Seasonal Interlude for an Arthurian epic: from Autumn

RAHUL GUPTA holds a PhD from the University of York for a thesis on Old English and Norse poetry and the 19th-20th century mediævalist alliterative revival. His poems, prose, and translations have been published in Agenda, Acumen, Eborakon, Equinox, Molly Bloom, Spectral Realms, and Wiðowinde, among other journals, and online by British Intelligence, and The Society of Classical Poets. His main enterprise is a reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends retold as an epic in ‘the most accomplished, imaginative and technically-correct alliterative verse in Modern English since Tolkien’ (Tom Shippey), from which two excerpts have appeared hitherto, in The Long Poem Magazine, Issue 15, May 2016, and, ‘one of the truly great mythic works of our time’ (John Matthews) in The Temenos Academy Review, Issue 21, 2018. Forthcoming publications include a volume of metrically-imitative verse-translations from Old English and Norse, seeking faithfully to retain the style and versification of the originals whilst being accurate and performable aloud, from Reaktion Books

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[…] Zigzagging tines, zed-shaped lightning’s

pronged weapon probes  the primy soil:      

and we follow the flash, foining groundward

in his points’ pathway, to pierce the turf.

Let the earth open. We enter within.            Follow the lightning into the earth

Here levels below  living daylights

an under-earthen, otherworldly

landscape layered  below the surface

nests beneath us.

                          This unknown domain,

her roofs writhing  with roots of trees,

is the nameless netherdepth, benighted regions

of an occult kingdom:                                                   Katabasis: the Underworld


of catacombs;


decayed in crypts,

                           caves inhuming

putrid matter;                                                                                                              


enwombed in warrens,

                           winding myriad                                                         Tombs


                           chimneys linking    

fœtid fogous,

                           foul souterrains,         

deep-delved dungeons:

                           dusky vaultage

—heaped-up deathsheads—

                            —hoards of longbones—

of grave-galleries;

                           groping steeply,

tombpassages twist                                       

                          through turnagains                                                                       

to undercrofts,

                          while oubliettes

fold fathoms downwards,

                          to Filth’s Mansion.

Pell-mell we plunge:


horizons range

                         as we reach deeper:

like tumbledown,


sunken cities,

                         a sewerscape

of terraced wards,

                         tiers and platforms,                                                       Sewerage

doors downfallen,                              

                         to dark culverts

with grille-gratings, 

                         green slime-curtained;

canted causeways

                         on the chasms’ brink:

skewed screwthreading


leaning, looming;


the abyss beckons,

                           the bowels of the Earth.

It yawns beyond; a yearning maw.

Here tribes of rats  get trapped by cave-ins,

wriggling rodents  whose runs are thwarted:

dead-ends their doom; dens are shrinking,

their nests narrowing  as numbers grow

in blind alleys  and blocked cisterns   

to a mangy mass  of mating bodies.

Like their neighbour vermin, knotting reptiles

—keystones crushing— they kitten yet;

till the chamber chokes  to chink and cranny

with tangled tails.   Teeth start to gnaw.

From the maze of tombs, the morgue-ullage

bleeds to these bilges; their black vomits

emulge and merge, commingled blend

of what seeps from cellars, with sordors leaching

to earthy entrails. For from all the jakes—

from countless catchments, through clogged spillways,

dreckcrusted drains, downspout scuppers,   

from every addlepool  and each latrine,

ripe reredorter, reasty midden,        

siegehouse, cesspit —of our sunlit world,

the gong-farmings  of garderobe soil,

loose cack of lasks, and laystall-slops,

helter-skelter, the whole system’s

sickly surfeit  of sewage-waste,

in a swilling swelchie, is swallowed down    

through intestine-tunnels, and tewel-pipes

from the upper echelons  to the enclaves beneath:

engulfed by gulches. The gurge of sludge

empties ordures  to the uttermost sump

where lurks waiting, in a lake of slime,

a prodigious dungheap.                                                                          Excrements

                                     Dirts steam. Dritt of foxes,   

                                     deer-turds. Merd and fewmet,

                                     scat, spraint; fiants, scumbered

                                     skite of otter-crottels;

                                     brock-muck. Brown waggyings

                                     brew, mix: sharn of vixen,

                                     critters’ crap, hare-buttons,

                                     crudded spoor, boars’ lesses           

in a cradling crucible.

                                 The crawling lees  

amalgamate, transmute fusing:

the realm of rottenness is rich with life.  

From clouds to clods, cleaving lightning

wracks with raptures  rainsodden loam,   

and by split seconds  the span between             

the high Heavens and humble Earth                                           

is bridged in brightness: embracing partners  

space sprung apart  espouse again.

Once twins entwined, that twain sundered:

the husband halved  from the whole forebear;                  

now sibling-father, and sister-wife                                              Autumn Equinox

marry for a moment, to mate powers                                                         

high, dry and hot —with the humid deep.

