England’s Deep Magic
England is an ancient land, burdened and liberated by tradition, and pervaded with a sense of stewardship.
Do you recall the majestic scene in The Lord of the Rings in which the beacons are lit? Large piles of wood and hay are stacked atop the tallest mountains. When Gondor needs military assistance, it lights its beacon, and miles away another beacon is lit in response, and then another, and then another. For hundreds of miles the beacons are lit, spreading news of Gondor’s need across Middle Earth.
When I encountered this, I was again struck by Tolkien’s genius. How could one man’s imagination create such an elaborate and detailed world? But standing atop the Ditchling Beacon in the south of England last month, I was confronted with the fact that Tolkien didn’t create the beacons. They existed in England, like so much other magic, for centuries before Tolkien’s pen ever touched paper.
Everything in England is small. Some of the roads are so small that for miles they are only one lane despite the fact that traffic runs on them both ways—the roads were created before cars. Walk around Brighton or London, and you will see tiny alleys as thin as paper hiding off major streets, filled with shops, some of which are so small that they can only accommodate three or four customers at a time. The cars in the London Underground are tiny—so much smaller than the Washington Metro or the New York City subway’s that a particularly tall man couldn’t stand up straight in them. English pubs have low ceilings as well, and the houses are small. This is so unlike America, and it underscores that ours is a geography of limitless horizons. England, in contrast, is a small island. Perhaps this explains our impulse to create things anew and their impulse to preserve tradition?
Tradition, indeed, is everywhere. In the fall of 1605, Guy Fawkes decided that he had had enough of the English government. He was found in a cellar beneath the House of Lords on the night before Parliament opened—the next morning marking the only day of the year when the king and all the members of Parliament would be in the same place—with enough gunpowder to destroy the Palace of Westminster. Tradition sometimes imposes inefficiencies—to this day, palace guards dress up in 17th-century uniforms and without electricity conduct a ceremonial inspection of the palace’s cellars on the anniversary of the failed plot.