Author's Blog

Wordwheel: what’s in, what’s out. And why.

It’s not, I would assume, unusual for a work the length of The North Beyond to generate during its writing quite a quantity of material that, for one reason or another, fails to make it through to the final printed version.  In the case of The North Beyond, this material falls into two categories: some that was removed by the author and some that was never intended for inclusion in the book at all.  Material from the first category has already been used in a previous blog post (‘No Fantasy about these Survival Techniques) and more, from the second, is making an appearance here.

One might ask a very obvious question: what sort of material would an author write, knowing that it was not destined to appear in the published text?  Most of this blog post will be taken up with the answer.  It will explore what the missing material is, and how it was used.

It’s apparent almost from the beginning of The North Beyond that one of the main characters of the story will be Numirantoro.  When we first meet her she’s a very ‘bookish’ little girl who grows up to enjoy every moment of her lessons, loves to spend time with the old sage Arval (who in turn responds eagerly to her thirst for knowledge) and displays not just academic excellence but also talent and striking skill in various forms of craftwork and artistic endeavour.  So it’s no surprise to find that, in her teens, she is particularly struck by a word-game popular in Gwent y’m Aryframan but not known in her homeland of Caradward.

The game is only named once, when a young lad from Gwent y’m Aryframan calls it ‘Wordwheel’.  However we do hear quite a lot about how it worked.  It’s described as ‘a favourite winter game [in which players vied] with each other in beating out speech-patterns on a given word.’  Soon we discover that the words must alliterate and that, unsurprisingly, some people were much better at the game than others.  For example, some were so tongue-tied that they fell back on ‘trotting out hoary old chestnuts’ that had been used so often and for so long that they’d almost become traditional (or were already traditional).  Others with fewer inhibitions might be easily pleased with something slick but soon forgotten.  Others again tended to invent according to their own character or preferences.  There is even one instance in the story where the game is used to insult another participant.

Here are illustrations of these four examples.  In each case, one player has called out the first word and the second player must respond with an alliterative description.

* Oak: old, older, oldest; outlasting oathtaking, outliving ourselves.
* Silver: sleek, subtle and spotless; shining like swordblade, sparkling like star-fire, slanting like sunrise.
* Harvest: heavy and hearty, hauled home in happiness.
* Boar: all brawn and no brain, barging and belching like a blundering bumpkin.

‘Oak’ is contributed by the smith at Salfgard, provoking groans from his audience because they all knew what he was going to say the minute he was picked on with ‘oak’.  But you can see immediately why the words have become traditional from the way they go straight to the heart of oak (another time-honoured expression!).  Most trees live much longer than we do, but the oak is one of the longest-lived of all.  So venerable in fact that it has often acquired an almost numinous aura: oaths were indeed sworn, oracles consulted (Zeus Dodona), weapons taken up, sacred rites performed (Druids), law moots summoned, ‘atten oakes’ or at the oak(s) – which is in fact where the modern surname Noakes comes from.

‘Harvest’ is an effort by Ardeth and his wife’s comment tells you all you need to know: ‘You [can] count on Ardeth to come up with something to do with food.’

‘Oak’ and ‘harvest’ both feature in the course of a happy midwinter gathering at Salfgard.  ‘Silver and ‘boar’ occur on a much less auspicious occasion in Framstock and point up friction among young people from the neighbouring countries of Gwent y’m Aryframan and Caradward.  ‘Silver’ was by Framhald, who hailed from the Rossanlow, an upland rural district.  He actually suggested the word ‘silver’ and also provided the response; and you can see how, trying to be original, he has toppled into excess.  Silver doesn’t actually sparkle; and though the reflective gleam of it may indeed be said to slant, using sunrise in the simile brings gold rather than silver to mind.  And ‘boar’ of course, from the unpleasant Valahald, does what he intended: mocks Framhald by imitating his overstretched form and simultaneously insults both the man and his country.  He could just as easily have come up with something like ‘Boar: brave, black and bristled; breasting the blade in blood’.

