Resistance and On The Black Hill
‘Resistance can take many different forms, and can be part of the way in which a community rejects the pressures of the outside world’ Compare and contrast the different ways in which ‘Resistance’ and ‘On The Black Hill’ present forms of resistance and survival, and how these pressures shape their narratives and forms
An integral part of Anglo-Welsh literature is that of survival and resistance. Sheers himself describes Anglo-welsh literature as a ‘Long historical pattern of groups of people believing they can dislocate themselves from the rest of the world.’ In both Chatwin’s and Sheers’ novels, these ideas are reflected not only in the novels settings’, but also in the narrative structure. In the New York Times review, Roww describes the act of resistance, in the novel ‘Resistance’ as ‘namely, the countervailing pull of loyalty to the land, and to the ancient and largely erased culture of Wales, against the abstraction of national unity.’
The resistance to colonialism and that of invasion features heavily in both novels. In Sheers work of fiction there are the British resistance fighters waging their solitary war against the Germany army, which we expect. Jan Morris describes it as ‘love and hate of nations, love and suspicion among people, fear and war.’ But we also sense the wives’ resistance in believing they truly have been left alone forever by their husbands -‘erase the dull ache of the missing body beside her’ and their resistance to accept the presence and friendship of the soldiers who have invaded not only Britain, but their way of life as well- ‘I understand you were not aware this area is under German military control?
This resistance to the Germans is seen not just with Albrecht and Sarah, but the whole community, for example, Gernot and Bethan. Similarly in ‘On The Black Hill’ there is the contrast between the English and Welsh, helped in some part by their close proximity. However, there is a distinct Anti-English sentiment. Outside influence, especially that of the English, is portrayed as corrupting and immoral, as shown by the murderous solicitor (Arkwright) and the corrupt antique dealer who cheats Jim out of the clock leading to Alfies’ death-‘The clock repairer examined it-it was a fine eighteenth century model-and offered him £5.’
This could also perhaps be reflected in Benjamin’s draft to the British army. He can be seen as a metaphor for the English oppression of the Welsh, and his resistance to the army can be seen as symbolic of the Welsh resistance to English cultural influence. It is particularly symbolic when they begin to use force on Benjamin-‘The Army had given up trying to train his brother, and was using force.’ just as the English have done over history to exert their influence over the Welsh, for example in medieval times, which is briefly referenced in ‘Resistance’-‘A Welsh king and his army beaten into the hills by Edward I.’
The fact that Benjamin resists, despite the excessive force, highlights that the Welsh do not see the English as their masters, as shown in the book when the farming community are told ‘England expects every man: namely to do his duty…’ and the reply is ‘What about Wales?’ showing that there is a resistance to the English dominance. Chatwins’ anti-colonialism is more explicit-the English way and the Welsh way are directly contrasted for example, and there is an English presence in the rural community such as the Bickertons –‘The Bickertons, were an old Catholic family made rich by the West India trade.’ however in ‘Resistance’ it is more implicit as the Germans and their invasion could be seen as an metaphor for the English cultural invasion of Wales because then actual notion of invasion is stronger, as the Germans actually do invade Britain, but there is less of an Anti- English sentiment.
The narrative structure of both novels is unconventional and instead of concerning themselves with people at the centre of events, the novels instead resist this and chooses to concentrate on the people at the fringes, which is linked to the history of the welsh as a marginalised people. This in itself helps to emphasise the communities featured in the books rejection of the pressures of the outside world as they are highlighting that the accepted view of history, is not the only history.
‘On The Black Hill’ is concerned with the progression of the 20th century, but seen through the eyes of an isolated rural community on the fringes of the Anglo-Welsh border. Whilst it does include the century’s key moments, they are examined from a different perspective to what is normally considered. So for example in dealing with the Second World War, which affected vast numbers of people, Chatwin instead describes it as ‘The war washed over them without disturbing their solitude.’ And ‘Now and then, the drone of an enemy bomber, or some niggling wartime restriction, reminded them of the fighting beyond the Malvern Hills.’ This clearly highlights the novels’ unconventional structure, and the resistance to the pressures of the outside world.
Similarly ‘Resistance’ is an alternative history, but it’s an alternative history from the fringes -‘She didn’t drop any bombs, private. None of them did. They’re just farmers.’ Rather than concentrating on any major battles in this alternative history, it focuses on an isolated Welsh farming community, and how the war impacts on them, namely the loss of all males from the community’. The use of characters on the fringe by Sheers is a powerful tool used to highlight the drastic alteration that has occurred in history. The critic Roww describes it as showing how to ‘stand outside of recorded history reminds us how complicated and compromising an actual act of resistance might be’.
The survival of isolationist rural communities also plays a significant part in both books. In both books people cut themselves off from the outside world in an attempt to both resist its influence and survive its onslaught. In ‘Resistance’ the German soldiers deliberately cut themselves off from the rest of the army, so that they do not have to return to the frontlines, disobeying orders- ‘Albrecht did not order Steiner to transmit anything.’ And ‘If any man does want to re-join the regiment, that is of course his right and he would have my blessing. All I ask is that he do so at no risk to the other members of the patrol.’ By staying, they like the tractor in ‘On The Black Hill’, represent the intrusion of the modern world into an isolated community.
