Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas from Middle-earth! The Spirit of Christmas Exemplified in Frodo Baggins

As I mentioned in my last I Have An Inkling Blog entry, there is no Christmas in Middle-earth because the stories pre-date the coming of Christ. However, there are some events which take place which seem (at least to me) to foreshadow what Christ would do. As Tolkien and C. S. Lewis would remind us, mythology often pictures Christian ideas and events. For example, there is the recurring theme of a god who dies and is resurrected. Of course, Gandalf the White is often seen as an obvious picture of the resurrected Christ.

For the Christian, the Jewish scriptures often foreshadow Christ in what some have called Types. (This Truth for Today page has a good synopsis of this Theological view.) Jonah in the Great Fish for three days is seen as a Type of Christ's death and resurrection. Abraham's offering of Isaac on Mount Moriah is also seen as a picture of Christ's death and resurrection. As the writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament writes:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had
received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it
was said, "In Isaac your seed shall be called," concluding that God
was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received
him in a figurative sense. [11:17-19 NKJV]

Moses, Joseph and others have also been referenced as picturing Christ in certain ways.

I think there is a picture of Christ in The Lord of the Rings that has been overlooked. Whether Tolkien intended it or not, I have always thought it was no accident that Frodo leaves Rivendell on December 25, and that the Ring is destroyed near the end of March, which would be some time around Easter. (See "Appendix B" of The Return of the King.) Frodo began his journey from the safety of Rivendell on December 25. In our western culture, Christians celebrate Christ leaving Heaven to be born in Bethlehem on that same date.

There are many ideas of what the "spirit of Christmas" is. The way many of us "celebrate" the holiday here in the United States, I wonder if we think the spirit of Christmas is materialism and overindulgence. Forty-some years ago, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" helped us to remember that Christmas is about more than receiving presents, but does the Story of the Christ-Child give us any help in how Christians should live today?

The true "spirit of Christmas," I believe, is found in the book of Philippians in the New Testament. The believers in Philippi were becoming rather arrogant and bickering among themselves. The Apostle Paul writes to remind them:

If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means
anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree
with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way
to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help
others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget
yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the
privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having
become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't
claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then
died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a
crucifixion. [The Message 2:1-8]

The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving. Not giving expensive presents that we cannot afford, but giving of ourselves for others. It is thinking about others and their needs rather than our own. This is what Frodo did when he stood up in front of the Council of Elrond and said, "I will take the Ring to Mordor." No one was requiring him to do it, but Frodo realized that he was the only one who could accomplish the mission, if anyone could. He willingly gave up the comforts of The Shire and the House of Elrond to make the journey to Mordor, which, as far as he knew, would mean his death. As Abraham figuratively received Isaac back from the dead, so Frodo is figuratively raised from certain death when he is rescued by the Eagles.

Frodo exemplifies the spirit of Christmas by his selfless willingness to go to Mordor for the benefit of others. May the same spirit be seen in us this Christmas and throughout the year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

No "Merry Christmas" in Middle-earth! Ban on Tolkien Sure to be Announced

Did you realize that in Middle-earth they did not celebrate Christmas? Even worse, the midwinter holiday in The Shire lasted two days and was called by that pagan name "Yule". I even heard they had Yule logs and said to each other "Have a cool Yule," instead of "Merry Christmas". Just wait until Donald Wildmon and Go Fish* find out about this.

Seriously, Tolkien's Middle-earth is supposed to pre-date Christ. Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in the movies, made a big deal out of the fact that there are no churches in The Shire. But the reason there are no churches in Middle-earth is because the stories pre-date the Church, not because Tolkien's beliefs are completely hidden or excluded. But we are in the Church Age; what should our attitude be about "Christmas"?

Go Fish has a rather in-you-face song titled "It's called Christmas." The chorus goes like this:

It’s called Christmas, what more can I say?
It’s about the birth of Christ and you can’t take that away.
You can call it something else, but that’s not what it will be.
It’s called Christmas with a capital "C."

The song begins with a bit of spoken diatribe against those who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Don't get me wrong. I make a conscious effort to say "Merry Christmas" to people when it is appropriate. But using the phrase "Happy Holidays" does not necessarily mean the well-wisher is consciously avoiding the term "Christmas." The generic greeting is, first and foremost, shorthand for "Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year." And when we talk about the "Holiday Season" in today's culture we are usually including Thanksgiving as well. Not everyone who says "Happy Holidays" or "Holiday Season" has insidious motives, as some might have us to believe! I remember when I worked at a job where I completed transactions with customers. This time of year I would mix up my closing remarks to avoid sounding stilted: "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or even "Have a great evening." With the attitude of some today, I'm almost afraid to say "Happy Holidays" lest someone think I am a Heathen!

On the other hand, some of the nonsense from the other side of the issue is just ridiculous. Calling a Christmas tree a "Holiday tree". Silly. One ad even went so far as to say that their item would cause joy when it was unwrapped on "Holiday morning." Come on. Have we really come that far in this culture that we are afraid to call things what they are lest we offend anyone?

