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Short Reads > Stifter, Rock Crystal: Discussion

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message 1: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
With the Christmas holidays I have not had the time to think through an initial post to put up but I wanted to create this discussion topic. Go ahead at start putting up thoughts if you wish. I will probably post something by tomorrow evening.

message 2: by John (new)

John Seymour | 167 comments If I recall, this is the week for discussion of the first half of the book. I've got very little to say. While beautifully written, it is quite simple and straightforward, setting the ground for what is to come.

Merry Christmas all.

message 3: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
So let’s start with the beginning. I find Stifter’s expository introduction fascinating. He starts with town’s ceremonies for the Christmas holiday, then he describes the hamlet as situated in the mountains, then the village people in a general way, then he goes into a lengthy description of the mountains and landscape. That leads to a description of the neck or col that separates the mountains, which leads into a description of the two villages on separate sides of the col, Gschaid and Millsdorf. It’s not until 12 pages in of a 70 page story that specific inhabitants are mentioned. Obviously there is some sort of significance to all that.

From the opening chapter:

"One of the most beautiful of Church festivals comes in midwinter when nights are long and days are short, when the sun slants toward earth obliquely and snow mantles the fields: Christmas. In many countries the evening that precedes our Lord’s nativity is known as Christmas Eve; in our region we call it Holy Eve, the day following Holy Day, and the night between, Holy Night. The Catholic Church observes Christmas, birthday of our Saviour, by magnificent and holiest ceremonial. In most places, midnight as the very hour of his birth is solemnized by ritual of great splendor, to which the bells ring out their heartsome invitation through the still darkness of the wintry air; then with their lanterns, along dim familiar paths, from snow-clad mountains, past forest-boughs encrusted with rime, through crackling orchards, folk flock to the church from which solemn strains are pouring,—the church rising from the heart of the village, enshrouded in ice-laden trees, its stately windows aglow."

Right there you have three of the most important motifs that will be of importance to the theme: the sacredness of the season, the integration of nature with the life of the town, and the ceremony which binds the season with the life. Ceremony is very important to story; shortly after Stifter goes on to describe a custom of giving gifts to the children:

"It is the custom to present children with gifts the Blessed Christ-child has brought; given usually on Christmas Eve when dusk has deepened into night. Candles are lit, generally a great many, that flicker together with the little wax lights on the fresh green branches of a small fir or spruce tree that has been set in the middle of the room."

Again religion and nature with the tree branches are brought to the fore. Also significant is that the people are unidentified. Stifter could have started the story with Conrad and Sanna and their parents. That would have been the natural thing to do, but he speaks here in a generic mode. All the townspeople go through these rituals. What Stifter is emphasizing is the harmonious integration of the townsfolk, Christianity, and their environment. And you can see this as Stifter begins to focus on the hamlet, the church-spire being the prominent feature. The main person of the village is the priest, who the villagers “regard with veneration.” Stifter goes on to describe the village as “a separate world.”

"The village people thus constitute a separate world, they know one another by name and are familiar with all the grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ tales. All mourn when anyone dies; all know the name of the new-born; they speak a language which is different from that used in the plain; they have their quarrels and settle them; they help one another, and if anything unusual happens, come flocking together."

The village people are said to adhere “to the ancient ways.” This is a village after my own heart.

message 4: by Irene (new)

Irene | 909 comments I appreciated the descriptive opening. I could see and hear and feel this landscape. When the crisis comes, the author does not have to leave the action to create the stage. Instead we are free to stay with the children through the story.

message 5: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1320 comments Mod
I loved the vivid landscape descriptions as well. It felt like you could jump into the narrative and start hiking.

message 6: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1320 comments Mod
Irene wrote: "I appreciated the descriptive opening. I could see and hear and feel this landscape. When the crisis comes, the author does not have to leave the action to create the stage. Instead we are free to ..."

