Thursday, May 8, 2008

Stones that dance?

I first got into the idea of stone circles when I was a child. There was a small park near where I lived -- climbable trees, with the added attraction of a ring of tall grey stones in the centre. We always called them the Druid Stones and imagined that they had been there for centuries. It was years before I discovered the proper name of the park. I know now that the circle was a modern Gorsedd -- not ancient and not much to do with druids, but erected to commemorate the holding of an eisteddfod -- a traditional Welsh celebration of music and poetry.

In due course, I visited the ultimate UK stone circle -- Stonehenge. In those days you could still walk amongst the megaliths. They were huge, and imposing, but I found them disappointingly un-atmospheric. That part of the country is strewn with stones and circles and I have to say that I found other, less well-known sites, often come upon unannounced in the middle of a field, to have more magic. Particularly if you happened on them when the sun was beginning to set…

Wales has a number of sites with standing stones -- including two near where I live, which I've never visited, but are on my list for this summer, though not at midnight! The Tinkinswood Burial Chamber dates from 3,500 BC and the capstone is thought to be the largest in Europe. Like most circles, they have their own share of creepy stories attached to them. The St Lythan’s site, which has never been excavated, has a saddled horse that cannot be ridden, which appears on moonlit nights. On Midsummer Eve the capstone is reputed to twirl around three times, while the stones go to the river to bathe, and at Halloween wishes whispered to the stones are granted.

The magical stories about the origins of stone circles usually involve giants being caught by the first rays of the rising sun, or groups of women turned to stone while dancing. The historical reality, to me, is no less fascinating. Massive structures that are thousands of years old, put in place at a time when the only way of maneuvering them would have been by manual labour. Created for purposes we don't really understand, frequently associated with significant events in the calendar, such as the summer or winter solstice, many containing old burial chambers -- I think that this ‘history in the mists of time’ element attracts me, as a writer, more than the myths and ghost stories.

I am not the only one who finds these stones intriguing. Standing stones and stone circles occur in some of my favourite reading. I think that it was Mary Stewart's fictional account of Merlin bringing the stones from Ireland to create Stonehenge, told in her book The Crystal Cave, that first made me want to visit. In Nora Robert’s Circle trilogy a stone dance is the portal into Geall. The work of British thriller writer Robert Goddard, often set in the West Country, draws on the atmosphere of the Avebury stones in Sight Unseen, a story that begins with the disappearance of a child. I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows of any more examples.

As far as I'm aware, standing stones are a particularly European phenomena, appearing most significantly in a swathe from Scotland to Brittany, on the French coast -- but I'd love to know if there are any similar or comparable sites elsewhere in the world.

I suspect that at some stage a book will come to me that has a stone circle in it -- and it will probably be one out of my imagination, so that I can give it all the characteristics and atmosphere that I want. Tall stone pillars, looming out of a chilly mist, waiting for the first thin, pale touch of the rising sun. Or maybe silent and watchful, bathed in bloody light as the sun dips down over the horizon. Or under a new moon, or a single star. Or maybe just sitting in a field, grey, sleek and dripping, on a typically wet Welsh morning …

Image of Stonehenge:


Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Interesting post! I've always been fascinated by ancient stone structures, especially Easter Island, with the huge stone faces. I also always thought the monolith in 2001 was inspired by those stone structures. Hopefully someday I can visit them in person. :)

Savanna Kougar said...

What a fantastic blog, Evonne. I so wish I could visit those stone circles and those areas of Europe. They feel so compelling to me.
You should use your ending paragraph of the blog for your Stone Circle story. It's beautifully descriptive, IMHO.
Have you considered on one of your visits to the stone circles, doing a bit of daydreaming. I think your story would emerge from the mists.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Oh, another random thought:

In Death Valley there are these stones that move along the desert floor. No one knows how. It's not wind since some of the stones are quite large. But you can see the tracks they make in the dirt. Here is a quick link if you are curious:

Lexie O'Neill said...

What a lovely post. The stone circle novel I think of first is The Outlander series...ah, to write like that! Plus to write your last paragraph:)

Savanna Kougar said...

Anitra, I didn't know that -- about the traveling stones in Death Valley -- now there's plot twist waiting to be written. The Stone Walkers.

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Fascinating, Evonne, and topical for me as my wip is called The Riven Stone (a megolith that is a gateway to the Underworld) and part of it is set in Wales!