Rocks On My Shoulders

In my previous post I imagined a philologist of the future struggling to read and understand ancient books, books from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In that post our philologist was dealing with the word “rtaffic”, which didn’t make any sense at all and didn’t even seem to be an English word. The problem was solved when the philologist realized that she was dealing with a misprint: two letters of the word had been reversed, and the correct word was “traffic”, which made perfect sense in the context.

In this post I’m going to stick with our philologist in the future. This time she is trying to understand an ancient book that has just been dug up out of the rubble from the twenty-first century. This one is a history book, titled The Mycenaeans, by Louise Schofield (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum; 2007), an ancient twenty-first century book about an even more ancient Greece. On page 59 of this book, she finds the following sentence: “The chieftain buried in the Vapheio tholos probably ruled the nearby settlement of Palaiopyrgi, which must therefore have been an important local center in the Shaft Grave Era, as were the Menelaion (on a low hill close to the town of modem Sparta)….”

A number of words and phrases in this passage could be a challenge for our future philologist, but some of the challenges are resolved by reading the context of the passage. For example, a little earlier on the same page we find “The tholos tomb at Vaheio, dating to the end of the Shaft Grave Era”—thus we know that Vaheio is a place, and a tholos is a kind of tomb; we can assume that “Palaiopyrgi” is another place name; and a little further reading in the same text will tell us that the “Menalaion” was a parcel of land dedicated to the cult of the ancient hero Menelaus. The problem which interests me, however, is the word “modem”.

Our future philologist knows the word “modem”: a modem is an artefact of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, just the time when the book under examination was written. The word is a short form for the phrase “modulator-demodulator”; a modem (so far as I can understand) is a device used to translate one kind of electronic signal into another kind of electronic signal. So this example is different from the first example: “rtaffic” just wasn’t a word, but “modem” certainly is a word. Nonetheless, our philologist has a feeling it’s the wrong word. It’s hard to see how this twentieth century gadget has anything to do with ancient Sparta; furthermore, the word “modem” is a noun where we would expect an adjective. There must be an error in the text. Can we see what the problem is and how it could have happened?

In the previous example, the problem occurred because two letters were transposed. The problem in this example is that two letters have been run together into one. The correct word is “modern”, but in the transmission from the author’s text to the printed text, the two letters “rn” were misunderstood as “m”; and because “modem” is a perfectly good word in English, the error was missed by the spell-checking program, and also by the human copyeditor. Our future philologist confidently prints the word “modern” in her fortieth-century scholarly edition of this text.

Thus we see two different kinds of problems. In the first, our philologist is faced with a word that doesn’t seem to be a word at all; in the second, she is faced with a perfectly good word that somehow seems wrong in the context. How do we know that a perfectly good word is wrong? Shouldn’t we assume that the word is correct and try to make sense of it? Is there any methodology we can use, or do we just have to depend on some kind of critical intuition to see that “modem” is a misprint for “modern”? It does help that the words “modem” and “modern” are very different from each other, and they don’t likely fit in the same context. What if the mistake had gone the other way? What if a text that should read “modem” is misprinted as “modern”? It’s very likely that our philologist in the future would know the ancient word “modern”, because it’s a common word in ancient English, but what if she doesn’t know the word ancient English “modem”? It might be very difficult to restore an uncommon and unfamiliar word.

The next book our philologist is assigned is a book of essays, Danse Macabre, written by the American horror writer Stephen King (Berkley Books, New York; 1983). In this passage he is describing one of his dreams:

“[T]he most vivid dream I can recall came to me when I was about eight. In this dream I saw the body of a hanged man dangling from the arm of a scaffold on a hill. Rocks perched on the shoulders of the corpse, and behind it was a noxious green sky, boiling with clouds. The corpse bore a sign: ROBERT BURNS. But when the wind caused the corpse to turn in the air, I saw that it was my face—rotted and picked by the birds, but obviously mine. And then the corpse opened its eyes and looked at me. I woke up screaming.”

I have used this example several times in lectures and seminars, and I find that it often takes a few minutes for students to spot the problem, if there is a problem, and usually a few more minutes before anyone can suggest a correction.

