Henry van Dyke's The Blue Flower, published in 1902, was written and received during a time of much cultural change in the United States. Immigrants were rapidly pouring into the country, cities were doubling in size, and advances in many aspects of society-communication, transportation, agriculture and domestic life, were causes for the revolution of American life at the turn of the century. Given these circumstances, it is not unlikely that the religious attitudes of Americans were changing as well (Guastad 227).
All Christian denominations, especially Protestant religions, had their ups and downs during the nineteenth century, but following the civil war religion in general was on the rise in American society (Hall 297-8). Congregations everywhere were flourishing and religion had a strong influence on most people's daily lives. But by the turn of the century, religion was starting to lose some of this tight grasp it held on society and other factors were taking over. Industrialization and urbanization stepped up, pulling some of society's emphasis away from religion and onto social advances. Though religion was still important and widely practiced, it was starting to lose some of its clout in influencing Americans, as they now had several other places to turn their thoughts to as well (Hammond 15).
Nonetheless, as a Presbyterian preacher from 1883-1899 Henry van Dyke was still popular, influential and widely known. In addition to the ministry, van Dyke was also writing many books during this period, including pieces of the Blue Flower. In fact, the most famous of the short story chapters in The Blue Flower, The Other Wise Man, originated as a sermon that he preached in 1892. Not surprisingly, the other stories in The Blue Flower, even though they were written after van Dyke's ministry had ended, still contain strong religious undertones and symbolism. How is it then that this book, with such a religious theme, became so popular and was widely embraced by a society that was gradually shifting away from the constant religious influence?
The Blue Flower enjoyed such popularity because of its ease of reading. Although religion is very prominent throughout the book, it does not bombard the reader with stark religious views, nor does it make the reader feel uncomfortable by forcing issues or opinions on them. While many, knowing van Dyke's profession and reputation, may have bought the book expecting a religious theme, that was not all that they found. The Blue Flower simply contains many religious ideas, but they are gracefully masked by entertaining, fictitious stories. The Blue Flower is praised by critics for its allegorical and symbolic expression and I believe that it is these qualities that made it so popular among readers of its time as well. At a time when many wanted to hold on to religion but were unsure how to in the face of a rapidly changing society, The Blue Flower made that easier to do. Through the use of allegory and symbolism, van Dyke presents religion in The Blue Flower with stories of a fairy-tale like quality, making it appealing to many readers in its day.
The first story in the Blue Flower does exactly that. It presents as a story of a young boy falling asleep, only to dream of the sweet things that he was imagining before drifting off to sleep. The boy has been thinking about a lovely blue flower, which in his mind he must find. In his dreams when the boy does find the flower he is filled with a great sense of peace and happiness, but is then awaken by his mother the next morning. What lies beyond this charming story is a deeper, symbolic meaning. In this story, the boy is on a quest to find a flower, which to him represents peace and happiness. Allegorically this story tells a piece of every man's search for happiness, and suggests that everyone is always yearning to find his or her "blue flower" in life. In the story, the blue flower also has similar qualities as those associated with Heaven and the Kingdom of God. When approaching the blue flower the boy is overcome by a bright light sparking from the ground that he describes as "brighter than molten gold" and the cave from which it comes is filled with "the sacred stillness of a shrine, a never broken hush of joy and wonder." This bright light that overcomes the boy is described in such a way to suggest the light at the entrance of Heaven, as if to say that the feeling of peace and happiness that the boy is about to find with his blue flower can actually be found in Heaven. The feeling of peace and safety that the boy describes by saying "every sound was music; every breath was peace; the rocks were like sentinels protecting him; the sky was like a cup of blessing full of tranquil light " also hints at Heaven, and the wonderful peace that is supposed to be found there.
