Originally from Michigan, USA, journalist and creative writer Noah Abbott has been studying at Falmouth University and is currently in his third year. During his time in Cornwall, Noah looked to explore the folklore, stories and mythology rich in this ancient county and discover why it was such an inspiration to writers….
As I trekked to Flushing on a blustery October day along a coastal footpath, passing by an anchored armada of rafts and boats, I was listening to Stephen Fry’s book: Heroes, a lively collection of Greek hero myths, when I realised, I didn’t know any Cornish myths.
It seems like innocent ignorance, but I came to Cornwall to learn, to study, to understand a new culture, and most importantly, to be influenced by that. Cornwall has a lot to offer and during this ‘Dark Age’ of lockdowns, social upheaval and political turbulence, and it is a shame their stories are being isolated and ignored from the wider world.
Inspired by this ignorance, I wanted to investigate the place I’ve come to call home. This inspiration is rooted in telling untold stories, in a desire to learn more about other’s past, history, the places they come from, those they grew up in, and in the connection between humans across sprawling seas and vast continents. To be frank, I’m a wannabe-novelist, American incomer at a time when Cornwall is facing overdevelopment and surges of tourism, so I asked people invested in preserving Cornish culture and nature about what Cornwall can offer writers of all sorts.
“Cornwall offers space– space to write, space to think.” That is Wyl Menmuir, a Booker-nominated novelist and short story writer. He found himself moving to Cornwall so his kids could grow up close to nature. “My first novel, The Many, was inspired by Cornish villages.” Little parishes, soggy footpaths and roughly cobbled highstreets may not seem like mighty motivators for many young authors, but getting to know these places in detail is like unravelling a ball of yarn.
“I can look out my window and see stories. History is all around us,” says Lesley Trotter, the Vice Chair of the Cornish Association of Local Historians. With a background in journalism and a career as a local and family historian, Lesley poured all her knowledge, research and skill into writing The Married Widows of Cornwall, a book about the wives left behind during the 19th century Cornish Diaspora. “There’s a mine of stories in local history,” Lesley continues. Every writer can learn from Lesley’s views. Since speaking to her, I walk through Falmouth and Penryn with a new lens.
I’ve had a long-held dream to be a fantasy writer, inspired by travelling, history and mythology, kindling to an authorial fire. Captivated by Cornish coastline, I began studying in one of the most remote places in the UK— a stone’s throw from literal Land’s End. “Why did you choose Cornwall?” Surprised people tend to ask me. Why travel thousands of miles, across the Atlantic Ocean— ironically nicknamed ‘The Pond’? Cornwall enchants me with its magical, mythical, mysterious stories, ones I had never heard before like Tristan and Iseult. The southwest of England beckons and bewilders, luring historical and fantastical writers alike. Cornwall has become the rock of my writing. To me, Cornwall is as much an idea as a place, somewhere I can learn, somewhere ‘off the beaten track’, one that I do not know.
As I learn, I write, and history is a driving factor (even if it does involve gargoyles, tree people, and fake languages). Fantasy and history love each other like Antony and Cleopatra, an affair pushing strange phenomenons such as Bardcore, Larping and the return of the (more comfortable) corset. The love of fantasy is driving people to once again love the medieval, the classical, the renaissance. The rise of the fantasy genre is in a symbiotic relationship with history, myth and folklore, and language is a part of this connection.
Drawing on rarely recognised language and culture gives us power to immerse others in the worlds of our dreams (or nightmares if you’re into that). This is where Cornish comes in. It’s closely related to Welsh, Breton and other Gaelic dialects and sparsely spoken in the world today. This does not mean it is unworthy of learning, quite the opposite really. Denzil Monk, a film producer, Cornish language speaker and Director of the Cornish Public Service Broadcast Project, describes it like this “Look at anywhere in the world and you’ll find majority cultures and minority cultures. Take a parallel with agriculture, if you have monoculture, what you end up with is barren earth, but if you have permaculture, there will be a much higher yield of product consumption.” Drawing upon a multitude of cultures and languages allows writers to broaden the scope of their work, benefitting writer, reader and region all together. It’s becoming more and more important for storytellers to present tales of people, of places, of events that have long been ignored and forgotten. In a digital and story-devouring decade, it’s what the world needs.
For writers, there’s more than one way to reach out to these minority cultures. I like to put it like this, just in the 2000s alone, there has been seventeen different books and novels about the legend of Robin Hood, but not a single book centres around the legendary King Mark and the Tale of Tristan and Iseult, or about the giant Ralph the Wrath. As a writer, I have an obligation to sharing new stories, not recycling the same ones.
Cornwall is a cornucopia of chronicles and legends; legends being created even to this day. “I recently went to a conference in Wisconsin, and I was having Cornwall described to me by an American with Cornish heritage that was completely unrecognisable,” Lesley described as we discussed the Cornish Diaspora— an event that impacted my home state of Michigan. “We’re actually seeing modern myths being created now.” This is but one event of thousands that can be told, moulded and retold into powerful and imaginative narratives.
Piracy, seafaring, mining, migration (among others) imbue intrigue into Cornwall. You only need to look at the little seashore town of Falmouth to realise the prominence of the Killigrew family— the life of Thomas Killigrew is noteworthy. From a family of pirates, he was a playwright known for his wit, following the Castaway-King Charles Stuart to France after losing the Civil War to Oliver Cromwell. Upon his triumphal return, he built the Drury Lane Theatre and founded the King’s Men company.
However, it’s not just the national arena like the power politics of parliaments and throne rooms that make sophisticated stories. More and more, I’ve realised people are interested in common folk. As Lesley puts it, “National history is the history of things that affect people on a grand scale, but those decisions filter down to the people in different ways.” For writers, telling the stories of merchants and traders, immigrants and refugees, shop owners and single parents is like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. People today want to read about people like them.
Before the October lockdown, I ventured to Marazion. When the Cornish tide rolled back, revealing an old causeway, I stood amongst tourists and locals, rushing across to access the abbey-turned-castle, Saint Michael’s Mount, which has a sister castle across the channel named Mont Saint Michel. As I looked to the continent, I contemplated the symbolism of these two castles as an allegory of the historical relationship not only between England and France, but also of writers and where they place themselves. We need space to learn, and be inspired, to connect with each other and our surroundings. Plus, in Wyl’s words, “It’s no bad thing to have a beautiful landscape in which to walk and think in.”
“There are certain periods and people and places in history covered very well, but there are others not well known,” Lesley described the injustice with a sigh. With the relationship between history and fantasy, as storytellers, fictional and historical, we can remedy this. We just have to find our own ‘Cornwall’, our own sanctuary. Kernow a’gas dynnergh.