The man who brought Mindfulness to the west, Thich Nhat Hahn, has died. Biographies, ceremonies and tributes are already coming in on Social Media. The passages that follow are really all that I want to say from my own perspective.
Recognition without judgement. Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I \clean the teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant and teapot are all sacred.
Thich Nhat Hahn Miracle of Mindfulness.
and here he is on death:
I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree. Please do not say I am just this form, because the firm of leaf is only a part of me. I am the whole tree. I know I am already inside the tree, and when I go back into the soil I will continue to nourish the tree. That’s why I do not worry. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and I will tell her “I will see you again very soon.”
The quotation that forms the title comes from Evening: Zero Weather, a poem by Thomas Merton commemorating these chill days after Christmas (text here). His view – a land without wildlife, where liturgy is a refuge and a celebration after hard physical work – was not what I experienced. He and his monastic brethren are
…sunken in our adoration,
And plunge down, down into the fathoms of our secret joy
That swims with undefinable fire.
And we will never see the copper sunset
Linger a moment, like an echo on the frozen hill…
Thomas Merton, Evening: Zero Weather
For our trip to the Otmoor Nature Reserve it was very different. We came in haste from the busy centre of Oxford through the twisty lanes and down to Otmoor, to throw back our hoods and watch the copper sunset and to see if we might get to watch the starlings and their drifting, balletic murmuration. We weren’t late, and more people came after us, some armed with sandwiches and massive-lensed cameras. In general we stood quiet, watching the other birds over the reeds and in the trees.
The light was itself a revelation. The deeper golds and the encroaching blues were like something from a medieval stained glass window, lit from within – but in contrast to the enclosure of a building, we were engulfed in light and space spreading wider and wider.
And as it faded, our expectation grew. A Marsh Harrier grazes the tops of the reedbeds; a Heron flies over much higher; a flock of Lapwings tumbles hastily into the reeds, and one Dunnock spends a good five minutes rather eccentrically hopping between my boots and the brambles. And then, in ones and twos and then in larger groups, joining together or catching up with one in front, came the starlings. Thousands of them: rank on rank.
Just as a church often has a big congregation watching and a smaller number of active agents as singers and celebrants, in contrast here, the observers were few – maybe twenty of us? – and the celebrants we watched were many. Some birding is detailed, organised and serious – this is a good website to indicate what’s going on – but some is excited but familial, even jolly in a hushed sort of way. I’m not sure where Maggie and I were in this spectrum, but I do know that, amateur that I am, I was immensely moved.
The swirls and sudden plunges of each group were beautiful in themselves, like cloths shaken in the wind (Julian of Norwich’s image of sorrow as men shakyn a cloth in the wynde but we also talk of an exaltation of larks). All those animals moving to their rest. Do they pick somewhere different every night? Are they opportunistic? I wonder about that Harrier – could it grab from this abundance of life? Then I remember seeing a video of a Peregrine stooping, and I think of that marvellous appreciation of the hunting bird by J A Baker. All sorts of expectations and delights are tumbled in me, my own internal murmuration.
So the birds are rushing for shelter against predators and a chill night to come, and we are standing watching them – and it is dazzling. Why do we find this beautiful? The rich colours like they were being distilled to wintry essence, the rush of the birds (and their singing in the reeds that sounded like running water), the way the last of the sun catches in the ditches: there was an overload of beauty – but can we talk of this? Can there be too much?
Perhaps the simplicity of Mary Oliver is a way forward:
But mostly I stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.
Mary Oliver: What Is There Beyond Knowing
I wish this were me, silent as I watch the crowds pass and gather over the fenny land beyond the trees and are then lost, but I bring too many words with me, I am already berating myself for my poor natural history knowledge; already, with photo after photo thinking of social media, of this blog. Percolating up, I remember Baker, but am also thinking of the Thomas Merton poem because I am pondering how this experience ties in with spirituality and I feel myself caught, somehow, between the intensity of nature and the anchoring of a moving encounter in something formal, regular. It is only when I come to write some notes that I realise how different this evening has been, inside-out and outside-in, from something enclosed, measured and organised. I am glad of the challenge. To use phrases from the Merton poem, the zero days before Lent are not just for huddling away, but for looking up, looking outwards, with eyes as clean as the cold sky.
