Friday, January 30, 2015

INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MOORCOCK, Part Three

Click here to read Part One and here to read Part Two of the interview.

KS – As a teenager, I found the Hawkwind compilation Masters of the Universe (1977) in a German record shop (back when there were record shops) and was surprised to see the piece “Sonic Attack” credited to you. After that discovery, I was obsessed with Hawkwind throughout my high school years. How did you first get involved with the band?

MM – Good news is that record shops and bookshops are making a comeback as small independent stores.

I think “Sonic Attack” was the first number I performed with Hawkwind. My friend Jon Trux brought Robert [Calvert] round to see me one day. Bob, who had not yet performed with Hawkwind himself, was enthusiastic about the band and persuaded me to come to see them at a nearby hall. I loved them.

It turned out some of them read my books, and at that time they were saying Hawkwind came from Hawkmoon. With Dik Mik and Del [Dettmar] in the band, wandering around and sticking jacks into plugs to see what would happen, I said they were like the crazed crew of a ship that had been flying through space for too long.

Nik [Turner] and Dave [Brock] came round a couple of times before they asked me to write some lyrics. I did something that could be chanted rather than sang – “Sonic Attack,” “Wear Your Armour” and “Choose Your Masques.”

I was helping organize the gigs under the motorway, and Hawkwind were due to play. Robert by now was in the loony bin and very worried someone would take his job. Dave asked me to perform my stuff. I told Robert I'd fill in for him while he was in the bin, and he needn't worry about me taking his job, because I already had one. So from then on I'd help Bob get treatment, stand in for him while he was having it, and stand down when he wanted to come back.

Hawkwind at Windsor Free Festival (1973)
Robert Calvert, Michael Moorcock, Simon King & Lemmy Kilmister
Photo by Dave Walkling
I usually couldn't do every gig on a tour, so I tended to do gigs when I could. Because what I was doing was a kind of declamatory chanting (I was not doing poetry!) it was easy for me to fit in my numbers. Where I'd rehearsed, I'd do a song or two – and hope Dave hadn't meanwhile modified the tune, as he did on “Coded Languages,” I think.

There's a track from a live gig which is exactly that. I'm singing one tune, and Dave changes it (it appeared to me) halfway through. You can hear me fumbling to get back into the song.

KS – Robert Calvert was a complicated figure, arguably the most charismatic Hawkwind member (aside from Lemmy), and the performer of your “Sonic Attack.” You published his writing in New Worlds, and you played banjo on his Lucky Leif and the Longships.

Both you and Calvert have released recordings directly linked to works of fiction. In 1975, you released the New Worlds Fair LP with your band, The Deep Fix. The album title refers to the science fiction magazine you famously edited between 1964 and (with various breaks) 1996, and the group name is taken from the band Jerry Cornelius leads in your novels dealing with his adventures. In 1981, Calvert released the album Hype: The Songs of Tom Mahler, which ties in with his Hype novel of the same year.

What was it like to have a personal, literary and musical relationship with Calvert? How much influence did you have on each other’s work?

MM – He was a bit younger than me, and he didn't influence me at all. I don't think my work influenced him, either. He was a friend.

Island Studios were nearby. Occasionally, people would drop in and sometimes put a guitar riff on or something [during the recording of Calvert's Lucky Leif and the Longships album]. [Producer Brian] Eno thought it needed a banjo, so I said I'd go and get mine. When I dragged it out of its case, the strings were almost rusty. I said they'd have to wait while I restrung the banjo. Eno said “no” and to play it like it was. Eno was always inspired like that. “Hands on” had a whole different meaning when he was at the deck.

Hype was done at a little studio near Aldwych. I was living in Yorkshire with Linda and came down to do something at the BBC World Service which was near the studio. He wanted the sound I could get on my Rickenbacker. So Linda and I did some backing vocals, and I put some guitar on, and that was that.

Robert Calvert in London (1985)
I'd helped him get organised and took him up to Yorkshire to try to teach him self-discipline and how to focus. He was worried how critics would judge him. As an editor, I was used to dealing with those sort of anxieties. He wrote a bit of Hype there.

I had the feeling sometimes that he wanted to do what I could do. He was a far better rock and roll performer than I ever was, and he could be magic on stage. I tried to help him explore his talents and so on but I felt, I must admit, that he looked down on R&R and wanted to be acknowledged as a serious artist, etc. etc.

The public was less interested in him as a poet than as a rock performer. You can see this at once by looking at YouTube. Lots of hits for rock, few for “The Kid from Silicon Gulch.” He was disappointed by the reception for his plays, but frankly I thought they were the least interesting productions of a very talented man.

KS – You’re credited as co-author of The Time of the Hawklords (1976), a science fiction novel with the members of Hawkwind as protagonists. Did you really have nothing to do with this besides suggesting the idea to Michael Butterworth?

MM – I wrote the first page. The publisher put my name on it in big letters. Maybe because I did the rough outline, too.

KS – A later incarnation of Hawkwind recorded Chronicle of the Black Sword (1985), a concept album based on your Elric mythos. The album also included “Needle Gun,” a track referring to Jerry Cornelius’ weapon of choice. You can be heard performing with the band on the subsequent Live Chronicles (1986) double-LP.

MM – Both those songs were done for NWF [New Worlds Fair] but weren't really suitable. I performed them first, and Dave modified the tunes to suit him.

KS – Tolkien once wrote about his early dream of creating “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of the romantic fairy-story,” stating that “[t]he cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.”

You’ve actually lived his dream, creating a Multiverse mythos “of more or less connected legend” while leaving scope for artists and musicians to contribute to the totality. The major difference between Tolkien’s dream and your reality, however, is that you have yourself been so often engaged with these artists and musicians as a participant and co-creator.

Have your interactions with other creative types who wander in your mythology influenced your own ongoing creative process? Has your more recent writing of Elric been affected by the way he has been portrayed in other media?

MM – Not really. Elric is alive, within me.

I have never read an Elric book all the way through. I somehow know his story, perhaps because he really is a part of me. I rarely have to refer to earlier stories.

I never set out to create a complex cosmology/theology around the stories. Somehow, perhaps because it was incorporated into D&D, it has influenced generations.

Promotional poster for Deep Purple's Stormbringer (1974)
Often people have no idea where the battle between Law and Chaos, the Chaos symbol, and so on come from. Someone interviewing Deep Purple (is it?) about their album Stormbringer in [the British music publication ] NME asked them why they'd used my title. They replied that it wasn't mine. All that stuff was “from mythology.” “No, it isn't,” said the interviewer.

I've had my stories told back to me as urban myths by stoned dealers in the Mountain Grill and the Princess Alexandria. It's a very strange experience.

I didn't, of course, set out to do it. It happened because so many people, especially in the sixties and seventies, took my ideas and ran with them -- games, comics, movies, etc. That's how those ideas were absorbed.

KS – You also collaborated with the American band Blue Öyster Cult, co-writing three songs with vocalist and guitarist Eric Bloom. “The Great Sun Jester” (1979) references your novel The Fireclown (1965), and “Black Blade” (1980) is a song about Elric. The third collaboration – “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” (1981) – famously appeared on the soundtrack to the animated film Heavy Metal (also 1981). The title echoes lyrics to the Hawkwind song “Standing at the Edge” from the album Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975) – an album to which you contributed lyrics and which centers on your idea of the Eternal Champion.

How did your collaboration with Blue Öyster Cult come about? How was your relationship with BÖC different from the one you had with Hawkwind?

