Saturday, May 5, 2018

JRR Tolkien Takes Us to a Place We Would Not Have Visited

On this date in 2009, Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún was published, thanks to the untiring work of his son, Christopher. I thought today would be a good day to share my review of the book as it was published on in July of 2015. The Examiner article was based on a review I did for Hollywood Jesus in June of 2009. On the day the book came out, I posted a brief announcement in HJ's "Bagshot Row Bulletin." I commented: "Reading poetry is certainly not one of my strong points, but I look forward to trying to tackle the book. I hope to publish a review in the near future." I am thankful I both tackled and reviewed it; it was a profitable exercise.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

Almost eighty years ago, a strange children’s book from a then unknown author hit a few bookstore shelves in England. JRR Tolkien soon secured a small but loyal following, and readers were clamoring for more. Little did Professor Tolkien understand what he had started.

In 2009, legendary director Guillermo del Toro was part of the team working on the pre-production preliminaries for the Hobbit movies. In June of that year, del Toro gave an interview for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and described his view of Tolkien's The Hobbit.

…it’s all going to be a beautiful tale of a guy with an incredibly beautiful spirit, which all Hobbits have, who is confronted with a very vast much darker world than he knew. And he comes back to his point of origin completely changed and yet very sure of his own nature.

That’s what Tolkien has done to many of his fans. Through the eyes of his Hobbits, he has taken us to places we would have never thought to visit. If it weren’t for Bilbo and Frodo, many would have never developed an interest in fantasy literature. And certainly only a very few specialists would have ever picked up a book written in verse by some obscure philologist.

Without The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, that is all The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún would be to Tolkien’s fans. Undoubtedly, as was the case with The Silmarillion, many more copies of this book have been sold than have been read. A few devoted fans might even begin to attempt the read, but, undoubtedly, no more than a small fraction will ever finish the epic poems, let alone the commentaries.

If you are one of those readers who skips over the poems when you read Tolkien, because you just can’t “get into” poetry, this book is definitely not for you. On the other hand, for those of you who enjoy poetry, but find Tolkien somewhat lacking in skill, you will find these much better than anything in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was at the top of his game when he created these “lays.” And he was quite adept at using the alliterative style and meter of Norse poetry. It is impressive how much he could convey in a short stanza. Here is a sample passage from "The Lay of Gudrún."

Horns they sounded -
strode the stairway;
stern their onslaught.
The stones they stained
with streaming blood;
snaketonguéd arrows
sang about them.
Doors clanged backward,
din resounded:
Hunland’s champions
hurled upon them.
Hard were handstrokes,
hewn were corslets,
as on hundred anvils
were hammers ringing.
Tolkien’s vivid imagery is not just limited to his prose. If providence had not found a publisher for The Hobbit, I doubt the world would have ever seen these lines, and we would be a little less rich. Like Bilbo in his hole, we would have been just fine without adventures in Middle-earth or Norse poetry, but there is a part of us that is changed because we have been there. And that just may be a good thing.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún was not published until 2009, but was written by JRR Tolkien probably in the 1930’s. Tolkien at one time feared the poems had been lost. Besides the poems themselves and a few notes by the author, the book also contains commentary by Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Last Earth Day

The following article was first published in the now defunct on April 21, 2010. It is an expanded version of a blog post from 2009. I thought this Earth Day Eve would be a good time to share it for posterity. 

Tomorrow is Earth Day around the world. It was founded by the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to help us remember the importance of treating our planet properly.

A flood of movies has been released in the past few years that emphasize the importance of taking care of our planet – from the humorous Wall-E, to the suspenseful The Day the Earth Stood Still to the blockbuster Avatar. Although I believe much of the hype about catastrophic climate change is most likely greatly inflated, we certainly do have a responsibility to care for the earth.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), the alien Klaatu says that it is more important for the Earth to survive than it is for humankind to survive. There are few planets that can sustain complex life, he says, and it would be better to destroy humanity and let the earth have a fresh start than to let humanity turn the world into an uninhabitable rock. It must be decided whether humans are capable of improving to the point that they are not a threat.

Some time back, this examiner wrote an article about an essay by C. S. Lewis from Christian Reflections titled “The Funeral of the Great Myth.” The “Great Myth” for Lewis was the idea that humankind is progressing and gradually becoming better and better. Developmentalism is not a new Hope that has just shown up recently. It has been popularized in science fiction for decades, and been a subject of philosophy for centuries. Somehow, it says, we will overcome our proclivity for destroying ourselves – whether by war or by pollution. Peace will reign on Earth, and we will take our place among the stars.

