Religious Folktales and Science in The Evergreen

Introduction

I will be focusing on three stories throughout this entire exhibit. The first story is “Night in Aran” written by George Eyre-Todd which was published in the third volume of The Evergreen. George Eyre-Todd, he was born in the year 1862 in Glasgow, Scotland. He attended Glasgow University and held many different occupations over the years. One job he did have was as a Justice of the Peace. In his story “Night in Aran” the main character’s name is Mackenzie and he is describing in a more medieval time period the countryside and the graveyard in the valley of Aran. During the night he experiences the spirits of the dead worshipping and praising the goddess of love even though they are in heaven. He also witnesses the change when the sun comes upon the graves and the dead praise the sun as the almighty god and creator. This event all causes him to realize that the spirits from the dead are not forever vanished but they live on through the hearts of men and live in heaven with God. This then all connects to the title in which “Night in Aran”, the valley, the spirits of the dead live on through the men around it (Eyre-Todd 141).

Marion A. Mason, Headpiece of “Night in Arran” in The Evergreen vol. 3, 1896, p. 137. The Yellow Nineties Online, Public Domain.

The second story was written by Marie C. Balfour and is titled “ The Black Month”. This piece was published in the fourth and final volume of The Evergreen. Marie C. Balfour was a woman writer who was from Edinburgh, Scotland. She was the collector of folklore in Northumberland and Lincolnshire and was said to have told the tales exactly as they were told to her. Most of her tales were tragic and contained usually supernatural beings that need to be given offerings. She was a relative of Robert Louis Stevenson. “The Black Month” does not have any specific main character to speak of. The story is told from the perspective of a narrator. The narrator describes a small village off the coast of presumably Brittany in a more tenth-century type of setting. The people in the story are mostly widows or watchers, men looking out for ships, waiting for the return of the men who are sailing to hopefully bring back food and money. The story goes on to describe the month of waiting as the black month because lots of sailors at this time die and never return leaving behind widows in the village. The month is November and the Black Day is the day in which those men who have perished with their spirits use the bodies of able-bodied men to communicate with the loved ones they have left behind. They bless the houses in the village before they leave again until the next Black Day. This ending connects to the title in the elegant way in which death is pictured as a dark fearful event the month in which most death occurs is then called the Black Month (Balfour 137).

Lastly, the third story was written by Catherine Janvier and is titled “A Devolution of Terror”. Catherine Janvier was an American writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She attended the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts and is known to have been friends with William Sharpe. She was the distant cousin of Cecilia Beaux. The story “A Devolution of Terror” conveys something altogether a little different but the same in the grand scheme of things when compared to the other two folktales. While no specific main character is established again, we do have a narrator. He or she describes the setting of the valley of Rhone from the beginnings of early civilization to the current year of 1896. The narrator describes the fear that runs through the people of the village through the years from the great beast that lives nearby. The fear was so strong it was treated as a god. Over the years the fear grew less significant as the ideals and religions of multiple different cultures swept the land. Eventually, it is seen as almost a joke that people once feared a beast that lived nearby so it then connects to the title in saying that the terror once held has now become come to a joke. This is some ways can also be true about the fear of death throughout the other stories in that the fear is not as strong because the unknown has been rationalized and told as not the end of life but a new beginning through religious beliefs (Janvier 111).

Through my critical reading of all these stories, I wonder how do the authors of all the pieces combine religious beliefs into folktales and their origins comment on the need to preserve cultural identity and relate to other folktales published by The Evergreen. Also how these depictions of needing to keep religious beliefs conflict with the modern advancements in areas like science influence the moves to publish these stories by the 1890’s academic journal.

 

1890’s Society

Not until the 1800s was the word “science” even used for the study of the natural or physical world. In the 1890’s finally came to more specialized fields such as chemistry. This caused what we now know as the basis of modern science today (Kuich 119). This was reflected through not only the scientific discoveries of the decade but in the multiple novels and short magazines published by small groups of multiple writers and illustrators like The Evergreen.

The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, Volume 3, 1895.Published by Patrick Geddes. The Yellow Nineties Online, Ryerson University, 2019. Public Domain.

 The Evergreen published by Patrick Geddes and colleagues was considered to be trying to convey the 1890’s scientific ways by uniting it with art and religious folktales of the past (Kooistra 1). This was due mostly in part to the significant background Patrick Geddes had in evolutionary biology. Geddes would use his evolutionary insight to further understand the dynamics of modern society. Geddes looking into a more cultural-evolutionary process saw that a Celtic Revival was then on the threshold of beginning (Claes 112). This caused The Evergreen to not only be a magazine focused on nostalgia to preserve the Celtic cultural identity but to cause the forging of past stories to convey meaning and importance in a heavy scientific present and possible future. It could also be said that The Evergreen provided the current modern time and the alternative way of living through religious or art based culture and scientific advancements combined (Kooistra 1). While The Evergreen was a forward-thinking magazine during the time to push the scientific world over religion and it’s cultural significance. This was seen through many works and writers of the time. One such piece is Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South” which challenges the standing of the Church of England. She makes it clear that it is the Church of England and not the Condition of England so as to convey the modern world’s new need to break ties with the religion to conform to modern scientific ways of life (Fraser 101). Religion and science appear to have been the main point of conversation in the 1890s across all writings. 

