The sound of a small waterfall rushing off the roof of the back porch, with the beat of a steady drizzle marching on beyond it, was the jolly tune I was greeted by as I stepped into the kitchen for a glass of water last night. As there are few things more glorious than a Spring shower around the hour of midnight, I slipped out onto the front porch in order to better appreciate the goings on.
Everything was dim, the raindrops hidden by the late hour, until a fistful of them were caught by the headlights of a next-door neighbor’s car pulling in and made a swifter transformation into thin shards of gold than if King Midas himself had touched them.
I felt a bit sorry for this neighbor, as she slowly and methodically made her way up the steps to her front porch in the rain. I knew she had been working late in the grocery store deli because she still had her hair net on. And as she usually has this hairnet on, whether going to or fro, when I see her getting into her little gray car, there’s a good bet that life doesn’t often find her beyond the confines of the deli or the red brick house in which she lives alone. And I felt sorrier for her still, wondering if she ever found her life a little dull.
But those thoughts were distracted and driven straight out by the cacophony of sharp yips which went echoing down the street as soon as her foot touched the front porch. Those two tiny white monsters with their incessant barking feel at times like the pinnacle of effrontery, but as my neighbor pulled out her house keys, she was all but singing to them. She sounded nearly as delighted and eager to be home as them- and believe me when I say that is quite a feat. She pushed through and shut the door with a merry “Mamma Bird is here!”, dispelling the fistful of fairy gold which her light had briefly made of the raindrops around her door.
Well, well. It made me wonder if perhaps even the grayest lives have a bit more color in them than a first glance could ever comprehend- if there’s a magic brightness inherent to living that no circumstance could ever entirely dim…
…. but I couldn’t let New Year’s pass without offering up a bright handful of the literary gems I found this past year. And so, a few favorites:
Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley. Published in 1917, this book spins the quirky tale of a middle aged “spinster” who decides to up and buy a bookstore on wheels. Short, hysterical, enchanting, and filled to the brim with a catching zest for life and literature. I did, however, close the final pages feeling a bit miffed about the fact that Gipsy Book Evangelist isn’t a particularly attainable life path….
Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. A touch pensive, a touch melancholy, yet still hopeful. George Macdonald once called this “the most beautiful” of all fairytales. Really, what more needs be said?
Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. Lord Peter Wimsey(marvelous name, isn’t it?), detective extraordinaire, is a new acquaintance of mine, but he does’t feel it. Nor do any of his endearing companions. They’re just the sort of characters that instantly take up residence somewhere in the back of your thoughts, thus declaring the start of a long friendship which feels somehow as if it’s already a well weathered thing. I started with “Gaudy Night”(the in the tenth in the series), was thoroughly enchanted, and turned right around to begin with book one, and am still making my way through the whole towering lot of them. No need to go about it in that way though-the books stand fairly well out of order and on their own. Great fun, and the sheer number of literary references crammed into these are a thing of joy forever.
The Daughters of Troy by Euripides. My goodness. There’s just nothing like an Ancient Greek play for poignancy. This play is possibly my favorite that I’ve read so far….
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. The most unexpectedly beautiful book I read this year. Unexpected all the way around, really. Modern books aren’t usually my cup of tea, but this one was just…well, golden. With swift, keen strokes it paints a picture of life as it should be…and then life as it is…and then holds them both out and asks what it is we now do with those twin visions of life. Oddly enough, it kept bringing to mind both Anne of Green Gables and West Side Story.
Dracula by Bram Stoker. Oh, what a delight this one was- suspense and folklore and high adventure and (believe it or not)a vivid portrayal of the path of Christ. Spooky, but not so spooky that you’re not beaming from ear to ear by the time our brave band of friends set out together to vanquish their foe once and for all.
The Tempest by Shakespeare. This is it. I have found Shakespeare’s most beautiful play. I know I say that after every play, but I really truly do mean it this time.
And glowing praise has to be thrown out to Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield(I’m only halfway through, but I am fully expecting it to make it’s way onto my list of Most Dearly Loved Books of All Time) and Leisure by Josef Pieper( which deserves, and shall eventually receive, a post all it’s own) as well.
