As I’ve mentioned from time to time on this blog, Naomi Mitchison’s novel Early in Orcadia has a strong hold on me. Drawing upon recent archeological evidence (for the 1980s), Mitchison images what life might have been like on the Orkney Islands some 6000 years ago. In doing so, she creates one of the best representations of a primary oral culture I’ve ever read. In this passage below, we get the thought process of Metoo in one of her attempts to work out the idea of weaving. Her people have already figured out how to weave branches together to make fences, and she’s figured out that if you roll tuffs of sheep wool together you can make strands (Hands is her husband and Lovelove is their daughter):
‘That is a thing I will show you,’ said Metoo, ‘in the bed place.’ And then she thought to herself of her new picture of how to make the wool fence, in and out, but not so that the stick stayed with it always, but like she saw it no, in her mind, with a strong, strong, cord of wool instead. It would be difficult but she knew she could do it. So when at last Hands had seen the wool fence, picked it up and stroked it, looked carefully to see how it was made and all the time said good words, soft, warm, clever, she knew that the next one would be better. Would most certainly be better. He had put his finger through it and she had smacked him, but not hard. And then the full picture jumped at her. If there was no stick holding it? Yes, then I could throw it round myself. Or round Hands. Or over Lovelove. And it could all be pulled tighter, closer.
Both Meeto and Hands are inventors, they’re faber characters, but their technological developments take lots of time and lots of thought, in part because they have to keep everything in their head, and in part because their thinking time is limited by everything else they must do to survive.
But what I find most fascinating with this passage, and with passages like it, is the imagistic thinking. While on the one hand it is primal, their use of imagistic thinking meshes quite well with various theoretical and pedagogical texts I’ve been working with the past few years, including Kristie Fleckenstein’s “Inviting Imagery in Our Classrooms” and Embodied Literacies: Imageword and the Poetics of Teaching, Mary Carruthers’ work (especially The Craft of Thought), Patricia Dunn’s Talking, Sketching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing, Giles Fauconnier’s and Mark Turner’s work on conceptual integration, Allan Paivio’s and Mark Sadoski’s Imagery and Text: A Dual Coding Theory of Reading and Writing, various texts on metaphorical thinking, and, of course, Ong’s and others’ work in orality-literacy studies.
I want to return to Early in Orcadia this coming summer or fall while the dissertation work is still fresh. There’s definitely an article lurking around in the representations of Metoo’s and Hands’s thinking.