Haugtussa, or Eight Sogns from The Mountain Maid: Dreaming Copt Howe and Elter Water

May 2, 2015

well how are you Maggy & hopes soon to hear well & must now close it with fondest to the twoinns with four crosskisses

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

According to a saying attributed to Rabbi Chisda, ‘a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read’ (Frieden 1993: 104). It is a saying I’ve been reminded of in trying to interpret a dream I had in the early hours of a morning last week-end. So striking was the dream that I was compelled to get up and find a pen and paper to write it down before forgetting it; something I haven’t done for a long time. I can’t help but feel that dreams must be of more than personal significance if all of us participate in a common field of consciousness, and events in the world had certainly impinged on what I dreamt.

For I had retired to bed unsettled by the knowledge that, the day before, a nineteen-year-old motorcyclist had been killed in a tragic road traffic accident only a couple of hundred yards up the road. I had also just learnt that a friend who lives nearby was waiting for news of her goddaughter in Kathmandu, from whom nothing had been heard since the terrible earthquake shook Nepal a few hours earlier.  Not surprisingly, the language of seismology and communication appears to have worked its way into the dream, as I summarise it here:

The epicentre of an erratic, intermittent pulse of communications has finally been located – via some sort of ‘remote viewing’ or infrared video link in a news report – to a pool of water by a drystone wall in the far north west of England. Golden sparks like embers scattered from an invisible fire are seen to fly in the night sky, reflected in the ripples of the pool, glowing speckles drifting beneath the branches of the swaying trees around the waters. A correspondent at this place – who should be in Montpellier, in France – is trying to attract my attention here, alerting me to these urgent communications from… from where? Some otherwordly place… the land of Faerie?

A drystone wall runs ahead of me alongside this pool, its course punctuated by a huge slab of rock, aligned with the low wall into which it has been incorporated, but towering above it. Its flat outer face is incised with ancient carvings, 5,000 years old. Just feet away from this stone, parallel with the orientation of the wall and the stone’s worked surface, is the burnt out shell of a car – as out of place here as my correspondent friend on his night vigil. How did the car get to this inaccessible spot? The same way the joyriders of Whitehawk abandoned burnt-out vehicles on the Sussex Downs (as noted, sardonically, in an archaeological study of local flint mines)? Or – as a voice insisted in this dream – was it the end result of that classic feature of alien abduction narratives: engine failure induced by a close encounter with entities from other realms, before the car was teleported to Great Langdale to become a blazing offering, a potlatch of destruction?

„Great Langdale and Copt Howe“ von Original uploader was Mjobling at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper.. Lizenziert unter Gemeinfrei über Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Langdale_and_Copt_Howe.jpg#/media/File:Great_Langdale_and_Copt_Howe.jpg

Great Langdale and Copt Howe, showing the relationship of the Langdale Boulders to the wall. Photograph by M. Jobling Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never been to the places in this dream, though they exist, in spite of their actual geographical positions and forms being metamorphosed and displaced. They are two places in the same valley, telescoped together in the space of the dream: boulders at Copt Howe, Chapel Stile, in the Langdale valley – carved with 5,000-year-old motifs not noticed until 1999 – and a lake called Elter Water.

Diagram of the Copt Howe carvings from this site.

Diagram of the Copt Howe carvings from this site.

Remarkably, both boulders and lake together form a broad band of alignment with two of the five Langdale Pikes, as can be deduced from the photograph of the boulders above and the photograph of the lake below. These prominent mountaintops were the site of intensive stone quarrying and axe production during the 4th and 3rd millennium BC (Sharpe 2007: 151). I have written of these peaks and other mountains here, in the context of otherworldly female guardians of the herds. Again, I had been reminded that week of these themes by a Radio Three broadcast on 22nd April of Edvard Grieg’s Eight Songs from The Mountain Maid, based on Arne Garborg’s epic cycle of poems, Haugtussa.

“Elterwater and Langdale” by Rob Bendall. The Langdale Pikes can be seen in the distance. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons

In the dream the carved stone – which was undoubtedly meant to be one of the huge boulders featured in the top photograph – presented a much slimmer appearance, so that the view along the wall was more like looking along the façade of the West Kennet Long Barrow, with the tallest stone at the right in the picture of the Long Barrow (below) becoming the Copt Howe boulder in the dream. In his book, The Avebury Cycle, Michael Dames perceives the arrangement of the five massive sarsen stones of the forecourt at West Kennet as the monumental body of a stone ox (Dames 1977: 53).


Another cognitive contribution to these dream materials was a link sent to me the day before by a friend, long aware of my interest in the Cottingley Fairies and prehistoric rock carvings. The first paragraph begins:

On a hot July day in 1872, Lewis Carroll, together with his friend the Pre-Raphaelite painter and illustrator Arthur Hughes, took ‘a splendid walk to Fairyland.’[i] The mysteriously named woodland area near Guildford in Surrey was popular with Victorian artists and writers – not least because of alleged appearances of a spectral lady and a pursuing phantom horseman near the lake “Silent Pool” at the heart of the forest (which is, even today, still listed as one of Britain’s most haunted locations).

Certainly, the body of water in the dream had more of the character of a pool than a lake, but in the psychogeographical logic of the dream the Silent Pool in Surrey can also be Elter Water in Cumbria. The etymology of Elter Water entwines the heroines Alice Pleasance Liddell (APL) – Wonderland’s Alice – and Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP) of Finnegans Wake, in that  its name probably derives from the Old Norse (ON) meaning  ” ‘The lake frequented by swans’, from ON ‘elptr’/’alpt’ ‘swan’, in the gen.[itive], sing.[ular] form with ‘-ar’, and ‘water’, probably replacing ON ‘vatn’ ‘lake’. Whooper swans still winter on the lake” (Whaley 2006: 108-109).

Image (17)

Back in the wideawake world, the good news is that our friend’s goddaughter has made contact and is ‘safe and well’. Yet, so much sadness and despair for so many others in Nepal and the world, including the family and friends of the young lad killed in our road. The shadow of his death has sent a shiver just as the floral tributes have brightened the pavement in his memory. Sad, sad.


Dames, Michael. 1977. The Avebury Cycle. London: Thames and Hudson.

Frieden, Ken. 1993. Talmudic Dream Interpretation, Freudian Ambivalence, Deconstruction. In Carol Schreier Rupprecht (ed.) The Dream and the Text. Albany: State University of New York Press. pp 103-111.

Sharpe, Kate. 2007. Rock-art and rough outs: exploring the sacred and social dimensions of prehistoric carvings at Copt Howe, Cumbria. In  A. Mazel, G. Nash and C. Waddington (eds.) Art as Metaphor: The Prehistoric Rock-Art of Britain. Oxford: Archaeopress. pp 151-173.

Whaley, Diana. 2006. A dictionary of Lake District place-names. Nottingham: English Place-Name Society.


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