The Gift of Stories

The Story of Storytelling in Jim Crace's The Gift of Stones

© 2002 Karoly Rozsa, University of Debrecen, Hungary


Jim Crace’s novel The Gift of Stones tells us about the birth of storytelling. It seems that storytelling results from the energy generated by the clash of two opposing forces back in the prehistoric ages. The forces are represented by a village of knappers and the heath. Let us see, very strictly sticking to the text of the novel, how this antagonism is pictured.

            The village is the place of order and harmony. Everybody has their own role, everything is predictable here. Stone directs the individual lives, it sets the timetables. Stone does not only provide livelihood but it is also a (temporary, as it turns out) protection from the outside world: “... we could not be touched because we possessed the gift of stones”.[1] The village is compared to an anthill several times (19, 56) with its well-organised life and hard-working people, its uniformity. When a new shaft on the hill is opened, all “the boys and girls were ordered there. It was their job to stand in line with baskets and tip the disturbed topsoil and the useless stones, the surface flints made unworkable by frost into disused workings” (8). “... their progress would seem like a waterfall of people, a dozen slow streams meeting in a impatient, fresh cascade” (9). The village “was obsessed with work, with industry, with craft” (9). The inhabitants lead a sober life: “No one got drunk, no one had drink. The fabric of the village was made strong by the warp and weft of rules. Intoxicating drink was not allowed. It produced bad flint” (21). The stoneys do not drink, which only emphasizes their dry life. Fluidity would lead to bad flint, the loss of uniformity, the development of individuality, let alone creativity.

            One day poison filters into this rigid world. A little boy is attacked and shot by a poisoned arrow and this event is a turning point in both his and the village’s life. “Those of us who have kicked an anthill will understand the chaos in the village. The dreaming ants, so used to patterns and chores, had been sent wild and spirited by the unheralded disorder of the day and by this thin excuse to shout and smile and swagger” (19). The poison immediately affects the life of the village. For a moment the villagers can get rid of the strict rules, the attack leads to a carnivalesque disorder. Who are the intruders? Horsemen from the outside world. They are completely different from the villagers. “It was a simple matter for the riders from beyond the hill, much used to drinking, perfume, quarrels, horsetheft, wars, to first give father too much drink from their leather travel-mates of spirit and then to strike him neatly on the chin” (28). The boy does not only go beyond the borders of the village, he also gets drunk (even if not intentionally), which is simply breaking the rules of the village. The horseman, by wounding his arm, initiates him into the secret of the world of wind.  The people of the outside world are cheerful and not at all obsessed with work. “There was more laughter amongst these dozen than amongst the hundred on the hill. They blew birdsong with blades of grass. They were in no hurry to begin the business of their day” (10). Another difference between the outsiders and the people of stones is their outlook. The latter’s faces are always grey and white with dust and chalk. The former are long-haired and short-tempered (10). The boy describes one of them like this: “You’d think it [his face] was a leather purse with teeth. You never saw his eyes. He had a horseman’s squint. He was only young, but he was weathered as a piece of bark” (32). So the horsemen grow a protection layer from their own bodies – their skin hardens into a crust –, whereas the villagers only use ‘make-up’, i.e. a false protection only, which cannot protect them from the changes of the outside world, as it turns out by the end of the novel. In the village existence is based on stone. It shows strong links with hill, rock, earth, flint and chalk. It is the world of order, routine and symmetry. It is unchanging, dull, sober and dry. Like stone. The villagers try to block out wind because wind is about change, it brings news from the outside world, it is against order. Wind is flying and dreaming. Wind is fantasying. It is turbulence. Stories. All these are unknown to the down-to-earth craftsmen. The village is the world of craftsmen and tradesmen, that is, men. There is hardly any reference to women living there. It is a patriarchal society. A masculine world.  It is no place for dreams and emotions. It is about solid reality. When the father takes Doe and her daughter to the village, he says: “Compared to what we’d left behind, the turmoil and the passion of the heath, here was a world of symmetry and composure” (103).

             What is set against the village is the outside world. It is harsh and windy. It is the world of cliffs and the sea. It is an inverted world: “The sea viewed from the clifftop is a world that’s upside down. Its gulls have backs. You’re looking down on me” (38). Beyond the borders of the village there is a world where no villagers go. On one level this is the cosmos/chaos dichotomy of mythology. On another level, it is a cultural (perhaps political) dichotomy between the stationary and the dynamic. On yet another level, the two poles gather to themselves various attributes (stone-wind, etc.) that seem to support and solidify the opposition.

            There is, however, the little boy with one arm in the village, whose habit seems to be transgressing borders. He is different from the inhabitants. Not only is he an orphan with no legitimate origins and status but he differs in his outlook as well: “... though there were children of his own age and younger whose weight and muscles had matured, he was still a bulrush of a boy, a stem, his elbows both elbows, still thinner than his arms, his chest as flat and formless as a slate. His cousins said his face was disobedient and dreamy, a combination which they found more than doubly irritating” (3). He does not possess the gift of stones. “He’d never make the best of workers. He had no love of stone. He’d spent too long idly on the beach or in the woods” (21-22). The boy avoids the dust of shaft and workshops. He does not like the hardness and rigidity of stone and the village. “He liked the springy, bracken path that led up from the crusty boulders of the shore, with wind and spray at his back” (3). He often goes beyond the borders of the village and once he is shot by an arrow, and eventually he loses his right arm. After that it is impossible to find a role for him in this world where working with two hands is regarded to be the only way of existence. It becomes obvious that he belongs to another world. He wants to be a bowman, a horseman: “... the sum of my ambition at that time was not to kill the bowman for the damage he had done but to be the bowman, to be on horseback in the wind like him, to let the heavy arrow fly at anything I wished, to struggle loose from stone” (32). He undoubtedly has certain attributes that make him similar to a horseman: “The bowman’s face, his smile, his eyes, expressed in full what neighbours in our village had most distrusted in my own face. Look, you see it now, a little blunted, true... but dreams... but turbulence... but downright cussedness. He could have been my brother” (32-33). In this sense, the arrow is something that contaminates him: the fluid poison (the dynamism of the outside world) seeps into the village world through him.

