Wednesday, June 24, 2009

'The White Company'

I have been reading an absolutely wonderful little story today - ‘The White Company’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (You can find an online text here at It is the tale of the adventures of a young man raised in a monastery in fourteenth century England who must go out into the world for one year before deciding whether to become a monk or stay in the world. The White Company refers to a company of English longbowmen who wage war on the French.
I have for some time been mulling the idea of writing a novel and this tale is very much of the essence and of the period that I would like to write about. It also has the kind of humour and zest for life that I admire in a writer. Barely a page goes by that I don’t burst out laughing in delight. I thought you would like this example because it centres on a philosophical discussion.

Alleyne, the young adventurer (trained as a clerk by the monks), stumbles upon a couple of arguing students sheltering from the rain under a holly tree at the side of the road. They invite him to partake of their food...

"But I pray you, good youth, to tell us whether you are a learned clerk, and, if so, whether you have studied at Oxenford or at Paris."
"I have some small stock of learning," Alleyne answered, picking at his herring, "but I have been at neither of these places. I was bred amongst the Cistercian monks at Beaulieu Abbey."
"Pooh, pooh!" they cried both together. "What sort of an upbringing is that?"
"_Non cuivis contingit adire Corinthum_," quoth Alleyne. (_It is not every man’s lot to go to Corinth_.)
"Come, brother Stephen, he hath some tincture of letters," said the melancholy man more hopefully. "He may be the better judge, since he hath no call to side with either of us. Now, attention, friend, and let your ears work as well as your nether jaw. _Judex damnatur_--you know the old saw. Here am I upholding the good fame of the learned Duns Scotus against the foolish quibblings and poor silly reasonings of Willie Ockham."
"While I," quoth the other loudly, "do maintain the good sense and extraordinary wisdom of that most learned William against the crack-brained fantasies of the muddy Scotchman, who hath hid such little wit as he has under so vast a pile of words, that it is like one drop of Gascony in a firkin of ditch-water. Solomon his wisdom would not suffice to say what the rogue means."
"Certes, Stephen Hapgood, his wisdom doth not suffice," cried the other. "It is as though a mole cried out against the morning star, because he could not see it. But our dispute, friend, is concerning the nature of that subtle essence which we call thought. For I hold with the learned Scotus that thought is in very truth a thing, even as vapor or fumes, or many other substances which our gross bodily eyes are blind to. For, look you, that which produces a thing must be itself a thing, and if a man's thought may produce a written book, then must thought itself be a material thing, even as the book is. Have I expressed it? Do I make it plain?"
"Whereas I hold," shouted the other, "with my revered preceptor, _doctor, praeclarus et excellentissimus_, that all things are but thought; for when thought is gone I prythee where are the things then? Here are trees about us, and I see them because I think I see them, but if I have swooned, or sleep, or am in wine, then, my thought having gone forth from me, lo the trees go forth also. How now, coz, have I touched thee on the raw?"
Alleyne sat between them munching his bread, while the twain disputed across his knees, leaning forward with flushed faces and darting hands, in all the heat of argument. Never had he heard such jargon of scholastic philosophy, such fine-drawn distinctions, such cross-fire of major and minor, proposition, syllogism, attack and refutation. Question clattered upon answer like a sword on a buckler. The ancients, the fathers of the Church, the moderns, the Scriptures, the Arabians, were each sent hurtling against the other, while the rain still dripped and the dark holly-leaves glistened with the moisture. At last the fat man seemed to weary of it, for he set to work quietly upon his meal, while his opponent, as proud as the rooster who is left unchallenged upon the midden, crowed away in a last long burst of quotation and deduction. Suddenly, however, his eyes dropped upon his food, and he gave a howl of dismay.
"You double thief!" he cried, "you have eaten my herrings, and I without bite or sup since morning."
"That," quoth the other complacently, "was my final argument, my crowning effort, or _peroratio_, as the orators have it. For, coz, since all thoughts are things, you have but to think a pair of herrings, and then conjure up a pottle of milk wherewith to wash them down."

No comments:

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond