Voice of the Fire
Annotations for chapter 1 – Hob’s Hog
For this first chapter, the entire first page from the first edition is included, so readers can see both the illustration and the typography used:
- Since the narrator never gives his name, he is herein referred to as “Boy”.
- Boy is a Stone Age youth with significant mental impairment. His vocabulary is extremely limited, as is his ability to understand (and recount) what he is experiencing. Hence, this chapter is notoriously difficult to read. Many readers do not make it past, and never read the rest of the book. In an attempt to help those who are baffled, see this full “translation” into something close to modern English. (Thanks to Art Turner at Deciphering Hob’s Hog for the initial translation, which we further refined.) We do recommend that readers go back and read the original chapter, once you have a basic understanding of what is going on. The spare prose has its own beauties, which are of course lost in translation.
- The location indicated on the map is probably meant to be that of Hob’s hut.
- If Northampton has a name at all during this period, Boy never learns it.
- The title probably originates from The Dialect and Folx-Lore of Northamptonshire (1851):
HOB’S HOG. “You thought wrong, like Hob’s hog,” who, saith tradition, imagined he was going to receive his breakfast when the butcher came to his sty to kill him.
- The phrase “wrong like Hobs Hog” appears in Chapter 10, “The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall”.
Section 1: “A-hind of hill…”
- “sky-beasts” are clouds. Boy has an extremely animist worldview; everything that moves must be alive.
- “will” – “penis”. Interestingly, this remains a popular double entendre until at least Elizabethan times, and is often seen in the works of Will Shakespeare.
- “rat I one-whiles catch that change to little stones” – Judging by what happens just after this, this was never actually a rat, but just a vaguely rat-shaped group of stones that Boy mistook.
- “she is a-change … they is but logs” – These were never pigs at all, only a pair of vaguely pig-shaped logs. Boy has difficulty perceiving the world for what it really is. He easily slips into believing that what he wants to see is what he does see. Any later contradiction can be blamed on deliberate changes by the objects involved.
- “white-wood” – Possibly Birch, which has white bark, and often forms eye-shaped knots.
- “As she may glean more good for keeping not as pig” – Boy still thinks that this log is, fundamentally, a pig, and is trying to change its behavior by punishing it.
- “long black spirit-shape” – “shadow”. As mentioned before, everything that moves is seen as alive, even shadows.
- “I forage not” – It’s possible that Boy is just “idle”, but seems more likely that his mental impairments make him much worse at gathering than the rest of his tribe.
- “in I’s belly” – We would say “in my head”. Boy (and his tribe) believe the belly to be the seat of thoughts and emotions. This may indicate the extreme importance they place on food gathering.
- “sour-root” – Unknown. Probably unimportant, but does anyone have a suggestion?
- “I little as one of they Urk-kine” – As a suffix, -kine means -kind. Urk, however, is more problematic. They seem to be some sort of long-vanished, possibly mythical, “little people”, now associated with death and the underworld. The word is probably intended to share associations with the (quite ancient) etymological sources of Tolkien’s “orc“. I have translated it as “Ur-kine”, since the prefix ur- is now often used to designate an ancient or primordial thing.
- “bits of bright” – dots of light (filtered by tree branches).
- “They bits of bright is move” – even rays of sunlight are ascribed intentionality.
- “itchy-mites” – Presumably fleas.
- “I glean not how to help of she.” – As we will see later, Boy definitely has a concept of death, but this may be the first time he’s ever had to interact with a corpse, and he doesn’t realize that she is dead yet.
- “make to put I’s will with-in of she” -The text does not make clear whether sexual relations with parents were customary with Boy’s tribe, or formerly between Boy and his mother. Incest is certainly a common theme in Moore’s work, but Boy may just be panicking and trying something unusual here.
- “He says I is as shit” – It’s unclear whether this violent reaction is prompted by the incest, the necrophilia, or both.
- “Gleaner-man” – The “thinker” of the tribe, the chief. I avoid the use of the word “shaman”, because that isn’t really a job that this tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers seems able to afford. We will meet an actual shaman later in this chapter.
- “mother’s axe-stone” – Though this tribe is nomadic, they clearly make use of some stone tools. Boy doesn’t tell us much of what they are used for. That they are named “axe” suggests that they are commonly used to chop, though all we see here is using it as a sort of spade.
