Hear the Leaves

A fool could sit under the trees forever and grow no wiser.

UKLeG The Finder, Tales from Earthsea

The impatience of a person asked to undertake the tasks of contemplation is beautifully encapsulated in this little interchange. It is rings true with the Zen stories where a disciple asks a Big Question and is told to look at the landscape or clean his rice bowl. We are only free to “feel…what we feel in this moment” as Alan Watts suggests: “no way to free ourselves… the you that you imagine to be capable of transforming yourself doesn’t exist.”

Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle puts it like this:

At times of crisis when one realises that one is not free after all and serious doubts about oneself begin to arise, then one can no longer find a hold on what one always believed was one’s own. A difficult choice must then be faced: there must be a complete inner surrender… or else one must take hold of something else that is not yet this final and absolute reality.

H Enomiya-Lassalle, The Practie of Zen Meditation, Day 7

This week, the last in November and leading into December, is National Tree Week, so it seemed appropriate – if a little rushed on my part – to look at some trees that have recently been on my social media and my own reading. My friend Roger sends me a moving short bit of footage of an extract for Journey of the Magi recited in a forest; Jon posts a magical picture of a tree in foggy West Oxfordshire; Mat and I discuss (on social media and elsewhere) the still, warm place that is Lewis’ Wood Between the Worlds – and at home we are reading a more inimical view of trees in The Children of Green Knowe (broad hint for Christmas: Diana Boston has a shop). I cannot really make an anthology, not a proper one, of writers about trees, and Fiona Stafford has a whole book on trees and British culture, so the sample here is really on the well-trodden ground of Lewis, Le Guin and the other fantasy writers, with a quick glance at some other commentators. There are all sorts of woods to discover: here I will look only at two versions: the everyday and the transcendent, and I acknowledge my selection to be idiosyncratic: they are just extracts to draw attention to the glorious richness there is in the ways writers think of trees and woodland.

Alexander Porteous, in his 1928 book The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, gives forty pages over to 

…these sacred groves…watered by some consecrated fountain or river…surrounded by a ditch or mound to prevent the intrusion of strangers. No one was permitted to enter these consecrated groves except through the passage left open for the purpose. 

It is a work, rather like Watkins’ 1925 The Old Straight Track where speculation and the topological understanding of the author’s time are brought to bear, sometimes with some success (Watkins may have some methodologies we might challenge but sometimes his guesswork is impressive), on the phenomenon under discussion. Porteous has, for example, a peculiar view of palaeobotany that suggests people planted trees on sacred spots rather like C18th landowners – but what Porteous does do – perhaps unconsciously – is lay out a popular understanding of woodland as sacred landscape: 

They would have vague glimmerings of some power higher than themselves whom it was necessary to propitiate and to worship… The popular conception of the character of a grove is an assemblage of beautiful trees which together impart a peculiar beauty to the scene: the external forms of these trees possess so much beauty, and their overhanging boughs afford so welcome a shelter, that we need not wonder if in earlier ages groves were considered as fittest temples for the gods, and it was believed by the ancients that ghosts and spirits tool a delight in making their appearance there.” 

Porteous Ch IV

Holdstock and BB have interesting woodlands, at once fantastic and everyday. The woods of BB’s Little Grey Men are fantastic because they have gnomes in them, and the world is depicted from their diminutive point of view, so that Crow Wood is a place of menace dominated by the gamekeeper-ogre, and yet BB’s delight in the depiction of ordinary, everyday nature still comes through.

Their way now led them down a narrow grassy path hedged on either side with tall bracken. It had not yet reached its full stature for the tips were still curved over into little shepherd’s crooks. It made a fairy adventure of green on either side of the track, for the path they were on was only an animals’ ‘runway’. It wandered here and there, under brambles, round the stumps of trees, under fallen branches, in and out beneath dense blackthorn, and under the winding tendrils of wild honeysuckle. You or I could never follow it…

B.B. The Little Grey Men, ch 8, Giant Grum

Follow it, in the eyes of his gnomes, we do, of course, and debate game birds and private property as we go… The gnomes provide a new way of looking at woodland, a new height, and this adds to B.B.’s showing a world where size brings its own challenges and adventures to the resourceful little people. Themes of self-sufficiency return with similar power in his novel Brendon Chase where again, the author Denys Watkins-Pitchford displays his naturalist’s eye, and this wood, big enough for three boys to live in more or less undetected, is both the setting for the book and in some ways the star attraction. Here the boys are settling into an evening in the wood that is to be their runaway hideout all summer and autumn:

In the quiet of evening the nightingales were singing, whitethroats were bubbling their merry woodland music from the hazels and sallows, and now and again a pigeon passed over, high in the sunlight, its breast lit by the low rays of the setting sun.

One of them, spying the thick crown of the oak below it in the clearing, closed its wings, wheeled round, and cam to a clattering rest among the green leaves. It was amazing that so large a bird could alight so swiftly it seemed to pierce the wall of foliage with ease, almost as if it were an arrow.

B.B. Brendon Chase, Chapter 3, Gone to Ground.

In both woods, we are dealing with a key theme of penetration, a real (enough) wood that for the runaway Hensman brothers in Brendon Chase provides shelter as well as danger, and for the Little Grey Men a critical encounter with humans and the animals the humans have subjected to themselves. In Brendon Chase, it feels colonial, from the boys’ entering and settling in the wood to their parents in Simla; in The Little Grey Men the outdoors beyond the gnomes’ known world is dangerous: for me there is a sense of trespass amid the beauty. The passage from B.B, I cited here is echoed in the much more tangled and disturbing fantasy Mythago Wood, published some forty years later.

To call, it a path was overly to dignify the barely perceptible routeway between the towering oak trunks, winding up and down the ragged contours of the land. Dog’s mercury and fern strokes my legs: ageing brambles snagged my trousers; birds gave frantic flight above, in the darkening summer canopy… I seemed to arrive deeper in the edgewoods, and felt mildly triumphant.

R0bert Holdstock, Mythago Wood, Part Two: 9.

Ryhope, Holdstock’s expanding, dangerous, layered fantasy wood, is a landscape unlike any other. More disturbing than Tolkien’s Old Forest or Mirkwood, more claustrophobic than Fangorn, it defies conquering, demands acquiescence from those that penetrate its secrets. We are in the realm of fantasy, yet Holdstock still keeps the reader grounded in a recogniseable woodland – maybe this is where I find the greatest horror: that we are drawn into the occult through a series of obsessions and myths and timeslips (is that what they are?) yet encountering at first a tangled woodland of old fences and brambles B. B. would recognise.

