Allegory, Aristocracy, Book review., Books, Christ, Christianity, Duror, Evil, Forests, Humanism, Innocence, Lady Runcie-Campbell, Neil and Calum, Of Mice and Men, Robin Jenkins, Scotland, Scottish Literature, Scottish Nationalism, Symbolism, The Cone-Gatherers, War, Warfare, WW2
[MANSIZE is Tychy’s new student support resource, which provides an alternative to the English Literature study aids on the BBC’s “Bitesize” website. Rather than regarding GCSE and Higher students as babies, who must be spoon fed “bite sized” portions of information, Tychy treats them like men, who are adult enough to deal with complex arguments and serious literary criticism. Ed.]
Before we proceed to investigate the “themes” and “symbols” of Robin Jenkins’ The Cone-Gatherers (1955), our first question must be why it has become one of the most taught novels in Scottish secondary schools. Jenkins has ransacked other writers’ books for his characters: Calum and Neil are poorly disguised versions of Lennie and George from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1936); Duror is a prim, Calvinist equivalent of Mellors from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), and if Lady Runcie-Campbell is not a failed Lady Chatterley, then her torturous alienation from the peasantry ranks her as a passport-carrying native of Chekhov’s fiction.
One gets the impression that if you crept up on these characters unawares, you would find that none of them really had Scottish accents. Lady Runcie would be rabbiting away in Russian, whilst Calum and Neil yarned like cowboys. Meanwhile, Jenkins’ other characters, such as Duror’s hellish mother-in-law and the cheerily cynical doctor, are clichés which were probably boring the dinosaurs.
To be Scottish is always to be a victim – perhaps gruff and feisty, but still a victim. Whilst English and American teenagers study Of Mice and Men, the Scottish must have their own devolved version of Steinbeck’s novel. If they were forced to read Of Mice and Men, then they would be the victims of injustice and imperial oppression, their plucky little culture would be cruelly crushed. Unable to cope with something which did not remind them of being Scottish, they would probably curl up and die in the very act of reading Steinbeck’s novel, like goldfish in water of the wrong temperature. Never mind that Of Mice and Men takes its title from some lines of Robert Burns’ anyway, or that it leaves us with the rather awkward question of why anybody would read The Cone-Gatherers when they could cut out the middle man and read Steinbeck’s original novel.
If The Cone-Gatherers stuffs a great work of literature into a kilt, one wonders why the Scottish curriculum could not commission other Scotched classics. Lord of the Flies set on the Isle of Mull? Pride and Prejudice performed by Clyde shipbuilders? Macbeth with all the English removed and replaced with abrasive Gaelic gobbledygook?
So that is one of the reasons why The Cone-Gatherers is an Official Text. Another is that the book is cluttered with laboured and clunky symbolism, so that the lazy student can interpret it – or think that they are interpreting it – by simply spotting those all-too-conspicuous symbols and then extracting them from the book to flourish as a readymade explanation.
But The Cone-Gatherers avoids becoming an allegory, or a framework in which each part represents an aspect of something theoretical and entirely separate from the story. George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is an allegory because it is only superficially a story about some squabbling livestock and each of its characters is really meant to symbolise a personality or attitude which was associated with the world’s first Communist revolution. In The Cone-Gatherers, however, Jenkins is careful not to specify what his characters may symbolise and most of the opinions expressed in the novel are attributed to his characters. For example, our first impression of Roderick as a boy with “deer’s eyes and hare’s teeth” who is “useless at games,” is actually only Duror’s impression of Roderick, and we may later decide that this boy is not a symbol of effete aristocracy, but one of courage and resourcefulness. In one of the book’s finest moments of ambiguity, Calum reports glimpsing his mother in the sky, and it is left to us to decide whether this is evidence of Calum’s unique sensitivity or of his tiresome, childish fantasising.
Yet the slipperiness of these symbols, and one’s inability to put a finger on quite what they mean, is often in danger of producing a bit of a muddle. There is an uproar of symbols, and they end up jabbering senselessly at us. Why, the forest is like the Garden of Eden, with Duror as the wicked serpent, and Neil and Calum as… err… Adam and Eve. Later at the beach hut, Neil and Calum are now Joseph and Mary and there is no room in the inn, so to speak, although Calum does not proceed to give birth in a barnyard. Calum finally expires like Christ at the end of the novel, strung up in a tree, with Duror destroying himself like Judas and Lady Runcie kneeling in supplication like Mary Madeleine. Alas, the picture of a smiling hunchback aping Christ seems unfortunately reminiscent of a black mass or a satanic travesty, but that is by the bye.