Poster for the Heavy Metal movie (1981)
MM – I saw an advance showing of the movie in Paris with all the guys from Métal Hurlant. We were all open-mouthed at the enormous number of lifts appeared in that film! I didn't know the album track was used, and a number of artists were amazed to see their styles ripped off. A strange experience.

I met Eric in New York in the seventies, and he asked me for some lyrics. I gave him some I'd been performing myself with DF [the Deep Fix], and he modified the tunes to suit him. Eric wanted to make an Elric movie, but sadly we never got it together.

Eric's an amazingly good performer on stage, too. Although I performed a couple of numbers with Eric, I was never in the US long enough to develop the same relationship as I had with Hawkwind. Eric remains a friend.

KS – Your novelization of the Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) morphed into a Jerry Cornelius adventure, which seems like a completely natural thing for it to do. Do you think that there was a serious political motivation behind the 1970s UK punk scene’s embrace of anarchism, or was anarchy just a pop music marketing gimmick – like 1980s metal bands using Satanic imagery and 21st-century pagan metal bands using the trappings of Old Norse religion? What was your take was on the original English punk scene as it was happening?

MM – The punks knew little about Kropotkinist political theory. They just wanted to get out from under and be heard. They were pissed off with the way rock and roll no longer seemed to represent the people listening to it. Glam rock was the last straw for the punks I knew.

Happily, Hawkwind and Motörhead were admired by punks for not selling out, so I worked with The Adverts, for instance, and later tried to help promote young punks – for instance in a South of Watford TV prog which went against much of what the producers had planned. It's on YouTube, I think. When I interviewed Siouxsie [of Siouxsie and the Banshees] for it, I told her it was likely to come out like the usual crap. Unfortunately, I'd left my mike on, and the producers overheard, so that didn't improve things.

I liked most of the punks I knew. Everyone but Captain Sensible [of the Damned], who I strongly disliked. I saw the movement as the same as I'd been involved in but with different haircuts.

KS – I came to read Mervyn Peake through your (eternal) championing of his work. You’ve said that you wrote your first completed novel, The Golden Barge (1958), while you were “very much under the spell of Mervyn Peake.” Do you still sometimes feel his shadow fall upon you while writing, or was he a childhood love whose influence has dissipated over the years?

Self-portrait by Mervyn Peake (1931)
MM – He was absorbed as an influence. I have never felt anyone's shadow hanging over me, and for that I am forever grateful. I admire and promote writers I love, but I don't worship them.

KS – In “Epic Pooh,” you write of the rural ideal and the urban reality:
Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, at least, people have been yearning for an ideal rural world they believe to have vanished – yearning for a mythical state of innocence (as Morris did) as heartily as the Israelites yearned for the Garden of Eden. This refusal to face or derive any pleasure from the realities of urban industrial life, this longing to possess, again, the infant's eye view of the countryside, is a fundamental theme in popular English literature.
Like the novels and stories of J.G. Ballard, much of your work dives deeply into the chaotic and confused contemporary urban landscape, but sees it through a lens informed by science fiction and experimental writing. It seems perfectly poetic that you were the person who introduced Ballard to the work of William S. Burroughs (and vice versa) and that they first met in person at one of your parties. How would you describe the relationship between the three of you, in terms of literary cross-pollination?

Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Mike Kustow, J.G. Ballard
Brighton Arts Festival (1968)
MM – Burroughs was an inspiration to both Ballard and myself. I brought the books back from France and later introduced them and Burroughs to Ballard, as I introduced [Eduardo] Paolozzi and others. I tended to go out a bit more than Jimmy [Ballard]! We all saw the techniques of SF as bringing a shot in the arm to modernism (or post-modernism).

KS – Your characters have appeared in comic book form many times since 1969, when you wrote The Adventures of Jerry Cornelius for London underground newspaper International Times. Elric was the first of your creations to appear in American comics, when he was featured in a 1972 Conan the Barbarian storyline written by Roy Thomas on your plot outline. More recently, you collaborated in 2006 on Elric: Making of a Sorcerer with Walt Simonson, an artist legendary for his run on Marvel’s The Mighty Thor in the 1980s. How well do you think the comics medium works in presenting your ideas?

Elric by Philippe Druillet
MM – Elric first appeared in Moi Aussi drawn by Philippe Druillet in the sixties. That was a very useful collaboration!

Recently, the new Elric graphic novel published by Glenat was a best-seller and the best depiction of my old Elric stories.

Walter is an especially good collaborator, giving me back as much as I give him. For original work, Walter Simonson has done the best. We became very good friends while working on Michael Moorcock's Multiverse in the late nineties, though we've known each other since the seventies.

KS – Given the popularity of your novels and their continuing appeal to generations of readers, how is it possible that the only movie based on your work was the Jerry Cornelius adventure, The Final Programme (1973)? Have their been breakdowns with studio negotiations over creative rights, or is there something else that has prevented your works from reaching the screen? I don’t think it’s a given that every popular work of fiction must be turned into a film or television show, but much of your work seems very suited to contemporary cinematic treatment.

Michael Moorcock and Jon Finch (as Jerry Cornelius)
during the filming of The Final Programme
MM – Until relatively recently, I discouraged movie versions of my work. Now the narrative determines the effects, rather than vice versa. Elric is in the process of being sold to a TV production company. My work is very visual, but that still daunts most producers!

KS – I remember being completely baffled as a teenager when I found a nearly complete run of Heavy Metal at a used bookstore and read the late-1970s serial The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius by French artist Mœbius, reprinted from the French Métal Hurlant. You actually weren’t involved in creating the strip; the series was one of the many works featuring your characters by other authors such as Alan Moore and Bryan Talbot. You’ve been somewhat unique as a modern prose author who has actually encouraged others to use his characters.

The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius by Moebius
MM – More narratives, more complexity, more ways of looking at the same subject or character, but recently I've begun to discourage people from using my characters. Some have used them for trivial reasons and don't expand the idea the way Alan, in particular, does. Both Alan and Bryan did me the courtesy of asking if I'd mind and sending me copies when they were done.

Elric by Walter Simonson
KS – Mythic figures like Thor and Loki are interesting in that they can be used as vehicles for storytelling in any age, by any author. Now that Elric has passed his half-century anniversary, he seems more mythic than ever. What do you hope for your characters in future? Do you want the book to be closed by your hand, or do you want authors in 3014 to be writing works set in your literary Multiverse?

MM – I'd love it, if it were the latter! But I wouldn't mind getting a credit.

KS – Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, and thank you for all the literature and music that you’ve created.

MM – And so to bed.

Friday, January 23, 2015

INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MOORCOCK, Part Two

Click here to read Part One of The Norse Mythology Blog's Michael Moorcock interview.

KS – In the 1960s, fantasy and science fiction were embraced by the counterculture. You’ve pointed out the incongruity between the worldviews of young radicals who were reading and older conservatives who were writing. Since the 1970s, these genres have become increasingly commercial and increasingly commonplace. What’s changed – authors, audience, both or neither?

MM – A genre becomes successful with a large public by being predictable. The detective must always solve the mystery. The genre must become familiar to a lot of people to overcome their suspicion of the strange. Bestsellers generally are bland, just as literary prizes – awarded by committee – don't give prizes to unfamiliar kinds of writing.

While SF was generally marginalised by "educated people" (though read by many intellectuals), it remained edgy and critical – [Frederik] Pohl and [C.M.] Kornbluth, [Alfred] Bester, [Philip K.] Dick, etc. – and attempted to examine ideas.