The field treacherous with cow-pats… the tangle of rose briars, bramble and knee-high nettles…gnarled young oak trees….

Overture and beginners for a forested world where language is mangled, loyalties upended, a “natural order” questioned: things will get much more confused as the protagonist Steven enters the dark fantasy of the wood. Ryhope is a place of threat – and yet some of its terror comes from the balance of recognising the world of menace just inside the wood. Holdstock’s woodland is not so different from Brendon Chase – until you venture in deep, or its inhabitants come and find you.

At that point, to return to a real wood, I have to mention the wood grown up around the deserted village of Astercote: ‘Just the forest taking over again.” It is a representation of an ordinary woodland that shows the same love and care as B.B. demonstrates:

The wood hummed and sang, life flickering and rustling at every level: insects underfoot, birds above and around, small ones flitting neatly from branch to branch, pigeons crashing noisily overhead. Sunlight crackled down through the leaves, dust spinning in the yellow shafts. A squirrel poured soundlessly down the trunk of a tree and vanished into the brambles: somewhere ahead a woodpecker thumped. It was a busy place, preoccupied with its own affairs.

Penelope Lively, Astercote, Ch 2

It reminds me of the search for ancient woodland in Oliver Rackham’s masterpiece, Trees and Woodlands of the British Landscape:

It is observed that woods with a long history, and especially ancient coppices, often have a richer flora than recently established woodland., and contain certain plants which the latter lacks. Continuity, management and development all contribute to the difference. An ancient wood will either have inherited species from the wildwood or – if secondary – will have had sufficient time to acquire all but the least mobile plants…The plant communities of an ancient wood will have had perhaps a thousand years in which to come to terms with management.

Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British landscape, ch 6: What woods now mean

We are back from Ryhope, back from Astercote, back in the real wood again, and can breathe.

But there is another view of woodland: the mallorn of Tolkein’s Lothlorien, the nameless yet named trees of Le Guin’s Grove, places of a slow redemption that Robert Macfarlane describes as the green where shadow meets leaf. The Immanent Grove on Roke – a high wood crowned in starlight –  makes some powerful appearances in the Earthsea sequence. In the last, the deeply troubled Alder – a significant name, just as Ged is called Sparrowhawk – explains he was able to sleep in the Grove:

Even at night I could sleep. In daylight, if the sun’s on me…if the warmth of the sun’s on me and the red of the sun shines through my eyelids, I don’t fear to dream. But in the Grove there was no fear at all, and I could love the night again.

The grove is a different thing from the tangled woods so far, a space of a more enlightening spirituality than a dangerous encounter. People have commented about the eerie Wood Between the Worlds in C S Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew as a place of almost lotus-eating forgetfulness, a place of letting go to the point of loss, of stupefaction – but if this near-oblivion might seem a disabling thing, and the quiet and warmth make the wood a place impeding action, it is worth looking at the Witch-Queen Jadis and her reaction: cruel, manipulative and decisive, she begs to be rescued from the place where her power is powerless, her desire to grasp is worthless. As my headquote suggests, this is not always easy: letting go and hearing the leaves can be a frustrating sort of learning, but with Porteous, the people who venture there experience glimmerings of some power higher than themselves in ways that are healing and sustaining. Jadis cannot bear it, Lucifer-like she cannot choose surrender; but Medra, the eponymous Finder in Le Guin’s novella and the man to whom the headquote belongs, is at least willing to start learning, and asks what the significance is of the Grove at the heart of the Mages’ experience, only to be told

You can learn about the Grove only in it and from it.

And in another of the Tales from Earthsea, locality and peace are discovered by Irian in the Grove into which the mage, the Master Patterner, has inducted her: To be there was enough, was all.

This episode gives Le Guin the opportunity for her best woodland manifesto:

She had no wish to explore for herself. The peacefulness of the place called for stillness, watching, listening; and she knew how tricky the paths were, and the Grove was, as the Patterner put it, “bigger on the inside than the outside.” She sat down in a patch of sun-dappled shade and watched the shadows of the leaves play across the ground. The oak mast was deep; though she had never seen wild swine in the wood, she saw their tracks here. For a moment she caught the scent of a fox. Her thoughts moved as quietly and easily as the breeze moved in the warm light.

Ursula K Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea, Dragonfly.

The echo of the Tao seems very obvious to me. The named and nameless trees, the named and nameless Path, the path through the trees that is not fixed.

“How far does the forest go?” Medra asked, and Ember said,” As far as the mind goes.”

The Grove beyond the Mages’ Great House on Roke has a special place in my reading of Earthsea partly because what I might fancifully think of as my own Great House also has a Grove, a Deer Park, and maybe – maybeC S Lewis’ imagining the snowy woods of Narnia – but actually the woods closest to my time of reading Le Guin are the woods around the Harcourt Campus at Oxford Brookes. They have been a therapeutic space when times felt hard, a place to talk things over with friends – both from my need and theirs, a delight of solitarinesse. And, of course, they are the place where my Outdoor Learning students practise and play.

As one of the principal characters in Powers’ The Overstory puts it Our brains evolved to solve the forest… Forest and grassland, valley and high place: landscape formed how we think and feel.

George Monbiot in his chapter The Hushings in Feral explores this, and takes up the challenge of outdoor play with some typically (and movingly) lyrical praise:

Missing from children’s lives more than almost anything else is time in woods. Watching my child and others, it seems to me that deep cover encourages deep play, that big trees, an understorey mazed by fallen trunks and shrubs which conceal dells and banks and holes and overhangs, draw children out of the known world and into others. Almost immediately the woods become peopled with other beings, become the setting for rhapsodic myth and saga, translate the children into characters in an ageless epic, always new, always the same. Here, genetic memories reawaken, ancient impulses are unearthed, age-old patterns of play and discovery recited. 

George Monbiot: Feral: p169

And if as he says …the outdoors has an endless capacity to surprise,  we should recognise this capacity in the wide variety of woods in literature.

Family, Friendship and Loss

‘There is no family any longer.’

