Handmade pendants of reclaimed Muskoka wood. L to R: red oak, hand-tinted & pyrographed pine, juniper, pyrographed pine, birch, pyrographed pine with faux bark edging
Even though it’s a bit overblown in parts, the 1981 film Excalibur ranks as one of my favourite movies, one that made a huge impression on me when I first saw it in my ’teens. In fact, it appears on a long scroll of Dark Age/medieval works that I’ve savoured over the years: Tolkien and Chaucer and Le Morte d’Arthur, Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, TV’s Robin of Sherwood (1984-86), Jack Whyte, Rutherford and Zimmer Bradley. They, and a host of others, have moulded my tastes for the historical and fanciful – and made me a lifelong card-carrying Anglophile-medievalist.
My imagination long since whetted like flint, I dream of living in the past, not as a highborn noble, but lowly, as a roundhouse-dwelling peasant. (I’ve never been one to take the Road of Least Resistance.) I want to pad barefoot across beaten dirt floors, smell the tang of woodsmoke from a crackling cookfire, eat coarse-milled bread and quaff dark ale by the hearth after a hard day’s work foraging for firewood and tending my meagre plot of leeks and cabbages. My garb would be a rough linen tunic, gathered around the hips with a braided belt. When the winter began to bite, I’d draw my woolen cloak closely ’round my shoulders, fixing it with a penannular brooch made of bronze. And, should the wolves draw too close, my bone-handled dagger would be ready in its sheath at my side.
Romantic drivel, yes, as my head knows perfectly well that the hard, short life of a medieval peasant was not in the least bit pretty. (The elite didn’t have it so good, either.) But my Celtic heart is drawn to the mysteries of flagstones and candles, thatched huts, horseflesh, leather and mead. And that is why, when I craft – for myself, as gifts for family and friends, or items for my shop – the things I make are primitive, homespun and rustic. I love the idea and look of burnished copper, hammered bronze, tooled leather and warm, glowing wood. If I can make an item – a rune-engraved talisman, for example – look as if an archaeologist just dug it up from its 1,500-year resting place, I will. Linseed oil and beeswax and aged patinas. Unbleached linen, dried lavender and jute. Spidery, sepia script from a beloved dip pen, scrawled across a sheaf of yellowed vellum. Natural materials and motifs plucked from the shadows of history; it’s my way of acknowledging the longed-for, mist-shrouded past.
Back to Excalibur. Have you seen it? Do you, like me, love the scene when Igrayne dances for the men to the wild beat of drums? Guenevere stitching up young Arthur’s wound, and severing the thread with her teeth? Or the wedding, set in a lush forest, and the moss-covered pagan statue that Morgana reverently caresses as she and Merlin converse? And how about that Morgana, portrayed by a stunning Helen Mirren?? I coveted her long, blonde ponytail; I wanted that [completely anachronistic] black fishnet off-the-shoulder number that so bewitches her mentor, Merlin. And whenever she or the wizard cast a spell, they use Old Irish dialect to speak the Charm of Making. It goes like this:
Here’s a stab at how it’s pronounced: AH nahl NATH rack, OOTH vahss BEH thood, DOCH vell dee EN vay.
The incantation translates as: Serpent’s breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making
It’s all made-up twaddle, of course, but it makes for good entertainment … and when Morgana uses it on Merlin, and on her half-brother, Arthur … gods’ teeth! Hell hath no fury like a sorceress scorned!
I won’t be quite so dramatic when next I craft. But if I could utter a spell that actually did make things go faster, or work the way I want it to, I probably would. Although small and simple-looking, much of what I make takes days to complete. The holiday season will be here in a lightning flash, and I need to replenish my shop. I’ll do things the old-fashioned way, however: by hand, using simple tools, meticulous attention to detail and lots of elbow grease. In the meantime, you may see a few examples of completed work or works in progress this month, which is all about the charm of making things ourselves.