While some of my fellow geeks make a tradition of rereading Lord of the Rings, I reread Griffin and Sabine, a trilogy of books written and illustrated by Nick Bantock.
Shortly before my thirteenth birthday, my acting teacher* casually recommended the trilogy, which tells a story with mythic themes through letters and postcards. I begged my parents to purchase it for my birthday that summer. Based on the limited description from that teacher, I was certain that the books would be wonderful.
I was correct. From the moment I first freed them from their shrink wrap on my thirteenth birthday I have loved them to a degree which confuses anyone who hasn’t had a similar experience with art. The cards and letters are more than a method of telling a story. Each one is a miniature work of art, and the art is as much part of the story as the words written upon them. I have spent hours over the years staring at these postcards and rereading the messages therein. I make sure to read the whole series once a year, usually around my birthday.
On the surface, this is a love story with mythic and vaguely supernatural themes, drawing heavily on the legend of the minotaur, other Greek and Egyptian stories and symbols, as well as Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. It tells the story of Griffin Moss, an artist living in London, and Sabine Strohem, a young woman from a non-existent tropical island who can see his artwork as he creates it. Their postal love affair hits a snag when Griffin reveals that he made her up out of his own loneliness, and is now afraid that he is going insane.
Griffin runs away and embarks on a pilgrimage through Europe and then Asia, building up the courage to meet her. When he finally goes to meet her, Sabine is not there, nor is there any sign of her having been there. They realize that they live in some sort of polarized state, where they can not exist in the same place at the same time. The last postcard is from Griffin, agreeing to meet Sabine in Alexandria, where they think they will be able to be together.
That’s it. We can assume that they were able to meet, and that is why there is no more correspondence, but we can’t be sure. Then, after a page with a single sentence of expository text, there is one final postcard. From Sabine to someone entirely new, with a stamp depicting an image from one of Griffin’s first postcards. The mind reels.
Over time, the mystery became less painful. I grew to accept that I would never be sure what had happened to Sabine and Griffin, nor would I ever know who Sabine was writing to now. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t allow that to mar such a beautiful work. Besides, there is clearly a deeper level to the story than that simple plot. On that level, this is a tale about alchemy – the spiritual and psychological kind revered by Carl Jung, not the physical kind that turns lead into gold. Sabine is Griffin’s anima, very literally his other half, and the story is about the union of ego and soul. Perhaps it is fitting that such a spiritual journey not have a pat ending.
Happily, I did not have to endure that uncertainty forever. Eight years after the last book, Nick Bantock finally decided to continue the story. In this second trilogy we meet a new couple communicating through the post much as Griffin and Sabine had been. The established couple serves as mentors to these new young lovers in their own struggles, which mirror Griffin and Sabines own. This trilogy has a much more satisfying ending, if not any less incomprehensible. This part of the story delves much deeper into the alchemical symbolism introduced by the first installment.
As I said, I have reread this trilogy (and then the second trilogy, too) for more than half of my life, and over the years I have reflected on its role in shaping who I am. To what extent the work influenced me, and to what extent it has simply served a guidepost, I can not say. Do I love William Butler Yeats because quotes from “The Second Coming” preface each of the books of the trilogy, or is it simply that they possess a similar spirit, so it is natural that if I love one I will love the other? Would I have fallen in love with the theories of Carl Jung in 10th grade if he wasn’t mentioned in a trilogy I had reread at least 3 times already? Probably. But I can’t know. Every time I reread them, I see another link to my life, another way in which they have either presaged or influenced some turn of events.
On a deeper level, these books have served as a road map to my life and a key to my heart. Every time I travel, I’m searching for the same pilgrimage of meaning that Griffin takes when he is searching for the strength to meet Sabine, who is his anima and his other half. I know that the journey is a metaphor, but I can’t help myself. And nothing inspires me as readily as this story to dream bigger and try to live life to its limits. In the past this has caused me no small amount of frustration, as I felt my inability to live up the unheard dreams tugging at my heart and soul.
Rereading them again this year left me with a sense of rightness that I have not observed before. Instead of feeling the intense yearning after something bigger, better, and more real than the life I currently have, I felt peaceful, fulfilled, and content. I can not imagine a clearer sign that my life is on the right track! Nor could I ask for a better way to embark upon a new decade of life (as I do today).
*Don’t ask why the most shy, most bookish child in history was taking an acting class. Suffice it to say, I wanted to be someone else. Anyone else.