The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris – Review

The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris Book Review logo

By Ian Crook

The Lost Words is a true jewel of a book. By jewel, I mean both in the sense that it is truly something precious to be coveted and that it is highly polished and shiny. The book is a collaboration between writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris and it has a mission: to record and preserve ancient words that may be in danger of disappearing. It describes itself as a spell book. Something with which to conjure up the natural presence of a natural plant or creature and by doing so, perhaps preserve it and avoid it becoming lost forever.

Researchers have identified that in this digitally-led 21st century the knowledge and understanding of certain words were becoming scarce in everyday language. A research paper by Cambridge University, found that 8-11 year old UK schoolchildren were ‘substantially better’ at identifying common Pokémon characters than common species of British wildlife. Combine a drastic reduction of species with a loss of habitats and add into the mix the fact that increasingly, British children are spending less and less time out of doors; it could be inevitable that knowledge of some flora and fauna will disappear.

To counter this Macfarlane and Morris have created this book to reintroduce twenty words to the vocabulary of the reader, from ‘acorn’ to ‘wren’ in a playful and elegiac manner. Each word appears in the book over three double page spreads. In the first, the word appears scattered across the pages subtly picked out in a different colour to a host of other letters randomly floating across the design. The image to accompany this introduction depicts the subject of the word disappeared.

The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris Book Review cover“Mastery of rhythm”

There is a trace, a fleeting glimmer of the object like an afterglow of something that was there and is now gone. The second double page spread features a poem by Macfarlane on the left with each stanza beginning with a letter highlighted in gold that spell out the name of the object. On the right, Morris illustrates the object alone similar to something from a natural history book. The third spread features a double page illustration of the object in-situ giving something of its character.

The poems are designed to be read aloud in the style of some sort of incantation. When I first heard this I thought that it was some sort of affectation of the poets, however having tried it, the spoken version really does something different to the written word. This is largely due to Macfarlane’s mastery of the rhythm of the language. He uses many highly alliterative words that just scream to be heard out loud. He manages to elevate the reading from merely a means of communication to a joyous experience in its own right. It is simply a pleasure to say the words. The printed word is not neglected, however, with each poem featuring beautiful typography and a clean layout rendering each as a work of art in itself.

‘Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!’
Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt,
‘With your frilly back and your shiny suit
and your spotted skin so unhirsute!’
‘Too cute?!’ roared the newt to the
unastute coot. ‘With all this careless
talk of cute you bring me into
disrepute, for newts aren’t cute:
we’re kings of the pond, lions of the
duckweed, dragons of the water;
albeit, it’s true,’ – he paused – ‘minute.’

The illustrations by Morris are rendered in watercolour throughout using rich earthy colours with a simplicity that focusses more on a feeling than on accurate representation. The double page spreads are works of art that really deserve the 25cm x 38cm format of the hardback book. The single page illustrations featuring the object alone surrounded by rich gold leaf are reminiscent of the works of Gustav Klimt and fans of that style of art are bound to enjoy this. In fact, they, along with the words, form part of an art exhibition touring the UK throughout 2018 which I suspect would be the ideal place to fully appreciate them.

“Simply a work of art”

It is hard to decide whether this is a children’s book or an adult’s book. Whilst the aim is to reintroduce the words to the vocabulary of children and they would certainly enjoy the act of reading the poems or having them read to them, to think of it as simply a children’s book would be to do it a disservice. It is simply a work of art for everyone. The only negative, from my point, is that the book is too big to fit vertically on my bookshelf!

Whether you believe that a spell can conjure up life into these plants and creatures, there’s no harm in trying and giving yourself a treat in the process. Plus a portion of the royalties from each book sold will go towards the ‘Action for Conservation’ charity, so maybe it will help to preserve the future of our natural world anyway.

‘The Lost Words’ by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton, £20


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