I’m so happy today to be able to share a little fairytale with all of you. Sam Smith of Story Warren graciously invited me to write something for children, and the result has been posted over at the Story Warren website this morning, complete with illustrations by Zach Franzen. Story Warren is such a beautiful site about truth and tales and yearning and child-likeness, so I hope you’ll take a minute to check it out, and share it with the children you love. And perhaps come back again and again and again.
December was a bit of a rough and overbooked month, and the days that came after were so full of catching up, and so things have been mostly quiet on here. But nearly a year to the day after we started reading the Lord of the Rings to our little brother by candle-light in the middle of the nights, and under umbrellas in gullies on weekends and under trees big with white blossoms all spring, and on the living-room couch with pots of tea steaming, we finished it. And so he was with us for the eighth year of the adventure of watching all three movies into the little morning hours of the New Year, and finally initiated into the world the rest of the family lives in.
All year, as we read it, I found I was more grown than last time, like a child who goes away from home and comes back to find she is tall enough to see over the kitchen countertops. Perhaps the most significant example of this is the way I heard the line that is the most familiar to me of anything in this story. Gandalf said exactly the same momentous words he always says, but I had changed in the meantime, and so heard something I had never heard before.
“All we have to decide” (who hasn’t heard these words?) “is what to do with the time that is given to us.” And Frodo is in despondency and comfortless and has a bit of an attitude problem, and he doesn’t want to hear it, and it doesn’t make anything better at the time. Indeed, it isn’t until later that these words make any difference to him at all.
And I have been a little like this, all these years that I’ve known this line like the back of my hand: unassured and comfortless. Because it sounds lovely and important, but what does it mean? I think I had it all wrong.
I thought that the stress of these words was on the decision. I supposed that the time was a little blank space that we’re given to be breathing, and that the wise word was to fill it well. It seemed to me that there must be some perfect arrangement of activities and challenges and dreams to stick into that little blank space, and if you got it right, it would be splendid, and if you got it wrong, it would be nothing but a vast regret. And when you think about it like this, it is a matter of great stress.
When I was a child, the life that was ahead was one long bucket list, and the idea of dying before I’d done every single thing I wanted to do and a great many others I hadn’t thought of yet, was unthinkable. Have you been there?
Then, at some point, the days narrowed rather suddenly into obligations, and choices couldn’t be put off any longer, but had to be made. And whenever we decide, no matter how we decide, there is loss.
And there are questions: did I make the right choice? Did I lose the right thing? Perhaps I should have been chasing that instead, when all along I was chasing this… And the comfort is cold: “All you have to decide is what to do, etc.”
Because deciding is wretched and it’s no relief to know that is the lot that has fallen to us. When we were children and still had all our choices, we felt like we owned them all, in all their beauty, merely in virtue of the fact that they were all still before us. But when I get down to really choosing, I get so many things wrong. Do you?
Thank goodness that’s not what Gandalf was saying.
Thank goodness the stress of the comfort is not on what we have to decide but on the other thing: The Time That Is Given To Us.
The Time doesn’t come to us like a blank space, as we suppose when we are children. It didn’t come to Frodo that way, did it? Oh no, the Time comes with a face and a place and a history, and the stress of Gandalf’s comfort wasn’t that there is much to be decided and we ought to do it carefully, but that there is so much we don’t have to decide.
They are sitting by the fire in Bag End, and ahead there is the road winding away from peace and out into wounds and war and loneliness, and although Frodo can’t know it yet, he feels it and is afraid. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” says Frodo.
Oh, so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. We think we could have made a better choice for our days, if the choice had been ours. All who live to see such times wish that, says Gandalf. But would they really? If they knew what a miserable thing it is to make choices, would they still want to decide? If they knew that in peace we are anxious for adventure, and wandering and ways to prove ourselves, and that in war all the world’s longings are condensed in our ache to be home one more time and eat a quiet supper and kiss our children goodnight? Would they still want to choose?
The comfort is that we don’t have to choose the time we are given, don’t get to, aren’t expected to. It might be the barren fear of Weathertop or the long dark of Moria, or embarking alone in a little white boat, scared stiff and so lonely. But it’s not yours to choose the color of your times or even the road under your feet. We are born into a time and a story and we aren’t allowed to ask for another time or another story. All we have to decide is how we shall make glory out of the time and the story that is ours. And that is not so wretched, although it is very, very hard.