Attraction triggers  the trident-bolt,

the warm wedding  to wet and cold,

the air to fire; earth to water:                                                                 

as when Burn-the-Wind, at his blade-forging,        

that the redshort rod  be wrought to temper            

steeps it in wetness —the steel is slaked                       

amid sputtering fumes  sparks set alight

in quenching oils, to quell its ardour

(and the venoms unveil  viper-chevroned,

woven-welded, worm’s-tongue markings)

—so the glowing glaive, in glutting thrusts         

shooting downward, ensheathes his length.

Ground engulfs him. In her gravid lap

the charge is channelled; for change kindles

where his liquid lightnings  enliven dust.         Lightning fecundates the earth

Behold the happenings  of the hidden places;

witness wonders —from the worms’ vantage.

Shocks shaking her, he sheds darting,

fork-formed currents, forces spending

virile virtue.

                     Pervading the clays

are pores pooling  with pregnant fluids.                                 

Through dropsied ducts, drenched syrinx-glands

in coral clusters, course her issues,

unctions oozing, by ebbs and swells:

what subtle liquors  seep and filter,

yeast-yielding brines, yolky syrups

and saps surging, sifted lispings

in fistule-fissures? Fecund venters                                  

congest with juices  like the jellied slutch

that showers downward  from shooting stars

estranged to earth; sticky chrisms

spill through spiracles; from sponge-bladders,

limbeck-tinctures; elixirs stilling

hoarded honeydews, as harvests culled

from bread of bees, brood-comb drizzlings    

—moist motherlode  milch with nectars.         

The stagnant gulfs  stretch out for leagues

under fen-fastness, fog-bound marshes,

mould-mildewed tarns, and misty fells:

like troves of ore, treasure-laden

rills running through  the rankling dung;             

mine-wealthy malm. The Moon shines down,

her beams bathing  foreboding depths,

the lodes ripening  in lunar rays

and the mire is rife: minims thriving,

krill-creaturely  kinds of plankton,

embryonic  animalcules

at their feast of filth, feed and batten;

its sweats swelter: the swamp-mosses

hum with humours, heats are brooding

in queachy quags, bequickening 

eggs underground. An urgent drive,

for a spell, spurs them. Spores are stirring

awake to sprout  in their weird springtide;

pollen pullulates, to the pulse of the Moon:

cells in seedbeds.  These seminal motes,

cocooned kernels, like chrysalids

shog in their swaddlings: shoot spicules forth,

chaffhusks chinking  as chits are hatching   

from bulging pods, with bat-squeakings,         

in throbbing throes. Threadlets burgeon

to knosplike nebs, whose nippled spires

unfurl feelers  with fanning strands

and barbs burrow  from the umbilical stalk;    

spikes spawn outwards, spider talons

sneaking snakewise.

                                Snail-horn probings

now creep, recoil; then crawl anew,

reaching runners, ramifying

twig-antennæ, that tillow again:

look how the likeness  of the levin-flash

imprints and repeats  in the pattern figured,

as izzard emblems, by the angled forking

of vein-branches, against the varves’ blackness,

pairing, parting; puny scions                                        

like marbling maggots, the murky clods  

riddled with roothairs, wriggling vivers;

weevils delving  worm-farm layers                             

and rifted vugs.    Ravelled suckers                                           

flex flossing wide, in flower-whorling

topdownward trees, their tufted plumes

of glairy gauzes, like gossamer skeins

of squirming thongs.

                                 Squirreltail, thistledown,

filigree fibres  frond their tassels,

twisting, twining; the twirling bines

will splay and split, then splice oscules,  

reticulate   tentacular

chenille nervures.   Thus the net-weaving   

germs engender  a giant ganglion,                

mercurial cobweb, catscradlewise;

node knits to lobe, as a loom shuttles          

a weft-texture, the wiry members

tendril-tissued: a teeming polyp,

quarl of quicksilver. By quetch and spasm

the molten mass  is mapped in darkness,



it inhales and heaves: a heart panting

or brain beating, or as breathing lungs

work in entrails; and wavering sobs

retch restlessly. With rippling surges    

the sprawling globe  spreads yet farther

by ceaseless seethings, circulating

lymphs and ichors; till in labour-pangs   

its ballooning shape  dilates warping.

The morphing mesh  transmogrifies

and with thrilling shudders  it thrusts aloft,

climbs in corkscrews up  to the crust overhead:

fat fruitbodies,  forcing through turves.

