The Staying Power of Stories - Part 3

 

Hi Storyformed Friends! It is my pleasure to introduce to you, Jason Pederson, a Storyformed guest contributor. If you missed the first two parts of this series, check them out! Jason believes good stories change lives. Though he has only recently begun work on his first children’s novel, he has been storytelling for 10 years through his residential design business where his home designs help fund adoptions (www.jpdesignhomes.com). Jason is married to his best friend, Jennifer, and together they adopted their now two-year-old son, Jackson, who is eagerly anticipating the arrival of their newest addition; due this Christmas. They live in a Colorado cottage filled with good books and a funny little dog named Belle.


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Have you ever been carried away by a story? One moment you are nestled into your favorite reading corner, and the next you are standing on white shores with sun and sea breeze on your face. The simple act of turning a page could lead you onto a dangerous battlefield, into a mysterious encounter, or away on an adventure. Every story invites us to participate in an unfolding drama. Good writing beckons, but great writing immerses. It is far more compelling to experience a story alongside its characters than to watch them act out the plot like actors on a stage. Don’t get me wrong, theater has the same power to transport the viewer into the story. It’s all in the telling. A story that is said well is seen well.

Every story exists to invite the reader to look at something the author finds compelling. It could be something about the world, ourselves, others, or really any idea that has intrigued the author. To begin a story is to be asked the question “will you look with me?” As we read, we are given sight. Most often this sight is limited to the author’s own field of vision, but on the rare occurrence a story can give us a glimpse into something more. Like C.S. Lewis, many of us would liken this sensation to the word longing. Lewis named this longing with the German word sehnsucht. He called it “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” I have found that the stories that have stayed with me the longest are the ones that keep me in that place of longing – even after their telling.

In my previous two posts, I described two streams – Wonder and Gratitude – that I have found to be present near the roots of every story that evokes longing in me. The power in both of these streams lies in how their experience translates into the tangible reality of my everyday life. If the wonder or gratitude that I experience while reading stays in the story after I close the cover, then I begin to question their validity. On the other hand, if wonder and gratitude are revitalized in my life as a result of a story, then I know the experience of my mind became embodied in my heart, and was therefore more valuable.

When wonder and gratitude are awakened through story, they help to ready my heart to receive the nourishment of the final two streams; humility and grace. I mention these at the same time because they are often linked not only in the story itself, but in my emotional response to the story. Humility comes when a story shows that there is strength in dependence. Grace comes in the moment when a character’s deepest weakness is met by an unexpected turn of joy. If dependence is never acknowledged, grace has nowhere to land. Deep need anticipates abundant grace.

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Great stories use a character’s weakness to lead them to a strength found outside of themselves. That is why you will find the character of a “guide” present in almost every compelling narrative. At some point within a story, the hero realizes that the problem is insurmountable apart from outside help. This is Gandalf to Bilbo (and Frodo), Bree to Shasta, Dumbledore to Harry, etc. A guide is there to help a hero overcome their problem. As readers, we most often identify with the characters that need help because, well, we’re human and we need help. Robin had his Merry Men, Arthur had his knights, Frodo had the Fellowship, Harry had Ron and Hermione, and list goes on. We love stories that show us the beauty of weakness. Humility leaves the door open to grace, and grace makes a story sing.

When I read the Lord of the Rings, as much as I’d like to identify with Aragorn – the undaunted, mighty and humble, true king of Gondor – I have to admit that Frodo more closely resembles my nature. Courageous and determined as he may be, Frodo ultimately succumbs to the lure of the ring and stands ready to plunge all of Middle Earth into darkness and despair. But, at the exact moment when the depth of his weakness is unveiled, an unexpected joy pierces the darkness in a miraculous turn of events; Gollum bites the ring from his finger and falls to his death with the ring in his grasp. The fate of Middle Earth is literally suspended in the balance of that one moment. Tolkein called this “the good catastrophe,” or euchatastrophe. In his essay On Fairy Stories, he describes this idea further:

“The sudden joyous turn (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy…is not essentially escapist nor fugitive…It is a sudden and miraculous grace…it denies universal final defeat, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

This unexpected turn of joy is how grace unveils itself as the culmination of an entire series of threads that run the length of the story. In a great story, grace is a subterranean stream that eventually bursts through the surface onto a parched landscape. There is a passage at the end of Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy where Shasta meets the lion Aslan. While Shasta is recounting the sorrows of his journey to an unknown voice in the darkness, the voice suddenly reveals himself as Aslan, the watchful lion present through every trial Shasta faced. Understanding this, Shasta begins to ask for details about certain wounds that his travel companion received. Aslan responds: “Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

When a story leads you to a place of humility, you’ll find that the “sudden and miraculous grace” that arrives has a place to settle. And when it does, it will begin to tell you your story. Humility lets the light of Grace shine on your story. The joyous turn is meant to lead us into the glory of the greatest euchatastrophe – the Gospel. Tolkien says elsewhere that the best fairy-stories reflect this glory backwards: “In such stories when the sudden turn comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” Through these stories we experience a glimpse of the glory that will one day be revealed at Christ’s second coming. Let these powerful narratives help us anticipate this final “miraculous turn” with joy and longing. In humility, we confess together that we are Frodo, weak and in need of deliverance. We must not lose heart, the sudden joy is just ahead; waiting to blanket us, at just the right moment, with a glorious fabric woven through an entire story of faithfulness. May humility unveil us and may Grace cover us and whisper to us our place in the Great Story.