- “queer-sniff spirits” – The tribe understands that corpses present a health hazard.
- “rot-bird and rot-dog” – These can be taken as generic descriptors of carrion-eaters, or may be referring to specific species, such as the carrion crow and the wolf.
- “soft as I may push all of one bit” – This is one of the few phrases which I can’t quite decipher to my liking. Suggest???
- “grey like dirt she’s hair” – It’s unclear how old Boy’s mother was when she died. Boy seems to be not much past puberty, if at all. She has grey hair, but has also had a very difficult time raising Boy, and there’s no reason to think he was her first child.
- “prickle-rat” – My best guess is “hedgehog”, but I’m far from certain.
- “neath of she is dark, as full with blood” – This is the phenomenon known as livor mortis.
- “piss-mite” – Ant. Compare the now archaic English word pismire.
- “And sign for no.” – The first of many uses of a primitive sign language.
Section 2: “All lone set I…”
- “fire-tail dog” – Probably a fox.
- “herd-dogs” – Probably wolves, though perhaps some sort of sheepdog.
- “Say I, foot…” – Boy not only seems to think that this visible piece of his dead mother is alive and has intentionality, but that it can hear and understand him.
- “blood-berries” – Some sort of edible red berries. Given that they grow from a “briar”, they may be hawthorn or rose hips.
- “…all comes queer.” – Boy does not yet understand the difference between dreams and waking life. Events in dreams are “queer”, but they are completely real to him. Of course, some philosophers and mystics (perhaps including Moore) would argue that this way of looking at the world is more accurate than the modern consensus.
- “Fur-grass” – Moss.
- “dry-up skins” – Dried leaves.
- “round of hut-fruit” -Probably a mushroom circle.
- “dark on they neath-edge as is good for eat.” – While this heuristic may be considered safe by a mentally-impaired Neolithic boy, we strongly recommend against using it yourself. Many wild mushroom species are fatally toxic in even small doses!
- “ice-whiles” – Winters, or ‘years’, by synecdoche.
- “Setting-people” are people in a settlement, who live in one place, as opposed to the nomadic “walking-people”, such as Boy’s tribe.
- “sharp-top huts of beast skin hung to branch” – Teepees.
- “casting-stick” – Spear.
- “titty-apples” – Probably pears.
- “shut of eyes that none may see I.” – As Art Turner points out, Boy seems to lack object permanence, which most humans acquire before age 2. This is also reminiscent of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you”.
- “Big old stone, as is with markings like to worms and net-mites” – “Net-mites” are spiders. The stone is some manner of megalith. The ‘markings’ are some sort of proto-writing.
- Art Turner points out that the description of these markings may be an homage to a scene in Tarzan of the Apes, where letters are described as “bugs”.
- “…yet is they no thing only markings.” – In other words, the map is not the territory. Boy’s tribe mistrusts the use of symbols. The use and misuse of symbols is a central theme of this chapter, this book, and indeed, Moore’s career as a whole.
- “big ice-whiles” may refer to the last glacial period.
- “Now Urk-kine is no more … we a-bove.” – Moore seems to be suggesting here that the ubiquitous myths of “the little people” may be based on some now-extinct hominid offshoot that died out many thousands of years ago. Perhaps homo floresiensis (despite the fact that it was first discovered almost a deacde after Voice of the Fire came out!).
- Art Turner suggests that Moore’s Urk-kine may be riffing on a favored theme of Arthur Machen. As H.P. Lovecraft described it in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature“: “… the notion that beneath the mounds and rocks of the wild Welsh hills dwell subterraneously that squat primitive race whose vestiges gave rise to our common folk legends of fairies, elves, and the “little people”, and whose acts are even now responsible for certain unexplained disappearances, and occasional substitutions of strange dark “changelings” for normal infants.”
Section 3: “Now it is dark…”
- “shagfoal”: The shagfoal is an evil creature of Central English folklore, whose legend persists to this day. It was also written of by John Clare, the narrator of chapter 10. Its descriptions vary widely; within Voice of the Fire, it is generally depicted as a huge black dog, though occasionally with horse-like characteristics. See also gytrash.
- “not more as one man and an other long from I.” – I.e., less than 10 feet away.
