Sleeping Beauty and the Spindle

Irish_spinning_wheelI found out all about spinning on the weekend. There was a Christmas crafts event in town, and a couple of ladies from the Spinners and Weavers Guild were doing a spinning demo. Actually, that demo was the main reason I went to the event – spinning is one of the old crafts I haven’t actually tried my hand at, not properly, anyway, and I’ve wanted to know for a while how it works.

And sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed: every last “Sleeping Beauty” movie has got it wrong.

You know how the story goes: the wicked fairy curses the princess to prick her finger on a spindle on her 16th birthday. To try to prevent it, the king bans/burns all spinning tools. But of course, as he ought to have known, that does nothing; she finger-pricks anyway, falls asleep, a century later prince shows up, etc.

So how does that look in the movies? Huge conflagration of spinning wheels, for the most part. Then the dimwitted (ahem – sorry) princess, in a trance, walks up to a wheel, which has a sharp thing sticking out of the top, goes and purposely jabs her finger on that sharp pointy thing, and on we go with the snoozing etc. etc.

Complete baloney. It’s pretty obvious the movie-makers have never seen a real spinning wheel in their lives. It’s mildly forgiveable in the film makers of the 1959 Disney movie, when research was a little more difficult to do; but in 2014, you’d think that the set designers of Maleficent could have done about ten seconds of googling, which would have told them that there are no sharp pointy things sticking out of spinning wheels. Spinners of the past would have been severely puzzled by those movie spinning wheels.

I can just picture it now. The scene: a Great 21st-Century Folklorist has been time-transported back to a 17th-century German Spinnstube (shpinn-shtoo-ba, spinning room), where the women of the village are gathered around the fire on a dark winter’s night with their spinning wheels. Folklorist rubs his hands – here’s his opportunity to tell the “Sleeping Beauty” story as he knows it, and really get it entrenched in the minds of these peasants. So there are Gretl, Liesl, Anna, Maria, Maria, and Anna Maria, all sitting in a circle, their spinning wheels humming. [No! Turn off those lights! The only illumination we have are the fire and a couple of rush lights. It’s dark, folks. Got that image in your mind now? Okay, good. Carry on.]

Folklorist: “…and on her 16th birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel!”
Maria 1: “On what?”
Maria 2: “Maybe she had a poor-quality wheel; the wood might have been splintered.”
Gretl: “Oh, you mean she pricked her finger on a splinter?”
Folklorist: “No! She pricked it on a spindle! You know, that pointy thing!”
Liesl: “What pointy thing?”
Folklorist: “Well, that – um…”
Anna: “This makes no sense at all. If the bad fairy wanted the  princess to kill herself with a spinning wheel, she’d have to find a better curse than that.”
Maria 2: “Yes; if she hasn’t got a splintered wheel. What about…”
Anna Maria: “That makes more sense. I mean, who would believe anything so silly as someone pricking her finger on a spindle on a wheel? All right, Mr Storyteller, carry on, please!”
Folklorist, extremely reluctantly: “…so the wicked witch cast her curse. ‘On her 16th birthday,’ she said, ‘the princess shall club herself to death with the drive wheel of a spinning wheel…'”
The women: “Yes!” “That’s better!” “Now it makes sense.” “That’s so exciting!” “What happened next?”

Anyway, that’s a more likely scenario than this poke-yourself-on-a-spinning-wheel one. Sorry, Mr. Disney.

The device that Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on is, in fact, a hand spindle – and not a drop spindle, either, which might serve to poke out your eye or be used to inflict classic blunt-force head injuries, but isn’t really  pointy. It seems that the most likely device for inducing century-long royal hypersomnia was what spinners call a Russian spindle, which is very pointy indeed. I’d love to learn how to use one sometime (for making yarn, not putting teen girls to sleep), but I wouldn’t sneeze at getting the hang of a spinning wheel, either.

Life, the Universe, and Tales of a Spindle. Or should that be Spinster?

The Wetzlar Cathedral

Wetzlarer Dom (2)I don’t recall having ever been inside of those before: a Simultankirche, or Simultaneum. But I got to see one this summer, on our trip to Germany. You might recall my pictures of Wetzlar, the Goethe-town? Wetzlar not only has beautiful half-timbered houses and the sentimental association with Goethe’s Lotte, it has the Dom, or Cathedral, one of the earliest Simultankirchen.

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The Protestant altar in front, Catholic in back.

So what’s the big deal about those? You see, they’re ecumenical churches. Almost right from the start of the Catholic–Protestant split in Germany, since 1544 (Martin Luther was still alive), the Dom in Wetzlar has been used by both denominations. That’s right – unlike in so many other churches, the conversion of the townspeople to the Protestant form of Christianity did not mean that the Catholic believers were evicted. The rift between the denominations that has gone so very deep in so many places is, in this church, only evident by the fact that there are two altars – and up until 70 years ago, there were two organs, one in each end of the church, one for the Catholic congregation and one for the Lutherans. They simply take turns having their service.

