As he gazed out of his classroom window towards Salisbury Cathedral , the author William Golding considered the technical challenges of constructing its 404 foot spire. The result was his 1964 novel The Spire, an intense narrative about a man who believes he has a God given mission to build a magnificent spire on top of a cathedral, bringing glory to the town and its people closer to God.
Dean Jocelin brooks no argument in his determination to fulfill his mission. Despite warnings from the master builder Roger Mason, that the foundations are not strong enough to support the spire’s weight, he presses on relentlessly. He will not stop even when the supporting columns protest, “singing” as they bend under the strain. Nor when his fellow members of the Cathedral chapter complain that celebrants can no longer hear the services amid the banging and clattering way above their heads.
Jocelin ceases to care. He neglects his religious duties and stops praying. All his waking hours are devoted to spurring the workmen on to build higher and higher, even climbing up the scaffolding himself to help their endeavours.
The Spire is a novel about a man obsessed with fulfilling a vision and reckless about the effect this will have on himself and others associated with the project. His threatening behaviour towards the master builder drives the man to drink and attempt suicide. Jocelin himself is increasingly afflicted by a burning heat in his spine, which he interprets as the visitation of an angel that alternatively comforts and torments him when construction of the spire falls behind schedule.
It’s a masterful piece of fiction even if at times it’s not always clear what is happening. Golding’s narrative uses a stream of consciousness technique, showing events through the eyes of Jocelin, a narrator who becomes increasingly unreliable as he feverishly pursues his vision.
His unreliability is particularly evident in the way he believes his motives are pure and sinless yet he is prey to immoral thoughts, particularly towards Goody Pagnall, the wife of a crippled cathedral servant. He initially saw her as his daughter in God but as the novel progresses he becomes wracked by sexual desire, triggered by the sight of her red hair.
The whole project is in fact tainted. The workmen are not God-fearing men engaged in act of devotion but coarse and bawdy men who mercilessly ridicule Goody’s husband. There’s a suggestion that the Cathedral itself rests not on hallowed ground but oozing mud from which the forces of hell escape and taint the structure above.
Workmen and Cathedral staff are fearful of what Jocelin has unleashed but in a further indication of his descent into hallucinatory irrationality, he sees only beauty.
Everywhere, fine dust gave these rods and trunks of light the importance of a dimension. He blinked at them again, seeing, near at hand, how individual grains of dust turned over each other, or bounced all together, like mayfly in a breath of wind. He saw how further away they drifted cloudily, coiled, or hung in a moment of pause, becoming, in the most distant rods and trunks, nothing but colour, honey-colour slashed across the body of the cathedral … He shook his head in rueful wonder at the solid sunlight.
This is the second time I’ve read The Spire. It’s so rich in imagery, symbolism and metaphor that it can be challenging to absorb in one reading. I understood the way Jocelin’s degrading spine connects to the instability of the spire and the significance of Goody’s red hair. But I’m still puzzled about the meaning of the mistletoe placed within the corpse of one character and which Jocelin scrapes off his shoes with disgust.
I found it a challenging book to read yet a completely engrossing portrayal of obsession and mental degeneration
The Spire by William Golding: Footnotes
Golding apparently struggled to write this novel and went through several versions before publication in 1964. It was originally intended to have two settings but the modern day elements were dropped so the finished novel is entirely set in the Middle Ages in an unnamed town. I’d be interested to see Golding’s handwritten manuscript notes which are at the University of Exeter‘s Special Collections archive along with the typescripts.
I bought this book while taking a short break in Salisbury a few years ago. The flat we rented had a window directly facing the cathedral so I did spend quite some hours just like Golding, gazing in wonder at the spire.
It’s taken a while to get around to reading it but the #20booksofsummer 2021 project gave me a good reason to take it off the shelves.