A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall

If you love stories of King Arthur, or any books about Roman-Britain, you are likely to encounter a reference to Hadrian’s Wall. This is the wall the Romans built after Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 CE, to mark the northern border of the Empire. It ran nearly eighty miles, east to west, stood fifteen feet high—not including the parapet wall—and  marked by guard posts every mile or so.
We drove down from Glasgow to Carlyle, following the signs until we found the wall. We were in the middle of fields of grazing sheep, bordered by stone fences, and we parked by an after school care. Kids were running and playing games, and there was the wall—right across the road.
We crossed over and clambered onto the wall. It was only a couple of feet high at that point, and we walked along the broken stones of the top until it began to get higher. Farther along, we stopped to look at a squared-off section that was clearly one of the guard-posts punctuating the wall. We kept going and found a higher section where we could climb. We sat about ten feet up, talked and wondered about the soldiers who sat and watched on the wall. It must have been intensely boring for those men, standing and staring out over hills and woods, day and night, in wind and sun and rain, and wondering if the barbarians would ever come out of the north.
Much of the wall is now gone, and I wondered at first about the lack of fallen stones. It’s built of roughly squared stones, mudded together with a mixture of clay and who knows what. This wall has stood for nearly two thousand years, and you can imagine what the people thought who lived beside the wall ever since the Romans left. If they wanted to build a house, a pen for cattle or sheep, or even a church, they had a supply of building stones ready to hand.
After a while, we got back in the car and headed for the museum nearby. We  saw a couple of short videos about life as a Roman soldier on the frontier, and checked out the gear that was part of a Roman soldier’s kit: knives, spears, short swords, cooking pots, and the wooden frame to carry it all. We then drove farther on to see the fort at Vindolanda, a working archeological site with another museum attached. It was fascinating to learn about the fort and its history. Getting a close look at the range of artifacts from the site was fascinating as well, especially the alter to the weather god, Jupiter Dolichenus,, a four-foot carven stone alter, discovered at the site in 2009.
Visiting both the museum and Vindolanda was an education, but climbing over the ruins of Hadrian’s wall itself fired my imagination in a different way. More than the history of the fort and the wall, I thought about the people this wall was meant to keep out—the northern tribes, those people who occupied all of what we now know as Scotland. They must have come here, hunting parties on foot or horseback, only to see a wall being built across their land by the Latin-speaking intruders who would block the way into the south for the next two centuries.

Summer Solstice and National Aboriginal Day

As a kid, I remember looking at the calendar on June 21, and it always said, “First Day of Summer.” That always confused me. Summer was already happening, and I wondered why the calendar people always got it wrong. For us kids who lived on 89 street, the last week of June meant the end of school—long evenings of playing hide-and-seek and reveling in our new found freedom
I first became aware of the solstice while watching The Wonderful Stories of Professor Kitzel, voiced by Paul Soles (I’m sure that reference dates me). It was the Stonehenge episode; I was eight years-old, and just beginning to realize that the world was much larger than I’d ever imagined.
Stonehenge has fascinated me ever since, and I was fortunate enough to visit the monument last August with my daughter. It’s a strange and wonderful place, a ruined circle of standing stones, now circled with a walkway for the innumerable tourists who visit the site every year. If the fence wasn’t in place, the site would suffer—but I still wish I could have walked inside that ancient circle.
June 21 marks the Summer Solstice, but in Canada, it also marks National Aboriginal Day, a celebration of Canada’s First Peoples. If you are living in Edmonton, you can take part in events all week that feature the culture and art of Canada’s First People—more reason to celebrate this time of year.
If you live far enough north, you will understand why people around the world have always celebrated this day. It’s a time of light and growing things—the polar opposite of the long days of winter. However you spend your time this June, enjoy the days: take the time to walk, cycle, work in the garden, or just be outside with kids, friends, and those you love.

Travels in Scotland and Encountering the Literary

As you travel through Scotland, it’s hard not to encounter literary types from the past. This last May, my daughter and I drove from Glasgow down to Dumfries. We wanted to see the Robbie Burns House. In spite of teaching English for a living—not to mention my Scottish heritage—I found I knew surprisingly little about Burns. I knew he was a poet, of course, but I didn’t realize he died so young—at the age of thirty-seven.
We found the house, a small two-story place just off a busy road in Dumfries. It had a large room downstairs, with a wide fireplace and alcove for possibly preparing food. Upstairs had two rooms, one with a small space, big enough to hold a desk where Burns wrote and worked. The man clearly loved women, as he had several illegitimate children, as well as a family with Jean Armour. The last few years of his life was spent working as an Excise Officer in Dumfries to support his family. Not quite the romantic picture of the Plowman Poet—save for maybe the illegitimate children. You can read more about his life here.

