IN A way, it’s too easy to find resurrection themes in children’s books. In fairy stories, things take a turn for the better on three; death is reversible — birds sing from the pot in which they’ve been boiled, and murdered children come back to life.
And the idea that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you carries over into modern fiction. Obi Wan Kenobi, the Alec Guiness character in Star Wars, says that after death he will be much more powerful than before, and twinkles with star dust thereafter. Harry Potter is sent back to life from a limbo set in King’s Cross railway station. Gandalf the Grey falls into a fiery abyss, only to reappear in the next volume as Gandalf the White.
And yet these stories are all book-bound: none of them has the tang of reality, the feel of the real resurrection. Except, perhaps, Gandalf’s: what is striking about his resurrection is its sheer unexpectedness. The wizard dies, absolutely in character, hovering on the edge of the pit for a brief, irritated second to cry, “Fly, you fools!”, and he’s gone. An important character wiped out. Now what? The shattered hobbits have to deal with their adventure by themselves. Gandalf returns much later, as it happens, but that, too, is a bolt from the blue.
There’s a similar mood in Five Children and It, when the kids discover that the magic fantasies they have so carefully constructed end up as dust and ashes, whereas ordinary life, full of currant buns and grubby brothers and sisters, turns out to be surprising, concrete, and much more exciting.
Unexpectedness; life being better than we could imagine; another adventure about to begin: those are the hallmarks of the resurrection. It is not to be found in happy endings, and dead-then-alive heroes, but in an endless series of real stories, ready to be taken down from the shelf.
Sarah Lenton writes, broadcasts, and lectures on lyric theatre for the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and BBC Radio 3 and 4. She is studying for ordination at St Mellitus College.