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Early 14th century fresco

The Dom in Wetzlar is ancient. The first church on that site was built in the late ninth century, but construction on the cathedral as it stands today was first begun in 1230. There is still clear evidence of the medieval building – wall frescoes from the early 14th century, a Pietà from around 1370, a late-Gothic statue of Mary with angels that are mounted on something rather like a chandelier (with no candles). It’s an impressive building, a centre of spirituality that has been a place of worship for Christians of either flavour for more than a millennium.

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The Pietà, ca. 1370/80

But why am I telling you about this today? Because it’s Remembrance Day. And one of the things that struck me quite forcibly when we visited the Wetzlarer Dom is what senseless destruction is wrought by war.

On March 8, 1945, Allied bombers flew over Wetzlar, and a hail of missiles struck the cathedral. The choir, the famous rood screen, the high altar, both organs, and all the stained glass windows were reduced to rubble.

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March 1945

The Dom is not just a building – it is a house of worship, a gathering place of the people, a symbol of unity despite differences. Seventy years ago, it was destroyed in the course of the horrific violence that is war.

The Wetzlar Cathedral was rebuilt. There are once again two altars; but the organ is now shared by both congregations – and the rood screen, which once separated the spaces of Catholics and Protestants, was never reinstalled. The pews in the choir, that very part of the church that was a sea of rubble after the bombs fell, are reversible, so that the congregation can face the altar of their choosing – Catholic in the apse, Protestant in the crossing.

Wetzlarer Dom (1)

The Dom is once again a symbol of unity, of ecumenical faith. But it is also a reminder of the devastation brought about by war. It’s been seventy years, but the scars will always remain. They are an indelible part of the millennium-long history of this amazing place.

Lest we forget.

You Owe It To The Story, Or: A NaNoWriMo About-Face

NaNo-2015-Participant-Badge-Large-SquareI did a complete about-face yesterday. You know how I was going to write Star Bright, the fourth book in the Septimus Series, for NaNoWriMo this year? Yeah, well, I don’t think I will.

To date, the story stands at about 12,000 words – that’s from Camp NaNoWriMo this spring, and about 3.5k words earlier this week. But I found that the going got really tough. NaNo lore has it that Week 2 is the worst week of NaNo, but I haven’t found that. The last few years I’ve found the first week the hardest. It’s like walking through molasses, like chewing on that tough piece of pizza crust that really doesn’t taste good any more – you get the idea. I just wasn’t enjoying it.

So there I was yesterday, staring at the 300 words I’d written that day, and really not wanting to carry on with it. That’s right, I didn’t want to – it felt like a chore. And that’s silly. NaNoWriMo a chore? That’s completely against the rules. Actually, this is NaNo – forget rules. It’s against the spirit of the thing.

And there was another thing. My good friend E. L. Bates just published a blog post on why she’s not doing NaNo this year, and there was one sentence in there that pinpointed exactly the issue I was having. She said that, among other things, we need to “be[] responsible to the story itself by not rushing it”.

And that’s exactly what is the case with Star Bright for me right now. I was feeling rushed, pressured to produce word count – and I was failing the story in that. I care about that story. This needs to turn out, it needs to be a good story. This is about Cat, and Guy, and the kids, and a couple of whole new characters called Jamie and Daarshan whom I’m becoming quite fond of, and if I rush their story, I’ll be doing them a disfavour.

So I’m not going to do word sprints and insert random instances of the word “piano” in the text (which was one of the fun games we played at a recent NaNo event), because there are no pianos in Ruph. I need to write Star Bright properly, take my time over it, without letting the spectre of a NaNo fail scare me into filling the page with drivel.

But I still want to do NaNo. I still want to participate in the madness of cranking out words, of commiserating with my fellow Wrimos on the difficulty of finding the next thing to write, of watching each others’ wordcounts rise (there’s nothing so thrilling as watching the progress of the little blue bar below your profile picture on the NaNo site – and when it suddenly turns purple, because you’ve passed the 50k mark, WHOOT!! There’s nothing like it!) and cheering each others’ heroic efforts.

Steve approves (that’s his approving face).

So you know what I did? I started from scratch. I opened up a new Scrivener file, named it “Nano ’15”, and started typing at random.

“The autumn mist hung thickly in the meadows by the river.”

That’s the beginning sentence. And off I went, producing more words in the space of an hour than I had in four or five before. I have no idea where this story is going – at the moment, it’s got no title, no plot, a whole bunch of mist in the river meadows, a protagonist (whose name I can’t even remember just now – the file’s not open), and a mysterious silver bracelet with interesting decorations on it.

