In his work on Howard’s End, scholar Herbert M Schneidau writes that E.M. Forster employs the “mystical method,” dramatizing “an ideology that we can call that of sacred space, or autochthony, that is the belief that spiritual powers, which Forster reticently call “the unseen,” inhere not in heavens or in ethereal forms but in the earth; that they are beings, incarnate in landforms or dwellings or tombs and that they forcefully affect even godless lives” (65). In Forster’s England, the autochthonic forces have long begun to recede into the same mists that swallowed Avalon. Industry has replaced agriculture, capitalism has replaced religion, and pragmatism has replaced intuition. The theme of modernization coming at the expense of both Nature and supernatural belief runs throughout a number of modernist texts including Sunset Song. After the chaos and violence of WWI, writers struggled to maintain any belief in a benevolent guiding principle that might give purpose or structure to life. The universe no longer seemed predisposed to treat humanity kindly, and whatever faith one might have had in fate or providence could not withstand the horrible deaths of so many young men of promise. In the literature written after the Great War, we often find a resurgent romantic desire to recreate a quasi-religious relationship between humans and the natural. Often, the modernist figure that connects most with the mystical or animistic elements of nature is a female. As a result of the Great War, the male subject in literature seemed to have lost his ability to connect with nature at a spiritual level. Military discipline and shocking violence reshaped male psychology, and post-War writers often used a female character to represent the sensual and spiritual relationships lost in the trauma of war. Thus, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song begins with our female protagonist already enmeshed in authocthonic sensibility:
Below and around where Chris Guthrie lay the June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple, that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet. And in the east against the cobalt blue of the sky lay the shimmer of the North Sea, that was by Bervie, and maybe the wind would veer there in an hour or so and you’d feel the change in the life and strum of the thing, bringing a streaming coolness out of the sea.(32)
The vitality of Scotland’s immortal enchanted land is for Chris, and for the “you” in Gibbon’s narration, already a thing inherently understood and embraced.
A Scot’s Quair follows the increasing urbanization of Scotland after the Great War. The first move towards “progress” comes in past reflection, when Chris’ father removes his growing family from a cramped plot in Cairndhu to the larger croft in Kinraddie, where the June moors whistle and rustle. Upon his death, Chris takes up the farming herself and marries a young highland man that shares her inherent devotion to the land and the forces of ancient nature. After she gives birth to their son, her husband is called to war. When he returns to her briefly after training, he is a changed man; the army has drilled the autochthonic sensibility out of him. He is now a repellant stranger to a woman entirely aligned with the life of nature and the land. As Chris’ husband and the men of the village, mostly farmers themselves, fight and die in the Great War, the ancient trees on the tracks around their farms are cut down, harvested for timber for the war efforts. In turn, the fields are no longer protected from the wind and the red clay can no longer sustain the crops that people had subsisted on since the “Golden Age.” “Progress” has defeated the ancient bond between man and land.
Towards Sunset Song’s end, many of the men who had worked the land have died on foreign soil, corpses to litter foreign fields of battle, bodies never to return and become the red clay for another generation. The ones that do return find that capitalism, the glamour of modernity, has forever altered their way of life. The trees, “so bonny they were, and thick and grave, fine shelter and lithe for the cattle” have all been cut, leaving “a country that looked as though it had been shelled by a German army” (155; 163). The immediate effect of the timbering is that the land that had supported life for over 2000 years can no longer: “the land was shaved of its timber till the whole bit place would soon be a waste with the wind a-blow over heath and heather where once the corn came green” (156). Agrarian life, where the work of each day is dictated by the seasonal cycles and the impersonal moods of nature, can no longer continue as it was, not until hundreds of years have passed and the woods can grow up again, ally and shelter for the beasts of the land. Or, as is the case today, not until technology and farming culture have changed enough to make up for the loss of the trees.
For Chris the loss of the relationship between crofter and land goes beyond the loss of subsistence. Before the decimation of the woods and the forced urbanization of the crofter, the land was refuge and master in one, freeing Chris from the responsibilities of human care: “Hurt and dazed, she turned to the land, close to it and the smell of it, kind and kind it was, it didn’t rise up and torment your heart, you could keep at peace with the land if you gave it your heart and hands, tended it and slaved for it, it was wild and a tyrant, but it was not cruel” (174). But after “progress” intervenes at the end of the first novel, Chris is adrift, seeking connection in the world of men as minister’s wife and mother of a political activist.
The second book, Cloud Howe, sees Chris move off the land and into the village when she marries the minister. The loss of her connection to the land, and the ancient peoples which inhabited it, is only marginally appeased by her love for her new husband. This weak substitution of human connection for autochthonic connection fails completely when he becomes religion-mad; his Christian fanaticism making him a stranger to his wife. Like her first husband, their personal connection ends before his death, as the values of man interrupt and overtake a shared sensibility. The third book, Grey Granite, finds Chris living in a big city, her son embroiled in politics and more distant than ever. Unhappy, unfulfilled, and unconnected, an older Chris abandons the city and all personal contact to return to the farm where she was born. She rejects modernity and the 20th century urbanization process in Scotland, to return to the demanding life of a crofter: where the sacred sacrifice of the body in manual labour is repaid by the vitality of nature. The last few pages of the Quair see Chris’ return to the land of her birth: to her ancestral autocthonic connection, the place of her renewal, her reconnection, and, fittingly, of her death. The texts end with a final image of Chris becoming one with nature, the human life expiring as nature reclaims her soul: “But she still sat on as one by one the lights went out and the rain came beating the stones about her, and falling all that night while she still sat there, presently feeling no longer the touch of the rain or hearing the sound of the lapwings going by” (496).
At the end, religion and politics become only “dark clouds,” “great rocks” to be pushed, Sisyphean-like, up a hill (495). Ultimately, as social change has driven her farther and farther away from the lands of Scotland’s prehistoric “Golden Age,” the failure of human relations and the activities of men to fully satisfy the transcendent desire for union with an ancient and universal force becomes fully apparent. And so she returns to the land of her birth, where, as a woman alone, “she had found the last road she wanted and taken it, concerning none and concerned with none” (496). Chris, the representative of an old, mystic feminine connection to the deeper forces in nature, rejects modernity and gives herself fully over to autochthonic cycles of life and death. Here, among old stones and older lands, the unseen forces of Nature return to Chris. She does not die alone but in the company of the ultimate natural god, Change, that true spirit of nature that will never abandon the land:
That was the best deliverance of all, as she saw it now, sitting here quiet- that that Change who ruled the earth and the sky and the waters underneath the earth, Change who face she’d once feared to see, whose right hand was Death and whose left hand Life, might be stayed by none of the dreams of men, love, hate, compassion, anger or pity, gods or devils or wild crying to the sky. He passed and repassed in the ways of the wind, Deliverer, Destroyer and Friend all in one.(496)
Gibbon, Lewis Grassic. A Scots Quair: a Trilogy of Novels: Sunset Song: Cloud Howl: Grey Granite, Hutchinson, 1966.
Schneidau, Herbert. Waking Giants: the Presence of the Past in Modernism, Oxford University Press, 1991.