Author Archives: Steve Hutton

A Story Within a Story

The Fairy's Tale

This illustration is entitled ‘A Fairy’s Tale’. In it, master-storyteller Chikabok entrances a gathering of woodland folk with a vivid tale. The gathering comprises a fantastical array of creatures, including keddy-potts, drummon-toadies, snap-dragons, slug-fairies, baby mountains and potato men, as well as Chikabok himself, who is clearly a magpie-fairy. Confused? You need not be . . .
Within The Dark Raven Chronicles, witches have their own customs and of course their own traditional tales. We might grow up knowing certain popular nursery rhymes, and it’s the same with children growing up in covens. All of the amazing creatures I’ve just described are familiar enough to young witches. I’ve always loved the idea of a story within a story, yet I never found the right place for it in Raven’s Wand. Instead, we’re afforded just hints and glimpses of the rich world that lies behind a coven like Wildwood. I wanted to include these traditional witches’ stories, but the pacing of the novel never really allowed it. Richard Adam’s included two or three of the rabbits’ folktales in Watership Down. (I’ve written a full blog on this, one of my favourite books, here on this website, entitled ‘Black Rabbits and Terrible Generals’). What I will say again, is how effective these small inclusions are at expanding any fictional world. It’s like peeping at the cogs that drive the hands on the clock.

For those who’ve read Raven’s Wand, or are reading it, keep an eye out for the following; Wildwood’s chief witch Valonia, on rare occasions calls her bright young student Kolfinnia, ‘Little Wolf Mother’. This isn’t just a throwaway remark. There’s a whole story behind it entitled ‘Wolves in the Stars’, which tells how in the distant past, a cosmic monster tried to devour the Earth, and was stopped by one particularly brave witch named Luna, and a vast pack of wolves led by wolf-mother Fen. It’s a real story, in the sense that it exists complete and ready to read, and it directly integrates with everything about The Dark Raven Chronicles, and explains why Kolfinnia earned the nickname Little Wolf Mother. Interesting, isn’t it?
There is another, perhaps even more potent example of a hidden story with Raven’s Wand. I think it crops up just twice, and always in a sombre context, but look carefully and you’ll hear Skald, Valonia’s thunder-sprite quote the phrase, ‘If need of witches be so great’. He’s not being melodramatic – he’s quoting a pact made by his own Lord long ago, and which directly relates to his partnership with Valonia. ‘If need of witches be so great’. What does it really mean? Again, the story to explain this vague but ultimately critical pact, entitled ‘A Witch’s Best Friend’, exists and is ready to read, and in doing so we also learn something very special about Skald.
I hope that eventually all of these short stories will become available, but like fractals, the deeper we look the more detail we see, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a story within a story within a story . . .

Bright Spark

Sprite blog small

One of the most popular character-types of The Dark Raven Chronicles turns out to be thunder-sprites, and so I thought I’d post a few words on these sparky little creatures.
Witches fly. It’s written in stone, so I couldn’t get away from it, but neither did I want to. What I did want to distance my story from was the concept of ‘flying broomsticks’. I can’t express my dissatisfaction at these things without impacting on other popular fantasy serials and ultimately sounding as if I’m being critical. I promise you I’m not, but I remain steadfast in my conviction that as a narrative device, flying broomsticks are common to the point of exhaustion and also present a massive missed opportunity. So often in fantasy fiction things happen ‘by magic’. End of story. I’m more interested in exploring the logic behind the magic, even if it’s fantasy-logic, and here I could really let my imagination run wild – what exactly is the magic that allows a stick, or staff, call it what you will, fly?

