The Future Reflects You

I recently heard a wizened First Sergeant speak at his retirement. “When I look at this formation, I see myself,” he said slowly, as he fought back emotion. The words were deep and carry a message both for the past generation and the generation of today. The message he gave was more than the future is what you make it; his message was that the leaders of tomorrow are what you make them. The future reflects who you are and what you do.

The First Sergeant of whom I speak had served the U.S. military for forty years, which by itself is amazing. This is not only longer than most people have lived; it’s double the amount of time most people serve. It is as though he has served two careers. Indeed, he served a full career as an Active Duty enlisted Soldier and noncommissioned officer before joining the Army National Guard. He ended serving the last decade of his career as the top noncommissioned officer in two different companies, where, like all first sergeants, he headed up noncommissioned leader development, ran company operations, trained personnel, and in general made sure everything got done. I always found his advice to be extremely valuable, built on his years of experience. When he spoke, years of experience spoke with him.

When he said, “I see myself when I look at this formation,” I think he meant several things, which is why the comments are so deep. They spoke to several levels. Superficially, some may think he meant merely that he remembered being just like the young Soldiers who were standing there in rank-and-file listening to a speech by a respected leader. Or possibly, he meant to say that we all have to start off at the bottom and that they, too, would one day become the leaders of the company. All of this is true. Someone must replace today’s leaders, and that someone is currently a new Soldier. However, as he continued to speak about responsibility to make the unit better and to train those coming behind, it was apparent that he meant something even more meaningful. He meant that the next generation reflects those who train them. This is why he saw himself in the formation. They are his imprint. It is an incredibly important message for the next generation of leaders.

As I have gotten older, I frequently hear that the younger generation are deficient somehow, that they are spoiled and selfish and seem to care less about service. The truth is, however, that the next generation only reflects those who trained them. We complain that they are not taking responsibility for themselves, but this is only the result of not having leaders who required them to take responsibility for themselves. In other words, they reflect the leaders who came before them. If we want the younger generation to uphold standards, we must be the ones who enforce them. If we want them to be leaders, we must require them to be leaders. If we want to put others first, so must we. The successful leader can stand in front of those he has led and recognize in them his own leadership, for they will reflect him. They will follow his lead, they will emulate him, they will grow until they fill his shoes. They contain his imprint, nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, there are many other leaders in our lives than those in the military or those at our jobs. Mainly, there are our parents. Parents have the main responsibility to raise their children, and if they are not instilling in them leadership, responsibility, self-motivation, and service, no one is. If they do not teach their children, it will take a miracle for anyone else to reach them. Even so, many people grow beyond the guidance of their parents. Were this not so, broken homes would produce nothing of value. In the end, it is our own responsibility for how we turn out. We have to choose whether to reflect the good in others or the bad. We decide whether we will receive the imprint of leadership or not. I remain confident that most eventually do.

Each of us has the power to impact the next generation. We will leave an imprint, whether we want to or not. We can make a conscious decision to leave others the best of ourselves by teaching responsibility, service, and self-sacrifice. If we don’t, we will surely teach them our bad habits. The future generation reflects each of us, so leave the best impression by being the leader you want them to be.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Let’s Talk About It

I remember hearing a story about how German generals hated to talk to Adolph Hitler because he would always launch into lengthy diatribes about his own vision or views about warfare. He refused to listen when those more experienced brought him different opinions than he wanted to hear. In fact, everyone one who came to him about any subject had to endure such lectures. He was as much a dictator in his conversations as in his politics. The sad truth is that too many people approach conversations this way. They want only an echo chamber for their own views. As a result, they miss out on true communication and friendship.

Until recently, open discussion was a key component of all education. When I was an undergraduate, colleges brought in speakers of all political persuasions to discuss a range of issues, most of them controversial. Students were expected to sit politely and listen to others. Classes were full of discussions, some friendly and some heated, about the issues of the day. This really had three impacts. One was to expose people to multiple points of view to make students “well-rounded.” That meant that you could at least explain other points of view even if you disagreed. In debate club, we often had to argue positions that weren’t our own, which would have been impossible without this ability. Second, it helped you to sympathize with other points of view. You understood why people saw things the way they did, which made you better able to find solutions on which all could agree. Believe it or not, there once was a time when people of opposing parties could come together and find common ground and develop bipartisan solutions; most that passes as bipartisan today is simply the result of finding someone willing to agree with your side without changing anything. Finally, listening to others helped you to see that it was nothing personal. People of different political parties ended up as friends because they could listen to each other, like President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Sadly, more and more, it seems that this inclusive attitude is giving way to political correctness, in which people do not tolerate the speech of anyone who has differing perspectives.

