All Stories, auld author

Auld Author – Fahrenheit 451 brought to us by Thurman Hart.

Though this is not a particularly Auld or unknown piece it is obvious that Thurman Hart feels passionate about this and it has had a profound effect and that surely qualifies for a place in this occasional feature.

Much of what Bradbury saw has come true–social media and disaffected youth. Yet let us hope that words will still be precious to some in the worlds to come.


The work that I’m afraid will be forgotten is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This is, of course, a flight of insanity on my part. The book is a true classic and will always (it seems) find its way into various literature-based curricula. However, the true masterpiece of the work is overlooked, at least in my experience.

Fahrenheit is a dystopian work, set an undefined length into the future where fireman are employed to burn books, the implication being that they control dangerous ideas that books contain. The general population has been dumbed down, too interested in the parlor wall families – i.e., characters portrayed on wall-sized televisions – to even notice that they are being controlled. In fact, Mildred, the wife of the main character, Montag, attempts suicide when he tries to force her and her friends to feel and think by reading them poetry. Even people who understand what is happening are too afraid to fight back, as evidenced by Montag’s very literate supervisor, Beatty, who goads Montag into killing him because he can no longer live as a tool for this governmental control. There’s even an aspect of invasive technology via the mechanical dog that tracks Montag, and what is now called “fake news” where Montag listens to the report that he has been tracked down and killed.

This is the obvious masterpiece of Bradbury’s work: that he can look at his contemporary and near-historical events such as the red scares of the 1950s and the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s and 1940s and make them seem like they are about to happen all over again. Like the portrait by a master painter will have eyes that seem to follow the viewer as they move, Bradbury’s predictions of society seem as near-future today as they did when I first read them in the mid-1980s. In this, Bradbury is a champion of free thought and artistic expression, and it is a good and proper thing that he is studied for that reason.

But Fahrenheit is not merely this. Tucked away in the third section, entitled “Burning Bright” is a passage that deserves a canonical place next to Shakespear’s “What a piece of work is a man.” Montag has escaped from the city and made contact with a small group of rebels who exist outside of society in order to keep alive the memory of written works. The masterpiece is delivered by Granger, when he tells Montag:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

When I first read those words, I was dumbfounded. It was if a veil had been lifted and someone had shown me a timeless truth of existence. I sat on the edge of my bed, amid the dryland cottonfields of West Texas, and tried to fit the entire sum of my fourteen years into those words. Then, as now, the full measure of those words eludes me. They are a moving goal that I can only aspire to hit. It is why I turn my hand towards excellence in all that I do. It is why I write. It is why I sing. It is why, every year, I plant a new garden so I can watch the sky and worry and wonder. I know one day I will be gone, but I know my soul will live on in the things I have touched and passed along to my family and my friends.

It is this passage, above all others, that moves Ray Bradbury from someone who writes stories into the realm of an author. Here, he doesn’t just string together words, sentences, and phrases. He builds an idea. He presents a philosophy. He gives us his ability to reach through the written page and touch us. Not just for a lifetime, but, I hope, for many lifetimes to come.

Thurman Hart

Image: – an old metal goblet on a dark background with a quill pen and a book

All Stories, auld author

Auld Author

My favourite forgotten book: The House of the Wolfings by William Morris – Reviewed by Michael Bloor

These days, poor old Morris (1834-96) must be swirling like a dervish in that quiet Oxfordshire churchyard. These days, the sad truth is that the great pioneer socialist writer, printer and publisher is largely remembered as a designer of curtains and wallpapers.

Morris was born into a wealthy Victorian family, educated at Marlborough College and Oxford University, and intended for the priesthood. Like any educated Victorian gentleman, he was saturated in the Greek and Roman classics. Indeed, many of his early (and very popular) poems were re-tellings of classical stories. A visit as a young man to the great gothic cathedrals of France led to him turn away from a career in the church and to start (but not complete) an apprenticeship as an architect. He became an expert on medieval art and literature; he learned weaving and dyeing, manuscript illumination and bookbinding. He designed typefaces as well as fabrics. And he hated the squalor and misery he saw around him in mid-Victorian Britain. So, he eventually threw himself into the new-minted socialist movement.

