Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Return of the Native as a fantasy novel - Black chaos comes

The heath-dwellers are gathered around a bonfire built atop a Celtic barrow.

… it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.  (I, 3)

The heathmen themselves, not just their bonfires, are lineal descendants of Druids and Saxons.

Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the Earth say, Let there be light.

The characters are enacting a ritual, casting a spell, protecting themselves, and it seems the world, from the oncoming winter.  Or so the narrator seems to think.  It is always the narrator who is talking this way, describing his characters as Celts or Romans, pagans.  He is a bit of an anthropologist.  The lead characters are passionate and impulsive, even to the point of destruction, while the narrator sometimes seems more interested in taking notes on their quaint customs.

Indeed, the impulses of all such outlandish hamlets are pagan still: in these spots homage to nature, self-adoration, frantic gaieties, fragments of Teutonic rites to divinities whose names are forgotten, have in some was or other survived mediaeval doctrine.  (VI, 1)

This lecture follows a description of a Maypole.  We are almost at the end of the book, which makes this line especially irritating – Hardy, I know this already – I have been reading your novel!  But I now understand lines like this as part of Hardy’s struggle with his form, which also means a struggle with his readers as he imagines them.  He is training his readers to recognize the kind of symbolic apparatus he is constructing.  Later writers, Modernists, will not have to spend so much time repeating themselves to their well-trained, and smaller, audience.

The lead heroine, the great Eustacia Vye, is perceived to be a witch, the kind that curses people, by some of her neighbors.  She is metaphorically a witch, the kind that bewitches men, for the novels two male leads.  I was genuinely surprised when, near the end of the novel, the neighbor who most strongly insists that Vye is a witch casts a spell on her – the accuser is herself a witch!

Seizing with tongs the image that she had made of Eustacia, she held it in the heat, and watched it as it began to waste slowly away.  And while she stood thus engaged there came from her lips a murmur of words.

It was a strange jargon – the Lord’s Prayer repeated backwards…  (V, 8)

Never before had Hardy reminded me so strongly of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and that was before I got to this scene.

The Return of the Native is as close to what we now call a fantasy novel as any novel I know that is not normally called a fantasy novel.  One character is red, literally red.  The weird environment is full of ferns and strange flowers, and mysterious creatures called “heath-croppers” wander through it.  They are semi-wild horses, but the novel would be no different if they were unicorns, or dinosaurs, if the magic were “real,” which in some sense it is, and if the red man were some kind of gnome rather than a man who makes his living dying sheep.

The novel makes more sense thought of this way.

22 comments:

  1. i like your interpretation. as my memory of the book improved from reading your posts, what i recollected was a lot more sedate albeit confusing; i think i didn't quite like the book much. but the features you point out are convincing and add a surrealistic lustre to my impressions... tx!

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  2. I shall definitely have to put it on the list, as I rather like veering close to the line between realism and irrealism, like the idea that the enchantment in books makes us wake up to the beauties and pains of this world.

    Of course, it's quite possible to argue that the main powers of literature in English have stayed close to a root in fantastical realms. After all, we can trace a line from "Beowulf" and "The Dream of the Rood" through "Gawain and the Green Knight" to "The Faerie Queene," etcetera. Probably that sort of talk displeases James Wood!

    In America, supposed to be so very mercantile and practical, our first professional novelist is Charles Brockden Brown, and he certainly sees the wilderness with a Gothic eye! Even when we shift to what we like to call American Realism, the writers have weird corners like Henry James's and Edith Wharton's ghost stories or Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger."

    Your description of "The Return of the Native" makes Hardy feel like such a strong precursor for John Cowper Powys. And they have Wessex in common.

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  3. Surreal, irreal, yes - I think tomorrow I'll drop in the scene where characters gamble by the light of the glowworms. So odd. The "heath-croppers" intrude on that scene, too, adding strange off-screen noises.

    James Wood may not be happy with that talk, but I sure am. The more spontaneous combustion and lightning-forged harpoon scenes the better, as far as I am concerned.

    I have never quite dared Powys.

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  4. Really? I am shocked at you! You will, I expect. After this, surely you need to dare "Glastonbury Romance" and "Wolf Solent."

    Gambling by glowworms: wondrous. And I agree on spontaneous combustion (committed it in a story for an anthology once) and lightning-forged harpoons. My least favorite period of American lit is Naturalism, although there are some images from "McTeague" that stick in my head.

    You know, the whole look of a landscape inundated by gorse / furze is very odd. And it's impenetrable when it gets going. I suppose it must be busy with birds' nests and little creatures.

