In Defence of Chapter 1

by

The key to reading The Night Land is to start with Chapter 2. At least, that's the advice given to all Night Land virgins.

So what happens in Chapter 1? Which details do we miss?


The key to reading The Night Land is to start with Chapter 2. The first paragraph of this chapter sums up Chapter 1 in 7 succinct lines, telling the modern reader all that needs to be known before we are plunged directly into the main narrative.

At least, that's the advice given to all Night Land Virgins. It worked for me, it worked for many others ... but like all accepted wisdoms it deserves scrutiny to ensure this isn't a sacred cow which needs to be slaughtered.

So what happens in Chapter 1? Which details do we miss?

The Chapter begins with the first meeting between the Narrator (let's call him X) and a beautiful girl, at dusk in the Kentish countryside. She is Lady Mirdath, who lives with her Guardian, Sir Alfred Jarles, on the neighbouring estate to the one owned by X.

X is implied to be a wealthy young aristocrat ... "much given to my Studies and my Exercises". He's taking an evening walk, enjoying the gathering dusk, when Mirdath calls his name through a secret gap in the hedge which bounds Sir Jarles's estate.

There is an instant rapport between them, and Mirdath reminds X that they are distant cousins. She invites X up to the house to meet Sir Jarles when they are suddenly attacked by three men (foot-pads) armed with knives. X swiftly dispatches them with skill and strength and the aid of his oak staff. Mirdath blows a whistle, calling for help. Her three boar-hounds arrive, along with servants. X pays "silver" to the servants, who then punish the attackers ... "I heard their cries a good while after we had gone away".

Mirdath formally introduces X to Sir Jarles, "an old man ... that I knew a little in passing" who thanks him. They dine together, then X walks out with Mirdath, in the night, across the home-grounds of the estate.

All of the above takes place in the first four pages of Chapter 1!

Over the following days, X often meets with Mirdath. They discover a mutual delight in the outdoors as it is affected by the time of day, narrated by X in terms of the Sun, e.g. "the Mystery of the Evening", "the Glamour of Night", "the Joy of Dawn".

One evening, "as we wondered in the park-lands", X and Mirdath discover that they both travelled in "strange dream lands" of their imaginations. Mirdath states the evening is "truly an elves-night". X replies about the "Towers of Sleep", "the Giant's Tomb", "the Tree with the Great Painted Head", and means to speak of the "Moon Garden". Their friendship deepens ... "this was the beginning of my great love for Mirdath the Beautiful".

X continues to meet with Mirdath, "evening by evening". He asks her to always have her boar-hounds with her, for protection, but expresses irritation that she often teases him about his concerns, "as though she would discover how much I would endure and how far she might go to anger me".

One night, X meets with two country-maids emerging from Sir Jarles's wood. They pass him, curtsy "somewhat over-graceful for rough wenches", and he suspects the taller one is Mirdath in disguise. He follows them to the village dance, where they dance together. Then the taller girl dances with a "great hulking farmer-lout". X confronts her, tells her he sees through her disguise and says he will take her home. Mirdath refuses, and returns to the "lout", dances with him again, then bids him to escort her part of the way home. His friend accompanies Mirdath's companion; the four of them leave the dance. The lads set their arms "about the waists" of the girls, and Mirdath loses her nerve. She calls to X for help. He hits the "poor lout" once, and throws him into the side of the road. The second lad, having heard X's name, "ran for his life" ... "my strength was known all about that part".

X shakes Mirdath "very soundly, in my anger", and marches her home. Yet X feels that, despite his anger with her, Mirdath "had no haste to be gone from me that night".

This is all by page 7 of Chapter 1!

The next day, X asks Mirdath if her "waywardness" is over. Mirdath appears to make up with him. He declares his need for her companionship, but "she denied my need", although she sings him songs accompanied by her harp. Even though she is escorted home by her boar-hounds, X follows her secretly until she is safe in her hall.