Irene, that's a great observation!

message 7: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
What I’ve described so far is a sense of harmony. You can’t have a story with only harmony and without introducing a disruptive element that causes a disequilibrium, resulting in tension. The children losing their way through the mountains in a snow storm is the disruptive element, but there is a greater context which makes the story transcend the lost and found adventure. The second part of the exposition, describing the histories of the two children’s parents and grandparents, introduces the tension that will be resolved back to a harmonious state. Let me skip over the landscape description for now, but I’ll come back to show how it’s all symbolic.

Let’s start with the children’s father, as Stifter does. He is a shoemaker from Gschaid, but in his youth he was not the model citizen he grew to be, and in contrast to his own father.

"The shoemaker on the square, before he inherited his house, had been a chamois-poacher and in general, so people said, not too model a youth. In school he had always been one of the best pupils. Later he had learned his father’s trade, and after working as a wandering journeyman, had finally come back to the village. But instead of wearing a black hat as becomes a tradesman—such as his father had worn all his life—he perched a green one on his head, stuck every available feather in it, and strutted about wearing the shortest frieze coat in the valley, whereas his father had always worn a dark coat, preferably black—since he was a man of trade—and invariably cut long. The young shoemaker was to be seen on every dance floor and at every bowling alley. If anyone tried to reason with him, he just whistled a tune. He and his marksman’s rifle were at every shooting match in the neighborhood and sometimes he carried home a prize—treasured by him as a great trophy. The prize was usually a set of coins artistically arranged. But the shoemaker, in order to win it, had to disburse many more similar coins, in his usual spendthrift fashion. He went to all the hunts in the neighborhood and had quite a reputation for being a good marksman. Sometimes, however, he fared forth alone with his blunderbuss and spiked shoes, and it was rumored that he had once received a serious wound on his head."

Poacher, spendthrift, wayward, even perhaps prodigal, the young shoemaker stands in contrast to the harmony inherent to the village. But he changes, and he changes to be able to marry the beautiful girl over the col in the town of Millsdorf, the daughter of the prosperous dyer.

"Some time after the death of his parents when he had become proprietor of the house where he now lived all alone, the shoemaker changed into a wholly different person. Whereas till then he was always rollicking about, he now sat in his shop, hammering away on sole-leather, day and night. He boasted that no one could make better shoes and footgear, and engaged only the best workmen whom he nagged and pestered a good deal as they sat at their work, making them follow his instructions and do exactly as he told them."

The shoemaker’s youthful eccentricities had caused a discord in the town’s natural harmony, but the nature of the town’s life—and a desire for marriage, which by the way is a church sacrament—caused the discord to be resolved. Ultimately he wins over the dyer’s family and the daughter, marries her, and takes over to his town of Gschaid.

But now a new set of discords arise. Being new to Gschaid, which has very different customs from Millsdorf and being away from her family, she feels isolated, even alienated.

"Since the people of Gschaid seldom leave their valley and almost never go to Millsdorf, from which they are separated by mountain and by customs—and since, furthermore, no one ever leaves his valley to settle in a neighboring one—although removals to great distances occur—and lastly since no girl ever leaves her valley except on the rare occasion when, obeying the dictates of love, as a bride, she follows her husband into another valley—so it came about that after the beautiful daughter of the dyer of Millsdorf married the shoemaker of Gschaid she was still regarded by the people of Gschaid as a stranger; and although they were not unkind to her, and even loved her for her charm and virtue, there was always something, reserve or a sort of shy respect, that kept her from enjoying the same familiarity and warm intimacy that existed between the people that belonged to the valley."

And that’s not the only discord. After bearing two children, the wife “felt, however, that he did not love the children as much as she thought he ought to, and as she herself loved them; for he looked so serious most of the time and was always preoccupied with his work. He rarely petted or played with them, and always addressed them quietly as one speaks to grown persons.”

And that completes the exposition of the circumstances leading up to that Christmas Eve where the children venture out to their grandparents in Millsdorf.

But let’s now look at the description of the mountains, and what it means to the themes in the story. We are told that the dominating mountain is in the shape of two “horns.”