As it happens, we also have an example of Numirantoro’s own ingenuity.  At the midwinter festivities in Salfgard she took up the challenge of ‘kestrel’ when everyone else was at a loss.  This is what she said: ‘Kestrel: keen-sighted, knife-footed, kitted out for killing’.  Her cleverness was much admired, and why not?  Although the k of ‘knife’ only alliterates on the page, she worked in several cross-alliterations to make up for this in the f of ‘knife’ and ‘footed’, and the repetitive form of ‘sighted’ and ‘footed’.

So much for ‘Wordwheel’ as a game.  However, this is not its only appearance in The North Beyond.  As a young adult, Numirantoro delighted to spend time in Tellgard, Caradriggan’s ancient seat of learning.  Unlike our own educational establishments, Tellgard included practical skills such as crafts and medical tuition, sport, and weapons training in its curriculum as well as academic learning; and catered for students ranging from very young children to adult masters of their chosen fields.  Numirantoro, remembering her own early years there, had been pleased to teach the younger children but had seen a way of improving on ‘the battered pages of the “C is for cat, D is for dog” booklets’ from which ‘generations of children in Caradward had learnt their letters in Tellgard’.  Her intention was ‘to make something which would do the same job yet at the same time open wider dimensions to those minds agile enough to leap beyond the page, to resonate with the associations conjured up by the words – and the pictures’.

Numirantoro therefore used ‘Wordwheel’ as the basis of an alphabet book, lettered and richly illustrated by herself.  Only a few of its entries appear in the published text of The North Beyond, but a complete version of it does exist, and here it is in its entirety.

A is for apple tree: ancestor of all our autumns
B is for blackbird: bright, beady and brisk with busy beak
C is for candlelight: candescent caress of comfort and calm
D is for doves: droning in the dreaming dawn
E is for elves: enduring to the evening of earth’s end
F is for fieldmouse: fast and furtive, frantically foraging
G is for gold: gleaming on goblets, gilding the gloaming
H is for harvest: heavy and hearty, hauled home in happiness
I is for ivy: invading by inches, insistently increasing
J is for jackdaw: jaunty in jet, with jewelled eye
K is for kestrel: keen-sighted, knife-footed, kitted out for killing
L is for loss: leaden, lovelorn and lonely
M is for midges: murmurous in mazy millions
N is for night: neap-tide of noon, naked nest of nothing, nurse of nightmare
O is for oak: old, older, oldest: outlasting oathtaking, outliving ourselves
P is for ploughland: proud, plain and plentiful, the parent of people
Q is for quagmire: queasy quencher of quests
R is for river: rolling and rippling, running its own race
S is for snail: slowly sliding on silvery slime
T is for trails: tramped out by the tireless tread of time
U is for undertow: urgent, unrelenting and unkind
V is for vixen: vivid and venturesome, voracious and vital
W is for wizards: wayfaring wanderers weary with wisdom
X is for earth: extraordinary and exquisite
Y is for yuletide: yellow, yearned-for, the yeast of the year
Z is for zenith: zesty and zealous

You will see straight away that we have already met the entries for H, K and O.  Others which feature in the story are A, P and V.  For some of these, we even get hints as to what appeared in their illustrations, because many years later, another character in the story looks through the book and we see with his eyes.  This is Maesrhon, aged ten at the time.  He sees that some entries, such as those for ‘apple’, ‘oak’ and ‘ploughland’ ‘had layers of meaning beneath [their] words … [an] undertow of significance’.  And the pictures were ‘beautiful: the apple tree laden with blossom, standing at the edge of woodland clothed in all the different greens of spring; the oak, massive, ancient and enduring, was alone on a slight rise with a village at the foot of the slope’.  Remembering that Numirantoro had spent time in Salfgard, Maesrhon wonders whether any of the scenes were painted from memory.  Was the man with the pitchfork, in the harvest illustration, meant to be Ardeth?  (Yes, it was – but neither Maesrhon nor the reader finds out until much later.)  Another child, the little girl Ancrascaro, had previously been struck by the ‘apple’ page.  ‘It makes you think about more than apples’ was her comment.