I remember in the 1960's and 70's (Man, am I old!) that the big deal was X-mas. Don't put X-mas on your store signs--that's blasphemy! That's X-ing Christ out of Christmas. It wasn't until later that I discovered that Christians have been using "X" for Christ since the First Century. The letter X looks exactly like the Greek letter Chi (pronounced khee), which is the first letter in Christos--Christ. (Most students who went to a Christan College know that Xian and Xnty are the quick way to write "Christian" and "Christianity" while taking notes.)

A ladies singing trio from the late 50's and early 60's calledThe White Sisters sang a song titled "Keep Christ in Christmas." I don't know if the whole X-mas controversy "inspired" the song or not. I don't remember all the lyrics, but part of it talks about letting "Christ have first place" at this time of year. It does not seem to me that Christ is having First Place in most of the complaining about and campaigning against "Happy Holidays". When Wildmon sends out his e-mail newsletter saying "Send me money because I'm getting Christmas back into the stores," is Christ getting First Place? I wonder. When the average person sees "Christmas Tree" instead of "Holiday Tree" is he more likely to think of the "true meaning of Christmas"? I wonder.

Christmas is about giving, not winning. Christ Himself was the first Christmas gift. If Wildmon and others spent as much time giving themselves to feed the poor, visit the sick and generally spread goodwill among men, as they do organizing boycotts and sending threatening e-mails, I think we would be better off.

Some time in the next couple days: The Christmas Spirit as exemplified in Frodo Baggins.

*Note, for those who might not know: Donald Wildmon is the founder of the American Family Association and has called for boycotts of stores that use "Holiday" instead of "Christmas" in their advertisements. Go Fish is a contemporary Christian Band that sings "It's Called Christmas." Read more about the song in the article above.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

New Line Cinema's New Movie is NOT The Hobbit -- or is it?

An unlikely hero is chosen for a quest to unknown wild regions and obtains a golden object which helps assure success. No, I am not talking about Bilbo Baggins, but Lyra Belacqua. Lord of the Rings fans had been hoping that we would be seeing a film titled The Hobbit from New Line Cinema by now. Instead, this holiday season New Line released The Golden Compass, based on Philip Pullman's book originally titled Northern Lights (re-titled The Golden Compass for the U.S. Edition). The Hobbit it is not, but there are some interesting parallels.

Despite the fact that The Golden Compass is based on a novel by an avowed atheist, it takes on pretty much the same framework as most heroic quest stories. The reluctant hero finds himself involved in circumstances beyond his control and it is discovered that he has special abilities that are needed for the Quest. Bilbo was purposefully chosen by Gandalf to help the Dwarves recover their treasure because he saw traits in the Hobbit that even Bilbo did not know he had. Lyra was chosen for her quest because of her special ability to use the Alethiometer (The Golden Compass). Along the way both heroes learn lessons of courage that they will need later in the Quest.

I have not read the Pullman books, so I can't really comment on most of the controversy that has arisen. If the books did not exist, the movie would play like any other fantasy or science fiction movie because most of the religious themes have been subdued. Like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, the movie comes off as just another victory-for-the-little-guy-over-the-authoritarian-powers-bent-on-controlling-everyone story. In fact, the ending very much parallels the ending of the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV: A New Hope). Good triumphs over Evil; what more can we ask for in a Fantasy/Adventure Film?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Finding Meaning Niggling in Obscurity

Frederick Sweatman, Sidney Herrtage, Herbert Ruthven, Alfred Erlebach, Charles Balk, Wilfred Lewis, Hereward Thimley Price, Lawrenceson Fitroy Powell, Father Henry Rope, J. R. R. Tolkien. Except perhaps for the last name in this list, I doubt even the best Champion on TV's "Jeopardy" would recognize these as assistant editors for the Oxford English Dictionary (often referred to as the "OED"). Even James Murray, Editor-in-Chief for a half a century while the First Edition of the Dictionary was being completed, is not a "household name." Simon Winchester gives us some insight into what it took to produce the massive OED in The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. (Winchester is also the author of The New York Times Bestseller The Professor and the Madman, which is about Dr. William Chester Minor, the insane surgeon who contributed myriads of example sentences for the Dictionary.)

In 1919, when Tolkien got on board to help complete the OED, he was assigned words beginning in "W" including Warm, Wasp, Water and Winter. Tolkien had recently been released from the hospital after fighting "trench fever" contracted during World War 1 in France. Tolkien certainly did not become famous for his work on the OED. However, Winchester comments that Tolkien said later in life that he "learned more [while working on the OED] ... than in any equal period of my life." (p. 208)

While the Oxford English Dictionary gives us "the meaning of everything," we struggle with more basic issues. Even beyond "What is the meaning of life?" (which the Dictionary only answers academically), we struggle with "What is the meaning of MY life?" The vast majority of us live on in obscurity, wondering if our lives make a difference at all. What contribution are we making in this world?

Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle" (usually found with the essay "On Fairy Stories" in anthologies, such as The Tolkien Reader) talks about an artist who seems to be niggling his life away. ("Niggle" means to be occupied with trivial things.) He is trying to complete his one great painting, but is constantly interrupted by his neighbor's problems and other trivial matters. He eventually takes a trip (an obvious reference to death) and find himself in a hospital (apparently the first stage of Purgatory*). Eventually he is released and discovers that the artwork that he had been working on was actually a glimpse of spiritual reality.