They both must be harnessed to help life continue to survive in the absence of the men in ‘Resistance’ and with the arrival of old age and absence of hard working male heir -‘Kevin, too, had begun to disappoint them’ in ‘On The Black Hill’, where the communities are cut off from culture, education for example the Boys are pulled from school by Amos, who does not like the outside influence, and science. Chatwin is clear, that the countryside, especially the Welsh, offer isolation and ultimate consolation in the natural world away from the corrupting influence of towns and that this isolation can offer the answer to restlessness. This is also seen in ’Resistance’ where the landscape is described as ‘purging’ Albrecht, and the natural valley allows him to resist the wars influence and reassert his humanity- ‘He’d already begun to feel the faintest of turnings within himself this past week’ and by stopping Steiner from raping Sarah for example.
The harsh landscape of the Welsh border hills is also symbolic of the struggle of survival in both ‘Resistance’ and ‘On The Black Hill. How the characters react to and resist the landscape and the elements are another key part of both novels. For example, in both novels severe winters set in with heavy snowfall (‘On the Black Hill-‘The snow fell in thick woolly flakes. The wind got up and blew drifts across the track’ and in Resistance ‘Over the rest of winter, the longest and harshest any of them had ever known.’). In both cases it makes it much harder for the affected people to survive. In ‘Resistance’ Sarah is forced to utilise the Germans to help her, just to ensure that her sheep survive, and even then it is not enough for some of them.
However, the snowstorm does cause the barriers of resistance between the Germans and the women to be slowly brought down. This, combined with the severe winter, allows the Germans to remain in the valley over winter and in doing so resist and survive the outside pressure of the war. The same situation, saving sheep, nearly costs Benjamin his life- ‘You mustn’t stop. I’ll die if you go to sleep.’ Increases the twins isolation and means Lewis loses his job, which leads to Benjamin being called up. The landscape contributes to their ability to resist the outside world. By making it hard to leave, it means that it is also difficult for outside influences to disrupt the communities, therefore increasing their isolation. In Resistance-‘and now the snow had perfected their isolation’ and On The Black Hill –‘Lewis stayed at his side. He was a week away from work.’
Another theme of the books is that of patrimony and its importance in these isolated rural communities. Patrimony is an important characteristic of Welsh culture as it and in both stories it is under threat, in that there is the breakdown of the conventional dominant male father figure and the reevaluation of the family entity. The loss of the men in ‘Resistance’ and the weakness/lack of a male heir in ‘On the Black Hill’ are symbolic of the threat that patrimony and Welsh culture face and the challenges that this creates, the threat to patrimony, and its’ weakening, makes it harder for the characters to resist and survive. for instance the onset of winter in ‘Resistance’- ‘This will make it hard for you. Because you’re on your own.
You all are. Because there isn’t a man in the valley to help you.’ Whilst the respective communities do their best to resist and survive this threat, ultimately as they try to fill the void of patrimony, they lose the battle of resistance against the pressures of the outside world, in the form of collaboration with the Germans in ‘Resistance’ and the purchasing of modern technology in ‘On The Black Hill. However, they are both forced to do this to survive-‘But extra land meant extra work…Lewis suggested replacing the horses with a tractor.’
The ending of each novel is both tragic and melancholic, as both show the end of survival. However, On The Black Hill is certainly more hopeful, as despite Lewis’ death, his life seems to have been fulfilled-‘And suddenly he felt…-that all the frustrations of his cramped and frugal life now counted for nothing, because for ten magnificent minutes, he had done what he wanted to do.’ Similarly, despite the ending of survival without technology, the transition from past to present tense by Chatwin is used to show the continuation of life, and the incorporation of the modern world into the community’s daily life- ‘They found him next morning, sitting on the tomb and calmly picking his teeth with a grass-stem.
Since then, Maesyfelin has become Benjamin’s second home-perhaps his only home.’ However, the description of Rosie Fffield shows that some of the community are still resisting the encroachment of the modern world-‘Her rooms have become very squalid, but when the District Health Officer suggest she move to an almshouse, she snapped “You’ll have to drag me by the feet.’ The ending of Resistance is far more tragic and elegiac. The Germans survival is ended-‘looking for intelligence or any documents that might be used as evidence at the court martial.’ However, Sarah continues to resist to the end, resisting the idea that Tom is dead.
In her last acts of resistance to the Germans and the colonialism that they are a metaphor for, she leaves Albrecht and burns the Map-‘The centuries old parchment took with the sound of autumn leaves burning on a bonfire.’ She then continues to resist the idea that that Tom is dead, even if it means dying herself-‘She knew she didn’t have much time, a couple of days perhaps, but she also knew this was no longer important. It was the looking that mattered.’ Overall, both novels contain the fundamentally Anglo-Welsh features of survival and resistance. These are reflected in a number of ways in the two novels, for example the effects of the landscape, and the novels unconventional narrative structure.