When the time that is given to you comes defined and fitted with a face, the choice is simpler, and happier. If your lot is a hopeless battle and bloody death in a war that no one will remember, you must do it well, because it is all you get. If your time is evil days and ruin closing in and the Ring of Power flashing the red eye at you in the council of the confused and confounded wise, you must get up and take it, because that is your road. And if you are stuck in a waste of uncertainty and cannot see what is around the bends, and everything is bleak, bleak, you must press into the fog and find Him. And you don’t need to be thinking about all the ways you might have had a more fulfilling time given to you, because it was never yours to choose. It was a gift. And if you know the Giver, you know it was a good one.
My little sister has been on an L.M. Montgomery kick and a couple of nights ago she came into my room in a suppliant posture, begging me to watch Anne of Green Gables with her. This we did end up doing, into the early hours of the morning.
It had been some time since I’d seen this old classic film, which I have always enjoyed very much, but which has always touched some raw spot of longing in me. There is a hurt and a fear that goes along with being young and having the world ahead of you, and knowing that every decision you make slams a hundred doors of possibility. This movie deepens the ache.
Anne Shirley, who is a foolish romantic as well as a hard-working and promising scholar, is in love with Gilbert Blythe from the beginning, although she girlishly scorns his attentions and convinces herself that she is holding a grudge against him.
When we are watching this movie, we know they are meant to be together. We know we will be content with nothing else. And as Anne is growing tall and lovely and chasing tenaciously after her (often misguided) dreams, we are half-afraid for her all the time. We are half-afraid she is going to do something irrevocably foolish and turn her back on this story’s only happy ending – on the boy who is her only perfect future.
It is a central theme of so many stories: that one satisfactory ending that dangles before us like the proverbial carrot, and it is, perhaps, an absolutely necessary tool of drama.
But doesn’t it sometimes carry with it a sad kind of fear for us on the outside? For it bears with it a gnawing suggestion that it is the chief end of man to uncover out of the seemingly impenetrable murk of the future that one perfect turn of events which is his only good end and his best happiness under the sun. Elizabeth Bennett must marry Mr. Darcy, and Elinor Dashwood’s future will be jeopardized if she does not spend it with Edward Ferrars. If the Prince does not come wandering through the woods just at the very time when the dwarves are setting Snow White to rest in her glass coffin, all is lost.
Yet, in the real world, all of that is not really true.
The chief end of life is no mystical, star-crossed state of existence. “Vanity,” says the Preacher, of everything. “Vanity,” of the hopes of youth – even when fulfilled, and “vanity” of all dreams – even the ones that do come true. “Vanity,” of Mr. and Mrs. Blythe and their house of dreams and their beautiful children and all of the great gladness that wisdom and kindness and money can give. This is not the chief end.
It is true of them what was said of Ephraim, when a prophet gave warning: “Gray hairs are sprinkled upon him, and he knows it not.”
We had a poet who was closely acquainted with the vanity of all things. Writes Edna St. Millay:
This I do, being mad:
Gather baubles about me,
Sit in a circle of toys, and all the time
Death beating the door in.
White jade and an orange pitcher,
Hindu idol, Chinese god, —
Maybe next year, when I’m richer—
Carved beads and a lotus pod. . . .
And all this time
Death beating the door in.
One day, he is bringing up his cows over the green fields of Green Gables and Matthew Cuthbert’s life-pump stops. Just quits. He lays in the grass with his head cradled in the lap of the one little girl he has loved and chokes some last words she will try to find comforting. Then he leaves her to her tears and the black cloth of mourning and the wakeful nights of aching.
One day her own dear Gilbert will leave like that too. One day he will just up and go, and there will be nothing that either of them can do about it. One day even the children they talked of and dreamed about and created and cared for will be aged and whitening and flown away. One day she will stand at her kitchen window and put her apron to her eyes and understand the somber significance of, “death do us part.” One day they will both be dust again, and no one will even remember the place.
But there is a chief end – only one. And the way to it is fraught with peril and with danger and all our fears that we might not stumble over it really are justified. There is an end which is the only perfect happiness for every little girl with wonderful, starry-eyed dreams, and every little boy with grand, world-toppling ambitions. There is a marriage which is the only really glad one, an engagement without which our futures really are bleak blanks and wastelands.
