Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The tradition in the story: reading J.R.R. Tolkien

Sometimes I read something and it bothers me. Then I reread it, pondered it and find thoughts and feelings buzzing in my heart and mind. This happened when reading Charlene Han Powell's article, “The Sacred Adventure,” in the Presbyterian Outlook. This time I wondered through several books and even into memories of setting in the “Eagle and the Child” pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien read their drafts to each other. That was over twenty years ago. 

It is the Tolkien tales that Powell has written about. She watched all of the Tolkien movies and loved them all, except for the Hobbit movie—until she re-watched it and rethought it. Powell concluded that she was very much like Bilbo Baggins. And she feels that isn't good, that some of his attitudes need changing.

Before I go further I should point out that Powell states that she has not read any of the books but only watched the movies. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and saw the movies, but I have not read the Hobbit and though I attempted to watch the movie, I found it too violent. I do however know what the story is about. (And here I will link the reader to a wonderful review of the first Lord of the Rings movie by a young lady—the review was written several years ago and will help the reader to understand that the books are a bit different then the movie: The Lord of The Rings: A Myth Translated to Film )

Calling hobbits simpletons, Powell notes that Bilbo is reluctant to leave the Shire and go on an adventure. And he was reluctant, but not as Powell puts it, because “He was so limited by his attachment to his stuff and his creature comforts. He was too happy living by himself where he could control who ate his food and drank his drink. He was overly content leading a life of predictability because it meant there was always a clean hanky in his pocket and a warm bed to sleep in at night.”

Yes, Bilbo loved all of that, probably innately, perhaps at times too deeply, and was reluctant to leave, but not because he was “limited by his attachment” nor because he was “too happy living by himself.” Nor was it because he was “overly content leading a life of predictability.” Instead, these traits, in the end, are his strengths because the great adventure is not meant to be something that washes away the foundations but instead the foundations, the knowledge of past contentment, happiness and predictability, are what stabilizes one in the midst of adventure, particularly an adventure into dark places.

The truth is Tolkien saw himself, or the common Englishman, as a hobbit, (although I bet he didn't have large hairy feet). And contrary to Powell's understanding that there is “something beautiful about the unknown, something holy about possibility, something sacred about adventure” there is rather the seriousness of moving into the adventure for the sake of preserving that which is holy, permanent and already known.

Powell also turns her essay toward the Christian's reason for taking the adventure, seeing it as a means of following the example of Jesus. He moved out of his comfort zone to dine with tax collectors, heal and tell parables. Powell writes, “Jesus was an adventurer not for adventure's sake, but for the sake of those he would encounter along the way.” Yes, Jesus did all of that, and it was for the sake of others, but thinking of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit stories, Christ's story is so much greater.

He humbled himself, the author of Philippians states, “by becoming obedient unto death.” He did not leave something less, his home was not the Shire but the bosom of the Father. He took on the adventure, so to speak, for the sake of humanity. The Son of God left heaven in order to die and give eternal life. And one can hardly speak of it as an adventure since he knew the beginning, the middle and the ending, the humility and the glorification.

Powell asks the question, “Why does our Lord challenge us to push beyond our attachment to tradition in order to be better witnesses of the Christian faith?” If Powell is writing of human traditions such as how we dress for church or the various kinds of music we use in worship, what kind of dish we bring to the potluck, and whether we kneel or stand in prayer, she is so right. After all Paul was a Jew for the sake of the Jew, and a Gentile for the Gentile that he might win them to Christ. But if she is writing about the doctrines of the church universal or the morality that is given in God's word she is wrong.

Tolkien had a mean—a measure—for fairy stories and he applied it to the story of the Incarnation—the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the story caused joy when it was read, a certain kind of joy, “the Consolation of the Happy Ending” as Tolkien put it, it possessed the quality of a true fairy story. He wrote:
The Consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist'. Nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (Italics the author)
Tolkien went on, as I stated, to apply this image of Joy to the Incarnation. “Because the story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.” But my reason for quoting from Tolkien is to return to Tolkien's stories and Powell's, innocent concern with predictability and tradition. There is a constant in all of Tolkien's stories. It is the Joy that he speaks of in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.”

While there is darkness and evil—misunderstanding and failure—in each group of creatures, except the orcs who are false creations, there is an ancient tradition, a measure that rests in tradition which holds something of that Joy of Consolation, the denial of final defeat. There is a predictability and a tradition which every adventure rests upon. But it is more than human predictability—it is “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

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