Folk-Lore/Volume 23/Obituary/Andrew Lang

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In a letter which lies before me, George Meredith says: "Horribly will I haunt the man who writes memoir of me." If Andrew Lang did not utter a like threat, he expressed a like repugnance when he wished "for some short way with the Life and Letters plague." But the author of monographs on Lockhart, Tennyson, and others, and of the Life, Letters., and Diaries of Sir Stafford Northcote, would not, were it possible, resent the payment of a brief tribute to his genius and worth in the organ of a Society the furtherance of whose aims had no small place in his manifold interests.

"It has been a tradition in the Lang family that they originally came from Bohemia," says Sir Lauder Brunton in a letter to The Times,[1] and there is recognition of gipsy ancestry in the stanzas:

"Ye wanderers that were my sires,
Who read men's fortunes in the hand,
Who voyaged with your smithy fires
From waste to waste across the land,
Why did you leave for garth and town
Your life by heath and river's brink,
Why lay your gipsy freedom down
And doom your child to Pen and Ink? "[2]

His father was John Lang, of Selkirk; his mother's maiden name was Jane Plenderleath Sellar (the name recalls his memoir of his uncle, Professor Sellar, prefaced to the posthumous volume on Horace and the Elegiac Poets); he was educated at Edinburgh and St. Andrews Universities and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he

To face p. 358.

took a first in Mods, and in Greats, securing election to a fellowship at Merton in 1868. From thence until his death his career was wholly that of a man of letters.

Other pens in other places have commented on his remarkable gifts as a writer, on his easily-worn equipment as a classical scholar, and on that marvellous versatility which "age could not wither nor custom stale," and to which a syndicate of assessors could do only bare justice. It would find ample business to hand in apportioning among its members a criticism of works, original and otherwise, filling sixteen pages of the British Museum catalogue. Here it must suffice to speak of his services to the twin sciences of folklore and comparative mythology. Invaluable as these services are to students of human psychology, the general public knows little, and cares little, about them, because the readers who looked to Andrew Lang for entertainment far outnumbered those who sought instruction from him. Even to some of the latter the pioneer work which he did in revolutionising accepted theories is but imperfectly known, since Custom and Myth was published as far back as 1884, and Myth, Ritual, and Religion in 1887,—the year before he was elected President of our Society, his membership of which dates from 1878, the year of its formation. For only those who were born two generations back can have memory of the stir made by Max Müller on the appearance of his article on "Comparative Mythology" in the Oxford Essays, 1856. His facile pen drew an attractive picture of the ancestors of the leading nations of Europe, and of certain peoples in Asia, dwelling on the Bactrian plateau, speaking a tongue and possessing a mythology which supplied the key to the language and traditions of the IndoEuropean races. That key, he argued, was found in tracing to their root-elements the names of Vedic gods and heroes, which were interpreted as natural phenomena, the sun, the dawn, and so forth. Hence was formulated that "solar theory" which so dominated us as to call from Matthew Arnold the humorous complaint that "one could scarcely look at the sun without having the sensations of a moth." Max Müller contended that the meaning of the name gave the clue to the meaning of the myth, and that the presence of coarse and grotesque features in the mythology of Hindu, Greek, Roman, and Teuton was mainly due to a "disease of language" by which the primitive and purer nature-myth was corrupted; e.g. the story of Kronos devouring his offspring was the result of a vulgar misunderstanding of the swallowing of the Days by Time. The theory won well-nigh universal acceptance, and held the field for years until doubt was thrown on the validity of the equations; e.g. while Max Müller translated the Vedic goddess Urvasi as "the dawn," Dr. Roth translated that name as "lewd or wanton"! One by one the assumed equations were challenged, with the result that scarcely any have survived the more rigid tests of a later comparative philology.

Working, "in giant ignorance of Mannhardt,"[3] on the same lines of enquiry, Lang reached the conclusion shrewdly anticipated by Fontenelle, a nephew of Corneille, more than a century and a half ago, that "all nations invented the astounding part of their myths while they were savages, and retained them from custom and religious conservatism." Hence, to understand the ugly and crazy myths of civilized races, we must make ourselves familiar with the thoughts, manners, and myths of races who are now in the same savage state as were the prehistoric ancestors of Greeks, Romans, and other advanced peoples. This method is emphasised in Andrew Lang's last words on the subject in a posthumous review published nine days after his death.[4] "We knew little about the evolution of religion, or of social organisations and institutions, or of mythology, till we began to study them comparatively, by observing their forms, and as far as possible their development, among all peoples of whom we have sufficient knowledge."

