From the Old English word geol or geola, meaning “Christmas Day, Christmastide.” But this Old English word comes from jol, an Old Norse word for a feast (of the pagan variety). A similar word, giuli, referred to a two-month winter "season" that was roughly the same period as the December and January of the Romans. And the Old Norse word may have been a borrowing from an Old French word, jolif, meaning something nice, festive or … jolly. The word was revived in the 19th century, to give a unique name to the tradition of a “Merry Old English” Christmas.

Yule is also a country in the Perilous Realm, far to the north, in the Snowlands. It is also called The Kingdom of the Fir Trees. It is said that a great loremaster lives there, who is known to ride about on a sleigh pulled by the great antlered deer called tarand, bringing gifts and good cheer to everyone, to help them through the long dark winter, which in that country is all year round. Yule is, in fact, the place where Christmas (and its ancient pagan forebears) lives on always. To live there you’d have to get used to a steady diet of plum pudding and wassail.

As I look out my window now, I see snow falling. Looks like it will fall all day. I can almost imagine I live in the land of Yule. Time to go make some wassail.

A Scottish Folk Tale


 A Scottish Folktale (Adapted)

The warriors of the Fianna were once together, on the steep side of Ben Eudainn, on a wild night, and there was pouring rain and falling snow from the north. About midnight a creature of haggard appearance came to Fionn’s shelter. Her hair was down to her heels, and she cried to him to let her in. Fionn raised up a corner of the tent door, and he gazed at her.

"You’re an ugly creature," he said.  "Why should I let you in?”

She went away with a great cry that chilled Fionn’s bones. Then she reached the shelter of Oisean, and she asked him to let her in. Oisean lifted a corner of his door, and he saw her.

“You strange, hideous creature,” he said, “how can you ask me to let you in?”

She went away with a shriek that made his flesh crawl.

She reached Diarmid’s shelter, and she cried aloud to him to let her in. Diarmid lifted his door, and he saw her.

“You are a strange creature,” he said, “but it is a terrible night for any, be they comely or no. Come in and be dry.”

And so she came into his shelter, and the others of the Fianna who shared Diarmid’s tent began to flee, so hideous was she.

"Go to the further side of the tent," said Diarmid to them, "and let the creature come to the warmth of the fire."

They went to the one side, and they let her be at the fire, but she had not been long at the fire, when she came and sought to be under the warmth of Diarmid’s blanket together with himself.

"You are too bold," said Diarmid. "First you ask to come in, now you ask to share the warmth of my bed. But very well, you may do so.”

She went under the blanket, and he turned a fold of it between them. She was not long in his bed, when he gave a start, and he gazed at her, and he saw the finest woman that ever was, from the beginning of the universe till the end of the world. He shouted out to the rest to come over where he was, and he said to them:

"Is not this the most beauteous woman that man ever saw!"

"She is," they said, “the most beautiful woman that man ever saw."

She was asleep, and she did not know that they were looking at her. He let her sleep, and he did not awaken her, but a short time after that she awoke, and she said to him, "Are you awake Diarmid?"

"I am awake," said Diarmid.

"If you could build the very finest castle ever seen, where would you have it built?"

"Up above Ben Eudainn, if I had my choice," and Diarmid slept, and she said no more to him.

There one of the Fianna went out early, before the day, riding, and he saw a castle built up upon a hill. He cleared his sight to see if it was surely there; then he saw it, and he went home, and he did not say a word.

Another went out, and he saw it, and he did not say a word. Then the day was brightening, and two came in telling that the castle was most surely there.

Said she, as she rose up sitting, "Arise Diarmid, go up to your castle."

He looked out, and he saw a castle, and he came back to her.

“I will go up to the castle, if you’ll go with me."

They went to the castle, the two of them, and her hand was in his. Meat and drink were laid out on the tables, and there were maid servants, and men servants to attend them, and a fine greyhound bitch with three pups by the fire.  And all was just as Diarmid would have it.

They spent three days in the castle together, and at the end of three days she said to him, "You are sorrowful, because you are not with your friends.”

He would not answer.

"You had best go with the Fianna, and your meat and drink will be no worse than they are here," said she, and she turned away from him.

He was angered and he went away when he heard that. He soon reached the people of the Fianna, and Fionn, the brother of his mother, but they all had ill will to him, because the woman had come first to them, and that they had turned their backs to her, and Diarmid had not, and the matter had turned out so well for him.

It was not long before Diarmid regretted that he had left the beautiful damsel, and he went to ask her pardon, but when he climbed the mountain there was no castle, nor a stone left of it on another. He began to weep, and he said to himself that he would not rest till he should find her.

Away he went and took his way across the glens. There was neither house nor ember in his way. He was going on, and met a shepherd.

"Did you see, this day or yesterday, a woman taking this way?" said Diarmid to the shepherd.

"I saw a woman early in the morning yesterday, and she was walking hard," said the shepherd.

"What way was she going?"

"She went down to the shore of the sea, and I saw her no more."

