How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Friday, November 25, 2016

The White Stag

A flash of glowing white . . . like moonlight from a living body. It glints among the dark tangle of woods. So near, so near . . . if you could only press through the tangle, you might have a fair chance of apprehending the ethereal creature. Even as you pant from your endless run, stumble over undergrowth, and wince from scratching branches, the pearlescent quarry draws you on. You must attain it . . .


I think we’re all familiar with the white stag that dashes through the legends of many European cultures. Its symbolism has always intrigued me—although it represented different things depending on the culture, the most prominent symbolism today, from Arthurian legend, is the hunter’s desire to capture it and its perennial success at escape. It’s something we yearn for but can never quite reach. It eluded the Pevensies in the final chapter of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. What happens when it’s captured isn’t entirely known, because no one has ever succeeded, but in the Narnia story it was supposed to grant wishes.

Elizabeth Goudge, the author I’ve been reading most recently, uses the symbolism of the white stag (she’s a master at symbolism, by the way) in a manner that’s particularly meaningful to writers. In the book Pilgrim’s Inn, the characters discover a carved white deer from medieval times. Inspired by it, the young amateur painter, Ben, paints a picture of a white deer running through a moonlit village with a herd of plain red deer streaking after him. Ben says, “The other deer are galloping after him and the light comes from him. Without him the other deer wouldn’t know what direction to take, or if they did they couldn’t see the way.”

The ordinary deer represent human ability, while the white deer is the perfection we strive for, or rather, what inflames us to create beauty in our lives and art. We won’t capture it in this life. But another lesson from Pilgrim’s Inn helps show that our struggle isn’t in vain: “This futility. . . . It’s nothing, merely the reverse side of aspiration, and inevitable, just as failure is inevitable. . . . Struggle is divine in itself, but to ask to see it crowned with success is to ask for that sign which is forbidden to those who must travel by faith alone.” This passage means so much to me. My inadequacy to write anywhere near a perfect novel often overwhelms me, as do my failures at living the way I know I’m supposed to. Elizabeth Goudge may have felt the same way herself at some point (though, in my opinion, her novels are some of the best). Many people, not just artists, feel this futility when they fall short of their aspirations. But perfection is not available to us in this life. God doesn’t require it. He only wants us to do our best and humbly praise His perfection, pointing to His greatness with our efforts. He leads us on like the white stag, showing us the beauty and righteousness that we should strive for, the purpose for which we were created. This makes life worth living. The chase itself is worthwhile, and all anyone can do in this life is chase. Someday, we will reach it.

The sentences I quoted in the last paragraph come from a vicar named Hilary Eliot; he’s talking to his nephew David, who is an actor struggling to rekindle his art after fighting in WW2. I HIGHLY recommend Pilgrim’s Inn and other books by Elizabeth Goudge.

And . . . I hope you all had a blessed Thanksgiving!