It is, then, in his original contributions towards the supersession of the philological by the anthropological method of interpretation that the folklorist and the comparative mythologist owe Andrew Lang an incalculable debt. And there is warrant for the belief that he would have accepted in this recognition the most welcome tribute to the abiding features of his life-work.

At this point an end might be made, were it not that, folklore being the psychical side of anthropology, his efforts to establish a working alliance between it and psychical research demand reference. These are urged in Cock Lane and Common Sense, published in 1894. He wanted the folklorist to see that such reported phenomena as ghosts, wraiths, and all their kind, are within the province of anthropology to deal with; and he regretted that "Folk-Lore officially refuses to have anything to do with the subject." And he wanted the psychical researcher, in examining evidence for the occult, not to neglect the evidence furnished by tradition, savage superstition, and aught else that comes under the purview of folklore. In this attempt, as a sort of "honest broker," he admitted that he, Psycho-Folklorist[5] as he dubbed himself when we had our bloodless duel over my Presidential Address, had "not quite succeeded," nor is success possible where the evidence of fact and the prepossessions of fancy essay harmony. "I have," he says, "been unable to reach any conclusion, negative or affirmative."[6] But the effort showed the open mind hesitating to dogmatise, although it brought him the title "our effective ally," bestowed by Dr. Walter Leaf. He accepted the presidency of the Society for Psychical Research, but his attitude towards the whole business remained elusive, sceptical. When Eusapia Palladino, the "humorist" as he called her, was detected in tricks which had "deceived the very elect," he remarked that "it looked as if psychical research does, somehow, damage and pervert the logical faculty of scientific minds."[7] Discussing these matters at the Savile Club some years ago, I quoted the verse "the devils also believe and tremble," when, with a twinkle, he replied, "I don't believe, but I tremble." Yet he gave some comfort to the psychists when, reviewing F. W. H. Myers' Human Personality after Death, he wrote: "I think (religious faith apart) that human faculty lends fairly strong presumption in favour of the survival of human consciousness."[8] And a like comfort came to those "who dwell at ease in Zion" in his quasi-assumption of primitive monotheism in the "High Gods" and "All Fathers" of lower races, on which the artillery of Mr. Sidney Hartland made havoc wellnigh as complete as were the effects of his own onslaught on the mythological theories of Max Müller and Herbert Spencer.

As for the man, apart from the writer, de mortuis nil nisi verum. Some of the obituaries,—that of The Times, for example,—speak of "a touch of superciliousness in his manner," and of an aloofness which barred intimacy. These were present, but they were only skin-deep, thin as the epiderm. Once penetrated, the warm human blood was felt, and if Andrew Lang was not of the rare company who have a genius for friendship, those who came to know him longest learned to appreciate him most. This was my experience, and the testimony may have more weight because our points of view sometimes differed fundamentally, and there was more than one skirmish between us. These only emphasised many kindly acts,—not least among them the thankless task, voluntarily offered, of reading one's proofs. I know that sometimes he gave offence by the tone of his reviews, the temptation to banter being too great to be resisted. But he bore no malice; and they who submit their wares to the critic must not be too squeamish over the verdict. Andrew Lang well and worthily maintained the high traditions of his calling, and in the sweetness and purity of home life he kept himself "unspotted from the world." He died at Banchory, and rests, "Life's tired-out guest," under the shadow of the ruined cathedral of his beloved St. Andrews.

  1. July 30. 1912.
  2. Grass of Parnassus (1892), p. 28.
  3. A. Lang, "Mr. Max Müller and his Adversaries," Daily News, Dec. 12, 1895.
  4. "The Heroic Age" (by H. Munro Chadwick), The Morning Post, July 29, 1912.
  5. Folk-Lore, vol. vi. p. 236.
  6. Cock Lane and Common Sense, p. 22.
  7. Longmans' Magazine, Dec. 1895, p. 320.
  8. The Monthly Review March 1903, p. 95.