An Archaeologist’s Fables

In the early 1980s, when compiling for Penguin Books The Portable Conservative Reader, Russell Kirk included a short story by a British archaeologist, Jacquetta Hawkes.  It was from her collection, Fables, published in 1953 in London and also in New York the same year, although under the title A Woman as Great as the World and Other Fables.  Hawkes (1910-1996) and her second husband, a left-wing novelist and playwright, J. B. Priestley, supported the United Nations and opposed nuclear weapons and otherwise mixed and mingled with North Atlantic champagne socialists, so inclusion in a conservative anthology may have come as a surprise to her.

Such convergence of opposites begs the question what Hawkes and Kirk could have in common.  One clue comes from the sort of archaeologist she admired.  In 1982 Hawkes published a biography of her friend and mentor, Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976), who for much of the twentieth century bestrode the British archaeological world like a colossus.  According to Hawkes, Wheeler was a heroic figure in an age increasingly unappreciative of heroes.  “Our small children,” Hawkes observed, “are no longer encouraged to have dreams of lordliness or of great deeds, and their educators normally avoid talk of honour, pride, or rulership.”

She was used to the company of prominent men.  Her father, Frederick Gowland Hopkins, was a cousin of Gerard Manley Hopkins and was a Cambridge biochemist honored with a Nobel Prize, a knighthood, and membership in the Order of Merit.  In his reserved and reticent way, he encouraged his daughter’s love of books.  By age nine the precocious Jacquetta Hopkins knew she wanted to be an archaeologist when she grew up, and eventually she studied archaeology at Cambridge and began excavating and writing.  On one of her early digs she met a young Englishman, an archaeologist who would become her first husband, Christopher Hawkes.

Jacquetta Hawkes combined her analytical skills with a gift for lucid prose, and she became a prolific and popular author.  She wrote regularly on archaeology for The Times of London, and her books ranged from archaeology and history to poetry and fables.  In 1951 she wrote A Land, a book accompanying the Labour government’s Festival of Britain; she baffled librarians by calling it a memoir, because it was part history, part personal reflection, part national propaganda.  Throughout her career, her literary talents made her suspect amongst many of her colleagues, men already dubious about a woman in their corner of academia.

From his home in rural Michigan, Russell Kirk had no such qualms.  Of the eighteen stories in Hawkes’s Fables, Kirk chose “The Woodpeckers and the Starlings.”  It tells of two woodpeckers, “easily the most splendid birds in the Plantation.”  They were admired by all the other birds “not only for their appearance and lordly ways, but also for their unique skill as carpenters.”  Then starlings attacked the woodpeckers’ nest, killed the offspring, and drove the aristocratic woodpeckers from the Plantation.  “To justify themselves,” the murderous, thieving starlings “babbled about equality and the evils of privilege.”

The fable giving its title to the American edition of the book, “A Woman as Great as the World,” is a brief creation story.  The Woman “was of a placid disposition, and, knowing everything, had no cares.”  Ravished by the Wind, she brought forth fish and reptiles and birds.  Then, one day she gave birth to “ugly little mommets who walked clumsily on two legs and presently began to hang themselves with leaves and skins.”  Before long “they were spoiling her physical beauty even while they were destroying her age-long peace of mind.”  At first the torment was too much, driving her into spasms of mad laughter, but then “she was at peace once more, knowing everything and caring not at all.”

Then there is “Death and the Standard of Living.”  It traces the development of a simple country girl into a sophisticated urban intellectual.  There is an echo of Hawkes herself, poised, formal, austere; Hawkes’s dignified bearing, marked by tweeds and scarves, often frightened but then fascinated anyone first meeting her:  “[A]n extraordinary vitality inspired her face,” Hawkes wrote of the girl, “and she was possessed of an aloofness, an ability to retreat into mysterious and private territories, that made her irresistibly attractive.”

Until about age eighteen the girl in the fable believed in God and was a faithful church-goer.  Then she fell in love with a new schoolmaster, who introduced her to the allurements of the world outside her village.  She moved away, found a job, studied philosophy, and indulged in the finer things of life.  Before long, the schoolmaster left her, and another relationship to fall by the way was with God.  “Having lost the love of God, nature, and man,” we are told, “work became her distraction and the accumulation of material goods her obsession.”

From the early 1980s into the early 1990s, Russell Kirk (1918-1994) delivered some fifteen lectures at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D. C., and in three of them he referred to or quoted from another of Hawkes’s fables, “The Unites.”  At seventy-seven pages, it is nearly as long as the other seventeen fables combined, and it depicts a dystopian future society in which citizens belong (as slaves belong to their masters) to a world government of state planning and collective uniformity, where everyone must be useful and everyone must be equal, even in death:  the state enforces euthanasia on everyone at age sixty-six.  As a prophecy of utilitarian and egalitarian horrors, it ranks with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.

In contrast to a nightmarish police state of the future, Hawkes mused in her other books on Britain’s prehistory.  She studied archaeological finds from the time of Stonehenge and earlier, when families of farmers first cleared and tilled the rolling fields of Shakespeare’s “other Eden,” and she meditated upon the organization and energy that went into building megalithic structures, some subterranean, for worshipping ancient gods.

As she wrote in A Land, those “massive communal vaults” were dedicated to “the myths of the goddess and the dying god.”  Here she touched upon the permanent and transcendent, ideas conservatives like Kirk have long defended.  Hawkes saw the faith symbolized by those colossal stones as representing “the timeless unity of the tribe, of its members, dead, living, and unborn, all enclosed within their common matrix, the rock and the earth.”

 

 

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

 

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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