Only a story


Perhaps it’s all the years of teaching, but I’m feeling end-of-termish. We’ve done all the hard work and revision and tests. We’ve had the concerts and the trips to Flamingo Park. We’ve tidied the stock cupboards and taken down the displays, and we’ve read our reports and we all got gold stars and smiley faces. Everyone’s thinking of poetry and poetry festivals, like Chaucer’s pilgrims. It’s time for a story before we all go home.

I’ve been looking back at what we’ve done and who we’ve met, and  because Kim Moore chose one of his poems from ‘Talking to the dead’ for her Sunday Poem last week, I looked again at one post about my friend Gordon Hodgeon. Bright star.  I was writing some months ago about my circling obsession with myths and with tyrannical gods. Recently, for reasons I cannot fathom, I’ve been writing translations and adaptions of myths. Maybe ‘plundering’ is a better word. I’ve even been inventing myths about owls, and about why there are no clouds of starlings on the twilight roofs and ledges of our great industrial cities. I’ve been re-telling Prometheus and Jesus to myself. A couple of weeks ago I was at a Stanza workshop in York (thanks for the invite, Carole Bromley) and one of the poets read from a new retelling of Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala. Recently, too, I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. and rediscovering a memory of Vainamoienen, the epic’s hero. There’s an extract from the tale in Penelope Farmer’s Beginnings [Creation Myths of the World]. It tells of how man was given the gift of fire. If we have fire at all, I would rather it was won for us by Prometheus. I love Prometheus as much as I hate most of the Greek pantheon (Apollo, particularly). However, the extract snagged my attention, since it pivots on the notion that fire is spilled from the sky by a Virgin of the Air in a moment of careless inattention. Not even ‘transgression’, like Pandora or Eve. Just clumsiness. I had to deal with it somehow, and though I don’t write much prose, I batted it out. And who ironed out its creases for me? Gordon Hodgeon. He probably won’t remember. But I won’t forget.

So, here we are. End of term. Sit back. Close your eyes. Let’s have a story.

How the Finns got the gift of fire

This is how it was.
Once, a sun shone on the Finns every day, and a moon every night, and each day and each night there was a new sun and a new moon in place of the ones that burned away. Louhi stole Sun and Moon; she stole fire, and she hid them in the far Northlands.
The Finns could not dry the flesh of the fish they caught nor the flesh of the deer they hunted, and they ate their food raw. They shivered in their birch cabins, and listened to the snow as it slid from the pines in the black forests; they listened to the howling of wolves in the endless night. Only the wolves loved this land of the Finns.
Ukko, lord of the skies , master of the flaming sword, maker of stars looked down and saw how the Finns tholed their darkness and cold. It puzzled him. As stars burn out and blackness takes their place he breathes a long breath into the heart of his furnaces until they roar in the forge of the sky. He thrusts the great blade of his sword into the fire’s blue heart so it blazes silver and gold and crimson. His eyes burn with reflected fire, his thoughts all flame and sword and anvil and stars, stars, stars. He swings the white-hot blade in great circles, faster and faster and the sky is a halo of strange and beautiful light.
At these times of starmaking the Finns would stare at the trembling bands of light and tell each other: Ukko is making new stars. Sometimes they would wonder: Ukko is making new stars; why does he not make new suns and moons? But he never did. he was the Star Maker.
He clashed the flaming sword on the anvil of the sky and sparks flew like dangerous gems; before they could fall to earth, sky-maidens caught them and put them in their right places in the endless dark. It was a fine fierce thing. Faster and faster the sword spun and circled and clashed on the anvil, the jewel sparks flew and flashed, and the sky-maidens laughed with delight, and caught them, and put them in the sky, and in their hair, and around their arms like bracelets, and they shone. Over and over the sword went to the furnace, and swung and clashed until the forge of the sky was a brilliant mist of stars, and the sky-maidens laughed, and caught them, every one, and locked them fast in the vault of heaven.
But when the new stars were made, and shone in their places, when the furnace cooled and grew dim, and the sword of Ukko was cold and blue as old stars, then he would look down on the world and wonder at the life of the Finns. Who could bear so much dark? Why did they not fill that darkness with the light of their own stars? He could not understand it. It was none of his business, though. He was the Star Maker. There was nothing he could do for them. They were too far away and below.
And sometimes the starmaidens looked down to where he looked; they were curious, too, but not for long. They were the starmaidens, virgins of the air, and they served Ukko the Starmaker. It was nothing to do with them.
But one was different. She loved the dance, the pure starfire she dressed herself in. She could not bear the thought of darkness. Neither could she drive it from her mind. She did not want to look down at the land of the Finns. But its darkness was always there at the edge of her mind.

