Friday, 3 June 2011

The Candle and The Slow Worm

"There are some negative factors in human existence which can be understood as limit situations, impressing on us our own finitude and at the same time evoking the idea of absolute being." (John Macquarrie)

T.F. Powys' Fables are extraordinary short tales. While they are in many respects surreal, he uses the strange framing narrative to tell tales about ordinary people, and comment on their lives, and the setting in which the strange narratives take place, all the incidental descriptions of place, are thoroughly realistic, drawn from his rich experience as a countryman.

This tale - in which a candle and a slow-worm can have a conversation, is about taking stock of one's life, and how a shallow life can end in despair, and a sense of the futility of existence. But the existentialist theologian John Macquarrie once said that one of the fundamental questions of life is "What does it mean to be an existing human being?".

And Karen Armstrong wrote that "Originally the meaning of the word 'faith' was akin to trust, as when we say that we have faith in a friend or an ideal. Faith was not an intellectual position but a virtue: it was the careful cultivation, by means of the rituals and myths of religion, of the conviction that, despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary, life had some ultimate meaning and value."

What T.F. Powys suggests out is that a life which studiously avoids these kind of ultimate questions is ruinous to the individual, because such questions have a troublesome way of coming back when least expected; in this tale, an existential abyss opens up before Mr Guppy, as he contemplates what he has done with his life, and how much of it has been wasted, empty years.

It is a modern fable, and one very relevant to such a secular age as ours.

[Note that when Powys was writing, average life expectancy was a good deal shorter than it is today.]

