At this point the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (if I remember my Keats correctly) is well and truly over. The evenings draw in quickly and the woodland and heaths are sodden and dismal. These days we have much to distract us but for the medieval folk of these river meadows it can be imagined that this time of year filled them with dread. I have touched on, in an earlier post, the impossibility of really getting inside the mind of the Middle Ages. The major difference it seems, and a person well-schooled in philosophy, which is certainly not me, could describe it more accurately, is one of compartmentalisation. A long and ugly word and one which in itself seems suggestive of the modern mind. In short we are today pretty certain what is inside us and what is outside us. Anybody claiming otherwise is likely to be dismissed as a suspect crackpot. I am not talking here of eastern mysticism. I have no intention of getting all George Harrison on you. Life flows on within you and without you. I’m sure it does but I guess what I’m getting at is the uncertainty.
To take the Anglo-Saxons as an example it is reasonable to assume that in common with all ‘unenlightened’ peoples they would have been far less ready to separate the physical from the metaphorical. Darkness, the absence of the electromagnetic radiation known beautifully in English as ‘light’, is a physical reality that lends itself well to metaphorical modes of thinking. And we all know what these metaphors are because they are used all the time. ‘There is something of the night about him’ is a favourite. Anekin Skywalker turns to the ‘dark side’. I shall call these metaphors ‘commonplace’ rather than cliches. These commonplace metaphors still have plenty of legs if they are used in the right way, which is of course the key to all effective writing. More than this such metaphors have weight. Like autumn and the Fall. Those who eschew them simply because they are well-worn risk swapping the familiar for the instantly forgettable. But I have strayed …
To be ‘benighted’ is to be in ignorance or under the spell of an unshakable demon. The author of ‘John’, one of the greatest creative writers of the last 2000 years, was well aware of the power of this metaphor. The motif runs right through his gospel. Nicodemus comes to Jesus ‘in darkness’ and is ‘enlightened’ although probably not in the way most people in the West would think of it today, and during the Last Supper, we are told that Satan entered the heart of Judas Iscariot. The author of ‘John’ caps the exit of Judas from the room where Jesus is sitting with his disciples with a single pithy sentence: ‘And it was night.’
An Anglo-Saxon woman sits at her needle on a chill winter afternoon. She gets up and closes the shutter against the dark. Still it seems to creep into every corner of the house and overcome the light, except near to the flickering resistance of her candle. She pulls her cloak around her shoulders and sits closer to the candle but cannot escape the feeling of dread which has overtaken her. It sits like a stone in her stomach. She goes over to the door and calls loudly for her son to bring in plenty of wood from the store. Needs be they must kindle a fire.
These feelings are still very much with us of course, although we are liable to dismiss them as an unwelcome relic. After all, there is good reason to stoke a fire against the cold and we all need light to see what we are doing. It is most unlikely any of us would even imagine darkness resolving into a black shape which takes us by the throat. It is more certain still that such an occurrence was not unusual in the Anglo-Saxon winter.
Bede tells the enlightening story of Christianity, in a way I’m sure that would have appealed also to John, healing this fear of cold unknowingness. The famous sparrow flying through the warmly lighted hall. The new faith helpfully explains the origin of that humble bird before it entered the room through a gap in the gable and more importantly what happens to it when it leaves the hall of this world for an, at best, dimly lit afterlife. Death is no longer dark, it is light. Except that old fears die hard and perhaps with good reason.
There is much difference between winter dark and summer dark. The latter communicates a living presence to us, abundance, and the harmless magic of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, whereas the former speaks either of absence or of evil. For the Germanic tribes of a Northern Europe that is gloomy for long stretches of the year, both cold and dark were the most dangerous of adversaries. At least even to me this is apparent and it might be a small glimmer of candle with which to catch a glimpse of dark age thinking. Occasionally, walking across a deserted countryside, still far from home as the light begins to dwindle, I have momentarily experienced a feeling which seems very old, and then, like the low winter sun, it is gone. Let’s hurry back and put up those Christmas lights.