The problem is the word “rocks”. Rocks don’t ordinarily perch on the shoulders of a corpse. Our future philologist finds it hard to imagine how a rock could perch on someone’s shoulders, but she finds that her dictionary of ancient English allows an inanimate object to be the subject of the verb “perch”, as in their example “The town perched on top of a hill.” So she can’t say that it’s out and out wrong to say “Rocks perched on the shoulders of the corpse.” And yet our philologist finds the image somewhat odd. What does it add to the picture to have rocks perched on the shoulders of the corpse?

Notice that our philologist is not making a technical judgment about linguistics; this is a literary judgment. It’s a linguistic argument to say that the word “rtraffic” doesn’t exist in English; it’s a linguistic argument to say that the word “modem” is a noun and the word “modern” is an adjective. But it’s a literary judgment to say that the use of a word seems odd.

If our philologist suspects that the word “rocks” is a mistake she has to come up with something better and an explanation for how the mistake could have happened. After searching through her dictionary (as we would perhaps search our mental dictionaries) she comes up with “rooks”—a rook being a bird in the same family as crows and ravens. Rooks have a certain literary pedigree in spooky passages: the most famous example comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 2: “Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.” Rooks also figure in the first chapter of David Copperfield—or more precisely, the absence of rooks. So our philologist suggests that King wrote “Rooks perched on the shoulders of the corpse”, but somehow in typesetting, “rooks” was changed to the more common word “rocks”. It’s easy to see how that little mistake could occur and pass unnoticed.

But when our philologist proposes to change “rocks” to “rooks” she finds that her philological colleague in the office down the hall disagrees. He argues that this passage is part of a dream, and strange things happen in dreams, so what’s wrong with rocks perched on the shoulders of a corpse? Unless there is a really compelling reason to the contrary, you should stick with the text. In this case, he argues, he can make sense of the printed text so he’s not going to change it.

To step outside the story, when I have used this example in class and I lectures, I usually find a few people who are happy with “rocks” and would leave it. I am not sure I have a completely satisfying counter argument, but I still feel pretty confident that “rocks” should be changed to “rooks”. Evidence matters—and I have given evidence from MacBeth and David Copperfield that I think supports my reading—but this evidence is not definitive.

The editing of texts is by no means a science, and there will always be room for disagreements. Some editors are conservative: they believe that the text is the best evidence for itself, and that changes should be the last resort; if at all possible, an interpretation should be found which respects the text as it is. Other editors are more willing to intervene; they point out that mistakes happen all the time, and that we should not hang on to a text if the cost is an implausible interpretation. A conservative editor might want to keep “rocks” in this passage, while a more interventionist editor would change it to “rooks”.

In my previous post I argued that we could tell the intention of the author when we make an editorial emendation. But this example may show that we can’t always tell the author’s intention for certain. An editor still has to make a decision, however, and in this case I would go with “rooks”. The decision here is really a literary judgment. Even the editor of a text has to be a literary critic.

As always, comments are most welcome. I would be particularly interested to hear opinions about “rocks” versus “rooks”.

4 thoughts on “Rocks On My Shoulders

  1. Matthew, perhaps something that might add fuel to your “conter” argument is a familiarity with King’s work and the notion that, while he can write some bizarre scenes, he depends on ‘naturalistic’ horror. Rooks appearing in his work, perching as they were wont to do on or near food sources, particularly those suspended from scaffolds or mounted on gibbets, is a perfectly ‘natural’ horror scene. Rocks, on the other hand, are outside of the thrust of most of his work (the Dark Tower series coming immediately to mind).



    1. Thanks for this comment, it’s very helpful. One of the basic principles of philology is that Homer (or whoever) is to be interpreted through Homer. Here you are suggesting that we interpret King through King. I’m very interested in the various forms of non-naturalistic world building, partly because I think mainstream critics don’t pay enough attention to fantasy and allied genres, and your idea of “naturalistic horror” certainly contributes to that discussion (And I’ve corrected “conter”—thanks for that as well.)


  2. Perhaps more evidence from the passage itself for the counter argument is the later reference to “the birds.” While “the birds” certainly doesn’t have to refer to the possible rooks on the corpse’s shoulders, just “birds” would have done if it doesn’t. Also, if King meant it to be “rocks” I would think he might do something more with this unusual image. If he does, I would count that as evidence for “rocks.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, yes, yes. As always, context matters a lot. And your grammatical comment is absolutely right. We use the article to indicate that a topic has already been introduced. Thanks for these comments!!


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