a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner
'I have often observed in women of her type a tendency to regard all athletics as inferior forms of foxhunting'.
The woman in question is Lady Circumference, who has come to the annual sports day of a minor public school to present the prizes in Evelyn Waugh's hilarious first novel, Decline and Fall (1928). The speaker, who is the school's headmaster, had been no less scornful about the sport himself: 'I can think of no entertainment that fills me with greater detestation than a display of competitive athletics, none - except possibly folk-dancing.'
He was probably voicing Waugh's own cynicism, which was by no means limited to athletics, although the young Evelyn had apparently made every effort in the compulsory school cross-country runs across the Downs at Lancing. At a time when a world war was raging, Waugh, seen above in Henry Lamb's portrait, had founded the school's Corpse Club 'for those who were weary of life', and at university was a member of an avant-garde circle of aesthetes called the Hypocrites. The intellectual antics of both institutions would infuse the black humour and satirical wit of his early writing, much of which would present challenges to today's arbiters of the politically correct, to put it mildly.
In Decline and Fall, four chapters are devoted to the chaotic planning and running of the Sports Day athletics events, as well as to the aftermath. Running had already put paid to the career of the story's protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, a teacher at the school who had been sent down from university for running trouserless across the college quadrangle, having been debagged by the Bollinger Club's posh rowdies. He nevertheless thought running was good for the boys, 'useful in the case of a war or anything', a utilitarian philosophy of sport more in keeping with Spartan ideals than with public schools' oft-proclaimed allegiance to those of Olympia or Corinth.
In the heats, compulsory for all, one of the masters, Mr. Prendergast, had sent the conscripted runners off through the rain towards a clump of trees, only to find that none emerged: 'I expect they've gone to change. I don't blame them, I'm sure. It's terribly cold. Still, it was discouraging launching heat after heat and none coming back. Like sending troops into battle, you know', said an unfazed Prendergast as he drew up a list of 'results' anyway.
The Countess of Circumference, who always addresses her son by his equally trigonometric surname, Tangent, wonders why he's in the quarter-mile race at all, as 'the boy can't run an inch'. True to form, he is injured by the starter firing his loaded service revolver into the ground via Tangent's foot (' "Am I going to die?", said Tangent, his mouth full of cake'); the consequent decline of both Tangent and his foot is chronicled intermittently for the rest of the novel.
There follows a comical account of the races, after which the winner of the three-miles is accused of having lain low behind some beeches for one of the six laps. The subsequent settling of the issue requires administrative realpolitik in the face of parental uproar: the cheat is declared the winner of 'the five furlongs race' (i.e., his five laps), while the second finisher wins the three miles event. Alert readers will note that five furlongs is not five sixths of three miles, but, in Waugh's defence, such confident stupidity is entirely in keeping with his portrayals of almost everyone involved at the school.
Waugh brings what one critic called his 'exquisite sense of the ludicrous' to the upper class world of bright young things floundering within decaying institutions, and this is mercilessly reflected in the shambolic events at the school athletics meeting in Decline and Fall. By all accounts, including his own, Waugh was a bit of a grumpy old snob, but 'the beauty of his malice', in V.S. Pritchett's phrase, was aimed at socialites and socialists alike. Any of today's bright or grungy young things writing about the way sport reflects society would do well to look beneath his seductively elegant prose and fastidious irony to the underlying social assumptions and prejudices, condensed here into a few runs around the trees.
A few decades later, on the cusp of a less deferent world, the sports day of a very different institution would explode on to the literary world in Alan Sillitoe's short story of rebellion, 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner', later made into a film in which a borstal prison school runs against a public school in a cross-country race. The Running Muse will bring you the results.......
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, Chapman and Hall (1928), Penguin (1937 - present).
Evelyn Waugh by Henry Lamb, 1929, oil on canvas, Lord Moyne collection.
Evelyn Waugh by Feliks Topolski (above), 1961, oil on canvas, University of Texas.
By The Running Muse, Nov 14 2014 01:02PM
Running through Hell
"I am in Hell!", the infamous rebel yell of Fletcher Christian on H.M.S. Bounty, articulates a feeling only too familiar to long-distance runners as the body mutinies against the demands being placed on it. Each runner's brain has to manage the howling protests of the body it governs, and marathons are certainly run as much in the head as on the feet. Hell must be endured, its demons conquered.