Calum is supposed to be a symbol of goodness, whilst Duror is apparently the novel’s designated incarnation of evil, and one which chimes with the Nazi atrocities of his age, but Calum is not particularly good and Duror is a pretty unconvincing spectre of evil. Calum is only good because he lacks the brains to be wicked. At one point it is said that he “had no opinions at all, any more than a squirrel or a seagull had.” Calum may be intended as a figure of child-like innocence, who is delighted by animals and toys, but this reiterates an old-fashioned and mistaken definition of children as pre-human beings who are uncorrupted by adult passions. As Doctor Matheson hints, even if Calum had been caught masturbating in the woods, he would still remain innocent.
The definition of goodness as mere harmlessness or “innocence” is not very inspiring. In reality, goodness results from responding morally to a complex and hostile world, and this involves conscious choices rather than just an instinct not to hurt others.
TULLOCH AND RODERICK.
Calum’s boss Mr Tulloch is not so much good as lucky: his modest station in the world has allowed him to indulge a fatherly, protective attitude towards the hapless cone-gatherers. We may suspect that he only stands up for them and offers them his wife’s cakes because it gives him no trouble; although the novel sentimentally attributes these actions to a solidarity between “sharny-toed brier-ragged heather-nibbling boys.” The most sympathetic character in the novel is Roderick, because, unlike Tulloch, he has to overcome his own sense of inadequacy to be good. His ascent of the silver fir may be construed as a bold, naive attempt to smash the class system – to not just help the gatherers by collecting cones for them, but to become a gatherer and resign from the aristocracy. Yet he may also put himself in danger deliberately, getting caught in the fir so that the disgraced cone-gatherers can be invited to rescue him and pose as heroes.
Recalling Lady Runcie’s jibe that the cone-gatherers are Roderick’s “toys,” it could be that his entrapment in the tree is a joke on Jenkins’ part about the rich being “stuck up.” Only the most exemplary Biblical figures ascended to heaven, but we find Roderick’s “virginal body” aping the “example” of the “bestial” cone-gatherers and their “paws.” Progressing beyond the clunky religious symbolism which elsewhere impairs the novel, Roderick’s ascension suggests an angel volunteering to be both dragged down and redeemed by apes. If Roderick’s daring scheme had worked, then all of the characters would have been reconciled in a wonderful happy ending, apart from Duror who would have probably remained skulking in his forest. I like to imagine that this looming happy ending had taken Jenkins completely by surprise, and, appalled by the thought of Lady Runcie inviting the cone-gatherers back to her mansion for tea and cream buns, he quickly killed Calum in a panic. But perhaps Roderick is the real Christ figure of the story, and Calum and Lady Runcie are false messiahs.
In the world of the cone-gatherers, complex problems appear to have easy solutions, but such achievable happiness is obviously not to Jenkins’ taste, and the plot is structured to prevent crucial meetings which could potentially transform the characters’ lives. If Peggy had ever met Calum, then both of these characters may have helped and heartened each other. Calum would make an infinitely more caring companion for Peggy than Duror. One wonders whether Neil’s hostility towards the aristocracy and Roderick’s loneliness could have survived a meeting between them. Instead Jenkins prefers to dwell upon the fruitless encounter between Duror and Effie: “Did she think he could be saved by her offering him her fifty-year-old body in a dark room…?”
At the end of the novel, Neil unaccountably refuses to help Roderick down from the silver fir, and it seems unbelievable that a man so sweetened by his brother’s “goodness” could end up demonstrating such callousness and moral stupidity. Graham warns that, “To abstain… will be murder.” Perhaps Neil’s refusal to help Roderick is intended to illustrate how far a man can go astray by hating the aristocracy, but the two things are actually unrelated. Neil’s character would not be improved by overcoming his rage, and his hatred of the rich is not immature but perfectly normal and healthy. Even if the cone-gatherers had hastened gallantly to Roderick’s rescue, Neil’s hatred of Lady Runcie would remain justified.
In one passage, it is suggested that Neil’s protection of his brother is an unconscious extension of the war effort. Neil had heard that “the war was being fought so that ordinary humble people could live in peace without being bullied and enslaved by brutal men with power.” What makes Neil’s apparent disgrace at the end of the novel so unconvincing is that he must be sure, at least subconsciously, that Roderick was never in any danger to begin with. Such a careful man would undoubtedly realise that if Roderick had died trying to extract himself from the pine tree, and the cone-gatherers were implicated in the boy’s death by their refusal to help, then the community would probably lynch both himself and the brother to whom he had dedicated his life.
If Neil senses the artificiality of the danger to Roderick, then his refusal becomes merely a case of bad manners – of refusing a hand offered in friendship – but it may be also eloquent of his rage at the aristocracy. A true revolutionary, Neil does not wish to submit to a reconciliation which is dependent upon the grace of Lady Runcie. His alternative idea of a reconciliation entails Lady Runcie coming to speak to him as an equal.
DUROR AND EVIL.
