The Kith of the Elf-Folk – Unberufen?

by John Holbo on August 6, 2016

As I believe I have mentioned, I’m teaching Kierkegaard. K is an excellently – some say inordinately – literary-aesthetical sort of fellow, so we want to welcome that quality, when we invite him to come give a talk to our class. But there comes a stage in man’s life when he wearies of undergraduates writing yet another paper about Fight Club and/or The Matrix, or even “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoyevsky. More broadly, there is an academic convention – who knows when it got started? – of nudging the young into equating a work of philosophy to a work of literature/art, i.e. pretending the latter is likely to be, let alone was intended to be, a vehicle for the expression of the former. And so it turns out Hamlet was Shakespeare’s ham-handed attempt to write an essay on Freud, or what have you. These attempted equations invite minor (or major) fraud. (Not that I think this is a major social problem. Mostly it’s just silly and strained.) And for what? You can fit things to things without exaggerating the degree of fit. (Kierkegaard was a weirdo. What are the odds any literary figure, who wasn’t K, ever produced a Kierkegaardian work of literary fiction? Hell, even K had to pretend he wasn’t himself, half the time, to keep from falling into error about his author’s meaning.)

I’m thinking of assigning a few short works that are, to my eye, not Kierkegaardian. But one can make connections, draw lines. For example, Lord Dunsany’s “The Kith of the Elf-Folk”. Here we have spheres of existence, I guess you could say: aesthetic, religious – ethical? (Now we are pushing it.) And there is a nice question, twinkling in the author’s eye: which is higher? How could one be in a position to say? And there is an implied indictment of modern society (who could wish for less?) And there is a lyrical seriousness, yet ironic playfulness. So the question I’m going to ask the kids is: suppose you had to rewrite “The Kith of the Elf-Folk” to be a parable of Kierkegaard’s stages – which it plainly is not. What changes would you have to make? Defend your adaptive edits!

Or maybe that’s a really, really bad question that will produce bad results in my classroom.

But my question for you is a bit different. How great is this story? Pretty great, right?

And one more question (no plotspoilers!): Lady Birmingham says ‘Unberufen’, which, my German dictionary tells me, is like ‘touch wood’. By contrast, ‘berufen’ means ‘to call or summon’. Something God might do to you. So what’s the connection, German speakers? How exact is the ‘Unberufen!’ = ‘touch wood!’ equation? Lady Birmingham is obviously wishing for luck. ‘Touch wood!’ is wishing for luck, but it’s more warding bad luck. And it’s about fairies. Is ‘Unberufen!’ like that? Are you wishing not to be called? Because facing God is hectic (to say nothing of fear and trembling)? If so, who – or what – are you wishing not to be called by? God? The devil? Some neither-so-heavenly-nor-hellish supernatural agency?

Without further ado, from Dunsany’s The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories:

The Kith of the Elf Folk

Chapter I

The north wind was blowing, and red and golden the last days of Autumn were streaming hence. Solemn and cold over the marshes arose the evening.

It became very still.

Then the last pigeon went home to the trees on the dry land in the distance, whose shapes already had taken upon themselves a mystery in the haze.

Then all was still again.

As the light faded and the haze deepened, mystery crept nearer from every side.

Then the green plover came in crying, and all alighted.

And again it became still, save when one of the plover arose and flew a little way uttering the cry of the waste. And hushed and silent became the earth, expecting the first star. Then the duck came in, and the widgeon, company by company: and all the light of day faded out of the sky saving one red band of light. Across the light appeared, black and huge, the wings of a flock of geese beating up wind to the marshes. These, too, went down among the rushes.

Then the stars appeared and shone in the stillness, and there was silence in the great spaces of the night.

Suddenly the bells of the cathedral in the marshes broke out, calling to evensong.

Eight centuries ago on the edge of the marsh men had built the huge cathedral, or it may have been seven centuries ago, or perhaps nine—it was all one to the Wild Things.

So evensong was held, and candles lighted, and the lights through the windows shone red and green in the water, and the sound of the organ went roaring over the marshes. But from the deep and perilous places, edged with bright mosses, the Wild Things came leaping up to dance on the reflection of the stars, and over their heads as they danced the marsh-lights rose and fell.

The Wild Things are somewhat human in appearance, only all brown of skin and barely two feet high. Their ears are pointed like the squirrel’s, only far larger, and they leap to prodigious heights. They live all day under deep pools in the loneliest marshes, but at night they come up and dance. Each Wild Thing has over its head a marsh-light, which moves as the Wild Thing moves; they have no souls, and cannot die, and are of the kith of the Elf-folk.

All night they dance over the marshes, treading upon the reflection of the stars (for the bare surface of the water will not hold them by itself); but when the stars begin to pale, they sink down one by one into the pools of their home. Or if they tarry longer, sitting upon the rushes, their bodies fade from view as the marsh-fires pale in the light, and by daylight none may see the Wild Things of the kith of the Elf-folk. Neither may any see them even at night unless they were born, as I was, in the hour of dusk, just at the moment when the first star appears.

Now, on the night that I tell of, a little Wild Thing had gone drifting over the waste, till it came right up to the walls of the cathedral and danced upon the images of the coloured saints as they lay in the water among the reflection of the stars. And as it leaped in its fantastic dance, it saw through the painted windows to where the people prayed, and heard the organ roaring over the marshes. The sound of the organ roared over the marshes, but the song and prayers of the people streamed up from the cathedral’s highest tower like thin gold chains, and reached to Paradise, and up and down them went the angels from Paradise to the people, and from the people to Paradise again.

Then something akin to discontent troubled the Wild Thing for the first time since the making of the marshes; and the soft grey ooze and the chill of the deep water seemed to be not enough, nor the first arrival from northwards of the tumultuous geese, nor the wild rejoicing of the wings of the wildfowl when every feather sings, nor the wonder of the calm ice that comes when the snipe depart and beards the rushes with frost and clothes the hushed waste with a mysterious haze where the sun goes red and low, nor even the dance of the Wild Things in the marvellous night; and the little Wild Thing longed to have a soul, and to go and worship God.

And when evensong was over and the lights were out, it went back crying to its kith.

But on the next night, as soon as the images of the stars appeared in the water, it went leaping away from star to star to the farthest edge of the marshlands, where a great wood grew where dwelt the Oldest of the Wild Things.

And it found the Oldest of Wild Things sitting under a tree, sheltering itself from the moon.

And the little Wild Thing said: ‘I want to have a soul to worship God, and to know the meaning of music, and to see the inner beauty of the marshlands and to imagine Paradise.’

And the Oldest of the Wild Things said to it: ‘What have we to do with God? We are only Wild Things, and of the kith of the Elf-folk.’

But it only answered, ‘I want to have a soul.’

Then the Oldest of the Wild Things said: ‘I have no soul to give you; but if you got a soul, one day you would have to die, and if you knew the meaning of music you would learn the meaning of sorrow, and it is better to be a Wild Thing and not to die.’

So it went weeping away.

But they that were kin to the Elf-folk were sorry for the little Wild Thing; and though the Wild Things cannot sorrow long, having no souls to sorrow with, yet they felt for awhile a soreness where their souls should be, when they saw the grief of their comrade.

