Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Lessons from A Little Princess

"It had been hard to be a princess today, Melchisedec," she said.  "It has been harder than usual.  It gets harder as the weather grows colder and the streets get more sloppy.  When Lavinia laughed at my muddy skirt as I passed her in the hall, I thought of something to say all in a flash--and I only just stopped myself in time.  You can't sneer back at people like that--if you are a princess.  But you have to bite your tongue to hold yourself in."

Sara Crewe, protagonist of Frances Hodson Burnett's A Little Princess, seemed to be living a royal life.  Though her mother had died when Sara was quite young, she was raised by an adoring father who lavished her with attention, affection, and gifts.  Money was not lacking, so Sara wore the finest of clothing and played with the most exquisite dolls--dolls who had their own luxurious wardrobe. 

Captain Crewe, who is stationed in India, decides to enroll Sara in a private boarding school in London, run by Miss Minchin.  Sara enjoys special privileges there, such as her own room and maid, as well as a carriage and pony.

Yet, despite this finery, Sara remains a humble, generous, and kind girl.  She seeks out the chubby, slow-witted Ermengarde as a friend and becomes an adoptive "mother" to Lottie, the little girl who throws tantrums.  Sara also finds ways to comfort and help the serving maid, Becky.

Sara speculates about her position in life, realizing that she has been blessed.  It is easy to be kind when life is easy; how do we act when our comforts are removed?  It is not as though we are entitled to a hot shower, a car with no dead battery, or short lines in the grocery store.  

"Things happen to people by accident," she used to say.  "A lot of nice accidents have happened to me.  It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them.  It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked.  Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered?"

Then, abruptly, Sara's comforts are completely gone.  Her father dies.  Her fortune disappears.  She is penniless and alone, without any family at all.  From princess to pauper, Sara moves to the attic with Becky and toils long hours for Miss Minchin, cleaning, tutoring, and running errands through the sludge and cold of the London streets.

Sara is stripped of everything she had, but there is one gift left that even poverty and the abuse she receives from Miss Minchin cannot take away: her imagination.

Sara is gifted with an incredible ability to create stories that become as real and vivid as reality.  Before her father's death, she would captivate the other students with her tales.  

When she sat or stood in the midst of a circle and began to invent wonderful things, her green eyes grew big and shining, her cheeks flushed, and, without knowing that she was doing it, she began to act and made what she told lovely or alarming by the raising or dropping of her voice, the bend and sway of her slim body, and the dramatic movement of her hands.

Thus her bare attic room with the broken fireplace, threadbare blanket, and single window becomes her cell in the Bastille and she communicates with the other "prisoner" (Becky) through secret knocks.  Sara imagines herself a solider, who must march on through battle, despite thirstiness, wounds, or hunger.

She stares at the large family who lives nearby, brothers and sisters who have a loving father and mother.  Sara gives them pretend names and feels affection for them, though she has never met them.  

Most importantly, it is her imagination that allows her to maintain her spirit of kindliness and generosity.  For though she is penniless, Sara can still remain a princess  in her actions.  

"Whatever comes," she said, " cannot alter one thing.  If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside.  It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold , but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it." 

And that is how she conducts herself through her suffering: as a princess in disguise.  When she faces Miss Minchin's irrational wrath or scolding from the staff, Sara remains silent, fighting back her words to maintain a composure fitting royalty.  For, as she explains, the only thing stronger than rage is being able to hold it in.

Imagination allows Sara to find joys in the small things, just as much as she had in her wealth before.  It helps her give, even when the cost is great.  On one occasion, Sara, completely famished, finds a sixpence in the muddy streets and buys six fresh buns from the bakery.  She spies another young girl, more destitute and starving than herself, huddled in the street.  

"If I'm a princess," she was saying, "if I'm a princess--when they were poor and driven from their thrones--they always shared--with the populace--if they met one poorer and hungrier than themselves.  They always shared ... "

Sara gives her widow's mite.  She shares in her poverty because she is a princess. 

Imagination is a curious thing.  It is unique to humans.  With it we can perceive something beyond the concrete here and now.  Sara saw beyond her rags and the injustice of her condition.  Her imagination allowed her to infuse a supernatural purpose to everything she did.  It gave her strength and courage to be generous when giving truly hurt.  

Sara was a princess, a reality that became more brazenly obvious when it was disguised behind her beggar's apparel. 

But we are all royalty by our baptismal birthright.  God is King of Kings and we?  We are His sons and daughters--princes and princesses.  If we can imagine that ... if we can make that mental picture as vivid and powerful as Sara was able ... then how differently would we live our lives?  

Beyond my social class, profession, or possessions, would my actions, words, and disposition show me to be a daughter of the King?  


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Lessons from The Hobbit

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

Mr. Bilbo Baggins, protagonist of Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, is involuntarily recruited to participate in an adventure.  He is not the adventuresome type (or, rather, he doesn't believe himself to be) and would much prefer the comfort of a second breakfast and his feather-bed.  Yet, to Bilbo's astonishment, he finds himself on a most unexpected and dangerous journey.

