51d4G0sFMzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The book that left a lasting mark on me, which I read at the age of 21, still in my formative years, was Tolkien’s ‘Lord of The Rings’. It seemed to represent two major things: the first is life in all its varied forms, good and bad; the second is that it was an epic journey through all that ‘good and bad’.

Five years ago I wrote a poem about another journey. It was four injured and disabled veteran soldiers, who made it, unaided, all the way to the North Pole. It was epic and, for these four remarkable men, a chance to revisit and resolve their brush with mortality.

The poem is about challenge; about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. But most particularly, it is about not bearing life’s burden on your own, but rather learning how to ask for help, how to share concern or worry, which, despite his feelings of isolation in his quest, Frodo Baggins eventually found he had friends, who helped him through.

For some things in life, you cannot just ‘tough it out’. However strong you think you may be, there are some challenges in life that you cannot, nay should not tackle alone, because everyone has their limits; there is always a barrier, either physical or emotional or both, that will inhibit the progress of any man or woman; will put a stop to their journeys.

Perhaps this is because, once you show your vulnerability, far from becoming prey to vultures and demons, you will also attract the support of true human beings, those who are true team players, those who care. And anybody who endeavours to achieve things that not everyone would attempt, has that spirit. It is often a spirit born of near death experience, but may also be a response to physical and emotional pain.

511emrnGxhL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_

It is both these things that four men from the British armed forces set out to overcome in a seemingly impossible challenge. These four servicemen, who were all injured in combat in Afghanistan, set out to enter the record books as the first disabled team to walk unassisted to the North Pole. It involved a great deal of preparation and training for all of them.

The men are: Capt Martin Hewitt, 30, whose right arm is paralysed after being shot; Capt Guy Disney, 29, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG); Sgt Stephen Young, 28, who suffered a broken back in a roadside bombing; Pte Jaco Van Gass, 24, who had his left arm amputated and suffered significant tissue loss to his left leg after being hit by an RPG.

For the first few days of their trek, they were also accompanied by Prince Harry, who supported their campaign both before and after it was completed. The documentary, shown on BBC1 in the summer of 2011, was called “Harry’s Arctic Heroes”.

In this expedition, these four men represented every soldier, airman and sailor who is ever injured in conflicts, but particularly those who lose their faculties in some way, be it the loss of a limb or sight or mind.

The poem also has a ‘dark’ side, as it shakes a metaphor at dealing with our mortality, not least by reference to ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. The journey ‘North’, in this sense, is figurative and is my way of demonstrating that metaphor to the ultimate journey that we and all animals make as an integral part of our lives. “Looking South” represents the looking back on ones life, which in the case of these four injured servicemen, was their life so far. And for a majority of those, who deal with life’s challenges, some significant moments also represent a looking back on our lives…

… so far.

~~~~~~~

If you stand in the wind
and allow it to bend you
so you flex and withstand it,
don’t let it uproot you,
then you’ll find it can’t hurt you
in spite of extraordinary pain.

If your instinct for flight
is taken away
your options for fighting
in an instant are gone,
like a parent removing
your permission to play…

…with the most bitter of tears.

If there’s anything surer
than the moment you hear
a deafening sound
of silence and the fear
rushes in like air
to a vacuum.

There’s nothing more certain,
never so clear,
as if a vision of your life
were etched in white light
closing your eyes
and blinding your sight…

…but opening them on the inside.

It seems you were born
for this moment;
that this is your time.
You appear to have arrived
at the moment when pain
can no longer touch you.

That stress and the anguish
of screaming self-doubt
have momentarily left you,
your inside looking out;
outside looking in;
thoughts perfectly scrambled…

…like the dream of Gerontius.

Circumventing your demons,
overcoming your fear
this vision of whiteness
tears at your heart and your soul;
bedazzling lightness
of mind; supernal disclosure;

a revelation that you’ll never
be left on your own.
You will never be able
to embark on this journey
without your friends;
your brothers in arms,

… but they’re not the Invisible Choir.

Your angels are next to you;
there by your side, if you look.
Maybe a Prince or a pauper,
but either will brook you;
all you need is to ask;
as long as you let them know.

Then, when you stand there,
sharing legs, shoulders, arms,
looking South when you know
that there’s no further North,
surveying a World,
that will sing your arrival…

…knowing now that you truly have life.

– John Anstie

© 2016, essay and poem, John Anstie, All rights reserved; illustration, book covers copyrights with publishers and used here under fair use.

2 thoughts on “Looking South with Frodo Baggins

  1. Isn’t it true, fear does rush in is “deafening” … so we can’t hear our own truth … Wonderful poem, John. Honest and true and inspiring. I think in a way you and Imen were on the same track this month. thank you!

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