Still Dreaming of the Middle Ages

I spent much of last week in the Middle Ages, as you know. I emerged about lunch time yesterday. The thing about an academic conference is that it doesn’t present a picture of the whole subject. It’s a bit here and a bit there from what the scholars are currently researching. The subject specialisation is wonderful (such interesting research!), but fitting it all together can be problematic.

This week I’m back into my own contemporary research. The first thought I had when I picked up a book about contemporary Irish folklore was that I have contexts for it. In fact, I went to Ireland before the world went awry and I worked very hard to develop those contexts. Do I have contexts for the Middle Ages?

The answer is, of course I do. I spent many years of my life developing them. I started when I was eighteen and learned Old French in second year university and have never quite stopped. I learned new things then found out that I didn’t understand where those new things came from nor what their companions were, culturally and historically speaking. One of my big dreams has always been to understand. This includes understanding what I know and how I know it, and continuing to learn and to frame my knowledge so that I can learn more about subjects that I think I might be beginning to understand. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do this full-on for the Middle Ages. By ‘a while’ I mean since The Middle Ages Unlocked was released. Since then, I keep it all together by going to conferences and reading books and teaching and talking and by using it in my fiction. To maintain the complex reality of a subject this rich is wonderful place to be, intellectually. I’ll never know everything or understand everything, but it’s so fulfilling to continue learning.

In my library I have a selection of books that I recommend to people as doorways into the Middle Ages I know. The period is so much more interesting than the popular Middle Ages, so it would be very churlish of me to keep it to myself. Also, there are a lot of trashy books out there. I like to introduce people to good books.

I walked past my shelf. The question I asked as I let my brain wander was what subject didn’t I encounter last week that I want to introduce people to? Medicine. Medicine is so important. The way the wider public talks about medicine in the Middle Ages mostly bears little relationship to actual medicine in the Middle Ages. This popular view creeps into some of the best fantasy novels.

I thought about medicine last week. Monica Green was in the audience at a panel I was also in the audience for. I didn’t talk to her. I was shy. Her work is utterly amazing. It’s also seldom a 101 guide for the topic.

There are two books I send people to, first, and, when they say “I need more” I nod sagely and tell them to look for the work of Monica Green. Here’s the book by Green that I need to add to my library sometime, just so that you have a Green title to look for . There are also two lovely volumes by Tony Hunt on Anglo-Norman medicine check here and here , but they’re for after you’ve read a lot of Green and feel up to looking at an edition of medical texts (it also really helps to read Old French). And that’s just the beginning. Medieval European medicine is a big subject, and the European Middle Ages is just a small part of what was happening in the wider world at that time. That’s why I try to find one or two books to suggest to get people started. If you begin with the whole world, then the subject is too big. Since I am, by training and knowledge a European Medievalist, the countries I know best (France and England) tend to dominate my recommendations.

The two books that I suggest starting with (especially to historical fiction and fantasy writers) are Nancy Siraisi’s Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine  and Carole Rawcliffe’s Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England.  Because I haven’t looked at new introductions to medieval medicine for a few years, there might be something else that has emerged that I know not yet of. Medieval Studies is a vast field and there is often something new and exciting and intellectually vibrant to look for.

Now my mind has wandered to Montpellier. A year or two after I had sorted out the underlying patterns and structures and just how things happened in the various worlds of Medieval medicine, I was in Montpeller. Montpellier was my research base for my novel Langue[dot]doc 1305. I had to go to hospital, just for two hours, my first day there. It amused me no end that the hospital I went to was one I knew about from my forays into the Middle Ages. It was a university hospital and the only one that didn’t limit its teaching of medicine to Christians in the very Christian part of the Middle Ages. One day I’d like to go to Salerno, and visit the campus there, the one that was famous for teaching women how to be doctors in the Middle Ages.

And now it’s so close to my Tuesday morning that I think I might sleep. If any of you are interested in me turning this into a series “Books you can read about the Middle Ages” (to appear on this blog on Mondays, when I feel like it) then please let me know, because it would be fun to write.

My favourite Medieval werewolf, or, Marie ai num si sui de France

I’m a few hours late today and I’m writing this with the sound of the Roman de Fauvel (a Medieval musical satire) in the background. I’m at the 2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies. If I’m going to be one of the ways writers learn about the Middle Ages, I need to maintain my knowledge and the congress is online this year. The last time I was able to go was in 1984.