On the following evening, X goes to meet Mirdath at the gap in the hedge, and discovers her talking to a "very clever-drest man, that had a look of the Court about him". X is jealous and physically lifts the man aside when he doesn't make way for X. Mirdath reacts to this with anger, calls X "uncouth and brutal to a smaller man" and assures X she has no love for him.

X admits to himself that he could have shown some courtesy, makes an apology, and leaves them "to their happiness".

X avoids Mirdath for a week, but after that, returning to the hedge-gap, he spots her walking with the man, and that "she suffered his arm around her, so that I knew they were lovers". He stays away for a month, hurt in pride and love, then returns to the hedge-gap. X but does not see Mirdath, only one of her boar-hounds who is friendly towards him.

Two weeks after that, X resolves to go up to the house of Sir Jarles. He discovers a dance taking place in the grounds, with many people dressed in a "quaint" manner. He fears this is the wedding feast of Mirdath and her young man, but then remembers that she was twenty-one that day, and this must be her birthday celebration.

Mirdath is there, but X's rival is absent, although he "burned with a fierce and miserable jealousy" as he watches "the other young men about her".

X creeps away, and avoids her for three months.

Finally, he returns to the hedge-gap "because I could not bear the pain of my loss". He hears Mirdath singing a "broken love song", wandering in the dark alone, save for her great dogs.

They meet, reconcile, kiss and then "walk homeward through the woods" together.

X asks her about the "man of the Court" and Mirdath takes him into the great hall, introduces him to a lady who sits, embroidering, and X recognises her face as that of the person he thought was the "man of the Court"! Mirdath explains that her friend Mistress Alison had been dressed in the Court suit to play a prank for a wager with a certain young man who would be a lover to her. X had come along, jumped to the wrong conclusion, and Mirdath's anger was because he had put his hands upon her friend. After that, the girls met every evening at the hedge-gap to punish him, and get their revenge.

Mirdath admits that she was in love with him, even then, and half-regretted her action.

X makes up with Mirdath, and after that, "Mirdath and I could never be apart".

A further incident nearly causes Mirdath's death, when, as they walk together in the woods, one of Mirdath's boar-hounds goes mad, and leaps at X in a brutal attack. Mirdath casts herself at the dog, to save X. She is bitten as she strives to hold him off from X. X holds the boar-hound by the neck and body, and kills the beast with his bare hands. Throwing the dog aside, X draws the poison from Mirdath's wounds, then takes her in his arms, and runs the long and weary way to the Hall, where he burns the wounds with hot skewers. The doctor comes later, and states that X has saved her life.

After a long time, Mirdath recovers fully from her wounds, and X and her are married.

This takes us nearly to the end of Chapter 1, still only a mere 17 pages.

The final part of the text jumps to the present of the narrator, when Mirdath lies dying after childbirth.

X relates that "I had no power to hold Death backward from such dread intent". X brings their baby to his dying wife, then returns it to the Nurse, to be alone with Mirdath in the room.

Taking her in his arms, they lie together on the bed. Mirdath calls him by "the olden Love Name that had been mine through all the utter lovely months of our togetherness".

X begins to tell her of his love, that should pass beyond death, and at that moment Mirdath dies.

That is how Chapter 1 ends, a total of 19 pages written to set the scene, before the main narrative of The Night Land.

The modern reader must remember that The Night Land was first published in 1912, and one of Hodgson's greatest influences was H.G.Wells, and his novel The Time Machine. In common with many stories of the scientific romance, including The Time Machine, the story first begins with an introductory section which welcomes the reader into the world of the imagination, acclimatizes the reader to the characters in the more mundane world, and perhaps slowly introduces the reader to the fantastic concepts which follow. Wells does this by the Time Traveller arguing the case for Time Travel with his sceptical friends; Hodgson does this by giving the reader the full background to the main characters in The Night Land (X and Mirdath), but sets them in the Kentish countryside attending village dances, walking in the woods, encountering foot-pads and farm boys.

