The villagers wake at dawn to see smoke from two unexpected fires. One comes from the edge of the village, in the common ground of the woods, where some strangers have erected a hut and lit a fire by the light of the moon. They’re following the age-old custom which decrees that strangers can earn the right to stay in a village by building four walls and a fire before they’re discovered.
Crace will never name or locate the village nor specify when the novel takes place. This tactic distances the village from the contemporary world around it and roots it in ancient customs, such as the practice of communal farming on common land and specific rituals that govern conduct towards strangers.
The second fire is more worrying, because it comes from the landlord, Master Kent’s, property. The villagers worry that the manor house itself is on fire, and that they will get in trouble for sleeping through it. Yesterday was the end of the harvest, and since everyone is so tired, they were slow to get up and investigate the flames. When they arrive, they see the stable is on fire and the dovecote has already been consumed; there are no doves in sight.
The arrival of strangers coincides with an unusual catastrophe and the destruction of valuable property; the two events are even heralded by similar fires. Whether or not there’s any meaning in these coincidences, it will certainly influence the villagers’ reactions.
Walter, the narrator, suspects that three of the village’s young bachelors, Christopher and Thomas Derby and Brooker Higgs, are responsible. He saw them coming back from the woods the previous night, consumed in “immodest fits of laughter,” and concluded that they’d been eating intoxicating mushrooms just as he used to do when he was a young man after the harvest was finished. The lads had even shown Walter an enormous “tindery” mushroom they’d collected, too dry to eat.
That Walter immediately deduces who is responsible suggests that the crime should be easily solved, and in fact isn’t so strange as it seems. By linking the fire to the escapades of his own youth, Walter establishes it as a mishap on the route to maturity, part of the pattern of village life, rather than something more sinister.
Walter mulls over the event and the men’s motives; the issue has to be resolved “without recourse to any constable or magistrate” since the village is too small and isolated to have any formal government.
This observation heightens the village’s aura of isolation and shows that such isolation affects how the villagers govern themselves.
In a flashback, Walter recalls that yesterday was the last day of the harvest. This is stressful for everyone, partly because the crop is less plentiful than they’d hoped, and partly because a rare stranger is standing on the edge of the field, making a map of the land on behalf of Master Kent. A well-dressed young man, the stranger is pleasant and shows everyone his drawings. He has a waxed and pointed beard, a sign of wealth, but one side of his body is paralyzed and he walks with a limp. Despite his unassuming demeanor, the villagers are suspicious and worry that “those scratchings on his board might scratch us too.” They nickname the man Mr. Quill for his ever-present pen.
Mr. Quill’s rich clothes, well-groomed beard, and education, evidenced through his ability to write, contrast markedly with the austerity and poverty of village life. Importantly, the villagers don’t realize the harshness of their life until such strangers make it clear to them; and even when this happens they become defensive and suspicious, rather than envious, showing how satisfied they are with their routines.
Still, the villagers are more worried about securing the harvest, on which their survival through the winter relies. The lower fields have always produced small crops, but the higher ones have been more promising this year. Walter says they’ve begun to smell “nutlike and sugary,” foretelling the “winter ales and porridges” the villagers will make from the harvested barley.
The villagers’ worry shows their deep attachment to and dependence on the land. While Walter loves his close relationship to the earth, often describing its fruits in poetic terms, the uncertain harvest makes clear that this agrarian lifestyle poses as many dangers as satisfactions.
One the reaping days, everyone in the village—since the population is now too small for anyone to stay idle—works together in the fields, gossiping constantly. The children go first, weeding, while the men follow with scythes and the women tie up the sheaves of barley. Walter says that work is “consecrated by the sun”; it’s more enjoyable than plowing and planting, or the long winter days with nothing to do, and it’s nice to be working together for a common goal. If the villagers hear animal noises from the woods, they look up in unison.
The ritualized nature of the reaping process shows that the village is grounded and sustained by repeated customs; the nature of village life is cyclical, and thus even the fall harvest foretells the renewal of the spring. However, small details—like Walter’s observation that the population is dwindling—hint at a troubling pattern of decay that exists even when the village’s cycle is undisturbed.
They also share lewd but friendly gossip, discussing which spouses are unfaithful and “which bearded bachelor is far too friendly with his goat.” On this harvest, they talk about Mr. Quill, wondering if he’s managed to find a wife with his disability, and comparing his triangular beard to female genitalia.
Walter relates the general pattern of the conversation without giving many specifics or naming speakers. His narrative emphasizes the consummate unity of the villagers and their lack of strong individual identities.
However, in the afternoon the villagers become more uneasy about Mr. Quill’s aims. The sense of being recorded makes them feel that some unwanted change is impending. He’s a representation of the outside world, where harvests aren’t “divided into shares and portions for the larder” but rather sold. The villagers wonder if Master Kent is so financially strapped that he’s planning to sell the land.
The villagers rightly perceive any modern innovation—even one as simple as writing down events—as a threat to their primitive but steady way of life. By encouraging the reader to view simple processes like writing from the village’s suspicious viewpoint, the novel argues that advancements in the name of progress are often harmful and should not be viewed as unqualified positives.