Tolkien's story seems a bit obscure, but it seems to me he is trying to make at least two points. First of all, the things we view as niggling are often actually the more important things in life. Helping others, while it may seem to be an annoyance that keeps us away from doing what seem to be "the important things," is actually part of helping others to glimpse spiritual truth. "Ministers of the Gospel," whether clergy or lay people, often forget that. Secondly, the art we create (whether a painting or a story) can give people a glimpse of spiritual reality. If the artist is vitally connected with spiritual truth, both his life and his work should provide glimpses of that truth to those who interact with the artist and/or his art.

What is the meaning of MY life? What impact am I having on this world? We may never have a "household name" or even be part of something as big as the Oxford English Dictionary. But if we will keep doing what we know is right, God will give us opportunities to make a difference in people's lives. We can provide glimpses of spiritual truth to our world.

*Note: As a Roman Catholic, Purgatory was part of Tolkien's belief system. I personally do not believe in Purgatory after death. God purges us in this life.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Enchanted: Fairy-Land Meets New York

When Fairy Tales and the "Real World" meet, it is usually a person from our world who takes the trip to Faery. JRR Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major is once such story. Some of George MacDonald's (19th Century) fantasies (such as Phantastes and Lilith) were also written in this vein. A story in which Faery comes to the "Real World" is a bit more uncommon.

Disney's new film (just released in theaters) Enchanted is not the first motion picture about Fairy Tale creatures coming to New York City. The TV Mini-Series The 10th Kingdom also toyed with the idea of what it would be like if inhabitants of the "Perilous Realm" found themselves here. In both these productions, the collision of the two worlds has some interesting effects.

In Enchanted, Giselle (Amy Adams) is sent by her wicked step-mother to New York City--"the place where Happily Ever After never happens." Her idealism has an effect on those she meets, especially Robert (Patrick Dempsey--Grey's Anatomy's "Dr. Dreamy"). But Reality also begins to have an effect on her, and she experiences anger for the first time. This is perhaps a picture of how it should be. Stories with a happy ending should give us hope. But Reality experienced by the story writer should infuse the "Happily Ever After" with a good dose of realism.

In a rarely-published poem,* JRR Tolkien speculated what it would be like if a Dragon visited modern England. After being pursued by the Fire Brigade, the dragon smashes and burns the town, and begins to eat the inhabitants. However, he discovers that people here are not very palatable ("Mister Higgins was tough, and as for Box just like his name he tasted."), so he decides to "bury the hatchet." Tolkien's poem has a somewhat confusing ending:

He [the dragon] saw the peaks far over the sea
round his own land ranging;
And he mused on men and how strange they be,
and the old order changing.

"None of them now have the wit to admire
a dragon's song or colour,
Nor the nerve with steel to meet his fire -
the world is getting duller!"

He spread his wings to depart;
but just as he was rising
Miss Biggins stabbed him to the heart,
and that he found surprising.

"I regret this very much," she said.
"You're a very splendid creature,
And your voice is quite remarkable
for one who has no teacher;

But wanton damage I will not have,
I really had to end it."
The dragon sighed before he died:
"At least she called me splendid."

The dragon comes from his own land in order to find "food and sport," but finds the sport is just not the same and the food not to his liking. He feels that he is not even appreciated for his glory, and that no one is bold enough to meet him with a blade. It turns out he is wrong. Miss Biggins, while appreciating his splendor, does not appreciate her world being disrupted, which is enough to give her courage enough to slay him.

Fairy Tales do not begin with "Happily Ever After." If they did, there wouldn't be a Story. Just like the real world, there is always a challenge--something that has gone wrong--something evil to face. Fairy Stories not only are able to give us a vision of splendor, but the courage to face evil with conviction that the happy ending is, at least to some degree in this life, possible. For the Christian, who has read "the back of the Book" and knows how it will turn out, there is even more reason to go on courageously.

1 Corinthians 15:57 [NKJV] But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Revelation 21:4 [NKJV] And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.

*"The Dragon's Visit," first published on February 4th, 1937 within The Oxford Magazine, Vol. 55. No. 11. It was reprinted in Douglas A. Anderson's The Annotated Hobbit in 1988 and a revised form (used above) can be found in Winter's Tales for Children I (Macmillan 1965), and The Young Magicians (Ballantine Books 1969).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

C. S. Lewis on Scripture.

It is not every day that a young graduate student gets a recommendation from Owen Barfield (a friend of C S Lewis and fellow Inkling), 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 of Christensen's during his 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 nine published books, as well as numerous articles and contributions to reference books and other volumes.)

I have been wanting to read this book for quite some time. A review on the Hollywood Jesus web site about the documentary film "For the Bible Tells Me So" rekindled my interest in the interpretation of Scripture, and prompted my reading. The movie is about Christian parents dealing with gay children. It apparently seeks to discredit the traditional interpretation of the scriptures which deal with the issue, and groups like "Focus on the Family" which seek to lead gays into "reparative therapy." For further comments on this issue, see my new Blog: "Tentative Thoughts on Theology."

