Category Archives: Literature

Drops from the Cauldron: On Inspiration and the Myth of Taliesin

Why do fiction writers write? Where do the stories come from?

I expect humans have been telling stories for about as long as we’ve had language. As I first learned from reading Joseph Campbell 1 , stories in the form of myths have always told us who we are, why we’re here, and how the world came to be.

But where does the inspiration for stories come from?

The Bard with the Radiant Brow

A myth I’m particularly fond of provides some answers. It is the tale of Taliesin, a legendary bard of Medieval Wales. His story, Hanes Taliesin , first appears in 16th Century collections of tales. It was later included in Lady Charlotte Guest’s 19th Century version of The Mabinogion 2which you can read at sacred-texts.com.

Here is an edited version of Lady Charlotte’s text:

In times past there lived a man of gentle lineage named Tegid Voeland and his wife, called Ceridwen, who was a sorceress. They had two children, a beautiful daughter named Creirwy, and a son named Morvran ab Tegid, who was the most ill-favoured man in the world. Now Ceridwen thought that he was not likely to be admitted among men of noble birth, by reason of his ugliness, unless he had some exalted merits or knowledge.

So she resolved, according to her arts, to boil a cauldron of Inspiration and Science for her son, that his reception might be honourable because of his knowledge of the mysteries of the future state of the world.

Then she began to boil the cauldron, which from the beginning of its boiling might not cease to boil for a year and a day, until three blessed drops were obtained of the grace of Inspiration.

And she put Gwion Bach (a young boy) to stir the cauldron, and a blind man named Morda to kindle the fire beneath it, and she charged them that they should not suffer it to cease boiling for the space of a year and a day. And she herself, according to the books of the astronomers, and in planetary hours, gathered every day of all charm-bearing herbs.

But one day, towards the end of the year, as Ceridwen was culling plants and making incantations, it chanced that three drops of the charmed liquor flew out of the cauldron and fell upon the thumb of Gwion Bach. And by reason of their great heat he put his thumb to his mouth, and that instant, he foresaw everything that was to come, and perceived that his chief care must be to guard against the wiles of Ceridwen, for vast was her skill. So, in very great fear, he fled towards his own land.

When Ceridwen came in and saw all the toil of the whole year was lost, she went forth after Gwion Bach, running.

He saw her, and changed himself into a hare and fled. But she changed herself into a greyhound and chased him.

He ran towards a river, and became a fish. But she, in the form of an otter, chased him under the water,

He turned himself into a bird. But she, as a hawk, followed him and gave him no rest in the sky.

Just as she was about to stoop upon him, and he was in fear of death, he spied a heap of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn. He dropped among the wheat and turned himself into one of the grains. But she transformed herself into a high-crested black hen, and went to the wheat and scratched it with her feet, and found him out and swallowed him.

Ceridwen bore him nine months, and when she was delivered of him, she could not find it in her heart to kill him, by reason of his beauty. So she wrapped him in a leather bag, and cast him into the sea.

The story goes on to tell how Gwion Bach was rescued from the sea and, because of the great light he had taken into himself, was named Taliesin (“Radiant Brow.”) And he grew up to become the foremost Bard in land.

Unpacking the Myth

For an in-depth analysis of the myth and its many sources, I highly recommend Taliesin, The Last Celtic Shaman. 3 This wonderful book by scholar John Matthews links the legend to both the Celtic bardic traditions and the worldwide phenomena of shamanism.

But what does the myth have to say to us modern storytellers?. Let me trot out a few ideas…

Inspiration comes from a magical brew produced by a witch (or goddess in some traditions). The brew is intended to provide all knowledge and wisdom to a chosen one. But the drops do not go to the person intended. By accident, a young and lowly servant is gifted with the magic.

You might say inspiration is a gift, unlooked for and unexpected. Storytellers (fiction writers, poets, songwriters) don’t necessarily choose to become storytellers. Rather, this crazy path chooses them. I have heard so many writers say: “I couldn’t do anything else.” Or, again, “The only good reason to become a writer is because you can’t not be a writer.”

Because he now sees visions, the boy knows at once that the sorceress is angry and means him no good. He flees. And because of the magic in those drops, he is now a shapeshifter, able to transform himself into many different creatures.

Just so, storytellers transform themselves into many shapes to imagine their fictions, placing themselves into the heads of their characters, envisioning many points of view.

