Tolkien’s Birmingham: (Part 4): Impressions of Moseley Bog from Sarehole Mill — as reflected in The Bluebottle Boys[This is the second part of the excerpt from The Bluebottle Boys, relating to Moseley Bog. At the point where it ends, Reggie is headed into the Bog, but it will be an “alternative” sort of Bog, with many more canals and passages than the real one has, leading Reggie to a fantasy realm. Except for the music, all impressions set forth here really exist out in the Bog. A historical note: The playing field referenced belonged to Moseley Grammar School; it no longer exists, or rather, the school exists, a portion of the field exists, but the portion Reggie accesses was never really usable, and was swallowed up by the Bog upon its abandonment. The featured picture is of what Stan and Reggie call “The Witch’s Tree.”]
“The sound was like a tinny harmonium, accompanying voices that almost sounded as if they were chanting ‘aum’ – except that they weren’t: The sound was more like ‘ooo-ahh, ooo-ahh.’ The harmonium faded, replaced by a harpsichord, whose sound swelled in proportion to the harmonium’s departure. The voices grew more subdued but didn’t vanish entirely; another voice began to sing distinctly.
“‘Well, here you are, where have you been?
It’s now the start of a smoky Friday e’en
With rising scents all lying in between
Chimney pot and ashtray, frankincense and myrrh,
Dried leaves, mouldy wood, feathers and fur.’
“A tin whistle offered up an occasional descant as the song continued, with – what was it? The faint arpeggio of a Celtic floor harp? The ethereal drone of a glass harmonica? Maybe each, in its turn, or perhaps both at once, but so indistinctly that I could only make one out at a time.
“‘All to divert you in these final hours
As the full moon rises behind you
As moonbeams percolate through the distant branches
And their undulating silver light enhances
Everything that nature’s handiwork and chance has
Sculpted on the trees just beyond the grassy glade
Figurine and filigree along passage made
The swan, the swan, oh come and join the swan,
Before he departs and you wonder where he’s gone.
Join in the revels and be back before dawn
As the Sky Mother’s fair, delightful daughter
Summons you to come across the water
To where the full moon’s enchantment towers
And no one shall ever find you.’
“The swan? There hadn’t been any swans at Sarehole Mill in yonks.
Yet, as the full moon’s disk, that had dwarfed everything else on the horizon, broke its moorings, morphing into a gargantuan orb of pockmarked silver as it ascended the heavens, it cast a glow over the pond, revealing that – yes – a white swan indeed sat quietly in the water, no more than six, maybe seven feet from the pond’s edge. It was tethered to a small boat, its stern beached a foot ro so into the grasses at the shoreline, a single lit candle at the bow, two more at each corner of the stern, a large eiderdown quilt lining the boat’s interior. The candles might’ve seemed redundant in the vibrant moonlight, but I knew all too well if I entered that boat and crossed the pond, the candles would become essential as I entered the murky, shadowy, sinister passages beyond. For s swan wouldn’t be necessary to take me the short distance across the pond – a pair of oars would’ve been quite sufficient. But I suspected that my journey was to be a far longer and darker one, where the swan was intended to be my guide and navigator, not simply my means of locomotion.
“As the moonlight permeated the overhead branches its light was akin to a strobe light, but much slower, rising and falling like a slow breath. The sculpture of the forest landscape seemed affable enough in that light, its scenes alternately like clusters of abstract figurines or tiny hamlets from which any number of gnomes, dwarves – even hobbits – might emerge at any moment. But the singer knew better; the melody of the song changed, the tempo grew faster, more urgent:
“‘They call you a “friend”
As they draw you on in
But take care, dear one, take care.
For in the end
Are you truly a friend
Or a part of tonight’s bill of fare?’
“Bill of fare? I could only hope that referred to being part of a performance roster or a theatrical program, and that I wasn’t, at someone’s option, to be sautéed over a low flame then served with mint or Worcester sauce.
“For even in daylight, darkness crept upon you in Moseley Bog, the rotting canopy of branches shutting out most of the sky, making the arrival of dusk almost imperceptible. Once in the grip of evening, passages in the bog became far more menacing. Tolkien had written that trees of the Old Forest, were content to watch you as long as the daylight lasted, but disliked and distrusted strangers. But any proper Brummie knew that the Old Forest had been based on the spectral marshes of Moseley Bog, and many of us wondered what the trees might do after dark.
“There was a sturdy, venerable tree covered in vines, which Stan and I had always referred to as ‘The Witch’s Tree.’ The Bog was officially off-limits, but Stan and I’d accessed it from the other side, transcending the obstacles to accessing an athletic field, adjacent to the Bog, usually doing so under the cover of semi-darkness, and then breaking into the Bog from there. The trails, such as they were, tended to be narrow and meandering, sometimes even byzantine, and we had to move slowly and carefully. At that hour, we moved as close to the shores as we could manage
“Many of the abstract figurines would begin to look as if they could rise, enter the water and attack. The damp and mold, and a tendency of the creepers to haul anything they could into the water, left other portions looking as if the rotting corpses of scores of dead soldiers still lay in the waters. In yet other parts, they resembled wrought iron gates to realms best avoided, even to the realm of Death itself. We were rarely there more than an hour from the time we entered the athletic field to the time we’d run the obstacle course out, rush to our bicycles and tear off home.
“Now I’d be seeing it from the other side, from the relative safety (I supposed) of the boat; but what dangers did these trees pose after hours?
“Still, there was no help for it. I’d been summoned, and experience was already teaching me that I wasn’t likely to be entitled to refuse. I pushed the boat away from the shore, but not so far that I’d have difficulty boarding. I climbed into it cautiously, like a tightrope walker beginning his trek, and placed Gramfer’s guitar behind me. I hesitated a moment before I sat, wanting to pull the quilt about me. The swan began pull the boat away, carrying me toward whatever awaited me at the other end of the canals.”
Excerpt from The Bluebottle Boys © 2015, 2916 by G. H. McCallum. Excerpt from lyrics to The Summoning Song © 2016 by G. H. McCallum.
G. H. McCallum
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