Songs that Come to Us out of Strange Places

It is through the intervention of the Ents of Fangorn that victory is won at Helm’s Deep but this frightens the Riders of Rohan more perhaps than did the enemies they faced in the battle. For a kind of disenchantment has been at work among them for a very long time. You may remember that when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli first encountered Eomer and his war band upon the plains of Rohan they met with mistrust and some fear. When Eomer heard that the friends had met Galadriel in Lothlorien he reacted with both wonder but also fearful hostility.

“Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” he said. “Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.”

Théoden’s reaction to his first encounter with Ents is less hostile, perhaps, after all he has just benefitted from their timely intervention, but it is hardly less ignorant! He declares that he knows nothing of them so Gandalf takes the opportunity to teach him a few home truths and he shows Théoden that they are indeed truths he once learned in his own home.

“They are the shepherds of the trees…Is it so long since you listened to tales by the fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question. You have seen Ents, Ents out of Fangorn Forest, which in your tongue you call the Entwood. Did you think that the name was given only in idle fancy?”

Théoden’s response shows that he may be ignorant as are his people but that he does ponder things deeply.

“Out of the shadows of legend I begin to understand the marvel of the trees, I think…Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.”

Théoden’s musings tell the tale of our own times too. What we know call Fairy Tales are stories thought to be fit only for children and so the very word, Fairy, is considered childish and the culture in which these tales arose, the culture of our medieval ancestors, is thought to have been immature and in need of enlightenment. Indeed from the time of the Enlightenment onward such tales became, as Théoden put it, taught only to children “as a careless custom”.

Recently it has been noted by many critics that much of the best writing of our time has been written ostensibly for children though sadly one leading author in the UK commented that he was disturbed by the sight of adults on trains reading Harry Potter. In the packed church in which I watched a school nativity play this morning there was an atmosphere of delight as parents and grandparents gazed upon their young dressed as characters from the gospel stories. There is a general acceptance that faith is a good thing for children especially when linked to a moral education but one, sadly perhaps, that must be left behind on leaving childhood. And yet the word adult when used as an adjective to describe books, films, pictures etc. is used to denote a deeply immature sexuality that has perhaps a place in an occasional time of carnival as ancient societies knew but is deeply destructive of mature sexual relationships and mature societies when it becomes the norm.

Thankfully Tolkien himself created a mythology that speaks to both adults and children in our own time. His work has transformed the lives of many and sowed seeds of enchantment among many more that will bear fruit. I pray that we too may find songs coming down to us “out of strange places” that may “walk visible under the Sun.”

8 thoughts on “Songs that Come to Us out of Strange Places

  1. “What we know call Fairy Tales” “now” 😉

    There is a lot of meat in this, and it will take some chewing, on my part, but YES. There is something very wrong, I think, when it is thought that adults “grow out” of good stories written for children, instead of “growing into” stories written for them and then having both. Even more disturbing is equating faith with something that belongs to childhood. What a grim world that would leave us with. We have some very odd ideas about adulthood in both the U.K. and the U.S.A.

    I am also grateful for Tolkien’s mythology. It stands in the gap in a way that few other mythologies do, nowadays.
    I’m considering re-blogging this. Would you mind?

    • I would be delighted if you re-blogged this. Thank you for offering.
      I really like your idea of “growing into” stories. That is so much richer than what passes for so much of our education. Perhaps that captures the essence of what Jesus meant when he spoke of “Becoming like children”. Or at least a part if it.

  2. Reblogged this on jubilare and commented:
    There is a lot contained in this post, I will only touch on one small aspect, so you should go read it for yourself. Thank you, stephencwinter, for letting me re-blog it!

    Reading people have relationships with books over the course of their lives. All people have relationships with stories.

    Sometimes, when a child, you like books that, as you grow, you will outgrow (though they may still carry a lovely sheen of nostalgia). Then there are the books, those wonderful books, that grow with you. There are books one has to grow into, and sometimes books that are written “for children” find you later in life and have great impact.

    That is, if you let them. Some folks feel, or believe, that “childish” books are unfit for adults, and some dismiss entire genres of story-telling and art because they consider them “juvenile.” They are welcome to their opinions, of course, but I cannot agree.

    There is something to be said for growing into books you would not have been able to appreciate as a child, but one shouldn’t, I think, have to grow out of any good book, no matter the genre or the “age bracket” for which it was written. By all means, read and love Tolstoy, but there is no reason to turn your back on A. A. Milne.

