Some years ago I wrote a novella called Toad … or perhaps I should say it wrote me :-). I was in the middle of writing Owl Woman at the time and so would rather have waited until I’d finished that but my pesky little Toad wasn’t having any, I had to write him then, right then and no messing! It was the fastest, most flat-out piece of long writing – as opposed to short stories – I’ve ever done. I’m still satisfied with him although I do hanker after changing the ending, but he’s out there now, on Amazon and all, so it would be a bit painful.
I’m trying to remember when I first got interested in alchemy … lots of hazy, misty stuff about the old kitchen in the house in Okehampton which would put me at about five years old. Dad was always telling me magical stories, half made up himself and hanging on the bones of really ancient stuff. I used to see the characters, as he told me the tales, in the air above my bed up in the attic. I strongly recall believing the old Rayburn stove in that marvellous kitchen was really an Athenor, the fiery oven in which you were baked, and they found me once half inside the warming oven along with the orphan lamb who was being kept warm in there :-). Dad had a way of telling the stories so they were perfectly comprehensible to his five-year-old daughter … a marvellous trait.
There were toads living in the old drainpipes in the shed of next-door’s huge garden. I used to go play there with Jill who was a few months older than me. It had all the charm of The Secret Garden although it was in a town on the edge of Dartmoor rather than in the wilds of Yorkshire. Sometimes dad would come too and be the Wizard, or the Black Knight, or some such character … including the alchemist. He told us about toads. He had a way with animals as well as words and most things would come to him, stay with him if he picked them up. I’ve even seen a grasshopper sit on his thumb for minutes while he talked about it … and to it … flicking its antennae and occasionally moving a leg but hopping off, not until he was finished talking. The shaman’s way … each creature respecting the other.
I found toads fascinating. There was a big pond in the garden and most springtimes there was the necklace of pearls, the long sting of toad-spawn, in the water as well as the more commonly seen frogspawn.
Neither my nor Jill’s cats like toads. They would find one sometimes and think to catch it but one taste and they were foaming and spitting with disgust at the taste. Dad told us about the coating of unpleasant stuff that made most creatures who would eat toads foam at the mouth, the toad’s defence. In alchemy, he said, it was called venom, poison, and highly prized. Of course, after that, we wanted to get some so Dad showed us how to stroke the toad gently to get a little of the venom without hurting the creature. He said the alchemists would make a medicine of the venom, transmute it by various secret means, but he would never tell us how. As a crone myself now I wonder if he knew, or if he was hiding the fact that he didn’t know in a great cloak of Secrecy to impress us. I don’t mind which it was. The very fact that he would never tell made me hunt the secret myself … and find my own answers. It’s likely this was his intent all along :-).
In my story, Toad goes on a journey. He has a rather uncomfortable beginning in that he goes to the loo with a frightful stomach ache and finds himself blown into another world. Makes you careful about going to the loo, eh LOL.
In the other world he has an adviser, helper, mentor, a very Eyore-ish Crow – if you don’t know Eyore do go and read Winnie-the-Pooh, another way of alchemy :-).
Toad goes through the four alchemical processes …
- Nigredo – the Black, a form of death
- Albedo – the White, rebirth and getting to know the pairs of opposites in the form of the Queen and the King
- Citrinato – the Gold, a long walking-waiting, learning patience and what you’re here for, and learning to go on without knowing where you’re going
- Rubado – the Red, the final alchemical wedding of Soul and Personality
Umm … yes … how do you say all that to a pair of five-year-olds ??? But Dad planted the seed in my mind and then had the strength to go away and leave it to grow – unlike the farmer who went out into the field each night to pull up his onions to see if they were growing!
And finally, in my story, Toad finds his way home although, as Ursula LeGuin puts it home is a place he has never yet been and that, too, is part of his learning, his journey. His reward is waiting for him, it’s something he would never have thought of before, terribly practical and completely satisfying. Out of the poison, the venom, that he began with when he fell down the loo comes a medicine that cures all the ills he thought he had before he went on the journey.
I’m extremely fond of Toad. He is Everyman, he is me. I’ve been where he’s been, known his despair, known his joys too. I don’t know if I’ve come to the end of my journey yet, or my reward, but I do know that I’ve learned how to be joyous and how to be content. Those are great things to have learned.
Going on the alchemical journey does this for many people and Toad – damn his eyes! – was at me again earlier this year to make a workshop for people around his adventure. And to do it here, where I live. It’s a very magical place here in the Welsh Marches, lots of sacred sites and lots of Arthurian connections – my other love, the other stories Dad used to tell me. Toad wants me to use some of the sites on the workshop. After lots of pondering and thinking and cogitating and struggling the workshop emerged and will be held for the first time from 11-13 June 2010. it will be small but there’s still a bit of room if you’re interested. If you’d like to come, contact me here. It costs £100. Sacred sites we will work at are …
- Arthur’s Stone – a 4000 year old tumulus in which we do the Nigredo process.
- Archenland – my home, where we do the Albedo and Citrinato process; these include walking the Celtic labyrinth, the Troy Town, and making masks in our sacred grove.
- Dinedor – the Serpent Mound above the river Wye, where a 4000+ year-old serpent-pathway was found a few years back, where we do the Rubado process and the alchemical wedding.
The workshop is about exploring yourself, discovering parts you may not have suspected you had, ideas about why you are here and where you are going. Each process includes a journey, partly led and accompanied by drumming and/or chanting followed by drawing and then discussion. There will be pointers on what each process is about but participants will each find their own journeys and experiences and, through these, their own answers.