Pippin’s Song

P1050386This New Year’s Eve my family will continue a long tradition of watching the Lord of the Rings movies for almost twelve hours to usher in the new year. I’ve written about this practice in another post, but I won’t babble on about it again to the chagrin of others with less exciting plans for tomorrow! However, I thought this might be a good time to share a project I’ve been working on since last winter.

My skills as a painter are pretty limited, but last year I decided to venture out anyway and attempt a set of watercolors based on Pippin’s Song from the Return of the King film (adapted from some of Tolkien’s own poetry). Below is a little collage showing the finished results, although not everything could fit quite satisfactorily. To see full-scale versions of the finished pieces, you can check out the gallery here. The link will also give you an opportunity to purchase prints or notecards from Fine Art America. Thanks for stopping by, and may the remainder of your holidays be especially happy!

HomeIsBehindCollage

Regarding The Time That Is Given To Us

FlagOfRohanDecember 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.

TheTimeThatIsGivenToUsAll 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.

Sam_ImBack
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.

FaramirOh, 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.

HaldirDeath
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.

The War From Where We Are

DismalRain
In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets,

writes Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead. If we are among the courtiers of the Kingdom that is coming, this fragile hope of glory should transfigure all our moments, make an epic out of our days. For a day is coming when all will be revealed, all uncovered, all told. The unsung heroes will be sung, the darkly glass will shatter, and everything will be seen exactly as it is.

Into such an existence have we been born – into a state of being that matters everlastingly.

I spoke of this to some young girls recently. We were discussing character, and I am weary of the words that traditionally accompany that one, weary of abstract exhortations that don’t take root in the reason for being. “Character,” I said to them, “is who you are in the story of the world.”

Our characters matter because there is a story, because to be alive is to be a part of a tale of deeds that will be a bit of the lore of the ages to come.

“I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales?” muses Samwise Gamgee, in The Two Towers, just a few hours before his own tale takes a particularly nasty turn. We laugh at him fondly and knowingly. We know, of course, that he is in a story now. We almost wish he could be out of it for a moment and witness the way the world is reading it.

Because the stories are not quite the same thing from the inside. We, looking in on the panorama of The Lord of the Rings, see a tremendous epic, a collage of action, a medley of intertwined adventures. But if you are Samwise Gamgee or Peregrin Took, or Frodo Baggins, you only get to see that story minute by minute, day by day, uncomfortable inconvenience by uncomfortable inconvenience.

One day you might wake up and life might proceed like this:

They made their way slowly and cautiously round the south-western slopes of the hill, and came in a little while to the edge of the Road. There was no sign of the Riders. But even as they were hurrying across they heard far away two cries: a cold voice calling and a cold voice answering. Trembling they sprang forward, and made for the thickets that lay ahead. The land before them sloped away southwards, but it was wild and pathless; bushes and stunted trees grew in dense patches with wide barren spaces in between. The grass was scanty, coarse, and grey; and the leaves in the thickets were faded and falling. It was a cheerless land, and their journey was slow and gloomy. They spoke little as they trudged along. Frodo’s heart was grieved as he watched them walking beside him with their heads down, and their backs bowed under their burdens. Even Strider seemed tired and heavy-hearted.

Before the first day’s march was over Frodo’s pain began to grow again, but he did not speak of it for a long time. Four days passed, without the ground or the scene changing much, except that behind them Weathertop slowly sank, and before them the distant mountains loomed a little nearer. Yet since that far cry they had seen and heard no sign that the enemy had marked their flight or followed them. They dreaded the dark hours, and kept watch in pairs by night, expecting at any time to see black shapes stalking in the grey night, dimly lit by the cloud-veiled moon; but they saw nothing, and heard no sound but the sigh of withered leaves and grass. 

Even as a hero right in the middle of an epic that has captivated the world, you might have a day like that. You might have many, many days like that.

nativityA girl in a remote corner of our own world, a great lady in our own story, was overtaken once by an angel who told her how her whole life would be utterly altered, how she would be swept up into the eternal company of heroes.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…nothing is impossible with God.”

What a place to be planted in the story of the world! What a splendiferous role – to carry in your own body the baby-flesh of the Wonderful Counselor! How happy we would all have been to be there!

And yet, that real life of hers – how different it must have been from our romanticized notions. For a revelation can change everything and still change nothing at all. That girl had to go on living as she always had – ground by poverty and oppression and now misunderstood by her own family, by the very man she was preparing to call husband. In solitude and loneliness she surely strove to work out some understanding of the Almighty power at work within her. She surely buoyed her uncomprehending heart with hope.

All the way through, she must have turned back again and again on this wobbly anchor. When her little boy was bleeding out under the spears of the very oppressors she had expected him to overthrow, did she lean into the hope that the story was somehow working itself out in spite of her confusion and her shattered expectations, and the intolerable bleakness of everything? Because in the end, hope was all she had.

