“….suddenly the gladsome light leaped over hill and valley, casting amber, blue, and purple, and a tint of rich red rose, according to the scene they lit on, and the curtain flung around; yet all alike dispelling fear and the cloven hoof of darkness, all on the wings of hope advancing, and proclaiming, ‘God is here.’” –Lorna Doone
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this? Job 12:7-9
In Lorna Doone, everything in nature bursts with vitality and expression, beyond simply the biological symptoms of life. Nothing, from the swaying flowers to the craggy rocks to the eerie mists, escapes the narrator John Ridd’s personifying and metaphorical lens. Flowers smile and fogs oppress, animals converse and feel miffed, skies warn and seasons forebode. Always nature sympathizes with John’s mood, and always it displays the glory and the story of its creator. Through John’s eyes, we see nature entirely imbued with the imprints and traces of a maker.
Nature has a creator in Lorna Doone, and that creator is joyful, creative, good and rational. We know this because these are the characteristics of his creation. We know a creator exists, first of all, because without a God who has ordained the events of nature, nature is meaningless and the blowing of the wind is to no purpose; “the Lord only kn[ow][s] the sense of it,” John reflects on the effects of the Gulf-stream on the weather. We know the creator is joyful because he causes brooks to laugh and dance, meadows to ruffle (103), tree branches to glisten with dew (173) and the sun to drink it (174). We also see the creator’s sense of humour as John affectionately tells us about his barn animals displaying endearingly human-like traits, such as taunting each other and lingering with lovers. John adores these little barnyard comedians, experiences joy working the land and expresses gratitude at harvest time (183). For John, the world is a gift from a joyful creator, a gift sometimes incomprehensible but evidencing vestiges of a creator who, in his omniscience, does comprehend all things, and who, through his good gifts, displays his trustworthiness.
The narrator also beautifully demonstrates the existence of a creator in the exquisite picture of John gazing around him at the laughing brook, the ruffling meadow and the breeze opening up the primroses:
“These little things come and dwell with me; and I am happy about them…. I feel with every blade of grass, as if it had a history; and make a child of every bud, as though it knew and loved me. And being so, they seemed to tell me of my own oblivion, how I am no more than they….”
John feels so fond of nature and so familiar with all of its little details that he looks upon them as a father would upon his own children; yet at the same time that he loves them and imagines, as it were, that they love him, he simultaneously identifies with them, being created himself to love and to be loved by something or someone much beyond and above him, without which he is nothing. Nature is both familiar and yet strangely isolating, and in this uncanny space both the presence and absence of God is felt. As creatures ourselves, we both feel the love of our creator and at the same time recognize our nothingness. “Man is but a breath, we know,” says John; man is both nothing (“but” or “only”) and life (“breath”) at the same time.
This isolating effect of nature points to the other knowledge nature imparts about God, which is that he is at times wrathful. John doesn’t only find his own joy and the joy of his creator reflected in nature, but the residue of sin, and its resulting curse. When John wonders what has become of Lorna and fears her death, nature empathizes so strongly with him that “all was lonely, drear and drenched with sodden desolation. It seemed as if my love was dead, and the winds were at her funeral.” (233) Death is an ever-present possibility in a fallen, cursed world, and neither humans nor nature are free from it. Furthermore, both being under the same blessings and curses of the creator, that humans would view nature in an empathetic light and find in it both solace and anguish comes as no surprise. The curse of death, John reflects, as he views the bloody carnage of the rebellion, blemishes nature like a “reeking” stain, that “drown[s] the scent of new-mown hay, and the carol of the lark.” God created a beautiful world, where work brings satisfaction (“the scent of new-mown hay”) and nature rejoices (“the carol of the lark”), but the blight of human sin taints everything, so that humans exist in a world simultaneously good and evil, comforting and tormenting, familiar and isolating.
But there exists a far greater comfort in faith. “I…could [never] bring myself to believe that our Father would let the evil one get the upper hand of us,” writes John. Evil resides alongside us, but we know evil fights a losing battle, and the omnipotence and wisdom of God sustains all, even the limited power of evil. For John, nature mirrors the spiritual warfare raging in the human heart, where good and evil fight, but good always wins in the end:
“In all things there is comfort… [i]n the rustling rush of every gust, in the graceful bend of every tree, even in the ‘Lords and Ladies,’ clumped in the scoops of the hedgerow, and most of all in the soft primrose wrung by the wind but stealing back, and smiling when the wrath was past.”
In this exquisite description of flowers bowed down by the wind and then flinging back smiling “when the wrath was past,” John shows us the anger and mercy of God in the tiniest details of nature, and mercy always prevails. The heavens above us also inspire faith: “At the sky alone, (though questioned with the doubts of sunshine, or scattered with uncertain stars) at the sky alone we look, with pure hope, and with memory.” (429) The mere spreading of a bud is hope, John writes (112). Morning is hope, “To awake as the summer sun [comes] slanting over the hill-tops, with hope on every beam adance to the laughter of the morning (173). What is the source of this hope? That “God is here,” believes John, testified to by the faithful rising of the sun, its warming rays, and its dispelling of darkness and fear:
“Yet before the floating impress of the woods could clear itself, suddenly the gladsome light leaped over hill and valley, casting amber, blue, and purple, and a tint of rich red rose, according to the scene they lit on, and the curtain flung around; yet all alike dispelling fear and the cloven hoof of darkness, all on the wings of hope advancing, and proclaiming, ‘God is here.’ Then life and joy sprang reassured from every crouching hollow; every flower, and bud, and bird, had a fluttering sense of them; and all the flashing of God’s gaze merged into soft beneficence.” (216)
But an even greater hope exists: God is coming. As John contemplates further, the rising of the sun and the joy of a new, hopeful morning is merely a foreshadowing of an even better sunrise, the rising of the face of our heavenly Father himself:
“So perhaps shall break upon us that eternal morning, when crag and chasm shall be no more, neither hill and valley, nor great unvintaged ocean; when glory shall not scare happiness, neither happiness envy glory; but all things shall arise and shine in the light of the Father’s countenance, because itself is risen.”
At the end of this age all creation will wake into a new, “eternal” morning, an everlasting joy where the flow of God’s grace and mercy is no longer disrupted by his wrath (signified by the night), humans no longer feel isolated or afraid, and death itself dies. For now, nature serves, as John Ridd knows, as our sign of hope for the future.
What a wonderful message of hope from a beautiful piece of literature. How did the nature imagery in Lorna Doone speak to you?