And what about that ending? The angry goddess swallows the boy in the form of a seed. But that’s not the end. After gestation, the boy is born again, a radiant child that the goddess cannot now bring herself to harm. So she casts him onto the waters (like Moses), where he will be found again, and a grand destiny awaits him.

Who is this Ceridwin anyway? The sorceress, the hag, who might also be called a goddess? I interpret her as Destiny, the imperative that all of us face to follow our Fates. Again, storytellers don’t choose this path, it chooses them. I also think she can be seen as the Great Goddess who both devours us and gives us birth—in other words, the Universe.

Another Story

Some time back, inspiration came to me. The Tale of Taliesin magically merged in my mind with childhood memories, specifically in relation to a young cousin of mine who grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. I wrote out the story, tinkered with it a bit, and will publish it soon on my Substack.

Three more drops and one more song

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a different version of the story, written and performed by my all time favorite Celtic Folk-Rock Band, Emerald Rose.
_______________________________

1 See especially, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, (C)1949

2 The Mabinogian Translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. The story of Taliesin is at https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/mab32.htm

3 Taliesin, the Last Celtic Shaman by John Matthews. (C)1991, 2002

 

Ghosts, A Hurricane, and a Dash of Shakespeare

… Or the genesis of Ghosts of Prosper Key.

Stories are strange things. They grow from tiny seeds—characters, actions, imagined events. Often for me, a story really takes off only when two or more completely unrelated ideas come together. This seems to create a kind of magical tension as I wonder “How can these things fit together?”

Background

My newest novella, Ghosts of Prosper Key, evolved in this way. It is the fourth of a series, the Abby Renshaw Supernatural Mysteries, so I already knew the back story. Abby is a teenage “true magician,” student of a tradition founded by her ancestors in the town of Harmony Springs in rural Florida.

Ghost of Prosper Key Cover
Ghosts of Prosper Key is available on Amazon.

At the end of the preceding novel, Ghosts of Lock Tower, Abby has succeeded in overcoming magical challenges and dangers spawned by the occult. She is living with her grandmother and starting college. She has relationships with elders in the magical circle, as well as two guys she is interested in romantically.

Idea 1: Molly is Haunted

Abby also has a best friend, an aspiring journalist named Molly Quick. All of my readers seem to love Molly, due to her bravery, insatiable curiosity, and no-nonsense approach to things. In Lock Tower, it was also revealed that Molly has native talent as a spiritual medium.

So I wanted this story to focus on Molly.

What’s her situation? She’s in her last year of high school, applying to colleges. Like many sensitive and intelligent kids, she is scared of the coming changes, scared of growing up. These fears haunt her. Because of the subject-matter of the series as a whole, these fears manifest as paranormal events.

Molly is haunted. But by what?

Idea 2: The Setting

One thing I love about this series is that it lets me write about out-of-the-way places in Florida. A location I had visited and wanted to use as a setting was Cedar Key.

This island lies off the northwest coast of the state. The area is known as the Nature Coast, as it has little population but lots of swamps, ranches, and nature preserves. Today, Cedar Key is a remote, “old Florida” tourist destination.

But the past has a different story to tell.

Cedar Key cemetery
Cemetery at Cedar Key, site of one of the scenes in Ghosts of Prosper Key

In the late 1800s, the Cedar Keys (as they were then called) were one of the most populous areas in Florida. The island then known as Way Key was the end point of the east-west railroad and the major port on Florida’s west coast. Fishing, oyster farms, and especially timber were major industries. Because of over logging, the economy began to decline in the 1890s. Then, in 1896, the area was devastated by one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the United States.

So, I thought: if Molly is haunted and if our heroes visit Cedar Key, the ghosts must originate there. And if there are unhappy spirits roaming the place, they most-likely lived during that great hurricane.

Idea 3: The Tempest

So now I had the main character, her conflicts, and the setting. But something was still missing. Who were these ghosts? Why were they restless?

It had something to do with that hurricane.

For research, I read the book The Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896: Disaster at Dawn by Alvin F. Oickle. The events were both frightening and amazing. The island that is now Cedar Key was leveled, while nearby Atsena Otie Key (then known as Depot Key) was inundated by a ten-foot storm surge.

Their whole world washed away in a night and a day.