(I also feel here compelled to recommend the ever lively and winsome Literary Life podcast, seeing as three (Wimsey, Outsiders, and Daughters of Troy) of my favorite books this year came about as hearsay from them. A podcast which manages to be both intellectual and yet led by delight and wonder is a boon too rare and wondrous to keep knowledge of all to one’s self!)
Best stop there. How about you? Any bookish highlights?
“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
Of all the wondrous, luminous words in this word, those are some of my favorite, and they were the ones that came to mind as I stood upon the tallest driveway in our alley with my brother, tiptoe, as we tried to catch the last swiftly fading gold of this sunset, watching as it seemed to tangle and tear in the grim, somber branches reaching up their arms from the horizon.
Robert Frost once claimed that “nothing gold can stay”, and I suppose he’s right in a way. Here, in this shadow gripped world of ours, the years will continue their inexorably onward march, changing the face of a world we once knew into that of a stranger. We must look around ourselves and know that we fight a battle which Tolkien called “the long defeat”, where even the highest joys must change, fade, and blink out; a battle where every fulfilled hope is but a sharp, brief flash in the vast dark.
But then, he cannot be entirely right-not in the long run. Not if the dark hasn’t comprehended that golden light. If the light which was the life of men is still shining, bright and keen, then perhaps those good things which have their source in that life aren’t lost at all. Perhaps nothing good is ever truly lost and Time, that greatest of pickpockets, will one day be brought to accord and called upon to right his wrongs and return the wealth he has stolen. All things, not just made new, but re-newed. Re-stored to their rightful place.
Which brings to mind another handful of favorite words, beloved in part for their insistence that nothing will be forgotten-something which greatly worried me as a girl when I heard people speaking of Heaven as if it were the land of forgetfulness, a place where none of the world’s sorrows seemed to matter anymore and redemption was no longer needed : “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.”
Bold words, those.
And they sound (dare we hope?) rather like somehow, someway, the spirit of all the good, golden pieces of this world that have slipped away down drains and been dropped and lost in back alleys are being retrieved and gathered up somewhere into a bright, glimmering heap….
I’ve just finished G.K.Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse, and oh my, what a sweeping, high hearted adventure that was.
It tells the tale(sticking closer to the spirit of the things than to the actual facts) of how Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, defeated the Danes at the battle of Ethandune. But tells it, of course, with all the dash and gallantry you would expect from a poem penned by Chesterton, along with an impish defiance, a reckless sense of wonder not to be undone by the cold, hard facts.
Brightly burning at it’s heart is a courage which feels akin to that of Galadriel and Celeborn’s, when they declare they have ‘ever fought the long defeat”-a bravery in which present triumph plays very little part. There’s a twinkling laughter to it that would seem as foolish as that of a merry, pinprick star fighting off an ocean of inky black sky; foolish, but for the fringe of gold creeping in ‘round about the horizon. It contains a quality of victory in the face of the grimmest possible defeat, lending a mirth to the conquered that would look to all around like a laughable thing in itself, were it not for the eerie sense it lends of standing witness to a realm beyond the ability of mortal men to shatter.
Here, this bit, for example:
“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,Men may uproot where worlds begin,Or read the name of the nameless sin;But if he fail or if he winTo no good man is told."The men of the East may spell the stars,And times and triumphs mark,But the men signed of the cross of ChristGo gaily in the dark."The men of the East may search the scrollsFor sure fates and fame,But the men that drink the blood of GodGo singing to their shame."The wise men know what wicked thingsAre written on the sky,They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,Hearing the heavy purple wings,Where the forgotten seraph kingsStill plot how God shall die."The wise men know all evil thingsUnder the twisted trees,Where the perverse in pleasure pineAnd men are weary of green wineAnd sick of crimson seas."But you and all the kind of ChristAre ignorant and brave,And you have wars you hardly winAnd souls you hardly save."I tell you naught for your comfort,Yea, naught for your desire,Save that the sky grows darker yetAnd the sea rises higher."Night shall be thrice night over you,And heaven an iron cope.Do you have joy without a cause,Yea, faith without a hope?"
All that to say, I think that Alfred the Great was grand, and that one and all should read The Ballad of the White Horse, and also that it’s high time we get back to the writing of ballads and epics.
….from a list that I jotted down a few years ago and thought I’d repost now that we’ve come to that time of year again.
