Rural Reads III: Hollow Places
"[G]reater truths are in the tale that has grown over the centuries. Searching for a kernel of truth by trying to remove the legendary elements misses something, it gets rid of the best bits. The legend holds the deeper truths, about our hopes and fears, about how our imaginations work, what we value, and the effect that beauty has on us. It is the accretions to the event or object that originally inspired the tale that matter more.”
Except from Hollow Places by Christopher Hadley
History usually refers to both the events of the past and the study of past events based on (usually written) sources, with the aim of identifying – as accurately as possible – what actually happened. In this sense, Christopher Hadley’s Hollow Places is both a history book, and it is not a history book.
Hadley certainly uses historical techniques (analysing texts, architecture and religious iconography), to uncover his subject – a local Hertfordshire legend of a giant named Piers Shonks who slew a dragon, hidden under an ancient yew tree – but in many ways Hollow Places challenges traditional historical practices. Not only does Hadley use a vast range of non-written historical sources (archaeology, geology and biology to name just a few), the whole book looks at the past as though through the wrong side of a telescope: instead of viewing folklore as a historical phenomenon, Hadley instead starts with a legend and works backwards, filling-in the factual details, starting with the field where the yew tree possibly once stood, and ending with the search for historical evidence for the existence of a Piers Shonks who could match this tale.
Part of the book’s beauty lies in the way it meanders through fields, rivers, even stone, to uncover and explore every avenue possibly linked to the tale. It has a unique feel, as the investigation – the word is oddly fitting – explores every lead and red herring. Hadley recounts the journey almost step-by-step of the marble that is used for Shonk’s tomb, leaving no stone unturned (pardon the pun), as the historical facts become interwoven with myth and magic, creating a tapestry of history, folklore and fantasty. It blends historical records with living memory, capturing as many possible versions and interpretations of the tale as possible, whilst also subjecting the folklore to detailed cross-examination as different documents and records throw up differing details.
The book was widely well received by critics, and it isn’t hard to see why this was (the Guardian reviewer Rosemary Hill writes that “Hadley wears his scholarship lightly but at the heart of this antiquarian wild goose chase is an ingenious meditation on what history, in all its complexity and unevenness, really is”), but it is worth noting that it received more mixed reviews from the general public. While my own copy languished on by bedside table, I read some rather scathing comments about the book on websites like Good Reads and Amazon, usually concluding that it contained too much detail, and readers found it hard to engage.
I feel it is important to mention these differing views of the book: picking-up this book without any preconceived ideas about what it is about aside from the cover, title and blurb may be in for a bit of a shock. At a glance, Hollow Places looks like is a wide-ranging study of the interconnections between folklore and England landscape, but is instead a very detailed analysis of one particular legend and its background. I advise you should pick this up and enjoy the slow ride.
I will end with a confession. I rarely read non-fiction. Even when I read non-fiction, it is rarely about history, so this book proved to be a bit of a challenge for me. It took me out of my comfort zone. However, reading outside of your comfort zone is something we all need to do every now and then, so while I did find the book challenging in places, I was entranced by the winding narrative and they way local legend is woven between historical fact. I am very glad to have read this book. And looking back at it now, I realise that finding it challenging was an important part of the experience. I love fairy tales, legends and folk stories, but Hollow Places has given me a new appreciation of the backgrounds to these aspects of local mythologies, and how they can relate to the facts, places, and artefacts around us.