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262 13. A Scottish Child’s Memento Mori: Language, Folklore, and Landscape in George MacDonald’s Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood J. PATRICK PAZDZIORA At first glance, George MacDonald’s boy’s adventure story Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood (1871) appears to be a straightforward, nostalgic Scottish pastoral.1 The titular boy-hero and his gang of friends have various adventures in the Aberdeenshire countryside, braving the rural perils of stray bulls, cross housekeepers, and the occasional snowstorm. So affectionate does MacDonald’s portrayal of growing up in Scotland seem that William Raeper, his biographer, goes so far as to simply mine the book as a vein of unfiltered autobiography.2 This unapologetic biographical appropriation may be partly responsible for the critical neglect of the work. Upon closer inspection, MacDonald’s portrayal of a Scottish childhood in Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood quickly emerged as a puzzling complex of images, addressing a child’s struggle with realities of bereavement. Curiously, this frank emphasis on mortality may have been what led to uncritical mining of the text for autobiography: MacDonald’s mother died when he was eight years old, and two of his brothers died in early childhood.3 Early in the narrative, Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood recounts the death of Ranald’s mother and baby brother: I remember looking out of my bed on night and seeing my mother bending over [the little baby] in her lap—it is one of the few things in which I do remember my mother. I fell asleep, but by and by woke and looked out again. No one was there. Not only were mother and baby gone, but the cradle was gone too. I knew that my little brother was dead.4 263 george macdonald’s ranald bannerman’s boyhood Later, Ranald writes about his mother that ‘I remember her death clearly, but I will not dwell on that. It is too sad to write much about, though she was happy, and the least troubled of us all’ (p. 9). He notes that his grief ‘was over soon’, and muses that ‘God makes children so that grief cannot cleave to them’ (p. 9). However, though he claims a clear remembrance of her death, he says he remembers very little of her life: ‘My mother was very good, but I cannot remember a single one of the many kisses she must have given me. I remember her holding my head to her bosom when she was dying—that is all’ (p. 10). All this is understandably irresistible to biographers and the biographically inclined. But MacDonald himself subverts Ranald’s narrative reliability, especially in the opening chapters, when he relates with equal seriousness a bizarre sequence of mystical dreams about Mr Sun and Mrs Moon and their children the stars; Ranald declares that ‘the time of life to which this chapter refers is all so like’ a dream that the distinction between what was dreamed and what was real hardly matters: ‘There is a twilight of the mind, when all things are strange, and when the memory is only beginning to know that it has got a note-book, and must put things down in it’ (p. 9). The nature of Ranald’s memories is thus rendered ambiguous; it is not at all clear whether he actually saw his mother with his infant brother, or whether, in the liminal twilight of early memory, he dreamed of them after their death, or even whether the dream was a recollection of the past, a present occurrence, or a portent of death to come. Within the larger context of the narrative, however, the distinction hardly matters; MacDonald’s emphasis in the story is not the strict accuracy of detail itself, but the way a child’s memory of death shapes and colours the way they understand the world around them. Intriguingly, the memento mori that comes to define Ranald Bannerman’s childhood emerges from the landscape of Scotland itself. He remarks that ‘during the last months of [my mother’s] life we seldom saw her, and the desire to keep the house quiet for her sake must have been the beginning of that freedom which we enjoyed during the whole of our boyhood. So we were out every day and all day long, finding our meals when we pleased’ (p. 9). As Ranald explores the 264 Scottish countryside and befriends its inhabitants, his growing awareness of the world corresponds with a growing understanding of death and bereavement, and gradually needing to...


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