Each contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects brings its author a gift of a book: one that had an impact on me when I first read it and which I’ve recently rediscovered on a trip to a charity shop. So here is my review of Jim Crace’s imaginative 1988 novel, The Gift of Stones.
approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes
The book goes to Sarah Dry for her excellent piece on her personal selection of three objects that trace one possible timeline of the Anthropocene. Set at the end of the Stone Age, on the cusp of change that overtook it and accelerated us headlong into a new world, a book could hardly be more relevant to our Age of Human: the Age of Unintended Consequences. The Gift of Stones is the story of a boy whose entanglement with the shifting world beyond the settled, conservative life of his village turns him into a storyteller. Set at the end of the Stone Age, it’s a parable of unlooked-for consequences as one age morphs into another. And it’s a tribute to the power of story-telling itself: “Salute the liars — they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.” Story is a technology.
The narration is shared by the man this boy quickly becomes — when disability causes him to find a novel role as outsider-insider within his industry-fixated village — and his adopted daughter. She casts a wary eye back on his choices as a teller of tall tales, and the way he weaves in spurious detail from the natural world around them to add authenticity to his creations.
“As the bully becomes soldier, and the meany becomes merchant, so the liar becomes bard. Where is the shock in that? … He was never lost for words. He had a name for everything — or invented one. He’d out-hoot an owl, they said … The paradox is this — we do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.”
She brings her own outsider’s view of the myopic villagers, who remain unaware of or unconcerned at the chaos on their borders. “My father’s ornateness as a story-teller cannot obscure the one plain truth that needs no hawk for decoration — that the village was obsessed with work, with industry, with craft. It made people purposeful, wealthy, strong” — and blind to change.
Truth that offers no escape
This is a society of flint diggers, shapers, traders. Stone is the material basis of their culture, stones are what they fashion:
“What they sought was the undisturbed floorstone of flint at depths unknown to worms. This was the act that underpinned the village … Making flints, that’s all they knew. That’s what gave them heart. That was the ritual that kept them going, that filled their time, that stocked their larders, that gave them pride … It made them feel, We do exist, We are important even, We count. They were the stoneys, heart and mind. They blindly fashioned flints [as] gulls laid top-heavy eggs and the winds blew off the sea. That’s how the world was made and never pause for thought. It wasn’t made for boys with stumps.”
The boy — hardly any of the main characters are named — has been attacked by outsiders looking for flint weapons they’ve no intention of bartering for. The villagers must amputate his damaged arm. Ironically, although these craftsmen can fashion the sharpest blades for the job, none of them is able to actually wield the knife on the boy, and this task is left to the attackers — penance for their crime. But the diggers and makers have no use for a one-armed boy so, having been saved by the act that renders him valueless to them, he’s left to his own devices. He wanders far and wide, and when he sees a ship from cliffs a day’s walk away, his storytelling takes off. “What could I say to make it sound attractive? They wanted something crafted and well turned … The truth would never do. It was too fragile and too glum. It offered no escape … Already, in my mind, I knew the story I could tell that night.”
Through his stories — some true, some invented, most somewhere in between — he brings to the stoneys more of the outside world than they glimpse from their routine trading, but it remains a conservative, closed society. All their food comes in barter, making them completely dependent on the price their flint can fetch. The boy’s stories are entertainments for them, just that. His life on the margins of village life — much of it spent beyond its borders — is mostly a solitary one, and his physical and imaginative wanderings bring self-awareness and an awareness of what society means.
“People on their own do foolish things. They don’t know when to stop. They don’t know how. Now you understand why people live in villages, sniffing at their neighbours’ cooking and their conversations. They fear themselves and what would happen if the leash were cut and they were all alone…”
He travels further, from the cliffs to a saltland heath “sodden and yellowed by the winter … 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.” There, he encounters a woman living alone with her daughter and her dog, and so discovers the smallest of communities, but one that needs more of him than simple entertainment saved for when the day’s real work is done:
“She hadn’t cared about my arm. Or knapping flints. Or stone. She’d said, Do this, Do that. Make sure the pot is safe. Here, take the child. And hold the dog. Can’t you kill a chicken? Could you walk down — take this bag — and pull some samphire roots? Before, I’d only ever idly stared through doors to watch the workers shaping stone, to smell their smells, to watch their lives while waiting for the Scram, Get out, We’ve work to do.”
King of the wild world
Further off, other communities make their living through what they create from the land; when our storyteller meets a group of farmers come to camp on the edge of the heath, he hears a new story from them, “of a farming year that was rhythmic as a drum.”
“The first note in the spring was emmer wheat. Then six-row corn. Then beans. Then flax, the last to bed, the hater of the frost. The goats did well all year on fodder mulched from leaves. Their milk and cheese were said to taste of elm or ash depending on the forest where they fed. In autumn there were unearned gifts in mushrooms, nuts and fruit. In winter there were bacon sides and apples wrinkled like a widow’s cheek, and grain from rat-free, stilted stacks.”
