Finding an appropriate reading is not always easy. With a short story I am after something of no more than 4,500 words, so there’s sufficient time left for discussion. Poems are more straightforward. But there is the question of what to pair with what. Am I aiming to bounce themes around the room? Or am I after contrast? Do I want to elucidate a faith tradition, or perhaps a poetic one? And if I choose an array of secular offerings, how do I know they’ll touch some spiritually significant chord? Then again, I don’t want to overthink things, kill the spontaneity. And I don’t want to fret because in a multi-faith group comparative dimensions of all kinds are bound to emerge.

I agreed at the outset with St. Elthelburgas that roughly 30% of the sessions would deal directly with religious texts (canonical, devotional or commentary), while the rest would go some way towards reflecting the Centre’s activities: working towards conflict resolution, celebrating difference and diversity, exemplifying an ethos of pacifism.

Running the group been an education. For one thing, not since I was a teenager have I read so much poetry. I find that I am newly passionate about it, too: a born again lover of verse. Also, my reading habits have changed. I roam widely now, straying far from familiar terrains and writing cultures. I grapple with poetics that do not make immediate sense to me, and with ideas I do not fully understand, hoping that someone in the group will be able to explain them to me.

In the library I’m a prowler, on the hunt for something meaty to feed to my group. I stalk the shelves, looking for material that will entertain everyone, intrigue and inform them, foil and perplex them. I want to be excited by a find, and for my group to enjoy my discoveries with me. It’s a tall order, all in all.

Lately I’ve taken to ordering up piles and piles of books. Short story collections that often end up containing nothing of suitable length (or, if the stories are short enough, they somehow lack substance); poems that turns out to disappoint (finding a good poem is an exacting business); essays and stories I’ll call up on a whim or a hunch, only to find they don’t deliver what I hoped they would. Rilke’s wonderful Duino Elegies, prove too inaccessible and one-idea’d, for instance. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which I think of as a wonderful study in desperate loneliness, proves much more upbeat and resourceful than I recall.

There are times when my choices seem directed by little more than a ‘just because’…Because I like it. Because it makes me giggle. Because it sends a shiver through me when I read it. Because it spoke to me. And this, if I’m being honest, was how I settled on this week’s readings. T.H White’s story, The Troll, though in many ways disturbing and anguished, made me laugh out loud. And W.S. Graham’s poem The Beast in the Space, seemed to echo how I was feeling in the library, when I was perpetually on the scavenge, searching out meaning, sniffing about between the covers of books, and prowling the silence for literature that made me want to shout.

The Beast is one of Graham’s more accessible poems, since, as his critics like to point out, Graham mostly excelled in the inscrutable. He delighted in and was incredibly deft at using language that could seduce with rhythm and sound, diverting readers from the nonsense (the non-sense) his poetry sometimes peddled.

Pinter was a big fan. Like Graham, Pinter was enamored with experimental conjugations of sound, with the banalities of repetition and the empty content of sentences. Pinter admired how Graham dealt with “such delicate potentials – silence and the other side of language,’ and with the precision task of ‘trying to define something which is otherwise indefinable’.

I’ll give you a brief flavor of the poem here, though you’d be well advised to click on the link above and get the full monty. ‘Shut up. Shut up’. says Graham, at the start of The Beast, and listen to ‘the great creature that thumps its tail on silence’  — on the other side of the words. But don’t pay it any heed. It will ‘pad and sniff between us’, taking a bite out of either side, and it will lap up the meaning where it can. Call it across, Graham enjoins, across ‘this curious necessary space’. Because ‘I’ll not have it.’ This beast is an annoyance. He bites, and he snorts and growls out songs. But he is harmless at the end of the day. He ‘means no well or ill towards you’. So just give him food, and shut up. Above all, give him your love.

I love this idea that something can take shape and articulate itself inside the silence of what is not, or cannot, be said. And more: that this something breathes, moves and grows. It is palpable. It nudges you and it bites, making its presence overtly felt, and yet still it resists language. It is a wordless, primitive creature that inhabits the silence. But what does it feed on? Who does it prey on? Is it compromising you? How can you make it go away? And if you can’t make it go away, how do you live with it?

