Jack Russells and Jacobeans

My mother has moved to a new house: a converted cottage in rural Donegal. She moved there from another house in rural Donegal (hereafter referred to as simply ‘Donegal’) so it’s not so drastic a transition.

Actually, to call it a converted cottage is a bit inaccurate. Converting cottage is more appropriate, we’re still in the process.

The house belonged to a woman named Mary Hiudaí, my mother’s partner’s grandmother. Mary passed away last year. She was 104 years old, and this house was already standing when she was born. No one living knows when it was built, but it’s been here for over a century.

In the move, we lost our cat Tigger. He disappeared from the house and hasn’t returned since. Bereft of his comparative intellectualism, I’ve been forced to get to know Mum’s step-son, Pepper,

‘How do do?’

and his adoptive sister, Shorty. They’re watching me as I write this because they’re hoping I’ll take them for a walk to the beach. I probably will.

Jack Russells combine some of the more delightful aspects of puberty and ADHD. They’re skittery, excitable, awkward wee things that zoom in through your legs and tangle you up in their leads. They yip too. A lot.

All the same, they grow on you

I watched a three-part documentary on BBC called The King and the Playwright about King James I and Shakespeare. It was hosted by James Shapiro, the author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

I’d never really thought of Shakespeare as a Jacobean. The image-myth of Elizabeth and of Shakespeare as the high point of an Elizabethan Golden Age is so strong and well-established in our collective psyche that we tend to forget the other, less arresting, monarch.

Then there’s Shakespeare in Love

But Shapiro makes a compelling case for James’ accession and the resulting political turbulence having had a transformative effect on Shakespeare’s writing and dramaturgy. Elizabeth died after a 44-year reign with no heir. James was king of Scotland, a foreign and belligerent nation, and son of the despised Mary, Queen of Scots.

From this environment of uncertainty and reform emerged the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s newly re-christened company, now operating under the King’s own patronage. Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays include some of his most famous, experimental and difficult dramas. Macbeth, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens and The Tempest are all Jacobean plays. Throughout the series, Shapiro demonstrates how they were rooted in, and engaged with, the Jacobean political climate.

I’m interested in the ways Shakespeare used magic in these plays. Compared to earlier works like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the supernatural in Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays is dark, dangerous and pessimistic. Even The Winter’s Tale, in which a statue comes to life in a fairytale happy ending, is one of the darkest and most tragic of the comedies.

The death of a son, such as that of Leontes’ in The Winter’s Tale, was a horror that Shakespeare himself experienced in 1596. That the tragedy of the first three acts is only allayed by such an undeniably magical event, and that even magic cannot restore Leontes’ son, suggests that Shakespeare is using the fantastic mode reflexively. He is drawing attention to Leontes’ loss rather than providing a happy ending.

This ending fulfils the same function as the ending of Pandosto, the original play on which The Winter’s Tale is based. In that, the character equivalent to Leontes commits suicide, again highlighting how his actions have caused him irreparable loss. In fact, the magical nature of the ending makes the ending even more bittersweet in retrospect.

As Shapiro illustrates, such a point would become extremely pertinent to Jacobean England. In 1612, Prince Henry, James’ son, died suddenly of typhoid fever. The nation mourned for the young heir to the throne and mock funerals were held in three other cities around the country to allow the people to express their grief. At Henry’s sister’s wedding, held the following February, the King’s Men performed The Winter’s Tale before the still-grieving court. I doubt the fairy-tale ending much mitigated the audience’s sharing in Leontes’ grief.

Magic and late-Shakespearean drama is an area of particular expertise for my good friend Emer, whose blog can be found at http://emeramchugh.wordpress.com .

N. B. I took the damn dogs to the beach and lost most of the goodwill I’d developed towards them when they ran off chasing rabbits and pretended not to hear me calling. If they’re growing on me, it’s more fungus than friendship.

Of course, they had a great time

On the plus side, this was the beach.


So… Otters?

A digression.

Our word otter comes from the Old English word otor, derived from a proto-Indo-European word that was something like *udros, meaning ‘water-creature’.

From *udros, we get words like the Latin name for otter, lutra, and the Old Irish odoirne*. We also get the Greek word hydra, which means this

and these

are actually close relations.

The Old Norse form, Ótr, has an interesting story attached. Ótr is a character in Norse mythology, a shape-shifting dwarf who spends his days in the body of an otter, gorging himself on fish.

One day, the god Loki passes by and, seeing the otter in the river, kills it, skins it and continues on his merry way wearing its pelt.

and looking FABULOUS!

Unfortunately for Loki, Ótr’s father is a king, Hreidmar, and he demands a hefty wergild or ransom for the death of his son. Loki is forced to fill Ótr’s skin, first with yellow gold, then with red. When he has done this, however, there is still a whisker protruding and Loki is forced to cover it using the magic ring he’s stolen from the dwarf Andvari.

This episode, the ‘Otter’s Ransom’, kicks off the Völsunga Saga, which was the basis for Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung and Tolkien’s epic poem The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and was a major influence on The Lord of the Rings.

Now that’s all interesting I’m sure but what’s it got to do with this blog?

Well, everything really.

This word, otter, can be traced right back to the earliest stages of our language. Every one of the three billion native speakers of Indo-European languages currently living and speaking on the planet today almost certainly know some version of it and might even recognise its forms in sister languages. The Ótr story places it at the heart of one of the most enduring myths in Western culture.

This is the background for just one word of the three hundred-odd in this post but most, if not all of them have an equally interesting and illustrious history. It’s an example of what Euan Ferguson called ‘the glorious interconnectedness of all things’. That makes it the perfect title for a blog like this.

Also, otters are cute as fuck.

         I mean seriously

*I don’t know what happened to odoirne but modern Irish uses madra uisce, lit. ‘water-dog’, which is also lovely.

First post!


My plan is to use yon blog for some good ol’ fashioned booknerding, with a healthy amount of otter appreciation thrown in for good measure. I’ll try and keep things on a relatively literary bent but, of course, given my short attention span, there’s no guarantee that- OHMYGODSQUIRREL!

               Obvious joke is obvious

The humour is unlikely to improve.

Over the summer, I’ll be working on the Irish national tour of Patrick Galvin’s play, The Last Burning (more info forthcoming) as well as preparing an application for a master’s degree in English for the end of the year. This’ll probably involve preparing a 4000-word article on a subject of my choice. I’ll be keeping you updated on that stuff and posting anything interesting that happens along the way.

So, first post more or less concluded, I’ll promise some more interesting fare for next time and leave you in the capable paws of a sea otter who’s said too much.

                  GASP! Indiscretion!

Indeed. Goodboo to you all.