Thursday, 12 December 2013

There are other places, which also are the world’s end (...)

                                                                            - T. S. Eliot

In modern usage, the phrase ‘halcyon days’ connotes nostalgia for lost youth, or a time - usually past - when we, or the people, societies, or nations of whom we speak, enjoyed comparative peace and plenty: a happy, carefree life of ease, unprecedented and unrepeatable. This is partly the meaning with which the previous article has its commerce. But it also borrows meaning from the older, antique use of the phrase. In late classical times, ‘halcyon days’ had come to mean a peaceful interlude between wars and conflicts, or calm weather between storms. The latter usage is more akin to its origins in classical mythology.

Alcyone, from whose name the word ‘halcyon’ is derived, was according to Greek myth the daughter of Aeolus, the god of the wind. She married Ceyx, the son of the morning star, and they lived together on the coast of the Aegean. Their pride, interpreted as hubris, offended Zeus, who punished them by causing Ceyx to be drowned at sea. In her grief, Alcyone threw herself into the waves, and perished. The wind and the sea took pity on the lovers, and transformed them into a pair of birds. They also blessed them with a period of calm weather each year, seven days either side of the winter solstice, during which they could nest and rear their young. According to Ovid,1 this is the origin and the meaning of the irenic ‘halcyon days’, a calm interlude in the Aegean midwinter when there are no seasonal storms at sea, and during which the kingfisher can still be seen making her nest and tending her eggs by the shore.2

This myth is perhaps an example of Nature inspiring mankind to explain or interpret her wonders, her many moods and effects, and the power of awe and mystery she holds for him. Such a wonder, down through the ages, is midwinter: especially in temperate  climes, as were those of the Greeks and Romans, and our own. It is no accident that the Christian feast of the divine birth occurs at this time, regardless of the actual historical birth of Jesus. The early church transposed this symbol of mankind’s spiritual birth and redemption upon another, earlier symbol of the turning of the year towards life: or perhaps, more accurately, an interlude in time between death and new life - the winter solstice.

The ancient peoples who inhabited the westernmost part of Europe, including the British Isles, apparently laid great store upon certain qualities they attributed to this time of the year. Testimony to this is being discovered in new evidence from sites such as Stonehenge, which it is now believed had its stones aligned to mark and to celebrate not the summer, but the winter solstice. The Celts - it seems from other archeological evidence - believed quite firmly in the existence of another world from this one, a world which could be glimpsed at certain times, or certain locations, or a combination of both. For instance, water was important to them, not only for its nurturing and sustaining of life, but because it symbolised a kind of veil, or threshold, between two worlds. Perhaps because of its dual qualities of reflectivity and transparency, or perhaps for other reasons, they attributed to water the magical property of allowing passage to a world of the ‘spirit’. This is now said to be why there are so many recorded finds of ancient weapons, treasures, and other tokens of sacrifice in what were once watery places such as lakes, rivers, and marshes.

But there are other places, and times, that may act as portals to another world. The “timeless moment” that T. S. Eliot experiences in the poem Little Gidding is perhaps one. Here, it is not water that provides access to a timeless world, but the coincidence of place and history, and the time - of midwinter - “when the short days are brightest with frost and fire / the brief sun flames the ice on pond and ditches”: although he goes on to say that the experience he is describing can happen “at any time or at any season”.3

The idea of midwinter providing a link to another world, and the relevance of midwinter to the Christian concept of rebirth through death would not have been lost on Eliot. He was a contemporary of Robert Graves:4 he and Eliot and many of their literary generation were influenced by anthropologist James George Frazer’s book The Golden Bough.5 There, Frazer encapsulated the apotheosis of the Enlightenment view of Christianity, i.e. as nothing more nor less than one religion among many, with its own myths, rites, and symbols. And this had two very interesting effects. First, it convinced many rational minds that religion belonged to man’s primitive past, and was rightly superseded by philosophy, as later both were by science: Written towards the end of the nineteenth century, for some it epitomised the rational paradigm of modernity over past history, reason over nature, logic over myth - a culture that is still very much alive today. Secondly, it had an equal and somewhat opposite effect upon artists: the idea that Christianity was essentially a myth inspired them to explore aspects of human experience previously relegated to other, more ‘pagan’ myths and religions, aspects which could now be rediscovered and reworked for their psychological, existential, and poetical richness.6

By the same token, while the modern scientific mind now considered itself able to confine religion to ‘mere’ mythology, the traditional faiths insisted upon the ‘truth’ of religion, i.e. that scripture was factual, historical, and real in the ordinary sense. But, according to the anthropologist and philosopher René Girard,7 both views are mistaken. For Girard, myths are real in another, deeper, sense: and therefore, by extension, so is the Christian myth. In fact, according to his theory of ritual violence and the sacrificial victim in cultural history, mythology often denotes a deeper reality motivating human behaviour, and if studied can help explain not only important aspects of cultural history, but the way human beings behave even today. Central to his thesis is his insight into the story of Christ as myth: but here - because of its historical reality - it becomes the one myth that contains and at the same time liberates, and transcends, all the others. For Girard, the Christian narrative is a bridge between two worlds that have become separate, and is a key to the union of our itinerant outer life and neglected inner life: the reconciliation of logos and mythos.