Pondering that, I suddenly thought of a famous song that the spirit Ariel sings in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them. Ding-dong, bell.
(Act I, Scene 2)

Sea change. The sea rising up and changing everything. That idea resonated strongly. My story had some relationship to The Tempest. But what?

Scene from the Tempest
Illustration from the Tempest source: https://shakespeareyouthfestival.com/2015/12/tempest/

As you might recall, the play concerns Prospero, a powerful magician who has lost his Dukedom by betrayal and now lives on a remote island with his daughter, Miranda (and spirits that he conjures).

Prospero raises a storm to wreck a passing ship which, he happens to know, contains the party of Alonso the King of Naples and Prospero’s own brother, Antonio, who usurped his place as Duke of Milan. Ferdinand, the son of the king, swims to shore and is found by Prospero. Put into service by the magician, he falls in love with Miranda, and she with him.

So: Molly haunted by ghosts, a powerful father and his daughter, a tempest and disaster, a love story.

My completely unrelated ideas had come together.

The story had taken off.

Denouement

Throughout the action of Shakespeare’s play winds roar; confusion reigns and disappears; love is found; moral order is restored; and all the lost characters reunite in the end.

As Gonzalo, the loquacious king’s counselor, summarizes:

…O, rejoice
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own.
(Act V, Scene 1)

Shore at Cedar Key
Along the shore at Cedar Key

These days, of course, our own world is facing dangers and changes of every kind. Will we all drown in wreckage, or will we emerge on some better shore having found ourselves in unlikely ways?

We can hope for the best. That’s what stories are for.

————————

You can find Ghosts of Prosper Key on Amazon.

Or check out the rest of the
Abby Renshaw Supernatural Histories here.

Dionysus, Lord of Voices

When I first started writing the  Conjurer of Rhodes series , I renewed my acquaintance with the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Early in the Conjurer books the protagonist Korax recklessly summons the god Dionysus to help him win a singing contest. This leads Korax to a world of trouble, and led me to research the god of wine and frenzy.

Dionysus 2. 0135: Roman copy of Greek original from 4C BC. Glyptothek, München. Source: : http://www.maicar.com/GML/Dionysus2.html
Origin Myth

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and a mortal princess, Semele. According to one version of the myth, the Goddess Hera, disguised as an old woman, paid a visit to Semele and convinced her to demand that her lover show himself in his true aspect. When Zeus swore an oath to give Semele anything she wished for, he was forced to comply. Unfortunately, mortals cannot gaze on the full glory of the gods, and poor Semele was incinerated.

Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus and sewed the child into his thigh. Dionysus was born a few months later and is thus called “twice-born.” Oh, and no need to mourn for Semele. When Dionysus grew up, he took a journey to the Underworld, rescued the shade of his mother, and brought her to Olympus.

The Festival of Dionysis

The fact that Dionysus was incubated close to the generative organs of the King of the Gods doubtless reflects his later association with fertility and the generation of life. The Athenians celebrated his festival in the Spring, to mark the end of winter and the harvesting of new crops. This Great Dionysia was a time of singing, dancing, and theater, and Dionysus was considered the god of plays and players.

The Frenzy of the Bacchae

The most famous appearance of Dionysus in Greek literature is, of course, in Euripides’ The Bacchae.

In mythology the Bacchae, or maenads, were female worshippers of Dinoysus who followed the god through the hills, intoxicated and ecstatic.

But it wasn’t only the wine. According to scholar Walter Burkert (Greek Religion, English Translation 1985 by Harvard University Press, page 161):

“Intoxication as a change in consciousness is interpreted as the irruption of something divine … Everyone who surrenders to this god must risk abandoning his everyday identity and becoming mad; this is both divine and wholesome.”

The Fate of Pentheus

In Euripides’ play, the rulers of Thebes are not so welcoming to this divine madness. Pentheus the king outlaws the worship of Dionysius and actually imprisons the god, whom he takes for a mortal acolyte.

Angered, Dionysus inspires Pentheus’ mother and aunts to rush off to the mountains and join the Bacchic rites. He then lures Pentheus out to spy on the women. The maenads discover the king and tear him limb from limb. (A clear lesson, I must say, to those who would scorn either the gods or the power of women.)

Pentheus torn apart by Ino and Agave, lekanis lid, ca. 450-450 BC, Louvre. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentheus
A Hymn to Dionysus

The following poem recounts the story of Dionysus and sees a glimmer of relevance to our own times.