Diarmid took the very road that she took, till there was no going any further. He sat on a knoll by the shore, and he had not sat there long when he saw a boat coming, and one man in her, and he was rowing her.

He went down where the boat was, and he asked for passage and it was granted, and he climbed in. Then the boat went out over the sea, and to his wonder she went down under the waves. He thought he would drown, but when he opened his eyes he saw dry ground, and a fair plain on which he could walk. He went on this land, and he walked on.
He was but a short time walking, when he found a drop of blood hanging from the branch of a hawthorn. He took the blood, and he put it into a napkin, and he put it into his pouch.

He was a while walking, and he saw another drop of blood on a hawthorn branch, and he took it, and put it into his pouch. He fell in with the next one, and he did the like with it. Then what should he see a short space from him, after that, but a woman, wild and unkempt as though she were crazed, gathering rushes. He went towards her, and he asked her what news she had. "I cannot tell my news till I gather the rushes," said she.

"Be telling it while you are gathering," said Diarmid.

"I am in great haste," said she.

"What place is here?" said he.

"There is here," said she, "Rioghachd Fo Thuinn, Realm Under-waves."

"What use have you for rushes?" said Diarmid.

"The daughter of King Under-waves has come home, and she was seven years under spells, and she is ill, and the leeches of Christendom are gathered, and none are doing her good, and a bed of rushes is what she alone finds will soothe her.”

"Well then, I would be in your debt if you see me to where that woman is."

"I will see to that. I will put you into the sheaf of rushes, and I will take you with me on my back."

“That is a thing you cannot do," scoffed Diarmid.

"Be that upon me," said she.

She put Diarmid into the bundle, and she took him on her back.

When she reached the damsel’s chamber she let down the bundle.

"Oh! hasten that to me," said the daughter of King Under-waves.

The Diarmid sprang out of the bundle, and sprang to meet her, and they seized each other's hands, and there was great joy between them.

"I am not well, and I will not be. Every time I thought of you when I was coming home, I lost a drop of the blood of my heart."

"Well then, I have got these three drops of your heart's blood, take them in a drink, and there will be nothing amiss."

"Well then, I will not take them," said she; "they will not do me a shade of good, since I cannot get one thing and I shall never get that in the world."

"What thing is that?" said he.

"There is no good in telling thee that; thou wilt not get it, nor any man in the world; it has discomfitted them for long."

"If it be on the surface of the world I will get it. Just tell me what it is," said Diarmid.

"Three draughts from the cup of Righ Magh an Ioghnaidh, the King of the Plain of Wonder, and no man ever got that, and I shall not get it."

"Oh! said Diarmid, "there are not on the surface of the world as many as will keep it from me. Tell me if that man be far from me."

"He is not; he is within a bound near my father, but a rivulet is there that can never be crossed, though it look to be narrow enough to leap over.”

He went away, and he reached the rivulet, and he walked into it, but no matter how many steps he took, the farther side came no closer.

"I cannot cross over it; that was true of her," said Diarmid.

Before he had let the word out of his mouth, there stood a little red-haired man in the midst of the rivulet, and he was fishing with a net for the quick bright fish.

"Diarmid, son of Duibhne, you are in straits," said he. “What would you give to a man who would bring you out of these straits? Come hither and put your foot on my palm."
"Oh! my foot cannot go into your palm," said Diarmid.

"It can."

Diarmid went, and he put his foot on his palm. "Now, Diarmid, it is to King Mag an Iunai that you are going, and I will go with your myself."

"So be it," said Diarmid. And the man carried him across the rivulet, and when he set him down on the far side, he said, “Tell the king of me, so that he may invite me in to feast with him. That is why I have brought these fine fish.”

Diarmid agreed, and set off and soon reached the house of King Wonderplain. He shouted for the cup to be sent out, or battle, or combat; and it was not the cup. There were sent out nine hundred Lugh ghaisgeach, and nine hundred Lan ghaisgeach, and in two hours he left not a man of them alive.

"Whence," said the king as he stood in his own great door, "came the man that has just brought my warriors to this pass? If it be the pleasure of the hero let him tell from whence he came."

"It is the pleasure of the hero; a hero of the people of the Fianna am I. I am Diarmid."

"Why did you not send in a message to say who your were, and I would not have sent my army upon thee and had them destroyed utterly. But come, what do you require?"

"I seek the cup that comes from your own hand for healing."

"No man ever got my cup of healing, but you shall, for I see that you are here for love.”

And so Diarmid got the cup from King Wonderplain. And they feasted together.

"I will now send a ship with you Diarmid," said the king, but Diarmid said that he had his own way back, and so he and the king parted from each other. But when Diarmid came to the rivulet, the little red-haired man was not there.

"There is no help for it," said he. "I shall not now get over the rivulet, and shame will not let me return to the king."

What should rise while the word was in his mouth but the little red man out of the rivulet, and he had a net full of fish.

"You are in straits, Diarmid."

"I am. I got the thing I desired, but I cannot get across with it."

"Well, now. Though you didn’t say a word of me to the king, nor had them bring me in to the castle, still, put your foot on my palm and I will take you over the stream."