It soon becomes clear that the reason these men are on the heath is to exact revenge on flocks of wild geese that have gathered there. “They’d harvested the field, these airborne slugs,” and now the farmers would “show the wild world who was king by wiping out all geese.”
And so, despite its possibilities of plenty, this farming life is seemingly more precarious than an existence built on the steady need for stone tools and weapons, lived at one remove from raising your own food from unpredictable nature. Farming involves a war on the wild world, and the storyteller can spot the farmers’ false confidence in humans’ ultimate power. “If they’d stayed … they would’ve seen who was king of that wild world. When everybody’s dead, there’ll still be crabs and flies and carcass shrubs and weeds to strip and clothe the world.” (And, showing his native prejudice, he adds: “There’ll still be stone.”)
For his widowed heathland companion, however, the geese are an intimate connection between the wild and the human:
“… geese are people who have died. They say my husband and my boys are geese.’ She shrugged. ‘Who knows? I’ve also heard them say that geese bring babies, that geese bring dreams, that geese are blessings to the poor. I’ve heard it all. Myself, I know the truth. I’ve seen it every year. The geese bring summer and take away the frosts. You’ll see.’”
And it’s connections such as these that the storyteller takes back to his stoney community, crafting his gifts of story.
“There was the story of the talking goose. It was snow-white except for a golden bill and feet. It said . . . and here my father could devise a goose-borne message that would tease whatever audience he had assembled at his feet. There was the story of the woman and her magic dog. They lived inside a house made out of hair. The dog could cook and stitch and start a fire. The woman hunted rabbits with her mouth. There was the story of the boy with the gift of flames. He could spit fire. Those people who stayed close to him need never fear the cold.”
Stones, chaos and coma
The storyteller’s experiences beyond the village teach him that “the world was cut in two — one for chaos, one for coma … All the outside world required was the liberty to pound and crush, to hammer and to bruise … It didn’t matter if the blows were rained on geese or huts or dogs or boys, so long as there were blows and careless brawls and sudden ghosts of hardship to blow good fortune down.” But the villagers remain complacent. Within their coma, they cannot imagine an end to the simple laws of tradition and economics that their lives are built on, are completely wedded to.
“This was the lesson they had learned whenever trade had slackened in the past: the outside world was never free from stone. There was no sickling of the corn, no scraping hides, no fishing, hunting, wars, no cutting flesh, no knives, no fires, except for stone and stoneys. Without the stoneys, men would have to fight with sticks. And what would women use to cut the cord when children came? Their teeth? What next? Were people just as mean as wolves?”
Eventually, the outside world — the world of chaos — reaches inside the borders of the village. But it’s a different kind of emergency that befalls the stoneys than the one that cost their boy one arm and their village one useful worker. Rather than simply the violence of weapons, of shaped stone turned back upon the stone shapers, this is an end to stone itself: stone as a subtle technology and staple trade. An end which even the storyteller failed to foresee (“There’ll still be stone”). Human ingenuity can always turn to other materials, fashioning other economies, and the war on the wild can take another turn, tightening as it goes and leaving peoples and places ruined in its wake. All of which is raw material for the storyteller when he spies more ships and men “armed with weapons that were gleaming in the oddest way. The stones that made them were as light as leaves; their arrows sped like swallows. Compared, our arrows were like pigeons, plump and clumsy in the air.”
No one will be wanting arrows like pigeons now that ones like swallows can be had, “this sharp and shiny leaf, this bronze.” And it’s this — more than merely the more efficient violence that this new thing, metal, unleashes — that heralds the end of the stoneys’ world, leaving them “as helpless as a beetle on its back.”
The gift of stones is the gift of all technology, as double-edged as the new bronze swords that will sweep away the age of stone. The gift of stories is also two-faced, with lies and truth intertwined. A novel that leaves to one side the prehistoric beliefs and sites — the megalithic monuments and the mysteries of their ritual uses which so fascinate us looking back and seem (falsely) to separate us from them — The Gift of Stones focuses on the daily ritual of precarious living off the land, living with neighbours and outsiders, centres and margins, and with landscape and nature. Stories that we might come to remember.
The storyteller looks back at his home:
“I knew no sight more sad than that — the sight of that small, kempt place, its walls as ordered and as uniform as ribs laid bare, its life as timorous, fettered and discreet as that enjoyed by barnacles on stone. And all around and all beyond, in blues and greys and greens, and fading far away into the whites of distance and of sky, was all the outside world. It seemed as if the outside world was like a mist and the mist was closing in. And all our world was shrinking, breath by breath. Someone, something, was hovering between our village and the sun.”
Find out more
The Gift of Stones — Jim Crace’s second novel — was first published in 1988 and is published by Pan Macmillan.
In 2015, North Country Theatres toured an adaptation of The Gift of Stones. The Director, Nobby Dimon, said in the production programme that the novel “appealed to me because it is about the origins of storytelling and by extension the origins of theatre, because its language has a poetry which is not found often in contemporary fiction and because its remote setting is both strange yet recognisable. ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there, but Crace reminds us that even our remote ancestors share intellect and feelings with us.”