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.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings counter our cultural individualism.

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.”

Tolkien and Rowling's books present an enchanted world and can help to re-enchant the world we live in.
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.

The Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master's of Divinity degrees.
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.


2 Replies to “Why Tolkien?”

    1. I think that the Narnia series ought to be read for the same reason as the others, with the added benefit that Lewis packs all sorts of great ideas into his stories that edify the reader. From an entertainment perspective, I had more fun with Harry Potter, but from a philosophical perspective, Narnia gives a lot more to chew on. Thanks for reading, Little River.

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