Some entries of course are more straightforward than others.  Maesrhon particularly liked ‘V is for vixen’, enjoying ‘the selection of words, approving how they matched their subject, feasting his eyes on the picture of the animal: bright-eyed, intent on the hunt, determined however audacious the quest to find food for her cubs’. Into this ‘face value’ category one might also put B, C, D, F, G, J, M, S, Y and possibly Z.  But what of ivy, quagmire, river, trails and undertow?  There’s something just slightly sinister, inexorable, hostile to human life about them.  As for L and N, one wonders not so much why Numirantoro chose them (although readers of the book will hardly be surprised) but rather, how on earth she could have explained them to children and what the illustrations might have contained.

With X, Numirantoro was of course blatantly cheating; but how else was she to complete the twenty-six letters?  Curiously enough, before Maesrhon even saw her book, he had played a word-game of his own invention and had come up with a not dissimilar list: apple, barley, cockerel, daisy, evening, firewood, gold; hawthorn, ivy, jerkin, kestrel, ladder, mushroom, night; opal, piglet, quiet, ridgepole, stewpot, tillage, urn; vixen, weather, x, yellow, zest.  Laughing to himself at how all the most difficult letters came at the end, he concluded that he’d just have to cheat on x and use excite, or extreme.  And to think Numirantoro had chosen ‘extraordinary and exquisite’!  Perhaps, like Arval, she had a ‘sense of the earth as somehow a living thing, breathing and moving only slowly maybe, but full of a secret life and hidden wisdom of its own, gathered and garnered, age upon age’.  Who was influencing whom among these three?  Readers of the whole book will have their opinions; here, we’ll say no more!

All this brings us to two perhaps surprising entries.  ‘E is for elves: enduring to the evening of earth’s end’ and ‘W is for wizards: wayfaring wanderers weary with wisdom’.  Elves, wizards?  Ah, you may say, so here’s where the author, through Numirantoro, betrays the Tolkien influence (even though these two particular lines are among those that don’t appear in The North Beyond as published).  Wrong.  Two comments from readers say it all on this one: ‘The North Beyond is refreshingly devoid of pseudo-Tolkien paraphernalia’ and ‘There is no attempt to rehash the old Tolkienian tropes.’  While it is no doubt true to say that for the foreseeable future, the words ‘elves’ and ‘wizards’ are bound to press Tolkienian buttons in the minds of more or less anyone and everyone, this is because he did such a superb job with creatures and concepts which had been part of the mythological and legendary backdrop of the collective unconscious, at least in large parts of Europe, for time out of mind.

And talking of that collective unconscious, that leaf-mould of the mind, I’d like to think either that Numirantoro, in compiling her book, was unconsciously influenced by half-remembered old poems; or that maybe, centuries after her lifetime, another writer might be moved, equally without realising it, to make his own version of her words.  Something like this, perhaps.

‘Wassailed in orchards, the apple tree
Is ancestor of all our autumns.
Oaks stand alone, tall above trails
Tramped out by the tread of time,
Outlasting oathtaking, outliving ourselves.
Past ploughland proud and plain, feeder of the folk,
A wayfaring wizard wanders, weary with wisdom.
We dance in dew of the dawning,
Haul home the harvest, heavy and hearty,
Yearn for Yuletide, the yeast of the year;
And yet must meet the night, neap-tide of noon.
Only elves endure to the evening of earth’s ending.’

As to which theory best fits, well… this depends on whether you take The North Beyond as being set in the past or the future.  Readers have inclined towards both these viewpoints and some have vacillated between them.  The blurb itself asks ‘Is it past or future?’ and goes on to pose the further question ‘Whose past, whose future?’

We began by asking what sort of material might be written in the foreknowledge that it would not appear in the finished work.  To finish, we should ask why such material might be written.  Here I think the answer is all to do with background, depth, believability, colour: all the ingredients necessary for the creation of a world in words.  As fantasy has become ever more popular as a genre, so secondary worlds and the idea of ‘sub-creation’ have become almost commonplace conceptions.  But they still have to work, in detail, if they are to convince the reader; and in order to convince the reader, they must be completely real in the imagination of the author.  The characters must be more than ‘figures from an old tale, ardent and bright yet remote … beyond reach’; they must develop their own life, independent of the original inspiration.  Only so will the tale, too, put out shoots and branches of its own accord: and then the author, confident of knowing ‘what happened next’, can pluck the leaves and flowers, weaving them into the final tapestry to complete the picture.

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