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Friday
May312013

The Glamour of the Snow

But no one sought to stop him.  Hibbert recalls only a single incident until he found himself beyond the houses, searching for her along the fringe of forest where the moonlight met the snow in a bewildering frieze of fantastic shadows.  And the incident was simply this – that he remembered passing the church.  Catching the outline of its tower against the stars, he was aware of a faint sense of hesitation.  A vague uneasiness came and went – jarred unpleasantly across the flow of his excited feelings, chilling exhilaration.  He caught the instant's discord, dismissed it, and – passed on.  The seduction of the snow smothered the hint before he realized that it had brushed the skirts of warning.

There is something eerie about the snow-capped hills that the majority of us worship from afar.  Surely, it must be of staggering sensation to defeat these mountains, as the greatest of all mountains was conquered six decades ago.  Yet by acknowledging these peaks as the nearest earth to heaven, we effectively make them shrines replete with the martyrs cascaded in avalanches and buried beneath icy crags.  I have never been one for heights, much less deadly, freezing heights, yet a year without winter is incomplete and unmysterious.  Winter has concealed many crimes – be they anthropogenic or at nature's whim – but it is its allure, a call to come and melt into its everlasting ice as refuge from the sweltering hum of man, that remains its deadliest trap.  An appropriate segue into the bizarre happenings of this tale.      

Our soul in peril is the pagan soul of an Englishman by the name of Hibbert.  We do not learn much about the "forty odd years of thick experience behind him," except that he has never pursued any affairs of the heart, "with one tumultuous exception that left no fuel for subsequent fires."  At the present he has taken a room in a post office in Valais, "where he could be at peace to write his book."  The subject of this tome may be implied by his subsequent course of action, although perchance Hibbert does indeed have a book in him.  Many different forces, as it were, seem to clash within his mortal frame:

There was the world of tourist English, civilised, quasi-educated, to which he belonged by birth, at any rate; there was the world of peasants to which he felt himself drawn by sympathy – for he loved and admired their toiling, simple life; and there was this other – which he could only call the world of Nature.  To this last, however, in virtue of a vehement poetic imagination, and a tumultuous pagan instinct fed by his very blood, he felt that most of him belonged.  The others borrowed from it ... for visits.  Here, with the soul of Nature, hid his central life .... Now Hibbert was keenly aware of this potential conflict and want of harmony; he felt outside, yet caught by it – torn in the three directions because he was partly of each world, but wholly in only one.  There grew in him a constant, subtle effort – or, at least, desire – to unify them and decide positively to which he should belong and live in.  The attempt, of course, was largely subconscious.  It was the natural instinct of a richly imaginative nature seeking the point of equilibrium, so that the mind could feel at peace and his brain be free to do good work.

A necessary and laudable aim, if one belied by Hibbert's predisposition to winter daydreams and, unfortunately for him, amidst these white waves of death, visions of things that appear to reflect his own soul's struggle.  When the story was published before twentieth-century Europe's first shattering, the glamour of the title had yet to acquire the fashionable definition that is now most prevalent, although its original meaning, a magic spell, nicely predicts its semantic descendant.  Sure enough, Hibbert will be held in fascinated thrall of Valais's exquisite alps, leading some of the locals to impute his odd behavior to his alien mores (one such observer is a certain Henri Défago, perhaps a distant relative of a character in this tale).  An ice carnival complete with Chinese lanterns and extended curfews provides him an excuse to stay out of his wonderfully safe and protective hotel long enough to find a skating rink, and on that rink, something we may loosely term the embodiment of his long-held desires.

No other author provokes such feelings of unease with nature as Blackwood, an all-enveloping and wicked world perhaps forged, as some sects believe, by the Prince of the Air.  Even if the creepiest rendition of such idolatry can be found in this masterpiece, Blackwood's forests and mountains more consistently inspire dread.  For the creed obscured among these trees, disemboguing only into hideous clearings of hideous rituals, is often cited by the ignorant (invariably non-believers) as having bestowed upon Christianity some of its calendar and practices.  While some local adaptation was surely permitted, it would be unfathomable to consider Christianity, as benevolent a manual to life as has ever been encountered, in any debt whatsoever to animal totems, human sacrifices, and demonic spells.  That is because revealed religion, uncovered in the smallest and most abstract amounts, allows the believer, as they say, to connect the dots.  Paganism, the worship of the wild, is exactly the opposite: it overwhelms the senses with its alleged epiphanies that are really merely multifarious cloaks for its evils.  So when Hibbert feels "a longing to be alone with the night, to taste her wonder all by himself there beneath the stars, gliding over the ice," he is not entirely surprised about the form in which night elects to accompany him.  And those "fingers of snow [that] brushed the surface of his heart"?  Let's just say that some people long for temptation, if only to justify their own weak will.  For when one's will and flesh are weak, all hesitation gets conveniently shushed by the wind.  By a very cold wind.