It is no surprise that intellectual and spiritual leaders always welcome conversation, even with those that disagree. For example, C.S. Lewis was at one time the president of the Oxford Socratic Club. The purpose of the club was to have formal debates and open discussions about the existence of God – all were welcome. Even Lewis had to adjust his thinking after debating Elizabeth Anscombe, who, although she believed in God, questioned some statements by Lewis as logically unsupportable. Dorothy Sayers was a member of a similar organization, the Society of St. Anne, in which skeptics and believers met for debate and discussions.  For Charles Williams, it was the Theological Smokers, hosted by the Methodist Church, in which young men met over cigarettes to discuss theological issues. Even the Inklings itself, although a somewhat exclusive group of writers, held open discussions on issues related to religion and literature, though they each came from different backgrounds and held different views on many subjects. It was this group of friends that ultimately led Lewis to believe in God.

Too many refuse to talk with others about issues on which they may disagree, or if they do, they treat others rudely. I was raised to openly discuss issues, but years of participating in debates led me to treat conversations similarly. It was always a game of one-up-manship, coming up with better arguments than other people and trying to “win” the discussion. There was always a tendency to dominate the conversation, give arguments in logical order, and immediately answer any questions or comments. When losing the debate, I would often cut people off or try to talk over them to get in my points. Since I usually debated issues about which I cared deeply, I became emotionally involved and took criticism personally. Only as I grew as an adult did I realize that such antics only alienated my friends. I learned that some of the people who criticized me the heaviest were in fact my greatest allies. Too frequently, I missed out on holding deep conversations with people on subjects. I may not have changed my views or anyone else’s, but I would have at least come to a better understanding of my friends and their perspective. It’s a lesson that many people desperately need to learn – how to hold a conversation that is open, honest, and a meeting of minds.

Some people believe the purpose of conversations is to win arguments and gain converts. This is the approach most people take whenever discussing anything controversial. They talk louder, bring out all their supporting arguments, and cut off those who may disagree. Real conversations, however, are always two-way. They are a meeting of the minds to gain shared understanding, not only of the topics, but of each other. If so, most of us have been failing at conversations for years. If we ever want to see a return of civility and unity, we must relearn to the art of conversation. For those who are ready to have a conversation without angst or condemnation, know that you are welcome here. Even if it’s something controversial or even if I disagree, let’s talk about it.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Remembering Auld Lang Syne

One of the most popular songs sung on New Year’s Eve is “Auld Lang Syne,” a Scottish phrase meaning “times long past.” The modern words are an adaption of a poem by the poet Robert Burns, set to the melody of a traditional Scottish folk song. Although many people sing it without having any idea what it’s about, and some people seem to think it’s merely a drinking song (“drink a cup of kindness”), in fact it captures an important sentiment – that we should think on days long past as something worthy of remembrance.

Robert Burns was a Scottish Romantic poet best known for his use and preservation of local language, his promotion of republicanism (as opposed to monarchy), and his emphasis on local history. He published “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788 based on a traditional folk song, which had existed at least since 1700. In fact, there is a 1711 song printed by James Watson that resembles the modern tune. However, Burns tightened the lines and added several verses, greatly improving the material he received. It is mainly the version presented by Burns that most people remember, although it includes Scottish words no longer in use. Like many Romantic poets, Burns sought to emphasize far off times and days, which the song and its antique language aptly captures. It was, in essence, the celebration of times past. When Scots immigrated to America, they brought the song with them. It became popularized only in 1929, when bandleader Guy Lombardo played it at a New Year’s celebration in New York City that was broadcast on radio. Repeated ever afterwards, the rest, as they say, is history.

The original song contains several reminders to remember our days long past. Most people are familiar only with the first verse, “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.” It is, in other words, a call to remember our old friends, with whom we’ve lost contact and forgotten. The second verse mentions “wandering about the braes” or hills, “pulling gowans” or daisies, and “wandering many a weary foot.” It is a call to remember childhood tramps with friends. The third verse speaks of “paddling the burns” or streams “from morning until dine.” Later verses talk of sharing drinks and shaking hands in friendship. The song has always been a favorite of mine and appeals to me personally, for it reminds me of wandering with my brother about the woods near our house, of boating and swimming on the Tennessee River, and spending time with my military friends. Although we sometimes forget those wonderful days of youth, we should try to remember them whenever we celebrate each new year.

In fact, this is what the song is really about. Some people seem to want us to forget how things used to be, whether it’s forgetting the heroes of our youth and our love of nation or simply moving on personally and growing up. Some want us to forget the past in favor of a future utopia that is unknown. Yet we should never forget our friends and the times we had, any more than our nation should forget our history. By this I am not trying to gloss over evils of the past. Our history includes good and evil deeds, sometimes made by the same men, just as our lives may include things we want to forget, such as divorces, death of parents, or poverty. Yet there are good memories among the bad that are worthy of remembrance, and both good and bad events helped to form our character. Our histories make us who we are, as individuals and as a nation. People who cannot remember the past are diagnosed with amnesia and are considered mentally ill because people without a past are unstable and often unable to function. We need a past and a history to help us remember that we are connected to others and that life goes on. Some may want you to grow up and forget your childhood stories, games, and dreams, but those memories are what make you who are. Some may want you to forget a time before 2020, but those of us who lived then know that even in the midst of hard living there were good times. Some may want you to forget your childhood friends in favor of new alliances, but we all should remember how we loved our neighbors even when we disagreed with them. We should remember how we played hard and loved each other even harder. These are the connections that matter, not the parties or acronyms we join.