His companions are a company of twelve dwarves, the leader of which is Thorin Oakenshield.  Their destination is the Lonely Mountain, Thorin's homeland where the dwarves had long ago mined an underground home and crafted precious treasures of gold, silver, and gems.  Yet, all had been stolen from them: a fierce and terrifying dragon named Smaug took control of the mountain, killing and pillaging all in his path. 

The dwarves are now determined to reclaim their long lost treasure, even if it means risking their lives.

Past trolls, goblins, giant spiders, and wolves the dwarves and Bilbo persevere.  They journey through the dark and dreaded Mirkwood Forest.  And yet, as fearsome as these dangers are, they are nothing to be compared with what awaits them on the Lonely Mountain.

Indeed, Tolkien builds the suspense as the dwarves and Bilbo finally reach the desolation of Smaug, the ravaged territory claimed by him in which no one dares venture.  

It was a weary journey, and a quiet and stealthy one.  There was no laughter or song or sound of harps, and the pride and hopes which had stirred in their hearts at the singing of the old songs by the lake died away to a plodding gloom.  They knew that they were drawing near to the end of their journey, and that it might be a very horrible end.  The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair.  There was little grass, and before long there was neither brush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished.  They were coming to the Desolation of the Dragon ...

Bilbo, aided by the ring that makes him invisible, ventures alone down the dark tunnels of the mountain until he finds Smaug, fast asleep on a bed of gold and riches.  Enlisted as Burglar of the group, Bilbo fulfills his job responsibilities and seizes a goblet.  Returning to the dwarves, they are overjoyed at seeing a small portion of their treasure restored ... until Smaug awakens and immediately realizes that one of his prized possessions is absent.  

It seems the battle of all battles is begun.  The dwarves and Bilbo barely escape with their lives as they hide in an interior tunnel as Smaug smashes and obliterates the side of the mountain they had first entered.  Smaug then seeks vengeance on Lake-town, whose human residents had aided the dwarves.  And it is there that the loathsome dragon is actually shot and killed.

The plot had taken a most unexpected turn.  Tolkien had been very methodical in the unfolding of events.  Bilbo and the dwarves would alternate between danger and a period of safety and regrouping as they traversed the land.  It had been clear that Smaug was the biggest threat ... or was he?  I was a little let-down that Smaug had been destroyed so quickly.  Where was the battle?  Where was the all-consuming fire of the heinous beast?

What I had not foreseen was that the ultimate battle was a much greater one--more deadly than warfare with a scaled, winged reptile.  And the battlefield is interior.

Once Smaug absented himself, Bilbo and the dwarves explored the treasure.  Thorin in particular was searching for the Arkenstone, the most magnificent gem of all that was fashioned in the very heart of the mountain.  (Unbeknownst to him, Bilbo--in true burglar fashion--had earlier secretly pocketed the gem, considering it his promised portion of the wealth.)  

The dwarves were overjoyed to once again hold in their hands the precious objects that had been theirs long ago.  But something about touching the gold and having it in their grasp awakened certain desires and feelings ...

But also he did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts.  Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him.  Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there, about which were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race.

Once Smaug is destroyed by the Lake-men, they come to the Lonely Mountain.  They want a portion of the treasure to help rebuild their homes, which had been destroyed by Smaug's wrath.  Their leader, the slayer of Smaug, also explains that a portion of the gold had long ago been promised to the city and rightfully belonged to them.

It was all very reasonable and just.  Distributing some of the wealth in such a way would still leave an outstanding amount in the hands of the dwarves.

Yet, Thorin rejects the requests and promises war upon any who seek his treasure.  He is King Under the Mountain and the gold belongs to him.

Tension mount and weapons are sharpened.  The battle is not with the dragon, but with those who should be allies and friends.  And it is all wildly spinning out of control because the interior battle inside Thorin's heart has been lost.

Greed and lust reign in the heart of him who could bring peace to a region that had long been plagued by Smaug.  

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil ... " (1 Timothy 6:10).

How often have we seen the destructive nature of money and the lure of wealth?  It divides families: money is the leading cause of disagreement in relationships.  How many celebrities, with a personal wealth in the millions, begin a downward spiral of destructive behavior?

The foil to Thorin is, of course, Bilbo.  When the party sets out from Bilbo's house as the narrative opens, it is Thorin who appears the leader.  He and the other dwarves complain about the burden Bilbo is to their group.  But as The Hobbit proceeds, Bilbo comes forward as the unexpected head of operations.  His cleverness and courage come to the dwarves' rescue multiple times.

And when Thorin is defeated by the love of money, Bilbo's simplicity is his defense.  The treasures in Bilbo's heart are not lofty, but they are precious.  His treasure is home with its green fields and hot tea kettle.  

Thus, when they are at the brink of war, Bilbo gives the prized Arkenstone to the Lake-men, in hopes it would be sufficient leverage to make peace with Thorin.  The hobbit forfeits his share in the treasure--his reward for the perilous quest--for a greater good.

Is it not a great wealth to be happy and content with little?

Tolkien's Middle Earth is, without a doubt, very different from our Earth.  However, the central battle of his novel is one being waged today.  How much do I value money?  Do I let it control and direct my life and actions?  Am I able to detach from what I possess and keep my heart centered on the much greater treasures in heaven?

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.