Joy Like Swords, Poignant as Grief

One of my most loyal blog readers (who wishes to remain anonymous) sent me this comment on yesterday's post: "It was refreshing to have a fun, positive blog to read--maybe you should concentrate on similar items more often!" To which my not-entirely-charitable knee-jerk response would necessarily be: "I would love to, if only I weren't such an Eeyore and actually felt that happy more often."

Okay, okay, I'm not being fair. Because, of course, in part at least, she's right. Maybe if I wrote about happy things more often, I would feel happier more of the time, although, again, of course, that's one of the reasons that I keep this blog: more often than not, it is only in writing about the things that are upsetting me (or, perhaps more accurately, that I am upset about) that I am able to see them in a clearer light and thus feel better. (As, for example, here, when I had a rather different experience taking my puppy for a walk than I did this past Friday.) But what if some miracle happened and I were actually able to feel happier more often? Would I then be able to write about it? More to the point, would I have anything to write about at all?

I was thinking about this yesterday as I was struggling to find the words that I needed to describe the experience of standing in the sunlight, watching my puppy sniff the ground and feeling such a surge of joy come over me that I could do nothing but smile. Do the words that I have just written convey anything of this bliss? Or do they not strike you as just so many words, cliched and trite, something that you've heard over and over again, so many times as to be meaningless? "Take time to stop and smell the flowers." It's good advice, blissful if you find yourself in one of those moments in which the words are suddenly suffused with meaning, but otherwise bland and not a little irritating, perhaps precisely because the words of themselves can do nothing but clang.

What did I say yesterday? "Instead, I find I am surrounded by magic. Treasures to discover, fantastic beasts to meet, dense forests and winding pathways to explore." Oh, please. I cringed even as I wrote it then. It's even worse reading it now. Who do I think I am, trying to put words to such an experience of bliss? I sound like some third-rate fantasy novelist trying to write a bodice-ripper. "And as she stood there in the sunlight, her heart opening at long last to the invitation of joy, she could feel the sap rising in every fiber of her being, rooting her to the spot at the same time as her spirit soared." Great, now I'm really embarrassing myself.

Here's the kind of prose that I wish I could write. Philip, a young potter, has been taken in by the Wellwoods and told to go up to the schoolroom to help make lanterns for the Midsummer Party. While climbing the staircase to get to the schoolroom, he comes across the following pot: "It was a large earthenware vessel, that bellied out and curved in again, to a tall neck with a fine lip. The glaze was silver-gold, with veilings of aquamarine. The light flowed round the surface, like clouds reflected in water. It was a watery pot. There was a vertical rhythm of rising stems, water-weeds, and a dashing horizontal rhythm of irregular clouds of black-brown wriggling commas, which turned out, inspected closely, to be lifelike tadpoles with translucent tails. The jar had several asymmetric handles which seemed to grow out of it like roots in water, but turned out to have the sly faces and flickering tails of water-snakes, green-spotted gold. It rested on four dark green feet, which were coiled, scaled lizards. Or minor dragons, lying with closed eyes and resting snouts. This was what he had come to look for. His fingers moved inside its contours on an imaginary wheel. Its form clothed his sense of the shape of his body. He stood stock still and stared."*

Isn't that exquisite? Can't you just see the jar, shimmering there on the landing? Can't you just feel Philip's desire to reach out and touch it, to have made it, for it to have made him? I love the way the description moves from the purely sensory, as if for a catalog, to the metaphorical and mythological: "a large earthenware vessel... a watery pot... [resting] on four dark green feet, which were...dragons." That is what I wanted to show you yesterday in my clumsy description of the garden on the Midway behind my office. There were plants--Byatt would be able to tell you precisely which ones, I think some of them are hydrangeas, but for the rest, I have almost no idea--grasses, trees. There were rocks and the concrete of the pathway. There was snow. The air was cold, but the sky was blue. Um. There was the sunlight, sunlight always streams, that's tedious. What would Byatt say? The sunlight shimmered. Fell on the snow like shards of crystal. Made the world sparkle. Um. I felt like I had stepped out of the everyday world into reality. It was like a fairy-tale, only more real.

Sigh. I'm good at writing misery, I know the words for that. But joy? What words are there for joy other than, well, joy? "Joy, joy, joy, joy, joy!" I sound like one of Pratchett's dwarves singing about gold. "Gold, gold, gold, gold, gold!" Well, what more do you need to say? Isn't this why everyone always says that they find descriptions of heaven boring? All that light, all that joy, all that bliss, how tedious! "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away'" (Revelation 21:1-4).