This New Years, as you sing “Auld Lang Syne” as the old year passes, get together with your old acquaintances. Drink a cup of kindness. Remember once more your friendships and connections to the past. Remember how you wandered and had fun. Remember that we all have a history that is both good and bad, and this history is what makes us who we are. Be thankful for all you’ve been through. If you do, you will be happier and better off than if you act like the past never happened.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

A Silent Night

One of the things I most enjoy about Christmas Eve is that moment of silence before the carnage of presents, parties, and a parade of guests begins. Not that there isn’t a proper time for celebrations. There is a time for rejoicing as much as a time for mourning. Yet it is more often during silent contemplation that we advance in our Christian walk than during our greatest joys. Christmas Eve presents a perfect time for us to spend reflecting, even if only for a moment, about the coming of the Savior.

Like most people, our family has their own routine on Christmas. Our celebration begins with attending a Christmas Eve candle-light service, where we see our church family and worship publicly. Then we attend a party with my mother’s family. Sometimes my brothers attend, sometimes not. Other than when my children were very little, we usually stayed late. The following morning, we opened gifts and ate breakfast, maybe while watching a Christmas movie or two. Sometimes, we sang some Christmas carols. When my children were little, we went to visit their other grandparents for lunch and dinner, or we spent time with friends. It was, in other words, one celebration after another, when my introvert children and I would have to be around other people. The only exception was on Christmas Eve during those few minutes after we got home and got the children in bed. For a moment, there was quiet. Sometimes, I went outside for a moment until the cold penetrated to the bone. I prayed and looked up at the stars. When it was too cold even for that, I sat next to the fire to pray or read. I tried to spend those few minutes reflecting on the reason for the season.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas. It is a time for rejoicing, for worshiping, and for spreading Christmas cheer. Once this was not so. Until 1836, when Alabama was the first state in the U.S. to officially make Christmas a holiday, people did not often celebrate Christmas. The Puritans actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas. It had become associated mostly with public drunkenness and pagan celebrations, like those of Krampus, a strange demonic figure who stole children who were bad. The Puritans saw Christmas as a Catholic holiday, and many argued that Christ was born some other time. Even for non-Puritans, it was not a holiday many people celebrated other than perhaps a brief church service to remember the birth of Jesus. All of that changed during the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens, Prince Albert, and Clement Moore popularized the most common aspects of Christmas – taking time off, putting up Christmas trees, and Santa Claus. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way. Most people spend their holidays celebrating and very little time reflecting on their lives. While rejoicing is good for the soul, in fact it is the moments of silence that we most draw toward the God who made us. That is when we learn from our mistakes and grow the most.

One who saw the value in withdrawing from the public and embracing silence was Thomas à Kempis, the author of the popular devotional, The Imitation of Christ. Written in the Middle Ages primarily for monks, nuns, and other ascetics, the book drips with spirituality and sound advice. “No man can live in the public eye without risk to his soul, unless he who would prefer to remain obscure. No man can safely speak unless he who would gladly remain silent,” he wrote. Only those who can do without publicity and verbosity are able to withstand temptations associated with them. Better to retreat into solitude than risk peril to our souls. “In silence and quietness, the devout soul makes progress and learns the hidden mysteries.” Many ascetics took vows of silence to ensure they remained devoted. While Kempis wrote mainly for those who cut themselves off from society in monasteries, his words ring true for the ordinary believer. It is often good to seek silent repose to pay attention to spiritual things. There is no better time for this than Christmas Eve.

The philosopher Seneca once wrote, “As often as I have been among men, I have returned a lesser man.” As much as we may enjoy the company of others, it is then that we are the most boisterous and the least attuned to spiritual things. Rather, it is in the stillness of the night that we most often hear from God. This Christmas Eve, take a few minutes away from everyone and listen for that still, small voice. It is in the Silent Night that Christmas will become most real.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

The Christmas Truce

It is, perhaps, one of the most powerful images of war in history. I am speaking of the “Christmas Truce” of December 25, 1914. On this day, soldiers of opposing armies experienced the peace of Christmas. Perhaps the most detailed account of the event is Henry Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (2001). Although many have argued that the event was fairly insignificant, it demonstrates the power of Christmas to inspire “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

Several soldiers mentioned the Christmas truce in memoirs, speeches, and articles written after the war, some as late as World War II. According to witnesses, the events began when the British saw lighted Christmas trees all along the German trenches on Christmas Eve. Some yelled in English or held up signs they would cease firing, and the guns suddenly went quiet as each side took a break to celebrate Christmas. The next day, both sides went out into “No Man’s Land” – the region between trenches filled with barbed wire and craters – to recover their dead. As they neared the middle, they began to speak to each other and were soon exchanging pictures, newspapers, chocolate, and cigarettes. In some places, they sang Christmas carols or recited Psalm 23. In other locations, they played a friendly game of soccer. At least for the moment, the war was suspended as each wished goodwill toward the others, and they were not inclined to return to the fighting. In fact, some have suggested that the war would have ended there were it not for the officers urging the two sides to resume fighting the next day. Later, both sides published strict orders against fraternization that prevented such a truce from happening again.

