when i hear songs, they sound like a swan


No Quincunx for you; I didn’t read it. I DIDN’T READ IT, LIKE IN SCHOOL.

Thor took my electricity for two days after my last post, probably because I said he was boring (Thor you are boring) (I’m very sorry, sir, please try to work your hot ass into a better series of films), and so I ended up having to read an actual book. Made of pages. And it wasn’t about English people. I’m still recovering.

Instead of The Quincunx — which in addition to being excellent is also physically heavy — I read Kalpa Imperial again. Like The Quincunx, it is also one of my favorite novels, but it can be picked up with only the one hand. Kalpa Imperial is a collection of stories by a single author (Angélica Gorodischer), writing in the voices of dozens of different storytellers who are compiling the pseudo-oral history of a great, fallen, and imaginary empire; it consists of radiantly original fairytales germinated from myths originating in Spain, Persia, and the United Kingdom, among others. Like most great books, though, it builds from these ordinary materials a house no wind blows over. (An incandescent house? Made of flowers?)

My very favorite of the parts of Kalpa Imperial is a story called "The End of a Dynasty, or, The Natural History of Ferrets." You can get it in its entirety for free here (it's an excerpt by the book's English publisher, not an illegal download). Go read it, I’ll wait.

That was great, wasn’t it? I truly have the best taste in books, I know, I should start a blog. Would you like to watch me connect this story to another of my favorite books, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, using evidence? Of course you would, what am I saying:

You have, I’m sure, noticed the presence of a nameless king at the center of each of these fictions — if you wanted to be picky you might point out that in the case of the Ninth Head of the Hehvrontes Dynasty the monarch is technically an emperor, and an emperor and a king aren’t the same thing, but what are you, the police? — despised and marginalized and chased from his lands and his Right, and also something other than mortal (the Nameless 9th’s "[…]father took as his empress a Southern woman reputed to be not entirely human") (John Uskglass is like 645 years young in the pages of Strange & Norrell) (and hot-looking) (important). Both John Uskglass and Loo’Loö are famous poets, and although we aren’t allowed to see any of Loo’Loö’s poetry or music we know it’s good enough to have gone down in history. His name has been stolen from him and ruined, but he could not be divested of his authority over the hearts of men. Both characters represent the reconciliation of the dark and the light together, embodied in their dispositions and in their fortunes as well as in the pigmentation of their persons — and also in the weather, which provides both Uskglass and Loo with theatrical backdrops for particularly dramatic scenes. Both characters preside over the dismantling (by others, all right) of the crippling patriarchies established without their consent in their forgotten names. Both characters pass from the servants' quarters to the throne — but unfortunately for poor Loo, he goes down toward tragedy instead of ascending in the direction of the historical. They are both my boyfriends.

Perhaps you are not aware, however, of the provenance of "the Raven King" in British folklore? (Or maybe you are, in which case you can skip this paragraph.) Although the origin of the myth is probably long gone — and may never have represented a single folkloric menhir in the first place —  the Raven King was first committed to ink in The Mabinogion, which derives from the prehistoric myths of Wales (?), and is also some of the most ancient folklore in the Western world (??). The modern versions of these stories are contaminated with Christian influence in much the same way that the earliest British Arthurian stories have been ruined by it; everywhere you see a seductress or a villain or a vain, preening coward in the Matter of Britain, you can usually find a pagan hero, a famous Jesus-resistant king, or a goddess behind the curtain. The Children of Llyr have been similarly transfigured by Celtic monks, changed from gold into leaden hagiography. In many versions of their foundation myth they became such devout worshippers of Christ that they hung around a stupid monastery in the form of swans for centuries and then deferred to the spiritual expertise of a priest :[

But the swan siblings probably predate not just the Christian misconstructions, but also the more contemporary fairy tale iteration from which Shakespeare might have worked (Shakespeare didn’t work from that one, sorry) (unless he had a time machine & a library card, which I wouldn’t rule out). The theme is older, perhaps, than even writing. According to the long-forgotten authority of some ancient narrative law or other, the Children of Llyr are always associated strongly with the creatures of the air — Bran itself means "raven," even though the character doesn't seem very raven-like at all; in one of the stories in the Mabinogion, Branwyn, the lady third of the Raven Triumvirate, makes use of a starling to communicate with her brothers; the trickster/magician third of #TeamRaven, Manawydan, is linked occultly with cranes — peculiar, possibly, because "llyr" means "sea," and all three of the Raven Children were sea gods. (I think?) The story, which seems to appear in some form or other in all the cultures of the British Isles, isn’t super-coherent, and swaps mythemes pretty promiscuously with other tales which may or may not be derived from the same source(s). And although the shape of the bird-children changes from story to story, the sense of their tragedy endures — death and pain and loss, dislocation and injustice, wings beating against the vacancy. I’m not sure how starlings, cranes, and ravens turned into swans, either — and then, you know, turned into swans, if you see what I mean. There certainly couldn’t have been three or four old kings called Llyr hanging around in Iron Age Wales whose children transformed into supernatural birds, could there? Maybe it’s just that a crane looks like a swan when you see it through sea mist after you’ve had your head bashed in with a club during a battle over tribal territory? Or perhaps an official Irish storyteller just thought swans were pretty and would suggest a unifying poetic metaphor that the original stories lacked — the Wikipedia entry suggests that Britain Christianized beneath the Children as they flew uncomforted from lake to lake, and then describes how they died immediately upon descending.