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  5. Oh wait, I have read Powys's One Hundred Best Books, although that hardly counts. It does have personality, as lists of books go.

    I found the gorse-covered heath a strange place to spend my imaginative time. I grew up on an open, healthy prairie. The heath felt like a prairie where an invasive species has come in, like the landscape needs a good burn.

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    1. Gustav Holst wrote a strange tone poem Egdon Heath inspired by the heath with this inscription: "A place perfectly accordant with man's nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!"
      I don't know if Holst ever saw the areas that inspired Hardy or if he relied only on Hardy's words.

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    2. Weymouth Sands was good. It's the only Powys I've read, though I've got Wolf Solent on my TBR stack.

      I read the first chapter of Native last night and I've pushed that book onto my TBR, too.

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  6. They do burn very well. Then they come back from the root. And a bit of fire makes the seeds sprout better. So your good burn would make gorse so very happy...

    Everything he did seemed to have personality. Really liked an article I read about his lacemaking sister (in Threadwork, I think.) Interesting family.

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  7. Boy, I have not listened to Egdon Heath in let's say decades. Holst's prose description is in the spirit of the novel.

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    1. It's a quotation from Hardy, not Holst's own words. I've been deaf for over thirty years and it's one of the pieces of music I still recall.

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    2. Oh, that's Hardy. Now I am less impressed. But after research I see that it is Hardy in 1927, 49 years after the novel's publication, so I am differently impressed.

      It is a beautiful piece of music

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    3. It's from chapter 1 of the novel, actually

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    4. Checking my notes, I see I even wrote down the phrase "swarthy monotony."

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  8. I remember my daughter-in-law's indictment of the novel; she said she would have rather had a root canal than read Hardy's book. Your postings have tipped the scales away from the root canal, but only slightly, so I might be reading TROTN because of your comments. Finally, it seems to me that the word "native" in the title might be a big hint about the primal scenes and qualities. But I could be wrong, so strike that observation until I've actually read the root canal novel.

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  9. Yes, the native returns to this primitive rural scrubland from Paris! Which provides a contrast. He might as well have returned from the moon.

    I found the novel to be much less unpleasant than a root canal, although the novel took ten times longer to finish than the root canal.

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  10. If you find Powys's doorstop novels daunting, you might try one of his later nutty novellas, like "Two and Two." He's worth a peek, at least.

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  11. Pykk reads and mentions Powys frequently. He has found many startling things in Powys.

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  12. I am a Hardy "completer" as of 2015, but I haven't re-read "Return of the Native" in at least 20 years, and I'll be leading a seminar on "Under the Greenwood Tree" and "Tess" in 2017. I think your comparison with Hawthorn is fair and insightful; Hawthorne tied his characters to history, Hardy to the land, but both were obsessed with the impact of the past on the present, and both adept (even heavy-handed) in their symbolism, which deserves more credit than contemporary readers give (they would rather have the cultural reference obscurity of a Pyncheon or David Foster Wallace, who will need footnotes if another generation tries to read them, whereas Hardy's and Hawthorne's life symbols aren't too hard to tease out of the narrative even if you don't know what a "coombe" is). I'd like to see you tackle something like "The Woodlanders," which is the book I believe that made D. H. Lawrence even possible. Hardy is vastly underrated as both a novelist and as a poet, because he produced more than a small amount of bad writing among the great material.

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    1. Is Hardy under-rated as a poet? I'd agree with Donald Davie that he probably dominated English poetry in the twentieth century. It's notable that the leaders of modernism - Pound and Eliot - both disliked him.
      He's much better as poet than as novelist, I think. The bad writing is easier to separate in the poems and the bad writing in the poetry often takes the form of - or turns into - eccentricity and becomes more interesting and entertaining. Like Robinson, Hardy can get away with things in poetry you couldn't do in prose. Finally, there is something nasty about Hardy's attitude to his characters in his novrls: the President of the Immortals is as much Hardy's creation as Tess herself and they are both victims of Hardy's sport. Hardy's thumb is in the scales.

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  13. Love, love, love this book (and much of Hardy's work) - one of my comfort reads, even if the root canal analogy mentioned above seems to reflect most readers' opinions...

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  14. Years ago, I belonged to a Hardy group here on Yahoo. We read everything Hardy wrote, except for his poetry, in chronological order. It was easy to see then that Hardy's novels got darker over the years. Some of his earlier works were rustic romances with the young lady having the choice of several swains and even managed to choose the "right" one.

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  15. What terrific comments.

    The Woodlanders is on my mental list. Not having read Tess bothers me more, though.

    If I had comfort reads they would mostly be as discomforting as this novel, so I completely understand.

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