Life, Longing, and Ladders in the Land of Shadows

“I am half sick of shadows,’ said
    The Lady of Shalott.”


“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” is a painting by John William Waterhouse completed in 1915, based on Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.”

A couple days ago I re-read George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Golden Key, as part of a George MacDonald project I’m involved with (more about that in a future post).

In The Golden Key, a boy named Tangle is told a story by his aunt in which there is a golden key at the end of the rainbow. Haunted by the idea of finding the golden key, Tangle embarks on a journey into fairyland to discover the precious object. He does eventually find the key, yet is at a loss how to use it. Where is the door that it opens?

The key’s purpose becomes clear sometime later in his wanderings, after Tangle has been joined by the girl Mossy. As they travel together through fairyland, they ascend a mountain until, looking down on the valley below, they espy a lake on which the most beautiful shadows continually play.

Looking down, they could not tell whether the valley below was a grassy plain or a great still lake. They had never seen any place look like it. The way to it was difficult and dangerous, but down the narrow path they went, and reached the bottom in safety. They found it composed of smooth, light-coloured sandstone, undulating in parts, but mostly level. It was no wonder to them now that they had not been able to tell what it was, for this surface was everywhere crowded with shadows. It was a sea of shadows. The mass was chiefly made up of the shadows of leaves innumerable, of all lovely and imaginative forms, waving to and fro, floating and quivering in the breath of a breeze whose motion was unfelt, whose sound was unheard. No forests clothed the mountainsides, no trees were anywhere to be seen, and yet the shadows of the leaves, branches, and stems of all various trees covered the valley as far as their eyes could reach. They soon spied the shadows of flowers mingled with those of the leaves, and now and then the shadow of a bird with open beak, and throat distended with song. At times would appear the forms of strange, graceful creatures, running up and down the shadow-boles and along the branches, to disappear in the wind-tossed foliage. As they walked they waded knee-deep in the lovely lake. For the shadows were not merely lying on the surface of the ground, but heaped up above it like substantial forms of darkness, as if they had been cast upon a thousand different planes of the air. Tangle and Mossy often lifted their heads and gazed upwards to descry whence the shadows came; but they could see nothing more than a bright mist spread above them, higher than the tops of the mountains, which stood clear against it. No forests, no leaves, no birds were visible.

“The Golden Key” first appeared in Dealings with the Fairies (1867).

After a while, they reached more open spaces, where the shadows were thinner; and came even to portions over which shadows only flitted, leaving them clear for such as might follow. Now a wonderful form, half bird-like half human, would float across on outspread sailing pinions. Anon an exquisite shadow group of gambolling children would be followed by the loveliest female form, and that again by the grand stride of a Titanic shape, each disappearing in the surrounding press of shadowy foliage. Sometimes a profile of unspeakable beauty or grandeur would appear for a moment and vanish. Sometimes they seemed lovers that passed linked arm in arm, sometimes father and son, sometimes brothers in loving contest, sometimes sisters entwined in gracefullest community of complex form. Sometimes wild horses would tear across, free, or bestrode by noble shadows of ruling men. But some of the things which pleased them most they never knew how to describe.

About the middle of the plain they sat down to rest in the heart of a heap of shadows. After sitting for a while, each, looking up, saw the other in tears: they were each longing after the country whence the shadows fell.

“We MUST find the country from which the shadows come,” said Mossy.

As if in a sudden epiphany, Tangle and Mossy realize that the golden key may unlock the way to the land of shadows if only they can find the entrance.

I’ll come back to Tangle and Mossy shortly, but I want to reflect for a while on shadows. Shadows are an important theme in myth, yet their symbolism is often ambiguous and, indeed, shadowy. In Plato’s iconic allegory of the cave, shadows both conceal and reveal – they both point toward heaven as well as enslave men to the earth.

The ambiguity of shadows is a feature within MacDonald’s wider corpus, for while shadows often reflect a higher reality in the Neoplatonic sense, they are sometimes a symbol of evil, as in Phantastes where Anodos’s shadow becomes a primary antagonist.

