Man and Beast

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading and writing about various bloggers’ formative reading experiences through #blogsync, or maybe it’s because I saw two ducks on a reservoir, but my head has been going back years to recall one of my early reading experiences and muse upon it.

Once upon a time I was reading in class. I was about 12. Everybody was reading, which makes me think our usual teacher was away. I only read part of the book so it was not the book I had ‘on the go’, which was probably something by Daphne Du Maurier. I’m fairly sure the book was ‘The Sword in the Stone’ by T. H. White – not something I would have chosen. But the passage I read had such a big impact that I still recall it today.


If I remember correctly, the story in that passage goes something like this:

The embryos of all the species approached the throne of God in turn. God asked each what special gift it would like from him, who could grant anything asked, and each species asked for a useful extra such as broad wings, strong legs or an elegant trunk. God granted the requests and the animal kingdom came into being.

Eventually the puny human embryo came forward. Surely such a weak and unprepossessing species could do with some enhancing features. But the human embryo said to God, “Lord, you have created me as I am, and nothing can improve upon the work of your hand. I wish, poor as I am, to remain as you have created me”. God was well-impressed with this statement, “You are right, my child, and in your righteousness I am going to give you dominion over all the beasts”. And so man was given the earth as his inheritance.

Why has this story stayed with me?

Partly because of the bizarre visual picture the queue of embryos conjured. For instance the embryos would surely have to float towards God, not having serviceable limbs. In my imagination they looked like jelly blobs with primitive body parts, and their ability to form an orderly queue was surprising, while their ability to talk …. Did they chat to each other while waiting, like sociable pensioners at a bus stop, meanwhile floating slightly above the ground, their delicacy protected? Or did they stand in silent awe, quivering in the divine presence?

Then, there seemed to be some truth to the allegory. After all, place a chubby member of humankind, of the everyday sort, next to any of a selection of fine feathered or furred animals with their gloriously adapted physiques and physical talents. What alien approaching would believe that it was man that had conquered the earth? You only have to look at the hair on the man (or woman). Why does it grow in silly patches, leaving other areas embarrassingly naked? It appealed to me that such a poor specimen should be the chosen one of the god of mercy and compassion, and that the apparent last should turn out to be the first. In the frame of the story man was humble and accepted his frailty, and this humility was more valuable than all the fine gifts that God had given the other creatures. My hopeful 12 year old self loved this idea and stored it away.

Mind you there is another way of looking at it. Man was cunning and knew how to stroke good old God’s ego. Given dominion over the earth he used his sly intelligence without scruple and ended up damaging it and all the other species over which he was given stewardship – pride, not humility.

Of course it’s a myth, and what’s more, written deliberately as a myth, so a myth at one self-conscious remove if you like. But myths do have a truth. They are expressions of creative discovery; different from scientific discovery. This myth makes me think of man’s frailty. I think of the utter dependence of babies and the physical weakness of the old. Perhaps, under the terms of the myth, this lack of physical resilience prompted humankind to develop various compensatory skills, the big one being language. Being all-knowing God knew that humankind would have to be clever to survive whereas other species could simply be, and this cleverness would enable man to do great things.

Then, a few days ago, I was walking with a friend near a local reservoir in the sunshine and we stopped to watch two great crested grebe. We decided that one was adult and the other adolescent, smaller but not with that endearing fuzz of the very young. The adolescent was following mum or dad at a distance, in a desultory way, occasionally stopping to gaze into the middle distance or groom himself, beak under wing. The parent was hard at work, every so often diving under the surface and swimming underwater to emerge suddenly further away. Youngster, unimpressed, followed on without apparent interest, clearly knowing but pretending not to care where the tiresome bobbing up was going to occur. Probably totally mistaken, we decided an underwater swimming or fishing lesson was in progress, with youngster failing to grasp the nettle. That’s what it looked like, although any grebe experts out there are welcome to correct us.

Oh grebe embryo, you should have asked God for the gift of language so you could communicate clearly with any recalcitrant offspring. Teaching by showing sometimes lacks efficiency. Still, you have that pretty crest to show off. And a broad back to carry those delightful grebelets. And you can sail out over the glittering water, with the reeds whispering and the fish beneath, while we stand on the bank and natter on about building a raft.

More about grebes: (you can see the young riding on the adult’s back)

My latest review on Goodreads
Ancient LightAncient Light by John Banville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You might be sitting over a meal with Alexander Cleave, or, as he does at a point in the book, sitting in a darkened hotel bar in the middle of the night listening. He’s telling his life story. He’s telling it with wonderful panache. Every paragraph holds a gem of poetry. He is a raconteur, as befits an ageing Irish actor. He’s a bit of a tease, too. Was it spring? Did I see her on a bicycle first? He is the ultimate unreliable narrator. And what is more, even his unreliability is unreliable as we learn the ‘facts’ of the matter, if there are ‘facts’ to be learned. Which is more or less the essence of the novel. It’s about memory and it’s about how we form memories around ourselves, our judgements, our experiences. The links we might see in events, and there are many links between Alexander’s early life and his present, are not external but formed from our own narratives about ourselves. If this applies to all lives can there ever be an objective truth about what happened, and whether it happened when the leaves were falling? Alexander is an impractical type, and perhaps prone to embroidery of the truth, and there are more down-to-earth cast members in this novel, yet whether even they speak the truth can also be called into question.

Alexander recalls his affair with his best friend’s mother at a time in his life when he was on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. Of course he was mightily self-absorbed. If he was going to lack the objective view at any time it would be when fifteen, and in love. The affair is never prurient; it is described with humour and warmth. The fabric of experience is described vividly – what it seemed to be like. The prose is wonderful. Without burdening the reader with description, scenes open out through telling detail, even the walls have ears; the surroundings and random objects have meanings and, sometimes, malevolence. And present events, which don’t come to much, and which I won’t spoil, shadow the recent and far past in his life.

As I say it doesn’t come to much. There isn’t any clear resolution to the novel, although some facts become known, and spark the supply of certain other facts from Alex. This isn’t a novel for those who like their endings neat. Or their beginnings. But it is a fine story from a fine storyteller.

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