            The first passage of the novel is about his severed arm:

“My father’s right arm ended not in a hand but, at the elbow, in a bony swelling. Think of a pollard tree in silhouette. That was my father’s stump. Its skin was drawn tight across the bone and tucked frowning into the hole left by the missing lower joint. The indented scar was like those made in the ice by boys with stones a small uneven puncture, wet with brackish pus. The arm was rarely dry or free from pain. As he grew older it would seem (he said) that his wasted and unsummoned semen had found less rewarding outlets from his body than he would have wished. He picked it rolled and spongy from the corners of his eyes after sleep. It gathered on his tongue and stretched into stringy tresses when he laughed and spoke. It formed white blisters on his lips, on his thighs, between his toes. It dried and hardened in his nostrils. And it formed pools of sap in the vents of his severed elbow.” (1).


The above description suggests that he is strongly connected to something that is fluid, liquid and flowing as opposed to the solidity of stone. He is often compared to plants or parts of plants:

“Think of a pollard tree in silhouette. That was my father’s stump” (1).

“... he was still a bulrush of a boy, a stem” (3).

“I grew up like some wild plant, ragged, unattended, not-much-use” (35).

As a plant he could not find his place in the world of stone. No plant is able to live in a environment like that. It needs a place like the outside world, the heath, which he finds accidentally: “The landscape changed. It was no cliffs and coves. Low heathland swept gently to the shore where thrift blacktufted lichens lived side by side on rocks with barnacles and limpets. There were clumps of seablite, flourishing on spray. There was arrow grass and milkwort. All the herbs and medicines and dye-plants that we saw bunched and dried and up for barter in the market-place were in abundance here” (40). The heath is the world with no protection. It is wet and windy. It is the world of chaos and unpredictability. Entering the heath is as though he entered the world of his stump. It is worth comparing the lines describing his arm and those written about the heath:

“The indented scar was like those made in the ice by boys with stones a small uneven puncture, wet with brackish pus. The arm was rarely dry and free from pain” (1).

“The skin would stretch and pucker, frown upon the world. And it would drip its poison and its undiminished path forever like tree sap, like semen, like a punctured boil” (29).

“The first thing that my father noticed was the stench. The saltland heath sodden and yellowed by the winter was sweating in the sun. It smelled like rotten fruit, like beer, like cow’s breath. The earth was passing wind; it belched at every footfall; its boil had burst; it was brackish and spongy with sap and pus and marsh” (75).

The heath is personified, it functions as a human being. Later it is identified with the father himself: “For her [Doe] my father was the heath” (130).

 “But we have missed my father and the heath. As his tale had journeyed on and brought us to that point where Doe, transformed and fattened, was working on the hill, we have felt the absence of the man whose rudder-tongue could steer us free from our small world. We are all tired of stone. We crave some geese or ships, some smoke or riders, some moonlit footprints shining like a pair of tumbling glow-worms in the damp. We crave again my father’s single restless hand, the teasing undulations of his voice, his tales, his falsities.” (130)


These last lines can be regarded as a definition of the heath as a counterworld of the village. Inhabited by a woman and a little girl and with its lush vegetation the heath is the realm of the feminine. Once the father sings a song: “How sad is he who has no wife. His seed is trapped. It turns to poison in his loins. His blood runs hot and burns. It dries his body and he leads a pale and angry life” (90). These lines give the definition of the stoneys. In a masculine world sterility prevails. The lack of the feminine brings dryness, the man wears pale, white chalk make-up.  The song is about him, the liar, the storyteller, which can be proven textually: “As he grew older it would seem (he said) that his wasted and unsummoned semen had found less rewarding outlets from his body that he would have wished. He picked it rolled and spongy from the corners of his eyes after sleep” (1). Being refused by Doe, the father “went outside, the dog his one companion, and discharged his poison on the buds and seedlings of the heath. It gathered, rolled and spongy, in the dew...” (91). There is a clear parallel between his semen and his pus. His penis is the source of life just as his stump is the source of stories.

“It gathered on his tongue and stretched into stringy tresses when he laughed and spoke” (1).

“... and hung in stringy tresses form the reeds” (91).

“And it formed pools of sap in the vents of his severed elbow” (1).

“It formed its salty pools of sap amongst the vented lichens and the moss” (91).

The elbow and the heath are sources of tales. They both are conditions of storytelling. His elbow makes the father different, drives him to the outside world from which “he would return weighed down and weary with new tales” (156). Were it not for his arm and his being a villager who is attracted to the outside world, tales might not exist or come to life at all. His desire for the new, the other is the source and moving force of narratives. What is indispensable for the birth of storytelling is the clash between two antagonistic forces (two opposing worlds) and the subject who suffers the outcome of the energy discharge and who is sensitive enough to realise its significance, that is the storyteller. “Was I the only one to see that, all around, the world was tumbling, spinning, wild? The bats were flying in the sun, the butterflies at night. You only had to briefly lift your head above your parapet of stones to see that where the village ended mayhem ruled and danced” (133).

                [1] Jim Crace, The Gift of Stones. London: Picador, 1989: 2. Further references will be given in brackets.