Monday 1 January 2018

Beside the Ocean of Time

My other library find was 'Beside the Ocean of Time' by George Mackay Brown and it was another diversion from my usual reading. The author is best known as a poet and these stories certainly have the feel of viking saga and mythology, but very much rooted in the culture of the Scottish isles. The chapters follow Thorfinn Ragnarson, a young lad whose dissatisfaction with the mundanity of island living takes him away into daydreams about his own heroic past lives. It is all about the atmosphere and the picture that he paints of island life, people and history. 

Here is their neighbour, old Jacob, and his daughter Janet:

"He doesn't admit it, even to himself, but he has a dread that some young island man or other will come about Smylder, under the stars, to court her. Whatever would become of him if he were left alone?
So he speaks harshly to any young fellow who chances to linger round the planticru, or who speaks overlong to Janet at the grocery van on a Friday morning on the road outside.
But Janet seems not to be at all interested in suitors. She is quite happy with the cow, the flock of hens, the butter and cheese making, the baking and the brewing and spinning. The long grey wool flows from her fingers, taut and tough and fluent. Her white cheeses crumble at the first touch of the knife.
Even old Jacob acknowledges that Janet's broth is 'not bad' - by that he means that it is very good soup indeed. A tinker sits on the doorstep, among the first snowflakes, and drinks a mug of Janet's hot ale, and feels the glow in his toes and umbles and finger-ends.
Jacob comes in grousing from the lambing hill - everything has gone wrong - but after a plate of Janet's oatcakes spread thick with butter, he thinks things might come out all right in the end - the new lambs, though thirled to life on delicate threads, might live ..." (p.60)

The other quote is a wonderful example of the importance of myth and stories in Scottish culture, and how words bind people and their place together:

"The chief of Norday island said to the boy Thorfinn Ragnarson (you must understand, this was long before the time of the Vikings and the Norse settlers, and Thorfinn would have had a different name then, an early Celtic name long forgotten, but it was the same boy - that much is certain), 'Poet, this fort that our architect and masons are building so strong and true, it must be celebrated in a poem, or a dance of words, otherwise (though seemingly so solid) our tower can hardly be said to exist at all, all is but a shadow and a breath until the word invests it with strength and beauty. So, boy with the gift of language, you are to make the Song of the Broch. Only, you understand, boy, you must order the poem as if it issued from my mouth. I have no gift for language myself, but it carries more authority if the poem seems to come from the lord of the island. Make the poem soon, before the great ships overshadow us. Do it well, boy, and you will not be the poorer on account of it.'" (p.74)

It was a immersive journey through time, returning always to the hearth and home that, in the end, is where Thorfinn finds he belongs. Lovely, lovely writing and reading.

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