TagChesterton

Why Tolkien?

A few pastors from my church are very wise and godly men; they are literate and literary, discerning and spiritually intuitive–then we have those who hosted this past week’s Extra Podcast.

I can forgive their derision of Star Wars fandom and can the ridiculous claim that Episodes I-III are terrible–evidenced by writing like this.  But I cannot tolerate groundless ridicule of Tolkien.

Mocking those who know the difference between a dwarf and an elf is like mocking someone for reading a book without pictures.

This segment of the podcast was a celebration of ignorance.  The host who has read the most Tolkien, couldn’t get past the middle of The Two Towers.  And derides those who are able to read beyond chapter six of the Silmarillion.  He went on to characterize The Fellowship of the Ring as “one of one of the most boring reads you will ever have in your life.”  This is the sort of reaction we usually get from people who think Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2012) was a good movie.  I can only surmise that this host equates reading with the recognition of words on the page.

Did the other host really suggest that Tolkien was a troll?  Motivated only by testing the limits of his future fans’ ability to digest his “drivel”?  In a pathetic attempt at concession, it was acknowledged that some might appreciate Tolkien for his “cultural impact” or his membership in a “Christiany” group called “The Foundlings.”  Allowing that some might appreciate Tolkien’s work because there is “all sorts of biblical imagery,” this host may fail to realize that simple imagery, biblical or otherwise, does little to recommend a literary work, and hardly goes further than lexical comprehension.

Then, the bombastic leader of this triumvirate then asked why so many people who love J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, anathematize J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.

Here’s my answer:  To do so is indefensible.

[tweetshare tweet=”Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings counter our cultural individualism.” username=”Dryb0nz”]

Both the Harry Potter Series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are in the same genre, both ought to be read for the same reasons.

In both stories, the protagonists are collaborative and interdependent.  Harry Potter often contributes to victory over evil, but no more than Hermione, Ron, and any number of secondary characters who step up and do their part.  In the climax of the final book, Harry does very little except willingly lay down his life for his friends.  Neville Longbotton, it might be argued, does as much to defeat evil as the eponymous hero of the Harry Potter series.   In Tolkien’s fictive world, one of the main characteristics of the Good is its movement toward fellowship, and that of Evil, toward fragmentation.  The examples are plentiful.  The fellowship begins with the hobbits, including a Baggins, a Took and a Brandybuck.  Hobbits usually stick with their own; not their own species, but their own family group.  But the mixing has only just begun.  When the Fellowship of the Ring is created it includes, not only three types of hobbits, but a wizard, two men, an elf and a dwarf.  Perhaps podcast hosts don’t know the difference, but the dwarves and elves certainly do–and they don’t like each other at all.  Yet, in the context of The Fellowship, they become fast friends.  Difference is celebrated and the fellowship enjoined.  The mock-fellowship of the Ringwraiths is a fellowship of sameness a loss of individual identity.  Further, the forces of evil fragment.  The Sauron has become a disembodied eye, and the emblem of Saruman is the white hand.  Exposure to the Ring, the embodiment of evil, has separated Smeagol from himself–he has two identities, the other being Gollum. Is not this imaginative encounter with biblical truth at least as effective as a rational understanding?  One of the reasons Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings ought to be read is that it counters our cultural individualism.  I think this is a big deal.  We need to counter the cultural narratives with which they are bombarded that proclaim the autonomous individual as the solution to every antagonist.  In the case of individualism, these stories are countercultural in the same sense and direction that the church is, or ought to be.

Escape FROM Reality

It is important to counter individualism, but even more vital to challenge the materialism that so dominates our culture.  Those under the spell of materialism slander these stories as being an “escape from reality.”  Tolkien was familiar with the argument that escape through fantasy literature is harmful.  His response to this charge is found in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He accepts the term “escape,” but he says it is not an escape from reality, but an escape to reality.  His argument is that we misunderstand reality, and in so doing, misunderstand the nature of escape.  Materialists will certainly be threatened by fantasy literature, but those who believe in an “enchanted” reality, as do Christians, ought to embrace it.  Those who feel compelled to mock Tolkien and authors like him, ought to take an honest look at their attitude to determine if they are possibly walking too deeply into materialist territory.  If so, one of the best ways to recover enchantment and to escape materialism is to read the very books you mock.

