Owlmen (with spoilers)

I keep meaning to finish all my annotations to my novels, but never do. Instead, here are some notes on Sovereign (available now in Iris Wildthyme & the Celestial Omnibus). This story started with a classic one line pitch and ended with me bundled into layers trying to write during the coldest winter I’ve experienced since moving back south from Yorkshire. The writing history is here. Some of the background notes – spoiler alert! – are below.


Agnes, and other names
Agnes, or Aggie, is Iris’s old wartime friend. Initially, Aggie was a shortening of Agatha, but I changed it to Agnes to reflect St Agnes, the patron saint of young girls, and also a village in Cornwall. I moved the date of the story to around 21 January which is St Agnes’s feast day, and also the subject of a Keats poem:

St Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold.

Belle’s name – along with her red duffle coat – is pure fairy tale. It suggests both Beauty & the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood. Her father is mentioned once, and called Anton, which suggests a French connection to enable the unusual name. (In fact, that’s the influence of Strictly Come Dancing…you think I’m being all clever but really a lot comes up by accident.) I have, no-one will be surprised to know, read a lot of Angela Carter.

Luke is a farmboy. Yes, it really is that simple. His family name, Treman, reflects the idea of good Cornish ancestry:

By Tre, Pol and Pen shall ye know all Cornishmen.

Tremenheer is a Cornish name meaning ‘farm by the standing stone’ (menheer is Cornish for standing stone). There’s also mention of a Trevartha (Affa’s farm) and a Penhallow (end of moors). Alex’s family name, Marrack, means ‘knight’. Alex’s first name is just yet another example of my using variations of the name Alexander in stories. It started as a joke back in 2001 and has stuck with me. If you end up seeing Luke and Alex as a bit like Arthur and Merlin (only a lot less slashy), then I got the descriptions right.

Dana, the writer who lives with the Ingleswoods, is probably more unconscious pop culture influence: I’d been rewatching the X-Files in order.

St Brigid is not, as far as I know, a real village in Cornwall. It does suggest St Bride. For some reason my notes say she is connected to the legend of Tristan and Iseult – the oldest Cornish myth to be incorporated into Arthurian myth cycles.

The Loathly Lady
Ingleswood, Agnes and Belle’s family name, is a modernisation of ‘Yngleswod’ which is a placename in the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Ragnelle.

Forsothe I was on huntyng in Ingleswod

The wedding of Sir Gawain and Ragnelle is the most famous version of the loathly lady story which underpins the reveal of Sovereign. The title of the story itself comes from the loathly lady tale. King Arthur has been challenged to find out what women desire most. Ragnelle, an ugly crone, will tell Sir Gawain the answer if he agrees to marry her. He does, and on the wedding night she is transformed into a beautiful maiden. She tells him she has been under a spell which he has broken. She can now be beautiful for half the time and he can choose whether it is by day, when others will see her, or by night, when he only will see her. Sir Gawain instead gives her sovereignty – the right to make her own choice. The spell is broken and she will be beautiful all the time. Sir Gawain tells Arthur that this is what women desire the most: to be sovereign of themselves.

The Owlman
The Owlman of Mawnan is a recent Cornish story. Knowing Richard of the CFZ, I quizzed him on it over a couple of pints, but only after I’d written my story as I didn’t want to get trapped into regurgitating the Shiels version. The Owlman normally only appeared to young women.

Readers who read/watched a lot of 70s British fantasy will doubtless also remember the Owl Service. Alan Garner’s disturbing story of a teenage coming of age on a remote Welsh farm is something that still sends a shiver up my spine. I tried to make sure I didn’t copy it too much. The Owlman of Zennan is entirely made up, and is a reversal of the loathly lady story. There’s no Zennan, either, but a Zennor.

Amusingly, since I wrote the story the Falmouth Beast, a giant cat, has also been cited. I expect a giant pig with a ring in his nose and a turkey on top of a hill any day now.

Other things
1960.
The big winter, as another story in the Celestial Omnibus details, was in 1962. I took it back a couple of years so that Belle would have been born during World War 2 and Alex would be in the early wave of mods.

