Portals to Mystical Realms

In this, my latest post to accompany Chapter Four of ‘The Door to Caellfyon’, I’ll cover those early influences that inspired me to write a story such as this.

For readers who haven’t yet read my previous posts in this series, the story may be categorised under the ‘coming of age’ heading, for as the plot unfolds it sees my main character progress from insecure schoolboy to revered hero.

It may also be summarised as a ‘through the portal’ tale.

I realised when the idea was still yet taking shape in my mind that the genre had been amply covered. This knowledge gave me pause to consider whether the market could accommodate one more offering. However, as I’d not begun this process to make money, and as I happen to like the ‘gateway to elsewhere’ tales I took the view that if a writer can’t enjoy what he’s writing he’s doing something wrong. So I went ahead.

There may be some who consider that today’s kids don’t want to read this type of stuff, and take the view that such tales were okay back in the day, when C.S. Lewis was writing ‘Narnia’ (which wasn’t the inspiration for my tale, I hasten to add – more on that later). They may feel that today’s kids aren’t interested. To which I would disagree.

Today’s children have the same DNA as the generation before them, and the one before that … and if they’re different it’s because we shape them that way.

I believe that when presented with the opportunity, today’s 9-11 year olds continue to enjoy the type of yarn ‘The Door’ represents.

I’m pleased to say that this conviction was upheld by at least one Amazon reviewer who, along with giving my book her five-star rating, declared it to be:

Lovely storytelling with old-fashioned charm

She went on to give this review:

The prose is delightful and draws you in to the story where you learn about Levi, Poppy and the villagers of Skenmarris and their plight. Levi has to grow up very quickly early on in the plot and you can empathise with him as he realises the gravity of his situation and the role he has to play. The backdrop to each scene is perfectly realised by the colourful descriptions of the town and surrounding countryside, fenland and moor. I can’t wait to find out more about Levi and Poppy’s adventure and I would recommend it as an engaging read for kids (10+) and adults alike.

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed writing this, my only novel to date, and in so doing was able to invoke all those elements that influenced me.

Although not apparent when I began writing, I soon came to realise that the seeds of inspiration were many and had been planted as far back as my own early childhood.

Unsurprisingly, all were to be found between the covers of novels – themselves magical portals.

My earliest literary influence was in the shape of a badger – in fact a badger who was also the skipper of a gaily-painted narrow-boat called ‘Wandering Wind’ and who navigated the waterways of our leafy shires, getting into a fair amount of scrapes along the way.

Bill Badger was the creation of ‘BB’, pseudonym for the remarkably-named Denys Watkins-Pitchford, a British naturalist whose own delight in the outdoors led him to pour his own love of barges, canals and wildlife into the hugely popular series.

In doing so he imparted those self-same pleasures to me.

Bill Badger & hedgehog Izzy aboard Wandering Wind

A love of history was the next element that influenced my tale, for in my story you will find swords, bows and thatched round-houses rather than blasters, phasers and death-stars.

I was grateful to have excellent history teachers at both junior and secondary school. Their enthusiasm was imparted onto me and has endured to this day. However, it was at a much younger age that my interest in the subject had first been kindled, courtesy of fiction writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘Eagle of the Ninth‘ (originally published in 1954) is enjoying a much deserved renewal in popularity. The story of centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila’s quest to find the ill-fated Ninth Legion’s missing eagle, aided by unlikely ally, Esca prompted what was to become a lifelong interest in Roman Britain.

 I have also particularly enjoyed the ‘portal’ type of tale. Influences here have been more recent. First of all there was anti-hero Thomas Covenant – the creation of American writer, Stephen Donaldson.

In the three series comprising ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever’, Covenant, a leper in contemporary USA, is unwittingly teleported to a magical realm – called rather bizarrely ‘The Land’.  Once there, his affliction is healed by the land’s eldritch energy. When he finally meets the inhabitants they greet him as the reincarnation of an ancestral hero, Berek Halfhand on account of his two missing fingers, lost to leprosy.

The Land’, Thomas Covenant’s perceived dreamscape

This is all too much for Covenant who chooses to believe that he’s experiencing a form of hallucination or is stuck in a dream. This earns him the title of ‘Unbeliever’ by a people whose desperate pleas for help are ignored. Covenant’s melancholic, sarcastic and altogether unpleasant character renders him an unlikely hero, but it all turns out okay in the end. Well, sort of.

The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever’ by Stephen Donaldson

A greater influence has been Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion trilogy. This is a series of books I enjoyed massively. Set in a mythical parallel dimension of Celtic Britain (referred to here as The Island of the Mighty), it features American Lewis Gillies, an Oxford University student who steps through a portal into another realm. Unlikely though all this may be (or perhaps not), thanks to Lawhead’s knowledge of Celtic Britain, his passion for the subject and his writing style, I found the tales to be entirely credible.

Lawhead’s ‘Song of Albion’ trilogy – captivating fantasy

Who’s to say that walking around an ancient cairn three times at sunrise or sunset (the Celt’s ‘time between times’) and then stepping inside doesn’t transport you elsewhere? It’s almost worth trying just to see.

Since reading the trilogy I’ve been unable to view dolmens, cairns or stone circles as anything but portals to otherworldly realms.

So far I’ve covered adventurous animals, a love of history and fictional portals – perhaps you can see by now where we’re going with this. So, what else is there?

For that we go full circle and return to animals where we encounter the final influence.

When my son was of an age when I’d read him stories at night, some of the books we both particularly enjoyed were Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. These are adventure tales in which animals are the sole characters in a pseudo-medieval setting.

The tales set me to thinking. If children can enjoy tales such as these, in which animals were the cast, how much more could those children relate to the stories if a couple of kids just like them were centre stage? The seed, planted way back by Bill Badger just got a whole lot bigger.

 Jacques’ own influence for the series was an Abbey close to his home in Merseyside. The Abbey had red walls and clearly set off a train of thought in his mind that led to the popular series of books – and, indeed, a cartoon series of the same name.

It is clear that Abbeys are not simply haunted ruins that are immensely photogenic when the light is right, they can also influence fantasy tales. One certainly influenced mine.

In my post ‘Background to a Tale’ I explain why one such ancient abbey here in Lincolnshire inspired – or rather, prompted me to write ‘The Door to Caellfyon’.

The latest instalment, Chapter Four, is now available. To view, access the appropriate menu tab or, for a downloadable PDF file, click here.

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