What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishy-gods! Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons catapelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head. Assiegates and boomeringstroms. – James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
Five millennia ago, or thereabouts, a group of people usually preoccupied with the simple business of staying alive dragged forty stones to the top of a small hill not yet named Castlerigg. The names of the mountains around – Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Grasmoor, Blencathra – did not, for these people, exist at all. Quite possibly they knew them by different names, or did not know them as separate peaks at all but as a single circle of jagged rock. Perhaps mountains, for them, were not even mountains, but pillars holding up the sky, or the remnants of some ancient celestial war, or none of these but something else entirely, too distant from the bounds of our comprehension to be articulated today.
They positioned these stones – these fragments of rock – in a complete circle, more or less equidistant from one another, like miniature versions of the surrounding mountains. To know why they did so is impossible, though speculation has ranged from the purely aesthetic, to the theological, to the astronomical. Perhaps it was for the simple thrill of arranging nature that these stones were placed in such a way, just as a child left to her own devices on a stoney beach might arrange pebbles in order of size, for no other purpose than the delight of imposing a pattern on what appears chaotic. Moreover, it does not matter why these stones were put where they were – in fact, what makes them exciting is precisely this presence of form divorced (for us) from function. Whatever purpose (or lack thereof) lay behind the construction of Castlerigg is immaterial, stripped away and incinerated by the long night of time, and as such what remains is absolute form.
Form divorced from function – the nightmare of countless architects, the dream of a few. Whether the Gothic Revivalists of the nineteenth century, cloaking every semblance of practicality with burnished gold and elaborate rib vaulting, or the Modernists (to generalise hugely) of the early twentieth, embedding within the fundamentals of their aesthetic the revelation of function, the tensions between form and function have given rise to – and laid low – many of the great architectural movements of history.
This is what makes Castlerigg Stone Circle – and indeed stone circles in general – so infinitely beguiling. They refuse to reveal their final meaning, and so emerge as objects of art in a way which even some of the most fascinating and complex architecture cannot attain. They could have been vast sundials, or primitive churches, or mathematical tools, or all or none of these at once. This is not to claim that the presence of function in architecture negates the possibility of its emergence as art, but rather that stone circles’ total denial of their function and their pure embodiment of form, however crude, makes them (almost) unique in the realm of architecture. Just as the final meaning of Joyce’s frantic babble in Finnegans Wake is delayed and obscured, bringing forth and making explicit the fragile and labyrinthine machinations of language, so then stone circles emphasise the act of construction in and of itself, exposing its workings and leading us to wonder: why, in the long spasmodic history of humanity, and for no discernible practical purpose, are we always compelled to place one thing on top of another?