If you're going through hell, they say, keep going and come out the other side, but what if you're going through Hell? The running conditions there would surely make the oppressive heat of the Marathon Des Sables seem like a balmy spring day, but, strange to relate, running in the lower chamber of the afterlife has a small but rich literary heritage, not only in the horror genre, but in at least two of the greatest works of the Western canon. Perhaps tellingly, there are no chronicles of any such races being held in Heaven, Paradise or any other pain-free realm.
'Hell' is the English word used to translate the Biblical names for the abode of the dead ('Hades' in New Testament Greek, 'Sheol' in Hebrew), but the idea of Hell as a pit of suffering, despair and punishment has more in common with Tartarus, the part of Hades reserved for the wicked in Greek mythology. These original 'nether regions' would go on to suffer a terrible linguistic fate - they became a euphemism for the groin area, chapsticked or otherwise.
The abstract concept of hell invoked by runners to describe their agony refers to this place of eternal torment, so it is no surprise that many of today's most gruelling obstacle races - typically run through freezing rivers, hills of mud and walls of fire - have names such as Hellrunner, Run Through Hell and the delightfully oxymoronic Santa's Hell Run. Well, here's the daddy of them all.........
The medieval Florentine poet Dante witnesses plenty of Hellrunning on his spiritual journey to the very heart of darkness. In his 'Inferno' (the Italian for 'Hell'), this quest is chronicled as a kind of guided therapy for his midlife crisis, but as he arrives in Hell's foyer for his first session, he is greeted by the ominous entrance sign 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here' (above), beyond which he sees the fate of the Uncommitted, the neutral souls who sat on the moral fence doing nothing in their life, either for good or for evil.
Their rather harsh punishment is to run naked for all eternity in the hottest part of Hell in pursuit of a meaningless banner which never stands still. Like them, it stands for nothing. These were life's opportunists, but they have only earned themselves the constant attention of stinging wasps giving them a literal prick to the conscience (and presumably motivation to keep on running towards their perpetually retreating finish line).
When Dante later comes across an old teacher of his in a desert of fire reserved for the 'sodomites of the Inner Ring' of Upper Hell, he accords him great respect, writing that even here his mentor
'was like one of those who run for the green cloth at Verona,
and he seemed not the loser among them,
but the winner.'
This is a reference to an annual Lenten footrace, the Palio di Verona, the prize for which was a green banner, 'il drappo verde'. It is still run as a 10k race today, although the participants are no longer naked - and the men's winner receives a cock as his reward.
Speaking of which, those of you caught short during marathons will be surprised to learn from Dante that many of the cubicles of Upper Hell are reserved for the 'incontinent' (they're not toilets, though, since Hell is 'damnation without relief', according to Rowan Atkinson). Now you might think that making the incontinent wander forever on burning sands is a bit over the top as retribution for a weak bladder, but the word refers more generally here to sins of uncontrolled passion and excess, such as lust, wrath, gluttony and greed - and it is the Flatterers who end up in a river of faeces, in their own bullshit, perhaps.
Other running sinners include extravagant spendthrifts who are chased and savaged by vicious dogs through the Wood of the Suicides (below), thieves being pursued by snapping serpents, and pimps and seducers, who must constantly flee from horned demons goading them with whips.
One of the winged demons, however, is more at home here and runs through his workplace like some kind of fell-runner
'with nimble feet so swift up every crag,
his fierce, dark face split by an evil grin.'
The fallen angels of John Milton's Paradise Lost are altogether more playful in their running. As they wait for The Lord of the Flies to return to Pandemonium (the capital of Hell) from the Garden of Eden, they decide to pass their leisure time competing with each other and 'in swift race contend, as at th'Olympian games'.
They even came to compete in an away fixture in the rather less cheery but much more recent account of Hellrunning in Clive Barker's thrilling short story, 'Hell's Event' (also a graphic novel). It tells how 'Hell came up to the streets and squares of London....icy from the depths of the ninth circle' to threaten the future of humanity - by entering a team in the London Marathon, no less. (Barker's reference to ice quotes Dante, whose Satan is immobile in a lake of ice in the very centre of Hell, which rather subverts the meaning of the phrase 'when Hell freezes over'.)
In this darkest of running fables, the agents of Hell see democracy as just a new cult ripe for takeover, for 'without the human urge to compete....Pandemonium may well have fallen for want of citizens'. They unleash some seriously Manichaean action during the race when the marathon runners, like Dante's thieves, find themselves being pursued by hideous, hissing creatures, albeit disguised at the start line.