Years ago, living in the Yorkshire Pennines, the road to my house was steep and rocky. At one bend there was a small but tortured-looking oak tree. We dubbed it ‘ye old thunder tree’, because it looked like it had suffered a lightning blow, although I doubt it had. It got me thinking about the elemental forces that might have briefly touched it, and had they altered it in someway, other than splitting wood asunder? In channeling the storm’s energy, had the tree been left with a permanent resident, a fragment of the storm so to speak? It was easy for me to imagine that the answer was ‘yes’, and that lightning trees have a different energy to other trees. I tucked this obscure revelation away at the back of my mind, until one day I found it again and thanked my lucky stars for now having swept it out along with all the other clutter. My witches needed to fly, and what better than a branch from a lightning-tree, and what better than to call it a ‘lightning-staff’! It sounded magical but credible, and it offered the reader a fresh take on a well-known theme. After that, the flood gates opened. I came up with ‘thunder-sprites’ to embody the tree’s storm force, and let them have fabulously rambling names to celebrate the storms they’d come from. Kolfinnia’s thunder-sprite is called ‘Gales-Howl-Over-Stormy-Waters’, or ‘Gale’ for short. I invented scores of sprites names, many of which are never even mentioned in full, but they’re there, such is the detail in The Dark Raven Chronicles. One of my favourites is ‘Jump-The-Cross’, named for a bolt of lightning that struck a church spire, rebounded into the graveyard below and hit a holly tree, (lightning-staffs made from holly are very rare, by the way). Although Jump-The-Cross is yet to have his day, (the name’s never been used in any of the DRC novels so far) creating these names and their stories was a pleasure. Note I say ‘his day’. I deliberately made all thunder-sprites male, as decreed by magical law. As they are born where father-thunder touches mother-earth, I saw no need for messy things like gender, hormones or reproduction getting in the way of the action. Thunder-sprites are blokes – they like wrecking things. Enough said. There was another reason I made sprites male, and that’s because the cast of witches in Raven’s Wand are mostly female, although a few male witches take supporting roles. The combination of witch and sprite made sure that any witch in the story had some other character to bounce their thoughts and dialogue off, and provides and nice contrast between female intuition and male logic. A thunder-sprite isn’t a pet, but an equal, an ally and a friend. Witch and sprite share a very deep bond, and the sprite’s contract upon this Earth lasts until the day the staff is broken or the witch dies. Suffices to say, for a witch, breaking their staff and losing their thunder-sprite is no less devastating than the death of a loved one. Also, sprites don’t remain incorporeal within their staffs, but appear regularly to bicker and banter with their witches and other sprites. When they do appear we see them as striking raven-sized creatures similar to small primates, but winged and covered with blue feathers and bearing hawk-like heads. Sprites have a sweet tooth and can’t resist a pinecone sticky with sap. They have their own culture and social structure in the thunder-heights above, ruled over by their great Lord, Silver-fist, who’s as old as the Earth itself. Sprites are loyal but have little patience for self pity, and they’ll give their witch a kick up the rear if they think they’re slacking or failing to live up to the high moral code of witchcraft. As the action racks up in Raven’s Wand, the witches soon find that their staffs aren’t just handy for flying, but they prove powerful weapons when pitted against the Illuminata’s giant kraken steam-suited Knights. And lastly there’s the sheer thrill of flying, and not on some inanimate shaft of wood with bristles at the end, but flying in unison with a friend and a powerful natural force.

Or we could just throw all of this away and say that witches fly simply by ‘magic’. I know what I prefer.

Soul sign

Sunday soul II

Fairies don’t see the world as we do, at least not those fairies that dwell in The Dark Raven Chronicles. When frost-fairy Neet, meets witch Sunday Flowers for the first time, he’s entranced by her soul sign. This mystical representation of the soul takes the form of a tree, and floats above the crown of the head. Some of the branches might be bare, while others are in bud, or laden with fruit or flowers, and these branches might sit right beside others that are twisted and diseased. The branches represent all that’s good and bad about a person. Neet can see this, but Sunday, for all her skills as a witch, can’t.

Neet’s seen many soul-signs down the years, and although he understands little of the symbolism he instantly recognises that Sunday’s soul is unique – terrifyingly so. All other trees he’s seen are complete, yet Sunday’s tree has been cut clean through the trunk. Somehow she has defied the first and oldest universal law – she has died, and returned to life.

Flowers of Fate is the second novel in The Dark Raven Chronicles, and aside from being what I hope is an exciting story, it explores deep issues such as freewill versus fate, atonement and self-sacrifice. I look forward to sharing Flowers of Fate with readers later this year.

Beauty and Duty

for blog

Reworking the cover for Raven’s Wand, the first of the Wildwood books, I brought Kolfinnia to the fore. Book covers demand an eye-catching and appealing image for obvious reasons, but I didn’t want Kolfinnia (the story’s young hero) reduced simply to cover decoration. She’s a young woman with a serious duty, she’s been through a lot and has a lot more to get through before the book’s over.

I hope she’s beautiful (and beauty’s a wildly subjective topic!) and if she is, then I hope it’s because of what’s inside her. Look into her eyes – there’s focus and resolve there. She’s strong, but not in a macho-aggressive way that some writers portray female leads, but rather it’s her sense of compassion and justice that enable her to face the challenges ahead. I wanted to keep the focus on her face and what she’s feeling. Look long enough, and the surrounding details begin to melt away and only Kolfinnia’s steady gaze remains. Before you know it you’re looking at a real person, not just a pleasing face to brighten a book cover, and it’s her conviction that helps make a fantasy story seem more like a story rooted in fact. Neither did I want any trace of voyeurism. Sorry – but nobody goes into action in high heels and a bikini outside of the realm of Hollywood.

