At a magical sunset, the sun isn’t going anywhere.
Rather, we are.
Carried inexorably away on a cosmic merry-go-round, we are borne away from the sunlight into darkness at speeds of up to 1,000 miles an hour.
And there we sit at that restaurant table, or standing on a beach, transfixed by the beauty of a moment which appears to be frozen in time, when in fact we are hurtling and spinning through space.
It is only during this century, with the advent of planes which can affect supersonic speeds, that we have begun to conceive of the reality of chasing a sunset. A pilot travelling at the same speed as the earth’s spin can theoretically chase that ethereal moment when our part of the earth slips away from the light which gives it life.
Rather like a hamster on a hamsterwheel, we could chase the moment when day ends.
The sunset has been a seminal moment since long before they hauled the monoliths into place at Stonehenge.
But literature shows us how vital it is: what a divide it has become, between light and dark, order and chaos, work and rest.
The earliest French story ever written down actually has someone pause the sunset, without the aid of a pilot.
The earliest version of this tale lives in the Bodleian Library, and dates from about 1130. It turns a failure of an expedition – that taken by Charlemagne against the Muslims – into a great epic, a tale of heroes and superhuman feats.
Every army expedition has its head – Charlemagne and his henchmen – and it also has a tail end. And 700 years after Christ was born the two could be separated by a very long line indeed.
The rear guard- some 20,000 strong – is led by a man called Roland and his best friend, Oliver. A swarm of 400,000 muslims descend on them and thrash them soundly: but Roland will not summon help.
When sixty of is men are left he picks up his oliphant, an elephant’s tusk horn. He blows it: and the world stands still: the sound of the horn carries almost 100 miles to the front of the line, and the French king turns back.
Not soon enough. He arrives to find his men slaughtered. And he prays: delay sunset, Lord.
“For Charlemagne a great marvel God planned,
Making the sun still in his course to stand,
So Pagans fled, and chased them well The Franks through the valley of shadows…”
Sunset is delayed: the infidel hordes are slain, and chase the Frankish dead through the underworld. A chilling end, worse even than that famous 500 who faced terrible odds.
A race against the sunset to vanquish the dead: it’s a surefire page turner, and one that Bram Stoker handled with unforgettable pace.
The last desperate days of the pursuit of Dracula are propelling Stoker’s novel to its close. Its heroine, Mina, has been bitten and is slowly turning into another of those vile women who follow the Count. The men who surround her are desperate to free her and hunt the vampire down to its lair.
They have sterilised each of the lairs Dracula has prepared in London, and the Count must flee back to his castle in the eastern wastes of Europe. Stoker’s master stroke is to split the pursuers up into three groups, all of whom finally converge at the foot of Dracula’s castle.
“The Castle of Dracula”, writes Stoker, “now stood out against the red sky, and every stone of its broken battlements was articulated against the light of the setting sun.”
If the Count reaches the castle by sunset, all is lost. If he can be vanquished in daylight while his powers are weak, Mina – and a wider mankind- are saved. And there, for the sake of you who have not read the novel, we will leave them.
The sunset is a seminal moment for all of us, when light departs and the hours of dark arrive.
There is a traditional, almost mediaeval fear of the dark hours. We can chase the light, and stories even portray pausing that moment just before dark arrives. Stoker polarises the dread, which is always there in our folklore, and maybe also at the back of our minds.
We spend such a lot of energy, avoiding the dark hours.
And yet, delay the sunset and you delay tomorrow’s sunrise. The dark is a pause of such velvet-black peace for many of us.
Maybe it is time, today, to let that sun slip over the curve of the earth, and our minds slip into the land of dreams and maybes.
Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme, which is always a blast – find out more here