Winters in the World

Winters in the World

One of my current reads is this lovely book, Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year. It’s kind of a had book to categorize satisfactorily because musings on the calendar doesn’t sound exciting. But really this book is not one I’m tempted to put aside. Though I do tend to read short sections and then put it down to ponder. It’s not exactly a poetry book, it’s not really an anthology; but it has a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry in it and it likes to ponder words and that really thrills me. But the selection of poetry today put me in mind of another book that I just finished reading: Cormac McCarthy’s bleak apocalyptic novel, The Road. I’ll give you the lines of poetry first, then explain the connection.

The wise hero must perceive how terrible it will be
when all the world’s wealth lies waste,
as now in various places throughout this earth
walls stand blown by the wind,
covered with frost, buildings snow-swept.
The halls decay, the ruler lies
deprived of all joys, the trop all dead…
Thus the Creator of men destroyed this dwelling-place,
until, deprived of its citizens’ revelry,
the ancient work of giants stood empty.

These lines are an excerpt from the poem, The Wanderer, about a lonely exile. The Road is a story about a father and son traveling south across a bleak and lifeless landscape, seeking to flee winter’s cold, scavenging abandoned houses and cities for food that has somehow escaped the ravages of other scavengers. They don’t seem to have a certain destination in mind except that the father wants to reach the sea. They don’t seem to have any hope of finding civilized people. There is no civilization left, only marauding bands of slavers and cannibals, men who have become monsters. And then the father and the son who are, as the father says, carrying the fire.

The Anglo-Saxon lyric could be an epigraph to the novel, it fits so well. I knew The Road was bleak before I picked it up. I had a fairly good idea what it was about, just picked up from various book conversations here and there. What I didn’t expect was how beautiful it would be in its bleakness and how sacramental the thin thread of hope would feel that the father and son cling to. It is so fine that for most of the book I couldn’t really believe in it. I had a hard time imagining how the novel could end in a way that was true to the art but at the same time satisfactory. It did. But my hope as I read was in the craft of the novel, surely a writer who was capable of making such a beautiful work of art would know how to complete it. And he did.

The Anglo-Saxon poet looks at winter and the frost and snow covering the ruins of a former civilization and he imagines a time “when all the world’s wealth lies waste”. Cormac McCarthy takes us on a journey through that destroyed dwelling place and I think his vision wouldn’t be at all foreign to the poet who wrote The Wanderer. I think the Wanderer poet would feel quite at home.

As I write a winter storm rages outside, thick fat flakes of snow coating everything, winter winds howling and the occasional growl of a snow plow. It feels fitting to contemplate the end of things as one does in winter, death and ash. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and I will be carrying the death of The Road into Lent with me as a vision of the dark places of the human heart that desperately need the light of Christ. Sometimes it seems that we are all walking through a Waste Land carrying a small spark of fire, hoping for a place to make a hearth and home. But our final hearth and home are not on this earth at all, but wait for us in the mansions of heaven.

I’ve seen The Road called nihilistic; but I do not believe it is so. It is a novel whose characters might not be able to have true conversation with God, but I do not believe that they are utterly forsaken by him or utterly unbelieving in him either. They are haunted by God.

“A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom.” The father sees in a snowflake the last host of christendom. It has a terrible finality. And yet… he sees a host.

He sees the horrific sight of a row of corpses that have been despoiled of their shoes by scavengers and he sees them as pilgrim friars: “They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.”

He understands that his mission in life is God-given: to protect his son, even if he must kill to do so: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?” He has a sense of mission and he appeals to divine authority as the source of his mission.

And he sees his son as a tabernacle: “He’d stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.”

The images are sparsely scattered in the narrative like Hansel’s breadcrumbs, few and hard to spot, but the the darkness and gloom they shine so brightly.

The novel is a lamentation for beauty and goodness and yet the ability to lament means that beauty and goodness haven’t totally passed from the world. They won’t be completely gone until there is no human soul left to mourn their passing:

“There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasnt about death. He wasnt sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things that he’d no longer any way to think about at all.”

Some of the novel’s most beautiful passages are the ones that dare to stare into the crushing darkness:

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

And yet, there are reminders that man is made for worship and for liturgy and for ceremony. The father hasn’t completely lost that:

“All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”

And there is a certain freedom in the stripped-down essentialism of their life, something that feels very Franciscan, a total abandonment to divine providence:

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.

The Road is not for the faint of heart. It will haunt you. There are true scenes of horror and if you are a sensitive soul, please stay away. McCarthy, for all his lyricism, is an artist who does not shy away from horror and there is true horror here. But for those who are tougher and who can bear the pain, there is something beautiful here to meditate on in this season when the Church invites us to contemplate such things as sin and death and the condition of the human heart that has turned away from God and his goodness and mercy.

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  • “We carry the fire.”


    The Road is one of my favorite novels. I find it to be a book of deep faith. Maybe, as a reader, it helps in appreciating the book if one has also trod difficult pathways …

    • it’ lovely to find other readers who love it too! My first impulse was to tell my sister she had to read it so we could discuss it. I threw a bunch of quotes at her and she’s promised she’s going to read it next.
      I am so glad to have discovered it at last, such a surprise to find so much beauty where I was afraid to find only devastation.
      Perhaps it is the case, that those who have not trod difficult pathways and found God in suffering are less apt to find faith in dark and difficult places.