- “alive on world in big ice-while … no more alive” – Moore seems to be suggesting that, like “Urks”, the shagfoals were real beings that went extinct during the last glacial period. Perhaps something like dire wolves (average weight 150 pounds), though actual dire wolves are not known to have lived in Europe.
- “where dirt come thin in tween of worlds, as with a cross-path and a river-bridge” – In other words, in liminal spaces. Places which mark boundaries between territories in the physical world are also traditionally places where the boundaries between worlds may be breached.
- “Now is all come queer.” – Ironically, this marks the end of Boy’s dream.
- A diagram of the “making”:
- The “making” appears to be based on excavations of a neolithic monument on Briar Hill, along modern-day Towcester Road, south of the River Nene. (Pictures from here and here.)
- “aur-ox” – Aurochs were an ancestor of modern cattle, now extinct.
- “stopping-woods” – Gates.
- “fly-not birds” – Presumably chickens.
- “There is people walk a-bout…” – It is unclear what these people are doing. It doesn’t seem like the sort of place people go for fun. They might be guards.
- “…catch she horns in briar.” – It is unclear whether the joke is that settler women have horns, that settler men mate with horned beasts, or something else. Of course, Boy may not fully understand the joke himself. The notion that a settler might have horns resonates with the appearance of Hob in the next section.
- “snot-water” – Stagnant water.
- “stinger-mite” – Probably mosquitoes, given the association with stagnant water. The term seems to mean bees elsewhere, however.
- “aur-ox make low say” – Though the term is now somewhat archaic, one English word for the noises cattle make is “lowing”.
- “pipe-grass” – Reeds.
- “walking-bird” – Presumably a stork, or something similar.
- “I is all a-fright but that I’s head float off” – Boy is light-headed in multiple senses.
- “sick-fire” – Infected wounds tend to get very hot.
- “shit-mites” – Presumably flies.
Section 4: “Noise.”
- “bare-while” – Autumn, when the trees become bare, and there are few flowers.
- “gill” – Vagina. Apparently, Boy can distinguish men from women by their scent.
- “feast-fur wrap as cover will.” – Some sort of fur loincloth. The “feast-” may perhaps indicate that it is decorated in some way?
- “fire-black” – Charcoal or ash.
- “sticks with many sharp to they” – These are either actual antlers, or facsimiles thereof. The wearing of antlers has long been linked to shamanism.
- “He is make fire.” – Human control of fire is ancient enough that Boy’s tribe probably was able to do it, though it would be unsurprising if Boy himself lacked the expertise.
- “a making like to little valley, that in river she make water-full.” – A bowl, or similar container. Boy appears to be entirely unfamiliar with the notion of artificial containers.
- “dust-ice” – Snow.
Section 5: “Dark.”
- No notes.
Section 6. “Bright.”
- “Say of she is queer, with sayings come an other way a-bout, yet may I glean of what she say.” – This also describes the experience of the reader of this chapter.
- “she is take rot from I’s leg” – Girl apparently has knowledge of how to deal with infections.
- “dry-meat stick” – Presumably jerky or something similar.
- “flat-tail rat” – Beavers.
- “sniffing-water” – Perfume.
- “Hob” – As an English word, hob has several definitions, many of which seem relevant to this book. It can refer to a cooking appliance (associated with fire). It can be a type of mischievous sprite (or ‘hob’goblin), or, as a verb, mean to cause mischief. These last meanings come from the word being used as a short form of the name Robert or Robin, often referring specifically to Robin Goodfellow (who Shakespeare made famous as Puck). Art Turner points out that Old Hob is apparently another term for the Devil.
- “mark-wing mite” – Butterfly.
- “…a saying I glean not” – Presumably the equivalent of “shaman”.
- “How is this, say I now, that I is change to rat.” – Boy has apparently never learned the concept of “lying”; it may be that his tribe rarely or never does so. He is, however, familiar with the notion of things which (appear to) change mysteriously: rat into stone, pigs into logs, a tall woman into a white teepee.
- “dry-grass” – Hay.
- “Is son go off as pig go off…” – Boy’s question may be more insightful than he knows. The now-absent pig may be missing because it was a sacrifice.
Section 7: “Now open they.”