To achieve success with a wide public, it needed to import many of the characteristics of existing popular genres (historical romance fiction aimed at women, for instance). By doing this, it ceased to be analytical and confrontational and became, instead, comforting – a sucked nipple.

Michael Moorcock
I think the audience for confrontational and analytical SF/fantasy exists, but it finds what it wants increasingly in the more complex fiction of Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood and others. They have done, in different ways, exactly what New Worlds was calling for in the '60s and taken the elements they needed from SF to write a kind of fiction perhaps more relevant to the present.

Someone like Martin Amis struggles, I think, with ways of confronting us and tends to reinvent or take from the likes of [J.G.] Ballard. His books aren't very complex or subtle, but they show a contemporary novelist trained in the form of realism – say, that his father wrote – trying to find a language and form more relevant to his own experience. [Salman] Rushdie, of course, is another. There are enough, these days, in many countries for them to begin to resemble a "school."

KS – Your essay “Starship Stormtroopers” (1978) mentions “the fascist elements inherent to the form” of sword-and-sorcery epics and contrasts the rugged individualism of science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein with your own identity as an anarchist. In your essay “Epic Pooh,” you write of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams:
While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don't think these books are "fascist," but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.
However, Frodo’s acceptance of the Ring and willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of his community seems to line up with your own portrayal of the anarchist in “Starship Stormtroopers”: “To be an anarchist, surely, is to reject authority but to accept self-discipline and community responsibility.”

In a 1943 letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien wrote:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who use the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!
Lest he be misunderstood, he clarifies his view of modern life:
There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism,’ may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.
This sounds a bit like something one of your characters would say! Thirty-seven years after the first appearance of your essays, how have your views on the political stance inherent in Tolkien’s fiction changed or evolved?

Moorcock (on right) with artist Rodney Matthews in 1978,
the year "Starship Stormtroopers" & "Epic Pooh" appeared
MM – If they said it, it wouldn't be with my approval. That kind of romantic nonsense is precisely why I disagree with Tolkien.

He says he'd rather have anarchy or dictatorship. Isn't that a sign of someone who hasn't found politics engaging and is rejecting the modern world?

He doesn't provide a reader with any understanding of his existence at all. Instead he rejects reality for fantasy. Not exactly a profound thinker, is he?

It's that yearning for simplification which attracts people to demagogues and continues to attract them to this day, with disastrous results for the majority of us. In a world where simplistic ideas are actually threatening our continuing existence as a life-form, I am not comforted by the notion that an act of self-sacrifice like Frodo's will do the trick and make the world safe again.

I think it's the simplification, rejection of the world's complexity, that discomforts me with Tolkien.

What's wrong with escapism? he asks.

Nothing, I say, except when it's a substitute for escaping. And we escape our dilemmas by actively confronting them and solving the problems which concern us as a species.

Tolkien, in the end, is all nostalgic, sentimental passivity. He encourages young people to ignore the problems of our times.

I liked Tolkien when I met him. A nice old buffer very good at controlling his own environment. He wrote a nice little childrens' book, a nursery tale in nursery speech. Even I feel sorry for him, however, when I see the nonsense [Peter] Jackson has made of that nice little nursery tale.

Looks like the only evolution I appear to have made is in describing why I so hate hobbits when put in the hands of adults.

KS – You also write in “Starship Stormtroopers” that, back in 1967,
Judith Merril, a founder member of The Science Fiction Writers of America, an ex-Trotskyist turned libertarian, proposed that this organisation would buy advertising space in the [science fiction] magazines condemning the war in Vietnam. I was around when this was proposed.
Today, genre writers seem more focused on monetizing their creativity than on working for social change. They spend their days online, courting readers to write positive Amazon reviews, asking bloggers for features in hope of boosting their eBook sales. Everyone has to make a living, but this focus on self-marketing seems to have pushed aside any political involvement in the public sphere. Why do you think fantasy and science fiction writers no longer publicly engage in social action the way they did in the 1960s?

New Worlds, May-June 1964: the first issue
with Michael Moorcock at the editor's desk
MM – People who want bland escapism aren't interested in politics.

As with popular music, very little popular fiction can concern itself with confrontation today. Confrontational chanting in the shape of gangsta rap is about all we have, and that's marginalized – perhaps because it speaks for the marginalised and disenfranchised.

No parent would encourage their offspring to join a rock band or write SF in 1960. By 2015, however, that which is successful with a large public can be identified and the rest put aside.

When I went into a studio or began a book, I generally had no idea what it would come out like, or if there was even a public for it. That gives music and writing a certain tension it lacks if you have identified all the "successful" elements in a piece and can reproduce them.

The public loves repetition. If it didn't, it wouldn't like music. Repetition is a sign it's safe to go down to the waterhole every day.

KS – You’ve described H.P. Lovecraft as “a promoter of anti-rationalist ideas about racial ‘instinct’ which have much in common with Mein Kampf,” and you’ve put the original Star Wars film in the same bag. I’d throw Tolkien in there for good measure, given his Lovecraftian fear of the democratic mob, of immigrants, of foreigners – and his endless emphasis on the importance of bloodlines.

In 2012, Weird Tales Magazine caused a brouhaha when they announced plans to publish an excerpt from Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a bizarrely racist science fiction novel in which a minority of beautiful white people (“Pearls”) is oppressed by a majority of beastlike black people (“Coals”). Why do the genres of fantasy and science fiction continue to attract writers who revel in a view of society more rooted in 1930s Germany than in either the ancient world or the future one?

MM – Simplification.

KS – Your Breakfast in the Ruins: A Novel of Inhumanity (1972) contains “The Downline to Kiev: 1920: Shuffling Along,” a chapter describing anarchist Nestor Makhno casually murdering a terrified train station guard. Makhno appears in several of your books, even though his appearance in Breakfast in the Ruins was retconned to make him part of the von Bek family in later editions. What do you find appealing in the historical Makhno?

Nestor Makhno in Romania (1921)
MM – His courage. His belief in education. His deep-rooted egalitarianism, which gave him the courage to confront, for instance, Grigorief for his pogromism and to shoot him in front of his massed men!

He became a sad figure in Paris, where Trotskyist enemies continued to blacken his name.

KS – Do you still feel that anarchism offers workable solutions to social problems in the 21st century?

MM – More than ever, now we have the means!

KS – Over the years, you’ve self-identified as an anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, existentialist, feminist, Kropotkinist, libertarian, optimist, populist democrat and pragmatist. What's the guiding philosophy that encompasses all these approaches?

MM – Kropotkinist anarchism, Dworkinist feminism.

KS – In your introduction to The Opium General and Other Stories (1984), you write that feminism is “a political standpoint which married easily with my anarchism.” While discussing writing female characters such as Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius, you write that
most of these women revolutionaries [Ulrike Meinhof, Patti Hearst, etc.] were using predominantly male dialectic and methods to express their anger and therefore had little to offer in the way of example of genuine feminist strategy. They adopted not only the tactics but also the antiquated rhetoric of a highly-romanticized, overwhelmingly masculine, violent, immorally simple-minded political attitude.
Sarah Douglas as Catherine Cornelius in 1973 film
loosely based on Moorcock's The Final Programme
Feminists have long problematized the trope of the Strong Male Character who uses violent means to achieve his personal goals. A younger generation of feminists is now examining the more recent trope of the Strong Female Character who shows her strength by using violent means to help the male character achieve his personal goals.

Mainstream fantasy and science fiction seem particularly prone to using this blunderbuss approach to strength of character. Is it possible for male authors to write powerful women who don’t simply replicate the violent approach of male protagonists?