There is a deliberate ambiguity in this choice of title. I am aware of the journalistic shorthand that tells us that “studies suggest x…” or (to my mind even worse since COVID-19 seems to have required us all to be experts in epidemiology) “science tell us…” and while I wish in the age of URLs and sidebars of info we could have links to open-access versions of what is being reported, I see what a BBC report, for example, might need to achieve: a quick, digestible bit of news. This is not, however, a model for students learning how to put an academic essay together.
Take, for example, the essay which uses a BBC report on an OfSTED report. Still fairly responsible: but these are utter killers for first-year Education students. In the example I’m citing – and I see this or similar often enough for it not to be an identifiable case – the reporter has maybe 1000 words to make a complex argument simple enough to be followable and interesting enough to make a reader want to follow it. Will schools be open in January?Private Eye might encapsulate this as “We don’t know.” Poor behaviour is not taken seriously enough in schools. We might explore who says this, why, and what the underlying factors might be. How do we get students to explore this kind of text?
The temptation for the student is that might see a piece of fairly authoritative reporting and think “that sounds good: this is the way I’ll go,” and that isn’t unreasonable – but is dangerously close to the student who cones to an essay and thinks “Ah, I know about this: what authoritative-sounding sources are there that I can use to back up my argument?” Fast food essay writing.
The title’s other meaning suggests it is about asking that students work out some of what their essay might entail by intelligent reading that might take them off and away from their expectation of “doing what the tutor asks.” In other words, in Education (and Early Childhood) Studies, this is about looking at what a tutor sets and moving away from the grey area between “what is s/he asking?” and “what can I get away with doing?” A good essay should never be about this. The problem is that sometimes “Studies suggest” and “Research shows” actually indicate that the student really wants to write “I read somewhere” as if that were good enough. The double edge of the blog post title is that “Lack of research shows, too.” Part of it is knowing where to stop – how much is enough reading? – and part of it is about knowing how to use the reading you have done. Jane Godfrey in How to use your reading in your essays advises
Don’t be tempted to just type your essay title straight into an online search engine in the hope that something useful will come up. First think about what type of information and material you need – this will result in finding more appropriate sources more quickly.
Think about where you need to go and how to get there. Where you need to go for this class, for that essay – and what tools you need. Where do go for this year, for this second semester – and look back at what you have learned, what you enjoy, what you’re good at. They may not be all one thing, of course. This then is about reading wisely – but that is a complex set of skills and attitudes in itself: is a maze within a maze. It would be easy to make this into a muddled rant about the old term of “reading for a degree,” and or echo the Professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in saying “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”
What I suspect is left for Y1 in Higher Education is often the challenge of increasing independent work. For next week, I’d like you to…. and I don’t think I’m alone in seeing laptop lids go down at this very common start of the rite of dismissal. And yet I am taking over a very well-respected module this semester and find that the previous tutors set really quite a big chunk of reading every week. With a bit of juggling I have kept this approach, and for next week is already settled – but one of the additions I’ve made is to put a midway “Reading Review” into the schedule. Not a test, probably not even a quiz per se, but a way of saying “This way through the maze.”
How much is enough reading? Well, that’s going to be the big question. I have co-marked and moderated on this module for enough years already to know that the script of “what authoritative-sounding sources are there that I can use to back up my argument?” is still a mental tool students can be tempted to use, and if we’re not careful this becomes: find the argument, then find the sources, then nick the quotes and away we go. So as well as set reading on the weekly schedule I have begun to rank the texts by essential and recommended. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is one module out of four, a mass of work in different themes and at different paces.
But this ranking itself has taught me something. How long ago did I read that – and what did I make of it when I first met it? Is that really the text they need? So what began as a reshelving exercise in my own bays in a mythical e-library becomes something much bigger: a self-evaluation of the reading I am setting the students. I may be only adding one book this time (Twitter followers might guess which it is, or click here) but the rest takes me back to at the very least my MA classes in 1998(ish) and then the kid-in-a-sweetshop days as a new lecturer at Oxford Brookes; how do I instill that same wow factor in the reading I suggest/propose/impose?
Because, in the end, that is the thing that will move students beyond doing what I ask into sharing my enthusiasm.
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 resentments
Wanderlust: 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 commuters
Wanderlust. 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.
C S Lewis, as first-person narrator of the opening chapters of his book Perelandra, is on his way to meet the protagonist, his colleague Elwin Ransom, whose voyage to Mars has disrupted politics at quite literally a cosmic level. Forces are at work to disrupt this planned meeting, and Lewis is walking along through the 40s blackout, assailed by doubts about the whole project, even his own sanity:
“They call it a breakdown at first,” said my mind, “and send you to a nursing home; later on they move you to an asylum.”