Dionysus, Lord of Voices

Appearing in the city street,
Ivy-crowned and panther-coated,
Speaking many tongues together,
Teacher of intoxication,
Herald of his own religion:
Honor and revere the god,
You poets of the sacred songs.

Born of mortal, Theban princess.
To gaze on god she insisted.
Zeus revealed himself in lightning,
Burned her flesh and bones to ashes.
Green vines sprang to shield the unborn
Child, sewn into the thigh of Zeus,
Carried to the sacred mountain,
Nursed by nymphs, nourished on honey–
Immortal child born of death.

Come of age, the god departed,
Journeyed through the lands of Asia,
Taught the Mysteries to mortals,
Conquered countries with his revels,
Spread the culture of the vine–
Sweet the pleasure of the dancing,
Whirling to the many voices,
Ecstasy of knowing god.

Only Thebes refused him worship:
Rulers adamant with power,
Arrogant and frozen-hearted.
So he lashed the town with madness,
Roused the women to rebellion,
Cast them roaming on the mountain,
Freed their willful hearts with shouting,
Till they tore their lords to pieces,
Prideful men disdaining god.

Now our nation too is frozen:
Princes gluttonous with power,
People circling dumb with fear.
Dionysus, Lord of Voices,
Will your call awake our cities?
Singer of the wild places:
Blessed are those who know your secrets;
Bereft are they who scorn the gods.

Satyr and Dionysus, Athenian red-figure kylix C5th B.C., Antikensammlung Berlin source https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Dionysos.html

 

You can learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes Books here or find Book 1 on Amazon.

Five Ways to Show Backstory: 3. Create a Scene where a Character Reflects

This is the fourth in a series of posts (beginning here) explaining five ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

For our purposes, we’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader will understand a scene. This might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

Technique #3: Create a Scene where a Character Reflects  on the Backstory

In real life, we all spend time thinking about our problems. Your characters can do the same.

In this method, the author writes a scene in which—rather than two or more characters interacting—a single character reflects. The scene might be written in first person (internal monologue) or third person, but it is an immediate scene. That is, we are present with the character, and the character takes some actions along the way. But the focus of the scene is on the character’s reflections: on where they are in the story, how they got here, what problems they face, what they might do about them.

This technique is a very efficient way to convey lots of backstory economically.

Example: from John Grisham

This passage is from Grisham’s best-selling crime thriller, The Client. Set in Chapter 2, the scene presents lots of backstory setting up the rest of the novel. We’re following a New Orleans criminal named Barry the Blade. Expecting to meet his lawyer (Jerome) for dinner, he’s just phoned the lawyer’s office and been told Jerome left the office at 9 AM and has not been seen since.

The Blade slammed the phone down and stormed through the hallway, then caught himself and began to strut as he neared the tables and the faces. The restaurant was beginning to fill. It was almost five.He just wanted a few drinks and then a nice dinner with his lawyer so they could talk about his mess. Just drinks and dinner, that’s all. The Feds were watching, and listening. Jerome was  paranoid, and just last week told Barry he thought they had wired his law office. So they would meet here and have a nice meal without worrying about eavesdroppers and bugging devices.

They needed to talk. Jerome Clifford had been defending prominent New Orleans thugs for fifteen years—gangsters, pushers, politicians—and his record was impressive. He was cunning and corrupt, completely willing to buy people who could be bought. He drank with the judges and slept with their girlfriends. He bribed cops and threatened the jurors. He schmoozed with the politicians and contributed when asked. Jerome knew what made the system tick, and when a sleazy defendant with money needed help in New Orleans, he invariably found his way to the law offices of W. Jerome Clifford…<

Barry’s case, however, was something different…

Excerpt © 1993 by John Grisham

What do we learn here?

The scene goes after on the above, but in just these 200 words we learn a lot.

We get a clear picture of Barry, conveyed both by how he acts in public and how he thinks. Notice in the first paragraph how he begins to “storm,” then catches himself and resumes his characteristic “strut.” He is emotional, but carefully controls what he shows to the world.

Notice also the rapid-fire summary of his thoughts in the second and third paragraphs. This conveys not only the information content of the backstory, but Barry’s emotional state in thinking about it.

