Down the rabbit hole: an early example from Gower

January 31, 2020 0 Comments

Alice’s adventures in Wonderland – in Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript it was entitled Alice’s adventures under ground – is probably the best-known of all tales about a child passing through a hole or tunnel in the ground to reach another world populated by strange, small creatures.  It’s a common motif in fairy stories around the world, and since the nineteenth century a whole genre of ‘subterranean fiction’ has grown up.  One of the earliest and oddest written examples of the theme occurs in Gerald of Wales’s Journey through Wales, his narrative of travelling around Wales with Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, to raise support for the Third Crusade.

Gerald tells his story immediately after his brief account of staying overnight in Swansea Castle, in mid-March 1188.  That night, Gerald tells us, two monks in Baldwin’s entourage stood chatting together about the dangers of the road:

‘It’s a hard country this’, said one.  The other, who was a wit, replied, ‘Not at all.  Yesterday we found it far too soft.’

The ‘wit’ was referring to the dangerous quicksands around Aberafan and Baglan Bay, where Gerald, as he tells us, almost lost his horse and all his precious manuscripts.

The next river he mentions passing over is the river Loughor, so presumably his road took him from Swansea across the neck of the Gower peninsular to the village of Loughor.  It was ‘in these parts, somewhat before our own time’ that ‘an odd thing happened’.  Gerald puts his story into the mouth of a priest, Elidyr, who claimed that what he experienced happened to him as ‘a young innocent only twelve years old’ (rather older than Alice).  This lad

… ran away one day and hid under the hollow bank of some river or other, for he had had more than enough of the harsh discipline and frequent blows meted out by his teacher … Two days passed and there he still lay hidden, with nothing at all to eat.  Then two tiny men appeared, no bigger than pigmies.  ‘If you will come away with us’, they said, ‘we will take you to a land where all is playtime and pleasure.’  The boy agreed to go.  He rose to his feet and followed them.  They led him first through a dark underground tunnel and then into a most attractive country, where there were lovely rivers and delightful woodlands and plains.  It was rather dark, because the sun did not shine there.  The days were all overcast, as if by clouds, and the nights were pitch-black, for there was no moon nor stars.

Despite the gloom the underground kingdom does turn out to be a superior version of the world above ground, as we find when we meet its inhabitants:

The boy was taken to see their king and presented to him, with all his court standing round.  They were amazed to see him, and the king stared at him for a long time.  Then he handed him over to his own son, who was still a child.  All these men were very tiny, but beautifully made and well-proportioned.  In complexion they were fair and they wore their hair long and flowing down over their shoulders like women.  They had horses which suited them, about as big as greyhounds.

All this is reminiscent of the faery creatures that used to inhabit hippyish underground pop songs of the late nineteen-sixties.  But other features of the little people are even more remarkable:

They never ate meat or fish.  They lived on various milk dishes, made up into junkets flavoured with saffron.  They never gave their word, for they hated lies more than anything they could think of.  Whenever they came back from the upper world, they would speak contemptuously of our own ambitions, infidelities and inconstancies.  They had no wish for public worship, and what they revered and admired, or so it seemed, was the plain unvarnished truth.

You wouldn’t be surprised to meet these vegetarian rationalists in the pages of William Morris’s utopian News from nowhere, but it’s a surprise to come across them in the middle of Gerald’s pious medieval narrative.

The boy makes several trips to and from the underground kingdom, sometimes escorted and sometimes by himself.  He tells his mother about what he’s seen.  She asks him to bring a ball of gold for him – gold is common underground – and he steals one and brings it to her.  ‘Undoing’ in a folk tale, especially when transgressing moral boundaries, always carries a penalty, and this story is no exception.  As the boy enters his mother’s room, the ball slips from his grasp.  The little people, who have chased him, snatch it up and run away with it ‘showing him every mark of scorn, contempt and derision’.  Conscience-stricken and regretful, he runs back to the river bank,

… but when he came to where the underground passage had been there was no entry to be found.  For nearly a year he searched the overhanging banks of the river, but he could never find the tunnel again.’

Gerald adds a coda to this story of the irrevocability of childhood experience (or however you choose to interpret it).  The lad grew into a scholar and a priest, but he couldn’t forget about his encounter with the little people, and would burst into tears when telling the story to others.  ‘He still remembered the language of the little folk and he could repeat quite a number of words which, as young people do, he had learnt very quickly.’  Some of these words seemed to be Greek in origin, and Gerald, rationalising frantically, links them to the traditional origin of the ‘ancient Britons’, the voyage of Brutus from Troy to Britain.

After the coda Gerald ties himself in knots trying not to answer the question of the ‘careful reader’, is this story of the little folk really true?  As a devout believer (unlike, it seems, the little people themselves) he can’t answer the question satisfactorily:

If I reject [the story], I place a limit on God’s power, and that I will never do.  If I say that I believe it, I have the audacity to move beyond the bounds of credibility, and that I will not do either.

In the end he can only agree with Augustine, that miracles can only be wondered at, not argued about.  Like Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, when faced with similar doubtful stories, he can only present them to the ‘careful reader’ without judgement.  Hanging helplessly somewhere between the acceptance all phenomena, however improbable, as the work of an incomprehensible God, and the direct evidence of his senses and common sense, he’s not yet ready, as the little people are, for the ‘plain unvarnished truth.’

Quotations from the Latin are taken from Gerald of Wales, The journey through Wales, and The description of Wales, translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin, 1978.  

Gerald’s story has echoed down the centuries: it reappears, for example, in Alan Garner’s novel Elidor (1965).

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