Some thoughts after walking to Wayland’s Smithy
A grey November afternoon, and Lizzie, Maggie and I go to Uffington Castle and then to Wayland’s Smithy.
The grass cut within the “castle” might have made hay for the horses of the past, but now trips us and lies damp in lines. I have brought with me Alan Garner’s new book Treacle Walker but find that I have also brought in my head lines from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, which I recently finished, and, of course, the novel set in the castle, by Rosemary Sutcliff that I have explored in this blog so often before. I was sharply reminded on the challenge of Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints: Name the saints that go with you, as I cited him in March 2020. The world, as Rob Macfarlane says (cited here), is endlessly relational and if our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world I think our reading and mulling over those books is shaped by the landscapes we know. The books we have read and loved or set aside come with us, even if only dimly; the people who have been here before walk the Ridgeway with us:
…it is as though the still small pool of one’s own identity has been overrun by a great flood, bringing its own grand collective desires and resentmentsWanderlust: Citizen of the Streets
Solnit is writing here about urban wandering, streets of protesters and the leisured, but taken (maybe a trifle meanly) out of context, it is worth pondering her words in a less busy place, so full of imagined pasts. In this case the collective desires are the imagined desires of lost communities: failed crops; successful alliances; a thicket cleared; a winter without wolves. This is where the writing of the calibre of Rosemary Sutcliff is so engaging, but of course she is not alone. Cynthia Harnett, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, those writers who sought to make sense of England in a violent and chaotic century were with her; writers from Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, to Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel stand their watch for older readers. In Robert Macfarlane’s study of Edward Thomas in The Old Ways, he remarks that he approached paths as not only solitary places but also sociable ones, where once-silenced voices might be heard. The historical novelist, or (like Alan Garner) the writer who moves between times, has to be attuned to those once-silenced voices.
The three characters in Treacle Walker – the eponymous Rag and Bone sage, the bog man Thin Amren and Joseph Coppock, the boy at the heart of the story, are each in a way personifications of these imagined desires. A lad tries to make sense of his growing realisation that time is not what he thought it was, but has elements of past cultural insights that are far more vivid than he had expected. Joe walks into Big Meadow and down to the bog, and such is the power of Alan Garner that these worn tracks, these refrains, these iterations, have a reach beyond ritual into something deeper: a walk into the past, a walk into where past and present have no meaning. Writer as psychopomp, or at least as guide along a way in which the dead walk with us and before us.
In a similar way, when we walk out on an ancient path, we can feel we walk with the people who preceded us. I am often prompted to wonder why Sutcliff didn’t include Wayland or the ‘Smithy’ in Sun Horse Moon Horse; the horse imagery, the life of humans spent around horses, seems so tempting… but on we walk, down from the high places of Uffington (yes, I am remembering the line on the unicorn Findhorn in Elidor, but also the High Places as cultic places in the Bible) down and then up to Wayland’s Smithy. Buzzards fly overhead. A kestrel calls. I feel I am in the landscape of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Iceni in Sun Horse, Moon Horse. Hedley Thorne is nearby, flying a drone above the bronze of the Ridgeway’s autumn beeches, and taking some immense photographs from high in the grey sky. I am glad to see him, so real and so in touch with the beauty of the place -and then we turn to the mouth of the chambered long barrow. .
English Heritage tell us that some fourteen people were buried here. Is there still a body here, in this place of burial and remembering? Is there a dreamer under the hill, a Merlin in waiting? I think at once of the bog man whose dreaming calls together the characters and places in Treacle Walker, and of Solnit’s vision of reader and writer:
To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide-a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere.Wanderlust. Labyrinths and Cadillacs
She could be describing my experience of reading Garner. Travelling a literary and historical landscape like the Ridgeway, or more generally in those parts of England where place and story work together, I feel powerfully her words
Roads are a record of those who have gone before and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there-not saints and gods anymore, but shepherds, hunters, engineers, emigrants, peasants to market or just commutersWanderlust. Labyrinths and Cadillacs
I have touched on the ambiguities of historical fiction before. I think I stand by my conjecture (such is the flimsiness of my theory) that what counts are not the accidentals of context but the matter of the story. In this case I do not need Wayland’s Smithy to be in Sutcliff’s novel, any more than I need an archaeologist to find a body to substantiate the sacrifice in her book. The novelist plays with her conceptions of a Britain made up of countless individual sacrifices – the death of Arthur, the hope of Drem, the exodus to the horse-runs of the North bought by Lubrin, and places them vividly in the landscape. Perhaps my wonder really extends to how a person facing Sutcliff’s physical challenges, communicates this landscape so brilliantly.
The worlds created in her imagination have had to stand in for the world of much everyday actuality. From her therefore we can learn what the imagination does, and how it allows us all to explore what’s possible, the realm of virtual experience.Books for Keeps, cited here in the Rosemary Sutcliff web site.
Does it seem odd to use the image of walking still? The embodied characters whom she depicts make it seem appropriate to me: the painful arthritic condition that marked her life is one factor in this embodiment; the wide ranging movement of her characters is another, and we walk, ride, wade with them through her stories as we appreciate the vivid, complex, evolving world she creates. And on this trip to the Ridgeway on a gray November afternoon, this was where her work really struck me as being in harmony with Solnit’s insights: Sutcliff entices us into a world of changing cultures and aspirations, changing seasons and landscapes, so that actually visiting her sites opens up new interpretations of her worlds – but the detail of this way of reading her books and landscapes I leave to my good friend Mat and his Doctoral research.
The last word, therefore, to Rebecca Solnit:
Walking has been one of the constellations in the starry sky of human culture, a constellation whose three stars are the body, the imagination, and the wide-open world.Wanderlust: Las Vegas, or the Longest Distance Between Two Points.