Saturday, September 25, 2010

Of Blue Swords, God’s Sovereignty, and TCKs

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy literature. Some of my fondest memories growing up revolve around the evenings my family would spent listening to my dad read books aloud to us. It was even better if the electricity was out, and it was winter, so we’d read by candlelight and near the kerosene heater wrapped up in quilts. While my dad read a wide variety of books to us, my favorite authors ended up being C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Jules Verne. I remember my brother and I impatiently telling our dad to stop weeping every time he read the part about Aslan’s death: he already knew he would rise from the dead! We wanted to hear the rest of the story! I also remember one afternoon, when my mom had left the house for language study, taking a chair into my parent’s bedroom so I could reach The Two Towers, left on top of their dresser. Gandalf had been dead too long; surely he couldn’t have actually died. I must have been nine at the time, and stood on the chair skimming the book (yes, skimming, a skill that I have yet to really be good at in grad school) until I found the paragraph where Gandalf makes his re-appearance. I remember not reading much—just a sentence where Gandalf actually said something to the hobbits—slammed the book shut and put it back on the dresser, content to wait until we got to that part of the book for the rest.

When I was old enough, I re-read the works by Lewis and Tolkien, and discovered other stories by them too: Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooten Major, Leaf by Niggle, a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Screwtape Letters, and Perelandra. I also discovered other fantasy writers along the way. A few of my favorites have become: Robin McKinley, Madeleine L’Engle (to an extent), Gail Carson Levine, and Philip Pullman (maybe more on why I like his works later). The themes that go through so many of these works resonated not only with my experience as a Christian, but also as a TCK (Third Culture Kid, a far more descriptive term than “Missionary Kid”). One of my favorite characters recently has been Harry Crewe from McKinley’s The Blue Sword.

A quick synopsis for those of you who haven’t read it: Harry Crewe, an orphaned Outlander girl (probably about 16 or 17 in the book) goes to live with her older brother’s army commander and his wife at a station on the edge of a colonized territory (“Outlanders” are equivalent to the British in several ways here). Across the border is Damar, a place the Outlanders don’t understand and see as strange; rumor has it that it’s a magical land but any rational person would know that’s just impossible. In a quick succession of events, Harry is kidnapped by King Corlath of Damar, and she goes on to become the next bearer or Gonturan, the legendary Blue Sword that has not been wielded in centuries but has saved the kingdom previously from invasion by the dreaded Northerners (think Mordor).

A few of my favorite passages include:

  • (after a decisive battle) They avoided the fort of the Outlander town, lying peacefully in the sun, untroubled by the tiresome tribal matters of the old Damarians. The Outlanders had known al along there were too few of the Hillfolk to make serious trouble; and if the earth had shivered slightly underfoot a few days ago, (after Harry had in fact brought down a mountain on the invading Northern army) it must be that the mountains were not as old as they thought, and were still shifting and straining against their place upon the earth. Perhaps a little volcanic activity would crack a new vein of wealth, and the Aeel Mines would no longer be the only reason the Outlanders went into the Ramid Mountains. To have this paragraph at the end of the major battle scene where you’ve been informed of all the fantastic details just made me deflated and mad at the stupid Outlanders. But it made me think: how many times have people in our day and age cited “natural” causes for things that have happened because of God’s supernatural intervention? To believe the things they can only see with their physical eyes? And if they can’t naturally explain what they see with those eyes, dismiss the event or experience entirely?
  • "There was never a chance of that, my dear, [getting the Outlanders to actually fight the invading Northern army, something they were very capable of doing; however, the trouble was they didn’t believe the army to be a threat, even if it existed] believe me,” replied Jack. “You are attempting to be logical, I suspect, and logic has little to do with the government, and nothing at all to do with military administration” This passage just makes me smile every time I read it. So unfortunately true on too many accounts.
  • …the sense of dislocation was almost a physical thing, like a stomachache or a sore throat; but Jack’s words now eased and the sore place a little. The bridge could stretch to cross this chasm, perhaps, after all. Throughout the book, Harry deals with the feeling that she is between worlds, or of both worlds but having ownership of neither. This puts her in a position of bridging two separate sides of a chasm, causing both sides question her loyalties, motivations, cultural bearing, and at times, sanity. I find the physical strain she experiences interesting, because too many times I’ve had that feeling as a TCK. Apart from the physical dislocation felt in getting over jet-lag or re-adjusting to a different diet, there’s sometimes a physical soreness that comes when you realize that you’ll always be missing a place or someone, and that you can never completely call one place “home.” Its easy to question God’ sovereignty and control over not only your circumstances at this point, but also what kind of vessel He’s shaping you into. In my own case, I wondered if He hadn’t made some mistakes. But comfort comes when you realize that you’re not the only one who feels this way, and God brings people into your life with the right things to say at the right time, reminding you that you’re still in His sovereign plan, the work He’s doing on you is not a mistake and is in fact, good.
  • I’m missing what I don’t have, she thought…Its nothing to do with what I should be homesick for…its that I don’t belong here. It doesn’t matter that I’m getting burned as dark as they are, that I can sit on a horse all day and not complain. It doesn’t matter even that their Water of Sight works in me as it does in only a few of their own. It is only astonishing that it would work on one not of the Hills; it does not make that one any more of the Hills… I found this passage to be resonant of the definition of a TCK found in David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken’s book entitled Third Culture Kids—the experience of growing up among worlds: “A TCK is an individual who, after having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than that of their parents, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience.” Put simply, there’s always the question, hanging uncomfortably over one’s head, concerning cultural identity: “where do I belong?”

Many of the themes found in fantasy literature also involve eternity, being part of something bigger, and walking by faith. These easily mix with the TCK theme, and the existence that many of us have come to have (I’ve had too many conversations with my fellow TCKs concerning all this that I think I can speak safely for them in this matter). It’s a lot to juggle, and can be overwhelming at times. Thankfully, we serve a Savior who makes the burden light.