Diarmid put his foot on his palm, and the man took him over the stream.

"Will you talk to me now Diarmid?" said he.

"I will," said Diarmid.

"You are going to heal the daughter of King Underwaves? She is the woman that you love best in the world?"

"Oh! it is she."

"Then go to the green well in the wood. There you will find a bottle, and you shall fill it with the water of the well. When you reach your fair damsel, pour the water in the king’s cup, and the three drops of blood. If she drink it, she shall be well, and live. But when she is healed, I tell you that you will no longer love her.”

"Oh! That shall not be," said Diarmid.

“It shall be so, and you shall not be able to hide it from her. And King Under-waves will come, and he will offer you much silver and gold for healing his daughter. Take not a jot of it, but ask only that the king should send a ship to take you back to the place you came from. Otherwise you will remain there forever in sorrow."

Diarmid went; he reached the green well in the wood; he got the bottle, and he filled it with water; he took it with him, and he reached the castle of King Under-waves. When he came in he was honoured and saluted.

"My fair Diarmid," said the damsel from her sickbed. “You have come, and you have brought the cup.”

"There was no man could have turned me back," said Diarmid. And when he saw again how beautiful she was, he was certain the little red man had lied.

He put the drops of blood into the water in the cup, and she drank it. And then she was whole and healthy, and he knew she would live. But it was as the little red man had said: Diarmid looked upon her and he felt no love for her. And when the fair damsel put her arms around Diarmid she knew that it was so, and she wept.

“You took pity upon me when I was a strange, ugly creature,” she said. “And then you loved me when you saw me as I truly am. And now I am well, and yours forever, and yet you are cold to me. I do not know why. Tell me why it is so.”

But Diarmid would not answer.

Then the king sent word throughout the town that she was healed, and music was raised, and lament laid down. The king came where Diarmid was, and he said to him, "Now, take as much silver as you wish for healing her, and you shall marry her."

"I will not take the damsel,” Diarmid said, “and I will not take anything but a ship to be sent with me to my home country."

A ship went with him, and he reached his home country; and his people greeted him with joy and pleasure that he had returned. But of his time in the land under the waves he would never speak.

[For a contemporary take on this tale, see "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman]

In the beginning was a story ...

In the beginning there was a story:

“And God said ‘Let there be light….’” (The Bible)

“Ages ago the entire universe existed in an egg-shaped cloud…” (China)

“The world at first was only water and darkness, and all the animals lived above the sky….” (Cherokee)

“The entire Universe was thousands of times smaller than the head of a pin. Then it suddenly exploded in a Big Bang, and with that, time, space and matter were all created.” (Stephen Hawking)

“You slept and grew inside Mommy’s tummy for nine months until you were ready to come out, and then one day that’s what you did, and everyone was so happy to meet you ….” (Me, or you, or just about anyone)

We live in a universe bounded by Story.  Whether it’s the entire cosmos or your own life, no matter how far back you go to find out where something came from, you’ll find a story there already waiting for you.  A story someone else is telling you, or a story you have to create for yourself.

The past is nothing more than the stories we tell about it, and the same is true of the future. What will life be like a hundred years from now? How will the universe end? And more importantly, what’s going to happen to ME?

For physicists, the beginning and the ending of all things can be expressed in equations, but the rest of us can only imagine the past and the future in stories.

(And maybe mathematics is a kind of storytelling, too, with numbers instead of words.)

And what about the way things are now? Just where are we in the universe? How big is it? Why are we here? All of our questions lead to stories of one kind or another: myths and theories and belief systems are all stories.

In the beginning was a story. And right now is a story. Lots of them, actually. Big stories that almost everyone believes in, and smaller stories that usually don’t quite fit the big ones.

What story are you in?

The Fathomless Fire

The publication of The Fathomless Fire, the second volume in my Perilous Realm trilogy, has been delayed, unfortunately. I'm told it won't be coming out until August 2011.

A long time to wait, if you've been following the story (as I have!) and have been wondering what's happening with Will Lightfoot and Shade the wolf and Rowen. So here, by way of apology for the long wait, and to whet your appetite, is a short excerpt from The Fathomless Fire:

