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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.
There is a more pervasive sense of stewardship. An old house has history: Who are you to alter it?
Come 1642 and England still wasn’t pacified. King Charles I entered the House of Commons to arrest five ministers of Parliament on the charge of high treason. The presiding officer of the Commons, Speaker Lenthall, refused to tell the king the whereabouts of the MPs, arguing that in this instance his highest loyalty was to Parliament and not the king. Next came a civil war, Charles’s execution, and the Interregnum. From this was born another tradition: With one exception since Charles I, the sovereign has not entered the House of Commons.
Tradition’s cousin is stewardship, of which there is a pervasive sense in England. Did you know that the houses in English villages have names? I was having tea outside the castle walls in Warwick and discovered that the tea shop was named after the man who built the building as his home 500 years ago. I stayed in a village home near Brighton named Bird Cottage—a name that predated the current occupants. Drive through English villages—which one does slowly, everything in England is slower—and you can see that houses along all the streets have plaques with wonderful and curiosity-inspiring names: Honeysuckle Cottage, Sunnyside, Primrose Cottage, the Hazelton, Homley’s Farm, Broomhill Cottage.
In the United States, we would buy the lot, tear down the house, and build a new one. Or at least we would change the name of the house—if houses here had names. That they almost always don’t tells us something in and of itself. But in England there is a more pervasive sense of stewardship. An old house has history: Who are you to alter it? (That you are the owner is often insufficient.) You will live in Bird Cottage, as did someone years and years ago, as will someone after you, as will someone a century from now.
Tradition, stewardship—did someone say the monarchy? The crown. The sovereign. She is everywhere. And I mean everywhere: The butter knife I used at dinner in an old manor house had an image of the crown on it. It often seems that everything in England is royal this or crown that—the street names, tea shops, pubs, and restaurants. I was at an Anglican Sunday Eucharist in Ditchling during which a couple of children were baptized. In explaining the sacred oil used in the ceremony, the priest told the children that it was the same oil used in the coronation of the English monarch. I was shocked to find Her Majesty’s presence in the baptism of these children. Driving near Brighton, I spotted a cluster of trees in a field that formed a giant V. What is this all about? Why, of course, it is a monument to Queen Victoria. I should have guessed.
The king of kings is everywhere, as well. It is easy to remember that England does not separate church and state. The Olympic opening ceremony featured Christian hymns. Stand in the Palace of Westminster’s central lobby and you will be faced with exits leading to four corridors. Over each are four beautiful mosaic panels of Saints George, David, Andrew, and Patrick, the patron saints of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, respectively. Imagine if you saw a patron saint for each state when visiting the U.S. Congress.
Imagine if you saw a patron saint for each state when visiting the U.S. Congress.
England is an ancient land, burdened and liberated by tradition, and pervaded with a sense of stewardship. Standing in Westminster Hall, knowing that the English monarch stood there 1,000 years ago and only a couple months ago, it is impossible to not be bewitched by England’s history. Driving through England’s sleepy villages, seeing the spot where the Industrial Revolution may have started, knowing that people have gone to and fro on those roads for hundreds and hundreds of years—you know that you are somewhere extraordinary. Stand inside a castle which began 1,000 years ago as a fortified hill and which today is a tourist attraction, and you will be struck dumb by the currents of time.
This is England’s deep magic.
Does this explain why English writers are so creative? After all, in a place so magical, it is just a little bit more believable that you could walk through a wardrobe and into another world. It is slightly more likely that you will fall down a rabbit hole and into a wonderland. It is a hair more probable that you will tromp through the woods and find a talking bear who tells you of his love of honey. It is just a touch more plausible that a peach could grow to the size of a mansion, or that a chocolate factory would house its very own chocolate river.
So perhaps I was too hard on Tolkien. He was brilliant. He recognized and understood the deep magic that existed right outside his door.
Michael R. Strain is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group
England is an ancient land, burdened and liberated by tradition, and pervaded with a sense of stewardship.
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