I was past the dead factory now, down in the fog, where it was very cold. Then came a moment–the first one–of absolute terror and I had to bite my lip to keep myself from screaming. It was only a cat that had run across the road, but I found myself completely unnerved. “Soon you will really be screaming,” said my inner tormentor, “running round and round, screaming, and you won’t be able to stop it.”
There was a little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish. Please understand that at ordinary times the idea of a “haunted house” means no more to me than it does to you. No more; but also, no less. At that moment it was nothing so definite as the thought of a ghost that came to me. It was just the word “haunted.” “Haunted” . . . “haunting” . . . what a quality there is in that first syllable! Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?
C S Lewis Perelandra (“Voyage to Venus”) Ch 1
While the forces for good are depicted in some detail (an interesting essay here on the power of Lewis’ vision in the book) – and form part of the chorale that concludes this Voyage to Venus, the forces for evil remain only ever seen indirectly in this trilogy. Hinted at in the first volume of his Science Fiction trilogy, in the violent meanness and grubby colonialism of Out of the Silent Planet, they are felt in the Satanic possession of the scientist Weston* later in the Perelandra narrative, and then in complex ways in the pervasive and destructive work of the NICE in That Hideous Strength. At the start of Perelandra, we see the psychological impact of their power in how they try to terrify Lewis into turning back.
Lewis has a lot to say about landscape, both extraterrestrial (see his depiction of Venus (“Perelandra”) and Mars (“Malacandra” in the first book of the trilogy) and more clearly fantastic in Narnia. This passage (along with some in That Hideous Strength, but that’s for another time) shows his ability in describing an English landscape. Here it is an inimical outdoors that Lewis is writing about, a place of peril, a chapel of mischance. They are worth looking at: here is Marcus Sedgwick’s Dark Peak, in my mind as we come to the anniversary of my first visit to Thursbitch and Ludchurch; more here as I present the Wild Wood and the woods in Warrior Scarlet and others. The outdoors, as I have said before (maybe too often) are where the unwary get into trouble.
And Lewis is in trouble.
At last I came to the cross-roads by the little Wesleyan chapel where I had to turn to the left under the beech trees. I ought to be seeing the lights from Ransom’s windows by now–or was it past black-out time? My watch had stopped, and I didn’t know. It was dark enough but that might be due to the fog and the trees. It wasn’t the dark I was afraid of, you understand. We have all known times when inanimate objects seemed to have almost a facial expression, and it was the expression of this bit of road which I did not like. “It’s not true,” said my mind, “that people who are really going mad never think they’re going mad.” Suppose that real insanity had chosen this place in which to begin? In that case, of course, the black enmity of those dripping trees–their horrible expectancy–would be a hallucination. But that did not make it any better. To think that the spectre you see is an illusion does not rob him of his terrors…
And what terrors he puts into his landscape!
The basic terror confronting him is the animated nature of what he sees: the enmity of the trees, the one window staring. This is why, when the cat runs across the road he is terrified: for an instant this fear of the inanimate having will and purpose and movement takes over. It is not dissimilar from the fear of the boy Shasta in the fog in The Horse and His Boy, where the divine Aslan pads invisible beside him.
You’re not — not something dead, are you? Oh please — please do go away.
The Horse and His Boy, Ch11
and is in marked contrast to the area of England which starts Lewis’ SF trilogy, where the protagonist, Ransom, is on a walking holiday, and even dark bands of trees and a near-deserted house may hold misgivings but no terrors.
To return to his magnificent assertion
Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?
C S Lewis’ (and my) college, Magdalen, has had a number of ghost stories attached to it: the boy with the lantern seen in the small hours across the cloisters; a room in the old Grammar Hall where steps can be heard on the stairs, more recently the sighting of a group of shadowy figures and people hearing singing. I don’t know how ancient any of these stories are, although the boy and the steps on the stairs were current in the 70s. I wish I knew if Lewis had heard them – meaning either the stories or the singing and the footsteps – but certainly night time in an old Oxford college is a place to excite the imagination.
