Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Fairy-Stories": Tolkien, Lewis, and God

I (Aaron) have been reading Collin Durietz's recent biography of J. R. R. Tolkien in my (scant) free time lately.

I find Tolkien fascinating for all kinds of reasons: he's one of my all-time favourite fiction authors, but he was also a WWI veteran (it changed his writing forever), brilliant scholar (he studied and taught at Oxford), and strong moral influence on C. S. Lewis (one of my all-time favourite fiction AND non-fiction writers)!

I loved the biographer's description of Tolkien's reasons for writing "fairy stories" and the ways he hoped they would shape his readers:

In addition to offering a Secondary World, with an "inner consistency of reality," a good fair tale in Tolkien's view has three other key features. 

First, it helps to bring about in the reader what he calls recovery - that is, the restoration of a true view of the meaning of ordinary and humble things that make up human life and reality: things like love, thought, trees, hills, and food. 

This is so beautiful, and so true. Who hasn't felt a longing for the pastoral, rustic simplicity of the Shire? Or longed to spend a rainy afternoon in The Prancing Pony? Or thrilled at the sight of the Misty Mountains? I could go on and on...

Composer Howard Shore's ability to capture and articulate these longings, by the way, are the chief reason that the Lord of the Rings soundtracks rank among the best cinematic scores of all time.

Secondly, the good fairy story offers escape from one's narrow and distorted view of reality and meaning. 

I think this is true as well, although perhaps even more so in Lewis' writing than Tolkien's. Maybe there is something to allegory after all, loathe though Tolkien would have been to admit it! See: the hopeful Universalism of Aslan's conversation with the Calormene soldier toward the end of The Last Battle.

Thirdly, the good fairy story offers consolation, leading to joy.

This is perfect, and brilliant, and true. Tolkien knew it. His fondness for sudden, positive, seemingly impossible developments -what he referred to as eucatastrophe, or "hope unlooked-for"- is what makes the books (and the films).

It's Gandalf turning up at Helm's Deep at dawn; it's Rohan's arrival on the field of Battle outside Minas Tirith; it's the consummation of Arwen and Aragorn's seemingly impossible romance; and it's the success of Sam & Frodo's tortuous, unlikely journey.

In many ways, these three things -recovery, escape, and consolation- are why we keep reading, hoping, and believing. It's true of all good writing: sacred or secular, fiction or non-fiction.

I think it's also true of the story of God's sweeping, inclusive, prodigal love for us.

"And that," as Tolkien might say, "may be an encouraging thought." :) Amen! 

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