Except, Tove Jansson will tell us in a roundabout way, there is – but this is not where she starts from. As Jake Hayes’ fantastic exploration of the book will tell us, Moominvalley in November “is a story about unfulfilled desires.’ And what we find is a different kind of family, where familial fit – the way a community wraps its skills and needs around one another – is re-explored, without most of the familiar main characters of the Moomin stories. But Snufkin is here, irresolute and disturbed.

One of the saddest sections in any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books is where Snufkin, on his way for the autumn, remembers he hasn’t left his usual letter for his friend Moomintroll.

I forgot my goodbye letter, I didn’t have time. But all the letters I write are the same: I’ll be back in April, keep well. I’m going away , but I’ll be back in the spring, look after yourself. He knows anyway.

Tove Jansson: Moominvalley in November: ‘Snufkin.’

He knows anyway: the heart leaps at that comforting assurance, the two friends knowing that the other is secure in their friendship. And then Jansson pulls the rug out from under my feet:

And Snufkin forgot about Moomintroll as easily as that.

Way back, in what to me seems the sunnier autumn of Finn Family Moomintroll (the first of the books I had read), we had already seen Snufkin leaving before the end, to explore

all the strange places [he] longed for and would go to quite alone.

Tove Jansson: Finn Family Moomintroll

And he will enjoy being quite alone. His solitude is part of his complexity, as is his detachment. I live all over the place, Snufkin says when introduces himself in Comet in Moominland; my hands are free, because I don’t have to carry a suitcase. And along with garnets or any other precious things (apart from hat and mouth-organ) he carries little, physically or emotionally. Not for Snufkin any regret, the hopes for kindness at a distance. All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails playing on his mouth organ, he is off, answering the call he felt in the night of the storm on the Hattifatteners’ Island.

In the relationship between Moomin and his friend Jansson does a spectacular thing: she shows an unequal friendship, a love that Moomintroll feels and cannot really articulate, a friendship Snufkin picks up and puts down easily.

Moomintroll was left alone on the bridge. He watched Snufkin grow smaller and smaller, and at last disappear among the silver poplars and the plum trees. But after a while he heard the mouth organ playing All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails and then he knew that his friend was happy. He waited while the music grew fainter and fainter, till at last it was quite quiet, and then he trotted back through the dewy garden…

‘Are you crying?’ asked Bob.

‘N-no,’ said Moomintroll, ‘it’s only that Snufkin has gone away.’

Jansson gives us a simple, hesitant denial: it is the pain of absence that shows us the depth of Moomintroll’s feelings. What began in Comet in Moominland with Snufkin jumping up and down [shouting] Fancy that! What fun! Coming all this way to see me! leads to Moomintroll in Finn Family Moomintroll toasting his friend with a wish for a good pitch for his tent and a light heart, but sad for himself, as Moominmamma wisely notices.

But when Snufkin, in the much later Moominvalley in November, ponders his relationship with the family, Jansson gives us further revelations. Snufkin, significantly in search of some creative completion, has returned to the Moomin valley to find assorted hangers-on have come too, looking for hospitality and companionship – locality and peace as Auden puts it – and while he is not pleased, the new arrangement at least gives him pause for thought:

And how different they are from the Moomin family. They were a nuisance too, they wanted to talk. They were all over the place, but with them you could at least be on your own. How did they behave, actually? Snufkin wondered in surprise. How is it possible I could have been with them all those long summers without ever noticing that they let me be alone?

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November, ch 11.

Moomintroll has all sorts of people he depends on and who depend on him: the annoying-little-brother-figure of Sniff; the prototype for Miss Piggy in the Snork Maiden; his father (who has taught me so much about being a father that I am sat upstairs in my study writing); the rarely flappable and always wondrous Moominmamma. But only one Snufkin: there is a beautiful, slow-burn depiction of Moomin’s close friendship with the wanderer, that comes to a half-spoken resolution in November.

In some ways, with the Moomin family following the mid-life crisis of Moominpappa, figuratively and literally at sea (my blog post here), Moominvalley in November is another of Jansson’s meditations on family, but this time, it is Snufkin’s turn to learn. He leaves the valley and his friend Moomintroll with hardly a second glance, but finds himself blocked artistically, and makes his way back – only to find that the annoying, noisy, emotionally engaged Moomins have been replaced by a cast of disfunctional who-are-we-and-what-are-we-doing? characters. But they are a rewriting of the Moominhouse community; another sort of family. Just as Moomintroll on the island in Moominpappa At Sea is struggling with the frustration of his growing into adulthood, here Snufkin is wrestling with similar Angst, questioning what family means to him. On this reading (nth of n times) it seems to me that it is the irritation and pain as much as the joy that suffuses all the Moomin books that makes them so real.

It is his interaction towards the end of the book with little-boy-lost Toft* which marks the turning point in Snufkin’s understanding: when Toft, wrapped in his own fears, seeks reassurance, Snufkin has to step up, making (we should note) two cups of tea, two sandwiches:

‘It’s me,’ Toft whispered. He went inside the tent, where he’d never been before. It smelt nice inside-of pipe-tobacco and earth. Beside the sleeping-bag was a candle on a sugar box and the floor was covered with wood shavings.

‘It’s going to be a wooden spoon,’ Snufkin said. ‘Were you frightened by something?’

‘There is no family any longer,’ answered Toft. ‘They’ve deceived me.’

‘I don’t believe that,’ said Snufkin. ‘Perhaps they just want to be in peace for a while.’ He picked up his thermos flask and fill two mugs with tea. ‘There’s the sugar,’ he said. ‘They’re sure to come home some time.’

‘Sometime!’ exclaimed Toft. ‘She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!’

Snufkin shrugged his shoulders. He made two sandwiches and said: ‘I wonder what it is that the Moominmamma cares about…’

It will lead Snufkin to resolve his own creative block and liberate the anxious Fillyjonk, and by experiencing a different mode of community, Snufkin comes to realise, uncomfortably, what it is he appreciates about the Moomins. However he will not be there to greet them when they return: he has his music and has learned his lesson, but does not cease from being a snufkin. Transformation is not a magic reinvention, but a genuine change: not a Hobgoblin’s Hat change – the kind I was always hoping for for me – but something deeper that allows Snufkin to stay true to himself. At least this time, less careless with his friendship, he remembers to write to Moomintroll.

