This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Greer Gilman’s spellbinding debut, Moonwise. The Crawford Award-winning novel follows Ariane on the trail of her girlhood friend, Sylvie, who has disappeared into a world curiously like the one the two friends invented together. The sequel, Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales, digs deeper into Gilman’s complex mythos, exploring the sometimes-dangerous seasonal rituals of the world of Cloud, and featuring a young woman named Margaret whose telescope ushers in a new relationship to the stars. The second of the three tales in Cloud & Ashes, “A Crowd of Bone,” won the 2004 World Fantasy Award, and the book as a whole was joint winner of the 2009 Otherwise Award.
Gilman’s Cloud narratives are steeped in earthy magic, glittering with strange constellations, and crafted in a language as rhythmic as a ballad and as witty as Elizabethan drama. New readers may want to start with Moonwise, and stand with Ariane at Sylvie’s house in the woods: “There was a green bough on the door. The year was old, and turning lightward, into winter. Cold and waning, at the end of her long journey, Ariane looked back the way she’d come. Bare woods, bright wind that shook the rain from naked trees, a stony slant of field: the earth lay thinly here. The trees stood lightstruck, hill beyond blue glaze of hill.” From these opening lines, you can follow the two friends deep into the forest, into a richly imagined, moon-dappled portal fantasy. Or, if you like, plunge right into Jack Daw’s pack of cards, and immerse yourself in the wintry legends of Cloud & Ashes: “He is met at a crossroads on a windy night, the moon in tatters and the mist unclothing stars, the way from Ask to Owlerdale: a man in black, white-headed, with a three-string fiddle in his pack. Or in a corner of an ale house, querulous among the cups, untallied; somehow never there for the reckoning, though you, or Hodge, or any traveler has drunk the night with him. A marish man: he speaks with a reedy lowland wauling, through his beak, as they say. He calls Cloud crowland.”
Whether you choose to shadow Ariane first, or pluck a card from Jack Daw, you will have embarked on a journey through language, the matter of all imagined worlds: the darkest forest, the deepest sea, and the strongest elemental magic, with which Greer Gilman has shaped a major work of fantasy.
This interview in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of Cloud was conducted in writing, and is accompanied by Greer Gilman’s artwork.
SS: Let me begin by locating Cloud in your published work. Your two novels, Moonwise and Cloud & Ashes, are novels of Cloud; are there other works that touch the same universe? Stories or novellas I may have missed?
GG: So the canonical matter of Cloud (after Moonwise) consists of a poem, a vignette, a short story, a novelette, a novella, and a novel: a Fibonacci series. Snail mathematics.
Three Winter’s Tales make up the novel Cloud & Ashes. “Jack Daw’s Pack,” A Crowd of Bone, and Unleaving unfolded in that order, from the dark matter of the myth to the new cosmic re-ordering that the demi-godborn Margaret initiates and lives to see fulfilled. She’s the daughter of a constellation; she invents the telescope.
- Margaret, night sky
The shorter pieces are scattered.
The story is “Down the Wall.” It’s about children in a post-apocalyptic Cloud, in a city under godblitz. They slip out through their elders’ wards, out from under all the skyless paranoia and propitiation, into the open streets, where they game with the gods.
“Boys and girls come out to play, the moon doth shine as bright as day.”
I dreamed that story on the Ides of March, 1994, as a friend’s film masterpiece that she was editing, so I saw version overlaid on version. Most vividly, I remember the lesser gods, a frieze of dancing cranes.
I worked on that in very short bursts, on and off, for about a decade.
“Down the Wall” first appeared in Salon Fantastique (Datlow & Windling, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006) and has been reprinted in The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (Alex Daily MacFarlane, Running Press, 2014).
I wrote the poem “She Undoes” on November 4, 1994. That came all at once in an ecstatic vision. I could show you the elm.
“She Undoes” first appeared beside my portrait in Faces of Fantasy (Patti Perret, Tor Books, 1996). It has been thrice reprinted, most recently in The Moment of Change (R. B. Lemberg, Aqueduct Press, 2012).
Two more Cloud-related poems exist, both written on request. “The Moon-Hare” came out in Mythic Delirium 19 (Mike Allen, Fall 2008). “The Journeyman; or, Endymion Blunt Lays By His Pipe” (2009) appeared in the Readercon 20 Program Book.
The Cloudish vignette, “Hieros Gamos,” published in R. B. Lemberg’s An Alphabet of Embers (Stone Bird Press, 2016), came out of the shipwreck of a longer project.
After Cloud & Ashes appeared (from the glorious Small Beer Press, 2009), I found that there were doors I hadn’t opened, stairways leading up to attics, gardens unexplored. There were labyrinths I hadn’t walked. I found myself wondering about that women’s college that Margaret Lightwood founded, in her new Cloud of science and of social change. I am fond of the antiquarian Noll Grevil, from Unleaving, and wanted to know more of his bittersweet story. Now I found that his lost love Hulver had a sister Idony, a poet who embraced that world of change. She married a mazer, a landscape architect who tells elegies in earth and stone. I imagined a provincial girl from Scarry in the far north of Cloud, come to study the history of that circle at the College of the Nine.