"South of the village you see a snowy mountain with dazzling horn-shaped peaks, rising, as it seems, from the house-tops themselves, but actually quite far away. All year round, summer and winter, there it is with its jutting crags and white expanses, looking down upon the valley. As the most prominent feature of the landscape and ever before the eyes of the villagers, the mountain has been the inspiration of many a tale."

We are told of the rocks and snow, brooks and meadows, and the steep inclines and sharp descents, all of which pose a danger to the traveler, and we are told of an actual death, a baker, carrying his basket. But the most prominent feature of the landscape is the col.

"Ascent of the mountain is made from the valley. One follows in the southerly direction a smooth, well-made road that leads by a neck or “col” into another valley. A col is a mountain-range of moderate height, connecting two larger, more considerable, ranges; and following it, one passes between the ranges from one valley into another. The col which links the snow-mountain with the corresponding range opposite, is thickly studded with pines. At about the highest point of the road before it descends into the further valley, stands a little rustic memorial."

That memorial is a marker of where the baker died, right on the col. So picture this: you have two peaks, the “horns” and in between is a neck or col of some elevation too, though not as high as the horns. On one side of the col is the valley that leads to Millsdorf, and the other is the valley that leads to Gschaid. Two horns, two valleys, two towns, two cultures, two families. Some writers like to work in an aesthetic of twos and some of threes. Stifter is clearly working with twos, and the aesthetic of twos is one of a dialectic, and a dialectic resolves into a synthesis. The young shoemaker had a division with him of a person born to a tradition but felt the longing of self-realization. But the desire for marriage and the act of marriage synthesized him to the standout craftsman of his trade. The story can now take place to synthesize the new divisions.

message 8: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
Kerstin wrote: "I loved the vivid landscape descriptions as well. It felt like you could jump into the narrative and start hiking."

It does! LOL.

message 9: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
Irene wrote: "I appreciated the descriptive opening. I could see and hear and feel this landscape. When the crisis comes, the author does not have to leave the action to create the stage. Instead we are free to ..."

The opening is more than just description, Irene, as I'm trying to point out.

message 10: by Kerstin (last edited Dec 30, 2017 09:02AM) (new)

Kerstin | 1320 comments Mod
Manny wrote: "So let’s start with the beginning. I find Stifter’s expository introduction fascinating. He starts with town’s ceremonies for the Christmas holiday, then he describes the hamlet as situated in the ..."

The way Stifter describes Christmas is very much how I grew up. In southern Germany you also use the terms of Holy Eve and Holy Night, the presents being brought by the Christ Child. The tree is set up only on Christmas Eve, and often the children are not allowed to see it (wouldn't work with today's open floorplans in the US...) until the moment when they are allowed into the living room, and the only illumination are candles. It is such a magical moment and made me fall in love with Christmas for a lifetime :)

I like how you point out, Manny, that nature and the sacred are intertwined in the story - now I have to read it again with this element in mind :) . And when you think about it, we are part of all Creation, so the sacred rituals we follow should be in harmony with the grandeur of nature. Now there are few landscapes as grand as mountains. They elevate the soul and their majesty invoke the Creator. They overwhelm us with their indescribable beauty, but can also terrify us with their inhospitable places.

And a big shout-out for the translation. I read it in the original German, and these excerpts you are quoting are just as beautiful.

message 11: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
Thank you. I'm using the Mayer and Moore translation.

message 12: by Kristen (new)

Kristen | 55 comments I received Rock Crystal as a Christmas gift from my husband! Unfortunately I have missed the discussion so far. However, doesn't Advent continue until Jan 8th? Is it too late to join the discussion or should I wait to read next year at Christmas time - what do you think?

I hope everyone had a blessed Christmas and am praying for a Happy New Year for all. I was in the hospital over Christmas but am feeling so much better now and continuing to heal by the grace of God.

message 13: by Irene (new)

Irene | 909 comments Certainly not too late to join the discussion. It is a quick read and we are still posting.

message 14: by Susan (new)

Susan | 191 comments Kristen wrote: I was in the hospital over Christmas but am feeling so much better now and continuing to heal by the grace of God.

