1346. A hostile French man-o-war approaches the Cornish coast. Is the sky grey, overcast, heavy? The sea is certainly churning. The vessel approaches the village of Padstow, where the crew prepare to drop anchor and make a sortie onto English soil. Then, on the beach, appears a strange creature: some horse-like being, dancing, whirling, kicking. It is like no other beast they have ever seen. Behind it process humans in red robes, carrying torches. The creature and its followers line up on the beach, daring the enemy to land. The ship turns, and makes for the open sea.
1588. The Spanish Armada approaches the Dorset coast. Sir Francis Drake, who as well as being an admiral, explorer and pirate, is also a witch, summons his fellow coven members high on to the cliffs at night. They circle in the dark, murmuring secrets. Together they summon up a great storm, which crashes down upon the approaching enemy ships and scatters them. The Armada fails. England is saved.
1805. Like the Spanish before him, the French Emperor Napoleon prepares to launch an invasion of England; but a group of Sussex witches have other ideas. Gathering on a full moon, as Drake and his fellows had done three centuries back, they too work a weather spell, calling up a south-westerly which leaves Bonaparte’s fleet stranded in the port of Boulogne. The invasion is called off.
1940. Following the calamity of Dunkirk, the magic island gathers its people to itself once more. On the eve of Lammas day, seventeen witches from different covens across the south of England gather in a pine grove in the New Forest, draw a magic circle, light a fire and raise a great ‘cone of power’, which they direct at the mind of Hitler in Berlin. The psychic message they project is stark: you cannot cross the sea. Again, the expected invasion never comes.
Perhaps these stories are true. Perhaps they are not.
This is a magic island. The land speaks through the people, the people speak of the land. They dance, naked or clothed, around the stones and in the streets. They climb over the broken walls that ring the housing estates, they gambol through the fields. There are fires in the hillforts at night, and things move in the woods, seen or unseen.
This is a magic island. It knows how to defend itself.
The truth was in the soil.
What if magic is real? What if the power of place speaks through the human forms that walk its surface? What if the truth is in the soil? These are the questions that Arcadia invites us to ask. No questions are less fashionable, or more dangerous, in the age of the Machine. Like the land itself, Arcadia provides no answers that can be comfortably categorised. Like this island, it is a multiplicity.
Children play in streets empty of cars. A community holds hands in a ring around a church. Naturists dance in the meadows, ridiculous and free. Wide eyes smile in black and white. A strange beast shimmies away from the camera. Men are dressed as walruses, sheep; a transformation is affected that for a second becomes real. There is a strange dreamlike quality to this lost Elysium. Dream and reality here are one; really, they were never anything else. This is folk magic. It is the summoning of a world we have lost.
What is this land?
This is our land of lost content.
What if we are the breath of the land? What if a place creates a people, and not the other way around? If we believe that to be true, we had better start paying attention to the songs we once sung, the stories we once told, the dances we once performed around the elms and through the closes.
This is England. There is nowhere else like it on Earth.
Arcadia is like a bucket of cold water to the face. Wake up! it shouts. Wake up! Look! This world you see on screen is alien, and yet it brings a shiver of recognition. What is that in the trees? What do I see from the corner of my eye? I have been here before.
Here is aboriginal Britain. You thought it was gone beneath a deluge of motorways and malls and screens and engines and scurrying human feet. Much of it is. But what remains? What remains, and what will you do with it?
A land of a great magic. A land of great mystery.
The island known as Great Britain is both of these things; less so than ever, but still, if you know where to look and know who to talk to, you can hear the old songs still sung. It is not always humans who sing them. All lands, all places across this wide Earth, are home to magic and mystery. The complex of human relationships which spring from those lands, the clots of shared behaviour which we call ‘cultures’, are distinct from each other because the places whose stories they tell are distinct also. A mountain people tells different stories to a people of the plains.
