Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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The Fool's Journey

by Gwen Knighton

"There are very few writers who are not cranks in some way."

Paul Theroux, an American writer and novelist, said that. Given his checkered reputation, he probably said it in his own defence! I chose this quote this morning because the one I skipped would have led me into the vertical takeoff rant again, and getting embroiled in that would have made me grumbly all day, thus satisfying at least one of the definitions of crank.

Are all writers cranks? I suppose it depends upon your definition. I've been accustomed to using the word to mean a bad-tempered person, but according to my dictionary, crank can also mean, "an eccentric person, especially one who is obsessed by a particular subject or theory." If you use that definition, I think writers need to be cranks.

How can you possibly spend the kind of time it takes to write 100,000-plus words on the same subject or around the same theme without becoming obsessive about it, at least in the short-term? My first complete novel, written mumble years ago and now consigned to a box on the very top of the tallest bookshelf in the house, where it stays so I can remember that I did complete a novel at twenty-two and so no one else will have any idea it's there, concerned tarot cards. I was interested in tarot cards at the time, but the writing of that book sparked a fifteen-year obsession with the fool's journey that led me no end of interesting places. That obsession failed to help me write a good book, but it sure was an interesting digression.

Similarly, other writers I know do what they can to either write about their already-healthy (or unhealthy!) obsessions, or they cultivate the art of becoming an instant expert. I do both these things, and if you write, I'll bet you do too. We are all familiar with the adage, "write what you know," but how does one become an instant expert?

Let's see. Once upon a time, I heard a song on WUMB by Richard Thompson. It was called Beeswing. Now, the song was from the album Mirror Blue, which piqued my interest because at the time I was an active Loreena McKennitt fan, and one of my favourite Loreena songs was her adaptation of Tennyson's The Lady of Shallot, which contains the lines

And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shallot.
I bought the CD because of that one song and the fact that some of the lines from the poem appear on the CD cover. The rest of the CD was completely worth listening to, and when I had an opportunity to see Richard Thompson in Atlanta, I jumped on it. But I didn't want to be one of those fans who came to a concert because of one song. I wanted to understand Richard Thompson. I bought the 1993 compilation Watching the Dark, and listened to it nonstop for three weeks before the sold-out concert. I scoured the internet, boned up on my Fairport Convention lore, and found myself, on show night, singing along with bikers and English expatriates and feeling accepted in a really big general admission crowd I'd wilfully entered alone.

Years later, when I discovered Anne Briggs, I was delighted to learn that many people believe Beeswing is about Anne Briggs.

One obsession ties in to another, you see. My current writing projects, while they do not centre around Anne Briggs as a person, hold her and the influence she had over the folk revival (and the people who had significant influence over her) very, very close.

So that's how I became an instant Richard Thompson expert, why I can still sing a lot of those songs today, how I stopped being afraid of bikers, and one of the many ways it all ties back in to English balladry. I think it's OK to be a crank, if being a crank can lead me to such amazing music, stories, and places. It's a circuitous route, isn't it, the way we come to things and weave them in to our personal mythologies.

You might even say it's like the Fool's journey.

© 2007 Gwen Knighton

Gwen Knighton is an author and musician who lives in London, England. She currently works as the marketing coordinator for The English Folk Dance and Song Society, and spends the rest of her time writing novels and playing the wirestrung harp. Her 2002 album, Box of Fairies, can be ordered at CDBaby.com

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