- Master Grevil
In 2009-2010, I wrote thirty-odd brief vignettes about these people. There wasn’t a story yet, but it felt like a slurry, like microcrystals just about to coalesce—
And then a sudden, sharp life crisis broke the charmed circle, and it all fell out in murk and sediment.
I don’t know if the seeds of these stories (this story?) will ever be revived. I dare not hope.
SS: Did you plan the matter of Cloud as a Fibonacci series? Or did that come about by chance?
GG: I wish I had! But I think the movement of it, the spiral of the journey outward, is simply what I do. Each turning echoes and enlarges on the turn before it. Sonya Taaffe says that the pattern teaches readers how to read me. I think I teach myself.
SS: Questions of pattern and chance run all through the Cloud tales: the power of patterns, and the possibility of chance entering, a wild card that transforms an old form into something new. I’m thinking of the two friends, Ariane and Sylvie, near the beginning of your first novel, Moonwise, laying out their tarot cards to create stories. Cloud & Ashes opens with those cards, too; in the first tale, “Jack Daw’s Pack,” we see Jack pulling out cards, each one bearing an image of iconic force: The Crow, The Crowd of Bone, The Harper’s Lad. The images feel ancient, perhaps because they are—they’re connected to seasonal changes, to the turning of the year—but they’re also strangely new and unfamiliar. It’s not quite an ordinary tarot deck. How did you use these images to build the world of Cloud?
GG: Those cards are the Sibyl’s leaves, her prophecies caught up and scattered by the winds. The Cloudwood, endlessly unleaving, lets them fall: each leaf a riddle or a rime, a snatch of ballad or a scrap of story. That state of ever-fall—both place and time—is Hallows. The traveller, as I was myself, amazed, walks through an endless flicker and a fall of myth.
It’s an archetypal Northern European wood, deep-rooted and green-leafing, though unconsciously I colored its autumn with the brilliancy of my New England childhood maples. And I imported fireflies. Silly me. I never thought to look it up back then, but the glow-worms of the British Isles are flightless. But I needed fireflies: they too write fleeting prophesies on air. There’s a gramophone at the Woodfalls. There just is.
So from the first, the Cloudish mythos was a congeries, a bricolage. Cloud is made up of what feels Cloudish to me: ballads, bits of Shakespeare, certain landscapes, yes; but also trifling, yet iconic things, a puzzle piece, a turn of phrase, a leaf, a shadow on a wall, a marble, a joke. Autolycus must be my demiurge. Anachronism (and a bit of anatopism) are inbuilt in the design. I do wish I’d gone further for my songs and stories, beyond the British Isles; but the Cloudish culture is bound up with its ecology, a single mindscape. It’s an island in uncharted seas. Yet they have blue-and-white porcelain; they have burnt wine. There must be elsewheres. Had I but worlds enough and time, there might be stories from the deserts, wetlands, snow-clad mountains, great cities.
I wish I’d had the wit when writing “Down the Wall” to show those urban children as diverse: they must have been.
Oh, and there would have to be stone circles in whatever world I made. Not Stonehenge, but the wilder, shyer circles, all those rings of dancers caught in stone. I’d already written a practice novel called A Circle of Stones, which I’d trunked. It was all a little too ethereal. I kept an illustration that I drew for it—it’s on the wall behind me as I write—of childlike gods emerging from a beech and oak, running rooted. They are Craobh and Cobber’s ancestors.
- Children from A Circle of Stones
“Unexpected conjunctions” are the stuff of metaphor, a great part of the poet’s trade and sometimes of the scientist’s. I make patterns of my happenstances. For the most part, I don’t codify, at least not in advance. I never did make up that tarot pack, not formally, though I always meant to. (Isn’t that what proper worldbuilders would do? What Tolkien had decreed?)
Much later, for Cloud & Ashes, I mapped the Cloudish mythology against our own world’s sky, delighting in how neatly it all fit, with the constellations of Moonwise running all along the Milky Way, the Lyke Road that the untold dead must travel. Ariane and Sylvie are Gemini, and the tinker is Orion. Their Pleiades, Nine Weaving, keep the gate through which the living walk the stars. Three only have returned. Brock is the liminal star Mercury, that rides the threshold of the world at twilight.
- Lyke Road, winter stars
Beyond that verge is Law, where the stars go when they set. In the dark months, Ashes—Sagittarius—is captive there. Her topmost star emerges in the early spring. She walks waist-deep in cornfields, great with harvest, never fully rising from her mother earth.
- Lyke Road, summer stars
Now I imagine that the new Cloud—post-Margaret, post-mythos— is aware of its ragbag origins, and that at the College of the Nine, they study Exo-Poetics.
SS: In Ariane and Sylvie’s writing method, old images are repeated, but there’s always an element of chance. New tales, new futures, spring from unexpected conjunctions of older elements. Can you talk about this process in your own work? What are some of the sources that fed your imagination?
GG: Long before there was a world or story, I was blown away by Dante. In his ecstatic vision on the very peak of the Paradiso (canto 33, 65-66), he writes (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):
and so, on the light leaves, beneath the wind,
the oracles the Sibyl wrote were lost.
così al vento ne le foglie levi
si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.
and then (85-87)
In its profundity I saw—ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l’universo si squaderna:
Ooh, I thought. I want to write a book that feels like this. Not that I imagined I was Dante, but I wanted to get partway up that slope, to the selva oscura.
