Myth, madness and the meaning of life

Myth, madness and the meaning of life

One of the big themes of The Dancing Floor, (which I have half-forgotten in the crowdfunding push) is mental illness. Both Sita, the heroine, and Cathy the young musician who stalks her, have ‘problems’ with it. Sita has had a psychotic breakdown in young adulthood which makes her terrified of exploring uncle Mal’s mysterious old tradition. Cathy is bipolar and treats her condition in a cavalier manner, taking drugs which may make her a better fiddler but push her into wilder highs and more grisly lows.

Sita (Renu Brindle) in the Dancing Floor pilot film
Sita (Renu Brindle) in the Dancing Floor pilot film

I have built these themes on experiences of my own. I have never been called ‘mentally ill’ but I have been in some very scary places – and, and this is the point, in some very illuminating and non-ordinary places – you could call them otherworldly. And this is without drugs, because I have never been able to tolerate drugs, and even had to give up the occasional spliff when I started meditating because it pushed me immediately into a psychotic nightmare place.

So I am pondering the relationship between exploration of non-ordinary reality and mental stability, especially in relation to old native traditions which encourage the taking on of archetypes, of gods, animals and elementals, the contacting of ancestors and a generally bold and imaginative interaction with ‘reality’. Is it actually good for us to do these things, to explore the experience of other beings and other worlds? Or is it too dangerous, in society wedded to ‘safety’ and a rigidly rational view of reality – except for in movies and games sanctioned by the powers that be?

In the film Sita has to travel back to a terrifying and ego-dissolving moment which she has tried to forget, before she can, with Cathy’s help, open up to the extraordinary possibilities offered by the native tradition. I wrote this section of the screenplay remembering my own moment of terror:

My mother had just died, my marriage was in a grim state and I was alone in the house of my beloved but demented dad in the middle of the night. I began to feel that I was guilty of a terrible crime (I was actually only guilty of normal idiocy), that I what I had done was endlessly destructive and unredeemable. I felt as if the core of me was exploding and shooting outwards into the void and very soon there would soon be nothing of me left. This was the inevitable punishment for my wickedness.

This was the most frightening experience of my life, worse than nearly drowning or dying on a snowy mountain. What did I do? I switched the radio on and listened to World Service while forcing myself to read a humorous book, and after a couple of hours it passed. We’d call it a panic attack, I suppose.

Spiral on beach019

On the other hand I have stood on a beach in Orkney at dawn and felt arising in my own body, in my own mind, the knowledge of how something comes from nothing, the kind of knowledge you can never put into words but only treat as a jumping off point for a different view0 of reality, a new kind of exploration. I write much more about this in my book Becoming the Enchanter, but for now I just want to say that I feel it is important, for some of us at least, to know these kinds of things.

I am sure whoever wrote the fourth branch of the Mabinogion did and although there are respectable academics who agree with that, the whole point about this kind of knowledge is that it is not just intellectual – it reaches into the deepest, oldest and newest regions of our being and it changes our neural wiring. Myth is a carrier of it, because it deals in riddles which trick the mind into jumping to a new position. Once we know the ‘new position’, beyond the ratiocinating mind, many other things become possible and meditation is a way to do it safely without succumbing to mental instability or losing contact with our common reality.

In the Dancing Floor film Sita is helped through her crisis by Cathy, who is less afraid of the ‘otherworld’ than she is, and in the end they both find salvation through the re-invention of a sacred dance, that is through creativity.  The ‘Children of Don’, the family of gods who appear in the Mabinogion, were said to be ‘the race who brought magic to these islands’ (See previous post about the Four Hallows)  And magic is the understanding of the rules of creation, how something can come from nothing….which is is one reason that these mythic stories must be told and re-told in modern form. So that we don’t forget.Featured Image -- 646To read more about the projected Dancing Floor feature film click here.

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The Children of Don and the Four Hallows of Britain

The Children of Don and the Four Hallows of Britain

With all the news about refugees at the moment, I have been thinking: why would anyone want to donate to our film crowdfunding campaign when there are so many other more urgent humanitarian causes? One answer might be that hanging behind the Dancing Floor film is the tradition of the Children of Don, the race who, the Irish sources tell us, brought magic to these islands. They brought the ‘Four Hallows’ to Britain, that’s the Stone (of Fal), the Cauldron (of the Dagda), the Sword (of Nuadu) and the Spear (of Lugh).

