My 12 week online class, Tolkien I: The Silmarillion and The Hobbit, starts on August 31, followed by Tolkien II: The Lord of the Rings in the spring of 2016. Find out more and register here. In the meantime, here’s a little about my own personal journey into Tolkien:
My love affair with the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien has been relatively short but passionate. As a child, I had a peripheral knowledge of some book called The Lord of the Rings by someone named Tolkien that was considered to be relatively important. But I never read it, or The Hobbit for that matter. In fact, I did not crack the covers of these books until about fourteen years ago. I heard that a movie of The Fellowship of the Ring was being made and would come out in December of 2001. Given my faint knowledge of Tolkien and his greatness, I kept up on its development, and when it came out, I went to see it.
Hook. Line. Sinker.
Something happened. The movie’s rendering awakened something inside of me that had been asleep for a long, long time, as if a part of me I never knew existed had been found. It was exactly as C. S. Lewis put it when the first book of the trilogy came out—“Like lightning out of a clear sky.” A new world had been opened up to me, just begging me to enter in and explore. And explore I did. As soon as I could, I purchased a boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I dug in with both hands and an unlocked imagination.
Needless to say, my love only deepened, and the reading quickly piled up. It didn’t end with the books. I read commentaries, critiques, articles, analyses. Soon I was getting into Elvish language guides, Tolkien’s letters and life, and wonder of wonders, The Silmarillion, which blockhead once had the temerity to call an “Elvish telephone directory”.
The amazing thing in all this was that, at no time did I reach the point where I said, “Oh, that’s it? That’s all there is to this?” I never hit the bottom of the depths of Tolkien’s mythology. And I’m still sinking.
I have become absolutely convinced that J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the greatest literary geniuses to have graced this earth. This simple Oxford don, with the brilliance of a single imagination, combined with his extensive knowledge of mythology and language, spun off thousands of years of history in the form of poems, narratives, languages, annals of kings, chronologies, explanations of traditions and customs, calendars, etc. If you have done any serious exploration of Tolkien’s writings, you will know what I mean. And if you’ve only recently begun to explore Middle-earth, you will soon learn to stand back in awe as I and so many others have done.
But what comes even closer to my heart is the religious nature of this mythology. I use that word with the uttermost reverence and passion. But perhaps a better phrase would be incarnational nature. Just as Christ became the enfleshed representation of the divine on earth, Tolkien’s mythology serves as a lesser (and fallible) incarnation of divine truth, enfleshed in a great tale.
The genius of Tolkien’s religious expression was that he understood the power of communicating truth through myth. Today we see that word and we might tend to think “a lie, something that is probably not true.” But Tolkien had a better understanding of it, that of a profoundly moving story that actually attempts to say something true. He realized this as he poured over the ancient mythology of the past; but he also realized it as he looked at the Bible. The power of myth was derived from the fact that the Creator was the Author of myth, particularly what Tolkien called the True Myth. As he said in his lecture “On Fairy Stories”:
“I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe [good catastrophe]. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation [our own works] has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”
This is what makes us come to the end of great stories, including The Lord of the Rings, with a deep sigh and a slight pang of heart. It is because our souls are echoing with the faint strains of some greater music, and it is the music of heaven. Our eyes have been touched by faint splinters of pure light, and it is the light of God. It is, as Tolkien said, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”