The complexity of shadow symbolism makes sense within the theology of Christian Neoplatonism, as it has been expounded by thinkers from St. Augustine through to C.S. Lewis. This tradition has taught that the beauty we encounter on earth is a reflection of the primal beauty of God, and that all created goodness, truth, and beauty achieves coherence only by participating in God, the plentitude of all being. As such, all that is truly beautiful has a sacramental quality as a bearer of Divine Beauty. Yet as Dr. Phillip Cary recently reminded us in our discussion for Ancient Faith Today, while the beautiful things of this earth possess true beauty in and of themselves (and not merely instrumentally), they do not possess final and complete beauty, and thus can be considered icons of that original beauty from which they derive and towards which they point, even as a shadow reflects the original form from which it derives its shape. (For more about the philosophical and spiritual significance of shadows, see my three-part series on Christian Neoplatonism, and my podcast with Dr. Phillip Cary and “Virtue and Classical Education.”)

To reach our proper telos and truly flourish, mankind must ascend from shadow to reality, from image to prototype. But this movement involves leaving behind the shadows, however beautiful they may be, so we can ascend to paradise – to what MacDonald calls “the country from which the shadows come.” Those who remain enthralled by the shadows, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave who eschew their own freedom, will never reach the reality from which the shadows derive their peculiar appeal.

To successfully journey to the land from which the shadows come involves undergoing a type of death. If one of the prisoners in Plato’s cave is dragged into the light, at first the sun will hurt his eyes, and he might well long to return to the familiar world of shadows. To his unaccustomed eyes, the shadowy forms that play and dance on the wall of the cave appear more substantial than the world of sunlight and solid forms. In order to be freed, and in order to reach the reality that gives the shadows their particular intensity, the prisoner must undergo pain and a type of death.

In Orthodox Catholic Christianity, it is the embrace of death that becomes the pathway of ascent from shadow to reality. This embrace of death occurs in ascetic practices that involve either temporarily or permanently turning away from those things that are directly or instrumentally life-giving (including food, sleep, sex, and riches), in order to strive for the life of resurrection when our souls will be directly animated by God’s spirit. But like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, the turn from shadow to reality is ultimately to embrace death. That is why direction for the Christian is set, not by Dylan Thomas who would rage in the face of coming death, but by John Donne, who mocked the vapid presumption of death’s pride.

Tangle and Mossy must also experience a type of death in order to reach the land from which the shadow’s come. Through the course of the story they grow old, endure separation from each other, and even find that “the beauty of the shadows ceased to delight them.” Finally, at the end of their lives, Tangle and Mossy are reunited in a dark cave. In the cave is a door, and in the door is a keyhole. Taking the golden key and opening the door, the pair find a stairway ascending above the earth. Finally, “they knew that they were going up to the country whence the shadows fall.”

The idea of a stairway from shadow to reality is also very Platonic and is an image the Athenian philosopher employed in his Symposium. Let’s look closer at the theological significance of  stairways.

The symbolism of a ladder connecting earth to heaven is very ancient and features in many myths. Perhaps the most familiar ladder story for Christians is the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28. Recall that Jacob fell asleep and dreamt of a ladder linking earth and heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. This is clearly a vision of the way back to the sacred space of Paradise that had been lost to our first parents. During the time of mankind’s innocence, Paradise had been an actual place on earth defined by God’s presence. God’s presence had made part of the earth, namely the Garden of Eden, truly sacred space. But after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, the way back to paradise had been blocked, guarded by a cherub wielding a flaming sword. Thereafter in Scripture, paradise ceased to be identified with a specific location on earth, but came to refer to wherever God is present. The place of God’s presence is usually described as heaven, to be understood as above and beyond this earth to emphasize God’s remoteness and absence from this world in the postlapsarian state.

The sense of being banished, exiled from God’s presence, would haunt Adam and Eve’s descendants through the time of Jacob and beyond. The emptiness associated with mankind’s alienation from God was a driver behind various idolatrous enterprises, such as the worship of false gods that offered a counterfeit type of divine presence. This sense of exile from paradise also drove the Babel project – a kind of ladder to invite God’s presence back to earth. I explain in my recent book that the tower of Babel was not actually intended to enable man to reach God so much as to bring God back down to earth. Indeed, when seen in its original Ancient Near Eastern context, Babel is not escapist as Promethean. The architects of Bebel wanted to connect earth with heaven to supercharge human art, technology and civilization, ultimately so they could make a name for themselves.

In Genesis 28, Jacob is also inspired by a vision of an earth reintegration with heaven. He is offered a type of golden key in the form of a ladder linking paradise with earth. But significantly, the ladder is not just one-directional: it represents the total reintegration of earth with paradise, with creatures both going up and coming down. In his ecstasy, Jacob exclaims, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (28:17).