Last night, Will talked to a shadow…
It was a warm night and he couldn’t sleep, so instead he started unpacking one of the boxes in his room labeled Will’s stuff. It was strange how packing up your things and then taking them out of a box later made you look at them in a new way. Some of these books and knick-knacks had been on his bedroom shelf for as long as he could remember, but jumbled up together in a box they looked like intriguing curiosities. He dug out an old storybook and slowly turned its yellowing pages. His mother used to read him these stories at bedtime when he was little. When he came to the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, with the picture of the giant’s castle above the clouds, he stopped. He’d loved this story. He remembered how scared he was of the giant when he came after Jack, but oh how satisfying the ending was, when the beanstalk was chopped through and the giant fell to his earthshaking end.
One night when his mother was reading the story to him she’d shut the book and said, Our people have a story like this one, too.
She’d been gone for three years now, but as he sat with the book in his hands he could still hear her voice, as clearly as if she was right here with him.
  Tell me that story, he’d asked her.
When she’d said our people she’d meant her ancestors, who had lived on the plains a long time ago, riding horses and hunting buffalo. She hardly ever spoke about her family’s past, and so when she did Will always sat still and listened eagerly. Since those plains people were his mother’s ancestors that meant they were Will’s, too, a thought that always gave him a strange feeling, a kind of homesickness for a world he’d never seen. And that night she’d told him the story of the boy who traveled to the mountain above the clouds and stole back the rain from the Sky Folk. At first his mother just called the hero of the story the boy, but when Will asked her what his name she said his people called him the boy who is light of foot, or Lightfoot for short. He was thrilled that the hero’s name was the same as his. Only much later did he realize that his mother had added that detail on the spur of the moment, just to please him. I think he was probably a lot like you, his mother had said.
The story was even better than Jack and the Beanstalk. The boy called Lightfoot had many adventures on his way to the Sky Mountain, adventures that Will’s mother told him night after night for a long time before they moved on to other stories and other books. Whenever she finished one of her Lightfoot stories and was tucking him in for the night, he would always ask her for just one more. And she would tilt her head, and say …
A gust of wind swept in through the open window, sending papers flying and knocking over the reading lamp on the table beside Will’s bed. Before he could catch it, the lamp landed on the rug and the shade sprang off the bulb. Will hopped off the bed and rescued the shade before it rolled under the bed. As he was about to put it back on the lamp, he heard a sound behind him. A very distinct and unmistakable cough. The kind of cough someone makes when they’re trying politely to get your attention.
He whirled around.
There was no one else in the room. The door was closed. All he saw was his own looming shadow, thrown by the bare bulb onto the far wall.
But there was another shadow, standing right next to his.
Another person-shape, where there shouldn’t be one. Will turned his head slowly, his heart pounding. There was no one beside him casting that other shadow.
“Hello,” said a voice.
Will screamed and raced for the door.
“Wait,” said the voice, although it was not quite a voice. More like the hollow echo of a voice. “Where are you going?”
Much to his own surprise, Will didn’t flee out the door and down the stairs. Instead he stopped, turned and faced the shadow. He wasn’t sure why, but it was at least partly the feeling, deep down, that this impossibility had something to do with that other world he had journeyed to, and had been thinking about ever since.
The shadow of someone who wasn’t there moved away from Will’s own shadow, toward the corner of the room. An old saggy armchair stood there, on which Will piled his clothes at the end of the day.
The shadow-person raised a shadow-hand and gestured to the chair.
“May I?” the voice asked. How a shadow could be speaking to him, Will didn’t know, but the voice sounded … right somehow. A shadow should sound like that, he thought, like the edges of a voice with everything in the middle taken away.
Will nodded his head slowly.
The shadow of someone dropped into the shadow of the chair with a long sigh.
“That’s better,” it said, patting the arms of the chair. “It wasn’t easy getting here, believe me. I’m a bit out of breath. I have to say I’ve never come this far before.”
“Where are you from?” Will asked.
There was a moment of silence.
“You don’t really need me to answer that,” the shadow replied, with the slightest tinge of sarcasm.
“No, I guess not. What are … who are you?”
“That’s a better question. Unfortunately, the answer is that I’m not anybody. I’m a shadow.”
“A shadow of who?”
“Just a shadow. No who.”
“But every shadow is a shadow of something.”
“Maybe. But never mind that. I’ve got a task to perform, so I’d better get to it before my time is up. I’m here to warn you.”
“Warn me about what?”
The shadow seemed to lean forward in the shadow of the chair.
“Terrible things. A friend in great danger.”
Will thought of Rowen and her grandfather the loremaster. And Shade, the wolf. The shadow could only be talking about one of them. 
“I was with my friends just a few days ago,” he said, bewildered. “They were fine when I left. They were safe. What’s happened?”
The shadow sat back again.
 “That’s all I can tell you. Terrible things. A friend in great danger.”
Will stared at the shadow.  This was the shape of a person, all right, but nothing more than that. There was no face, nobody to look at. Which made everything it said doubtful. This could be the shadow of anyone. 
“Who sent you?” Will asked.
“No one sent me. I’m here because it’s what must be.”
“Well, who told you my friends are in danger?”
The shadow had no eyes, but Will had the odd feeling that if it had, it would have been rolling them in annoyance.
“No one told me. I serve no one. I’m just here, simple as that, with a warning for you. I’ll repeat it again if you like: Terrible things. A friend—“
“Is that all you can say?” Will broke in, his alarm turning to anger.
“That’s all I can say.”
“Meaning you don’t know anything more, or you won’t tell me?”
The shadow sat for a moment in silence, then hoisted itself out of the shadow armchair with a grunt of effort.
“That’s a comfortable chair. But I’ve done what I came to do. Now if you’ll excuse me --”
“No, wait. If you know more, you have to tell me. Are these terrible things happening now, or are they going to happen soon …?”
“As I said, I’ve done what I came to do. I can’t give out any further information. The laws forbid it.”
The shadow seemed to dim slightly, and Will was afraid it would disappear.
“What laws?” he asked quickly. “Please, I’m not from your world. I don’t understand.”
 “The laws of Story, of course. I exist because of those laws. Or I suppose you could say I am one of the laws.”
“But there’s more you could tell me, right? It sounds like you know more than you’re saying.”
The shadow sighed.
“Listen. What I am is a shadow of things to come. Things that haven’t happened yet. My task is to bring warnings or hints about what’s on the way. Hints that most folk choose to ignore, unfortunately. But that’s their problem. All I do is foretell, and what I do is what I am. And that’s all.”
“But you could say more if you wanted to, couldn’t you?”
 “A shadow has no wants,” it said mechanically, as if reciting something it had said already many times. “A shadow does not give directions, explanations, or advice. A shadow is its task and nothing more.”
“But you’ve already broken the law,” Will said eagerly, the idea forming even as he spoke. “You told me what you are and what you do. So you’ve given me an explanation.”
The shadow went still, as if it was surprised by what Will had said, and then it chuckled, a hollow sound like raindrops falling into a tin pail.
“I’ve bent the rules. I never did that before. It must be because I’m so far from home…”
“It won’t hurt anything,” Will said, though he had no idea if that was true or not. “So you can go ahead and tell me more.
The shadow didn’t answer right away. It wavered and bobbed, as if it was being cast now by a flickering candle flame.
“I will not,” the shadow said with what sounded to Will like a note of fear in its voice. “I’m … I’m a shadow of things to come. That’s all I am. And my time is almost up. I have to …”
“Wait, please.”
The shadow had grown even harder to see, but at Will’s entreaty it grew darker and more defined again.
“I can’t tell you what terrible things are coming,” the shadow said, “because I really don’t know. I don’t know what danger your friends are in.” The shadow had almost faded away to nothing. “All I know is that you’re needed in the story, and you have to get back right away.”
“How do I get back?”
 “The same way you left,” the shadow’s voice said, but from where, Will couldn’t tell, because it had already vanished.
In a daze Will looked around his room, as if he might find the shadow still lurking somewhere. He saw the fallen lamp, picked it up and set it back on the table. Then his eyes fell on the storybook, sprawled open on the floor. Jack and the Beanstalk. He remembered that just before the shadow appeared he’d been thinking about what his mother’s always told him when he asked for one more story at bedtime.
Don’t worry, she would say. The story will wait for us.
But what about his story, and Rowen’s, he wondered now. Would it wait?


