Language is never just a means of communication. It is an expression of the way man relates to the environment, understands the world. A director who uses that aspect of language unparalleled is Robert Eggers, director of this month’s release The Northman†
The book was published in 2014 The Wake, set in the wake of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Author Paul Kingsnorth wrote the book in a self-compiled form of Old English, modernized just enough to make it readable for a contemporary audience. ‘The early English did not see the world as we see it, and their language reflects that’, he explains his choice in the afterword. ‘Their world was far from ours; not only in time but also in values, understanding, myth-making. Language seemed to me the best way to convey this.’
Robert Eggers uses language in a similar way in his films. The film-maker, whose tenth-century Viking drama will soon be The Northman appears, made two films set in New England. Both in The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015), set around 1630, as in The Lighthouse (2019), set around 1890, language is part of the historical setting. But in both films, language is also linked to the way the characters view and understand their environment.
Take a step back. In the early seventeenth century, English Puritans, dissatisfied with the course of the Church of England, settled in the far northeast of America. From one of these New England settlements, William, Katherine, and their children are exiled at the beginning of The Witch, after a dispute over their interpretation of the faith. A belief rooted in the belief that man is born in sin, encapsulated in the catechism recited by their eldest son Caleb: “My corrupt nature is without grace, tending to sin, only to sin, over and over and over and over.”
Man must continue to resist that sinful nature and this is expressed in a language that is laced with dogmas. A functional and factual language without unnecessary adjectives, even if it sometimes sounds veiled to modern ears, such as when Katherine refers to the menstruation of eldest daughter Thomasin as “the sign of womanhood† Because that’s not metaphorical language.
In the puritans’ view, the hand of God was in everything. “The Puritan regarded the discoverable truth as already discovered, recorded in black and white, once and for all, by the supreme wisdom,” writes Perry Miller in his book. The New England Mind† The Bible, the word of God, is the filter through which everything is considered. But, and this is essential, for these people it is not a filter, it is reality itself. That period is a sign. From God. And when William says of his sleeping family:The Devil holds fast your eyelidsHe doesn’t mean that figuratively, but literally.
Opposite that language are the cooing and cackling of the witches in the forest. They stand for everything the family tries to resist. The earthly, physical, sinful. It is an externalization of the conflict that the Puritan carries within himself, that struggle against his own, ‘corrupt’ nature. Something that resonates in how
the family relates to the nature around them and speaks about it. The soil they cultivate and the forest that needs to be ‘tamed’. “We have to conquer this wilderness,” William says. “He will not swallow us up.”
Those sentences wouldn’t have been out of place in The Lighthouse† Eggers’ second feature, for which he wrote the script together with his brother Max, is first and foremost a very physical film, full of exhausting physical labor and shrill foghorns. A film also full of visual symbolism. Words may be less important in such an environment, you might think, but language also plays an essential role here.
Although the film is set more than two centuries later, the language is very similar to that in The Witch. While English in Great Britain evolved rapidly in the nineteenth century under the influence of, among other things, the Industrial Revolution, which required a completely new vocabulary, this happened much less in North America, where industrialization only started much later. As a result, at the end of the nineteenth century, New England spoke a form of English that was still relatively close to Early Modern English.
In The Lighthouse this is mainly reflected in the language used by lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, which is anachronistic even in that light. His vocabulary is full of words that were largely obsolete at the time, such as ‘dullard†behind hand† Or take this Shakespearean gem of a sentence when he accuses Winslow of not scrubbing the floor properly: “’It’s misunderstood and dabbled. Unwiped, unwarshed, and distained.” He also uses the verb ‘ye‘, although ‘you‘ had long been the common form at that time, and is also used by his younger colleague Ephraim Winslow. Eggers often brings the two into conflict on language, such as when Winslow’yes sir‘ says and Wake corrects him to the more archaic’aye sir†
Although Wake’s language is in many ways very close to the English used in The Witch spoken, it is more poetic, with fragments of Greek
and maritime mythology. The word usage may have remained the same, but the meaning has certainly changed. What was a “literal” description in the time of the Puritans has now become a metaphor. What was then the language of God is now the language of myth.
And that is in a sense what Eggers does with The Lighthouse: he draws the Puritan world view, of sinful man and an unknowable divine power, into the world of myth. Wake’s anachronistic language (“You sound like a goddamn parody”, Winslow reproaches him at one point), is perhaps an indication that he is an exponent of that mythological world. Visually, too, the film repeatedly suggests that Wake not only invokes the gods (“Hark, Triton! Rake!”), but also embodies them. And as reality increasingly takes the form of that mythological world, with infernal storms and mermaids resting in the rocks, Wake’s use of language increasingly coincides with it. In a monologue in which he curses Winslow, thunders underline his words.
That is a stark contrast to The Witch, in which language has less and less influence on the environment. As the dark forces of the forest invade the family, language becomes more and more a plaything. When Caleb returns from the forest after being seduced by a witch, he raves in a monologue that mixes biblical language with eroticism. †Wash me in the ever-flowing fountains of thy blood. […] Kiss me with the kisses of thy mouth, how lovely art thou!†
But also in The Lighthouse a force that cannot be expressed in words stirs and both films end where language has no meaning. And in both films that is linked to female sexuality. Thomasin enters into a contract with the devil who orders her to take off her clothes and in that symbolic act she surrenders to ‘sinful’ nature. She enters the witch circle and rises in wordless rapture.
Also in The Lighthouse constant reference is made to sexuality and femininity. From the wooden mermaid figurine that Winslow jerks off to, to the sea itself and the lighthouse light, which Wake has consistently described as “she‘ and which the two argue about with a clearly sexually charged possessiveness. When Winslow finally sees that light, he screams in horror and falls down the stairs. The Lighthouse is deliberately capricious in its symbolism and that moment is open to multiple interpretations. But it’s an interesting mirror image of the ending of The Witch† Both films end in surrender. In an ecstasy that means redemption for some and damnation for others.