Even though the boy is awoken from his dream in which he seeks the blue flower, characters continue to quest for the blue flower and the happiness associated with it in other stories of the book. Each of these stories, in turn, hints at other religious lessons for finding the blue flower, or the Kingdom of Heaven that it has been shown to represent. One of these is the story of the source, where the narrator is lead to the plush, abundant city of Koorma in search of the blue flower. It is in this city that the story unfolds, and the visitor learns about the source-- the spring of water in the mountain that all the townspeople travel to and pray before because it provides the necessary water for their crops. He stays in the city for awhile, learning more about the source and visiting it with the townspeople. During his stay the visitor befriends Ruamie, the granddaughter of the man who is providing him lodging, and he tells her about his search for the blue flower. Once he has been in the city for a month, the narrator hears the call of the blue flower and feels the need to travel on again to find it. He bids them farewell, and does not return again to Koorma for ten years. When he returns he finds the once happy and well-hydrated city parched and sorrowful. No longer does water flow down the sides of every street, and whereas the people once traveled up the mountain to pray before the source, he now sees them praying around ancient leafless olive trees. Curious as to what has happened to destroy this city, the narrator seeks out his old friend Ruamie. When he finds Ruamie she explains about the false sources the people are now worshipping, and that she is the only one who has not forgotten and still visits the source. Because of Ruamie, only the smallest trickle of water still flows into the city, but this unfortunately is not enough to keep the city prosperous.
The message of this story is clear, urging one to worship the "source" or provider of life. The source, which in this case is a spring of water used for drinking and watering crops, symbolically represents a lifeline and provider of all life, or God. The story also discourages the worship of false Gods, by showing the mal- effects that become the city when sources other than the spring are prayed to. The reward for remaining faithful is made clear when the narrator prophesizes about the city: "if it lives at all, I know that it is because there is one who remembers, and keeps the hour of visitation, and treads the steep way, and breathes the beautiful name over the spring, and sometimes I think that long before my seeking and journeying brings me to the blue flower, it will bloom for Ruamie beside the still waters of the source." By saying that Ruamie will likely find the blue flower symbolizes that she who remains faithful to the true God and does not stray to false worshipping will be rewarded by finding Heaven.
Religion in The Blue Flower is masked not only by imaginative stories of mysticism, but also by stories of adventure, as in the story of the mill. In this story a noble young man, Martimor, seeks to become a knight and name the blue flower on his shield by performing valiant and courageous tasks such as saving kings and queens and fighting off ferocious beasts. On his way to perform these tasks, however, Martimor encounters several other situations of need to which his chivalry calls for him to respond. The first duty that Martimor performs is to save the drowning dog of a distraught maiden, Lirette, who then persuades him to stay at the mill with her and her father and help them build a sturdy dam to prevent flooding of their land. He agrees to this, and remains at the mill for quite some time, until a sturdy dam is built and the miller is in good health. Just as Martimor is back on his way to seeking noble adventures and a name for the blue flower on his shield he is faced with another situation of a maiden in distress, whom he also agrees to help. Martimor kills off the three false knights that are pursuing the Lady and prevents her from being kidnapped. Later, Martimor learns that the Lady he has assisted is the daughter of the King, and for his brave action of defending her he is dubbed a knight. Martimor then returns to the mill where he takes Lirette as his wife, and when asked about finding a name for the blue flower on his shield replies, " 'He that names it shall never find it and he that finds it needs no name.'" This indicates that Martimor has found happiness and Heaven simply by fighting the battles around him, and that it was unnecessary for him to seek larger battles and protect kings and queens. Allegorically, the coincidence that the Lady he defended was the daughter of the king can be paralleled to the Biblical lesson which teaches that we are all children of the Kingdom of Heaven, and shows that anything done for any person, not just a king or God, is recognized and rewarded by God.