C. S. Lewis wrote an article in 1958 for the Christian Herald titled “Will We Lose God in Outer Space?” (Published as “Religion and Rocketry” in the C. S. Lewis anthology The World’s Last Night—1960, still available as a reprint.) While logically explaining why life on other planets would not preclude God or Christianity, he wonders whether God would allow us to venture out with the possibility of contaminating unfallen races (a subject which, of course, he delves into in his Space Trilogy). Lewis did not believe that we would progress to a point where we would no longer be a threat to hypothetical worlds.

In the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the reason for Klaatu coming to Earth was not to save it from us, but to save the other planets from us. The concern was not what we were doing to our own species or our own planet, but what we might do if we were to travel to other worlds. Klaatu explains how these worlds have solved the problem of hostility and war – not through progressing beyond it, but by controlling it. Robots have been programmed to take action against any aggression. The peace is maintained by the threat of force.

Lewis believed that the final peace will come by force. In 1952, he wrote “The Christian Hope—Its Meaning for Today” for Religion in Life (titled “The World’s Last Night” in the above anthology). He believed the Second Coming of Christ would be apocalyptic in nature. No gradual “bringing in” of the Kingdom, but a sudden, forceful take-over. He presents sound theological reasons for supporting such a Coming, and uses the same arguments against Developmentalism that he used in “The Funeral of the Great Myth.”

Lewis does remind us that Christ said no one knows the day or hour of His Coming. He did not even know it Himself (one of the great mysteries of the incarnation). But we should live with the reflection that it could be at any moment, and that He will come in Judgment.

We cannot always be excited [about His Coming]. We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams on it; that light which is so different from the light of this world—and yet, we know just enough of it to take it into account.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Buying Middle-earth: Amazon Dives into the Tolkien Legendarium

For some time now, it has been known that Amazon Studios is going to be working on a television series to run as an Amazon Original series based of Tolkien's Middle-earth novels. When the news first broke, it looked like they were merely going to rehash The Lord of the Rings, and possibly The Hobbit. It was assumed that JRR Tolkien's son, Christopher, who headed the Tolkien Estate, would never allow the rights to any other writings about Middle-earth. However, as details came to light, it became obvious (to me anyway) the series was going to be much broader in scope than that. As I wrote in my article for

According to the Amazon Press Release, as published on, “the television adaptation will explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The deal includes a potential additional spin-off series.” This places the series directly in the Middle-earth universe, and, yes, potentially includes material from The Silmarillion!  What exactly will be included is only speculation at this point – beyond the fact it is about Middle-earth and is set before Bilbo’s famous Party.

Reports have been stating Amazon will be spending upwards of a billion dollars on the series, including about a quarter billion just for the rights. With Christopher Tolkien retiring from his position with the Estate, the rights to stories beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were secured – apparently after a bidding war with other studios. (See the Variety article from last November.)

When the film industry spends that kind of money on a production, you can be sure Forbes will, sooner or later, comment on it. Yesterday morning contributor Paul Tassi weighed in on the project, but he does not seem to understand the breadth of Tolkien's Middle-earth Legendarium.

Peter Jackson’s follow-up trilogy is pretty bad. This demonstrates what happens when you run out of source material and have to stretch what little you have to work with into something larger than it should be. The Hobbit trilogy pales in comparison to the original LOTR trilogy, and if Peter Jackson himself couldn’t make the concept work, I’m wondering what chance Amazon has without him, and almost no source material to work with at all, given that everything else has already been adapted to death. They can have a world with Hobbits and Elves and Orcs and power rings, but they have no roadmap, they’ll have to make it all up unless they re-adapt the original books, which seems like an even worse idea. Even Game of Thrones had George RR Martin’s books to follow, and Amazon seems like it’s on its own arduous path to Mordor, with peril lurking around every turn.

First of all, Peter Jackson's latest trilogy did not garner groans from the fan base because he ran out material. There is plenty in the novel he chose not to cover. And Gandalf's side trip to Dol Guldur is mentioned in Tolkien's writings (more cryptically in The Hobbit, more explicitly in Appendices of  The Lord of the Rings). Jackson's sextet is not weak, in my opinion, because he ran out of good material to use, but, as I've said elsewhere, he didn't trust the material.