Because I’m firmly fixed in the Middle Ages at this moment and because I delivered my paper at 5.15 am my time, I thought… maybe this week you’d like the text I used as a case study in my paper? It’s short and it’s cool and there are translations readily available on the internet. In fact, let me give you several of the links I referred to in my paper. I’m sorry about the formatting, but I’m sneaking this post into time I don’t really have. I’ll introduce the work itself in a moment:

Judith Shoaf, Introduction to the lais https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/marie_lais/

Judith Shoaf, translation Bisclavret https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/files/bisclavret.pdf

Eugene Mason translation Bisclavret 1911 translation at Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11417/11417-h/11417-h.htm#VIII

ARLIMA on Marie de France (including Bisclavret) https://www.arlima.net/mp/marie_de_france.html

Marie de France wrote in Old French, and is famous for her lais. She is, in fact, one of the most important writers in Old French, and if you love fantasy fiction and stories about the knights of Arthur, she’s more than worth visiting. The lais are long poems that tell stories. It’s that simple. Except that when I say ‘long’ I’m comparing the lais to modern short poetry. They’re not long compared to some other forms of Medieval poetry. It’s like the difference between a novella (the novella representing Marie’s work) and a big fantasy blockbuster series where each novel is long and readers seldom stop after just one novel (the chansons de geste – the French term for them is generally translated as ‘epic legend’ but… they’re not quite that.)

Bisclavret is the story of a knight-werewolf, who is tricked by his wife into remaining in wolf shape. It took the help of a good lord for him to return to his human body. (The Roman de Fauvel is satirical and so I’m full of bad puns.) I don’t want to explain the plot any more than that, because Marie’s story is so worth reading. Just remember that Medieval customs were not the same as ours. One person said happily on Goodreads, for instance “GAY WEREWOLF GAY WEREWOLF GAY WEREWOLF’ but the Medieval church would have caused much trouble for the two men if that were so. I do like this as a modern interpretation, however.

There was a Late Medieval Jewish reinterpretation of Bisclavret and it’s the strangest misogynist story. Since I write about books every Monday, if you’re interested I can introduce you to it and to some of the other stories in the volume in which it appears.

Today is short and sweet, because I have a meeting in a few minutes. I can’t think of a better way of spending the next few minutes than introducing yourself to Bisclavret.

Children’s books can play mind games

I’m writing late today, because it’s my birthday. In fact, I’m writing so late that my birthday is already finished in Australia. My birthday is on a public holiday. In a normal year, I’d probably introduce you to a book that tells the history of that public holiday, but the history of that public holiday is very military and there is enough of that in our everyday right now. If you’re curious, the day is ANZAC Day and the history is the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

‘ANZAC’ stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so I’ll give you one of my favourite Australian novels written by a New Zealand writer, as a compromise. Ruth Park moved to Sydney in 1942, where she married another writer of classic Australian books, D’Arcy Niland. I’ll introduce his The Shiralee one day.

I have several favourite books by Park: The Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange, and, of course all the stories of the Muddle-Headed Wombat. I suspect The Muddle-Headed Wombat was one of the first books I read outside school textbooks, in fact. I obtained my own copy of it in my teens and have never let anyone borrow it. My copy of The Muddle-Headed Wombat is pristine, however, compared to my copy of Playing Beatie Bow. I have maybe half a dozen books read so often that they cannot hold together, and this is one of them.

It’s set in Sydney, and is a time slip novel and… it’s almost impossible for me to describe. It’s been filmed and the film is charming but slight and the book is far more haunting and simply one of the best time slip novels out there.

Some books I read and re-read because they remind me of things I ought never forget. Playing Beatie Bow came out when I was an undergraduate, studying history. It became an instant reminder to me that history can happen as a narrative, as a spiral, as layers in time and more: history is not a simple thing.

I had only been to Sydney very briefly when I first read the novel. It suggested a society that was very different to the one I knew. More poor and urban and complex than the suburban I knew. Park’s two Sydneys brought the place to life in a way that made me rethink my own Melbourne. I wasn’t specialising in Australian history, but I attended every public lecture about Marvellous Melbourne by John Lack and I started to shape the stories of the streets I knew and I began to see the relationship between the stories we tell, the stories we lead.