Feel better Kristen!

message 15: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
Here's my concluding write up on Rock Crystal. It's a part 2 to my lengthy post above. If the Goodreads comment box format makes it difficult to read (these aren't the greatest) then go to my blog to read it. (Oops, I'm afraid it's too long for one comment box. I will have to break this up into two.)

The narrative begins in my edition (Mayer and Moore translation, New York Review Books Classics) thirty pages into a 75 page story, nearly 40% in:

"One winter, the day before Christmas, when in the valley of Gschaid early dawn had broadened into day, a faint clear-weather haze overspread the sky, so that the sun creeping up in the south-east could be seen only as an indistinct reddish ball; furthermore, the air was mild, almost warm in the valley and even in the upper reaches of the sky as indicated by the unchanging forms of the motionless clouds. So the shoemaker’s wife said to the children: “Since it is such a fine day and since it has not rained for a long time and the roads are hard, and since yesterday your father gave you permission, provided it was the right kind of day, you may go over to Millsdorf to see your grandmother; but first you must ask your father again.”"

Perhaps one should say something about waiting so long for the narrative to begin. This was much more prevalent in the 19th century, and actually opposed to the classical notion of storytelling by in medias res, which means to begin in the middle of things. That means to start the story at a critical point in the narrative, or at least at the beginning of the action, and backfill the exposition. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and others do it regularly, but for some reason the 19th century authors weren’t fond f it. As great a story teller as Dickens was, I don’t recall a work of his where he starts in the middle. Certainly narrative thrusted at the beginning grabs the reader’s attention, and I would say most times that not it is the best approach to storytelling. However, here because the themes are more of a hook than the story itself, I think Stifter does well with this extended opening exposition.

There are two elements to the story that I want to highlight. After getting their father’s permission to go off to their grandparents, the last thing the mother does is give them a blessing:

"The lad slung a calfskin pouch over his shoulder by a strap—a perquisite deftly sewn by his father—and the children went into the next room to bid him farewell. They were soon back, and after their mother had made the sign of the cross over them in blessing, they skipped merrily off down the street." (p.32)

Secularists might think of the blessing as superstitious, but Stifter doesn’t, as we see with so many of the providential events that lead to the children’s survival. In a Catholic worldview a blessing endows a physical, spiritual, or supernatural gift upon a person, and while it does not guarantee an outcome (that would be superstition) it links the giver of the blessing and the receiver with the divine. A blessing is also a sacramental, a sacramental being a sacred sign either abstract like a blessing or physical like holy water that brings us in contact with God. (Don’t confuse a sacramental with a sacrament, which is a sacred sign implemented by Christ that confers a physical change to the soul.) Sacramentals are not just holy items, but things that are done with God’s love. That calfskin pouch that Conrad uses is a sacramental since it was put together and given in love. The mother bundling the children to protect them against the cold is another, and of course the blessing. The Catholic worldview holds that there is a continuum between the spiritual and the physical, and so we see it in the story. Notice the sacramentals later when the grandmother provides all sorts of gifts to the children.

"Then she [the grandmother] bustled about here and there, packing to overflowing the lad’s calfskin pouch, besides stuffing things into his pockets. She also put divers things into Sanna’s little pockets, gave them each a piece of bread to eat on the way, and in the bag, she told them, were two rolls in case they became very hungry.

