Be not afeared…

Shamans old and young, Jeju Island

Shamans old and young, Jeju Island

I spent last weekend with my wife and son on Jeju Do, a large island off the south coast of Korea. The weather forecast predicted 20 degrees, even by night – balmy for October; but when we got there, the pleasantly brisk sea breezes made it feel like nothing of the sort. By Sunday, we were sheltering from wholly unforecast rain, and we drove back to the airport Monday morning through rolling fog, blustery gales and squalls of rain. In your face Google, modern meteorology, algorithms and the like, I thought- there are still some things on the earth which you can’t explain and predict accurately. It would be nice to think that islands like Jeju are places where the normal rules of life don’t apply – in fact, the weather changed drastically on account of Typhoon Vongfong (“wasp” in Cantonese) passing closer than predicted on its way to Japan… Either way, it gave the weekend a Tempest sort of feel, and as I enjoyed the sweet airs, before they turned waspish, I recalled Caliban’s speech about the island in Shakespeare’s last play:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

Some readers may remember the speech from Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the London Olympics. I think Boyle included it to fit in with the twee Harry Pottery, Mary Poppinsy tone of the performance, but – call me pedantic if you like – I thought the reference was a bit off the mark. Britain may be an island, but a rather large one, and no short passage of verse could encompass everything from the Norfolk Broads to the Scottish Highlands. Shakespeare surely had in mind a smaller sort of an island, and it is interesting to speculate on which he was inspired by. Despite the Mediterranean setting, Shakespeare was inspired by islands both further afield and nearer home. Like others of his era, he would have been impressed by fanciful (or strange-but-true) tales of the new world, and students of orientalism get a kick out of the way ‘Caliban’ is an anagram of Canibal (although school children made to study it make much more of the fact that it sounds like Taliban). But perhaps he was also inspired by one of Britain’s smaller islands – Lundy in the Bristol Channel, the nearest island to Shakespeare’s home town, an isle with a monastery, not a million miles off the idea of an isle run by a wizard, perhaps, or – at a push – Skomer off the coast of Pembrokeshire (one of the world’s most important, wait for it, manx shearwater colonies) or the reedy, windswept isles of the Thames estuary, or even the Isle of Wight. Or some islands a little further to the north…

The Farne Isles are off the coast of Northumberland. They are, of course, a long way from Stratford or London, but Shakespeare would certainly have heard of them, especially the tidal island of Lindisfarne, that is Holy Island. If he had read his Bede, he would have heard of the story of Saint Cuthbert who retired from his ministry for a life of solitary prayer and contemplation on one of the Farne Isles, a short row from the coast. The legend goes that he had to battle and kill a demon before he could make his home there. Modern rationalists can have fun trying to explain way this legend. Did he have to evict some pagan remnants, or menacing (albeit wooden) exorcist-style statues? Did the island just have a nasty pre-christian atmosphere, or some really bad feng shui ( those mosses with that guano? No!)? Or some particularly intransigent terns – known to peck the heads of intruders in mating season, or even some rowdy mating seals? Perhaps Shakespeare was part-inspired by this to come up with the story of Prospero vanquishing the witch Sycorax, and taking over her island, and after a failed attempt at educating him, imprisoning her son, the monster Caliban.

Further north still, there is a slightly more grisly legend about the founding of an island. Monk-watchers among you will know that the monastery on Lindisfarne was founded by the Ionian monk Aidan (later Saint Aiden), at the invitation of King Oswald; his monastery, on Iona, a tiny island off Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, was founded by Colum Cille – Saint Columba – an Irish exile, with friends in the Gaelic-speaking Kingdom of Dal Riata. Colum Cille didn’t make the journey alone, but with a band of monks. When they arrived on the island, Colum Cille declared that a sacrifice should be made to God to consecrate the isle. A grave was dug, and one of his band jumped in to be buried alive, in what seemed like a survival of some pre-Christian rite. True or not, the legend, like Cuthbert’s, like Saint Patrick’s banishment of snakes from Ireland, and like the story of Prospero’s battle with Sycorax, seems to be based in an ancient belief that to take ownership of an island, someone or something must be defeated, some blood must be shed, or demons exorcised.

I don’t know where I’m going with all this: when I arrived on Jeju I vanquished nothing more than a bag of crisps and a cup of coffee.

But I did after all hear a lot of strange noises – the cicadas are all dead this time of year, so not so much the ‘thousand twangling instruments’, but anyway chirping crickets, squeaking bulbuls, squawking magpies, and the noises set in motion by those ‘sweet airs’ the rustling of reeds and oriental pine, the mad swishing back and forth of towering poplars, and of course the crashing of waves on Jeju’s volcanic rock shores. All quite delightful. If there was anything at all Caliban-like on the island it was the ubiquitus island mascot and guardian spirit Harubaeng, a gnarled, and slightly phallic gnome, staring at us boggle-eyed from every stone bridge and gift shop. Despite the typhoon he summoned our way – his idea of a joke perhaps- I felt he meant us no harm.

Jeju island has inspired poetry itself, including some by the Korean poet, Ko Un – who may one of these days win the Nobel prize for literature, and may not – but will still be great. In one of his longer poems, ‘Cheju Island: A Cenotaph‘ he describes a recurring trip to Jeju (sometimes transliterated ‘Cheju’) in which a poet – or a series of poets – travel to the island to be reborn, write a poem and throw it out to sea in a bamboo tube. As in The Tempest, the poem casts its island as a magical place, although in this case the magic is of a kind that inspires rather than merely confounds the protagonist. Which is not to say the magic is wholly innocent…

old shamans are the rocks laid bare by ebb tides,
young shamans so bewitching that
they can enslave old men.

Transl. Clare You and Richard Silberg, from The Three Way Tavern, University of California Press,

Now there’s a magic more sensuous than the spells that put Caliban in his cage. And ‘shaman’ is a lot more sympathetic than ‘witch’. That old shaman, Robert Graves would have thoroughly approved.



Filed under Literature, Long Form, Poetry

6 responses to “Be not afeared…

  1. I used to live near a St. Columbkille’s church in Brighton, Massachusetts, and, as you may know, have a great fondness for the Lindisfarne gospels…also love islands, though shamans I would always avoid. Can you recommend a collection in English of Ko Un’s poetry? I know almost nothing about him, though I’ve read that he and all of the South Korean press routinely wait by the phone to hear if his nomination for the Nobel has come to fruition. A most lovely read, this sunny Sunday in October…thank you!

  2. The Three Way Tavern is a recent collection which translates poetry from throughout his career. It’s very good – and quite varied too. I think my favourites are his people poems describing people under the Japanese occupation, during which he was a (fairly cheeky by the sounds of it) young boy. I would definitely recommend it. Glad you enjoyed the monk-y business, although I fear I have made that joke before…

  3. It’s been interesting to read these ruminations — and Caliban’s speech is of course timeless and beyond price. Like Midsummet Night’s Dream, The Tempest can drift off towards whimsy but it is also deeply mysterious and unsettling. Maybe, as you suggest, that is characteristic if many small islands. Not the Isle of Wight though. Definitely not!

  4. What an enlightening post! I like the way that everything you provide on your blog serves the purpose of illuminating the reader with the wonders of the world, but literary and literal. I’ve never been to Jeju, though I’m a big fan of the Beatles’ song of that name.

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