Escape TO Reality

G. K. Chesterton reminds us that there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing.  In a faerie story, we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time.  “Again . . . again . . . again.”  It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  It is because they ought to invoke our sense of wonder, that Chesterton can claim “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

[tweetshare tweet=”Tolkien and Rowling’s books present an enchanted world and can help to re-enchant the world we live in. ” username=”Dryb0nz”]So, Modern individualism and materialism are countered by Tolkien and Rowling.  Tolkien also challenges modernism’s Myth of Progress.  Out culture believes that we are progressing.  Humanity is getting better and better.  We have the mistaken idea that just as our technology, transportation, communication and medical advances are proof of this progress.  These are indicators of certain kinds of progress, but just watching the evening news tells us that we are not making progress in some very important ways.   In many respects, we are little different than when we lived in caves.  We still lie, cheat, steal and kill.  Tolkien’s world is an ancient world, and the men and women of ages past were better than we are today.  If you read the Silmarillion, you learn of the great ancient race of men and women called the Numenorians, superior to modern men in every way.  But they were proud, and this resulted in their downfall.  This is the pattern of human beings–we can make and do some awesome things, but we never change morally–we always fall.

These are just the beginnings of a thousand reasons why, when asked, “What book would you want with you if you were stuck on a desert island, and you’re not allowed to say The Bible?” I would say, without hesitation, The Lord of the Rings.

We don’t get people to be less individualistic, less materialistic, less confident in progress, by telling them to stop being that way.  In order to affect change, people need to be convinced at a level deeper than reason, deeper than emotion, deeper even than belief (where things like “worldview” live).  We need to live out of a different story, and a transformed imagination.  We have the Bible, we also have experience and tradition, but it is a foolish thing to read these with reason alone.  Lewis would probably say that to look at these imaginatively is at least as important as exploring them rationally.

Let’s talk Glorfindal–apparently deserving of ridicule by one of our would-be, spiritual leaders.  Contrary to representation on the podcast, Glorfindal finds Frodo and his companions and rushes then along to Rivendell, taking breaks only for the exhausted hobbits.  When they are set upon by Black Riders, Glorfindal sets Frodo aback his horse for a mad dash to Rivendell.  When the Ford of Bruinen separates the exhausted Frodo, the Ringwraiths attempt to lure Frodo back to them.  Frodo musters his last bit of strength and says, “You shall have neither the ring nor me.”  Here we have, perhaps, the weakest representative of the forces of good, standing before nine of the top ten representatives of evil in Middle Earth.  And he defies them.  He defies them with confidence even though he has no clue that the river has been enchanted.  For all he knows, they can walk through it as easily as he did, but he defies evil anyway.  It’s not in his own power that Frodo is confident.  The Ringwraiths have never read Romans.  This is an inconsequential event in the story, yet, because of Tolkien’s genius, we can see such profound theology behind almost every act, or under every mushroom.

It seems to me, Tolkien’s work should be regularly referred to in sermons as we educate, not only the mind but also the imagination.  And the Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master’s of Divinity degrees.

[tweetshare tweet=”The Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master’s of Divinity degrees.” username=”Dryb0nz”]Lest my readers misunderstand, this blog was written knowing full well that the hosts of the Extra Podcast were probably not serious in their ridicule of Tolkien or his admirers.  However, if there is even the tiniest piece of sincerity in their critique of Tolkien, or in that of their listeners, I submit this rebuttal. And I recommend From Homer To Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy (see link below) for further reading on this subject.

 

In Defence of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation

ddouk / Pixabay

We get a lot of rain in south western BC so we often talk about it, often disparagingly.  We fail to see magic anymore—even when it drops out of the sky and hits us on the head.

In science texts, rain is presented as a result of a series of intractable processes.  First, water in the ocean is obligated by impersonal forces to do something we have called evaporation; as it moves inland and cools at higher altitudes the water vapor begins a process that human beings have named condensation; eventually, gravity takes over and the water falls in some form of what we have labeled precipitation.  Why does water do these things?  It does it because we think it can’t do anything else.  We expect it.  It’s the law—Natural Law.  We have named all these mindless processes, the water cycle.

What is happening here?

WATER IS FALLING OUT OF THE SKY!!!

