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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Elf-Bolts & Sex-Rocks in Wuthering Heights

I've finished Wuthering Heights, and although I enjoyed it, I'll admit I found the novel a tough read.  About a quarter of the way in, I got lost for awhile.  Emily Bronte gave many of her characters similar names, and children in the novel were often named after their parents.  The fact that the oldest son and/or daughter was often referred to by their last name, rather than their first, also made it difficult to track who was who. Additionally, when Mr. Lockwood gets sick and becomes a shut-in during the winter, Mrs. Dean rushes through a great deal of Earnshaw family history to pave the way for more recent events concerning Heathcliff.  

Overwhelmed by cultural differences and family history, I abandoned the story for awhile.  But I returned, as it was a novel I've long wished to read.  As you may have gathered from my previous posts, I found it a very interesting story.  Consider Catherine's statement from Chapter Twelve, roughly about a third of the way through.

'I see in you, Nelly,' she continued dreamily, 'an aged woman: you have grey hair and bent shoulders. This bed is the fairy cave under Penistone crags, and you are gathering elf-bolts to hurt our heifers; pretending, while I am near, that they are only locks of wool. That's what you'll come to fifty years hence: I know you are not so now. I'm not wandering: you're mistaken, or else I should believe you really WERE that withered hag, and I should think I WAS under Penistone Crags.'

All those references to myth, legend, and fairy tales made me wonder what Emily Bronte was referring to.  At this point in the story, Edgar Linton has had a huge argument with Heathcliff.  His wife Catherine always wanted things both ways: she wanted to keep her adopted brother Heathcliff close, and yet she married Linton for his wealth and position in society. As Linton is too soft and genteel for her taste, she never really respects him.  After he bans Heathcliff from the house, and forbids her to see him again, she locks herself in her room, claims to be sick, and refuses to eat. One night, as she's tearing apart her pillow, her maid Mrs. Dean tries to settle her down. Catherine refuses while making this strange prophesy.

According to Richard Thornhill at the website Northern Earth, Bronte is referencing local folklore.  Rock formations, especially striking ones with holes in them, were associated with stories and beliefs.  Some taught that if a young couple crawled through one but did not marry within a year, then they would die.  Alternatively, one might commit suicide and haunt the other if they married someone else.  When people found pointed pieces of stone on the ground, they attributed them to mythical, magical, and real creatures with whom they shared the world.  Yet even though they looked newly-formed, we now know they were arrowheads made and used thousands of years ago by prehistoric hunters. 

(That's not to say that elves aren't real.  Frodo lives, folks!) 

Thornhill describes many of Bronte's characters in sexual terms, and suggests she intended several as metaphors contrasting the world, the flesh, and Satan.  From such comparisons follow cultural and societal outlooks on good and evil.  I didn't perceive half of what Thornhill described in reading the novel, but then, I didn't grow up in England. I certainly didn't grow up in Haworth like he did, the village where Emily Bronte taught the Bible to one of his grandparents' friends. Nor am I familiar with the myths and legends associated with the Pennine region. At first, I wondered if he wasn't reading too much into Bronte's novel. But then I realized what the first five letters of Penistone crags spells.  

While Penistone crags is a Bronte creation, the hill that rises up behind the church in Haworth (and the parsonage, where the Bronte Museum is located), bears the name Penistone Hill. 

This suggests, among other things, that Bronte is infusing her novel with beliefs that informed her society's concepts of right and wrong.  

When reading the Bible, history, or stories written in centuries past, it's easy to judge the actions of these people by how we might react to events in contemporary culture. With references to Elves, Goblins, Witches, Fairies, and the like, Wuthering Heights reminds us that peoples of the past saw their world differently than we do today. When our beliefs are called into question, and we cling to them, telling ourselves this is what our ancestors believed, we may in fact be correct. But do we really know why our ancestors believed what they believed? And if so, can their beliefs of the past be applied to situations and dilemmas that arise in our constantly evolving society?  

Insights of this nature make me want to read more literary classics.  It's so nice to be able to read such stories on a computer, during the "Information Age," when I can access the Internet to look up anything that intrigues me, and hopefully gain a better understanding of the author's beliefs, morals, and culture.

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
Emily Bronte & the Will to Live
Daleks Banish Emily Bronte's Ghouls, Goblins, Ghosts & Vampires

Related Internet Links
Wuthering Heights: Chapter 12
Northern Earth: Wuthering Heights' Cave
Wuthering Heights: Penistone Crags  

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