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It tolls for thee

Hemingway’s Spanish civil-war novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, pits nature against atrocity

Robert Macfarlane | January/February 2016

The Guadarrama mountains of Spain run from north-east to south-west across the central plains of Castille. They are ancient mountains, formed of pale granite and gneiss, their slopes densely wooded with pines of several species: black pines, maritime pines, sentry pines, Scots pines. I once walked across the range from south to north, sleeping in caves and forest clearings. Years on I still clearly recall the scents of those days and nights: “the piney smell of…crushed needles”, as Ernest Hemingway puts it in “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, “and the sharper odour of…resinous sap”.

Hemingway’s novel is set in the Guadarrama during the last May of the Spanish civil war. Its hero is Robert Jordan, a young American fighting for the International Brigade. Jordan, an explosives expert with a profound disinterest in his own fate, is tasked by his Soviet commander with destroying a bridge in the Fascist-held mountains. He joins forces with Republican partisans who have gone guerrilla. Their base for the operation is a cave in the “rim-rock” at the “cup-shaped upper end” of a “little valley”.

In the book’s second paragraph, Jordan unfolds a photostatted map on the “pine-needle floor” of the forest. That contrast between military perception and natural presence preoccupies Hemingway throughout the novel. The landscapes of the Guadarrama are interpreted chiefly in terms of tactics: open ground is read for its lines of fire, “timber” for its cover. Those with close knowledge of the range – like Jordan’s trusted guide Anselmo – are valuable because they can move discreetly through this hostile territory.

Yet these tough men remain alert to the beauty of the mountains. When a two-day blizzard blows in, Jordan relishes its wildness, though he knows it will betray their position. Pilar, a fellow partisan, agrees: “What rotten stuff is the snow and how beautiful it looks.” The hurry-up-and-wait aspects of war mean there is time to appreciate the “afternoon clouds…moving slowly in the high Spanish sky”. Maria, Jordan’s lover, speaks of her passion for the pine forest: “the feel of the needles under foot…the wind in the high trees and the creaking they make against each other”. Even their target is assessed both aesthetically and militarily – it is a “steel bridge of a single span”, possessing a “solid-flung metal grace”, standing “dark against the steep emptiness of the gorge”.

The upper pine forests aren’t the only landscape of the novel, though. Hemingway splices in atrocious scenes from earlier in the war: a dusty village square in which supposed fascists are flailed, cudgelled and then hurled over a cliff, or an attack on a guardia civil barracks, after which the wounded are dispatched with pistol shots to the skull. The sky is a scape, too, through which pass Franco’s glittering aeroplanes: Heinkel bombers of the Condor Legion, moving “like no thing there has ever been…like mechanised doom”, or Messerschmitts turning among the vultures. 

The novel’s first and last sentences describe almost the same situation: Jordan, flat on the forest floor, watching the ground below. In the first, he is planning his assault on the bridge; in the last, waiting for his death. The attack has gone wrong, and a shell blast has broken his leg appallingly. Fascist troops are approaching. Despite the circumstances, these closing paragraphs are oddly uplifting. Jordan touches “the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay”, and “the bark of the pine trunk that he lay behind”. Such gestures are a means of reassuring himself of the existence of matter, in advance of its annihilation. Dying, he has begun to meld with the forest in which he has fought. The landscape shimmers into a mindscape: “he was”, writes Hemingway, “completely integrated now”. Jordan has fulfilled the novel’s title: he has become a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

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