Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Ghost Song - Susan Price

     Ambrosi...saw the shape of a great and beautiful tree,

winter-bare of leaves. It rose out of the empty dark with the pale, pale sheen of steel by moonlight, faintly outlined against the blackness and the stars.
     The stars shone through its branches, like brilliant, unseasonable fruit... Other sounds, distant and eerie, crept to his ears. The stars, every one of the thousands of stars, as it spun in darkness, spun its own crystalline, icy, piercing note that... wove and interwove with the note of every other star. Cold, thrilling, calling harmony: poignant discord: the music of the spheres.
          This is an extract from my book, Ghost Song.
The World Tree
        It's said that one of the questions most often asked of writers is, 'Where do you get your ideas from?' Well, I know exactly where this description of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, comes from.

When I was eleven, I moved from the little primary school where I'd first met the Greek Myths, to a big comprehensive school. For our first English lesson, we were taken to the school library, made members, and told to choose a book.
          Despite coming from a home where books lined the walls, were stacked on the stairs, on window-sills and under beds, I had never seen so many books in one place. I felt overwhelmed. How was I to choose one book from all these?
          I wandered round the shelves and found myself looking, at eye-level, at a tan-brown spine, with pale blue letters, which said, 'Norse Myths and Leg-ends.' (I thought 'legends' was pronounced 'leg-ends' with a hard 'g', because I don't think I'd ever heard it spoken.)
          I knew the Greek Myths were mind-blowing. I'd spent the previous year reading and re-reading them, and my head was full of golden apples, minotaurs, winged warriors and flying horses. So I grabbed that book of Norse Leg Ends, which promised more of the same.
          It did not disappoint. The Norse Myths were, for me, even more overwhelming, resonant and fascinating even than the Greek. Like C. S. Lewis:
...instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote...)
          It was in this book that I first read of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the Underworld and its branches among the Upper Worlds. It planted the image of the Tree rising up, its branches threading through darkness, moonlight and stars.
          That image stayed with me for twenty-five years - until I finally wrote it down, in Ghost Song. (I'd already written The Ghost Drum, which is
The Ghost Drum, by Susan Price
set in the same 'ghost world,' but Yggdrasil didn't find a place in that.)
          During the twenty-five years, details had been added. I'd learned about 'the music of the spheres,' the idea that as the planets revolve, they each produce a note which harmonises with the others, and that this harmony underlies the order of the universe. That worked its way into the description.
          The Greek and Norse Myths set me off on an exploration of mythology and folklore, which has lasted the rest of my life. I became particuarly interested in the folklore and ballads of the Scots borders (which emerged again in my Sterkarm books.) In such ballads as Thomas The Rhymer and The Lykewake Dirge, there are brief descriptions of what the journey to the Other World was believed to be like. (And these descriptions, passed on from generation to generation, and with so many echoes in myths worldwide, stretch back, possibly, for millenia.)

These folkloric accounts also found their way into Ghost Song, in Ambrosi's journey to the Ghost World.

     ...with the sound of the wind came another sound: the swinging boom and echo of a sea in a cave. Soon the singing of the stars was muffled and lost in this sea-sound, which grew louder, soothing and alarming at the same time... And on the wind came a smell, a smell that both wolf and Ambrosi knew well: the smell of blood.

     Beneath the last span of the bridge rushed a river, bringing an echo from the black and glittering sky about them. The river foamed; it roared as it rushed along, and it smelt of blood: a river of blood, tossing bones as it ran. The bones clicked and clattered together.

     The bridge brought them over the chasm, over the river, into a land of darkness. Three roads led away from the bridge, but each disappeared, within a few feet, into a darkness unlit even by snow-light. Ambrosi stood mystified, not knowing which way to go, but the wolf, though its fur bristled, started for the narrowest path.
          The River of Blood, which divides this world from the next, is found in much Northern myth, and is mentioned in 'Thomas The Rhymer.' Many stories tell of a narrow, narrow bridge across a chasm or river - it's in Norse myth, and in Irish Legend, a bridge made from the edge of a sword-blade is mentioned. It's found in fairy tales too.

The three paths are mentioned in Thomas The Rhymer.  - 'See you not the broad, broad path that lies along the lily leven?/That's the road to Hell itself, though some call it the road to Heaven - See you not that narrow, narrow path, all beset with thorns and briars? That's the road to Righteousness, though after it but few enquires. - See you not that bonny, bonny path that winds about the ferny brae? That's the road to fair Elfhame where you and I must go this day.'

All these images melded together and helped me see the path that Ambrosi follows to the Ghost World.
          People who want to close school and public libraries, or cut funding to them, might want to reflect on a child's accidental discovery, in a school library, of the Greek and Norse Myths - a discovery which resulted in a lifelong interest, a career as a writer, and the production of award-winning books.


    Paperback                                                                                            e-book

                    The Ghost Drum                                                                           The Ghost Drum

                        Ghost Song                                                                                     Ghost Song 

                        Ghost Dance                                                                                   Ghost Dance 

5 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

Beautiful writing, Susan, deployed in support of an important message. Libraries - branch ones, main ones, university ones - are still oases of calm, culture and civilisation. Cutting them is vandalism. But then, those with the power to intervene set more store by stakeholders and profit margins.

Sandra Horn said...

Wonderful writing, Sue - it makes me shiver with delight!

Nick Green said...

I love all the descriptions of the Ghost World in this series. It's a beautiful and yet hideous place, reminding me almost of the beauty of urban decay... where concrete ruins and barbed wire attain a strange kind of desolate beauty. The iron thorns of the Ghost World definitely have something like that about them. The afterlife doesn't become anything close to a 'heaven' until a certain event in book 3, which I won't spoil here.

And my lord, there is a lot of blood in those books. If they ever film them, Hollywood will have to send out for more corn syrup. I remember I kept thinking, 'Surely, she won't... Oh. She just did. But at least she can't... WHAAAT?' Etc.

Lydia Bennet said...

Beautiful writing Susan, and how I identify with the power of ancient myths and leg-ends (feet?). Not to mention the liberating power of libraries to transform and expand young minds.

Susan Price said...

Just got in from a three hour drive home, so find these comments very cheering! Thank you, all.