So the kith of the Elf-folk went abroad by night to make a soul for the little Wild Thing. And they went over the marshes till they came to the high fields among the flowers and grasses. And there they gathered a large piece of gossamer that the spider had laid by twilight; and the dew was on it.

Into this dew had shone all the lights of the long banks of the ribbed sky, as all the colours changed in the restful spaces of evening. And over it the marvellous night had gleamed with all its stars.

Then the Wild Things went with their dew-bespangled gossamer down to the edge of their home. And there they gathered a piece of the grey mist that lies by night over the marshlands. And into it they put the melody of the waste that is borne up and down the marshes in the evening on the wings of the golden plover. And they put into it, too, the mournful song that the reeds are compelled to sing before the presence of the arrogant North Wind. Then each of the Wild Things gave some treasured memory of the old marshes, ‘For we can spare it,’ they said. And to all this they added a few images of the stars that they gathered out of the water. Still the soul that the kith of the Elf-folk were making had no life.

Then they put into it the low voices of two lovers that went walking in the night, wandering late alone. And after that they waited for the dawn. And the queenly dawn appeared, and the marsh-lights of the Wild Things paled in the glare, and their bodies faded from view; and still they waited by the marsh’s edge. And to them waiting came over field and marsh, from the ground and out of the sky, the myriad song of the birds.

This, too, the Wild Things put into the piece of haze that they had gathered in the marshlands, and wrapped it all up in their dew-bespangled gossamer. Then the soul lived.

And there it lay in the hands of the Wild Things no larger than a hedgehog; and wonderful lights were in it, green and blue; and they changed ceaselessly, going round and round, and in the grey midst of it was a purple flare.

And the next night they came to the little Wild Thing and showed her the gleaming soul. And they said to her: ‘If you must have a soul and go and worship God, and become a mortal and die, place this to your left breast a little above the heart, and it will enter and you will become a human. But if you take it you can never be rid of it to become immortal again unless you pluck it out and give it to another; and we will not take it, and most of the humans have a soul already. And if you cannot find a human without a soul you will one day die, and your soul cannot go to Paradise, because it was only made in the marshes.’

Far away the little Wild Thing saw the cathedral windows alight for evensong, and the song of the people mounting up to Paradise, and all the angels going up and down. So it bid farewell with tears and thanks to the Wild Things of the kith of Elf-folk, and went leaping away towards the green dry land, holding the soul in its hands.

And the Wild Things were sorry that it had gone, but could not be sorry long, because they had no souls.

At the marsh’s edge the little Wild Thing gazed for some moments over the water to where the marsh-fires were leaping up and down, and then pressed the soul against its left breast a little above the heart.

Instantly it became a young and beautiful woman, who was cold and frightened. She clad herself somehow with bundles of reeds, and went towards the lights of a house that stood close by. And she pushed open the door and entered, and found a farmer and a farmer’s wife sitting over their supper.

And the farmer’s wife took the little Wild Thing with the soul of the marshes up to her room, and clothed her and braided her hair, and brought her down again, and gave her the first food that she had ever eaten. Then the farmer’s wife asked many questions.

‘Where have you come from?’ she said.

‘Over the marshes.’

‘From what direction?’ said the farmer’s wife.

‘South,’ said the little Wild Thing with the new soul.

‘But none can come over the marshes from the south,’ said the farmer’s wife.

‘No, they can’t do that,’ said the farmer.

‘I lived in the marshes.’

‘Who are you?’ asked the farmer’s wife.

‘I am a Wild Thing, and have found a soul in the marshes, and we are kin to the Elf-folk.’

Talking it over afterwards, the farmer and his wife agreed that she must be a gipsy who had been lost, and that she was queer with hunger and exposure.

So that night the little Wild Thing slept in the farmer’s house, but her new soul stayed awake the whole night long dreaming of the beauty of the marshes.

As soon as dawn came over the waste and shone on the farmer’s house, she looked from the window towards the glittering waters, and saw the inner beauty of the marsh. For the Wild Things only love the marsh and know its haunts, but now she perceived the mystery of its distances and the glamour of its perilous pools, with their fair and deadly mosses, and felt the marvel of the North Wind who comes dominant out of unknown icy lands, and the wonder of that ebb and flow of life when the wildfowl whirl in at evening to the marshlands and at dawn pass out to sea. And she knew that over her head above the farmer’s house stretched wide Paradise, where perhaps God was now imagining a sunrise while angels played low on lutes, and the sun came rising up on the world below to gladden fields and marsh.

And all that heaven thought, the marsh thought too; for the blue of the marsh was as the blue of heaven, and the great cloud shapes in heaven became the shapes in the marsh, and through each ran momentary rivers of purple, errant between banks of gold. And the stalwart army of reeds appeared out of the gloom with all their pennons waving as far as the eye could see. And from another window she saw the vast cathedral gathering its ponderous strength together, and lifting it up in towers out of the marshlands.

She said, ‘I will never, never leave the marsh.’

An hour later she dressed with great difficulty and went down to eat the second meal of her life. The farmer and his wife were kindly folk, and taught her how to eat.

‘I suppose the gipsies don’t have knives and forks,’ one said to the other afterwards.

After breakfast the farmer went and saw the Dean, who lived near his cathedral, and presently returned and brought back to the Dean’s house the little Wild Thing with the new soul.

‘This is the lady,’ said the farmer. ‘This is Dean Murnith.’ Then he went away.

‘Ah,’ said the Dean, ‘I understand you were lost the other night in the marshes. It was a terrible night to be lost in the marshes.’

‘I love the marshes,’ said the little Wild Thing with the new soul.

‘Indeed! How old are you?’ said the Dean.

‘I don’t know,’ she answered.

‘You must know about how old you are,’ he said.

‘Oh, about ninety,’ she said, ‘or more.’

‘Ninety years!’ exclaimed the Dean.

‘No, ninety centuries,’ she said; ‘I am as old as the marshes.’

Then she told her story—how she had longed to be a human and go and worship God, and have a soul and see the beauty of the world, and how all the Wild Things had made her a soul of gossamer and mist and music and strange memories.

‘But if this is true,’ said Dean Murnith, ‘this is very wrong. God cannot have intended you to have a soul.

‘What is your name?’

‘I have no name,’ she answered.

‘We must find a Christian name and a surname for you. What would you like to be called?’

‘Song of the Rushes,’ she said.

‘That won’t do at all,’ said the Dean.

‘Then I would like to be called Terrible North Wind, or Star in the Waters,’ she said.

‘No, no, no,’ said Dean Murnith; ‘that is quite impossible. We could call you Miss Rush if you like. How would Mary Rush do? Perhaps you had better have another name—say Mary Jane Rush.’

So the little Wild Thing with the soul of the marshes took the names that were offered her, and became Mary Jane Rush.

‘And we must find something for you to do,’ said Dean Murnith. ‘Meanwhile we can give you a room here.’

‘I don’t want to do anything,’ replied Mary Jane; ‘I want to worship God in the cathedral and live beside the marshes.’

