Of Hamlet, Hnakra, and Holiness
By Doug Jackson
In Greek mythology, Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, is the daughter of Zeus by Mnemosyne, who personifies memory. The name literally means, “the melodious one.” So tragedy is God-impregnated memory that sings our sorrow.
Inexorability separates tragedy from other bad experiences, like stupidity or rotten luck. Oedipus is toast from the minute some soothsayer trash-talks him as a future parricide. Hamlet’s as good as dead from Act I on and Cordelia never had a chance. Lancelot and Guinevere – who didn’t see that one coming?
So why do we like it? Aristotle claims that tragedy cleanses us by providing a catharsis, a sort of emotional laxative that leaves us renewed. Maybe. The concept of the tragic flaw, some argue, adds a note of schadenfreude as we revel in the screw-ups of the higher-ups, like reality TV in rhymed couplets. Perhaps.
I personally think we reach for tragedy because it reminds us that we are born for the greatness of struggle, but that something has gone wrong with the works.
On the unfallen planet of Malacandra, C. S. Lewis’ Elwin Ransom learns that the hnakra, a sort of Malacandrian Loch Ness Monster, haunts the rivers and streams. What surprises him is that the hrossa, a race of hunter-gatherers, love this deadly beast and hunt it with great joy. His pal Hyoi explains: “The hnakra is our enemy, but he is also our beloved. . . .I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.”
R. R. Tolkien says in “On Fairy Stories” that two images govern the western imagination: the catastrophe of Camelot, and the eucatastrophe of Calvary. The fall of the Round Table tells us that all human striving falls short of perfection, but not of beauty or worth; it prevents cynicism. The resurrection of Christ tells us that God ultimately redeems all righteous battles; it prevents despair. Tolkien argues that while tragedy is the true form of drama, eucatastrophe is the true form of the fairy story.
So we remember in the presence of God, and give birth to a sweet song that breaks our hearts. . .and drives us, not to the unbreakable heart of God, but to the broken-and-thus-beautiful heart of Our Lord.
Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More, is available from Finishing Line Press.
Image by Michel Meynsbrughen via freeimages.com