The Sword in the Stone
The Sword in the Stone

These arise in all sorts of moments and combinations in our national life and mythology, for instance in the Stone of Sovereignty which the monarch sits on to get crowned, the sword which is pulled out of the stone by the rightful monarch, Arthur, and the spear which with which Lleu (Welsh form of Lugh) slays his rival, which then flies on to pierce a stone right through. The cauldron turned up on Welsh TV on Saturday night as part of the ten year celebration of the Millennium Centre – in a magnicently over-the-top enactment of the story of the birth of Taliesin a gigantic golden cauldron was propelled round the centre by beaked giants while Ceridwen (Sian Cothi) shrieked from a lightning-struck tree! This cauldron was that of inspiration, but in other forms its known as the ‘cauldron of regeneration’ which I prefer.

The giant cauldron where Taliesin gets his inspiration
The giant cauldron at the Millennium Centre on Saturday. where Taliesin gets his inspiration

Which all shows that the Welsh are particularly at home with myth – though the stunning opening ceremony for the Olympic games shows that its actually British national talent too.

You could say the Four Hallows create a magical foundation for the British psyche, from which is built the integrity of our state and our democratic system. Certainly Corbyn and Cameron can fight but inside the cauldron of parliament they are held safe and we can believe that Britain will not soon be riven and decimated by civil war, unlike Syria.

It is this foundation, this solidity which makes Syrians, Somalians and other war-torn people want to come and live here. And makes us value our freedoms. And maybe sometimes this foundation needs reinforcing, not by politicians but by creative workers like artists, writers, film-makers, to make sure the legacy of the ‘Children of Don’ continues and their stories and symbols stay embedded in our consciousness.  This is what magic really does, good magic.

Swept away by an old tale!

Swept away by an old tale!
Wayland Boulanger tells Lleu's tale, accompanied by Gill Stevens  and Dyland Fowler
Wayland Boulanger tells Lleu’s tale, accompanied by Gill Stevens and Dyland Fowler at our film fund launch in Hay Castle

At the launch event for our film funding campaign I told this story, as an illustration of the galvanising power of the tales in the Mabinogion once you start interacting with them.

Years ago I had come to Wales with a group of friends, also researchers into our native tradition. We were staying in North Wales, near the sites where many of the events of the fourth branch tale ‘Math’ are set, and this day we were acting out the moment when Lleu Llaw Gyffes is slain by his rival Gronw, having been betrayed by his wife, Blodeuwedd, the ‘woman of flowers’.  It was December, around the winter solstice, and we’d gone to the actual river Cynfael where, it’s said Lleu stood on the back of a goat, under a makeshift thatch,with one foot on a cauldron and  naked as the dawn, to demonstrate to his wife the obscure conditions under which he could be killed.

Mark, a young actor of daredevil temperament, was playing Lleu and he jumped across the fast-flowing river to a stone in the middle to act out his part.  Mike stood on the bank, as Gronw, with a pretend spear ready to throw.   He threw it and Mark made the required shriek which presages Lleu’s change into an eagle, then threw his arms in the air and was swallowed by the swollen river.  As he was swept downstream I was visualising the newspaper headlines and the ruin of our fascinating project, never mind the drowning of our reckless friend.

A hundred yards downstream, we fished him out and made a fire to dry his clothes.  He was cocky as ever and none the worse for wear. But the lesson was, and I have never forgotten it: these tales are about the Children of Don, the Plant Don, the Tuatha de Danaan, the race who are said to have ‘brought magic to these islands’.  Don’t mess with their tales, they are powerful stuff and they can sweep you away to shores you never dreamed of.

The tale mentioned above is the fourth story in the Mabinogion and is the inspiration behind the Dancing Floor Film.  Have a look at our crowdfunding site and support us if you can.  We want to spread the magic of the Plant Don around the world!

The Dancing Floor at Hay Castle plus Women Directors rule ok!

The Dancing Floor at Hay Castle plus Women Directors rule ok!
View of Hay Castle

Before I write about the inspiring and wildly talented women directors I met last week, I want to remind you that, if you’d like to come to our special event at 7pm on Wednesday 9 September at Hay Castle, with music, storytelling and a chance to see the pilot version of ‘The Dancing Floor’, then please RSVP us at dancingfloorfilm@gmail.com.  We need an idea of numbers.  It’s free with refreshments by donation and celebrates the launch of our crowdfunding campaign.