Striking out at dawn, chasing a horizon of palest gold and reveling in a swathe of clouds fit to make glad the heart of an impressionist painter, we stumbled upon it. An unmistakably autumnal breeze. The street’s end may well be blurred behind a mirage of heat by noon, mind you, but that was no summer zephyr we felt. There’s nothing can convince me there’s not the relish of a wild, glad defiance felt in the winds of autumn as winter approaches. Summer breezes hold no such spice, be they as cool as they please. In honor of such a momentous occasion, how about we swap a few of the tales which seem to us most suitable to the fall of the year? I’ll go first: Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynn Jones. My cup of tea leaning towards the worn and dusty, I little expected a modern, YA novel to make it’s way onto my list of Most Dearly Loved Books, and yet this quirky fantasy did just that. Here you’ll find floating castles, unexpected twists, Elizabethan poetry, and a few of the funniest scenes I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Besides, fantasy is only proper in the Fall. Those two are close kin, methinks. Held by each is that restless longing, that sense of something grand just beyond our fingertips. Held by each, too, is that distillation of life into an intensity that brims over and spills enchantment onto everything surrounding it. Each contains the same capacity for becoming what the Celts would have called a “thin place”. On Fairy Stories, by Tolkien. In that vein, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better companion for the Fall than Tolkien. I’m going to assume you’re already familiar with The Lord of the Rings and the dire importance of your reading it (if not, drop everything and go with that book first!). This is an essay you can find in a small collection of his entitled “Tree and Leaf”, and it’s just about one of the most marvelous things in existence. Truly though, his insight into what makes fairy tales True (and Christ enchanting) is something I wish I could ensure an encounter with for everyone. Macbeth, by Shakespeare. A word of warning: not a book to be read before bed. I first read this in my teens, curled up on our couch as the darkness out the windows gathered and my family tapered off to bed. Glued to my seat, I flipped to the last blood chilling pages. Thing is, I then had to get up. Alone. In the dark. With a long, shadowy hallway betwixt me and my room. It was then that I realized my fatal error. I’m fairly certain I only narrowly escaped the three hags as I went crashing through my bedroom door. So. How about you? Who are your trusty Autumn companions?
A note: I originally wrote this as a list of Summery recommendations. However, Spring flowers are greeting me at every turn these days, and the evenings are getting undeniably longer. Plenty excuse for a breezy read, no?
Very good. Onwards we go then.
Should you ask me for, not my list of of most cherished stories, nor my list of most worthy titles, but simply for a stack of good summery reads, these are a few of the titles I’d be mostly likely to pull off the shelves and plop into your hands.
Tam Lin. To be read at twilight, when the air is blue and the shadows of wings tangling with the silhouettes of tree branches could be birds or bats or quite possibly something else entirely. This retelling of an old Scottish ballad about a girl set upon the rescue of both her ancestral home and a boy long held captive by the fairies is by Jane Yolen, and my but it’s lovely. Summer, as much as autumn, has always seemed to me well fitted for the telling of an eerie tale. Also, Jennet makes a grand heroine. . A City of Bells, by Elizabeth Goudge. An author who means much to me. Just a tale of a handful of people living in a cathedral town really, but told by someone who’s keen perception of a reality beyond our five senses, a reality glinting ‘round the edges and shimmering through the cracks of everyday life, infusing it with a cosmic sense of meaning, is a bit of a marvel. Lewis says “Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . ‘“. This being the case, I shall just have to count Elizabeth as a friend. I never expected to find a spirit quite so kindred as her( “So YOU love shelves full of tiny things and chiming bells and sanctuary inns too?”). I’ll just shuffle this one conspicuously onto the top of your stack, if you don’t mind. . Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Swashbuckling and Scotland and the sort of lines that sent me into a bit of a Stevenson fetish in my late teens. He started paving paths( both through this novel and his marvelous essays) to realms of thought on Faith and Imagination that Tolkien and Lewis would later point out yet greater vistas of. Truly though, it’s Scotland. And swashbuckling. What’s not to love about a tale such as that? . . Sherlock Holmes collections, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When is it not a good time for a mystery?
At some point in my early teens a thick, hardback poetry anthology found its way into my home, picked up by my mom for general family consumption from a book sale. Commandeering it shamelessly, I claiming it as companion through many of the slow Summer afternoons following.
