Thought Catalog

Green And Grey

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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. TC mark

image – David Bedell

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    • http://twitter.com/pegghetti Peggy Jankovic

      This is absolutely, wonderfully brilliant. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen something on Thought Catalog that I can relate to this strongly, actually.

      (brb, reading your other articles)

      • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

        Thanks so much!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jordan-Fields/100000625951408 Jordan Fields

      Wonderful.  Thank you for boosting the quality of  TC.  

    • Hex

      Interesting. Have you read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series yet? If you ever loved Lewis (and especially if his Christian apocalyptic thing upset you) and Tolkien (but were perhaps troubled by his twilight palette,  you’ll be fascinated by Pullman, I think. I’d be really interested in the color synaesthesia you’d get from him. Deep reds, blacks and golds, I think, with a lot of hard azure skies and long expanses of white shot with electric yellow.

      • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

        I have read Pullman, and I’ll be rereading him again later this fall. Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up piece. The Christian message of Lewis doesn’t trouble me as much as it once did, and doesn’t trouble me at all in Tolkien, though I’m not Christian myself. My first reading of Pullman disappointed me, but I’ve lately been reflecting on how much that has to do with never having read him as a child. In my rereading, I’m going to try to set aside my literary-analysis-hyper-critic mind and see it just with wonder, and see how it holds up in such a reading; and I definitely didn’t pay enough attention to color in my first reading of it.

      • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

        I have read Pullman, and I’ll be rereading him again later this fall. Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up piece. The Christian message of Lewis doesn’t trouble me as much as it once did, and doesn’t trouble me at all in Tolkien, though I’m not Christian myself. My first reading of Pullman disappointed me, but I’ve lately been reflecting on how much that has to do with never having read him as a child. In my rereading, I’m going to try to set aside my literary-analysis-hyper-critic mind and see it just with wonder, and see how it holds up in such a reading; and I definitely didn’t pay enough attention to color in my first reading of it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

      You and I are two very different people, but very well done, mate.  I feel inspired to re-read Tolkien soon.

    • http://www.wilfordlauren.tumblr.com Lauren Wilford

      Lots of people throw around “this is the best thing I’ve read on Thought Catalog.”

      This is the best thing I’ve read on Thought Catalog. 

      Life is about finding the steadfast, enduring beauty in things that you’ve found. 

      And I’ve always wanted to explain why “grey” is so much lovelier than “gray.” 

    • Jacqueline

      This was so beautiful. I enjoyed it immensely. 

    • rose georgia

      absolutely beautiful. i was trying to explain to my boyfriend a couple of days ago why it upsets me so much that people write off lewis’ chronicles of narnia because of their christian influence. i was read them as a child and they were some of the first books i consciously made an effort to read myself because i loved them so much. 
      my favourites were always ‘the horse and his boy’ and ‘the voyage of the dawn treader’. 

    • rose georgia

      absolutely beautiful. i was trying to explain to my boyfriend a couple of days ago why it upsets me so much that people write off lewis’ chronicles of narnia because of their christian influence. i was read them as a child and they were some of the first books i consciously made an effort to read myself because i loved them so much. 
      my favourites were always ‘the horse and his boy’ and ‘the voyage of the dawn treader’. 

    • Anonymous

      Great article, one of the better I’ve read here. Far too many people discredit authors in their minds when their beliefs don’t match up. Its an ignorance I’ll never understand. It still amazes me how I can pick up Fellowship once a year and instantly become immersed again. Write on good sir.

    • Robert L.

      The Christian symbolism ruined The Chronicles of Narnia for me when I re-read them after becoming an atheist. I have the whole series. Loved them as a kid, but when I return to them now I can’t relate any more because I find it too much akin to Christian propaganda, with the suspiciously racist/Christian-superiorist bits (all that Calormene-bashing) and all. Beautiful, beautiful propaganda, though.

      • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

        It’s certainly propaganda, but I don’t know what fiction isn’t. Tolkien has stood the test of time for me far more than Lewis, but one thing I really identified with in my most recent adult rereading of “The Last Battle” was the psychology of the evil of Shift and his allies.

        When I was young, I found it all but unthinkable that someone could murder and enslave on the basis of apathy and this base, thoughtless greed. When I read it recently, I thought, “This happens all the time.” As much as I disagree with some of Lewis’s conceptions of what’s innate about a sense of right and wrong, I find his conception of laziness, greed and apathy as the root of some horrific deeds quite compelling.

    • aslanismyhomeboy

      very beautiful.  and i agree about the last battle.  when i read it at the age of 7 i was baffled and disappointed…but that was probably because i was too young to understand that endings aren’t always perfectly neat and happy.  i think i shall have to read it again.

    • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

      As a kid I went to a summer camp where one of our counselors read aloud from ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ every day after lunch. It was good on the ears, though I was never a huge fan of the series. This was a great read, regardless.

    • http://twitter.com/mung_beans 371747

      I was always too troubled by the treatment of Susan to really enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia.  Used to keep me awake at night when I was little.  

      • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

        I actually didn’t remember Susan’s lack of inclusion in Aslan’s world until I read Pullman’s article on “The Republic of Heaven,” and then when I reread the Chronicles themselves recently (if this is what you mean by Lewis’s treatment of Susan).

        It’s certainly a troubling moment in the series, but I don’t read it, as Pullman seems to, as a rejection of life and sexuality. I read it more as a lament of the way we can betray even the most moving and transformative experiences of our lives as a compromise to growing up. In Lewis’s world, the children actually had these magnificent adventures in a real fantasy world, but Susan convinced herself, or at least spoke of these experiences, as a game.The impression I got was that she wanted to fit in with the world so much that she betrayed her real experience of Narnia.

        I was less troubled by Susan’s possible condemnation than I was by the sexism of Father Christmas in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

    • http://twitter.com/katie_esther Katie Bennett

      I just read the last paragraph three times. Absolutely beautiful. 

      I love what you said about the spelling of gray versus grey. I’ve always felt that gray sounds flat and ugly and barren, while grey is rich with colour. I’m glad that someone else sees it that way too. :) 

    • Kate

      this is definitely in my top five of thought catalog, simply because it talked about another side to reading that’s important but never quite expressed like you’ve managed to.
      this was intensely gorgeous, and thank you.

    • Joanna

      There’s a really good song by Nickel Creek called “Green and Grey.”

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