Thomas Hughes: Tom Brown's School Days
In my lark through the classics, I've taken what I thought was a minor detour, but this novel by Thomas Hughes has surprised me. I expected it to be children's literature, a light read -- and my edition is published as a Wordsworth Children's Classic -- but I can't imagine children being able to read it with pleasure or understanding, though I am reading it with both.
Before even getting to the story of Tom Brown's adventures, we're treated to a walking tour of England's Wessex region, where we stop to drink a pint at a countryside pub and engage the landlord in conversation:
"What is the name of your hill, landlord?"I can't imagine a child reading this passage, and I'm sorely tempted to think that I've long misunderstood in imagining Tom Brown's School Days as children's literature. As for me, I enjoy some of the linguistic puzzles in this passage. The dialect is sometimes accessible through recollecting what I heard from the old folks back in the Ozarks during my own childhood days -- though not especially in this passage (except for "heered").
"Blawing STWUN Hill, sir, to be sure."
AUTHOR: "Stone, stupid -- the Blowing Stone."]
"And of your house? I can't make out the sign."
"Blawing Stwun, sir," says the landlord, pouring out his old ale from a Toby Philpot jug, with a melodious crash, into the long-necked glass.
"What queer names!" say we, sighing at the end of our draught, and holding out the glass to be replenished.
"Bean't queer at all, as I can see, sir," says mine host, handing back our glass, "seeing as this here is the Blawing Stwun, his self," putting his hand on a square lump of stone, some three feet and a half high, perforated with two or three queer holes, like petrified antediluvian rat-holes, which lies there close under the oak, under our very nose. We are more than ever puzzled, and drink our second glass of ale, wondering what will come next. "Like to hear un, sir?" says mine host, setting down Toby Philpot on the tray, and resting both hands on the "Stwun." We are ready for anything; and he, without waiting for a reply, applies his mouth to one of the ratholes. Something must come of it, if he doesn't burst. Good heavens! I hope he has no apoplectic tendencies. Yes, here it comes, sure enough, a gruesome sound between a moan and a roar, and spreads itself away over the valley, and up the hillside, and into the woods at the back of the house, a ghost-like, awful voice. "Um do say, sir," says mine host, rising purple-faced, while the moan is still coming out of the Stwun, "as they used in old times to warn the country-side by blawing the Stwun when the enemy was a-comin', and as how folks could make un heered then for seven mile round; leastways, so I've heered Lawyer Smith say, and he knows a smart sight about them old times." We can hardly swallow Lawyer Smith's seven miles; but could the blowing of the stone have been a summons, a sort of sending the fiery cross round the neighbourhood in the old times? What old times? Who knows? We pay for our beer, and are thankful.
I wouldn't have gotten 'blawing stwun' without a bit of authorial assistance. But on learning that it means "blowing stone," and recalling that the is in Wessex, which retains a strong Anglo-Saxon character (or so the author has informed us), I infer that we're supposed to be hearing an echo of the old Saxon dialect.
I don't know much about that, but "stwun" looks a bit like an attempt to render a Germanic-sounding umlaut, for the "w" before the "u" forces the lips to pucker in pronouncing the following "u" sound. Perhaps some learned reader can elucidate this.
But I also have a different sort of puzzle to wrinkle my brow. I've borrowed the selection above from the Gutenberg Project's' online edition, which has the reader asking, "Stuym?" My hard copy, however, has the reader asking, "Sturm?"
Which version is correct, the one with the "y" or the one with the "r"?