Sitting at the end of a hectic day in the prestigious John Henry Brookes building at work, having handed in the exam paperwork and completed another piece of documentation for the treadmill of quality assurance, I am looking forward to immersing myself, after tea, in the final book of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, the wintry denouement (perhaps) of the hero Torak’s six-book confrontation with the evils of his Neolithic northern European world. I have loved these books – and may come back to them after they’re finished for further exploration and comment.
It is in some ways a perfect escape from the worries of my present work: a young man pits himself against cold, and dark and the fear of death. The trivial round, the common task is not a quest. Torak’s Neolithic Scandinavia is as far as I could get from my life as an academic: I am not young, not a hunter in the antiqua silva, but sitting with a coffee in front of me, having had too much screen time, thinking not about arrow heads and tracking in the forest but about deadlines, learning outcomes, emails. It would be foolish to see me as having a part in this story, however attractive the three main characters are. It would be self-aggrandising, too, to envisage my struggling to make sense of quality assurance as the lone battler against the dragon, or whatever. I don’t want to do that: Beowulf, Frodo and Torak did not have to prepare a report for Faculty Executive, any more than I have to find Grendel’s mere, or Mordor, or the Mountain of Ghosts.
Instead, spare a brief thought today for a little-remembered medieval saint: St William of York. He is an ideal for me today. Essentially an administrator born with a whole box of silver spoons, William gets all sorts of political and ecclesiastical preferment which are often not quite the gift one might expect. However, he is reported as undertaking them with a singularly assiduous charity. The darkness he fought was against the temptations of what today we would call class and background, against the uncharitable fight for power which denies the underdog.
I can’t see a children’s story in something so unheroic, any more than I can see any kind of ripping yarn in chairing a meeting or filling in a tedious pro forma. But I do feel like some of what I have done today has been at least useful. Maybe I’m admitting that traditional tales of the outdoors quest are all very well, but they can only stand as an allegory for the everyday lives we live, or which we are preparing students and children for.
I’m not sure whether Torak and his wolf pack brother would understand any of that, of course, but it raises any number of questions for me:
- Why do we need physical range in a narrative? Why does the sea journey or the vast forest appeal?
- And what does landscape add in terms of danger?