From shadowed taths, shapes come pricking,

grope above the grass. Growths are stirring,

bald and gibbous; bulbs are swollen,

puffball-like orbs, whose pimpled membranes

are groined with gills, glabrous-wattled

blanched blubberflesh, bloated organs,

limbs lazarlike; leprous-hided,

sepulchral-pale, they poke upward

from cadaverous depths —dead men’s fingers;

bearded bellyache;

                                 bug agarick, 

webbedpate, skullcap;

                                 witches’ button,

the lewd stinkhorn

                                 and livid earthshank;

skewbald hoodwink,

                                 scurfy funnel;

dwarvish dwalecup,





                                 chilly waxglove,


                                 sickly milkgall.

Squame-warted squabs  squeeze in sending

stems striking out. Staves like truncheons

unsheathe their shafts, to show helmets,

raise round targes  with rimmed umbos:

espy these spears —a spectral levy

of midnight-mustering  homunculi,

wan weaponedmen, in worm-eaten

carrion-coloured  accoutrements

of clammy coifs  and clinging veils,

by rank on rank, or in rancid circles,

lifts its lances, locks the shieldwall:

earthen armies. From under the ground

—the reek of decay —rotting scarecrows—

they advance in onslaught, an invading horde,

wraiths risen again, arrayed for battle

in dim dreamings  dawn breaks shivering

their feinted front; falter, melt blurring                                 

to stipes like straw …the stuff of shadows

that dwindle to dust. The day broadens

till wilting culms, and caps withering,

return as toadstools.                                                                    Autumn toadstools

                                It is the time of Samhain’s

Cross-Quarter feast, calends of Winter

and a season’s end […]                                                                              

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Summers with foxes

EMMA FENNELL HODSON shares some vulpine vignettes

490 kms from Reykjavík lies the coastal harbour town of Ísafjörður. Quaint, colourful wooden houses line its cobbled streets and the fjords loom above the town in every direction. Ísafjörður is the largest town for miles and this is where we would be getting a small boat to take us further north still to the peninsula of Hornstrandir: home of the Arctic foxes.

There’s something about Iceland that keeps drawing me back. I’ve been three times now and plan to return again. I’m awed by the wonder of this almost mystical place with its extensive lava fields sprawling for hundreds of kilometres, the jagged fjords that seem to appear out of nowhere, shrouded in low-lying cloud, the geothermal highlands where the mountains billow steam and gases and the seemingly never-setting summer sun. Up in the Westfjords where we monitor the Arctic foxes, it’s around five miles from the Arctic Circle. This means that in the summer, the sun barely dips below the horizon. On the six hour drive up from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður, the fjords were illuminated in a deep orange glow at 1am. By 2am, the sky had begun to get lighter again and morning sunlight began to replace the deep oranges of the nearly-setting sun.

On the Hornstrandir peninsula, there is very little. There’s a single house and a couple of camp sites; apart from that, it’s all rugged, barren terrain stretching for miles. There’s no phone signal or WiFi on the peninsula, which is remarkably refreshing. I find that the manic pace of modern life can get overwhelming with everyone caught up in what’s happening on social media. Taking a step back from technology and being cut off from the world feels like a massive weight off my shoulders and I find myself more in tune with nature and everything that is going on around me. It would be necessary to take all the supplies with us that we would need whilst being based on what feels like the edge of the world. Loaded with boxes filled with vegetables, pasta, muesli, nuts, Skyr (the most amazing yoghurt in the whole world) and Kropp (these amazing chocolate covered crunchy balls) and an insane number of boiled eggs, we were all set. Don’t get me wrong; we prioritized all the essential things first and all the vital equipment and gear we would need for monitoring the foxes in remote, extreme conditions. But having enough high energy food like nuts, dry fruit and chocolate really does help get you through a cold six-hour monitoring shift!

The boat trip to get to the peninsula is not for the faint-hearted, or perhaps faint-stomached would be a better way of putting it. When the wind picks up as you move away from the shelter of the bay, the water becomes choppy and the boat lurches continuously, both up and down and side to side. If you get sea sick, I recommend you either turn back now, take some kind of sickness pills or arm yourself with a load of sick bags… It’s all worth it when you come round the final corner and see the giant bird cliffs at the tip of the Horn looming in the distance. The air becomes heavy with the odour of slightly rotting fish as you approach the cliffs. Sea birds are wonderful, but they certainly know how to make a racket as well as producing a remarkable array of foul-smelling odours.

I’ve been part of the monitoring team in Hornstrandir for two summer seasons and each time has astounded me. Even the campsite toilet is the most amazing place. That probably sounds weird, so let me explain. A one kilometre walk from the camping area is a Toblerone-shaped wooden structure facing the bay. You leave the door open to let people know you are inside and at the same time you get the most incredible view! I remember one remarkable evening where I was on the loo…the fjords across the bay were illuminated in a deep orange light. A group of Harlequin Ducks were bobbing peacefully on the water’s surface and the calm sea in the bay reflected the golden, cloudless sky. Sitting on the loo at home now feels remarkably dull, I might add.

