Sacred and Secular: Change-Ringing in The Nine Tailors

This is the third and final post in a series written by students in Dr. Christine Colón’s Dorothy L. Sayers literature course at Wheaton College.

Most people have never heard the word “change-ringing” before or, if they have, they have almost no idea what it means. Dorothy L. Sayers, however, in her novel The Nine Tailors exposed the niche interest of bell-ringing to the world, and the novel became one of the lasting icons of the change-ringing society for this very reason. At the Wade Center there is even a whole archive dedicated to change-ringing in which one can learn about the curious people who have been “bitten by the bug” of campanology.

So, for those like myself who before reading The Nine Tailors had no idea what change-ringing is I will provide a quick rundown. The definition provided by the North American Guild of Change Ringers is that change-ringing is:

“a team sport, a highly coordinated musical performance, an antique art, and a demanding exercise that involves a group of people ringing rhythmically a set of tuned bells through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns” (Source: http://nagcr.org/pamphlet.html).

As this definition highlights, ringing bells is an art as much as it is a mathematical formula, and interestingly, the newspaper article, “Factorial Mathematics and the Art of Change Ringing” reveals that those in charge of the change-ringing group at Kalamazoo College are either retired mathematicians or computer software designers.

Why are those so left-brained interested in the art of bell ringing? Well, change-ringing depends upon knowing combinations, permutations, and patterns in order to known when each person should ring their bell. The bells, for their unique combination of being both intellectually and physically challenging while also being musically rewarding, have an intoxicating effect on those who wish to get involved. In the article, the father of change-ringing at Kalamazoo College, Dr. Jefferson Smith, notes, “Not everybody is susceptible to change ringing, but if you can find a student who gets caught up in it, they burn with a hard blue flame” (The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 19, 1997, pp. B10-11. The Change Ringing Archive, Folder 6. Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL).

It’s intriguing that the people who become interested in change-ringing seem to become “foolhardy aficionados” who can’t stay away from the bells; and since the bells are almost always located in a church, what better mission outreach?

This is where we have a unique intersection of the sacred and secular. People who don’t usually attend church now have to in order to ring the bells. And although the ringer might be involved with change-ringing simply for the math or the exercise or the music, it is unavoidable for him/her to partake of the sacred duty of the bells. These duties include calling people to worship and ringing tolls at peoples’ deaths (from tradition this would help the souls ascend to heaven by warding off evil spirits). In The Nine Tailors, the sacred duty of ringing the bells becomes even more pronounced as the bells seem to act as the hand of God enacting judgment on Deacon, an unrepentant criminal. Were the bell-ringers responsible for killing Deacon? To what extent do the ringers get wrapped up in the spiritual nature of the bells?

Brian Ashurst wrote an essay titled, “A Thousand Years of Bells: For centuries their mysterious harmonies have expressed the joy of the Gospel” which delves into the intimate connection between the church and the bells. He goes so far as to say that, “the swinging tower bell stands as a symbol of the church second only to the cross” (The Anglican, 10.38 Summer, 1979. The Change-Ringing Archive, Folder 2. Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.) He tracks the dense history of the bells from their early use in pagan rituals to their association with superstition to their modern use with the church and as a hobby. When talking about the bells today, he recognizes that, “there is a growing enthusiasm in this country [England] for change-ringing, as its mysterious attractions for those outside the church as well as for worshipers are seen to justify the cost and effort put in.” Could Sayers’s novel The Nine Tailors have played a role in this increasing interest in change-ringing? And if so, does this make her novel evangelical?

Even before Sayers had ventured into writing explicitly about the Christian faith, The Nine Tailors may have had missional possibilities simply for its use of change-ringing. Sayers herself would have agreed that any good writing could glorify the Creator even if it isn’t explicitly Christian. This being said, her use of the bells and their inseparableness from the church reinforce this unique meeting place for the sacred and the secular, and thereby, provide an outreach opportunity to all interested in change-ringing.

RachelRachel Post is a senior at Wheaton College studying English Literature and Art History. While taking the Dorothy L. Sayers class, she enjoyed learning how Sayers herself was interested in both art and literature and how she often drew/sketched out images to go along with what she was writing – whether it be a detective novel or religious play. She enjoyed researching in the Wade Center, and finding Sayers’s sketches (often of cats) pop up in her letters with various people!

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