*

Real is an odd term. This is a world created by an author whose artistic talent is way beyond me, whose life in boats, on islands, in Scandinavian high culture is just as strange – but it is a world that becomes alive because we are invited (gently, subtly) into an emotional world we can understand. The little dog who longs to run with the wolves – until his wish starts to become true; the array of confusions we encounter in ourselves and others; peculiar friends and relations and their foibles and stamp collections; wrong decisions and adventures we hardly chose; how I met your mother; memories, regrets, death and rebirth… Huggably tubby trolls (and irritatingly fussy Fillyjonks, amenable ghosts, and Hattifatteners and the rest) standing for an array of characters we recognise and can see ourselves in.

*Jake connects this insightfully with Tove Jansson’s own loss of her mother. This adds powerfully, for me, to Toft’s break in understanding: Snufkin says “They’re sure to come home,” and Toft responds, “She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!

Mindful of Hardships

Swa cwæð eardstapa,

earfeþa gemyndig

So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships

I’ve been here before, bemoaning the state we’re in. So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships. It is an amazing bit of poetry, and way outside my discipline to comment on the poet’s meaning or even, truth be told, to get through it without a parallel text (this is the one I’m using) and a dictionary/thesaurus. As the world gets bleaker, I find my thinking informed by the voices of poets condemning what we might think of as alienation, sin-sickness, the prophetic Leonard Cohen telling us to “say the mea culpa which you probably forgot,” Shirley Collins’ moving images of powerlessness, locked in ice.

And yet today has gone well. Yes, for me at least, friends have made a difference. It shows me how fragile my feelings are, but on the first day back in the Bodleian (and admittedly only getting my new reader’s card) and noting that my last day of “proper” research was up on the Downs on a blowy March day, things have gone well.

Most of them. The desolation of the Wanderer was not really in my brief, but made my own annoyances seem petty – but the actual devastation of England by those with grubby paws, and people’s disquiet (partly exacerbated by the ways in which so much emnity is washing around) made it seem rather apt. Early morning sleeplessness is of no use, nor is a way of thinking that is rough and sorrowful. Physical affection is barred us; we have each become the wineleas guma, friendless man.

Swa þes middangeard

ealra dogra gehwam

dreoseð ond fealleð

So this Middle-earth, a bit each day droops and decays.

And so I felt I was back in a low mood about the state of things at the present: precious and venerable woodland desecrated, MPs snidily threatening that people who help the poor cannot expect help from Government themselves, MPs’ pay rises and subsidised food while children even in this locality go hungry… But the one thing that has always given me a small shred of comfort has been the notion that my response has to be one I own fully: not a bandwagon (however righteous) or sense of despair (however justified). And this is where we need kind-ness, that feeling of people belonging, of my belonging and the duty of care that brings*.

And then Richard Powers, he of The Overstory, had a short essay in the paper yesterday. He is not overly hopeful about the American election and suggests that whatever the outcome

It will take decades to heal the deep wounds.

Richard Powers, How do we become a serious people again?

…but then suggests lines I had not read from Walt Whitman. The poem from which they are taken is a longer plea for a United America, but these lines brought me back to a plea from earlier blogs:

OVER the carnage rose prophetic a voice,

Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet,

Those who love each other shall become invincible,

Walt Whitman, Over the Carnage, Leaves of Grass

and continues

The most dauntless and rude shall touch face to face lightly,

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,

The continuance of Equality shall be comrades

(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?

Or by an agreement on a paper? or by arms?

Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.)

So Whitman was there before me (this is not really a surprise) in a plea for affection, friendship, fellow-feeling triumphing over institution and when earlier I asked about the human aspect of wholeness, “When This Is All Over” what will wellbeing be like? and maybe more urgently how might we get there, the personal is what we are left with, and knowing one another as of the same kind, kind-ness, compassion, is the place we start.

*I have to acknowledge, especially since I was amazed and delighted to see that this has received a bit more attention than I usually get, the thinking and personal warmth of my colleague Jon Reid whose work around compassion has illuminated so much of my own reflection.

No More Dreams

“Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead.”

C S Lewis’ Christ-like hero Elwin Ransom, Pendragon of the mystical Logres, virginal (Lewis’ own term) channel of the celestial powers, Doctor of the University of Cambridge, dismisses Jane Studdock, the main female character of his Fantasy/Sci-Fi That Hideous Strength with these words. She gives up her power as a Seer to descend the ladder of humility (Lewis’ own image) to become a dutiful Christian wife. In the final paragraphs we know she will enter into a more generous (I think this is a word Lewis could appreciate, but I am at a loss) relationship with her wayward husband Mark: her impulse is to realise she will start by tidying up before the sex.

My first readings of this novel* saw Lewis explore – as in Perelandra, its predecessor- the gendering of mythological/angelic creatures, and the imperious Venus leading Mark to his own understanding of the new relationship seemed key to the finale. I got that.

Later readings caused me some disquiet. Is this really Lewis setting out a theology of marriage? Does Christianity for Jane have to entail submission to her husband because of some inherent maleness in Divinity? Not helped, perhaps, by the ‘of their time’ references to Mark and Jane’s troubled sexual relations (C S Lewis is not D H Lawrence), we are in a rather coy world of Jane needing to submit and Mark appreciating the stupidity of his importunity. I don’t necessarily need to have much more detail, but it is clear their times together has not been fulfilling in some way. Lewis is entitled to his authorial choices; it’s just that we have to acknowledge that if we are not at Wragby, then we are not On Chesil Beach either. The time of love-making (or whatever we call it) immediately after the end of That Hideous Strength is somehow for Lewis’ characters going to be more successful – successful because Mark and Jane will come together with a view of their relationship much more conformable to the reciprocity of St Paul’s vision in Colossians: wives be subject; husbands love your wives and be not bitter; children obey; fathers provoke not, &c.

But it would be a cheap trick to confine Lewis’ thinking about sexuality and the Great Dance of Being (his image) to the bumpy start to one young academic couple starting married life He may use them as exemplars, but his myth of gender is more fully explored in Perelandra, Lewis’ Eden-Myth, second in the trilogy. Limited still we might see it – written in the 40s, after all – he is at least open to a bigger picture than the who-does-what minutiae of Jane and Mark – or even the feelings of Elwin Ransom, the virginal and attractive Cambridge don whose adventures with the ancient gods pull all three books together.

