Archive for the ‘Neopaganism’ Category

I’m about halfway through 1421: The Year that China Discovered the World, and finding it heavy going. The problem isn’t the writing so much as the way that author Gavin Menzies develops his argument, piling speculation on speculation, leaping to conclusions and drawing everything into his main theory until alarms sound in my head and I become irritated by the obsessional nature of his ideas.

Menzies starts with the known facts that a massive fleet set off from China in 1421, and that, while it was away, a reaction against exploration and trade occured in China, putting an end to such voyages and suppressing all their discoveries. From there, however, he quickly expands into conjecture, imagining a giant flotilla of ships that, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, divided into three separate fleets.

One of these fleets, he suggests, sailed into Antarctica to take sightings to aid navigation in the southern hemisphere, then returned home via the west side of Australia. Another travelled up South America, crossed the Pacific, returned to travel down the west coast of North and Central America, then explored New Zealand and Australia’s east coast. The third headed north to the Atlantic, circumnavigated Greenland, and returned home around the northern coast of Asia. On the way, these fleets supposedly mapped the coastlines they were passing, and left traces in the form of observation platforms, wrecks, animals, and small colonies.

The only trouble is, absolutely no record of these journeys exist. We know that the fleet sailed, and was charged with exploration, but that is all. At best, Menzies is forced to argue from such second or third hand evidence as European maps that show coastlines before any European had reached them. At worst, he argues from currents and winds that the ships must have taken the courses he suggests. Never mind that some elements, such as the circumnaviations of Greenland and Asia are wildly implausible, or that none of these voyages ever steered towards Europe, which was at least vaguely known to the Chinese of the time.

Moreover, all this travelling is supposed to have occurred in two or three years. Given that Magellan and Drake’s circumnavigations took about three or four years, it is just barely possible that the Chinese fleets could have managed their own in the time alloted, but, when you consider the difficulty of keeping hundreds of vessels together and the slowness of charting coastlines, the time scale becomes unworkable – even for a straightforward circumnavigation, let alone the endless criss-crossings and detours that Menzies suggests. These are all difficulties that Menzies, for all his repeated claims of unique expertise because of his service in the British navy, utterly fails to take into account.

Yet, despite these difficulties, Menzie plows on. His method is to suggest a movement, then to find evidence that might suggest a Chinese presence in the place he suggests. An old map, a burial marker, an account of a strange wreck – it doesn’t matter. Anything that can be made to support his ideas, sometimes with a little twisting, is pressed into service. Alternative explanations don’t matter, not even the possibility that the signs of Chinese influence might have come at some other time. He never argues from the evidence; rather, he finds the evidence to fit his theory, then shoehorns it into place without any regard for other possibilities.

Very quickly, the tone becomes reminiscent of books like Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, in which everything everywhere is explained in terms of a single all-embracing, far-fetched theory. Menzies’ theory may be more reasonable than von Däniken’s, but only barely. It still has the same stink of monomania lingering about it – unsurprisingly, since Menzies has apparently spent over fifteen years on it.

Menzies’ theory may have the benefit of introducing North Americans and Europeans to the glories of Chinese culture. One of the few things that he is right about is that, in the fifteenth century, the Chinese were probably the most advanced civilization in the world, and that’s a fact that few people seem to realize today.

Yet I find myself wishing that he would have cast his book in the form of a novel rather than as an apparently serious attempt at speculation. If he had, then he might have performed the same service without leaving the unhealthy air of obsession about his work.

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“Oh, do not tell the priest our plight, or he would call it a sin,
But we’ve been out in the woods all night, a-conjuring summer in.”

– Rudyard Kipling

Well, not really. I’m a little old for the Elizabethean sport of greengowning, let alone getting up and out before sunrise. But I admit to a romantic fondness for the idea of the old observances like the solstice — no doubt due to raising myself on tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Certainly, they’re more evocative than the empty cant of Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, those artificial holidays of the consumer culture.

Of course, with more people tied to their cars than to the land, the solistice doesn’t mean much to most of those around me. But, as a regular jogger, it means a lot to me. I run early in the morning, so all the year around, I’m keenly aware of the changes of daylight. And this year, the start of summer (called Midsummer by my medieval English ancestors because they reckoned summer as starting on May 1) has coincided locally with the end of rain and the first really decent weather all year, so the day feels worth noting, even if I don’t make the traditional observances.

Not being a pagan, neo or otherwise (or especially virtuous, for that matter), I won’t celebrate with anything more strenuous than rereading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or possibly hauling out Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel riff on Shakespeare’s play.

Still, all day long, I’ve been channelling Rudyard Kipling by way of Peter Bellamy. I know that oak, ash and thorn are simply a spelling out of “oath” in an alphabet of trees, but they’re still full of poetic mystery and splendor to my ear, and I can’t get Kipling’s words or Bellamy’s music out of my mind:

Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn good sirs,
All on a midsummer’s morn.
Surely we sing of no little thing
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.

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“We can put you up, but you’ll have to stay in the dojo with six witches from Denver.”