Traveling in the Perilous Realm you’re likely, sooner or later, to meet ogres. They have become more and more familiar denizens of Story these days, no doubt largely as a result of computer and roleplaying games like World of Warcraft, in which they appear quite often. In these games, and the guidebooks and manuals that have spun off from them, ogres have been catalogued by way of various species, tribes, races, etc. You can, for example, encounter an “ogre mage,” which is surprising, given that ogres are traditionally thought of as brutish hateful creatures without much in the way of brains. Rarely (if ever) in stories does a hero go to consult a wise old ogre.

The word ogre itself is interesting. Looking into its etymology, one finds that the word first appears in French literature, in a 12th century poem about the Aruthurian knight Percival, where these lines appear:

et s'est escrit que il ert ancore
que toz li reaumes de Logres,
qui ja dis fu la terre as ogres,
ert destruite par cele lance …

Which translates roughly to something like: “and there will come a time / when the kingdom of Logres [England], / which was once the land of ogres / shall be destroyed by that spear …”

It almost seems likely the poet invented the word ogre in order to find something to rhyme with an odd word like Logres. From there, however, the word ogre shows up more and more frequently in poems and stories through the ages, usually to describe some sort of large, savage, nasty being, somewhere in size between a goblin and a giant. 

I used to wonder why there were no ogres in Tolkien’s books, only trolls, until I discovered that his word for goblin, orc, may have been derived from the Italian word for ogre, orco, which may itself come from a far older word for some sort of evil creature. So he didn't want both orcs and ogres in his stories if they're really the same thing, at least etymologically. As usual with Professor Tolkien, it was an interesting old word that sparked his imagination and led to the creation of a new creature. 

Sometimes that's how the realm of Story grows: the word comes first, then something has to be imagined to fit it.

Storytelling inns

The Golden Goose tavern in the city of Fable is not the only place in the Perilous Realm where Storyfolk gather to share the tales they’ve heard or lived.

In a part of the Realm known as the Twilight Land, there is an Inn of the Sign of Mother Goose. You have to be careful approaching the Mother Goose Inn. As one earlier traveler told it: “I would have floated past the Inn, and perhaps have gotten into the Land of Never-Come-Back-Again, only I caught at the branch of an apple tree, and so I stopped myself…”

The traveler, having saved himself from a one-way trip to Never-Come-Back-Again, went on into the tap-room of the inn, and this is what he found there:

“There they all were, every one of them. Aladdin and Ali Baba, and Fortunatus, and Jack-the-Giant-Killer, and Dr Faustus, and Bidpai, and Cinderella, and Patient Grizzel, and the Soldier who cheated the Devil, and St George, and Hans in Luck … and there was Sinbad the Sailor, and the tailor who killed seven flies with one blow, and the Fisherman who fished up the Genie, and the Lad who fiddled for the Devil in the bramble bush, and the Blacksmith who made Death sit in his apple tree, and Boots, who always marries a princess, whether he wants to or not – a ragtag lot as ever you saw in your life, gathered from every place, and brought together in Twilight Land.”