I am not sure Lewis in fiction or as the writer really believes there is an abstract power in the word “haunted,” although we should recognise, I think, that we have a number of cultural memes that are employed to notify us that something wicked this way comes. These emerge most powerfully in all sorts of ways in Perelandra, but get some reference in Ransom’s apprehension of some of the Martians in his first novel, appealing to an earlier, almost an infantile, complex of fears. Giants — ogres — ghosts — skeletons: those were its key words. In haunted, we have a socialised expectation: the sound of the word is associated with the fear the meaning excites, Whispers of living, echoes of warning, Phantoms of laughter on the edges of morning, as the trope in Bernstein’s Mass goes. It seems to me that using this tradition of the malevolent uncanny helps Lewis along very well, both in Out of the Silent Planet and in Perelandra. Bogeys, as Marina Warner suggests in her bookNo Go the Bogeyman, make present what we dread. This is currently being explored in Uncanny, a don’t-listen-with-the-lights-off series by Danny Robins for the BBC. Background sounds and music are brilliantly employed here, down to the slow, throaty theme song with the words “I know what I saw,” and its minor chords. The power of music to set a mood: here it is chillingly atmospheric.
The first seven notes of the Dies Irae (here is the chant) when part of a film score (a neat post here) suggest there are grim times coming (see the procession from The Devils where the link is explicit, or note the phrase adding another layer of menace to The Lion King), and Lewis suggests that haunted does the same. What he has done is to take us into a place where the connotations of haunted are given more work to do, and reflect the feverish imagination of Lewis-as-a-character. We don’t have to believe him, or associate the real Lewis with a belief in ghosts, but we can appreciate his ability to draw us in..
What we find ourselves exploring on this dreary path from a local train station is the fictionalised Lewis’ anxiety, and the landscape is his best aid. The dead factory is a great image, but even the down helps in down in the fog, and the cold, the dark, the little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish…. We seek the security of a building, whether we are Going on a Bear Hunt or resting in the Castle of Hautdesert on our way to the Green Chapel – cf Bachelard on “dreaming of security:” we might join Gawain in a sense of relief when he is welcomed and told
“Make yourself at home:” and it is a deep fear that Lewis plays on: buildings with plots and pitfalls we have not seen, or intrinsic menace, shift any hope of security away from us, and we may discover a home that turns out not to be home at all, a friend that turns out to be no friend, but something other:
Perhaps he would jump on me from behind. Perhaps I should see a figure that looked like Ransom standing with its back to me and when I spoke to it, it would turn round and show a face that was not human at all…
Perelandra, ch 1.
As Danny Robins explores What is it really like to live in… a haunted house? the comfortable family home that protects and nurtures us is violated by this fear, the fear that Michelle Paver exploits so well when, in Dark Matter, the narrator realises that the prowling, revenant fury outside his lonely hut can get in; it is the same as the moving sheets in the bedroom of M R James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you My Lad. The hotel room where M R James’ professor should be safe… the friend’s house where someone will make it all right… the arctic hut,,, the welcome at the castle… Yet the intrusion of the uncanny breaks one of the most serious barriers we have. As Solnit proposes:
the formal enclosed garden and the castle are corollaries to a dangerous world from which one needs to be protected literally and aesthetically
Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust, ch 6 “The Path Out of the Garden.”
and as Warner suggests, Fears trace a map of society’s values. Perhaps not belonging is one of the deepest of them.
*and yes, I think of Professor Weston every time I visit the Weston library in the Bodleian. I do not, however, see it as a place inhabited by physicists possessed by Miltonian demons.
The last couple of months – well, since the summer, really, I have had this grin daily before my eyes. He’s not the pleasantest of sights: that almost reptilian spine… that grin… but in this (?) C16th woodcut he certainly seems to be enjoying his role at the foot of the Apocalyptic Son of Man more than the Bridgettine brother he is attacking. And here’s where we take off from this image – into the ways in which the zygomatic muscles pull the face into a smile, widening the mouth in something of the way the jaws go. The smile is present in the skull – sort of.
This is T S Eliot‘s notion that I have discussed before, when thinking about Funnybones. It gives a smile to the Three Dead in the medieval legend (well explored by the British Library here – but do check out the plain daft expression of the revenant, far right). There just seems a suspicion that the dead have a good time being dead – and it all seems down to That Grin. Ignore the worms, the rotting grave clothes; the menace is underscored by the manic possibilities that these figures are having fun. The C13th – C14th story is more moral than this: the memento mori, however it comes, is a stark reminder to ground oneself, to make a good and pious life before going to join these creatures. In this they are reminiscent of the disgruntled undead urging Jack, the American Werewolf in London, to “do the right thing” and end the curse of the werewolf.