MM – Yes. But it requires a slight change, I think, in the social climate.

KS – Your "Starship Stormtroopers" essay repeatedly mentions your support for libertarianism. It also critiques the idea of “rugged individualism,” which you argue
goes hand in hand with a strong faith in paternalism – albeit a tolerant and somewhat distant paternalism – and many otherwise sharp-witted libertarians seem to see nothing in the morality of a John Wayne Western to conflict with their views.
Cliven Bundy, Ron Paul and other figures embraced by contemporary libertarians seem closer to the forces you critique in the essay than to the position you yourself held at the time. What do you think of what 21st-century American libertarianism has become?

MM – Ignorant self-indulgence.

KS – After being associated for so long in life and literature with London’s Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, you moved to Bastrop, Texas in the early 1990s. What do you make of recent developments in Texas politics, such as the recurring calls for secession from the United States and Governor Rick Perry’s actions to restrict access to abortion?

Michael Moorcock in earlier days
MM – Fear. Uncertainty about the future. Will Chinese Moslems destroy our certainties about our own superiority? And so on.

KS – Have you involved yourself in local and national politics in recent years?

MM – Not much. [My wife] Linda did a lot, however, in getting accomodation built for battered women and so on, locally. I have supported various local causes, but although I pay taxes, I have no representation.

I do feel a little disenfranchised, but it's mostly my own fault.

KS – In the time that you’ve lived here, how do you think the roles of the educational system and the news media in shaping American understanding of world events has changed?

MM – Simplification.

KS – Under both Republican and Democratic regimes, Americans have had an increasingly longer list of liberties and privacies taken away. There has been no large-scale social unrest regarding these issues. Do you see a change in the willingness of young people to go along with governmental overreach?

MM – Yes. During Vietnam, they didn't want to die in a pointless war. Nobody was very frightened of the possibility of Vietcong in Virginia.

This time, the powers that be did a better job. First they had evidence of threat to the US. After that, the rest was easy.

KS – You’ve repeatedly said that Melniboné is a representation of Imperial Britian in decline. Last year, the UK Independence Party made history by emerging victorious over both Labour and Conservatives. What does their win say about English political psychology now versus when Elric first appeared in 1961?

MM – People are uncertain. We all know how demagogues get elected during troubled times. I suspect the powers that be have lost control of the devil they created when they encouraged us all to be afraid.

The English, like many nations in flux, have lost confidence in their own virtue. This means that a simplified dynamic doesn't work any more.

However, I remember the fascist-in-chief, Oswald Mosley, still able to get a small crowd to a speech in 1957. Such figures exploit the public mood, if it's fearful, but rarely stay in power long. They do well in what the public think of as unimportant elections (local government, Europe), but generally the public go back to the more familiar and established parties.

I don't see very much change, though. They wave the Cross of St. George instead of the Union flag but they are the same people [Benjamin] Disraeli called "Little Englanders."

The country is better for its multiculturalism and for the way, in general, people have absorbed so many different cultures and ideas. Melniboné would have benefitted from an Open Door policy.

KS – How does the American political climate today compare to the British political climate when you were editing New Worlds in the 1960s?

MM – I think of Britain as a fast-acting model of the US. It has a similar government and economy as well as a shared philosophy in many instances.

As in the 1960s, Britain seems a more tolerant and humane version of the US, but I wonder now if it's useful to compare them.

To be concluded in Part Three.

Friday, January 16, 2015

INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MOORCOCK, Part One

Michael Moorcock is one of the great authors living today. His many awards include the Nebula Award for Best Novella (Behold the Man, 1968), the Guardian Fiction Prize (The Condition of Muzak, 1977), World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (Gloriana, 1979) and the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement (2004). He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2010, The Times named him one of "The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945."

Born in London in 1939, Moorcock became editor of Tarzan Adventures at seventeen and published his debut novel at age twenty-three. During his first stint as editor of New Worlds (1966-1969), the science fiction magazine was controversial enough to warrant debate in Parliament. The complete list of his novels, short stories, essays, reviews, comic books and musical recordings is almost unbelievably vast. This multi-part interview with the creator of the literary Multiverse only skims the surface of the depth of work created by Mr. Moorcock over the past sixty years.

Nearly three decades ago, a friend handed me a copy of Elric of Melniboné and told me it was required reading. I devoured it and read the rest of the Elric series before diving into Moorcock's books about Ulrich von Bek, Jherek Carnelian, Jerry Cornelius, Erekosë, Karl Glogauer and Dorian Hawkmoon – as well as many of his standalone novels, short stories and essays. Not only was his fiction a huge part of my younger years, but his literary and political essays made a huge impression on my thinking.

I also clearly remember the moment that I picked up the British space rock band Hawkwind's Masters of the Universe compilation as a teenager in a German record store and saw that Moorcock had written the words to "Sonic Attack." That discovery started a decades-long musical journey that led to my own recordings with some of the fantastic players on that LP. I owe Mr. Moorcock a large debt of gratitude on many levels.

Mr. Moorcock first agreed to be interviewed for The Norse Mythology Blog in 2011. Various things have happened over the years to prevent the interview from happening until now. Blame Loki. I am very grateful to Mr. Moorcock for the time and thoughtfulness he put into his answers. I apologize for the length of some of the questions; the information they provide was less for Mr. Moorcock than it is for readers who may be unfamiliar with some of the references.

KS – Part of your early education was at a Rudolf Steiner school, where Norse mythology is hardwired into the curriculum. Were your childhood experiences at a Steiner school responsible for your first exposure to the Norse myths?

Michael Moorcock in more recent days
Photo by Graham Turner for The Guardian
MM – Very likely, though I was mostly self-educated as far as my enthusiasms went. I think, given the times, there was likely to be less Teutonic myth and legend offered as Celtic. I'm pretty sure I found Norse mythology mostly by myself.

I did the same with, for instance, The Pilgrim's Progress [by John Bunyan], which, like the first book on Norse myths I picked up, was a huge influence on me. But I had bought it for the pictures, not the message.

However, that book taught me what myths also taught me, that there can be more than one narrative being told at the same time. One of those narratives can concern the moral question, should there be one. In my books, there generally is one.

KS – The Finnish epic poem The Kalevala was read to you at boarding school at around age seven. I can imagine seven-year-olds today being asked to play a game on their iPads and to leave the teachers alone (to play on their own iPads). As someone who has been a force for new literature and a champion of progressive change, how do you feel about classic (and Classic) poetry and prose fading from the lives of young people?

The Defense of the Sampo by Finnish artist
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1896)
MM – I don't think they are fading from the lives of those who love poetry. The majority are generally pretty consistent in their liking for sensation and adventure.

Although classics might no longer be taught (as Classics are generally no longer a subject), it's worth remembering that universities (in Anglophone countries at least) only began teaching a literature course around the turn of the twentieth century.

Interesting to note that [C.S] Lewis was only the second person to do the job after the far more catholic [Arthur] Quiller-Couch at Cambridge and in writing the modernist bible excluded a great deal of good fiction from his Great Tradition.

As someone who was largely self-educated and left school at fifteen and who found great poetry and prose for himself, I could make an argument for not teaching literature but allowing people to form their own tastes.

KS – You’ve said “from a very early age I was reading Norse legends and any books I could find about Norse stories.” Were you reading the Eddas and Icelandic sagas, or retellings and reinterpretations like those of Padraic Colum and William Morris?