C S Lewis is difficult to classify. He often admitted that he was not a Theologian, but a "translator--one turning Christian doctrine ... into the vernacular." "If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died) ... there would have been no place for me." (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. As a conservative myself, I have found myself disagreeing with Lewis on more than one occasion. But this is perhaps how it should be. God has chosen (for some strange reason hidden from me) to use imperfect human beings to show Himself to the world. It is only natural that imperfect people will disagree. I think God intends 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, but that is 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 suggest 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 is 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 must 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.

God has spoken. Are we listening?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Marred Arda and Tolkien's Hope for the Future Part 3

Those of the "Old Hope" ... say that the One will will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or
they feign, is a rumour that has come down through years uncounted, even from
the days of our undoing. [Morgoth's Ring (Houghton Mifflin 1993), p. 321]

These are the words of Anreth, Wise-woman of Men, to the Elf Finrod. She apparently does not believe the prophesy herself, but the words begin to give Finrod a new Hope.

"Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth" (The Debate of Finrod and Andreth) apparently was planned as an Appendix to The Silmarillion. [ibid., p.329] In it Finrod, "the wisest of the exiled Noldor," [p.305] discusses the nature and future of Men and Elves with the Wise-woman Andreth. It is the days of the Long Peace during the First Age, while Morgoth has been under siege in Angband. [p.305] Even in this time of Peace, Andreth holds little, if any, hope that the marring of Arda by Morgoth would ever be healed.

The Elves have two words for Hope: Amdir and Estel. Amdir is "an expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known." Andreth sees no foundation for any Hope. But Finrod talks of a Hope that is "founded deeper":

Estel we call it, that is "trust". It is not defeated by the ways of
the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first
being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He
will not suffer [allow] himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy,
not even ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep
even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His
Children's joy. [p. 320]

The Hope of the Elves was that the One would somehow bring the Consolation—the eucatastrophe, if you will. Somehow He would heal the marring of Arda. This Hope was based on their Trust (Estel) in His love for them. (You many remember that Aragorn's Elvish name was Estel.) The Elves did not know the reason for their Hope, but they Trusted anyway. Men knew that reason for Hope, but many despaired, losing their Trust through the influence of Morgoth.

During the Years of Peace, many joined the ranks of the "Old Hope" thinking that Morgoth had been defied. But their Hope was misplaced: "For it was not on the might of Men, or any of the peoples of Arda, the the old hope was grounded." [p.321]

I am conservative by nature. My theology and politics are what most would call Conservative. I am not afraid to voice my opinion to my elected officials on the issues. But I think perhaps too many who share my Conservatism put their Trust in what can be accomplished by numbers. And often their negativity is counter-productive. The marring of America--the marring of the world--will not be healed by political agendas, whether Conservative or Liberal. Our marring can only be healed by the One who entered this world and defeated our Enemy forever.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Marred Arda and Tolkien's Hope for the Future Part 2

If you have ever had a parent or other relative who had Alzheimer's, you must know how frustrating it can be for the family. Last week I mentioned that my mother has the disease. Often I wonder why God would let her go through this. But, if I am honest, my frustration is not with what she is going through, but what I am going through.

Could it be that is what Tolkien had in mind when Aragorn says goodbye to Arwen and voluntarily gives up his life? Is he thinking about what Arwen would have to go through as he ages?

Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay, lady, I am the last of the Númenoreans and the latest King of the Elder Days; and to
me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also
the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep.

There is only One I know of Who gave up His life voluntarily for completely unselfish motives--Jesus Christ. No one took His life from Him; He laid it down voluntarily. (John 10:18) As I implied last week, I feel much better with life and death decisions in God's hands than my own. I would surely make a mess of things (more than even "Bruce Almighty" ever did!).

I do know that this whole ordeal with my mother, and the other events I mentioned last week, help me to remember what is important. It it very easy to get distracted with things, when our focus in life should be people. Hopefully this is one lesson I am learning.

Things are only temporary; people are forever. That is what gave Aragorn hope as he gave up his life:

In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound to the
circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!

In Tolkien's famous essay "On Fairy-Stories," (which can be found in found in Tree and Leaf, The Tolkien Reader or A Tolkien Miscellany) he asserts that the highest function of the Fairy Tale is to bring Consolation through the "Happy Ending." He coins the term "eucatastrophe" meaning a "sudden joyous turn" or "sudden and miraculous grace."

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 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.

The Consolation in Fairy Stories is a picture of the Gospel--the evangelium--the Good News about what Christ has done for us. For some reason Tolkien believed that his stories, rather than be overtly Christian, should point to our Consolation in much more subtle ways. This is, of course, in contrast to C S Lewis's more overt pictures of Christianity in The Chronicles of Narnia. In Middle-earth, the Hope of Life beyond "the circle of this world" is mostly relegated to a short passage in an Appendix.