“For your mother,” she said, “I am giving you some well-roasted coffee-beans, and in the very tightly wrapped bottle with the stopper is some black coffee extract better than your mother herself usually makes; she can taste some just as it is; it is a veritable tonic, so strong the merest sip warms the stomach so that you cannot feel chilled even on the coldest of winter days. The other things in the bag, in the cardboard box wrapped with paper, you are to take home without opening.” (p.36)

All these things aid the children in their survival. All that food was not needed for a normal three hour hike, but it came in handy when they were lost. Nor would they have received all that food if Conrad didn’t have the bag. And that coffee allowed them to stay awake and not freeze to death during the overnight rest. Providence uses the sacramentals to ensure survival. And let’s not forget the father is a shoemaker who specialized in mountain shoes. I don’t remember if it was mentioned in the story, but those mountain shoes the children were wearing had to be critical on the climbs and descent on the glacier. By coordinating the sacramentals for a fortunate outcome, Stifter is presenting a world integrated with the divine. When the children eat that bread the grandmother puts into Conrad’s bag, it’s most certainly suggestive of the Eucharist, and therefore God’s presence. In town the priest had postponed high Mass (p. 72) because of the missing children, but the children eat the bread (p. 54) in a thanksgiving, and this happens just when children back in town are supposed to be receiving Christmas gifts (p. 56).

message 16: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
Here's the continuation from above.

Another part of the story we need to consider is the landscape and environment. We see the harshness of nature; we see the spot the baker died and realize the danger is real. One should begin to think, is this story an allegory? And if so, what does it mean for the children to pass through a snowstorm unable to cognitively process the signs that would lead home, and all on Christmas Eve, for that matter? Here is the moment they begin to realize they are lost.

“Will we be at the post soon?” asked Sanna. “I don’t know,” answered her brother. “This time, I can’t make out the trees, or the road because it is so white. We may not see the post at all, because there is so much snow it will be covered up, and hardly a grass-blade or arm of the cross will stick out. But that’s nothing. We’ll just keep straight on; the road leads through the trees and when it gets to the place where the post is, then it will start downhill and we keep right on it and when it comes out of the woods we are in Gschaid meadows; then comes the footbridge, and we’re not far from home.” (p.41)

But obviously they have drifted and are not on the way home.

"However, as they went, they could not tell whether they were going down the mountain or not. They had soon turned downhill to the right but then came to elevations leading up. Often they encountered sheer rises they had to avoid; and a hollow in which they were walking led them around in a curve. They climbed hummocks that became steeper under their feet than they expected; and what they had deemed a descent was level ground or a depression, or went on as an even stretch.

“But where are we, Conrad?” asked the child.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “If only my eyes could make out something and I could get my bearings.”

But on every side was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that none the less drew its ever narrowing circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow." (p.44)

As the children step through the strange rocks, as they climb up an unfamiliar ascent, as they enter a cave for shelter, the children have entered a new world, a different world. Physically they are wandering lost in a snowstorm, but allegorically they have entered a world beyond. Snow is sometimes taken as a symbol for death (winter, frozen, burial, universality as it falls covers everything), and death brings one into a new world. And the children try to learn about this unfamiliar world.

"It was a blessing the snow was dry as sand, so it shook off easily and slid from their feet and little mountain shoes without caking and soaking them.

At last they again came to something with form, immense shapes heaped in gigantic confusion, covered with snow that was sifting everywhere into the crevices; the children had, moreover, almost stumbled on them before they had seen them. They went close to look.

Ice—nothing but ice.

There were great slabs lying, covered with snow but on the edges glassy green ice showed; there were mounds of what looked like pushed-up foam, the sides dull but with inward glimmers as if crystals and splinters of precious stones had been jumbled together; there were, besides, great rounded bosses engulfed in snow, slabs and other shapes slanting or upright,--as high as the church steeple or houses in Gschaid." (p. 48)

Despite the harshness of the weather, the children still get a blessing from the snow. And it’s no coincidence that the simile for the height of the slabs is the church steeple, for the children have entered a divine world. And the ice upon the rock slabs glimmers like crystals and precious stones, from which the story gets its title. When Sanna suggests the ice was made by “a great deal of water,” Conrad disagrees, “No, it wasn’t made by water, it’s ice of the mountain, and always here since God made it so” (p. 48). It is an amazing world, a world filled with God’s wonder. Conrad continues,

