The second installment of Nils Visser’s guest blog.
In Part One of this guest blog, I delved into my own past to explain how the spiritual elements in the Wyrde Woods books (Escape from Neverland & Dance into the Wyrd) came about, focusing specifically on the religions I encountered as a child when I lived in Thailand and Nepal.
My stay in Nepal was not to be the last foreign sojourn, followed as it was by extended stays in East Africa, the United States, England, Egypt, and France. Much of the rest of my adolescence (Africa and the US) was mostly focused on the hopeless pursuit of romantic interests and drinking too much beer, though there were times when I would have a spell of fascination with local shamanic traditions, mostly African (with its emphasis on honouring your ancestors) and Native American, specifically Lakotan culture, which has remarkable similarities to the Anglo-Saxon Wyrd.
Real interest was rekindled in my early twenties when I was living in Canterbury, England. Recalling the words of the Lama, I looked beyond the relatively new Christian traditions to discover the far older religions of the British Isles. As you can probably imagine, with my spirituality much influenced by the colourful myriad of Gods and Goddesses, spirits and demons of the Buddhist, Hindu, and shamanic beliefs in Asia, I was much taken by Celtic Britain and what is known of Celtic religion. I began to read on the subject, which led me to the Arthurian Cycle soon enough, and for years after I devoured everything I could find: Fiction, non-fiction, serious studies, conspiracy-theory-esque stuff…you name it, I read it. The Mabinogion and works by John and Caitlin Matthews became my constant companions. I went on pilgrimages to Glastonbury, not the town, but the sacred wells and the Tor. I even started writing the beginning of a novel, my own take on Arthur, which I never completed.
Back in Kent, at full moon on clear nights, I would wander off into the woods, much to the delight of my border collie, and we would roam all night. I delighted in the connections I felt with the land on nights like that. Twice, I saw those connections very clearly, in the form of a multitude of coloured strands which formed complex webs between trees, rocks, hillocks. These coloured lines weren’t solid threads, rather they seemed to be made of energy, with a slight flicker and electrical aura. It’s hard to describe, and it might sound a bit crazy, but they were there, clearly so for spells of some ten minutes. I also messed with some stuff I was unprepared for and had been warned to avoid until I was truly ready, after which I distanced myself from the spiritual world somewhat, having become wary of the potential dangers – something I really should have known given my experiences in Asia.
I found myself in the Netherlands again, and the next two decades were more or less committed to career and long-term relationship, worries about bills and the mortgage taking precedence over more abstract matters, other than a few incidents – always on holiday in England – during which I was keenly aware of presences, both benevolent and malevolent…reminders of that other world (some of which made it into the Wyrde Woods years later).
Life had become rather mundane, but I was content until everything began to fall apart. After twenty-one years, the relationship died, I got depressed, lost my job and – seemingly in the blink of an eye –, found myself alone, without a job, homeless, and generally without any sense of purpose. I couldn’t get my head around it, I couldn’t comprehend the sudden change in fortune, couldn’t fathom why I should draw another breath.
Clutching at straws, I decided to make my way to Glastonbury…to Avalon, which I had continued to visit throughout the years, and where something magical always seemed to happen…and I was in need of some magic, believe you me.
I touched down in Kent, but before heading west, I stopped by Whitstable, to visit C.J. Stone, an author whose writing I much admire, and whom I knew from my previous residential spell in Kent.
When we were talking about his books over a pint in the pub, I dropped that I had been playing around with the notion of rekindling my own writing ambitions. CJ’s reaction was lack-lustre, which I now understand better because whenever I tell people I write books, usually the first thing I hear is that they too might write a book one day.
I stumbled and fumbled when CJ asked what my book might be about, because I hadn’t really thought it through, other than that I wanted something that touched upon the undercurrent of the English psyche.
His advice was short and didn’t make any sense to me at the time. “Find the Wyrd,” he said. “Find the Wyrd, and the rest will come to you.”
I continued my journey to Glastonbury, increasingly dubious about my fervent hope that I would find answers, or anything at all to help me climb out of that deep, dark pit I had ended up in. I had already learned not to go actively looking for Avalon’s magic. If it happened, it would be unexpected. So it was this time.
Wandering about the town, I passed an esoteric bookshop, and decided to go in to see if there was anything on Arthur or Merlin which I hadn’t read before. It was a feeble attempt, for over the years I had lost much of my passion on this subject. No matter how hard I tried, the Celtic world, fascinating as it is, always seemed to elude me somehow, as if I couldn’t grasp it properly and make it mine, the way I had done with Thai and Nepali culture in my youth. So much for the Lama’s advice to look for wisdom at home, had become my cynical conclusion.
It quickly became clear that I had come to the right place. There were scores of books on Arthur and Merlin, and hundreds of books on Celtic history, spirituality, and culture, not to mention reams of fiction with firm Celtic roots. However, my eye fell on a single book: The Way of the Wyrd, by Brian Bates.
“Find the Wyrd,” CJ had said, and lo and behold… coincidence or synchronicity?
Studying the book, I reflected on the irony of being in an English bookshop which had hundreds of books reflecting the culture of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and seemingly just the one book related to the Anglo-Saxon culture. To be sure, I asked the shop owner if he stocked anything else to do with the Anglo-Saxons – other than as bearded, ale-chugging, fur-clad, and rowdy enemies of the Dux Bellorum and his warriors of Camelot. He looked at me as if I was crazy, which was answer enough.