Human beings are not the only creatures in the world that like a little talk; there are other things which are interested in what goes on, and that like to say something, too. There are some places that are more fitted than others for a few happy words about one's neighbours. And one of them - lonely by the nature of its matter, and silent too -- is perhaps more suitable than any other for a harmless tale. This quiet place is a country churchyard.
It may be observed about every conversation that, in order to be completely satisfying, it should be the last of its kind. And even the lightest and most careless talker should, if he wishes to be listened to with interest, take his matter from the grave and his jests from corruption. If the conversation is to be out-of-doors, it is well that the winds be not blowing, and there is no better time to hear a tale told than the middle of a still winter's night, and no better place than the little field where the dead are laid.
The folk in the village are then snug in bed, and only the nightjar, the owl and the fox are abroad. A winter's night is better for a churchyard conversation than a summer's one. For, in the summer, the coming dawn treads so quickly upon the heels of the departing evening, and Farmer Told's barn-cock will begin to crow so soon, that even the charnel yew tree - that never slumbers - has hardly a moment to say a word to a lank tom-cat before the bold sun breaks in upon them with his coloured lights.
One winter's night, when the great timepiece in the parlour at the old Madder Hall Farm was striking the midnight hour-that made the mice scamper - a slow-worm who had awaked out of its winter's sleep, thinking, owing to the mildness of the weather, that the spring had come, and having a natural inquisitiveness and a liking for new acquaintances, moved upon her belly in the Madder churchyard over the graves. She had a mind during this time of a surprised awakening, to hear some doleful village tale that would give to her a sound melancholy sleep through the rest of the winter. She felt at her ease and in safety; for her place of residence - protected by the ghosts of the dead against the rude boys during the night-time, and by the surly-looking sexton in the day - was well suited to her harmless needs.
The night in which the slow-worm had awakened was as mild as could be; the winds that had been boisterous and loud but a day or two before were quite hushed and still. The slow-worm, as soon as she opened her eyes, wondered to whom to address herself. There was the half of a skull, about two hundred years old, that had been cast out of a grave and left near to the old crumbling wall. This skull had been the companion of the slow-worm during the last summer, but she had grown weary of him, for he would be ever prating of what had happened in his day, and that wasn't much; and he would only tell over and over again how he had got a young woman, named Bessy, into trouble, and how he had been robbed of his goods by the unjust steward of the late Lord Sussex.
The worm went silently by the skull, hoping that he would not hear her, and, after pausing to address a word of encouragement to a rat who was making a nest in Mr. Barker's grave, she moved gently through the grass and the dead stalks of nettles, that tickled her belly and made her wish the more eagerly to meet an interesting friend.
In order to see clearly who was abroad, she crawled up a new grave-mound, and, raising her head, she gazed about. In a corner of the churchyard where a few tall burdocks grew in the summer, and where only one or two deserted grave-mounds showed themselves above the ground, a mysterious light flickered. The light, though not constant in its burning, shone clearly, and appeared to come from a kind of candle that burned in the deserted corner.
The slow-worm, who had lived in the churchyard for a number of years, had never seen a light of this kind before - there had only been the sexton's lantern to be noticed, and this she had always avoided because a man carried it. The light in the corner had so different a look from the sexton's and seemed so ghostly and strange, that the slow-worm, wishing to make its acquaintance, moved upon its belly in its direction.
Every creature --- and our slow-worm was no exception-likes to think of itself as king and lord over that portion of the earth, however small it be, that it calls its own. Mistress worm - in common with a great many other people - believed herself to be of great importance and to have the right to know what went on in her world, as well as the right to inquire-did she come upon any strange thing - what it was. No sooner, therefore, did she reach the spot where the light shone, than, in order to assert what seemed to be her own proper authority, she inquired of the light who he was and what he did there.
"I am," replied the light proudly, "an emanation from the dead. I am made of phosphorus, which rises out of the ground from the corruption of dead bodies. I am important, for where I shine a new grave is to be. Do you know Mr. Guppy?"
"I do," replied the worm, "for Mr. Guppy spared my life last summer. I had happened foolishly to wander out of my realm upon a cause, and for a desire, that I need not trouble you with - for what queen is exempted from certain feelings?"
"And what king either?" murmured the light.
"The little boys set upon me," said the worm, "with intent to murder, but Mr. Guppy, coming by at the moment, saved me from their barbarous cruelty."
"Though Mr. Guppy was able to save you," remarked the light, "he was unable to bestow the same favour upon himself - he died this evening."
"How did that happen?" asked the slow-worm, crawling slowly upon the grave of a young unmarried girl who had died in childbed, and settling herself contentedly down for a long and pleasant conversation.
"I will tell you," answered the light - who was none other than a corpse candle - "for certain relations of mine played a part in his death, and Mr. Guppy is very much to be pitied. You must know, madam, how life slips away so easily to men, who have so little pleasure in the present moment that they are always drawing the future to them at a quicker rate than it should properly come. Thus it happens that the years go so fast to these foolish ones, just as if they had been no years at all."
"There is no harm in that," said the worm, "and, so long as a man is not reminded of their flight, he may be glad to see them so gone."
"Sometimes, alas!" observed the corpse candle, "he is reminded of them all, and if a man be as sensitive as Mr. Guppy, the result of having all his years, in their heavy bulk, pushed before him may be disastrous.
"Mr. Guppy's fiftieth birthday was today, and in order to gratify the foolish whim of a child, Mrs. Guppy, while her husband was out a-walking, prepared a cake for him, surrounded by fifty candles, and though these were made but of coloured wax, I am, at least in name, their relation."
"But a higher one," remarked the worm, "for your composition is of a better and a more exciting origin."
"You say truly, lady snake," replied the candle, "for I shine awfully, and am made by no living hand, and am, indeed, far grander in rank and station than my first cousin who lives down in the marsh beyond Madder Hill. It was to Madder Hill that Mr. Guppy walked in a dreary manner this very afternoon."
"It was his birthday," interrupted the slow-worm, "and he should have gone to the inn."