Then Mrs. Murnith came in, and for the rest of that day Mary Jane stayed at the house of the Dean.

And there with her new soul she perceived the beauty of the world; for it came grey and level out of misty distances, and widened into grassy fields and ploughlands right up to the edge of an old gabled town; and solitary in the fields far off an ancient windmill stood, and his honest hand-made sails went round and round in the free East Anglian winds. Close by, the gabled houses leaned out over the streets, planted fair upon sturdy timbers that grew in the olden time, all glorying among themselves upon their beauty. And out of them, buttress by buttress, growing and going upwards, aspiring tower by tower, rose the cathedral.

And she saw the people moving in the streets all leisurely and slow, and unseen among them, whispering to each other, unheard by living men and concerned only with bygone things, drifted the ghosts of very long ago. And wherever the streets ran eastwards, wherever were gaps in the houses, always there broke into view the sight of the great marshes, like to some bar of music weird and strange that haunts a melody, arising again and again, played on the violin by one musician only, who plays no other bar, and he is swart and lank about the hair and bearded about the lips, and his moustache droops long and low, and no one knows the land from which he comes.

All these were good things for a new soul to see.

Then the sun set over green fields and ploughland and the night came up. One by one the merry lights of cheery lamp-lit windows took their stations in the solemn night.

Then the bells rang, far up in a cathedral tower, and their melody fell on the roofs of the old houses and poured over their eaves until the streets were full, and then flooded away over green fields and plough, till it came to the sturdy mill and brought the miller trudging to evensong, and far away eastwards and seawards the sound rang out over the remoter marshes. And it was all as yesterday to the old ghosts in the streets.

Then the Dean’s wife took Mary Jane to evening service, and she saw three hundred candles filling all the aisle with light. But sturdy pillars stood there in unlit vastnesses; great colonnades going away into the gloom, where evening and morning, year in year out, they did their work in the dark, holding the cathedral roof aloft. And it was stiller than the marshes are still when the ice has come and the wind that brought it has fallen.

Suddenly into this stillness rushed the sound of the organ, roaring, and presently the people prayed and sang.

No longer could Mary Jane see their prayers ascending like thin gold chains, for that was but an elfin fancy, but she imagined clear in her new soul the seraphs passing in the ways of Paradise, and the angels changing guard to watch the World by night.

When the Dean had finished service, a young curate, Mr. Millings, went up into the pulpit.

He spoke of Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus: and Mary Jane was glad that there were rivers having such names, and heard with wonder of Nineveh, that great city, and many things strange and new.

And the light of the candles shone on the curate’s fair hair, and his voice went ringing down the aisle, and Mary Jane rejoiced that he was there.

But when his voice stopped she felt a sudden loneliness, such as she had not felt since the making of the marshes; for the Wild Things never are lonely and never unhappy, but dance all night on the reflection of the stars, and having no souls, desire nothing more.

After the collection was made, before anyone moved to go, Mary Jane walked up the aisle to Mr. Millings.

‘I love you,’ she said.

Chapter II

Nobody sympathised with Mary Jane.

‘So unfortunate for Mr. Millings,’ every one said; ‘such a promising young man.’

Mary Jane was sent away to a great manufacturing city of the Midlands, where work had been found for her in a cloth factory. And there was nothing in that town that was good for a soul to see. For it did not know that beauty was to be desired; so it made many things by machinery, and became hurried in all its ways, and boasted its superiority over other cities and became richer and richer, and there was none to pity it.

In this city Mary Jane had had lodgings found for her near the factory.

At six o’clock on those November mornings, about the time that, far away from the city, the wildfowl rose up out of the calm marshes and passed to the troubled spaces of the sea, at six o’clock the factory uttered a prolonged howl and gathered the workers together, and there they worked, saving two hours for food, the whole of the daylit hours and into the dark till the bells tolled six again.

There Mary Jane worked with other girls in a long dreary room, where giants sat pounding wool into a long thread-like strip with iron, rasping hands. And all day long they roared as they sat at their soulless work. But the work of Mary Jane was not with these, only their roar was ever in her ears as their clattering iron limbs went to and fro.

Her work was to tend a creature smaller, but infinitely more cunning. It took the strip of wool that the giants had threshed, and whirled it round and round until it had twisted it into hard thin thread. Then it would make a clutch with fingers of steel at the thread that it had gathered, and waddle away about five yards and come back with more.

It had mastered all the subtlety of skilled workers, and had gradually displaced them; one thing only it could not do, it was unable to pick up the ends if a piece of the thread broke, in order to tie them together again. For this a human soul was required, and it was Mary Jane’s business to pick up broken ends; and the moment she placed them together the busy soulless creature tied them for itself.

All here was ugly; even the green wool as it whirled round and round was neither the green of the grass nor yet the green of the rushes, but a sorry muddy green that befitted a sullen city under a murky sky.

When she looked out over the roofs of the town, there too was ugliness; and well the houses knew it, for with hideous stucco they aped in grotesque mimicry the pillars and temples of old Greece, pretending to one another to be that which they were not. And emerging from these houses and going in, and seeing the pretence of paint and stucco year after year until it all peeled away, the souls of the poor owners of those houses sought to be other souls until they grew weary of it.

At evening Mary Jane went back to her lodgings. Only then, after the dark had fallen, could the soul of Mary Jane perceive any beauty in that city, when the lamps were lit and here and there a star shone through the smoke. Then she would have gone abroad and beheld the night, but this the old woman to whom she was confided would not let her do. And the days multiplied themselves by seven and became weeks, and the weeks passed by, and all days were the same. And all the while the soul of Mary Jane was crying for beautiful things, and found not one, saving on Sundays, when she went to church, and left it to find the city greyer than before.

One day she decided that it was better to be a wild thing in the lovely marshes, than to have a soul that cried for beautiful things and found not one. From that day she determined to be rid of her soul, so she told her story to one of the factory girls, and said to her:

‘The other girls are poorly clad and they do soulless work; surely some of them have no souls and would take mine.’

But the factory girl said to her: ‘All the poor have souls. It is all they have.’

Then Mary Jane watched the rich whenever she saw them, and vainly sought for some one without a soul.

One day at the hour when the machines rested and the human beings that tended them rested too, the wind being at that time from the direction of the marshlands, the soul of Mary Jane lamented bitterly. Then, as she stood outside the factory gates, the soul irresistibly compelled her to sing, and a wild song came from her lips, hymning the marshlands. And into her song came crying her yearning for home, and for the sound of the shout of the North Wind, masterful and proud, with his lovely lady the Snow; and she sang of tales that the rushes murmured to one another, tales that the teal knew and the watchful heron. And over the crowded streets her song went crying away, the song of waste places and of wild free lands, full of wonder and magic, for she had in her elf-made soul the song of the birds and the roar of the organ in the marshes.

At this moment Signor Thompsoni, the well-known English tenor, happened to go by with a friend. They stopped and listened; everyone stopped and listened.

‘There has been nothing like this in Europe in my time,’ said Signor Thompsoni.

So a change came into the life of Mary Jane.

People were written to, and finally it was arranged that she should take a leading part in the Covent Garden Opera in a few weeks.