That would have been after I’d returned from England, back in the late seventies. I had long loved Gerard Manley Hopkins, and at once, these lines from Dante flowed into his “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”:
For earth ‘ her being as unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; …
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ‘
Of course, there’s Hopkins coming up all through the Cloudish underwood: “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” and “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” He’s everywhere, echoed in my voice. His sprung rhythm is akin to the English vernacular, to nonsense, nursery rhymes, spells, playground chants, and charms. It marries with my love of older or eccentric Englishes, of dialects and canting tongues. When I’m writing fiction, I think all the time about the roots of words. I keep the OED open. I’d been reading William Barnes, who argued for the restoration of ungrafted Anglo-Saxon English: “starhoard” for “constellation,” “folkwain” for “omnibus.” Above all, my writing is instressed by Shakespeare, by the music of his spoken poetry. Do I imagine that I’m Shakespeare?—good grief, no! But the mother tongue of Cloud—my idiolect—is a variant of Early Modern English. Both Moonwise and Cloud & Ashes are written in what I’ve called dissolved iambic pentameter: prose with a crystalline structure, not quite poetry, but on the edge.
It’s why some people won’t read me; but it’s why some others do.
All of this came long before I had a story or characters, or even a known world: what I had was that conjunction of sibyls, patterns made by scattering, an archetypal wood, stone circles, and the sound of sprung rhythm and blank verse. Sound, for me, is a creative/constructive force, an instress: but it must have something to work on.
- book crystal
I needed myth.
That’s not just a word for “old stories.” Myth teaches how a world works, how it came to be and holds together: its deep-down physics and cosmology.
“Ancient myths,” for me, are not the oldest in world time, but in memory: the archetypes I found in early childhood. What Hope Mirrlees called “the oldest songs in existence—sung by the Morning Stars when all the world was young.” I got the Scarecrow and the Witch from Oz, both from the books and from the movie, which I got to see once a year, in black and white. The transformation into color was imaginary.
George Macdonald gave me an enduring vision of the numinous: an old/young goddess at the heart/height of a labyrinth, to whom all threads return. Later, I would see her skein of silk in the ingathering of the Sibyl’s leaves.
P.L. Travers gave me Artemis, the Great Bear Mother, protectoress of the young. (“Is this a nursery or a bear pit?”) Mary Poppins was, it seems, the nanny to the Pleiades: I met Maia, skyclad, in her company, and we went shopping. She is why the cosmos—sun, moon, stars—always shows up in my own books.
In both writers, I found the numinous indwelling in the commonplace.
From a little-known fantasy, Edward Fenton’s The Nine Questions, I took away the image of an ever-winter, of the ruthless beauty of ice. (Narnia came later for me.) That book is a retelling of “Riddles Wisely Expounded,” so it’s also one of my earliest encounters with Child ballads. Another was the October poem in my Golden Almanac. Its wraggle-taggle travelling folk mingled in my mind with falling leaves: the month wears tatters. Even then, I was fascinated with the turning year, the procession of archetypal months. When October comes round again, it’s October reborn.
Come to think of it, I got those dryad children from “the scary book,” from Doré’s drawing of the wood of suicides in the Inferno.
So deep down in the archaeology of my mythopoetics I have: a vivid witch and scarecrow; goddesses who hold the world in keeping; and the turning year, on earth and in the heavens.
Ballads gave me stories.
In 1979, I heard the great interpeter and scholar of English folk songs, Martin Carthy, for the first time live. He sang “Willie’s Lady.” Child Ballad 6 tells of a witch who held her daughter-in-law in an endless labor, unable to give birth until the hidden spell is found and broken. From her childbed, Willie’s lady tells him how to trick his mother:
You must buy you a loaf of wax
And you must shape it as a babe that is to nurse
And you must make two eyes of glass…
Invited to the christening of this false child, the witch cries out,
Who was it who undid the nine witch knots
Braided in amongst this lady’s locks…?
So Willie does just that—undoes the charms—and so their child is born.
That song undid my knots.
After that, I heard Martin sing whenever I could, by himself and with his family, the tremendous Watersons (his wife Norma and her late, incomparable sister and brother, Lal and Mike). In full voice—O my goddesses!—they shook the earth. Above all and earth deep, I love their songs of ritual, the spells that turn the sky, that bring the seasons round: “we know by the moon, that we are not too soon…”
I knew rough magic when I heard it. They sang Cloud out of shadows.
And they changed its landscape. They’re a Yorkshire family: I had woods and they gave me moorlands, which I then explored. (The Riddlestones exist, those limestone pillars going down into abyss. I nearly sank into a ditch there, but that’s another long story.)
Not only the landscape but the language now was North-of-England. They gave me a vernacular. I needed that to counterweight my ecstasies, the playing-off of high and low. They de-etherealized my imagination.
The soundtrack for these books is all folk songs and ballads: Watersons and Carthys, Anne Briggs, the Young Tradition, June Tabor, and of course, the Silly Sisters. Certain Playford tunes call on the guisers. Lal and Mike Waterson’s song “The Scarecrow,” from their astonishing album, Bright Phoebus, lies at the very heart of Cloud & Ashes.
