything like the twee creatures of these artists’ imaginations.
The same goes for music (while we’re at it – and just you try to stop me). Pagan music? What’s that? I have listened to a lot of these bands and musicians who call themselves pagan. They try so hard to be pagan that everything else goes by the board. The music that most of them produce is both insipid and faux whilst the lyrics are toe-curlingly bad. I know that my friends (yes, I’ve got some) will point out that my musical tastes were frozen in the late 70s, but I find all the pagan inspiration I need in the music I have from that period. The songs were not consciously trying to be anything (let alone pagan), but accurately reflected the zeitgeist – love, peace, and a fresh, green world in which nobody suffers. Such sentiments may be clichés to some – to me they are the essence of paganism and the heart of my Druid path.
By that definition, Kate Bush produced pagan songs (overtly so), so did Genesis (in the early days), Peter Gabriel, Roy Harper, Hawkwind (yes, I know, we all have our little quirks – or is it quarks?), Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, The Nice, Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd... and I haven’t even mentioned all those folk-rock combinations (and the gorgeous Sandy Denny), the mighty Incredibles, Loreena Mckennitt... Anyway, you get the picture. And if you don’t believe me, go and listen to these people.
I could go on. Poetry, novels, plays... I don’t suppose it will be that long before we have an espousal of pagan architecture or pagan film making (on which I could fill several more columns and probably will – King Arthur? Boudicca? [on which Mel Gibson now has his sticky hands] my heart breaks at the way in which our heritage is mangled). No doubt, there are pagan potters who cover their work with twee creatures.
My point is, if you are Druid (or any other kind of pagan) and true to the spirit of that, everything you do is Druid. If you write a poem or song about a tree, it doesn’t have to mention a Celtic deity in every other line – Taliesin and Myrddin didn’t. If you paint a picture, the subject you choose and the way in which you portray it will invariably reflect what you are without it having to contain cavorting, semi-nude sylphs.
My being Druid is not a retreat from reality, but an engagement with it. That is, the real world of the twenty-first century. I might express that in terms of Celtic deities and with rituals, I certainly write a lot of stuff (poetry included), but there has always been a great deal more to it than that. Everything I do, including the weekly shop at the supermarket, is a reflection of my Druid nature. It does not need dressing up in the clothes of fantasy. But that’s enough from me, as I want to get back to reading Catherine Fisher’s The Relic Master (an exciting fantasy replete with wizards, strange creatures, and four sequels).
2 - Cinéma Vérité?
At this time of year, we are bombarded with movies on our televisions, right down to the ‘traditional’ screening of war movies on Christmas Day. As I was allowed a bit of a rant about Pagan Art (so-called) in the previous issue, I’ve been given the opportunity to upset some more people and have a bit of a grumble1 about the state of film (and in that I will include television programmes). This is based not so much on what might be called pagan film because there simply isn’t such a thing (although there are some excellent, if rare, pagan films - Chocolat springs to mind). Rather, my concern is about the very basis of Druidry – Truth – and how it seems to wither at the first scent of celluloid.
There have been some wonderful examples in the last few years on both the small and the large screen. The accusation of leaving Truth at the door is well founded when it comes to Hollywood movies, especially those that deal with ‘real’ events. However, they are not alone. Go to any television production facility in this country and you’ll find the same sad, dejected figure of Truth locked out and weeping – especially when it comes to documentaries.
However, we cannot be biased. Truth is a heavy casualty in fiction as well. Take several recent series that have dealt with Merlin, Arthur, and Boudicca. The first two were American productions; the latter a British travesty all of its own. We cannot fault these productions on acting. They weren’t top quality (despite some of the big names involved), but they were infinitely better than General Hospital or Sunset Beach (or so I'm told). Production values were also reasonable. But please, tell me why, when there is so much beautiful and fantastic literature on Arthur and Merlin, with superb dialogue that could be lifted word for word without fear of a law suit, with imagery and complexity of story never since bettered in the whole of English literature, with a deep understanding of the underlying pagan ethos, with love, passion, magic... why when we have all those things do we have hack writing, storytelling a three-year-old could manage better, and whole swathes of stuff borrowed from elsewhere? Why? Please, someone tell me why? Why claim you are producing an authentic Dark Age story and then make up all the costumes, use the wrong kind of horses, have your Romans in uniforms that would have had them flogged and drummed out of their Legion? Why introduce elements of Faerie into the Merlin story that were never in the original texts and ignore the ones that were? And I haven’t even started on Boudicca.
The Queen of the Iceni is particularly important to me. I lived for a while in her tribal heartland and I learned a great deal about what happened when she tried to rid Britain of the invader that had destroyed her and her daughters. And she came so close... so tantalisingly close. How different the world may have been, had she destroyed the four Legions in Britain and encouraged Gaul to rise up once again. Rome could have been destroyed completely and half the world would be talking Celtic and very possibly still going to Druids for advice. But I digress (mi?). Boudicca is not just important to me, she is an iconic historical figure, and she deserves far better than the pathetic effort of Andrew Davies (where did they get those horses?) and the absolute travesty that is planned by Mel Gibson, who will no doubt slant the story to make her a Catholic who hated the English.
Documentaries are just as shoddy. Indeed, it could be argued that we should allow makers of fictional works some license. Documentary makers have no such luxury. Yet I have lost count of the number of one-offs and series that display an ignorance of basic historical facts that is both breathtaking and frightening. And from people who should know better. Francis Prior did a reasonable job, for example, with his series Britain BC although even there he (or his producer) could not resist the temptation to bring in excessive amounts of talk about sacrifice based on absolutely no proof whatsoever. As for Britain AD, he displayed an ignorance of Arthurian legend that made me weep and scream at the television screen (not an unusual occurrence in our household). Nor did any of his arguments hold together. Excalibur (sic), we know, was an exceptional sword. Francis Prior told us as much. Then asked us to accept that the pulling of the sword from the stone was a memory of Bronze Age metal casting methods. Well. Excalibur (sic) was not the sword pulled from the stone. And what is remarkable about a sword pulled from a stone if that’s how they were all made in the Bronze Age? If ever a man talked such drivel...
And Druids. Why is it that Druids (past and present) are never portrayed accurately? Why are they either wet lettuce New-Agers, the media tarts we see occasionally in power suits talking very reasonably, or rabid loonies who eat babies? Why is magic never mentioned without a background of lowering skies, skeletal trees, and the occasional raven (or even full-time raven)? Why do television producers and film makers pick on the weird ones, the ones most of us would cross the street to avoid? How do they find them?
There are, of course, good films and there is good television, but it is rare. So I would like to raise a challenge. I want to hear from you about those good films and television programmes, the ones that are pagan, truthful, accurate, and worth watching (because dull can be just as off-putting as inaccurate). Even better, if you know anyone who runs a production company and has a few million to spare, let me have their phone number because I just happen to have some scripts here...
1 - grouse, carp, bleat, beef, crab... why so many animal connected synonyms? Perhaps they have most to moan about.
© Grace Forester
These articles first appeared in GreenWay (Editions 4 & 5), the magazine of the Hedge Druid Network.