Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Glockenspiel of the Gods? - Charlie Butler

"No one knows who they were... or what they were doing... but their legacy remains.”
The portentous words of Spinal Tap hang over Stonehenge like a miasma. The stones are fascinating, of course, as is the mystery of their original purpose, but the uses that people have made of them since are no less so. Every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves, as a wise archaeologist once said. At different times the monument has been seen as a calculator, a place of sacrifice (or perhaps of healing), a symbol of political power, and even as an instrument for playing the music of the gods. The last theory derives, in part, from the discovery that some of the famous bluestones brought from the Preseli Mountains have the curious property of chiming with a distinct musical note when struck by a hammer. Not only that, but the size of the Stonehenge stones seems – at least to some eyes  - to show a deliberate gradation, somewhat like the bars of a glockenspiel.
What’s that, dear reader? You want to go to Stonehenge and try the hammer trick out for yourself? Do let me know how you get on.
All this is on my mind because last Friday I attended a day conference at Bristol University music department, devoted to the "Sounds of Stonehenge". It was a lot of fun to hear about the latest theories from some of the people involved in constructing them. And Professor Ronald Hutton – something of a hero of mine – even complimented me on my hair. Who could ask for more?
Children’s writers, especially writers of fantasy, have used Stonehenge and other prehistoric sites as much as anyone else, of course. More, in fact. Let me count the ways...
  • The Magnifying Glass. In this view, Stonehenge (or whatever monument is involved) becomes a focus for cosmic, magical, or other forces, making it a place of tremendous power.
  • The Time Squisher. Because of this concentration of power, the very concept of time itself takes on a curious wibbliness, allowing easy access from one period to another, or even to a mysterious place where "all times coexist." (Very handy when you’re late with a deadline.)
  • The Space Squasher. Alternatively it is space rather than time that undergoes the wibbling, allowing your protagonist to step lightly between countries or even universes. Ever noticed how much those trilithons look like airport security scanners?
  • The Alien Engine. Just possibly all that concentrated power is being used neither to squish not yet to wibble, but rather to run a machine, designed by intelligences far beyond our puny ken, for purposes we wot not of. (No insult to puny Ken intended.)
  • The Petrified Folk. Here we take a leaf out of the folklorists’ book, and see in these mysterious megaliths hapless people who have been turned to stone. The fields of Britain are scattered with Sunday revellers, witch insulters, devil wagerers and name-in-vain takers. Will they never learn? No one, as far as I know, has attached a legend of this kind to Stonehenge itself, mind* – and it would be difficult to do so, given the trilithons. What on earth were they up to when they got stonified? Was the 2000 B.C. British gymnastic squad punished for training on the Sabbath? As ever, Stonehenge keeps its secrets.
“No one knows who they were... or what they were doing.” But it’s a lot of fun to wonder. And for a fantasy writer, Stonehenge is nothing short of a deliberate provocation.
* Unlike Bristol's own, strangely-neglected circle at Stanton Drew, one of whose stones is pictured above.


Mary Hoffman said...

The Rollright stones, near me are a bit neglected too, compared with their more famous Wiltshire cousins.

That would have to be one hell of a hammer to use Stonehenge as a Glockenspiel! A musical instrument for Thor or an even earlier equivalent.

Is that the Ronald Hutton who wrote The Triumph of the Moon?

Lucy Coats said...

Lovely, Charlie. And I'm glad the Prof complimented your hair. A coup. I am a bit of a stone circle freak myself--I have one in my garden, with ley and dragon lines properly aligned, and also a large amethyst geode. I too thought the stones of Britain, other than SH had been neglected, which is why I tried to put as many as possible in Coll the Storyteller. Callanish is perfectly wonderful when you see it from above on a sunny day, with the blue blue water behind looking positively Caribbean. I also love the Whispering Knights--did you know they were perfectly aligned with both Avebury and SH. Avebury on a Solstice night of full moon is a place of infinite mystery. And as for the stones in Wistman's Wood on a misty autumn day...highly recommended. Did I mention I quite like stones?!

asakiyume said...

That was a great scene in Spinal Tap when the little mini-Stonehenge got lowered onto the stage :D

The fields of Britain are scattered with Sunday revellers, witch insulters, devil wagerers and name-in-vain takers. Will they never learn? --Loved this :-)

Susan Price said...

Loved all of this, Charles - especially your grasp of the technical terms, such as 'wibbliness'

Charlie Butler said...

The Rollrights (which I also like a lot, by the way) did at least get to star in Penelope Lively's *The Whispering Knights*, even if she renamed them after the dolmen nearby. The climax of that book contains a classic piece of time-wibbling, too. One of my faves.

Lucy, I must certainly check out *Coll the Storyteller* - sounds great!

Charlie Butler said...

Oh, and yes, Mary, it's the same Ronald Hutton!

Mary Hoffman said...

I read that Penelope Lively aeons ago!

I love the Kings' Men and that would have been a good title too. We have a painting of them by our friend Donald Davis. And one of the Sarsen stone at Avebury.

Doesn't RH have quite funky hair himself?

Charlie Butler said...

Yes, RH's locks do flow a bit - and he usually sets them off with snazzy waistcoats.