Friday 16 January 2015

Melancholia III, part I: On Holloways and Harrowed Paths

I have been re-reading Dan Abnett’s excellent Pariah and was once again struck by one of the great concepts appearing in the book. A concept, which in turn have inspired me to begin my third Melancholia project and a further exploration into the ‘anatomy of melancholy’:

In Pariah the city of Queen Mab is criss-crossed with an irregular scheme of holloways and harrowed paths, which, according to Abnett, are sacred ways, streets of the vast city that are distinguished because they felt the actual step of Saint Orphaeus when he trod upon its world during his pilgrimage of grace many centuries before the story unfolds (Abnett, 2012).

The concept may have been inspired by Abnett’s own surroundings in Kent. Here long distance pathways like the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims Way between Winchester and Canterbury run along the chalk ridgeways of the high hills. In some places the ridgeways are linked to the lower levels of the river valleys by sunken lanes and holloways that are routes where footsteps over thousands of years of pilgrimage have worn a passage into the soft chalk. 

In the words of Abnett’s peer Robert Macfarlane in his beautiful book Holloway, which coincidentally was published in 2012 – the same year as Abnett’s Pariah – a holloway is:

A sunken path, a deep & shady lane. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll & rain-run have harrowed into the land. A track worn down by the traffic of ages & the fretting of water […] They are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness. Like creases in the hand, or the wear of the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the result of repeated human actions.  (Macfarlane, 2012)

In Queen Mab the holloways are silent and dusty, almost all colour gone and flaked, sanded down by centuries of weather. They are home to the destitute and the warblind (Abnett, 2012). Macfarlane echoes this description when he in Holloway describe some holloways also as ‘fearways, danger-ways, coffin-paths, corpse-ways and ghostways.’ (Macfarlane, 2012) 

Many of those that have walked such old ways have experienced them as places within which one might slip back out of the ordinary world and within which ghosts softly flock. For some, walking them is a wordless conversation between ghosts and ghosts-to-be

In Melancholia III I will try to convey this - and that some certain old paths are linear only in a simple sense. That some paths are echospaces where past and present - like trees - have branches and - like rivers - have tributaries. That some paths, in the strikingly beautiful words of Macfarlane, are:

[…] rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to recapitulation & rhyme, weird morphologies, uncanny doublings. (Macfarlane, 2012)

Where Melancholia I and Melancholia II were about sight and sound respectively Melancholia III will be all about warblindness and otherworldly, treecovered silence!


  1. A promising introduction. I am really looking forward to this. :)

    1. I am glad to hear that from a master of the woods herself :) Thanks!

  2. truly inspiring environments...

  3. Great post :) Looking forward to this. John's Voodoo Forest matches the subject matter quite well too.

    1. What a brilliant coincidence! Those Voodoo Forests are incredible! Thanks for the heads up Migs :)