William Morris (1834-1896)
MM – Retellings. I read the sagas after I had read about them in books like Myths and Legends of the Norse and so on. Illustrated volumes collecting the myths and folk tales of a variety of cultures were popular at the end of the 19th century and the volumes could be picked up very cheaply secondhand.

I had to find the Eddas in the public library. Luckily there was a big one at the end of our street.

I did read Padraic Colum and Morris and still do read them from time to time.

KS – You’ve said that your Hawkmoon books “were written in a context when anti-German feeling was almost habitual in England. I chose a German hero specifically for that reason and based him on Dietrich von Bern.” Dietrich is a pan-Germanic hero who appears in the German Nibelungenlied, the Old Norse Thidrekssaga, and many other works. He’s a legendary version of the historical Gothic king Theodoric the Great (454-526).

Although Dietrich is a major figure in the old literature, he’s not as well known in the English-speaking world as Sigurd/Siegfried and, consequently, hasn’t had such an influence on modern fantasy. How did you become familiar with Dietrich’s story? What attracted you to him as a hero who could be folded in to your Multiverse?

Bronze statue of Theodoric the Great
by Peter Vischer the Elder (1521)
MM – I probably first read about him in Myths and Legends of Charlemagne in one of those series I already mentioned.

I don't know why I was attracted to him. Maybe because he simply wasn't Siegfried. There seemed to be fragments of an older, perhaps forgotten, myth in Dietrich, maybe something more deeply pagan.

I have always been attracted to the stories of Charlemagne. And don't forget I have a general interest in German literature, perhaps since I read [Thomas] Carlyle's compendiums, and [Hans Jakob Christoffel von] Grimmelshausen was a huge enthusiasm. Few anglophone readers know it and the first translation wasn't made until around 1900.

I suppose the impulse comes from the impulse which always makes me look outside the margins, to look at pictures of Hitler, for instance, and try to work out what he's carrying in his pockets rather than considering the historical importance of what's being illustrated by that picture. Hope that makes sense.

KS – Of all your creations, Elric seems the one most indebted to Norse mythology. You’ve written that he was based on “the elves of Alfheim” and that the epic ending of Stormbringer was influenced by the Old Norse idea of Ragnarök. How conscious has your use of mythological sources been?

Corum Jhaelen Irsei by Mike Mignola (1986)
MM – Very conscious. I also rejected most plans to use existing mythology (except to a degree in the Corum books which do use existing Celtic myths), feeling my work would contain greater force if I created their mythology myself.

But I'm always aware of the influences and inspiration I take from existing bodies of myth, which includes Zoroastrian, Islamic and Hindu increasingly, these days.

KS – In the original Elric novel, Arioch first manifests as a fly, then as a pretty and silver-tongued young man:
And a beautiful youth stood where the fly had hovered. The beautiful youth spoke in a beautiful voice – soft and sympathetic and yet manly… His eyes were wise and his eyes were old and when they were looked at closely they could be seen to contain an ancient and confident evil.
In 2001, you wrote, “Loki is part of the model [for Arioch], of course.” Two different Norse myths tell of Loki turning himself into a fly or flea, and your introduction of Arioch is reminiscent of Snorri Sturluson’s introduction of Loki in the Edda:
Loki is pleasing and handsome in appearance, evil in character, very capricious in behavior. He possessed to a greater degree than others the kind of learning that is called cunning, and tricks for every purpose.
Today, Loki threatens to eclipse Thor in popularity. He’s arguably the most sympathetic mythic character in both Joanne Harris’ Runemarks series and M.D. Lachlan’s Wolfsangel books. More fans seem to swoon over Tom Hiddleston’s Loki than over Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in the Marvel movies. Why do you think Loki is so attractive to writers and readers today? What need is he fulfilling for modern audiences that Thor and Odin can’t?

Arioch with Chaos symbol
Deities & Demigods art by Jeff Dee (1980)
MM – The trickster tends to be popular during times of social unrest, when we are uncertain about the future. He is more able to adapt quickly to changing conditions. He's in control of chaos, if you like.

The morally ambiguous character also tends to be popular at times like our own when we are rather desperately trying to formulate some sort of moral compass, knowing that we have to reject old models (as the trickster does) including old models of authority.

I would trust a trickster like Clinton over an upright moral man like Obama to get us through whatever bad times we are facing.

Sanskrit stories are full of tricksters who appear to come into their own during periods of uncertainty.

KS – Of the forces in your Multiverse mythology, you’ve written, “[s]ince Law and Chaos don't relate closely to Good and Evil, it means that you can have 'bad' Lords of Law and 'good' Lords of Chaos, depending on your perspective and particular ambitions.” This can also be said of the powers of Norse mythology. The gods are definitely not wholly holy, and the giants come in a variety of shapes and flavors. Do you think the old polytheistic religions had a better grasp of reality and human nature than the Abrahamic traditions?

MM – Yes. I've increasingly come to see a pantheon as being preferable to a One God. OG was useful politically during a long period of gradual cohesion but now, like many tools which have outlived their usefulness, it's become a liability.

We could do with a pantheon again. Perhaps the comics are already supplying it.

KS – You’ve written of an “early enthusiasm” for The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948) by Robert Graves and The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890) by James George Frazer. When you became editor of Tarzan Adventures in 1957, you ran articles about pagan traditions and the pagan roots of Christian holidays. There are, of course, elements of Heathen religion that show up in your fantasy works. How did exposure to theoretical works on myth and religion affect your approach to creating your own mythologies?

MM – As I said, I thought my work would be more vital if I created my own pantheon and belief system.

Some might interpret the Great Balance as the form of a Christian cross.

A "religion" which actually talks about and represents ambiguity seems to be a good one for our times!

KS – Was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) an inspiration for your Eternal Champion concept?

MM – I've never read Joseph Campbell. My influences were considerable. If he was one then it was via some secondary source.

KS – In 2004, you wrote this on Beowulf:
Whoever wrote Beowulf didn't feel obliged to [offer a happy ending], they felt obliged to tell the truth as they understood it. And, like Tolkien or Lewis, put a Christian spin on the story. I'm a Christian only by accident, in that I was raised in a predominantly Christian culture but am not otherwise a "believer" but, that said, I think Christ's sacrifice can be interpreted either sentimentally or robustly, for instance. I think Beowulf offers a robust example, probably in keeping with the times in which the poem was written.
The idea of sentimental versus robust interpretation of Christian myth is an interesting one. You repeatedly use sentimentality as a pejorative in “Epic Pooh” (1978), and your Beowulf quote seems to privilege robustness.

Since the conversion of Europe, the Western World has made Jesus increasingly robust – from the 8th-century The Dream of the Rood (an Old English poem that portrays Christ marching up to the cross like a warrior heading off to battle) to today’s invocation of Jesus as justification from everything from bombing women’s clinics to willfully discriminating against members of the LGBT community.

Wouldn’t it be helpful for modern society if Christians became a bit sentimental and, for example, stopped reading Old Testament tales of Yahweh’s violent revenge and read a bit of Christ’s words on tolerance for others?

The Death of Beowulf by George T. Tobin (1898)
MM – It would be useful to Christians if they cut loose from the mother ship and dumped the Old Testament.

It would be useful to all the various smiters and punishers if they got rid of religion altogether, but then they'd probably find some sort of millenialism as an excuse for murdering people. The commies did it in the name of the future.

I think the moment the likes of Thatcher and Reagan rejected the language of liberal humanism in favour of the language of war, sport and finance, the world started running backwards at an appalling pace.