So she went to London to learn.

London and singing lessons were better than the City of the Midlands and those terrible machines. Yet still Mary Jane was not free to go and live as she liked by the edge of the marshlands, and she was still determined to be rid of her soul, but could find no one that had not a soul of their own.

One day she was told that the English people would not listen to her as Miss Rush, and was asked what more suitable name she would like to be called by.

‘I would like to be called Terrible North Wind,’ said Mary Jane, ‘or Song of the Rushes.’

When she was told that this was impossible and Signorina Maria Russiano was suggested, she acquiesced at once, as she had acquiesced when they took her away from her curate; she knew nothing of the ways of humans.

At last the day of the Opera came round, and it was a cold day of the winter.

And Signorina Russiano appeared on the stage before a crowded house.

And Signorina Russiano sang.

And into the song went all the longing of her soul, the soul that could not go to Paradise, but could only worship God and know the meaning of music, and the longing pervaded that Italian song as the infinite mystery of the hills is borne along the sound of distant sheep-bells. Then in the souls that were in that crowded house arose little memories of a great while since that were quite quite dead, and lived awhile again during that marvellous song.

And a strange chill went into the blood of all that listened, as though they stood on the border of bleak marshes and the North Wind blew.

And some it moved to sorrow and some to regret, and some to an unearthly joy,—then suddenly the song went wailing away like the winds of the winter from the marshlands when Spring appears from the South.

So it ended. And a great silence fell fog-like over all that house, breaking in upon the end of a chatty conversation that Cecilia, Countess of Birmingham, was enjoying with a friend.

In the dead hush Signorina Russiano rushed from the stage; she appeared again running among the audience, and dashed up to Lady Birmingham.

‘Take my soul,’ she said; ‘it is a beautiful soul. It can worship God, and knows the meaning of music and can imagine Paradise. And if you go to the marshlands with it you will see beautiful things; there is an old town there built of lovely timbers, with ghosts in its streets.’

Lady Birmingham stared. Everyone was standing up. ‘See,’ said Signorina Russiano, ‘it is a beautiful soul.’

And she clutched at her left breast a little above the heart, and there was the soul shining in her hand, with the green and blue lights going round and round and the purple flare in the midst.

‘Take it,’ she said, ‘and you will love all that is beautiful, and know the four winds, each one by his name, and the songs of the birds at dawn. I do not want it, because I am not free. Put it to your left breast a little above the heart.’

Still everybody was standing up, and Lady Birmingham felt uncomfortable.

‘Please offer it to some one else,’ she said.

‘But they all have souls already,’ said Signorina Russiano.

And everybody went on standing up. And Lady Birmingham took the soul in her hand.

‘Perhaps it is lucky,’ she said.

She felt that she wanted to pray.

She half-closed her eyes, and said ‘Unberufen’. Then she put the soul to her left breast a little above the heart, and hoped that the people would sit down and the singer go away.

Instantly a heap of clothes collapsed before her. For a moment, in the shadow among the seats, those who were born in the dusk hour might have seen a little brown thing leaping free from the clothes, then it sprang into the bright light of the hall, and became invisible to any human eye.

It dashed about for a little, then found the door, and presently was in the lamplit streets.

To those that were born in the dusk hour it might have been seen leaping rapidly wherever the streets ran northwards and eastwards, disappearing from human sight as it passed under the lamps and appearing again beyond them with a marsh-light over its head.

Once a dog perceived it and gave chase, and was left far behind.

The cats of London, who are all born in the dusk hour, howled fearfully as it went by.

Presently it came to the meaner streets, where the houses are smaller. Then it went due north-eastwards, leaping from roof to roof. And so in a few minutes it came to more open spaces, and then to the desolate lands, where market gardens grow, which are neither town nor country. Till at last the good black trees came into view, with their demoniac shapes in the night, and the grass was cold and wet, and the night-mist floated over it. And a great white owl came by, going up and down in the dark. And at all these things the little Wild Thing rejoiced elvishly.

And it left London far behind it, reddening the sky, and could distinguish no longer its unlovely roar, but heard again the noises of the night.

And now it would come through a hamlet glowing and comfortable in the night; and now to the dark, wet, open fields again; and many an owl it overtook as they drifted through the night, a people friendly to the Elf-folk. Sometimes it crossed wide rivers, leaping from star to star; and, choosing its way as it went, to avoid the hard rough roads, came before midnight to the East Anglian lands.

And it heard there the shout of the North Wind, who was dominant and angry, as he drove southwards his adventurous geese; while the rushes bent before him chaunting plaintively and low, like enslaved rowers of some fabulous trireme, bending and swinging under blows of the lash, and singing all the while a doleful song.

And it felt the good dank air that clothes by night the broad East Anglian lands, and came again to some old perilous pool where the soft green mosses grew, and there plunged downward and downward into the dear dark water till it felt the homely ooze once more coming up between its toes. Thence, out of the lovely chill that is in the heart of the ooze, it arose renewed and rejoicing to dance upon the image of the stars.

I chanced to stand that night by the marsh’s edge, forgetting in my mind the affairs of men; and I saw the marsh-fires come leaping up from all the perilous places. And they came up by flocks the whole night long to the number of a great multitude, and danced away together over the marshes.

And I believe that there was a great rejoicing all that night among the kith of the Elf-folk.



Jim Buck 08.06.16 at 8:33 am

What a beautiful start to my day! Thank you.


Jim Buck 08.06.16 at 8:50 am


oldster 08.06.16 at 10:48 am

Not a German speaker myself, but “unberufen” might also mean “this came to me unbidden, and thus I am not responsible for receiving it,” i.e. “I didn’t ask for this gift, and so I don’t have to pay for this gift.”

Can anything written in that era (and by a friend of Kipling) not be about race?


John Holbo 08.06.16 at 10:58 am

That makes sense, oldster. Something like ‘I’m not calling for this’ (as opposed to ‘let me not be the one who is called’). I’ll wait for competent Germans to weigh in and settle the matter, if possible.

Glad you liked the story, Jim. It’s great, I quite agree. I’m going through a Dunsany phase at the moment. He’s great.


Rich Puchalsky 08.06.16 at 11:34 am

“We could call you Miss Rush if you like. How would Mary Rush do?”

During her difficult time working at the factory Mary Rush did think that one of her professors was the best professor she’d ever had.


Rich Puchalsky 08.06.16 at 11:42 am

The best Dunsany stories that I can remember offhand are “The Doom Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth”, “Usury”, “The Man of Yarnith”, and “The Journey of the King.” “The Journey of the King” is really the most philosophical Dunsany story that I can recall.


Zamfir 08.06.16 at 12:15 pm

The ‘unberufen’ is a direct response to her previous sentence ’Perhaps it is lucky’. It’s a theatre thing where you call down (same word in English) bad luck by talking about good luck before the performance.

About the story: I don’t get why Lady Birmingham has no soul. It’s just posited, as if it’s obvious. Perhaps the lack of explanation is intentional, or am I missing something? Is the suggestion that people who chat during theatre performances are soulless people?


