In spite of my young atheism and my naïve devotion to scientific optimism, profoundly religious works of literature shaped my spirit. The first novels I read, in the summer between second and third grade, were The Chronicles of Narnia. I devoured the books, one after another, ignorant enough of the Bible and Christian teachings to be oblivious to their blatantly religious overtones. I was distraught when Aslan was sacrificed on the stone table, and in my child’s memory that despair and sense of injustice is drawn out so that in recent years, when I reread The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was shocked at how quickly the book moves from the great lion’s death to his rebirth. How could a handful of pages be so temporally magnified by their content as to have seemed almost endless? How could a piece of literature have so profoundly altered my perception of what we all-too-often think of as an objective, inexorable march of time?
The most powerful moment of the series was, for me, The Last Battle. I was horrified to the point of denial at the wanton, cruel destruction of the world I had grown to love. I could not believe what was happening to Narnia, and I felt betrayed by the author who had led me along through six books in the world of his imagination only to turn that world over, in the end, to the hands of a greedy, apathetic, disdainful faction in the seventh. When at last the children and their companions met again in Aslan’s country I cried. At first I was ashamed of my tears, but I remember very clearly thinking to myself, Why should I care if anyone sees me crying? This is more important than what people think of me.
I cried at the realization of the ending— both the end of my experience of reading these books for the first time, and for the end of Narnia; and I cried that so many Narnians had fled in terror from their salvation. But my sorrow was mixed with the unspeakable joy of the children chasing their golden lion into the ever-ascending heights of his indescribably beautiful land. These reflections on the experience of reading Lewis’s series are by no means unique, but what strikes me now is how that feeling of profound bittersweetness became associated, for me, with a color.
Though I have few clear, visual memories from my early childhood, the image of the cover of The Last Battle was burned into my mind. When I finished reading, still half-overcome by the ending of it all, I turned to the cover as though to remind myself that it had all been real. In the picture on the cover Aslan stood in the doorway to his world, face serene, bathed in the vivid green light of the stars returning home. Looking long on that image, I said goodbye to Narnia, reassured that my travels through that land had been real.
After that, and to the discomfort of those who asked, I always tried to describe my favorite color as “bright green, not like neon green, but like the color of leaves when the sun is coming through them.” It was too specific for a child, and beneath that explanation was something spiritual. I would often sit or pace on the grass and look up at leaves moving softly in the breeze, and that color would always come with a tinge of the bittersweet emotion of joy and wonder at rebirth and renewal— and always beneath it the hint of loss. In the sun-drenched leaves I found a living reminder of Aslan’s features, calm and wise, in the light of the stars streaming home.
It was not long after Lewis’ Chronicles that I read Tolkien’s Hobbit and, shortly after that, his Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit never made much of an impression on me. It was, perhaps, too silly, too frivolous, and too intentionally childish for me after mourning the loss of Narnia. But the Middle Earth of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy quickly supplanted Narnia as the real world of my fantasy. Middle Earth revealed itself as a darker world, and everywhere that world was fading, dying, passing away, like my mourning for Narnia and something deeper prolonged and quiet; the whole of the trilogy was suffused with the sense of loss and longing that had so struck me in The Last Battle, but where Aslan’s world had burst through at the end into a brilliant array of innumerable, vivid colors, Middle Earth offered only fleeting glimpses of that unnameable beauty in pale gold, or the silver light of the moon. This was more real to me, and the characters of The Lord of the Rings shared in my struggle with the fact that what is most beautiful is seen, in this life, most briefly and as though through a shroud of mist.
Tolkien’s communion with the pale watercolors of his world literally and fundamentally changed my most basic visual perception. Since reading Tolkien’s trilogy, I have been suspicious of the spelling “gray.” It sounds ugly in my mind: nasal, and sharp. When I see the word “gray,” the color that comes to mind is flat and empty, a simple middle-point between white and black— a thick matte paint. Tolkien’s “grey” is different. The sound of the word is softer, extended, and within this color there are hints of silver, green and the blues of a clouded sea. When the fellowship receives the gift of grey cloaks from the Elves of Lothlórien, this multiplicity reveals itself, as:
It was hard to say of what colour they were: grey with the hue of twilight under the trees they seemed to be; and yet if they were moved, or set in another light, they were green as shadowed leaves, or brown as fallow fields by night, dusk-silver as water under the stars.
The cloaks contain all of these colors within them, and it only takes a shift in our perspective to see one or another revealed. When asked about their “magic” one of the elves replies, “Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue of all these things under the twilight under Lórien that we love.” That greying quality of Tolkien’s twilights, loved by the elves, held these colors together.
But the wholesomeness of these cloaks was in contrast to Saruman’s robes “of many colors.” When Gandalf confronts his fellow Wizard, he describes the “robes, which had seemed white, [and] were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.” Saruman claims the superiority of his new robes, saying that “the white light can be broken,” but Gandalf responds that “in [that] case it is no longer white, and he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Where the elven cloaks were a subtle, loving mingling of natural, subdued colors, Saruman’s robes evoke a jarring brilliance, as when white light is passed through a prism in the hunger for knowledge of its composition.
This subtle difference makes Tolkien’s grey a more paradoxical containment of all colors. Like the concept of the trinity, Tolkien’s grey is not simply a mixture of disparate things or a halfway point between light and darkness; it is not a greenish-grey, but rather grey that is also green, a green that we can only see when the time, and place, and perhaps even our eyes are right. In its containment of paradox, Tolkien’s grey is more real, and the sense of the many-in-one which it planted in my spirit as a child returns to me whenever I look upon an old stone wall or a field of grass in the moonlight. When I tried to understand the trinity, it was in Tolkien’s grey that I found my entryway. To think that Tolkien, with a theology far less obvious in the plot and dialog, could plant the seed of a theological concept so abstract and dear to him, in a child’s perception of color. It is a part of me, now and forever, and though I do not share Tolkien’s faith, I will always and with gratitude bear the mark of it.