Novels of Neil Gunn – Pt. 4

The Wisdom of Boyhood

Young Art & Old Hector

Neil Gunn classified three of his novels as ”wisdom of boyhood”. Two of them, Morning Tide and Highland River, are closely related but the third, Young Art & Old Hector is very different as it is not a direct account of Gunn’s own childhood. It might, though, be his most child-centric book.  It consistently sees the world through the eyes of an eight year old boy and has the feel of a series of bedtime stories rather than a long, integrated  adult novel. Indeed it  taps into something more ancient than the literature – storytelling. – the way ancient cultures passed on knowledge. The book has seventeen distinct stories, recounted chronologically to give some semblance of narrative momentum  but instead of being  like a novel where everything is organised in getting  from point A to point B, the book is more like a group of stones placed in a circle. On the first page Art is desperate to follow his brother to the river to catch a salmon. Throughout the book he makes other attempts to get there but never succeeds and this is all the thread you need to keep things together. At the very end we are left with the promise that Hector will take him, some time soon. But not only that Hector will also promise to pass on his special knowledge of the names of places: “And when I have the names of all the places that no-one else knows, then, when you are gone, I’ll be the only one who’ll have the names, the only one in the world. So wisdom will be passed from one generation to another. It is the cycle of life and because it happens in a remote Highland community it feels timeless.  And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started”  as  T S Eliot put it. 

The heart of the book is the relationship between Young Art, seeing the world afresh, exploring, always learning, and always wanting to push beyond his years and do what his older brothers can do and Old Hector, the wise elder, approaching eighty and no longer able to contribute fully to the physical work of the community.  They are not relatives but neighbours who have a special bond.  Hector has the time and patience to treat Art as someone deserving  respect and  worth listening to. Gradually and gently he draws him out and makes the child receptive to his wisdom. One of the criticism of the book has been that this relationship seems hopelessly idealistic (hence sentimental) but Neil Gunn always claimed it was realistic and something he had seen when he was growing up, whne the young and the old were thrown together because they were not capable of doing a full days work in the fields. It is entirely possible, though, that then old men of his village were not quite as wise and benign as Hector.

The first story, the one that sets the tone for the whole piece, is about the gaining of wisdom. Art wants to rush off to the river to join his brother poaching salmon, but he is interrupted by Hector who delays him (he is too young to be going poaching) by captivating his attention with a story about Finn MacCoul being the greatest of all leaders and how he gained his wisdom. The timelessness of the style of storytelling can be shown by quoting the beginning:

“… there lived an old man who had the Druid’s knowledge. In truth he was a Druid himself but though he had the knowledge he hadn’t the great wisdom, which is the wisdom of all the ages The only thing in the wide world at that time which had that great wisdom was a salmon that lived in a pool in a river. There were some hazel trees that grew over this pool, and on the hazel trees there grew nuts and these nuts were the Nuts of Knowledge. As seasons came and seasons went, time out of mind, the nuts would be falling quietly into the pool where the salmon lay. Well did the Druid know this, and he knew, moreover, that if he could catch that salmon and eat him, then he would have himself the great wisdom of the salmon.”

This reads as if it might be a book for children as well as being a book about a child. It is an artful recreation of the rhythms of an oral tradition that also includes a sense of wonder, a belief in the supernatural, and an animism – all accepted without comment. At the same time the book as a whole is firmly rooted in the reality of a small Highland community, sometime in the nineteenth century (the dates are never explicitly stated). It is not the fishing community of Morning Tide or Highland River. It is inland and an agricultural, although the father does go away fishing, in the season, to sustain the family throughout the year. There is also a little bit of distancing between the central character and Gunn himself, Apparently Art was modelled on a nephew.  But there is a river – of course there is a river, with salmon, but in this case just a little more distant. With Gunn there is always a river, salmon and hazel nuts. In his earlier books the boy has the run of the river but here it is something not quite obtainable, out of reach, something that for Art is almost mythical.  It is on the edge of the tight geographical bounds of the young boys life. Indeed the community itself is cut off from the outside world, although it gets some news. It is a very closed world but nevertheless the roots of the culture and the way of life run deep. There is a richness of knowledge but it is not quite of the modern world.

“There were two worlds for Art: his own and the one beyond. He lived in his own world, as inside a circle, and here things happened but never changed. The crops moved about on the fields, as he did himself, but the fields remained where they were … whatever happened, the earth remained in its abiding outlines…Beyond its known rim there was however the other world, the world outside. Folk talked sometimes in solemn voices of great changes taking place in it, and now and then they would shake their heads in wonder.” p218

The unchangingness of the life might be a contrast to the lives of us, the readers, but it reaches back to remind us how we saw the world when we were little.  Many childhoods have a stability and a sense of the continuous present. Reminding us of this can easily slip into that nostalgia, and there is many an unkind critic willing to accuse the author of just that,  but there is real comfort to be had in the rediscovery of that outlook and things to be learnt from it as well. There is also the remembering of what it was, when you were young, to be read stories where the lines of the characters were clear and you knew if someone was good and wise they would remain that way, no matter how they were tested.

Writing a good character, such as Hector,  is a great challenge as they can appear flat and unbelievable. Everybody has conflicts and contradictions as life is messy and full of compromises. Most fiction concentrates these difficulties and their consequences – weakness, peril and some partial sort of resolution. But Neil Gunn believed something different: that there were good people and they were just as much part of life and so needed to be given expression. With Hector, and the fable-like texture of the book, it is important that he is both good and wise. He is a channel for the old knowledge and a representative of an old way of life and someone whose wisdom was hard gained from experience and hardship.  But he cannot be too sententious or overly sentimental and so Gunn undercuts things with a gentle humour. It makes it the most amiable of this books.

Earlier I mentioned T S Eliot in passing but when I thought of the line about arriving back where we started but I had no idea at the time that Little Gidding and Young Art & Old Hector both come from 1942.  War was raging and everything was in danger. and there was no certainty, yet here we are reading about timeless life. Context is everything. Eliot references the war obliquely in the last three lines of his poem but there is a great sense of the continuity of things. With Young Art and Old Hector there is no hint of the deadly conflict, though there is acknowledgement of past violence done to the people by the evictions and the poverty. But its heart is about continuity. When the world outside is being upended and then broken it can be reassuring to read of what was and what still is and what will be. It is also a good excuse to reproduce Eliot’s famous lines. 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one
.

(The end of Little Gidding, from the Four Quartets) 

 P.S. The painting The Highland Ferryman is by William Dyce (1806-1864). In many ways it is all wrong as Hector was older and there was no ferry. Nevertheless I can imagine this as Hector taking his ease waiting to talk to Art.