And each of these Storyfolk was taking a turn telling a story, just as the pilgrims did on their way to Canterbury at the Tabard Inn, and just as Storyfolk have done for ages in Fable. But they don’t tell their own stories, the ones we know; instead they tell other stories that they have heard.

[To read these stories told by storybook characters, look for the book Twilight Land by the American artist and writer Howard Pyle]

There are many other such storytelling inns throughout the Perilous Realm, they say, and perhaps beyond it. For example, I have heard of a place called the Inn of the World’s End: “a free house” as the sign outside declares. This is a place where travelers journeying between stories may take shelter during strange storms that herald the onset of momentous, reality-changing events.
(For further information, see World’s End, a graphic novel in the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman).

Postscript: I personally know of three travelers who've returned from the Land of Never-Come-Back-Again. There is at present a petition being circulated through the Realm to have the name of this land changed to Probably-Never-Come-Back-Again.

Merlin's Ring

I first read this novel when I was a teenager in the 1970's. I was blown away by its epic narrative sweep and by the beautiful, transcendent story of its heroes, the Roman-Aztec warrior Gwalchmai and his beloved Corenice, an immortal Atlantean woman, as they lose and find one another again and again through the ages, and through many worlds of myth, legend and history. 

I knew nothing about the author when I first read the book all those years ago, but recently I happened to be browsing the old paperbacks on my shelves and I found my battered Ballantine copy of the novel, and decided to read it again for the first time in decades. It had held up remarkably well after all these years, and now, in this age of the internet, I finally did some searching to learn more about the author. His story is more curious than I would have guessed, and rather sad as well, since it's clear he has been far underrated as a writer of fantasy.

Here's the story of H Warner Munn and the world of Merlin's Ring.

The Death of King Arthur

It was not to win renown that King Arthur had gone far across the sea, for he loved his own country so well, that to gain glory at home made him happiest of all.

But a false knight with his followers was laying waste the country across the sea, and Arthur had gone to wage war against him.

"And you, Sir Mordred, will rule the country while I am gone," the King had said. And the knight smiled as he thought of the power that would be his.

At first the people missed their great King Arthur, but as the months passed they began to forget him, and to talk only of Sir Mordred and his ways.

And he, that he might gain the people's praise, made easier laws than ever Arthur had done, till by and by there were many in the country who wished that the King would never come back. When Mordred knew what the people wished, he was glad, and he made up his mind to do a cruel deed.

He would cause letters to be written from beyond the sea, and the letters would tell that the great King Arthur had been slain in battle.

And when the letters came the people read, "King Arthur is dead," and they believed the news was true.

And there were some who wept because the noble King was slain, but some had no time to weep. "We must find a new King," they said. And because his laws were easy, these chose Sir Mordred to rule over them.

The wicked knight was pleased that the people wished him to be their King. "They shall take me to Canterbury to crown me," he said proudly. And the nobles took him there, and amid shouts and rejoicings he was crowned.

But it was not very long till other letters came from across the sea, saying that King Arthur had not been slain, and that he was coming back to rule over his own country once more.

When Sir Mordred heard that King Arthur was on his way home, he collected a great army and went to Dover to try to keep the King from landing.

But no army would have been strong enough to keep Arthur and his knights away from the country they loved so well. They fought fiercely till they got on shore and scattered all Sir Mordred's men.

Then the knight gathered together another army, and chose a new battle-field.

But King Arthur fought so bravely that he and his men were again victorious, and Sir Mordred fled to Canterbury.

Many of the people began to forsake the false knight now, and saying that he was a traitor, they went back to King Arthur.

But still Sir Mordred wished to conquer the King. He would go through the counties of Kent and Surrey and raise a new army.

Now King Arthur had dreamed that if he fought with Sir Mordred again he would be slain. So when he heard that the knight had raised another army, he thought, "I will meet this traitor who has betrayed me. When he looks in my face, he will be ashamed and remember his vow of obedience."

And he sent two bishops to Sir Mordred. "Say to the knight that the King would speak with him alone," said Arthur.

And the traitor thought, "The King wishes to give me gold or great power, if I send my army away without fighting." "I will meet King Arthur," he said to the bishops.

But because he did not altogether trust the King he said he would take fourteen men with him to the meeting-place, "and the King must have fourteen men with him too," said Sir Mordred. "And our armies shall keep watch when we meet, and it a sword is lifted it shall be the signal for battle."