So here is Kolfinnia, holding Raven’s Wand itself. Around her are witches’ deities Hethra and Halla, the dragons of oak and holly that she’s prepared to defend to the death, as well as Skald, her loyal thunder-sprite. She is as real as you or I, as are the dangers and joys she faces. The fact that she happens to have a pretty face is immaterial . . . but it makes for a nice cover (-:

Dark Raven

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The most intriguing character of all the Wildwood novels never speaks and isn’t really alive, at least not in the way we’d understand, yet it’s always there in the background, guiding our way like a compass needle. We might even come to take it for granted in the same way we seldom question the ground beneath our feet, but that’s only proof of its reliability.
During the trilogy of books the spotlight shifts from character to character. Kolfinnia might take centre stage in book 1, but then the focus moves onto other characters (can’t say without giving the plot away!) and back to the familiar faces we began with. If asked, I’d struggle to name one character that’s a key player in all three books other than this mysterious and often mute ‘compass needle’. I speak of course of Valonia’s wand – hrafn-dimmu, or Dark Raven if you prefer its English name. The wand is passed from keeper to keeper through the books like a baton and you can be sure that wherever it is the action’s not far behind. Dark Raven is a constant, much like its flesh and blood counterparts.

Raven’s have featured in folklore and mythology for as long as people have walked the Earth. We’re fascinated by their keen intelligence, and often resent it. We heap macabre reputations upon them for their love of carrion, forgetting who it was that littered the battlefields with bodies in the first place. Their indigo-black plumage reminds us of the dark, and how we still fear it. But Valonia’s wand isn’t named for any of these qualities. My lasting memory of ravens – real ravens that is – if of their always being there. Just like Valonia’s wand, they’re a constant.
Hiking through the Arctic you begin to feel like the last person on Earth. You begin to wonder at the sheer brutality of the landscape, and how could anything scrape a living here. And then you hear a raven’s call ring out. You look up and see not one but two, gliding and tumbling without a care, as if this desolation was Eden itself, and suddenly there’s another heartbeat in this rocky nothingness and you smile to yourself, knowing that you’re not alone. Raven’s pair for life and live many years. Their acrobatics and vocal range are incredible. Stay put long enough and they’ll come to investigate, and you know you’re being scanned with eyes that are almost unearthly. Call out to them as their soar overhead, and if you’re lucky they’ll reply with a sound not unlike a tuneful ‘gulp’, and a dip of their wings.
But I’m under no romantic delusions.
Years ago I saw a raven carry off a black-back gull’s chick with the parent in hot pursuit. Life is harsh. You might be snatched from the nest and devoured at just a day old. It’s tempting to see animals as symbols of wisdom, indeed many people who accept that they have a spirit guide name the raven as their protector. The same goes for wolves, bears and eagles (I’ve yet to meet someone who’s spirit guide is a rabbit or a goldfish). I also know that if I died in those frozen wastes, those ravens would be on my carcass in a shot, probably bickering over who gets the tastiest eyeball. It’s that honesty that I admire. Nature is often hard but it’s always honest. Unlike people, you always know where you stand with animals, and when it came to picking a name for Valonia’s wand I had this honesty and reliability in mind.
Ravens I salute you! And if I keel over in those barren wastes one day and go to that great tent in the sky, I can’t think of a better use for my bedraggled body than to raise the next generation of dark ravens.

Women!

women

I’ll waste no time in disappointing you – this isn’t a battle-of-the-sexes type rant. I think a good blog should be insightful rather than inflammatory, although I’ll admit that Wildwood’s art and writing is weighted towards female characters, and here’s why . . .

Years ago when illustrating for children’s publishers, I found myself pigeonholed as the bloke who draws monsters. I was fine with this, but I wanted to sharpen my figure drawing skills and have a go at drawing more graceful and ethereal characters. I settled upon ‘witches’ as a theme, and began a body of personal work. I drew a witch and found it fun, and although it didn’t capture the look I had in my mind’s eye, I continued. I drew another witch to accompany her, then I thought ‘why not draw a whole coven of witches!’ I set out to draw 13 characters, but when I’d finished the last one I still wanted to draw. For no real reason, all my witches were wearing blue. ‘I know – they can be winter-witches,’ I decided. That sparked the idea to theme my coven around the seasons. Now all I needed were 13 spring-witches, 13 summer-witches and so on, to make a total of 52. Now I had one character for each week of the year. This took up many months of my time and a hell of a lot of pencils, and by the end of it the later ones outshone the early ones as my figure drawing abilities increased. And so guess what – I binned all of them and started again, not out of frustration, but a sense of discovery. I was drawing things I never knew I could draw and steadily achieving the results I wanted, and the feeling was very empowering.

