Saturday, November 8, 2014

Old English and New English: The Doctor and The Wanderer

Often the solitary one
finds grace for himself
the mercy of the Lord,
©Doctor Who/BBC
Although he sorry-hearted,
must for a long time
move by hand [row]
along the waterways,
(along) the ice-cold sea,
tread the path of exile.
Events always go as they must!
 …Often I had alone
to speak of my trouble
each morning before dawn.
There is none now living
to whom I dare
clearly speak
of my innermost thoughts… 

So begins the Old English poem, The Wanderer. The poem captures in just over a hundred lines a deep sense of regret, loss, loneliness, and longing. It is spoken in first person by a warrior who has lost his lord and all of his companions, all defeated in battle and slain. He now plies his oars on the seas, seemingly without goal or purpose. He is rootless, alone, with no one to whom he can speak of his "innermost thoughts."

     To those familiar with "Doctor Who," this is a familiar story. We find out right away in the reboot series that the Doctor has recently survived the ravages of the Time War, a conflict between his fellow Time Lords of Gallifrey and the ever-present Daleks. This has set him on a course of wandering himself, navigating the seas of the sun in the TARDIS, treading "the path of exile." What happened to the Wanderer has also happened to the Doctor: he is "mindful of hardships, of fierce slaughters, and the downfall of kinsmen." Both can say, "bereft of my homeland, far from my noble kinsmen." Both of these are tragic stories, and in the case of the Doctor, perhaps more so. It is revealed that he had a key part in ending the war, but one that required that he sacrifice his own home planet as well.

     This is a compelling connection, to my mind. Both the poem and the television show reflect on what it means to be a survivor, to be exiled into the world without kin or homeland. But it wasn't always this way: the sense of the Doctor we get from the original series is a being who is more elevated above his human companions. He is their guide, the teacher with his disciples, leading them into higher knowledge. But this Doctor has far less confidence in the reboot. This is a Doctor who has survived a great war, but who is now alone. He knows "how cruel is sorrow as a companion to the one who has few beloved friends." The Doctor has been shaken by his loss, and is cut off from his moorings. He wandered before, but not it is now not voluntary, but an enforced exile. Without his people, without a home, who is he?

     The Doctor, of course, has his Companions. But they are only ever temporary friends. Like us, some move on, and some die, but nothing ever remains the same. This is all due to one irreducible fact of life: fate. In the Wanderer, he recognizes that "Events always go as they must!" He is subject to that Old English concept of "wyrd." Most closely akin to fate, this is much like the sea, an unpredictable, uncontrollable, and seemingly impersonal entity. In "Doctor Who," this is very close to how Time is presented. It is an impersonal force, that allows for freedom of choice, but only within the limits of fixed points that even the great Doctor can't change. The feature-length special "The Waters of Mars" illustrates this powerfully, where the Doctor attempts to change what is a fixed point. The Doctor does change the way events play out by his interference, but is ultimately unable to change the end result. Fate, or Time, has cast the Doctor and the Wanderer out into the world, and unmercifully leaves them there.

     The similarities are fascinating, and more importantly, applicable to the Christian. The Wanderer ends on a hopeful note, however sorrow-tinged: "Good is he who keeps his faith, And a warrior must never speak his grief of his breast too quickly...It is better for the one who seeks mercy, consolation from the father in the heavens. where, for us, all permanence rests." Like the Wanderer, we as Christians live in wandering, never quite feeling as if we are at home. Despite even the closest friends we may meet along the way, human beings never can quite shake the feeling of loneliness. We are not home, and we often feel terribly alone. The Doctor hopes that he might someday see his people again; in the final Christmas special with Matt Smith, "The Time of the Doctor," we find out that Gallifrey still exists, but outside our universe. His promised land exists. So does ours, and we share it with the Wanderer. All permanence rests in that place, with our Father in heaven. But there is an important difference: for the Doctor and the Wanderer, they are subject to fate, an impersonal force to whose whims they fall victim. In contrast, the Christian faith teaches the providence of a personal God, who seeks our ultimate good and provides for our need. Ultimately, our identity is wrapped up in our destination, and until we get there, here we wander, but we can trust that as we do a good and powerful God lights our way and guides our feet.

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