That is not the start of a dirty joke, but the words with which we were invited to stay at Greyhaven, a communal house of writers in the Claremont district of Berkeley. There actually was a martial arts gym in the basement, and we did share it with six neopagans from Denver (and their harps), but that was the least of our experiences at Greyhaven.

Crowded with fantasy and poetry books, full of people coming and going, Greyhaven in its heyday was at the crossroads of half a dozen subcultures, including the Society for Creative Anachronism, Bay Area poets, Regency dancing, fantasy writing, roleplaying games, and paganism. You might risk your health in the squalor of the bathrooms, but you would never be bored at Greyhaven. On some visits, there were entire days when we never got out of the house. You didn’t have to leave the house to see the sights – they came to you at Greyhaven, in the form of people of every conceivable description.

On our first visit, we took a while to sort out who was whom, and what their relations to each other were. Take for example, Tracey Blackstone, the literary agent, who was in the process of moving out so she could get a divorce from Paul Edwin Zimmer, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s brother and sometime collaborator – not because they weren’t still close, but because she wanted to marry someone else, and a judge would have a hard time understanding why she was sharing an address with a supposedly estranged husband. Another resident was Nancy Geise, a Seattle witch, who was soon going to have a daughter with Paul. Don Studebaker, better known as Jon de Cles and Mason Powell and for his portrayal on-stage of Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, didn’t actually live there at the moment, but would descend periodically from the hills where he was living with six unruly Lab puppies and Kelson, his lover who was dying of AIDS. Up in the attic suite, confined there by ill health, lived Evelyn Zimmer, Paul and Marion’s mother, over ninety and a passionate reader; when we received permission to visit her, I felt more honored than I would have done to receive an invitation from the Queen. And somehow keeping everything running while still finding time to teach and write was Diana Paxson, best known for her Westria series and a major figure in the Covenant of the Goddess. At Greyhaven’s twentieth anniversary party in 1992, a list of other residents on the wall included over forty names, and, even then, no one was sure it was complete.

No wonder we had trouble with names and relationships. They were so confusing that when the children of the house had been asked to do family trees in school, everyone in the house pulled together to create a fictious family tree that wouldn’t shock the teachers.

“That was our nuclear family imitation,” Paul said, retelling the story. And, for once in my life, I had the right reply ready: “I thought Berkeley was a nuclear free zone.” But, clearly, we weren’t the only ones to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the lives that went on in the house.

Our invitation to stay was through Paul and Nancy. We never knew Nancy as well as we would have liked, but, when we first Paul at a Seattle science fiction convention, we’d stayed up until 3AM talking in the hallways. The next night was equally late, as Paul hosted a bardic circle, a round robin of songs, poetry, and readings. That’s how I remember Paul best: dressed in full Scottish regalia, booming out poems and choruses with expressiveness and passion, and frequently throwing back his head to laugh.

A heavy smoker with an auburn beard and wild long hair, irresistible to women, Paul was the largest of the countless larger than life figures around Greyhaven. People at conventions thought of him as a party animal, but what they didn’t know was how disciplined the rest of his life was. He lived a life defined by writing – not just composing it, but talking about it and reciting it as well. Self-educated, he would learn languages like Iroquois and Old Welsh, then compose poetry in them for recreation.

About 4PM every afternoon, Paul would stumble out of the pile of books and papers he called a bedroom (presumably there was a bed in it somewhere) and have the first cigarette of the day. Wearing a tattered green caftan, he would write through the night, periodically rising to pace or do sword mediation in the living room. The one firm rule of the house was: If you encountered Paul at night, you didn’t talk to him first, in case he was working. But, sometimes, if you were lucky, he would read you what he was working on, or describe the plotting problems he was having.

In the morning, he would eat and collapse in his room again, unless distracted by another conversation. Most of the time, I suspect, he went short of sleep rather than miss a good talk.

Did I say that Paul was hopeless about money or dealing with bureaucracy? But I’ve never met anyone who knew more about writing, friendship, and integrity. “Paul raised himself to be a knight,” his mother told me once, and that observation says all you need to know about him.

And these were just the people you could meet everyday. When Greyhaven threw its annual party — “Charlie,” as it was called – or celebrated the Winter Solstice,you never knew whom you might meet. Catholic monks, Unitarian ministers, transvestite nuns, street poets like Vampyre Mike, fantasy writers like Fritz Leiber or Poul Anderson, academics, musicians – like the Roman forum, if you stayed at Greyhaven long enough, you would eventually see the whole world pass by. You might even meet a few conventional people, although you couldn’t count on it.

For about six years, we infested Greyhaven at any excuse. Then my partner became chronically ill, and, a few years later, Paul Zimmer died of a heart attack at a science fiction convention in New York where he was guest of honor – and with him, our main excuse to visit.

I understand that Paul’s son, Ian Grey, has been raising his family in Greyhaven over the last decade, but we’ve never been back. No offense to Ian, but it wouldn’t be the same. Some memories are too important to expose them to present day reality, and my memories of Greyhaven are pure magic.

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