In the final section of this second book, a sort of grand opera Finale, Ransom is witness to the establishment of the rule of the “humans” in Perelandra, in the presence of the tutelary spirits of Malacadra-Mars and Perelandra-Venus, the warrior and the lover. He explores a binary M/F sexuality while dividing masculine from male, feminine from female (and this will sit at odds with the depiction of the cruel, cigar-smoking Lesbian in That Hideous Strength), which fits this in his overall intention: to wed traditional Graeco-Roman mythologies with his world view:

Malacandra seemed … to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance… But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings.

and it is with this insight that Ransom (and with him, Lewis) understands

…why mythology was what it was – gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.

And so with his gods sorted (sort of), Lewis pulls out all the stops, his prose full of beauty, of awe and wonder and celestial power, his own quasi-scriptural voice pouring out: but is it only in myth that he can confront the realities of gender and sexuality?

This recognition of the mess of human understanding is key, and Alister McGrath ends his essay on Lewis in Curtis and Keys’ Women and C S Lewis with something of a plea for clemency:

Yet there is a more compassionate and more realistic way of understanding Lewis – as someone trapped within the social norms and conventions of a bygone age in British culture.

We are all condemned to live in a specific historical context, which we struggle to transcend.

McGrath “On Tolkien, the Inklings and Lewis’ Blindness to Gender.”

As an aside Lewis’ old Oxford College (and my own) has just elected its first woman President.

Lewis turns finally (before Ransom’s return to Earth) to the Adam and Eve of this new-founded society on Perelandra-Venus, Paradise in its two Persons, Paradise walking hand-in-hand. Lewis glories in the both the wonder of the woman’s breasts, a splendour of virility [sic] and richness of womanhood unknown on Earth, and the feeling trembling on the lips and sparkling in the eyes, the might of the man’s shoulders.

He writes here with what seems to me to be more conviction than he does in his hinting at the post-wedding courtship of a young male academic and his (it seems to me) oppressed wife. Certainly

All this is a roundabout way of highlighting the contrasts in the sexual politics of Earthsea. Ged’s ordinariness at the end of Tehanu is part of this, but it is worth noting the sequence of events: the destructive High Fantasy episodes in The Farthest Shore (I knew I would return to this) have left Ged weak and wounded. He is already at the end of his power in The Farthest Shore, enduring, and longing to avoid, some pain with a restlessness…greater than his strength, which soon gave out. As it turns out (at this stage at least) in facing death Ged is no longer the thing that we have defined him by: a man full of magic, archmage. It is his liberation by Tenar, whom he liberated in The Tombs of Atuan, that allows the two to come together in companionship and love, in physical affection and sex – and in the ordinary life of farming. Vocation – Rise – Fall – and then… Then, a restitution of life in the work of herding and in the house of someone who loves him. If, like me, readers had not seen the sequence of books as an elaborate Princesse Lointaine narrative resolving after long years and painful crises, there is at least a sense of completion.

The Finder, in LeGuin’s next text, Tales from Earthsea, picks up the story – or revisits it by asking why Le Guin’s great mages are celibate anyway, and what is the sociology of the mage world, and where this comes from. It is a story bursting with themes of oppression and resistance, with quotable quotes relevant to any reading of the news at the moment (The great and the mighty go their way uncheckedThe lords of war despise scholars and schoolmasters), as well as insights into a more personal spiritual life (We must keep to the center. And wait…).

“My master Highdrake said that wizards who make love unmake their power”

And do they? It would seem not: but they lose their status. Celibacy in Earthsea is a construct of power, and in various ways it is the setting aside of power that allows people to be something more (?better?) than powerful: it allows them to be loving, to be good. I come back again and again to images of pomp from secular and religious occasions and how the set, pious expression seems deliberately enclosed, distant, even disdainful. Cardinals in Cappa Magna; Presidents almost pouting to look grand: they look to me stiff necked and cruel: Gilbertian Mikados. Tenar was freed by Ged in the Tombs of Atuan from her awe-inspiring, dread-full charge as the priestess, the devoured one (shades, to refer maybe more charitably to C S Lewis, of Orual, his brilliantly drawn narrator/protagonist in Till We Have Faces), celebrating empty rites over the dark labyrinth. Ged was freed from the weight of death and of power by Tenar, by warmth, love, and a final setting aside of the burdens of his magic and his status.

The moving story in The Finder – the high-fantasy novella at the start of Tales from Earthsea – has a touching Male-Female relationship at its turning point, where avoidance and coyness become a sexual relationship and a lasting love. In the shorter story that follows, we deal with the simple idea that some people just don’t feel cut out for life as a mage: young Diamond comes home (to the disappointment of his wizard-tutor), picks up with Darkrose, his old girlfriend, and (to the disappointment of his father) goes off as a singer. Ordinary might also mean disappointing the visions grown-ups have for you – but you might end up being happy. There are other ways to unmake or set aside your power.

We see more of Ged in the book The Other Wind, no longer a mage – as the old order changes – but one with experience and knowledge. Tenar in this final book is in ascendance, advising the king, facing the dragons – and the role of women and power is explored further.

And it is Tenar’s wisdom with Tehanu her adopted daughter that in some ways brings this long arc back to earth:

“Ah you dragons,” Tenar said.

It was spoken lightly but it was not lightly said…

“I don’t know what I am, mother,” [Tehanu] whispered in her voice that was seldom more than a whisper.

“I do,” Tenar said. And her heart beat heavier and harder than before.

Le Guin: The Other Wind.

When she returns to Ged he is watering the cabbages like an extra from Voltaire’s Candide, and they share a glass of good red wine. Breaking the world to make it whole sums all the Earthsea revolution (not {but this is another story} unlike the twin volumes of the Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments).

“Well, I’m back,” she said – to paraphrase.

Ursula K Le Guin The Other Wind:
Endpaper (extract)

*I should note that Piers Torday and Neil Gaiman have commented with more thoughtfulness and authority that I can on his portrayal of girls and women in Narnia. In a piece looking wholly at Lewis I would have explored their ideas, and given Alister McGrath’s interesting essay more than a passing mention. For the record, Michael Ward’s work on Jane Studdock is very clear sighted and less defensive. It was a chance comment of mine that Perry Nodelman picked up that started me thinking about LeGuin’s Earthsea as a whole.