The third paragraph is all about Jerome Clifford, and gives us a clear picture of him and his shady business dealings. While this might be characterized as an “info dump” it is kept interesting by the strong, direct writing. In that regard, note the colorful adjectives and action verbs: “cunning and corrupt”, “bribed”, “threatened”, “schmoozed.”

Tips for using this technique

To use this method in your fiction:

  1. Set up a scene where a character can think about their problems. This might be while taking a walk, working out, taking a shower, waiting for a bus—any situation where a person might spend time reflecting.
  2. Summarize the backstory from the character’s point of view. Why are they thinking about his? How will they be effected?
  3. Make it emotional. Why are they worried or tense about the situation? What’s the worst that could happen to them? (Bonus points: Can you raise the stakes and make it even worse?)
  4. Keep it short. Info dumps are only deleterious when they’re long. Then they interrupt narrative tension and cause readers to yawn. So break up the character’s reflections with present actions, keeping the reflective passages brief.

Again, this technique of building scenes where the characters are reflecting can be very effective in conveying a lot of backstory information in a short space.

Coming Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 4th of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory, that tried and true technique where characters tell each other the backstory.

Five Ways to Show Backstory: 2. Using a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes

Following up on the previous two posts (see this post for the start), here is the second of five ways a writer can convey backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

Reminder: We’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader understands each scene. This information might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives, and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

2. Show the Backstory in a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes

This technique makes use of the Scene and Sequence model, which is frequently discussed in books on writing fiction and on screenwriting.

Scene and Sequel model, adapted from various sources

The basic idea is that a story is constructed of scenes and sequels, with rising tension as we go from beginning to end. In this model, a sequel shows a character’s response to the preceding scene and sets the stage for the next scene.

A sequel is also a great place to work in some backstory.

Example: From Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon

This example is from Fool Moon, the second of Jim Butcher’s famous Dresden Files urban fantasy novels. Harry Dresden is a private eye who also happens to be a wizard. He consults with the Chicago Police Department on supernatural cases. The following is part of the sequel to Chapter 1. In a bar, Dresden has met with Lieutenant Murphy, and she has asked him to come along to help investigate an unusual murder…

“Murphy declined to ride in the Blue Beetle, my old Volkswagen bug.The Beetle wasn’t really blue, not anymore. One of the doors had been replaced with a green duplicate, the other one with white, when something with claws had shredded the originals. The hood had been slagged by fire, and my mechanic, Mike, had replaced it with the hood from a red vehicle. The important thing is that the Beetle runs, even if it doesn’t do it very fast, and I’m comfortable with the car. Mike has declared that the VW bug is the easiest car in the world to repair, and so that’s what I drive. He keeps it running eight or nine days in ten. That’s phenomenal.

Technology tends to foul up around wizards—flip on a light switch, and it’ll be the time the bulb burns out. Drive past a streetlight and it’ll pick just then to flicker and die. Whatever can go wrong will, automobiles included.

I didn’t think it made much sense for Murphy to risk her vehicle when she could have taken mine, but she said she’d take her chances.”
Excerpt (c)  2001 by Jim Butcher

What Backstory do we learn here?

On the surface, it seems simple. The main thing we learn is that Harry Dresden drives an old, beat up car. But this tells us several things about him:

  • In typical hard-boiled private eye fashion, he lives on the edge financially.
  • He’s not pretentious in the material sense. He doesn’t need a status symbol car to bolster his ego.
  • His car takes a beating from various monsters. He’s had some interesting cases.
  • And, he is nonchalant about dealings with these supernatural dangers.

We also learn that “Technology tends to foul up around wizards.” In Fantasy, the writer has to convey a lot of exposition, because the world is, at least to some degree, different from the everyday real world we all think we know and love. How does the magic work? What are its limitations, drawbacks, and consequences? This passage conveys some of this critical information while describing Harry’s car.

One thing more: We not only learn about Dresden’s character, but also Murphy’s—again, indirectly. We learn that, despite the hazards of exposure to a wizard, Murphy is “willing to take her chances” and use her own car. Why? Perhaps she not willing to be seen riding in a beat up old VW. But also—and we are shown this again and again about her character—Murphy is tough and wants to in charge. She wants to drive.

Principle

So, what looks at first glance like a simple bit of backstory about the character’s car, turns out to convey a lot of information.

