Adventures Among Books by Andrew Lang


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Page 2

We went from the border to the south of England, when the number of my
years was six, and in England we found another paradise, a circulating
library with brown, greasy, ill-printed, odd volumes of Shakespeare and
of the "Arabian Nights." How their stained pages come before the eyes
again--the pleasure and the puzzle of them! What did the lady in the
Geni's glass box want with the Merchants? what meant all these
conversations between the Fat Knight and _Ford_, in the "Merry Wives"? It
was delightful, but in parts it was difficult. Fragments of "The
Tempest," and of other plays, remain stranded in my memory from these
readings: _Ferdinand_ and _Miranda_ at chess, _Cleopatra_ cuffing the
messenger, the asp in the basket of figs, the _Friar_ and the
_Apothecary_, _Troilus_ on the Ilian walls, a vision of _Cassandra_ in
white muslin with her hair down. People forbid children to read this or
that. I am sure they need not, and that even in our infancy the
magician, Shakespeare, brings us nothing worse than a world of beautiful
visions, half realised. In the Egyptian wizard's little pool of ink,
only the pure can see the visions, and in Shakespeare's magic mirror
children see only what is pure. Among other books of that time I only
recall a kind of Sunday novel, "Naomi; or, The Last Days of Jerusalem."
Who, indeed, could forget the battering-rams, and the man who cried on
the battlements, "Woe, woe to myself and to Jerusalem!" I seem to hear
him again when boys break the hum of London with yells of the latest
"disaster."

We left England in a year, went back to Scotland, and awoke, as it were,
to know the glories of our birth. We lived in Scott's country, within
four miles of Abbotsford, and, so far, we had heard nothing of it. I
remember going with one of the maids into the cottage of a kinsman of
hers, a carpenter; a delightful place, where there was sawdust, where our
first fishing-rods were fashioned. Rummaging among the books, of course,
I found some cheap periodical with verses in it. The lines began--

"The Baron of Smaylhome rose with day,
He spurred his courser on,
Without stop or stay, down the rocky way
That leads to Brotherstone."

A rustic tea-table was spread for us, with scones and honey, not to be
neglected. But they _were_ neglected till we had learned how--

"The sable score of fingers four
Remains on that board impressed,
And for evermore that lady wore
A covering on her wrist."

We did not know nor ask the poet's name. Children, probably, say very
little about what is in their minds; but that unhappy knight, Sir Richard
of Coldinghame, and the Priest, with his chamber in the east, and the
moody Baron, and the Lady, have dwelt in our mind ever since, and hardly
need to be revived by looking at "The Eve of St. John."

Soon after that we were told about Sir Walter, how great he was, how
good, how, like Napoleon, his evil destiny found him at last, and he wore
his heart away for honour's sake. And we were given the "Lay," and "The
Lady of the Lake." It was my father who first read "Tam o' Shanter" to
me, for which I confess I did not care at that time, preferring to take
witches and bogies with great seriousness. It seemed as if Burns were
trifling with a noble subject. But it was in a summer sunset, beside a
window looking out on Ettrick and the hill of the Three Brethren's Cairn,
that I first read, with the dearest of all friends, how--

"The stag at eve had drunk his fill
Where danced the moon on Monan's rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney's hazel shade."

Then opened the gates of romance, and with Fitz-James we drove the chase,
till--

"Few were the stragglers, following far,
That reached the lake of Vennachar,
And when the Brig of Turk was won,
The foremost horseman rode alone."

From that time, for months, there was usually a little volume of Scott in
one's pocket, in company with the miscellaneous collection of a boy's
treasures. Scott certainly took his fairy folk seriously, and the Mauth
Dog was rather a disagreeable companion to a small boy in wakeful hours.
{1} After this kind of introduction to Sir Walter, after learning one's
first lessons in history from the "Tales of a Grandfather," nobody, one
hopes, can criticise him in cold blood, or after the manner of Mr. Leslie
Stephen, who is not sentimental. Scott is not an author like another,
but our earliest known friend in letters; for, of course, we did not ask
who Shakespeare was, nor inquire about the private history of Madame
d'Aulnoy. Scott peopled for us the rivers and burnsides with his
reivers; the Fairy Queen came out of Eildon Hill and haunted Carterhaugh;
at Newark Tower we saw "the embattled portal arch"--

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 15th Dec 2019, 21:56