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.