I recently finished reading Greer Gilman’s second novel, 2009’s Cloud & Ashes. I’ve never come across Gilman’s first book, Moonwise, but I’m now looking forward to tracking it down.
Cloud & Ashes is a complex, powerful work. It repays careful attention, attentiveness to patterns of imagery, and readiness to work out unknown words from context (this is less a book to read alongside an open dictionary than alongside an open internet connection, which can find obscure, archaic, and dialect words). It demands rereading, and I won’t claim to understand all of it. But I think I can say a few things with confidence — to start with, that it’s a stunning, compelling work of language, and that the apparent occasional difficulty of the text is not only necessary but part of the novel’s overall effect.
In a world much like our own, in a time and place that resembles Scotland or northern England around 1600 in its culture and language use, a generational story of mothers and daughters is played out which derives from and intersects with the seasonal myths of the land. Witches are a real and powerful presence. Companies of guisers travel about, presenting dramas of archetypal powers. And at crucial points of the year, as summer goes out or comes in, everyone takes part in rituals of death and rebirth; a woman must play the part of Ashes each winter, in order to bring in a new spring.
Ashes is a sort of holy beggarwoman, mute — it seems to be part of the nature of this place that the woman who plays Ashes cannot speak — who carries a bag of souls, of dust. She’s the daughter of a witch named Annis, and both of them are part of a cast of deities, along with such entities as Jack Daw the fiddler, Tom o Cloud, and Brock the smith. Some of these are characters; some are roles, that characters in the book put on and take off. All of them are images drawn from the sky, the constellations that play out a story as the year turns. Part of the magic of the book is the way it recreates, or imagines, a world in which star-signs are real; not only as omens of what will happen on earth, but as powers in themselves, signs of a higher world that bear meanings in this one.
Another part is in its extrapolation of things like mummers’ plays into the core of a complex fantasy world. These plays are an artifact of English culture (which crossed the Atlantic and survive in some parts of North America), in which an amateur troupe puts on a knockabout show filled with doggerel verse and flat characters — Saint George, Father Christmas, and so forth — usually centering around a death and miraculous rebirth. Some people, notably scholars about a hundred years ago, have claimed to see hints of fertility myth and of profound archetypes in the structure of the show. The fact that the plays have no certain origin, and reach back at least to the Middle Ages, have helped suggest this sort of profundity — though I’ve also seen it suggested that the plays, at least in the form that we know them today, were actually an eighteenth-century creation, a kind of organised begging created to help a new breed of pauper in the community created by societal changes such as agricultural enclosures.
Gilman’s taken the suggestion of ancient origins for the plays, and run with it. She has in fact re-imagined the plays completely, folding in a mythology of her own creation, as well as references to related phenomena like sword-dancing, and to unrelated but resonant elements such as tarot cards. In a sense, the book is a post-modern play with modernist theories about pre-modern folklore, imagining a world in which the theories of pagan origins and magical resonances for all these things is not only true, but that the magic and gods involved were real.
The mixture of the Elizabethan and the modern is plain in the book’s style. Here’s the first paragraph:
He is met at a crossroads on a windy night, the moon in tatters and the mist unclothing stars, the way from Ask to Owlerdale: a man in black, white-headed, with a three-string fiddle in his pack. Or in a corner of an ale-house, querulous among the cups, untallied; somehow never there for the reckoning, though you, or Hodge, or any traveller has drunk the night with him. A marish man: he speaks with a reedy lowland wauling, through his beak, as they say. He calls Cloud crowland. How you squall, he says, you moorland ravens; how you peck and pilfer. He speaks like a hoodie crow himself, all hoarse with rain, with bawling ballads in the street. Jack Daw, they call him. A witty angry man, a bitter melancholy man. He will barter; he will gull. In his pack are bacca pipes, new ones, white as bones, and snuff and coney-skins and cards. He plays for nothing, or for gold; packs, shuffles. In a game, triumphant, he picks out the Crowd of Bone, or Brock with her leathern cap and anvil, hammering at a fiery heart, a fallen star. (It brock, but I mended it.) Death’s doxy, he calls her, thief and tinker, for she walks the moon’s road with her bag, between the hedges white with souls; she takes. Here’s a lap, he says, in his shawm’s voice, sharp with yelling out for ale. Here’s a blaze needs no bellows. Here’s a bush catches birds. He mocks at fortune. The traveller in the inn forgets what cards he held, face down, discarded in the rings of ale; he forgets what gold he lost. He’d none in his pockets, yet he played it away, laid it round and shining on the sanded board, a bright array. On each is stamped a sun.
I think there’s an Elizabethan resonance not only in the use of words like ‘doxy’ and ‘coney’ and ‘shawm’ and (especially) ‘reckoning’ for a bar tab, but in the way Gilman plays with rhythm and vocabulary. She uses words exuberantly, as the Elizabethans did, and finds new, exciting patterns of stress and sound.
