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Word from Wormingford

02 November 2006

Quests are all the rage, notes Ronald Blythe

A “SEEKING” literature is, curiously enough to those of us who can find little in it to explain its popularity, dominating the best-seller list and the cinema. To my mind, its precursors, John Cowper Powys and T. H. White, remain far more interesting than its current heroes, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien — and Harry Potter.

To seek involves a quest. The Latin root of “seek” is “to perceive scent”, and the Greek is “to lead”. During the Middle Ages, and about this time of year, when the first scents of spring were in the air, our ancestors would have been making holiday plans to “seek a saint”, that is, to make a pilgrimage to a shrine. “I suppose it will have to be Canterbury again; Walsingham is such a muddy trek.”

The seekers’ motives were mixed, and had been from the word go. Crowds returned to the spot where Christ had fed the 5000, only to discover that he had sailed away; so they, too, took ship, and eventually caught up with him at Capernaum.

He knew what they were after, and it was not his teaching: “You have not come looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate the bread and your hunger was satisfied. You must work, not for this perishable food, but for the food that lasts . . .”

Years ago, I went to seek a seeker, the young George Fox. He had scented, among the frequently impure odours of Puritanism, something spiritually fresh and good in Lancashire. On a May morning in 1652, although faint for lack of food and because of much walking, he climbed Pendle to find a profound silence.

I, well fed, did the same. It was pouring, but seekers must never mind the rain. It blew in wild drifts, through which I could intermittently glimpse Bowland and the River Lune, the original land of the Society of Friends — the “Galilee of Quakerism”, as they call it.

William Penn said that when George Fox reached the summit of Pendle Hill he behaved “as if he had been in a great auditory”, and became “a strong man, a new and heavenly-minded man, a divine and naturalist”.

I can’t remember how I behaved; probably not admirably, being so wet and so enthralled by literary associations. But here I was, all by myself, though with Allan in the car down below, looking down at the country of the Westmorland Seekers.

The Pilgrim’s Progress was written to show how ordinary folk could go on a quest without leaving home. Times had changed, and all the old holidays had been banished by law. You worked, you died, without going far. Never mind, said its author, although you must stay put:

This book will make a traveller
of thee,
If by its counsel thou wilt ruled
It will direct thee to the Holy
If thou wilt its directions
understand . . .

And so it did, until they invented the Bank Holiday. Millions now quest with The Lord of the Rings as their guide; or via C. S. Lewis to the magic wardrobe, and a new struggle beween evil and love on Perelandra.

The most glorious Christian literary quest was for the Holy Grail, the cup in which Joseph of Arimathaea collected Christ’s blood at the crucifixion. Some of Europe’s greatest stories and poetry follow this quest; and the present bestsellers are their descendants. From Lancelot and Parsifal to those who journey to the Dark Land in quest of the Ring, this is the restless story.

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