When I myself moved to Sydney, in 1983, I walked down George Street and ventured down to The Rocks and found that the district was nothing like the novel. I had to learn another kind of history, or maybe another layer. Since then, The Rocks has been rebuilt and a museum established and it’s easier to see how the different moments of the past link, but then, I studied a street corner and tried to work out how it fitted and failed. I stopped trying and instead learned about the influenza pandemic and how it changed that tiny corner of Australia.

I suspect that this is the other reason I’m thinking of Playing Beatie Bow. The Rocks are indelibly linked in my mind with that pandemic, and, of course, now we are living through our own pandemic.

I can’t review Playing Beatie Bow. I can’t even analyse its history. This is unlike me. There is another timeslip novel whose history I analyse perfectly well, and that has an even more battered cover, Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. I suspect that Park’s novel is too linked to that big change in my life, becoming an historian and, in order to do so, moving from Melbourne to Sydney. I may never be able to pull it to pieces in the same I way I pull most novels to pieces. All I can suggest, then, is that you read it for yourself.

Story Matrices – the story behind Gillian Polack’s research

Today I’m wildly busy, but also celebrating. The research I’ve talked about at science fiction conventions for years is finally in print. Thanks to Luna Press, a Scottish SF publisher with an academic branch. The book is Story matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The reason I’m so tired and so very delighted is because this book was almost lost to the world because Canberra had bushfires and the bushfires made me ill. I had a week of doing normal everyday things before COVD hit Canberra and since then I’ve not been able to go to libraries, to attend face to face meetings and so much more. I’m not entirely a well person and so I’m one of those who have spent most of COVID seeing people only online. Occasionally I get out and pretend life is normal, but I’m always wearing a mask and it’s always risky.

Despite all this, my little study of how science fiction and fantasy is important in cultural transfer and explanation is officially available. It’s not the mega-study that I had intended, but, as someone earnestly said to me a couple of months ago “it’s much easier to read than it would have been if you’d written it the way you told me you would.”

There are so many things I want to tell you about this book.

I want to talk about how hard it is to write any book through brainfog and with lungs that don’t fully work. I want to explain that air should be breathable, not riddled with particles.

I also want to talk about how difficult it was to avoid the usual explanations of writers we no longer trust. Aided by the brainfog, my first draft kept falling into bad explanations of the changing relationships between Marion Zimmer Bradley, JK Rowling and their readers. I then looked at what I wrote and realised that I was doing exactly what my book explains: I was telling stories about them that explained who they were and their life choices. But my book isn’t about their life choices nor how we react to them. That I dislike a whole bunch of things about MZB’s private life and get angry about JK Rowling’s opinions about my friends is, to be honest, not useful. These are my emotions and my ethics and my personal opinions.

I need to get past the ethical questions and the personal. My research explains that how we tell stories is damned important. I needed to understand how we include our ethics and our thoughts about others into our work, often without knowing we’re doing this. I needed to write it out clearly. That was surprisingly difficult. Now that the book is out and people can read it, I’ll find out if I’ve succeeded.

It’s urgent that we understand why harmful stereotypes keep being updated and complex understanding of human beings is only appropriate for certain kinds of novels. This is why, instead of describing my own personal reactions of this author or the other, I needed to explain how novels give us tools that support one interpretation or another. I had to explore what some of those tools are and explain how they work.

My original plan was for a comprehensive explanation that changed the world. Life reduced this to an introduction, with lots of different entry points for readers and writers, so that they can explore for themselves the bits of the world they want to change. I looked at unique culture and shared culture, at what story space is for a reader and what it is for a writer, at how we build worlds for fiction and to play in. Understanding how Rowling and MZB’s work fits into this, helps us understand how their life choices creep into their fiction and gives us the capacity to understand which parts of that fiction are good and which are worrying. It takes us past stereotyping and into how that stereotyping plays out in novels.

