In the juvenile fiction piece Redwall, the hero, Matthias, risks life and limb for a symbol. A portion of the abbey tapestry containing the portrait of the abbey’s savior, Martin the Warrior, has been stolen by their enemy, Cluny the Scourge, and his hoard of rat warriors (this being an animal story and all). Matthias slips out of the abbey during the night and crosses the meadow to the ruins of the Church of St. Ninian, which Cluny has adopted as his headquarters.
Matthias sneaks in, but the abbey’s standard is nowhere to be found. Instead, Matthias spends his time freeing the Vole family, who were being held hostage by the enemy. Matthias leaves the Vole family under the protection of Basil Stag Hare and returns to the abbey empty-handed.
Was this worth the risk?
This question has been haunting me for a week or two now, and it came to the forefront upon viewing the (excellent, by the way) movie, Stone of Destiny, this past weekend.
Stone of Destiny deals with real events (embellished though they probably are). Four young Scottish university students, desiring to awaken national pride in their kinsmen, sneak into Westminster Abbey to retrieve (some would say steal) the Stone of Destiny and bring it back to its rightful home: Scotland.
If you are unfamiliar with Scottish history, the Stone of Destiny is the Stone of Scone, used for centuries in the coronation of Scottish kings. The stone was taken to England by King Edward I when he captured it in battle in the late 1200s. In the movie, we learn that the stone has been fitted into the chair that is used for the coronation of English kings. By sitting in the chair, the new king is effectively sitting upon both the English coronation chair and the Stone of Destiny at once, which coronates the king as both King of England and of Scotland Scots, according to the traditions of both nations.
To the Scots, this was a symbol of their repeated subjugation to the England, to their status as a conquered people, disallowed from ruling themselves.
I do not doubt the necessity of heroics. The question I have been struggling with, however, is how one goes about choosing the appropriate heroics.
In regard to the movie, I found myself so nervous for the four students. If they failed, would they still consider all of this worth the risk? Because they succeeded, did this make it worth the risk?
Or was its worth revealed when, upon Christmas morning, news of the theft spread over the country, and citizens were dancing in the streets, waving Scottish flags? That this small victory revived a sense of nationhood and the attendant hope of liberty–is this the litmus test?
As I read the story of Matthias to my children, I wondered what it was teaching them. Is it worth risking one’s life for the sake of a tattered piece of tapestry? Or, much like the Stone of Destiny, did the retrieval of an artifact represent victory? And was this symbol of victory of the utmost importance?
And if symbols are inherently worth defending, what symbols are of such value to our own culture? What symbols ought we to defend? And are we defending them?
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