“Take this,” my father said. “I know you’ll love it.”
This was a book my father had just finished reading. It was an adult version of the books I read passionately as a child, books in which the skin is lifted off the ordinary world and an ordinary person has the chance to experience a world out of fairy tale or legend. I read them, I think, because I sensed that there was a disparity between the astonishing beauty of this world and the smallness of our daily interactions with it: soaring mountains vs. paperwork; the depth of love which expresses itself in cups of milk or help with homework. Surely, I felt, our souls were larger than this. Surely, we must have been made with the soaring beauty of the trees, made to live larger lives.
I suspect I’m not the only one with this intuition, as those books keep on selling. And that intuition is true, although the unseen richness underneath our every day is not magic nor faerie, but grace and mercy, incarnation and cross, blood and bone and flesh and a spirit that will not cease to love. We who know the story can sometimes find it hard to see — really to see –its poetry and beauty and power. But we play out, every day, a tale of dark and light, of good and evil, of courage and fear and exhaustion and faithfulness no less grand than the great epics of old. (Ask the people who marched on Washington fifty years ago; they can tell you all about it.)
In all those fables and tales, I have a favorite moment. Favorite, because it is true and unexpected and wise, and because it plays against the genre. In each of these tales, there is a boy or girl who turns out to the “special” – chosen, elect, set aside before time to do great things. In this book, Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree, the boy is Bran, and he is the son of King Arthur of Britain (although raised as a normal child in the 20th century). At the very end of five novels, Bran finally meets his great father, and his father holds out his hand to Bran and says, “Come, my son…The long task of the Light is over, and the world is freed of the peril of dominion by the Dark. Now it is all a matter for men…We have fulfilled our heritage, you and I. And now we may have rest, in the quiet silver-circled castle at the back of the North Wind, among the apple trees. And those we leave behind may think of us in greeting each night, when the crown of the North Wind, the Corona Borealis, rises above the horizon in its circlet of stars.”
And Bran looks at his father, and replies, “I cannot come, my lord… I belong here. If it is a matter for men now, as you say, then the men are going to have a hard time of it and perhaps there are things, later, that I might be able to do to help. Even if there are not, still I…belong. Loving bonds..that’s what I have here….They are the strongest thing on the earth.”
Bran gives up his immortality and chooses to live among ordinary people, not because he is lured by a great quest, but because he is lured by the thousand small acts of good which might make a difference in this world — and because he loves this world and those who are in it. He sets aside fantasies of grandeur, and chooses to live in this world on its terms, not as someone chosen to be “special,” but as someone who has chosen to love.
That’s what Christ did for us, underneath all the miracles, and it is the choice that faces us every day. All around us, communities and nations are being torn apart by the forces of ego, by people who have an insatiable need to dominate others, to rule others, to be marked as “special,” or “royal,” or “different.” And in every place they disturb, the only hope lies in the faithfulness of ordinary men and women who cook food for their children and sweep their floors and tend their crops and mourn their dead and quietly, gently, without fanfare, knit together the fabric of the world. The salt of the earth, our Savior called them: the people who preserve us all from rot.
Fifty years ago, what it took was boarding a bus. Today, methods may have changed, but the need has not. What can you do today to tip the balance of this world? What delusions do you need to let go of in order to be able to do it?
A Note to Parents (and to grown-ups who love children’s literature: Silver on the Tree is the fifth book in a sequence called The Dark is Rising. If you have not yet read them, do — but read them in order. They really are much better that way.