When you think about it, it’s incredible! Water is falling out of the sky!

What kind of a world is this, where water falls out of the sky?!

It didn’t have to be this way, but it is!

John Piper makes a similar point in a more thorough manner here.

Magic?

What’s true about the water cycle? Does nature tediously adhere to natural law, or is it “a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful” (Chesterton).

Which is more consistent with the Biblical teaching of Creation?

The Bible begins by telling us that God made everything and it was good (Genesis 1:31).

This means there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing, and Chesterton claims that fairy tales help us to remember this truth.

In the fairy tale we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time, “Again . . . again . . . again.”

It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  Chesterton claims that “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

These things, indeed all created things, ought to invoke our sense of wonder.

Wonder

Tolkien refers to this characteristic of fairy tales as “recovery.”  It is the quality that “allows us to stay ‘childish,’ in the sense of viewing the world in the same way a child does—as if everything is brand new.”  We recover the sense of wonder that creation affords by “not seeing things as they are, but seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them” (Northrup).

This recovered sense of wonder is not “a mere fancy derived from fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this” (Chesterton).  According to Chesterton, the natural response—the child-like response—to the creation is one of wonder.  And the immediate effect of wonder is praise.  To be filled with wonder at the world around us and to respond with praise to the creator is to be brought back to reality, not drawn from it.

Fairy tales help us to recover a sense of wonder, and understand that our happiness rests on a condition of obedience.Click To Tweet

In the fairy tale “Cinderella,” through the presentation of the extraordinary, we experience the ordinary as brand new.

When Cinderella’s fairy godmother transforms an ordinary pumpkin into “a beautiful coach, gilded all over” and six ordinary mice into six “dappled mouse-grey horses” (Perrault), we see anew the commonplace pumpkin and mouse as exceptional. Because they were turned into something different we can, with Chesterton, marvel at their original state.  Which is a greater marvel, a carriage or a pumpkin?  Because it could have been otherwise, we get a sense that in the orangeness and roundness of a pumpkin, “something has been done” (Chesterton) by a creator.  Mice and pumpkins are not as they are simply because they must be; Chesterton proclaims it magic and then stands in awe of these ordinary creatures.

How much more enriching is life when we live in a world where there are no ordinary things?

Limits

So fairy tales help us to see the reality of the wonder of Creation. But there is another Creational truth that fairy tales help us to see—the reality of limits.

Cinderella’s fairy godmother “bade her not to stay [at the ball] beyond midnight” (Perrault)—this was her incomprehensible condition of joy. Happiness depends on not doing something: if Cinderella stays beyond midnight, she will be humiliated and lose her happy-ever-after ending. This is a perspective that the fairy tale provides and it is consistent with the conditions found in Eden.  Accept the curfew and happiness will endure, leave after midnight and suffer humiliation; do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge and enjoy paradise forever, eat of it and “you will surely die.”

Man was placed in God’s good creation to enjoy and prosper, but there was a condition—that he “must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” for to eat of this tree would bring death (Gen. 2:17). This prohibition seems arbitrary and irrational, but upon it hinges life itself.

Chesterton recognizes this biblical reality in fairy tales where we find “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.”  He calls it the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.” Chesterton metaphorically compares this condition to glass, a prevalent substance in fairyland.  “Strike a glass, and it will not endure in an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.”   The fairy instruction is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire if you do not say the word ‘cow.’”

Although these fairy restrictions may seem arbitrary and irrational, they are not unfair. When held up against what we can do, we should not be resentful of the little thing we cannot do.  Chesterton’s illustration of this point is monogamy.  Many chafe under the Christian restrictions of sex only within marriage, all the while failing to see, and be grateful for, the great gift that sex is [Read “Kraft Dinner and Premarital Sex”]. Chesterton thought that “existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that [he] could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when [he] did not understand the vision they limited.” The thrill of what we can do outshines that which we cannot do and our happiness depends on obeying the restriction. This aspect of fairy tales is consistent with reality as presented in scripture.

Fairy tales help us to recover a sense of wonder, and understand that our happiness rests on a condition of obedience.

Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (3)Fall
Read In Defence of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption

Resources:
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Northrup, Clyde B. “The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story.” Modern Fiction Studies. 50.4 (2004) : 814-837.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

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