‘A change has come upon me,’ as the lady cried.
says Agnes, referring to her menopause and also hinting at the Arthurian theme through reference to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot. Tennyson comes up a lot, and often disparagingly. That’s a side effect of having studied the Pre-Raphaelites back when they were unfashionable. It’s hard not to think of Tennyson when playing with Arthurian myths.

The raggle taggle gypsies
Dana, the storyteller, runs off a long list of fairy and folk stories.

Of the goblin market, of Robin Hood, of Camelot, of the dancing red shoes and the dog with eyes the size of saucers. Of tin soldiers and of running off with the raggle taggle gypsies – oh!

This is a very very abbreviated list of many of my favourite childhood stories. You’ll notice I favour Hans Christian Anderson over the Brothers Grimm. I’m not really sure why, apart from the fact The Snow Queen is my favourite fairy tale. The raggle taggle gypsies is a traditional folk song which I had in a book of poetry. Given Belle’s choice between the sensible farmboy who’ll one day be a farm owner or the travelling mod with his sleeping roll tied to his moped, the song came to mind. This is something which, where if you know the reference you’ll get a clue about the end of the story.


And there you have it: how even an 8K story has themes and eclectic references. There’s even the faintest nod to Doctor Who…

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5 Responses to “Owlmen (with spoilers)”

  1. Doug Says:

    Zennor is a fascinating little place with a great pub, interesting church and even its very own cryptozoological legend – the Mermaid of Zennor. In addition to the recent Beast sightings, Falmouth also has Morgawr a legendary sea serpent living out in the Bay but I’ve yet to see it.

  2. Mags Says:

    Doug, we know you’re the Falmouth Beast. ;)

    I think there’s a lot, lot more I could do in the slightly twisted version of Cornwall I created for this. I tried to avoid tying it to specific ‘real’ myths because I know if I do that I end up just copying the ‘original’. But there’s things like the heart shaped stone on St Michael’s Mount, or the Nine Maidens, or a well I found years ago on a walking holiday. I don’t know why Cornwall seems more appropriate for these stories: Devon just doesn’t seem as wild.

  3. Steffan Alun Says:

    Thanks for these annotations! Love this insight into the story – which is superb, by the way. I know very little about Cornish myths, but am well-versed in Welsh myths, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences (and I love the story of Gawain and Ragnelle, which I hadn’t heard before – although I know of a few girls named “Rhagnell” in Welsh, so I assume a Welsh variant exists somewhere).

    I read this story mostly in the recent blistering heat (“blistering” by my ever-so-British standards), but it still conveyed the cold exceptionally well. Iris’s friendship with Agnes and Dana was really well done too, and at times, it felt like there must already be loads of other stories featuring these three.

    Didn’t catch the Doctor Who reference at all. I’m obviously not a proper fan, since I spotted plenty of the mythological references. Even now, the only link I can see is that Who also referenced the Goblin Market.

  4. Mags Says:

    Thanks, Steffan. There’s a strong connection across most of the Celtic fringe because there were trade routes. So the story of Tristan and Iseult crosses the Irish sea, and Arthur is claimed equally by Cornwall and Wales. The way mythologies mutate is one of the things that interests me.

    There’s a couple of lines after Belle’s first encounter with the Owlman:
    “…And there’s something about a curse, and Merlin-”
    “Oh, that man. If he were responsible for everything
    they say he was, he’d need to have lived hundreds
    of years. Mind you…”
    Which is a nod to Battlefield, in which it is strongly suggested a future Doctor will be Merlin.

  5. Steffan Alun Says:

    Oh, whoops, yes – I did spot that! Forgot all about it.

    Tristan and Iseult I was familiar with as Tristan ac Esyllt (meaning I wasn’t familiar with either the original nor the version used in the story – just the middleman’s version), but I had a lot of fun trying to guess the timing of some of these stories. Like I said before, I love the Gawain and Ragnelle story to bits, but it sounds far later than the Arthurian legends I’m familiar with.


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