Þis is a chapel of meschaunce…
Within a few steps, the walls rose above us rapidly. I had the sense we were gently climbing up, but the walls climbed faster, and soon they towered above our heads, fifty feet, maybe more. It was hard to tell from inside.
The green forest and blue sky had become a thin blur of colour far above our heads as we walked in cool darkness.Marcus Sedgwick: Dark Peak. Ch 1
Marcus Sedgwick has written a marvellous little book, set in the long, hot summer of 1976, a year my life changed in so many ways. It is a book set in a place almost as life-changing for me as that year, a place that made me confront my academic self-image, my love of wild, thin places, the way my relationships are shaped. I put these bare facts here because, as we all bring something to our reading, I want to admit at the start that this book was always going to be more for me than a “marvellous little book.”
The chthonic space that dominates (Jane Suzanne Carroll‘s work on The Dark is Rising sequence is key for me here) is Lud’s Church, Ludchurch, Garner’s Ludcruck in Boneland. It is not a universal wood (see here for an earlier discussion) but a very specific place, and while she is referring to Tolkien, Almond and Cooper, her definition resonates with Sedgwick’s menacing, enclosing Lud’s Church:
Caves, graves and mines do not simply conjure a sense of the past, like archaeological artefacts or genealogical inheritance: they allow characters to enter into and participate in the spaces of the past and, moreover, to engage in footfall continuity with the past…never merely the background to encounters with the past, but rather the fundamental spaces necessary to their manifestation.Jane Carroll, Landscape in Children’s Literature, Ch 4: The Lapsed Topos
And manifest they do in this chapel of mischance: ghostly children, goblin-like green figures…
“There’s something in there, isn’t there?” I said, and it wasn’t really a question. I saw Adam staring at me and I didn’t care. “Something bad.”
“Not bad,” Thorlac said, “but aye, there’s something there. Something from before good and bad existed. Something much older than those things. You understand?”
We did not.Marcus Sedgwick, Dark Peak, ch 8.
Older. Elemental, from before good and bad. Although the Middle English romance talks of honour and God, there is something even here that suggests a past, almost forgotten, of barrows and sacrifice, wet woods and solitude. Is this Green Knight a sign of an earlier time, fundamental to the idea of the human in the landscape, experiencing the awesomeness of storm, of shadow and light? Sedgwick nods respectfully to this, and plunges his protagonist into lightning, fire, darkness, and the strange, wilful creatures of half myth, half imagination.
The sense of awe and the sense of fear I have felt are captured well in Dark Peak. The author tells us about a place which carries in it – or reflects back, perhaps – the expectations and stories that are part of our baggage. That first visit, when Mat showed me what Marcus Sedgwick calls the god face. My last visit, when I made the mistake of looking behind me as I came down from the chasm to the river in the twilight, was uncomfortable, no matter how much I know I brought all that with me.
But supposing I turn that round? I “brought with me” for that first visit a summer’s preparation, a reading of Boneland and Gawain, the heightened expectations of Thursbitch, maybe even echoes of a schoolboy excitement of being out exploring. What did I bring to my first reading of Marcus Sedgwick’s book?
I brought with me Gawain – and was pleased to see the poem represented; I saw the clumsy Legend, with Alice de Lud Auk – and was again, happy to see the sage old man dismiss it. I was also happy that the experiences the young people in story had stayed with them. Porter, the first-person narrator, is sort of my age (a bold move, Marcus – and it comes off well) reminiscing about the 70s. All these things work well. Is it my Ludchurch? Yes and no: the author is not writing my book, and the landscape has as many readers as a book. As one writer puts it
We no longer even expect different readers to arrive at identical readingsHarkin, P (2005), “The Reception of Reader-Response Theory,”College Composition and Communication
Vol. 56 https://www.jstor.org/stable/30037873
and the same might be said of readers of the landscape – and hence we might think about what readers bring to a new book on a place they know.
This in some ways answers the “this must be the place” impetus of literary tourism: this is the house in Wuthering Heights; this was where Pip mets Magwitch; this is St Bertrand de Commignes where a Cambridge manuscripts scholar has a horrific encounter or where a hound appears … This is what a lot of the Wild Spaces Wild Magic thinking has been about.
One commentator (OK, Goodreads user) criticises the book because of how much is left unanswered. In looking into the confusion and fear Porter Fox experiences – or rather recalls experiencing – we are left with a tough tangle of ideas. For a perhaps young or reluctant reader there is a genuine challenge here: to go beyond the page, to exercise the imagination.
The deliberate ambiguity is to be welcomed. Rescuer needs rescuing; everything is not all right in the end; the Woodcutter Imperative is deliberately imperfect in its conclusion, and characters get in with their lives psychologically or physically scarred. If Gawain comes back to court and shows his scar at the end, Porter shows at least some of his from the opening pages.
You understand? ask Sedgwick and Garner before him (and maybe – just maybe – the Gawain poet). We bring our own ideas to the Thin Places, we may come away changed: the challenge is to understand.