I often read aloud to my children and recently, coming to the end of Dodie Smith’s wonderful novel I Capture the Castle, we paused at these words: ‘… there’s so much that can’t be said plainly. Try describing what beauty is—plainly—and you’ll see what I mean.’ Then he said that art could state very little—that its whole business was to evoke responses.
And I thought: Holy cow, that’s about as true a thing as I’ve ever heard.
I have my own experience of the truth of this. For as long as I can remember I’ve noticed that, when I go back to re-read lines and phrases that once set my heart and mind alight, the magic is often gone. The words on the page are just ink on paper; the alchemy with my brain was a one-time deal. The juice of the words has taken on new life inside my head; the words themselves are husks.
In my novel The Walker’s Daughter I call this phenomenon the flash. It’s the magic that happens when writing provokes a response in the reader’s head.
But—and this is the good bit—once the flash has occurred, it’s a part of you forever. It’s there in your mind, part of who and what you are forever.
I believe we are more prone to the flash when we’re children and our minds are more elastic. That’s why children must read. I love television and visual storytelling as much as the next person, but film doesn’t require your mind to meet it halfway. It places the image in your head, so you don’t need to create it for yourself. It doesn’t prompt your mind to respond, merely to react; not the same thing at all.
Then again, even the printed word has had its critics, for trying to pin down on paper what can only exist in the mind (or the human spirit). There is a famous story about Sir Walter Scott and Margaret Hogg (mother of James, the Ettrick Shepherd). Scott collected and published a selection of ballads, many of which Mrs Hogg had learned as a child and sung all her life. Mrs Hogg was not amused at Scott’s efforts: ‘[There] war never ane o’ my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel’, an’ ye have spoilt them awthegither. They were made for singin’ an’ no for readin’; but ye hae broken the charm noo, an’ they’ll never be sung mair.’
You have broken the charm by making impersonal what was personal; dead paper instead of warm breath. By pinning the living butterfly onto the page, Scott had killed it. Margaret Hogg trusted in the mouth-to-mind transmission of beauty and truth. A new age came to trust in transmission by the printed word; an even newer age is increasingly trusting in flickering images on a screen.
What I like so much about Margaret Hogg’s reaction is her clear belief that language shapes thought—specifically, that the printed word confines thought. In a sense, she was right. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was put together by F. J. Child more than fifty years after Scott. Child’s collection contains several versions of each ballad to take into account the way in which words and stories had morphed over time and geographical location, taken on new detail and colour according to the singer and local inclinations. Once the words were printed, that kind of morphing wasn’t possible—the stories were no longer ‘living’, but fixed, definitive, even in their multi-versions.
But Margaret Hogg was wrong, too—because of the flash. The receiving mind responds to words whether they are spoken or written. Because words, like any kind of art form, convey ideas. They aren’t the ideas themselves.
In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker tells us that, contrary to popular belief, science is currently proving that language doesn’t shape our thoughts at all.
Pinker writes: ‘People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking … we have to use, what else, words! It is no wonder that many commentators have trouble even conceiving of thought without words.’
He tells us that what we think in is ‘mentalese’, independent of language (and therefore nationality, race, gender, etc), and has more to do with images than words. (He also tells us that language is an instinct, not a man-made construct, with a universal structure; fascinating, although I don’t pretend to understand much of the detail.) He quotes Einstein: ‘The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. … This combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.’
The writer’s job is to translate the mentalese in his head—an image, a concept, an idea, a theme—into words that will communicate it from his mind to someone else’s. In short, his job is to evoke a response. That response—the flash—might be evoked by what is directly expressed, or by what is left out. It ban be hinted at, alluded to, implied by association—so many ways to get inside someone else’s head!
If you’re still with me in this rather loose chain of thought, you deserve a story, so here’s the storyline from my favourite (version of) one of the Child ballads (Child 226).
The beautiful Lizzie Lindsay has her choice of suitors, but she falls for a raggle taggle shepherd by the name of MacDonald. On the eve of her marriage to a rich lord, she runs away with MacDonald, leaving behind her fine gowns and soft bed and the life of luxury that is all she’s ever known.
She follows MacDonald the length of England, on foot. Her feet are bleeding, her gown is torn, her hair is wild. By the time she reaches the highlands of Scotland, she can hardly stand. But she follows him still. He leads her to the top of a high peak, and finally he stops.
‘Look around you,’ he says. She looks around. It’s beautiful: lowlands and highlands and islands, glens and rivers and lush farmland. ‘For as far as you can see in every direction, the land is mine. I’m Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, and now you’re my queen.’
She gave up everything for love and love repaid her a thousandfold. Tell me that’s not the best story ever.
I haven’t read the words of this ballad for years (I don’t know the tune to sing it), but I think of it often. It’s simple and heart-stoppingly romantic. However, I’ve just looked it up in my ballad book, and guess what? I’ve got the essential story spot on, but I’ve coloured the details in my own image.
In the version I first read more than thirty years ago, Lizzie is from Edinburgh; England doesn’t come into it. But I’m in England, so I brought Lizzie here with me. The ballad doesn’t mention suitors, or a marriage, so I’ve added the kind of drama I probably learned from TV serials. It does mention Lizzie’s father, a knight, who threatens to kill the shepherd if he ‘steals’ his daughter. I obviously didn’t like that threat to my hero. And I’ve also left out the framing device of the original which is that MacDonald’s mother sends him to woo a worthwhile bride, and tells him how to do it: trick her. I’m a woman, so I’ve taken on Lizzie Lindsay’s perspective. In my version, she’s not the dupe, she’s the heroine, the plot-driver.
But the spirit of the piece, the heart, the faith, the romance! All faithfully reproduced. The ballad of Lizzie Lindsay and her Donald MacDonald has morphed into the twenty-first century—it lives! Margaret Hogg would be thrilled.
I think I prefer my own version. I shall have to learn the tune and sing it; maybe a hundred years from now someone will add it to an updated edition of Child, alongside the original(s). I’ll keep the last two verses as they are recorded in Child 226b:
He led her up to a high mountain
And bade her look out far and wide
I’m Lord o’ thae Isles and thae mountains,
And ye’re now my beautiful bride.
Sae rue na ye’ve come to the Hielands,
Sae rue na ye’ve come aff wi’ me;
For ye’re great Macdonald’s braw lady,
And will be to the day that ye dee.