Would you with joy trade your spot in the story for King David’s place, for the hands that strangled lions and bears and swung the pebble that felled the fell giant? How about for Esther’s? For the queen that tasted royalty solely for the purpose of saving her whole people? Would you trade your own dim, obscure chance of glory for that of Abraham, called out of his country to be still under the stars and hear the promises of God? You would be so glad to get to stand in that furnace with Shadrach and Abednego in the company of a shining one, and hear the stunned surprise of your enemies, wouldn’t you?

You think you would, because you are looking in from the end of things, you know the ends of all the stories. They are good stories. But a hero’s own story is never clear to him. And all these ever had was hope.

“All these,” so the Good Book says, “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

Someday, we shall all step out of our story, and witness the way that the host of heaven is reading it. That prospect makes a good many things worth doing well, even when we are quite alone to our own eyes.

On The Wanderlust

ValinorMy little brother has finally come of a suitable age to be introduced into the great and exciting story of The Lord of the Rings, which is a thing he has been anticipating expectantly for over half of his life. My sister and I have been taking turns reading it to him on Monday nights, by candlelight and with strong tea. We are only reading one chapter every week. This is an adventure in which we shall be participating until winter comes again.

Reading these books after half a decade of change and of living, I am becoming convinced that the deep and haunting theme of wanderlust is really as much a part of them as I thought it was when I was a child. In those days I was living in a land of seas and mountains and was as deeply in love with places as with people. Now that I have relocated to the big sky country, some things are different for me. But not Tolkien.

No, he is as enthralled as he ever has been by the prospect of the wide open spaces, by the magic of woods and wilds and winding water. He is as much a prisoner to his unquenchable homesickness as I remembered.

Poor old Frodo is a captive at home, where the constricted and familiar beauty of the Shire is obvious and unsatisfactory, and where the untamed, uncharted places linger just on the borders of his maps. But oh! how much fiercer the sadness of the outside world, where he is ever homesick for what he supposes to be the things he has left behind.

It isn’t, though. It isn’t the things he has left behind that make him heartsick and unfulfilled. It’s something further still, something beyond the borders of the whole known world. Which is why the seemingly half-sad ending of The Lord of the Rings had to be just as it was. Because Tolkien was writing about more things than battles and adventures and wars and fairy-tale and myth. Overwhelmingly, he was writing a story about the horrible wanderlust inside him, inside all of us. And there was only one possible resolution to that story.

Chesterton, it seems, understood Frodo quite well. As I mopped the kitchen floor a few nights ago, listening to a Librivox recording of the first chapter of A Short History of England, I was quite taken by this paragraph that he writes of the British people,

They are constantly colonists and emigrants; they have the name of being at home in every country. But they are in exile in their own country. They are torn between love of home and love of something else; of which the sea may be the explanation or may be only the symbol. It is also found in a nameless nursery rhyme which is the finest line in English literature and the dumb refrain of all English poems—‘Over the hills and far away.’

These lines describe Tolkien certainly; describe some part of the heart of the mythology he created for England. Ultimately, though, they describe us, don’t they? All of us tormented by this desperate yearning, all of us trapped and fettered inhabitants of the Island of the World?

On Ringbearing & Abiding & 2013

The Lord of The Rings - Bryana Johnson - Having Decided To StayYesterday was the seventh time that my house has welcomed the New Year with the sounds of the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith thundering in the living room. Yes, we watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy into the morning of every New Year’s Day. We have done it on two continents and in three houses and always heralded the event with much jubilation and adrenaline and hype and this is a practice that has blessed my life in probably more ways than I even know.

My history with Tolkien and his colossal epic goes back about nine years, to when I read the books at the age of twelve, along with my sister, and came away from watching The Fellowship of the Ring to find that the whole world felt different. And the world has never been quite the same since.

Cloak - Having Decided To Stay - LOTR - Bryana JohnsonAt first it was the sheer wonder of the story and the way that it opened doors on a world unlike and apart from this one – a fairytale of cosmic proportions. We were children, and our own world was still such a small place to us. The stories were bigger and told of a bigger world. We wanted to incorporate that world into every area of our own. We played the movie soundtracks day and night and read and reread the books. We crafted costumes and wore them unashamedly. At 6:00 AM on cold mornings we slipped out to the woods alone to walk among graceful, imaginary elves and ambush orcs. Also, we worked hard to construct a place where we could convey our experience to the world. It was all just a little ridiculous – in a delicious and enchanting way.