Yet Hodgson does more than this. Like a great work of music, Hodgson starts his novel with a prelude, featuring all the main themes of the main work. The resonances he sets up echo through the world of The Night Land, giving the reader a sense of Time Past linked to Time Future.

This is the key to Chapter 1. By setting it deliberately in the Past (of 1912), as can be seen with the mentions of foot-pads, Kentish aristocracy, etc., the resonances set up by Chapter 1 instill a stronger sense of Time dislocation for the reader when the narration moves to the far future in Chapter 2 than there would otherwise be; the reader can imagine the Past of a few hundred years ago, but not the sense of being millions of years in the future. Yet the 'future' narration is rendered all the more powerful as the patina of Time Displaced has been painted over it by the resonances instilled by Chapter 1.

The parallels are clear:

All the encounters described between X and Mirdath are either in the evening or in the night, giving the imagery a sense of dusk, then nightfall, to set the reader up for the eternal dark of the Night Land.

X first meets Mirdath when she calls his name out of the dusk, like their first communication in the Night Land — by 'speech' before sight — and he saves her in fights against foot-pads, then her maddened hound, as he does in fights against the various dangers of the Night Land.

Mirdath is nearly fatally wounded by her hound, and X picks her up and runs out of the dark woods to the Hall of Sir Jarles, saving her life. This parallels his actions at the end of the main narrative, when he heroically carries her to the Last Redoubt. The significance of this image is underlined by Hodgson when a statue of X carrying Mirdath is revealed in the final scene of the book.

Mirdath goes to the village dance in disguise, and the theme of monsters disguising themselves as humans to deceive them is often mentioned in the main Night Land narrative.

X's great falling out with Mirdath, due to his own rashness and jealousy, is paralleled by the despair when he believes, so many times in the story, that Mirdath has been lost to the monsters of the Night Land, yet he never gives up, and continues to seek her out until he is successful.

The mutual fancies of the imagination that X shares with Mirdath (the Towers of Sleep, the Giant's Tomb, the Tree with Great Painted Head) foreshadow the terrible images seen in The Night Land.

X has an oak staff in a fight, as he uses the Diskos in battle.

As has been mentioned, Hodgson covers much ground in Chapter 1, yet he skillfully conveys an enormous amount of information, tension, sense of foreign Time, and characterisation into these few pages.

X is revealed to be based on Hodgson himself. The clue is the "Exercises" he practices and his great strength ... like Hodgson. He appears to have everything in his world — an Estate, wealth, aristocratic standing, youth, strength, intelligence. He is used to striving for what he wants, and getting it. He has never failed, so it is significant when he states that Mirdath is dying and he has no power to "hold Death backward". Yet later, in his grief, he says his love will pass "beyond death".

This sets up a second point about Chapter 1. What follows afterwards, when X writes that he dreams that he wakes in the future of the world, may simply be his massive private delusion, based on the 'real life' events of what has gone before in Chapter 1. Hodgson has allowed for the reader to interpret the book in this way by detailing the parallels of Chapter 1 with the events in the Night Land and describing X's character as one who has never accepted failure — the loss of Mirdath may be enough to drive him into this delusional nightmare.

The parallels events could well explain X's imagining that he meets Mirdath again, rescues her, she 'dies', but this time she is revived by the Earth Current and they are together again. This view of The Night Land is supported by the ending of the book. Hodgson relates nothing of the future life of X and Mirdath. He's merely woken from his dream, and cannot imagine past the point where she died in 'real' life.

On the character of Mirdath, although in love with X, she is prepared to resist his domination of her, and her society's, by going to the village dance. Yet she is attracted by X's physical strength and seems to set up situations to provoke him into fighting on her behalf. Chapter 1 gives an insight into Mirdath which is lacking in the further narrative if it is not read in sequence with the rest of the book.