"Had he been younger he might have gone that way," replied the candle, "but knowing, as he knew only too well, how time went, he preferred the hill to the valley, and, reaching the summit of the hill and feeling a lack of strength in his legs, he sat down upon a tussock of dry grass to rest. His mood was a gentle one, and as, poor sinner, he often did, he forgot all that had happened to him in his past life, resigned himself to the harmless pleasure of the afternoon, and brooded over the peaceful view of the village that was presented below him."
"There seemed to Mr. Guppy to be so little time gone behind him, so small a vista when he looked back at his days, that he felt he had hardly lived at all, and, though the time before him might be short       too, yet even out of his sadness a sweet day might come that would grant him a little joy."
"Mr. Guppy saw his life as so little a thing that he appeared merely to have awaked out of nothingness unto forgetfulness."
"The winter shining of the afternoon sun, now near to setting behind the hills, threw a rich look upon the fields of Madder, deepening their green, while the smoke from the cottage chimneys rose in sleepy garlands and died in the air - a fit sight for one who wished his own life to be absorbed and taken. Mr. Guppy viewed, too, his own cottage, near to the Madder church. It was there that a pleasant tea would await him. And why should he not - in common with his kind - feel joy again? Perhaps even youth might smile upon him, play and be merry."
"He rested for a few moments longer and then arose with a sigh, and, descending the hill, he entered the little lane that led to his home."
"Mr. Guppy had started out late in the afternoon; he had remained longer than usual resting upon the hill, so now the darkness of evening crept along the lane to meet him. Mr. Guppy walked the slower and welcomed the coming night with pleasure - a few stars appeared in the sky, and the folk who were abroad passed him like shadows."
"Mr. Guppy moved still slower until he turned a corner in the lane, and then he stopped. He was now within sight of his cottage, and the light from the parlour window shone out warm and pleasant into the thickening darkness."
"Entering his gate and going nearer to his house, Mr. Guppy could see the pictures upon the parlour walls, the fire burning in the grate, and the merry faces of his guests who had assembled for his birthday party."
"Mr. Guppy silently opened the outer door. He found himself in the little narrow passage that was quite dark. Mr. Guppy took off his overcoat - in doing so he tore the lining out of one of the sleeves. This incident, small as it was, made him hang his head. At that exact moment he seemed to be grown into an old man. His hands must be got feeble, for he had no patience nor yet care to take off his coat, even, without tearing it."
"Mr. Guppy carefully hung up his coat, and, after waiting for a moment to listen to the merry laughter of those within the parlour, he softly opened the door."
"The guests were all seated around the table, waiting impatiently. Pretty things they were, dainty coloured frocks, faces aglow with merriment-the best of fare."
"Mr. Guppy was somewhat dazed by the brightness of the light - or lights - that seemed to come from the table. He looked to see from whence came such a glow of brightness. In the middle of the table there was a large cake, and around the cake, stuck so near to each other that there was hardly room to put a match between them, there were fifty coloured candles."
"Everyone laughed when they saw him look, and wondered what Mr. Guppy would say."
"But, instead of the commonplace remark that was expected of him, Mr. Guppy said nothing. Indeed, he seemed strangely bewitched by the sight of those fifty candles. They were so dose together and so many, that had there been a hundred, the shock of seeing his years stare at him so, and all a-burning, could not have been more. Mr. Guppy stared at the candles - there were his years, in crowds, booing, jeering and mocking him."
"Each one of them had now become but a coloured light - each year a little burning candle.
"Mr. Guppy sat down in silence at the table. The cake was cut and eaten, but the candles still burned. Mr. Guppy could do nothing else but look at them. There were his years - so many - and what had he had in them? "
"The grease was beginning to drop in large red and white tears, each candle was quickly dying down, but no quicker than the years had died."
"Something happened in that room - the guests appeared only like the shadows that Mr. Guppy had passed in the lane, but the candles were talking."
"The first years of Mr. Guppy's life had little to say for themselves, for they were childish years, they appeared to fade away with the speed of forgetful childhood. Even on to the first twenty all seemed to be well. And had there been but that number round the cake, Mr. Guppy might have regarded them with tranquillity, nay even with hope and pleasure."
"There would have been no crowding then amongst those twenty; they would have stood like pretty children at a party, who await the dance; they would not have pressed against one another like coffins in a filled graveyard. Had there been but twenty there would have been life and air between them. But Mr. Guppy saw the years increase - there were thirty of them now, and these began to talk together, wondering what joy they had had."
"Had those thirty been all, there would still have been room between them, but there were others - twenty more of them. In all his years, as Mr. Guppy looked at them, he saw no joy at all-he might just as well have dreamed of them through one short night. They were all exactly the same to him now. All the years, expressed by the fifty candles, appeared completely obliterated. They were like footsteps in the sand that the first tide that had followed him in his sad journey had washed out. He had once lived them, they were torn out of his bowels; but there was no life nor any part of him left in them, they were all gone and done with, like a tale that is told."
"It was impossible for anyone so burdened to be anything but utterly saddened. Why, those years of his might be counted by tens instead of by ones.
"Mr. Guppy grew very thoughtful."
"Could he but discover one happy one amongst that crowd of years, all might yet be well. Was there not one good one, one fruitful blessed one, in all the Sodom city of his years? Had there been one in which he might have found a little joy or goodness, he could have pardoned the others. No, there was not one kind one amongst them all."
"Mr. Guppy's look grew proud as he judged those years. The destroying fire and brimstone should fall upon them all. Never should any of them be aught again. No new candle should be added to them-their end was come."
"A child -- one of the guests-pulled a cracker, and Mr. Guppy had to be merry too, but he could not keep his eyes off those fifty candles. They burnt low now and someone carried them away."
The dimness of the night made the slow-worm sleepy; she had half a mind to curl up and to go to sleep where she was.
"And how did it end?" she asked.
"Why, you know how happy a birthday party can be, when there is wine to be drunk," replied the candle.
"Mr. Guppy drank that night more than was good for him, for he had a mind to light a candle of another kind."
"You mean yourself," said the worm.
"I do," replied the light, "for Mr. Guppy, in order to take a little air, wandered over Madder Hill into a low-lying field, where there are pits filled with water. In one of these ponds, Mr. Guppy lay down and the water covered him."
The corpse candle burnt faint and vanished. The slow-worm curled up upon the grave and slept soundly.

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