Project Canterbury

Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905


IT would be an interesting inquiry for any one familiar with the homely traditions of different ages, and imbued with the love of old books, to trace the dissimilarity between the true superstition--the true supernatural creed, which is the immemorial possession and belief of a people, which has its birth in their everyday thoughts and necessities, and the aspect and influence of nature around them--and that false supernaturalism, generally the offspring of an affected and superficial learning and civilisation, which seeks to graft and transplant some incongruous and strange conception upon the natural belief of a people, thereby producing no better result than a worthless and trivial tale.

Those real traditions and superstitions which come to us fresh and pure from the hills and dales and country-places where they had their birth, however false we may choose to call the narrations they convey, are indeed the truest part of history. Prejudice may misrepresent, and slander and faction may malign, and the distance of time may obscure, the deeds and thoughts of nations and of men, but the spectral tales of the people carry us at once into the most retired dwellings and the most distant past, and show us, with a reality which prevents a doubt, the actions and the thoughts, the lives and deaths, the hopes and fears, of nations known to us otherwise but by name.

The awful certainty of and familiarity with death, which is the common property of the whole human race, gives these legends a solemnity and a gravity which we wrong very much when we consider them in any but the most serious mood; and we may take it as a sign of right feeling on these points when we are shocked at those monstrous tales which heap wonder and horror on each other with no regard to that truth which nowhere more than in those legends should be scrupulously observed.

This familiarity with death and the spirit-world, while it is the awful possession of the human race, is also one of its highest privileges. In whatever country man may be placed, this familiarity gives an interest and a beauty to his life which its otherwise monstrous dulness would fail to possess, and a grandeur and nobility to the voice of Nature other than her most lovely or most awful scenes would, without this, be able to command. It is this that gives its lesson to the rolling ocean, their moral to the everlasting hills. It was this that gave a meaning, in the eyes of the dwellers among them, to the dismal and gloomy recesses of the Harz Mountains, to the dim and sacred forests of Germany, and to the dreary wilds of Scandinavia; and having once given this meaning to Nature, this spectral creed receives back from her a strength and an endurance which is among the most wonderful things in this world of wonders. The possessors of the second sight1 in the Highlands of Scotland were no longer seers when they left their native hills, and the gnomes and dwarfs of the Norse mythology did not accompany their human acquaintances in their wanderings, but remained in their old haunts.

It would be curious to trace the various causes which led to the different kinds of supernaturalism to which countries and ages have given birth: as, for instance, in the rough first ages of Northern Europe, the necessity and utility of workers in iron, and of strong and swift horses, was the origin of numberless legends of wayland smiths, and of famous steeds, gifted with human sense and speech. Again, the stories of the fairies are among those which have suffered most from a spurious supernaturalism, but they seem to have been confined entirely to Great Britain. The elves of the popular tales of Ireland would appear, indeed, to be the same as the alfs of Iceland and Scandinavia, but the real fairies of England and Scotland are totally different from the trolls, kobolds, and little men of the mines of Germany and the north of Europe. It is interesting to see how the mineral treasures of these latter countries and the immemorial skill of the inhabitants in working them have influenced the mythology; the dwarfs, who play so chief a part in their tales, have but a very faint echo in the miner superstitions of our own country. Scotland also, the home of so many supernatural beings, is entirely ignorant of them. Were these German and Scandinavian traditions dim recollections, as some have supposed, of a previous people, whom our Teuton ancestors conquered and destroyed, or was there so great a difference between the Keltic and Scandinavian mind, so great a diversity in their several readings of the great lessons of humanity and of the voice of the visible world, that they could not "carve out of Nature for themselves" the same legends or the same creed?

