Sam asks “Don’t the Great Tales Never End?”

Ever since I first encountered it I have loved and been enriched by the work of John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher and some time priest who died in 2008. When I began to think about this week’s blog posting I was drawn back to other pieces that I have written and to a poem entitled, Fluent, that O’Donohue wrote and published in his 2000 collection entitled Connemara Blues.

“I would love to live / like a river flows,/ Carried by the surprise/ Of its own unfolding.”

In just a few words O’Donohue describes a way of life that is characterised by surprise. O’Donohue loved to laugh and the unexpectedness of the present moment would be the cause in him of delighted merriment. I have just returned from driving my daughter to the local railway station for a day’s classes in college and as I drove back I listened to a mathematician say that when he finds beauty in a mathematical equation it is because of a fundamental human desire for order and predictability. Oh how O’Donohue would have chuckled with amusement if he had heard that! Of course the woodland stream by which I pray each morning is capable of  being reduced to a mathematical description but once we begin to speak of beauty then it is not predictability that delights us but the endless surprise of the play of light upon the water, the way the way the stream dances about ever shifting obstacles in its path or in one heart stopping moment by the flight of a kingfisher along its length. Something much greater than mathematics has entered our hearts.

So it is that when Sam thinks of great tales he remembers the story of Beren and Lúthien taking the Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth in the terrible fortress of Thangorodrim. “That was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours,” he says, and then goes on to remember the bringing of the Silmaril to Eärendil and in surprise and wonder he cries out, “And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got- you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”

A year ago I wrote a piece in this blog entitled On Hearing The Music of the Ainur where I reflected on Frodo’s “dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice” and the voice is that of Bilbo telling, chanting the story of  Eärendil in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell. In his dream an “endless river of swelling gold and silver” flows over him. Later in the evening he tells Bilbo that Bilbo’s song seemed “to fit somehow” with his dream. Frodo has for a moment been given an insight into the nature of the story of which he is now a part and it is dream and flowing river and it is music and verses chanted. Sam now glimpses what Frodo experienced that night. Like Frodo he is in the same story. (Do read it and if you have time please read the Comments that followed it. They are deeply moving and enriching.)

It was G.K Chesterton, a writer who exercised great influence over Tolkien, who said that the reason we need to be told of rivers of gold and silver or trees with golden leaves and fruit is that we have forgotten the wonder of the rivers that we know or the astonishing moment when we first knew that a leaf was green! Sam touches upon the wonder that transforms the tale of which he is now a part. He speaks in the shadow of the Ephel Dúath the outer fence of Mordor, wearied by the climb up the Great Stair from the dead vale of Minas Morgul. He is hungry and the sweat of his effort has been chilled upon his body as he rests. So a parent may wearily change a nappy or feed a hungry baby in the long dark hours of the night and forget for a moment the wonder of which she is a part and then be caught up in delight once again. Perhaps she may catch a glimpse of the story of which she is a part.

16 thoughts on “Sam asks “Don’t the Great Tales Never End?”

  1. “Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?” That quote always gives me good chills. It’s all one story, isn’t it? And that story is part of our story, too.

    The recognition of the astonishing nature of everything is something that constantly breaks in on me, and I value it so deeply. I remember a moment when I was in college and walking across campus. A single tiny buttercup (, like a yellow enameled jewel, transfixed me. I couldn’t do anything but stare at it, where it caught the light in the grass. Then I looked around me in bewilderment at everyone passing by it, and me, oblivious or wondering why I had stopped. It briefly broke my heart.
    It’s moments like that when I understand what GKC was always talking about in regards to seeing things as they actually are, as if we had never seen anything like them before. We shouldn’t be capable of boredom or monotony.

    • Thank you so much for the buttercup! Ad especially so on this second day of December when Spring feels so far away. How wonderful that it caught you with its beauty on that day. You probably know this quote from Chesterton (a writer that I am only just getting to know to my great blessing). “It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has ever got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” I am glad that we are given moments when we can see daisies, or buttercups (of course!) in this way. Moments like this are pure grace.

      • You’re welcome! I love plants so very much, and I love sharing about them, and I never have found a flower that looks, as these do, like they are literally polished enamel. ^_^ The funny thing is that they’re also toxic, but since I have no livestock in my little yard, I can let them grow and glitter away.

        I see Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis and MacDonald as such contrasting writers, highlighting just a little of the astounding variety of Christendom. The following has less to do with their character as men, and everything to do with the tone and character of their work.

        Chesterton always strikes me as boisterous, passionate, and prophetic, with flashes of astonishing insight. He isn’t as keenly analytical (nor always as clever) as he thinks he is, and he is deeply grounded in his time and place, but by golly those flashes straight through to the marrow of humanity and the world are bright as lightning. On top of it all he’s a charmer, an entertainer, a fit lyricist and bard.

        Lewis is the more methodical, analytical, careful type. There is definitely passion and poetry in him, but it’s closely watched. He has clarity and the true scholar’s desire for truth, and in the pursuit of truth, he tries to make sure of his data and to see around all angles of a question. Having “switched sides,” as it were, he knows where the wounds are, and with what caution they should be approached. Where Chesterton is like an impressionist painter, Lewis is like a surgeon.