The Danse Macabre of Saint-Saëns is much more of a celebration, a wild dance by night, out of control, perhaps, but fun? Yes, I think so, and the comic operetta of Gilbert and Sullivan, Ruddigore, picks up the theme: dance, enjoyment and return to the grave as the day dawns, beginning with the line that I have used for a title:
We spectres are a jollier crew than you, perhaps, suppose.
In this (cheesy but entertaining) animated version of the ghostly Sir Roderic Murgatroyd’s song, the airy glee is evident, as “with a mop and a mow” the ghosts take their luckless descendant (it’s complicated) to show him their revels. Perhaps this version is closer to the stage productions – but I digress.
Jack Pelutsky’s poem is driven on by the ghoulish subject – the dominating theme throughout the collection, and a clever use of of just-slightly-over-the-top phrasing: the spirits work their will… they flex their fleshless knees…a soft susurrous sound. Alliteration really does a lot of work here, and very effective it is, too. This is a poem for performance. It isn’t a simple response to When the Night Wind Howls from Ruddigore, however: note the wintry graveyard, which might suggest to today’s reader The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the insubstantiality of these undulating spectres as they shimmer in the moonlight:
In a snow-enshrouded graveyard
gripped by winter’s bitter chill,
not a single soul is stirring,
all is silent, all is still
till a distant bell tolls midnight
and the spirits work their will.
For emerging from their coffins
buried deep beneath the snow,
thirteen bony apparitions
now commence their spectral show,
and they gather in the moonlight
undulating as they go.
And they’ll dance in their bones,
in their bare bare bones,
with the click and the clack
and the chatter and the chack
and the clatter and the chatter
of their bare bare bones.
They shake their flimsy shoulders
and they flex their fleshless knees
and they nod their skulls in greeting
in the penetrating breeze
as they form an eerie circle
near the gnarled and twisted trees.
They link their spindly fingers
as they promenade around
casting otherworldly shadows
on the silver-mantled ground
and their footfalls in the snowdrift
make a soft, susurrous sound.
And they dance in their bones,
in their bare bare bones,
with the click and the clack
and the chatter and the chack
and the clatter and the chatter
of their bare bare bones.
The thirteen grinning skeletons
continue on their way
as to strains of soundless music
they begin to swing and sway
and they circle ever faster
in their ghastly roundelay.
Faster, faster ever faster
and yet faster now they race,
winding, whirling, ever swirling
in the frenzy of their pace
and they shimmer in the moonlight
as they spin themselves through space.
And they dance in their bones,
in their bare bare bones,
with the click and the clack
and the chatter and the chack
and the clatter and the chatter
of their bare bare bones.
Then as quickly as it started
their nocturnal dance is done
for the bell that is their signal
loudly tolls the hour of one
and they bow to one another
in their bony unison.
Then they vanish to their coffins
by their ghostly thoroughfare
and the emptiness of silence
once more fills the frosted air
and the snows that mask their footprints
show no sign that they were there.
But they danced in their bones,
in their bare bare bones,
with the click and the clack
and the chatter and the chack
and the clatter and the chatter
of their bare bare bones.
–Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Arnold Lobel [NB: in the book this is stanza’d, something I am miserably bad at replicating]
Just in W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s collaboration, music and words contain pastiche and musical and literary nods to other work, in Prelutsky and Lobel’s Dance of theThirteen Skeletons in the collection Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep we are into the Danse Macabre in a big way: the graveyard, the distant bell, those clattering onomatopoeias. And in the artwork, a cascade of skeletons, sudden insights into their joyous dance, and – to bring is back to the start of this post – the grin.
It is a scene that has also been represented by poets of the calibre of Sylvia Plath. Here her grim insights seem to extend beyond the grave, to point to the futility of our passing lives:
Down among strict roots and rocks, eclipsed beneath blind lid of land goes the grass-embroidered box.
Arranged in sheets of ice, the fond skeleton still craves to have fever from the world behind.
Hands reach back to relics of nippled moons, extinct and cold, frozen in designs of love.
At twelve, each skull is aureoled with recollection’s ticking thorns winding up the raveled mold.
Needles nag like unicorns, assault a sleeping virgin’s shroud till her stubborn body burns.
Lured by brigands in the blood, shanks of bone now resurrect, inveigled to forsake the sod.
Eloping from their slabs, abstract couples court by milk of moon: sheer silver blurs their phantom act.