The Lord of the Rings movies are, in my opinion, at their best when they trust Tolkien. They get into trouble when they don’t. As I expected, in this first Hobbit movie, Jackson only trusts Tolkien to a point. He is a fan, but he is not a believer. Not that Tolkien is infallible, or that he cannot be improved upon. But Jackson has not proved, at least to my mind, that his version of Middle-earth is better than that in the books. He has two more movies to show me I’m wrong.

But, if Amazon's original Press Release is correct, the series is not going to be about the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo anyway. As I point out in my quote near the beginning of this piece, the material being used will most likely include The Silmarillion. Certainly there is plenty of "source material" to use.

Let's just hope whoever writes and directs this mammoth series trusts Tolkien more than Jackson did. If all goes well, sometime in the 2020s we shall see.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

C. S. Lewis' View of the Bible

Abingdon Press, 2002
The following post was published on the now defunct two years ago on this date. It is an expansion version of a post I made here nearly 10 years ago. I reproduce it here for posterity.

C.S. Lewis on Scripture

It is not every day that a young graduate student gets a recommendation from Owen Barfield (a personal friend of C S Lewis), and Clyde S. Kilby (recognized authority on C S Lewis). But this is what happened to Michael J. Christensen in 1979. The book, C. S. Lewis on Scripture, came about as a result of a research project during Christensen's Senior year at Point Loma College. His professors encouraged him to seek publication, and Barfield and Kilby provided the Foreword and Introduction. (Christensen has now written a total of at least nine published books, as well as numerous articles and contributions to reference books and other volumes.)

C S Lewis, the famous Christian apologist and author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, is difficult to classify. He often admitted that he was not a Theologian, but a "translator—one turning Christian doctrine ... into the vernacular." [God in the Dock, cited by Christensen, p. 23-34.]
Conservative theologians have classified him as liberal, liberal theologians have classified his as conservative. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Perhaps anyone who has read his books have disagreed with him on more than one occasion. But this is perhaps how it should be. God has apparently chosen to use imperfect human beings to show himself to the world. It is only natural that imperfect people will disagree. God's intention seems to be that we should learn to learn from each other rather than using our differences as an excuse to build walls between us.

Lewis spoke about the mythical nature of the Bible. By this he did not mean that the Bible was untrue, or full of "fairy tales," but that it has a certain quality that is found in pagan mythology. He believed that God used mythology to reveal himself to the pagan world before Christ. As Christensen explains:

All the pagan myths were merely premonitions of "Nature's Original," as Lewis calls Christ. When the Word became flesh, when God became man in Jesus Christ, the process of myth was actualized and revelation was complete. Pagan myths, motifs, and rituals were noble yet inadequate vehicles of divine revelation—distorted reflections of the real thing. ... "Myth became Fact," ... God's progressive revelation, which appeared only faintly in the great myths, had culminated in historic fact. [p.75-76]

Realizing that the modern conception of "myth" is far from what Lewis meant, Christensen suggests the term "literary inspiration" for Lewis's view of the way the Bible is inspired. "The Bible is to be approached as inspired literature. Its literary element—images, symbols, myths and metaphors—are actual embodiments of spiritual reality, vehicles of divine revelation." This does not mean that the significance of a passage should be dismissed. As Lewis wrote:

Some people when they say that a thing is meant "metaphorically" conclude from this that it is hardly meant at all. They rightly think that Christ spoke metaphorically when he told us to carry the cross: they wrongly conclude that carrying the cross means nothing more than leading a respectable life and subscribing moderately to charities. They reasonably think hell "fire" is a metaphor—and unwisely conclude that it means nothing more serious than remorse. They say the story of the Fall in Genesis is not literal; and then go on to say ... that it was really a fall upwards—which is like saying that because "My heart is broken" contains a metaphor, it therefore means "I feel very cheerful." This mode of interpretation I regard, frankly, as nonsense. [Miracles, cited by Christensen, p. 77-78]

Liberals often claim that the Bible is not the Word of God in itself, but becomes the Word of God when God speaks to the individual through it. This subjective approach Lewis apparently rejected. The Bible should be accepted at "face value" just as any other piece of literature.