It was during one such Summer perusal, as cicadas raised their rattling cry far above the sound of any human speech, and the pale, bright sky stared down into defeat all who dared venture out under its domain, that I first stumbled upon Gerard Manley Hopkins. Halfheartedly turning pages, letting each one flutter like a great cream moth onto the one before it, I nearly missed him. But a few bright words caught my eye, and I stopped.
“Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.”
Looking back now, I feel certain the cicadas stopped along with me, creating one of those odd, pooled moments when all of Summer is silenced and brought round to attention, it’s intensity magnified ten fold in its stillness.
That poem, my doorway to the world as seen through the breathless, ardent eyes of Hopkins, was “The Windhover”. I flipped the next page with high hopes for more and in the pair of poems waving and dancing across it like merry pinions, “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty”, I found great treasure indeed.
Here was a world “charged” and “ready to flame out”, a world in which the “dappled”, the “strange, sweet, sour” things were held up and praised as things of great worth, showing as they did the “grandeur of God”. And the poems just grew in richness from there, telling tales of a world bright and near bursting with the tangerine tang of a loveliness whose presence hinted of things beyond this world even as it quickened and brought to life the one before me. The Medievals spoke of “the music of the spheres”, of a world held together in dance. In Hopkins, I felt certain I could catch snatches of that old melody, thrumming through the heart of this world, setting everything “aflame with the glory of God”. “Yes”, Hopkins seemed to say, “the world is as quirky and odd and merry and mismatched and, though now rent nearly apart, threaded through with as much enchantment as you ever dreamed it to be. And yes, it is God who made it to be so.” To read Hopkins is to be grabbed by both hands and set twirling until you ask yourself, “What is all this juice and all this joy?”along with him. There’s a hands clasped anticipation of something growing upon the edges of his vision even as he stands in the darkness I grew to understand haunted him.
Haunted him, and yet never won him. For here too, oh wonder, was a world in which it was possible to hold questions in one hand and adoration in the other. I know the term “bright sadness” applies to something else entirely, and yet I can’t help thinking of it as applying to Hopkins; his poems hold the same feeling as fresh, limpid sunlight hitting raindrops ready to drip off the roof. A clear, keen vision was his, holding in it’s gaze the twin facts of both the dance the universe was meant to be, and the curse and shadow which had spread across it. Yet that shadow which he felt so keenly and had him cry “I can no more” found also in him the reply “I can; can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.” For if ever there was poet who taught me to tussle with the great gales blowing about the realms of both my own soul and the one beyond, it was him. Tussle with them, and send them soaring towards God. Here find your kin, ye kindred spirits of the Jacob who wrestled with God. Anguish and accusation and wonder and thanks tumble through his poems side by side, clashing into each other at times yet never seeming incompatible; what better friend could a young girl make as she steps into adulthood, with all it’s nuance and shadow?
For to wrestle so desperately as he did, it begged the answering of a yet more vital question; what sort of God was this to be worth such a fight for? Surely it was no dull, lackluster being which he so fought. In Hopkins poems I found the God of grim steel skies and sharp starlight, the God of passion flowers and kinkajous and wild, fitful, sprightly winds. Here was the God teenage me so wanted, and did truly believe, to exist and yet Who I had but rarely glimpsed in church or chapel. A kind and gallant and vivid God who “fathers-forth” all the “strange”, “fickle”, “dim” things of this world. Here was a light Hopkins seemed to think bright enough to follow through any darkness.
Long ago, in the cool, carpeted rooms of our study, hidden away from the glare and mirages of a southwestern Summer, Hopkins told me that “our Savior” was “as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet”. Find for me, if you can, a better description of Christ in all the many lands of literature than those winsome words.
Before you do, though, make sure you take a wander through some of Hopkins words. They offer a grand view indeed.
In girlhood, there was one art book in particular out of our plethora of art books that I felt certain to be a thing enchanted. Just an old encyclopedia of Norse myths in truth,but with pages brimmed to overflowing with paintings by the likes of Arthur Rackham and Alan Lee, it’s sparse and to-the-point entries on the matters of rings and dwarves and frost giants all but glittering, lit from behind as they were by the still bright spirit of those old Norse tales.
