Thursday, November 29, 2012

Faeth Fiada

Today is the anniversary of Madeleine L'Engle's birth.

It is hard to say exactly how much her writing means to me, but when I think of the times when I really needed a book, her writing was always there. The Arm of the Starfish got me through one of the worst times in my own life. A Ring of Endless Light gave me strength when my sister was diagnosed with cancer (it was the only thing I read, over and over and over again, from the time of her diagnosis until she came home from her surgery). 

I've written before (here and here) about the ways in which her writing influenced me. Her  writing was also the place where I got my love of foreign languages, of the poetry of Robert Frost and Henry Vaughan, of the music of Thomas Tallis.

There's a long prayer in Irish, the Faeth Fiada, (The Deer's Cry), which is sometimes also called St. Patrick's Lorica, or St. Patrick's Breastplate. It is an authentic medieval Irish poem, though the earliest extant version post-dates the historical Patrick by about three hundred years. Here's the relevant section:

"I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun
Brilliance of moon
Splendor of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea
Stability of earth
Firmness of rock.

I summon today all these powers to stand between me and all evils."

If you've read A Swiftly Tilting Planet, you will be familiar with Patrick's Rune:

"At Tara in this fateful hour
I call on all Heaven with its power
And the sun with its brightness
And the snow with its whiteness
And the fire with all the strength it hath
And the lightning with its rapid wrath
And the winds with their swiftness along their path
And the sea with its deepness
And the rocks with their steepness
And the earth with its starkness.
All these I place
By God's almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness."

In L'Engle's book, the prayer is literally magic words. It summons the unicorn Gaudior. It was one of the first pieces of literature I consciously memorized - I mean, I believed in God, but a prayer that could summon a unicorn was obviously the best prayer ever. 

It was also one of the first places where I genuinely understood that words have power. You hear it all the time as a kid - "say the magic word" - and that's usually meant to be please, but there: you say a word, and something happens. A magician says "abracadabra" and then the rabbit pops out of the hat. We say our wedding vows, our oaths of office. When saying something makes it so, that is a strong and true kind of magic. It is a magic that the best sort of books have.

I still recite Patrick's Rune, though not to call a unicorn, not any more.

And so Happy Birthday, Madeleine L'Engle, and thank you. Thank you for making me the kind of writer I am today, but thank you even more for the times when your words were the grace that stood between me, and the powers of darkness.


  1. Beautiful post, as always.

    And words ARE powerful. God used them and the Universe was born. ;)

    Saludos from Miami.

  2. "Oh, words, oh, words,
    How very strange is your power!
    Oh, words, oh, words,
    You are wind, fly with the wind,
    becoming lost through the ages,
    Know that in your brief existence,
    Everything is born and changes!

    And the freedom of our souls
    needs letters to exist...
    As a flask for human poison
    you’re the finest, you’re the best:
    fragile as a crystal glass,
    more powerful than steel!
    Nations, times, empires, kings
    gravitate under your heel…

    Behind the thickest of walls,
    Who is handling you, so gently?
    You seem to be made of silk
    Weightless in time and space...
    - but you’re on the tip of pens
    - in the ink where they are dipped
    - you are in the hands of judges
    - you’re the shackles that disgrace
    - you are an exile ship,
    - you’re Mozambique and Angola!

    Oh, words, oh, words,
    How very strange are your powers!
    You were a breath of fresh air...
    – now, a man who self-devours!"

    Cecilia Meirelles (1901-1964), "Of aerial words", from the "Ballads of the Minas Conspiracy", 1953. She wonders on the power of words that built the dream of freedom, and those others in the sentences of prison, exile and death.

    1. What a lovely poem! I'll have to look for more of her work.

    2. There are a few more translations of her poems here ->