Earlier this year, BBC Northern Ireland’s Five Fables brought the work of 15th-century Scottish poet Robert Henryson to life, and to a brand new audience, through the medium of animation.
Based on The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables, a selection of Henryson’s dense Middle Scots verses, Five Fables was created by Holywood’s Waddell Media Group in concert with its translator, the late, great Seamus Heaney, composer Barry Douglas — he wrote the score — and the company’s accomplished animation arm, Flickerpix. Billy Connelly even lent his broad Caledonian burr to the production as narrator.
Indeed, the BBC was so impressed with the finished article that it now plans to broadcast all five episodes across its network. Not satisfied with resting on its laurels, however, Waddell Media has now released an iPad app to allow further, and lasting, exploration of this fascinating project. Entitled Seamus Heaney: Five Fables, the app is a slick, high-end affair made up of the animations and weighty additional features. This new angle offers an expanded insight into Henryson’s vision.
Its use as an educational aid is obvious and, according to Waddell’s head of development David Cumming, that is one of the main motivations for developing a new chapter in the Five Fables story. ‘I thought, here’s an opportunity to use new technology to enrich a poetry-reading experience. It was trying to do something new with poetry that hadn't been done before.’ For Cumming, while the app has been introduced for pleasure rather than work, the prospect of it serving as a ‘rich academic tool’ signified a ‘nice backdrop’.
He recalls that the decision to press on with creating the mobile software was an easy one. ‘Certainly when I was doing the documentary elements of the TV series, meeting a large number of highly qualified, very expert academics, I mentioned the idea of being able to flick between the two versions of the poem and listen to one against the other. They were very excited by the idea. I knew, at the very least, that there would be an existence for it in the academic world.’
The mechanics that Cumming refers to represent the app’s major upside. Users are able to shuffle between Henryson’s original text — selected audio samples are embedded — and Heaney’s more accessible translation. The two may even be viewed side by side for the sake of comparison. ‘I’d like to think that this could become fairly standard in university curricula across the English-speaking world,’ says Cumming. ‘I hope this runs for years and years and that it becomes ingrained.’
The app is comprised of multiple layers. The quintet of featured fables is inbuilt, of course, but so too is a great deal of exclusive content. The ability to access expert analysis of Henryson’s writing by leading scholars throughout the UK is just as much a part of the interface as interview segments with Heaney himself. Deeper study is possible thanks to the detailed notes written by Dr Chris Jones from the University of St Andrews.
Henryson was one of the leading medieval makars, Scottish poets whose writings were characterised by the obscure language in which they expressed themselves. Yet, as Cumming points out, Henryson was also a school teacher and he aimed his words at the students under his tutelage. The elegantly jolly artwork that defined Five Fables is a recognition of the poems’ early purpose.
Aside from its particular value to academia, the app can be used by parents to bring Heaney, and Henryson, to the next generation in a variety of ways. ‘We’re not targeting it at kids,’ says Cumming. ‘We’re targeting it at intelligent parents.’ He suggests that, in essence, all of the app’s moving parts can be enjoyed by ‘a person who likes a good read.’ The core idea of switching between original and adapted readings, interacting with the material and experiencing it all in an intuitive manner is a lot of fun, if nothing else.
Cumming hopes that the bonus of Connolly’s involvement will attract an audience. As it happened, Heaney had always heard the comic’s voice in his head when working through the thick Middle Scots and was keen that he be engaged for narration duties. Serendipitously, Connolly was an avid poetry fan as well as an admirer of both Heaney and Henryson. ‘He was lovely. He was an absolute pro. I was surprised by how into it he was,’ says Cumming.
Heaney passed away as the television series was coming together yet both Five Fables and the app contribute much to his wonderful legacy. ‘Seamus was very involved with the creation of the series,’ says Cumming. ‘He was always very modest. He wanted the work to be a way of bringing people to Henryson. Hopefully that’s what we’ve managed to achieve.’
The Seamus Heaney: Five Fables app is available on the Apple App Store.
By Matthew Coyle