December 3, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Listen to “Misty Mountain Hop” by Led Zeppelin while reading today’s blog.
In The Meaning of Travel by Emily Thomas, she explains that mountains used to be feared, vile, despicable places. In literature, they were described with disdain and hatred. She quotes John Donne’s “Anatomy of the world” in which he calls mountains “warts and pock-holes” as one example (113). Generally speaking, mountains were treacherous, dangerous places, therefore, travelers braved summits and passageways only by necessity. However, in the late 1600s, tourism became more feasible. Wealthy families sent their sons on what became known as the Grand Tour of Europe. Often full of mischief and mayhem, these tours also, at times, included education and passage through wild spaces. The Tours rose in demand and popularity. After the Napoleonic Wars, travel prices dropped enough to suit more moderate incomes and this gave rise to tourism for the masses.
Somehow, over time, (probably due to a combination of things, but largely to the voices of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, as Thomas notes), mountain tourism soared. Previously insurmountable summits were looked upon as desirable goals. Wilderness was no longer something to be feared. Fear and intimidation often entered into the journey’s preparation, but in surpassing one’s own fears, landscapes altered from evil into something sublime and powerful. Humans desired to overcome natural obstacles. In other words, our vision of wilderness changed from one of fear to one of challenge and exhilaration. From this tradition, we get books like Into the Wild and Wild.
In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane also writes about mountains. More specifically, he embodies the poet Nan Shepherd’s experience with the Cairngorms. Unlike explorers who sought peaks, Shepherd wandered aimlessly and without agenda. She looked for new bits and pieces of the land that raised her. This intimacy with the land was something she actively sought. It nourished her in a different way than those who fought summits and returned to city life. Macfarlane writes, “Knowledge is never figured in The Living Mountain as finite: a goal to be reached or a state to be attained” (71). Shepherd’s view of knowledge came with intimacy and observation, not perseverance and heights (though at times it arrives there as well). Macfarlane continues, “What Shepherd learns – and what her book taught me – is that the true mark of long acquaintance with a single place is a readiness to accept uncertainty: a contentment with the knowledge that you must not seek complete knowledge” (71). In other words, Shepherd’s book and her journey inspire a long-term curiosity which rises with knowledge of a place, rather than a goal-driven experience. This piece of advice seems instructive for our lives in general.
All this talk of mountains inspired me to think of some fictitious passages which describe mountains. How are landscapes useful in setting the tone of a novel or a passage? First, in The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, the reader’s first peek at Caradhras, the tallest of the Mountains of Moria, is through the eyes of Gandalf and Aragorn. They watch the “dark and sullen” mountain with great trepidation (287). Tolkien’s hero’s journey often uses the land to enhance natural attachments, but also to escalate fears. Though dangerous, Gandalf and Aragorn decide to brave Caradhras because it may allow them to pass through the mountains unnoticed. Gimli notes that the Dwarves call it Caradhras “the Cruel” (289). As the group of travelers climb, rocks begin to fall and wind shrills in their ears. Tolkien writes:
“The Company set out again with good speed at first; but soon their way became steep and difficult. The twisting and climbing road had in many places almost disappeared, and was blocked with many fallen stones. The night grew deadly dark under great clouds. A bitter wind swirled among the rocks. By midnight they had climbed to the knees of the great mountains. The narrow path now wound under a sheer wall of cliffs to the left, above which the grim flanks of Caradhras towered up invisible in the gloom; on the right was a gulf of darkness where the land fell suddenly into a deep ravine.
“Laboriously they climbed a sharp slope and halted for a moment at the top. Frodo felt a soft touch on his face. He put out his arm and saw the dim white flakes of snow settling on his sleeve.
“They went on. ….” (288)
This passage from Tolkien gives a sense of relentlessness and brutality. Ursula Le Guin also uses this technique in The Left Hand of Darkness. In this novel, mountains and landscapes enhance the visceral, emotional experience of her invented land. As with Tolkien, the alien land feels similarly challenging and terrifying. The characters, though, describe moments of complete joy and overwhelming emotion at the sight of pure ice, or the first sunlight in months. This creates sublime emotions that resonate with what we know and understand of peaks, of dangerous weather, and a battle of human strength. The book’s climax arrives when the two characters, Genly Ai and Estraven, make a journey through arctic conditions. Le Guin writes:
“When we walked on the crisp snow no shadow showed the footprint. We left no track. Sledge, tent, himself, myself: nothing else at all. No sun, no sky, no horizon, no world. A whitish-gray void, in which we appeared to hang. … One day about noon, Odorny Nimmer, the sixty-first day of the journey that bland blind nothingness about us began to flow and writhe….I caught a glimpse of a small, wan, dead sun overhead. And looking down from the sun, straight ahead, I saw a huge black shape come hulking out of the void towards us. Black tentacles writhed upwards, groping out. … ‘The crags…It must be Esherhoth Crags.’” (260-1)
Simply using these two literary examples, we see how mountain travel sets a tone and creates emotional connection between the reader and the characters’ experiences. Moreover, in both instances, the group of travelers becomes closer as a result of their combined endurance. Enduring the rugged terrain creates a different sense of community, one built upon mutual respect.
As a final thought: light makes and unmakes mountain visibility which adds to the sense of sublime. In “Summit of Corrie Etchachan,” Nan Shepherd connects the human mind with these largely unknowable vistas. She writes:
“A mountain shut within itself, yet a world,
Immensity. So may the mind achieve,
Toiling, no vision of the infinite,
But a vast, dark and inscrutable sense
Of its own terror, its own glory and power.”
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