The Right to be Ordinary

Perry Nodelman generously shared his detailed and insightful essay on gender in the developing narrative of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, full of wisdom and rich in neat phrases. His Reinventing the Past: Gender in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu and the Earthsea\” Trilogy\” looks at how LeGuin seeks to make sense of a Jungian landscape of shadow and a search for wholeness. This post (as I stand in awe at Perry’s scholarship) seeks not to contradict him – I can see what he is doing – but to see the fourth book of the Earthsea Trilogy [sic: and Perry reminds me that there is more to comment on after Tehanu] as a genuine attempt at a conclusion, and especially to assess its impact on my own thinking. I can’t do it without spoilers, and I can’t do it without at least some self-disclosure: apologies all round, perhaps.

A Wizard of Earthsea begins with the identification of a young wizard, a neglected young goat herder. Stumbling into his maturity he encounters power and the ambiguity of failure. His quest brings him close to the primal dragons and across into a land of death, the enemies he encounters only really being faced down as the trilogy unfolds. This is the highest of high fantasy.

The sense of magic ending or fading, marking a lot of great fantasy writing – Tolkien’s elves going into the West, followed by the apotheosis at the end of all things in Lewis’ Narnia, the departure of Merriman and the Old Ones for Susan Cooper – is also present in Ged’s magic world: we see its shadows, its limits, and witness its increasing weakness. Ged finally confronts death, and in a powerful scene the great dragon Orm Embar dies where his father died,

…and the fire died in his nostrils till they became like pits of ash…

LeGuin, The Farthest Shore, ch 11

Fantasy in Earthsea, it seems to me, is in its death-throws on the remote island of Selidor.

In the ending of The Tombs of Atuan Ged’s liberation of Tenar from being a priestess of shadows allows her a recuperation from the grandiose myths she has served,

Tenar’s loss of the power of darkness earns her the right to be ordinary

Nodelman

I see a justice in Tenar liberating the lost and visionless Ged in Tehanu. No longer taking his place is palaces and magic, he learns love and desire and rediscovers the plain concerns of the everyday. Candide-like, the characters turn their backs on the doings of the great and cultivate their own gardens in what Julian Barnes has called horticultural quietism. It was this phrase, and Perry’s line about ordnariness that took me back to Thomas Merton, and although I cannot begin to suggest LeGuin and Merton knew each other or that their common interest in Tao and Zen inspired anything more than a chance convergent evolution, this poem strikes me as having something to say about the ending of Tehanu:

When in the soul of the serene disciple

With no more Fathers to imitate

Poverty is a success,

It is a small thing to say the roof is gone: He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,

Are angry with the noble ruin,

Saints departs in several directions.

Be still:

There is no longer any need of comment.

It was a lucky wind

That blew away his halo with his cares,

A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find

Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.

There are no ways,

No methods to admire

Where poverty is no achievement.

His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?

Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:

It is the usual freedom

Of men without visions.

Thomas Merton “When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple” The Strange Islands

The image that is near the top of this blog is the three first Earthsea books and then my iPad; I realise I don’t own a hard copy of Tehanu – which is symbolised by the iPad and a picture of the dawn, the same dawn that ends this post. Sun rises; work impinges: to be ordinary is not a choice. It was this line and similar ones that made me think more than twice about (as the phrase goes) “trying my vocation.” I think my Mertonitis took me away from the monastery more than towards it – and I read Perry’s work and re-read the end of Tehanu on my thirty-nineth wedding anniversary. Thirty-nine years ago… And since then, so much has changed. I am struck by how in my own life and society at large – and immensely so since Earthsea first was published – still there are New things to be learned, no doubt. It is, I think, becoming for the final judgement at the end to belong to Tenar:

She thought of the rows of beans and the scent of the bean flowers. She thought of the small window that looked west. ‘I think we can live there,’ she said.

Becoming a Tree

Cold-call my guilt

Quotation after quotation after quotation is required, punctuated by image after image. Reading The Girl Who Became a Tree (Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner: Otter Barry Books) requires some response but beyond reproduction of the book, what can sufficiently portray its complex creativeness? Part A Monster Calls, part Mythago Wood, riffing Caliban and over and over the praise of reading, of libraries… I am full of praise for the inventive, tricksy, frightening and (sometimes) comforting aspects of this rich text. There are, of course, other beauties around, and if I explore and praise this book in the way I have some of last year’s writing for adults or the marvellous debut of Dara McAnulty, that’s not to say that this is a text that shines alone: we are at a rich time in the creation of high quality children’s literature, as Mat Tobin’s blog attests (check it out, and look at his interview with Seaerra Miller and his review of her Mason Mooney, or his exploration of the Wanderer– recent posts, before we even look at Sydney Smith). But this is different.

The Girl Who Became a Tree is a story told in poems, disjointed and broken, like a jumble of faces and patterns in a stained-glass window or maybe more aptly a woodland left to its own devices – I’ll come back to this. But the woodland is a jumble, even a threatening one sometimes, just like nature itself is, just like the mess Daphne the protagonist has to find her way out of, lost after her own loss, using a language (A picture in my head I could not draw, A language learnt but nothing understood as Fuller has his Caliban say) of love, of attachment and of loss that she has to relearn.

Images and turns of phrase from Daphne’s flight and way back stay with me. I have to praise the joining of inimical nature and failing manufacture in

…crows and ravens

with ‘out of battery’ eyes…

or the menace of simple lines

Amongst the dead branches

sat a throne

and this interweaving of kenning and metaphor is a magnificent section:

I am rage,

stone-cracker,

soil-despoiler,

copse-corpse maker.

So why is my stomach

frozen leaf mulch?

I am frenzy,

field-bomber,

hill-raker,

mountain-puncher.

So why are my eyes

winter mist?

The situation – of tragic loss, of the misapprehension of technology as cure when it merely dulls, of the power of reading – speaks clearly of Phillip Pullman’s assertion (which I cited here) that stories teach in many ways. Woodland is made to speak: the dulling, menacing presence of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow or of the enclosing pine tree that trapped Shakespeare’s Ariel is powerfully at work here, and the poem that first presents its genius loci is direct and plain:

Tree monster big

with its tree monster claws

tree monster mumbles

tree monster roars.

and the terror with which Daphne reacts is likewise vivid:

The way your stomach

lurches to sickness.

The way your heart

stalks every beat.

