One of my favorite books on dreams is Andrew Lang’s The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, first published in 1897. The prolific and popular author of the “color” series of fairytales affected a cool skepticism towards this subject material, which allowed him to slide us right into the deep end, recounting cases of timefolding and interdimensional travel in dreams.
As a consummate storyteller, Lang was always alert for the story value of his material. His main question of dreams is which dreams make the best stories. He concludes that the dreams that make the best stories are those that reveal the “unknown past”, “the unknown present” and the “unknown future”.
Dreams only form subjects of good dream-stories when the vision coincides with and adequately represents an unknown event in the past, the present or the future…If we dreamed of being present at an unchronicled scene in Queen Mary’s life, and if, after the dream was recorded, a document proving its accuracy should be for the first time recovered, then there is matter for a good dream-story.
His references to his own dream life, though modest and brief, suggest he had experiential insight into his subject: “In dreams…we see the events of the past (I have been at Culloden fight and at the siege of Troy)”.
He collects examples of shared dreams (and uses that term for them):
- Five members of the Ogilvie family, in different locations dream that a family dog – a poodle called Fanti – goes mad. Subsequently, the poodle lives on, sane and harmless, for the rest of his natural life. However, Lang does not comment on the fact that an action was taken in one of the dreams, in which the family threw the dog into the fire.
- Three members of the Swithinbanks family (father and two sons) dream the mother’s death on the same night and discover in the morning that indeed she died that night,
Lang also gives several examples of dream tracking (my turn) in which dreams reveal the location of lost objects, making allowance for the possibility that the dreaming mind may simply be making better sense of details half-observed in waking life:
- a lawyer dreams that a check he has lost is curled around a street railing (he dropped it when he went out to post letters)
- a girl in Lang’s family dreamed that the missing ducks’ eggs were at a place in a certain field, where they proved to be
- an Irish lady dreamed a lost key was lying at the root of a certain tree
Lang’s story collection includes one of my all-time favorite accounts of dream precognition, which I discuss in Conscious Dreaming as The Case of the Bishop’s Pig. Here is Lang’s original version:
THE PIG IN THE DINING-ROOM.
Mrs. Atlay, wife of a late Bishop of Hereford, dreamed one night that there was a pig in the dining-room of the palace. She came downstairs, and in the hall told her governess and children of the dream, before family prayers. When these were over, nobody who was told the story having left the hall in the interval, she went into the dining-room and there was the pig. It was proved to have escaped from the sty after Mrs. Atlay got up.
“Millions of such things are dreamed”, Lang comments. At first sight, the dream is of “the common grotesque type” – except that it proved to be a quite literalistic preview of an incident that was played out in ordinary life. The Case of the Bishop’s Pig reminds us that we don’t want to skip asking whether elements of a dream could be played out in the future, even when the dream content seems “weird” or “grotesque”.
Art: Prize Pig, Cardiff by Richard Whitford (1872)