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

Book Reviews [Spring 2013]

Well, it’s that time again: time to round up all the books from the past few months and make a quick record of my distilled ideas about them. I do hope you’ll join in with your own thoughts, and let me know what is the best thing you’ve read this year so far.

…because words have the power to change us…

LettersOfTolkienThe Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien) – 5 STARS – Tolkien’s son has put his father’s letters into a quite extensive collection that gives us a better feel for John Ronald Reuel’s own mind than any biography could do. It includes letters to Edith, to family members, to publishers, inquirers, scholars, fans of all kinds, and – my personal favorites – letters to his two sons, as they attended university and later fought in the Second World War. There are many letters that have to do with publishing hassles and squabbles and domestic arrangements, and the more or less monotonous life of a university professor. However, there are also deeply insightful family letters of advice and fellowship and yes, the thing most of us are hoping for: considerable information about the process and motivation driving The Lord of the Rings. This is not a book for those who are wishing to just pass the time, and feel it may be amusing to know a bit more about Tolkien. It is for those who wish to really know Tolkien, to the extent that he still can be known. Some more brief thoughts about the war letters are here.

Hudson Taylor [Volumes I and II] (Howard Taylor) – 5 STARS – This massive two-volume biography of Hudson Taylor and The China Inland Mission is not for the faint-hearted, but I found it to be a lasting delight as I read it over the course of almost two years. Written in that grand old tone of 19th century literature, the books dwells not as much on the external particulars of the ministry as on Hudson Taylor’s spiritual adventure – although, by the time it is complete, there have certainly been enough pages to touch on plenty of material details as well. I recommend it highly, and found it a most effective summons to awake to the urgency and fleetingness of life. Some favorite quotations below:

“His capacity for happiness was like that of an unspoilt child.”

“Surely to need much grace and therefore to be given much is not a thing to be troubled about, is it?”

“Should we not rejoice when we have anything we can give up for the Savior?”

“Light will be no doubt be given you. Do not forget, however, in seeking more, the importance of walking according to the light you have.”

“There should be only one circumstance to us in life, and that Circumstance – GOD.”

WHAudenThe Complete Poems (W.H. Auden) – 3 STARS – Well, in all honesty, I didn’t actually read the complete poems. However, I got well over half-way through this one before deciding I needed to take a really long break from Auden – as in, I’m done with this book. Auden’s writing includes many really strong pieces and I expect that several verses from here will stick with me for the rest of my life. However, my ultimate conclusion was that the man would be regarded far more highly today if he had burned up about half of what he wrote before it ever had the opportunity to be published. Nevertheless, there are some great compositions, in the middles of some quite dull and context-bound pieces, there are startling statements. A few favorite lines are below:

From The Quest:

The only difference that could be seen
From those who’d never risked their lives at all
Was his delight in details and routine;
For he was always glad to mow the grass;

Pour liquids from large bottles into small,
Or look at clouds through bits of colored glass.”

From At The Grave of Henry James:

All will be judged; master of nuance and scruple
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

From A Christmas Oratorio:

We are afraid of pain, but more afraid of silence.” 

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

What is real about all of us is that each of us is waiting.

“If we were never alone or always too busy
Perhaps we might even believe what we know is not true:
But no one is taken in, at least not all of the time;
In our bath, or the subway, or the middle of the night,
We know very well we are not unlucky but evil,
That the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all
To which we fly for refuge, is a part of our punishment.”

“…remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

From The Age of Anxiety:

“But the new barbarian is no uncouth
Desert-dweller; he does not emerge
From fir-forests; factories bred him;
Corporate companies, college towns
Mothered his mind, and many journals
Backed his beliefs. He was born here.”

Anton_ChekhovThe Complete Short Stories (Anton Chekhov) – 4 STARS – Again, I can’t say that I read the complete stories. But after I’d read over half of them, I felt it was enough. Here is another author who just wrote so much, and certainly not all of his work is created equal, although it all proceeds from the same spirit. Chekhov sees right through humanity, and is not a bit taken in. All of his characters are presented in their stark reality, with no whitewashing, and no redemption. There are not really any heroic characters in Chekhov’s stories. There are just people, behaving just as people generally do. And yet, despite all of this, Chekhov loves them, for a reason that perhaps is best articulated by a short paragraph in his story Frost:

“The old men sank into thought. They thought of that in man which is higher than good birth, higher than rank and wealth and learning, of that which brings the lowest beggar near to God: of the hopelessness of man, of his sufferings, and his patience.”

I think it’s fair to say that Chekhov’s stories are about suffering. And thus, by default, they are about love. (I’ve written some more detailed thoughts about this here.)

Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Dickens) – 5 STARS – One of my favorite Dickens books so far – and I’ve read most of the major novels now. For me, this one rates right up there with Great Expectations and Bleak House. Nicholas Nickleby embodies so many aspects of the heroic ideal and makes honor and decency seem like new and flaming concepts; like aspirations that outweigh the balance of the whole world. While I’m fully aware of a number of serious deficiencies with the structure of this novel, I had to give it a five-star rating since it was among the most encouraging books I’ve read in months. (You can read my more extensive thoughts on this one here.)

OliverTwistCharles Dickens (G.K. Chesterton) – 5 STARS – Chesterton on Dickens? It hardly gets better than that. Chesterton is the perfect man to write about Dickens, because he understood and shared so many of Dickens’ central ideas: Love of the free and simple man’s home. A fierce defense of the traditional family structure. A thorough understanding of Romance. A humble and unpretentious regard for the poor. A respect for the great Christian carelessness that seeks its meat from God. A relish for comradeship and serious joy. A hunger for the inn at the end of the world. Indeed, I feel this is one of Chesterton’s best books, and found fuller explanations in here for many of the themes that pervade his poetry. Dickens was exactly the stuff that Chesterton understood best, and Chesterton understood even Dickens’ literary weaknesses better than any other critic I’ve encountered. Ultimately, it is plain that Chesterton transcended the mighty Dickens because he did more than delight in the ideals: Chesterton actually lived by them.

My Utmost For His Highest (Oswald Chambers) – 5 STARS – At last I read My Utmost for His Highest for a whole year and all the way through. It feels like a growing up. And I know that in some ways, it is, because when I picked this one up a few years ago I found it intolerable and had to put it away. It wasn’t that I felt it was untrue, but only that it hurt my independence frightfully and spoke of things I was afraid to know about. Now I can call it one of the greatest masterpieces of truth that I have encountered. I expect to read it again and again and again, for I know there is still so much I haven’t attained to.

Deliver Us From EvilDeliver Us From Evil (Ravi Zacharias) – 3 STARS – I wanted to like this book more than I did like it. Ravi Zacharias is a great thinker and has much wisdom to offer. However, it seems like the book is not as well organized as it might have been, and the writing style employs quite a bit of unjustified circumlocution. In spite of this, it is also full of truth, which sometimes shines out with a glimmer of splendor.

The Love of God (Oswald Chambers) – 4 STARS – As with most of Chambers’ writing, this little book is full of staggeringly good stuff. Due to the fact that Chambers’ writings were mostly published posthumously, some of the text here is also included in other works, such as My Utmost For His Highest.

The ChimesThe Chimes (Charles Dickens) – 3 STARS – Just as in A Christmas Carol, Dickens attempts in this short novella to tackle social issues in the context of a tale set during a holiday season. However, he doesn’t pull it off quite as well in The Chimes. The characters are not as developed, and the plot line is shaped by his central theme of social injustice, rather than being worked into it. In spite of these weaknesses, Toby Veck is an endearing protagonist, and the catastrophic vision is quite moving.

“He delighted to believe — Toby was very poor and could not well afford to part with a delight — that he was worth his salt.”

TellingTheTruthTelling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Frederick Buechner) – 4 STARS – Buechner writes prose like poetry, and is a master at his craft, and so of course this book is beautiful, echoing so many of the things you know but don’t know how to put into language; so many of the things about fairytales and Story, and humanity and homesickness and hunger. As a note of caution, I did get the feeling Buechner was so caught up in his own lovely writing that he may have taken some unwise liberties with the character of God – nothing overt enough to prevent me from recommending the book to someone else, but certainly I’d want to tack this disclaimer onto any recommendation I make.

Tortured For Christ (Richard Wurmbrand) – 5 STARS – Wurmbrand’s iconic account of persecution under communism in Romania covers much more territory than I expected. It’s a short read, but deftly addresses many aspects of the oppressed underground church throughout the world, and illuminates the simplicity of the devotion that goes to death for Christ expectantly, singing, singing, singing. As Wurmbrand says himself, “I have found truly joyful Christians only in the Bible, in the Underground Church, and in prison.” The church in the West would do well to attend…

WurmbrandFamilyThe Pastor’s Wife (Sabina Wurmbrand) – 5 STARS – I read this one on Noel‘s recommendation. It gives a much more complete picture of the Wurmbrand family’s personal history and I especially appreciated how openly Sabina writes about their struggles, loneliness and isolation, as she tells a very real and honest story. Somehow the significance of their endurance becomes even more overwhelming as we hear about the darkness that veiled their sight all the way and sundered everything from everything else. I found their son Mihai’s story particularly gripping as he grew up relatively orphaned for several years and struggled not to lose his faith.

The Radical Cross (A.W. Tozer) – 5 STARS – Tozer espouses a sane, Biblical, healthy, and uncompromising theology. I think it does even the most learned and mature among us a great deal of good to do this sort of reading periodically and take refreshment from the simplicity of things. This is not to imply that this book is in any way simplistic – it is in fact a sophisticated collection of thoughts on the meaning and significance of the Cross of Christ – but only that it is simple, with that perfect straightforwardness which characterized the life of our Lord.

LittleDorritLittle Dorrit (Charles Dickens) – 4 STARS – Little Dorrit doesn’t commend itself by one overarching idea but by the incorporation of a great many that are mingled together to construct one fabulous whole. We come away quite overwhelmed and satisfied by the humble constancy of Amy, the unassuming decency of Arthur, the pathetic conceit of Mr. Dorrit, the great-hearted practicality of Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, the devoted magnanimity of John Chivery, and the principles of the pitiable and many-faceted Mr. Pancks. This is Dickens doing what he does best, although not perhaps in his best way, since the plot feels a little stretched at times. Nonetheless, I class this among the author’s greater works, as definitely an exquisite novel and no weakly-veiled social pamphlet like Hard Times.

The BBC produced an excellent film version within the past couple of years, which I highly recommend. The mini-series clocks in at eight hours, and remains true to the spirit and text of the book. Indeed, in some ways it is arguably superior.

What I’m still reading:

Abandoned To God: The Life Story of Oswald Chambers (David McCasland)
Eugenics and Other Evils (G.K. Chesterton)
The Father’s Tale (Michael O’Brien)
On Writing Well (William Zinsser)
The Four Loves (C.S. Lewis)
Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works
The Greater Trumps (Charles Williams)

What about you?

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.

Tolkien on the Dark Age

TolkienThrough the recent overwhelmed and overbooked days of summer, in little clusters of free minutes, I have been working through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters and they are fascinating, worth recommending very highly indeed, and worth marking up and taking down for the days to come; for the perilous days that are coming, that are not far off, that will soon be upon us. Indeed, that have already dawned.

In the darkness of his own time, in the war for the soul of the world, from the ravaged British Isle, he wrote to Christopher Tolkien many long and anxious, aching letters. His son, who was young, was away in the war and each thing that was written to him might well be the last thing he would ever read, the last goodbye they would ever say. John Tolkien, who was old, had seen his war-days already, knew to his core the misery of the thing, and, left behind, was filling up his days with the lingering wait. Well, well, did he understand the heartache of his own hero’s saddest song.

And he wrote,

You and I belong to the ever-defeated, never-altogether subdued side…Well, cheers and all that to you, dearest son. We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us). But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water. Also we have still small swords to use.

‘I will not bow before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.’