Some Conservatives, on the other hand, ignore the fact that the Bible is literature, and should be read as such. The vast majority of scripture is in Story form. God did not dictate to us a systematic theology textbook, but truth conveyed through narrative and poetry. There are exceptions, such as the Epistles and the Laws given to Israel. These direct statements help us to keep us from coming to the wrong conclusions about what is being taught in the narrative passages. But the narratives connect the doctrinal teachings to our life and emotions, giving flesh to the dry bones of Theology.

C. S. Lewis on Scripture was reprinted in paperback by Abingdon Press in 2002, and can be found in secondary markets such as eBay and Amazon Marketplace.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tolkien Biography: The Carpenter Benchmark

The following was first published on this date in 2016 on the now-defunct It is reproduced here for posterity. 

George Allen & Unwin 1977 (Fair Use)
Tolkien: The Authorized Biography

JRR Tolkien, the author of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," expected to live beyond the 81 years he was given. His ancestors had lived much longer. But, although death surprised him in September of 1973, he had long since prepared to hand over his literary legacy to his son. Christopher, who had long collaborated with his father about his mythology, spent the next few years editing "The Silmarillion" for publication.

It is also evident that Tolkien knew that a biography would be forthcoming, and he prepared “a few pages of recollections” and made notations on a number of old letters. Humphrey Carpenter, a friend of Tolkien’s children, was given access to the family’s private papers, and interviewed family, friends, and Tolkien himself. 

This biography has been the standard since it was published in 1977, and has been the basis for virtually every Tolkien biography that was written in the twentieth century. Not until John Garth’s "Tolkien and the Great War" (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history.

Tolkien himself did not think that much could be learned about an author’s writing by looking at his life. But it is evident that his life and interests had an influence upon his imagination. Three details in the book show how Tolkien's imagination was influenced by his personal life: Tolkien’s faith, his affection, and his perfectionism. Each of these affected how he wrote.

While Tolkien’s works are not overtly Christian, they are framed with the Christian worldview, and based on Christian morality and ethics. The God behind Middle-earth is clouded from our view in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," but is a little more obvious in "The Silmarillion." Middle-earth is not about his faith, but his faith certainly is ingrained within it.

Tolkien had a genuine affection for people. Companionship is a recurring theme in Middle-earth. A major theme in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" is the camaraderie of friends and companions. And his deep love for his wife is seen in "The Silmarillion"’s story about Beren and Lúthien.

Tolkien’s perfectionism helped create what he would call the verisimilitude of the story. The painstaking detail he went through to make sure the details have continuity is extraordinary, and much of the reason it took almost two decades from the time he began writing "The Lord of the Rings" until it was published. This desire to get every bit of minutia just right was many times a hindrance to completing the task, but we who read are blessed with the “suspension of disbelief.”
And we are blessed that Humphrey Carpenter was able to take up the task of writing about Tolkien’s life. There is something for everyone in this volume. The Tolkien novice will find the text easy to follow, while experienced aficionados will find an opulence of detail, including background on some of Tolkien’s more obscure works. There are also helpful appendices with a genealogical table, chronology of events, and bibliography of Tolkien’s published works.

The "Authorized Biography" is a valuable resource that every Tolkien fan should have in their personal library.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A definitive Tolkien biography for a new generation

The following was first published on this date in 2016 on the now-defunct It is reproduced here for posterity. 

Lion Hudson 2012 (Fair Use)
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend

What does war do to a person? For many of JRR Tolkien’s generation, the “Great War” left them jaded, cynical, and agnostic. Tolkien, on the other hand, came through it with his faith strengthened and his imagination stirred toward creating a Legendarium anchored in a morality based upon his faith. His was not merely an ethereal faith, but was well grounded in everyday life. He understood the importance of the ordinary. As Colin Duriez comments in his biography, 'J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend' (p. 81):

In a curious way, the climate of war was having an invigorating effect upon Tolkien’s imagination. Perhaps it was because war heightened the importance of ordinary life. Elements like love, friendship, enjoyment of art, and the free pursuit of knowledge, worship, and leisure, even if hard-won in poverty, in representing peace stood in contrast to war. … Tolkien’s creativity arose out of the ordinary, which is why the Shire, and its protection, is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, standing for the wider protection of the human itself.

Arguably, part of what has made 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' so great is the “everyman” character of Bilbo, Sam, and, to a lesser extent, Frodo. For Tolkien, war and heroism are on the periphery. They are part of the story, and a catalyst for change in his protagonists, but they are never the main focus.