Luminous, the town of stone anticipates the warning sound of cockcrow crying up the dawn.
With kiss of cinders, ghosts descend, compelled to deadlock underground.
For Plath, while they are very human, the dead are not so jolly. That line “recollections ticking thorns” is particularly harsh, as if these ghosts are seduced into a nighttime of regret before turning back to their graveyards and the deadlock of their afterlife domesticity.
Revels, lust, delight and regret: the task seems to be that of humanising the skeleton-revenant – but how can we humanise what is already human? I suggest that we do so by seeing our common experiences, that the dead are not something other than us, but simply part of what it is to be human: to exchange the shimmering abstract for an earthier monster, we have to acknowledge that this thing of darkness is already ours.
“The story could not be more simple or more perplexing” writes Peter Bradshaw in his review of The Green Knight, and this is as true of the new film as it is of the romance found in MD Cotton Nero A.x., Art 3. Here we are nearly at Michaelmas, a special time for me as I reflect on forty years of being married, and also the season when I think again and again of Gawain, and Garner, and the challenges of those trips up to the Peaks, and so this is well timed for me, even though The Green Knight has been much delayed, at last we get to see the new film.
It presents a game of colours and shadows that intrigues, delights (for the most part) and challenges: the costumes were fantasy-wonderful – the peculiar crown was a particular favourite of mine. The scenery was mostly well researched: if the forests were a bit Forestry Commission, the high moors looked wonderfully bleak – was that actually Thor’s cave in one scene? Maybe it was an odd way to get from St Winifrede’s Well to Lud’s Church, but in Oxford we get used to scenes of people crossing one quad into an entirely different college. Loads of fog, and silhouettes of the lost traveller while crows caw and perspectives shift. The Green Chapel – over-lush for Christmas, but teeming with a Spring promise of greenery – was everything one might imagine of Lud’s Church painted in mythic colours. While it is a retelling rather than a cinema version of the poem (but yes, there is a very quick flash of the MS at one point) it maintains much of the tension and the ambiguity, and sticks with one of the poem’s principal dilemmas: how does Gawain prove himself when he is so out of his depth? Yes, I did like it.
But there are holes in the film – some deliberate (unless I missed it, we are not given many names other than Gawain and his girlfriend: is this all in Gawain’s head, some sort of Mantel-like psychodrama?); some…well, I’m not sure. A lack of reveal about the witchiness of the plot was odd – and although the ‘magic’ of the women was brilliantly portrayed, I was unsure why we were left to infer quite what they were up to, with Gawain’s mother in on it all, and a creepy Morgana an olde auncien wyf for sure, unintroduced, wandering around Castle Bertilak. And are those ettins, the giants that sort of added atmosphere but not much else? And what was the fox there for? What was St Winifred doing there? A sort of nod to a topography of Gawain’s journey, or a quick footnote on the folklore of the headless? Lots of questions – and it won’t be a hard task to sit and watch it again – but did we really need quite such a dim and draughty pile for Camelot?
Ah yes, Camelot. It was a bold move to set distant castles on hilltops, and some times looking rather (let’s be generous) storybook – but once one of us had humphed “It’s only a model,” and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (that excellent parody of Medieval Mud and All imagery) had been mentioned, it took some time to recover.
Recover we did. Bertilak goes off hunting and so does Lady Bertilak, openly sexually assertive towards Gawain, and a sight more explicit than the poem – and she is given the best speech in the whole film, a quick mini-keynote on what the imagery of Green might signify. Then the kiss of Lord Bertilak to Gawain was just long enough, just suggestive enough to make you think that the Bertilaks are well aware of each other’s game. Gawain (well played by Dev Patel from young and lost in his first scene to old and lost in a scene towards the end) is caught between ‘real’ goodness and the fake goodness of simply keeping up the Christian chivalric code. How does this play out?
Bradshaw and I agree on how successful the atmosphere of “shroomy toxicity and inexplicable moral grandeur” is: the second half, with all that wet-dream (or whatever) tension and the might-be visions of eschewing the Green Knight’s blow is a genuine tour de force. I’m going to avoid spoilers – but the end is every bit as ambiguous as the end of the poem, and I have to say completely won me over. It’s only a game, the King tells us – but what kind of a game are we playing?