This is not a monster to be trifled with. This blog has as its headquote a line from Gawain: Very wild through the wood is the way they must take. The tree-woodwose-monster Hoc is of the same shape-shifting as the Green Knight or the wood itself in Mythago Wood. Daphne is, Gawain-like, all but seduced into comfortable half-truth; almost her desire/to hold tight the past traps her. the temptation is not unlike Diggory’s in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew – he is offered Mother well again; she is offered memory so vivid it will bring her father back.

The voice of birthday surprise

When the monstrous Hoc, the devouring spirit from tombs of trees… crumbled towers/for fungi to rent offers Daphne the unthinkable, this is a struggle at the hardest of levels; I felt on first reading that she could so nearly have not made it through. As I have said before – in the context of A Monster Calls – misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging. If she hadn’t made it, she – and we – would be lulled, trapped, tapping endlessly on our ‘phones in search of comfort and connection.

As Daphne confronts her loss, her being crushed by the false promises of technological ensnarements which give an impression of connection, she begins to see a way out, a real, emotional rescue/resolution I won’t share here, as a new springtime comes for her. Without breaking the magical realism that is at the heart of this narrative, it is wholly believable: a redemptive friendship, a saved message; a mother’s support…

Illuminated by the artwork Kate Milner offers in the text – meditations on wood, and tree shapes, and the detritus of technology – this is a powerful book, but not an easy read. Pictures need careful examination, and the wordplay and the poetry and storyline likewise need careful following: for me it is not a book to read at a couple of sittings, although I wonder whether more rapid reading would have had a different rhythm and that that in turn would make it more accessible to a younger reader. My issue: not the creators’.

By using myth in a more subtle way than simply updating it, author and illustrator have created a story of confronting death and return from all-consuming grief not unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, but with the modern twist of dealing at once with modern communications and a landscape that is entrapping, dangerous, devouring. There is a tradition of the antiqua silva, the selva oscura here in which it is not a pleasant place, but a place of challenge, where the unwary get into trouble – shades of the woods of Red Riding Hood?

In praise of libraries and librarians (with this author and illustrator how could it not be?), a parable warning against the soft and easy answer, a story of growing up which gives the teenager a place in the adult world, hard-won and precious.

You Can’t Have That Wish, My Little Bear

I would like to write a post in praise of Else Holmelund Minarik‘s Little Bear books with their illustrations by Maurice Sendak – but this is not that post. Indeed, I can’t have that wish at this point. What I want to do is speculate on the enduring power of the words in children’s books, and therefore to start with Little Bear, which provided some phrases that still get an airing at various times in our family.

The title for the blog post gives us the first. When Little Bear can’t sleep, his impossible wishes – actually extreme negotiating positions as he angles for a story – are met with Mother Bear saying You can’t have that wish, my Little Bear. In an earlier story in this little collection, Little Bear sees his lunch set out and says it looks like a good lunch for a little bear. Both of these passed into our family’s phrasebank, and we even now have a big black pot, which means we can ask about dinner by saying Is it in the big black pot? and birthday cakes are sometimes greeted by Birthday Soup is good to eat, but not as good as Birthday Cake. There is a wonderful cadence in all these phrases that means they lend themselves to repetition, and nostalgia for times when we were parents of young children keep them alive, no doubt.

Little Bear now has “his” own YouTube channel, with the animated stories in gentle colours, but it’s that gentle, simple and very open-to-interpretation prose in the books that delighted us. But is it just us? I would love to know if other families found it to have such an impact – and if other books have added to family phrasebanks. Did Snufkin listening to laughter, running feet, and the clanging of great bells far out to sea stick in someone’s vocabulary? Or the Elephant and the Bad Baby‘s rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta all down the road accompany many shopping trips?

And if so, what made such phrases not only have immediate quotability but longer-term stickability too? Was it the power of an original context? The prosody? The story? And what from more recent books has – or might in the future have – that power?

Jeremiads

A Snowflake Writes?

It is a wet Saturday evening as I start to write. That’s not to say that damp days are always a bad thing, but tonight as I look out the world looks gloomy. Somehow the continued botches of our current government around schools and safety in this time of potential illness are the worst, filling me with dread for what is to come: popularism that does not even have efficiency on its side, last-minute patches on policy: adhocracy as someone described it to me.

This sat with an increasing but largely unacknowledged personal malaise – sleeplessness, irritability, all sorts of stuff I should have seen as part of a tide of – what? Anxiety and a feeling that I was alone and unloveable. The moan of the irrational snowflake? The weariness that attaches itself to people just fed up of so many things going wrong: plague after plague: the boils and lice of 2020. The weariness of isolation so perfectly caught by Shirley Collins in her haunting Locked in Ice – the fearful guarantee that I’d be run aground. Not so much a snowflake, then, but a blizzard.

There is sometimes a temptation to see the present hard times as very limited “over by Christmas” – but it is worth remembering that the concertina effect of some historical reflection sees Henry VIII’s destruction as a short blip, or the Vikings who came and were violent and then set up the Danelaw in a few episodes, or even further back, the siege of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon as soon over: a blizzard soon past, when in fact they lasted years, with effects still felt in culture and outlook. The malaise we suffer spiritually will not, I fear, pass any quicker than the physical illness. And that makes me sad, to say the least.

But if we’re going Biblical, the gloom of the prophet Jeremiah is worth considering here. In Ch 8 his poetic/prohetic voice depicts a rudderless land where hopes have withered.

When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me.

Dolor meus super dolorem in me cor meum maerens.

Jeremiah 8: 18 (KJV/Vulgate)

In the line adopted (to tragi-comic effect) by Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit the prophet bemoans

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Transiit messis finita est aestas et nos salvati non sumus.

Jeremiah 8:20 (KJV/Vulgate)

Why isn’t it (define “it,” of course) sorted by now? All those utopias we wanted by the autumn: where are they? Why can I not track this package, of all the packages I ordered?

Of course the reason it’s not here is the complex relationships to all the solutions people want: ecojustice; social liberation; touch; an end to greedy politicians squirrelling away money and holding power by sweaty lies. The recent protest against vaccinations and masks is enough to show how divided we all are, how mistrust in all sorts of causes and solutions is deeply eating into what passes for society. Mistrust, selfishness and what seems like no way out: we seem in a quicksand of grime, and so when C S Lewis’ saintly hero Ransom is explaining to Merlin how the world has changed since the time of Arthur, he describes modern society vividly:

…maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands.

