History is a Yarn: History and Storytelling in Waterland

Alan Gordon '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

History teacher Tom Crick, the narrator of Graham Swift's Waterland, has stopped teaching the curriculum and started telling his class stories about his family and ancestors in the Fens. Why does this respected instructor reformat his class so brashly? The following paragraphs give us some insight into what Crick wishes to impart on his students in his last term.

Crick criticizes the mythical quality often ascribed to history. History is not simple like the story of Canute ordering the ocean, nor is it orderly like a high school text detailing the French Revolution, or the narrative of Pip in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations?. History is disjointed and confusing like the ramblings of a middle-aged storyteller, and it leaves the historian with "more mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonders and grounds for astonishment" than he begins with.

Crick also hints at why he mixes personal with historical narrative in the stories he tells his class. The stories of him and his family in the fens are entwined in the yarn of history, as much as the French Revolution is. Crick tells his students in this passage that when the Here and Now finds them in a tragic mess, they should turn to history to ask 'why?'

"My earliest acquaintance with history was thus, in a form issuing from my mother's lips, inseparable from her other bedtime make-believe: how Alfred burnt the cakes, how Canute commanded the waves, how King Charles hid in an oak tree -- as if history were a pleasing invention. And even as a schoolboy, when introduced to history as an object of study, when nursing indeed an unfledging lifetime's passion, it was still the fabulous aura of history that lured me, and I believed, perhaps like you, that history was a myth. Until a series of encounters with the Here and Now gave a sudden pointedness to my studies. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed -- and I had become part of it.

So I shouldered my Subject. So I began to look into history -- not only the well-thumbed history of the wide world but also, indeed with particular zeal, the history of my Fenland forbears. So I began to demand of history an Explanation. Only to uncover in this dedicated search more mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonder and grounds for astonishment than I started with; only to conclude forty years later -- notwithstanding a devotion to the usefulness, to the educative power of my chosen discipline -- that history is a yarn. And I can deny that what I wanted all along was not some golden nugget that history would at last yield up, but History itself: the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark? [p 62]


How does the narrative form of Waterland reflect Crick's belief that history is not a logical and orderly?

How does Crick's discovery that he is part of history compare with Pip's "first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things" in Great Expectations?

How much solace for his personal tragedies does Crick actually find by studying history? Is history comforting because it asserts that there is no answer to Crick's question "whywhywhy?" If not, what about history dispells "fears of the dark?"

To what extent does Crick view the narrative of his life through the methodical lens of a historian?


Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage, 1992.

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004