VOTF00a: Voice of the Fire 25th Anniversary Edition – Coulthart cover

Voice of the Fire is due to get a 25th Anniversary Edition in May 2021. Publishers will be Top Shelf in the US, Knockabout in the UK. Late in 2020. John Coulthart was asked to provide a new cover. His cover is sufficiently detailed that it deserves its own annotations. These notes draw significantly from Coulthart’s own blog post describing the cover; quotes which are not otherwise cited are taken from that post.

General Remarks

Style:

I liked the original cover but felt it made the novel seem too much like something by Henry Treece or Alan Garner, with no indication of more recent history. A stained-glass window seemed like a good solution to the problem of how to bring together so many disparate elements into a single design. Stained-glass windows are often things from the distant past still visible in the present day, and they have the additional convenience of being a single container for many small pictorial details. […]

My design doesn’t attempt to illustrate all the characters or events from the novel but shows the more salient moments together with smaller details, some of which (the noose, for example) appear in multiple chapters. […] I avoided making the window design too much like a church window; the book contains many references to churches and Christian history but there’s also a strong pagan element in many of the chapters.

Henry Treece and Alan Garner are both British writers, particularly known for historical children’s novels.

Faces:votf1

The cover contains many human figures, but surprisingly few human faces. Several of the figures have their backs to us; one has their head turned; one has a hood obscuring the face. A few faces are visible. There are two human skulls, both facing us, which might perhaps be counted as faces. An Imp is facing us, with its human-like face on a ferret-like body. There are two indirect faces, where the cover depicts an object that itself depicts a face: the carved figure in the upper left, and the coin with Diocletian’s profile at lower left. It may be that all these facial absences are meant to draw the viewer’s attention subconsciously to the symbolically depicted face of the large horned shaman which is semi-hidden as a central design element.

Triangle motif:

Tresham’s Lodge is described in the Gunpowder Plot chapter of Alan’s novel; the triangles on my cover may be taken as a reference to this.

While not all the panels are triangular, 16 of them are. And there are many more triangles formed by various combinations of panels.

Color schemes:

There is an incomplete diamond shape dividing the cover into an inner and outer region. Inside the diamond, the dominant colors are warm ones, yellow through red, with the addition of a lot of dark purple. Outside of the diamond, the dominant colors are cool: blue, green, white. While there are many small exceptions to this scheme, it’s a dominant pattern and no doubt an intentional one.

Text

Font:

There’s more magic in the font used for the title and author’s name, Albertus, which was named after Albertus Magnus, a philosopher and theologian often described as an alchemist. The main reason to use Albertus is for its timeless styling and its readability, an important quality for such a busy cover design; the font is a common one on London street signs.

Albertus was designed by Berthold Wolpe, who lived in Lambeth (site of the Jerusalem chapter A Host of Angles) in later life. A variant of the Albertus font was famously used on The Prisoner, one of Moore’s favorite TV shows.

Enochian:

Directly underneath the title is a small string of Enochian text.

Alan’s favourite Elizabethan magus, Dr. John Dee, is present (albeit offstage) in the Angel Language chapter. To acknowledge this I placed an inscription in Enochian—Dee’s “Angel Language”—underneath the title.

Enochian should read right to left, but this text reads left to right. The small dots are used by Coulthart to demarcate words; they are not typically used in other Enochian writing. The letters read “BYA K A MALPRG”, which translates roughly to Voice of the Fire.

This Enochian text is the only direct reference to the chapter Angel Language.

Roman Numerals:

These, unsurprisingly translate to “1996-2021”.

Center and Top

Shamans:

The horned shaman is at the centre of the design which radiates out from his ritual fire.

The shaman stands with his back to us; we do not see his face. His horns are slightly obscured by the nature of the stained glass; they are easy to mistake for slightly thicker structural lines.

Less obvious perhaps, is the second horned shaman, who is nothing but face. His outlines are demarcated in thick orange, and span most of the cover. The first shaman is contained within the second shaman’s face. This second shaman is very evocative of the cover to the first edition of Voice of the Fire.

One or both of these shamans might be the shaman from Hob’s Hog, though they also can be considered to stand for the shamanic, fiery power of inspiration that pervades all of Voice of the Fire.

Fire:

As evidenced by the title, fire is of central importance to this text, and literally takes up the center of the cover. The hottest portion of the fire is obscured, however, by the body of the shaman. Is there meant to be a symbolic meaning to this, maybe that shamans obscure as much as they reveal?

Sky/Face:

The sky above the central fire is worth examining closely. It contains a sun, a moon, and a star (or two stars overlaying each other). The sun and moon form the eyes of the second shaman. The dark lines that penetrate the image pass directly through the center of the  sun and the moon.

