The Reluctant Olympian

Et in Arcadia ego.

______

If you’ve been around long enough to collect a large library of books or music you will relate to this. While going through each collection over the past month patterns began to emerge. Patterns that served as markers along my life’s journey. The difficulty I found in reducing the sizes of these collections is that I recognize that each stage, or layer, is a foundation that led me to something else. American roots rockers led to the Del Fuegos which ultimately led to the BoDeans. Og Mandino led to C.S. Lewis and then to Tolkien. Imperfect examples, but you get the idea.

This is what has made it difficult to pare things down. I’ll never part with my Calvin & Hobbes or Bloom County collections, just as Nanci Griffith and Beethoven shall likely have a permanent residence among my music. I do not view these libraries as a hodge-podge of titles thrown together but as a living organism that is a representation of me. (Although there are the occasional one-offs that make me scratch my head and ask “What was I thinking?” Those are the titles most likely to be removed.) But I have been successful in reducing the clutter so far and firming up the foundation.

Yesterday it was firmed up by an addition. Over two years ago I had mentioned to the staff at A Novel Idea Bookstore that I’d appreciate a call if they happened upon something by Kenneth Grahame other than The Wind in the Willows which I already own and cherish. I was specifically looking for The Golden Age or Dream Days. I had all but forgotten this request when I received a call from the store on Friday telling me that they’d found something by Grahame that I may want to see. I was unable to get to the store until I returned to work after being sick and yesterday discovered why they had called.

golden age_front coverCinnamon, the store’s owner, greeted me as I came in (obviously I’m there too often) and excitedly reached under the counter for the book. Katherine, the manager, was not in that day but Cinnamon said she had been excited to show me what she had found. It was a 1915 edition of The Golden Age published by The Bodley Head in London (an edition on e-bay may be seen here). The book is a first edition and contains nineteen color illustrations by J. Enraght-Moony. It is a collection of reminiscences of childhood, and typical of his culture and era, Grahame casts his reminiscences in imagery and metaphor rooted in the culture of Ancient Greece.

While it was not in mint condition, it was in good enough shape for me to read through and know in an instant that I wanted this on a shelf next to TWITW. The price was right, about 30-50% of what I’ve seen it sell for online and a fair one, and after thanking Cinnamon profusely I bought it. Before I left I asked her to add Dream Days to my “be on the lookout for” list. Who knows?

*****

It is now fifteen hours later. At 4am the antibiotics are not working on my pneumonia. The deep coughing has returned and after about an hour of sleep I had given up altogether and was sitting in the living room chair in the lamplight. Hours earlier we had received a phone call from a close friend informing us she has breast cancer. A thunderstorm rolled in around 2am, and while the thunder and lightning has waned, the rain is still coming down hard on the roof and against the windows. And so being tired, possessing a throat dry from coughing, and feeling just a little depressed, I opened my new book and began reading the prologue:

Looking back to those days of old, ere the gate shut behind me, I can see now that to children with a proper equipment of parents these things would have worn a different aspect. But to those whose nearest were aunts and uncles, a special attitude of mind may be allowed. They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognise, the result of a certain stupidity), and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal. At a very early age I remember realising in a quite impersonal and kindly way the existence of that stupidity, and its tremendous influence in the world; …

Grahame continued, writing of a child’s fascination with the fact that adults had the means to do anything and have endless adventures “yet never did any one of these things”:

These elders, our betters by a trick of chance, commanded no respect, but only a certain blend of envy—of their good luck—and pity—for their inability to make use of it. Indeed, it was one of the most hopeless features in their character (when we troubled ourselves to waste a thought on them: which wasn’t often) that, having absolute licence to indulge in the pleasures of life, they could get no good of it. They might dabble in the pond all day, hunt the chickens, climb trees in the most uncompromising Sunday clothes; they were free to issue forth and buy gunpowder in the full eye of the sun—free to fire cannons and explode mines on the lawn: yet they never did any one of these things. No irresistible Energy haled them to church o’ Sundays; yet they went there regularly of their own accord, though they betrayed no greater delight in the experience than ourselves.

Grahame names these elders the Olympians. He marveled at how stiff and boring they were, bereft of adventures or imagination. Outside of a kindly curate (a member of the clergy engaged as assistant to a vicar, rector, or parish priest) all of the Olympians he encountered were boring. Listening to their parents/elders and other Olympians that would come calling left the children scratching their heads.

These strange folk had visitors sometimes,—stiff and colourless Olympians like themselves, equally without vital interests and intelligent pursuits: emerging out of the clouds, and passing away again to drag on an aimless existence somewhere out of our ken. Then brute force was pitilessly applied. We were captured, washed, and forced into clean collars: silently submitting, as was our wont, with more contempt than anger. Anon, with unctuous hair and faces stiffened in a conventional grin, we sat and listened to the usual platitudes. How could reasonable people spend their precious time so? That was ever our wonder as we bounded forth at last—to the old clay-pit to make pots, or to hunt bears among the hazels.

The children were left on their own to fight the battles worth fighting and endured meals anxiously bided their time until they could once more go to arms and scheme schemes for fighting the good fight:

It was incessant matter for amazement how these Olympians would talk over our heads—during meals, for instance—of this or the other social or political inanity, under the delusion that these pale phantasms of reality were among the importances of life. We illuminati, eating silently, our heads full of plans and conspiracies, could have told them what real life was. We had just left it outside, and were all on fire to get back to it. Of course we didn’t waste the revelation on them; the futility of imparting our ideas had long been demonstrated. One in thought and purpose, linked by the necessity of combating one hostile fate, a power antagonistic ever,—a power we lived to evade,—we had no confidants save ourselves.

In the end, as Grahame pauses to look back at his youth, he poses a question that brought me to pause for several minutes while listening to the thunderstorm and hard rain just outside the window next to my chair:

The Olympians are all past and gone. Somehow the sun does not seem to shine so brightly as it used; the trackless meadows of old time have shrunk and dwindled away to a few poor acres. A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego,—I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be I too have become an Olympian?

Reluctantly I shook my head. I knew the answer.

I turned the page and began to read the first chapter, seeking what was lost.

"Once more were damsels rescued and dragons disembowelled..."

“Once more were damsels rescued and dragons disembowelled…”

*****

You can read the entire book, including the entire prologue, on Project Gutenberg.

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