Next time we will consider Tolkien's apparent plans to include a more overt picture of Christianity in an Appendix to The Silmarillion.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Marred Arda and Tolkien's Hope for the Future

Incomparably greater than the power of Sauron, concentrated in the One Ring, Morgoth's power (Tolkien wrote) was dispersed into the very matter of Arda: "the whole of Middle-earth was Morgoth's Ring." [Dust Jacket of Morgoth's Ring, Houghton Mifflin, 1993]

For those of you who are not familiar with Morgoth, he is very much to Arda (the physical world, of which Middle-earth is a part) what Satan is (in the Christian Concept) to Earth. Without going into too much detail, Morgoth (The Enemy) was a "god" (somewhat similar to the concept of an archangel in Christianity) that rebelled against the will of the One (Eru, also called Illúvatar). As Satan is responsible for introducing evil into this world, so Morgoth was responsible for introducing evil into Arda.

In Christianity, the relationship between evil (sin) and death is clearly stated: "through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned ... For the wages of sin is death ..." [Romans 5:12; 6:23] Because Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, sinned, sin and death became the inheritance passed on to every generation since. Not only were human beings affected, but everything in the world: "the creation was subjected to futility ... the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs ... [Romans 8:20, 22]

In Middle-earth, death is often seen as the "gift of Eru." The Elves are forever tied to Arda; Men are not. They are meant to spend eternity not in Arda, but beyond it. This matches the Christian concept that we are "not of this world" but have our "citizenship in Heaven" and are waiting for the Heavenly City where we will dwell forever in bodies designed for the celestial, rather than the terrestrial realm. (See John 17:14-16; Philippians 3:20 and 1 Corinthians 15:40.) It could be debated whether this "gift" of death was "God's original Plan" or an "unfortunate necessity," but such matters are (thankfully) beyond the scope of this Blog entry. I leave that to the Theologians to debate.

"Half-Elves" such as Aragorn were apparently allowed to choose the gift of death, and were even allowed to die at will. Arwen was also given this gift. In Appendix A (I--v) of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn lays down and dies of his own accord. Awen does the same shortly after. The reasoning Aragorn gives Arwen for laying down his life at that point is (to me at least) troublesome:

Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have
me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay,
lady, I am the last of the Númenoreans and the latest King of the Elder Days;
and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but
also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will

Is Aragorn saying that a life is worthless once you lose your virility and intellect in old age? Is not human life precious even if the mind and body have lost their strength?

I have been thinking about life and death recently. Friday was the 79th anniversary of my Father's birth. He died in 1992 at the age of 63. My granddaughter, who had been born prematurely, had her first birthday Saturday. My father for many years was required by his employer to have an extensive annual physical. Modern technology never discovered any indication that he had any trouble that would have led to the sudden massive stroke which killed him. However, modern technology probably saved the life of my granddaughter.

Last December, my mother-in-law had a massive hear attack. Her husband gave her CPR, and they finally restored her heart rhythm at the hospital. However, too much damage had already been done, and she died several days later. Watching her slowly slip away was not a pleasant experience for the family.

When my mother was born in 1933, she weighed less than three pounds. Her twin brother was quite a bit bigger, but he died. Most modern technology did not exist, but she lived.

A few weeks back my mother fell and broke her hip. Because of her heart condition and previous reactions to general anesthesia, surgery was problematic. However, the alternative of letting her suffer in excruciating pain for the rest of her life was not an option. Several times we thought we were going to loose her, but she is still alive. She is extremely week, and her Alzheimer's has apparently been exacerbated by what she has gone through, but she is still with us.

We humans do not have the power to will our own deaths as Aragorn, any more than we have the power to extend our lives beyond the limit He has set. I do not know why God has allowed my mother to live, graced us with a beautiful grandchild or took my Father Home at such a (relatively) young age. But I trust Him that he knows what He is doing. I would not want the power to choose death for myself or anyone else--I am not wise enough.

As Aragorn (whose Elvish name Estel means "hope") says goodbye to Arwen, he gives these words of hope:

In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound to the
circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!

More on the concept of Hope in Middle-earth next time.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

C. S. Lewis in a Time of War: Learning from Lewis's Work Ethic

How do you distinguish between working too hard and being lazy?

C. S. Lewis had to make that choice during World War Two. Besides his duties as an Oxford professor, Lewis also kept busy giving talks at various RAF (Royal Air Force) bases throughout the country. The invitation by the BBC to give Radio Talks was inconvenient and would put more pressure on his time, but Lewis could not turn down the opportunity. So Justin Phillips tells us in C. S. Lewis in a Time of War (HarperCollins 2002).

Lewis turned out to be a captivating broadcaster, and the "Broadcast Talks" kept Britain riveted to their radios when he was on the air. These Talks became Mere Christianity, perhaps Lewis's best-known non-fiction book. There might have been more of these talks, but Lewis knew he had limit, despite pressure from the BBC to do more. (Phillips speculates that this may have been a good thing. Lewis might have gained celebrity status and actually weakened his influence in the process. We will never know.)

Phillips mentions that Lewis had confided in a friend that he was naturally lazy (p.63). But Lewis certainly did not have a lazy mind, and was willing to work, especially on projects where he would have a positive influence. And I am sure he believed his work ethic was as much a part of his spiritual life as going to church on Sunday. It is so easy to not take advantage of opportunities God gives us by making the excuse that we are "too busy." Certainly we need to be aware of our physical limitations. But, perhaps it is more often closer to the truth that we are just "too lazy."