Marcellina 08.06.16 at 12:43 pm

I second Zamfir. Even today, the correct response in German theaters to “toi toi toi” is not “Danke”, but “Es wird schon schief gehen” (It’ll go badly).

Regarding Lady Birminham’s soul, perhaps it has to do with the time, not that long ago, when some scholarly types put forth that women had no souls.


John Holbo 08.06.16 at 12:49 pm

“I don’t get why Lady Birmingham has no soul. It’s just posited, as if it’s obvious.”

Oh, I think that’s clear. It’s just because she’s chatting like a twit while everyone else is in raptures over our heroine’s performance.

Rich is right, except it’s “Fortress Unvanquishable”. I am actually writing something just today that quotes from it. Small world!


Zamfir 08.06.16 at 1:46 pm

Ah, yes, souls are characterised repeatedly by knowing music. I was confused because the Lady was chatting with a friend, yet was singled out. But I guess the friend might be soulless as well, or the Lady kept chatting while the friend was enraptured with the rest of them.

That points even more towards a theatrical context for ‘unberufen’. Lady Birmingham is the kind of person who takes on the airs of the theatre, even though she doesn’t enjoy the performance itself. Presumably ‘unberufen’ was in fashion in those days in England.


Rich Puchalsky 08.06.16 at 2:46 pm

JH: “Rich is right, except it’s “Fortress Unvanquishable”.”

Damn it. Wrote from memory, should have looked it up.

Journey of the King is the most philosophical because it’s about people trying out simple sort-of-philosophical stories, finding them unsatisfying, and complicating them more and more. The Men of Yarnith is the most leftist story that Dunsany wrote. “Usury” is probably the one that very few other people think is one of his best: it’s a fantasy story that is sort of a critique of Western religion from an Eastern kind of viewpoint without it itself being Eastern.


oldster 08.06.16 at 3:22 pm

Zamfir, Marcellina–vielen dank, that’s very helpful. But may I press you about the details?

One can inadvertently “call down” bad luck by explicitly asking for good luck (or claiming to have good luck)–yes, this is a familiar theorem from the theatre and other superstitious milieus. (aberglauben sie es wirklich? eine schwierigere Frage.)

So suppose that actor A says (with dangerous overconfidence) “I think our opening night will be brilliant!”, and actor B says “unberufen!” How would this exchange best be translated into English?

B says, “uncalled for,” meaning “I beseech the Powers to cancel A’s request!” (as though “unberufen sei das, was A berufen hat”.)
B says, “uncalled for,” meaning “It was not I, actor B, who made that rash request!” (as though “nicht durch mich berufen”.)

Or how would you put it? Asked differently: “unberufen” is some sort of sentence-fragment, but what is the entire sentence?


Yankee 08.06.16 at 3:38 pm

In English, or at least American, you wish your friend “Break a leg!” The similar superstition exists among paramedics and other emergency responders, in which circumstance silence is desired. You used to be able to say “Avert!”, but I believe that’s archaic.

Birmingham is on the short list for the most soulless English city, isn’t it? One wonders what the Lady did with her gift of Grace …


JimV 08.06.16 at 4:47 pm


This is the tale of the vanquishing of the Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth, and of its passing away, as it is told and believed by those who love the mystic days of old.

Others have said, and vainly claim to prove, that a fever came to Allathurion, and went away; and that this same fever drove Leothric into the marshes by night, and made him dream there and act violently with a sword.

And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leothric never lived.

Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn’s leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?

End Quote

Certainly my favorite Lord Dunsany story and one of my favorites of all time. I used bits of it in my “King In Yellow” Heroes III mod (with acknowledgment).

In one of his autobiographical books (maybe “A Moveable Feast”?) Hemingway mentions the pleasure of reading Lord Dunsany.

I’ll bet being annoyed by someone talking during a musical performance was one of the things that inspired him to write the posted story. It’s much easier today – one can write a blog post or at least a blog comment. The rants are much less imaginative, though.

Favorite quotes from the posted story:

And the Oldest of the Wild Things said to it: ‘What have we to do with God? We are only Wild Things, and of the kith of the Elf-folk.’

‘I suppose the gipsies don’t have knives and forks,’ one said to the other afterwards.

It had mastered all the subtlety of skilled workers, and had gradually displaced them; one thing only it could not do, it was unable to pick up the ends if a piece of the thread broke, in order to tie them together again. For this a human soul was required, and it was Mary Jane’s business to pick up broken ends; and the moment she placed them together the busy soulless creature tied them for itself.


F. Foundling 08.06.16 at 10:26 pm

Stage 1: soul = life
Stage 2: soul = mind
Stage 3: soul = a certain completely indefinable, yet absolutely vital quality of the mind that involves anything I choose to say it involves, including but not limited to being religious and enjoying marsh landscapes and opera singing.

One may point out that the author seems to associate the ‘soul’ with aesthetic and religious phenomena; the ethical doesn’t appear to concern him in this context.

@oldster 08.06.16 at 10:48 am

>Can anything written in that era (and by a friend of Kipling) not be about race?

Of course it can’t. I think it’s pretty obvious: the Wild Things in the story are a metaphor for African Americans, the mortal humans are American WASPs, and the long-suffering but amazingly musically gifted little Wild Thing that goes on to captivate the world with its unique performances is Michael Jackson. It’s a timeless story of universal significance, you see. Old Dunsany knew he had to stay relevant where it counts.


TheSophist 08.06.16 at 10:35 pm

Random but wonderful Lord Dunsany trivia: He was a strong enough chess player to have once held world champion Jose Capablanca to a draw (in a simultaneous exhibition – Capa was playing many games at once, but still an impressive feat.)


John Holbo 08.06.16 at 10:37 pm

I have a question about Dunsany. What is the proper pronunciation of the name?

Is it DUN-sany? Or Dun-SAN-y? I thought the former, then heard someone say the latter.


John Holbo 08.06.16 at 10:42 pm

“but amazingly musically gifted little Wild Thing that goes on to captivate the world with its unique performances is Michael Jackson.”

So close! But no cigar.

Actually, Mr. Millings, the hapless curate, is Michael Jackson.

‘Mary Jane is NOT my lover …”


oldster 08.06.16 at 11:37 pm

you know, F. Foundling, there are many ways for stories to be about race without their being about U.S. race relations. The story of America is the story of the color line, no doubt, but the converse is not true. The story of relations between the English (French, Portuguese, Belgians, Germans, usw.) and their colonies is a (largely) separate story about interactions between races.

Dunsany’s friend wrote a poem about “Your new-caught, sullen peoples/ Half devil and half child,” who were “fluttered folk and wild,” and these Wild things bear more than a slight resemblance to that stereotype.

So by invoking Michael Jackson you may think you wrote a clever reductio of my question, showing that I was myopically finding contemporary US concerns where they were not.

But that wasn’t myopia, that was your opia.


William Burns 08.06.16 at 11:43 pm

And yet there is absolutely no suggestion that the Wild Things need to be ruled by anyone.


