The Book Meme Challenge: Favorite classic book
You may find it peculiar that it’s taken me the better part of a month to decide what to write here. After all, my go-to solution for picking my subject books has been not to pick one from among them, but rather to write about all of them. But I had such trouble with classic. Does it refer to things of Hellenic or Roman antiquity; high quality; setting a type; or simply that which has renown?
An important question. Pray do not think I am putting the cart before the horse when I put the Horse before my definition…and yet, even now the Horse is not the only book up for discussion. I would consider
The Ballad of the White Horse and That Hideous Strength
Wonderful books, both, and so full of artistry, deeply rooted faith, beautiful words, and weighty symbolism that it is laughable to think of discussing them in any depth here, nor shall I try. But while rereading the latter a few days ago, I found this passage:
Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell; a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers: the home of Sidney – and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain. …..In every age they and the little Logres which gathered round them have been the fingers which gave the tiny shove or the almost imperceptible pull, to prod England out of the drunken sleep or to draw her back from the final outrage into which Britain tempted her.
Now, compare that to some verses of Book VIII of Ballad, “The Scouring of the Horse”:
But the young earl said: “Ill the saints,
The saints of England, guard
The land wherein we pledge them gold;
The dykes decay, the King grows old,
And surely this is hard,
“That we be never quit of them;
That when his head is hoar
He cannot say to them he smote,
And spared with a hand hard at the throat,
‘Go, and return no more.’”
Then Alfred smiled. And the smile of him
Was like the sun for power.
But he only pointed: bade them heed
Those peasants of the Berkshire breed,
Who plucked the old Horse of the weed
As they pluck it to this hour.
“Will ye part with the weeds for ever?
Or show daisies to the door?
Or will you bid the bold grass
Go, and return no more?
“So ceaseless and so secret
Thrive terror and theft set free;
Treason and shame shall come to pass
While one weed flowers in a morass;
And like the stillness of stiff grass
The stillness of tyranny.
“Over our white souls also
Wild heresies and high
Wave prouder than the plumes of grass,
And sadder than their sigh.
“And I go riding against the raid,
And ye know not where I am;
But ye shall know in a day or year,
When one green star of grass grows here;
Chaos has charged you, charger and spear,
Battle-axe and battering-ram.
“And though skies alter and empires melt,
This word shall still be true:
If we would have the horse of old,
Scour ye the horse anew.
“One time I followed a dancing star
That seemed to sing and nod,
And ring upon earth all evil’s knell;
But now I wot if ye scour not well
Red rust shall grow on God’s great bell
And grass in the streets of God.”
Lewis and Chesterton, to be sure, seem most concerned with the duality of nations, but for me, the classic tale is perhaps more basic: that while we yet remain in this long-broken world, there is ever a struggle to keep the weeds from overtaking the garden; to keep the heathen from overrunning the faithful; to keep heresies from choking God’s Word in our hearts. Not that we are without help (God be praised for that), but we must be vigilant, as the weeds creep silently and Devil’s Snare coils about us before we even remember what sword we have that may slice it away.
“Gosh, ‘Psichore. Good and evil. Yeah, that’s pretty classic.” No, it is more than good and evil. It is the fact often ignored in fairy tales (until Disney decides the time is ripe for a sequel) that good fights with evil, and triumphs over evil, yet the story does not end forever. For evil rises again – perhaps quickly, perhaps after a great while – and when it does so, good fights again, to win that hour of panting peace between storms. Not that this is preferable to rest, but let us claim what we can; and we cannot deny that the shadows in the picture bring out the beauty of the lights while we tarry here in the Shadowlands.
And at last so I show my hand, that “classic” means the thing so fundamental that we cannot lose interest in it – at least, until we pass further up and further in to the sphere without darkness at all. Then shall this classic tale of struggle, and peace, and further struggle be a tale of antiquity indeed.
(On a note related to Logres: in the course of writing this I found an excellent essay on Merlin Ambrosius and his place within That Hideous Strength, as well as the concept of Logres itself. Go and read it! Nolan Lynch’s observations are well-backed and well-put. Find them here.)