independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Words of comfort from an old friend

In times of trouble, the book is a portal into a world of endless pleasures, writes Joseph O'Connor

LAST week saw World Book Day, a marketing idea, of course, but perhaps not an entirely self-interested one. The book trade, like everything else, is being hit hard by recession, and the closure of Hughes & Hughes, that wonderful chain of family-owned shops, is a deeply sad thing for all Irish book lovers as well as for the company's 260 staff.

However, for all the worrying reports about pressures on booksellers, Irish people are beginning to read more. On Friday, at the opening of the wonderful Ennis Book Club Festival, hundreds of local people turned up. Galway's annual Cuirt festival will be a feast of literary goings-on, and Listowel's world-famous Writers' Week will draw capacity crowds. Perhaps we need an escape, a way of turning off the gloom, and the book provides a portal into a world of endless pleasures, a set of wider perspectives on what we're going through now.

Last week I found myself remembering a book I first heard about when I was five or six. It's the famous Idylls of the King, by the great Victorian, Lord Tennyson, and it tells the well-worn legend of King Arthur's death. Fatally wounded in battle, the dying king orders his last remaining knight, Bedivere, to take the magical sword Excalibur and cast it into the lake of shadows. But the sword is so gorgeously made that the knight can't bring himself to be rid of it. Instead, he hides it in the rushes and returns to his master, lying to him that he has followed his orders. In the end, after three tries, he finally does as commanded. Tennyson says:

He clutched the sword,

And strongly wheeled and threw it. The great brand

Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,

And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch,

Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,

Seen where the moving isles of winter shock

By night, with noises of the northern sea.

So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur:

But ere he dipped the surface, rose an arm

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him

Three times, and drew him under in the mere.

And lightly went the other to the King.

The arm in the lake is an image that speaks to something deep in us: the pain of saying goodbye, moving on.

My father, Sean, a lover of Victorian poetry, would read this poem to me at night when I was a kid. It was a ritual we had, an agreement that made us equals, and every parent knows parenthood is largely a matter of keeping those. So I associate the happiness of those memories with some aura in the poem. It was how I learned to read; his finger tracing capitals on a yellowed old page, by the light of a lamp that was shaped like a toy soldier, bought by my parents on a London holiday. The words were a comfort to me in a troubled childhood, but now I am a father myself, I can see they must have comforted him, too.

It was part of my boyhood soundtrack, and whenever I read it to my own sons I feel the poem connects me to the past as well as to the future. The stories have changed. It's now Harry Potter and Horrid Henry and the brilliant Derek Landy and a host of modern masters. But still, whenever I read those stories, I feel my father's presence in the room. And when I see my eldest boy reading a story to his six-year-old brother, I feel a joy I can't put into words.

Franz Kafka wrote: "A book is an axe to the frozen sea around us". And CS Lewis said the same thing in a more direct way: "We read to know we are not alone." When I open that old book again, Tennyson's Idylls of the King, I feel I'm in the company of a friend. I look at it as though I expect it will somehow have changed, but the words on the page never do, of course. Arthur, fatally wounded, is still dying. The false knight, Bedivere, still can't fling the sword away. The poem is all about his unwillingness and conceit and human weakness. And that's the most wonderful thing about it. It says the world has troubles, unfathomable problems, wolves in sheep's clothing, lost battles, dead hopes, and all we have to counteract them is one another in the end, and all else is fleeting illusion. In these times of economic challenge, the poem seems even stronger. It says the trinkets we put such a value on were only gaudy baubles, and that they will be thrown from us, to be grabbed by the brandishing hand of fate and drawn back to the depths they belong to. There is no destiny waiting, no preordained path to safety. It is only that those we love become that destiny; it is a matter of learning to recognise them and then being true to them.

What other invention in the history of the race is capable of giving us such a gift? The book is a friend, a companion, a confidante, a means of escape from the everyday troubles, and then a way of coming home to who we are. It gives solace, courage, laughter, wisdom, diversion, recognition, even beauty too.

Joseph O'Connor will be giving a reading with music from Philip King of Scullion at the Mermaid Theatre, Bray, on March 18, the Seamus Ennis Centre, Naul, on March 19, and the Glor Theatre, Ennis on March 26.

Sunday Independent

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