For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust thereof

What is a ruin? Some initial thoughts on applying Jane Carroll’s topoanalysis to Thursbitch and Ludchurch. 

Whether there are night-ravens or pelicans in one’s insomnia (the psalm commentaries spend some time on the animals in Psalm 102: I think I encounter them both sometimes) there is an undeniable power to the lament over the fallen city that marks the exilic poetry of the Hebrew Bible. It is the definining shock of the kingdom of Judah: the central symbol of trust is smashed into smithereens of hope and despair. The echoes comes down not only into Judaism but into the Catholic liturgy which in Tenebrae sings of the city that sits alone that was so full of people, and then of the destruction of a people and society. It gives us the beauty of the second Isaiah-poet, the wretchedness of Jeremiah: it creeps, too, into the landscape of “bare ruined choirs,” in post-dissolution monastic history and in Shakespeare. Just as it is woven into Judaism, the collapse of Romano-British society and then centuries later the destruction of the monastic presence have woven ruins into English history. The heritage industry feeds on the failing grandeur.

But Thoon and Thursbitch are not such a grand site. Upland clearances and enclosures bring about the same destruction in other, more domestic ways, and I guess the abandoning of the farm at Thursbitch is one of these.  A farm, discernible by a brook, grass meadows, higher hills. I am reminded of the deserted upland farm buildings in Cooper’s The Grey King. Domestic tragedy.

What did we go out into the wilderness to see?

When Looking for Thursbitch became finding Thoon on a windy autumn afternoon, we found last year what we had missed before, a place central to Garner’s Thursbitch, the high seat from which one of the central actions of the book is observed. In this first picture, Mat is looking down from just below Thoon to the green pastures by Thursbitch. If we are looking for Biblical parallels this is one of the unorthodox High Places so mistrusted by the prophets, now peopled, perhaps, only by working farmers, walkers and the curious. The ruin of the farm is poignant, some walls, a sense of rooms and purpose, but little else. Perhaps.

Jane Carroll’s point (in her book Landscape in Children’s Literature) is that a ruin connects as well as divides: “the lapsed topos …provides the strongest connection between past and present”… “by physicalizing the human past, the ruin, like the grave, becomes a memento mori.” She is writing about the Dark is Rising’s young hero, Will, discovering links to the Roman past of Caerleon, and is leading the readers through the ambiguity (I love how my predictive text wants first Mabinogion then LeGuin for my mistyping) of past and present to the powerful vision of a humanist future. Garner is looking elsewhere, not for the Matter of Britain (at least, not directly) but for the Matter of Humanity.  Story becomes the bigger thing, maybe the Big Thing itself, of which the þurs is only a metaphor. Sal and Jack are those who have “wrought that shall break the teeth of Time,” as Yeats has it, and Garner gathers us into this story, here – Carroll uses the idea of “poetry that contemplates the dust,” where death unites across time. For me, her most powerful section in the whole book is where Carroll argues around the ruin ( the cave, the grave) as a site of folkloric as well as physical excavation. It is in Boneland that landscape and memory jumble into so many half-told stories, and for us it was impossible to do more, on our last visit, than choose one path – Gawain – and dig with/travel along it.  In Boneland Garner all but passes (there’s another post to write) Thursbitch and links Alderley, that autochthonic centre of Garner Country with its myths and creations, to Lud’s Church, Ludchurch, that Garner renames Ludcruck. Can a crack in the Rock, the stuff of so many of the high rocks around here be counted as a ruin? It is no Caerleon and no Aquae Sulis this chill, mossy fissure, but when contemplated as the possible site a poet has given to a key encounter in English literature, is it in some way at least the same sort of space, claiming attention as a ruin? Is it possible for a natural phenomenon to move from what Carroll calls a sanctuary topos to a lapsed topos? Or (and this is where I think I’m coming to) can Carroll’s topoi all coexist in one place? Ludchurch, it seems to me, is sanctuary as  Green Chapel, green as a Wilderness and magical Green Space, a pathway (and it certainly has that, both in attaining it and passing through) and the sense of abandonment. Is it possible for a sanctuary to be a ruin? And what of that oddity of pilgrimage, the Camino, the ley, the sacred road?  Not to deny Carroll’s powerful assertions of the distinctions between her topoi, it is as if, as significant narrative elements in Garner, they can be seen as merging into one.

An indeterminate space such as Ludchurch  has a final challenge, the one we find (or look for and miss) when seeking something beyond the ruin. Carroll proposes the past-present-future of the ruin, the lapsed topos as not without hope. For me this is about the spiritual aspect of Ludchurch, centred for me on my final image: even in a damp evening, or (as it must be now as I write) a chill gone-midnight darkness, it still seems to me a place of immense significance, where, maybe “prayer has been valid” (another perhaps), or where at least some sense of transcendence is rooted in the slow fall of rock, the trickle of waters, the challenge the Green Knight gives Gawain to be honest, to grow, to meet Something Big and return wiser. Is there another topos, the place of enlightenment, or is this where Cooper’s Oldway Lane and the Mountain in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces and the selva oscura in Dante (and at Gradbach) show their narrative power?

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One Response to For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust thereof

  1. Clive Foden says:

    And ouergrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere,
    And al watz hol? inwith, nobot an olde caue,
    Or a creuisse of an olde cragge, he couþe hit no?t deme
    with spelle. Ludchurch was an old place even in 1390’s. It is unquestionably powerful. Last Sunday, the day before my mum’s funeral, I showed my daughter Ludchurch and acquainted her with its otherness and told her it was there I wanted my ashes scattered. For me, over the last fifty years, it’s become a place of pilgrimage: a timeless world that my Grandad saw and photographed, a link to the fecund earth, a secret space that always welcomes if you can be yourself. It’s also a link to one of the finest poets the world has ever produced. Perhaps Gawain isn’t his greatest work but the man who wrote Pearl, that great hymn to human striving, folly, generosity and hope, walked here and felt the power of the place and celebrated it.

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