What Shall We Pack?

‘I do really wish to destroy it!’ cried Frodo. ‘Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests…. Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

We have begun our journey. The tales of the joys and perils of our fellow travelers make for wonderful stories shared around the hearth, but now the reality of our own pilgrimage is at hand. How shall we prepare? Weaponry, food, and proper clothing of course. (Perhaps a little box of salt for the taters.) But what we carry in our heart and head is more important than what we heft onto our shoulders. Every journey holds the possibility to challenge and teach us something, but when the road becomes truly grueling we will need more than the physical basics.

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Ivan Ilyich labored his entire life in the pursuit of worldly success. He made decisions based on a list of society’s materialistic requirements: attend the right school to secure a prestigious job, climb the corporate ladder, marry out of duty and support the requisite family, move to a lovely house in the suburbs embellished with the perfect furnishings. By the world’s standards, Ivan was succeeding because he was following a formula and achieving “the good life.” Leo Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich shortly after his conversion (circa 1870) but the theme of the story is timely poignant for today.

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Hester and Pearl

IMG_1707-2SO Roger Chillingworth—a deformed old figure with a face that haunted men’s memories longer than they liked—took leave of Hester Prynne, and went stooping away along the earth. He gathered here and there a herb, or grubbed up a root and put it into the basket on his arm. His gray beard almost touched the ground as he crept onward. Hester gazed after him a little while, looking with a half fantastic curiosity to see whether the tender grass of early spring would not be blighted beneath him and show the wavering track of his footsteps, sere and brown, across its cheerful verdure. She wondered what sort of herbs they were which the old man was so sedulous to gather. Would not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy of his eye, greet him with poisonous shrubs of species hitherto unknown, that would start up under his fingers? Or might it suffice him that every wholesome growth should be converted into something deleterious and malignant at his touch? Did the sun, which shone so brightly everywhere else, really fall upon him? Or was there, as it rather seemed, a circle of ominous shadow moving along with his deformity whichever way he turned himself? And whither was he now going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance? Or would he spread bat’s wings and flee away, looking so much the uglier the higher he rose towards heaven?

“Be it sin or no,” said Hester Prynne, bitterly, as still she gazed after him, “I hate the man?”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Scarlet Letter Chapter XV

Part of the appeal of Hester and Pearl’s relationship is the balance between their personas. Grey and black-clad Hester and her stoic, carefully tended nature that is shown to her community and her little “elf-child,” Pearl, who consistently a free spirit. There is also a contrast between Hester’s guarded public appearance and her private and often endearing relationship with her daughter.

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Rose Among the Thorns

IMG_1707-2After five chapters of scene, setting, and character development, we find ourselves meeting Pearl, a most capricious, elf-like, and complex character in The Scarlet Letter. There is more to Pearl than her representation of sin and its consequences, and Hawthorne tucks symbolism into every encounter. Pearl is the bright, ethereal ribbon of romanticism woven through the dark themes of hidden sin, religious judgment, revenge — Puritanical legalism versus freedom, spontaneity set against rules and order, wide-eyed wonder compared to tunnel vision. Pearl is the rose amidst the thorns who gives the story contrast and depth. She is the imagination to complement the reason, which are both necessary to the story.

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