Five years ago I sat down and started writing a scene of violence. Men in the desert. Heat. Sunlight. Battle. A hero with a terrible flaw in him. A story emerged, fully formed, pouring itself out of me, a whole world and its history there in my head, love and pain and triumph and grief.
The House of Sacrifice is the end of the story.
It feels … heartbreaking, actually. To have ended it.
I’ve lived with Marith and Thalia all my life, I realise now. They were the heroes of every story I told myself in my head as a child, they are both deep and complex parts of me. Their story is my critique of the great hero tales I’ve loved since I sat listening to my father read them. The world of Irlast is all the times and places I dream of – Sorlost is Yates’ Byzantium, Coleridge’s Xanadu, Elliot’s London; the White Isles are dark age Britain in the Age of Arthur, Macedon under Philip II, sea-girt Ithaca before Odysseus sailed for Troy. The landscapes of my childhood holidays, the Cornish coast where the wild moorland of yellow gorse and purple heather falls away to grey cliffs and the sea breaking, the salt-marshes of East Anglia where the sky is vast as thought and the reeds grow as tall as a man, smelling of salt and freshness and dead things; Venice drowsing in its evening beauty when I was angry with the world and with myself; Epping Forest with its beech trees and oak trees stretch on and on. Walking from St Ives to Zennor, seeing a seal wrestling a conger eel just as Landra does. Putting my hand on the door of Blythburgh church beneath the claw marks of Black Shuck, like the mark of Marith’s hand on the door of the Great Temple in Sorlost. Listening to the Iliad in a thunderstorm, in the original Greek, watching mummers and hobby horses and the Mystery Plays, reading about monsters and kings and magicians. These places, these memories … all of it, I poured out into the story that ends here with The House of Sacrifice. The story is everything of meaning to me. The story is more real to me, I think, than my own life is.
And now it’s ended.
There’s a great feeling of triumph, also, of course. I’ve written it, this thing of mine, it has a life of its own, outside of me, complete and perfect! It’s a strange glorious feeling looking at the three books lined up together, the vison I had inside me written out there for anyone to read. From the fragments of my life I have created a physical thing from beginning to end.
The story could never be exactly as I saw it; I would shout with frustration while I was writing, run around the room enraged because I can see it all exactly as it should be and I couldn’t get the words out. But there are paragraphs that still make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I read them, because I wrote something that beautiful and true and right. I’ve realised truths about myself that I had never imagined, seen people and places in new ways as I wrote them. Better understood myself.
That feels strange, too, these things I have created being read by other people. Something I thought was personal to me, and others understand what it means to me because it means something to them. Or don’t, and don’t like it – and that’s a painful thing for any writer to deal with. The story ends the way I always knew it had, the way I saw I when I first started it. What if people don’t like it? Think it should end differently from the way I see it? See my dreams differently to the way I see them?
I’m writing a new story now. What will happen to it, I don’t know. It’s strange, having written my soul out in this story, to be thinking of other things. Like I’m changed, because so many things that were in my head are written up and over, and there’s space for other things. I spent years longing to write, feeling afraid of writing, years in which writing was an impossible dream. Like life on other planets. Like the idea that the world will go on a thousand years after I am dead. Out there, real, but impossible to comprehend. Now I’ve written the story that was in me, and it’s finished. I’ve achieved what I thought was impossible. Now my mind is turning to new things
A poem, to end it. The poem that I love more than any other piece of writing, the poem that sums up everything I wanted to write.
James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Journey to Samarkand.
We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why, –
What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:
And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.
And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than the Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;
When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.
When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.
The Golden Journey to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker, 1913