C S Lewis, That Hideous Strength

But Lewis’ near-apocalyptic, celestial intervention will not do, even for a Christian reading a Christian apologist. We are back to that other Merlin, Cooper’s Merriman Lyon and his charge that it is up to us. The writer of the Apocalypse – as I read it, full of an impotent rage as persecution strikes the early Church – looks for a world where a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1) will replace the turmoil of the present. He is looking to external agents for a big show-down, when I think we need to look closer to home, as I have said in a previous blog post – to compassion, to peace-making.

We feel we are on the edge of time, as individuals we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is so close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.

Thich Nhat Hahn: Being Peace

I got so far in my thinking about the lessons I took from Jeremiah and from Thich Nhat Hahn and I ask: what might my response be to the current crises – these interlocking disasters of various kinds – which despite the noises and wishes I see in my corner of Twitter will not go away quickly: what do I do as Jeremiah is persecuted and the city falls, and the Babylonian exile begins? The Shirley Collins song summed it up: a little Ghost Ship on the Beaufort Sea: where the ice goes, I go.

And then the ice breaks, just a bit. Enough. It starts with a sunnier day, the warm, open expression of gratitude from a dear friend, and then Maggie and I started sharing Helen Macdonald’s new collection of essays, Vesper Flights (some of which I had already heard on the BBC). She laments the loss of a meadow from her childhood and hopes for its restoration in a new building development:

The pull on my heart is also the pain of knowing that this is possible, but that it is very unlikely. Centuries of habitat loss and the slow attenuation of our lived, everyday knowledge of the natural world make it harder and harder to have faith that the way things are going can ever be reversed.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Tekels Park

Never reversed. Yes, I can see that, almost taste it sometimes. Yet just as I’ve cited the idea of 3 Ways of compassionfor self; for others; from others – there is also something of an answer in these first pages:

Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those who are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Introduction.

August Brambles

Last night, 15th August, I went out on a whim for some blackberries. Past the campus buildings (some fruit there, harder to spot as the light faded) and onto Warneford Meadow, to the tall banks of nettles and brambles, wet from the rain. A quick bowl full to add to some porridge for tea, and they made a real celebration. Locality and peace, as Auden prays for. I picked some more this morning when I went out to take the photo at the bottom of this post.

Earlier I cited Belden Lane (in turn quoting another writer) saying Tell me the place where you live, and I’ll tell you who you are. An appropriate and even important challenge as people strain to make holidays work, or to get home from them – and one echoed in some ways by the earthy, everyday (or at least seasonal) sacrament of brambling. Homely in the most basic sense. And (of course), the glorious Mary Oliver has been treading down the undergrowth to get there before me:

August
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, 
in the brambles nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high 
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is 
this happy tongue.

Sacra Iuventus

Alcuin has to join those writers I have discussed before – Walafrid Strabo, Paulinus, Ausonius – as worthy of particular mention at this time, and I just want to explore briefly some of the phrases in the poem called Cella Alcuini, in the little collection that came to me recently. I’ve found the Latin text and a translation here, but not before I stumbled through it with (as the first photo shows) a fat Latin dictionary.

The poem starts as a kind of monastic eclogue: Alcuin rejoices in his “cella,” his enclosure, where the apples are ripe, the lilies and little roses bloom. Everything in the garden really is lovely.

But the tone changes. The transitory nature of this comfortable life is underlined; poetry is gone, the boys are no longer singing. It is different from Horace (another Flaccus: Alcuin is not unaware of his predecessor) in that the Horatian ode Eheu fugaces seems to me to be about approaching Death, whereas Alcuin, leaning on his staff sees his youth departing but another vocation pressing (Ian Chadwick, by the way, has a good exposition of Horace here; perhaps a drier blog, but with the full text and translation is to be found here from John Derbyshire). His youth departing: an unintentional double meaning here? I think it is not unreasonable to see Cella as mourning not so much the arrival of wrinkles as the departure of a way of life or a a much loved younger companion. The tone changes – and I am unsure about whether the awkwardness of this is purposeful or not. When seems clear to me in that second half is that the post-Horatian praise of Alcuin’s dwelling – not a “cell” as commonly understood, but a compound, a settlement – is interrupted by the more passionate writing.

Two images stand out for me:

Quae campis cervos agitabat sacra iuventus

Incumbit fessus nunc baculo senior

And

Nos miseri cur te fugitivum mundus amamus

Alcuin is missing the mundus, the physicality of his garden, of the sacra iuventus out in the fields, even of his religious life – ces voix d’enfants chantants dans la coupole from Verlaine and Eliot. There are other points of reference, but I’m reminded of the “sacred days” of Ray Davis and Kirsty McColl, and Days (another link for me might be Sainte-Colombe’s Tombeau Les Regrets, but this isn’t the place to explore all these thems in every genre): Alcuin’s regrets are a spur to something else…

I am struck by the image of an old man and his stick (an abbatial staff?) looking back at the lads chasing deer: it is so vivid I cannot help but think it is “drawn from the life” in some way: Alcuin’s memory of his own youth or an experience with his students. How, then, do I want to translate that phrase sacra iuventus? What is sacra? My initial thought was to see this use of “sacred” as akin to the idea of the precious freedom of childhood, an early exploring of the ideas that emerge in the Romantic and post-Romantic period in poets and educationalists alike.

Maybe that innocence and excitement is there in germ, but I think I want to explore briefly is how sacer is used where Alcuin would have seen it most: the liturgical texts, where a sacrifice makes something sacred. Is that what Alcuin is suggesting? The boy chasing the deer is one consecrated to God? A youthful cleric? Or does iuventus stand for a gang of lads from the school in York? That would work: the holy youth (singular or plural) chase[s] the deer, the older man leans on his staff – tired: a suggestion that the dedication of the young has past. Ah, except that the rest of the poem suggests that it is in old age we turn to something more demanding, more transcendent: that play between cur…fugitivum…amamus and Christum nos semper amemus then becomes key: why do we love you, fleeting world? Fly, fly: let us always love Christ… A pious thought.

And yet I come back to “those endless days, those sacred days.” Is the old Alcuin leaning on his staff and looking at the energy of a long-gone youth and seeing it as having its own unattainable glory? Can he discern with Larkin and Marvell and Yeats and the rest that what he partakes of is only their scrap of history? Does his wistfulness suggest he protests too much when he needs to repurpose his love (amor and amemus dominate these last lines of the poem)? Or is he suggesting in his own way that

What will survive of us is love

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb