Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A Closed Curtain

The Lord of the Rings, of course, is not about the ostensible Lord of the Rings, who never even appears on stage. It's not even about Frodo Baggins, who is the other person Tolkien might conceivably have meant by the title. It's about Sam Gamgee and Gollum. Without those two figures at the heart of the story, it would be just another romance: captivating enough, but hardly a book you'd go back to again and again for sustenance.

Sam who knows how to love, and Gollum who does not; Sam who is in his right place in the world, and Gollum who is in irremediable exile. Sam who has what Christians (in perhaps the most unfortunate act of religious nomenclature ever committed, even including “Emptiness”) call “Faith”; and Gollum who has only desire; desire, and the few tattered shreds of love that the years have not yet torn away.

If you want to know what Christian Faith is, I'd point to the Lord of the Rings, and say, “it's what Sam has, and Gollum doesn't.” It's the conviction that there is goodness, somewhere, somewhen – that there is or was or will be something worthwhile, something worth fighting for, even if it's lost to us, even if we can't find it. It has nothing to do with immediate certainties, or personal fate. Sam is pretty sure, from start to finish, that their mission is hopeless and that it will turn out badly. And it need have nothing to do with anticipating a life after death. No one in Middle Earth, so far as I can tell, believes in such a thing.

It does not confer magic powers. It does not, whatever the Bible says, move mountains. It does something much more important: it gives a person the strength to put one foot in front of the other, even in a dark country, even with impossibilities ahead.

I'm not a Christian, so I don't have much business poking about in their medicine cabinet, but that's my take on it.

Cool air on my sandaled toes. The bare arms of a girl driving a pickup truck, its windows all rolled down: she stretches, while stopped at the light, and the cool air coils around her skin, as well. Or so my skin tells me. The sunlight is bright but fragile. It's not summer yet, and the spring might fail yet again. None of us really believes in this weather. The cars drive by, endlessly, like surf, or like endless squalls of rain coming in across the ocean. It feels like no summer could ever root out this chill.

Still. The bedroom was so warm last night that we left the window open a while. And the newly varnished oars are curing on the back porch. The sun is creeping back from its southern excesses.

Sometimes when you pick a book up after while, you scan for where you were and find nothing: nothing familiar enough to be old, and nothing strange enough to be new. I pick up my life like that, searching for my place, but I can't find it. I toy with the pages, and wonder. Maybe this is the wrong book. Maybe I finished it; maybe I never started it. The certainties, such as they were, have all deserted me.

All except for massage, my one anchor to the world, the one thing that seems real amid all these shadows, flickers, gleams. I rub the table down with bleach, wash my linens, refill my oils. Washing my hands in hot water; the smell of lavender or sandalwood, flannel sheets contrasting with warm skin: those are real, and I come back to them with relief. The rest is just a play of light and dark on a closed curtain.


rbarenblat said...


Rouchswalwe said...

There is much that touches me in your words here. I will pour an ale and ponder.

Christi Krug said...

Thank you for this, friend Dale. I especially like: "that there is or was or will be something worthwhile, something worth fighting for, even if it's lost to us, even if we can't find it." Sigh.

marly said...

What came into my mind as I read was Hopkins: "And for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things." And I remember that Sam is a gardener and a creator--a maker of songs. A gardener and a creator... very interesting.

I can't resist pointing out that the actions of faith (that is, the journey to toss the ring into Mount Doom) in LOTR do literally move a mountain by the end...

Also can't resist saying that "moving mountains" isn't actually talking about moving mountains in a literal sense. After all, metaphor and hyperbole are literary techniques that appear often in the great library of books that is the Bible. Jesus goes up on a mountain, is transfigured, and comes down and frees a boy from demonic possession (however you choose to interpret that, he is healed.) Disciples are astonished, as they failed to do such a thing--and Jesus says that with faith as small as a mustard seed, they could move mountains. We still talk about problems in this way; a small one is a mole hill, a large one a mountain, right? So what it really means is that the disciples could have freed the boy from his "mountain" if only they had just a smidge of faith.

So in the end, "moving mountains" is perfectly congruent with the idea that you must put one foot in front of another, and the idea that sometimes it is very difficult indeed to do so. And so it is also congruent with the idea that faith is a thing that makes it easier...

No doubt you knew all that already, though. I'm just teasing you because a poet shouldn't refuse to acknowledge a metaphor when he meets one! And you, my friend, happen to be a poet.

You like to be very modest about your poetry. I like that. I like the same quality in Sam, too. Nobody would have gotten very far without Sam.

John Leopold said...

Every great book means something deeper. You have the best example I have ever heard, clear, concise and meaningful. Thank you for pointing this out.