Poppy

{ The Last Pages }

Endings are tricky things.

Tolkien never seemed willing to end his stories. He spends four whole chapters in The Return of the King detailing the homecomings and goodbyes of his heroes. Lewis’ endings have a different taste. The conclusion of Till We Have Faces cut me deep and left me unsatisfied.

Yet these are fictional stories, and can be drawn up any way an author likes. Concluding the story of a literal journey is much more difficult – I must decide when and how it ends. And where it began, for that matter. Did the “Road to Oxford” start five years ago in my Inklings seminar? Two years ago when I lost my footing to anxiety and despair? Or a year ago in Flanders Fields, where the idea for this blog was born?

I’ve been wrestling with the ending to this particular tale for over two months now. And, as so often before, it is the hobbit Samwise Gamgee who makes things clearer and truer for me.

{ A Long Burden }

The tale of Samwise the Brave is probably my favorite tale of all time. It has the humblest of beginnings and the sweetest of endings. Sam, the simple and honest gardener-turned-hero, who had never before left the Shire, spent a year at the ends of the earth and in the deepest depths of Evil. He watched the shadow of Evil darken the heart of his master Frodo – the Ringbearer – and the one he loved most in the world. His attempts to help relieve Frodo’s burden were futile and misunderstood, twisted by the wicked will of the Ring. In the end Sam, with a weeping heart, carries his burdened friend to journey’s end with the famous words, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

Sam had never known such Evil existed before leaving the Shire. But now, at the end of Sam’s quest, he knows full well that evil “cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been”. This fact does not make him despair – he has lived through enough to move beyond despair into that sweet river of Hope and Sorrow. But the ancient wisdom he gleaned from his quest makes the return journey a bittersweet one indeed.

“There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

-Frodo, The Return of the King

Sam does not get the relief Frodo finds in the Gray Havens of the elves. He has a much harder call: to right the wrong that has been done in the Shire, to cultivate Beauty there once again, and to tell his story. Sam the Gardener had been given gifts of growth and Hope, and it is his duty to use what he learned on his quest to ennoble his people. The same is true for his brethren, Merry and Pippin, and the three hobbit-lords find comfort and understanding as they work together. Where else can they find solace but in each other, who alone of hobbits have taken part in the noble deeds of the world?

“Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”

-Frodo, The Return of the King

I pray for mine to be an ending as sweet as Sam Gamgee’s. I pray for the faithfulness to use what I’ve gleaned this past year the way it’s meant to be used. I’ve learned some of the same things, to be sure. I have a newfound wisdom about the power of darkness, and the certainty of its defeat. I now know better than to try to bear others’ burdens, and instead understand that we were meant to bear with one another at the “end of all things”. Like Sam, I found respite in Oxford, my Rivendell, in its ancient wisdom and tranquil beauty. And now I, too, return with weary feet to the great task that lies ahead of me.

{ Are You Answered? }

“This age of ours will one day be the distant past. And the Divine Nature can change the past. Nothing is yet in its true form.”

-The Fox, Till We Have Faces

And yet I also hope for an ending like Orual’s – the protagonist from Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. The book was new to me this year, and has quickly become a favorite. It is a retelling of the Roman tale of Cupid and Psyche. Orual was the queen of a kingdom that lay in the shadow of the mountain of the gods. Told all her life that she was too hideous to be seen, Orual wears a veil to hide her face. At the end of her story, she comes before the gods to issue her complaint: they are cruel and hateful monsters, because they took her beloved sister Psyche away from home to be a goddess upon the mountain.

“Are the gods not just?” “Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?”

-Orual and the Fox, Till We Have Faces

In the pockmarked, poppy-speckled fields of France last summer, I stood before my God and discovered I had a similar complaint to issue. It took the form of a poem, which I’ve included at the bottom of this post. He heard my anger and my questions. Like Orual, my God seemed to give me no answer. And yet, “the complaint was the answer,” as Orual said – by bringing the questions to Him, I confessed that He alone knew their answer. That He alone was their answer. “What other answer should suffice?” I wrote my poem before ever reading about Orual, but I see now that our stories are the same.