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The C. S. Lewis Hoax: Searching for Truth in a Positive Way

Finally a book that looks at the facts without resorting to ad hominem attacks.

Why is it that we are so fascinated by conspiracy theories? From speculation about who really killed JFK (or assertions that he is still alive) -- to UFO's -- to the President Bush's supposed lying about what he knew to get us into a war with Iraq -- books and "documentaries" and Blogs abound trying to "prove" that what really happened is being "covered up." Certainly it is one of the founding principles of this country that we have the right to "get to the truth." Sam Adams wrote, "The public cannot be too curious concerning the characters of public men."1

But there is a difference between "muck-raking" (actively looking for the worst to report) and honest reporting of the truth. One begins with negative ad hominem assumptions and attempts to prove those assumptions. The other seeks the truth and (as much as humanly possible) reports the findings without prejudice. There is a difference in stating someone is evil and trying to prove it and reporting the facts and letting the reader decide.

That is why Kathryn Lindskoog's book, The C. S. Lewis Hoax (1988, Multnomah Press), was unexpectedly refreshing. Rather than make assumptions about the character of Walter Hooper (and others assigned to the stewardship of Lewis's work after his death), Lindskoog simply presents the facts that she has discovered and leaves the conclusions (mostly) to the reader. This is one book any serious student of Lewis cannot be without.

Kathryn Lindskoog was a Lewis scholar from 1954, when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Redlands in California, until her death from MS in 2003. Her biography, C. S. Lewis: Mere Christian, was first published in 1973, which is probably her most famous book. She has written several other volumes about C. S. Lewis, prose versions of Dante's Divine Comedy, and a series of classic fiction edited for young readers. There is a web site with more information on her life and works:
Update, 9/19/2012: Apparently the Lindentree website has been taken down and that web address is now being used by another entity.


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Sunday, August 19, 2007

George MacDonald, Tolkien and Silliness

This afternoon I happened across the movie A Bird on a Wire as I was channel surfing. I was not riveted to the movie, but I did watch much of it. Here is your typical Romantic Comedy/Action Adventure film made to appeal to the usual tastes of both men and women--the perfect date movie. I am afraid I was mostly amused by how absurd the chase scenes were. It seems that the "bad guys" are incapable of hitting a target with their automatic weapons, and when they do, the "good guy" keeps fighting as if he were never hit. In terms that Tolkien would use, the movie ends with a eucatastrophe but lacks the verisimilitude.

I never got the same feeling of absurdity while watching what some would call the ridiculous action scenes in the original Star Wars trilogy or the Indiana Jones movies. The difference is the underlying premise that something or Someone is working behind the scenes ordering things for good. Yes, in movies like A Bird on a Wire we feel the "good guys" should win, but there is no implication of a "higher power" causing things to work out. Tolkien has been criticised1 for his Romanticism or Sentimentality and lack of "seriousness" in passages such as the "Tom Bombadil" appearances in The Fellowship of the Ring. But perhaps an aversion to Romanticism and Silliness is due to the fact that the these critics of Tolkien have a different view of the world than he did.

Actually, Tom Bombadil and his silliness pre-date the writing of The Lord of the Rings (The poetry was written originally to amuse his children.), and Tolkien apparently thought he was the perfect character to demonstrate a certain attitude important to the story.

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against
ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent
against compulsion that has long lost any object save more power, and so on; but
both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of
control. But if you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced
control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to
yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the questions of
the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to
you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view,
which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell
seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there
are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence
nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil
to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of

Bombadil lives in a "bubble" unaffected by the outside world because he has withdrawn from the world. He is like a separatist religious group not interested in power or influence (or responsibility) outside its own sphere. The description above from one of Tolkien's letters could well apply to the Shire, too. The Shire's bubble would burst before the end of the book, and the Hobbits returning at the end of the book must help in the "Scouring of the Shire"--ridding it of the outlaws and restoring the land to its beauty. It seems to me there is more a ring of truth than sentimentality in it all.

Bombaldil's silliness reminds me of the boy Diamond in George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind. Much like Bombadil, Diamond is not frightened of anything. He always has a positive outlook on things, and has a view of life that things will always work out. Diamond is partly responsible for saving two other children, Nanny and Jim, from the streets. Nanny and Jim constantly call him a "dear silly." Many think his attitude toward life is because he is not quite right in the head. But the fact is, Diamond only appears silly because he has insights into the world that others do not.

When the narrator of the story "meets" Diamond, he learns that his companions call him silly, and "could not help thinking of the old meaning of the word silly."3 The word in Old English was "sælig" meaning "fortunate" or "prosperous"--soon taking on the idea of "blessed." In Middle English the word took on the meaning of "innocent," and then "deserving of pity" or "helpless." The meaning further developed in modern times until it today indicates someone who is foolish or lacking intelligence.4 Where Nanny and Jim only saw silliness, the narrator, and others, were able to find an intelligence that was blessed to understand the world far beyond the capacity of the average person.