Almost from the beginning, historians, authors, and national leaders sought to downplay the truce. The first official history of World War I in Britain published in the 1920s referred to the event only in passing as something that had happened in a small number of locations, which is the assessment of most historians. Adolph Hitler, who was actually present, did not mention it at all in Mein Kamph, but this is no surprise since the idea of Christ inspiring peace did not fit into his worldview of the struggle of races. It is more surprising that it finds no place in Erich Marie Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Of course, both of these writers entered the war after the truce occurred, but given their pacifism and antiwar literature, they might have at least referenced it. Perhaps one reason they didn’t was that the truce did not fit with their objectives either. They wished to show the barbarism of war, and having people cease firing to celebrate Christmas simply was unimportant for this goal. For the lost generation, a major objective was to question all authority and institutions, including both national leaders bent on war and a church that supported it.

Nevertheless, the fact that it happened at all speaks to the ability of Christmas to generate peace and goodwill among all peoples. For the believer, of course, it is a celebration of the birth of Christ and leads us to seek peace within ourselves as well as with others. One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Even for secular man, however, the season leads many to suspend their hostilities for a moment. Especially on Christmas Eve, which has always inspired me to take a moment to remember the reason for the season, it is a time of peace. In all three of my deployments, Christmas was a magical time. Duty was light, and we attended Christmas services, dinners, and parties. It was a time to stop the fighting and remember faith and family, even though far away. In two of those Christmases, the Muslim holiday of Ramadan fell during the same season so that it seemed the whole nation was at peace. As I wrote last year, the memories of those Christmases are perhaps the most poignant because of the starkness of peace in the midst of war.

As we enter another Christmas season, let’s celebrate our own Christmas truce. Let’s suspend our fighting with neighbors and family for a moment, whether over politics, or the pandemic, or more personal reasons. It can be a Silent Night once again. But more than that, let us experience the peace of Christmas every day. Weintraub ended his book by quoting “Carol from Flanders” by World War I poet Frederick Nevil about the Christmas truce, whose words summarize the feeling of those who celebrated the original Christmas truce:

Oh ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

A Christmas Fairy Tale

One of the many Christmas traditions that our family adopted very early was attendance of the ballet, The Nutcracker. It started when a friend’s daughter performed it with her ballet company and asked us to come. We continued to go see it with our young children and went annually after they were grown. We have been going to see it for so long, we cannot properly begin Christmas until we see it. Part of the draw is because, despite being a ballet, it’s kid friendly. Part is because it contains the most beautiful elements of the Christmas season – celebrations, a little bit of magic, and self-sacrifice. It is, in short, a Christmas fairy tale.

Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet is based on the short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman and was highly popular from its first appearance. Many ballet purists argue it’s not a proper ballet or consider it a hybrid because the first act includes very little dancing, making it more like a play. This is, in fact, one of the things that makes it appealing to children, who may be confused by the symbolism of dance and better understand straightforward storytelling. Regardless, several of the dances are very memorable, and many of Tchaikovsky’s themes are haunting. While the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” and “Walz of the Flowers” have become directly associated with Christmas, and Disney has popularized “Tea (Chinese Dance)” in the film Fantasia, the “Walz of the Snowflakes” and the “Coffee (Arabian Dance)” are also quite beautiful and appeal to me personally for their otherworldliness. Of course, the dances, beautiful music, and lovely scenery appeal most often to girls, but there is also the precocious boy at the party, a battle scene with the mouse king, and the nutcracker made into a prince that appeal to boys.

Beyond the ballet itself, the primary reason that The Nutcracker remains so popular is its connections to Christmas. It continues to be performed during the Christmas season across many nations, who relate to its theme. The first act opens to a Christmas celebration, which reinforces that it is a Christmas play. Although set in nineteenth century Russia with its formal gowns and traditional waltzes, everyone can relate to the scenes in their own lives – the Christmas party with its toasts and dancing, the quarreling between brother and sister (Clara and Fritz), boys roughhousing, girls playing quietly, a large Christmas tree, opening of gifts, a gift broken and repaired, and late departure carrying children who are falling asleep. Later, the host’s daughter Clara slips downstairs, presumably to look for presents and is frightened by mice. The grandfather clock in the hall strikes midnight and the magic begins. But it’s the traditional Christmas elements, which are all still so familiar, that draws us into the story and make the play relatable to us today.

