Fearing Black Riders

I think I came to love The Lord of the Rings a bit later than many fantasy enthusiasts. This is because, although I remember trying to read it more than once as a lass, I wasn’t able to get past the Black Riders.

They terrified me.

There is evil in Narnia, but somehow, despite seeing how the characters I cared about suffered, and even faced possible painful death, I almost never felt seriously threatened by their experiences. I was eager to see how they pulled (or were pulled!) through, but somehow I always had a sense of assurance they would, and that all would be well. This kept any real sense of menace at bay. I realize now, looking back, that this underlying sense of assurance – a vain hope that there really aren’t any Black Riders, perhaps? – was one of the most important things I was looking for in the stories I lived on in my early years.

The only real exception to that Narnian sense of assurance came in the final volume of the Chronicles, The Last Battle. It was hard to read about those losses on and off the battlefield. Somehow, they represented a threat of a different magnitude. It was the first time I can remember feeling the real shadow of menace over Narnia. As a result, I didn’t reread that book with warm enthusiasm the way I repeatedly reread the others – at least, not for many years.

But how I felt about The Last Battle was nothing compared to what it was like to encounter the Black Riders. Fearing Black Riders was the sort of thing that makes one shudder and put a book down, unfinished. Which is what I did for several years with The Lord of the Rings.
As it turned out, I had to meet a few “Black Riders” in real life before I was able to appreciate their significance in fiction.

Flash forward a few years, into adulthood: There I was on the run, as it were, with my own Black Riders in pursuit. The terror was real. The horror of it was in my life!

It was only when I was beyond any hope of helping myself that it finally became clear to me that help comes from God. Not to escape in a moment of deus ex machina dramatics, but rather to bear the experience. And for me, having help to bear the fact of Black Rider presence in this sad beautiful world was significant indeed.

After that, I came to love The Lord of the Rings as I’ve loved very few other stories. What a comfort to be reminded that although the road is long and hard, following it is the only hope there is. What a comfort to be reminded that whatever astonishing burden we must bear on the road is meant for us to bear – but not without help.

What a comfort to be reminded that even though we don’t understand everything that is happening, if we only follow through as much as we can, then even when we fail, all is not necessarily lost.

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

I was talking with an artist friend the other day, and the name Thomas Kinkade was mentioned.

“Oh,” my friend said.  “Was he the guy who painted all of those kitschy houses?”

You remember the painter Thomas Kinkade, right?  He certainly did paint a lot of pictures of houses, some in a kind of pseudo-old-English cottage style that looks like something out of the sanitized version of a fairy tale.

And yet, the Kinkade house I remember best was set against a background of misty woods at twilight.  You can almost feel the chill of the cool evening air in the rich blue-grays and purples he used to suggest deepening shadows between those trees.

And these shadows are serious; you know at a glance that this forest is no place to go wandering alone and unprepared in the evening. Probably not during the day, either. It’s not a place you would be wise to enter without a firm purpose at any time, because it clearly is not “safe.”

It’s because of that cool shadowed forest that your eye is drawn to the light within the heart of the house at the center of the painting.  Behind the multi-paned glass of the cottage windows golden light, tinged with red, glows.  A hearth, a lantern, many candles – whatever the source, that light is there, and it tells you that within this house you will find warmth and comfort.  Of course there will be food in such a house, and drink – lots of it, whatever it is you need to make you feel better as you pause for a few moments of rest and refreshment in the midst of your quest.

Some people think this is nothing more than sheer escapism, or even a lie about the nature of reality.

But I prefer to think of it as a small yet significant moment of what Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” called “consolation.” He was speaking of the necessity of a happy ending in a fairy story. To me, any opportunity to come in out of the cold, even if for only one night, in the midst of one’s harrowing journey through that dark and dangerous forest, is like a promise (an earnest or token, if you will) of that final consolation.  How bleak and stark would Middle Earth be without Tom Bombadil’s house! Without Rivendell, without Lothlorien!

But this temporary respite from cold, from hunger, from darkness, and from evil, doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the existence of such things.  It doesn’t mean we truly believe that Mordor has gone away.  We aren’t toddlers playing peek-a-boo, believing that because we’ve hidden our faces behind our own hands no one can see us.  We know full well that just because we’re spending the night in a clean, well-lighted place doesn’t mean the dark forest is not still out there.

I don’t think Thomas Kinkade was so hugely popular because all of his fans were silly enough to believe his stuff depicted reality in the same sense that, say, Guernica depicts reality.

But why is it not realistic to acknowledge that within every human soul is a longing for the light and warmth and comfort of home?  And that sometimes, even if it’s only for a brief while, we actually find it?