Saturday, May 15, 2010

Locus Focus

All together now, to the tune of Weezer:

Oh Eg-don Heath - that's where I want - to be!

When Enbrethiliel announced her new and very awesome linkup subject, Locus Focus - a meme in which readers share their favourite (or not so favourite) settings in books - I said to myself I would not cover anything from Tolkien's middle-earth, simply out of counter-intuitive self-limitation: I would find myself too far out at sea, due to infatuation, covering one of those middle-earth settings.

Then I immediately decided to do Egdon Heath - an early love - smacking my hands with delight. I was a little miffed when later in her official announcement, Enbrethiliel went and mentioned, in such passing manner, Thomas Hardy's Wessex as a possible setting to write about.

What, said I, is she reading my mind? I wanted it to be a sublime surprise; an interesting and unique choice; a wonderfully gloomy vote for the underdog who breathed the fascinating transitional airs between centuries…

Apparently this Thomas Hardy fellow is more popular than I like to imagine.

Nonetheless, without further blathering:

Egdon Heath
The Return of the Native
By Thomas Hardy

The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis - the final overthrow.
Hardy was my second literary love after Keats. It was Keats' Ode to a Nightingale in English Lit.12 that ushered me past poetry's threshold. Then it was, strangely enough, Hardy's A Darkling Thrush. That both are about birds is something I haven't really given thought to.

Though our teacher did not prescribe Hardy for our mandatory study, I read The Three Strangers (the setting from which is not Egdon, but pretty much the same) that night from the textbook. That short story, from what I rememebr, was all setting.

I remember once when I was doing "extra" work on a film set (you know those anonymous minions in the backgrounds of scenes), and I was sitting there reading The Return of the Native, just beginning it, when a man who passed me by a few times came to me and said, "Excuse me, but I couldn't help notice the book you're reading…"

Then he went on to talk about how he and his class (I forget what sort of class it was, but he was one of the students) went to Thomas Hardy's actual past residence and they (I can't remember if it was his class or some other class) found a piece of paper inside Hardy's desk which Hardy had apparently written. This piece of paper said something to the effect that the actual returning native of the book's title was not Cym but the Reddleman…

And the only thing going on inside my head was: Hm? Reddleman? The who Native…yeah whatever - but oh, Egdon Heath!

Later, I would read the opening passages from The Return of the Native over and over again…how I wanted to be in that November gloom, smoking a fag in the last of the twilight by a bonfire while the wind howled down among the furze. But more than that, I wanted to see the aliveness of Egdon Heath in my own real-life setting - a setting which shares many physical similarities with Egdon, though quite different altogether.

It is not simply Hardy's descriptive force which gives Egdon its staying character, but the way he organizes the setting as a first, sole chapter; then in the next chapter brings a few characters into the setting, but does so without further describing Egdon to the same extent as in the first chapter - though he will in later chapters.

In the second chapter He doesn't really cast our glance beyond the still-shining road which the wayfarers are walking along in the twilight, with the exception of what the reddleman sees at the end of the chapter: the lone figure on the high mound. Then, in the third chapter, we get the lighters of the bonfires as darkness fully covers what was described in the first chapter.

This architectural deepening of the setting is of the kind of power that is retrospective as you read; that is, Hardy has sifted and organized it so that the evocation of this setting comes to you in a moment that is not descriptive, but during some other kind of passage, like during some straight dialogue between characters.

Both Hardy's individual sentences and accumulative, architectural structure have what I've come to term, self-weight.

Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district; and as the hour may be told on a clock-face when the figures themselves are invisible, so did the men recognize the locality of each fire by its angle and direction, though nothing of the scenery could be viewed. . .

It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper storey of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below. The heath down there was now a vast abyss. . .

It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. . .
But Egdon Heath is additionally so ancient because it bears witness to a new century.


Sullivan McPig said...

Hmmm, sounds very intriguing. I should look this up.

Enbrethiliel said...


I had an English Lit professor who said that he once biked through nine Hardy novels in one day. (I'll bet he did, too!)

The Return of the Native is one I haven't read yet, and the Hardy novel I'm most familiar with is Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I agree that Hardy had a real gift for describing settings, and that the tragedies he wrote are not so much about the downfall of people as about the demise of the places in which they should have been able to thrive. Or rather, that his stories tie one to the other very intimately.

Edgon Heath sounds hauntingly beautiful, especially when we remember that the world Hardy described is, for all practical purposes, now dead--and was, when he was writing about it, already dying.

Thanks for linking up, Paul! =)

Jen G. said...

I must confess to be entirely too obstinate to have ever enjoyed any required reading for school. Tess of the d'Urbervilles unfortunately falls in that category. I do love it when settings practically become characters in their own right, so I should revisit Hardy now that I am older and, hopefully, wiser.

Paul Stilwell said...

Thanks Sullivan, for stopping by! Hardy *is* intriguing because, at least to me, he represents some kind of major transition between periods.

Enbrethiliel, that is awesome about your professor! I haven't read Tess, but it's on my to-read list. Your statement about his tragedies being more about the demise of places rather than of people, and that the both are tied very closely reminds of how I sometimes think of Terrence Mallick almost as Hardy's equivalence in film, in some ways.

This link up is enjoyable!

Jen, if all artists and writers have their shortcomings, then Hardy's shortcoming is that he can be very boring! At times he can be outright dorky in the sometimes stilted and elaborate precision of his statements and choice of grammar.

The Book Mole said...

I have only read Tess and Far from the Madding Crowd, and enjoyed both. I love his descriptions. Egdon Heath sounds great!

Paul Stilwell said...

And there's another I have yet to read: Far From the Madding Crowd!