We got the Enlightenment from Jesus. We don't need Jesus, or any other political figure (and once religion is organised it becomes politics) unless they bring us back to the Enlightenment and a rhetoric of compassion.

I consider sentimentalism – what some think of as gratifying one's emotions – to be an enemy of rationalism, which perhaps suggests it's not always best to be gratified instantly.

KS – In very different ways, several of your novels often have characters interacting with gods and other religious figures. Behold the Man (1966) tells of Karl Glogauer travelling back in time to seek the historical Jesus, only to end up himself assuming the role of Christ. The War Hound and the World’s Pain is centered on Lucifer’s recruitment of Ulrich von Bek in his quest for the Holy Grail. Elric is involved in a Manichaean cosmic struggle between two tribes of gods, the Lords of Chaos and the Lords of Law.

After growing up in what you’ve described as “pretty much a straight secular environment,” why have you repeatedly engaged religious subjects in your work? Is it purely as an examination and critique of the beliefs of others, or do you include elements of your own personal spiritual experiences (or non-experiences)?

MM – I have a strong spiritual urge and have projected "visions" from an early age, many of them capable of a mystical interpretation. I prefer not to make that interpretation but understand the phenomenon as something which happens to people with a strong visual imagination.

I had been exercising that imagination for years before I took psychedelics. Mescaline or LSD merely intensify my existing imagination.

Others might interpret the phenomenon as religious. I prefer to understand it as an example of human potential.

Many of my characters merely have only to take a certain step in a certain way to be in a wildly different place. Maybe our new tools will help us get to that place better than mysticism ever did?

KS – Religious freedom is a hot topic in America at the moment. “Freedom” often shades into imposing one’s own religious beliefs in the secular sphere, often on those who don’t actually share them. As someone who has written extensively from a libertarian and anarchist viewpoint, what do you make of these developments in the United States?

A classic photo of Michael Moorcock
MM – There are constituencies in American life which fear education. Where education is bad you frequently find superstition growing at alarming speed.

The small town I live in part of the time is in Texas. It has a population of around six to seven thousand. A day or two ago an assistant in our local pharmacy told [my wife] Linda how there were plans to build a mosque in the town and that we should band against it. As far as I know, there are two families from predominantly Moslem countries in the region and they are not religious. When my wife asked who this mosque would serve the woman muttered something about "terrorists."

Like most people in Texas (and I suspect much of the world) they only watch a sensational pseudo-news programme, if at all, supplied by [Rupert] Murdoch's empire. It survives by confirming prejudice.

They are not educated to learn how to educate themselves. All they want is their ignorance and prejudice confirmed. If you refuse to do that, they simply stop listening to you. They are educated to be ignorant and no further.

Libertarians in these parts are "right" libertarians, and all they want to do is remain spoiled children. It's a wonder that in spite of all this there are intelligent progressives in Texas still putting out a newsletter for those of us who might otherwise despair!

KS – Your novel The Skrayling Tree (2004) brings your von Bek and Elric storylines together and includes elements from the Icelandic sagas, Norse mythology and America’s own history and myths. You played banjo on Robert Calvert’s Lucky Leif and the Longships (1975), a concept album imagining how American culture may have developed if the Vikings hadn’t abandoned their camp at L’Anse aux Meadows, but had instead colonized the North American continent and become the Founding Fathers of the United States.

After living in the United States for twenty years, how would you imagine a modern America founded by Norse Heathens instead of English Christians? Admittedly, the Viking voyages to Vínland had mixed Heathen and Christian crews, but still…

MM – Maybe it could happen. I think the English language had a lot to do with how America was settled and the political paths she took. The revolutionary slogans were, many of them, identical to those used by the Cromwellian revolutionaries before them.

That said, I'm not sure America could have been settled by non-Christians. Christianity supplies the rhetoric justifying total war, total genocide. It also contains the rhetoric to make us confused about our practising those things.

Perhaps Scandinavian semi-democracy could have mixed well with native semi-democracy – but empires behave like empires. I'm not sure the dynamics would be much different.

To be continued in Part Two.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

HEATHENS IN THE MILITARY: ARMY ADDS ÁSATRÚ & HEATHEN

The Thor's hammer that Daniel Head received
through the Mjölnir Project of White Hart Forge
The United States Army has finally added Ásatrú and Heathen as options in its religious preference list. This follows two recent victories for Heathens in the Armed Forces: the 2013 addition of Thor’s hammer to the official list of “available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the 2014 addition of Ásatrú and Heathen to the Air Force’s religious preference list.

To understand how this latest change happened, I interviewed the two Heathens who made it so: Josh Heath and Daniel Head.

The Norse Mythology Blog first covered Heathens in the military with an interview with Josh and Cat Heath in January 2013, several months before Thor’s hammer was approved for grave markers. Josh has been integrally involved with the push for Heathen recognition in the Armed Forces, and he has tirelessly worked towards this latest achievement. He was on active duty in the US Army from 2006 to 2011, serving as a Quartermaster and Chemical Equipment Repairer / General Mechanic and being deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008-2009. He is currently a graduate student at American University in their International Peace and Conflict Resolution program, and he is a dedicated advocate for interfaith communication. He continues to work with military members and veterans in many aspects of his life and work, including as co-director of the Open Halls Project, an organization “set up to connect military Heathens with civilian and military Heathens throughout the world.”

Daniel Head is the active soldier who finished the process of having Ásatrú and Heathen added to the Army’s religious preference list. Born and raised in Colorado, he has been in the Army for eight and a half years. He works in Military Intelligence and is currently stationed in Orlando, Florida. He will soon be undergoing a Permanent Change of Duty Station to Stuttgart, Germany.

Below is my new double interview with Josh and Daniel. Before getting into the details of the latest development in the Army, I asked Daniel a bit about his religious background and practice. To learn more about Josh Heath’s work and religious views, read his 2013 interview by clicking here.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL HEAD & JOSH HEATH

Daniel Head wearing his Thor's hammer pendant
KS – How did you come to Heathenry? How long have you practiced?

DH – Growing up, I was raised Christian in a Christian home. However, the lessons and values taught to me centered on loyalty to family, traditions and appreciating the fruit of labor. When I say “raised Christian,” I don’t mean I went to church every Sunday, said grace before supper every evening, or really did much “Christian” outside the major holidays or around the grandparents.

My mother comes from a pagan background on her family’s side. She doesn’t necessary consider herself pagan, but she did use tidbits of various mythologies to teach me life lessons and values. I will never forget getting caught lying to her. She twisted the story of Loki being bound to fit the situation and scared me from lying to her for quite a time!

Growing up, I went through the clichéd religious confusion. I studied multiple faiths “looking for the right answers.” As I traversed Christianity, Buddhism, and Eastern philosophy, I came across Wicca. When I initially enlisted to the Army in October 2005, my preference was as such. Soon I realized I didn’t like the Hellenistic approach of picking and choosing from the various pantheons. This was when I started to follow what felt right. This led to the Norse pantheon and remembering those tales from my childhood.

Overall, I think how you define Heathen would determine how long I have practiced. Unwittingly, I think I’ve been Heathen my entire life. Wittingly though, I have been a practicing Heathen for about three years.

KS – How have you practiced while serving?

DH – Being in the military (or any regular job, for that matter), time is unpredictable. You can’t always take off for a holiday or host a blót [Heathen ritual] to get out of a training exercise. Other factors include that not everyone else is Heathen, not all Heathens are open about it, and those who are open aren’t necessarily practicing from the same perspective in this worldview.

