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  • Trefor Jones

The border-stalkers

I’ve been reading a book by Makoto Fujimura, called Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life. The book is primarily concerned with issuing a call to cultural stewardship, in which we become generative and feed our culture's soul with beauty, creativity, and generosity.


In chapter seven he makes reference to an old English word used in Beowulf to describe Grendel: mearcstapa, translated as “border-walker” or “border stalker”.


“In the tribal realities of earlier times, these were individuals who lived on the edges of their groups, going in and out of them, sometimes bringing back news to the tribe.”


Fujimura makes the connection with the character of Strider (Aragorn) in Lord of the Rings being a “border-stalker.”


“Strider is a mearcstapa, and it is in large part his ability to move in and out of tribes and boundaries that makes him an indispensable guide and protector and that helps him become an effective leader, fulfilling his destiny as Aragorn, high king of Gondor and Arnor, uniting two kingdoms.”


Fujimura makes the observation that many artists fit into this role of border-stalker, not naturally fitting into one group but being independently minded, uneasy to pin down, seeming aloof or uncommitted, free-spirited, unaffiliated.


“Mearcstapa is not a comfortable role. Life on the borders of a group—and in the space between groups—is prone to dangers literal and figurative, with people both at home and among the “other” likely to misunderstand or mistrust the motivations, piety, and loyalty of the border-stalker.”


It is however, the very fact that they traverse different groups and that they have an inclination to see the wider panorama and are not are not just confined to one expression of community and identity, that makes such individuals invaluable.


Creatives, can often seem an ill-fit in the wider community of the church. A community in which loyalty and longevity are prized, clarity of allegiance encouraged, and where complexity of thought and expression are frowned on. We want to know: Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you not settled in one place and expression of community? Why are you hard to define? In essence... what’s wrong with you?


A biblical character fitting the description of a mearctsapa or border-walker could be the apostle Paul. Of one tribe and culture, but then travelling and engaging in all cultures in order to share the good news about Jesus. He had the perspective needed to challenge the Jewish Christians who wanted gentiles to take on their customs.


Similarly, Moses, like Aragon was destined to walk in exile, living with a different tribe and then returning, the mistrusted outsider to free his fellow Jews from the tyranny of the Egyptians. In the Lord of the Rings, this mistrusted ranger, who they only agree to accept the help of because they have a letter vouching for him, flourishes into a mighty warrior and leader, acclaimed as King by the people of Gondor, and crowned King of both Gondor and Arnor.


Some people have suggested that Tolkein , who was a professor in Anglo -Saxon, deliberately developed the character of Aragon as both a mearcstapa and a Christ like figure, exploring the narrative of the mysterious outsider being the means of the people’s salvation.


Let us celebrate the creatives in our midst, those border-stalkers, those individuals tasked with the job of traversing that which is within and that which is without.


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