I sat next to him at dinner that night. Over frozen pizzas, scotch eggs, and whatever other potluck offerings the men had brought, he tossed a comment into the conversation that stopped me cold.
“Well, my sister died of metal poisoning.”
We all looked at him, confused by the odd phrase. He glanced up at us and waved a hand in the air. “A bomb. She was in the front garden when it fell. Wasn’t enough left to bury.”
The three or four other white-haired men around the table nodded or shrugged as if to say, “Oh, that…” and the topic shifted to the war and the changes it had made in our area on the far side of Heathrow. Most of them admitted to not yet being born when World War II ended in 1945, but they grew up close enough in time that they spoke as if they knew it – spoke with a casualness born from the reality of living with the effects it had wrought upon their families.
I’d lived near London for over a year at that point and walked past monuments and memorials to both world wars nearly every day. I’d pondered the Blitz and how it reshaped the city I knew. But until that moment around a dining room table with a handful of British men more than twice my age, I had never fully understood what it meant to the daily lives of those who lived through it.
Today is VE Day – the day when the Allied victory in Europe was announced all those years ago. While it wasn’t the end of the war, this was the day when the madness of Hitler was officially stopped in its tracks – the day when those who stood against him could finally start to peel back the darkness he’d laid across the land and rescue the people trapped in the camps, villages, and cities.
It was a day to celebrate and rejoice that the long horror would have an end.
In one of his non-Narnian books, C.S. Lewis wrote that we have to remember that spells are not always curses – that they are used to break enchantments as well as to cast them, and that we are in need of something to break an enchantment so strong we don’t always even know it’s there.
G.K. Chesterton wrote – and has since been paraphrased by many others – that we need to tell our children stories about dragons and about the knights who defeat them because it’s the only way they’ll learn the dragons can, in fact, be defeated.
And in Old English, the word “spell” simply meant a story, narrative, or sermon. There was no magic involved in the Anglo-Saxon understanding of the word – other than the inherent power of stories to change our minds and our lives.
In his speech to the British public on this day 75 years ago, Winston Churchill said:
… We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny. … Did anyone want to give in? Were we down-hearted? The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle. … So we came back after long months from the jaws of death, out of the mouth of hell, while all the world wondered: When shall the reputation and faith of this generation of English men and women fail?
I say that in the long years to come, not only will the people of this island but of the world – wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts – look back to what we’ve done and they will say, “Do not despair. Do not yield to violence and tyranny. March straight forward and die, if need be, unconquered.”Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 8 May 1945
Our world changes these days at a rate that is frightening to some and invigorating to others. Sometimes it seems as though we’ve barely learned the new status quo and then it all flips upside down and we’re left scrambling to keep up – but through it all, we have one tool that can be passed on from generation to generation to keep us strong.
We have our stories. And stories – the right kind of story – can change the world.
Today is VE Day, and it is only nominally recognized in much of the news headlines and social media tags that consume us. It is not celebrated – not really – yet this is one of the greatest stories in still-living history:
Once upon a time, there was a madman who controlled armies from his throne in the center of Europe. The curse he cast from his mountain strongholds crawled relentlessly across borders, and the shadows it carried killed any who tried to escape. The madman thought he could rule the whole world until, one day, his curse reached the shores of a small island just off the coast – and stopped. The people who lived there stood in his way and held back the darkness until others saw their light and came to help. The madman raged, but he could not stand against the combined forces of men and women working together from around the world to cast him down and free the land. And when they had done so, they rejoiced together because the curse had been broken.
The story of VE Day isn’t about the war as a whole. It isn’t about who was right or wrong or when things should – or shouldn’t – have been done. The story of VE Day is about a man who sent his evil out into the world, and it’s about the courage and stubbornness and grim faith of the ordinary, everyday people who held him back and eventually took him down, freeing the millions of captives both caged and safe at home. It’s a day when heroic language and fairy tale tropes can – and should – be used as much as possible to tell the story of what was done all those years ago, because – as the Anglo-Saxons knew – the words we choose have power to strengthen us for the future. And sometimes the greatest spells we can use are those that come from our own history.
Our world changes so quickly that very little will survive from one generation to the next, but stories like this can last forever as long as we continue to tell them to those who come after us. They will last if we keep them alive to remind our children that they don’t have to sit passively by and lament the curses that ravage us. They will remind us that sometimes all it takes to stop the madness is one line of people who will not give up or surrender.
That the bombs may fall, the tanks may roll on, the night may seem to last forever – but we broke the curse once and we will do it again, as many times as needed to defeat the dragon and bring back the light.
Today is VE Day, and the news this week reminds me that we still have a long way to go. The curse Hitler tried to use on a global scale nearly one hundred years ago still survives today in the hearts of too many – of people who will shoot at or knife a man merely for the color of his skin, or deny medical help if the person who needs it can’t make them wealthy, or insult and tear down a friend or brother over something as silly as politics. The curse has deep roots and the cure sometimes seems impossible.
But it only seems that way. Today is proof, if we will remember it.
So celebrate this day when Hitler was defeated. Tell the stories to your children and to their children – and to your friends and neighbors and anyone who will listen. The curse is out there, but it can be broken. The dragon exists, but we’ve defeated him before and we will do it again. Why, just look at what our grandparents did in the face of bombs and spies and an army that seemed unbeatable! Look at how people were rescued – sometimes one at a time and sometimes by the thousands, by armies and by individuals.
Look at what we can do when we remember that we are meant to be for each other.
Today is VE Day, and even if you don’t remember for yourself how the bombs fell or the children were sent away or the men went off to fight, I hope you celebrate the end of the curse anyway and remind each other that the light does win in the end – as long as there are men and women (like you and me) who will stand for it.