Britain no longer has a culture. Instead, it has a civilisation, and magic is anathema to civilisation. Civilisations suppress magic, and mystery, and beauty, and wonder. They overlay these rough superstitions with a patina of money and reason and progress, ringed around with border guards of scorn and dismissal. Civilisations are the enemies of real places. But magic will not be rooted out. Hidden, perhaps, around the edges of the fields; but never grubbed up.
A shadow has fallen on the land.
Patriotism has taken a beating in recent decades. The guardians of our civilisation tell us that attachment to place and tradition is reactionary, backward, dangerous. Like magic and mystery, attachment to land and history are things which belong to a dark and grim past, and should stay there. We are all progressives now. You are romanticising a past that never existed, they tell us. But it did exist, and not long ago. You can see it here, flickering in black and white. I defy any Briton to watch Arcadia and not feel a surge of patriotism; the real kind, the old kind. Not an attachment to monarchy or church, institution or government, idea or ideal, but the old pull of the land you walk on. The ground beneath your feet.
On this screen, the official flag ceremonies of the State – clean, white, ordered – contrast with dark soil, feathers from a dead bird, crooked old folk customs, half-whimsy-half-Wicker Man. The soil is older than the State, and will outlast it. But there is nothing to be scared of. It’s only magic. Listen. Watch.
Listen, watch, and you will see that the place, the landscape, is the star of this film. There is little human speech, and the human bodies that play across the screen are like fireflies in a forest at night. They are part of the scene, they light it up, they distract the eye, cause a few intakes of breath, but they are incidental in the end. The great, brooding presence of the trees is what frames the picture. The darkness around the edges, inviting and fearful.
What is this land?
There are spirits in every well, and each is subtly different from the other. Places do not take kindly to being homogenised. They don’t like being talked over. They like the people who sit by them and pay attention. When you pay attention, what do you notice? Do you feel the land breathing you in, then out again? What if you are the breath of the place? What if these dances, these songs, these rituals and ceremonies are a sensory image of the personality of the part of the Earth that manifests them? A folk map of Britain would show us the speech pattern of each river, the face of every field and spinney, the curve of every hill painted pewter by the moon.
We need a new humility and a reverence.
What happened to our Arcadia? We stopped listening to it. We stopped dancing, we moved away, we started listening to the chant of the Machine instead. It is debt we chase now, not the moon. We are individuals, not parts in a wider whole. In a broken time, it is taboo to remember what was lost, and that fact alone makes Arcadia a revolutionary document. Look, it says. This is how it was. This is what was broken. At night, when you lie awake with your phone flashing under your pillow – do you miss it?
One night we wake when the moon is nearing full, and we turn off the phone or grind it beneath our heel and we dress quickly and step out onto the grass, which is wet with dew. In the air we can hear cars and smell diesel but beneath that, and above it, something else. A thin, high song is being sung just beyond our horizon. We start to walk towards it.
Is something calling our name?
The moon is so bright tonight. Where is that song coming from? It seems to be all around. When we stop, we can hear it clearly. Now, dimly, we can see something approaching in the distance. It is coming closer.
It is not how they said it would be.
Now we find ourselves asking, in words we have heard before, only recently: what is this land?
A voice answers: it is you.
PAUL KINGSNORTH‘s debut novel The Wake won the 2014 Gordon Burn Prize, was longlisted for the MAN Booker Prize, the Folio Prize and the Desmond Elliot Prize, and was shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize. His second novel, Beast, was published by Faber in 2016. He is also the author of two non-fiction books, One No, Many Yeses and Real England, and a poetry collection, Kidland. He is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, a global network of writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for a world on the brink.
Arcadia is a provocative and poetic new film about our complex and often contradictory relationship with the land, crafted from archive footage and with an original soundtrack by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp). The film is released in cinemas nationwide from 21 June 2018. For further details about screenings or to organise your own event, get in touch with Common Ground.
The poster for Arcadia was created by the acclaimed artist and print-maker Stanley Donwood. A limited edition of the print is available, with proceeds from each sale supporting the arts and environmental charity Common Ground.