Every age has a need to retell old stories and legends, to re-clothe the bones with new flesh; which makes each subsequent storyteller something of a necromancer, conjuring those relics into a fresh semblance of life. Recent research suggests that many traditional tales are much older than had previously been suspected. Officially dated back to the first appearance in print, but the result of a long oral tradition, some have persisted in DNA form for over 5,000 years, predating the split between eastern and western Indo-European languages.

True to the theory of Seven Basic Plots, as laid out by Christopher Booker in his celebrated study of the same name, they can be boiled down to a handful of tropes: overcoming the monster, nding your true mate, going on a journey, good triumphing over evil. For Booker, decadence set in with modern tinkering with old tales: now you may be the monster, evil is allowed to triumph, love is spurned and the individual ego is privileged over the collective good.

Herne the Hunter, Joe Machine, 2015, Acrylic on Canvas, 122cm x 91 cm © Joe Machine
Herne the Hunter, Joe Machine, 2015, Acrylic on Canvas, 122cm x 91 cm © Joe Machine

The original tales, where they can be established, often seem brief, haunting and enigmatic. Passed on from teller to teller, they are successively embroidered and unpicked according to taste and occasion. Topical references can be added, new locations suggested. If successive retellings fade away with changes in fashion, the core remains to inspire new creators. For all the psychological reasons Booker outlines, these old tales retain a hypnotic appeal for modern readers; but our choice of style, our choice of detail, reveals much about our own concerns.

In 2014, the Irish poet and storyteller Steven O’Brien and the artist Joe Machine began to collaborate on a series of linked paintings and stories for an exhibition and later, a book. The project marks an intriguing interplay of creative ideas. Sometimes the artwork illustrates the story but in other cases the painting came first. The result is a intricate, imaginative and fresh response to familiar material.

The paintings seem largely inspired by illuminated manuscripts with a touch of William Morris wallpaper among the Celtic curlicues. In the story ‘St Dunstan and the Devil’, the metalworking saint is working on just such a medieval book, making the clasps to bind a copy of the gospel, and the description of ‘sprightly pictures [of] long-bearded disciples meshed into the calligraphy’ gives a fair idea of the decorative effect.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that handling of traditional tales of a particular culture should immediately implicate the author in questions of nationality. Some stories here are recognisably English or Welsh, with source material ranging from the Mabinogion to the fanciful 12th-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. The stories are labelled ‘Britannic’, taking a cue from a 2002 lecture by Seamus Heaney, ‘Through-other places, and through-other times’, on the subject of colonialism and Irish poetry. Heaney quotes from Professor Hugh Kearney’s The British Isles: A history of four nations: ‘it is only by adopting a Britannic approach that historians can make sense of the particular segment in which they may be primarily interested, whether it be “England”, “Ireland”, “Scotland”, “Wales”, Cornwall or the Isle of Man’. Heaney’s famous declaration, ‘My passport’s green’, was an irritated response to being included in an anthology of contemporary British poetry, but Heaney later relished translating the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, thereby moving away from ‘Ulster identity politics’. Where national myths can divide, they can also bring together;

Part of the problem, and opportunity, lies in the difficulty of drawing firm lines in the material. Geoffrey Ashe excludes Ireland from his survey Mythology of the British Isles (1990, Methuen), citing the inability to do it justice in a single book. Though geographically, Ireland is a ‘British isle’, its mythological heritage, he asserts, is ‘vast, rich and largely independent. It would have been insulting and presumptuous to force it into a British frame’. Nevertheless, some ‘Irish themes [are] closely related to British ones’ and much Irish material crept in regardless.

O’Brien and Machine’s more eclectic ‘Britannic’ approach allows them the pleasure of telling and illustrating a great tale without worrying too much about provenance or taking on board the ambivalence about identity and belonging that characterises Heaney’s essay. And one gets the impression that the material has been selected purely on grounds of pleasure. The fre- quently unusual and recondite vocabulary is chosen with a poet’s eye for texture and impact, and Machine’s bright palette and lively rhythmic lines fairly sing with delight.

Our modern emphasis on the primacy of plot is a recent development. The cry, ‘No spoilers!’ would have made no sense to listeners who did not prize originality of subject matter so much as virtuosity in the handling. We know the saint will get the better of the devil in the end, but O’Brien keeps a nice balance between surprise and inevitability. The Father of Lies makes his first appearance in the guise of a seductive woman (probably an indication of the misogyny of the original that O’Brien wisely does nothing to accentuate) and the saint at first seems to be genuinely tempted by the sudden, unexpected glimpses of a desirable body.