Later on, in Cloud & Ashes, the songs of ritual would become a system of rough magic. Wizards, like Stonehenge, aren’t my things. I stand in awe, but I can’t work with them. Cloudish magic is communal. Women all together conjure Ashes: drawing on their power, one among them must become her winter avatar. They turn the sky. Men play their parts in this working, crossing gender to do so. I’ve always loved the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare’s Dream; in Cloud, what the guisers re-enact is act, is living myth. If you look at the winter stars, their play is up there at the center of the heavens, wheeling round. And in Cloud & Ashes, what they play is Moonwise.
By about 1982 then, I had some inklings of Cloud: old and new, high and low, patterned and scattering.
I needed figures in my landscape.
Sylvie came first. She borrows certain aspects of a very old friend (since 1969): her singing voice, a few of her most vivid mannerisms, and two of her fascinations, antique glass marbles and playing cards.
(I should say that my friend is not Sylvie: we never invented a pack of cards, or wrote any stories together. Her spectacular imagination is quite unlike my own. For that matter, the Watersons aren’t wizards.)
Back in the thirties, “Sylvie’s” grandmother had hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles, and puzzles are one of my great fascinations. Of course they would be: I love making patterns out of chaos.
But then I found that all my multitudinous ideas were a heap of pieces in a battered cardboard box. I’d no notion of the picture—pictures? Just how many puzzles did I have here?
“Yet within the painted images were hidden shapes of wood, much loved: trees, stars, and crescent moons; a pair of spectacles amid the thatch; a teapot daubed with cloud; a child in the standing grass; a scythe; a ship caught in flowering thorn; a goose of reynard-colored sky; a cup in a hazel-copse; a sprawling hare, haunched with nightfall; a swan tumbled in a countrywoman’s apron; a hunchback with a bundle of wood, whose nose Thos had broken.”
What I could single out from the morass were these iconic pieces, around which scenes could coalesce, then clump, begin to come together as a book.
Was there an edge?
There is in portal fantasy. Look for a threshold, and maybe crossing it will change you.
My first idea about the plot was Orpheus and Eurydice: Sylvie is taken somehow, and Ariane (Ariadne/Arianrhod) goes after her to fetch her back. Also somehow.
So—poof—Sylvie disappeared, and I had no idea how to follow her. There’s a long section of the book where Ariane is trying to cast Cloud-finding spells and to break up ice-and-wood jams in the river, which simply shadows my frustrations as a novice writer, trying to go on.
Instead of a way forward with Silly Sisters (my working title), I got a return: a strange child lying in the snow. (A dear friend, a mystery reader, said, “Why didn’t she call the New Hampshire police?”) This alien creature seemed to be one of the dryad children of that earlier, rehearsal book.
Then I chanced upon an essay by Guy Davenport, “Joyce’s Forest of Symbols,” about the Irish alphabet, all trees. The letter for “blackthorn” is craobh. (To rhyme with “leave” or “grieve.”)
So I had Craobh.
In my reading of folklore, I had found Black Annis, an English version of the Cailleach Bheur, the blue-faced hag-creatrix-goddess of the Celtic winter sun. My Annis rules the Cloudish underworld. Isn’t that where the sun and stars of summer are imprisoned? Later on, in Cloud & Ashes, she would become an anti-Ceres, hunting down that runaway, her darkborn daughter, bearer of the spring. The tormenting witch and Willie’s Lady now would have a closer bond than in the song: mother and daughter.
But Moonwise is a book about sisters. Ariane and Sylvie. Mally and Annis.
Their dynamic—and a crucial part of my cosmology—is founded on a play on words, a hidden double meaning. In the OED, the oldest definition of cloud is “a mass of rock; a hill.” In Northern English, law means “a hill” or “a monumental tumulus of stones.” So the world and the underworld are one and not the same. Their ruling goddesses are dark and light of one moon, endlessly devouring and rebirthing one another. I had studied one sister; now the other came to me by chance.
I was at a concert. A singer, unexpectedly in glasses, was bending to consult a score, and cast shadows all over the walls and ceiling of the concert hall, of a great witch looming and scurrying.
No reflection on her great original, who is beautiful and wise, but Malykorne, unlike her sister, chooses to appear as comic. Her crabby, bustling, patched persona is a cosmic joke. Numinous in commonplace.
- The tinker drinks from Mally’s cup
By the way, the name “Malykorne” is borrowed from a Breton folk group. What else could she possibly be called?
After that, Moonwise took me seven years to write, working from minute handwritten notes to hand-typed pages. I hammered it all out on a manual, scene by scene by scene, retyping each leaf countless times until it felt done. For revisions of the whole, rather daringly, I got one of those egg-shaped Selectrics in duck’s-egg-blue.
SS: Can you tell me what it means in the Cloud universe to be “under Law?” Ashes spends half the year in the underworld, so under Law, under Cloud—but she’s also “under law” in another sense: required to fulfill a certain pattern, so that the sky may turn. When the women conjure her, and one of them represents her, they create a magic that feels ritualistic: it must happen.
GG: Indeed it must.