Another major draw of The Nutcracker is the magic and mystery, which appeal to our innate love of fairy tales. From the moment the children’s uncle, Herr Drosselmeyer, appears, he enthralls the audience with his flying cloak, trick flowers, and magical automaton gifts. Later, when Anna returns to the darkened Christmas tree, Drosselmeyer appears and shrinks Clara until the tree towers over her. The mice attack her, and she is defended by toy soldiers come to life, led by the nutcracker she receives. After the battle, she and the nutcracker fly off to fairy land, where the pair receive magical gifts from around the globe of chocolate, coffee, tea, pastries, candies, and flowers, which dance for them. Most importantly, they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince, who are the Fairy Queen and King of the land of sweets. It has all the elements of all fairy tales – a sense of archaism or foreignness, escape into a fantasy land, supernatural aid, and a happy ending. It is the magical or fairy tale element that helps relate the story to that of Christmas. As I argued last year, these same elements exist in the story of Christmas and Christ, which are fairy tales come true.

Although often not comprehended because it is less overt, The Nutcracker also contains a reference to self-sacrifice, which is the essence of Christmas. In the play, the nutcracker comes to life and leads the soldiers against the Mouse King. When all seems lost, Clara puts herself in grave danger to save the nutcracker by distracting the Mouse King, and the nutcracker sacrifices himself to save Clara and destroy the Mouse King. Afterwards, the nutcracker is reborn as the Prince, who then takes Clara away to a magical land. It is, in fact, the gospel story told in short, complete with resurrection and rapture. It was this part of the play, which consisted of only a few moments, that most represents Christmas, for Christmas is ultimately a celebration of hope, faith, and love – the celebration of the coming of the One who sacrificed Himself for us and will one day take us to a beautiful land.

Many parents may oppose The Nutcracker because of its overt references to magic and fairies, but in doing so, they deny the tools that are most effective in reaching children. As I have repeatedly argued, fairy tales help bring children consolation and healing through escape from the trials of this world. They also help present the gospel story in myth, helping to “slip past watchful dragons,” as C.S. Lewis once wrote. The Nutcracker is one of the best examples of how fairy tales can reach children. It will be forever associated with Christmas, not only because it is set at Christmas, but because it tells the story of Christ in fairy tale guise.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

The Healing of a Land

With all of the bad news today, many people may look on our nation as having lost sight of its destiny, lost God’s favor, become cursed, and begun a rapid decline to a second-rate power. While we may become discouraged by our current situation, it is then that we should remember the Matter of Britain – the legend of King Arthur and how the Holy Grail healed Great Britain. It is possible to find renewal, but it requires a spiritual rebirth.

I’ve been working through my annual rereading of Taliessin Through Logres and Region of the Summer Stars, the collections of modern Arthurian poems by poet, playwright, novelist, and critic Charles Williams. Williams was a friend of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and T.S. Elliott and a member of the Oxford University literary group, the Inklings. His Arthurian poetry was the culmination of his poetic work, both in terms of the poetic accomplishment and treatment of the subject. Due to wide familiarity with the legends, he preferred to discuss discrete events in short modern verse rather than an epic metered poem. At the same time, he also treated many aspects of the legends in his own mythopoeic world, Logres. Much like Middle Earth, this was a kingdom outside of time on the edge of a mythical wood, Broceliande. Most of the poems include or are from the perspective of the Welsh poet, Taliessin, who was a converted bard and druid. As for the legends themselves, Williams believed that the poets of the nineteenth century had largely underemphasized the most important elements of the story, which he sought to correct. These included the fall of Britain, the exchange of Galahad for Arthur, and the healing of the land by the Grail. These same elements speak to the challenges of today.

In Williams’ version of the Matter of Britain, it was the sins of King Arthur that led to the fall of Britain, symbolized by the wounding of King Pelles. In the poem “The Crowning of Arthur,” given the choice of “the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom made for the king,” Arthur chose for the kingdom to serve him. Thus, although Logres was part of the Byzantine Empire, representing civil authority, and the church, representing religion, Arthur rejected these connections in favor of his own interests. His warlike nature resulted in a childless marriage and Guinevere turning to the love of Lancelot. Meanwhile, Arthur fathered Mordred with his own half-sister. In “The Vision of Empire,” Williams presented the Byzantine Empire as a body, suggesting the spiritual interconnectedness of people. One of the major concepts of his work was the idea of co-inherence, that all Christian believers are bound with each other and with God. In “The Founding of the Company,” he presented a group of friends in Camelot led by Taliessin who carried each other’s burdens. It was a rejection of these ideas that led to Arthur’s downfall. Whenever a people lose sight of the common bonds of humanity and love in favor of their own selfish ends, they are headed for a fall.