The grim Duror, meanwhile, is not so much evil as simply unwell. He would make a fine soldier, but he is stranded in this eerily peaceful backwater, and his example may remind us that many husbands probably fled to war in order to escape the maddening suburban boredom of life at home. Imagine living his aimless and lonely life in the forest, and coming home every night to his unappealing wife and her dreadful mother. You would probably crack long before Duror did. Indeed, under the circumstances Duror may strike us as exceptionally stoical. It would be a hard jury who convicted him of any wrongdoing.
From the senile dwarf savagery of Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959) to the crass perkiness of Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), the great writers of the post-war period struggled to represent the enormity of the human evil which they had witnessed in WW2. Duror dangles before us like a jingling puppet embodiment of Nazism. With stilted melodrama, he envisions himself “blasting” the cone-gatherers “to everlasting perdition” and he reasons that “their deaths like… [that of] frogs’ could not be called murder.” Leaving aside the fact that the Nazi horrors were the work of social organisations and institutions rather than lonely psychopaths – and that the victims of the Nazis were normal, regular men and women, rather than angelic simpletons such as Calum – Jenkins is unable to really explain why Duror is evil, so that Duror’s mind and character gradually fade away into the forest as the novel progresses, leaving him as distant a figure as Calum.
Reflecting upon his damnation, Duror himself concedes that “he did not clearly know what it meant.” If one needs a reason for his evil, then there is always his wife. If he had ever loved her to begin with, or known how to talk to her, then their love could have survived her decline into obesity. Dr. Matheson can see that Duror’s lack of affection may have contributed to his wife’s decline, and that Duror may be consequently poisoned by guilt. Duror dreams of his wife as a gigantic caterpillar which is devoured by “thousands of thrushes,” whilst he hilariously achieves the ultimate in social embarrassment by unconsciously acting out her murder on the body of a stag in the middle of an aristocratic deer drive.
To us, it may seem blindingly obvious that Duror must learn how to talk to his wife, either to make friends with her or to make peace with her. But this easy, practical solution seems to have eluded him. If one wished to attribute a little sophistication to Duror’s character, then perhaps his own dramatisation and glamorisation of himself as evil – as a mythical force with a “roaring within him” – is just a way of avoiding the humdrum requirements of sorting out his very human problems.
Lady Runcie’s misfortune is that she lacks the arrogance and stupidity needed to be an aristocrat. Whereas Calum is contentedly stupid, this Lady is damned by her brains. We may distrust her from the beginning: if she had any competence as a social leader, then she would be contributing to the War effort by running a munitions factory or a hospital, rather than being left to supervise a half-empty corner of the Highlands. Whilst her husband has been called away to fight for the future of modern democracy, she persists in a defence of “rank,” resembling King Canute now up to his eyebrows in water. The deer drive scene is supposed to satirise the ruling classes’ detachment from the war effort, and we are supposed to shake our heads at the rich scoffing venison whilst everybody else subsisted on rations; but with her distracted gamekeeper, we can only wonder why poachers have not long plundered all of the game on her estate.
The most successful aspect of The Cone-Gatherers is its setting, which exudes a mild, musty perfume, the fading of Gothicism into daylight. Jenkins’ writing has an agreeable poetry to it, and it doubtlessly captures a little of his own experience as a forester during WW2. At the mention of his afflicted wife, Duror’s “voice was as stripped of emotion as a winter tree”; in his own tree, Calum “fancied he was resting in the heart of an enormous flower” ; whilst, more humorously, the doctor likens psychiatry to searching for a penny in a loch.
We may be suspicious of Lady Runcie’s estate, and the village of Lendrick, because they are greatly sheltered from the horror of war when compared to, say, the experience of London in the Blitz. If the deer drive suggests a flouting of rationing, then this dodging and shirking is more broadly shared by everybody else in the novel, as they are so removed from modernity. Lendrick would probably appear exactly the same if there was no war, or if we were able to witness it today. The future is represented by the lonely youth Roderick, whose privilege will eventually carry him far away from his family estate, to Edinburgh or London. At the end of The Cone-Gatherers, we may realise that we do not care what happens to the people of Lendrick, because the modern world will not be made here.
On the other hand, the novel imagines the forest as an industrial heartland, and one in which all of the traditional lore and gentle mystery of the forest are reconciled with industrial modernity. During WW2, the Forestry Commission planted 100,000 acres of forest, whilst felling over 30,000 acres to supply the wartime demand for timber. We are ultimately reminded that there is nothing natural about Lady Runcie’s forest, or alternatively that there is nothing unnatural about human industry, and that forests may just as well be planted by men as by the God whose clapped out symbolism is cherished by Lady Runcie. Her husband, who is himself as absent as God, claims that the class system is natural because “it’s taken centuries of breeding to produce our kind”; whilst Tulloch almost defines Duror’s evil in similarly animal terms, as if he was akin to “crows mobbing one that had a broken wing” or a crazy horse who “showed his teeth” at random strangers. If Jenkins is successful, The Cone-Gatherers may ultimately lead us away from such failed symbolism, towards a realisation that the world is made and remade by men, and that men are only human.