All sorts of realisations struck me at once. The first was that I had rejected the Lama’s words too hastily. “Look at home,” he had said. I believe that there is some kind of ancestral memory in all of us, but never really considered that I am descended from Frisian and Flemish stock, the Folk of Wotan, branches of which had settled in England not even all that long ago. That was the ‘home’ I should have looked into, instead of becoming obsessed with the neighbours, the Celts, and then becoming disappointed because that culture somehow remained elusive. I still love the Celtic tales, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland…but my deepest attachment has always been to England. There is no place where I have ever felt so fully at home (and I’ve lived in a fair few places), and felt so…connected.
I bought Way of the Wyrd, climbed the Tor, and read it up there in one sitting. By the time I came down, I knew that I was going to write a book, and, because so few other people seemed to be doing so, place the story in an Anglo-Saxon context. It wasn’t much of a plan, but I had nothing to lose, and nothing else to be gunning for, and for the first time in some years, I felt a spark of hope, as well as a sense of homecoming, so why not? I had nothing to lose, for I had nothing, and for the first time I perceived that as a blessing of sorts. That was the beginning of the Wyrde Woods, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, the beginning of a new life (I now live in Sussex).
Back in the Netherlands, I started researching the old Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as the wider Folk of Wotan context, for I truly knew very little about my own cultural heritage, other than they had been opponents of my hero Arthur – often portrayed as brutal barbarians.
Looking into the word ‘Wyrd’, I ran into a similar word, ‘Wyrde’, which is Anglo-Saxon for ‘word’. Struck by the similarity between the two words, I coined the name Wyrde Woods, for I liked the notion of a fictional woods existing only within a story, i.e. made real by words, and thus called Word Woods, with the Wyrd playing a large part in it.
I also read a lot of old folk tales, and I was struck by a sense of loss. So much has been displaced, by a combination of the Victorian cutification of the Fair Folk, focus on Celtic tales, a staple diet of the Brothers Grimm, and further simplification by Disney movies. Dig a little, however, and there is a rich mine of Anglo-Saxon folklore waiting to be (re)discovered. Go for a walk and it won’t be long before you run into a hill, copse, stream, or vale that is home to an almost forgotten dragon, witch, faery, or giant.
I wanted the Wyrde Woods to reflect that. There would be ‘fairies’, but none of the cute stuff. Instead, I wanted the Saxon Pucan, or Pooks, sometimes called Pharisee/Farisee in the Broad Sussex dialect. These were the capricious Fae that folk were warned to stay well clear of, the ones with a mean streak. Feeling audacious, I ‘borrowed’ Oberon, Titania, and Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because they are my favourite characters in my favourite play, feature in my favourite Blake painting, and to me represented that far older Fae tradition before contemporary cutification.
I selected a lot of Sussex locations and folklore, and casually moved it all into my fictional Wyrde Woods in the Sussex Weald, adding elements from Kent, Somerset, Cornwall, and the Isle of Skye for good measure. I then changed bits and pieces around to suit my narrative or invented wholly new elements.
Way of the Wyrd was my main source for understanding Anglo-Saxon magic. I liked the notion of wise women and wise men who weren’t necessarily all-powerful wizards, but who were able to see a different world than most, the kind of world teeming with spirits, Pooks, demons, and other supernatural elements. In short, I returned to the animistic shamanism which had formed my own understanding of the spiritual world in my childhood. Noting how important healing and herbalism was, I inserted elements of that into the story as well. The Anglo-Saxon notion that a human life is temporary and therefore land is not so much owned as taken care of for the benefit of future generations has been worked into the Wyrde Woods as well.
I refrained from signposting everything in Neverland and Dance, to prevent the whole thing becoming a pedantic lecture. There is a sense that the Pooks and other beings are there, but not quite there in the story. They might well be lurking around the corner to appear any minute, or then again, they might not. Some events may have been partially caused by magical interference, or perhaps not. If you have read the books, you may, or may not, be surprised to find out that Wenn’s mum makes an appearance on two occasions. One reader was disappointed that the promised Fair Folk seemed to be missing, much to my surprise, because they play a major part in the story. There’s usually one or two of them present just about continuously, but don’t go looking for pointy ears.
The mythical tale of the wedding of the Green Man and the Red Queen is enacted around a fire on a hilltop, much as would happen in the old days. The ceremony is described, but there is no reference to this being an ancient and important Anglo-Saxon ritual, just as something that happened in the story. Readers with knowledge of the old festivals are likely to recognise it, but there is no harm done if they don’t. Herne’s Hunt, on the other hand, receives a bit more contextual background, as do rituals entirely of my own devising – but rooted in my personal experiences of shamanist beliefs around the world.
So is it Wicca? Not quite, but I’m reasonably confident that most Wiccans would recognise a great deal in the story, although they may be left puzzled because sometimes things might seem almost right, but not quite, simply because there could be faint echoes of Thailand and Nepal in there, or simply make-believe elements which I believed furthered the story. After all, Neverland and Dance are meant to be works of fiction, not accurate non-fictional treatises.
What I can tell you, is that there is something strangely magical about the books. I have mentioned that I blatantly stole a great many parts of the Wyrde Woods from England and Scotland. Not every corner of the Wyrde Woods though, some places came from my imagination as I was writing, such as the Whychmaze and the ruins of Tuckersham Church…
…or so I thought at the time…
There have been a few occasions over the past few years, during which I visited places in Sussex where I had never been before, only to come to a dead stop, Goosebumps all over, and a shiver running down my spine. I recognised these places instantly as Wyrde Woods locations which I had previously assumed to be products of my weird mind, only to find out that they were there all the time, for real.
I can only assume that I’ve found the Wyrd, or else the Wyrd has found me. Welcome to the Wyrde Woods.