On Adventure: A Letter To My Children

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. But today I am just flipping the page on twenty-one years, and there is already so much I want to tell them and can’t yet. Here where I stand on the threshold of adulthood, looking back on aspirations and ahead towards all the bends in the road, I want to say a few words about adventure, so they will know that I was young once, and boisterous, and learning so tremulously to trust that what is ahead must be even better than all that has been behind. I will write a letter…]

My Dear Children,

You want to kill a dragon with your own two hands and a sword that gleams like a stroke of light. I know you do.

You want to set off over mountains hatted in mist and recover the golden hoards of kings. You want to sprout the magic beans and chase a splendid princess right into the heart of an adventure. You want to press through the wardrobe and shatter the wand in the hands of the witch, and go thundering after the white stag of wishes in the forest of forgotten things. You want get your hands on the giant’s heart. You want to come home cradled in an eagle’s talons. You want to take a little coracle over the white wall of foam at the end of the world.

Me too.

CliffJumpingAnd there is more. At the brink of waterfalls and in the hills over the river, we get a little wild, don’t we? You all want to go hurtling right through, to the far side of sanity and fences, with your hearts like songbirds. You want to plant your feet on a rock no other bared, leathery feet have hugged, and look down with scorn on ordinary things. Me too. We want to flip our boats into the shock of cold, and chase the current and work our immaculate lungs and flaunt the fabulous mystery of our being like we earned it.

This is not to say you are not afraid of anything. For you are, aren’t you? You are afraid of growing rich and respectable and predictable and doing things according to form and custom. You are afraid you might grow old and give up on the dangerous business of stepping outside your door. You are afraid you might stop going on adventures.

Me too. I am afraid you might do that. Please don’t.

You are getting old enough to see that the grim world is full of people coming and going with harried scowls, not-believing in fairytales. People who see drudgery and inconvenience where they should see hazardous journeys with treasures at the finish line. You laugh at them now. “Adults,” you say, and you shake your head, as though that explains everything.

But my children, here I am, blowing the lights off my 21st birthday cake. And I was like you, such a little while ago, with youth laid out before me like an eternity of possibility. Now, there is no standard by which I’m not an adult.

And the grey, sagging woman behind the cash register at the grocery store was like us once, though one look at her now will tell you she doesn’t believe in fairies anymore. Do you suppose the black-suited businessman at the bus-stop, who goes babbling angry words into the mouthpiece hanging off his ear, has quite forgotten that he once wanted to put a black arrow into the armpit of a firedrake, and save a whole terrified village?

The poison of the age is more potent than you think.

For some, it looks like a hope of comfort which turns into fear, and eyes closing to the war around. And if you never look out the window, you will forget about adventures altogether, and perhaps it will quite slip your mind that somewhere a princess needs rescuing.

For some, fear makes friends with arrogance, and swells into a golden idol. And a man who goes chasing after the green dollars has hardly got time to comb the rugged crags for the giant’s heart.

Children, sometimes a sorrow comes in that blacks out the sun. And today you are untouched by any such thing, but maybe one day you’ll go to sleep and hope you never wake up again.

There are so many ways to settle. And whether it’s settling for security or settling for selfishness, or settling for sadness, if you settle down for what there is, you will never get out to the way things ought to be. And this world is a mighty dull place if you stop going to war.

Yes, you’ll grow up and learn a great many things. And you’ll learn that fairies aren’t real and neither is the wild white stag, and the knights are no more, as the old song says, and the dragons are dead.

But you already know these things. You were never really fooled into thinking that the stories are true in the sense that they actually happened. What then do we mean when we say you’ll stop believing in them? What do you mean when you make fun of adults who complain about cold weather and ice on the roads, and thunderstorms and unexpected guests?

Simply that the world has grown grey to their eyes, and commonplace, and ceased to be a perilous countryside where quests are waiting to be embarked upon.

But that can be fixed. “This world,” said G.K. Chesterton, “can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield.

And oh, children, it is. You don’t have to look hard to see that the planet is riven right through, and replete with monsters. You know it now, that cruelty thrives on the air of this place. Every day that you live here, you will know it deeper.