I invented a name for each character and a gave them a paragraph about their back story. Inevitably these story fragments snowballed into a larger narrative and Wildwood was born. But something changed. As the drawings became more realistic, the back story I’d given each character began to feel too flimsy and twee and it jarred with the imagery. I took stock and decided to research witchcraft. All I can say is those women (and a few men) suffered terribly. The atrocities committed against them shows humanity at its most base and vile, but one account stayed with me. For the crime of midwifery one woman was tried as a witch and burned alive, the reason being that God’s punishment against Eve for deceiving Adam was to make childbirth a painful and risky experience for all women. Therefore, anyone assisting a woman in labour and trying to ease her pain was acting against God. (It’s tempting to dismiss this as dark-ages barbarism, but similar punishments based on similarly twisted logic are still dispensed around the world to this day). With this in mind, could I really have Wildwood as a ‘Hogwarts’ clone, I asked myself? I knew then that I wanted Wildwood to be my own simple tribute to these women. The story behind the images instantly became darker, more political and complex, just like the illustrations themselves.

Wildwood’s witches are brave, honest and surprisingly ordinary women despite their knack for magic. And guess what – a good number of them are skilled midwives too, even if God disapproves . . .

Polite pagans

witch picnic

As I write, it’s coming around to that tedious time of the year again, when millions of innocent squashes will be sacrificed in the name of ‘trick or treat.’

Forget for a moment the galling fact that until the 70’s this tradition was unknown in Britain, (I blame John Carpenter’s film ‘Halloween’ for the spread of this begging bonanza) and put aside the sheer irritation of strange children banging on the door demanding bagfuls of boiled offal laced with E numbers masquerading as ‘sweets’. No. For me the most depressing and infuriating aspect of Halloween is the barefaced hypocrisy.

The issue of race has become something of a minefield, but rather than keeping the enemy of prejudice out and fostering respect, this minefield just creates more tension. Say the wrong word, in all innocence even, and you might find yourself looking for a new job. Prejudice doesn’t go away – it just retreats into the shadows. And yet what do we see in our high street shops in the weeks running up to October 31st each and every year?

I’ll give you a clue – they fall into two distinct types. One has green skin, tombstone teeth, weeping boils, hair dripping with chip fat and a fishhook nose. The other kind is a temptress sitting on a pantomime broom in such a way that her fishnet stockings are showing and the tiny hammock that is her bra is struggling to restrain its load, and chances are she’ll be wearing six-inch stilettos, black and nothing but black.

As a recognised belief-system like any other, it’s an enormous credit to modern day pagans and Wiccans that they tolerate this abuse. As far as I know, witches aren’t famed for murdering their critics or demanding Tescos remove their racist, Halloween propaganda . . . and don’t get me started on ‘Christmas’.

So a big ‘thanks!’ to all those happy-go-lucky pagans and witches out there for shrugging it off with dignity and a smile, we could all learn a lot from you. To quote Homer Simpson – ‘God bless those pagans!’

Black rabbits and terrible generals

El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit prev

Explore the Wildwood novels and you’ll find a world of writing just as rich as the illustrations, and if I have one book to thank for that it would be Watership Down by Richard Adams. Easily my favourite book, I first read it at the age of twelve or thirteen and I remember that feeling of reaching the book’s end and reemerging into the real world, of looking around at my familiar surroundings and finding them so drab and disappointing in comparison to the characters I’d just left behind.

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Just a saga now . . .

Saga

This is just a saga now . . .

Saga. No, not the insurance company for seniors, but rather the 12th century Norse literary tradition. For those not familiar with Iceland’s Saga writing you don’t know what you’re missing. Briefly, a Saga is a bloodthirsty epic set during the Viking age and told with a dry, matter-of-fact wit . . . and usually more fact than fiction.

In my teens I fell in love with heavy metal (we’re still very close) and Vikings are a mainstay of metal music. Intrigued, I wanted to know what really lay behind the horned helmets, and after a bit of researching (no internet in them days) I stumbled across the sagas. Many scholars have written reams about Iceland’s great literary achievement, and so I won’t bore you with names and places that are hard to pronounce anyway, but what really stands out for me are the Sagas’ black humour, and it’s something I love to play with in Wildwood.

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Don’t Feed the Animals

Feed

Most icebergs are white, while some are dirty grey or cobalt, and in exceptional circumstances they’re emerald green. Few are crimson though, but the one I’m looking at now is.

My tent is pitched between fingers of rounded rock, in a mossy hollow overlooking the bay. There are a lot of icebergs down there and in the setting sun they all begin to turn red, but that’s just a writer’s conceit. They turn dusky pink, or sometimes glow vermilion, but never true red, until tonight, but the sun isn’t the artist responsible.

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