John Holbo 08.06.16 at 11:55 pm

I’m with William Burns. I really don’t know anything about Dunsany’s personal politics, imperial or otherwise. But I don’t see why, just because he was friends with Kipling, he needs to be Kipling-minded. (Would you buy it if someone argued that Kipling’s “half-devil and half child” poem must be some Dunsany-style fairy tale, ergo quite innocent, just because he knew Dunsany?) The interpretation doesn’t seem to fit the text and there doesn’t need to be some color-line explanation for why someone would want to write a fairy tale.


oldster 08.07.16 at 12:04 am

Perhaps it’s because the talk of East Anglian fens and marshes puts me in mind of Hereward the Wake and Puck of Pook’s Hill–racism in that period also dealt in smaller coinage, such as Saxon and Norman.

And one way that races were thought to interact was not by A’s ruling B, but by the A’s simply dominating the landscape until the B’s have all disappeared, or all but disappeared. Old peoples go extinct, and this can be occasion for triumphalism or sentimentalizing lament on the part of the surviving people.


John Holbo 08.07.16 at 12:20 am

I guess. But I still don’t see it in this story. I see it in “Puck of Pook’s Hill”. But what does it have to do with this story? In the story the Wild Things are not going extinct, so there isn’t any sentimentalized lament for them. I grant that there is a Nobel Savage thing going on, a protest against Christianity and modern life and all that. But I don’t see that the Nobel Savage line looks to be cover for some human racial preoccupation. There explicitly isn’t some implication that we were once Wild Things ourselves, and ought to try to return to that state. Or not. Nor that we could choose to follow that path to escape our sorry modern condition. We couldn’t (with the partial exception of Lady Birmingham!) There isn’t some implied Wild Thing policy.

Let me turn it around: suppose you are right, and the Wild Things are dark people, as opposed to white people. On this Kipled reading, what is Dunsany ‘saying’ about race or imperialism or colonial British power or what have you? I’m skeptical because I can’t see it as a message story about that. But maybe you have an answer.


oldster 08.07.16 at 12:38 am

I don’t see any obvious message, myself, neither “exterminate all the brutes” nor “ne suis-je pas ta soeur?”

But I don’t think that undermines my suggestion that the Wild Things are modeled on contemporary Anglo beliefs about non-Western primitives.

If there is any *message* message in the story, then it’s a rather simple and sardonic one–the bad news is that “if you cannot find a human without a soul you will one day die;” the good news is that you’ll easily find one in the audience of a London opera-house.


John Holbo 08.07.16 at 12:49 am

“Wild Things are modeled on contemporary Anglo beliefs about non-Western primitives.”

I’m going to keep pushing back, in a friendly way. I really don’t think I’m being defensive and maybe you are right. But I don’t see it.

I don’t think the Wild Things fit the stereotypes very well. They are too Other and separate. They are weirdly active whereas in the Kipled version they should be patients, acted upon by white agents. We aren’t going out to find them. They (she) are coming into our world, exploring it, finding us. If the curate had gotten lost in the swamp and found the Wild Things and tried to evangelize them … But that’s not the story we’ve got. They aren’t ignorant about us. The old Wild Thing knows the score, apparently. I agree that we have here a classic metaphor of disenchantment – the disenchanted modern world. That goes with fantasies of Noble Savagery. But I don’t see that we have, additionally, racism or imperialism. I say the pieces don’t fit in this case.


John Holbo 08.07.16 at 12:55 am

I agree that Mary Jane could be compared to non-whites put on the English stage, to be ogled as exotic curiosities. And that she is sort of pushed around after incarnating as human. But again it doesn’t fit. She’s incarnated as a white girl, seems like. Her attempts to get labeled as a savage by naming herself North Wind or whatever are just brushed off. And she remains kind of disconnected from this human world, even when discontented with her lot, working in the mills.

Eh, read it how you like, I guess.


oldster 08.07.16 at 1:07 am

yeah, I don’t feel strongly about it myself. Not strongly enough to push back against your pushing back. I’ve listed a few of the elements that triggered my sensors, but the sensors could well have malfunctioned this time.


oldster 08.07.16 at 1:09 am

But I do still want to hear a native-speaker’s explanation of the idiomatic “unberufen”.

That I feel strongly about.


John Holbo 08.07.16 at 1:50 am

The more my thoughts crystallize around this question the more convinced I am that Kipling would never have written a story about some dark native who comes to London, of her own initiative, and finds it impossible NOT to pass unnoticed, for what she truly is, under the name ‘Mary Jane’. And, if not that, then some made up Russian noble title.

I truly don’t mind impugning Dunsany’s politics as I have no idea what those were. I’m suddenly curious. All I know about him is a jumble of exciting impressive facts. Chess player. Champion shooter. Lord. He seems to have been some sort of bounding Larry Stu, but I don’t really know.


John Holbo 08.07.16 at 1:53 am

Oh, and he was really tall.


John Holbo 08.07.16 at 1:54 am

Also, one of his middle names was Drax. It doesn’t get more manly.


TheSophist 08.07.16 at 2:32 am

I just spent a few minutes looking at the Capablanca-Dunsany game. First of all, it was only a 21 board simul, which means that Capa wouldn’t have been overly stretched. (For those that are interested, in a simul the master walks from board to board, and the opponent has the length of time that it takes the master to make a circuit to think about their move. When the master appears in front of you, you must move immediately; (s)he then replies more or less instantly – when I gave them, I considered it very bad form to think longer than about 15 secs on any one move.)

Dunsany really bolloxed up the opening – his fifth move is a known mistake, and then he failed to play the only seventh move that would have allowed him to stay in the game. By move 10, Capa is up a pawn for not much. (In top level chess “up a pawn for not much” is close to a winning advantage.) Dunsany then defends very competently for the next 20-odd moves, until Capa makes a blunder himself, which allows Dunsany to recover the pawn. At this point Black (Dunsany) looks to my eye to have a slightly better position, however a draw was agreed – doubtless a satisfactory outcome for both players.


Gabriel 08.07.16 at 1:03 pm

Cheers for this. Even though I’m ostensibly a fantastist, ‘Elfland’s Daughter’ is the only thing of Ed Plunkett’s I’d read previously. Must read more.

And as for the pronunciation: I’d always heard ‘DUN-sany’ but it seems Wikipedia disagrees. Maybe an Irishman or -woman will help set matters straight.


Rich Puchalsky 08.07.16 at 1:20 pm

I vaguely remember that Dunsany may have said that it rhymes with “unrainy”. Though perhaps it was someone else. Cabell also rhymes with rabble.

His politics are pretty clearly conservative (e.g. he’s an aristocrat) but not conservative in a way that I really trust the CT commentariat to understand. He wrote a whole lot on the theme of how modern industry and things that went with it (factories, etc.) were taking people away from a relationship to nature and beauty and health and the countryside — here, I’ll quote “The Food of Death” in full:

Death was sick. But they brought him bread that the modern bakers make, whitened with alum, and the tinned meats of Chicago, with a pinch of our modern substitute for salt. They carried him into the dining-room of a great hotel (in that close atmosphere Death breathed more freely), and there they gave him their cheap Indian tea. They brought him a bottle of wine that they called champagne. Death drank it up. They brought a newspaper and looked up the patent medicines; they gave him the foods that it recommended for invalids, and a little medicine as prescribed in the paper. They gave him some milk and borax, such as children drink in England.