Back to the context: The image of the swan is tied immediately to Loo’Loö’s position of exile in the garden where Livna’lams eventually meets his father (more on this later), "[t]he prince and the empress were already in the gardens. Sun or snow or rain or wind or hail, lightning, thunder, whatever the weather, the two of them, the little boy and the woman in white, walked every morning to the central fountain, where eight marble swans opened their wings to the water falling from a basin of alabaster." Loo even looks like a swan: "This one was shorter and slighter, lanky, also very tanned, cleanshaven, with tangled black hair, bright black eyes that looked amused, a wide mouth and a long, delicate neck." Loo’Loö sings, presumably, and plays some sort of guitar or lute-like object. He is better at cards than anyone (cf. "bluffing").

There’s an element in one of the branches of the Mabinogion which indicates that Bran, the Raven King himself, cannot be contained in a house — this is always interpreted by scholars & writers as a description of Bran’s giganticness, but I also think it might mean that Bran was just too enormous/magical/dangerous a presence to submit himself to the domestication of the hearth — and in fact attributes his untimely death to his disregard for this proscription. Although Loo and Renka (Loo’s loyal, reckless, and — coughcough — gigantic companion) are alleged to work in Livna’lams’s palace, neither of them is ever spotted indoors. They appear at the bottom of the garden always, mysterious and secret as fairies.

Lastly, one of the branches of the Mabinogion tells the story of a character called Lleu Llaw Gyffes, an isolated boy-warrior who is rejected by his wicked royal mother, who ultimately rejects the company of women himself, and whose various dialect-inflected names, if stuck all together, probably sound a bit like "Loo’Loö." (Lleu is briefly transformed into an eagle at one point as a means of escaping death, and thus he carries on the family tradition.)

Not for nothing (literally for nothing), but the story of Lleu’s failed love for his faithless flower-wife Blodeuwedd, and the inescapable weight of the myth in the blood, is the main substance of the novel The Owl Service.

I don’t know, either. It could be that when you’ve lost everything to conquerors, down to your own history, and find yourself trapped beneath the suddenly-empty sky, even the escape of death begins to look like the beautiful flight of birds.

I haven’t been able to determine if Gorodischer intentionally called upon the Mabinogion in her own variation on the story of the lost king of heaven, or if there's an Argentinian or a Spanish myth congruent to the British version, or if it just turns out that Fitzgerald was right, at least about the crossing: we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

EDITED 11 NOV 2014:  I attempted to minimize my Gingrichian fondness for modifiers in this post, and I also stamped out an outbreak of #Funny Tags.


  1. Thanks for the link to "The End of a Dynasty, or, The Natural History of Ferrets". I read the first paragraph and it sounds great already. One to remember to read during my next free day.

  2. Have you ever read Evangeline Walton's novelization(s) of the Mabinogion? An omnibus edition was released a few years ago. Her prose is gorgeous and she removes the monkish meddling from the narratives.

    1. Oh boy, a comment from someone who doesn’t know me from somewhere else: iCal moment.

      Actually, I read them a few years ago and I was amazed at how feministical the residents of Annwn were — and how they were able to prophecy extensively about the electric lightbulbs of the future? Wait, what? I was happy to discover that someone had made better narrative use of the myths, but I kind of despair of ever reading a clean translation. (Probably one isn’t capable of existing, barring unforeseen archeological finds.) And some of the feminism was canonical, at that.

      If you have any other recommendations, though, I’m all for them. Thanks!

  3. That should be "prophesy," damned autocorrect.

    1. I'm one of the "Riddled" fanboys- AK and Smut Clyde FTW!

    2. Oh, Jesus, I didn’t realize you’d answered! Sorry, I suck.
      …Nice to meet you. 😥


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