Tag Archives: Great Britain

Medieval Magic and Marvels: Cloud Ships

A fisherman's anchor
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Of course there is another sea above the one we know of – didn’t you realise! One credulous medieval writer certainly seemed to think so.

I came across this extract from Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia in C. G. Coulton’s Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation, which is a great repository of all things medieval – from the mundane to the most fantastical of medieval marvels.

Gervase of Tilbury was an Imperial official in the 12th and 13th centuries, and wrote a number of works including the Otia Imperialia, which is a miscellany of various wonders – many of them seemingly very fanciful. I love this one about villagers coming across an anchor in a churchyard one foggy day and then a sailor comes down from the misty heavens to free the anchor. As if this isn’t evidence enough of ships sailing above us in the clouds, Gervase then backs this up with another story of a man sailing far overseas losing a knife overboard, and it then landing on his wife’s kitchen table far below.

Coulton notes that “A heavy stone tomb of the kind here described, dating from the late 14th or early 15th century, may still be seen in front of the porch of St Nicholas at Lynn. Iron door- bands in the rough form of an anchor are very common on early church doors :e.g. Sempringham.”

Here’s the full extract from Gervase of Tilbury:

There are some who say that the earth, as a centre in the midst of a circumference, is equally distant from all these extremities, and is surrounded and shut in by sea, even as it is written of the third Day of Creation, “God gathered together the waters that were under the heaven into one place, and dry land appeared.” In our own times there befel a marvellous, but well-known event to prove how the upper sea lieth above us. On a certain holyday in Great Britain, after High Mass, the folk were thronging forth from the parish church, on a morning so misty that it made a sort of twilight amid the gross and watery vapours. Here, on a stone tomb within the precincts of the churchyard, they found an anchor fixed, with its cable stretched tight and hanging down from the air. The people stood in amazement; and, while they were disputing among themselves of this matter, at length, they saw the rope move as though men had been labouring to weigh the anchor. When therefore, for all this straining at the rope, the anchor yet clung to the tomb, they heard through the foggy air as though it had been the cries of sailors labouring with all their might to raise an anchor from the deep. Soon, when they found their labour to be in vain, they sent down one of their fellows, who, as skilfully as any shipman of our own, appeared hanging to the rope and descending with alternate interchange of hands. When, however, he had torn the anchor from the tomb, he was caught by those that stood around, in whose arms he gave up the ghost, stifled by the breath of our gross air as a shipwrecked mariner is stifled in the sea. Moreover his fellows above, judging him to be wrecked, after an hour’s delay, cut the cable, left their anchor, and sailed away. In memory of which event the iron bands of the doors of that church were forged, by a cunning counsel, from that anchor; which bands are still there for all men to see. Here again is a still more marvellous testimony. In the county of Gloucester is a town named Bristol, wealthy and full of prosperous citizens; from this port men sail for Ireland. It befel upon a time that a native of Bristol sailed to Ireland, leaving his wife and children at home. Then, after a long sea-voyage, as he sailed on a far-off ocean, he chanced to sit banqueting with the mariners about the hour of tierce; and, after eating, as he washed his knife over the ship’s side, it slipped suddenly from his hands. At that same hour, at Bristol, the knife fell in through the roof-window of that same citizen (which men in the English tongue call dormer) and stuck in the table that was set before his wife. The woman, marvelling at so strange a thing, was dumbfounded; and, laying aside this well-known knife, she learned long afterwards, on her husband’s return, that his misfortune had befallen on the very day whereon she had found it. Who, then, will now doubt, after the publication of this testimony, that a sea lieth over this earth of ours, whether in the air or above the air?

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The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie Gets My Juices Going

The Blade Itself: Book One Of The First Law

I love Joe Abercrombie! If I was a girl I’m sure I’d say that I’d be prepared to have his babies?

Why do I feel like this? Well I don’t know him personally, but you can tell that he has got a wicked and subtle sense of humour and a great way with words. In many ways his books are standard fantasy fiction fare. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is the first part of a trilogy for instance and is a fairly weighty tome. The book is set in a world with a mix of medieval and colonial era style settings. The main country featured is the Union, which is very much like Great Britain – a number of separate nations brought together with colonial aspirations to the north in Angland and to the south in a city called Daroska which is very much like the Raj in India or maybe an outpost in the Arabian Gulf.

The plot is constructed so that we follow the character arcs of the main characters and how they fit into a larger narrative that is made up of world events. In The Blade Itself this larger narrative is about the threat to the Union from the king of the Northmen, Bethod, and also the dangers posed by a rogue magi, Khali. However, its really the individual character narratives that provide most of the interest and I think this is where Abercrombie raises his work above the humdrum of regular fantasy concerns.

Abercrombie’s narrative switches between a number of viewpoint characters, most of which have been constructed well. Probably my favourite of these is the Inquisitor Glotka, once a dashing cavalry officer and now a cynical and very funny secret policeman. His scenes are definitely the best in the book. Other characters such as Logen Ninefingers and Jezal Luthar work well too and you can see how they are all going to come together eventually in a satisfying conclusion to the first book. The Blade Itself however is definitely not a stand alone book. In the best traditions of fantasy trilogies it is just getting things started, by the end of the book we have all our heroes pretty much together and ready to set out on an important quest.

This sounds a bit clichéd, but you ignore that because of Abercrombie’s earthy and descriptive style. This is what he really excels at and its what keeps you reading and basically enjoying nearly every page. This is definitely muddy fantasy in the best traditions of something like the Warhammer game, where warriors are scarred, swear constantly and life is cheap and muddy and deadly. But Abercrombie doesn’t write with a blunt instrument like some other British fantasy writers do, such as Stan Nicholls or James Barclay. His descriptive powers really make you feel like you’re there tramping through wet woodlands or watching as Glotka hauls his crippled leg up yet another flight of stairs.

Here’s a paragraph that shows this quite well:

“The gorge was deep. Very deep with sheer, rocky sides. Here and there a tree clung to a crack, growing out into the empty air and spreading its leaves into space. The river hissed away far below, fast and angry, foaming white water fringed by jagged black stone. That was all bad, for sure, but the real problem was closer to hand. The big Shanka was still with him, swinging gently back and forth with its dirty hands clamped tight around his left ankle.”

Abercromie uses sound as well as sight to describe the scene, but he also supplies the viewpoint character’s opinon: ‘very deep’ the gorge seems, and ‘all bad’.

I think my only reservation would be the setting. We have seen it all before, but the way Abercrombie tells it makes it fun and exhilarating, but having only started reading the second book I’m not sure if it will ultimately prove to be a let down in the grander scheme of things. The style at the moment is winning over the feeling that there is a lack of substance to it all. I would also have to say that some of the minor characters are real clichés. There is the pathetically weak old king of the Union, the evil barbarian king etc. Although there’s nothing unrealistic about these characterisations on their own, they do feel a bit hollow when set against the main characters of the story. But then I perhaps shouldn’t complain as the story isn’t about these other characters anyway.