Death arose ravening, strong, and strode again through the cities.

There’s obvious Tolkein similarities there (scouring of the shire, etc.), but I can’t recall him ever writing anything like the orcs of Lord of the Rings, and he doesn’t do racism a la Kipling. He doesn’t do anything like resentment of the left a la C.S. Lewis, and he’s pretty much often making a bit of fun of Christianity in terms of religious themes, preferring a sort of mock paganism over disbelief. The somewhat political book by another author that I can most imagine him writing is Chesterton’s _The Napoleon of Notting Hill_.


Rich Puchalsky 08.07.16 at 1:30 pm

Oh, and one other thing: fantasy was just one genre out of many that he wrote in, but it’s what he’s known for now because his other works, while (I think) equally popular then, have not lasted well. He wrote a good number of popular plays, he wrote gentlemen’s-club travel story books, war stories, poems, books about Ireland. Someone who was really going to get a well-judged impression of his politics from his books would presumably have to look through a lot of this stuff, which would be a chore.


Adam Stephanides 08.07.16 at 2:39 pm

My impression is that in his day, Dunsany was best known as a dramatist, and his plays were thought fairly highly of. As you say, though, they have not held up well. On the other hand, some of the Jorkens stories (the gentlemen’s club travel stories you mention) have held up. He also wrote mystery stories, of which “Two Bottles of Relish” has been frequently anthologized.


Rich Puchalsky 08.07.16 at 3:51 pm

Another writer who I think probably has similar politics is Dickens. I don’t think that Dunsany ever wrote anything like the anti-French-Revolution scenes in Dickens, but there are other similarities.


Zeunysos 08.08.16 at 3:54 am

Re: racial messages in the story (sorry, first-time commenter, don’t know how to quote or reply directly!)….

I really don’t see portrayal of “non-Western primitives” or racial/colonial politics in any modern sense. This is largely because the account of the Wild Things seems transparently to be operating within the very old British Isles folk tradition of the “faerie” (or “bhean sidhe” or “fair folk”, loosely associated with the Celtic Otherworld). Stolen babies becoming faerie children; leave your horse and a sixpence by a certain howe, and in the morning your horse will be shod—but if you don’t leave the sixpence, they’ll steal your horse—that sort of folktale.

Can’t think of any good collections of the original folk traditions at the moment, but Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” gives a fairly accurate portrayal. Other more literary examples are Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” and perhaps parts of the ~9th century Welsh Mabinogion (don’t remember which particular stories off the top of my head). John Holbo @25 comments on the Thing’s agency, curiosity, coming into our world; I’d call these clear attributes of the old faerie tradition.

Any attempt to link these ancient traditions to modern conceptions of racial politics seems to me entirely anachronistic. However, oldster @22 makes a good point about sentimental accounts of “old peoples” being marginalized and disappearing. Anthropological readings of the faerie traditions tend to hold that they emerged from oral traditions of displaced earlier (pre-Celtic, maybe pre-Indo-European) inhabitants of Britain. In this sense, they are all racialized accounts. But that raises another question: through how many transformations can the racialized origin of a story persist? If we’re talking about tales that Anglo-Saxons adopted from the Welsh, who adopted them from the ancient Britons, concerning unknown peoples that their distant ancestors displaced….does it mean anything at that point to label it “about race”?

All of that said, however, John Holbo’s comment @29 about “some dark native who comes to London” *does* make me think of the structuralist interpretation of 1890s gothic fiction as being preoccupied with immigration as reverse colonialism, and the spectre of the “other” coming home to us (Stoker’s “Dracula” might be the clearest example). So maybe there is a potential colonial reading there after all….


fmackay 08.08.16 at 2:24 pm

Not Irish, but I have Irish in-laws who live a few miles from Dunsany; rhymes with unrainy is correct, emphasis on second syllable.


Stephen 08.08.16 at 7:31 pm

oldster @24: “contemporary Anglo beliefs about non-Western primitives”.
I don’t know if you have come across this one: forgive me if I quote it in full.

“Father, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But – would you believe it? – They look upon We
As only a sort of They !

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
And They who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous?) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They !”

Kipling, that was. Intolerable monocultural racist, obviously.


oldster 08.08.16 at 9:58 pm

You want to persuade me that Kipling’s views about race were complex, nuanced and not monolithically despicable?

You’re too late: reading “Kim” did that for me half a century ago.

You want to persuade me that Kipling wasn’t a racist?

You’re too late: I read a lot of other Kipling, too.

But I’m glad to have you introduce that poem to people who haven’t read it before.

Now, *please*: can some competent German speaker explain the syntax of “unberufen”?


John Holbo 08.08.16 at 10:41 pm

Stephen, Orwell’s essay on Kipling is a good one, in part on the subject of how and why Kipling can be politically intolerable – an Us vs. Them imperialist – without it being the case that he was morally unperceptive about – oh, say the dangers of imperialism and Us vs. Them thinking. People are weird that way.


Zeunysos 08.08.16 at 11:38 pm

I wouldn’t really call myself “competent” in German, but…. Every translation I find suggests that “unberufen”, when used as an exclamation, literally means something like “let it not be called down [on me]”. This would be a jussive formulation, which in German is expressed through the first subjunctive (Konjunctiv I, in German grammar).

*IF* this reading is correct, then it’s technically a third person plural subjunctive: “let them [these things? the consequences?] not be called down.”


oldster 08.09.16 at 1:53 am

Thanks, Zeunysos. That was the first of the options I propose up above:

“B says, “uncalled for,” meaning “I beseech the Powers to cancel A’s request!” (as though “unberufen sei das, was A berufen hat”.)”

I even used the Konjunctiv I, whether correctly or not.

I’d still like to get confirmation from an expert, though.


F. Foundling 08.09.16 at 2:53 am

By contrast, ‘berufen’ means ‘to call or summon’. … So what’s the connection, German speakers?

@oldster 08.06.16 at 3:22 pm
>Or how would you put it? Asked differently: “unberufen” is some sort of sentence-fragment, but what is the entire sentence?

I’m not a native speaker or an expert either, but I, too, will add my two pennies’ worth with the help of a few German dictionaries. It seems that a complete sentence should indeed be something like ‘Sei es unberufen!’, and the meaning would be ‘May it not be ruined on account of too much talking!’. The thing is that the verb ‘berufen’ itself can mean not just ‘to summon’, but also specifically ‘to bring ill luck by talking about s.o.’, according to Duden: ‘zu viel [im Voraus] über etwas reden sodass es (nach abergläubischer Vorstellung) misslingt’. It isn’t limited to the participial form, as shown by the example ‘Berufe es nicht!’ The same meaning is attested already in Middle High German (1050-1350), where ‘beruofen’ could mean, among other things, ‘unzeitig und zum Unheil nennen’, according to Das Digitale Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. So it isn’t some kind of new and transparent metaphor based on the meaning ‘to summon’. These explanations also indicate that the object of the verb is the prospect that is ruined. Both dictionaries mention that a synonym of ‘berufen’ in that sense is ‘beschreien’, which means literally only that, and for which DWDS gives the example ‘meine Mutter ist wieder ganz gesund, aber ich will’s nicht beschreien’ (‘My mother has recovered from her illness completely, but I don’t want to bring ill luck by talking too much about it’. It also gives the example ‘beschreie es nicht!’ *as well as* ‘berufe es nicht!’ (May it [my talking] not bring ill luck!) Both verbs are derived with the prefix be- from roughly synonymous verbs ‘schreien’ and ‘rufen’, literally ‘to be-scream’, ‘to be-shout’. Based on all that, it would appear that the original logic behind both formations was ‘to scream/shout about (and thus affect it in some way, in this case negatively)’.


