The Wind in the Leaves, Part 2: The Land

DISCLAIMER: Before going any further, I’d like to qualify why I’m writing about this subject. To be clear, I’m not someone who writes novels, I’ve never attempted to write a novel or even a short story. As a creative, I’m a musician who writes song lyrics; I also have a little experience in writing poetry. But, apart from a few prose articles in journals, I’ve never published a story in my life. So how come I believe I have something worth saying about creating narrative?

I’ve studied and taught courses on medieval Welsh texts for some time now, particularly the symbolic narratives of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. In different ways, I’ve studied the mechanics of symbolic narrative and how myth works. This series of posts is simply another way of talking about myths and how we use them. Please don’t read this as advice on how to write a novel. For that, please ask a novelist, someone who’s actually done it.

But for those of you interested in how  we can consciously use myths, please read on. From that viewpoint, it’s very valuable to look in detail at how a symbolic narrative is put together, something I do have an understanding of. These posts will certainly be useful to those wishing to write in a particular way, but for actual advice on the craft of novel writing, as I said, go see someone who actually knows.

Go talk to some real novelists, like the Brontes (you may need a medium.)

So, having defined the limits of my expertise, lets move on.

The question that underlies these posts is: what does it mean to make conscious use of myth? What does that look like in practice? Although there are numerous ways into the topic, it may be best to begin with the author’s role before looking at that of the audience. Although I’ll be focussing on myths evoked through narrative here, this also applies to any kind of art that seeks to evoke myth.

How do you construct a narrative that has the potential to evoke a mythic response? Notice I’m only claiming potential here. There is no real certainty that you can evoke a mythic response in an audience, fundamentally because myth is something that happens within the audience’s experience, not within a text. The only thing an author can do is try their best to understand the audience they wish to create for, to uncover their dreams and find out what gives their lives meaning.

An author could begin by asking what is their chosen audience’s general culture? What do they believe in? For this series of posts, lets assume the chosen audience is interested in what we might call deep ecology. On a mundane level they are environmentally aware, support sustainability and respect nature. On a deeper level they believe that human consciousness should, in a perfect world, be deeply embedded in nature. Within this particular culture, these values make up a myth often referred to simply as The Land.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, (1836).

The Land is a myth that draws on some very old cultural strands, often pagan in orientation, and mostly delivered to our age through 19th century Romanticism. Today, this myth expresses a yearning for connection with something felt to be lost in modern culture: a nativeness, a wildness, an honouring of an ancient human perspective that sees itself as part of Sublime Nature, not above or separate from it. The Land often has an Eden-like quality. It’s the Promised Land we modern humans have left behind, yet can perhaps still return to.

But to return implies some kind of redemption, and in the myth of The Land, that redemption begins with an acknowledgment of the problem: humanity has divorced itself from the symbiotic network of natural consciousness. Our consumption-driven culture is self-destructive, creating a society that degrades the subtle psychic connection to the rest of planetary life, divorcing us from our life-supporting environment, leaving our natural souls to wither in the glare of a dead, technological light. Modern, main-stream consumer culture (which has the same traits all over the planet, East and West) drives us not only to reject our connection to this greater planetary Soul, but essentially undermines our original, natural humanity.

In that sense, The Land expresses an existential crisis, one reinforced by the environmental realities of the modern era. If climate change research shows us anything, we are fast approaching an ecological disaster that threatens life as we know it. In the myth of The Land, this ecological disaster is a symptom of our disconnection from the spiritual ground of our being, the Living Earth. This myth therefore encompasses not only a crisis in individual, but also in collective existence.

There is far more that could be said about this myth. We could even go so far as defining its variations within smaller sub-cultures. But for the time being, let’s stick with this basic outline and consider how we could create a vessel, a narrative form for this myth. At this early stage, keep in mind that for the author, the myth will be contained within the written text, interwoven with and underlying the story they create, but for the audience it will only ever be something that’s evoked within them. For all of the author’s careful intentions, the audience will always have their own understanding of the text and the myth it evokes.

The Wind in the Leaves, Part 1.


Aberlemno Pictish Stone. Symbols are the bedrock of human culture.

What is a myth? That’s a question that rarely stays answered for long. In my own experience, I’ve rarely been able to settle on a single definition of myth that covers all of its many uses. The situation today is more complicated because myth was redefined in some scholarly circles during the 20th century, such as in the work of the French philosopher Roland Barthes (see this post).