The difference between Diamond and Tom Bombadil is that Diamond did not retreat into a bubble. He lived in the "real world," but was not affected by its evil. But he also knew that sometimes he had to destroy snakes. For him this meant being involved in other people's lives and helping however he could.5 The snake of selfishness keeps us from being a positive influence in other people's lives far too often.

1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Timothy 1:7

1 (for example, Colin Wilson's essay "Tree by Tolkien" first published in 1974, reprinted in A Tolkien Scrapbook 1978 and A Tolkien Treasury 1989)
2Letters of JRR Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin First Edition, pp.178-179
3George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind, in chapter 35 "I Make Diamond's Acquaintance"
4Margaret Scott,
5North Wind, see chapters 20-22

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Children of Húrin: Where's the Eucatastrophe?

"In Middle-Earth, curses work."1

So begins one review of the newest posthumous release of JRR Tolkien's work, edited by his son Christopher with the help of Adam Tolkien, Christopher's son.

The Children of Húrin is indeed about a curse. Christopher Tolkien tells us in the Introduction (p.18) that JRR Tolkien's proposed alternative title was Narn e-'Rach Morgoth, The Tale of the Curse of Morgoth. However, in making such a generalized statement ("In Middle-Earth, curses work."), the reviewer misses the point. The curse "works," not because of some quality within Middle-Earth. but because of who Morgoth is. "Morgoth is not 'invoking' evil or calamity on Húrin and his children, he is not 'calling on' a higher power to be the agent: for he,'Master of the fates of Arda' as he named himself to Húrin, intends to bring about the ruin of his enemy by force of his own gigantic will." (Ibid.)

The whole thing reminds me of Job. Much as Morgoth, the "Master of Arda," set his hatred on Húrin and his children, so Satan, the "god of this world,"2 set his hatred upon Job and destroyed his children.3 In the book of Job, we get a glimpse into Heaven and and see that God was at work withholding Satan's worst, although certainly we can not comprehend fully God's purpose--which is one of the lessons of the Old Testament book. God is in charge, even when we can only see the hand of the enemy.

So it is with Morgoth in Tolkien's mythology. It looks as if Morgoth is "in charge" and can bend Arda, and everything in it, to do his will. But we know--from another part of Tolkien's mythology--that his will only helps accomplish the Will of Ilúvatar, the creator of the "gods" of Arda. In the "Ainulindalë"--The Music of the Ainur--Morgoth's discord in the Song only ends up adding to its beauty. When the song is finished, Ilúvatar rises and speaks:

Mighty are the Ainur,and mightiest among them is Melkor [Morgoth]; but now
that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye
have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see that no theme may be played
that hath not it uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my
despite. for he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the
devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.4

God is Sovereign, even though He gives Free Will to His creatures. Even the evil they do can only work out to the fulfillment of His plans. Tolkien often uses this seeming contradiction. The evil intentions of Gollum culminate in the destruction of the Ring. The covetousness of the Orcs causes the distractions that allow the Hobbits to escape on at least two occasions. Túrin's tragic life allows him to be in a position to slay Glaurung. It is not that God is the Author of Evil, but He is able to turn the results of Evil to His own purposes. But my intention is not to explain the relationship of Sovereignty and Free Will. I leave that to the Theologians.

The lives of the Children of Húrin do end tragically, which may cause some Tolkien fans to ask "Where is the eucatastrophe? Where is the Recovery and Consolation Tolkien speaks of in "On Fair Stories"? The quick answer is that The Children of Húrin was not intended to be a Fairy Story. In his letter to his editor quoted in the Second Edition of The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes what was in his mythology. The story of Beren and Lúthien is, he says, a "heroic-fairy-romance," while The Children of Húrin is a "tragic tale," admitting that it is "derived from the elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Oedipus, and the Finnish Kullervo."5

When Tolkien spoke so positively about the Fairy Story, and the Consolation one feels by the "sudden miraculous grace" (eucatastrophe), he was not saying that all stories should be written that way. Life does not always give us joy; sometimes it is just the pits, as Jeremiah the Prophet quite literally discovered.6 Sometimes life ends, like it did for Adam and Eve, "outside the Garden" with the promise of the Deliverer unfulfilled.7 Sometimes people die in Exile, never to experience the promised return to the Land of Palestine.

But Tolkien would remind us that all stories are just a snapshot or painting -- a "fragment of the Seamless Web of Story."8 They do not show us the ending. Perhaps what is lacking in The Children of Húrin is not the eucatastrophe, but the promise of Grace and Consolation to come.

