Twelve Nights: A Glossary

Kay’s father is working late – as usual. Fed up, her mother bundles her daughters into the car and drives to her husband’s Cambridge college to collect him herself. When they arrive, the staff claim that nobody by his name has ever worked there…

That night, Kay is woken by voices at her window: the voices of Will and Flip, who call themselves removers. But they are not human. And Kay shouldn’t be able to see them. Except she can…

Debut author, Andrew Zurcher, introduces his novel Twelve Nights, an enchanting epic adventure that delves into the fantasy realm. Puffin books are kindly offering us the chance to give away five copies of the book – see the end of the blogpost for how to enter. But first, over to Andrew to give his Twelve Nights Glossary: 

Twelve Nights is a story about stories, storytelling, and storytellers. As its own story unfolds, it explores the myriad ways in which we tell stories, our complex reasons for telling them, and the places in which – and the means by which – we tell them. It’s obvious that this is not new ground; every writer and critic who has ever thought about myth, narrative, and meaning, from Aristotle to Anne Carson, has reflected – gorgeously – on these issues! In this book, I have gone back to the ancient image of a woman weaving – call her Penelope, or Philomela – and have tried to generate from that origin a visual and material symbol structure for thinking about how stories work. Recognising that the myths and legends from which I was constructing the book mean not only what they say, but much more too – that is, that they are allegorically rich – I joined to it our own ancient English tradition of wraiths, sprites, and fairies, creatures of fable who are there and not there, who are one thing and many things, and nothing at all. Twelve Nights has thus appropriated some ancient words and ideas, and to their rich histories has added more complexity. An introduction to some of these ideas, in the form of a glossary, gives an overview – and a taster – of what the book contains.

Wraiths and Phantasms

The wraiths of Twelve Nights are figures who move and act in the world in which we move and act; but they are also, in a sense, philosopical abstractions. Aristotle writes in this way, in the Poetics, about tragic character; he says these characters are abstract universals, to whom names are given. The wraiths of Twelve Nights often take their names from their conceptual functions (Phantastes, Razzio, Ghast; see below), but other names are playful, such as Will (Will-o’-the-wisp) and Flip (Flippertigibbet, a name Shakespeare stole in King Lear from Samuel Harsnett). Whether Greek, Latin, English, or folk in origin, all the names derive from a rich tradition of thinking about sprites, apparitions, imaginations, and the problems of being and knowledge that these phenomena present.

The Weave and the Thread

The art of weaving is central to Twelve Nights. Weaving and myth have always been closely associated. Homer’s Penelope sat at her loom each day as she waited for Odysseus to return, and at night unpicked her work; Ovid in the Metamorphoses describes the tapestry woven by Philomela, in which she published the crime that had been committed against her. In fact, even the word we use to describe written words, ‘text’, derives from Latin texere, ‘to weave’; a text is a woven thing. In Twelve Nights, the wraiths gather annually at the Weave, a ritual held at the end of their festival of renewal, to generate new stories. These new stories emerge from the tension between the left-wraiths (plotters) and the right-wraiths (imaginers), a tension materially realised in the structure of the weave itself – a fabric of warp (lengthwise threads) and weft (or woof, the crosswise threads). Together, the warp and weft make up the web, or the full fabric of the weave, just as the discordant and often antagonistic voices of the wraiths harmonise into a completed story. But not everything in Twelve Nights depends on dialectical synthesis; the wraiths have great reverence for an idea they call ‘the Thread‘ – that is, the natural or customary order of things. This can refer to their rituals and traditions; to their structure of self-governance; to their sense of propriety; or to their sense of a plausible or necessary chain of events.

The Loom, the Shuttle, and the Pirn

At the centre of the Feast of the Twelve Nights is the weaving of the First Wraith. He sits at the Great Loom, the large machine on which a weaver fashions the web. In order to weave the threads of the weft (or woof) between the threads of the warp, the weaver uses a shuttle, a small, manipulable instrument which contains on its axis or spindle the bobbin, or pirn, on which the thread of the weft is spooled. The Greek playwright Sophocles once described Philomela’s tapestry as ‘the voice of the shuttle’, a stunning synaesthesia that inspired me to give a prominent place in Twelve Nights to Will’s shuttle; not only the instrument by which he weaves at the Great Loom, his shuttle also sings as it moves, and is capable of producing notes corresponding to different genres: comedy, tragedy, romance, epic, history.

The Bride of Bithynia

The ancient seat of the wraiths and phantasms lies in Bithynia, a place that hovers between geography (it’s in Turkey) and fable – a little like Shakespeare’s Illyria. To this home annually at the Feast of the Twelve Nights they resort, from any and every place whatsoever in the world, to renew the sources of story. At the telling of any great story, the poet or ‘maker’ must speak with the influence and the authority of the Bride – a mythical figure of inspiration and authority on whom every storyteller depends. More than a muse, the Bride is the mean by which story arises; her name arises from Old English brægd, ‘to braid, a braid’, and can mean anything from ‘a sudden movement’ or ‘a moment, an instant’, to ‘a deception’, ‘a twist’, or ‘a thread’. By this figure, the wraiths explain to Kay, they are at the moment of telling plighted to the world. Their reverence for her is total.


Phantastes, the greatest of the imaginers, takes his name from the Greek verb ϕαίνειν [phainein], ‘to show’, ‘to appear’; a phantasm is an apparition, and the phantasy (or in English ‘fantasy’) can mean an appearance, our capacity to sense an appearance, or our capacity to imagine – that is, to generate appearances. In this sense, Phantastes embodies and champions the power of the human mind and soul to grasp things as in a picture, all at once, to experience intimations, revelations, and epiphanies. A figure by this name also occurs in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, as well as in George Macdonald’s eponymous book, Phantastes.

Razzio, Oidos, and Ontos

Razzio, the leader of the left-wraiths, or plotters, takes his name from the Latin word ratio, meaning ‘judgment’ or ‘reason’ (the double z is pronounced as in ‘pizza’); his world is the world of causes and effects, of orderly process leading from one thing to another. In Razzio’s House of the Two Modes, in Rome, we meet Oidos, the wraith of pure knowing, whose name comes from the Greek word οἶδα [oida], ‘to know’; and we meet Ontos, the wraith of pure being, whose name comes from the Greek word ὀντ, ὄν [ont-, on] meaning ‘being’ or ‘that which exists’.

Plotting Boards and Stones

Left-wraiths, plotters to a wraith, traditionally work by plotting boards, flat circular boards on which they visualise in an abstract way the nature of a narrative or structure of relations by the movement of plotting stones. The structures and patterns that they create on the board are best understood as allegories: abstract and geometrical, they can represent many things at once. So Will describes to Kay, the book’s heroine, how a fluid movement of many stones, interrupted by a single and erratic stone which then disperses its discordant and jarring motion among the rest, might represent an infection, or the spread of fear, the expanding power of a bad leader, or the communication of a bad idea. Left-wraiths often plot without boards, though; working with imagined stones at the tips of their fingers, they visualise narratives and other patterns in order to understand and predict the world around them.

Twelve Nights is published by Penguin Random House on 5th April. The publisher has very kindly agreed to giveaway five copies of the book, so to win, just reply with a comment on the blogpost. 

Andrew Zurcher is Director of Studies in English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and a leading international expert on the works of Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare. Andrew can be found on Twitter @andrewzurcher

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