Daniel & his brothers: three hammer-wearers in the Armed Forces
I mainly focus on my family. We are a young family with two younger children, aged five and two. My wife doesn’t necessarily identify as Heathen – or anything else, for that matter. She likes the family orientation in Heathenry, though, and we are starting our own traditions. This past year was the first time we actually did anything for Yule. I told a couple of variations of Frau Holle to the kids, and we lit our Yule candle every night for 12 nights. Both of my kids and I wear Mjölnirs [Thor’s hammers] of our own, and my wife wears a gold-plated tree as a representation of Yggdrasill. My son and I have read Beowulf together, as well as other stories from Norse lore. I look forward to introducing him to other sagas.

KS – How long have your colleagues and commanding officers known about your participation in Heathenry? What has their reaction been?

DH – Personally, I don’t think my religious preference enables or disables me when it comes to my profession. I hold my own values to myself and operate accordingly. I work with two atheists and a “when it’s convenient” Christian. They all know my religious preference, but only because I had to bring it up when I submitted Army paperwork to add Heathen as a recognized religious preference code. Their initial responses summed up to “not surprised, but intrigued.” When they hear “heathen,” they do not envision me. They think barbaric, anti-Christian, uncultured and ignorant savage with a club. My boss/commander asks me a question or two from time to time, but he stays very reserved about it. It’s actually entertaining because I can see he really wants to know more, but is awkward in asking.

KS – What was the process for getting these preferences added?

Josh Heath with his lovely daughter Lillian
JH – This has been a five-year process, so I'll be honest – I'm not sure I remember all the different parts of making this happen. However, the key was perseverance. In 2009, the Army had a process of requesting an addition of a religious preference in place that required that request be accompanied by a supporting 501(c)(3) religious organization. At the time, Cat and I were members of the Troth [a Heathen organization], and we hoped that they would be willing to work with us to get Ásatrú and Heathen added. They were, but the Army made a “mistake” and chose to put the Troth as our religious preference.

The Army told us we would need to resubmit our request with an organization that had Ásatrú in its name. We were friendly with Vince Enlund, who at the time was Chieftain of the Asatru Alliance. We reached out to them, the Asatru Folk Assembly and the Troth and asked all three to willingly support this request together. The Asatru Folk Assembly outright refused. The Asatru Alliance agreed to work toward the greater purpose of having Heathens acknowledged by the US military. This was about 2010. We submitted a new request with documentation from both organizations and with a letter of support from over thirty Army service members who were willing to support the request. We were told that the Army was processing the request at first, but then after months and months of follow-up, they stated that the Department of Defense was working on a new system for these requests to be made through.

Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker
In 2012, right after I left Active Duty, I was told that the Department of Defense was going to take two to three years to get this system put in place by Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker [Personnel Director at the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains]. We didn't give up, but we put an active campaign on the back burner. I occasionally reached out to Chaplain Walker to see what we could do to make the change happen and was told they were working it, but we would need soldiers on active duty to make the request, now that I was no longer enlisted.

In 2014, humanists won a lawsuit against the United States Army to get their religious preference added. This riled me up! I'd been working on this issue for Heathens for five years, and they still hadn't approved us! I threatened a lawsuit, politely, and even contacted the ACLU and the humanists that won their campaign to ask for some guidance on how to proceed. Chaplain Walker responded before the ACLU and said he was willing to work with me, if I could find some soldiers to push the request.

So, we put together a team of four soldiers. Christopher Gibat, Omar Bailey, Andrew Turner and Daniel Head. The four of these guys worked hard to make their administrations process their paperwork up the chain of command to make it to the Chaplains Corp and Human Resources Command. Daniel can tell you more about how he went about that process, but every one of these guys ran into problems along the way. Two were given Ásatrú, and two were given Heathen and told to request them up the chain. Daniel was made the POC [Point of Contact] for reaching out to Chaplain Walker, and regularly answering questions, and polite harassment. We finally were approved!

This approval required at least one meeting of higher-ranking chaplains discussing what Ásatrú and Heathen mean, what we believe, and how the addition will help soldiers. Then, Human Resources Command had to be brought in to approve a new coding system. The process went back and forth on those upper levels until they finally agreed that an approval for addition could be made. This is the “new and more efficient process,” too!

Army Form 4187
DH – Initially it started as just a Department of the Army form 4187 (Personnel Action) requesting Heathen be added as a religious preference code. My first “bump in the road” was a lower level Human Resources contractor saying the form had to be “reviewed for appropriateness,” to which I reminded him the review was for Colonel Walker with the Office of the Chief of Chaplains.

Once my form made it to the Group/Brigade level, I was fortunate enough that our chaplain at that level happened to know Chaplain Walker. He called me, asked a couple of questions for insight, and then sent my request directly to Chaplain Walker – skipping much of the normal process. Chaplain Walker was quick to call me, ask more questions, and then he requested for me to roll everything up into an email. He explained to me had to do his own “investigation” on the religion; recognized organizations, clergy training, and anything that may not be within the Army Values.

We had some back and forth sharing information over a couple of weeks, he looked into the information I gave him, and then he had to take the form-now-packet to a review board. From what he told me – and what I understood – the board went over the information to ensure nothing would go against the Army’s values (I imagine to avoid bad PR), then gave their recommendation for approval.

At that point, Chaplain Walker “signed off” on it, and it was passed to the Army G-1 [general at head of personnel department] for his review. I received a phone call from a Lieutenant Colonel who really just wanted some of the same emails Chaplain Walker requested. I sent it all over, then Army G-1 reviewed it. Now the true time-killing of bureaucracy kicked in as the packet waited for Army G-1’s signature. Upon his signature the process is finalized and added the Army’s database via Human Resources Command.

KS – Why is this change important?

JH – The biggest impact is on current soldiers. This means soldiers can officially request to have their religious needs taken care of. Those needs are multifaceted. First, it will allow a soldier to request a day off for a religious event. As I see it, this is part of why the Open Halls Project was started. If a local community is hosting a worship event or a blót, then a soldier should have the right to request to attend. Having our religious preference recognized allows them support from the chaplain to request time to attend that event. This also allows for soldiers to create distinctive faith groups with other Heathens, which has been a difficult process without an official preference. We can also track the number of Heathens in the military, which is a huge win, because it means a soldier can walk into the Chaplains Office and find out how many other Heathens are on base with them.

These are all incremental changes. Sure, it might not seem like major life-changing things are occurring to some folks out there. But for the soldier that gets to go home for Midsummer now, it'll be a big change. For the soldiers that decide to make the first Distinctive Faith Group, it'll be a big deal. For the Heathens that get to proudly stand up and say, “I am a Heathen.” Something huge has happened here, and every change will hopefully make things better for us – less marginalized and more welcome to be a part of the discussions of faith in our society.

The change is impactful for former soldiers as well. They can now request to have Army Personnel Records accurately identify their religious preference. This would be helpful for former soldiers who might be looking to have an Ásatrú funeral down the road or request a Thor’s hammer from the VA for their headstone. They can also be counted among Heathens who have served.

Josh Heath (with beard) at Future of Force & Faith Roundtable
of 65th Student Conference on U.S. Affairs at West Point (2013)
I'm hoping this will impact American society by helping show how important religious pluralism is to our nation. There is an extreme focus on the military as a conservative bastion. The truth is, though, a large portion of the enlisted ranks in the Army are largely apolitical on a day-to-day basis. As long as you can do your job, that is all that matters. Sure, there are officers and enlisted soldiers who don't always believe that, but there are enough that make a difference, that stand up for their soldiers on a daily basis and lead. This acknowledgement of the plurality of our military is a gateway into recognizing the plurality of America, of truly living the ideals of our highest law. In ancient times, Heathens saw the law as a holy extension of their reciprocal relationships with the gods and their community. The Constitution is our holy law, which we need to uphold it to keep our nation running strong. That means we need to embrace all members of our country, even with their flaws, and together we can inspire each other to greatness – united.

