Five Influences on ‘Unknown Language’ by Huw Lemmey

Huw Lemmey offers insights into five of his influences during the writing of Unknown Language, a mutant fiction of speculative mysticism that follows the journey of visionary healer Hildegard of Bingen following a great cataclysm. Unknown Language been longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021, which rewards the best fiction published by small presses every year.

Romanesque Murals

In the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya are a series of romanesque murals painted around the time at which Hildegard lived, although in a very different cultural and political context, taken from churches and monasteries in the Catalan Counties, at the time a borderland of Christendom. I visited the murals frequently while writing the book; their depictions of biblical and allegorical figures, and their bestiary of animals and depictions of nature, helped me visual a modern-mediaeval world for the book to sit in.

The Bloody Chamber
by Angela Carter

I found the work of Carter, and especially her short story collection The Bloody Chamber, very useful in rethinking about the retelling of stories. In the collection Carter uses traditional folk stories and fairy tales, not as direct updated versions but as source materials from which to extract new possibilities. As such, the stories are both a rich source of commentary on stories themselves (and how and why we tell them) and also work to create new worlds.


Every summer (except the last) in Barcelona each neighbourhood hosts a weeklong festival, the festa major. As part of the festivities a neighbourhood association is charged with organising a correfoc, a fire run, where, dressed as devils, the group run through the neighbourhood with fireworks attached to staves or pitchforks, creating a roving, explosive parade under which people run and dance. Mascots such as satanic cats or dragons are also strapped with fireworks and worn by dancers. The popularity of the correfoc and the similarly fire-oriented festival of Sant Joan suggests the persistence of folk religions in a city that has long since beaten off the yoke of the clerics.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Mausoleum is a misnomer; the Roman empress Galla Placidia was not buried there. Instead the building is a chapel attached to the Church of the Holy Cross in Ravenna. It is small, discreet, and one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It is decorated with rich mosaics depicting animals and birds, while the roof is a blue firmament picked out with magnificent golden stars. It's a depiction of the divine which makes no attempt to know, but simply to be.

Death in Spring
by Mercè Rodereda

It isn't her most famous book, but Rodereda's novella Death in Spring is a magnificent book which helped me think through some ideas around the depiction of authoritarianism and the violence of belief that I tried to pick up in Unknown Language. I always conceived of Hildegard as a deeply isolated figure in her sickness, despite the importance of collaboration to her life, and someone who felt it more important to navigate complicity than embrace martyrdom. Death in Spring, dense, poetic, terrifying, was an important book for me in examining that, as well as the way it treats the terror of being trapped on the wrong side of superstition, of rurality, as a coming-of-age story.

Pilgrimage to the Fountain of San Isidro
by Francisco Goya

Like many of these influence, this painting by Goya, along with his other Black Paintings, helped me try and navigate my own complicated feelings around belief, rationality, collectivity and absurdity. I struggle with the violence engendered by religious belief, yet I cannot abide the lightness with which it can be discarded as ‘just superstition’. If it is human, it is all the more important to reckon with its depths and darknessess, something Goya faced in his final fearful days. Pilgrimage is one such painting that faces down the human instinct at the root of ritual procession, and the urge for salvation through journeying.