Now, each animal noise or moving cloud seems like a “warning,” alerting the villagers to potential change. Without speaking of it, the villagers become angry, and the young men swagger as if to suggest their willingness to defend the land with their lives. Master Kent’s doves have landed in the fields and are picking at the fallen grain, which the villagers will glean the next morning. The men say that the birds are “feasting on our bread and ale” and tell the children to drive them away with slingshots.
The villagers change their views and feelings collectively but without speaking, showing how deeply attuned they are to each other. That they seem to see their reactions reflected in the earth around them further demonstrates their close relationship to the earth, and the extent to which the community’s identity depends on the common land they farm.
After the work is finished, the Derby twins and Brooker Higgs, three young bachelors in “a village dismayingly short of unmarried women,” take off for the woods. Everyone else goes home, where they convince themselves that nothing bad will happen after all. Master Kent has always taken good care of the village, and there’s no real evidence that he’s planning to sell. They resolve not to worry, but to enjoy the next day’s gleaning ceremony. They take comfort in the knowledge that the seasons will “unfold in all their usual sequences.”
Like Walter’s earlier remark on the declining population, the lack of young women shows that decay is already at work in the village. By suggesting that the young men wouldn’t be gallivanting in the woods if they had wives at home, Walter links their petty crime to this decay, implicitly suggesting that the strangers shouldn’t be held responsible for the fires.
Walter imagines the young men became even angrier in the woods and “concocted ways of getting even with the thieving birds.” Walter knows they could easily have used the moonball mushroom to set a fire in the stable, although he’s sure they only meant to create a little smoke and disturb the birds. The birds were probably trapped against the roof of the dovecote by the blaze, trying unsuccessfully to escape.
By picking at the barley during the harvest, the doves steal resources that the village desperately needs. However, imagining their deaths in the fire, Walter casts the birds as tragic innocents. His reverie foretells his ambivalence about the newly arrived strangers, who are making unwelcome claims on the village but, like the doves, may be deserving of charity and compassion.
In another town, anyone who purposefully set a fire would be hanged. However, the only source of authority here is Master Kent, who is “timid” about punishing the villagers, aware that to do so is to “rob a family of their father, husband, son.” Walter thinks it’s best for the young men he suspects to fight the fire with everyone else and hope Master Kent concludes it’s an “act of God.”
While lack of formal governance could be a serious problem, for this village it’s a boon, since Master Kent cultivates an unusually merciful atmosphere. His awareness of wrongdoers as valued members of families shows that he respects and values the villagers, despite the total authority he possesses as their landlord.
The Derby twins and Brooker Higgs clearly seem worried and guilty. They are “too noisy and too keen” in fighting the fire, wanting Master Kent to notice how loyal they are. Moreover, once everyone agrees that someone must have set the fire, Brooker is the most vocal in insisting that the perpetrator must be found. He says the arsonist must have intended to poach the doves to eat, but none of the villagers need to do so, since they’ve just brought in the harvest and are looking forward to a feast the next day. Therefore, it must be a stranger who’s responsible.
Brooker’s fear and sense of guilt leads him to cast blame on the strangers, even though he knows they’re not at fault. His willingness to scapegoat others shows his cowardice. Moreover, his arguments rest on establishing clear differences between the community and the “others” who have just arrived. While the villagers derive strength and satisfaction from unity, it also deprives them of compassion and understanding when it comes to strangers.
Someone else quickly points out that people have arrived “out of nowhere” on the edge of the woods; the villagers can still see the smoke from their fire. Master Kent says that they will “call on them” after the buildings have been made safe. He’s dejected, both because of the damage to his property and the likelihood that he’ll have to inflict punishment on the strangers.
Walter is ambivalent about Master Kent’s diffident attitude towards punishment, neither praising nor condemning him. In fact, his seeming indecision reflects a thoughtful and meditative approach towards justice, which will notably contrast with Master Jordan’s ruthless overconfidence.
Walter knows that he should tell Master Kent about the moonball, but he doesn’t want to get the Derby twins, and Brooker in trouble. He also knows everyone wants to “let this drama run its course and die back,” so they can all enjoy the gleaning ceremony and the upcoming feast. He’s sure that other villagers have come to the same conclusions that he has, but no one will betray their own men.
That all the villagers know the young men are guilty yet remain silent while the strangers are accused shows a disturbing lack of scruples towards anyone outside the community. While the novel generally characterizes the village positively, its conduct towards strangers is a significant indictment of its morals.
Walter has sustained an injury while trying to save some of the hay from the barn. His left palm is completely scorched. Master Kent takes him by the shoulders and hugs him. Walter is most concerned about his own health, knowing that “a farmer with an injured hand is as useful as a one-pronged pitchfork.” While the villagers go to investigate the outsiders, Walter returns to his cottage to treat his wounds.
Master Kent’s hug is an unusually friendly gesture from an aristocrat towards a peasant, showing that the village’s isolation helps blur distinctions between classes. The lack of strong class boundaries is one of the village’s chief virtues.