VillageBurningDragonThat there is a sickness on the loose and no heart is untouched. And rulers are sated and overfilled while the world is filled with the hungry. There may not be dragons on the loose, but there are still whole villages going up in smoke. The things that you’ve read about are real: like widows turned out of their homes, and cripples crushed and enslaved, and an entire generation of starved minds. There are a great many things you haven’t read about yet, and they are real too. One is almost ashamed to be alive in the same world with some of the things that are. And people in fine houses are deaf and blind and don’t hear how the globe is rank with horror.

What is worse is that truth, which should go up on the lamp-stands of every street and free the whole world, is hated and hidden away. What is worse is that the lovely and glorious truth is mocked and assaulted when it dares to show its face. It will be a mighty adventure to set out to free the world, with truth like a crest on your helmet, on a planet of armies armed with lies. Don’t you think?

I want to tell you something else about adventures, though.

This war is going to wear you plumb out. It’s more than likely one day you’ll take such a beating you go reeling with the shock of your own blood on your tongue. It’s more than likely that the world you want to save will deliver this to you, with bony fingers curled into fists, taking delight in giving you grief. It’s more than likely you’ll sit down and say you don’t care if the giants and the trolls win. It’s more than likely that the adventure will be a great deal too big for you.

I want to tell you about another kind of adventure. A kind of adventure that you’ll keep going out on, as long as you live. The kind of adventure you’ll never be too little for, or too old for, or too weak for. The kind of adventure that’s worth running after, even when the world doesn’t want to be saved.

There was a prince who came through once, to take the globe out of the clutch of the dragon. The morning star heralded him, and the very dove of God went to war with him. And you can love the world with your whole heart, but be assured that this sorry old world which didn’t receive its only Hero, won’t love you back.

Come away, for there is a higher adventure.

After all, what is the philosophy of adventure? Is it not the idea that that which we have to do is of grand significance and laced with risks? And it is this which turns the weary now into war, and this is the sort of war which makes everything joyous. Whether the sad world receives you or not, you can go out on this sort of adventure.

KnightIndeed, the Prince of Champions has asked for you especially,

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!’ “

This is the adventure of love. For love makes everything an adventure, a setting out in expectancy. And if you love the only utterly complete prince, you will have the only utterly complete adventure.

On the Significance of Death Beating the Door In

anneMy 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!


Desdichado, Having Decided To Stay, Bryana Johnson I came upon this lovely piece by Dorothy Sayers over at Noel’s blog. I find the title especially fascinating, as it appears in Ivanhoe when the mysterious knight appears at the tournament, identifying himself as ‘Desdichado.’  The book claims the term is Spanish for ‘Disinherited One,’ (although a more literal defintion is ‘unfortunate’).


Christ walks the world again, His lute upon His back,
His red robe rent to tatters, His riches gone to rack,
The wind that wakes the morning blows His hair about His face,
His hands and feet are ragged with the ragged briar’s embrace,
For the hunt is up behind Him and His sword is at His side, . . .
Christ the bonny outlaw walks the whole world wide,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Lie among the bracken and break the barley bread?
We will see new suns arise in golden, far-off skies,
For the Son of God and Woman hath not where to lay His head.”

Christ walks the world again, a prince of fairy-tale,
He roams, a rascal fiddler, over mountain and down dale,
Cast forth to seek His fortune in a bitter world and grim,
For the stepsons of His Father’s house would steal His Bride from Him;
They have weirded Him to wander till He bring within His hands
The water of eternal youth from black-enchanted lands,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Or sleep on silken cushions in the bower of wicked men?
For if we walk together through the wet and windy weather,
When I ride back home triumphant you will ride beside Me then.”

Christ walks the world again, new-bound on high emprise,
With music in His golden mouth and laughter in His eyes;
The primrose springs before Him as He treads the dusty way,
His singer’s crown of thorn has burst in blossom like the may,
He heedeth not the morrow and He never looks behind,
Singing: “Glory to the open skies and peace to all mankind.”

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!”

(Dorothy Sayers)