Similarly, the story about the other wise man also relays the message that whatever you do unto the least of God's people you also do unto God. This story is another tale of adventure, which retells the story of the three wise men from another point of view-that of a fourth Magi who was supposed to have joined them. This other wise man set out to meet his three companions with jewels; a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl, to offer to the newborn king. But like Martimor, the Magi meets up with others in need along the way, and because of this is prevented from ever reaching the king. His jewels, instead of being offered to Jesus, are donated along the way to other causes-saving a dying man, preventing Herod's soldiers from killing a kind lady's baby in Bethlehem and providing ransom so that a woman is not sold into slavery. Despite these worthy causes the Magi worries about his use of the jewels, because each time he gave one away represents a set back that inhibited him from ever meeting or being able to offer a gift to Jesus. In the end, however, the Magi is reminded that " though he found none to worship, he found many to help. He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and healed the sick and comforted the captive." Right before his dying moment, after searching for Jesus for thirty-three years to no avail, the Magi is assured that he will soon find the king, so this must mean that he is on his way to Heaven. A voice from above speaks to him saying that " 'Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethen, thou hast done it unto me.'"
Another form in which van Dyke likes to convey religious ideas is through Nature. This corresponds with his dual belief in nature and religion, and uses the theme, common to van Dyke's writings, about finding God in nature (Edens 71). His writing is praised for this quality by critics, one of whom notes "one charm inseparable from van Dyke's work, a singularly intimate and passionate acquaintance with nature." This love of nature shines through in the story of the wood magic, which tells the story of a man who eats a certain vine, making him obsessed with nature. Because of this fascination with nature, he stays in the woods for an unknown lengthy period of time, but when he returns he finds everyone around him has aged ten years, though he has not changed at all. Somehow, in nature, this man is able to avoid aging. Allegorically, this can be seen as a way for every man to avoid aging, or to preserve his or her soul. The things that he says about nature, such as "how the busy hands of Nature are ever weaving the beautiful garment of life out of the strands of death, and nothing is lost that yields itself to her quiet handling," or "you will understand that Nature knows a secret for which man has never found a word," and also "the enchantment of the treeland will enter your heart and the charm of the wildwood will flow through your veins," can easily be replaced by statements about God or religion instead, and still make sense. Symbolically this is a way of saying that religion or God is a way to preserve one's soul.
The Handful of Clay is a short and simple tale, which also proves a religious point through the use of nature. It tells the story of a bit of clay that is hoping to someday become great. When the clay is finally dug up it must go through an excruciating process-being mixed, beaten, stirred, molded and fired, but it endures all this hopefully, knowing it is the process to become perfect. The clay realizes that "the path to glory is always rugged," and it thinks to itself, "Surely I am intended for something very splendid, since such pains are taken with me." When the clay does, however, realize that it has been formed into a simple flower pot, it is sharply disappointed and curses the one who has made it. It is not until the pot is placed in a church that it learns that it contains the most wonderful flowers in the world, and the root of these beauties is in the middle of his heart. With this, the pot is finally satisfied and realizes his own worth. Symbolically, this clay can be extended to stand for all things, showing that we all have worth and a special task to perform. The potter who has formed the clay is continually referred to as the pot's "maker" and can be seen as God the Maker, who forms us all. At first when the clay realizes it is a pot it curses its maker, "and it murmured against the unknown maker, saying 'why hast thou made me thus?'," but later "the clay was content, and silently thanked its maker, because, though an earthen vessel, it held so great a treasure." Not surprisingly this transformation of the clay's attitude takes place in a church, which shows that all things realize their worth through church and religion.
It is through these stories, and the use of magic, adventure, nature, allegory and symbolism, that van Dyke incorporates religion into The Blue Flower. He teaches lessons about Heaven, being faithful to God, not worshipping false gods, treating all with love and respect and recognizing one's own worth in the context of delightful imaginary tales. It is the charm of these stories and the way that van Dyke presents his ideas in them that made The Blue Flower so popular and embraced by so many readers in 1902.
Edens, Janice L. "Henry Van Dyke." Dictionary of Literary Biography. v.71. 213 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1988.
Guastad, Edwin Scott. A Religious History of America. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
Hall, Thomas Cuming. The Religious Background of American Culture. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.:1930.
Hammond, Philip E. The Protestant Presence in Twentieth Century America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.