This book is the next step after my History and Fiction work. It’s the precursor of a deeper exploration. Right now, I’m looking at how fairy tale retellings and fantasy world building operate in certain novels. Now that Story Matrices is out, I need to deepen my understanding of how we do what we do and what that means for our writing. I especially need to understand how the nicest people can use racist and bigoted cultural elements in their work, and how the most terrible people can write immensely popular and well-written novels. I need to do this non-judgmentally, because I am also capable, as a writer, of doing all these things. Instead of saying “What a terrible thing this writer has done”, I want to look at works and say “These are the techniques the writer has used.” Readers can make their own decisions about ethics and are perfectly capable of judging for themselves, but it really helps to have useful tools.

How culture is encoded into fiction and the cultural baggage fiction carries is not a simple matter. It’s a mosaic sparkling with colour and with outlines that move and perspectives that change. It’s easier to give simple descriptions and to announce, “I understand this.” It’s so simple to hate a book without understanding what the writer has actually done, what we’re reacting to with such force. There is a price for choosing the easy route. Our everyday lives become riddled with material we read in our fiction or watch on TV or in movies, or in comics or… in any narrative.

With the best intentions in the world, we can spread prejudice and support hate. That’s the extreme case, the one that’s right now playing out in a war in Eastern Europe, in the collapse of politics in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar and in may other places. I can see those stories in the convoy folk who descended on Canberra in February and have been giving us a hard time ever since.

So much of the things we do in our lives is influenced by the stories we love. Story Matrices is one step on my journey to understanding this. In a perfect world, it will help readers and writers see what we put into novels and what we take out of them. It will give us back choices about the aspects of culture we want to accept.

Prophets and their Gifts

Right now, a lot of my research is about food. Not recipes, nor food history, but how food and foodways creep into fiction. It’ll be a long time before I have research results that I’m willing to share. Right now, I change my mind from day to day as I discover new things. Still, it’s not at all fair to leave you out of my foodways entirely, so I’m going to share with you an old favourite of mine.

In 1552, two little books appeared in the French marketplace. In my perfect world, I would own an original copy of each, but they’re rare and the author is so famous that any copies that appeared would be snapped up for an impossible sum. I own a translation of the books, into English. I could read the original (historians have some handy language tools) but haven’t ever found a modern edition. I was in France in 1995 and found the English translation there. It’s not a big book, even though it rudely fits two old books into one.

Who is this well-known author? Michel Nostradamus, who is more known as a prophet and as a physician than as a cook. Whenever I’ve encountered people who get excited when they hear his name it’s because they want to argue about prophecy. Right now, though, his background as a plague doctor is more appropriate. He was one of the best known and possibly one of the most competent plague doctors in sixteenth century France.

I considered this when I was in the emergency department of the medical side of the university at Montpellier, for he studied there and I had a mysterious disease. I didn’t have plague. But I dreamed of my favourite recipe from Nostradamus’ cookbook as I rested after the appointment and slowly recovered from what turned out to be the side effects of being bitten by a tick. The doctor laughed merrily with his assistant, when they worked out I was Australian and yet had been infected by something in England. They looked up Australia on the computer and noted all the dangerous spiders here and all the snakes and then said “And she went to England for this. York, in the rain.” The actual diagnosis took maybe a minute, and they wrote out prescriptions and descriptions for treatment when they’d finished laughing. At that precise moment I wished I had less French because I could understand every joke they made at my expense.

Nostradamus’ quince recipe was my safe hiding place, I think.

I was in Montpellier researching Langue[dot]doc 1305, but I didn’t call on that incident at all for it. The illness meant I only had a few hours of research a day, because I really wasn’t that well.

I managed to complete all my work thanks to the kind help of people at desks. Two were the senior curators of museums, masquerading as sellers-of-tickets. I asked each of them where I could go in their museum to answer a couple of questions I had. We chatted a minute and they decided to talk me through everything I needed. Two hours, in each case, with people who knew more about the precise material I needed than were in any book. One also sold me a hard-to-find book I desperately needed, so I read that during my many hours of enforced rest.

Hearing the medical jokes at my expense was the downside of having enough French, but being able to talk the Middle Ages with experts was definitely the upside. It might also have helped that I knew a fair amount already: I was asking as an SF writer, but had a PhD in Medieval History backing it.

The third desk person was at the tourist office in the town I was setting the novel in. She had copies of unusual material hiding behind the desk and brought them out for me. In return, I told her how to make Nostradamus’ version of quince jelly.