The star, at the apex of the fire, is also the second shaman’s third eye. Circular waves emanate out from this eye/star towards the ground, but they do not move beyond the border formed by the second shaman’s face.

Wildfire:

Behind the title is a riot of color, suggestive of an out-of-control forest fire. This “fire” penetrates downwards into the Enochian text, but fades out shortly afterwards.

Wings:

The title is flanked by angel wings.

Angels are discussed significantly in the chapters November Saints, Limping to Jerusalem, and Angel Language, briefly in several other chapters. Angels are almost omnipresent in Jerusalem, of course.

Leaves:

The falling leaves beneath the angel wings are because almost every chapter is set in November.

Right side

Skull panel:

The skull on a pike, festooned in birdshit, refers to Confessions of a Mask. If you look closely, you can see that the left eye has something dark lodged in it, presumably the “piece of coal” thrown by children described in the text. (The coal seems to have the letter “Z” on it, for unknown reasons.)

The crows in the background are perhaps waiting for the second spike in the background to be occupied by a fresher head, with meat still available for scavenging. The space between the two spikes has what may be a rough road leading north.

Noose panel:

[…] smaller details, some of which (the noose, for example) appear in multiple chapters

A noose only actually appears in the chapters The Cremation Fields and The Head of Diocletian. However, the concept of hanging is brought up in the chapters Confessions of a Mask, Angel Language, and Partners in Knitting.

Match panel:

Matches are, of course, the most common modern tool for making fire. They are used to create the fire in the chapter I Travel in Suspenders, and are mentioned a few times in Phipps’ Fire Escape.

Rings of force emanate from the head of the match, similar to those seen emanating by the star in the central panel.

Burning car panel:

This, of course, illustrates the central image from the chapter I Travel in Suspenders.

Feather panel:

Feathers come up in a few different contexts. In Hob’s Hog, the “Gleaner” has a belt made of feathers. In The Cremation Fields, the village guards wear feathers in their boots, and Olun has a feather cloak. The narrator of In the Drownings disguises himself as  bird, and has strong feelings towards some birds. His false feathers reappear in visions and dreams in the chapters November Saints and The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall.

In the background there are emanating lines of force. similar to others we have seen before. These, however, rather than being circular, are straight-edged, perhaps suggestive of a spiderweb.

Crow and foot panel:

This is probably the foot of Hob‘s mother, that he could not fit within her grave. While the text does not mention a crow coming to dine on the dead flesh, it is a reasonable event to imagine. Moreover, it helps to identify that the foot lying in the earth is that of a dead person.

Walking panel:

The main action of this panel illustrates The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall, John Clare walking. While the hat seems to be a decent representation of Clare’s “wide-awake hat”, the satchel and staff are not mentioned in the text, and seem like more hiking support than Clare actually had.

Below the walker, we can see through some of the earth, wherein are bones, including a human skull. The only specific burials cited are those of Olun and his daughter in The Cremation Fields. There’s no particular reason to think that these bones belong to one of them, however. I suspect they are merely symbolic of how human history accumulates, a central idea of psychogeography.

Left Side

Blue carving panel:

This is a detail from Saint Ragener’s tombstone, as discussed in the notes to November Saints. Why it is colored blue is unclear.

The central figure may be Ragener, Christ, a green man, or something entirely else. Flanking his face are two partial bird wings. To upper left is the claw of a beast (lion?). Above and right of the face are pieces of a Celtic knot.

Beads panel:

This necklace of blue beads is central to the plot of The Cremation Fields. It is directly opposite the noose (see above), which also appears in that chapter. Both of these objects “decorate necks”.

The color and irregularities in the background evoke coppersmithing.

Whip panel:

The “scourge” is an important item in the chapter November Saints. Lines of force emanate from it, largely curved, but with at least one inflection point, at the bottom.

Burning at the stake panel:

This depicts the climax of Partners in Knitting. As described in the text, the two women are holding hands. The buildings in the background all have outlines suggestive of church steeples.

Sword panel:

This sword is a Roman gladius, presumably owned by the narrator of the chapter The Head of Diocletian. Lines of force emanate out in a pattern of equilateral triangles, possibly related to the square-ish pattern in the feather panel opposite this one.

Imp panel:

This panel depicts an Imp from the chapter Partners in Knitting, presumably “Suck-My-Thumb”. They are described there as “like ferrets, or perhaps like slender cats with tiny hands like those of aged men, and something of an old man’s face about their features also.” Coulthart has split the difference, making the main image ferret-like, but leaving the shadow of a cat in the background.