And then there are the foxes themselves, which are just such wonderful creatures, exceptionally well adapted to life in this unforgiving landscape. They endure harsh temperature extremes but amazingly, they don’t start to shiver until the temperature drops to −70 °C. They have a very dense, multi-layered coat of fur, which provides the best insulation of any mammal and they have fur covering their foot pads as well. Their compact body shape provides a low surface area to volume ratio, meaning that less of its surface is exposed to the cold and therefore less heat escapes from its body. Arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus) are distributed across the Arctic and are Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal. They come in two different colour morphs, white and ‘blue’. The white foxes are almost completely white in the winter but bi-coloured in the summer, so have seasonal camouflage. The blue morph is dark brown and keeps its colour throughout the year but the sun bleaches the colour in late winter so it’s harder to distinguish between the two forms at this time of year. In the winter, the thick layer of fur makes the foxes look chubby and short legged whilst in the summer they look slender and long- legged.

The massive bird cliffs and extensive coastline of the Westfjords allows for a high density of Arctic foxes to be supported in this area. The foxes of Hornstrandir feed mainly on sea birds, eggs, carrion washed up on the shore, invertebrates and berries. Foxes cache food in the summer so that they have enough to sustain themselves during the harsh winters. The foxes in Iceland have had a turbulent history with the Icelandic settlers and were hunted extensively in the past for their fur. They are also killed by farmers and land owners in order to protect livestock, including eider farms. ‘Den hunting’, in which all animals are killed at a fox den, is one of the oldest paid jobs in Iceland and this is still performed today. There is a difficult balance to be struck with history, tradition, maintaining people’s livelihoods and the future of the Arctic fox population. Hornstrandir is one of the few regions where the foxes are protected in Iceland and people have been incentivized not to kill the foxes by undertaking new jobs in the tourism industry. With more people coming to the peninsula to hike or see the foxes, it is vitally important that the foxes, their dens and their hunting grounds are treated with the respect they deserve.

This respect for the foxes and their habitats is something that is very important to we researchers, especially given that we spend long periods of time monitoring these fantastic animals. The way that we study the foxes is based on a 12 hour daily rotational shift system in which one person monitors the area and records all fox behaviours, barks and interactions for six hours from 10am- 4pm and a second ‘den partner’ takes over at 4pm and continues until 10pm. That’s the beauty of field work this close to the Arctic circle, it doesn’t really get dark at all so there’s not really a time limit of when you need to be back in the evenings.

Being on your own, just you, your thoughts, the foxes and the endless expanse of stunning landscape, is a phenomenal experience. You become tuned into the sounds of the landscape and your eyes become accustomed to scanning endlessly, picking up even the smallest movement. On days where the weather is clear, your mind is occupied and endless cups of tea and snacks see you through to the end of your shift. When the weather takes a turn for the worst, it’s harder to stay focused. I’ve had a couple of shifts where I’ve been in a fog white-out for the entire six hours. You can barely see five metres in front of you and the fog muffles all the sounds from the valley below, leaving your senses straining for any kind of movement or sound. Despite it being summer in Iceland, there are still patches of snow dotted across the peninsula and when the sea mist, fog and clouds roll in, the temperature plummets.

I remember wearing two scarves around my face, having a woolly hat on, a thermal long sleeved top, a hoodie, two thick jumpers, a ski jacket, a waterproof coat, two pairs of thermal trousers, a thick pair of tracksuit bottoms, a pair of waterproof trousers, about four pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, some thick wellies and being sat inside a plastic bag, yet still being bitterly cold. The air is icy even with not much of your face being exposed and every part of your body feels like it’s losing sensitivity. Maybe I’m just a wimp with the cold – the Icelandic research leaders always seemed to be fine – but let me tell you that I’ve never been as utterly freezing in my entire life. The first couple of hours are OK, but when it gets to around four hours, you can’t really feel your fingers, your toes, your ears, your nose or anything else really. All the while you are trying to scan the area and listen for any sign of movement. As unpleasant as it sounds, even on the bitterly cold days, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world. There’s this amazing sense of exhilaration of being that connected to the natural world and the elements. And when the weather does clear, it’s the most fantastic feeling being able to see for miles and even more exciting when you can hear foxes barking or see them in the distance, moving about in their territory with such ease and grace.

Whenever I want to escape from the realities of modern life, I close my eyes and I’m back in Hornstrandir, at the edge of the world. I can hear the distant barking of the foxes and feel the icy breeze piercing against my skin. My senses are so in tune to everything around me and I just feel this overwhelming sense of freedom. I feel incredibly humbled to have had the experience of being part of this monitoring team and I hope that this research can continue for many years to come. Increasing our knowledge about Arctic foxes and the way in which they interact with their environment is vital in order to safeguard the future of this remarkable species. There’s a little part of my soul left in that rugged, wild, phenomenal landscape with the Arctic foxes.