Ashes, I think, cannot be conjured. The women wandering with lanterns on a hillside say they’re seeking her; but they are sought. Ashes herself indwells in the chosen one, and speaks through her. I am fascinated by the idea of the gods glove-puppeting poor mortals and the tension with free will. I think I found this trope in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. There, adolescents in a Welsh valley are compelled to reenact the myth of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion. Time and time again, it all plays out as tragedy: they make her an owl, when she wants to be flowers. There as well, I may have found the idea of a shaping pun: “Blodeuwedd” means both “flower-face” and “owl.” The eponymous owl service is literally china plates with an ambiguous pattern of owl-flowers. It is also what happens: the naive young people are bound in service to the owl; they reenact her rite.
In service. Under Law.
In Cloud & Ashes, as in Garner’s book, the myth is endlessly reified, made earthly. The kaleidoscope turns, and another triad of his lovers, another of my twofold goddesses slips into place, and everything’s a different same. As Sonya Taaffe wrote me: “everyone is a refraction until the glass is broken.” That’s when the changeless ever-changing myth turns story: when the avatars can walk out of it, on with their lives.
SS: If I’ve understood correctly, the woman who enacts the rite of Ashes is in danger—of rape, or attempted rape, or murder. Can you say more about this?
You begin with the exceptional. The ritual upholds the turning of the sky. Attacking the inviolable Ashes is a blasphemy. For Jack Daw, this encounter is his chance to break the cosmos, split the sister-selves of Cloud and Law. He knows just who this Ashes is, but not what she can do. The myth’s turned story now and here: not an O, but an arrow, and the moon’s the bow. What if an Ashes had refused to sacrifice her child? What if Ashes had a daughter?
That’s not to say there isn’t anger to draw upon for the attack. Being Ashes is a woman’s privilege. Cloudish men hold Ashes in awe—their lives and afterlives, their very souls depend on her—but they resent the empery of women. Mostly this comes out in mischief-making, in teasing and spying. (Poor Kit, pleading for a midwife, is dismissed as a prankster.) But there are Cloudish men’s cults, centered on Leapfire and Lightfast, on the sun triumphant. In their ritual play, the saturnian Lightfast fathers Leapfire, who dies in mortal combat with him and is endlessly reborn in Ashes’ lap. Jack Daw has been known to lead the guisers, in the body of a man. He’s a fiddler, and can play upon their rage, their fear of death’s-head Ashes, their misogyny. He can wake in them a lust for power—would you father godhead? He can lash them to atrocities.
- Jack Daw
It happened. Or will happen. Long ago; last midnight; elsewhere, out beyond the hills you know; or at the turning of the path you’re on, between Ask and Owlerdale. “Once afore the moon was round, and on a night in Cloud.” Their tales begin there, at the crossroads of what is, what might be, what has been. “Jack Daw’s Pack” is at the midnight heart of the story. It spirals out from there.
SS: What is the myth of Ashes that must be played out? What makes women the agents of this magic in which a woman becomes a sacrifice or scapegoat? What in Cloud is Law?
GG: So. In the beginning there were the sister-goddesses, Mally and Annis, light and dark of one moon. They’re the binary code of this mythos: life, death, time. Mally, as I see her, is the goddess of quiddities, of the thisness of things. As Hopkins (if he were a pagan) might have put it, she’s the instress of the living world. Annis is above all that, empyrean—or would be. Her desire for transcendence drove Moonwise, and will engender Ashes.
But other deities come into the story. Brock is the go-between, the liminal deity: smith, trickster, and psychopomp. She is the third in marriage beds, the midwife, the meddler; she watches over lambing and laying-out, embers and ashes. Brock’s sky-boat came from memory. “Sylvie” once rowed me out at nightfall, off the coast of Maine, with humps of seals and seaweed on the rocks, and phosphorescence dripping from the oars.
- Three goddesses sketch
The tutelary spirit of the land is Tom o Cloud. He is mazed, having drunk of Mally’s cup, and is lost in songs, dreams, stories, and the fall of leaves. Where he walks is hallows. The tinker in Moonwise is his avatar.
And we’ve just met Jack Daw, the god of devices. Scythes, fiddles, coins and cards, and all transactions are his playthings. Like Annis, he’s ambitious.
Remember how in Moonwise, Annis ruled? She held Cloud in perpetual winter. To do this, she had torn out part of herself, and had bound it in an iron brooch. At the climax of the book, the dauntless Sylvie pierced the goddess’s throat with that long pin, and bound her under Law.
That was a mistake. Annis wants to be, if not flowers like Blodeuwedd, pure crystalline—stars, ice—and Sylvie makes her crows. Her realm is Law, an island in the undersky. Her plundered hoard is souls. She wears them braided in her hair, on every finger of her hands, as earrings, necklaces, and chatelaines. Her gowns are stiff with their embroidery. She walks on sliding heaps of them. Her knowing of them is a penetration and a torment to the dead. And their possessions—what they had treasured—fill her halls like seawrack, ruined with salt. It is a palace built of grave-goods.
- Margaret under Law
I don’t know why this underworld is sea-girt, but it is. The dead wash up there. Perhaps in the wrecking of souls, there’s an echo of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo.” I so love that story.
