There was a time, and perhaps there still is in some settings, which the English call, as compliment and not as a pejorative, “homely, ” when families would gather around a piano to sing. Therapists and family counselors would be less in demand if that were more a part of our domestic vernacular. Enough of reverie. Starting where we are now, in the winter months, it would be good if young and old put down their iPods and other electronic devices and just told each other stories. That would be best before a hearth but not everyone has one. All my chimney pieces are blocked up by order of regulatory environmentalists. No matter. What does matter is that people get together.
For story telling, any subject will do, and I cite as an example in Advent, in a roundabout way, the curious saga of the salamander. That elusive amphibian hibernates in the hollows of logs and jumps out when the wood is burning, giving rise to the legend about them being born from flames. Over three centuries before the Incarnation, Aristotle was writing about this. A few decades after the Resurrection, Pliny the Elder, who commanded the imperial fleet in the Bay of Naples but better enjoyed the distractions of being a naturalist, pretty much dismissed this fanciful notion, although he was acute in analyzing the various habits of these creatures that so resembled lizards. Pliny was one of the few, and Aristotle another, who could tell the difference between them. He would have written more had his scientific curiosity not impelled him to observe more closely the eruption of Vesuvius, as poignantly described by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. Toxic fumes did him in.
Fascination with imputed but unproved powers of the salamander persisted, so that in the twelfth century, Pope Alexander III prized a tunic made of salamander skins. If superstition confuses correlation with causality, this good friend and canonizer of Thomas Becket was not credulous, not at least by the received standards of the day. As an early Scholastic and astute canonist at Bologna, he fostered the gestation of the early universities and later would be praised by no less a cynic than Voltaire for his opposition to slavery, his defiance of Frederick Barbarossa and Henry II, and numerous reforms. The pope’s inquisitive mind inspired an expedition to the Orient seeking the fabled Prester John, and so it is consistent with his inquiring mind that he should examine the properties of salamander skin as a form of modern fire-proof asbestos.
In the sixteenth century, Mary I of Scotland, Queen of Scots was familiar with the salamander as a regal symbol, her grandfather-in law, Francis I of France, having used it on his coat of arms, and she had seen it engraved on the entablatures of the chateaux at Blois and Azay-le-Rideau. It just so happens that the mother of her second husband, Lord Darnley, was of the Clan Douglas whose emblem still is a green salamander. As one legend has salamanders bursting into flame as they die, it was fitting that Darnley’s house was blown up before he was strangled. But the legend had the salamander rising to life again from its ashes, and this is why Queen Mary, having been taught needlepoint by her mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, embroidered an image of the salamander along with the words En ma Fin git mon Commencement while imprisoned before her execution. “In my End is my Beginning.” T.S. Eliot piously purloined this line for his “East Coker” verses about his ancestral town, the second poem of his Four Quartets, and they now are his epitaph at St. Michael’s Church there.
If the details of this story of the salamander seem a bit arcane, we can update them: in more recent popular culture, P.G. Wodehouse’s bespectacled and fish-faced character Gussie Fink-Nottle had a hobby of breeding newts, which are a form of salamander. Wodehouse, whom the imagination freezes in the 1920s, was still writing about Gussie’s newts as late as 1963. Auberon Waugh, the splendid curmudgeonly son of the great Catholic novelist Evelyn, compared the extremely left-wing mayor of London, Ken Livingstone to Gussie because of his lifelong interest in newts. Livingstone actually exceeded in fact the science of Gussie in fiction, by being the first man to breed the “Hymenochirus curtipes” (the Western Dwarf Clawed Frog). Just this past week, scientists announced the discovery of three hitherto unknown species of salamander in the forests of Mexico, each just two inches long and rapidly becoming extinct.
The legends attached to the salamander match those of the phoenix, which bird is entirely legendary although the aforementioned Pliny seems to have believed it really existed, as did the fourth pope Clement I and Saint Isidore of Seville. Since it was supposedly confined to Arabia, they could only go by word of mouth, but those words were persuasive: Job mentions it (29:18), although that conveniently is a work of rabbinic fiction. Dante (Canto XXIV) used the image poetically:
Even thus by the great sages ’tis confessed
The phoenix dies, and then is born again,
When it approaches its five-hundredth year.
If you have patiently followed our train of thought thus far, the point is: the season of Advent is a natural allegory of death surprised by resurrection, heralded by a baby born in a cave to rise from a cave, and intuited by mortal folks and symbolized by legends of things that crawl or fly. The flash of liturgical gold on the Feast of Christ the King yields to the darkening days before Christmas; and just as the Winter Solstice shades the earth, there is a hint from a time beyond time of an original Light that darkness cannot overcome and which will bring life from dead ash. We have even had experience of this in the recent presidential election. What was unexpected happened. Indeed, the winning candidate had been dismissed and disavowed by those who became angry when proved wrong. A literate friend recently reminded me of lines in The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose daughter took the veil and now is known as The Servant of God Mother Mary Alphonsa: “…the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen—the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day … latest to confess themselves miserably deceived.” It is not easy for predictors of the ways of men to admit surprise at their self-deception. It is harder to admit that God is always surprising.
That contradiction of expectation, and the ultimate surprise of life bursting from the deadest ashes, is obliquely insinuated in legends of creatures real or imagined, but it is vindicated in the greatest and truest of all the stories ever told. Advent relates this step by step along the days of its weeks. C.S. Lewis, having encoded this in his Narnia tales, said (in Mere Christianity): “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in His great campaign of sabotage.” That hidden king is Jesus Christ who is “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) and his great campaign is against the Prince of Darkness. The sabotage worked then and is at work in each generation: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man” (1 Cor. 15:21). It is a story no longer confined to the fireside, for it is alive in the flames firing the apostles. In our end is our beginning.