I often think about the big beech tree (bottom right and below) by our front gate: its looming presence in wet weather; the leaves in the autumn; the squirrels, pigeons, whitefly… I worry about it in the high winds, and glory in it in the spring. I am also aware of the smaller trees that have come to be part of my life, and am always grateful for the life chances that allow me to go to the allotment and pick apples and damsons (fewer this year, after a surprise, cruel, late frost). And then there are my smallest trees: a bonsai ficus (top left) I bought at a student market and am nursing back to health, the little oak (centre) I have trimmed and wired for a few years, the seedling red oak (bottom left) I found on the allotment this year and didn’t have the heart to hoe up but replanted and brought home.
It’s as if my desire to feel trees as a healing presence is played out in large scale and small.
And then a pair of books come up for me to read, the first simply a chance find in a charity shop from a To Be Read list. Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone and its “sequel” (really part 2), Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. Toby is one and half millimetres tall and his world, at least at the start, is a tree from topmost leaves to where it sinks into the soil. Small people – from Lilliput to Borrowers, from Hobberdy Dick to Hobbits – are nothing new, but de Fombelle is daring in making his characters so small. Daring, too, in then taking the ecosystem of the tree they live in and describing it in terms of landscape.
At the bottom of the Tree, before it comes into contact with the earth, the wood from the Trunk rises up to form high mountain ridges.
Needle rocks, bottomless precipices…the surface of the bark is crumbled, like rippling curtain folds. Moss forests cling to the peaks, trapping snowflakes in winter. the valley passes are blocked by ivy creepers. It makes for a dangerous, impassable terrain.
Timothée de Fombelle: Toby and the Secrets of the Tree Ch 3: Someone Returns
It is the scale that boggles the mind. The Tree is at once a massive entity and a vulnerable one, a stage on which the cleverly Dickensian drama of lost children and choices based on mistakes, and a body around which a drama unfolds like a hospital soap opera. The smallness of Toby and the rest of the Tree and Grass people allows this to be played out wonderfully clearly. The technology of living a (sort of) human life at the scale de Fombelle describes is passed over in many places, made much of elsewhere: the terrifying soldier ants and destructive weevils underline the issue of scale; cigarettes, prison door keys, carts, boots are accepted parts of this society. The author works hard to make these transitions unobtrusive. Essentially this is a meditation on power and corruption and ecocide and resistance: a competent political thriller and romance but very much in miniscule. So is the setting on a tree merely a backdrop?
Toby’s tree is a presence as much as a setting, and its fate is the matter of both books. Ruthless, populist entrepreneur Mitch digs sordid housing projects at the cost of the Tree’s health – and therefore at the cost of the society he is claiming to protect. Toby’s father is a marginalised and then persecuted scientist intent on protecting his world by exposing what’s going on (I am reminded of the HS2 project as I read Toby’s adventures, but then think that Toby’s Tree is just one; we have seen woodland after woodland, thousands of trees cut down – the emotive word is wilfully, and tonight it seems right). Friendship, loyalty, rivalry and love – these may be the strands which move the story along, but the politics of violence are violence not only to the people who live on and at the foot of the Tree but also to the Tree itself: ecocide as a sort of suicide.
I am therefore reminded of the protestors’ occupation of the massive tree in Powers’ The Overstory:
He has seen monster trees for weeks, but never one like this. Mimas: wider across than his great-great-great-grandfather’s old farmhouse. Here, as sundown blankets them, the feel is primeval, darshan, a face-to-face intro to divinity. The tree runs straight up like a chimney butte and neglects to stop. From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above.
Richard Powers: The Overstory: Trunk
And there is the connection: The World Tree. The Tree that Toby inhabits in the de Fombelle books is a world, to start with, just the one tree. Ravaged Mimas, the doomed chestnuts, the rewilded back yard with its pine tree,the Brazilian forest where all is fringe and braid and pleat, scales and spines are diverse but more interconnected in The Overstory, although it takes tree-years for the humans to grasp this, and then only some of them, and even then only imperfectly.
With that connection comes an answer to the riddle of scale: De Fombelle’s millimetre-high hero is related to his environment in much the same scale as the humans in The Overstory are related to the forests, the priestly tulip trees, the baobabs and quiver trees they inhabit or protest over or study. Toby is tiny to us, even tinier to the Tree, in the same way as we are tiny to the ancient forests of the human world – and what De Fombelle allows us to see is one tree in its fragility and complexity and then look up and ask: if that is one tree, what then is a forest? What mission might we be on, if Toby’s adventure is to save his Tree? Looking into Toby’s world is like contemplating the sudden shift in focus with a camera: new ideas come into view, new oportunities to see our place in the world. As Toby’s father Sim claims, Nature is a magician; as my perspective shifts from Toby to the trees in The Overstory and back again, I wonder how often I overlook the magic, that face-to-face intro to divinity.
Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives…
Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?
Mary Oliver, Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives
The beech (I don’t feel I can call it “my” beech), like Mary Oliver’s Black Walnut
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds,
of leaves and bounding fruit
and I am all of a sudden, looking at it entirely differently.
Almost a microblog, this – a notification that my friend Chris Lovegrove (with whom I collaborated on a read-though of the Snow Spider stories: see this example from Chris, and this from me) is giving notice of a read-through, in publication order, of the Chronicles of Narnia, starting in November, under the title Narniathon21. He is incredibly well read and thoughtful: it will be a wonder.
I come back to C S Lewis on my blog fairly often, but not always to Narnia, although the present scambling and unquiet time sends me back to Puddleglum more often than not if I catch the news. Perhaps I need to ponder why I have not come back to Narnia more often or in more depth.
Whatever the answer, I am looking forward to Chris’ look, book by book, at everyone from Lucy to Tirian, from Jadis to Shift, from Calormen to Stable Hill. And maybe confronting my discomfort.
This week I have been watching seabirds, looking in particular for jumplings, those hair-raising young guillemots plunging from their nests on the cliffs. The Isle of May blog makes a great show of the guillemot dive: check it out here.
When I’ve written about Graduation before I have been aware of the uncertainties around what graduating actually does. Here I suggested the work the student has done allows their standing to be recognised. The academic exercises, successfully completed, bring about a recognition that this person or that has done the job they set out to do, but I also pointed out there is more than this. It is about belonging.
If, as I have suggested before, this is about
our ability and willingness to make meaningful connections with others, and under favourable conditions, to do so in a way that improves a situation or makes the world a better place
then we are engaged in a spiritual practice when we graduate our students. It may not feel like it during an Examination Committee, or even listening to the (sometimes) not sparkling celebrity speaker, but we do also participate in representing part of the project the students have joined us in.
As David Lodge, in discussing Finals writes that even the word
implies that nothing of importance can happen after it.
David Lodge: Changing Places
So what do we do when we graduate students? Are we watching set them sail? Is all this ceremony just the waving of hankies on the quai? [Cue: picture of quaiside]…
I have friends leaving their posts at Brookes this summer who will leave after a quick drink and a present, but I am conscious of the wistfulness of these passages of time, of Alcuin missing the Sacra Iuventus… Should we say goodbye with more ceremony? With less, but more intimacy? Something that says “you still belong”? What does that belonging consist of? What survives beyond the handing-back of the hired gown, the shelving of the retirement gift?
It is a leaving home experience to some extent, but in both cases it has an important difference: If, as the saying goes, home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the leave-taking of graduation and retirement are different in that there is no necessary return. The last pay slip (electronic or otherwise), the outcome of the final examination committee – and then what?
Pastoral and management roles cease to have meaning. Là ! C’est fini pour Antigone. I have used Anouilh before and won’t labour the point; the things that most mean we belong become threadbare, almost meaningless. Or at least the structural, institutional things do.
But belonging is subtler than the Alumni email, sweeter, even than the gift at retirement: it is a net of memory and relationship that can go beyond the BA photo, the rose bush or signed book. To finish, then, here is a thought or two from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.
Many people become extremely dependent on a daily “fix” of superficial contacts…
And (a little later) he tells us that, beyond the validation of one’s own sense of self brought about by these smaller, casual congenial interactions, it is the deeper friendship that has the greater power:
There are few things as enjoyable as freely sharing one’s most secret feelings and thoughts with another person. Even though this sounds like a commonplace, it in fact requires concentrated attention, openness and sensitivity.
Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: Enjoying Friends
So that is what we might prepare for on both leave-takings: I am not suggesting that university courses or jobs should be a sort of dating service (although sometimes it is!) but that the favourable connections I mentioned earlier need to be stressed. For graduands and people approaching retirement alike, when we make that guillemot-like leap from the cliff, we need to prepare by acknowledging the emotional connections and think about how to sustain them – and institutions (and their members?) maybe need to think beyond the check-out.
Plenty of important stuff is, we’d hope, still to come: what we take with us – again, we’d hope – is our friendships. Maybe even here