This is what she thought:
We fill the dark space of the sky with stars. To light the long night of the world would be a small thing. The smallest spark from the forge would serve.
She thought: Star fire is beautiful but soon it grows cold.
She thought: We give the fire of our dance to an empty sky.
And so her delight in the brilliant dancing of stars grew less, and her thoughts filled with the cold darkness of the land of the Finns, and the starmaking could not warm them.
She said: We give our fire to the sky.
Ukko looked up. Whether his eyes burned red from long staring into the furnaces of his forge, or whether they smouldered in anger she could not tell. But she was afraid.
–Tell me what you said.
— Nothing. I said nothing.
— No. It was not ‘nothing’. Say it to me.
She was truly afraid. She said:
–We give our fire to the sky.
The furnace flared and Ukko was standing, black and huge, a great shadow.
—I am the Starmaker. I give nothing. I make stars.
–Then what am I?
–You? You make nothing; you give nothing. You put stars in the vaults of the sky. You dance. That is enough.

It is not enough, she thought, but she was afraid and she said nothing.
The fires sank and Ukko brooded over them, dark.
The skymaiden sat alone. Far below her, the land of the Finns lay cold and bleak. It filled her mind with a cold darkness as big as the sky. And then came a thought. Something small and bright in a big darkness.
It is not enough just to dance. It is not enough catch a fire I cannot make.
Ukko’s huge shadow hulked against the fireglow; she was afraid, but her thought burned in her mind and in her heart like a star. It was her own star. Then she knew she was a starmaker, and, being a maker, she had something to give, and she knew it was her right to give it.
–I am a star maker.
She whispered it softly.

Ukko sat before the red fire; he was black against it, and his shadow lay across the night. She sat alone in his shadow, but she was lit by the star she had made herself.
Time passed. Stars flashed cold and blue and shivered and winked out, and darknesses grew in the sky. Ukko stirred. It was time for the making, furnace heat, the dancing light of the forge, the dangerous sweep of the sword and the wild joy of the dance. It was what he lived for. A fierceness took him and shook him, and his breath made the furnace roar, blue and brilliant, and he thrust the great blade into its hot heart.

The dance began. Gravely and slowly it began, the slow pattern as the starmaidens circled the forge and the Star Maker. The sword glowed red, orange, gold, silver; the furnace light streamed past Ukko’s haloed dancing shadow, and dance grew faster, wilder. Ukko laughed a great laugh, and the skymaidens laughed too, and lost themselves in the dance.
Only, one did not. Though she danced with others, she was herself and not the dancing as the others were.
They were nothing but dancing, and Ukko was nothing but fire and forging, but she saw one bright star that shone in her mind with a different light. She spun and whirled and laughed with the rest, but was not lost with them. She knew herself different, and she knew what she must do. It made her afraid, but her fear was a strange excitement that was more than the excitement of the star dance.
With a great shout, Ukko drew the flaming sword from the fire and swept it in great arcs, and the dance was a dance of light, a great dome of beautiful light.
Far below, the Finns looked up from their darkness. Look! they said. Ukko is making stars! How far above them it all was. It brought them no warmth, only wonder.
Ukko brought the hot blade hissing down on the anvil. It clashed and rang. His eyes were full of stars. The flew from the beaten sword, and the sky maidens caught them, and laughed and danced and shone. It was brilliant.
Far below, in their cold dark world, the Finns thought: Ukko is making stars. And some thought: Why does he not make stars to warm and light us? But he never had done.
The dance grew wilder and breathless. The sword went again and again to the furnace, and rang and, splashed fire. The starmaidens put stars in the vaults of the air, and dressed themselves and shone.
Only, one, though she danced, was not of the dance. A star shone in her mind and she held one star clenched in her hand. Though she moved in the dance she was more than a dancer. It was time.
–I am a starmaker. I am a giver of stars.
It was a shout of joy. It was her shout.
The dance faltered; the sword stopped at the highest point of its arc, flaming and dangerous. Ukko was shadow; she could see nothing but his darkness and the great sword poised.
–I am a star giver, she said.
She was all alone in Ukko’s darkness. With a great cry he brought down the sword, and with a great cry she leapt from the sky, and it was one cry.
She fell from the skies, out of Ukko’s darkness and shadow, down and down through the the nine vaults of the air. The star shone in her hand and the giving of it shone in her mind, and it was one shining.
The Finns looked, spellbound, as the one star fell out of the night, brilliant and wonderful.
The hero Vainamoienen caught it and made it safe and made fire from it, and so the Finns had fire and warmth in their long night.
–Ukko the Starmaker has given us fire, they said.
And they worshipped him.


Enjoy your holidays; enjoy your pilgrimages.   I’ve got to start thinking about a new term. Here’s your holiday reading. There’ll be tests when we all start again. Think on.

Jane Clark:  The River  Bloodaxe Books  £9.95

Jonathan Davidson Humfrey Coningsby Valley Press poetry £6.95

Christy Ducker Skipper  SmithI doorstop  £9.95

Gordon Hodgeon Talking to the dead Smokestack Books £4.95

Gordon Hodgeon Old workings Mudfog £8.95

Kim Moore The art of falling Seren Books £9.99

3 thoughts on “Only a story

  1. I’m heading for light at the end of my year-end To Do list. So The Gift of Fire will do nicely(!), for now. Thanks, John.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.