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The Cone Gatherers (also The Cone-Gatherers) is a novel by the Scottish writer Robin Jenkins, first published in 1955.
The background to the novel comes from Jenkins' own wartime experience as a conscientious objector doing forestry work.
Two brothers, Calum (a simple-minded hunchback) and Neil, are working in the forest of a Scottish country house during five autumn days (Thursday to Monday) in 1943, gathering cones that will replenish the forest which is to be cut down for the war effort. The harmony of their life together is shadowed by the obsessive hatred of Duror, the gamekeeper, who since childhood has disliked anything he finds "mis-shapen". We also learn that because of his wife's illness where she lies in her bed all day growing larger, he relates Calum in the sense of his deformity and thus conveys a reason why he grew so much resentment towards him.
Lady Runcie-Campbell, the aristocratic landowner, dislikes having the two brothers on the estate, and tries to avoid communicating with them. She is embarrassed by her son, Roderick, who is friendly and welcoming to the brothers.
The obsession Duror has for the brothers grows stronger, leading to the climax, when Lady Runcie-Campbell discovers Calum hanging dead from a tree, having been shot by Duror, who subsequently shoots himself.
The novel covers several themes, perhaps the most obvious being sacrifice; Neil's sacrifice for his brother, the sacrifice of the forest being cut down, and the ultimate sacrifice of Calum himself. There is close examination of good and evil, intertwined with Neil's jealousy and hatred for the Lady Runcie-Campbell and her family, and in turn Lady Runcie-Campbell's jealousy and hatred for the two brothers working on the estate. Her turmoil between trying to appear to be Christian, and upholding her aristocratic background recurs throughout the novel which introduces the theme of religion. Another theme is class structure - Lady Runcie-Campbell believes she is above the lower subjects, Duror himself enjoys the small luxuries he is given because of his higher job of game keeper but Neil hates the class structure: "we're human beings just like them". This carries on throughout the book and at the end we can see that Lady Runcie Campbell may even have been able to stop the death of Calum. Yet another theme is nature. Calum himself is extremely close to nature - he does not feel close to the human world, but in nature he seems to coexist with it: "it was a good tree [...] with rests among its topmost branches as comfortable as chairs."
The novel is filled with heavy symbolism, including some of the following:
- The woods, representing the Garden of Eden. While the outside world is filled with the death and destruction of the ongoing war, the woods are filled with life and colour.
- Calum, embodying innocence and purity.
- Duror, embodying darkness, and a parallel for the serpent in the Garden of Eden
- Roderick, demonstrating social equality
- Lady Runcie-Campbell & Neil, both epitomising their polarised views of the social class division
- The cones - symbolising renewal, regeneration
- Calum symbolising the crucifixion of Jesus - sacrificed himself to erase all human sins. Links to Calum's sacrifice as the break in divide of social class and war
The Cone Gatherers is inevitably compared to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men due to the similarities in theme, plot and characters, although the novel grew directly out of Jenkins' personal experiences in the Second World War.
The novel is often used in Scottish secondary schools, where it is taught as part of the Higher English curriculum.
- ^"Robin Jenkins". www.scotsman.com. Retrieved 2018-02-02.
- ^The encyclopedia of twentieth-century fiction. Shaffer, Brian W., 1960-, O'Donnell, Patrick, 1948-, Ball, John Clement, 1960-. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. 2011. p. 197. ISBN 9781405192446. OCLC 609402854.
There are several themes running through the novel and many overlap, but the most obvious are the following:
Good versus evil
Lady Runcie-Campbell’s conflict between trying to appear Christian and upholding her aristocratic ideals recurs throughout the novel. The theme is also examined through Calum’s childlike innocence contrasting with Duror’s ‘snakes of damnation’ evil mentality and cruel actions.
Calum is extremely close to nature but does not feel close to the human world. He is at home in the natural world:
Duror is jealous of Calum’s affinity with nature.
Lady Runcie-Campbell believes she is superior to the lower classes. Duror enjoys the small luxuries he is given because of his higher-status job as a gamekeeper, but Neil hates the class structure:
This carries through to the end.
Religious symbolism is suggested in the death of Calum, whose innocence and sacrifice can be compared to Christ’s.
Neil also makes sacrifices for his younger brother Calum. This is evident throughout the novel. He gives up any chance of romance and settling down to have a family in order to look after his disabled brother.
The human sacrifice of those who are losing their lives in the war is reiterated to highlight the cost of liberation.
The theme of war is recurrent throughout and is highlighted through the impact it has made on the estate and on every character and their actions. The background of World War Two suggests that evil is to be found in humans everywhere, showing it is not simply confined to the woods on the estate.
The war means that Lady Runcie-Campbell is left to run the estate, with Duror's poor advice. Her husband, had he not been away at war, would perhaps have made more sensible decisions. The war allows Neil to believe in a future where there is social justice and equality.
Duror seems to support the Nazis’ regime:
Having been rejected from the army, Duror is still part of the Home Guard, so despite appearing to ‘fight’ against Hitler, he shares some Nazi ideals.