  3. This is a beautiful introduction to the piece that I wrote and I very much feel the privilege and the pleasure of what you have done. Thank you!
    This idea of “growing out of” and “growing into” is very rich, I think. Tolkien, Lewis and the other Inklings were deeply disliked by the modernists of their own day (and ours) who felt that we should “grow out” of the pre-modern world that the Inklings loved. They disliked even more the fact that Lewis & Tolkien were popular bestsellers while their own books were known only to the academic elite!
    You show that each one of us needs to stay in touch with each part of our selves from each part of our lives and that the stories that nourished us at each stage are one of the best ways in which to do that. This also shows how one of the best gifts we can give to children is stories. I saw a beautiful short film about a travelling library in one of the poorest parts of Central America recently, how as it arrived in each neighbourhood the children would rush out of their homes to listen to stories being read to them. Perhaps today there needs to be a story time too in the trading rooms of Wall Street and the City of London.

    • Thank you for writing it in the first place!
      The lasting-power of some stories vindicates them, others seem to get lost in the never-ending pileup, like leaves on a forest floor, but I like to think that, as God gave us our creative bent, He will see the good in all our art preserved somehow. Maybe that is very earthly of me, something I wondered about for a while now. But the Bible tantalizingly suggests a renewed creation, so I hold out hope. 🙂

      Agreed. Everyone loves stories, even if they do not realize that the things they love ARE stories, but we need good stories, ones with layers, too.

      • I love your image of stories as leaves on a forest floor. I made my walk in the dark in the wood this morning (just a little English wood in my case, of course) and at this time of the year that means walking over leaf litter so your thoughts resonate with that experience.
        I like your earthly thought. Surely if Christmas means anything then it is that God has very earthly thoughts indeed! You don’t get much more earthly, or earthy, than childbirth and childcare and you don’t get closer to the glory either. As I wrote about one of your stories, it reminded me, in what you wrote about the children in it, of Mark Twain and also memories of my Primary School head teacher, a man who I now know had the greatest influence on me of any outside of my family, reading Tom Sawyer to us in story time at the end of the school day. There was nothing “careless” about the way he read to us.

  4. I couldn’t agree more.

    The concepts explored in children’s literature often far surpass that of adults, as we seek to open their eyes and minds to the world into which they must grow. “Adult” writing can too often be shallow and disposable, written for instant gratification or amusement and without much substance beyond that. If we train the mind to accept the instantly accessible, there is a danger that, when confronted by the mysteries of life, they become not just awe-inspiring, but frightening. Then, to where shall we turn? (although there, is of course, space and need in the word for pure simple entertainment). We must be careful, too, not to throw out the baby with the bath water – it is surprising sometimes where one may stumble across serious exploration of such weighty themes as humanity, character or even Faith, amongst the mass produced ‘popular’ writings!

    I think there is a point here also, though, about story telling and our attitude to it. The key here, for me, is the word “careless”.
    We too often these days read books quickly, or in isolation. With the rise of accessibility of printed word, and the pressure to READ, we have lost the skill of sitting and telling and sharing stories, and passing them on, and discussing them, and developing them. In the loss of exploring stories together, we also lose a sense of the truths they are communicating – they are reduced to merely narrative. As a musician we are always challenged not to merely play the notes, but to communicate something – a story, a message, an emotion. It Is the same with story – it can be just words reiterated, or one can engage more fully. As adults we must encourage children to engage with their stories, and even to tell their own, and never cease to seek this in our own reading!

    I am blessed with two small children. We read a lot together, books of many age groups – but the true value and pleasure is in the discussions around them wherein the deeper messages are sometimes uncovered.

  5. The thought that jumped off the screen to me was when you described reading to your children. I look back on that as being one of the most precious times of my life. Imaginative play was harder work! All that time staying in character. My younger daughter and I would go for long walks together and imaginative play would continue the whole length of them. Now they are 17 & 20 and I miss those times very much.
    The telling of stories would have been a central part of the life of Rohan but as you rightly pointed out they have become “careless”. I wonder if that carelessness has played a part in their spiritual decline? I can’t imagine stories playing much part in the courts of Saruman and Sauron! But they do with the Elves. I wrote a blog some time back I think it is only on my website about the singing of songs in the halls of Elrond at Rivendell They are treated with utter seriousness there and are yet joyful too. I must go back to them some time.
    I believe that the world is shaped for good by the stories you read to your children.

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