This was precisely the view of myth and religion taken by scholar and writer C. S. Lewis, and arguably the basis of his series of children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia. From the moment the four children of the story discover, by accident, a portal to another world through the back of an old wardrobe, and begin their adventures, the Narnia stories are replete with references to Plato’s ideal world, to the many thresholds that can lead from one world to another, of their interdependence, and of how experience in the inner world - the world of myth - enriches with meaning the everyday world we are used to. It is not simply that the inner world is a useful adjunct to the outer: the message is that the world of myth is very real, and that without its imaginative power the world of our ‘reality’ will remain unfulfilled, narrow, and limited.

The potential power of the inner world of myth and imagination was perhaps aptly expressed by the American thinker, writer, and early ecologist Henry David Thoreau. After two years of living alone in a small cabin he had built in the woods near his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, he wrote:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.8

Lewis wrote in his autobiography9 that he had been inspired by the nineteenth-century Scottish novelist George MacDonald. In his introduction to an edition of MacDonald’s two adult fantasy novels Phantastes and Lilith,10 Lewis tells how reading Phantastes opened up a new world for himThat tale relates, through a fictional first person, the account of a journey into Fairyland. Lewis stresses that he was captivated not so much by the book’s literary merit, as by the unique power of MacDonald’s imagery.11 But of perhaps greater interest to us here are the images through which MacDonald communicates in the later, one might say more experienced - and somewhat bleaker - tale of Lilith. The story is prefaced by a short passage from Thoreau, entitled Walking.12 Here Thoreau describes how, whilst walking in the woods, he imagines he catches glimpses, or senses traces, of a family of noble intellect, wisdom and love of beauty, whose house and estate co-exist with the trees and fields of the visible world, but are as invisible to us as our world is to them. He fancies that sometimes he can almost hear the sound of their minds thinking sublime thoughts among the trees and bushes, and muses that the comfort of their ethereal presence is sometimes all that holds him in his native Concord.

In Lilith, the fictional narrator - Mr. Vane - describes his experiences upon entering another world, a strange though seemingly real world that interpenetrates ours as does that of Thoreau’s invisible companions, but is accessible through various doorways in this one. His adventures begin in the library of the old family home Mr. Vane has inherited, with the spectre of a mysterious and rather ancient librarian-cum-sexton-cum-raven (he appears intermittently in one or other of these forms)13, whom Vane follows into the other world through an old mirror in an attic of the house. Later he discovers more, unexpected, portals to and from that world and this, and gradually becomes uncertain as to which of the two worlds is the real one. The story is rich in numinous descriptive imagery, much of it gleaned from MacDonald’s childhood in the beautiful but often cold and bleak north-east of Scotland. It is a story of the surrender of death leading to life; real life the remembrance of a long forgotten one; and hidden passages and portals into a strange world of dream-like uncertainty, where truth is glimpsed as being much larger than our quotidian notion of it, and where there are undertones of a reality more substantial in its essence than all the substance of the materially ‘known’ world.

Now, this might seem to the reader to be pure fantasy - and there is good cause to think so. But, although his experiences eventually force him to question the reality of both worlds in turn, the other world discovered by Mr. Vane has one real quality in common with this one. As his guide, Mr. Raven (in the form of that bird, and in a croaking voice) explains:

“(...) most of its physical, and many of its mental laws are different from those of this world. As for moral laws, they must everywhere be fundamentally the same”.14

On his second visit to the other world, Mr. Vane does not know how he got in:

“How did I get here?” I said - apparently aloud, for the question was immediately answered.

“You came through the door,” replied an odd, rather harsh voice.


“I did not come through any door,” I rejoined.

“I saw you come through it! - saw you with my own ancient eyes!” asserted the raven, positively but not disrespectfully.

“I never saw any door!” I persisted.

“Of course not!” he returned; “all the doors you had seen - and you haven’t seen many - were doors in; here, you came upon a door out! The strange thing to you,” he went on thoughtfully, “will be, that the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in!”

“Oblige me by telling me where I am.”

“That is impossible. You know nothing about whereness. The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home (...) for home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and in. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of; but the one place, if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.”15

Thus, in the story, Mr. Vane’s attempts to work things out rationally - or perhaps we should say, by common sense - are met with perplexity and frustration, exacerbated by his companion’s obtuse manner and speech, which seem at first to be overfond of metaphysics, and replete with non-sensical riddles. But gradually - as is also the case in Lewis’s Narnia tales - the metaphysics begin to make sense in their own way, suggesting truths that in the ordinary world appear merely as vague dreams, but in the other world are quite clear and plain, as daylight is in this.