I still have an interest in the traditional definition of myth, essentially a genre of old stories about gods, and human origins etc; that will always be a central aspect of the study of mythology. But I have increasingly found in my own work that the new definition, although by no means conclusive, offers more room for exploration. I’ve discussed this elsewhere in more detail, but for those of you new to these ideas, here’s a quick summary:

Myths grow out of our instinctive ability to use symbols, the bedrock of human culture: a marriage ceremony symbolises the promise of fidelity; a religious image symbolises a whole body of beliefs and morals; wearing shiny pieces of cut stone and worked metal symbolise wealth and status; certain letters after a name symbolise expertise and capability, and so on and so on.

Myths evoked in literature, in the modern definition at least, are essentially a symbolic use of narrative. For example, in stereotypical European hero tales, the hero is often a symbol for a traditional code of conduct: men should be brave, chivalrous, defend the weak and put personal honour before all else. This is never explicitly spelled out in the tale, but symbolically suggested by the actions of the hero.

Such tales suggest that the values they evoke are part of the natural order of things: there is a perfect type of man; dragons are always bad and should be killed; princesses are always weak and need rescuing; fighting is good and should be done well, etc, etc. All of these things that are suggested, but never literally explained in the tale, evoke a type of myth, in this case the late medieval myth of the European male hero.

A knight in shining armour . . .

As is obvious in the above description, myths can also become outdated. As culture evolves, older myths are inevitably challenged and discarded by newly arising sub-cultures. Myths are considered good or bad or anything in between depending on who you’re talking to. One thing is certain, myths can unify groups or serve to separate them just as effectively.

Most of us never question how such myths are created nor how they’re used, and using myth is rarely considered a conscious skill. We often think of myth as something that happens to us, stories that are told to us, not something we can do ourselves. That’s mainly because we’ve come to think of myth as something outside of ourselves, old stories created in ages long past. But myths aren’t separate from us, they live inside us. They arise out of our ability to use and understand symbolic meaning.

In the modern definition, myths aren’t stories. They’re certainly closely related, but only in as much as myths use stories. As with the male hero being a symbol for a code of conduct, myth is what lies below the surface of a narrative. It’s a deeper meaning that, if we accept without question the values it expresses, can influence us subliminally. That is essentially the mechanism by which both advertising and propaganda work.

But we can also approach myth consciously, particularly when we interpret a mythic story, paying attention to how the myth is evoked. Interpretation draws out the symbolic meaning, the underlying value or ideal, philosophy, spirituality or world view. So we have a choice, we can either be used by myths – become an unconscious conduit through which they are spread, or we can use myths, working with them consciously to reveal ourselves and our cultures.

The more we seek to interpret myths, the quicker we discover that not all stories are worthy of our attention. Some stories simply have more mythic potential than others. That’s because a skilled author can consciously create a story that enables an audience to tap into their own mythic understanding. Good storytellers instinctively know that a story itself doesn’t contain myth, but that myth arises out of an audience’s engagement with a story, and the storyteller’s job is to encourage that process, not hinder it.

How that’s best accomplished is the subject of this forthcoming series of posts.

At this first stage, we can define two aspects to the conscious use of myth:

  1. An author can consciously craft a symbolic narrative so as to stimulate the mythic response in their audience.
  2. An audience can consciously respond to a symbolic narrative, noticing how it evokes its myth within them. Recapitulating this mythic response is one way of reflecting on who we are, as both communities and individuals.

Goodby Welsh Mythology . . .

the white deer logo black

. . . hello White Deer.

I’m changing course, heading in a new direction.

I’ll still be running the Welsh mythology courses, The Four Branches and Deer Stalking, but for some time now I’ve been searching for a different path through the woods.

This new direction is different enough for me to see a need to change the whole identity of this project, so from now on this is the White Deer website. The url will still work but I’m making my main domain from now on.

Why White Deer? Well, those of you familiar with myths and folk tales from around the world will recognise the importance of special animals. For those of you not so familiar, here’s a quick outline:

In Celtic tradition, there are numerous examples of special animals, many of them white. We need only look at the Four Branches to find the shining white dogs of Arawn, red-eared and hungry for the hunt. The white boar in the third branch leads Manawydan and Pryderi to the otherworldly fortress. The Stag of Rhedynfre is one of the oldest animals in Culhwch ac Olwen, and in Irish and Scottish stories, white deer are often associated with the otherworld.

Deer as a symbol of the supernatural was also adopted by Christian tradition. Several early Welsh saints were accompanied by special stags, St Derfel and St Illtud perhaps being the most famous. Elsewhere in Europe the story of St Eustace is another example of a stag embodying the divine.