I wish I had been able to go back one more time after I had digested all that material, because there are some questions I really wanted more answers to. I live on the other side of the world, and a return visit wasn’t possible. Still, Nostradamus and his recipes have an indelible link with Langue[dot]doc 1305.

I didn’t put even a single recipe for quince jelly in the novel. I regard this as neglectful, but I can tell you now, even my mother thinks that he had a very fine recipe. She tested it, some years back.

Before My Brilliant Career

I escaped my flat some days ago, with help from a friend. Of course I thought of a book, and today I took it from my shelf so that it can talk to me while I write. Let me give you a single picture from my trip across the border into rural NSW, and then I shall introduce you to one of my favourite books about this region. There are many books written by local writers. This region has produced writers from the moment anyone who knew the alphabet lived here. This particular volume is by Miles Franklin who, according to her Sydney writer friends, was one of the most generous people imaginable, and had enviable hair.

Canberra region
picture: Gillian Polack Feb 2022

Canberra the city has mountains within it and mountains nearby. We’re so high above sea level – I’m typing from just below 650m above sea level right now, and I live at one of the lowest points – that the mountains look like hills. Before this region was decided upon as the capital of Australia, it was a place where several peoples me (today we call it Ngunawal land because the Ngunnawal are the traditional owners of more of the ACT than the other groups, but the Australian Capital Territory is more complicated than that. Our borders don’t follow the custodial boundaries. A map may help. (My favourite map is a Ngarigo map. It’s an extraordinarily lucid map that makes everything very clear– but I can’t find a copy of it online.) European settlement was mainly farms, with a church, a schoolhouse, and a couple of villages. Most of the people who lived on this land were, in fact, not European until this area became the national capital.

The Franklins were one of the local families in the nineteenth century. I have seen the old rose bushes from the Franklin property (they’re now quite wild) and been stared down by kangaroos in a part of the national park that Franklin would have known as a farm. I’ve been atop Mt Franklin (named after Miles’ family) and climbed (a little) of Mt Aggie (named after her aunt).

Miles Franklin, herself, lived in this region for the first ten years of her life. She was born in 1879, and the 54 years she lived elsewhere was mainly in cities.

Miles Franklin (actually Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) was a fascinating person. My personal favourite of her noms de plume (for she had several) was Brent of Bin Bin. There’s so much in her life that’s not generally talked about: how she supported other writers, what she did with her life outside the most famous books. The edge has gone off the fame of the novels. Most people recognise the name because Franklin’s name is on one of Australia’s most important literary awards (we all dream of this award, but I’m the wrong kind of writer for it, so dreaming will have to suffice).

Neither My Brilliant Career (the famous novel that was turned into a movie) and My Career Goes Bung (its sequel) are on my desk right now, for Franklin used her post-childhood experiences to write them. The book on my desk is tiny, and full of colour. Childhood at Brindabella is my comfort-book and is not an autobiographical novel, but an actual autobiography. Franklin’s childhood at Brindabella Station is at its heart. This book is where I discovered that we are low in lyrebirds in this region because of the US trappers in the nineteenth century, who wanted to feathers for hats. It’s where I learned about how to transport sewing machines to places that still don’t have sealed roads.

I could tell you favourite bits of it until the cows come home. It’s under 160 pages long, however, so it’s better to read it yourself. Then come to me and I will tell you how this region has changed and find you recipes from Miles’ childhood. Despite all the changes, we still have more writers per capita than we ought. Miles Franklin will always be one of the best.

Finding comfort in reading

Today I want to write about something reassuring, comforting or even cheering. The last few weeks have been isolated and the solution has meant much sleep and a bit too much discomfort and pain. This is more than somewhat typical of the lives of far too many of us right now.

I explored my library for comfort reading. Normally, when in crisis or misery, I’d take a large stack of books off the shelves and pile them to be read until life improves. Tonight I discovered I’ve already done that. None of the books I most needed were there. I couldn’t find the stack I’d put them into and so I thought, “I have around 7000 books. I can find another comfort read to talk about.”

