I remember when the herbs were dipped, the horseradish eaten, and I can still see the grown-up faces turning fiery red. I remember the egg served in salt water (a family tradition). And I remember all the sweet wine drunk, and a drunk little boy sliding under the table, which I retell here but don’t recall. I remember — a strange thought in this year of my father’s death — that, aside from my mother, sister and me, everyone else from those dinners is gone. The individual Passovers now melt together into warm memories of relatives long dead.
What I most remember, though, what stays most vivid, is the Haggadah itself — the words and the rhythms, rendered here in the translation I’ve been working on:
Were it our mouths were filled with a singing like the sea,
And our tongues awash with song, as waves-countless,
And our lips to lauding, as the skies are wide,
And our eyes illumined like the sun and the moon,
And our hands spread-out like the eagles of heaven,
And our feet as fleet as fawns,
Still, we would not suffice in thanking You, Lord God-of-us…
In studying this tale built around remembering, I came to see how much it’s also one of looking ahead. These are times of great uncertainty. Even the dream of returning to Zion as “our mouths swell with laughter, and our tongues are overspread with songs of joy,” will take us to a country of walls and war. It is nice then to come away from the translation feeling that the Haggadah is as focused on promise as it is on rescue. As the psalm, from which the above line is taken, ends,
For those that sow with tears, with joy will reap.
Walks-on the walker crying, bearing the sack of seed;
then comes the comer, rejoicing, carrying his sheaves.
The presence of Father Christmas [in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] bothered many of Lewis’s friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, whose Middle-earth was free of the legends and religions of our world, objected to Narnia’s hodgepodge of motifs: the fauns and dryads lifted from classic mythology, the Germanic dwarfs and contemporary schoolboy slang lumped in with the obvious Christian symbolism.
But Lewis embraced the Middle Ages’ indiscriminate mixing of stories and motifs from seemingly incompatible sources. The medievals, he once wrote, enthusiastically adopted a habit from late antiquity of “gathering together and harmonizing views of very different origin: building a syncretistic model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoical, but out of pagan and Christian elements.” . . .
The unifying principle of Narnia, unlike the vast complex of invented history behind Middle-earth, isn’t an illusion of authenticity or purity. Rather, what binds all the elements of Lewis’s fantasy together is something more like love. Narnia consists of every story, legend, myth or image — pagan or Christian — that moved the author over the course of his life.