In conclusion

In conclusion, we must still ask if Hodgson could have done better: Could he have left out Chapter 1 altogether? Ultimately, each reader must decide for themselves, based on the evidence provided by the text itself. Hopefully, this essay has provided enough of a defence to encourage readers to re-assess its place in the book.

Night Land Virgins would still be advised to ignore Chapter 1 on their first read, but I believe it deserves closer attention if the achievement of William Hope Hodgson is to be fully appreciated in his writing of The Night Land.


Comments

From: Elizabeth Counihan

Yes, very good and well argued. I'll grant some parts of chapter one are worth reading, especially the insight into X's imagination. I like the idea that he was accustomed to getting his own way and that only Death could not be beaten.

Now let's see if either of you can find an excuse (or even a reason) for Hodgson to use that execrable ye olde style that doth so to mar the whole work.


From: Trelever

I agree with Nigel that Chapter 1 is relevant to the work as a whole — but then why is there no Chapter 18?

To see why I say this, firstly I think there is a strong distinction to be made between the pragmatic and literary views of Chapter 1. The widespread advice to start at Chapter 2 is pragmatic — you hope the person you are giving this advice to will thereby persevere and get hooked enough to stay with it despite the prose.

Well, I did get hooked — but even then only on the second try: I started at Chapter 2 a couple of years ago and didn't get past a few pages. On the second attempt it was enough to carry me along; and then later in the book when the cringe-inducing stuff with Naani happened there was enough momentum to keep me going to the end (and to the great climax).

However I then read Chapter 1. And all of a sudden it seemed to me that I understood some more of what the book was about — and in particular the significance of Naani as (essentially) the same person that X had known in the past. I do not know (and cannot, now) what reading the book for the first time would be like if I had read Chapter 1 first. Possibly the feeling would have been stronger that there was more at stake with Naani: she was not just someone X empathised with, but she was someone X had actually known and lost. I know X goes on (and on) about Mirdath in the 'main text' (Chapter 2 onwards) but without having read Chapter 1 it was more remote, like telling instead of showing. So perhaps from a literary point of view Chapter 1 belongs there. WHH seemed to think so I guess, and certainly all the prefiguring which Nigel points out is there.

So I feel that Chapter 1 belongs there — but have two reservations.

Firstly, we never return to the original X: Chapter 2 onwards is presented as a dream following the introductory Chapter 1, but X never wakes up! In most works where there is a journey to a secondary world the hero returns to his or her homeland, even when the secondary world was a dream. So in the end, not only does Frodo return to the Shire, but Alice returns from Wonderland, and even Winnie the Pooh goes bump up the stairs. So there's definitely a lack of closure, or something that leaves me unsatisfied, about this in the Night Land. If you read from Chapter 2 onwards, you think: great story, hero leaves the Redoubt, has big adventures, returns home triumphant — great. If you read from Chapter 1, you think all this, and then you think, hang on a minute ...

Secondly of course, back to the pragmatic argument: all this is irrelevant if nobody ever reads the book!


From: Rob Joyce

Thank you for this important observation. Actually, I can't understand why anyone would suggest starting the book with chapter 2. As you have so eloquently pointed out, it sets the stage, it sets the mood, and like a prelude it prefigures the symphony to come. I would add, that you get a much deeper insight into the character traits of "X" and Mirdath. Without chapter one, you really know nothing about "X's" strengths and flaws until you are very, very far into the main narrative, and even then, you wouldn't have the whole picture of the man, nor Naani either, without those first interactions as they fall in love. By experiencing the growth of the love relationship between them, and the great loss of "X" when he is powerless to stop death, we are ushered into the emotional power of his absolute necessity to go after Naani. I think chapter one is one of the most engaging and compelling love stories I have ever read, while at the same time being one of the most economically phrased.


From: Alexander Van Scyoc

"The Night Land: In Defence of Chapter 1" I think was written well and provided insight into the first chapter, and masterfully illustrated the entire purpose of the chapter itself, to serve as a counter point and established setting for the entirely strange and alien future detailed later on.


© 2001 by Nigel Brown.