That embedded brooch is now a splinter self, my lady’s servant Morag, huntress of souls. “Crow” is what they call her in Cloud, but she’s much more like a harpy or a Kindly One. Her torments of the dead are less exalted than her mistress’s: she eats them.
- Morag inverse
Annis’s great desire is to re-transcend herself, to be empyrean, untainted. She wants to be sublimed. So she creates a vessel for that alchemy, but in her self-conceit and carnal-mindedness, she makes it flesh and blood. A mirror-self. A girl. “My mother got me in her glass,” says Thea. Annis purposes to go into this womb and be reborn, as daughter to her daughter, mother to herself; but she falls in love with her reflection. Her metamorphosis is endlessly put off for dalliance: she keeps this flawless body as a toy.
That daughter is Ashes.
In Cloud, they know that Ashes is her mother’s captive in the underworld, an anti-Persephone. Yearly, she emerges into light in the very earliest spring, in lambing-time—we’d call it Candlemas. She brings the snowdrops. As long as she walks Cloud, through spring and summer and the harvest, its earth and air are kindlier.
My mother got me in her glass.
Still as snow on snow I pass;
But green in greener world I wake
And lighter of the dark I make.
In my coming I do leave;
Death of dying I bereave
Kit and Thea reenact this story in A Crowd of Bone. He’s another of those hapless late adolescents (he’s only about 19) who is press-ganged by myth. He hasn’t a clue what’s going on as he’s a stranger to this country—Out Lune—and amazed with love. But Thea’s trying desperately to break the myth, to wrench the heavens off their immutable course. She knows what must come at Hallows, when her vengeful mother hunts her down and drags her back under Law. The tragedy is that she never tells Kit.
“My mother fed me to her crows, she burned my bones and scattered them; my braided hair she keeps.”
I told the story of Cloud & Ashes to my mother—she found the prose impenetrable—and she said piteously, “Couldn’t you have made her an aunt?”
That’s the story. In the myth, so in the ritual, Ashes goes down with the summer constellations under Law. Winter and the long dark come. But Ashes holds the world in keeping. Without her, it would die. So the Cloudish womenfolk choose one among them as her avatar; or rather, Ashes is on whom she lights. They “late Ashes”: seek for her at random on the hills, with fire. By the pseudo-period of Cloud & Ashes, around 1600, they have heirloom lanterns; and whose ever candle goes out last is she.
Ashes is a she, and so is Brock, but they are breeches roles. Cloud, in some ways, is a very gendered world, though one in which the women turn the sky. But in this world, boundary-crossing—between male and female, death and life—is numinous. Among the companies of travelling players who enact the great myths as a sort of rowdy sacrament, those who take on Tom o Cloud and the goddesses are vowed to those parts for life. So the born-male player who is Annis in the mysteries is My Lady to the world. And when the child Noll Grevil speaks the couplets that I quoted, “He is she, is Ashes now.” For that moment, she indwells in him. He will have been Ashes to the end of his story.
In her transformation, the person that was is obliterated, greyed out; her face and hands are rubbed with ashes, her hair is braided with amulets that jangle and chime; she wears skin breeches. Last of all, the chosen one puts on the Ashes coat, which is itself a nameless demi-deity, a sort of Ursa Major. It awaits her, whatever way she turns. From that moment, Ashes is mute.
At Lightfast—that’s the winter solstice—Ashes goes round with the guisers, crossing every threshold of their scattered community. These aren’t the vowed players, but a company of local men and boys. At every house, they play the combat of Leapfire and old Lightfast, who will slay his son; over and over, Ashes resurrects the dead sun. Then she sains the children of the household, marking them with ashes from her soulbag. Her tutelary role is silent.
When she speaks, it is to tell a death. Mourners come to her with ashings for her soul bag, something that their dead beloved had kept against his death—an earring, a charm. (Ashmothers give them to newborns; sailors break them with their lovers.) What she tells is not the shape and shadow of an earthly life, but what a person is, herself essentially, “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.” What Ashes “speaks and spells” is an ingathering, a book of sibyl’s leaves. To die untold, judicially, is more dreaded than the hanging. Thieves, whores, beggars, bastard children, and (I think) a class of the untellable, however prosperous: those wretched souls are wrecked on Law.
(I’ve only just thought of this: there are Ashes who do try to tell outcasts, out of charity: but they must find some link to these forgotten lives.)
Cloud & Ashes began as a telling. Jómsborg, the fantasy discussion group at Cambridge, held a story-circle, getting on for fifty years ago. (My goddesses!) Somebody started a raucous comic tale about Diggory, whose fiddle-playing would wake the dead, and handed it off to me. The worth of an ashing is irrelevant. I was possessed. Chanting, I told an embryonic, vatic “Jack Daw’s Pack.” That’s never happened since. At least not in company. In writing, if I’m fortunate, I do get wordstorms. White-outs.
Is Ashes a “sacrifice or scapegoat”? No. Being Ashes is an honor, though a scary one. Women who are twice or thrice Ashes are admired; great tellers are revered. The burden can be awful; the rewards, exhilarating. Ashes may walk anywhere, at any time, unharmed; she may do as she wills and take what she wants, materially, sexually. But with freedom comes the forfeit: she must not keep anything she gets as Ashes, not a lover, not a farthing. If she bears a child begotten in those months, he (he’s always been a boy) must be sacrificed, his blood spilled on the land. That indelible image came from “The Scarecrow”: “And to a stake they tied / A child new born…” And with that, the wretched woman loses all her will. Like her child, she is no one, and the common property of all. Remember the madwoman that Margaret encounters in the fields? She was Ashes and still is.