It seemed to me, and still does, that many of these same questions are just as skillfully positioned between the lines of T H White’s The Troll. But, be warned, they are darkly inflected, and White’s story about one man’s mysterious encounter with a man-eating Troll, is irredeemably bleak. As I said, however, it made me laugh, not least because of the extreme banality and civility of its incongruous setting.

The encounter takes place in a polite hotel in Lapland, where one of the guests, a Mr Marx, rousing from a bad dream in the night, spies a giant blue-faced troll through the key hole in the locked door that connects his room to his neighbour’s. The troll is eating a woman, biting the head off her limp form as he holds her aloft in his strange, atrophied arms, and sucking her dry as one might suck the juice from an orange.

The narrator offers no reassurance about this waking vision. In a brief aside to the reader he announces that this is not one of those stories where the principal character awakens to discover that it was all a bad dream. Mr Marx, he assures us, much as he wishes he were sleeping, is most definitely awake when he sees the troll eat the lady.

The next morning, Mr Marx asks the hotel manageress to point out the occupant of the room next to his. She indicates a Professor from Uppsala. But isn’t it tragic, she adds, how his wife went missing in the night. To escape a creeping sensation that he is going out of his mind, Marx seeks solace on a long walk in the chill Arctic landscape. He crosses a stream and gets soaked in the process, comes faces to faces with an ermine, and enjoys a sodden lunch of bread and chocolate whilst drying himself on a boulder. He is unutterably happy. But then all of a sudden the memory of the preceding sleepless night comes upon him with tidal force and plunges him into paranoia once more.

Did he really see a troll, he wonders, or did he imagine the thing? And if he truly saw it, does that mean it must be real? Perhaps it had been a hallucination. Yet if it was a hallucination, doesn’t that then suggest that he is insane? Lapland, Marx is reminded, is a place that rejected Christianity. It is a pagan place, where sorcery is widely practiced and where the supernatural has an uncanny purchase on belief.

At supper in the hotel that evening, as Marx spoons his soup, he notices that the Professor, also eating alone, has noticed him. What is more there is recognition in his gaze, giving Marx to understand that the Professor intends to eat him for his next meal. Indeed, no sooner than this knowledge dawns, the Professor begins transforming into the troll, swelling and keening right there in the dining room, unseen by everyone except Marx. In a state of trance-like compulsion, Marx takes an experimental step towards the troll and holds out his hand. But the troll’s touch burns him, causing Marx to flee the dining room in fright.

On the one hand Marx is ecstatic that his hand is burnt, because it seems to prove that what he is seeing is real. Yet he is so frightened by the troll that the last thing he wants to admit is that the thing actually exists.

It is all he can do to haul himself to his room and give himself up to an exhausted sleep – and, dear reader do not be surprised, the inevitable attempt on his life by the Professor-troll. Sure enough at midnight, under cover of a sudden hail-storm, the troll makes its move.

I won’t spoil the ending. But I will tell you that it involves a pitting of Christian forces against the supernatural. That said, the story is no simple recommendation of Christian prophylactics. It does not say ‘swallow this and it will ward off all evil’. The story is much too clever by half.

As various reading groupers pointed out the story is very Freudian. Marx is the Professor and the Professor is him. More importantly, the Troll is an emanation of his unconscious fears, about sex, about the possibility of achieving true happiness, and of the precariousness of life itself. Fullsome images of blood and water stir beneath the words, just as Graham’s beast prowls the silence. They remind us that the narrative takes place in a liminal space, somewhere between what exists in the world and what doesn’t.

While I don’t think White’s troll, however dark and forbidding, has anything to tell us about the nature of evil, it does affirm the existence of the unknowable. It even suggests that it is a good thing to be ontologically challenged by it. Life might well be easier if we safely stick to what we know, and stay on the path more traveled. But it certainly won’t be as interesting.

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