A second element of Williams’ poems that is relevant to today is the necessity of self-sacrifice and exchange. In line with his belief in co-inherence, Williams believed it possible for people to take the place of others in a redemptive exchange, similar to that of Christ for us. Thus, since Arthur and Guinevere were unable to bear a child, it fell to Lancelot, bewitched by Lycanthrope, and Helayne, the daughter of Pelles under the spell of Merlin’s sister. The resulting offspring was Sir Galahad, the one destined achieve the Grail quest and heal the land. Dindrane (called Blanchfleur), the sister of Percival, helped to raise Galahad at the Convent of Amesbury as a surrogate mother. Though Taliessin loved Dindrane, he gave her up for this greater mission. In one particularly poignant poem, “The Coming of Galahad,” when Galahad finally arrived in Camelot, Arthur and Guinevere took him to their own bed, recognizing the spiritual adoption of him as the son they never had. They made declarations of love, “and measured them the medium of exchange.” There were other exchanges, such as Bors leaving Carbonek in the place of Galahad to carry the son’s pardon to Lancelot, or Lamorack’s love of Morgause to cleanse her of fathering Mordred. For good to triumph over evil, there must be self-sacrifice, where those who are strong take the place of those who are unable to do what is right in the best interests of the nation.

Perhaps the most important element in Williams is his presentation of the healing of King Pelles by Galahad using the Holy Grail, which represented the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper). While other poets and authors mention the events in passing as one of several events in the Matter of Britain, Williams presents it as the central element that led to the restoration of Logres. He concludes the poem “The Last Voyage” about the trip of Galahad and the Grail to Sarras, “At the hour of the healing of Pelles / the two kings were one, by exchange of death and healing./ Logres was withdrawn to Carbonek; it became Britain.” In other words, only the healing provided by the Eucharist could heal the broken land. It is a message as powerful now as when he wrote it, and indeed it is the same with all nations. Our healing comes in embracing, not a Christian heritage, but Christ Himself. Afterwards, this healing of the land resulted in the healing between the knights of the Round Table, as seen in “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass” – “all the dead lords of the Table were drawn from their graves to the Mass”; the queen repented; Lancelot and Arthur were reconciled; “the wounded and dead king [Pelles and Arthur] entered into salvation to serve the Holy Thing.” Each partook of the Lord’s Supper and sang, “We exposed, We exalted the Unity.” They obtained unity in Christ.

There are many other interesting themes and ideas presented in the poetry of Williams, such as his views about romantic love leading us to divine love. I have in recent years continued to reread the poems, first because of their beauty – they are the only modern poetry that I have truly enjoyed – and also because of the power of the themes. While many complain of the complexity of the verse, which can seem obtuse to the uninitiate, the importance of the work and its influence on Lewis in particular make them worth many readings. Most of all, they teach us that even the most accursed lands can be healed through sacrifice and faith. As we enter this Christmas season, let us look to the Savior, who alone can heal this land, but only as we pursue Him and sacrifice ourselves for others.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Escape from War

One of the most interesting facts I’ve learned while reading the Letters of J.R.R Tolkien is that he began writing his stories while he was deployed during World War I. It was one of several similarities I found between us, for I also wrote fiction and poetry during all three of my deployments. Most deployed service members try to find ways of escaping their dreary lives away from home, whether through gaming, sports, or reading. Writing is one of the best ways to escape since it allows you to create a world where everything turns out happily in the end.

As I noted the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, which contain the most open declarations about his views of faith and literature. It also includes many biographical facts as he comments about events in his life. In one letter, he described that he began writing the mythology of Middle Earth while in a hospital after the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Many people don’t realize that Tolkien served in the trenches of World War I, and it is from this that he developed his views of the evils of mechanized warfare so evident in The Lord of the Rings. Although he didn’t comment about it at the time, when he was so absorbed with the war and had no idea his private world would amount to anything, later he recalled how he began to develop his own mythos based on Norse, Finish, and British legends, which he had studied in his short time at Oxford University before being assigned as an officer.

Tolkien considered his writing an escape, as became clear in letters composed during World War II. He wrote often to his son Christopher, who served in Africa during the war, and he frequently commented on the similarities of their experience. He observed that Christopher had to deal with the same old “camp” problems Tolkien had – regimentation, “grimy canteens,” “lectures in cold fogs,” and “huts full of blasphemy and smut.” He referred to Christopher as “a hobbit amongst the Urukhai,” meaning the tribe of dirty orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin in LOTR. In another letter, he added, “Only in one way was I better off: wireless [radio] was not invented,” which he called “the weapon of the fool, the savage, and the villain … to destroy thought.” He would later send Christopher copies of chapters of LOTR as he completed them. “You are suffering from suppressed ‘writing,’” he wrote, noting this was the result of Tolkien raising him on storytelling. Tolkien had been writing stories for his children for years – the Hobbit and Roverandom both originated as stories he read to his children. He wrote he had originally used “escapism” to adjust to dislocation in moving from South Africa as a child, “and I still draw on the conceptions then hammered out,” though as a soldier he had little time except on leave or in the hospital.