And here again, the story breaks the myth. Whin was Ashes, and bore a son, and did not give him up for sacrifice, but left him on a fellside to his fate. He’s no one, and the common property of all. Being nameless, he is called the crow lad, and with Thea’s daughter, he will change the world.
- The crow lad
SS: Do you really think people don’t read you because of your delicious dissolved iambics? Have you heard that, or read it? To me, the language is the number one reason to read your books! Personally, I don’t open Cloud & Ashes unless I have time to read the whole thing, because once I start, I can’t stop.
GG: Bless you. To be read like this—to be the element in which you move—is why I write. I have been greatly fortunate in readers, from the first. Writers whom I love and honor—Diana Wynne Jones, John Crowley—have said heartlifting things about my language. John Clute and Michael Swanwick have championed my work. I have a small, impassioned following. My readers have become my friends. I rejoice. But I am not for all tastes. Indeed, some reviewers have found my style precious, pretentious, silly, even offensive. I shrug it off. At least I try. But sadly, some readers I’ve encountered do feel put off—excluded—by my style, and they’re aggrieved, as if I were mocking their intelligence. That hurts.
My mother found my stuff frustratingly opaque. Back in the late 40s, she had a budding career as a journalist and screenwriter. She wrote a Nero Wolfe treatment that was optioned by Spyros Skouras for 20th Century Fox. She didn’t tell me about that Hollywood offer until sometime in the 21st century. What happened? I asked. “I met Daddy.” If I was going to insist on writing, I think she wanted me to have the rest of her career. “Why can’t you write books that people can understand?”
I developed style long before I found anything to say with it. So for many years, I played with comic pastiche: a Canterbury Tale with learned footnotes by one Tattersall-ffoulkes; or (and I could slap myself) take-offs on other students’ stories. That was unforgiveable. No malevolence intended—if I heard a distinctive voice, I wanted to do it—but the gibing must have stung. They had the courage to write what they felt; I was hiding behind the fireworks.
Neither of my best beloved English teachers is enamored of my high style, but they have been my unfailing champions.
At Wellesley, I took the time from my pre-med schedule one semester to do an independent study in creative writing. My dear Barbara Whitesides says, “I just signed your study card.” But what she gave me was a reader. She made a space—a nursery—in which I could discover what I wanted to do with my linguistic toys. She let me play. As it turned out, what this prickly self-protective satirist really wanted to write (and illustrate) was Eugenie &, a middle-grade book about an Edwardian nursery full of precocious viola-da-gambists, who said things like, “De minimis non curat lex. Alexandra doesn’t care for trifle.”
Barbara is the soul of generosity. (She once came to a book launch at the incomparable Toscanini’s—ice cream for all!—bringing a truly marvellous, poetic puppet show.) She’s immensely proud of me, but loves essays and memoirs best, and treasures clarity and human comedy above the sublime.
At Cambridge, I did Pract Crit with the brilliant Sylvia Adamson. We spent two years in a conversation—sometimes an argument—on stylistics, close-reading English unseens, both prose and poetry, from many centuries. A writer’s voice, I’d say, is music—though the sense I hear it with is not quite hearing—and is also what he leaves unsaid and how she moves through space-time, like a chess knight, or a window-shopper, or a skipped stone, waking waves. And how is that achieved? she’d say, and make me analyze. We looked at rhetoric and grammar, sound and sense, at figures, etymologies, allusions, prosody. I am still immeasurably proud that I got a starred First on that paper.
Sylvia is a great scholar and a very dear friend; but fantasy averse, and cool toward ecstasies. What we both love is Wodehouse, early moderns, and philology.
For some, the prospect of reading Moonwise or Cloud & Ashes can be daunting. I find that hearing my language does make it easier to understand, as moving to music helps dancers to dance. After readings I’ve been told, Oh now I get it. I wish there were recordings.
SS: I’m intrigued by the idea of “proper worldbuilding.” Of course it’s possible to work out a world, as Tolkien did, in meticulous detail, taking care that everything lines up. But like you, Tolkien had a strong sense of the “feel” of his intended country, of the images that kindled and supported it, and without this vision, the result could have been quite dry and uninspired. In other words, the fact that Tolkien devised a complex Elvish grammar is less important to his worldbuilding, as I see it, than the fact that he really liked the thought of elves flitting through the moonlight, or that he was thrilled by the image of a dragon’s treasure.
GG: Oh but Tolkien’s grammar—like my dissolved iambics—is a form of magic in itself. A bespelling. Gramarye. (As a philologist, Tolkien knew the twining of those words.) Just seeing Welsh for the first time on the page, he wrote: “A flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive. It pierced my linguistic heart.” Remember the iconic story: how, grading exam papers, Tolkien scribbled on a blank page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Hobbit? Words summoned worlds for him.