We walked up the street to the church where Burns is buried. It’s a mausoleum, a structure about the size of a garden shed, where Burns and Jean Armour are buried. Apparently, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy visited Burns grave, which at that time was a simple stone, not befitting the romantic life and legacy of Burns. The mausoleum came later.
After leaving Dumfries, we looked for a place to picnic. We found a lovely spot in the Forest of Ae, a grassy spot beneath a tree, right next to a burn. We sat, had our lunch, listened to the cows across the road, and watched the dog-walkers and cyclists pass by.
We drove north the next day towards Inverness, passing through lovely countryside, open and hilly, with heather and gorse purpling the fields—the perfect place for romantically minded, heartbroken young men to wander in despair as they thought of their lost loves.
We made one longer stop on the way north—a place called The Hermitage, which is a park in Craigvinean Forest. The walk takes you through tall trees and down to the River Braan, a shallow, fast-flowing stream. Again, Wordsworth and Dorothy got there before us. As we wandered along the path, I thought about what it meant for me to walk such a path in the footsteps of people like Wordsworth and Dorothy, who saw these same sights nearly two hundred years before.

C. S. Lewis on George MacDonald

In C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a strange account of a journey through purgatory, the narrator encounters the spirit of George MacDonald, the nineteenth-century fantasist. The narrator writes:
“I tried, trembling to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life.”
You can find this detail in Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis buys a copy of MacDonald’s Phantastes, and the book opens his mind to new worlds of reading.
The appearance of MacDonald in The Great Divorce is a tribute to both the man and the writer, but you can find other tributes to MacDonald elsewhere in Lewis’ books. In MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Irene, the little princess, sits bored in her nursery one rainy afternoon, and she climbs the stairs of the house to find her Great-Great-Grandmother living in the attic. The grandmother is a spiritual figure, who acts as Irene’s Gide and mentor as the princess journeys into the mines of the goblins.
Read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the morning the adventures of the wardrobe begin:
“But when next morning came, there was a steady rain falling, so thick that when you looked out of the window you could see neither the mountains nor the woods nor even the stream in the garden.”
Now, look at The Magician’s Nephew, and the beginning of Polly and Digory’s friendship:
“Their adventures began chiefly because it was one of the wettest and coldest summers there had been for years. That drove them to do indoor things: you might say, indoor exploration.”
These are only three examples of Lewis deliberately using George MacDonald. According to A. N. Wilson in The Man behind Narnia(2014), Lewis claimed he never wrote a book without quoting MacDonald. Wilson writes: “… the passages of the Narniastories which I have enjoyed are the bits which have done much better by MacDonald.”
Lewis owes much to this earlier fantasist, and when I think about the beginnings of British fantasy, I think of MacDonald. He is the true grandfather of British fantasy—not Lewis Carroll or Charles Kingsley. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has a place in the development of children’s fantasy, but the book is a different animal from that of The Princess and the Goblin.
In the words of Treebeard from Lord of the Rings, “There are Ents and Ents, you know; or Ents and things that look like Ents but ain’t, as you might say.” Alice is fantastical, and the book is filled with nonsense and the absurd; but fantasy, it ain’t. If you are looking to discover the roots of fantasy, then find yourself some George MacDonald—and enjoy.

Summer Reading

Have you picked your summer reads? The summers in Edmonton are brief enough, so it’s always best to plan. Whether you are travelling or staying at home, as long as you have something to read, then the world is a better place.
Here are a few of my summer reads. While my summers are always in part taken up with planning courses for the following year, I always manage to work in other reading. This fall, I’m teaching a course in nineteenth-century fantasy, which means I’ll be reading such authors as Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Edith Nesbit, and Rudyard Kipling. I’m also planning a speculative fiction course for the winter—thinking about a course on books about mars. With that out of the way, here’s my list.
I like to take on authors during the summer. A few years ago, I read the Dune books by Frank Herbert. This summer, it’s the Mars trilogy by Robinson. I’ve already read Red Mars, and now I’m onto Green Mars. These books chronicle the terraforming of Mars. They get frustratingly political, but I’m determined to read the series.
Over the past few years, I’ve read something by Guy Gavriel Kay every other summer.  Kay is a Canadian fantasist, who helped Christopher Tolkien edit The Silmarillion. This year, it’s Children of Earth and Sky. Kay’s books are always sweeping, and I would call them historical fantasy—not to everyone’s taste. However, he’s worth checking out.
I finally got my hands on The Empty Throne, the eighth book in the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. If you like British history and blood and guts, then these books are for you. Cornwell is perhaps better known for his Sharp Series, which was made into a TV show, starring Sean Bean—you might also know him as Boromir.
And what would the summer be without a good YA series. Williams Heir Chronicles begins with The Warrior Heir. I came across this series about a month ago. I know nothing about it, but I’m going to dive in.
Those are a few of my pics for this summer. I’ll also be reading short stories, rereading favourites, and generally loving the long days of summer. Enjoy your summer, where ever it may take you.