Sunday, 21 November 2021
Light and Air
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.”
So opens a famous poem by Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”. Mythologies, as well as being concerned with the mysteries of Creation, are also vehicles for mankind’s theories about Destruction. The end of all things in Norse myth is heralded by the dreaded fimbul-winter: “there will be a wind-age and a wolf-age before the world is wrecked” (Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation in his Norse Myths). But as is often the way, the end will usher in a new beginning, for two people, Lif and Lifthrasir, will survive to repopulate the world, and six of the gods also survive or come back to life, finding among the ruins of Asgard the golden playing pieces with which the gods used to play the chess-like board game hnefatafl. C. S. Lewis echoes this detail in the scene in which the children in The Silver Chair return to Narnia after the passage of hundreds of years, to discover in the ruins of their castle “one of the golden chessmen we used to play with when we were Kings and Queens at Cair Paravel.”
Usually one thinks of mythologies as endemic to a particular culture or religion, so that the Norse “twilight of the gods” Ragnarok is representative of Viking thought in general, rather than the personal belief of one particular Viking. But just as mythologies are interpreted in different ways by different people, they can also be extremely personal, the idiosyncratic beliefs of a unique individual. I’ve just come across such a mythology in the work of Samuel Johnson—not the famous lexicographer, but his namesake, the Cheshire dancing master and playwright (1691-1773). This Samuel Johnson had a hit on the London stage with his entertaining nonsense play Hurlothrumbo in 1729, the central theme of which is that “This World is all a Dream, an Outside, a Dunghill paved with Diamonds.”
Now, Samuel Johnson was so eccentric and had such odd notions that he was nicknamed Maggoty Johnson (a maggot in this context being a strange fancy, as in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Mr Fortune’s Maggot), and the wood in which he chose to be buried is known as Maggoty’s Wood. Johnson himself preferred to call himself by the name of his character in Hurlothrumbo, Lord Flame.
I’ve been reading Johnson’s works not for The Hidden Matrix but because of their correlation with the writings of Alan Garner, and in particular his deeply strange and strangely deep new novel, Treacle Walker. I haven’t received my copy yet of Johnson’s Vision of Heaven, which has been compared to Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but I anticipate a roller-coaster of a book. Yesterday I read his 1732 play The Blazing Comet. I do this as a public service so you don’t have to! The play is awful, but there is a strikingly beautiful passage in the fulsome dedication to the Duchess of Richmond, and here is where Lord Flame crosses over into Hidden Matrix territory.
He embarks on a long metaphorical passage in which he regards her husband as the Sun and her as the Moon. “And thus may you live above the World, till Time himself shall die away ... when Light will dissolve itself in Air.”
When Light will dissolve itself in Air—what a singular vision of the end of all things, and one which seems to have come from one man’s imagination rather than from any tradition, or religious teaching, or scientific enquiry.