Why, again, was magic and the power of invocating the dead so much more general in the southern and north-eastern countries of Europe than elsewhere? Innumerable traditions, indeed, have spread over the whole of Europe, but with such remarkable exceptions as to increase rather than lessen our wonder. Why, for instance, was the spectre huntsman, so often seen in Germany, England, and even France, entirely unknown, so far as I am aware, in Spain or Italy, in Scandinavia or Scotland? Some legends found alike in the Hindoo, the Classic, and the Teutonic nations are invaluable to the ethnologist as bearing on the common origin of the Indo-European races, but even these are full of strange variations.

It would also be very curious to observe the changing of these traditions with the age. There is one very remarkable instance which is well worthy of being traced to its source. Before the Reformation in England we hear very little of apparitions of the dead,--what we do hear being mere monkish narrations, for the glory of their different orders, of the appearance of saints and great ecclesiastical dignitaries,--nothing at all that corresponds with the familiar intercourse with the spirits of departed friends found in the more modern ghost stories. Instead of this, the belief in fairies was universal. These pretty beings were everywhere, haunting every dell and lonely place. After the Reformation it was observed by several writers that the fairies entirely disappeared. Then, when the mind of the people was loosened from its old sure anchorage in the religion of Rome, and tossed and confused with religious conflict and doubt, graver and more solemn thoughts brought nearer to them the spirit-world, in more noble but more awful guise. Then, not in lonely and romantic spots, fit for fanciful imaginations, did a beautiful and fairy creation dance before them, as in a poet's dream, but the spirits of their dead friends stood before them in familiar orchards and rooms. Riding in open day, on their homely business, near their own houses, they held talk face to face with spirits. In those great struggles of the serious and pious mind of the Protestant Teuton after the everlasting truth, the departed spirits of men manifested an interest in the trouble of their human kin; and so closely were these ghostly interviews connected with the truths of religion, that for many years to doubt one was to doubt the other, and the man who denied the possibility of an apparition declared himself an infidel.

I have space but for one instance of the false supernaturalism. What nations and generations have firmly believed in is as true to us as any history can be; for, as a naturalist can describe an animal from seeing its food, so the intellectual food of a people shows us the people itself. If this is the value of these legends, how utterly worthless must those fanciful narrations of supernatural events be which never were the faith of any nation, or anything else but the imaginative ravings of a poet's brain!

We see this in the half-Classic, half-Gothic poems of Tasso and Ariosto. Of Tasso's beautiful poem no one should speak but with the greatest respect, but to my mind it is greatly injured by those human trees that bleed and human woods that speak. But Tasso is innocent of this charge compared with Ariosto. In his poem we find little else but this false supernaturalism. Here we see hippogryphs, dragons, visits to the moon and planets, heroes slaying whole armies in one day with a single sword--an innumerable crowd of such follies, which the real beauties of the poem hardly counterbalance.

Fairy tales and supernatural tales generally, which have been made in modern times to serve as vehicles for modern teaching, have been productive of the greatest harm in this respect. The well-meaning but mistaken authors never saw that, by thus falsifying and slandering some of the most serious and solemn instincts of our nature, they were committing a far greater moral wrong than their teaching would ever remove. No good can ever come out of falsehood, and that is most false which is monstrous and unnatural.

Such writers never saw or understood the real lessons and teaching of these time-honoured traditions which they irreverently parodied--lessons not a few, and very high and noble, the greatest of which perhaps is this: that by reflecting on this universal desire of the human soul, this craving which it has ever shown after some knowledge of, and intercourse with, the spirit-world--to make for itself, as it were, friends of the dwellers in that world, that when, after death, it enters, naked and homeless, into that unknown land, astonished and dismayed, they may receive it into everlasting habitations--this yearning after some being gifted with sympathies at once human and divine--a native at once of the mortal and immortal worlds, a god and yet a man--we may perhaps see something of the scope and object of the mission of One who, Himself possessing all these qualities, has gathered together all the craving of the whole human race, all the follies and sins and desires of humanity, into Himself, and by condescending to them, elevated into virtue all its erring and senseless and blind instincts, all its dulness and groping in the dark--Jesus Christ, the Man.

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