There are many portals to that world: Dante found an unlikely one “per una selva oscura” - in a dark wood16 - and eventually, after learning from his guide, Virgil, about how the earthly world is obscured by imperfections, and governed by ignorance and suffering (reflected in ‘Hell’ and ‘Purgatory’), in the Paradiso he perceives something of a much higher and more profound universal life, love, and wisdom, that already exists, and will eventually permeate the whole of creation. Again, we are all familiar with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and how Ebenezer Scrooge’s reluctant midwinter encounter with another world transforms this one. Eliot discovered yet another; “while the light fails, on a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel”, in the tiny eponymous village of Little Gidding, observing that it became for him:

(...) England and nowhere. Never and always.17

To return to the wise Mr. Raven: “I tell you there are more worlds, and more doors to them, than you will think of in many years!”18 If one were a fan of science fiction19, or a follower of Dr. Who, one might be tempted to say that these worlds exist on planets in parallel universes, or are in this universe but accessible only through holes in the fabric of space-time; and that the winter solstice - perchance - causes some change in the earth’s magnetic field, making access to at least one or two of those worlds easier at this time of year.20 But one is not, therefore one won’t. In any case, one would simply be adopting a contemporary explanation for a timeless phenomenon, and furthermore one would not presume to theorise in a subject (astro-physics) of which one knows practically nothing. However, the notion that specific places or times are amenable to communing with other worlds has ample precedent: for example, in Indian lore the best hour for quiet meditation and contemplation is said to be around three o’clock in the morning - the brahma mahurta.

But if, for the moment, we simply concentrate upon literature as an art form, as we have been doing in the above examples, it would seem that at least some of these openings are to be found in stories, in poems, and indeed in paintings and other artworks: for they seem to arise primarily with the help of the imagination, and art is the medium of imagination. But they are not exclusive to art, of course.

For instance, there could be one such doorway just around the corner, on a cold midwinter’s night - not where you might look for it, in the glare of the shops or at one of the multitude of festive revels (but then, who knows?): rather, perhaps, in the cheering smile of a stranger in the street; or in a spontaneous act of friendship, love, or kindness; in the softly falling snow of a still, grey, twilight; in the warm quietude of the heart. And perhaps one of those doors might open into, and out of, “home”. But wherever and whenever they might be, those who know anything at all about them agree that they may be sought, but never commanded. They open as they will, at any time and in any place, often where and when we least expect them.

Halcyon days ... and Happy Christmas!

Gerard van Honthorst. Adoration of the Shepherds. 1622.


1 Ovid, The Metamorphoses, trans. M. Simpson (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), Book 11.

2 Ovid was adding to accounts of a bird of ancient Greek myth, the halcyon - from which the kingfisher takes its name - that was believed to have the power to calm the sea and nest upon it: a similar story surrounds the kingfisher in Polynesian myth.

3 T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1974), “Little Gidding”, p. 214-215.

4 Author of The White Goddess (1948), a treatise linking poetry to the female deity in mythology.

5 Frazer, J. G., The Golden Bough (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1993).

6 That modern literary and artistic movement, therefore, had something in common with the humanism of the Renaissance.

7 René Girard’s books on the subject include Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

8 Henry David Thoreau, Walden - or - Life in the Woods (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), p. 356.

9 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Fontana, 1959).

10 George MacDonald, Phantastes and Lilith (London: Gollanz, 1962).

11 Lewis calls this quality in MacDonald’s writing mythopœic: “It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness (...)”, Ibid., p. 9.

12 Thoreau, Walking, online at: The Gutenberg Project, http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=1022

13 Another example of metamorphosis, of the kind described by Ovid in the Alcyone story.

14 MacDonald, op. cit., “Lilith”, p. 220.

15 Ibid., p. 193-194.

16 Not at midwinter, but around Easter.

17 Eliot, op. cit., pp. 222, 215.

18 MacDonald, op.cit., p. 220.

19 C. S. Lewis also wrote science fiction of a unique kind. His trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, entertains the idea that space is not empty, but rich and vibrant with unseen worlds, and intelligent beings who regard earth as the ‘silent planet’ - since only the humans of earth do not communicate with them. It was written before the Apollo moon missions, but one might speculate that in Lewis’s imagination, the astronauts would have been as oblivious to the richness of space, and any beings on the moon, as any other humans emerging from the ‘silent planet’.

20 There is no doubt that ‘heavenly bodies’ can have an influence upon our earth:  in the case of the moon, it is a plain fact. The moon’s gravity pulls the seas, causing the tides, and is known to affect the growth of plants. Perhaps the ancient inhabitants of these islands knew this and farmed their crops accordingly, using their stone circles as almanacs - amongst other purposes. Could it also be that the earth and its creatures - including we humans - are influenced physically, and mentally, by other contents of space?

Copyright © 2013 Brian Grassom

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