SS: I take your point! And, as Tolkien leapt from grading exams to dreaming of hobbits, I want to return to your refrain, “the numinous in the commonplace.” I am thinking of Sylvie’s marbles, which are worlds. There’s something rapturous to me in this image of the shabby bag of worlds, an object threadbare with play, that you can pull into bed, spilling cosmos on the quilt. It’s a feeling from childhood, I think—Stevenson’s “Land of Counterpane.” You’re a little bit feverish, but not too sick to play. You have to stay home from school, and you’re scrunched up in bed with your favorite books and toys. It’s an image of a person who’s stepped outside the workaday world, with its duties, clocks, and instrumental logic, into a space of wild creativity, where the humblest objects glow with vitality.
GG: O my, what a lovely image! I was not that dreamy child, though I admired her in books. Who doesn’t love Sara Crewe? (Miss Minchin excepted.) Not that I was dull—I was wildly eccentric—but I wasn’t a singer, a storyteller, a visionary. I was a bookworm, a puzzled clown, and later a wiseguy. My feeling for the numinous has deepened with age.
Imagination comes hard to me. That is, my inner sight is dim. I don’t get vivid scenes and figures moving in my head; I don’t have lightning-swift invention. It’s just not in my wiring, any more than a river of red-gold hair to my knees is or a kingfisher’s flash of wings.
What I do have a sort of seventh sense for likenesses, for metaphor. I can see the otherwise in things. I can assemble.
As a child, I loved to turn a slice of watermelon on a plate into a Japanese woodcut: green bridge, pink sea, black fish. The bathtub hardware was a cloaked and hooded governess, like Miss Clavel, between two many-pigtailed girls, with a princess in a Spanish farthingale, with streaming hair, running far out ahead. There wasn’t a story. What I loved was the simile.
And yes, I keep congeries of beloved things: toys, talismans, findings. Marbles, yes, and metamorphic toys like prisms and kaleidoscopes, and minikin blue-willow china, wheeled hedgepigs, pilgrimage badges of suns, moons, stars, and a tiny wren cage that I wove of twigs and hung with threads. My space is a cabinet of curiosities.
(I adore lists in literature as well. If you share my passion for miscellany, do try to find The Faber Book of Cabbages and Kings, edited by Francis Spufford.)
The thingness of things fascinates me: how poetry is made of etymologies and phonemes, and art of ground beetles and rabbitskin glue. Next to stylistics, the study I loved best in college was a workshop in the materials of art: a blissful apprenticeship in grinding pigments, piercing egg yolks, and not breathing while an airborne foil of goldleaf goes fluttering down, like the robe of an annunciate angel.
I love interiors in books and art: Mole’s house and Mr. Badger’s; Edgewood; attics, nurseries, mantelshelves, and kitchens. Light falls from the left on the milkmaid pouring stillness into stillness; light indwells in earthenware. My copy of Kingdoms of Elfin falls open at spring-cleaning:
A mysterious pair of spectacles is found in a sauceboat; a rusty strongbox in the muniment room is forced open and contains nutmegs; … when the brown bed-hangings from the Librarian’s bed-chamber are hung on the line and the dust beaten out of them, they are discovered to be cloth-of-gold and fall to pieces.
And I so love when nature herself writes the rebuses. What else are constellations but found metaphors? Some mysteries can be pocketed, like upcast pebbles from a beach with pictures in them: a leaf, a cloud, a flock of seabirds, or a grove of birches. Others I must visit: the reflection of a certain flowering dogwood in a pond, like the silk of a kimono; standing stones with dancers caught in them; a tree that holds a dryad or a leopard or a word I cannot yet read.
SS: Do you have thoughts about the relationship between childhood and fantasy, childhood and art?
Gwen Raverat has said it beautifully. She writes of a path at Down made of large round water-worn pebbles, from some sea beach. They were not loose, but stuck down tight in moss and sand, and were black and shiny, as if they had been polished. I adored those pebbles. I mean literally, adored; worshipped. This passion made me feel quite sick sometimes. And it was adoration that I felt for the foxgloves at Down, and for the stiff red clay out of the Sandwalk clay-pit; and for the beautiful white paint on the nursery floor. This kind of feeling hits you in the stomach, and in the ends of your fingers, and it is probably the most important thing in life. Long after I have forgotten all my human loves, I shall still remember the smell of a gooseberry leaf, or the feel of the wet grass on my bare feet; or the pebbles in the path. In the long run it is this feeling that makes life worth living, this which is the driving force behind the artist’s need to create.
I read memoirs of childhood, so I can share in them. I can borrow Raverat’s path of pebbles. I can be that dreamy child scrunched up in bed, like Nabokov, wrapping his chewed bedsheet round a garnet Easter egg, “so as to admire and re-lick the warm, ruddy glitter … that came seeping through with a miraculous completeness of glow and color.” I can marvel at the extraordinary paracosms shared by siblings like the Brontës or (deserving to be better known) the Farjeons.
Most wonderful of all, I’ve been playing with a child. He’s nearly five now, and his vast imagination is a nursery of nebulas, aburst with stars, with worlds on forming worlds in orbit. Everything he sees is fiercely alive, is new and marvellous, and endlessly recombinant. I get to share his marbles. It’s a joy.
© 2021 Greer Gilman and Sofia Samatar