Outwitted, the devil is reduced to pleading with the triumphant saint: ‘If you’ll just let me go, perhaps we could have a pint of Harveys like proper gentlemen?’ The juxtaposition of medieval technology and modern brewery is delightful. The old story is even adapted to include a snub to nearby Tunbridge Wells across the border in Kent. The chastised Prince of Darkness promises never to trouble the folk of Sussex again, but O’Brien opines, ‘the Devil left a tiny part of himself here’, so vigilance is necessary.

Accounts of colloquy with the devil rank among the very oldest tales. In contrast, folkloric gures such as Herne the Hunter, the horned spirit haunting Windsor Old Forest, and Wayland Smith, of Saxon origin, are much younger. Machine gives Herne the look of a jaunty Master of Foxhounds (and a horse somewhat too small for him, it seems). Meanwhile Wayland, legendary occupant of an ancient cromlech in Oxfordshire, waits in his stony smithy for a lone traveller to present a horse to be shod, regarding the onlooker with quizzical stoicism.

The lengthy tale of the Tuatha de Danaan is the origin myth of the fairies of Ireland, the ‘Good People’ or ‘Gentry’ who so inspired Yeats, among others. O’Brien frames the story with a fictional priest, Father Colm O’Carra, his white hair ‘like a flourish of ice cream in a summer cone’. Father Colm, recently returned from missionary work in Brazil, relaxes with his evening glass of whisky, contemplating the fairy rath behind his cabin. He can hear quite clearly the voices of the little people he has studied for years. As the old priest drowses, the narrator picks up the story: the black-haired, blue-eyed De Danaans rst beat the sinister, goblin-like Firbolg for possession of Ireland, but were in their turn beaten by the Milesian Gaels, ‘all the way from Spain’. The magical De Danaan cause a tempest to threaten the Milesian ships, but on board is their bard, the intriguing Orpheus figure, Amergin, who lulls the waves with his music. Tricked by Amergin’s smooth diplomacy, the ‘shining ones’ are nally banished underground, to live on in human memory as the fairy folk.

Thus their ambivalence to humans is explained. ‘This land of song and eternal twilight does not satisfy them. They have never forgotten their ban- ishment and the great wrong that men did them’. Coming in many guises, they cross the threshold into our world ‘when the evening shadows lengthen’. Never transact business with them, nor eat their food and drink, the narrator warns.

Working from the Mabinogion, O’Brien tackles the story of Mab son of Mythonwy, a powerful sorcerer who gets his revenge on a pair of rapists and swindlers. However, one detail makes him sound more like an oriental despot than a magician-king. When not in battle, he likes, O’Brien tells us, to rest with his feet in the lap of a virgin, preferably his favourite, Goewin. This is the only way he can bear the dullness of peacetime.

Ashe tells the same story with a different emphasis; it’s not a slighty kinky personal whim but a magical infirmity that requires Mab to relax in such an awkward fashion; he is joyfully released from his lap-virgin whenever war is in prospect. Machine also has an odd take on the story in his accompanying painting. While the two villains look on suspiciously, Mab reclines with his female attendants, who are all for some reason stark naked. This is a regular motif in the other paintings too: Machine loves to juxtapose bare women and fully clothed men.

Of course, in these myths female power is almost exclusively a sexual matter, but sometimes the images contradict the stories. The Lennaen Sidh is a Belle Dame Sans Merci set-up, where a muse, possibly the White Goddess herself, alternately taunts and cossets a dying poet who has lost everything in her devoted service. ‘Her gown is the gleam of laurel leaves’, O’Brien declares. But Machine chooses to depict her naked, with the modestly dressed poet by her side, in what looks like an obvious example of the male gaze (to be fair, the carnality of the relationship is also stressed).

The Lennaen Sidh, Joe Machine, 2015, Acrylic on Canvas, 76 x 61 cm © Joe Machine
The Lennaen Sidh, Joe Machine, 2015, Acrylic on Canvas, 76 x 61 cm © Joe Machine

Machine does seem overly keen on nipples. In the battle scene of the Mile- sians and the De Danaan is a lone female figure, and it does seem a little risky for her also to have not a stitch on in the middle of the flailing swords, heaving spears and male aggression.

Granted, women are often not given much more than walk-on roles in archaic tales and it’s difficult to make them more than ciphers. (Is Helen of Troy the biggest McGuffin of all time?) You can’t exactly stigmatise an artist for seeing things in terms of attractive surfaces, though it’s disconcerting when the subject is a woman’s being in the world. It’s up to O’Brien to provide interiority: he gives the ill-fated Goewin a poignant dignity, and clothes his tales with sumptuous threads of eloquence and insight.

Britannic Myths, a collaboration between Steven O’Brien & Joe Machine, is available from March 2016, published by Unicorn Press.

Britannic Myths, Cock & Bull Gallery, Joe Machine, 18 February – 26 March 2016

By Suzi Feay 

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