A CLOSE READING of any book helps us to understand how an author’s word choice and sentence structure affect the tone and pace of the work. For this examination of Beryl Markham’s *West With the Night, I decided, (rather arbitrarily) to use excerpts from Chapter V, “He Was a Good Lion,” because Markham’s childhood encounter with the lion is an unusual and fascinating story.
Let’s start with the title of the chapter: a reader immediately wonders what a good lion is (at least I did). Is a good lion well-behaved like a good dog? Or does the author mean that the lion is particularly good at being a lion? Since the author gave us a hint, in chapter IV (p. 53), that this story was coming, the title could also indicate a level of understanding and forgiveness for the lion. But we must read the chapter to find out. So the title itself leads us into the all-important first paragraph.
What do Markham’s first paragraphs of this chapter tell us?
WHEN I WAS A child, I spent all my days with the Nandi Murani, hunting barefooted, in the Rongai Valley, or in the cedar forests of the Mau Escarpment.
This is an astonishing sentence from a white, English child, expressing as it does the level of freedom of movement she had, as well as her father’s trust in the local people to take care of her. “When I was a child” does not tell us how old she was, so Markham leaves it up to the reader to imagine. “All my days” allows us to imagine her roaming day after day, without limitation, through valleys and cedar forests, accompanied by trusted caretakers of the local tribe. So we are given the impression of a child with casual, unfettered freedom, as a matter of course.
At first I was not permitted to carry a spear, but the Murani depended on nothing else.
The words “at first” inform us that Markham was allowed eventually to carry a spear. And the second half of the sentence, “but the Murani depended on nothing else,” encapsulates in a few short words an entire tribe’s way of life. Again, the tone is casual, the pace slow and unhurried.
You cannot hunt an animal with such a weapon unless you know the way of his life. You must know the things he loves, the things he fears, the paths he will follow. You must be sure of the quality of his speed and the measure of his courage. He will know as much about you, and at times make better use of it.
In this 3rd, paragraph, switching to 2nd person makes the experience feel personal and universal. The repetition and parallel construction of a pronoun followed by a modified verb at the beginning of each sentence, elevates the tone from casual to emphatic. We become suddenly aware of the danger of hunting with a spear and the importance of knowing what you are doing: “You cannot hunt . . . You must know . . . You must be sure . . . He will know.”
In describing the landscape, Markham uses repetition and parallel construction again — with a twist — to good effect. Consider the following paragraph:
There were dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.’ There were many thousands of the hare that jumps. And there were wildebeest and antelope. There was the snake that crawls and the snake that climbs. There were birds, and young men like whips of leather, like rainshafts in the sun, like spears before a singiri.
Note the passive language used throughout the beginning of this chapter. Many writers, myself included, have been taught to avoid the use of “there were/are/is/was” at the beginning of sentences. And yet, Markham uses this passive language of “being” to advantage, giving us the impression that what she’s describing is “just the way things are.” The use of being verbs is static; there is no movement, and Markham’s tone is nonchalant.
Markham also achieves a poetic rhythm in these sentences: There were . . . there were . . .and there were . . . There were, there was, and there were. After naming the animals in such casual fashion, the inclusion of men is startling. They are young, sun-weathered, tall, lean, mobile, and fast. Like the animals, they are perceived by the reader as wild and populous, as part of the very landscape.
This first section of the chapter ends with the line, “And so, in time, I learned. But some things I learned alone”, which builds suspense about what is to come and provides a transition to the next section in which Markham sets the scene.
There was a place called Elkington’s Farm . . .
Next, Markham’s uses her father’s fondness for storytelling to at once build his character while informing us about her relationship to him and the nature of lions:
One day, when we were riding to Elkington’s, my father spoke about lions. ‘Lions are more intelligent than some men,’ he said, ‘and more courageous than most. A lion will fight for what he has and for what he needs; he is contemptuous of cowards and wary of his equals. But he is not afraid. You can always trust a lion to be exactly what he is — and never anything else.’
‘Except,’ he added, looking more paternally concerned than usual, ‘that damned lion of Elkington’s!’ . . .
A little later her father says,
A domesticated lion is only an unnatural lion — and whatever is unnatural is untrustworthy.’