DH – There are hardly enough words to describe how monumental this change is. Some might ask, “But how many Heathen service members are there? What are the numbers?” Let’s say there is just one percent of the Army population who identifies as Heathen. That alone would be over five thousand enlisted soldiers. That doesn’t count our officers, civilians or contractors. That also doesn’t include the generations of retired personnel, or service members who have already passed, or those killed in action.

What exactly changes for us? From a day-to-day perspective, not much. This “not much” means being able to administratively identify as Heathen, being able to contact a chaplain and have he or she provide services, advice or counseling concurrent with the Heathen worldview. Most importantly, if a soldier dies overseas, upon return the chaplain can render funeral rites. Without Heathen or Ásatrú as a religious preference code, that leaves a soldier with the options of None, No Preference, or Other. Speaking with my unit chaplain, he explained to me that, as a chaplain, seeing any of these as a religious preference, he will default to a Christian-based program for the funeral rites. With Heathen being added, soldiers can change their religious preference, and if they fall in battle they can receive proper funeral rites.

For Americans as a whole, this shows that our military is open to the diversity of faith groups. There is, unfortunately, a poor public relations background for Heathens because of white supremacist groups. With a new light and an official acknowledgement of our religion as it is – not as it has been twisted – it can bring new education and opportunities for others to see, witness, feel and reconstruct our history.

KS – The Army now has three related religious preference options: Ásatrú, Heathen and the Troth. Why do you think it is important to have these three separate categories? Do you intend to work for the addition of other denominations such as Theodism and Urglaawe?

Josh Heath's Thor figure and Mjölnir pendant
JH – Personally, I started the request as Ásatrú, because at the time I considered that to be a good explanation of my religious identity. However, as the years have gone by, I've begun to personally see Heathen as a more accurate identity marker. The Troth was never supposed to be on the list, but now that it is, I'm sure some folks might find that useful to them. Identity is such a mutable and personal thing, that it is, at times, difficult to have the most specific marker for everyone that has slightly different leanings. The Open Halls Project has made Ásatrú and Heathen the pair of options we have pushed for because they are the two largest identifiers used by people. Heathen is my personal preference, and I think its more universal. We will not be leading the charge to add any other terms until these two are added by all branches of the military.

DH – I think these will all come in time, but they will also take a lot of work. I know a Christian chaplain who worked through the process of having his particular denomination added.

KS – How can current Army members have their preference changed?

JH – You will have to go to your local BN S1 shop to have your religious preference changed on your ERB/ORB. This may require you to make an appointment, or you may have to convince your leadership you have a valid reason for going. Demand it. You have the right to have this change made, and it has to be made at the BN level or higher.

Veterans need to contact Army Human Resources Command to request a change to their official record:
U.S. Army Human Resources Command
ATTN: AHRC-PDR-H / Department 420
1600 Spearhead Division Ave

Fort Knox KY 40122-5402 
Phone Number: 1-888-ARMYHRC
Families of deceased soldiers may contact the above to request a service member’s records be altered.

DH – For a service member to change their religious preference officially, it would take using a DA 4187, Personnel Action. Many Soldiers should be familiar with this form. Fill out your administrative information at the top, check “Other” and “Change Religious Preference to (insert preference),” and have it signed by your commander. I highly advise all Soldiers to contact their local HR representative – Training Room, Admin Clerk, or S1.

KS – How often does the Army release a public report on numbers of religious adherents in its ranks? Will we see an official number of Heathens?

JH – The last time the Army released this information was in 2009, because CNN requested the data for an article they were writing. As far as I know, the Army doesn't publicly release this data on a regular or irregular basis.

DH – I was working with my current unit chaplain to do a unit poll to see how many other people within my unit identify as Pagan, Wiccan, or any other natural/polytheistic faith group. It is possible at unit levels; however, he explained to me it would be very difficult and consume a lot of resources to do a poll on the entire Army. I would love to know total numbers, and I’m hopeful that some sort of numbers could be determined in the future.

KS – Since the 2013 interview with Josh and Cat, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs approved Thor’s hammer as a recognized grave marker, and the Air Force added Ásatrú to their religious preference list. This is the third major change in the United States Armed Forces. What's the next goal?

Josh Heath speaking at Student World Affairs Conference
in Poughkeepsie, New York (April 2014)
JH – To sea! The Navy (and therefore the Marines, as well) have not recognized Ásatrú or Heathen as religious preferences. So, we are going to do all we can to make that happen. The VA also has a list of religious preferences, so that list is something we are going to be fighting to get on as well. Though, to be honest. I personally might take a little break from pushing at the moment, but I'll fully support anyone who is wishing to push these requests.

DH – One thing I’ve brought up with Chaplain Walker during all of this is a Department of Defense religious preference code database. As of right now, each branch of the military has its own database for religious preferences. I was baffled when I learned the Air Force had added Ásatrú, but it still wasn’t recognized by Army. Fortunately, he did inform me that this is an issue being addressed at higher levels. In fact, he said the plan is to merge into a DoD database, but right now preferences are added per military branch, and they’re being compiled at the DoD level to assess how to make a one-size-fits-all database.

I think another great milestone will be a knowledgeable, official Heathen chaplain. This will be an interesting milestone, considering the “tribal nature” of being Heathen and the different perspectives and interpretations out there.

KS – What have your interactions been with the Chaplains Corps since the 2013 interview?

JH – Personally, I have had little direct interaction with the Chaplains Corps since the interview, but I do know several individuals that have heard that we are making a name for ourselves by pushing this request. I'll take that as a win!

DH – As many of my previous answers have outlined, I’ve worked closely with Chaplain Walker during this process. I used the chaplain chain to get in touch with him – Battalion Chaplain, Group Chaplain. I’m even friends with a couple of chaplains from previous units whom I sought advice from during all of this.

KS – What is the latest on Heathen chaplains in the Army?

JH – Well, there are a few different folks working to become chaplains. At the moment, there are no Heathen organizations that I'm aware of that have the proper candidate who can immediately become an Army chaplain. That doesn't mean they won't ever, but at the moment things look pretty bleak for a Heathen chaplain happening. The Wiccans have been recognized for years now, and they still haven't had a chaplain. There is a gentleman we have been talking with who is a Naval officer working toward becoming a Chaplain. The gentleman we were working with in the Army has fallen off the face of the earth. No idea what has become of him, which is a shame, because we really thought he was on the way to making a huge splash!

KS – What are the current numbers for the Open Halls Project?

JH – Well, we've sincerely increased our profile since the 2013 interview. The Open Halls Project has hit 1,243 likes on Facebook, 422 members on our discussion group, and more and more people registered in our database. Overall, we've held steady in a lot of ways and made incremental increases in our membership and outreach. We have also decided to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. We've been offered money every few months by different groups, and though we honestly have wanted to accept it, we didn't want to have to worry about the tax implications. So, we are putting together what we need to accept donations and potentially pay a volunteer to work our internet functions. On a personal note, the interview has helped me make some connections with folks that are interested in interfaith work, which I think is a very valuable thing.

Congratulations to Josh and Daniel for their accomplishment! For the latest developments on this story, visit the Open Halls Project's Facebook page.
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