On May 10, see the story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life, and how it inspired the legendary creation of Middle Earth:
Posts Tagged With: J.R.R. Tolkien
Here’s a pair of books on four men of the 20th Century that still speak to us today: Churchill and Orwell and A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. Not one of them was a talking head or armchair expert. Each was a veteran of one or more of the century’s — and mankind’s — worst wars.
Winston Churchill warned there was no appeasing totalitarian governments. Evil regimes only ceased their scourge when facing a people who refused to surrender. Churchill’s prophetic voice was nearly ignored in this, and of what the world was to become in the Cold War. Flaws and all, he reached a level few “leaders” today can approach.
George Orwell experienced in the Spanish Civil War that all totalitarian governments were indistinguishable — whether fascist or communist — in their aims and results. His politics were polar opposite of Churchill’s, but they arrived at the same truths through life, not hypothetical debate. His books Animal Farm and 1984 emerged from those experiences, becoming timeless warnings that wherever power existed, abuse of that power would occur.
After surviving the trenches of World War I, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien became academic scholars. While their contemporaries were writing dismal books on the dark future of humanity, Lewis and Tolkien refused to give in to such defeatism. They eschewed the materialistic and naturalistic philosophies that had brought the world to its knees, and were also being used to paint a future of darkness for humanity. Their fantasy novels were more than fairy tales — they unveiled the hope and the Story that had been gifted to men and women — and that Evil could be crushed.
Out of a dark age came these bright lights. We would be dangerously amiss to snuff them out.
Fantasy tales are often populated with a wide array of beings. Elves, humans and dwarves are a common trio, along with trolls, orcs and countless other variations. Not all authors have filled their stories with these fantastic races to purposely tell stories of diversity or race-relations. However, long before terms like diversity were buzzing in everyone’s minds, two masters of fantasy had made a statement on equality among people. Joseph Loconte writes in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War:
[J.R.R.] Tolkien and [C.S.] Lewis encountered the horrific progeny of [eugenics] in the trenches and barbed wire and mortars of the Great War [World War I] — and it gave them great pause about human potentiality…the characters in their novels possess a great nobility, creatures endowed with a unique capacity for virtue, courage, and love. Indeed, a vital theme throughout is the sacred worth of the individual soul in Middle-Earth and Narnia, every life is of immense consequence.
The “races” of Narnia and Middle-Earth are very much like us, always at odds with each other: Elves hate dwarves; elves look down on humans; hobbits are obviously different from their larger human cousins; orcs once were elves. And yet the fellowship of the ring throws together polar opposite, feuding races in a quest to the save the world.
Against all odds, they succeeded. A powerful message among the many in these stories.
Tolkien and Lewis began writing during a time when eugenics was on the rise. This misuse of science and philosophies pretending to be science was rationale to cleanse humanity of undesirable races, beliefs or attributes. People remember the result of this horror in World War II under the Nazis, yet don’t know that this thinking had been promoted among the “elite” thinkers and governments across the world for decades.
While many many post-WWI writers saw hopelessness, and others turned to Progress as a god to right humanity, Tolkien and Lewis saw the importance of every life. They wrote of evil that couldn’t be reasoned away — and could be hidden behind “science” and “progress.” The equality of peoples doesn’t automatically equate to the equality of ideas and actions. Even Tolkien’s “dreadful orcs are presented as rational beings” — but being rational isn’t the same as being on the side of virtue.
Middle-Earth and Narnia showed how mankind, even with its capacity for wrong, has innate qualities that can defeat the most terrible of evils; qualities that transcend superficial differences among people, and show that we are much more than a result of randomness and fate.
Writers often draw us into the worlds and characters that burst from their imaginations. These “made-up” worlds are reason for some to shun this or that genre because they are imaginary. The truth, though, is that authors aren’t writing imaginary stories. Alister McGrath, in his biography of C.S. Lewis, explains:
Narnia is imaginative, not an imaginary, world. Lewis was quite clear that a distinction had to be drawn between those ideas. The “imaginary” is something that has been falsely imagined, having no counterpart in reality. Lewis regards such an invented reality as opening the way to delusion. The “imaginative” is something produced by the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself…to “communicate more Reality to us.”
Lewis would use his imaginative world to explore serious themes like “origins of evil, nature of faith, and the human desire for God” — not unlike most writers have grand ideas of deep thoughts woven through their narrative.
