One of my all-time favourite prose works is ‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901-1935), a novel set in the north-east of Scotland in the early 20th century.
It has a lyrical style, and an unforgettable cast of characters, including the free-spirited Chris herself, her mother, her brother Will, her vile bully of a father, her husband Ewan, broken by the Great War, her kindly neighbour Chae Strachan and, eventually and briefly, her soulmate Long Rob the miller.
‘Sunset Song’ is actually the first of a trilogy entitled ‘A Scots Quair’, so the story is continued in two more parts, ‘Cloud Howe’ and ‘Grey Granite’, but I have to confess that I managed only a few chapters of the former before giving up with the words from Wordworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ running in my head: ‘Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?’, and I never got to the third book at all.
Of course, anyone’s reading journey from childhood on is likely to be littered with disappointing sequels. Many children over the years (though maybe not so many these days) have devoured Louisa M. Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and Thomas Hughes’s ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, but I suspect that few have ever done more than nibble at ‘Good Wives’ and ‘Tom Brown At Oxford’. As a child blissfully unaware of its allegorical designs on me I enjoyed C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ but found the rest of the Narnia books fairly forgettable. Parts two to four of T.H.White’s Arthurian epic ‘The Once and Future King’ are worthy enough, but have nothing like the magic of its first book, ‘The Sword In The Stone’. As a devoted fan of Ursula Le Guin’s first three ‘Earthsea’ novels I found the tone of the fourth book ‘Tehanu’ horribly jarring. Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’ is intriguing in its own right, but as a sequel to ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’ it is barely in the same universe. And while as a teenager I would have been happy to go along with the young Neil Gaiman’s view that ‘Lord of the Rings’ was not only the best book ever written but the best book that ever could be written, ‘The Silmarillion’ was, let’s face it, a bit of a letdown with its remote style and its claustrophobically mediaeval cosmology in which the earth is created before the sun and mankind is placed in the world ready-formed, concepts which (to the best of my understanding) are not entirely in line with modern scientific thinking.
But I am rambling. Back to ‘Sunset Song’, and two passages that I have chosen to illustrate both the book’s lyrical style and some of its main themes: of dual cultural identity, of being bound to the land and to a way of life that you both resented and loved, and of the struggle to maintain that way of life in the face of a changing world:
‘So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d wake with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of this Scottish land and skies. You saw the faces in firelight, father’s, and mother’s, and the neighbours’, before the lamps lit up, tired and kind, faces dear and close to you, you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far-off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true — for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.’
‘And then a queer thought came to her there in the drookèd fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land she passed across, tossed and turned and perpetually changed below the hands of the crofter folk since the oldest of them had set the Standing Stones by the loch of Blawearie and climbed there on their holy days and saw their terraced crops ride brave in the wind and sun. Sea and sky and the folk who wrote and fought and were learnèd, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted but as a breath, a mist of fog in the hills, but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurted you.’