One sixth former—shy about his preoccupations—confessed that his current fascination was with ladders. This started when he read about the derring-do of Peisistratus at the capture of Salamis, gaining the top of a cliff at nightfall from the sea by a ladder.

Then he had been reading about the inaccessible island of Samothrace, with no harbour and reachable only by ladder—home to the occult and mysterious Cabeiri.

There seems little evidence for either of these things: perhaps he had got them from historical novels. But ladders are another of those inventions that date from prehistory and have a timeless appearance.

The west front of Bath Abbey has, carved in the stone on either side, a ladder, up which angels are climbing to heaven, or in some cases falling down. It is inspired by the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis, Chapter 28—itself the stuff of myth, and told in memorable words.

All this our pupil had thought about. The ladder of Jacob, he said, contrasts with the snake of Eve.

I raised the subject of Snakes and Ladders. This too he had investigated. It is a symbolic game, of Indian invention. The ladders are virtues and the snakes vices; but the throw of the die is a reminder that life is ruled by what appears to be chance, but in reality is fate. Snakes and ladders are a recurrent motif in Midnight’s Children.

And so we came round again to talking about fate—so important in the Homer and Virgil he is reading, so integral a part of pagan and Hindu religion, and so at odds with Christian belief. This is something that most students seem to find noteworthy.

Of interest:

  • David Lyle Jeffrey: A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, William B Eerdmans, 1992
  • Walter Hilton: The Ladder of Perfection
  • Hans Christian Andersen: The Ice Maiden
  • Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Haywain in the Museo del Prado
  • Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children

Next post: Fascism.

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