Later, though, those things began to change. We began to grow up and to grow into this poor, old, glory-haunted world. It was not that our love for the stories grew less, but that the love morphed into a different thing, a deeper, stronger, realer thing. We no longer loved Middle-Earth because it was set apart from and better than the world we happen to inhabit. We began to love it because it is the world we inhabit. Just as Tolkien always intended it to be. And we must inhabit it more and more and more.

As I keep growing up, walking more erect, putting away more of the childish things, I find I love these stories deeper in my marrow every year. Every year I find something new to marvel at, and every year this fictional world has something new to tell me about this very real world, every year this fictional war seems to have even greater bearing on this very real war that is closing in on every side. Every year the stories seem just a little more like truth.

Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one,” wrote the German poet Novalis. This sentence has been utter nonsense to me for most of my life. This year, though, I wish to shake the man’s hand quite heartily and congratulate him on his good sense in making such an admirable statement.

The thing about The Lord of the Rings (so I thought, last night, when we were just a few minutes into the first movie) is that it takes place in a world that looks very like the way the real world really looks.

For instance, Tolkien has crafted some people who are very much enamored of the light and of the truth and of beauty. They have strong power at their disposal, because the Ruler listens to them. We have such people in our own world also, and it is to be hoped that we are all aspiring to be among them, but – alas! – to my eyes and to your eyes they don’t all walk with a steady and measured tread and silver in their hair and a tangible grace seeping from their fingertips.

Perhaps, however, they do walk this way in the eyes of God. And the view from the eyes of God is the only definition of reality. Perhaps Tolkien was attempting to force this reality onto our own sight. Perhaps his intention was to fashion a world where the realest things are visible. Whether he thought of it in those terms or not, in some measure, at least, he succeeded in doing that very thing.

I believe it is this that makes these stories like a dream we are waking into, like a reality that is realer than all of the real around us.

In some circles it seems that New Year’s resolutions are going out of style. A number of very intelligent and godly people are writing about how they are not writing out any New Year’s resolutions this year. We are all going to stumble some this year, is part of their reasoning. We are all going to crash headlong in the dirt and fail to keep our promises and look back disappointed at the end of 2013. The important thing is to keep going forward, to keep growing stronger, to keep growing closer to Christ, to keep growing up. They have a point there.

I have been naming my new years since 2008. It is a sort of open-ended New Year’s resolution, like a flag-planting before a battle. There was the Year of Great Awakening first, and the Year of Victory came close on its heels. There was the Year of Glory after that and behind it the Year of Prayer and Shadowfeet. There was the year of Adoration. There has been a host of spectacular titles in my history.

But the only words that really matter are the ones we really live, and mostly my years have not been overwhelming successes but have been a series of little awakenings, a process of growing up, of coming to understand things, and coming to accept the fact that I cannot understand everything. And while growing up is a miracle all in its own right, it is not wrong to be dissatisfied with this sort of life, to insist on pressing in harder and to keep making promises, even though we are far too small and too frail to see them through.

We serve a God of grand promises and great expectations and the issue of our frailty is not a hindrance to Him. Indeed, it is almost a requirement.

God creates out of nothing, so until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him,” wrote Martin Luther. How much of our disappointed history is a result of the fact that we are not little enough, not helpless enough, that we must become less if Jesus is to become great?

It is all too easy to fall prey to the temptation to expect less of God, to make His promises less than they are, to forget that we who are lowly and uninitiated and powerless Halflings have been summoned to walk like Elven queens and princes, trailing glory and holding authority on our tongues. But sometimes the source of our doubting is our refusal to accept that we are those impotent and childish little hobbits, that it is only His grace which can pour out of our fingers, roll off our tongues, lift our eyes.

For this reason I am not afraid to name another year by another splendid and lavish title, to declare again that great glory shall be worked out of my days. Because the title I have chosen this year is one which I hope lowers me into the place where I belong, which invites Him to occupy preeminence.

I have named my new year The Year of Abiding.

To abide is to dwell, and I wish to abide this year, and forever after, in some things which are easily forgotten, and which the epic of The Rings always underscores with brilliance. I wish to abide in the clear and present knowledge of the war that is all around, to abide in the royalty that has been gifted to me, to abide in the dream that is realer than the world itself, the dream that is coming true.

I will not do all of these things all the time, however much I wish it at this moment. I will be stopping short sometimes in thick woods and owning myself thoroughly lost. I will be falling sometimes into puddles, lakes, and quarries. I will be sometimes huddling in a forlorn heap and saying no, I am done with this. When these things come about,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Such is my own prayer for the year we are just stepping into, like the carol over the cradle of the Christ,

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

But it means something else also. The abidan, gebidan words in Old English carried a meaning of waiting, of remaining behind. To abide is to wait. And so the supplication of abide with me is a prayer that cries

stay with me, live with me, OH! might you please wait with me?

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known. (-1 Corinthians 13:12)