Claim

The culmination of all the stories I am covering, like “Night in Aran”, work to pay homage to the religious folktales and cultural ties to the Celtic revival while still acknowledging the scientific thinking of the 1890s. These folk tales consist of the beliefs of mostly the afterlife especially in “Night in Aran” and “The Black Month” as previously covered in the introduction and the almost ever-present fading of these beliefs is covered in ” A Devolution of Terror”. I know my stories give evidence to the religious beliefs that were once held and told regularly before finally being published by The Evergreen. These stories represent the complete knowledgable act by Patrick Geddes and his colleagues to address the need for a combination of religious or folktale art with science while using The Evergreen as a way to showcase the ideologies. These stories contain the same themes that are shared with many other pieces that are published throughout The Evergreen that further demonstrate the need to combine religious folktales or just art and science. The references of the yearning to have an understanding of what happens after death and a way to explain it are highlights the ever ongoing struggle we as people deal with when science can not inform us. While in “A Devolution of Terror” the evolution of science answering the questions that had no answer ultimately defeat the religious folktales explaining how things are. All of the stories can correlate with the other works within their own respected volumes due to the key themes that are highlighted in the stories and referenced thoroughly in other parts of The Evergreen. My analysis demonstrates that The Evergreen had displayed the religious folktales and scientific modernization that was ultimately affecting people in the late Victorian time period.

Analysis 

As stated before “Night in Aran” the main character’s name is Mackenzie and he is describing in a more medieval time period the countryside and the graveyard in the valley of Aran. He sees what appears to be a glimpse into what he believes to be the afterlife. This being through old souls living on and with a god in the heavens (Eyre-Todd 141). “The Black Month” along the same lines displays the month in which sailors go out to sea to work but tragically do not make it home. On the Black Day the souls of those men who have departed come back in the souls of other men to visit. They display they are fine and that there is an afterlife in which they will spend eternity until their families will join them (Balfour 137). Through these stories, we learn several things about the 1890s and the reasons in which The Evergreen would publish these stories. The obvious reason being they are Celtic type stories to embrace the Celtic Revival of the time, but that science can not answer the question that we all fear of what happens after death. These stories depict two possible answers to that question without science being involved and further proved to the reading audience of The Evergreen that this need to still consume old religious folktales is valid and science can still not answer every question. 

While “The Balck Month” and “Night in Aran” both have the same theme of religious folktale representing the life after death “A Devolution of Terror” goes against both of those stories in a different sense. As stated in the introduction its a story told from the narrator perspective about a beast who lived outside a village in the earliest of times but now in the current times of the 1890s is no longer feared or believed to have existed (Janvier 111). This story reflects the advancement of science in the 1890s. Due to all the constant innovations and understandings of what is truly possible in nature, it causes the tales of a beast “breathing fire” to be not possible. This story is more than telling of the reasoning behind the lack of faith in the religious beliefs and stories of old and is published for this exact reason. “A Devolution of Terror” is not only the title used for this story but a statement being used to categorize the answers to questions that science has given over the course of time.

Conclusion 

These stories illustrate the different cultural issues that were happening during the publication of The Evergreen. The differences between religious folktales and science show how societal norms are forever changed and directly affected the culture of the 1890s. Science especially established itself as a reasonable way of thinking and it some aspects as the only way. While it would seem as though science is the ultimate answer to everything, religion still holds the possible answers to the most asked and most feared question of all. The Evergreen truly sheds light on the serious issues of its time during its publication.


Works Cited

  • Balfour, Claire. “The Black Month.” The Evergreen, 1897, vol.4 pp. 132-137. Yellow Nineties 2.0, https://beta.1890s.ca/egv4_all/
  • Claes, Koenraad. “‘What to naturalists is known as a Symbiosis’: Literature, Community and Nature in the Evergreen.” Literature, Community, and Nature in the Evergreen, 2012, pp.11-129
  • Craig, Cairns. “Modernism and National Identity in Scottish Magazines.” The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, 2009, pp.759-784
  • Eyre-Todd, George. “Night in Aran.” The Evergreen, 1896, vol.3 pp. 137-141. Yellow Nineties 2.0, https://beta.1890s.ca/egv3_all/
  • Fraser, Hilary. “The Victorian Novel and Religion.” A Companion to the Victorian Novel,2002, pp.101-118. Ebscohost,https://web-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/ehost/detail?sid=07a6ce3a-b42e-419c-8 3fb-e369116fcec3@sdc-v-sessmgr05&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1#AN=90382&db=nlebk

  • Janvier, Catherine. “A Devolution of Terror.” The Evergreen, 1897, vol.4 pp. 106-111. Yellow Nineties 2.0, https://beta.1890s.ca/egv4_all/
  • Kucich, John. “Scientific Ascendency.” A Companion to the Victorian Novel, 2002, pp. 119-135. Ebscohost,https://web-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXz kwMzgyX19BTg2?sid=07a6ce3a-b42e-419c-83fb-e369116fcec3@sdc-v-sessmgr05&vid=0&f ormat=EB&rid=1
  • Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen.The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal (1895-97): Overview.” Evergreen Digital Edition, Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2018. https://1890s.ca/the_evergreen_general_introduction/

 

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