1Tish Wells, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, sited in and others.
22 Corinthians 4:4
3Job 1:18-19
4The Silmarillion, Houghton Mifflin Second Edition, p.17
5The Silmarillion, p.xvii
6Jeremiah 38:6
7Genesis 3:15
8Tree and Leaf, Harper Collins 1988, p. 80

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

JRR Tolkien, C S Lewis and Science Fiction

It has always been interesting to me that many Bookstore Chains classify The Lord of the Rings as Science Fiction. On the other hand, The Chronicles of Narnia are usually not so classified. Which seems strange since Chronicles includes transportation to a "different dimension" so to speak, while the Lord of the Rings presents a supposed "history" without any such device. Tolkien seems to disdain the use of a "Time Machine" in his essay "Tree and Leaf," saying that the "enchantment of distance, especially of distant time, is weakened only by the preposterous and incredible Time Machine itself." (1988 Harper Collins Edition, p.13)

This is not to say, of course, that Tolkien did not value the use of "distant time." His entire mythology is set to appear as "distant time." I think what he disliked was any distraction that would lessen the verisimilitude of what he was creating. It was vital to create a "suspension of disbelief" or "secondary belief" as Tolkien called it. Unbelievable machines distract from the appearance of reality. C S Lewis was criticized for the technical aspects of his spacecraft in the "Ransom Trilogy." (Perelandra, etc.) However, Lewis argues (in "Of Other Worlds," I think -- am am unable to locate the passage at present) that this technical problem is not too much of a distraction. These minor "technical difficulties" are usually easily overcome if the main story is "believable." Take the "Star Trek" stories, for example. We all know that the chronology conflicts with what actually has happened as we have entered the 21st Century, but the "suspension of belief" still works well in many of the episodes/movies/books -- in some of the stories much better than in others.

On the other hand, SciFi shows such as "Lost in Space" prove to be no more that just a diversion rather than a serious challenge to our "suspension of belief." The fact that we were not even close to sending passengers to other star systems by the turn of the 21st Century is less of a distraction than the plot lines (or lack thereof)! I admit that "Lost in Space" (or "Batman", for that matter) held my attention as a child, but such shows are mere nostalgic amusement for me today. There is too little plot and too many "preposterous and incredible" technical distractions. As C S Lewis put it: "I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last." ("On Three Way of Writing for Children" reprinted in the One-Volume Harper Collins The Chronicles of Narnia 2001, p. 771)

The Chronicles of Narnia have met the test of time -- people who enjoyed them as children still do as adults -- at least those who have not gotten so cynical or self-absorbed that they now think the stories foolish. Or have decided like the Bookstores that they belong only in the children's section, and that they are "beyond that." But as Lewis points out ("Three Ways", p.772), growth does not necessarily mean that you give up what you previously enjoyed. "Grown up" books can be added to one's reading without giving up what was enjoyed in childhood. "To be concerned about being grown up ... to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. ... When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." (p. 771)

Unlike The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings has been viewed as a more "adult" book, apparently "qualifying" it for the SciFi category. Which seems strange, given all the "juvenile" Science Fiction which has been written. But perhaps the designation is more of a "throw-back" to a time when "Fantasy" was not considered a category, especially for "grown up" books.

However you categorize the works of Tolkien and Lewis, what is the appeal of these "Other Worldly" stories? I think it is the appeal of most Fantasy and Science Fiction -- the desire for something "other." There is something in us that seeks beyond what we can see and touch and feel. Whether is is satisfied by a "historical narrative" (The Lord of the Rings), or through a mechanical (or magical) device (The Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy), or through a more "mystical" means (Smith of Wootton Major) does not seem to matter. We are transported through the suspension of belief into another world, which helps us (or can help us) to appreciate the world we live in every day. Some claim that such stories give us a false impression of the world. But the opposite seems to be more the truth:

[Fantasy] is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live
in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a
false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are
far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the
fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The
fantasies did not deceive me; the school stories did.


In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first
eleven. Does anyone suppose he really longs for ... dragons in contemporary
England? I would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses him (to his
life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far
from dulling of emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He
does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading
makes all woods enchanted. This is a special kind of longing. ... the boy reading a
fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind has
not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story. ("Three Ways" pp.774-75)

The use of fantasy and the "suspension of belief" can be very powerful, and dangerous in "the wrong hands." In Lewis's Introduction to his George MacDonald Anthology, he points to a time in his life where he was enamored with Romanticism and was in danger of floundering "into its darker and more evil forms." He sensed there was something different about MacDonald, but had no idea it was his Christianity coming through.

The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be
the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic
reality in which we all live. ...what I learned to love in Phantestes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The
deception is all the other way around--in that prosaic moralism which confines
goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel the sweet air
blowing form 'the land of righteousness' ... (reprinted in the 1962 Edition of Phantastes and Lilith, (Gollancz) pp. 10-11)

May God always turn your calamities into eucatastrophies,


Friday, July 20, 2007

Saving Western Civilization?

Welcome to my Inklings Blog. I welcome your comments or suggestions. Please note that all comments are moderated, so it may take some time for your comments to appear. (I reserve the right not to post any inappropriate material.)

Although they were certainly far from perfect (Aren't we all?), I believe that God put The Inklings in England when He did for a reason. It was an age when War had disillusioned the academic world, with the resulting lack of faith. The writings of JRR Tolkien and C S Lewis were a breath of fresh air in this environment. Each in their own way, they brought hope to an age that seemed beyond hope.

I will keep this first Blog post brief. Hopefully I will be able to add to my Blog every week. If you have any ideas for topics to cover, let me know.

May God always turn your calamities into eucatastrophies,

Mark Sommer
Granger, Indiana