discarded lies: monday, january 26, 2015 2:21 am zst
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daily archive: 01/08/2008
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Northernness and the Soul of Winter
Once Christmas is past I feel I'm on the brink of an abyss and can barely make out Spring on the other side. Spiritually this is a bleak time, a dry and cold season before the Resurrection. There are however memories of a sustaining wintery austerity. I had not ever given this much thought until I had read deeper into the works of Tolkien and CS Lewis. Both shared an affinity for a profound mood that Lewis called "northernness". Squadrons of scholars have made much of this and they seem to linger on the aspect related to Nordic culture and mythology. Those aspects are certainly catalytic to both authors' discovery and appreciation of this sublime and other-worldly sentiment. And no doubt much of that tradition's finer mythopoetic acheivements are infused with and inspired by this "northernness" But is there a transcendental element unrelated to tribal culture?

Lewis gives us a clear and vivid description of this deep emotion. In his case he first experienced it when reading a Beatrix Potter story as a child. As absurd an association as this might seem to an adult, to his juvenile sensibilities an enduring impression was made:

It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. . . . It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened and . . . the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawaken it. - Surprised by Joy


This same mood was evoked even more strongly later in his life by Longfellow's King Olaf:

"I heard a voice, that cried, ëBalder the Beautiful / Is dead, is dead!í


[snip]

And through the misty air / Passed like the mournful cry / Of sunward sailing cranes."
- ibid


Lewis describes his reaction:

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky. I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote) and then . . . found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it. - ibid


I've some experience with northernness and as with Lewis the strongest apprension of it occurred when I was a child.

I have a very strong memory of a particularly happy Christmas Day. I could see the snow on the pines in the woods behind the house. Dad had opened up our traditional gift to him, an assortment of sausage and cheeses and was doling out slices of this manna and ambrosia to all who desired them. A deep peace and contentment settled on the house. As we shared this tribal communion, the arctic wind made the tops of the trees sway against the stark blue infinity of sky.

Another strong recurring theme would come later in autumn, usually while traveling a northbound highway with wooded verges. Carried as it was on Canadian winds, there were strong associations with the French-Canadians I grew up with. There were elements of ice fishing, the pitchy smell of sawmills and drying flannel, extinct brands of chewing gum and the antiques that dispensed them. But over all was the presence of a vast northern expanse, the playground of the Wendigo and Manitou. Every year when winter winds make all else silent, it comes back to me.

Tolkien of course shared this sense with Lewis and in fact it was a cornerstone of their friendship. Both men also understood that this uplifting of the soul was a longing for something eternal, similar one can say to Blake's seeing eternity in a grain of sand. In his agnostic phase Lewis equated it with the German concept of sehnsucht or longing.

Tolkien later related it to his term "eucatastrophe". Simple put a eucatastrophe is a happy ending. But it had a special significance for him juxtaposed to the Norse and Finnish epics he studied so deeply [which were, like their Mediterranean analogs, essentially tragic] and in his estimation the Gospel was the greatest example. Lewis similarly converted the mood of northernness into a spiritual value which he called Joy.

I tend to agree that this sentiment is an echo of an eternal transcendental spirtual reality. But I wonder if it is universal. Would someone from a more southern latitude recognize it, or would they have some corresponding mood that had different, less "nordic" trappings?

There may be something uniquely nordic about northernness. I have experienced similar emotions looking at Cartagena from a distance, or a childhood memory of a seascape that I imagined was an Aegean harbor. But maybe I was translating northerness into a different topographical idiom.

It could well be a regional phenomenon. Winter is a disciplinarian and it lends itself more to an asceticism sense of loneliness that distinguishes northernness. One would expect to find more monasteries among the cold mountain peaks than on the shores of a South Sea island.

I do suspect that regardless of origin, we all have a capacity to appreciate northernness. For myself and all I pray blessings from the Infinite through the soul of the season to the souls of us all.

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