Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Magic of Orkney - John Dougherty

What is it about the distant past that can be so compelling? Why do so many fantasy novels reach into prehistory for their magic? To find out, I went on an expedition to Orkney.

Well, actually, that bit’s a big fat fib. I didn’t go to Orkney to explore its neolithic inheritance; I didn’t even know it had a neolithic inheritance to explore until we got there. I went because my wife won an all-expenses-paid Orkney weekend for two - including a whisky-tasting tour and a flight round the islands - courtesy of Highland Park.

But what an incredible amount of prehistory there is to discover on Orkney! Even the names have a kind of magic - the Ring of Brodgar, the Tomb of the Eagles, Maes Howe, Skara Brae: they speak of ancient enchantments and of mystery, of a time when humanity lived closer to the soil and the sky, of the places where the spiritual and sacred touch the physical world and leave their mark...

Well, they do to me, anyhow. And I suspect they do to many of you, particularly those who get annoyed about horned helmets on the covers of books about Vikings. But why? How is it that “times we don’t know much about” turns, in our imaginations, into “times when the world ran by entirely different rules”?

There are probably a number of answers, one of which is, “It’s all Tolkien’s fault” - assuming that ‘fault’ is the appropriate concept here, which it probably isn’t. But I can’t help feeling there’s a link here with my last post, the one about making up stories about real people. When we don’t know, we have a tendency to fill in the gaps, and the more and bigger the gaps, the more imaginative we are in those fictions.

This struck home particularly when we visited Maes Howe. It’s an ancient chambered tomb, older than the pyramids, and as well as some faint neolithic markings it also contains some of the finest examples we have of runes carved in stone, courtesy of a group of Norsemen who sheltered there from a storm, hundreds of years ago. Yet, what do those runes say? Do they tell of ancient mysteries? No, they say things like, “Ottarfila carved these runes”, and “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of women”. The more we discover about the ancients, the more they turn out to be just like us.

Not - I hasten to add - that I have anything against novels that suggest supernatural reasons for ancient monuments. My own Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy involves a ring of standing stones in all kinds of, ahem, nefaerieous goings on. And it’s quite simply great fun to imagine that the world was once a place in which magic happened.

There are, however, two lessons I’ve taken away from my weekend’s break. One is to remember that, well, people are people, with many of the same joys and challenges; and that’s probably always been the case.

The other is to remember, always, to enter prize draws at literature festivals. You never know your luck.


Penny Dolan said...

What magical luck, John, and I'm sure your right about the emptiness of space needing to be inhabited. Gla dyou both had such a memorable time.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I absolutely love Orkney John, went to every single neolithic site I could cram into our week, wrote poetry and would go back at the drop of a hat. Great post!

catdownunder said...

Your screen just turned bright green - I am so envious!

Donna said...

I absolutely love the Orkneys and wrote about them as well (post one of 3 http://www.travelleadersblog.com/2010/06/tomb_raiding_graffiti_artists_and_other_fun.html)

They are magical, perhaps especially because of the hilarious ancient graffiti.
Thank you for this post.