- “a chewing-thing … dusts from sun-grass” – Bread, made from wheat [seeds or flour].
- “fly-rat” is a delightfully evocative term for “bat”.
- “big water’s edge, in way where warm wind come” – The southern coast.
- “where of many trees, as cold wind come there by” – The northern forests.
- “Path is to run by way of hill and high-where, and by valley’s edge.” – This description suggests that Hob’s path includes what is known today as The Ridgeway, “the oldest road in England”.
- “take of stones … good whiles come” – In other words, the path is for purposes of trade, which will improve the economies of all the settlements it connects.
- “sky-beasts is all shut they eyes, for no bright is I see.” – I.e., clouds hide all the stars.
- Oh, how now may I find a mate…” – Boy is so fascinated by the form and function of the song that he makes no comment upon its content, which is surprisingly melancholy for something so brief. A young traveler wants a mate so that he can “lie” (have sex) with her before he is “put to dirt” (buried). In the last line the couple does “lie” together — underneath the grass.
- “lick I’s cheek” – This may be similar in function to a kiss in modern western culture.
- “branch-horn ox” – Deer.
Section 8: “Glean I on how…”
- “that many queer big gleanings in I’s belly as there is no quiet in I.” – As Art Turner observed: “You can imagine a lot of similar thoughts going through Adam’s head after he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, can’t you?”
Section 9: “Flowers.”
- “stand-round-stones that people say is … far in way of sun-rise-up.” – Presumably a stone circle, though none of the surviving English examples date back this far, or are located to the east of Northampton.
- “spirits take that which they stick-head men is more with want of as an other thing in the world” – Alan Moore has participated in ritual sacrifices himself, as recounted here: “I myself have made sacrifices in a ritual context, but since I’m in the unfortunate position of being a diabolist and vegetarian, I’m afraid living sacrifices were out of the question. … In my own ritual sacrifices, I have burned objects of meaning and significance to me, … The idea is to sacrifice, in the conventional sense of “giving up,” something which is of value to me.”
- “It is he’s son” – This is similar to the Biblical story of the binding of Isaac.
- “flat-mouth birds” – Ducks of some kind.
- “tree-skin worm” – Caterpillar.
- “if Hob’s son glean this way nor that, yet is no good in it for he.” – n other words, Hob’s son is faced with a Hobson’s Choice.
- “snot-grass” – Slime?
- “at find of beast” – Out hunting.
- “I’s gleanings all come vexed, and fall they now to hit and bite one at an other, like to cats.” – This is reminiscent of the Native American parable “Two Dogs Inside of Me“.
- “yet is he more far off as may make noise.” – Boy again reveals his egocentric world view; things far away from him cannot make noise (as opposed to him being unable to hear that noise).
Section 10: “Now is an other…”
- “he is not with hair of chin nor face, where glean I that he is not old as I.” Boy may well be mistaken about this evidence, especially if he is unfamiliar with the concept of shaving.
- “Dark makes as we may see … people that is come no more alive.” Boy seems to have finally realized that dreams are not the same as waking reality. His timing could not possibly be worse.
Section 11: “Cold now in feet…”
- “Yet none may say if is boy put to axe in this world, nor if boy put to axe in other world there by.” – This seems to be saying that Hob has invented the idea of a symbolic sacrifice, where one doesn’t destroy the thing itself, but something else, which stands in place of it. Alan Moore has also spoken of the dualistic nature pf sacrifice: “… consider the mechanics of the act of sacrifice in the following light: if you wish to make a supplication to a supposed entity that is composed entirely of ideas and lives in a realm composed entirely of ideas, then it should be clear that something physical would be of no use whatsoever to such a hypothetical being. Such a being would not traffic in actual things so much as in the ideas of actual things.
Now, let us accept for the moment that any entity or object that we can perceive in the material universe is composed of two basic components. Firstly, there is the reality of its actual physical being: its material presence in space or time. Then, there is the idea of the object or entity, an immaterial presence unbounded by the same considerations of space and time. As a ready example, I could cite the death of a loved one: the physical presence is gone, broken down to its constituent chemicals, its constituent atoms. That person does not exist physically anymore as a discrete physical entity. The Idea-Presence of that person cannot die, however. It hangs around and wakes you up crying at four in the morning. Five years later it taps you on the shoulder while you’re doing the washing up and it makes you smile.