I did better than that. I found my copy of Van Loon’s Lives (written and Illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon). My copy is from 1957, and has the same cover as the one I found in the local library. I first discovered it when I was teen recovering from whooping cough. Or maybe I’m simply linking the two, because I had a vaccination and am full of some of the aches that went with whooping cough. I re-read it again soon after, when I was confined to bed for two very slow weeks because something was wrong with my back.

I thought then, “Why is this like What Katy Did, and yet… not?” One reasons is that Katy addressed her illness by moralising. If she turned into the right kind of person, then she would be fine. By the end of her ordeal, she was over her illness and had become of the centre of the family. Perfect outcome. I got over my illness much faster (and, to be honest, it wasn’t severe, just a shock to not be able to get out of bed without help and to be unable to do most things) but I haven’t been and never will be a central point for my family.

Also, two weeks is not a long time. It feels like a long time for a teenager, but, in the absolute scheme of things, two weeks passes.

All of this meant that What Katy Did is not comfort reading right now. But Van Loon’s Lives is, despite the fact that Van Loon invites Torquemada for dinner but has a lack of interest in fascinating Jews. Even if I were one of the great people of history, I’d not have been invited.

Why?

It’s a book that’s full of historical dreams. Each chapter is a dinner party with famous guests from Van Loon’s sense of the past. I could read a chapter back then and that chapter would lead me to memories of other books and thoughts of what I wanted to learn about history. The first Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, and, while my body was recumbent, my mind argued for hours about the Elizabethan material Van Loon invented and that Alison Uttley used in A Traveller in Time. That’s the special magic of Van Loon’s Lives. It’s a fantasy novel. The food is wrong, the history is not the history I know today and, even as a teen I as wondering about it, but, back then, it brought famous historical figures to life and made that enforced bedrest less intolerable.

Van Loon’s most interesting historical figures matched mine when I was a teenager. We were taught, in Australia in the 1970s, that there was nothing interesting in Jewish history but that European Christian history was magic. I wanted to meet almost all the people he wrote about. Some I knew about already (Elizabeth, for instance, and Voltaire – Voltaire is someone I’ve read a lot, but cannot like as a person), while others were my newfound lands, and I began to explore who they were and what they did (Erasmus and Descartes, always come to mind). This fantasy book triggered a whole new path of independent learning, a couple of years before university offered me formal tracks. I remember feeling so pleased that I worked out how to cook Van Loon’s own speculaas from his description in the book. It wasn’t the first bit of food decoding I’ve done from literature, but it was one of the most satisfying.

It’s been so long since I first read it that I suspect that I’ve forgotten most of what I discovered back then and really ought to begin again.

A few years ago, when I finally found my own copy of the book, I realised I had changed and with my changes came a new interpretation. As an historian, each chapter and its meal and guests told me much more about Van Loon and the way he saw the past than it told me about the history of any other period. I realised that I had learned to discount myself and my own history. It wasn’t just family I would never be central to. It was part of a reconsideration of what I knew and why I knew it and who I was. This is part of the trail that led me to write The Wizardry of Jewish Women, The Time of the Ghosts, and The Green Children Help Out. Instead of arguing from my sick bed, I argued using my own fantasies.

And now, why is it comfort reading again? Van Loon’s Lives was first published in 1943. Hendrick Van Loon wrote his book under a kind of lockdown. He was in exile from his homeland, which was under Nazi occupation. Nothing like our COVID lockdowns. In its way, this set of dinner parties is an emotional safety net for the war that was then raging. Van Loon himself doesn’t leave the war out of the volume, and the epilogue that one can’t know without investigating his life is that he wrote the book when in exile and died before the Nazis were defeated. He never went home.

It’s a comfort book right now because it’s a reminder that other writers have handled the impossibilities of life. We talk a lot about Camus, because he wrote about plague and we know plague. But the isolation of great change and the memory of how very welcoming and magic life was just a few years before the world turned upside down is just as important. It provides a way to evaluate the world that contains some emotional safety. Hendrik Van Loon sets the novel in the 1930s, when his world was safer and it was fine to invite famous guests from different times and different places.

I wonder if it’s time for another fantasy dinner party book to be written for our own comfort? Who would it include? Who should we leave out? One thing’s for certain, all the food history I’ve done in the last forty years would be useful. I know what to feed Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth I and, yes, even Erasmus. I don’t know if I’d invite Jefferson or Elizabeth or Erasmus. Time for a new set of thoughts triggered by this single volume.