The color scheme of this whole panel is a sooty orange-red, whereas the text which seems to match this kind of Imp (quoted above) is the white Imp. There are red Imps mentioned, but their only physical description is “intricate and red”. Possibly the color is meant to indicate that this white Imp is gazing upon a large fire.

Green man panel:

Depicts the narrator of In the Drownings, disguised as a water-bird, fishing with a spear. His stilts can be plainly seen, as can his blow-gun “beak”

Bottom

Shagfoal panel:

The creature with the floppy ears in the lower centre is another recurrent motif, the sinister “shagfoal”, or Black Dog, whose presence is a sign of the darker energies that seem to thrive in that part of the world. Black Dogs appear in folklore all over Britain but there are few pictorial examples to be found in old texts. I based my hound on the “Straunge and terrible Wunder” depicted in 1577 on the title page of Abraham Fleming’s account of the Black Dog of Bungay.

Shagfoals appear by that name in Hob’s Hog, Partners in Knitting, and Phipps’ Fire Escape. Unnamed large black dogs appear in The Head of Diocletian, November Saints, and Angel Language. The shagfoal is silhouetted against a setting (or rising?) sun. It may be meant to represent the dog-thing that Moore and Fred see at twilight in the final chapter.

Coin panel:

Depicts one of the coins which are central to the plot of The Head of Diocletian. The text reads “IMP DIOCLETIANUS AUG”, approximately “The august emperor Diocletian”. Google will show you many similar coins, though there is significant variation among them.

In the background is a hilly landscape with birds (crows?) flying overhead. At left, we see a hill with three crucifixions, presumably those of Christ and the two thieves. (This chapter is where Christianity s first mentioned.) To the right, a hill with a plume of smoke atop it, perhaps representing the The Cremation Fields. (Though referred to as “fields” in the text, these are pretty clearly on a hilltop.)

Knights “coin” panel:

This is not an actual coin, per se, but a copper token showing the seal of the Knights Templar. The text, “SIGILUM MILITUM XPISTI” means “Seal of the Soldiers of Christ”. Two knights riding on a single horse is a symbol of the Knights Templar, of disputed meaning. This obviously refers to the chapter Limping to Jerusalem.

In the background, a single bird (crow?) flies overhead. Below, we see tracks through a desert landscape. To the right, the tracks seem to be thick, as of a procession; to the left is only a single track. What happens at their junction, behind the seal, is a mystery. It could be a reference to the incident where Sir William and his fellows encountered a lone madman writing in the sand. It could also be an allusion to the popular “Footprints in the Sand” poem.

“Book” panel:speed_northampton

This panel appears to depict part of the left-hand leaf of an open book. The text reads: “This towne of Northampton / hath thrice felt the ruins of ci / […]ill discensions. The 1.was by […]” In fact, this is not an image of an actual book, but part of book-like image containing some text on John Speed’s 1611 map of Northamptonshire.

The full text on the original map, updated to modern English, reads:

This town of Northampton has three times felt the ruins of civil dissension. The first was by R. William and Henry, brothers, and sons to the Conqueror, who despoiled it and the adjoining countryside in 1066. The second was by King Henry III who surprised it against his rebellious Barons and broke down the walls thereof, in 1163. And lastly therein was taken King Henry VI by the Earls of Warwick and March, supporters of the title of York, wherein were slain Humphrey Stafford Duke of Buckingham, John Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury, and the Lords Beaumont and Egremont with many more. The King was by the Lords conveyed to London in 1459.

Why exactly this particular image was chosen by Coulthart for inclusion is unclear. The 1066 “discension” is not directly featured in Voice of the Fire, though it happens shortly after the chapter November Saints. The politics resulting from the Norman Conquest are part of the background of the chapter Limping to Jerusalem. Perhaps it appealed because it was (obscurely) part of a map, and thus could be taken as a reference to Olun’s map in The Cremation Fields.

Colored triangles:

The small colored triangles flanking Moore’s name are symbols of the four elements in classical alchemy:
– Earth (green downward-pointing triangle with a horizontal line through it)
– Fire (red upward-pointing triangle)
– Water (blue downward-pointing triangle)
– Air (yellow upward-pointing triangle with a horizontal line through it)

Since medieval texts rarely had color printing, the colors associated with these elements are less consistent than their shapes.

Back Covervotf2

It’s Bonfire Night on the back cover.

While the image is partially obscured by the overlay of text, we can see an unusually large bonfire, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. The crowd are all looking at the bonfire so, again, we see no human faces. The outlines of hair and hats suggest the late 20th-century (to me).

>Go to VOTF annotations Chapter 1 Hobs Hog
>Go to Annotations Index

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