If “ordinary life” is what was important for Tolkien, and what is important in 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings,' it would be helpful to know a bit about the author’s life. What was “ordinary” for this “everyman?” While it is always a dangerous thing to make too much of an author’s life when interpreting his works, a good biography can help us gain insights, and perhaps help us understand what he was trying to say. There is no shortage of material about Tolkien the man, but some volumes are more helpful than others. Until the twenty-first century, the definitive source had been Humphrey Carpenter’s 'Authorized Biography.' Not until John Garth’s 'Tolkien and the Great War' (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history.

Garth’s biography is a great source for information surrounding the first World War, but no comprehensive biography on Tolkien had come forth until now. Drawing from a variety of sources, including letters and memoirs of those who knew the Professor, Duriez’ biography should stand as the definitive source for this generation. The novice will find the book very readable and accessible, while the aficionado will benefit from a strong refresher, as well as a few new tidbits and ideas to chew on. The Select Bibliography and Index should prove helpful for scholars and devoted fans who want to explore deeper or find that bit of information they are looking for.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

ABC LOST's final season and the Narnia connection

This article was originally published on this date back in 2010 on I reproduce it here for posterity.
Charlotte Staples Lewis - promotional photo

Next Tuesday, February 2, the ABC Series LOST returns for its sixth and final season. There is a definite connection between the ABC show LOST and The Chronicles of Narnia.

In February of 2008, LOST introduced a new character named Charlotte Staples Lewis. The name is obviously derived from Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia series of seven children’s books.

C.S. Lewis was called “Jack” by his friends, and it has been speculated that the character Jack in LOST somewhat represents C.S. Lewis’s journey from Atheism (man of science) to Christianity (man of faith).

The first episode of Season 4 (”Confirmed Dead”) was aired on February 7, 2008, and was rebroadcast the following week in an “enhanced” version with clues and tidbits added to the bottom of the screen. In this episode, we received confirmation that LOST’s C.S. Lewis is indeed related to both the author and his books. The bottom of the screen reads:

This is Charlotte Staples Lewis… she is an anthropologist. Her name is inspired by C.S. Lewis… author of The Chronicles of Narnia… a story of an unlikely passage… to a most unusual place.

Charlotte is then seen in a flashback in a desert in Tunisia. She has learned about an archaeological dig there, and identifies some bones as that of a polar bear.

We’ve seen polar bears on the island… now here’s evidence of the furry creatures… in another unlikely location.

Charlotte does some digging through the sand near the bones and finds a leather strap.

A DHARMA logo from the Hydra Station… the discovery is very important to Charlotte.

Although there are no polar bears in the Narnia books, the Walden/Disney movie based on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe does show the White Witch being pulled by polar bears in a chariot during the battle scenes. Could that scene have been an influence for the TV series?

The reference to C. S. Lewis was quickly picked up by the media after this episode appeared. Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly was reminded of a scene from one of the books. When Charlotte first arrives, she is seen splashing around in the water. In Prince Caspian, the Pevensie children play in the ocean when they are returned to Narnia.

In the LOST episode “This Place is Death,” Charlotte reveals that she had indeed lived on the island as a little girl, and had been warned not to return. Her mother had taken her off the island, and had convinced her over the years that the island was just a child’s game—it was just make-believe. The sounds like Susan’s attitude toward Narnia as she grew older. But her discovery of polar bear remains with a DHARMA collar in the desert had rekindled her belief in the island.

Charlotte dies from the adverse effects of time travel, but the references to Narnia are not finished. In the sixth episode of Season 5, “316,” we are introduced to a DHARMA  Station, not on the island, but in Los Angeles. It is called the Lamppost, an obvious reference to the Lamppost (near the entrance to the Wardrobe) in the Narnia books. The Lamppost is used to “find” the island.

The title of the episode, “316,” is the flight number they must take to get back to the island, but it is also an apparent reference to John 3:16 in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Jack is compared to Thomas, whose fame is that he doubted the resurrection. Jack must become a “man of faith” instead of the “man of science” he has been (in contrast to Locke) since the beginning of the show.

But where will the series now go now that we have seen that Locke’s “resurrection” was apparently a ruse perpetuated by Jacob’s nemesis? And will there be more references to Narnia in Season 6?
For more information about LOST and the Narnia connections, see Preview to the Last Season on, and check out the provided links.