Merlin and Benedeit Keep Appearing

It doesn’t matter what I do, Merlin appears, as if by magic. He even appeared over Christmas, as one of his stories has some very interesting parallels with a Jewish version of the life of Jesus. This led to (as night leads to day) me looking for the first Merlin-like book I could see on my shelves. It was a textbook.

Some textbooks discourage reading. Others say “Read this bit and then that, then go find the works I’ve introduced to you.” Merlin through the Ages (ed R.J. Stewart and John Matthews) is definitely one of the latter. I’ve never read the whole book. I have, however, read some of the works extracted. All the Medieval ones and just enough of the others so that I can (occasionally) feel as if I’m almost educated. I bought it when I was teaching this kind of subject and, even though I’ve no space for more books, I can’t get rid of it because… what if I need it again?

The reason I haven’t read it from beginning to end is partly because the type is tiny and partly because the table of contents is overwhelmingly male, but mostly because I have favourite Merlin stories elsewhere and every time I open this book (even when I was using it for teaching) I would have put it down within fifteen minutes. I didn’t put it down because the book was dull, but because I kept wanting to check something else. At least half the time, that something else was T.H. White. There is no extract from T.H. White in this book, you see, and I felt I owed him a re-read.

There was one other thing I did with this book. I came to it too late for it to be a source book for my first novel. Illuminations was based on medieval versions of a whole bunch of stories we take for granted, so this volume would have been perfect except… I’d already written a large chunk of the novel. I used Merlin through the Ages to remind myself of where I’d been in my research.

Just considering this takes me back to the actual research for the bits that were borrowed from the Middle Ages. I wandered through the stacks at Fisher Library and grabbed all the things I wanted to read that I had no real excuse to read, and I read them for my novel. To this day I don’t know why I thought that reading nineteenth century editions of Medieval stories was a holiday from reading all kinds of editions (and a bunch of manuscripts, not edited) of Medieval stories.

The story that got me started was Benedeit’s The Voyage of St Brendan, which I studied, word by word as part of my Masters degree. My edition of this is still sitting on the bookshelf. It was edited by Short and Merrilees, both of whom had the misfortune of teaching me. I might hand the Merlin compendium to someone who wants it more than I do and has better eyesight, but my Benedeit is going nowhere. I even slipped a quiet tribute to my teachers and to Benedeit into Illuminations.

I lard my novels with secret messages to books I love. This is, I think, a very good thing, even if I’m the only one who knows they’re there.

Where Gillian is Peeved

Every time I am invited to a Christmas party, I have to decide whether I should go. If it’s a friend asking me to share their celebration of their Christmas, I accept with joy. If it’s a public or professional event that’s called a “Christmas Party”, one of the implications is that if I don’t accept Christmas as a part of my life, then I am not really acceptable as I am, with my own views and culture, in that environment.

Not that the organisers articulate it in this way. Recently, when I asked a professional group what they meant by “Christmas” they explained that it was secular. While this was perfectly acceptable for them, they demonstrated that a secularised version of a religious celebration was seen as acceptable for all shapes of religion and belief because they explained to me (and they know I’m Jewish) that it was secular for me, too. This tells those of us without Christian backgrounds that there is a certain way we should live our lives.

How the lead-up to Christmas is depicted in Australia is related to this. There is an “Advent” book box being advertised right now. It takes the word “Advent” (which refers to a very particular coming birthday) and one can open one wrapped book a day from 1 December until Christmas Day. I’m told it is, also, not religious. But there are never any book boxes for the festivals of other religions. Instead, we are all asked to accept the redefined religious words for Christianity.

Whether these explanations work for me, for you, for someone else, depends on our background.

For me, it creates a disjuncture between the home and the outside world. The values in my home are Jewish, and my parents taught me that I should not celebrate others’ festivals for myself. Why? It’s an acceptance that their religion takes precedence over my own. In their homes, that’s a sign of respect. In my home, why don’t my own traditions and belief take precedence? In public events and shared places, explaining that a thing is secular not only sets the Christian festival as something that is shared by everyone (when it, frankly, is not) but it also rubs it in that my views do not matter.

