A Jigsaw: Libraries, Archives, and Wolf-Haunted Hills

I sat in the Mississippi Archives this week.  I felt completely lost.  Several hours were spent hoping that being with some close proximity to vast amounts of information would result in some mystical, osmotic appropriation of those elusive tidbits of knowledge that I desperately require.  Hours went by, and I found a few crumbs.  Certainly they reassure me that there is a feast somewhere, but I have yet to find it.  I think the amusing and irrelevant information that I gleaned made it all worthwhile, but it helped only a small amount in my journey of surviving this Bibliography and Research class.  It is an infuriating, terrifying, and spectacular journey.

While I sat in that spacious room, enjoying the atmosphere of elusive knowledge and the imagined smell of dusty tomes, inchoate thoughts slipped through my concentration and took flight.  I refused to acknowledge it at the time; now, however, safely beyond those walls, I will let my mostly-forgotten memories tease me with hints of might-have-been grandeur.  This research I am pursuing is nothing new to me.  In fact, I believe I have been doing this all my life.  My formative years have been spent scouring every bit of knowledge I could find, searching for some nebulous iota that would lead me on to another iota, and another iota, until I finally stumbled across some effulgent pearl that would make sense of all my foolish questions and incoherent answers.  I looked everywhere, hopelessly hoping that something would be relevant.  Somewhere within my piles of dictionaries, encyclopedias, books by Barrie, Hugo, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Milton, Twain, Wodehouse, and every other writer my paper-cut fingers could touch—from the grand and genius to the most obscure novelist I could find, even delving into the most forgotten corners of the Tyler Public Library’s fantasy and science fiction section—there had to be vital minutiae of Truth.

I was charmingly naïve in my understanding of my own pursuits.  I never thought I found much of anything.  There were quotable little axioms that illuminated my development and steered me in some direction or another, but I was never struck with any epiphany.  Only of late have I begun to realize what I had was exactly what I had been looking for.  These authors and so many more were tiny and unbelievably important moments in a story that followed my clumsy, knock-kneed stumbling towards maturity.

However, at the same time there are two images whispering from some crevice of my mind in an odd contrast with the previous few comments.  The first image is of a man named Silas Marner, the second is of a boy named Eustace.  It would be pernicious to these two to reduce them to specious extensions of myself, so I will attempt not to do so by saying that they exemplify a part of me, or anything of that sort.  They are so formed (varying in degree depending on the skill of the author) that they are far more than merely a personified flaw.  No, I believe that we three share something however, and in seeing them, I see myself all the better.  The first, Silas Marner, is from the George Eliot novel of that same name which I began reading over the break (and, unfortunately, have yet to finish; however, I don’t think anything I intend to say shortly will be too wounded for my failure).  To grossly generalize: Silas Marner is a miserly old fool.  He is a wounded, disillusioned man who has little in his life but constant weaving and counting his otiose coins.  It is a simple stereotype, but it is taken by Eliot and portrayed with such dignity and respect for Marner, such tender love and forgiveness, such understanding and care, that it is startling.  The second image is of Eustace from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, after they have come to (if I remember correctly) the second island where Eustace stumbles upon the dragon’s cave.  It is not so much the adventure of Eustace’s greed leading to his transformation into a dragon that piques my interest at the moment; instead, it is the other dragon who crawls away from his hoard to die that strikes me presently.

These two images are merely floating there, hinting at something.  I have spent my life collecting things: I have a few hundred books to my name, countless stories in my head that I do not own, countless stories  I have created, countless experiences I have lived, and so forth.  And, yet, it strikes me that I am merely collecting them.  They have pushed me forward into a different person, certainly, but that happened along the way.  In hindsight, these jewels of experience in this world are merely ornamental to me much of the time.  I sit on my collection, squirming this way and that atop it to find the most comfortable spot, and, perhaps, occasionally pull out one of the prettier pieces to polish and admire, perhaps show a friend to incite their jealousy.  But I am a miser, a collector.  There is a story-teller far greater than me, and I am his character (and somewhere in the distance, a Hubelaic voice says, “Yes, you are quite a character”).  I must hold onto the knowledge that these things are not happenstance, they are not merely chance memories that can cheer me in the future’s darker days.  I have a sense that they must have some meaning, that they must be more than simply steps along my way, and I am desperate to discover what this meaning is.  I have been collecting for so very long, and it has yet to bear any fruit (at least any fruit that satisfies my perhaps foolhardy and mistaken expectations).

This last puzzle piece is far distant compared the those preceding, but I will let it rest here regardless.  I am reading Beowulf.  It has been a magnificent struggle attempting to fit myself into this world.  It is a dark world.  It is a world at the edge of Faery, bordered by misty mountains inhabited by dragons, traversed by giants and dwarves, spangled with Fairy Queens and witches and wights.  It is a world of inescapable and impenetrable darkness.  We see that “darkening night deepened over all, / and black, shadowy shapes swept forward / under clouds.”  Beowulf, as he seeks out the cave of Grendel’s mother, finds that Grendel lives “in land unknown, / on wolf-haunted hills, windy headlands, / perilous fen-paths where the mountain stream / plunges down into the headlands’ mists, / flows beneath the earth.”  It seemed at such odds with my metropolitan world of streetlights and orange Jackson skies.  It took some time and too many nightmares to realize that this dichotomy did not exist at all.  I realized that this world of “wolf-haunted hills” was the self-same world I grew up in.  That same shiver in my spine as Grendel draws ever closer to the somnolent Beowulf in Heorot is that which I felt as I wandered in the night along a piney wood near my church, imagining and feeling the wild beasts just beyond the impenetrable shadows and intertwined fingers of the trees.  It was the same terror of being lost in a twilit fog when only a small boy.  In all of these were the utter surrender to fear, and complete refusal to simply flee; the overwhelming pressure of helplessness and the resurgent palpitations of my heart that infused me with foolish bravado stubbornly opposed to escape.  These are the fears that the iron gates and pale, septic streetlights attempt to fend off.

There is a line running from each of these pieces to the next—from research to Beowulf, and beyond: to a piece (fully painted and complete its own right, but merely a piece) with my dad, hurting me for something my brother had done; to a piece with questions and doubts of God; to a piece with myself, lying in my little cave as a child, an unhappy knife in my hands, and an uncontrollable fear in my heart.  I suspect I have already spewed forth enough incoherence for one evening.  There are stories to be read and to be written.  I should move on, and leave this for you few readers.

An addendum:  I just stumbled across this passage from Beowulf:

“Then under his guard his heart is hit

with sharp-filled arrows he cannot fend,

with the devil’s dark crooked promptings;

what he’s held long seems all too little:

greedy he hoards, without honor gives

no golden rings, forgets and neglects

what is to come…. (Greenfield 1745-51).

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  1. #1 by Cosmo el Franco on January 21, 2011 - 12:09 pm

    Bastian Balthazar Bux has come to mind. Have you read /The Neverending Story/?

    • #2 by Angmód on January 21, 2011 - 6:26 pm

      I have not, though it is one of the longest-standing members of the Books I Ought to Read Club.

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