        Then we have Tolkien of the Palantir, the mythic voice, whose eyes are fixed on something beyond the rim of the world without ever forgetting the turf under foot. He sees the patterns, or in the terms of his mythology, hears the song of the Ainur. He captures true myth (something extremely rare in modern times) and weaves it together with a powerful homeliness/smallness. Will you think me silly if I say he strikes me as a prophet?

        Then, of course, there’s George MacDonald, mystic and dreamer. I love Lewis’s portrait of him in The Great Divorce as it shows how Lewis felt about him, and it’s very similar to my own feelings. MacDonald’s wisdom feels almost instinctual. It isn’t as though he wasn’t a thinker, but rather that he was touched by the Holy Spirit and trusted It. His stories are like dream visions and fairy tales (he definitely intended the latter) and his nonfiction seems to mingle earth and heaven.

        Balladeer, Philosopher, Mythmaker, and Explorer of Fairyland, and all amazing writers. All so different, but run through with the common thread of Christ, and I love all four of them. ^_^

      • Balladeer, Philosopher, Mythmaker and Explorer of Fairyland… they sound like chapters of a book (?) and I like the pensketches that you offer.
        Increasingly I am impressed that none of them were clergy or professional theologians, i.e. members of university theology faculties. Of course Tolkien and Lewis were members of a university faculty and Lewis was particularly unhappy about the quality of the literary criticism of many his theological colleagues. Tolkien is a prophet. I am sure you are right about this. I think we are yet to understand the full significance of what he is saying to us. I feel a little guilty about saying this but I have not taken to MacDonald yet. Perhaps I should go back to him again and see if a re-read is now due. And, of course, I am reading Chesterton now. I suspect you are right in saying that he was not as clever as he thought he was but I love his boldness and wish I could share more of it. Did you note that I began the last sentence with the words, “I suspect”? I can’t imagine Chesterton using language like that!

  2. “none of them were clergy or professional theologians” MacDonald was, actually, but he’s the only one. He was actually forced out of being a minister because of controversial beliefs.

    Tolkien-Palantir! ^_^ “I think we are yet to understand the full significance of what he is saying to us.” It just keeps unfolding, doesn’t it? I was at a Tolkien/Lewis/Chesterton mini conference not long ago, and one of the speakers said something along the lines that Chesterton is like meat (takes chewing and digesting) whereas Lewis and Tolkien aren’t …I was irritated for Lewis’s sake, for while he is intentionally simple and transparent in his apologetics, his fiction is more meaty. But I was completely baffled that the man could say this about Tolkien and had to conclude that he either had never actually read Tolkien, or didn’t understand what he was reading. :/

    MacDonald is challenging. He wanders, and his language is… eye-crossing sometimes. But he’s also astonishing. I would suggest digging into The Princess and the Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie. They’re more focused and easier to read than most, and they’re both as deep as the ocean. Every time I read them (and I’ve done so many, many times) I get something new.

    Lol! I do love Chesterton, and his lightning-like insights are profound. I trust him less when he’s speaking with confidence on other cultures and beliefs (though even then his perspective helps me look more closely at my own) but when he’s speaking about human emotions and spiritual insights, I find him very hard to argue with. He definitely never fails to make me think!

    • Thank you for correcting me on MacDonald. My thesis requires modification! Thank you too for the recommendations of further reading. I will follow them up next year. Right now I am enjoying Chesterton.
      People really do talk nonsense about Tolkien (and the other Inklings too). I was greatly encouraged, recently, by a radio talk given by the English philosopher, John Grey, in which he drew appreciatively upon C.S Lewis’s essay, “The Abolition of Man”. He argued that the essay spoke accurately about our current state. Sadly he also said that, “of course” (!) he could not agree with Lewis in his Christian faith. Here in England that phrase seems to get used a lot. Thinkers are happy to draw upon the wisdom and insight of those of Christian faith but are unwilling to commit themselves to that faith. We live in an age that is suspicious of commitment.

      • The “of course” is what bothers me… I guess, partly, because it hurts my pride, but also because it gives such a false understanding. As if it’s natural to reject the faith, and abnormal (idiotic or deranged?) to accept it.
        It’s frustrating (and Lewis apparently dealt with the same thing) to encounter people who just assume that I must hold my faith for any number of straw-man reasons and who are shocked to discover that I actually have examined my faith. 😛 But I guess it gives me an opportunity to challenge their assumptions and misconceptions. I know it’s more obviously a problem in the U.K., but it’s a problem here, too… all the more so as the U.S. becomes more and more deeply divided. It doesn’t help that the faith is being conflated with a set of political views.
        Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man is encouraging in this area (I have issues with it, as a whole, but as is usual with him, there’s some fantastic stuff in it). He talks about how, historically speaking, the faith has been appropriated and misused, but that it always survives and returns with renewed strength. If it is True, as we deem it, there is no reason to fear.

  3. “I am sure that if we spend our time bothering about how others see us we will drive ourselves crazy.”
    I really think it’s by the grace of God alone that I’m not actually insane. God knows I have all the makings of a complete lunatic, but then again, maybe everybody does. 😉

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