But special white animals aren’t just a European phenomena, we find them all over the world. One of the central figures of Lakota mythology is White Buffalo Calf Woman, who gifted the sacred pipe to native people. In some African traditions White Lions accompany strange events.

For me, the White Deer is a very suitable symbol for myths themselves. If we follow them carefully, they can show us the way into the deep woods, where we often encounter that strange and mysterious beast sometimes known as the Self.

More on this new direction in the coming months.

Deer Stalking Sessions

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Adventures in Celtic Myth.

In old Celtic tales, when the hero goes out to hunt in the wilds, it usually means something strange is about to happen. A magical animal often leads the hunter to a fateful meeting with the mysterious powers of the land.

These magical animals are just like the stories themselves. They can lead us deep into the woods. And if we have the ability to sit still and the wit to be quiet, if we wait for our eyes to adjust to the half-light of the woods, there’s a chance we’ll witness them in all of their wild glory, dazzling us with sudden inspiration.

The Deer Stalking series is a metaphorical hunt for the white deer of Celtic mythology. I promise you nothing but to take you to where the deer sometimes graze, and if you are lucky you may indeed catch a brief glimpse. We will at the very least scare up a few inklings and disturb a few hints.

This 8-part series contains 10 hours of recorded talks and discussions and 125 pages of detailed, full-colour notes.

  1. Awen in The Book of Taliesin
  2. The Importance of Threes: A Bardic Education
  3. The Wild and Wild Men
  4. Transformations in The Book of Taliesin
  5. Dreaming the Taliesin Landscape
  6. The Welsh Craft of Poetry
  7. The Fortress of Immortals
  8. Living and Dying in The Book of Taliesin


For those of you who took part, remember you get your download free! Just get in touch if you haven’t already got your copy.

The Four Branches Course 2018


Course Introduction

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi is an old Welsh classic that was first written down about 900 years ago. It appears to be a collection of traditional tales that probably originated in the oral storytelling tradition of the early Welsh. The only real certainty is that they were written down by some talented, but unknown, author.

The Four Branches are set in a past where the Welsh aristocracy still claim the Crown of London, and consider the whole of the island to be their sovereign territory. Historically speaking, this would have been sometime between 350 and 500AD. The Four Branches could preserve one of the oldest versions of Britain to have survived.

As a result, the tales can tell us much about what Britain was, is and could still be. They explore in great detail the possibilities and problems that arise for those who seek to claim dominion in her lands.

As one would expect of such tales, The Four Branches contain some quite traditional ideas. One of the most common is the idea of aristocracy and inherited nobility, an idea that sits at the heart of many cultures to this day.

But even though The Four Branches are almost exclusively concerned with the Welsh upper class, what’s surprising about these ‘nobles’ is that their aristocracy (status through lineage) rarely has anything to do with what kind of people they are. The tales suggest nobility isn’t something that’s inherited from your family or determined by your sex.

The nobility of The Four Branches is something that arises from personal integrity and wisdom, not family genetics. More often than not it’s the nobility of heart, not the nobility of inherited status, that’s put in service of the land and her people.

It’s obvious when characters diverge from the path of nobility because they always cause suffering, and not always their own. When the ‘nobility’ fail to act from a nobility of heart, the repercussions can be apocalyptic in magnitude.

So often in the tales the positive lesson is brought into relief by a negative example. Ignorant aristocrats inevitably make bad, blinkered choices, and when they do, the right course of action is stressed by its absence. It’s for this reason that The Four Branches can be read as lessons for civil life, a life in a civilised Britain.

The Four Branches Course 2018

This is the 5th incarnation of the Four Branches course, and each successive version has built upon the foundations of its predecessor. That’s no less true for the 2018 version, as the audio lectures are based on material from The Magic of Meaning courses of 2016 and 2017.

But this isn’t just a re-hash of what was explored in those earlier courses. This current version takes a closer look at how the tales present nobility, aristocracy, sovereignty, and ultimately the myth of Britain herself.

As with the earlier versions, the main objective of the course is to stimulate interpretation, to feel out the contours of the myths contained in The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and attempt to apprehend the old truths concealed in its symbols.

The general approach is to consider The Four Branches as teaching tales, instructive stories that have an almost (but not quite) allegorical quality to them. They are also considered in terms of how they correspond to other myths and stories from Europe and the rest of the world.

Please see this page and scroll down to The Shape of the Course if you wish to register