Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Salon: A Little Eclectisim

It's been a good reading week. I've read a couple of light books (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday and Things my Girlfriend and I have Argued About by Mil Millington (though not finished this yet - though I am hugely enjoying it) which were funny in different ways.

Then I went on to the large-with-really-small-print Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories and sampled a few of those - another interesting exercise. I was interested in reading these because I wanted to find out how a typical ghost story is structured. Of course, many are completely different from each other, but I would say around the turn of the 19th and 20th century they did tend to follow a pattern. An event in the 'present' (often the presentation of an object like a mummified monkey's paw or a cigarette case) initiated a tale of something strange that happened in the past. There would then be a huge build up during which the atmosphere would become more and more disturbing, a sinister thing would happen and then there would be a swift resolution. The build-up would sometimes be very long, but the sinister happening is usually over quickly and the resolution follows immediately.

The stories in this book are arranged chronologically, and I think I will return to it later to read another few earlier and later batches. It would be interesting to see if the style evolves. I think it probably does.

And now I am reading another large book which I think probably doesn't fit into the usual reading for pleasure category: Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher I Beckwith. Although it is for the general reader, and is, I am glad to see, jargon-free, it is a fairly demanding read. Its subtitle is 'A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present'.

It is very well written, easy to understand, but the only difficulty is that it is about an area of the world that is still unfamiliar to me. Even though I have now read three different books on the Silk Road and have assiduously followed the narrative on maps, I am still finding it difficult to retain a mental picture of this area as I read. There are so many different peoples with strange names, and these names change according to the focus of the story. Invasions seem frequent, and in consequence the political map of the area seemed to change frequently too. Despite this, the information presented here fascinates me:

1. All proto-IndoEuropean people share the same 'first story' :and it went like this

Maiden impregnated with heavenly spirit or god.
Rightful king disposed unjustly.
Maiden gives best to a marvelous baby boy.
Unjust king orders baby destroyed.
Wild beast nurture boy so he survives.
Boy found in wilderness and saved.
Boy grows up to be skilled horseman and archer.
Boy is brought to court and put in subservient position.
He becomes in danger of being put to death but escapes.
He acquires a following of oath-sworn warriors (the 'comitatus').
He overthrows tyrant and establishes order and justice.
He founds a new city or dynasty.

Now I found this very interesting, because it has long fascinated me that so many myths and legends among different peoples are the same. Many, for instance, have a story about a great flood. I have heard this explained as some sort of collective memory about the end of the ice age and the sea-levels rising.

There are elements of this first story in the stories of non-IndoEuropean cultures too. For example the early hero of Tehuelche culture is nurtured by a field-mouse and a swan, and is the result of an earthly and spiritual union. Is this due to sharing the same 'first story' before their ancestors began the migration over the Bering Strait, or is it something hard-wired into our heads - a story that automatically occurs to all people? Or maybe it has been re-interpreted by Westerners before being recorded. Or maybe it is just one big coincidence.

2. The 'comitatus' is known throughout the Eurasian land mass from the Vikings in Scandinavia to early dynastic Japanese (but not in classical Greece or China).

This band of brothers would swear allegiance to their leader, often by making blood oaths. They would then become closer than family, sacrificing their lives for their leader, not only on battlefield but when the leader died. They would commit suicide to enter paradise alongside him and their tombs (often a large earthen tumulus) would be lined with the splendours of their courtly lives: great silken brocades interwoven with gold and embroidered with gems, and each corpse 'armed to the teeth' ready to defend their leader again in the after-world. Maybe urban gangs and terrorist groups are the comitatus of today.


Blogger Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Intriguing "first story"...and I like the look of Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About."

A bit of eclecticism can carry one through a reading slump, I've discovered.


Sun Jun 26, 03:50:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, I expect it can, Laurel-Rain (not that I've been suffering from such a thing, I have to say!).

Sun Jun 26, 03:53:00 pm  
Anonymous Mary said...

Hi, Clare - The word comitatus is familiar to me through a group in America called the Posse Comitatus. I remember my dad mentioning the group when I was young. It sounds like it could be a rather dangerous group from the Wikipedia entry.

Sun Jun 26, 11:06:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Mary - see what you mean!

I'd never heard of this group - I wonder where their name comes from...

Sun Jun 26, 11:29:00 pm  

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