Remember your local librarian

IMG_2163So. I suspect I was like many people in that I first heard of Umberto Eco because of The Name of the Rose, his palimpsestic mediaeval whodunit. I read and enjoyed that, and later Foucault’s Pendulum. Finally, last year, I read his brilliant little study guide How to Write a Thesis.

Now, it is many years since I wrote my own thesis (which was subsequently published and is available in a pirated PDF in less savoury parts of the inter webs – maybe one day I will digitise it myself), but Eco’s book reminded me of the workings of research in the 1980s. Back then there was no world wide web, email was something only the permanent academic staff had. To get a book you went to the library, filled out an interlibrary loan form (which was in duplicate and possibly triplicate), paid thirty pence and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Eventually, weeks later, the book or article would arrive and you would find out if it was actually relevant to your studies. My experience may be slightly atypical, in that I needed journal articles from the-then-Jugoslavija, but still, for the arts student the library was vital in a way it is probably not today.

How to Write a Thesis shows Eco as an appreciator of libraries, and also librarians. I have nothing to add to his words:

You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy. (How to write a thesis. pp56-7).

Welcome to the Vault

snake-s-door-knocker-1202994Over the years I’ve written an awful lot of words. The words themselves have been fine: the problems have usually occurred with the selection and arrangement of the words.

I’ve end up with fragments of stories, novels and plays; poems I almost like and some I hate less than others. I keep coming across some of these as I sort through old papers and files. A few pieces are downright disgusting and will never appear anywhere, but there are others I quite like despite the flaws. It is this last group I am going to put into the Vault: they will be available but not promoted or pushed. Available for anyone who wants to creak the door open and take a look at mildly misshapen things.

That’s enough sales patter. I’ve opened the Vault and put something in. It’s a jeux d’esprit, a trifle, a middle-earth bauble. Whether you read it is entirely up to you.

On abstaining

Far to the north of the Arctic Circle,

too far perhaps to fit into the world,

is a mountain,

several miles high and many leagues in circumference.

At the foot of the mountain lives a colony of crows.

Once in every tenth generation, a crow

flies to the summit of the mountain

and sharpens its beak on the rock,

wearing away a near-invisible fragment of stone.

When the crows have worn the mountain into the sea

the first day of Lent will have passed.

The Well at Narnia’s End

IMG_2130So. One of the questions supposedly asked of writers is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ (Although I have to say, in my case no one asks. Either because it’s so obvious, or because they don’t want to catch the same disease which ravaged my imagination.) For popular writers it becomes something of a little business, with readers and academics hacking away at the text and trying to find where the various pieces have come from. It’s rather like the geologists who established the stones of Stonehenge came from South Wales.

For the writings of C S Lewis the mining has gone on for decades and there have been fascinating results: Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia came on a rich seam (we are probably going to have a lot of mining images today) when he made a clear identification between each of the planets in the Ptolemaic cosmology and the books of the Narnia series. He also found a very strong link with Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Now, we know that Lewis read a lot (I think someone, somewhere, possibly in A N Wilson’s biography, remarks that Lewis had read everything). I have often wondered about the influence of William Morris on Lewis and Tolkien, given that both went ‘northern’ (possibly Tolkien more than Lewis). Those wonderings cropped up again recently, while I was re-reading Morris’ The Well and the World’s End (a book we know Lewis admired). This time I stumbled on a couple of strata that it seems Lewis had mined (told you) for the Narnia series.

The first was a stone table on which the crone who enthralled (in the ‘making a thrall – slave – of’ sense) the future Lady of Abundance sacrificed the white goat. The sacrifice was not exactly substitutionary, but it did fulfil an undefined need for blood. Who else to we know who was sacrificed on a stone table?

The second was the disguising of Ralph, Ursula, the Sage of Swevenham and their horses against the pursuit of the Lord of Utterbol’s nephew, so the pursuers saw only rocks and skeletons. Now, where in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe are two people disguised as objects? (Clue: one of them is a witch, one a dwarf.)

(I also have a vague recollection of a Tolkien link, but like many night thoughts it was gone with the morning.)

I don’t think either of those are new links: you can bet there will have been plenty of PhDs that discuss them. Neither, for me, do they diminish Lewis’ text. (I am well aware of Tolkien’s rebuke to those studying Beowulf: But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.) Rather, they root it back into something older, show more of its trajectory; perhaps make it appear less the product of the mythological bran-tub than it sometimes does.

Of the unicorn


So. I have found myself thinking about unicorns. As with most thinking, it is useful to start with what we know. There are mediaeval reports of unicorn sightings, but there are no sightings today. We also know that unicorns could only be tamed by a female virgin. That is all we know.

The fact they could only be tamed by a female virgin suggests unicorns are male. Are all unicorns therefore male, or do both male and female of the species have horns? If we consider peacocks and creatures such as deer, we find it is the male that has the sexual display characteristics for attracting mates and in some cases the horns for fighting competing males. If unicorns follow the same pattern, then the horned animals are the males, and the unnoted, hornless animals are the females.

What do these hornless creatures look like? They look like horses. In fact, they are horses.

The mediaeval naturalists were ignorant of genetics, so did not understand how recessive genes can produce features in a child which are not manifested in the parents. The simplest explanation of the disappearance of the unicorns is that they were actually male horses affected by the horn-bearing gene. Any half-way competent geneticist should be able to demonstrate how a deeply recessive horn-forming gene could have been lost from the horse genome since the early middle ages.

So there we are. Unicorns solved. Next.