Before I wrote my poem I, too, wore a veil – as if somehow that could stop my God from seeing me. A veil of perceived innocence and ignorance, perhaps, but I hid my true heart. The words were dug out of me through hardship and with great trembling, and I stood before my God not simply unveiled, but stark naked.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

-1 Corinthians 13.12

I could not meet my God face-to-face until I had a face. What an ugly face it was. And yet the word that rang in my ear after reaching Oxford was this: “You are mine.” It was a glimpse at my future homecoming. I am both fully known and deeply loved – paradox of paradoxes!

{ Estel }

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

-Psyche, Till We Have Faces

The result of endings like these is bittersweet, of course. We return, like the wedding guest from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, with wiser and sadder hearts. I believe wisdom and sorrow are inextricable, because there is no better teacher than grief. But I have learned that Sorrow does not preclude Joy – and, in fact, Hope is the place where these two streams flow together deeply and sweetly.

“I think I have concluded that grief is not the enemy to hope – but rather, its source. Because only in grief do we really reach out for truth, God, and each other. The search for meaning begins in pain.”

-My WWI journal, June 2016

I certainly didn’t understand the above words at the time that I wrote them. But one of the first themes driven home to me through what I read this year was that Hope is only ever necessary in a grief-stricken world. It is for this reason we are told that among Faith, Hope, and Love, Love is the greatest. Hope, like Faith, is perishable – one day to be exchanged for the real thing. We don’t need to have Hope forever. I thank God for that. Hope is exhausting. It’s holding unflinchingly to a Truth you are certain of, even when your mind and your heart try to convince you that the pain we feel here is the entirety of God’s reality. It’s not. Tolkien put it best in his description of estel, the elvish word for hope, or man’s recognition of the “Unmarred that they discern in the Marred”:

“[Estel] is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruchin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring

Hope. Estel. The object of my quest that began who knows how long ago. And here at the end, I know that Hope is not what saves us. But it is the whispered promise of a better answer yet to come.


"A Question for my Maker" (June 2016)

As I traverse fields soaked in blood of men deceived,
wand’ring through the poppy-speckled earth,
as I survey white rows of broken bodies, cleaved
from Life - now rotten, mangled shells of Your work.

As I cry with a woman once in awe of all You’d done,
she, with bitter questions, spurns your love.
She celebrates sin’s poison - fills her mind, her bed, her lungs
and settles down, now comfortably numb.

As I catch sight of sunken cheeks where new tears freely cross -
this man I knew to once hope far-flung dreams -
On ever-thinning shoulders bears two nations’ guilt and loss,
once-unlined brow now marked by grief unseen.

As I hold the ravaged body of a woman robbed of youth
fast against my heaving, shud’ring breast; 
as I witness daily torment from these terrors’ deadly roots
embedded in this heart that knows no rest.

As I recall the grotesque fruit of man’s uncanny gift
of devising novel ways of causing pain;
the lucky dead the envy of old soldiers, left adrift,
haunted by friends’ ghosts of guilt and shame.

Maker - see this world you have delivered to the hands
of that vile prince and his hideous, great strength?
Do you see, I face the rift between our two opposing lands -
How long must I wander down its length?

To “bless” us with a glimpse of home, it feels more like a curse;
Or some cruel trick, to catch my wand’ring gaze.
Do you want questions, anger, doubt - or some less honest verse?
Perhaps some blind acceptance of “Your ways”?

You’re a mystery, great silent Paradox. Though I seek hope,
You are the Answer to no question posed.
I cannot meet your gaze, Lord, lest a silence seal my throat
In awe - how this frail heart you even chose… 

And I fall mute.

Pond’ring the vehicle to glory, and to your undying lands -
Pain, what you’ve subjected us to here...
Great One, I can only take your gently proffered hand
And whisper in your ever-list’ning ear:

“O Lord, why?”
RotK
(The poppy on the right was taken from Flanders fields last summer. The poppy on the left comes from Headington, near Lewis’ home outside of Oxford. They are both preserved with Aragorn’s words to Arwen in the Appendix of the Lord of the Rings.)
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