The only rule for the good guys is 'don't look back', the age-old maxim from running coaches, capricious gods and Bob Dylan that has often been ignored, notably by Lot, Orpheus and Bob Dylan, but even they did not suffer the extreme consequences meted out here. At least we runners are free to face our mid-race demons without sanction......that's democracy for you.
In terms of runners' hell and an understanding of the solitary runner's mind, perhaps the best horror story is David Clayton Carrad's 'Competition', a tense, atmospheric mystery set in a remote part of coastal South Carolina. A pre-dawn jogger is musing philosophically on the pitfalls of competitive running, as opposed to running for its own sake, when he sees a car's headlights ahead, engine idling. The ensuing nightmare has the protracted sense of menace of Steven Spielberg's 'Duel', with the denouement being played out along a narrow causeway exactly 10,001 metres long.....in the dark, of course. Hell is indeed murky.
Many of the above trials will be familiar to modern runners - stinging wasps, vicious dogs, burning sands and impatient cars on a country road - but hell for them is mostly experienced between the ears, the runners' underworld..........and even 'swift-footed Achilles' was reduced to 'the ghost of a great runner' in the underworld, according to Homer. Some of those entering races today may be thieves, be seducers or be incontinent, but it is only the Uncommitted in training who will receive certain punishment on race day, for they will truly feel in Hell.
'Devils and Monsters: Runners in Literature to 1600', from Running in Literature (2003) by Roger Robinson, Breakaway Books
'Hell's Event' (1985), short story by Clive Barker in Books of Blood, volumes 1-3, Sphere Books
Illustration from is from the graphic novel version, Tapping the Vein: Book 4 (1990, Titan Books), drawings by Steven E. Johnson, Alan Okamoto and Jim Pearson
'The Wood of the Suicides', illustration for The Divine Comedy by Gustave Dore, wood engraving print
'Competition' by David Clayton Carrad, from The Year's Best Horror Stories X (1982), ed. Karl Edward Wagner; it originally appeared in Running Times magazine in June 1981
I am grateful to John Llewellyn Probert, horror writer (johnlprobert.com) and surgeon (who presumably doesn't advertise too many details about his literary life to his patients), for his suggestions regarding running stories in his particular specialty (horror, that is, not urology)
I have been unable to find the original source of the top image (the Uncommitted at the gate of Hell)
By The Running Muse, Jan 26 2015 06:35PM
You would be hard pushed to find any literary genre which has no references at all to running. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Bible through to Shakespearean drama, children's tales and the full range of poetry and novels, there is plenty of fleeing and racing and chasing to punctuate the stories as they unfold.
As metaphor, running can bring a sense of intense emotional movement or an urgent striving in the lives of the characters, a psychological energy that embraces a need for freedom and escape, maybe, or for direction and self-control.
'With both legs on, I go faster than a bird can fly', says a one-legged character, for instance, in Philip Pullman's translation of 'Six who Made their Way in the World' (aka 'The Six Servants'), one of the Children's and Household Tales collected in the early nineteenth century by the Brothers Grimm.
Falling between those two stools, perhaps, is a 1964 'Beyond the Fringe' sketch in which a one-legged Dudley Moore is determined to audition for the role of Tarzan - 'a role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement', as Peter Cook tells him.......'your right leg is perfect, I've got nothing against your right leg - unfortunately, neither have you'. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the comedy, Dud is on a challenging quest of sorts, albeit articulated in a way that may grate on modern ears.
These are just some of the motifs in this one short fairytale that crop up time and time again in all kinds of sagas and legends from different eras, regions, media and cultures. There may appear to be as many different kinds of stories around the world as there are imaginations to create them, but there are those who claim to have identified just a handful of fundamental plots underlying all of them.
Cultural transmission through migration and trade can only partially account for the way so many tales have evolved independently over millennia in widely separated lands, and explanations for this are likely to be found amongst traits or experiences that have common elements for us all.
Candidates include our relationship with natural phenomena, or perhaps the structure of the brain and the psyche that emerges from it, or even the capabilities and limitations of our physical bodies - which include running, of course, a very common narrative theme as the goodies and baddies pursue each other or evade archetypal dangers. Another one is food.
