Essay / Literature

The Metaphysics of Candlelight

Nature’s Distilled Sunlight

Have you ever wondered why you loved candlelight? And what is so mesmerizing about the embers of a campfire? It is as though the depths of wisdom were contained in the spectrum of reds, oranges, yellows and blues, glowing and pulsing with life. John Muir, the patron saint of America’s National Park system, captures part of this great mystery:

Here, we are camped for the night, our big fire, heaped high with rosiny logs and branches, is blazing like a sunrise, gladly giving back the light slowly sifted from the sunbeams of centuries of summers; and in the glow of that old sunlight how impressively surrounding objects are brought forward in relief against the outer darkness! (Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, pp. 202-3)

Gazing at a campfire, our eyes drink in the slowly distilled centuries of summers—the finest Scotch nature has to offer.

George MacDonald’s The Shadows

Another Scot, George MacDonald, takes us deeper into the mysteries of this phenomenon. In his short story, The Shadows, MacDonald takes us to fairy-land, where the Shadows crown a new king, Ralph Rinkelmann. Ralph, to better rule his subjects, seeks to learn of them, finding that the true shadows (as opposed to the ghastly creatures cast by gas or electric lights, or the hideous creatures found in mirrors) are cast only by candlelight or firelight, doing their delicate work only in the quiet, only in the reflective and soul searching atmosphere of true flame.

And what of these Shadows? What do they do? To them fall many tasks, including delighting small children with their antics. But their more beautiful and fearsome tasks, is to make known the heart of humankind. Only in the quiet, only amid the gentle and tranquil flame, can they wield their tools, plying their trade, guiding us to a knowledge of ourselves and others, disrupting what should not be and bringing about what should, fighting with silent weapons against the clamor of activity and harsh light in the evening hours. Retelling one of the Shadows’ stories will suffice, and hopefully entice:

“I put a stop to a wedding,” said [one Shadow].

“Horrid shade!” remarked a poetic imp.

“How?” said others. “Tell us how.”

“Only by throwing a darkness, as if from the branch of a sconce, over the forehead of a fair girl.–They are not married yet, and I do not think they will be. But I loved the youth who loved her. How he started! It was a revelation to him.”

“But did it not deceive him?”

“Quite the contrary.”

“But it was only a shadow from the outside, not a shadow coming through from the soul of the girl.”

“Yes. You may say so. But it was all that was wanted to make the meaning of her forehead manifest–yes, of her whole face, which had now and then, in the pauses of his passion, perplexed the youth. All of it, curled nostrils, pouting lips, projecting chin, instantly fell into harmony with that darkness between her eyebrows. The youth understood it in a moment, and went home miserable. And they’re not married yet.”

What was this Shadow up to? Mischief? Harm? Not in the least. The poor young man, overthrown by passion and business, had overlooked, time and again, a certain look in his bride-to-be’s eyes. And what had that Shadow done? Cast a shadow across her face, at just the right time, and in just the right way, to recall that multitude of instances in which similar looks had occurred, enlightening the young man to deep (and dark) matters of her heart, saving him from a painful marriage.

On Ode to Candles

What is it about candles? What is it about a campfire, long after the sun has set? Here distilled sunlight shines forth, doing its enlightening and revelatory work, with maters more delicate than lighting a valley or dale. Though the light may not even be sufficient for reading a book, it suffices for seeing a soul, for it is in this light that the true Shadows do their work—should we still our busy lives sufficiently to listen.

George MacDonal’s The Shadows is available online here, and for purchase here.

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