Yet Jacob does not climb the ladder; instead he wakes up. Just as The Golden Key is the story of Tangle and Mossy being vouchsafed a vision of paradise and then spending the rest of the story (and their lives) searching for a way to get there, so the rest of Genesis involves the struggle of Jacob and his descendants to find the ladder that will reestablish sacred space. This involves faithfulness to the covenant God made with Jacob’s grandfather, and a journey of national asceticism that eventually culminates, many centuries later, in the erecting of a temple that re-establishes sacred space on the earth.

The temple showed that the builders of the Babel stairway got one thing right: God did intend to restore sacred space, and descend to the earth in a human-constructed building. Yet God did this only when builders were motivated, not by a desire to make a name for themselves, but by the desire for Yahweh to make a name for Himself.

The Temple, of course, foreshadows the God-man, and the re-integration of earth and paradise that occurs through the sacramental ministry of the church. Significantly, the prayers and liturgical symbolism used by the church draw on both the upward and downward movement of Jacob’s ladder, with prayers that not only describe us ascending into the heavenlies but also of God descending to earth to dwell amongst us and reestablish sacred space. This descent, most visible in the Blessed Sacrament and the blessing of Pentecost, are the advance signs of a cosmos completely permeated with Divine presence when all of earth, from the tiniest cell to the most distant galaxy, have become sacred space.

This is often missed in much modern evangelicalism which tends to collapse the Christian hope into simply “going to heaven when we die,” or “being raptured,” without understanding that our final hope is earth-centered. We hope for nothing less than for the cosmos to be a theophany of heavenly order and beauty.

This final hope is yet to be realized in all its fullness. Living as we do in the tension between the already and the not-yet, we continue to be haunted by shadowy dreams that portend a time when the entire earth takes on the quality of heavenly sacred space. And like Jacob, we can get there only through a circuitous route that may often seem disconnected from the object of our primal longings – indeed, through the pedestrian and sometimes boring Christian life with its struggles, hardships, suffering, and eventually death itself. This is why, in Christian spiritual writings – most famously the Ladder of Divine Ascent – the climbing motif is transformed into a system of pious works.

In thinking about ladders climbing into heaven, another story that comes to the mind for English-speaking readers is Jack and the Beanstalk. Jonathan Pageau has recently pointed out that the story of Jack has many affinities with  the story of Jacob.

In some variants of the beanstalk story, all the giant’s wealth was stolen from Jack’s father, and he must climb the beanstalk to get back his rightly inheritance. Similarly, in the outworking of God’s covenant with Abraham through Jacob’s descendants, it becomes clear that this ladder to heaven is the means by which we will recover what was stolen from our first parents. The ladder joining back earth with paradise is realized partially in the tabernacle and temple, which point to the ministry of the God-man, the second Adam who plunders the strongman to recover our lost inheritance. But just as Jack’s recovery of his father’s wealth happened in stages (first the bag of gold, then the goose that lays the golden eggs, then the harp), so Christ’s recovery of our lost inheritance happens progressively via the stages of inauguration, continuation, and consummation.

In some variants of Jack, the “memory” of the fortune the giant stole from his father is mediated to him by the woman who gave him the beans, revealed by the end of the story to be a fairy. In Plato’s ladder of the Symposium, it is a literal memory that prompts us to move up the rungs of the ladder from shadow to reality. This, of course, is rooted in Plato’s theory of the transmigration of souls, and the consequent role that recollection plays within the philosophical endeavor. Christianity rejects Plato’s theory of pre-existence, though we do experience the recollection of Paradise in our collective memory. At a primal level deeper than words, all true goodness and beauty reminds us of Paradise, but also of the reality that death still taints our joy during this interval between the inauguration and consummation of paradise. The reality of death means that all experiences of beauty in this world are transitory, like flowers that blossom in the sun only to wilt and die. We have encounters of true joy through the beauty of art, music, and friendship, but these are episodic and, even at their best, leave us longing for something that lies beyond the reach of the present age. Through these encounters, we glimpse something eternal—something that remains even after death and vanity have had their say and after we have turned to dust in the ground. A language beyond mere words assures us that there is a deeper magic that will one day subsume us. Even as creation groans in bondage, every flower, every sunset, and every work of beauty whispers to us of that coming finale our present experience so tantalizingly points toward, and toward which all creation groans in hope.

Scroll To Top