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested that even this small set of basic narratives derives from one universal 'monomyth', but the classification of folktales has moved in the opposite direction. The Arne-Thompson 'tale type index' recognises over two thousand categories (with titles including 'The Grateful Dead' and The White Snake', rock fans!), number 2025 of which is - yep, you've guessed it - running food.
Now regular readers will be aware that The Running Muse would not be taking up your time with anything as useful as nutritional advice for your PB - the 'running food' of our title simply refers to food that runs, more specifically to food that runs away. Oh, and talks.
Probably the most widely read running quote ever comes from the sugary mouth of a fugitive biscuit: "Run, run as fast as you can! You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man!"
This charming boast from the children's story, The Gingerbread Man, also known as The Gingerbread Runner or the Gingerbread Boy, was originally an oral tale from the US, first published in 1875. It will be familiar to older readers from the Ladybird book and to younger ones in the animated film, 'Shrek', in which an evil prince chants the above refrain as he pulls off our hero's legs during interrogation.
In the printed versions, the half-baked ginge - half man, half biscuit - escapes from the oven, but is pursued across the countryside by various people and animals. Perhaps unwisely, he repeatedly taunts their running ability as he stretches away from them, but, like any cocky runner getting a deserved comeuppance, he eventually meets his match. As the rhythm of the story builds up to a climax, it is from the jaws of the cunning fox that we hear his pathetic cries: 'I'm quarter gone....I'm half gone....I'm three quarters gone....I'm all gone!'
This proto-paralympian, whose other leg has to be strapped on, has been recruited to run in a race against a princess for marriage or death, during which he grabs a bit of a kip half way around.
Already we can recognise elements from other tales here - from Ovid's Atalanta story, for instance, or from Aesop's fable, The Tortoise and the Hare. This particular story also involves the assembly of a team with specialist skills in pursuit of a common goal, a theme which finds later echoes in the world of cinema, such as in Akiro Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (as well as its western remake, John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven) and the Ocean's 11 movies.
In addition, while one-legged runners had once been organised as freakshow entertainment in 'cripple races', the one-legged characters of literature have often been portrayed as strong and obsessive in their quests. Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate anti-hero in Treasure Island, Long John Silver, for instance, could run with or without his crutch 'with the speed and security of a trained gymnast' (see him taking that curve below!). Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby Dick also springs to mind.
It's not often that anyone commentates on their own death quite so resignedly - 'Help!' would have perhaps been a more effective survival strategy - but there is an explicit lesson for children to absorb here, a moral case that is presented to them in a more familiar way than, say, in the isolated 'pride comes before a fall' from the biblical Proverbs, or in more complex narratives where arrogance (hubris) meets with retribution (nemesis), such as in the Greek myths.
Themes of food, hunger and survival are staple ingredients of fairy tales. They offer 'contradictory metaphors of life and civilisation as well as barbarity and extinction', as mythographer Marina Warner puts it, adding that 'control of food - procuring it, preparing it, cooking it, eating it - lies at the heart of determining who eats and who gets eaten in the material of fairytale', the Grimms' 'Hansel and Gretel' being an egregious example.
Runaway food seems to tap into that anxiety. The academic name for such folktales is 'The Fleeing Pancake', a genre which includes the adventures of an elusive Hungarian cheese that eats people, the thrilling escape of a whole vegetarian dinner, and a modern version of The Gingerbread Man by Eric Kimmel that has a tortilla outrunning predators in a rattlesnake-infested Texan desert.....until it meets a wily coyote
Back in the real world of 10k's, I myself tell the story of my fruitless pursuit of an impressively speedy banana in a race. Now I wonder which of those seven basic narrative plots my highly embellished account would be filed under: 'overcoming the monster', 'voyage and return', 'rebirth', 'comedy', 'tragedy', 'the quest' or 'rags to riches'.
And which one of those, dear reader, do you think best describes the story of your own running life? Most of them, perhaps?
Well, whichever, our tale of the runaway biscuit will certainly strike a chord for those of you afflicted with that bane of many a runner bouncing their bowels along a marathon route, the 'runner's trots', a kind of diarrhoea often known as........'the gingerbread man'!
Yep, it really is - I'll leave you to work out why, but let's just say I've witnessed many a long distance runner suddenly increase the tempo to 5k pace while veering off in the direction of roadside bushes.
'In my end is my beginning', as the poet said.
The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories (2004) by Christopher Booker
Grimm Tales: For Young and Old (2013) by Philip Pullman
By The Running Muse, Apr 24 2015 03:37PM