Have you heard the Great Lover with the music in his golden mouth and laughter in his eyes, singing:
…Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain…
If we perish in the seeking,…why, how small a thing is death!
Man, the trouble is
we don’t know who we are instead.
– Jars of Clay, Trouble Is
In Defiant Joy, his biography of literary legend G.K. Chesterton, Kevin Belmonte wrote that Chesterton “was deeply troubled by ‘the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil…and no definite image of good.’” This frustration with the lack of prototypes of purity was a recurring theme in Chesterton’s writing, spilling over into his socio-political analysis in What’s Wrong With the World and haunting his literary criticism. He laments, in Heretics,
All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.
I would maintain that the problem Chesterton pointed out to us around a hundred years ago is, if anything, an even greater issue now, an even mightier threat. Popular culture boasts protagonists who are blatant anti-heroes, celebrated films and novels are skillful portrayals of violence and grief, but rarely are they depictions of anyone worth imitating. There are few flaming heroes. There is much to run away from, but little to chase after.
This cancer of evil is one that threatens to overwhelm the followers of Christ, and many who have been ransomed out of the order of darkness continue allow themselves to play on the fringes of it, avoiding deep depravity but shying away from startling holiness. The trouble is, we don’t know who we are instead. And in order to be taught that, we must have examples, we must have models who, literally or figuratively, try out the good life for us and make it winsome. We must have a definite image of good.
In his novel, The Landlady’s Master (originally The Elect Lady), George MacDonald presents a definite image of good that is not only heartening but even a little dazzling and completely irresistible. As far as literary merit goes, this is one of MacDonald’s least worthy books, consisting of a plot that is sub-par at best and containing some portions of writing that are inexcusably bad. However, The Landlady’s Master gave us Andrew Ingram. And the vastness of that gift overshadows this book’s other weaknesses.
Andrew is described in this way,
Andrew was one of the inheritors of the earth. He knew his Father in the same way that Jesus Christ knows his Father. He was at home in the universe, neither lonely, nor out-of-doors, nor afraid.
A young farmer and a poet in rural Scotland in the 19th century, Andrew cuts a magnificent figure and in spite of his overwhelming humility, a daunting one. He is committed to purity in every respect. He is a man who knows the Great Secret:
…a secret proclaimed on the housetops, a secret hidden, the most precious of pearls…that the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.
Most importantly, Andrew is a practical man, a man who values only those things which command action on his part. He has found Jesus to be the most commanding Presence in the cosmos, and the one who demands the highest form of doing. It is this theme of doing that reverberates throughout what becomes increasingly a very jarring story.
MacDonald writes thus of the childhood of Andrew and his brother,
There was this difference between them and most grown Christians – when anything roused thought or question, they at once referred it to the words of Jesus, and having discovered his will, made haste to do it. Their faith was not theological, nor did they ever stop to consider whether their beliefs matched the tenets of the Shorter Catechism they had learned. Practicality was the only code between them: could something be done? If so, where was to be found the first opportunity to do it?
And out of this impassioned and onehearted devotion grows two significant things. The first is a flaming heroism, a contagious and a rousing depiction of righteousness. Andrew is the person we all wish we were, who knows the One we all wish to know. The second is the mockery of the world. Andrew does not align himself with the value system of a dark planet and it thinks very little of him. Caught between these two warring factions is a laird’s daughter, Alexa, an intelligent and yet deficient character who is utilized by MacDonald for the purpose of handing each of us a mirror in which to see ourselves.
Alexa is beautiful and clever and even kind in her own way. The story has this to say of her, though,
Diligent in business, not fervent in spirit, she was never idle. But there are other ways than idleness of wasting time. Alexa was continually striving toward what is called ‘improving herself,’ but it was a big phrase for a small matter. She had not learned that to do the will of God is the way to improve oneself.
Ultimately, The Landlady’s Master is a call to action. Its sole intent is to drive the reader to obedience. For this reason, its literary deficiencies can be overlooked. It is not intended to be an exquisite and artistic piece of literature. It is meant to make a difference to what we do with our one wild and precious life.
I do not intend to give away much of this story, because I hope you will click right through and buy yourself a copy of it today. As a disclaimer, I should add that I am not of one mind with MacDonald on all issues of theology. This, however, did not take away from the beauty of this book.
I give The Landlady’s Master 4 out of 5 stars.