This illustrates an important principle of good fiction: Everything in the story should be accomplishing several goals. Every passage does double or triple duty: moves the action forward, delineates character, perhaps describes the setting, or explains the background for what goes on.

The best-written stories are multi-layered in this way.

Up Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 3rd of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory: Creating a Scene where a single character reflects.

Presenting Backstory in Scenes

This is a guest post on  Anita Rogers’ “Writer Chick” Blog, using examples from Ghosts of Bliss Bayou.

As fiction writers, we often hear the advice “Show, Don’t Tell.” But what exactly does that mean?

To me, it means to present your story with immediacy. Write it mainly in dramatic scenes, and focus each scene in a single character’s point of view.

But a rich story embodies a lot of information. If you try to convey all of it in scenes, you can easily find yourself writing lots of extraneous scenes, as well as using obviously contrived dialogue (“As we all know, Tom, the Druna are an ancient elvish race who live in Dampwood.”) This is a great way to ruin a story.

Read more…

 

Review of Zorro by Isabel Allende

I have loved Zorro since I was four years old (so, eh, for 60 years). I have enjoyed his many incarnations, from the original 1919 Johnston McCulley story, through many many film, TV, and comics incarnations, and straight up to this unlikely literary, somewhat magical realist, and (dare I say?) feminist novel.

Source: http://www.sffaudio.com/libivox-the-curse-of-capistrano-by-johnston-mcculley/

The writing is impeccable. Allende IS a grand master, and her Spanish prose is beautifully rendered into English by translator Margaret Sayers Peden. I did not mind at all the long paragraphs and focus on narrative rather than action scenes (which many readers seem to have disliked). Although, I must admit at times this style made for a slower reading experience.

The story comes up with many surprises, including Diego’s half-Native American family tree, his early shamanistic experiences, on to his adventures crossing to Spain, and the political intrigue there involving Gypsies, a secret society, and his involvement with an unfortunate noble family.

The narrative persona is especially intriguing. And, without giving away any spoilers, I can say that it wraps up the whole novel beautifully, even while the character of Zorro himself remains ultimately mysterious (as he always should!)

A quirky but worthy addition to the Zorro canon.

Cover of Allende’s novel. Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24796.Zorro

 

 

Fun and Games with Shakespeare

Or What You Will

My wife and I are Shakespeare enthusiasts in the extreme. So we were delighted to discover the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival. Last Friday evening, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, in a courtyard between two Victorian houses, under an enormous oak tree, we watched a wonderful performance of Twelfth Night, one of our favorite plays.

We’ve seen it a number of times before, and talked about some of the puns and hidden meanings. On the long drive home over the Sunshine Skyway, we had another of those conversations.

souce: https://www.emaze.com/@ATOIZTFR/The-Sunshine-Skyway-Bridge

One thing we find interesting is the similar names of several of the characters—Malvolio, Olivia, and Viola. All share the same letters.

According to the website BehindtheName.com, the name Malvolio was invented by Shakespeare and means “ill will” in Italian. From the same site, we learn that “Olivia” was also first used in Twelfth Night, and is probably derived from the name of the olive tree. “Viola” meanwhile, is Latin for violet.

Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’) exhibited 1840 Daniel Maclise 1806-1870 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00423

So if we think of all characters as being projections of the author, and recall that Shakespeare went by the name “Will,” we have Malvolio, or the bad Will. We also have Olivia, the Will who is like the olive, because she is bitter and melancholy. And Viola, the Will who is bright and clever.

Okay, those last two might be a bit of a stretch.

But then again, Shakespeare subtitled the play “What You Will”

Hmmm.

One line that’s always been a bit of a mystery is in Act 2, Scene 5. Malvolio is reading a letter left for him to find by the servant Mary and meant for him to mistake as coming from the Countess Olivia. The letter does not name him, but hints at his name by spelling out M O A I. Malvolio puzzles over whether this is meant to be him, and then reads:

“If this fall into thy hand, revolve…” and there follows the famous quote that “Some are born great, etc.”

But “revolve”? This is sometimes played on stage for comic effect by Malvolio twirling around. That’s good.

According to the Annotated Twelfth Night the word revolve means “think things over.” Also good.

But my brilliant wife discovered that if you revolve the page (turn it upside down) and look at the letters MOAI…

you get something that looks very much like “I VOW”…

…Which also fits the meaning of the text.

Hmmmm.