I related closely to many of these experiences. As I’ve retold many times, I originally wrote The Fairy Child to my children while deployed to Iraq and sent it home to them a chapter at a time. When I deployed the second and third time, my children begged me to write them new stories, which resulted in The Mermaid’s Quest and Troll-Bane (unpublished). While I wrote mainly for them, there were times when I also suffered from “suppressed writing” – I thought I would burst if I didn’t write something. For me, as with Tolkien at war, writing was an escape, a way of processing being separated from home, suffering through war, and being constantly in the company of others. Though I often enjoyed the fellowship of brothers in arms, I also at times wished for nothing but to get away from everyone else for quiet thinking. I used to go and sit on the roof of one of the office buildings just to get away from everyone. My writing was a way of dealing with the issues I faced during deployment just as much as it was a way to help my children deal with their issues.

One of my favorite poems is “The Prudent Jailer,” by C.S. Lewis, which perfectly describes the way those burdened by war often feel, where he compares living in this world to being in prison:

Escapists? Yes. Looking at bars
And chains, we think of files; and then
Of black nights without moon or stars
And luck befriending hunted men.

The jailer, he observes, tells the prisoners, “The proper study of prisoners is prison,” which he calls “tireless propaganda.” For most people, “stone walls cannot a prison make / half so secure as rigmarole.”

Most service members face many of the same feelings. They are trapped far from home under incredible stress and sometimes great violence. Is it any wonder that their thoughts turn to life back home or to other places and times where the story turns out happily? This is why fiction, and fairytales especially, are so powerful. For some, the very act of creating or writing is the escape. For others, it’s traveling, or exercising, or watching football, or planning vacations. It’s anything that helps them to escape the problems of warfare if only for a moment and regain the hope they have lost.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Allegory or Myth

Many people who read look for symbolism. This is a natural way of interpreting literature – to look for how books relate to real life. In many cases, the author encourages this use of symbolism. In other cases, readers view all symbols as allegory – e.g., Aslan, Harry Potter, Meg, and Frodo are all Christ-like figures who must sacrifice themselves to save others. Yet, while many authors seem comfortable in having their works described as allegory, it was a description that J.R.R. Tolkien often rejected while at the same time acknowledging there were certain symbolic parallels of his faith in the myth he created.

As I noted in my last article, I’ve recently been reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was an avid letter-writer, and it is here, rather than in his fiction, that he explains his religious and literary ideas. For many people, one of his most surprising views is that he detested allegory and chafed whenever anyone described Lord of the Rings as allegorical. “I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory,” he plainly stated in 1951 when shopping LOTR to several publishers. Most likely, he was thinking of the very specific definition of allegory as used in Medieval literature, in which everything in a story represents something else. Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the best-known allegory, although it dates after the Middle Ages. The point Tolkien makes may be a fine one, but it reflects his strict use of literary terms and his view of intentionality. People today use the term allegorical to mean anything written with any message in mind expressed as symbols, but in Tolkien’s time the more formal definition was more common. In any case, Tolkien repeatedly said he did not write the books to make a religious or political point. For those who believed the book was about World War II, he was quick to point out that he started planning LOTR some three years before the war started. While he did not deny certain innate elements of his belief came through, he intentionally avoided the topic of religion. There are no temples among the denizens of Middle Earth because God exists mainly in the background.

Tolkien was more comfortable describing LOTR as myth or fairy story, which he argued were also important for adults as for children. “Fairy story has its own mode of reflecting ‘truth’, different from allegory, or (sustained) satire, or ‘realism,’ and in some way more powerful. But first of all it must succeed just as a tale,” he wrote a magazine editor in 1956. He wished to create a story with a history and background so realistic (what he called “mythopoeic”) that the truth it reflected would not be readily apparent. At the same time, Tolkien himself had earlier acknowledged that the use of allegorical language and symbols were unavoidable, and that, the better a story, “the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations,” and the better allegory is written, “the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.” In this sense, Tolkien accepted that his stories did have a meaning that related to the real world, which crept in despite no intent on his part to do so. In short, he did not deny that his mythical world reflected his personal views, but the fact he did not try to make this a point is what made it so effective.

When asked what he thought was the meaning of LOTR, Tolkien acknowledged three issues in which his story reflected reality: Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. The idea of a fall was perhaps most prominent. Decline of peoples due to a moral failure is a frequent theme in history, from Atlantis to Rome. It is also a biblical theme harkening back to Eden. The mythos of the Valar, the corruption of the Elves by Morgoth and then Sauron, and the corruption of Numenor by Sauron are all examples of deception of people resulting in the destruction and fall of nations living in veritable paradise. In LOTR, the corruption of Saruman, of Theoden, and of Denethor follow this theme. A major part of the drama was trying to prevent a fall and then how to address a fall.

Another area that greatly concerned Tolkien was the overarching concern with mortality. He created two different categories of peoples with different timelines – elves and mayar, who are both eternal; and man, hobbits, and dwarves, who are not. For man, the great temptation was always to gain immortality; for the elves, the focus was preventing the passage of time and death of the mortal world and beings. This also reflects Eden, since the original temptation was for man to become like God. This remained the great temptation throughout the LOTR and its myth and is the subject of considerable commentary. Is it worth Arwen giving up immortality to marry Aragorn? Do the eternal people wish to pass to the West or remain and keep a hold on Middle Earth? Elven realms, such as Imladris and Lothlorien, existed as strongholds where nothing ever changed. In the end, however, they all passed to the West, leaving only mortal men, for this was their destiny.