Then King Arthur arranged a feast for Sir Mordred and his men. And as they feasted all went merrily till an adder glided out of a little bush and stung one of the knight's men. And the pain was so great, that the man quickly drew his sword to kill the adder.

And when the armies saw the sword flash in the light, they sprang to their feet and began to fight, "for this is the signal for battle," they thought.

And when evening came there were many thousand slain and wounded, and Sir Mordred was left alone. But Arthur had still two knights with him, Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere.

When King Arthur saw that his army was lost and all his knights slain but two, he said, "Would to God I could find Sir Mordred, who has caused all this trouble."

"He is yonder," said Sir Lucan, "but remember your dream, and go not near him."

"Whether I die or live," said the King, "he shall not escape." And seizing his spear he ran to Sir Mordred, crying, "Now you shall die."

And Arthur smote him under the shield, and the spear passed through his body, and he died.

Then, wounded and exhausted, the King fainted, and his knights lifted him and took him to a little chapel not far from a lake.

As the King lay there, he heard cries of fear and pain from the distant battle-field.

"What causes these cries?" said the King wearily. And to soothe the sick King, Sir Lucan said he would go to see.

And when he reached the battle-field, he saw in the moonlight that robbers were on the field stooping over the slain, and taking from them their rings and their gold. And those that were only wounded, the robbers slew, that they might take their jewels too.

Sir Lucan hastened back, and told the King what he had seen.

"We will carry you farther off, lest the robbers find us here," said the knights. And Sir Lucan lifted the King on one side and Sir Bedivere lifted him on the other.

But Sir Lucan had been wounded in the battle, and as he lifted the King he fell back and died.

Then Arthur and Sir Bedivere wept for the fallen knight.

Now the King felt so ill that he thought he would not live much longer, and he turned to Sir Bedivere: "Take Excalibur, my good sword," he said, "and go with it to the lake, and throw it into its waters. Then come quickly and tell me what you see."

Sir Bedivere took the sword and went down to the lake. But as he looked at the handle with its sparkling gems and the richness of the sword, he thought he could not throw it away. "I will hide it carefully here among the rushes," thought the knight. And when he had hidden it, he went slowly to the King and told him he had thrown the sword into the lake.

"What did you see?" asked the King eagerly.

"Nothing but the ripple of the waves as they broke on the beach," said Sir Bedivere.

"You have not told me the truth," said the King. "If you love me, go again to the lake, and throw my sword into the water."

Again the knight went to the water's edge. He drew the sword from its hiding-place. He would do the King's will, for he loved him. But again the beauty of the sword made him pause. "It is a noble sword; I will not throw it away," he murmured, as once more he hid it among the rushes. Then he went back more slowly, and told the King that he had done his will.

"What did you see?" asked the King.

"Nothing but the ripples of the waves as they broke on the beach," repeated the knight.

"You have betrayed me twice," said the King sadly, "and yet you are a noble knight! Go again to the lake, and do not betray me for a rich sword."

Then for the third time Sir Bedivere went to the water's edge, and drawing the sword from among the rushes, he flung it as far as he could into the lake.

And as the knight watched, an arm and a hand appeared above the surface of the lake. He saw the hand seize the sword, and shaking it three times, disappear again under the water. Then Sir Bedivere went back quickly to the King, and told him what he had seen.

"Carry me to the lake," entreated Arthur, "for I have been here too long."

And the knight carried the King on his shoulders down to the water's side. There they found a barge lying, and seated in it were three Queens, and each Queen wore a black hood. And when they saw King Arthur they wept.

"Lay me in the barge," said the King. And when Sir Bedivere had laid him there, King Arthur rested his head on the lap of the fairest Queen. And they rowed from land.

Sir Bedivere, left alone, watched the barge as it drifted out of sight, and then he went sorrowfully on his way, till he reached a hermitage. And he lived there as a hermit for the rest of his life.

And the barge was rowed to a vale where the King was healed of his wound.

And some say that now he is dead, but others say that King Arthur will come again, and clear the country of its foes.

-- from Stories of King Arthur's Knights by Mary MacGregor

Atlantis, part 3

In ancient times the people of Atlantis were blessed with wisdom. They used their advanced arts and sciences for the benefit of all, not to increase the power and comfort of the few. The Atlanteans harnessed the power of the sun, the water, and their own minds to achieve wondrous things. But over time, the comforts and ease of life that they gained made them selfish, petty and quarrelsome. As a people they became greedy and warlike, and used their knowledge to create new technology and terrible new weapons, with which they conquered other peoples and ruled over them like gods. The Atlanteans became masters of the planet, but in so doing they lost the wisdom that had once guided them. They forgot the true power that came from their own hearts and minds, and began instead to worship the machines that brought air, land and sea under their control.

According to Plato, Zeus grew angry at the aggression and arrogance of the Atlanteans and he punished them by destroying their island and sinking it under the waves. In our time, various prophets and visionaries have come up with their own explanations for the fall of Atlantis. In one such story, the Atlanteans developed a power source using immense crystals. At first the crystals were used for good, but an evil faction among the people took power and used the crystals wrecklessly, as weapons. The result was a catastrophic explosion that sank the island. Other writers suggest the island was struck by an asteroid or suffered some other natural disaster, like a tsunami.