Stirring stuff, yes? No? Who wants to live in a city of pure gold, "clear as glass," with walls of jasper and foundations of precious stones with nothing to do other than to sing praises to the Lamb? It's interesting how often people not entirely joking say how "if this is heaven, then give me hell; at least there'd be something to do." Note also how St. John's description of the new Jerusalem comes only at the end of his revelation. Moreover, how other than to describe the measurements and gates of the city, he says next to nothing about what it would be like to live there, except, interestingly enough, that there would be no temple, "for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb," and no sun or moon, "for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb" (Revelation 21:22-23). Otherwise, the heavenly city is described entirely in negatives: no tears, no death, no mourning or crying or pain. It's like the fabled number of words the Eskimos have for snow, only in reverse. No words for joy, only words for the opposite thereof.

I am struck in copying out these passages from Revelation how much they remind me of another description, to be sure not of heaven as such, but of a blessed realm very like the heavenly Jerusalem, namely, Valinor, of which we, following the ring-bearer Frodo, catch only a glimpse as the ship sails from the Grey Havens and passes into the West: "until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shore and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise." All that Sam sees, however, is the evening "deepening to darkness" and "a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West."** It is as if, once the rain curtain has been rolled back, there really is nothing more one can say. Language fails at the edge of bliss even as the things that it describes become more real.

Tolkien, of course, great linguist that he was, was more than conscious of this limitation--and yet, also great potential--of language. The magic, he says elsewhere, is all in the adjectives: grey, silver, white, green. (Oh, dear, now I'm doing this from memory, but here goes.) Anyone can say the word "sun," but it is a work of magic to say the words "green sun," for now suddenly you have made something come into being in the imagination that did not exist before. And yet, saying the words "green sun" likewise makes us all the more conscious of the reality that the sun is not (usually) green but yellow or white or red or orange. The magic, if there is any, is in the contrast. (Now I'm really on my own, that's not quite what Tolkien says.)

Oh, if only I could find the words for what it is I want to say. Byatt does it, Tolkien does it, but whereas Byatt uses words like "silver-gold" and "aquamarine" and "translucent"" and "green-spotted," Tolkien will say simply "gold" and "white" and "blue" and "green." And yet, somehow, Tolkien's descriptions are the more vivid and, yes, real. Here is Frodo, on first stepping into Lothlórien: "It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain."***

That is the feeling that I wanted to describe for you yesterday, of suddenly seeing everything that I knew, had known all along, in a new light, knowing all along that it was immeasurably ancient. Fresh and poignant, newly-named, the world much as Adam must have felt it to be as he stood in the garden giving the creatures around him names (Genesis 2:19). Yet how could I convey the immediacy and beauty of the world I was seeing without reminding you of how I have felt in the past, particularly these past six months, when the words wouldn't come and all I could feel was winter? Isn't it curious how even in the description of Lothlórien, Tolkien falls back on the language of scripture, the listing of negatives, the insistence on how on Lórien "there was no stain," invoking the image of stain even as he removes it?

I'm still groping here, wishing I had "On Fairy Stories" and "Leaf by Niggle" to hand to help me out. But I do have The Lord of the Rings and that is enough. It is appropriate, I suppose, to be meditating now on the way in which grief makes it possible for us to experience, indeed, feel joy. This coming Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of my father's death. When I read the prayers for our service this morning, he was listed among the dead. It is also five years ago this spring that I taught my course on Tolkien for the first time, all the while ever so conscious of my immediate loss. Tolkien, as is well-known, lost his father when he was four and his mother when he was twelve. As an orphan, he was more than acquainted with grief, even before losing two of his closest friends in the Great War.

Nor does he spare his characters the experience of grief. Frodo and Sam, throughout their whole long journey through Mordor, still believe that their beloved friend and guide Gandalf is dead, as likewise their friends fear them to be, even as they take their last stand at the Black Gate. Is it any wonder then that they all cry for joy as, gathered together on the field of Cormallen, the Ring destroyed, Frodo and Sam safe and reunited with their friends, Middle-earth redeemed by the sacrifice of Frodo's finger, when a minstrel of Gondor stands forth and begins to sing "of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom"? "And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness."****

There, those are the words that I wanted to describe what I felt yesterday: joy like swords, pain and delight flowing together to the point of tears. Joy is pain, even as it is the very absence of pain, for it is--as, indeed, I have written elsewhere--by way of pain that we know we are alive. An appropriate paradox, don't you think, for this season of Lent?

*A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), p. 24.
**J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 1007.
***Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 341.
****Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 933.


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