“Into something opposite”

Our forefathers in the morning of the world appear in certain ancient and, as I think, eternal attitudes; in the posture of the performance of certain primal human acts; such as hunting or dancing or feasting or sacrificing to the gods. It is right and natural that these things should grow richer and more complex with time. But it is decadent and dangerous when these things forget their origin and alter their inmost nature; when, after a stretch of centuries, they have turned into something else, sometimes into something opposite.

… Let us take the case of hunting. Sport has silently and subtly reversed its old character. The essence of the change is this: that men began with the comparatively generous idea of killing wild beasts, and have ended up with the comparatively paltry idea of preserving them. The first was heroic because it was hard and necessary: it was a just and even chivalric part of the war on anarchy, a war of self-defence. It was as moral as Jack the Giant-Killer. In fact, in the early legends the slaying of monsters and the slaying of ordinary beasts is treated as part of the same barbaric knight-errantry. Hercules, in the course of his Twelve Labours, overcomes an ordinary lion and wild boar as well as a three-headed dog and a nine-headed hydra. There is even (if I remember right) a medieval tale of a knight who covered himself with glory in overcoming a cow — a cow gigantic, indeed, but apparently female and “due to purely natural causes.” Do not, however, indulge in that superiority to mediaevalism which is the chief note in the cad. There are a great many knights who appear in Honours Lists who could not offer defiance to a cow, even if the cow were of microscopic, instead of gigantic, size.

Now it is the fragments of this primaeval epic of the slaying of the monsters that give to the earliest hunting-tales and hunting-songs an unmistakable savour of moral honesty and sound feeling. Some of the old hunting-songs, Celtic and Germanic, are great poems, poems in the grand style. The note of it lingers on the horns of Chevy Chase, where the ballad-writer, in a mood between irony and awe, speaks and thinks of the Border battle in terms of venery —

And of the rest of less account
Did many hundreds die;
So ended the hunting of Chevy Chase
Made by the Lord Percy.

The poet seems almost to think it higher praise to call it a hunt than to call it a fight. This heroic tradition came largely, of course, from the real peril of earlier sport: a boar at bay was as destructive as dynamite; and even a stag at bay was not all beer and skittles. But there was more than this; there was the vague but spirited memory of this earlier notion of destroying the huge enemies of man; the tyrants of the material universe; vermin as big as houses; vermin that moved like galleys. Outside of their enormous shadows, all sorts of subtler feelings about birds and beasts could arise. The story of St. George and the Dragon is just as Christian as the story of St. Francis and the Wolf. But they belong to different atmospheres.

Imagine the old sentiment about monsters being applied to modern sport, and you will see how enormously and silently sport has changed; has turned from a sincere notion of killing things as nuisances to a complex notion of keeping them us luxuries. Imagine Jack being asked if he “preserved” giants on his little estate. Imagine St. George “carting” the Dragon, and after every day’s sport putting it back in the cart… Over-elaborated societies end up with their tails in their mouths; in a posture not merely twisted but inverted.

Of course, there are other instances, at which I have already glanced. There was the primitive man whom we left offering sacrifice to the gods when we went off after the hunter. The sacrificer builds an altar and pours wine or blood or something on it and holds up his hands to the sky and talks to somebody he can’t see: a sensible fellow. Then, as time goes on, he turns his remarks into an ordered chant, and then, perhaps, into a written book; and he has a roof to cover the people who come to see him sacrifice, and a lectern to read the book from, and a sort of forum or pulpit to stand in and explain what he has been doing, and so on. And then, when civilisation has grown for some centuries, there comes an Ethical Society — the advance guard of barbarism. You may know it by this extraordinary fact: that it doesn’t take away the additions and accretions round the old human thing; it takes away the old human thing itself. It leaves the reading-desk and the talking-box and the people sitting still on hard seats. But it takes away the altar. It takes away the god.

The Illustrated London News, 9 March 1912.

Published in: on January 8, 2014 at 11:57 am  Leave a Comment  

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