These three stories illustrate three main ways in which the story of Atlantis has been made use of: first, to give a lesson on the power of the gods, secondly, to warn us of the dangers of our own arrogant over-reliance on technology, and thirdly, perhaps to suggest that nature itself has the final say, no matter how powerful we humans think we are.

It's no wonder the story of Atlantis has captivated our imaginations for centuries. Like any myth, it's a story that can have many meanings, and yet not be exhausted by the meanings that we find in it.

Atlantis, part 2

Over the centuries, many have believed that the people of Atlantis, or at least some of them, survived the sinking of their homeland and became underwater dwellers.

The most popular version of this myth shows up in comic books. Both DC's Aquaman and Marvel's Prince Namor are monarchs of the sunken civilization of Atlantis (and both, interestingly, are cranky and given to suspicion, if not outright hatred, of surface dwellers.

Many novels have been written about this undersea civilization; there have been movies, TV shows, cartoons, and at least one song (Donovan's "Atlantis"). It's intriguing to imagine how different human life might be in a world of water. Would Atlanteans wear clothing? Would they have books? What would their pastimes and sports be like? And wouldn't they be keen to find out what was up there, above the water? As keen as we are to explore the depths of the ocean?

Imagine what would happen if a book fell overboard from a passing ship and an Atlantean found it and tried to figure out what this strange object was:

It was rectangular, and covered in a dry, stiff green skin. I thought at first it was some kind of box, but as I turned it over it seemed to come apart in my hands. The “box” was really a stack of superthin white membranes of some fibrous material that had been compressed together by the green cloth. I made a sound of alarm, thinking that the membranes were about to spill to the floor, but then I saw that they were all affixed somehow to the skin covering on one side.  I quickly grasped that this had been done to keep the membranes in a particular order: one could manipulate them back and forth without having to worry that they would slip out or become disorganized. I also noted the black rows of markings on both sides of each membrane, arranged in neat rectangular “boxes” of their own. The markings or symbols had not been carved or incised into the membranes; rather, they seemed to have been impressed there with some liquid medium that had later dried. I understood that these markings formed a text, such as we Atlanteans might have traced in the water with our pouches of squid ink. This text, however, was so long that a device for holding it all together had been found necessary. However, the reader could not swim through the text, or come at it from different angles, as we could. These land dwellers were limited to the shape and order that had been predetermined by whoever had bound together the membranes within the skin. Their only freedom from this order, it seemed to me, would be to place a marker of some kind at a certain point between the membranes, and move back or forward from there to another place.

[from The Logogryph, by Thomas Wharton, copyright 2004]


The island / continent of Atlantis was first mentioned in two dialogues of the Greek philosopher Plato. He asserted that the Atlanteans sank in a cataclysm of earthquake and flood thousands of years ago.

Since Plato was generally thought of as a truthful sort of fellow, people have spent the past couple of millennia trying either to find Atlantis or to speculate on where it might have been. Despite the fact that Plato said the island was located in the Atlantic Ocean, just beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, various "experts" have located it in just about every other part of the globe, including places on dry land.

The thing these experts don't realize is that they will never find Atlantis by looking for it under the ocean floor or in ancient ruins. That's because it exists only in one place, the Realm of Story.

In the next couple of posts I'll have more to say about Atlantis and what you might find there.

Book trailer of the Shadow of Malabron

"The Shadow of Malabron" - Book Trailer from Chris Hill on Vimeo.

This is the book trailer for The Shadow of Malabron created by a very talented former writing student of mine, Chris Hill, along with Nathan Brown of Swashbuckler Productions. Much thanks and appreciation also to Conor Wharton (Will Lightfoot), Jess Bell (Rowen), James Cadden (the Angel), Patrick Kerr (the motorcycle rider), and Kiefer the "wolf" (and his owner Azal Abedi).
Illustration of Walter Stenström's The boy and the trolls or The Adventure in childrens' anthology Among pixies and trolls, a collection of childrens' stories, 1915.

Zen stories 2

Another brief Zen story I like:

Two Zen monks, Tanzan and Ekido, traveling on pilgrimage, came to a muddy river crossing. There they saw a lovely young woman dressed in her kimono and finery, obviously not knowing how to cross the river without ruining her clothes. Without further ado, Tanzan graciously picked her up, held her close to him, and carried her across the muddy river, placing her onto the dry ground. Then he and Ekido continued on their way. Hours later they found themselves at a lodging temple. And here Ekido could no longer restrain himself and gushed forth his complaints: 

“Surely, it is against the rules what you did back there…. Touching a woman is simply not allowed…. How could you have done that? … And to have such close contact with her! … This is a violation of all monastic protocol…” 

Thus he went on with his verbiage. Tanzan listened patiently to the accusations. Finally, during a pause, he said, “Look, I set that girl down back at the crossing. Are you still carrying her?”
(Based on an autobiographical story by Japanese master Tanzan, 1819-1892)