Quite often their starting point to accomplish this is surprisingly very simple. Narnia started with “an image of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood.” Tolkien scrawled on a paper, “In a hole in he ground there lived a hobbit,” after the idea popped in his head and he “did not know why” it had. From these humble origins, grand tales came to life.
What lives in your imagination, ready to inspire, entertain and challenge?
Since 1977, Terry Brooks has been writing his Shannara fantasy series. Once the first trilogy was complete, he gave up his day job as a lawyer and never looked back. In spite of his success, he has often been asked why he writes fantasy. Not so much now, with fantasy’s mainstream success, but some still equate fantasy with escapism.
True, any book, television show, hobby has that element — and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as most people know how not let one overcome the other. Good fiction, whether or not it is fantasy, ultimately rests on how much it draws on real life. From the outside, that may be hard to grasp when talking about stories with fantastic creatures. Yet we have detailed here in past posts that it was the depth and themes of fictional worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia that was in large measure the reason for their enduring success. Continue reading
The influence of 19th Century novelist George MacDonald can still be seen in the fantasy genre today. C.S. Lewis referred to MacDonald as his “master.” Tolkien called his fairy tales “stories of power and beauty.” MacDonald encouraged his friend C. L. Dodgson to publish his children stories — later known to the world as Alice in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll. MacDonald unintentionally became the father of modern fantasy.
Biographer Michael R. Phillips writes he was “deeply challenged with the magnitude and complexity” of telling MacDonald’s life:
…[MacDonald had a] tremendous variety of…literary genres — he was [also] a theologian, a spiritual mystic, a poet, a novelist, a preacher, a scientist, an essayist, a highly successful lecturer, a teacher, an actor, an editor and a fantasy writer — his ideas defy categorization and pigeon-hole analysis.
That MacDonald was a writer can be seen in his comments on potential biographies on himself. He maintained “that no biography should be written, stating that his books contained all he had to say to the world…” Phillips continues:
But it is my hope to convey George MacDonald’s thoughts and emotions…[which are] most strongly reflected through his literary works…his fictional characters were a means of communicating his own ideas and view of the world…The words he wrote…illuminate what he thought about, how he approached his quandaries, what kinds of questions he asked, and what answers he found…His books are the fullest means we have to get under the surface of his thought-skin to discover what really made him tick.
Therein lies a truth for all writers. Their fiction is art, entertainment and conveyor of ideas and messages. Ultimately, though, no matter how they try not to (if they try not to), parts of their story is also in the tales they tell.
I have written often here that everyone has a story to tell. That doesn’t just mean in the sense of sci-fi, fantasy, thriller or romance. It means the stories that reveal who you are, regardless of what background you tell it against.
Famed J.R.R. Tolkien biographer, Professor Thomas A. Shippey, in his course Heroes and Legends, writes on the “universal human art form” of storytelling:
…Over the millennia of human history, millions of tales, novels, romances and epics have been written, published, and many more must have been told in the far longer millennia of prehistory. The vast majority vanished without a trace once their immediate purpose had been served – forgotten, discarded, out of print.
A small number survive and become classics. Of that small number, an even smaller number does more than survive: They inspire imitations, sequels, remakes and responses. It is the heroes and heroines – and sometimes the villains – of these super-survivors who have created and continue to create our imaginative world. “Don’t the great tales never end?” asks the hobbit Sam Gamgee…Sam has good reason to see that the answer is: No, they don’t.
…Most of all, the “great tales” offer an insight into the human heart, in all its variety and complexity, that nothing else can provide.
There’s been much debate among Christian writers on what writing “Christian Fiction” means. The artificial rules of Corporate Christian Publishing would eliminate many of the well-known writers who were Christians. These would include J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as Donovan M. Neal writes. Many Christian writers – like writers of all beliefs – just want to write their story. A story informed by their beliefs (again, like all writers), but where their beliefs come through organically – not forced or contrived by some sort of formula. I’ve read books from all sorts of authors who want to lecture or preach to their readers. Really, it’s the difference between good and bad writing.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything good on the Christian Fiction shelf. There’s good and bad in all fiction markets and genres. Part of the debate also concerns the pros and cons of having your fiction labeled by your religion. If you are writing for a specific audience, then I suppose it’s fine, though religion is still bit of an unique way to classify fiction. Yes, there are other examples of targeting this or that demographic.
In the end, regardless of a writer’s beliefs, they shouldn’t spend their time figuring out how to be successful in getting certain people to read their books. They should write their story.
Readers should demand it.