In addition to being stylistically inventive, the writing’s also dense with meaning. Images recur, developing new resonances. ‘A to O’ is a phrase repeated in the book, alpha to omega, and here we see it as Ask to Owlerdale. But then owls themselves have symbolic meaning, and the word ‘ash’ derives, in one of its senses, from ‘ask’; and in prose written, as this, with a poet’s sensibility, it sometimes pays to keep an eye out for games played with the lineage of words.
Gilman shifts tenses and points-of-view expertly. Her tale grows complex, being seen or told from different times; but it knits together into a perfect tapestry of story, doing just what this sort of multiplicity ought to — providing variety while also emphasising the essential unity of the matter. The plot is intricate in the best way, growing out of character so that the choices each character makes leads other characters to make meaningful choices in their turn, a knot of event and story. And in understanding character, language is key; one comes to see that the style Gilman uses is not only appropriate to her symbolic concerns, but also a way to get at depths of character in a concise way, establishing both world and world-view, as well as the habits of thought deriving from the characters’ environment.
Still, if it’s easy to get lost in the style and language of Cloud & Ashes, to me the construction is equally remarkable. The book is in three parts, each longer than the one before it; the first two were published independently, and can be read on their own as a short story and short novel. The final part’s long enough to be a novel on its own, but builds on the earlier material to create an elegant, powerful structure, resolving not only its own matter but that of the first two parts, in surprising yet inevitable ways. And it does this by moving deeper into the world it creates, indeed by ascending through that world to — and beyond — the limits of the heavens it had begun by only suggesting; by telling a story, and then going deeper into the story.
That movement, toward increasing wonder, is an excellent spine for a fantasy tale. It’s surprising, then, to reach the end and find out with the final dovetailing of twists that this is a story about the thinning of the world; about the slow ebb of magic, and its replacement by scientific thinking — by greater understanding, if less enchantment. Usually in fantasy that thinning is dreaded, even fought against. Here it feels almost delightful; it is natural, not a cause for mourning, but the coming of spring after winter.
It’s worth noting that the subtitle of the book is Three Winter’s Tales; and this has multiple meanings. It’s a book about winter, and winter yielding to spring. It’s almost certainly a glance at Shakepeare’s The Winter’s Tale, itself a story conscious of the seasonal rhythms of story. And it’s a title that establishes the book within the genre for which Shakespeare’s play was named; a wonder-story of romance, to be told around the fire on a winter’s night.
Mainly, I think the sub-title’s significant because Cloud & Ashes is a tale about tales, and about the telling of tales. About the acting-out of tales. About the ways in which a braid of lives becomes a braiding of tales. Gilman’s myths blend with the density of her imagery, lending her characters’ actions an almost tragic weight. Taboos are established and broken, and the working-out of appropriate vengeance for the taboo-breaking helps drive plot.
As one of the characters, an actor preparing a play, realises:
It’s the play itself has power, not themselves. Like Ashes: in herself the girl who takes her on may be a fool, a rantipole, a scold, a slut; she may be giddy, greedy, vixenish; but in her hands are life and afterlife and death. The mystery works itself each time, it hallows nonsense, turning silly into seely sisters.
Life is defined by tales; we are shaped by the roles we adopt. And yet the pardox of Gilman’s art is that her characters are real, vibrant, individual, even as they submit to the roles they must play. Perhaps this is why the thinning of the resolution feels so natural. The mystery, at the very end, is no longer the mystery of the inherited role; it is the mystery at the core of the human individual. Not the mystery of the archetype, but the mystery of selfhood, of one’s own identity.
Gilman’s language presents these characters to us, but by using the vocabulary it does, it presents their world and the traditions that shape them without realising it. They’re defined by the year and the seasons, by the dance of the sun among the signs of the stars. Therefore that is the theme of their myth; that is what shapes their lives spiritually as well as materially.
But if the world shapes the stories the people tell, their stories also shape the world. For Gilman’s characters, even to imagine an astronomical way of looking at the sky, a way based on observation and science, is to imagine “a tale of numbers that would end their sky” — end the way of viewing the stars as gods, and the year as a repeating myth. Within a story, only a story can end the story.
The spate of works that followed Frazer’s Golden Bough created an image of the early-modern, pre-industrial world as one of un-rational thought shaped by a natural pagan religion. Scholarship now has moved on from that story of the world, but the story remains, one story in the braid of stories that we use to try to understand the world. Gilman here knowingly revisits it, using it as the source for a profound fantasy of narrative and gender and myth.
Cloud & Ashes is subtle and complex; it is wise. I’ve just scratched the surface here of the book’s themes, and the way it brings them together in surprising ways. Every so often, and it’s a rare event, you read a book and you know, because of its depth and excellence, that you will return to it in the years to come. For me, this is one of those books. It’s a tale, or tales, not just for reading, but for pondering and rereading. It’s a book to pluck off the shelf of a winter’s night, just for the sake of wandering again within its pages; for the sake of finding unnoticed connections, for savouring language, and for pondering the nature of stories, souls, and the stars.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His new ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.