The fact that someone explaining Christmas to me as secular shows how they set their own atheism in a cultural context. It also demonstrates that they’re not listening to people who have different contexts.

Cultural respect and religious respect involve understanding how the person we’re talking to sees the subject we’re talking about. This entails accepting multiple interpretations of an event. Do you leave someone out of a group because they can’t eat peanuts? Or do you make sure that there is shared food everyone can eat?

This is my annual rant on the subject. Shorter than usual because it’s 1 am here and bed beckons.

I shall skip the Christmas party, because I’m not convinced the person organising knows much about Christianity. Also, I won’t buy the books. Instead, on the day of the party, I shall tell anyone who wants to hear my two favourite miracles for St Nicolas (the children and the bones, for anyone who has had to suffer my tale-telling) for the party is on his holy day and he’s the bloke who became Santa Claus. I need to practise what I preach, in other words. If you who want to hear about the pickled children and how they are Santa’s backstory, please ask.

On the book-front, I’m doing my own thing. I will send book parcels on behalf of anyone who wants to give presents to friends and family in Australia. This is actually not my response to the religion issue. It’s my response to books being a bit difficult to buy and to international mail being a lost cause. If you know anyone wants to give presents to anyone in Australia over the next few weeks, check here: https://gillianpolack.com/sale-until-18-december-or-until-the-books-run-out/

I have nothing against presents (I adore presents), after all. My objection is to people who insist that my own background doesn’t matter a jot.

Not a Fairy Story

I’m researching fairy tale retellings right now, so I want to start this post with Once Upon a Time. The story has a fairy tale element to it. It starts with a dream and ends with a happy surprise. It is, however, no fairy tale. Let me start it with the right words anyhow, because I can.

Once Upon a Time I had a dream. It was only a little dream. I woke up with an image from it so firmly imprinted into my vision memory, that, even before I had coffee, I went to my computer. I looked to see if I could find a picture of Io, because my dream was looking up at Io through an old telescope and seeing it as if it were our moon.

I found the picture almost immediately. Io looked the way my mind had dreamed it. I don’t remember if I took time for coffee, or if I wrote the story immediately, but by the end of the day I had a first draft of a story set in a far-distant planet, where a society re-enacted the eighteenth century.

I was chatting with a friend and told her about it. She read my draft. Then she told me her dream, which was to run a magazine. I let her have my story to use to build that magazine. She set up the organisation and edited everything and I and a couple of other friends built a world writers and artists could play in. That world was New Ceres. My story was its backbone and its heart, but it was never published. Life got in the way.

I took my version of New Ceres because I had new dreams about what could happen on that planet. Alisa took hers and she published a lovely anthology. She then started a publishing house and that publishing house has put out amazing book after amazing book. I watch to see where her dreams taker her next, because they’re always to fascinating places.

My dreams took a while to realise. First, I wrote them into a novel. An editor from a well-known science fiction press asked if I could send it to him. Whenever I asked about how he was going with it, I was told that it would be read the next week, that it was a priority, that I should not worry. Eight years later I took my manuscript back, and resolved to try elsewhere.

The novel was accepted somewhere else almost immediately, but that publisher imploded. Another publisher took it on. They asked one of my favourite artists to do the cover and he built (literally, built) a scene from the novel, and photographed it. A street from New Ceres lives in the Blue Mountains.

My novel was released straight into the first COVID inversion, where no-one looked for new novels by small press on the other side of the world. It was going to be celebrated at WorldCon in New Zealand. New Zealand is so close and so friendly and… the pandemic changed that, too. At least, I thought, it was finally published. I could close that chapter on those dreams and move on. Its final name was Poison and Light. Here, have a link to it. Admire the cover.

Tonight I had news about the novel I thought no-one could read because all the publicity and distribution were hit so hard by the pandemic that it simply wasn’t very visible. It’s been shortlisted for an award.

In that short-list are novels by wonderful writers whose work was issued by that first publisher. The editors won’t remember the eight years I had to wait, nor the emails that went unanswered in the last year, when I tried to find out what was happening. I remember. And now, finally, I know that the initial request to see the novel was serious. That it was an unlucky novel, but not one that was poorly written. And that readers are finding it, despite its travails.

I shall dream again tonight of that acned moon. And, finally, I will move on.