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?