In his day, he was mainly famous as a poet – he refused the post of Poet Laureate, in succession to Tennyson. And in his day also, he was notorious for being one of the leaders of the Trafalgar Square ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration of the unemployed in 1887 (broken up by police and soldiers with fixed bayonets and live ammunition), and for his speech at the graveside of the demonstrator who died, trampled by a police horse. He was a scholar of the medieval chronicles and the first translator of many of the Icelandic sagas. More than just a translator, he was a voluble enthusiast: he argued that the Volsunga Saga should be as famous to us as the tales of Troy.

He’s not out of print. His Collected Works, edited by his daughter, May Morris, are available in 24 volumes from Cambridge University Press (if you have a spare £500). And Wayne State University Press published a further ten previously uncollected speeches, edited by Eugene Lemire, in 1969. But the only one of his books that remains popular today is his vision of a future socialist society, ‘News from Nowhere,’ available in the Penguin Classics series.

The Penguin ‘News from Nowhere’ is OK, I’m not knocking it; it’s even got one of his textile designs on the front cover. I just think it’s a shame that the string of prose romances that he wrote in the last years of his life are now so little read. The House of the Wolfings, the first (and the best) of the bunch, was published in 1888.

Morris wrote them largely for his own enjoyment; he’s supposed to have written much of the second romance, ‘The Roots of the Mountains,’ to while away the time on a long train journey to speak to the socialists in Aberdeen. The romances had a wide audience when they were published. Oscar Wilde wrote a laudatory review of The House of the Wolfings. W.B. Yeats and J.R.R. Tolkien were among those who were greatly influenced by the stories.

The House of the Wolfings is set in a great forested area of central Europe in the days of Imperial Rome. The Wolfings were imagined as one of a number of clans constituting a Gothic tribe dwelling in The Mark, a territory of cleared areas in the great forest. The story concerns the successful resistance of the peoples of the Mark to a Roman invasion. Thiodolf, a Wolfing Warrior, is chosen as the War Duke to lead the Markmen in battle. His secret lover is Wood-Sun, living alone in the forest, ‘a daughter of the Gods […] and a Chooser of the Slain.’ She foresees his death in battle and shows him a magical, dwarf-wrought, metal-ringed hawberk (later to be pinched by Tolkien), which she begs him to wear for protection. He doesn’t fancy it, but is sweet-talked into pulling it on. The hawberk causes him to swoon at critical junctures in the battle, with potentially disastrous consequences. He takes it off, turns the tide of battle, and is slain. But thanks to his sacrifice, the Romans are defeated and driven off.

It’s beautifully written in an antique style, with critical parts of the dialogues declaimed as poetry, as in some of the Icelandic sagas. Though the bits and pieces of prophecy and magic fit perfectly naturally into the Early Medieval setting, they have served as one of the precursors of some pretty awful modern fantasy novels. I don’t blame Morris for that. Instead, I think the book is an extraordinary achievement, documenting Morris’s intellectual journey.

William Morris was a Victorian gentleman raised on a diet of classical heroes in a century that saw a long, long procession of British Imperialist wars of conquest against indigenous societies in Africa, India, Afghanistan and the Far East. Here was a gentleman who championed the folk assemblies of the Mark against the hierarchical slave society of Imperial Rome, who preferred the domestic carvings of medieval carpenters and masons to the arts patronage of the idle rich, and who would give the victory over the drilled professional soldiers to a band of part-time warrior-farmers, warrior-smiths, and warrior-herdsmen, fighting for their way of life.

The choices that Morris made, and celebrated in such chiming prose, seem easier to us now, a hundred and thirty-odd years on. But such bold, bright, revolutionary writing deserves to be still read.

Michael Bloor

Image by Davie Bicker from Pixabay  – A Goblet sheet or parchment and quill pen on a black background.