Finally, Tolkien saw a great struggle of machinery against nature. For Tolkien, the machinery of Sauron and Saruman tried to change nature to give them advantage, but they ended up destroying everything that made fighting worthwhile. He likewise argued that magic was a type of machinery, for it sought to change the natural order to gain dominance of others. This was not the case with what some called elven magic, for they were simply using their natural abilities to create things of beauty consistent with nature. It was the use of power to dominate that defined magic. Thus, many saw the machinery of Sauron and Saruman as magic, while Tolkien saw it as a type of machinery because it tried to achieve the same purpose. For example, use of rings to maintain life unnaturally or control others was the type of machinery against which Tolkien fought. So also in the real world, where people use science to unnaturally extend life, technology to create an artificial world, and political manipulation to control others. Tolkien condemned these as heartily as he did the magic of the enemy in LOTR.

Thus, while Tolkien denied that the LOTR was an allegory, he admitted that it reflected his views in specific areas, such as his view of fall, of the temptation of immortality, and the desire to use nature instead of working within it. In fact, all fairy tales and myths reflect a certain reality, which is that there are powers greater than us that work all things together for our good. Despite his protestations that his tale had any allegorical meaning, it nevertheless reflected his views. All art reflects the views of its creator – it is impossible for it not to, for what we create naturally contains an imprint of ourselves. Such is the nature of art, creation, and literature.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Good, Evil, or In-Between

For most people, life is about a struggle between good and evil. Whether you define good as adhering to a specific religion, moral code, or political cause, everyone tends to see the world in black and white. Those who agree with you are good; those who disagree are bad. Our literature tends to reflect this same division, whether it’s heroes versus villains, investigators versus criminals, or warriors and spies versus national enemies. Many see books such as the Lord of the Rings the same way, yet J.R.R. Tolkien often rejected such labels. For him, people weren’t good or evil but somewhere in between.

I’ve recently been reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Like C.S. Lewis (though fewer of his letters survive), Tolkien was both an avid letter-writer and a packrat who kept nearly every scrap of paper he wrote. As a historian, I’ve always found great value in correspondence for gaining insight into people’s real views, since many people are much more open in letters about their feelings than in their public pronouncements. Tolkien’s letters provide us with marvelous insight into his travails in completing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as well as problems he had with publishing his works, such as the fact it took him several years to publish LOTR after he completed it. We can follow his career in light of World War I and World War II and see him comment on the issues of the day. It is here, primarily, rather than in his fiction, that we get a sense of his religious and literary views.

One of Tolkien’s views that has not received a lot of commentary was his rejection of his characters as symbols of good or evil. This was and remains a common interpretation of LOTR, which many see as a basic tale of good versus evil in a fantasy universe ­– Gandalf is good and Sauron is evil, etc. Yet Tolkien himself rejected this interpretation: “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil….Pardonable, perhaps…in people in a hurry, and with only a fragment to read.” Aside from Boromir’s temptation and Denethor’s despair, he pointed most prominently to the corruption of the elves by Morgoth in his then-unpublished Silmarillion. A few years later, he clarified, “In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing.” Rather, evil was merely corrupted good. Just as Satan was a fallen angel in Christian theology, so also Morgoth and Sauron were also fallen angelic creatures. While Sauron was as close to absolute evil as one could get, Tolkien observed that “he had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the earth. But he went further than human tyrants in price and cost for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.”

Tolkien held similar views of the main characters in LOTR, whom he saw, not as good or evil, but as imperfect creatures who strove toward good and often made mistakes. Nowhere was this as clear as his treatment of Frodo. Several people had written to him questioning why Frodo had been given such honor when he had failed by claiming the ring for his own and only destroyed it accidentally. Tolkien’s answer was that Frodo “was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He (and the Cause) were saved – by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury.” He admitted that Frodo failed but rejected the idea of an “indominable hero.” Instead, he appealed to the Lord’s Prayer and being led not into temptation but delivered from evil. “A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning.” In his response to a similar letter, he noted, “It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome – in themselves. In this case the cause (not the ‘hero’) was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted.” In short, even imperfect creatures who try to be good must rely on a higher power, which works out all things for a greater good.

Although many accuse Tolkien of simplicity or presenting shallow characters in a fairy-tale ending, his characters reflected his view of the world, which is that no one is purely evil or good. Rather, we are fallen creatures who struggle. Even when we choose good, we all sometimes fail, and even when we choose evil, our deeds still work out for good. In those cases, it is the grace of God that allows the cause of good to succeed, especially when we are personally weak. There is a fairytale ending, but it comes not because of the power of heroic characters, but because of the power of the author of history, who carries us to meet our destiny even when we lack the strength.

© 2021 J.D. Manders