“And down where the snow ends, you see all manner of colors if you look hard,—green, blue, and a whitish color—that is the ice that looks so small from down below because you are so far away, and that, as Father said, is going to be there as long as the world lasts. And then I’ve often noticed that the blue color keeps on below the ice,—probably stones, I’ve thought, or maybe ploughed ground and pastures, and then come the pine woods that go down and down, and all kinds of rocks in between, then the green meadows, then the woods with leaves....” (p.48-49)

Finally the children enter a cavern with a canopy of ice above them and a most intense color of blue: “But the whole cavern was blue, bluer than anything on earth, a blue deeper and finer than the vault of heaven itself, blue as azure grass with a faint light inside” (p. 50). Why blue? Blue, the color of the Virgin Mary, the color of heaven, here I believe is supposed to suggest harmony and order and the unity with the divine. Providence led the children to a safe spot with no ice and enclosed from the elements just as it got dark. Stifter is I think reaching for the theology of creation, where God’s handiwork of nature blesses humanity with goodness.

The children spend that holy night of Christmas safe and fed with the sacramentals from their parents and grandparents under an “arch of heaven [that] was an even blue, so dark it was almost black, spangled with stars blazing in countless array” (p. 57). That arch of heaven, which gets elaborated several pages later (p. 61), suggests the rainbow as a sign from God in Genesis.

And so when the children on Christmas Day see a flame (representing Christ) coming toward them, it turns out to be the flag of a rescue team, and the first words from Philip the herdsman is “Praise be to God!” (p. 68). When the children are led back to town to their anxious parents, the mother sees them first,

“Sebastian, they are here,” cried his wife.

Speechless and trembling, he ran toward them. His lips moved as if to say something but no words came, he pressed the children to his heart, holding them close and long. Then he turned to his wife and locked her in his arms, crying “Sanna, Sanna.” (p.70-71)

And then the father turns to the rescuers and says, “Neighbors, friends, I thank you” (p. 71). So because of the children’s safe passage through the dangerous, divine world, we see then the resolution of the discords set out in the exposition. The father does love his children, and the wife is now convinced of it; the grandparents are brought over and become unified with their daughter’s family; the wife is now embraced and become part of her new home town of Gschaid. We see a unity of family, a unity of town, and a unity of the universe under God’s arch of heaven. Having rescued the children, the town turns to go to church where the postponed Mass can now resume.

What a beautiful story. This is how life should be!

message 17: by Frances (new)

Frances Richardson | 540 comments Thank you so much, Manny. How beautifully you explained this. I came away from this story with the sense of a great stillness. What a gift from the author, because we in our often hectic, fast-paced, noisy world, we need to be called to stillness.

message 18: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1320 comments Mod
Frances wrote: "Thank you so much, Manny. How beautifully you explained this. I came away from this story with the sense of a great stillness. What a gift from the author, because we in our often hectic, fast-pace..."

That's a great observation!
I find the ever-present noise very taxing and stressful. One of the benefits of living in the country is that our surroundings are usually very quiet. One gets so used to it that when you are in a very noisy environment I reach for the ear plugs. :)

message 19: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 1320 comments Mod
Manny, that's a great synopsis. You picked out details I missed.

There are some details that struck me:
Stifter masterfully puts these children in a most perilous environment. When the children get disoriented by the snow storm, there is no wind. They unwittingly walk over the neck and folks can't remember when the last time was there was no wind there, which would have doomed them, no wind-chill, no losing balance due to the exposed location, no insecurity due to visuals. They are wrapped by the falling snow as if in a cocoon and protected without realizing it.
Then they do not feel cold. Here they are on high Alpine terrain where one would expect numbing, freezing cold that quickly would penetrate their clothes, yet they don't feel it. They are sheltered within the Divine and these external aspects don't penetrate. These scenes are a great allegory how we are to trust God always.

message 20: by Manny (new)

Manny (virmarl) | 3654 comments Mod
Thank you both. When I get struck by a literary work, I really pick up what the author is doing.

Those are good observations too Kerstin. Yes, either Stifter meant to suggest divine protection or it was an oversight on his part on those details. But given his other divine aid, one has to assume he meant it.

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