Image result for Appropriate Behaviour
Desiree Akhavan starring in her own movie

Meanwhile….women directors are being celebrated here, and I have just returned from a special Female Directors’ lab run by the BFI/FFilm Cymru Wales and funded partly by BARBARA BROCCOLI’s company EON.  I knew I was lucky to get a place but not how lucky till I met the mentors for the events, four of the most talented women making films today.  That’s Destiny Ekaragha who made the boisterous and hilarious ‘Gone Too Far’ set in south London and the Lenny Henry biopic ‘Danny and the Human Zoo’, (on BBC 1 at 9pm 31 August); Desiree Akhavan, an Iranian-American whose sharply scripted ‘Appropriate Behaviour’, about being a confused bisexual in New York, has made quite a stir – I loved it, seen it twice. Those two are the comedy experts.

Image result for Rebecca Johnson (Honeytrap)
Rebecca Johnson (far right) with her young cast

Then there’s Rebecca Johnson who made ‘Honeytrap’ an exquisitely crafted tragedy about a young woman who sets up her aspirant suitor to die, and Corinna McFarlane whose ‘The Silent Storm’ is set on a remote Scottish island and presents a dramatic yet painterly version of the mythic love-triangle.  We also had a visit from the charming Debbie Isitt whose largely improvised films (‘Confetti’ and ‘Nativity’ x3) manage to combine big laughs with a lot of heart.  In fact all these films have heart, they all make you think, they are all extremely captivating and good to look at, and I strongly urge you to seek them out, in cinemas, on BFI Player or wherever you can.  It is just so great to see this flowering of the female point of view in cinema.  I don’t know about you, but I am tired of films designed for fourteen year old boys and jaded couch potatoes.

Among the gems of great advice given by these women, to those who want to direct, were:

If you get harsh but truthful feedback, then suck it up, don’t talk back and justify yourself! 

Be nice, you never know who you might need to help you in the future.

Your strength comes from your collaborators

Your journey can be very lonely and full of rejection, but there are these amazing moments….!

There was good advice from other great women from the industry, including the distinguished editor, Mali Evans:

many directors don’t visualise the script before they shoot

and this from, I think Sadie Frost but also from others in different words:

Be ruthless, work really hard and don’t give up.  Give yourself permission, don’t wait for someone to give it to you!

I think that last one might be the most important – and the hardest too.

So now I feel enthused, energised and inspired and ready to go for the next phase of this film-making journey.

First contribution to the Film Fund – from my heroine!

Although the film-funding campaign for The Dancing Floor has not officially started yet,  our first contribution arrived yesterday, unexpectedly, in the post.  It was from my friend, Lynn Trowbridge, author of this book:

Lynn's book
Lynn’s book

It tells of her life growing up in Wales in the thirties, trying to protect her little sister in the grim orphanage where they were sent after her parents died, then fighting out of the box they tried to put her into by becoming first a WAAF and then a successful businesswoman.  It comes from a generation now in their nineties, who survived the war, who don’t do self-pity, who have a toughness which my generation, born after the war, do not possess.  It’s a great read and you can get it through Amazon.

Anyway, Lynn said she wanted to contribute to the fund because her book sales were going well and she felt I had been the one, to give her the confidence to write it.  Flashback to the time Lynn appeared at the writing class I was running at Hay Library, a trim, determined figure who did not mince words.  ‘I am in charge of the Hay Writers Group,’ she said, ‘and I have come to see what exercises and ideas you have so that I can use them there. If they are any good.’  I was taken aback and annoyed.  I was not sure I wanted this assertive person to steal my techniques.  I smelt trouble!

The next week I set them to write about their childhood and Lynn stood up and read a piece about arriving at the orphanage with her sister.  It was briskly and elegantly worded, with piquant, truthful dialogue, and vivid characters.  It was funny and poignant. The class was moved and impressed, and from that day on, my view of Lynn changed and we became friends.  Now she is one of my heroines, a shining example of ‘stop moaning and get on with it!’ school.  And a good writer.

Wye Lynn

Thanks, Lynn, and may your brilliant book spread round the world.