On a whim, I recently picked that old book up again. Tossing through pages quickly, skimming over well known words and art as familiar as the back of my own hand; that is, until I came to a halt at the entry upon Yggdrasil, the Cosmic Ash tree. And as I read over that entry, I was thankful yet again for my mother’s unconcern when people told her that those myths I loved were harmful and in opposition to God, nothing more than an assortment of dangerous lies. Just listen!
“The idea of a cosmic tree is common in myths of both Europe and Asia. It was thought of as the backbone of the universe,the structural support of the nine worlds.” The entry went on to speak of the obvious parallels between Odin’s hanging upon Yggdrasil and Christ upon the cross, and of the various ways this sacred tree was thought by different cultures to bring healing to the worlds.
Isn’t that lovely? That long before they heard of Christ, they held in their hearts the dream of this tree? A tree with limbs threaded through the realms, woven and twisted about everything, whose structure held together the very cosmos? A tree upon which someone would hang as a sacrifice? And that others, too, dreamed of such things. The Irish with their sacred tree, whose branches alone were a mighty weapon against sickness and despair? As a girl, that bit of knowledge was treasure beyond counting.
I leant upon a coppice gate When Frost was spectre-grey, And Winter’s dregs made desolate The weakening eye of day. The tangled bine-stems scored the sky Like strings of broken lyres, And all mankind that haunted nigh Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be The Century’s corpse outleant, His crypt the cloudy canopy, The wind his death-lament. The ancient pulse of germ and birth Was shrunken hard and dry, And every spirit upon earth Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among The bleak twigs overhead In a full-hearted evensong Of joy illimited; An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, In blast-beruffled plume, Had chosen thus to fling his soul Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings Of such ecstatic sound Was written on terrestrial things Afar or nigh around, That I could think there trembled through His happy good-night air Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew And I was unaware.
A splendid poem, isn’t it? It’s been a favorite of mine for an age and a day now, though I hadn’t managed to read any of Hardy’s novels till last month when I finished Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Incidentally, I started an audiobook of The Lord of the Rings around the same time as I started Tess, and oh my. What a ride the mixing of those two tales has been. For all the differences between a 20th century fantasy and a tale of Victorian realism,I couldn’t help but be struck by a certain kinship between the two. Both Tolkien and Hardy felt a keen sense of sorrow at the darkness in the world, and both told tales of what it means to suffer, and suffer innocently, at the hands of that darkness. Poets to the tips of their fingers, each told tales filled with an aching pathos, the sort capable of haunting you through many a year. Mountains of books are waiting to be written from thoughts spun out from those tales, but what struck me, experiencing them side by side, was this: the presence of that “ full-hearted evensong of joy illimited” in them both.
Tolkien’s story is, as Aragorn says of another, “a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts”. There is precious little outward cheer here. The road is hard, terrors lie ahead, and people are handed lives that they never wanted. And yet, for all that, it does lift your heart. It’s as crystal sharp in it’s defiant hopefulness as a single star in an inky sky. Hardy’s story, too, is one of trouble heaped upon trouble. Hope, however, is nowhere to be seen, and despair is declared to be the only rightful ruler of these unjust lands.
A sharp eye for beauty was given to both. And both caught in that beauty snatches of a tune older than sorrow, threading itself through this world of ours.
But Hardy, as he says in his poem, is unaware of the reason for the hope this song belies. He shoves it aside as a mockery and affront to the suffering he sees around him. All trials in the end nothing but a net in which we find ourselves entangled, a simple accident void of any meaning.
Tolkien, on the other hand, sees it’s existence as the truest thing, the melody ringing on above and beyond every trial, weaving all things together into a splendid, crashing climax of symphonic triumph.
The presence of this “light and high beauty, forever beyond the shadow’s reach”, and a song ever being sung of some tale beyond our lives and yet woven into them, leant to the suffering in Tolkien’s story a sense of purpose and plot. A dignity. It holds a foreshadowing , a hint that the tale’s not full told, and grand deeds may yet be done.
At one point in the novel Hardy accuses saints of being inhuman for their stoicism towards trials. While I think he’s mistaken in many respects upon this, there is a glimmer of truth to it. I wonder though, is what he sees as stoicism merely the taut attention of one in a very loud room, absorbed in straining every nerve after a half heard thread of song?