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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 December 2023

A sign hanging outside the Eagle and Child pub gives Malcolm Guite pause

I WAS sorry to see, last time I was in Oxford, that the Eagle and Child, which closed during the pandemic, is still closed “for repairs and refurbishment”. I always stop by there to honour the memory of the Inklings, the literary group that gathered round C. S. Lewis and J. R. R Tolkien, who met in “the rabbit room”, a back room of that pub, for conversation, a few pints, and mutual encouragement in their various writing projects.

Unable to enter the pub, I was left contemplating the old inn sign that hangs outside. It does, indeed, depict an eagle and child: an enormous eagle in flight, carrying in its talons a child, still half-wrapped in a blanket, or swaddling cloth. Indeed, the Inklings nicknamed the pub “The Bird and Baby”.

The sign is supposed to be a depiction of the Greek legend of Ganymede, the beautiful boy whom Zeus abducted, swooping down in the form of an eagle, and carrying him up to Olympus, so that he might become cupbearer to the gods.

It’s actually a pretty sinister tale, and it epitomises all that was capricious and arbitrary about the old gods of pagan antiquity; gods who, at their own whim, and for their own purposes, might appear in our midst and wreak havoc in the lives of mere mortals like us. It’s no wonder that the Greeks feared and sought to appease the Olympian gods, and no wonder that the gospel found such a welcome when it was shared among them.

The contrast between the two faiths could not be clearer, especially when one contemplates it, as I was doing, in the Christmas season. On the inn sign, the chief of gods swoops down to snatch a child; inside the inn, a meeting of writers whose faith told them that the true God came down, not to snatch the child, but to become a child; not to create havoc among mere mortals, but to enter into the havoc and hurt of our lives to share it with us and to heal it from within.

Zeus wanted a mortal to serve as his cupbearer, but Christ, the true God, took the form of a servant, and became himself a cup-bearer to us mortals. And, in the chalice he bore, he offered, as Herbert says, “that liquor sweet and most divine, Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine”. Perhaps it was my familiarity with the sign of the Eagle and Child which unconsciously informed the imagery in my Christmas poem “Descent”; for the second verse contrasts the eagle of Zeus with the dove of the Spirit:


You dropped down from the mountains sheer,
Forsook the eagle for the dove,
The other gods demanded fear,
But you gave love.


The poem ends with a contrast between the Olympians and the God who meets us again this Christmas, in the Christ-child:


They towered above our mortal plain,
Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,
Aloof from birth and death and pain,
But you were born.

Born to these burdens, borne by all
Born with us all “astride the grave”,
Weak, to be with us when we fall,
And strong to save.

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