… The idea is … to remove the physical component of the object, leaving only the memory or Idea Space presence of the object intact. In my terms, this removal of the physical component makes the object “sacred,” i.e., existing only on a level above the tangible and material world.”
- “And there is lie they, he and she . . .” – Note that she omits the closing words of the song, which establish that “he and she” are now dead.
- “blood-eye flower” – Presumably poppies, which have long been symbols of sleep and/or death.
- “hut-back worm” – A snail, which carries its house on its back.
- “…and oh, and Mother. Mother.” – In modern Western culture, it would be more typical to cry out “God!” upon orgasm. But this chapter appears to predate the concept of gods. Also, as we saw earlier, Boy had at least some degree of sexual feelings towards his mother.
Section 12: “Quiet.”
- “like to a little string-bridge” – This suggests that Boy is aware of the concept of rope bridges.
- “hitting-skin put bove of round-wood” – Drum.
- “stinger-mites” – Probably bees, who can be attracted by some perfumes.
- “Hob’s son, as is not alive” – At least, so Boy infers, from what little Girl has told him.
Section 13: “…but dark.”
- “nor take up of she long bright hair for rub.” – Boy has not previously tried to touch her hair. And now, it’s too late.
- “now is a thing come bright and quick and make a little cold on neck of I, where is big warm now come.” – Hob has just slit Boy’s throat, and warm blood is running down his chest. It happens so fast that Boy doesn’t understand right away.
- “not-good mark there on she head.” – Boy mistakes the edge of the scalp/wig as a scar.
- “She will, more big as I’s, that is I sniff not for they flowers.” – In other words, this “girl” has a bigger penis than Boy does, but the overwhelming scent of the perfume prevented him from realizing “her” true gender.
- queer and many things, with many little seeings” – Boy’s last moments are filled with visions that foreshadow some of the future, especially other victims of death by fire.
- “fire-hair men as may make fire to run as blood from stones.” – Red-headed smiths who forge molten copper. See chapter two: The Cremation Fields.
- “man skin is fall black from sky” – An image from chapter eleven: I Travel in Suspenders.
- “a path … where is brights go now fore and back” – This seems to be modern roads with fast-moving cars (and headlights).
- “a making as like to a head-bone, big, and black, and all of fire. In of it’s mouth is set a man with fire come out of he hair and all with hurt.” – This may be the narrator of chapter eight: Angel Language, inside a cauldron. Then again, the image is also reminiscent of the victim of the burning car in chapter eleven: I Travel in Suspenders.
- “women hold to log, with fire all bout they foot.” – The witches burned at the stake in chapter nine: Partners in Knitting.
- “little rounds of grey-dirt” – Clay tablets.
- “Phror. Becadom, sissirishic and huwf.” On one level, these are merely nonsense syllables, random sounds the fire makes as Boy burns. On another, this is the deeply mystical Voice of the Fire, akin to the speech of Angels in Jerusalem.
- “Hob is set more by I, for hear.” – Hob seems to believe that this is important mystic knowledge, worthy of being written down.
- “and now an other cross of it.” – It is unclear whether this mean “across from it, on the other side of the tablet” or “across it, like a crossword or a sigil”.
- The revelation about Girl has been very carefully set up. Her hair is rarely mentioned without also mentioning the leather headband which holds it in place. When it’s windy, Boy sees Girl pulling the headband on more securely on multiple occasions. Boy’s first detailed description of Girl mentions a scratch on her cheek, probably from shaving (later, she scratches an itchy neck). Girl is visibly happy to discover a stranger who doesn’t understand the concept of lying. While Girl makes many statements about Hob’s son being “gone”, and about how it was necessary to sacrifice him, she never actually says that the sacrifice took place. When Boy sees the corpse of the female sacrifice under the bridge, he notes that her hair is missing – she was perhaps scalped to make Girl’s wig. Boy even sees Hob’s son (with close-cropped hair) out walking with Hob one night, but tragically mistakes it for a dream. When Girl masturbates Boy, she carefully prevents him from feeling (or even seeing) her genitals or breasts. She uses her hair “all quick and hard that is it pull and like to hurt she head, yet make she not a noise,” because it doesn’t hurt her at all.