F. Foundling 08.09.16 at 3:39 am

@oldster 08.06.16 at 11:37 pm

> there are many ways for stories to be about race without their being about U.S. race relations.

True, but I just thought that this was obviously not the case in this particular story – so much so that such an interpretation could only seem plausible under the influence of present-day American politics. As for Dunsany’s time – I wouldn’t subsume the topic of colonialism and relations with the colonised peoples under ‘race’, unless one equates it with ‘ethnicity’, ‘nation’ or ‘culture’. Some of the colonised barely differed from the colonisers racially and it’s unsurprising that, in spite of the presence of scientific racist justifications floating around in the intellectual discourse, the dominating colonialist ideological narrative tended to be more about culture (where a more advanced, ‘civilised’ Western culture was supposedly allowed and indeed obliged to guide a less advanced, ‘barbaric’ non-Western one towards a brighter future) than about biological ‘race’ sensu stricto with its supposed innate and unreformable characteristics. (The priceless illustrations in the wiki article about Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’, the caricature as well as the soap advertisement, demonstrate this progressist, universalist, modernising side of colonialist ideology). An ideological focus on biological ‘race’ is somewhat more encouraged by the US situation, where the ‘races’ share basically the same national culture with small differences comparable to those between classes in monoracial societies.

@John Holbo 08.07.16 at 12:20 am

>I grant that the is a Nobel Savage thing going on, a protest against Christianity and modern life and all that.

It’s true that the newly-created human Mary Jane is still uncorrupted by modern society and hence functions a bit like a noble savage in the story. On the other hand, the Wild Things in their normal soulless condition aren’t ‘noble savages’, I think. They are just fictional beings which, in spite of being capable of thinking and communicating like humans (which they need to do for the purposes of the plot), nevertheless lack an essential property of humans, a certain je ne sais quoi having to do with aesthetical and religious experiences as well as mortality, and that makes them close to animals and even to inanimate nature. I’m inclined to see them simply as a plot device, a background that the author uses in order to talk about humans, their souls and their society (a bit like the aliens in many a sci-fi fable, Montesqueiu’s Persian etc.). It’s a bit like a thought experiment examining what would happen if a piece of nature somehow acquired a soul. Whatever that is.


F. Foundling 08.09.16 at 4:39 am

@F. Foundling 08.09.16 at 3:39 am

>‘to bring ill luck by talking about s.o.’

That should have been ‘by talking about s.t.’


oldster 08.09.16 at 12:04 pm

Thanks for the research on ‘berufen,’ F. Foundling. I wonder whether the German here is depending on a Latin idiom involving voco (= rufen). Perhaps there’s a Latin term, e.g. invocatio or devocatio, which both means “to summon/bid” and also “to bring to the attention of the gods” (with hazardous results).

“I wouldn’t subsume the topic of colonialism and relations with the colonised peoples under ‘race’, unless one equates it with ‘ethnicity’, ‘nation’ or ‘culture’. Some of the colonised barely differed from the colonisers racially….”

Yes, we are inclined to think that colonisers barely differed from the colonised in race, if we think in terms of race at all. The remaining racial categories that polite society employs are very coarse-grained–Asian, African, European, perhaps. And yet in British fiction of that era it is common to see references to “the Gallic race,” “the Celtic race,” and so on. Nor do the authors simply mean “nation or culture,” since the claim is often made that you can spot them from their physiognomy. (That was part of the “scientific” in “scientific racism”–the anthropometrical folly that Celts had lower brows, Huns had ponderous jaws, and so on). Here’s a scientist from Conan Doyle’s “Lost World”:

“Round-headed,” he muttered. “Brachycephalic, gray-eyed, black-haired, with suggestion of the negroid. Celtic, I presume?”
“I am an Irishman, sir.”
“Irish Irish?”
“Yes, sir.”
“That, of course, explains it….”

So, yes, when the people of that era thought about differences between colonisers and colonised, they thought about them in terms of race, as a biological construct, not merely as a matter of culture.


bianca steele 08.09.16 at 3:42 pm

In the ballet, I’ve recently learned, they don’t say, “break a leg,” but I’m suddenly seized by the superstitious fear that it would be a bad idea to reveal what they do say to outsiders.


F. Foundling 08.09.16 at 6:09 pm

@oldster 08.09.16 at 12:04 pm

Of course, you’re right that people at the time tended to conflate race and ethnicity, and that pseudo-scientific anthropology was very fashionable for a few decades. They would occasionally speak of ‘the Irish race’, and in general they believed in some inherited characteristics of nations (a belief that predates scientific racism). And of course, the frequency of different anthropological characteristics does vary geographically, so one can, in fact, speak of ‘typical Irish/Russian/whatever faces’ (or you can at least say that someone ‘looks’ Scandinavian, Eastern European, Mediterranean etc.). So racialism was *one* part of how people thought about these things at the time; but it wasn’t the *only* way they thought about them. It is not the case that whenever anyone at the time spoke of the Irish, the French, the Indians, or anyone else, they were necessarily thinking about them predominantly in anthropological or racial terms, nor does it mean that we can automatically describe everything written at the time concerning the Irish, the French, the Indians etc. as being ‘about race’; if we do so, that’s our choice, not just an objective reflection of the author’s view. As a matter of fact, even if someone writing about Franco-German relations at the time really *was* making numerous references to pseudo-anthropological nonsense, I would still tend to say that he was writing about Franco-German relations, not that he was writing about ‘race’, since I don’t share his belief that the French and German nations are races. Oh well, whatever – I can’t say I feel very strongly about all that either.

@bianca steele 08.09.16 at 3:42 pm

Indeed, it’s dangerous. Be careful not to bescream it (sorry, couldn’t resist the temptation to use this word).


F. Foundling 08.09.16 at 7:50 pm

Perhaps it should be added that several dictionaries suggest that historically, ‘berufen’ and ‘beschreien’, as well as ‘besprechen’, shared the meaning ‘to affect something magically by speech’ – i.e. to cast a spell on something by incanting – although ‘beschreien’ was mostly for negative effects: magically curing an illness – ‘eine Krankheit besprechen’, placing a curse on a horse – ‘ein Pferd beschreien’. According to Hermann Paul’s etymological dictionary, the more specific meaning of ‘berufen’ discussed here is derived from this general sense of a magical verbal act, of a Besprechen. So, to conclude, ‘unberufen’ is to be interpreted as ‘may it not be affected (adversely) by (my) speech in a supernatural way’.

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