Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Magic lies in words. In their sound, their meaning, their power to raise dreams and memories and sudden emotion.
Consider this passage on names …
“the tribes of men use many names, the Sarmatians from the Germans and the Goths frequently from the Huns. Tutizar was a Goth and Ragnaris a Hun, but Tutizar is not a Gothic name and Ragnaris is Germanic. The Byzantine generals who in 493 fought against the Isaurians were Apsikal, a Goth, and Sigizan and Zolban, commanders of the Hun auxiliaries. Apsikal is not a Gothic but a Hunnic name; Sigizan might be Germanic.”
[The Language of the Huns, in O. Maenchen-Helfen's "The World of the Huns” (University of California Press, 1973) which I, of course, have not read. I found it on languagehat.]
Those names …. The clash of arms and the baying of war-horns, frost-rimed forests, the stench of horses after a gallop, ice crashing on black rocks and the terror of a burning town. All from the hard clanking echoes of Tutizar, Ragnaris, Apsikal, Zolban, a charivari against the ominous background chords of two names of terror, the Huns and the Goths.
History echoes through those names. And one of my favourite celebrants of history was a wordsmith par excellence, a modern-day Homer of India and of Britain, a balladeer and teller of stories who never fails to charm. Maenchen-Helfen’s paragraph on the names of the tribes brought to mind “Puck of Pook’s Hill”, the Beetle’s love-song to the land of his fathers and the tales of its history that he read and read through his growing years.
Consider now the craft in this list of spirits, a counting of dreams, a naming of names, a promise of stories to come …
“I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest - gone, all gone! I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too.”
That invocation at the end, creating its own icons and sorcery! The man knew, above all, the magic of words. Because there can be no stories without words. Emotions and relations can spark wordlessly between lovers or enemies, but they cannot resonate till their story is told. Their very reality can be altered by the story-teller’s perception.
Would Romeo have been aught but a callow youth if Bald Will had not set him to music unheard? Imagine if his story had been written by Stephen Fry instead – would he not have been a delinquent teen, goaded to murder and suicide by the torture of repressed homosexuality? While the world, of course, bayed in laughter at the screaming fun of it all.
But to come back to Kipling and his craft. Here is the balladeer tuning up ’is bloomin’ lyre:
“I've seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou'-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they'd go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they'd be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic - Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!”
Tintagel and Hy-Brasil bring to mind T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”, but I shall resist the temptation to digress.
The Beetle has much in common with my other Master. The creation of a world, but that is the skill of all great story-tellers from Chaucer to Tolkien. The celebration of an age, whether the Raj in India or the Home Counties in the lull between the Wars. A drawing upon the treasures of reading, the use of quotation and reference to pay homage to past masters and enrich their own work through it. The painstaking attention to construction, the long hours at their craft to polish each paragraph to a lapidary glow.
Above all, a consummate mastery of the language, the ear for its music and the sense that can cull a false rhythm. This is also the point where they differ, each setting his own signature rhythms that can be recognised at a hundred paces like “the set of a trooper’s shoulders”.
Kipling stuck to more basic rhythms, his language a means to an end, subsumed within the larger need to tell the story. The Master on the other hand revelled in the words themselves, playing with the language, spinning out a paragraph over half a page like an angler casting over a mountain stream, yet with such supreme mastery of the basics that neither clarity nor construction suffered in the process. Like a great batsman playing the push-drive to the sight-screen, he made it look so easy that we never realize the effect until the final moment.
“Belloc, to the consternation of Hugh Walpole, forthrightly declared him to be the best prose writer of the age (his exact words were “the finest writer of English in the 20th century”); Ronald Knox, most fastidious of scholars and stylists, rejoiced in him.” Evelyn Waugh, himself a fine craftsman and perhaps best known to a wide public as “the man who wrote the blurbs for Plum’s Penguin editions”, looked on him as “the head of my profession”.
Words may not suffice. The attempt in any case would be presumptuous, because words were Wodehouse’ forte.