I have no idea if I’ll finish NaNoWriMo with it this year – I’m already five days behind with my word count. But you know what? I’m excited about this story. I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I have to keep writing to find out. It might, in fact, be complete drivel. It might have a piano in it somewhere, although I doubt it. It might never see the light of day in a published version. But for now, I’m going to enjoy myself writing it. And I’m going to leave Star Bright for a time when I can give it the attention it deserves – because I owe it to the story.

Life, the Universe, and a NaNoWriMo About-Face. Now what exactly is it about that silver bracelet?

Cat Makes Ink

IMG_201510304_0221I picked black walnuts the other day, and decided to make ink. Just like Catriona does in Chapter 11 of Cat and Mouse. You haven’t read it? Here, that’s how it goes:

[Cat and Nikor, the little old town librarian, are collecting black walnuts husks in the garden behind the library.]
“You don’t mind my taking the nuts, do you?” she asked Nikor, who was busy gathering the husks into a large cast iron pot.
“Nuts? Nuts. Oh no, no no. Take the nuts, make the husks easier to find.”
Cat dropped a handful of the black husks into his pot.
“Too bad the pot is so rusty,” she said. “Won’t that harm the ink?”
“No, no no. Rust is good, makes blacker ink. New pots are no good for ink. Besides, ink spoils the pots, makes stains.”
“Well, yes, I suppose it would—it’s ink, after all, it’s supposed to stain. So how do we do this?”
They carried the pot, now half filled with the black walnut husks, into Nikor’s living space in the back room of the library.IMG_20151031_150145“Stinks, does ink,” said Nikor, “but don’t want to make a fire outside now. Prefer my stove.” He filled the pot with enough water to cover the husks and put it on top of the little potbellied stove in the corner of his room, which already had a nice little fire crackling in it. “Spoon, spoon—where’s the spoon?” he muttered, digging around in a box of cooking implements that stood on a shelf above the wood box.
“You mean this one?” said Cat, extracting a wooden spoon from between several stacks of books on the floor beside a worn leather-covered armchair. The spoon’s bowl was stained a deep mahogany colour, in contrast to the blonde wood of its handle. “What’s it doing between the books?”
“Books? Oh, yes. Mouse, hit at the mouse with it when I was reading. See, ink stains,” he explained, pointing to the discolouration of the spoon.
“Oh, that’s from ink?” Cat said distractedly, not listening to his answer. The top book of one of the stacks had caught her attention. […]
[Cat gets lost in reading the book, which is called The Rats of Chaelia.]
“Where is Chaelia?” she asked Nikor, raising her head to find that the room was much darker than it had been when they brought in the nuts. Nikor was nowhere in sight, and a frightful stink rose from the steaming pot on the stove. Cat felt disoriented. Hadn’t she only just sat down? It could hardly have been more than a few minutes ago, could it? She stood and took a look at the stinking pot. In the bottom of the container, a dark sludge was bubbling away. The walnut husks had mostly disintegrated into smaller pieces now, making the whole mess a deep, brownish black. Cat wrinkled her nose—the stench was quite pronounced, metallic and rotten at the same time.IMG_20151031_141935The door from to the main library room creaked open, and Nikor shuffled back into the room, carrying two more books.
“Found it, found it,” he said, dumping the books into Cat’s arms and picking up the wooden spoon to poke at the black sludge in the pot. “Ah yes, coming along nicely.”
“Found what?” Cat asked.
“Looking for the books of Chaelia, wasn’t I,” he said. He waved a finger at the book Cat had been reading. “The Rats is just one; there are others.”
“Just where is Chaelia? Is it one of the places in Isachang?” Cat asked.
“No, no no. Chaelia is Outland, don’t you know?”
“Outland? My Outland, where I’m from? You mean Earth, or America, or whatever?”
“Yes. No. No no. Not Arthur Pendragon. Other land, other Outland. There are many. Haven’t seen anyone from Outlands here in generations, many many generations, not since Septimissimus last.”
“There are other Outlands? Really? And—what did you just say, about the Septimissimus?”
“Septimissimus?” he repeated, stirring the ink sludge in the bottom of the pot, pulling out a spoonful and dribbling a bit on a piece of paper to test its tinting strength. “A few more hours,” he muttered.IMG_20151103_094006

My ink turned out a bit pale this time – but it works well enough. If you want (slightly) more precise instructions on making walnut ink, check out my blog post on the topic from three years ago.

Oh, you’re wondering what’s with this Septimissimus thing? You’ll have to read Cat and Mouse to find out, won’t you. You can get it here.

Life, the Universe, and Walnut Ink. Lorem ipsum dolor…IMG_20151105_104508