And so, we are warned, that this very lion, the “good” lion, referred to in the title, is untrustworthy. We also learn that the lion —
. . . had grown to full size, tawny, black-maned and muscular, without a worry or a care. He lived on fresh meat, not of his own killing. He spent his waking hours . . . wandering through Elkington’s fields and pastures like an affable, if apostrophic, emperor, a-stroll in the gardens of his court. He thrived in solitude. He had no mate, but pretended indifference and walked alone, not toying too much with imaginings of the unattainable. There were no physical barriers to his freedom, but the lions of the plains do not accept into their respected fraternity an individual bearing in his coat the smell of men. So Paddy ate, slept, and roared, and perhaps he sometimes dreamed, but he never left Elkington’s. He was a tame lion, Paddy was. He was deaf to the call of the wild. . . .
Markham’s choice of words, “tawny, black-maned, and muscular,” allow us to envision the size of the animal. But, “not of his own killing,” “an emperor a-stroll in the gardens of his court,” “tame,” and “deaf to the call of the wild,” lead us to believe he is more like a giant cat than a lion, indifferent to his surroundings and content to be fed when he is hungry.
This image of lion as nothing more than house-cat is strengthened by her encounter with the lion as he lay in the grass:
He lay sprawled in the morning sun, huge, black-maned, and gleaming with life. His tail moved slowly, stroking the rough grass like a knotted rope end. His body was sleek and easy, making a mould where he lay, a cool mould, that would be there when he had gone. He was not asleep; he was only idle. He was rusty-red, and soft, like a strokable cat.
But here, we have the beginning of movement, the hint of tension achieved through Markham’s choice of verbs: “His tail moved . . . stroking the rough grass.” The tension increases in the following paragraph:
I stopped and he lifted his head with magnificent ease and stared at me out of yellow eyes. I stood there staring back, scuffling my bare toes in the dust, pursing my lips to make a noiseless whistle — a very small girl who knew about lions. Paddy raised himself then, emitting a little sigh, and began to contemplate me with a kind of quiet premeditation, like that of a slow-witted man fondling an unaccustomed thought.
The little girl stops and stands and scuffles her (vulnerable) bare toes. She makes a noiseless whistle. She is “a very small girl who knew about lions.” Paddy, however, lifts his head and stares at her. He raises himself, sighs, and contemplates her, like “a slow-witted man fondling an unaccustomed thought.”
The word “fondling” suggests a carnal, almost sexual tension. It is a moment of stillness, the coil of a snake before it strikes, a cat before it springs. But then, the action itself is not told gruesomely, with morbid detail. It is related as from a distance, disassociated with the moment, and from a far-distant future.
What I remember most clearly of the moment that followed are three things — a scream that was barely a whisper, a blow that struck me to the ground, and, as I buried my face in my arms and felt Paddy’s teeth close on the flesh of my leg, a fantastically bobbing turban, that was Bishon Singh’s turban appear over the edge of the hill.
She remembers 3 things: a scream, a blow, and Bishon Singh’s turban. These take place as the lion’s teeth close on her leg. But she does not dwell on the pain. Indeed, it is almost as if the pain is too distant to be felt. It is the sound, instead, that Markham relates to the reader — it is Dante’s Hell.
The sound of Paddy’s roar in my ears will only be duplicated, I think, when the doors of hell slip their wobbly hinges, one day, and give voice and authenticity to the whole panorama of Dante’s poetic nightmares. It was an immense roar that encompassed the world and dissolved me into it.
At the end of the chapter, Markham reflects:
It seems characteristic of the mind of man that the repression of what is natural to humans must be abhorred, but that what is natural to an infinitely more natural animal must be confined within the bounds of a reason peculiar only to men — more peculiar sometimes than seems reasonable at all.
[Paddy] had lived and died in ways not of his choosing. He was a good lion. He had done what he could about being a tame lion. Who thinks it just to be judged by a single error? I still have the sears of his teeth and claws, but they are very small now and almost forgotten, and I cannot begrudge him his moment.
And so we see, at the end, what Markham means by “good lion” and why she forgives him: he was, after all, true to his nature.
What is your take? How do Markham’s word choices affect or fit into your interpretation of her story? And how can understanding Markham’s choices influence or help you as you write your own life stories?
Do you have anything you’d like to add to the discussion? I welcome your thoughts and interpretations.